Marie Laurencin, “Les Biches,” image copyright Artcurial, from its recent Prints and Illustrated Books auction in Paris.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
(The Lutèce Diaries are sponsored by, among others, Ed Winer, Eva Winer, Linda Ramey, Aaron Winer, Lewis Campbell, and Sharon Savage of the San Francisco Bay Area; H&R B. and CV of Paris and Saint-Cyprien and Belves (Dordogne), France; Chris Keel, Marty Sohl, and Suki John of Fort Worth, Texas; Don Singer of Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Nancy Reynolds and Matthew Brookoff of New York City; Martin Epstein of Hudson Valley, New York; Susan Kierr of New Orleans; Polly Hyslop of Fairbanks, Alaska; Marcello Angelini of Tulsa, Oklahoma; Freespace Dance in Montclair, New Jersey; and Slippery Rock University Dance. To join them, please make a donation through PayPal by designating your payment to firstname.lastname@example.org , or write us at that address to find out how to donate by check sent through the mail.)
“I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac
Singing don’t look back you can never look back.”
— Don Henley, “The Boys of Summer”
PARIS — I know I said I’d sworn off cemeteries, determined to spend more time with the living and less with my dead icons: Sarah Bernhardt (Pere Lachaise), François Truffaut (Cemetery Montmartre), Serge Gainsbourg and Alfred Dreyfus (Montparnasse; French state radio this morning shared a rare recording of Captain Dreyfus from March 27, 1912, proclaiming in a crystal-clear tenor, “It’s a question of justice and humanity.” The most sadly ironic aspect of the Dreyfus family tomb is that under “Alfred, died 1932” is the name of “Julie, deported 1942.” Justice and humanity are ephemeral. Among Dreyfus’s cemetery mates is the collaborationist Vichy prime minister Pierre Laval, who no doubt signed his niece’s deportation order — Laval’s tomb, like Lee Harvey Oswald’s in the sprawling bone orchard of Handley, Texas where I used to live, also known for its antique stores, wedding cake shops, and doll boutiques, is unmarked.) But could I help it if in late February I found myself standing on the sunken deck of a lavish condominium shoulder to shoulder with a two-ton bronze Buddha (“The movers finally agreed to try to lift it over the fence from the street with the understanding that they couldn’t guarantee they wouldn’t drop it,” the condo’s sultry 62-year-old French owner told us.) looking out over the back, penumbrous, most sinister-looking gruesome end / wall of Pere Lachaise (if my cemetery memory serves me, and I think you know it does, on the other side of the monument to the Resistants and up the hill from Apollinaire’s babe Marie Laurencin; to read the Surrealist poet’s art reviews of the time — I recently scored a compendium of them at a vide-grenier on the fringes of the Montparnasse cemetery — you’d think she was the most talented female artist in Paris of the epoch), floundering in a doomed relationship (Apollinaire did better) and smarting over the reception my date’s supposedly Leftist Israeli friend “Schmuel” had given my Poulet a la Palestinian? (“What is it with this ‘Palestinian’ Chicken? I’ve never heard of anything so absurd. There’s no such thing!”) As I was well out of it, in retrospect it was probably a good thing that I’d put the nail in the coffin by fixing our RDV at the Pere Lachaise metro, ignoring that the last time I’d made a date at a bone orchard — with an American girl who’d hung a large picture of Albert Camus in her otherwise spartan pad on the fringes of Les Halles because “He’s so cute!” — just ahead of a rdv to see Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus” in the Montmartre cinema where he designed the aluminum chandeliers (it’s where Amelie in the film goes to the movies) had also marked a a relationship’s swan song.
The female part of the doomed relationship — let’s call her Vanessa, since that’s what we called her in an earlier Lutèce Diary when she picked me up at a vernissage after I’d just had three teeth extracted and tried to read all the names of the children of Paris who gave their lives for the country in World War I on the new plaque in their memory posted on the front side of the cemetery, which no one but me seems to know about (cemeteries are my beat) — had been picking on me all night. Someone put ketchup out on the table to drown the Palestinian chicken with; it must have been me, the tooth-ugly American. (It was her allegedly Leftist Israeli pal; no Palestinian spiceyness for him, Bubalah.) When we entered, the first thing she told our hosts by way of introduction was “This is Paul, his teeth state is only temporary.” (Read: “Don’t think I’d ever go out with anyone who really had teeth this bad.”) When I challenged Vanessa on this a few minutes later, she insisted, “Well, c’est marquant!” (If I wasn’t so desperate to be in a relationship coute que coute I might have defended myself: “Personally, I think my trust and sensitivity and brains and writing are more marquant. Why didn’t you introduce me as a journalist or translator?” I say ‘desperate’ but in fact my brain with all its complexes — “This is the best I can do, I don’t deserve any better” — was lagging behind my heart; when Vanessa had invited me to follow her down to the master bedroom, supposedly to inspect our hosts’ record collection, I wasn’t even tempted to jump her bones, although this may have had something to do with the increased proximity of the bone orchard, given that the bedroom was in the basement. Or that she chose this moment to tell me about les ‘feux feuillets,’ the firefly-like lights that according to her rose above the graves, supposedly generated by the gas of the decomposing bodies, which reminded me of our rapidly decomposing relationship.) But the apex came after the cheese, which Vanessa said she’d scored at a new discovery, the Pere Lachaise Fromagerie, just across the street from the lip of the cemetery, and whose très elderly owner apparently had one foot in it. “The first thing she asked me when I walked into her boutique was, ‘Have you eaten yet?’, before bringing out a very limited tray of fromages.” Of course with this build-up, I had to try all three, and of course with all three in me, even if I didn’t quite have the lacto-intolerant attack Meg Ryan has on a southbound train in “French Kiss” (letting out a rail to rival her faux-orgasmic groaning in “When Harry Met Sally”), conveniently near where Frenchman Kevin Kline’s estranged family has its vineyards, I did nonetheless want to make sure the cheese had every opportunity to come out before the long walk back to the pré St.-Gervais, whence the two visits I made to the bathroom before we were all kicked out by the absentee American host (he’d drifted in and out of the party, according to his mood, most piquantly after chanelling McLuhan — one of the few celebrities who was *not* buried across the street — and declaring “The medium is the message”), “Alouicious” — I’d brought the chicken as my contribution to the moving day of these people I didn’t know, figuring it would at least give Vanessa an opportunity to see that I wasn’t intolerant of all her friends, just the Islamophobic ones I’d had to kick out of my place earlier in the month — which toilet pilgrimages prompted Vanessa to observe/ask/complain, “You sure do go to the bathroom a lot,” apparently forgetting one of the confessions I’d made before the first and last time we slept together, “The more someone observes that I go to the bathroom a lot, the more I think I need to go to the bathroom a lot.”
What’s brought the resurgence of this memory to a higher part of my body (in English this is known as ‘bass ackward thinking’) is the news that the octogenerian fromageriste of Pere Lachaise has just hung out her gone fishin’ permanently sign. I found this out by accident; trying to impress a Bellevilloise newbie with my Bellevilloise conaissance, after realizing I’d trumped myself about which side of the rue Menilmontant she lives on, the best I could do to recuperate was spout out three recommendations from that side: Where to find the best merguez sausage (home-made and relatively low grease, at the first butcher on the left as you head up Menilmon’; also my chicken source for the Poulet à la Palestinian, the Palestinian part coming from a traditional Palestinian spice mixture that I found in the pré St.-Gervais rental and that Vanessa’s allegedly Leftist Israeli friend has apparently never heard of, probably because it’s been many years since he passed his military service in Occupied Palestine), where to procure scrumptious Diplomates (like bread pudding, but better, packed with chocolate chips and pineapples) for 1 Euro and more generous than Jared Kushner is being with the Palestinians, although that’s not too hard (a corner bakery between the Metro Menilmontant and the cemetery, and whose happily scarf-wearing matron might have made Vanessa’s scarf-fearing friends — Vanessa herself once told me it was the first step to fascism — think twice and understand that it’s all right), and the famous fromageriste, who will hopefully have many years of fishin’ ahead of her before she returns to the neighborhood to install herself permanently across the street from her boutique.
When my correspondent reported back about the “gone fishin’ permanently” sign (I’m para-translating; it actually announced “Parti a le retraite”), my first instinct of course was regret (that I’d never seen the cheese shop nor met the fromagerista myself), until I remembered the negative associations from that night and indeed that relationship; this was the last time I saw Vanessa, which I guess I should have anticipated after I suggested we rdv at the Metro Pere Lachaise (“Never a good idea to set a romantic rdv at a cemetery,” a Chinese-American choreographer friend teaching Kung-Fu in Antwerp had once advised me when I’d set another with an American girl at the Cemetery Montmartre, before taking her to see Cocteau’s “Orpheus” at the cinema with the Cocteau-designed aluminum chandeliers where “Amelie” goes to the movies in “The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulenc”; don’t look back). Given the way Vanessa had glared at me from the kitchen counter while I’d been explaining the lyrics of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” to her friend Annie (the one I’d been trying to pick up at the vernissage while Vanessa was trying to pick up me, ignoring at the time that Annie was already spoken for by “Schmuel”; Annie who earlier in the evening had found the nicest way I’ve ever encountered to ask me not to talk so loud: “I have very sensitive ears, they actually hurt easily”), I’d assumed that her doubts about her ‘adherence’ to our relationship couldn’t be that serious, or were just talk, if she could get so jealous at something there was nothing to be jealous about, but as we continued turning in circles (while holding hands) around the Place Gambetta trying to find the avenue Gambetta which would take her back to the Metro underneath the cemetery after we left the dinner party, without any prompting from me she kept up a one-way dialogue about why she was holding back (or having trouble ‘adhering’). “Is it the fact that you couldn’t” (wouldn’t) “get it up the first night we slept together?” (She’d initially told me sex wasn’t important to her, and that she agreed with me that it can’t be separated from love.) “The fact that you threw my” (Islamophobic) “friends out of your home?” (This was before she asked to spend the night.) N’empeche that when, after a serious French kissing bout that would have been right at home in “French Kiss” — we could have played the lovers making out in the background while Meg was having her lacto-intolerant attack and Kevin was assuring her, “Do not worry, we will get off here, it iz my family’s wine estate” — provoked me to ask, “Why don’t you come home with me?” she responded, “In principle I’m not against it.” It’s a far cry from “Je t’aime, je t’aime, je t’aime” (not to mention “Tu vas et tu viens / entre mes reins”), but remember (as Vanessa kept reminding me and her friends) my teeth were still a work in progress and thus my expectations were low.
I could go on here with the climax but fortunately for you, Vanessa, and most of all for me, I’ve just read this Schiller citation in an 1857 edition of the complete poems of Alfred de Musset that a reader/friend gave me: “Madame, I’d rather throw the pearl that is my heart back into the Ocean than make a bad deal for it.” Or as Bob de Dylan wrote about 100 years later: “It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, Babe, iffin’ you don’t know by now…. /When your rooster crows at the break of dawn, look out your window and I’ll be gone, / You’re the reason I’m a travelin’ on. But don’t think twice it’s all right…. / I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind, /You could have done better but I don’t mind. You just kinda wasted my precious time…. ” I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul.