Suffering

The other day, I heard a little old lady tell a crowd of sexual assault victims, “You were not put on this earth to suffer.” It reminded me of a line from the book I’ve been reading, Strangers Drowning, about morality.

“Some think that suffering is pointless and wish it could be eliminated; others believe it makes compassion possible and is at the core of the human condition.”

I used to believe the former, used to wish no one had to endure the pain of suffering…I guess I still do, when I see it. But you can’t wish away suffering, it will always be, and if it breeds compassion, it is all worth it.

Jack Gilbert says it best:

A Brief For The Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Cages

If the French do one thing right, it’s flowers, I’ll give them that. On the treating people like actual humans and not like disposable annoyances front, Parisians are definitely not the leading authority. Though that’s a generalization and generalizations tend to over generalize, which is always bad.

Bad like my host dad proclaiming that the Roma are the cause of all of Paris’ problems while driving me and the Bulgarian girl from my study abroad program (Kalina) to the American Hospital of Paris after some Parisians beat me up and the French hospital told me to leave because I was being a disrespectful bitch. After he realized Kalina was fluent, he spoke on the phone to his wife in Spanish. As if it’s somehow less bad to be an ignorant bigot in another language. Te comprendo, pute.

But the architecture! The Eiffel tower! The history! Oh, if a city or a person could run on history, well there’d never be any reason to be any better. Nevermind that at night you’d find more rats than people under the tower on most nights, just look at how it sparkles every hour on the hour. A big glittery beacon of distraction.

There was invariably a homeless person and a florist on every street corner where I lived, in the sixteenth arrondissement. I overheard it was the “chic” arrondissement by some girls in my study abroad program giggling about their housing assignments. It was rare to have an entire floor of an apartment building to yourself in Paris, though I think what my host parents probably enjoyed most about this was that it gave them the ability to sleep at opposite ends of the apartment; while Madame Beauregard slept in her bedroom, Monsieur Beauregard snored in the little room off of the kitchen where he smoked his tobacco pipe endlessly from the second he arrived home to the second he passed out in his silly sleeping cap and cotton pajamas. For the most part, my host family was never around, except during the evenings when they returned from work to smoke and sleep. They had a son, but he was only ever present during the day, when his parents were gone, so that he could eat their food and play music loudly in the room across from mine. He usually left just before his parents returned.

Every Sunday on my “chic” street, there was an explosion of garbage. I guess that’s why when I asked my host mom where I could throw out my trash, she took the black plastic bag from me and muttered, “C’est compliqué.” (It’s complicated). On one such Sunday when I was walking down the one block of Rue de Rémusat that I traversed each day every day multiple times a day, between the metro station Pont Mirabeau and my apartment building, a van pulled up and rolled to a stop in front of me. A spindly figure hopped out, ripped open a garbage bag, quickly sifted through its contents, retrieved something, and hopped back into the van and drove off. On Sundays the garbage wasn’t just on the street, every garbage bag appeared to have spontaneously vomited up the entirety of its contents onto the sidewalk. I once saw a Parisian garbage man toss the garbage can itself into the hungry mouth of the disposal vehicle, which ate the can right up. Are the Roma begging on the street really costing you, Monsieur Beauregard?

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The second weekend I was in Paris I had decided to go out at the last minute with two girls from my program to get dinner. I didn’t want to go outside after what had happened the weekend before and because of all the uncomfortable and relentless eyeballing of Parisian men, but I knew I had to give it another chance and that I couldn’t let one scare ruin my whole experience. When we were walking back to the metro station around 1 a.m., these three men – boys really – who kept getting in my way as I walked down the crowded street stopped in front of me. I kept walking, hitting my shoulder against one of theirs as I pushed past. I shot him a nasty glance over my shoulder just in time to see him shove me to the ground. I fell to my knees but got up immediately and started running – I thought he was going to rob me – but then he pushed me to the ground again and that’s where things get kind of fuzzy. One of the girls who was with me said she pulled a man off of me, and that he had been crouching over me. I still don’t really know what happened, but from my body it looked like I was kicked a lot.

When she pulled him off of me they all ran away. I shot up and started chasing after him. I wanted to hurt him, furious, I was screaming, YOU FUCKING PUSSY, YOU LITTLE BITCH, COWARD, COWARD. That’s when the strangers on the street finally decided it was time to act – by grabbing me and holding me back. Then I was very very dizzy…The other girl I was with had collected up the contents of my purse – keys, credit cards, Euros – which had spilt everywhere when I hit the ground. They didn’t even take anything. Then I was in an ambulance answering questions.

You know I think maybe I’d have been fine, except when I was standing in the lobby of the first hospital (which refused to treat me because I was an angry cunt) waiting for the cab I had called, I thought I was trying to stare outside but really I was staring at my reflection in the darkened glass. It looked like there was a dried trail of blood on my face that originated from my nose. I touched my thumb to the outside of my left nostril, pulled it back, and looked at it. My thumb was unreasonable bloody and I realized I no longer had a nose ring. That whole time I had been angry, I had yelled at the nurse asking me questions trying to assess how bad my concussion was. But for some reason this destroyed me. I had gotten that nose ring five years ago specifically because I thought I looked too weak and girly. I felt like a part of myself had been ripped right out of my face.

A few days after I got beat up and was back at school, the program director told me I should dye my naturally bright blonde hair a normal Parisian brown, so that I didn’t stick out so much.

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I have to go to either Saint-Germain-des-Prés or the Jardin des Plantes for my French Literature course. Class is really the only thing that gets me out of the apartment these days. I’ve been here about four weeks now, and the first weekend I was in Paris, some man from a bar stuck his hand down my pants, grabbed my face, and asked me, “Do you want to be raped?” We had been sitting outside the bar in the too-hot-for-September air, talking about journalism. He was a journalist and that’s what I came to Paris for. When my classes finish at the end of October, I’m supposed to begin my internship in journalism for the last two months of my stay. Only this week, I found out they are actually sticking me with a 45-hour-a-week unpaid internship in marketing. MARKETING. Writing product reviews. I think I’d rather have that hand down my pants again.

Oh, this yellow wallpaper isn’t doing me any good. In my room of my host family’s apartment on Avenue Théophile Gautier there is: a desk, a twin mattress on the floor, a huge single pane window, a television that does not work and has no buttons, and this awful foul peeling yellow wallpaper. (Was this some sort of cosmic joke? Sais-tu l’histoire Madame Beauregard?) Marketing. MARKETING. Marketing – a festering hemorrhoid on the asshole of humanity. What could be more opposite? Journalism in my mind is defined as the relentless pursuit of truth (good journalism, that is). I want to be a soothsayer, not waste my time trying to figure out how to convince people to spend their hard-earned money on the latest greatest shit they didn’t need at all. I had romanticized everything, I know. Don’t laugh at me now, they’re all laughing enough. I think my host brother is making fun of me all the time when I hear him speaking in the room across the hall, though I can’t understand his rapid French well enough to know whether or not this is true. It feels like he is. And here I am lying on that mattress on the floor of my room with that book my mom gave me mocking me from my desk. Forever Paris: 25 Walks in the Footsteps of Chanel, Hemingway, Picasso, and More.

It’s been four weeks since I got here, three since I was molested, and two since I was beat up. Two since everybody started treating me like a pariah and two since I’ve been fucking losing it. Or maybe that’s been happening the whole time. Forever Paris –god, please no. I had to be here another three months, and usually three months seems to fly by, but lately the days have been moving like molasses and I feel like a prisoner in solitary confinement.

I don’t want to stay in this room, but I don’t want to leave more. But I do want to leave, I want to go to the Louvre I want to go to the Catacombs I want to just walk around. Oh but the people out there – the people out there. Maybe I’ll just stay in here a little longer and keep reading the news. There’s so much news you know, all around the world things are happening all the time, how can I ever know it all, how can I ever be up to date? Why are celebrities always in the news? I’m sure an economist could explain it to me, but I can never wrap my head around the coexistence of poverty and luxury. One of the saddest things I have ever seen in my life has got to be the pregnant Middle Eastern woman kneeling on the Champs Élysées with her arms cradling her pregnant belly and her hands cradling her cup of change. I didn’t stop.

And I’m from New York City, how did I not notice before? I guess I was blind I was very very blind – I cannot reconcile the way I saw things before and the way I see them now and it makes me revolted by everything especially myself. I used to enjoy getting all dressed up, I mean, I used to take real pleasure in putting outfits together, jewelry, make up, it was like a ritual. Nowadays I roll out of bed and head to class wearing the same clothes I slept in. I don’t want anybody to look at me. I want to be unnoticed. How could I have ever taken pride in my appearance? The way you look doesn’t mean a thing, and all it’s ever gotten me is trouble. My dresses mocked me too, my jewelry sat splayed out on my desk, all these different bracelets and rings and necklaces, and laughed to each other about how vain I was.

Why didn’t I see the homeless before? Maybe it’s just that I liked to walk around in parks or museums though the homeless are everywhere the homeless are my neighbors, you know the biggest park in all of Paris is just a few blocks from my house? But don’t go in the Bois de Boulogne at night, that’s where all the prostitutes have fled.

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So, you know, yesterday didn’t quite work out but here is today and hey I’m outside already. When I’m not in the apartment I don’t have any sort of service, and thus am completely incapable of getting in contact with anyone, except for people in France, and I don’t really talk to any people in France. Although sometimes my host mom sends me texts telling me to close the window. That was another reason it was so hard to go outside – at least when I felt trapped in my room, it was my own choice, and I could talk to my friends and family. As soon as I step outside, I can feel how alone I am, and it almost sends me scrambling back inside so I can grab onto another soul. I study creative writing at Johns Hopkins and all of the people in my study abroad program go to Boston University and already knew each other. It’s weird how people don’t want to talk to you after something bad happens as though you’re the one that did it.

I took the Metro all the way to the last stop for the Jardin des Plantes. If the French do another thing right, it’s their metro system, I’ll give them that. It was all nicely color coordinated and the numbers went from one to fourteen, none of this random New York shit where we had one to seven, then A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, then also the J and the Z, the L, and the N, Q, and R lines. There’s this saying in Paris – metro, boulot, dodo, which means, train, work, sleep. That’s because, supposedly, that’s pretty much all Parisians do. Though your typical Parisian work day may start a bit later than it does in America, that long, sometimes two hour, lunch break means there’s not a whole lot of hope that you’ll make it out of the office before 6 o’clock. Even then, you’re looking at an at least thirty minute metro ride before you can burst back into your tiny little apartment. By that point, your day’s pretty much shot. You’re tired, you worked through daylight, and the nicotine from today’s twenty cigarettes is wearing you thin. Lights off, light up, and lie down.

The metro stop was right at the entrance of the Jardin des Plantes. The garden was glorious. I’ve never seen so many different flowers in one place in my life. Rows upon rows upon rows of bushes of flowers taller than me with colors as vibrant as birds of paradise. The sun was beaming, the sky was cloudless, and each step in the garden was like walking into a dream. The petals had colors I previously did not think could exist in nature, only artificially, in dyes. If the French do one thing right, it’s flowers, I’ll give them that.

The flowers were so lovely, so lovely, I started to cry, I wanted to hug these gargantuan flower bushes, I wanted to squeeze them until I osmosed right into them, until I was a happy flower. I walked up and down the garden nine or ten times, just to make sure I saw every one. The garden made me miss my boyfriend even more than I already did. I could only communicate with him exclusively in that awful yellow room. He grew up on a farm, and I always admired the loving and meticulous way he took care of my potted plants when he was around. In October of last year, he gave me two potted lilies. One is still alive and the other festered two weeks ago. As I wandered through the garden, I pretended he was walking with me.

When I was leaving the garden to go to the zoo in the Jardin des Plantes, I saw a woman who didn’t look homeless, but must have been, lift up the lid of a trash can, pull out a recently discarded McDonald’s bag, sort through the remnants, and put all of the scraps into the fry container, which she then put into her bag.

The life of the garden was absent from the zoo. Walking around, I saw binturong sleeping atop his wooden prison, looking for all the world like a lifeless mass of mottled fur. I saw a baby Caucasian tur eating his own feces. I saw a feeble turtle struggle to exit a bowl of salad he had fallen into. The Arabian oryx had a pile of hay stuck on top of his head, having skewered it with his long, sharp horns. A Rocky Mountain Goat watched me watch him.

The zoo was nearly deserted, save for a few touristy couples, small families, and very young school children on class trips. There were hundreds more people in the garden, here I saw maybe nine people in total, not counting the large groups of shrieking school children. I have never seen a zoo with so little activity. And I’ve never seen a zoo with so few zookeepers – I saw more people attending to the garden than the animals.

The children ran and screamed incessantly. I felt sorry for the animals, who had no choice but to listen. The animals in the menagerie could probably hear much better than me, seeing as their designs were not intended to live amongst the clamor of humanity. Here they were, in an infinite loop of shrill, gawking children, rattling their cages and banging on their glass. Nothing moved inside the vivarium, save for the snakes, who slithered endlessly from branch to branch, corner to corner, then back again, their tongues occasionally flicking against the glass in search of an exit.

I left the zoo and sat in the garden for a few minutes before heading home. I walked out and headed back down into the metro, then packed into a train with everyone else. I had never once in my life thought zoos were bad, maybe I was just projecting, but all those animals seemed so sad, the air seemed sad in there. It reminded me of the same two homeless men I saw every single time I took the metro to or from my house. They beg all day, and sleep in the phone booths on Rue de Rémusat at night.

Last weekend, I met up with the friend of a friend of my roommate at Johns Hopkins. I wondered if he had been instructed to hang out with me just because my friends knew how bad I was. Anyway, the friend’s name was Hugo, and when we were walking around last week, I noticed that he always responded to all of the homeless people, and sometimes he gave them money. When I mentioned this, he said that the most painful part of being homeless is not being deprived of their money and possessions, but rather being deprived of their humanity. Homeless people are completely ignored by everyone; they say hello, and it is as if they do not exist (for the most part). We don’t even look at them. And when we do this, he said, we are actively denying their existence and their value as a human being. We are saying that they do not even deserve to be responded to. After that day, I said hello every morning when I passed by the two homeless men who sit together on Rue de Rémusat.

I got off the ten at Pont Mirabeau and went into a Tabac store for some cigarettes.

“Bonjour Madame, je veux acheter les cigarettes…slim.” I didn’t know how to ask for the bitch sticks in French, you know, the skinny ones.

The old lady behind the counter replied, “Tu ne parles pas le français? Quand tu es en mon pays, tu parles ma langue.” (“You don’t speak French? When you are in my country, you speak my language.”)

I just stared. I wanted to say every French curse word I knew, but all except pute seemed to fly from my mind at that critical moment. Instead, I told her I speak French just fine and give me the cigarettes. She gave them to me this time.

I lit up as soon as I stepped outside and headed toward the grocery store across the street. I had quit smoking in May, but I took it up again now that I was here. How could I not? There were more cigarette butts than leaves and the ground as it became fall. I’m an anxious chain-smoker though, it’s horrible.

As soon as I stepped out of the grocery store on Rue de Rémusat with two enormous bags of groceries, the handle of one of my bags ripped off and the bag fell to the ground. One of the homeless men I saw every morning was sitting on the corner. He immediately asked me, in English, if I wanted help carrying my groceries. I told him that was very nice, but that I felt bad because I did not have any money with me, only my credit card. He said that didn’t matter, and picked my heavy bag up off the ground.

“Thank you so much,” I said, “it’s so nice of you.”

“It is nothing, we are kind of like neighbors.” He laughed