Eugène Atget, “Rue Saint-Martin, Paris” (1901) (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation.)
Blame the travel clock. When Helen arrived home at half past midnight, weary of airports and taxis, she found that the little black clock in her make-up bag said 7:30 AM. She didn’t have the heart to change it. At this moment in Paris she would be throwing a light scarf around her shoulders and stepping out of the Hotel Diana. She’d head up the Rue St. Jacques to the little cafe near the Ronsard statue and order her morning coffee and a copy of Le Figaro. Her French wasn’t good, but she could catch the gist. Just yesterday she’d gotten through an entire review of Le Lac des Cygnes.
Seven-thirty on a September morning in Paris. How could she trade that for midnight in Michigan? Not just Michigan—Detroit. Even at this hour she could hear the braying of horns below her in the dark. Helen pulled a pillow over her head and plunged to sleep.
The next morning she didn’t open the drapes. In Paris it would be three in the afternoon, just time to stroll around the corner to the Musée Cluny and sit in a dim round room surrounded by unicorn tapestries. She’d done that with Richard in 1991, during their honeymoon trip. Now it was thirty years later, Richard was dead and Helen—Helen was thirty years older. They had never gotten back to Paris, although they’d vowed to return often. Once you have babies, it’s different. When her children were still young, Helen was browsing through a book by Rilke and came across a description of a girl, alone, gazing at those same tapestries: “The path has grown narrower: families can no longer see God.”
Hush. Not true. If true, no hope. And now the path, having widened, branching into nieces and grandchildren, had grown narrow again. In the hospital, with less than a day’s breath left in him, Richard had turned to her. “See Paris again for me.”
He’d always been affectionate, but not sentimental the way she was, so his last request struck her as tremendously touching. It was as if he were coming over to her side. A week after the funeral, while lawyers were still working out her husband’s finances, Helen emptied her personal account, stopped the newspaper, and boarded a plane. She felt Richard beside her the whole time. Striding down St. Germain des Prés, she had voluble conversations with him, ignoring knots of Parisians who looked at her strangely. Indeed, she made an odd figure, a tall gaunt woman in black bearing down on booksellers and chambermaids, museum guards and bathroom attendants, then turning to talk to someone who wasn’t there. Sitting at cafes, she insisted the waiter bring tableware for two and never apologized when her companion didn’t appear. Richard was Paris, Paris was Richard. “Remember this, dear?” she would say of the flower stalls by the Seine. And, “What on earth has become of Les Halles!”
The day after her return to Detroit, she kept the drapes closed, although the dead brightness of American daylight glowed around the edges like the corona of an eclipse. Between naps she looked online for grocery shops specializing in French food. The one nearby didn’t deliver, but she offered a ten-dollar tip, and soon a kid showed up bearing a shopping bag with a baguette poking from the top. She made a pot of espresso. The Camembert was soft, the bread crusty, the apartment dimming as day declined.
Around 7 PM Central, she fell asleep in the armchair. After all, it was two in the morning, Paris time. Yes, she thought, when she woke five hours later, it was her time. She thought of the cliché about how to avoid hangovers (never stop drinking) and decided the way to avoid jet lag was never to change the clocks.
Finally, Helen did change the clocks, all of them, to Paris time. The drapes stayed closed, and her daughter Vivian, living in Cincinnati, learned not to call except after midnight. The changes seemed minor at first. She began signing her name “Hélène,” enrolled in an evening French class, and bought week-old copies of Le Monde in a French language bookstore downtown. It was in the bookstore that she met Josie and Gustave, a rail-thin couple in their seventies. Hélène immediately invited them over for morning coffee.
The couple arrived at 1 AM, as agreed, and looked around the apartment with appreciation. The seductive smell of freshly baked croissants mixed with the plaintive voice of Edith Piaf. Above the couch hung a print of a Utrillo street scene, across from a two-by-three-foot blowup of the Parisian Metro system showing the different lines in orange, green, yellow, pink, and blue. The coffee table was strewn with French magazines and newspapers, and on the wall—pièce de résistance—a small, signed lithograph by Rouault of the head of Christ, inherited from Richard’s mother.
Gus and Josie were amiable people, taken singly, but they argued about everything. He pointed to a picture of the glass pyramid at the Louvre and launched into a tirade against that egomaniac, Mitterand. Josie defended him so vehemently she overturned the bud vase.
Hélène had trouble following, but she didn’t mind; she just let the stream of French flow over her like healing waters. After a few months she understood everything they said and enjoyed their company less. By then she had met other expatriates and held regular Friday morning coffees at her house, starting promptly at 1 AM, and lasting nearly till dawn. The proprietor of the French bookstore was a regular guest, along with his regal wife Marie and several painter friends.
After a time, some of her new friends hinted that these breakfast hours were hard on them, so Hélène agreed that they should meet later in the day, say 8 PM, Paris time. Instead of petit déjeuner, she served a light supper of crêpes aux épinards and a decent Merlot while outside the heavy drapes Detroit blazed and fumed.
Nostalgia united the group, and a desire to speak the native language. But of course they could speak the language elsewhere. It was Hélène that kept them coming, her oddity and sweetness, her heroic rejection of American life. She herself never railed about Detroit, or spoke of the superiority of Paris. She probably never had such a thought. Detroit didn’t exist.
She seldom spoke of her feelings, except obliquely to Marie, who had become a particular friend. Paris, she once confided, gazing at the oversized Metro map on the wall, was not a city filled with millions of individuals. It was an individual itself, a presence. The Metro lines were its veins and arteries, the Seine its long, long spine.
As years passed, people began to refer to her as that old French lady on the fifth floor. No one would have believed she’d been brought up in Cincinnati. These days she never spoke English except when necessary and even forgot some of the words. “How you say this en anglais?” Acquaintances assumed she had eye trouble, because her drapes were never open and she wore dark glasses in shops or on the street. It took the edge off of Detroit, she felt, not to see the place clearly. In fact, Hélène’s eyesight was weakening. Years of looking at the world through dimmers of one kind or another had taken a toll.
Finally, people thought of her as the blind old French lady. When Vivian visited in May, she was shocked to see how much her mother had changed. The soirées, which had become famous in Detroit’s French community, were no longer possible. Hélène walked with a cane of gnarled walnut because it reminded her of the trees in the Tuileries. By Vivian’s
next visit, two months later, the cane had been replaced by an aluminum walker. Finally her mother could barely rise from bed. Vivian could not convince her to consider a nursing home, so after an argument with her doctor husband (who thought Hélène quite insane), Vivian hired a nurse to come in three mornings a week.
Hélène got along with the first nurse quite well. She was a meek woman who did what she was told, which was fortunate because there was always a list of instructions in a scrambled franglish. But when Hélène fell getting out of bed and the nurse was unable to pick her up, it was clear someone stronger was needed.
The day Nurse Jane arrived, Hélène was feeling lower than she had for some time. Her eyesight was nearly gone, and she’d just had a disturbing dream about Richard. He’d led her to a full-length mirror and told her to look, to see herself as she was, and she kept averting her eyes. “What are you afraid you’ll see?” he demanded just before she woke. It was the first time he had ever spoken to her sharply.
Vivian was there to let the new nurse in and go over the routine, but the woman was only half listening. When Vivian started to explain about warming the croissants, Jane interrupted. She was sure she and her client would work things out just fine.
Vivian pressed her mother’s hand. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours.” Hélène barely nodded.
“So, how are we this morning?” said Jane when they were alone.
“Evening,” Hélène corrected her.
“What do you mean? You’ve been in the dark so long you’ve got things turned around!” The big woman went to the picture window and yanked back the drapes, letting in a blinding rush of light.
“Oh!” cried Hélène, covering her eyes.
“Take a look. It’s a beautiful day.”
“Take it away!”
“Don’t be silly. What are you afraid you’ll see?”
“What?” Hélène said tremulously. “What did you say?”
“Good heavens, lady, what are you afraid you’ll see out there?”
Hélène kept her eyes shut but slowly lowered her arms. The sunlight glowed warmly through her lids.
It felt comforting. “Could you push my bed closer to the window?” she said at last.
“Now you got the idea!” Jane set her considerable weight behind the headboard and shoved the bed to the window.
“Now,” said Hélène, “could you leave me alone un petit moment?”
The nurse sighed. “I guess I could get lunch started in the kitchen.”
“Dinner,” Hélène murmured, no longer listening. When the door closed, she lifted her hands in front of her face, then opened her eyes. There were her old white hands, each holding its little cup of shadow, while behind them lay the world’s deadly brilliance. Those little palms could not shield her from so great a power. She gazed at them as if saying goodbye, then slowly opened her hands like the doors of a church.
Splinters of light stabbed through her, and she clamped her eyes shut, dizzy with pain. I can’t!
But that wouldn’t do. What would Richard say?
She forced her eyes open a slit. At first she could make out only a lake of glowing mercury. Within it, shapes began to form, promontories and depressions, all flanged with flashing crystals. Somehow familiar. A building. A bridge. A river. Her breath caught in her throat.
“Lunch!” called out Nurse Jane, bumping through the doorway with a tray.
“Paris,” breathed Hélène. Her smile trembled. “Paris.”