“Séraphine” is my “nom d’artist” wrote Pauline. I waited at the entrance of the Jardin de Luxembourg and stared absent-mindedly at a large pine tree.
“Je suis prés d’un sapin à l’entrée,” I wrote, which somehow felt like a poetic statement because really, who pays attention to trees in these nerve-wracking circumstances?
Pauline was very stylish, typically bourgeoise, and proceeded to vomit about herself and her accomplishments for the next hour. I could hardly fit in a word, and when I did, my words were like mirrors for more of her thoughts and experiences.
“I got stuck in the countryside during confinement, and I taught my fashion course over Zoom wearing the same grey teeshirt every day. Hah hah! It was so shameful! Imagine what my students thought... can you believe it?”
“Great story,” I mulled in my head.
Françoise repeatedly added or removed her layers: her vest, her jacket, her vest, her jacket, her vest...revealing her teeshirt which clung to her breasts; her 30-year-old breasts that had yet to discover the true meaning of gravity.
“Could I? Would I?” I searched for a kindle, a flame behind her glasses.
I couldn’t tell if her teasing was flirty or simply offensive:
“Come on, Sarah, you’re not going to ask small talk questions like that, are you?”
Françoise stretched out her long gazelle-like legs and yawned.
Great, a yawn.
“Sometimes I run from République to Bondy (or wherever), do you run?”
“I run, but I mean, I don’t pretend to run long distances. As a kid, I was more of a sprinter than a long-distance runner.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t say that you have the gabarit.”
Yeah, I guess I don’t have the “build” thank you very much Françoise.
“For example, one of our clients is (a large pharmaceutical company),” I explained to Adeline.
“Are you vaccinated?” she interrogated with some sense of shock and alarm.
“A moité, and you?”
“It’s against my beliefs.”
“Okay... I mean, yeah, things do seem very rushed, I suppose.”
“No, I mean, I’ve never been vaccinated for anything in my life, not even tuberculosis.”
Pauline proceeded to give me a pedantic real estate tour of the Jardin du Luxembourg. She wholly glazed over the fact that I’ve been living in Paris for 15 years.
“Here they do marionette shows that my mother used to take me to as a child. It’s one of my most precious memories. Here they play boules. Do you know what boules are? Beware, if you try to play with them they are very competitive! Here I play tennis. There is always a crowd of people watching me like I’m at Roland Garros. Here’s a jardin des apprentis - that means that people go there to learn gardening - it’s so amazing. I love Paris!”
"Pauline, what are you hiding?" I wondered.
Contrary to Pauline, Adeline hated Paris and even France. And yet she received French public funding for her performance art (side note: she doesn’t do dance). She looked ten years older than her photos: the sense of deception was more unflattering than her actual crow’s feet.
Every word she spoke was like a poisoned dart that sunk me into a deeper state of self-loathing. And yet, she looked me up and down like having sex was still on the menu.
No Adeline, shared knowledge of bell hooks will not get me in bed with you.
Before we met, Françoise texted me almost obsessively, with chivalrous fervor. We sat momentarily on the perch of a shared reference, Ray Bradbury - perhaps the American author closest to my heart with whom so few French people are familiar. I sent her one of his quotes about summertime, and in the same vein, when she offered to bring the beers, I decided to bring the ripest cherry tomatoes I could find.
Looking at the tomatoes, Françoise interrogated, “Why did you do that? You didn’t have to do that.”
“Je n’aime pas venir les mains vides... besides, it’s the season,” I blushed.
Françoise asked me if I was concerned that someone would steal or appropriate my writing, which struck me as both an odd interrogation and some kind of underhand compliment.
“No, not at all. I mean, it’s impossible to get published anyway.”
“Then why do you write?”
I write because I am very clumsy when I speak... as these encounters increasingly reveal.
I write because, when all else is lost, I have an anchor that keeps me connected to myself.
“Besides, I’m not interested in being published.”
A statement that I guess, comes across as timid, counterproductive, and repugnant.
“Good luck,” I said to Adeline while parting ways.
“Why are you telling me ‘good luck?’”
“I don’t know It’s something I say to everyone,” I shrugged.
“N’importe quoi,” she muttered under her breath.
“Bonne continuation Sarah,” Pauline said in a sing-songy voice with a fake smile.
We quickly packed our things.
“Adieu,” Françoise said stiff and dramatically.
This time as I walked away, dumbfounded, a chorale of Maghrébin men cheered me on: “Madame vous êtes sublime, vous êtes magnifique, belle, belle, belle !”
No more text messages.
The leftover cherry tomatoes sit in my refrigerator. Biting into them, the taste of awkward silences, unborn kisses, failed expectations, and an increasing sense of callousness explodes in my mouth.
Ugh, June. The way you kidnapped Spring. I only have so many Springs left, and you came and smothered this one in a sticky summer soup.
I overdressed at Mark's funeral because I still wanted it to be Spring.
"Good thing you brought your jacket," Lynn kidded.
In February, Mark turned 59.
In April, I turned 39.
"I bet you'll retire soon," I wrote him. Although we hadn't seen each other in over a year, I could sense the fatigue in his words and in the silence cushioned between them. Words. I have a year and a half of written words with Mark. For some, words wouldn't be enough, but for Mark and I, words were plenty. We both reveled in written words.
I'm a pretty girl. I have a cheeky sense of humor and a disarming smile. There were moments, I could tell, that I caught Mark's attention like a shiny thing to a bowerbird.
I'm also a complete loner. There were moments, I could tell, that Mark thought it was a shame that such a shiny thing would remain so hidden from the world.
The love of solitude is difficult to explain. Many years ago, my ex, who loved people but struggled to communicate with them, said to me, perplexed, "I don't understand how you're such a loner because when you're around people, you're like a fish in the water."
People are ponds and lakes, and some of them are even oceans.
I hold my breath and swim in them, despite myself.
I could feel the ripples of whatever was going on with Mark early on, from very far away.
In April, I sent him a video about David Hockney and Vincent Gogh. I knew Mark, like David, was from Yorkshire. I knew Mark, like Vincent, loved Provence. And I have an encyclopedic memory; I especially enjoy the confluence of unrelated things. Sure enough, Mark gushed about how he loved Hockney and how his home in Provence is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Before we knew anything, I rallied dozens of colleagues to send Mark some kind words. I knew Mark, confident and irreverent as he seemed, had a real soft spot for attention.
"But why?" colleagues asked me, "Is he hospitalized?"
"No," I said, annoyed by their callowness, "But I don't think it's good."
In May, Mark was hospitalized and diagnosed with esophageal cancer. We sent Mark flowers and a collective gift, A History of Pictures, a picture book by David Hockney (and Martin Gayford). I wanted Mark to understand that the collective gift was actually from me.
Mark's cancer spread to his liver, and it ravaged his body more quickly than anyone could humanly process.
On the evening of June 1st, he passed away.
Over the past 15 years, I've worked as a designer in tech with some sense of disdain. Let alone; I've always despised the idea of working a 9 to 5 office job. Approaching 40, I still clutch onto the wild notion that I'm destined for bigger and better things, that some Dickens-style miracle will befall me.
Because of this, I held Mark, as I do with many colleagues, at arm's length.
I'm sure that Mark saw this in me. I'm sure that it amused him.
In the state of Covid-compelled remote working, I started to connect with Mark with written words. We occupied an incorporeal digital space that spared me the harsh physicality of his illness and death. At the time of his passing, Mark already felt like a spirit to me. At his funeral, I felt ashamed to realize I hardly knew anything about his friends and family. I never asked.
There was a black and white photo of Mark from his childhood in the 1960s where a recognizable soul peered out at me through big brown eyes. I could have asked more questions, but that wasn't the nature of Mark's and my friendship.
We just knew each other, profoundly and instinctly.
I know that when I am being myself, unapologetically, Mark is somewhere next to me, cheering me on.