Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Chapter 4: Movies

The first days I spent alone after Sean left to return to his life 3,000 miles away from me passed in a flurry of useful activity: laundry, grocery shopping, revisions, getting work ready for submission, finding phone cards, anything that would momentarily stopper the terror-drip my heart has begun, steadily, leaking into my system. When I got this award, and when I accepted it, I knew that I would be spending a year apart from him, from my family and my dogs, from my job. I knew this. I just didn't understand it. I thought Sean would somehow, magically, never leave. Or, more accurately, that I wouldn't be leaving Sean. In my imagining of this year, time here would pass in a series of light-hearted, fiscally unremarkable adventures that would culminate in one or two poignant moments of deepened self-awareness, moments that would add up to a book project, as well as--ironic as this may seem to anyone reading this--bring me closer to my not-here husband and family. I thought this, even having already experienced what living abroad is really like. In reality, living abroad is spending a great deal of time standing in various lines, studying metro maps, trying to find the soy products aisle in the grocery store, losing things, underlining words in dictionaries, panicking about the use of cell phones, dropped skype calls, and arguing frenetically with sales people in a language that gives you the mental capacity of a two year-old.

It is also being very, very lonely.

Loneliness is the key ingredient in the heart's Terror Drip Solution. It poisons the stomach and the throat. It feels like ice in the blood stream. And if you already feel guilty about rearranging the lives (negatively, of course) of your most beloved, the Terror Drip Solution can also start to clog up your arteries and bronchial passageways. It begins to freeze you up from the inside, but slowly, so that it may be weeks before you realize that you feel as if you are suffocating, that your brain has in fact come to a near standstill, and you are now gasping and shivering, clad in a thick winter coat even in the humid tunnels of a crowded Paris subway.

When you start to feel these things, there is no option left for you. You must go to the movies.

Movies are the ultimately ineffective, but nonetheless momentarily pleasurable antidote to loneliness. I have seen a lot of movies--terrible, terrible movies--in countries across Asia and Europe over the course of my life. The fact that my very first night without Sean had me fleeing to the Bercy Cine-Cite was a very bad sign: it meant that I was going to be spending a lot of time in darkened theaters across Paris, and considering that a single ticket costs somewhere around 13$, my loneliness for Sean would also be financially ruinous.

There must be a psychological term to describe the emotional state lonely people experience when watching movies. I find I can be totally and embarrassingly moved by films in hotels or foreign countries that I would walk away from--laughing--at home. Book tours and readings particularly get me, as I'm usually holed up alone in a nice, anonymous hotel somewhere, tired but still jittery from the performance, unable to sleep with a t.v. screen so temptingly close to my head. Recently, I went on a two-hour crying jag after watching the Hallmark channel, which was broadcasting a film about some Japanese dog that waited everyday at the train station for its master (dead at work from a sudden heart attack) to return home. The dog--a very handsome orange Akita, as I recall--sat there, day after day, looking shabbier and thinner by the week, refusing to leave, shunning every tempting offer back into a life of pampering from his master's still-living friends and relatives. In the end, the dog--hobbling now, his handsome orange fur rubbed off in patches--has a fantasy that his master (played by Richard Gere: a good indication of the film's cheese factor) finally arrives at the train station, smiling, briefcase swinging when he spies his faithful friend. The dog goes crazy, jumping up and down, barking and licking and carrying on as the camera slowly pans out, turns fuzzy, finally mists over. Because the dog is dead now. THE DOG IS DEAD. IT DIED WAITING FOR ITS BELOVED MASTER TO COME BACK TO HIM.

I just about died myself. Three a.m., weeping hysterically, tearing apart the hotel's guidebook to find the room service options. There were none. Because it was three a.m. So I kept on crying until 4:30, when the Cindy Crawford skin care infomercial came on and I called in to buy 100$ worth of squash-extract eye cream.

I hate myself.

Anyway, I've seen some horrible movies. Oleaginous chick flicks, stutteringly voiced-over martial arts films. Indie movies so relentlessly ironic they could make your eyes bleed. I've seen things you would make you shudder, reader, that would freeze the very blood in your veins were I to tell of them. Once I even spent a nail-biting afternoon (right before I was getting divorced, a fact which might explain my reaction to this movie), holed up in a motel in Rock Springs, Wyoming, freaking out over the original "Stepford Wives."

I mean, if that isn't loneliness, I don't know what is.

So what did I see last night? "Crazy, Stupid Love." And how was it?

Let's just say, this time I didn't cry.

I did, however, learn a few things. 1. You can totally write down semi-legible vocabulary lists in the dark. From that movie, I learned how to say "Va-jay jay" in French ("fouchone") and new ways to work "tiens" into a sentence (as in, "I got this, bro." Totally handy phrase. Will be saying this much. Not. Look! Eye-bleeding ironies have begun!) 2. I also learned I might trust my terrible French some more. When the woman behind the popcorn counter asks if I want my enfant-sized popcorn "sucrain," I should NOT assume she isn't offering me sweetened popcorn, which I thought at first would be both impossible and insane. She is in fact offering sweetened popcorn, and it is NOT insane or impossible to give popcorn the lightest possible sugary touch, so light and sweet and delicious, so much better than our cruder caramel corn in fact, that you will eat the whole box in ten minutes, quickly enough that the couple sitting next to you will shudder at the sight of your popcorn-flecked clothes and face and hair and wonder, sympathetically, if you have recently escaped from one of the famine-struck regions of Somalia. (There are very good reasons to distrust my French in general, however. Besides being a terrible speaker, I'm a fairly lazy translator, as my experience in grocery stores has taught me. The free range eggs here are advertised as being laid by "poulets en plein air" which, having long associated this term with landscape paintings and basic outdoor amusements, I translated this phrase to meaning "chickens at a picnic.") 3. The French like to begin their movies with advertisements, as we do, but unlike the U.S. the French will advertise the arrival of the newest Paul Auster novel (!), the newest performance of Aida (to be simulcast at the cinema itself!), AND THEN the possibility of recording video messages for your future children and grandchildren to be played AFTER YOU ARE DEAD. This is, if I am getting this right and I might not be but I'm still on the popcorn high here, a service you can purchase from a company called (wait for it) "After Me."

I bet you are all going to run out right now and do this.

Such an astonishing series of ads this was, I actually stopped eating for 30 whole seconds to consider them. (I probably looked like one of those gophers you see by the side of the road, pausing mid-chew to contemplate placidly whether the shiny tractor was on its way to mow the whole nut-stuffing family to pieces or would just motor on.) But as delightful as these learning experiences have been, they would have been a thousand suns more shining and delightful if Sean had been there with me. Knowing the French word for "cooch" is hardly worth being separated from your husband for a year. In all honesty, I've begun to feel as if everyone's life is surging forward while mine is stagnating or, worse, slipping back. This might be because all the people who are living like me are in their 20's and early 30's. They're students or they're unemployed or they're just French (what is it with France and closing everything during the first two days of the workweek? And why don't kids go to school on Wednesdays?); regardless, the only people I see around me during my trips out are people whose own lives seem to be in stasis, which makes me feel like I'm emotionally hibernating myself.

In short, I miss Sean. Tellement.

Fortunately, Paris has--if Google is any indication--several pages worth of movie theaters. The winners of the Cannes Film Festival are being played right now around town. There are three theaters within close walking distance of my apartment, five more only two metro stops away. I have to bundle up, however, if I plan to walk. It's so cold right now, I can't stand to take off my coat.

There are 20 euros left in my purse. Tonight, I'm thinking about a film called "Restless."


  1. It's true that the movies are a cure, sort of, for so many things of the "any story but my own" variety. (I hope it's not mean to say that I'm glad to know that you've cried at Hallmark crap...I know, ahem, others who also would/do, and not because they're apart from their beloveds, rather simply because one day they *may* be.) Do the French have something akin to the dollar movie?

  2. The French don't have anything akin to a dollar anything. You can't get out of the house without forking over 10$. Crazy chocolate-eating freaks.

    Anyway, off tonight to meet other lonely academics who I will FORCE to be my friends. And then I'm going to sign up for some French lessons at the Alliance Francaise. To force people listen to me try and speak.

  3. One of my guilty pleasures used to be to read the descriptions on my tv guide channel thing-y of the Hallmark/Lifetime/WomenCryNow channels. Pathos! Surreal plot twists! Melodrama! And less actual crying on my part.

    One said, "Lonely single woman moves to small town to start over. Meets handsome doctor, marries, and then discovers she is carrying the spawn of Satan through a mix up at the local fertility clinic."

    So there's that.

  4. Oh my god, Elizabeth: that is the most awesome thing ever.

  5. It is, isn't it? And kind of better for not seeing it but just making up the links in between.

    I'm so happy to reconnect here, by the way. I foresee lots more. Because you're writing just what I need here...