Road to Elsewhere, Excerpt #28: “Would you please, please, please, please, please, please, please stop talking?”
Ernest Hemingway wrote that line of dialogue. If only I had been listening.
ON THE AFTERNOON OF OCTOBER 17TH, Paris was brisk and encouraging. To me, fall has always been the start of something, rather than the end. That afternoon, I thirstily wandered over to Shakespeare and Company; I had been without a book to read for nearly fourteen hours! I came away with David Copperfield, and read the first 120 pages on a park bench.
As I picked my head up from Victorian England, I saw my favorite low, black clouds driven by a northwest wind, and I ran toward Samaritaine to discover the city in the midst of a great storm. When I reached the rooftop terrasse, my umbrella nearly leapt from my hands in the full force of the wind, ten stories above the Rue de la Monnaie and the Seine. I imagined the spectacle in the street below if the umbrella had blown away from me, the pedestrians looking up and pointing as the black form floated toward the earth.
The city was gleaming gray in the rain — stone and metal glistening with the falling drops.
The circular map on the observation deck was painted in sunshine colors, so the cityscape below bore scant resemblance to it. The people below — or perhaps only their umbrellas — bottlenecked like traffic, leaning into the wind.
The Seine rose with the storm, its reflective surface chafed by the wind into serrated waves.
MY FATHER WAS AN AMATEUR ASTRONOMER, so from my boyhood, one of my favorite directions to look was “up.” Under his influence, I became a dedicated moon watcher, just like Dickens’ Miss Mills, in my recently acquired David Copperfield, who “sat looking at the moon, murmuring verses and recalling, I suppose, the ancient days when she and earth had anything in common.”
The moon conveyed romance, alright, but from a safe distance: 239,000 miles away.
A few weeks after my arrival, I noted that the waning moon was shifting further and further into the northwest, allowing me to see it longer each night, allowing me to track its descent into the new moon. One night, as I dreamily looked to the heavens from my dorm room at the Alliance Française, I saw the moon poised among the buildings across the courtyard, emphasizing the silence and distance in this conjunction.
I asked my journal: “Can I fall in love during a waning moon? A question yet to be answered. I hope so.”
I was referring to my strenuous efforts to fall in love with beautiful Diamant, from Holland. And as usual, I was doing it in a way-too intellectual and all-too literary way. You can almost see the veins popping out in my neck, I was trying so hard, and so hopefully.
On September 17th I wrote on my calendar: “FELL IN LOVE W/ Diamant (on the first day of the waning moon).” My dad had imagined this calendar as a space where I could make notes that might help me meet college-application deadlines and keep dental appointments. But now my heart had taken over.
Four days later, according to this record, I visited the Pont Mirabeau, to review the setting of my favorite Galway Kinnell poem about love (English majors, you know), and I see that Diamant and I had a date to see Coming Home, the next night.
I may have been a fool in love, but at least I was a fool in a hurry.
I first spotted Diamant in the downstairs foyer of the classroom building of the Alliance Française. She was blonde and fragile-looking, pertly nosing her way into the front lobby in search of her classroom. She asked me for directions. If I had been James Salter, in A Sport and a Pastime, I would have given turn-by-turn instructions into a rose-petal-strewn bed in a garret.
Instead I nervously leapt into actual guidance, saying way too much and nothing at all, and blundered her in the direction of I know not what or where. I was useless in class that day, even in the provoking presence of my fetching professor, Madame Chalomet. (I wrote about her in R2E#15. Are you getting the idea that I fell in love about every three days? I certainly am.)
I lurked after class, awaiting Diamant. The door opens and the tiger leaps, wrote noted zoologist Virginia Woolf in The Waves.
So I too pounced, eliciting details of her interest in language study: She was just back from Princeton — New Jersey! — and continuing her French studies from le bouche du cheval, which probably isn’t a French idiom but should be. They eat horses, don’t they? Why not hear what they have to say, first?
Diamant was friendly enough, and our near-daily encounters encouraged me to propose a day wandering together as flaneur and flaneuse, commingling cultures with la spectacle de la rue. Romance in the air and on the hoof! We spent ten hours together on September 24th; if only Richard Linklater had been filming, he might have been able to advance the release of Before Sunrise by a couple of decades, and maybe edit out some of my nonsense.
We began our explorations with a stroll to the Jardin du Luxembourg. There may have been baguettes, brie, and a 4F bottle of wine involved. And soon, so were way too many words. I have a long history of talking too much when I’m in a sexual panic, which Diamant’s low-country/high-glamor + wine provoked instantly. It’s a wonder my body didn’t vanish entirely, leaving a disembodied Cheshire Cat mouth to yammer away at Beauty.
Which is what I did for that footsore afternoon with Diamant, proceeding shoulder to shoulder rather than pelvis to pelvis. My chastity belt was fortified with nouns, verbs, and adjectives.
So when Diamant and I found ourselves on the Pont Mirabeau (the sweet spot for Kinnell and me), I trotted out memorized poetry, rather than wasting another novel, in the Balzacian sense. And in my case, it might have only been a short story. Or even a limerick.
And actually, Galway Kinnell had my back as I spouted these words at the radiant Dutchwoman, which I’d memorized for just such an occasion:
“If one day it happens
you find yourself with someone you love
in a café at one end of the Pont Mirabeau,
at the zinc bar where white wine stands in upward opening glasses,
and if you commit then, as we did, the error of thinking,
one day all this will only be memory,
learn to reach deeper into the sorrows to come —
to touch the almost imaginary bones under the face,
to hear under the laughter the wind crying across the stones.
Kiss the mouth which tells you, here, here is the world.
These temple bones.
The still undanced cadence of vanishing.”
Diamant looked at me searchingly as I recited, and perhaps she thought I was nuts, or gay, when I failed to use those well-rubbed lines as a prelude to a kiss. But faced with the prospect of acts that might lead to intercourse, I defaulted toward intellectual intercourse whenever possible. To quote Jig, from Ernest Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Mountains:” “Would you please, please, please, please, please, please, please stop talking?”
*On weekends I run excerpts from The Road to Elsewhere, my coming-of-age-travel-memoir-with-funny-drawings. (The first entry is here. Most recent one is here. Or dive in here, here, or even here.) It details the story of my road through Paris, London, and god help me, Zagreb, in search of the ultimate destination: a life worth living. The story so far: Young Peter has arrived in Paris, occupied a dorm room at the Alliance Française language school, tiptoed out onto the Boulevard Raspail and the Paris Metro, and made the first steps on the road to elsewhere. If it’s too much to read, just look at the illustrations. They’re my favorite part, too.