September 29, 2011KR OnlineNonfiction

Street Scene

Parisians call this neighborhood mixed. Mixed is code; it means immigrants. Think Brooklyn, Caitlin says. We are in the 20th Arrondissement, near Père Lachaise. I am here to see the Louvre and the Turkish Baths; I am here to visit my friend, Caitlin. I have a map and some time for wandering. To travel by yourself and enjoy it is a skill; I don’t practice enough.

The 20th Arrondissement. Storefronts with fuchsia and blue signs; Senegalese behind tables of patterned scarves, watch caps, and leather bags; music, a low flare around which we warm ourselves at the park, at pool tables, at long wooden bars. LeeAnne isn’t here to tell me where she stayed in Paris. When I think of her, I see us talking in my backyard, splashing in the pool, upstate New York summers. It surprises me. She was never there, but I can see it: the blue pool, our hideaway; beach towels; instant iced tea. I imagine we lay ourselves out on the uneven flagstones, waiting to be hot enough to peel ourselves off and fling ourselves into the water. If I close my eyes hard enough, if I squint, I can almost see it, this scene—that we grew up together. She was that kind of friend. As I walk through Paris, I keep expecting to catch a glimpse of her, vanishing into some narrow street.

Paris is a walking city; even my softest black shoes will produce blisters. We are on the Champs Élysées, on the way to a make-up store to have our eyes made up. Caitlin and her roommate are going to a birthday party tonight. I am back to seventh grade conjugating verbs, acting out a skit in which we say:Where is the party? I’ll meet you there. We will see you there. I will see you there. See you there?

Caitlin and I were neighbors toward the end of our twenties. I am staying with her in Paris for a week. We are neighbor-friends—neighbors who became friends—friends who once lived close by. She moved into our apartment complex, two doors away from me. She wore pencil skirts, perfectly tailored, unusual to see in a graduate student in our hippie college town. I admired her. Then her new boyfriend showed up, playing guitar, sitting out on the back porch, and I felt shy. And I was embarrassed. He was someone I had known from the university years before. We had once, twice had two beers too many and had kissed awkwardly in the apartment he shared with two other musicians. The years passed; he and Caitlin broke up. Now neither of us are in touch with him and I fly across an ocean to visit her.

The word for neighbor is la voisine. The word for sister is ma soeur. Friends are les amies.

Each day, I walk across the street to the Internet café. There is something comforting in something you do everyday. Repetition, even across one week, is key. This is what I say to the African who works there: Un café au lait et au pain chocolat, s’il vous plait. He answers in French rather than in the English we both know he knows. I take this as a kindness.

I take the Métro to the Musée d’Orsay. I look at paintings everyone recognizes. I dig my camera out from between pens and street map and take pictures: a long-faced woman; a flock of ballerinas in blue tulle and chiffon; a rooster; a bride and groom, suspended.

We sang songs in seventh grade. Alouette, gentille alouette. Skylark, nice skylark, I will pluck the feathers off of you. I will pluck the feathers off your head, off your back; I will break your beak. I will remove your heart. I am going to dismember you. This is what runs through my head: French class. Even though I am in France.

I came to Paris to make up for seven years of French in grade school. What do you do with a language you never use? I didn’t know when I booked my flight, what I was looking for. I had a friend in France. I thought, why not?

We had a concrete pool in the backyard of my parents’ house, but it no longer exists. They filled it in five years ago. My parents hired someone to break down the raised rim; they must have rented a crane to fill the hole with earth. We saw pictures, but we—my brother and I—were not there to see the pool in which we spent our summers lifted away and filled. We were not there to see the yellow bulldozers or the torn wooden fence. We did not see the truck full of earth brought to reclaim the kidney bean shape: curved, fetal. We saw the earth there, without grass, sinking. More dirt needed to be brought to cover the indentation of what was gone, what had left.

Once, LeeAnne spent two weeks by herself in Paris at museums. I could barely do two days. We met when I was twenty-four, close to too late for meeting a friend you could love as if you were young. I rushed in, late to an orientation for a new job; she put her hand on the chair next to her. Here, she said. I sat down, embarrassed, out of breath. She leaned over and whispered: You didn’t miss anything. You’re fine! Her face opened up whenever she saw me, as though I were the most precious and wonderful present in her life—a rare flower, a perfect day. She was like that with all of her friends. She made you feel—by the quality of her attention, her warm hazel eyes, her rapt, joyful smile—loved.

I was looking at a painting. I stood shaking in front of flowers: dull flowers, heads bent. I knew she had been happy. I knew nothing. She is gone. What do we really know about anyone else? Or their sorrow? The flowers were alive and painful to gaze at: brown, fading; green and purple, thick paint, too thick, streaks nearly grotesque, almost lovely, nearly gorgeous. I cried in front of the other tourists. I wanted to find her. She was gone. I closed my eyes. I wanted to see her once more. I want to see her again.

There is no one on the street in this street scene. The scene is the angle at which the road curves and so it seems to open up, to hold some possibility. The paintings are the signs for l’hotel and pâtisserie. The color is the color of fall leaves. The only figure is a church steeple, slate gray. I remember walking alone though I was in a city, a much-walked city, and I must never have seen a corner that empty. In Paris, I felt as if I were walking, again and again, across a stage set. The entire city stood still, posed, as if a museum or a photograph.

We could see the cemetery from Caitlin’s apartment. Important people were buried there, I’d been told. I pressed myself against Caitlin’s window and took pictures of the gravestones. Who was there? Van Gogh, Degas, Giacometti, Modigliani? LeeAnne would have chosen more time with the art, not bothering with the cemetery. I thought of the flower heads bowing at the museum, irises unfurling. I thought of the mint tea from the hammam, the sharp-scented blue soap, the hands of women I didn’t know on my back. I thought of LeeAnne gazing up at the Chagall; she would have been transfixed by the violet sky, clasped arms, bound by the colors, turning to someone in delight. She would have been breathless. Nine years later, one fall day, she was no longer picking up the phone. I called that morning, was it near noon? I hope she heard my voice on the machine before she left the house. (She was in Kentucky, I was in Massachusetts; two months had passed since we last talked.) I’ll be driving all afternoon. Call me anytime.

I want to believe she paused, that she brightened, just one moment. But how could she have brightened when she was no longer picking up the phone, when she had written out a note, when she had tucked a bottle of pills into her pocket? She didn’t change her mind. She took their dog for a walk to a wooded area. She didn’t want her husband to have to find her. She wrote our names in black ballpoint on Post-its to affix to cardboard boxes she left for all of us: in mine, books; a key chain; a clutch of pomegranate-colored beads strung together like flowers; a clay plaque, which says create in raised letters. Her husband handed me my box after the service. I keep the Post-it near me; I keep the plaque on a wall in my apartment—in every apartment I have lived in for the past nine years; I misplace the beaded flowers and find them again every few months. I called on a Friday morning. Her husband called me on Sunday. It had taken a day to find her.

I want to believe she heard my voice before she left the house. It is selfish, but I want to believe she knew I was thinking of her. Still, I will never know what she thought or if she heard or what she felt, at the end.

Once, crossing the street, we saw children. They crossed the street with their teacher. They were a line of ducks in the rain. In my head, I was taking notes: I passed children, walking like ducklings. They wore blue slickers and yellow boots. Notes to myself, notes to LeeAnne. It has been nearly ten years now. My French dictionary is no help. I would like to find a word for this besides suicide, but in French the word is the same. I would like to find a word for a friend who was better than a friend, who was as close as a sister, but I do not have a sister (une sœur) and something in these words won’t translate: to be like something is not the same as to be something. I would like a better word. Something to stay past this passing of time, something that will last.

Paris is for writers—for everyone who wants something from their wanting. What do you do in a city? You walk. I walked. Repetition is key. In my head, I sang. Je te plumerai la tête. I walked around the city for one week. (In my head, I spoke French.) I looked at the river. It rained. I must have looked at the river. Alouette. I walked and I walked. I took pictures. Skylark, lovely skylark. I thought of a pool, which once existed—rough concrete, paint chipping, the sharp comfort of chlorine. I thought of LeeAnne. We were markers, marking what? There was earth and it was sinking. Et la tête. Of how she just wanted to rest. Et la tête. Of what use is the head. There is ringing. Of what use is a ghost blue pool. I was in my head. Din din don. And then ringing. Din din don. There is the outline of what was once a pool—now an indentation, now an impression, now fresh, now earth.

We should have been two girls, swimming. (I cannot say it in French.) We should have been two girls lying on the flagstones in the sun, talking, and lemon juice in our hair and iced tea in tall flowered glasses by a light blue pool; we would have had time. So this is the Seine. I know I should let her go. So this is time. I’m not ready yet. We are flowers alive by the side of the pool, bowing and bowing toward each other, heads bent, as girls always do.

Sejal Shah
Sejal Shah is a writer, interdisciplinary artist, and teacher of writing. Her debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, was an NPR Best Book of 2020 and included in over thirty most-anticipated lists including those from Electric Literature, Lit Hub, the Los Angeles Times, The Millions, Ms. Magazine, and PEN America. The recipient of fellowships from Blue Mountain Center, the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, Kundiman, and the New York Foundation for the Arts, Sejal is also the author of the forthcoming story collection, How to Make Your Mother Cry: fictions. Find her online at and @SejalShahWrites on Instagram and Twitter.