Whenever I travel, I wish to find a place that I can inhabit for a moment, curl up like a cat, a smudge of a foreign city that resonates in my bones as the truest possible representative of that very place and very time.
I remember this night in Paris. The candlelight, a lopsided table, the wine. My friend and I, exhausted from our previous backpacking days in London, slouched in wooden chairs and tossed bread into our needy mouths. Americans eat dinner much earlier than the Parisians so Kelli and I were the only ones there, in this tiny restaurant in Montmartre. I love the French. I speak their language to them, they laugh, smile at my attempt, and then speak English to me.
We left the restaurant happy, full, and drunk, linking our arms together and skipping, foolishly, Laverne and Shirley style. The city lights prepared to unveil themselves to us as the sun said its goodbyes in oranges and pinks. On our way back to our hotel I spotted a narrow staircase. We quickly started running up it. Traveling is all about detours. I remember fighting for my breath when I made it to the top after ten minutes or more. Kelli next to me, our hands slid to our knees as we gasped for air and giggled.
We had arrived, accidentally, at Sacre Coeur, a stunning church built upon the highest point in Paris. The sun was setting and the city of love or lights bowed beneath us. Dozens of people lounged across the wide steps preceding the entrance. A man played an Oasis song on guitar, and everyone, I mean everyone, despite their first language, sang along, “I said maybe, you’re going to be the one that saves me. And after all, you’re my wonderwall.” Even the ones who had their heads rested in their lovers’ laps were mouthing the words.
I remember it keenly and with such tenderness. However, my gratitude swells from having observed such universal camaraderie, not from being a part of it. I know the words to the song, but that day, I did not sing along.
In one of his hundreds of letters, Vincent van Gogh wrote, “For me life might well remain solitary. I haven’t perceived those to whom I’ve been most attached other than through a glass, darkly.” Is this an artist/writer thing? A mental illness thing? The answer does not matter. I have gone most of my life seeing and feeling the world without having direct access to it.
Let me tell the truth though it is far from holy. I remember one of the best moments. Less than a month after I graduated college, my gallbladder, sardined with gallstones, forced me to race to the emergency room. It was a cold January in Ohio, I suppose. All Januaries are cold in Ohio. The thing is, I don’t remember the weather. I don’t even remember the pain. What I do remember as exact as the days of my daughters’ births, is the Dilaudid.
A nurse walked in and set a few things down on a silver tray. A loaded syringe. Latex gloves. A very big rubber band that would I would twenty seconds later come to understand as a tourniquet. She tied it around my arm and tugged at it the way my kindergarten teacher did my shoelaces. Then came the two finger tap to scout for a vein. I could feel the cool of the glove as she pressed on a few contenders. Once she found the winner, she removed the cap from the needle and said, “You’ll feel better in a minute, sweetheart. Little pinch.”
She lied about everything. Seven seconds. It took seven seconds for a warmth to infiltrate my body. The room took on a softer hue. It felt better than better, better than perfect. There was no pinch, only release. The glass curtains to the world opened up and I entered, centerstage.
I had no idea that I would chase that feeling for so many years to come.
Chilling. And very understandable.