There are certain things a French woman would never do. For instance, she would never ever wear jogging shoes with a business suit. A French woman would suffer for fashion and walk kilometers and kilometers in three-inch spikes if need be, and she wouldn’t utter a whisper. She wouldn’t say a word. An American woman, incongruously dressed in designer pinstripes and rubber-soled sports shoes, would gaze after the French woman with reverential awe. She would immediately recognize the superior style of her European sister and while she would praise herself for her good sense, she would also feel hopelessly frump. Some things are more important than convenience and comfort. Sacrifices must be made.
I sit in my bed for hours with the curtains drawn around me like white cotton walls, studying the French fashion magazines that the nurse brings me. I give the nurse money and she goes out into the “real” world to bring me back images of what she calls my fantasy world.
“The world is what you make of it,” I say quietly.
She looks back at me—this pale, thin woman with unwashed hair—and says “Ain’t that the truth.”
I have been keeping a list of things that I will buy when I get out of the hospital. The mannequins are always wearing big hoop earrings hooked through their eyes and brilliantly colored scarves over their heads, around their necks, bandeau-style across their bosoms. Their eyes are often smudged with black liner, and cigarettes dangle from their pouty lips. They always look like they just got out of bed, and they can’t wait to get back there as soon as the photographer is finished. They wear tight, tight jeans, fuzzy sweaters, and leather skirts. When I leave this place I will buy the earrings, the scarves, the jeans, the sweaters, the skirts and the cigarettes. One day I will be more French than Brigitte Bardot herself.
“How would you describe yourself?” Doctor Smith asks. He always throws out these essay questions during afternoon therapy. (What was your relationship with your mother?” “Do you have recurring dreams?” “How do you feel when you see a naked person?).
I pretend not to hear and I look out the window, pick up the paperweight on his desk and set it back down, bite my fingernails.
“How would you describe yourself?”
“I am a blob,” I say.
He tries not to betray his disappointment, but I catch a quick flash of impatience. His pen rests against his hand.
I try again. “I am a blob seeking style and substance.” He likes this better and nods, as if he were identifying a disease from a textbook. He makes a notation on the pad in front of him which is always slanted away from me.
I seem to have made some progress.
William took me to a French restaurant on our first date. It was called Chez Pierre and it was in a shopping center along with a laundromat and a butcher. Walking through the door I was like Alice through her looking glass. The storefront was entirely at odds with the opulence inside. The draperies covering the wall looked as though they had been snatched out of Louis XVI’s living room. The waiters were tall, thin, and elegant.
William ordered the food in flawless French. He was part of the scenery while I wondered what to do with all those forks. A few minutes later, the waiter produced a bottle of wine. William glance at the label, smelled the cork, swirled the wine in his glass, tasted and proclaimed “Excellent.” I was stunned by savoir faire. I melted and oozed over the table, absolutely enamored. William. Guillaume. I loved him already.
First, we sampled escargot bathed in garlic butter. Next came flaky white fish which had been poached in wine, the filet of beef truffles. Last, salad, then delicate layers of pastry plumped with cream. Wine, coffee, cognac.
In the hospital the food is always bland and monochromatic as if seasonings and spices would excite the patients too much.
One day I took all the plates out of the cupboard and smashed them. I threw them against the walls, against the floors, against the ceiling. When William came home from work, he was probably expecting the aroma of dinner and my arms around his neck. Instead, he found me sitting in a pile of shards, my fingers bleeding. He didn’t say a word to me. He went into another room and picked up the telephone.
In French movies, women have visions, scream, try to kill their lovers, chop off their hair. The French recognize obsession as a mark of passion. They are obsessed with obsession. If I were French, William would have picked me out of the refuse and taken me to bed to ravish me. Instead, he called the hospital.
There is a man who comes once a week to visit his wife. I am in love with him. I have met his wife, a very nervous woman. If they let her out she will try to kill herself, so they keep her here and feed her scrambled eggs. She has wispy hair and I suspect that her husband is no longer in love with her, and maybe that it’s her money he’s spending and that’s why he must visit. Her husband is unfaithful to her. He has a mistress. Me.
I used to watch him from the shadows. When he took his wife out to the yard for air I hid behind a tree, hovering, waiting for the right moment. I watched him smooth back her hair as if she were an old woman, and hold her hand as if she were a young child at a street crossing. She is fat from the drugs and the starchy food, although she might have been beautiful at one time.
We make love in the broom closet, stumbling over a bucket of soapy mop water. I don’t wear panties on the days that he comes. He lifts up my nightgown and murmurs “Ma Cherie, ma Cherie.”
Sometimes William comes to see me. I know it’s because he feels guilty about the damage he’s done to my life. He never stays long and he spends his visits shifting his weight from one foot to the other and dripping his hands in and out of his pockets. He brings me presents. They are presents for a sick person–nightgowns, books of crossword puzzles, potted plants. Except once he brought me a bottle of Chanel No. 5.
If the nurse comes into my room while he is there, he complains to her about me. “Why won’t she talk to me?” he asks.
“She just ignores me.”
The nurse chuckles, “Well, sometimes she pretends she can’t speak English. She pretends she’s French.”
Then William says softly “Bonjour. Ca va?
I sigh and turn to the window. He doesn’t understand that I want him to leave.
I usually give his presents away or throw them in the waste-basket. The only thing I wanted to keep was the perfume. The nurse took it away from me though. I heard her tell another nurse that she was afraid I’d drink it or break the bottle and cut myself. The next day when she walked into the room, I could smell the delicate, expensive scent emanating from the crook of her arm.
Three times a week we make things. Now we are making ashtrays, although I don’t know anyone who smokes. I figure I will glaze mine a boudoir pink and keep bobby pins and paper clips in it. This is supposed to make us feel like artists, but anyone can press their thumbs into clay forming indentations that will cradle ash.
One patient has modeled ten ashtrays. We think that she can sell them mail order. They are very vivid with the colors that crazy people like—yellow, orange, red, sometimes black.
Before the ashtrays we made birdhouses. Pounding nails was supposed to unleash our fury. I didn’t put a door on mine because I believe that birds weren’t meant to live in miniature split-level A-frame chalets. Birds need to make things too. I explained this to the nurse, but she told me to make a door anyhow. Afterwards, I smashed the little house with my hammer.
In afternoon therapy the doctor asked me about this. “Why did you destroy your birdhouse? Were you dissatisfied with your work?”
“Birds aren’t like people,” I said. “They don’t need houses.” I told him that I wanted to paint pictures.
“What kind of pictures would you like to paint?” he asked me.
“I like Expressionism.”
I think of “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. It is not the kind of painting you’d find here. The doctors and nurses have hung Norman Rockwell prints on the wall so that we can see what normal looks like. In the painting there is an emaciated man holding his head as if it may fall off, his mouth forever open as he screams a silent eternal scream. No one can hear him. Except for me. Sometimes I look into the mirror, hold my head, open my mouth, and scream. Then right away, I pick up my sketch pad and pencil and I draw myself screaming.
I am walking down a long avenue lined with trees. Beyond the trees there are fields of wheat. I am thinking of another wide avenue lined with exclusive boutiques and cafes. On holidays presidents parade down this street, followed by soldiers on horses. On ordinary days like this one women dressed all in black stroll along the sidewalk with their chic, ugly little dogs. At the end there is a huge stone arch. I’ve seen it in picture books and on postcards. I’ve never seen it in person, but I’ll recognize it right away.
In a few hours the nurses will start looking for me. They will call William, and maybe the police. My picture will be in the newspaper and they’ll say I escaped, that I may be dangerous. But I don’t care. I am on my way to Paris. I will call my lover and he will leave his wispy-haired wife for good. We will go to the City of Lights. I’ve never been there, but I know I will like it. It’ll be like heaven.