Before the War

Published in Ms. Guided ‘Zine, 1:4,  Montreal, Canada, 2008

Before the War

Inside Out I

Disorder inhabits me as a I inhabit the world, completely.  Taking as much space as I can stretch to encompass, drinking deeply of intoxicating fluids.  In the morning I spark myself back to life, sipping slowly, brown earth distilled and mixed with cream.  Technically it’s a drug, and they’ve been trying to prove for years that it’s bad for the heart, growth, nerves.  No convincing proof yet.  In any case, I don’t believe in planning for disaster.  I don’t believe the way you live determines your demise (hospitals like great prisons where the criminally ill are interned: he drove his car everywhere and didn’t exercise; she smoked too much, drank too much, she surely neglected her children).  It must be comforting to believe in such corporal retribution, the God of the body exacting precise rituals: low-fat, balanced diet with little meat, gym gym gym.  Regular checkups.  Fluoride, moisturizer, herbal teas, detox regimes.

The God of my body is voracious, a descendant of Eve, desiring of forbidden fruits.  The God of my body consorts with disorder.

Doctor’s explanation: Your white blood cells are confused.  They think your joint tissue is foreign, so they attack it.  That’s why your knees are stiff and swollen, the cartilage riddled with holes, reconstructed with strange growths the surgeon removed with a  tiny instrument.  Home from the hospital, my knee yellow with iodine and inflated like a circus balloon under the bandages, I spent my convalescence in retreat, escaping into well-loved books, talking vaguely on the phone.  In the house of my childhood I was a child again; my mother brought me cups of coffee and helped me into the shower, brought home DVD’s to watch on the new home cinema, something she never would have gotten while we were children.  I retreated into stories.  The books in my apartment, come to me on a boat after crossing the ground from California, bear on their spines the title Hope.  On their first pages they say This is what makes life bearable.

When I enter a story, it inhabits me for days or months or a lifetime.  The characters take up residence inside me, co-existing with disorder, which has already staked out its colonies.  I’m always trying to contain the whole world, but the world already contains me.  It sends me through the sky to places I’ve never seen and places I love, which are sometimes the same.

Cathedrals

Overnight the construction zones began, and then they mutated every few days so you were never sure if you could take the road you’d taken yesterday.  Sheltered bus stops were replaced by nomadic signs that seemed to move on their own, parading their numbers and colors amidst the rubble where tracks were being laid a few meters at a time.

Though the war was just beginning, we felt we were living in its aftermath, in a bombed city, and the aroma of reconstruction was so pungent that it fostered brotherhood among the citizens.  Conversations were struck up about where two pedestrians might catch the number 4 bus on its new course; shopkeepers complained of the dust and bad business to clients of whom they were nonetheless appreciative.  We lamented the years of construction that lay ahead, but with a certain pride because our city was worthy of such an effort; where once car horns had trumpeted frustration, trams would run smoothly from the suburbs to the center and back again.

The children living in our street found treasures in the rubble when the digging started around the corner.  They played soldiers with broken tools and made found art out of wires and discarded metal.  Their fathers repaired cars illegally and spent afternoons talking in the street in a language we didn’t recognize while the kids ran around barefoot.  We didn’t call the police when the kids started making their evening excursions onto the roof.  We heard them creeping above our heads, and occasionally caught one peering in our skylights.  Maybe we remembered our own childhoods, the freedom of nothing but sky above you, even a city sky.

There’s a certain cathedral I like to visit alone, though I’m not a believer.  It rises from the middle of the Place St. Michel, the heart of the immigrant quarter.  The square is a busy marketplace every morning where French farmers hold stalls next to Arab and African merchants and women of all ages browse with huge straw baskets that fill slowly: carrots, lettuce, chunks of cheese, organic tomatoes, honey so solid you can drop a spoonful in your tea and wait for it to dissolve like a sugar cube.  Fabric from Senegal, hand-made shoes from Morocco, bundles of lavender from Provence.  Names I know nothing about come to me from history books: Constantinople, Byzantium, Crossroads.  With the cathedral’s bell tower as its center and all the different languages, the market is an easy place to get confused about what century it is.

In the evenings on my way home from work the square is empty of merchants and full of children on bikes, teenagers shooting baskets, and old men on benches smoking cigarettes that burn for hours.  Inside the cathedral the light throws colored abstractions on the stones, wiped like a blurred television screen, a video on pause, across the flat walls which peasants died building, which survived the bombings of the last world war, which survived the German occupation, which now bounce back the soccer balls of boys.  Only the windows could not withstand the bombs.  The new ones are what I come to see: modernist, pure color, non-representations of a story.  Late autumn light as it falls through colored glass in an empty space made of stone.

I wish you could see this, I think, not knowing exactly to which you I am speaking, nor whether I’m talking about the light, the stained glass, the marketplace, or the bombed city.  But that’s not right, it’s not bombs but trams that are exploding the streets; it gets confusing because the city is so old but the mobile phones come from the future and at night the neighbors’ kids scuttle across the roof like giant rats and drop fire crackers into the street while the world escalates on the evening news, and in the morning our own street is blocked and we can’t get the car out, so we depart on foot, stepping over the rubble, across make-shift bridges, in search of buses, as the streets change direction and we walk until we are lost, until we forget whether we’re witnessing our city’s destruction or reconstruction.

Inside Out II

I did not venture far downtown to see the remains of the fallen sky pressed into the ground.  The disorder in my body was still active, but the surgery had helped some, and it seemed possible that my knees might hold out for a while yet.  And I was traveling again, visiting landscapes of the past.  New York contained traces of me I’d left behind, books dog-eared with my name on the inside covers in script, a white Krups coffeepot with a  sticker from another era: Hôtel Metropôle, Nice, where I had never been.  I imagine describing the coffeepot to my granddaughter: That was before the war, when I lived with Joel and Rebecca near the Brooklyn Museum.  There were three black cats who never stopped eating and I didn’t eat, drinking coffee all day at the bookstore, sick with the city and the subway and my feet always aching… But I would be too old to introduce all the characters properly, and too much time would have passed to describe with any accuracy the feeling of the world then, a world that will inevitably be rearranged before her time, and after.

I spent my stay in friends’ apartments, speaking English with a California accent.  We tend to superlatives and our vowels are stretched out as long as the Central Valley, inflected with fruit and nuts, our r‘s hard and sharp as the sudden coast that drops to the Pacific.  The accent will never leave me, and in this way my country inhabits me even though I’ve left it, even though I feel like an infidel in its flag-draped streets.

Archeology

We stood above the construction site on the metal viewing platform and watched the future taking shape.  Someday they’ll build on top of this new building, you said.  The future has arrived, you said, and it looks like a science fiction vision from 1965, but we forget that the future also looks like the past.  We build structures of glass and light next to Hausmann-era houses whose entrance corridors smell like the darkness of centuries, sanctuaries when walked into on summer afternoons, a residue of moss on river stones in the shade of oaks filling your lungs as you step inside, purifying the damage done by car exhaust and cigarettes and fallen towers and other, more sinister pollutants of which we are unaware.

You plan to spend your life excavating the past, touching objects that hands touched before the invention of God, when wine was six times stronger than it is now and had to be diluted with water.  I imagine everything was smaller, more concentrated, a world of simpler and more intense sensations and encounters, though it must have seemed endless then, with no satellite photos from space to show us its edges.  Underneath cities there are other cities, you tell me.

While digging up roads to lay track for the future tram, they discovered remnants of an old tramway, which existed around the turn of the last century.  We can see those regal old streetcars in yellowed photographs displayed along with the model of the new system in the entrance to the city hall.  The old trams were squarer, top-heavy with a second story, unable to go fast enough for the future.  It was around that time that my ancestors fled their house in another city as the earth shook, and they stood in the middle of the street with the neighbors and watched (as my mother told me and her mother told her and her mother – the primary source – told her) as all their furniture, including the piano, flew out the front door and down the steps and rolled down the hill.  Then the city burned to the ground and they rebuilt it.  Then I grew up in the rebuilt city.  The piano flies out of the story as the detail, the single concrete image that’s made it to my generation.  In the beginning they could list the contents of the house, describe these objects that shared their lives, but today there is only the piano, imbued by obscurity with potentiality: grand or upright, dark or light wood, high or low quality.  My brother digs up artifacts to know what the past felt like, to be certain of the facts.  I prefer to invent them, giving the piano the life if always wanted.  Like so many lost things it bleeds into the ground where its pieces landed, becoming part of the foundation.

Bordeaux, France, 2003


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