All these recollections, and the traffic light hadn't even changed yet!
A long line at the post office, and there I was again: American Express office, Paris, checking for mail. Back in the day, in the previous century, friends and relatives at home could address mail to me at any American Express location. All I had to do was flash my Amer. Ex. traveler's checks — proof that I was a customer — and I'd pick up a stack of letters.
Heaven! I received funny antics-reportings of my cat Alex from my little sister ("Alex pooped on your bed the day after you left"), tales of my mom's daily activities ("went to an Altar Society Meeting yesterday and I was elected secretary; I don't want to be secretary") and missives from various older sisters. I still have those letters, archived in a box in my basement.
The one I recall most vividly, though, was from a semi-boyfriend: a man who was twenty years too old for me, twice married, once divorced (yowza, if you get my drift), who explained to me why he wasn't going forward with our "relationship".
I remember sitting on the stone steps of the Amexco office, sizzling in sun, feeling my stomach lurch down to my feet. The world got really silent for a moment — all the street noise, the traffic and constant rush of people — silent. It wasn't a surprise, but damn, I was in Paris. I was twenty. The world should've been more glamorous, but here was proof that it wasn't.
I can still see his handwriting — precise, cursively taut, in fine green ink. (He knew I loved green ink, damn him.)
And then, in a flash, I was back in line at the post office in Seattle, listening to a clerk speak way too loudly to a customer, as if volume could make up for a language barrier. It wasn't Paris. There was no bundle of letters for me behind the counter, no sad-sack last story from Mr. What's-His Name (who, according to my mathematical calculations, is nearing decrepitude).
Back in my car, windows rolled down, I imagined for just a moment that I was leaning out a train window, baguette and a round of camembert in my backpack, bottle of cheap Côtes du Rhone ready to be uncorked. Life was ready to roll, man or no man, and I intended to roll with it.
For a moment, I imagined I'd have to find a hotel, find a place to eat, possibly do a currency exchange. I was hungry, and tired, but I was confident I could manage every detail of it. Those things were, after all, only details.
By then (back to reality in Seattle), I was pulling into my driveway. Not Paris. Leftovers in the fridge. A bottle of two-buck-Chuck already uncorked, and chilled. And thought: here is my life, 37 years later.
Two years forward, I would return to spend the entire summer in Paris, work permit in hand, going broke while becoming culturally wealthy. I thought then that my entire life would be different after this trip, but the truth of it was, when I got back to Seattle (okay: Renton), I rented a room from my mom, and started graduate school in Creative Writing at the U.W., feeling stuck, not wanting to be where I was.
It took me another 25 years to understand that those first two trips abroad informed every decision I would make from then on out. My job in the art universe today stems from those summers where my days were suffused with lush visual imagery and the sense of infinite possibilities. Growing up in the shadow of the aerospace industry, my logical career path pointed to Boeing. But I ran in the other direction, and haven't regretted it for a moment. (Except when it comes to dental insurance, ha).
And here I'd intended only a quick stop at the post office, and ended up, instead, immersed in the scents, sounds and tastes of summers abroad three decades ago. (Maybe I should go to the post office more often.)
I'm about ready for that glass of wine. Anyone have any camembert?
|Not Paris, most likely London. 1977.|