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I live at the base of the Eiffel Tower, my windows framing the symbol of France like borders of a postcard. Every night on the hour, the Eiffel Tower twinkles and a hundred fireflies descend upon our living room. We don’t keep a clock in the house, but we have a leather ottoman from Poltrona Frau. I resent the Chinese tourists who pass in droves on my sidewalk, but like them, I insist upon the fantasy of Paris.
I cross the Champs de Mars to write at a tea salon attached to an unremarkable four-star hotel. Parisian cafes are terrible for working. The tables are miniscule and pushed up against one another. I feel at the mercy of the grim-faced waiters. The coffee is terrible unless I go to one of the grand salons, in which case I have to contend with drinks that cost more than meals and tourists that form queues. My tea salon does not have the flare and gilded decadence of the grand salons, but it is impeccable and always nearly empty.
The real jewel of the place, however, is the old dame who works there. She is the hostess, the waitress, and the manager at once, the only person who keeps this salon going. I have dropped by at different times and have never encountered any other personnel. The first time I visited, she recommended their house blend tea to me.
“This is the only place in the world that serves this tea,” she said.
Even after such a recommendation, I hesitated still. I thought I knew what I wanted, a simple café allongé. Eventually, I gave in and was awarded the pleasure of a full-bodied black tea with hints of French vanilla and rose petals. I have never ordered anything else since.
At her salon, I work steadily, better than I have for a long time. I am aware of her moving about, straightening a placemat, fluffing a pillow bearing the ghost shape of the last customer. I call her “dame” because it is the first word that comes to mind when I look at her. Everything about her is as it should be, from her slender, slightly bowed back to her bobbed white hair. The exacting way she fusses with the table setting. She looks to be in her late 60s, still nimble and elegant. When I begin to cross out line after line in my notebook, she brings me a trio of free macarons. Hours pass and my pot of tea remains half-full. After the first pleasurable cup, I have forgotten about it. She insists on warming it up before pouring me a second cup. She is trying hard not to be intrusive, but now her perfectionism sneaks in as she sets the cup down, adjusting the cup handle in tiny degrees until it is in keeping with the precise crisscross of spoons, saucers, trivets, and napkins that make up her work day. Her solicitude reminds me of my grandmother’s, although my grandmother would consider the dame’s life more interesting than her own.
My maternal grandmother’s old age frightens me. She is my last remaining grandparent and the one I have always been closest to. At least once a week, the dread of losing her overtakes me. It is a muted panic that I manage to keep inaudible from those around me. The walls of Paris are as airy as its mille-feuilles. I am constantly aware of my neighbors: the groans of an armchair being dragged across the room, the squeak and slam of each shutter being pried open, the hiss of the hot bath water through the pipes, the clump of loafers abandoned, followed by the pelt of stilettos. If I sit still, I can hear not just a drawer shutting, but the next one opening. I am privy to the routines of their practical life, yet I hear nothing of their emotional lives. Now and then, a humdrum dialogue, but not a laugh, nor a wail. So I, too, let a dropped book or a shaking tray speak for my panic.
When my mother calls me from Taiwan, where I was born, if the first word out of her mouth isn’t cheerful, I am already making the worst assumptions. I feel the damp heat of Kaohsiung flushed against my earlobe and I imagine the suitcase I have to pack. Would I wear the black I never see in my grandmother’s house, or the white of her tea towels? Would they wrap her in clothes that were not her own, she who was so particular? Yet the obligatory birthday and New Years aside, I barely call my grandmother. Phone conversations with her pain me. She isn’t the grandmother of my childhood and her politeness, the gap between us, hurts me.
She spends half the conversation thanking me for calling. Thanking me for my voice on the other end of the telephone, which brings her much joy and energy, she says. She means it, and it only makes me feel worse. Her politeness is reinforced by a slightly awkward Mandarin. She has spent much of her life speaking Japanese and a sing-song dialect called Minanyu (or Taiwanese). Her Mandarin—which she learned as an adult when Chiang Kai-Shek took over Taiwan from Japan—has always been passable, but unnatural. But language had never been an issue between us when I was little. Maybe she spoke to me in Taiwanese then, but doesn’t feel confident I can understand it now.
Not to mention my Mandarin. It is fluent, but also slightly awkward. Since English has become my dominant language, my Mandarin has been frozen in time at grade-school level. It sounds bizarre, but I don’t remember which language we used with each other when I was younger. All I remember is complete complicity. She used to talk to me about things that bothered her: her swollen knuckles, her adopted parents who were hard on her since she was a little girl, the trying relatives. She would talk and talk as we sat on her couch, folding one origami box after another from recycled advertisement paper. They were useful for housing many things, such as pistachio shells, rice cracker wrappers, or smaller origami boxes. Once, we fit eight boxes inside one another, each barely smaller than the last. She adored all her grandchildren, but I flattered myself to think that I was the only one with whom she felt comfortable enough to complain. It was a privilege to hear her complain; it was so against her life mantra to not impose on anyone.
She doesn’t complain anymore. When I ask her—in my unnatural Mandarin—how she is doing, she answers—in her unnatural Mandarin—that all is well. Yes, she is eating enough. “But eat more,” I insist, remembering how thin she was last time I saw her in Kaohsiung in early summer, the trees in the courtyard of her apartment strung with a neighbor’s calligraphy. “Sure,” she says unconvincingly. And thanks to everyone’s good will, she lacks nothing, so she says. She thanks me again for thinking of her. Her politeness is like a wall and I am near tears by this point. But the distance is reciprocal. Since becoming an adult and acquiring my own set of adult problems, haven’t I also painted a rosy, sanitized, vague picture of my life in order not to disappoint her?
She used to caress my hands and say, how delicate! Then she would show me her inflamed hands, which brought her constant pain. The skin was spotted and leathery, but what made them look grotesque were the outsized joints on an otherwise skeletal frame. You are meant for better things, she said. There wasn’t an ounce of resentment in her voice. She truly believed one could only accept the life one was allotted. She liked that I would put up my feet and watch movies on her television while she brought me plate after plate of snacks. She reveled in the fact that even as a teenager I still begged my mother to let me have sleepovers at her house. While I settled onto her mattress, she would fit herself onto the narrow plank of wood built around the bed frame, underneath which she stored extra blankets.
“Ah-ma! What are you doing? There’s room enough for us both on the mattress.”
“Be quiet! You just go ahead and sleep. I am used to sleeping on hard surfaces. I sleep extra well on them.”
We argued for awhile and eventually I drifted off to sleep. When I woke, my breakfast was ready on the table. My grandfather had already been fed and was off to entertain himself. She told me about a little boutique that just opened behind her house that sold Japanese imports, carefully removing cash from a cookie tin that had clearly been set aside for occasions such as this. We strolled to the store. It was hot outside and we were very happy. The boutique turned out to be the kind of place I loved, sporting little household goods and personal vanities and stationeries with the attention to design that only the Japanese could summon. I paced the aisles of foldable mirrors and stackable stamps and powdered blotting paper, unashamedly saying, “Ah-ma, look at this! Oh, look at that!”
“So get it!” She cried. “Get them all!”
When I made a half attempt to be prudent and returned some things to the shelf, I found them back on the cashier counter when it was time to pay. Though these trinkets were probably twice the price of their less exquisitely designed counterparts, still they couldn’t have been too expensive. Yet I felt like the most spoiled girl in the world. On the way home, she refused to let me carry the loaded shopping bags. When I insisted, she snatched the bags away from me and scolded harshly, “Stop it!”
“Let’s carry one each, at least?” I protested meekly.
“I’m used it!” She said. “You’re not.”
That was her line, always: “I’m used to it.” She was used to all the things she wanted me to be spared.
At that age, I basked in this love that felt like total indulgence. She was a young grandmother, only fifty-three when I was born. When I was a teenager and she was in her sixties, she was still tough and capable, and when she insisted that she was stronger than me, I chose to believe her. But now, I wonder why she must deny herself thus? Why does treating another well have to come at the expense of abusing oneself? Are we measuring love on a mathematical scale, where plus for one and minus for the other doubles the total distance? All my life she wants me to understand this distance, that I must rise above the scope of her life.
Outside my window the Eiffel Tower is marking time, twinkling on the hour. Have I already mentioned that we don’t keep a clock?
Ten years ago, I lived in Paris as a new college graduate from Brown, on Rue du Cherche-Midi, a meandering street that began with a statue of a centaur, part-man/part-horse, a jigsaw of armory, flesh, and skeleton that confronted me with enormous testicles whenever I came up to it from behind. I left for New York and Seoul, and it felt as if I had been trying to get myself back to Paris ever since. At last I have succeeded. My partner is in danger of losing his job because of the move; his company believes he is still running the show in Asia and he is crazily keeping up the illusion, a juggling act that keeps him on edge and glued to his phone. But we live as if the city is paying us to try every Michelin-starred ethnic restaurant, to grab up art at every auction, to sit through another Mahler, which I am truly beginning to see as a miserly little cousin of Beethoven. We visit many apartments we would never buy, most of them ravishing and decrepit at once, like the cobblestoned streets smeared with shit. Haussmann’s quaint moldings of angels and urns charm and repulse me at the same time. In a dream I am the phantom in an apartment we have visited which boasted soaring ceilings. I float four meters above ground, my velvet tongue slithering over every bump of the boiserie. We live as if Paris were Venice one hundred years from now, and we were willingly, deliriously trapped on this sinking island. We hold hands and refuse to leave one another, but we can’t bear to look into each other’s eyes. We watch a lot of movies, our gaze making four parallel lines.
I am a complete foreigner here, I say. But that is precisely why I feel at home.
Paris is a shithole, says my partner. He has a different history with France than I do, having grown up the only kid of Asian ethnicity in French suburbia in the eighties. He has a lot to say about the French temperament and the racism of this country, and I refrain from remarking that I find his personality more French than anything else.
One Friday night, our phones began beeping, hot with messages. At first, they were only from friends in Paris. Is everyone all right? Stay home!
We turned on the news; it took us a while to figure out the remotes and the channels because we so rarely watched television. Suicide bombers had invaded the national stadium where a football match between France and Germany was underway. The French president was in attendance. Our minds jumped back to the Charlie Hebdo shooting ten months prior, when two Islamist terrorists broke into the satirical newspaper’s office and killed twelve people. Charlie Hebdo was in the habit of publishing cartoons poking fun of many things, among them, the Prophet Muhammad. France had been on high alert since the shooting and to us it looked like the situation at the stadium was being contained. On screen, they were showing people being evacuated, and the reporter announced that President Hollande had already been escorted to safety.
But then a map of the 10th and 11th arrondissements popped up, with four red dots flashing in alarm. These were weekend-popular neighborhoods flush with restaurants. Bistronomies—young chefs’ revolt against the fussy food and museum-like atmosphere of the Michelin-starred system—dotted the Canal St. Martin. There, we often cut into a juicy couteau de mer or chowed down some forestial pied de mouton in a battered dining room ringing with pot bangs from the open kitchen. As targets, these were unremarkable neighborhoods with no dominant ethnicity or major monuments, defined perhaps only by their casualness. Earlier, we had considered meeting friends a block away from one of the flashing red dots, which we now learned symbolized places at that moment under attack. Men were walking up to restaurant windows and releasing onslaughts of gunfire at random, we were told. There was a growing list: Le Petit Cambodge, Le Carillon, Café Bonne Biere, La Casa Nostra, La Belle Equipe, Comptoir Voltaire. Names meant to convey an attitude of congeniality now sounded crudely out of context. Kalashnikov was also repeated several times, but I didn’t know what it was except it was a word the reporters bit into with a grimace.
Outside our window, the Eiffel Tower burst into its 11pm sparkle and a death toll had begun. The Bataclan, a concert venue sandwiched between the attacked restaurants, emerged as the focal point. We listened with some disbelief as the news declared that shooters had taken concert-goers hostage. An American band called Eagles of Death Metal had been playing.
We tried to walk away from the TV screen as more calls and messages sent our phones hopping, now from family and friends outside the country as well. Each time we came back to the screen, the number had multiplied. Thirteen. Twenty-eight. Forty-five. At two in the morning, I turned off the television abruptly. Enough, I said, as if I could stop the number from climbing with the push of a button.
I listened for my neighbors. A low, monotonous man’s voice crawled across my bedroom ceiling, black and steady as a spider’s legs. The voice went on for a long time, never breaking for a comma or a period. I listened to the world’s longest sentence and before sleep finally came over me, I thought for the first time in a long time about my grandmother’s oldest son.
My uncle died six years before I was born while serving the compulsory two-year military service after college. Taiwan was then twenty-six years into the longest period of martial law anywhere in the world, firmly under the control of KMT, Chiang Kai-Shek’s party that fled to Taiwan from China after losing to the Communists. KMT’s bullying tactics were omnipresent—from the censorship of school textbooks to, of course, the military. Young men such as my uncle, who came from old Taiwanese families that felt they had more in common with the Japanese than this new bullish arrival of so-called “blood-brothers,” were forced to serve in a military whose delusional campaign was to “regain the mainland.”
My uncle was only around twenty-four at the time, bright and affable, my grandmother’s favorite son and my mother’s favorite brother. He was attentive to my grandmother in a way my grandfather never was. Every evening he amused her with the particulars of his day, surely a welcome distraction after a long day of one domestic chore after another that started before sunrise. He made her laugh, my mother said; my grandmother was always the happiest around him. And she was his closest confidant.
He came home on leave a week before he died. The big brother my mother grew up with liked to have a good time. He liked to dress up and attend mixers between colleges, to round up his younger siblings and go off to picnic or to play pool. But this time, he was different. The night before he left, my mother remembered seeing him in hushed discussion with my grandmother at the dining table. The only light on in the house was the metal pendant that hung over them, enveloping them in amber. My mother lingered in the hallway. It sounded like he had witnessed something he wasn’t supposed to at camp, some sort of military corruption.
“Be discreet and stay out of it,” my grandmother counseled him.
“Don’t worry, Ma,” he replied. “I’ll be fine”
One week later, the phone rang late at night. Your son had an accident while cleaning his gun, my grandfather was told. You should come. As my grandfather rushed to get ready to leave, my grandmother’s legs gave out and she crumpled on the floor, whimpering, he told me he would be fine. He told me he would be fine, she repeated. My grandfather came home with my uncle’s ashes, and no other explanation was ever given.
I reached for a notepad next to my bed and wrote:
I forgot to breathe. It was like falling off the bed and jerking awake at the same time: for a moment the sensation of falling coincided with the nightmare in your head. It was air beneath you and we were not born as birds.
When we woke in the morning, Paris was very quiet. For months, we had been fighting with the landlord about the wavy window frames, which let in the street noise as if there weren’t any barrier between inside and outside. But now our bedroom lay in a restful stillness. I reached for my phone and was greeted by a new number: One hundred and thirty dead. There were still gunmen on the loose. Hollande had issued a warning to all Parisians to stay home.
A few days ago, the characters in the novel I was writing were also under house arrest. Two hot-blooded young men in their 20s, lovers, in 1947 Taiwan, at the brink of a massacre that would be followed by thirty-eight years of martial law.
… the streets were at once hushed and loud. It was hushed in the absence of things. All the stores were closed, even the post office. No one lingered in the park or on the sidewalk. But it was also loud, loud with unfamiliar noises. A fire was burning somewhere—we could smell the smoke—and accompanying it, hoarse cries. It was some sort of slogan, hollered again and again, the semantics lost to the wind. An ear-splitting siren zipped up the scale then cut off before it could complete the octave. We could hear people clamoring in one spot, dispersing, only to come together again at a different spot, like tidal waves, lapping and overlapping in its bitter water of discontent.
Here I was, three days or sixty-eight years later, in Paris, and a surreal reality had caught up with the details of a realistic fabrication. I parted the curtains. For the first time, the streets surrounding the Eiffel Tower—normally dotted with a strange mix of well-off families walking their children and dogs, tourists of all different origins, and busloads of professional gypsies (an oxymoron if there ever was one)—were deserted. It was just me, the silent tower, and the late fall trees that stood between us. When night came, the tower did not light up, nor did it sparkle on the hour. Our clock had stopped.
That weekend was an exercise in distraction. Fusses were made over domestic rituals of cooking, cleaning, and drinking. We finished a bottle of Diplomático. A bath was drawn and then forgotten about. I refrained from checking the news frequently, but did so enough to make me consider the dangers of living next to the symbol of France. There was no sign of life outside my windows, except for the black-clad military stationed at corners; they did not move much. On Sunday, a few determined souls ventured out: runners in their running gear, and one Russian-looking family of three generations.
The new week began and, with it, a much-needed return to normalcy, if only on the surface. I compared this semblance of normalcy to the life of my characters, where a return to the life before was impossible. I saw in the French around me an admirable refusal to be bullied and to continue with their way of life, and for the first time, I understood their stoic nature as a kind of ideology. Swiftly, the police executed raids throughout the city, and though it was somewhat reassuring that something was being done, with each report we were reminded that this was an ongoing battle. A friend who lived in an affluent neighborhood by Parc Monceau called breathlessly to say that she was walking down the street with her daughter when a policeman swept up her little girl from behind, tossed her into the stroller, and barked at them to go home straight away. The mother turned to see a police team sneaking up to a car parked at the corner, guns already drawn.
The mayor of Paris lifted the advisory to stay in, but I continued with a kind of self-imposed house arrest. I remained anxious in a way I didn’t expect myself to be. Before Paris, we lived in Seoul where, almost seasonally, tension between the two Koreas would escalate and alerts of nuclear weapons would dominate the news. Each time I shrugged it off, maybe I even unconsciously thrived off the adrenaline of this end-of-the-world talk. When an old boyfriend threatened he couldn’t live without me, I was the one who called his bluff and said: Let’s do it together then. This requires planning. What is the most painless way to die, you think? After all, I spent my childhood in Taiwan, where at any given moment China pointed hundreds of missiles in its direction. I was used to bullies. And yet, unlike the Charlie Hebdo shooting which had been so specific a target, where it had been so easy to rally around the freedom of speech, the indiscriminate hatefulness felt personal and uncontainable this time.
At midweek, there were rumors of biohazard suits stolen from hospitals and conspiracies to poison the water supply in Paris. Extra guards were installed at the entrance of every water source. I imagined the whole of Paris lined up along the Seine, vomiting, choking, dropping into the river, their Hermès scarves quickly swallowed up by the grey water. Blue babies slid down from the wombs of unsuspecting women, yellow worms wiggled forth from the stretched mouths of the members of the Académie Française. My neighbors and I queued up at the corner grocery and dragged home boxes of bottled water.
It was my grandmother’s eighty-eighth birthday and I called her finally. She knew nothing about what happened in Paris and, as usual, we had a stunted conversation.
“Ma told me you wouldn’t leave the house anymore,” I said, almost accusingly.
“It is so much more comfortable at home,” she said. Then, as if she had forgotten her manners, she added mechanically, “Thank you for calling from so far away.”
An unswayable silence dropped into our phone conversation. I wanted to tell her about the joy of traveling, but I didn’t want her to feel like I was belittling her choices. I couldn’t stand to talk about the temperature difference between Kaohsiung and Paris one more time. Then it was almost on the tip of my tongue to ask about the uncle I never met. I was suddenly hopeful that this unscripted question was just what we needed to break the barrier between us. I wanted her to tell me some truths about being bowled over by a disaster one did not see coming. Then I was ashamed of myself. What was I hoping to learn at the expense of her pain? How could I compare myself to her tragedy? I flew from continent to continent, whereas she never had the choice to move beyond the radius of her loss.
I asked her if she was managing to get to bed early enough.
She told me she’d never slept better in her life.
Four days after the Paris attack, a friend invited a few of us over for tea. I made myself go, if only to burst through the red tape of paranoia that I was beginning to wind around myself. Inevitably, though the objective was to distract ourselves, after a precursory round of small talk, we began to speak of the incident. One by one, we expressed our shock, what we were doing when the news came, how we coped with it the next day, how many degrees removed we were from the victims trapped inside the concert hall. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who was there. We were a group of foreigners tied to Paris mostly through our French partners. It seemed to me that we were able to speak of it calmly, with banal phrases and expected expressions, because although it had been too close for comfort, we were still somewhat removed.
One woman, who was new to me, had come with her toddler son. As we took turns venting our disbelief, she grappled with the listless boy. When she straightened up, having managed to strap him across her chest, she said, “My boyfriend was in there.”
“What?” The rest of us said. “Where? Inside the hall?” By now, we knew the boyfriend was the father of the toddler and they were about to buy a house together.
“Yes,” she said. “I was sleeping with my son, I didn’t know anything was the matter, when a text came from him saying that he was OK. I thought, why would he send such a text? Why wouldn’t he be OK? I turned on the news and…it took him hours to get home. Later, he told me that he was down on the floor, and another person was shot dead centimeters from him. The person dropped dead in front him and for a long time my boyfriend had to look at his face. He didn’t dare budge. It was totally arbitrary, who got to live and who got to die.”
It took us a moment to grasp her story, mostly because, despite the words, she was so composed telling it. She told us about the shape of the theater, the different tiers, and why it was so convenient for a rifle to swipe across the hall on its deadly trajectory. She told us that her boyfriend had attended the concert with two co-workers and the company was hiring a therapist for them. She said words like “terrible” and “life-changing,” yet she was completely calm, even emotionless.
I went home and my mind had now been placed inside the hall. Had she said execution-style? Already her story was shifting in my head and I no longer knew which were her words and which were my revisions. What I pictured, strangely, was the uncle I never knew inside that music hall. He had just gotten dressed to go out for a night on the town, a young handsome chap in his twenties. He had ironed his shirt and pants to a crisp, whistling as he got dressed. Turning the radio dial on high, he insisted that my grandmother help him practice his moves and he spun her from room to room until she was weak with laughter. This was a scene my mother often described to me while speaking of her big brother. His joie de vivre. In vain, my grandmother would wait for him to come home. He was the one who got shot before another’s eyes, his face growing paler and harder and colder.
I never believed my uncle’s death was an accident. Perhaps it was because I had only ever heard the story from my mother, and she had her convictions. My mother would be an easily frightened woman all her life. I could see her paranoia passing onto me. She hypothesized that as a junior officer in charge of counting guns, my uncle had noticed that the guns were being smuggled out and sold on the black market. “Did you try to find out what happened?” I asked. “Of course we did,” she said. “We were outraged. We tried every channel. But we were a family of school teachers, with no connections to the military. When we reached out to people who might have connections they backed away as soon as we approached. No one wanted anything to do with it. The more we probed, the more tight-lipped they became.” The only thing that became clear was he wasn’t the only one. He was only the latest example in a long tradition of suspicious deaths.
I never heard my grandmother’s version of what happened. My mother said that for a week my grandmother couldn’t get out of bed. And then? I supposed one day she did, and she started cooking and serving meals for everyone again. The laundry had to be done. The groceries had to be carried home. The accounting had to be resolved. How did one cope with the unexplained death of a favorite son? How did she go from that dark, unimaginable abyss to the sunny, capable grandmother who could still love her grandchildren unstintingly, the way she loved me? Was it finally spilling over in her old age, all the grief she had to swallow whole?
My grandmother refused to be treated for cataracts. She insisted that the white shadows she saw from the corners of her eyes had no medical explanation, it was the dead coming back to visit her. She now lived in an age of shrinks and pills, and they put her on anti-depressants until she stopped recounting her nightmares, then gradually they weaned her off. She had a successful eye operation and to shield her eyes from post-operation sensitivity, the doctor gave her goggles that made her look like an astronaut. She wore them for months and months, long after she was told she didn’t need them anymore.
If she had been less chained to her domestic duties, would her life resemble more the dame who runs the tearoom? Since she was a child, my grandmother was made aware that she was expected to work for her keep. Her birth parents had given her away to their friends. They already had many children and their friends couldn’t conceive. As a young girl, she was always the first to rise and head downstairs to light the stove. The stairs were creaky and she was punished for disturbing my great-grandmother’s rest, who was often down with what sounded like migraines. How convenient it was to have a child-servant. She found respite in school and graduated from one of the few senior high schools for girls in Kaohsiung. When she graduated, the Bank of Taiwan opened up a few positions to women, a rare opportunity for Taiwanese women at that time. Hundreds of applicants flooded to the examination and interviews. My grandmother was one of the two selected.
“Did you want it very much?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Because you get to interact with the world. Surely there are many new things to learn out there.”
My great-grandfather did not allow her to take the job. They ran a bookstore that was the main textbook supplier in town. She should stay home and help run the house and bookstore. She was not to inconvenience the family. I could imagine her disappointment. I could also imagine that despite her deep, harrowing disappointment, she did not put up much of a fight. It had been ingrained in her to never, never impose on anyone, to efficiently, quietly finish her part, to be of service to those around her and think of herself last.
After my great-grandparents arranged for her to marry the son of a school principal, my grandmother’s life reverted back to a relentless list of chores. She directed her perfectionist streak towards her children. They would never feel like second-class citizens to anyone. Their pencils were always perfectly sharpened, their clothes meticulously pressed. The bento boxes she made for them were art, designed so that when opened hours later, having been swung from bike handles and careless hands, they looked and tasted as appetizing as if they had just been prepared. In the bottom compartment, a bed of white rice. On top, a medley of textures and flavors made up of marinated meats and pickled vegetables, each a stimulation that sent one back to the purity of the rice below. Her cooking was the best and rarest kind: simple dishes done right.
One day—she must have been in her seventies already—my grandmother’s taste buds deteriorated. She could barely taste the savory, the sweet, the bitter, and the sour. She over-seasoned and under-seasoned and sent out dishes that did not taste like hers. She, who was previously the picture of confidence and efficiency in the kitchen, began to second-guess every move. Discouraged, she stopped cooking for us. The mnemonics of my childhood—each bite a trigger—was gone. I mourned the loss of her palate as the first sign of her mortality. Soon afterwards, she, whose identity for some decades now had been the adoring grandmother, stopped adoring anyone. On the surface, she appeared the same, praising her grandchildren and eventual great-grandchildren whenever she saw them, but it was simply politeness. Her mind and her heart was elsewhere. She had irrevocably retreated to a different place. I, alone, noticed the change, but I knew nothing of the considerations she mulled over in her head.
I imagine her sitting at the table by herself, eating.
What does she taste now that her palate is ruined?
Did the flavor of her old cooking ever bring her happiness the way it did to those around her?
Then, I remember once, when I brought to her attention how perfectly seared was her fish, how satisfyingly crunchy was the radish she pickled, she jokingly said that she wouldn’t know; she did not chew, she only swallowed. There was never enough time.
One thing is sure: I was given all the opportunities she didn’t have, all that and much, much more. What did I make of them? I am not so sure. All around me, I see people who have arranged their lives efficiently, and I realize that in my pursuit of something more elusive—not fame certainly, I am too reclusive for that, but a desire to make something of literary value, for my words to echo beyond the narrow tunnel of my life—I have fallen much behind. The peers I barely paid attention to when I was younger are functioning and succeeding at this thing called life in ways to which I am completely clueless. The only “profession” I know is one that does not make money, and I have been in constant struggle with the same novel for six years and counting. In many things practical, I am inept, thanks to a partner who has been happy to indulge me for most of my adult life, but who is now running out of patience.
Beneath the lofty glow of the Eiffel Tower, I begin to think back on when I was a competitive pianist, and how that is about to become the allegory of my life. I learned to play when I was young, but only in earnest when it was almost too late (classical music, after all, is a field populated by prodigies). But as a teenager, all of the sudden I was taken on by the best teachers who required multiple auditions, the last of which was an elderly woman who was a local institution, a Nadia Boulanger of sorts at a lower level. She enrolled me and a couple other protégés in regional competitions, where we dominated the scene, and we even got on a plane to participate in a few international ones.
But in all the competitions that really mattered, I placed second. In the ones where I was the underdog, I almost pulled off a coup by coming in a strong second. In the ones where I was the sure first-place, I slid down to a bitter second. Along with the frustration of being a perpetual number-two came a serious case of stage fright. Backstage before a piano competition, my hands would grow pale and bloodless, cold to the bone. No matter how frantically I rubbed them together, held them under hot water in the nearest sink, they remained stiff as ice and wouldn’t come back to life. I compared my frigid, porcelain hands to my grandmother’s misshapen, well-worn ones. How disappointing and useless mine were. I was then called on stage with fingers that couldn’t possibly play well. I managed. I always managed. But it was always humiliatingly beneath what I knew I was capable of, the music in my head. I began to dread performing on stage like I dreaded nothing else. It was a numbing, swift, body-hollowing dread to which I have not found the equivalent this day, even after experiencing childbirth.
Childbirth. Yes, for I have become a mother myself. Missing from the stories I write is the daughter I chaperone around the city. She is four already. We float boats in the circular pond in front of le senat, we sit on the narrow benches inside a marionette theatre and laugh along with the witty Guignol. To be initiated into parenthood is to know that your days will forever be ridden by anxiety, and this anxiety is the best compromise you can ask for. As long as it exists, you child is still there. During our two-day house arrest following the Paris attack, I told Sophie we were taking a family vacation from the world outside, because it was rather polluted. We played story relay in English, she negotiated her dinner in French with her father, and then beneath the indolent shade of a sheet, in an under-table city of pillows, I tried to teach her Mandarin. Every now and then she ran to the black grand piano that had travelled three continents to bang out a few notes. For every note there was a song and scrambled lyrics. So intoxicated was she by the intense attention of both parents that she did not notice the quiet outside.
Although all schools opened as usual the Monday following the attack, I kept Sophie home with me. On Tuesday, spurred on by the French around me that a return to normalcy was the best defense, I reluctantly took her to kindergarten. As soon as her teacher closed the door behind me, I regretted it. Sophie’s school was founded by an American. It rented the space from a church. Didn’t these affiliations make it a double target? We were a few days removed from the carnage; this was not the time to leave your child in the hands of others. I was a careless mother. I forced myself to go down the stairs, telling myself not to miss the bus that would take me to a friend’s house, where, over tea, the woman with the toddler son would tell us about her boyfriend’s brush with death in the Bataclan.
That weekend, my precocious child had asked me:
Why did you choose to have baby me?
If you die, but I don’t die, am I going to have a baby named Sophie too?
Actually, since you won’t be here, I will name my baby Eva after you …
There it was, a promise from my child to live beyond me.
I am writing from the tearoom where the white-haired dame works. She has just seated a couple of British tourists who have stumbled in minutes to closing, bringing in a flutter of raindrops. They look grateful to come upon the peaceful tearoom, empty except for me.
“You can stay as long as you like,” the dame says to them, “but I will take your tea after an hour. I want to wash the teapot myself, because it is beautiful.”
“Of course,” they say, regarding her with curiosity. “Are you the owner of this tearoom?”
“No,” she says. “But I have worked here for twenty-nine years.”
I pick up the tea she has recommended, the house blend that she says I cannot get anywhere else in the world. What a perfectly rounded tea it is. And yet, on the tip of my tongue is its counter-taste, the ghost of the batches of iced tea my grandmother used to make from the humble Lipton and sugar syrup. A Proustian moment if there ever is one, even without the help of a madeleine, and I wish nothing more than for a flood to wash over Paris and carry in the fold of its waves the twin clocks of the Musée d’Orsay, the golden dome of Les Invalides, the glittering Eiffel Tower, the parquet Versailles and the endlessly detailed moldings, and me in this chair, all the way back to my grandmother’s house. Gone would be the dog shit, the tiresome prejudices, the maddening bureaucrats. We (I, the limestone, and the plastered life) would be cleansed, miniaturized, a doll in a dollhouse on her shelf. And she would be a girl again, waking up from her soft, plumed bed, ready for the life I have allotted her.