All-American Gallic

What I am about to tell you is absolutely true. I have changed only the names of those involved. The events depicted occurred in the Year of Our Lord 2011, during the month of April. But the road that led me here had been paved six months earlier, in the lobby of a hair salon. 

“That’s an awesome jacket!” the receptionist said as she carried my battered, vintage, leather pea coat to the closet. “Where’d you get it?” 

“A place on Broadway and Houston in New York City,” I told her. As I waited for my designated appointment time to roll around, I poured myself a cup of coffee and added, “What was really cool was that I walked in the door to buy a black blazer like all the men in New York are required to wear, but the guy at the register wouldn’t sell it to me. He told me to go with brown, and even picked out a shape that matched with my body.” 

“Those places are really cool,” she agreed. “You know the one down the street called ‘An American in Paris’?” I shook my head. She prodded, “Just down the street?” I shook my head again. She asked, “An American in Paris?” I shrugged. 

“Anyways,” she continued on, regardless, “they’re a high-end boutique, so you don’t really get to pick anything out for yourself. I went in there for a dress, and the woman who owns it—she’s French …” 

“Imagine that.” 

“… and you tell her a ballpark of what you’re looking for, and she finds exactly what you need. Only for girls, though.” 

“That sounds really nice,” I said sincerely. I love women’s clothes. Part of that is my artist’s sensibility; I love color, shape, personality, and the mixture of all three. Yes, you can find these in the men’s department—and yes, the artist in me appreciates the smooth, masculine subtlety therein. However, men’s fashion is missing one important detail: women. I just love looking at women. It’s biological. 

And so, the following spring, I pointed to a gentle, hand-painted, pastel sign and said to my walking companion, “We should go here.” 

My friend Noel had never been to the DC area before. In fact, she had never been to an East Coast metropolis before. She had recently finished an undergraduate education at both a liberal arts college near her hometown and a university in western Europe. The sirens of her future are singing to her of riches, knowledge, love, and more if she would just follow them. She wants to follow her own damned song, though, and so she has taken a week to clear her head, consider her options, and goof around in the sandbox of our nation’s capital. 

And if there’s one thing I love to do, it’s goof around. And, as I said, if there’s another thing I love, it’s shopping.  

“Let’s do it,” she said with a smile and a nod. 

Since that day, we’ve told and retold the tale, trying to ascertain what exactly went wrong. Noel believes we should have left well enough alone when she pushed on the door, only to find that it wouldn’t budge. 

I told her, “The sign says to …” 

She shoved again. 

“… to knock,” I continued, “and they’ll …” 

With a click, a deadbolt slid open. She frowned, shrugged, and ducked inside; I did the same. 

Soft sunlight drifted in from the street through enormous display windows, illuminating row upon row of dazzling, yet somehow muted dresses, coats, and suits. The overall space was minimal, but somehow everything fit together without feeling remotely crammed. The shop, like the sign, was kind and inviting. We soaked it all in with a sigh and set immediately to investigating. 

Noel’s style tended toward vintage and soft, and as soon as we found a dress that matched these criteria, as well as her personal palette, she pinched the skirt and pulled it away from its companions for closer inspection. Her pose at that moment matched that of a simple cartoon figure in a bright orange sign on the wall that suddenly barked at me from the corner of my eye. The sign announced that Noel was committing a cardinal sin. 

“Um,” I started to tell her. 

Now, I’ve had plenty of time to meditate carefully on the events that occurred next, yet I still cannot comprehend them. The corner we occupied had boxed us in, surrounding us with two floor-to-ceiling windows and the row of clothing. That left the entrance. 

I am by no means a small man. Though my mass has decreased by about 25 percent over the past year, my shoulders are still wide enough to clog the only means of access to this particular corner. Not even vision could get past me. 

And yet, with nary a gust of wind, temperature fell, Noel froze, and a crooked old crone appeared before us the tape measure around her neck flapping about. Without violence, but with extraordinary menace, she eased Noel away from the rack and spoke with a thick, Gallic accident. “You should probably read signs before you try to shop.” 

Both Noel and myself were prepared to offer up an apology, but that was not to be. 

“This is not how you look,” shopkeeper told us, pulling on the skirt like Noel and figure on the sign had done. “No!” Holding onto the dress’s padded wooden hanger, she lifted it from the rack. “You look like this.” With great specificity, she returned it to its proper place. “And leave three-fingers’ space between articles. They get wrinkled if you don’t.” She repeated the offending motions. “Not like this.” She lifted the hanger. “Like this.” 

Noel and I made eye contact with each other. 

“This is not a secondhand store,” the shopkeeper explained. “This is not some mass-produced cloth. “This …” Again, she tugged on the skirt. “… is very delicate fabric. When you do this …” Tug. “… You damage this very delicate fabric. Do you understand?” 

She might not agree, nor might she even care; but Noel did, in fact, understand. More importantly, she wanted to escape. She believed, as did I, that conceding the crone’s point would enable that. She opened her mouth to do so. 

Unfortunately the question had merely been hypothetical. The woman gestured around the entirety of the shop. “This here? This is France.” 

Believing still that freedom meant following along, we nodded. 

“You?” She pointed to Noel. “You are American.” 

This we could all agree on. 

“That is why this store is called ‘An American in Paris.’” She examined both of our faces for any sign of comprehension. Luckily I was an English major and Noel is a Fulbright scholar, so we did grasp the metaphor. “American,” the crone repeated, “in Paris.” 

Certain that all of these basic facts had been absorbed by her audience, she advanced the lesson by combining them. “This is how an American shops.” She yanked on the dress. “This is how you shop in France.” She removed the dress and replaced it. “America.” She tugged. “France.” Finally, she concluded the lesson. “You are not in America. You are in France.” 

Noel and I looked at each other while the shopkeeper regarded us carefully. The concept of being an American in Paris was a tricky one, and the ability of folks like us to get it might elude us.  

She pushed through me, reminding us one more time as she passed, “Not America; France.” 

Once we were in the clear, Noel whispered, “Think she can hear us right now?” 

“I don’t know what to think,” I whispered back. 

“Let’s hang out for a little while so she doesn’t think we’re scared of her,” she said, “and then get out of here and go someplace less traumatizing.” 

That place turned out to be the Holocaust Museum. 

Like a Grateful Dead Guitar Break …

… it never ends. 

One of the most difficult parts of mental illness is that there is no cure. The talk therapies and medications and even exercise that can stabilize and control emotions are only treatments. Occasionally a sudden, inexplicable, rude reminder of this comes along and gooses me. 

And all I can do is sit down, grit my teeth, and try to breathe it  out. It’ll be better. It always is. 

Three Little Pieces of Sunshine

I haven’t spoken to him since 2002. We didn’t have a fight or a falling out or anything spectacular like that; he just went about doing grownup things his way, and I went about doing grownup things my way. Recently, after a conversation with my wife, who knew him back in the day, I began to scour the Internets for him. It was shortly thereafter that he found me on Facebook. As is the case when rediscovering old friends through social networking, I took a look around his life, and that’s when I found a picture of his teenage daughter. 

She’s not the first child I know who’s grown up in the blink of an eye. There’s my ten-year-old niece, my best man’s twelve-year-old daughter, and my favorite college professor’s now sixteen-year-old son, for example. I don’t know why—most likely because I’ve had the pleasure of watching them transform—but seeing this young lady as a young lady really got under my skin, and it brought a lot back. 

In my collegiate youth, I was kind of (okay, very) moody. I’ve come to discover that this is a medical condition, but at that time, I just cycled and assumed I spent about half of my waking life as an asshole.  

Halfway through my sophomore year, in early 1996, I hit an upswing, cut my hair, wore some clothes with color, strapped on some confidence (albeit temporarily), and made some new friends. One of these had a freshman boyfriend who I knew I wasn’t going to get along with at all. For starters, he was a football player. Also, he was fit, both in athleticism and in the British sense of the word (i.e. hot); he was super-intelligent; and he was charming. Worst of all, he was genuinely kind, principled, and honest. So of course I hated him. And in no time at all, we were laughing, drinking, and smoking cigars together.  

That spring, I arranged to move into some off-campus, college-owned apartments, and I asked him to be my roommate. We found out quickly that sophomores were not permitted to live off campus, even in college-owned apartments. He persuaded the Dean of Housing to make an exception for him. (Have I mentioned that he was really, really persuasive?) 

Late summer, as football camp started up, he moved in, and he spent the next several weeks educating me on the finer points of the sport (which I’d never put much thought into before) and of East Coast versus West Coast (and “Mid Coast”— a term he invented) hip-hop. And all was good, until just before classes began, and his on-and-off-again girlfriend from back home was pregnant. 

So he did what any teenager would do: he quit the football team, brought her to his current home, found an apartment, found a job, and became a husband.* These things, of course, were all tricky: the first item because that robbed him of much of his financial assistance and social life; the second because he was asking her to leave her entire life behind to come to a place she knew nobody; the third because this was a college town, and there weren’t a lot of places to live for a family; the fourth because he would be supporting all two and a half of them, as well as his education, alone. The final proved to be exceptionally difficult, in that it cut him off from even more of his social life (at that age, nobody, including myself, understood why he would do all this). Also, his father, and his brother, aka his best man, were stranded in Colorado. 

The morning of his wedding, my friend showed up at my (formerly our) apartment, handed me a tuxedo, and said, “There’s been a change of plans.” If you’ve ever met this guy, you’d know that “There’s been a change of plans” coming from his mouth is the second most chilling phrase in the English language—the first being “We need to talk” coming from the mouth of a partner or spouse. And so I became his best man. To this day, pulling a toast out of my ass for the reception is one of my top-five achievements. 

They immediately became a unit. His identity was entirely husband and father; hers was entirely wife and mother; and this diminished them in no way whatsoever. In fact, it strengthened them. Most importantly, this unit was my friend.  

Our lives back then, as they are now, were separate from each other. For me the following years were full of turmoil, joy, and discovery. It was in the last year of college that I lost control over most of my life. His home (it wasn’t an apartment; it was a home) was safe. One of my favorite memories of that time, sitting cross-legged in the sun, chatting with her and watching the baby roll over. I don’t remember when exactly that was in my history, because the rest of that chaotic life didn’t exist inside those doors. Together, the three of them were vital to my survival back then, in ways I’ve never before expressed. 

I graduated, only barely; I became lost in my parents’ house; I became a man in New York; I became an adult and husband in my wife’s arms. Even though I’ve regenerated countless times, they’re the same: Her blue eyes are full of joy and excitement, even when she’s tired; his eyes are relaxed and confident; and the eyes of their baby, now a young woman, is full of life. They’re still a unit, and I can’t describe, no matter how much I want to, how happy that makes me. 

* Ha! Just kidding! Nobody would do that!