I spoke to my friend on the phone yesterday, one that had left Paris many years ago. Despite looking after her 8-month-old baby, she exclaimed,
“Oh honey, I wish I could come over and take care of you.”
Up until this point, I willingly bore the crux of being 36, in a foreign country, completely on my own. Any feeling of loneliness or victimhood I cast aside as my own doing, the consequence of all the choices I had made up until that point.
In December, I was hospitalised with pancreatitis, an episode so grossly nauseating and painful, the only way to describe it would be the sensation that you get in your gut, just before you’re about to vomit after a night of binge-drinking. Only, I wasn’t really a drinker and I hadn’t drunk anything the night before, but that churning, bloated, perpetual, nauseating sensation was enough to make me associate alcohol with pancreatitis and want to stop drinking forever.
“Est-ce que je vais mourir ?” I mumbled to the nurse in my silly American accent as she gave me another morphine injection. It was 4 o’clock in the morning, what seemed to be my body’s witching hour. It was my fifth evening of morphine injections, no food or water, and dreams of carbonated limonade and strawberries.
“Il ne faut pas penser des choses comme ça,” replied the night nurse, this one young, with soft olive scented skin.
A week later, the nurses started to put up Christmas decorations. When I could finally move, I’d get up and look out the window at the softly exhaling chimneys on the hospital rooftops, lightly dusted in snow.
It never snows in Paris.
My brother flew in from the United States and sat at my bedside every day. The furniture in my room was akin to something like that of a public library, mismatched and ripping at the seams. When the hospital refused to feed me anything but vegetable broth, my brother would sneak me fruit juice from the grocery store.
Into the second week, I started to have embarrassing night sweats where the nurses would have to change my gown and bed sheets every morning. Other patients in my hallway started to get rowdy in the evenings. I wanted to go home. My doctor refused to let me leave until I clocked 24 hours without a fever but my fever stuck with me for days. We joked that if this happened in the United States, I would be paying medical bills for the rest of my life.
My brother left on Christmas Eve. On Christmas day, determined to get my strength back, I took a short walk down the Canal de l’Ourcq and climbed atop the Rue de Crimée lift bridge, which felt equivalent to climbing a mountain. I watched families pass by, giddy and high on Christmas. I watched cormorants as they dove in and out of the freezing water. I stood there pale and motionless like a ghost who returned from the dead. I saw a lone woman pass by in a striking red coat, smiling contentedly to herself; little did she know that she made my entire day.
I had gallbladder surgery at the beginning of February. I awoke from the surgery with four Saint Sebastian esque holes in my torso. The following week, I proceeded to catch pneumonia. As I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling of my studio apartment, I willingly bore the burden of being sick and alone.
I devoured a memoir by David Wojnarowicz about the AIDS epidemic. Soon David became this familiar presence in my dreams. Sometimes he’d just stand in the corner, his long face, his Adam’s apple, arms crossed, my gay brethern. Other times, he’d blow on my forehead and then disappear into a haze when I’d wake up shivering, soaked in my own sweat. His spirit possessed me and instilled in me this mantra that my suffering was a rite of passage to a higher level of consciousness, to another world.
Exactly a year later, the world was struck with Covid19. While the general public agonized about social isolation and the uncertainy of their own fates, I was like a boxer ready for round two, already in the ring.
On a separate but somehow associated train of thought, I remembered that before I had any real concept of suffering or death (or anything really), I took a bus from Providence to New York to see the aftermath of September 11th in October 2001, my sophomore year at art school.
I made the journey with one of my professors with whom I was completely infatuated (I was 19). From Port Authority, we trekked our way downtown and arrived at this massive empty block with cranes scouring through mountains of debris. To my surprise, even after a month, there remained piles of lightly smoking soot. But the most impressive sight was the ominous steel skeletal structure of one of the toppled buildings, warped, splayed, and splintered, 3 or 4 stories high.
The worst thing was the smell.
That day, I lugged along my 16mm Bolex film camera but the thought of taking any footage of the wreckage felt extremely disrespectful and embarrassing. There was a crowd of people standing around gawking but my professor and I shared this stoic “nothing to see here” mentality. We crossed the street and kept walking as if, in fact, we were locals with somewhere else to go.
I quickly wound up my camera. Without bothering with the light meter, I caught the backside of a woman in front of us, a typical New Yorker walking determinedly on her way to work. Today, somewhere in my keepsakes I have a blurry film strip of a lone, dark figure on a sidewalk. I’m fine being the only person who will ever know that not pictured, a stone’s throw across the street, was the eerie wasteland of a national disaster.
I found out later that a friend of mine who has lived in Berlin as long as I’ve lived in Paris was also there, in front of the wreckage. He said saw me but I didn’t see him. At the time, he asked me, “What the hell were you doing at Ground Zero with Professor Rossi?”
The rest of the day, Professor Rossi and I hovered around uptown. She said everything in the Chinese wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was “fake” which made me love her even more. She took me to a giant, secret underground dim sung restaurant in Chinatown. Speaking flawless Chinese, she barked orders at the servers in her characteristic authoritarian way. But for the most part, we ate in silence, barely digesting the monumental sight that we had seen or admitting to the fact that we were even there.
At the time, I thought it was necessary to make the pilgrimage, the near 4-hour bus ride, from Providence to New York. I wanted to connect with 9/11 in some palpable human way; I wanted it to be more than pixels on a screen.
But now, the memory doesn’t seem real at all. Rather, it’s something I had nearly forgotten — a single sentimental thread that grows longer and thinner every day, just barely connecting me with my old friend in Berlin or with that young precocious girl in art school.
In fact, these days I hardly remember anything at all.