Light Sleepers

 

I DREAM ABOUT a sigh that turns up real in the bed beside me. Cécile switches on the light by the window. In the wash of the halogen she stands and lifts one bare leg into the air and then the other, reaching higher than I would have guessed she’d be able, considering. She holds her belly like it’s the source of her strength to perform the calisthenics at two a.m. and the party responsible for confusing day for night. She needs a diversion, she says, to fool herself back to sleep.

Until then, I’ve got three jacks. Working with a French deck, the jacks are marked by the letter V for valet. They appear useless to me until I recall exactly how I’m in Paris and why it is I accompany Cécile through the dark of her nightly antsiness.

We must have been fooled into believing we could be new parents. Or fooled by this inert A.M. now that the baby may very well be born into.

Cécile picks up the entire row of face-up discards and lays down three I’s, the aces in this deck, worth fifteen points each. I nod off though I may be still talking out loud.

I’m not even sure what just happened. I feel like a jack-of-all-trades around here and I don’t even have a valet to park this thing. Or a jack for that matter.

“It’s your go, mister.”

“I need to be up early to hope for a place in line at the embassy.”

“You are better homesick,” she says. She might have become my opponent, with her adaptable charm and her embryonic guru listening to my every move.

“Meanwhile, I’m over here with nothing but spades. And don’t call me mister.”

Oui, t’as raison, monsieur, il faut le dire en français,” she counters.

Oui, but let’s not be funny yet.”

“You are making me sleepy. This is exciting.”

“I hope everyone is fine and it turns out wonderful in the end,” I announce.

She clicks off the light as I open my eyes lying down on my back, wide-awake.

Cécile and I hadn’t planned it this way. She didn’t want to leave the U.S. But after a decade on a work visa, immigration informed her that her time in America was up. The visa had expired with no option for renewal. She had to leave. With the national trajectory tilting toward wagon-circling, the border meant increasingly more and the melting pot less. So Cécile returned to her native France. I, cursing my oblivious, condescending President and the second war he’d just started with a newly-humming intensity, followed.

Shortly after my arrival, Cecile presented me with a second surprise in the form of a home pregnancy test. The blue line meant enceinte. Enceinte meant something I couldn’t possibly understand as my pocket French-Anglais dictionary grew more useless by the day. No matter how well I enunciated any response, I was an obvious foreigner. The additional news joined up with the general psychic upheaval already well under way.

 

~

 

A White House aide during the early deliberation leading up to the American invasion of Iraq said, “We had hoped that, after the French stopped being French, they would approve a military intervention.” The French never really would stop being French, despite the Bush administration’s best efforts to change the names on fries and toast.

I tramp through Paris not sure I see anyone around me being particularly French. The bakers at the boulangeries and the mustached men at the kebab shops want desperately to practice their English with me. The city streets might be narrow and lined with forged iron balconies but they are still asphalt and noise, the denizens just as overstimulated and late for an appointment as they in every metropolis of the world.

In this way I fit in. Mere hours after the card game, I’ve left our apartment with Cécile still asleep on her side, legs wrapped around the bed-length tube pillow from a maternity store, hoping to be at least a little bit French.

I dash for the warm grime of the metro and, one transfer later, reemerge at the Place de la Concorde. At the fountains, the life-size black and green mermen cradle gilded fish that spit nothing at the gods and goddesses in the January fog. These water-bearers offer no details on the extensive guillotine use on this spot during what the revolutionists called the Reign of Terror, nor any comment on the fact that, square-adjacent, the United States has decided to plunk down its embassy.

I return inside my homeland. I pass through two different security clearances. I hand over my phone. Inside, the lines are long and static. Ahead of me, a studious guy wearing headphones and holding a Lebanese passport doesn’t seem to mind. I see a sign about how American-size passport photos are required. French booths produce photos that are too narrow, it explains.

I bring my four black and white narrow pictures to an immobile older man who responds that my number hasn’t been called. I nonetheless rattle off a string of questions.

Could I cut down these photos to the proper size? If we’re married does my wife get back in automatically? How about if we just have a child? Would it help my case this week? Will it ever? Will I ever be welcomed back with open arms? On a related note, what exactly is wrong with us? And by us, I mean, you?

But he only assures me that all the information I need is available online, as though this hint contains all the generosity any citizen of democracy could ever possibly desire.

Back in our apartment, I don’t mention my attempts to return to the States until later that evening.

We watch basic cable. A rebroadcast of Star Wars offers Dark Vader’s original heavy breathing as the only thing not dubbed. The added mystery of having to decipher or recall the dialogue, feels like not watching the movie at all, but rather recounting it with friends someone else. Vader reveals “Luke, je suis ton père.”  Luke screams back “Non!!!

Cécile has lost interest. She’s reclined on the couch, feet in wool socks, using her stomach as a work surface where she ties the tassels of the pink crib bedding together. She is by now a moveable hearth, whose glow sets the room temperature and ensures the safety of the space around us. She is becoming a minor deity. I hazard an attempt to speak with her.

“Oh yeah, so I wanted to tell you, all I need is your signature and we can get your application back to the U.S. started. You will have the U.S. visa again.”

“We need to be married first,” Cécile clarifies.

It was then I realized I’d begun the conversation backwards. Instead of explaining myself, I gallop ahead because I can’t take frustration out on only myself, proceeding as I do to trample over precious, meaningful subjects that concern us both deeply.

“Oh, well, yes. That part I assumed was a given.”

“So what are you telling me?”

“I can return to my job here in Paris no matter how long the maternity time. And you would be the one to stay at home during the day. With the baby.”

“I understand it sounds perfect. But I’m talking about bigger issues.” Like a commander-in-chief, the more I state what I’m talking about, the less I actually say.

“I’m too hungry to talk. Do we have bread?” she asks.

I huff to the kitchen to retrieve some in our cupboard, labeled American sandwich on the bag as a warning to customers that it comes in gummy slices. I keep forgetting to buy fresh baguettes everyday at the corner even though they are a supernatural balance of thinly crispy on the outside and hot holy cloud in the middle. It’s embarrassing for both of us as I carry in the sad slices to her on a tray with a jar of Nutella and a mug of herbal tea.

“Sorry. It’s these,” I say.

She shakes her head and turns off the television. She lifts herself off the couch, carrying the crib bedding with her into the bedroom holding it tight to her chest, as though she might not want me getting my hands on it. She stops in the doorway.

“Don’t say you are sorry!” she snaps louder and more exasperated than it ever needs to be.

“It wasn’t that kind of sorry,” I reply still holding the tray. The language barrier rears on mindless filler mistaken as heartfelt sentiment, while the whole of the apartment becomes engulfed in a fugue that, because I’ve grown careless, I choose to label hormonal, therefore adding. “Jesus. This dramatic endless back and forth.”

It renders us both silent, even though she’s started before me. Cécile goes to tests the tinkling music on the mobile hooked over crib. This is same mobile that features a turtle, a bee and a fairy halfling man in a pointy hat who all dangle from the rotating disk that plays Mozart. The music has the effect of making the whole endeavor we’ve both embarked on seem even more improbable.

She reemerges.

“Don’t say this either,” Cécile warns in place of good night.

I stay up and hunker back into my computer screen. A news aggregator site runs headlines about where the invasion of Iraq has gotten us. The outrage is palpable through the screen as election primaries in early states are fiercely debated. I hop around the blue and silver windows of scrolled words and images that followed me for an hour until getting into bed with Cécile.

She snores, then half-turns in the sheets and stops.

I’m then aware of the third presence in the room.

Salut,” I hear.

“Should I be talking to you?” I murmur in response.

Luke, tu es mon père,” the small, close voice peeps. This almost-person is already kidding with me.

“I thought you spent all your time sleeping in there,”

Non, je ne suis jamais fatigué.”

“You’ve exhausted us already, you know?”

Je sais.”

“But I still can’t understand a word.”

OK.

“Your mother and I will learn to pull ourselves together by the time you get here.”

Merci.”

“Incidently, what do you spend your time daydreaming about in there?”

L’Amerique.”

“This must be the making fun I’ve heard about.”

T’es fort.

“Tell me, what I am so worried about?”

“So you’re saying everything will turn out to be fine?”

Pas fine.

“Try not to wake up your mother tonight.”

Toi non plus. A bientôt…mister.

The voice is gone. I wait for Cécile to sit up and reach for me. But it will be me alone taking the night-shift test for sleep-deprivation tolerance triggered by the thought of all the questions I could have asked and all the early pacts I could have cemented.

 

~

 

The next day the exiting escalator at the Concorde metro is out of order. Somehow walking up this non-functioning tread is twice as exhausting as taking the stairs. Under my arm I hold the first in a series of return documents, with Cecile’s signature.

The line moves quickly this time. After the split in the line to U.S. Citizen Services to Emigration, I realize I’m standing among only Americans before verifying the area. This is obvious because of the degree to which everyone desperately tries to look French. I count three plaid Burberry scarves. A guy my age reads Stendhal. Several young women sit in painfully pointy black shoes and matching oversized sunglasses. Then, when a younger woman beside me removes her shades, the veil of Euro-chic dissolves into a neurosis in her darting eyes that I’m comforted to recognize.

We are together at last and we are home. We are gathered in the most demoralizing room in France. But something secretive is bound to pass among us. Still, I can’t think of any reason to start up a conversation with anyone. We keep carefully to ourselves. It’s nothing personal.

My number shows up on the red digital panel. A man my age with a shapeless crew cut motions for me to approach with a flick of two fingers.

“So, how’s it going?” he shoots the question at me like a volleyball coach at the half.

“Fine, thanks. I’m here to renew my passport before any rules change.”

“What do you mean ‘rules change’?” he replies as though I’ve hurled this question out of nowhere.

“Well, I hear things have gotten bad at a government level.”

“We can have your application processed in a couple of days.”

“Oh, then terrific. I also want to process an alien residency status for the mother of my child.” I hand him my application along with the request form for Cécile’s reentry. He licks his entire hand in order to turn each paper-clipped page.

“Where is Cécile now?”

“Booted out of the U.S. Plus, we’re having a baby and due any day now, so I wanted to speed up this reapplication process for the two of us to get back. We need to settle back in the U.S.”

“You’re unemployed?”

“Yes.”

“How do you pay rent?  I mean, I wouldn’t call Paris a cheap city.”

“She works.”

“Uh huh. So you’ve listed yourself as having no children?”

“Right, at the moment I have no children. Should I change that on the application?”

“I can tell you right now, you’ll need to make another appointment. We’ll need a lot more information. In addition, your partner’s presence here.” He pauses to look up at me, staring straight into my eyes. “Because this is looking a little complicated.”

I try to restart on camaraderie.

“You know, I’m a Browns fan. I grew up during the Bernie Kosar years. What about yourself?”

“Is that why you want to go back?”

“No. I’m just saying…”

“Okay. How about you come back to us once Cécile and the new child can be present?”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

 

~

 

That night I ask Cécile out on a date. She accepts, with equal parts distrust and pleasant surprise.

Before we’ve even ordered, the waiter sets down a ceramic jug of pickles swimming in vinegar. They’re smaller and crunchier than the spears I know and, when tried together with the wild boar terrine that accompanies them, I’m sure I’ve found a dish I can envision myself eating everyday for the rest of all the winters to come.

Cécile polishes her plate off quickly and then asks for another virgin diablo grenadine.

“Were you talking to me in my sleep last night?”

“You heard that?”

Cécile finds this funny. I turn to the low hanging lamps. With the red walls and the small tables, the steady flutter of the other diners makes a temporary community. It is this republic beauty I see in every gesture, every word and every meal. Whereas the Americans crash into beauty, after slogging through the awkward moments, misdirected sarcasm, binges, purges, cathartic gut-spilling, public meltdowns and desperate pleas to our particular heavens for one more mercy. We are so adept at transforming our embarrassments and catastrophes into renewal.

In these environs, the people tend to find disaster distasteful. They’d rather sit down comfortably to talk without stopping. I could learn a lot from almost every one of them.

When we get up to leave, I look down to Cécile’s chair at a small puddle resting where she sat.

“Who did this?” I ask Cécile under my breath.

Attend…” she replies. I point to the chair. Immediately, the color in her face drains and she stands up straight, touching the seat of her expandable jeans.

We both consider the spot on the chair until the waiter comes around once more. I push it back under the table and bid him bonsoir.

I get the car. I open the passenger door for Cécile and I steer us into the star-crossed bedlam of this capital’s traffic. We are funneled into a boulevard that leads to the Bastille where I merge with the zippy scooters and scuffed-up Citroëns. Somewhere way above me, a statue with outstretched wings and a torch balances on one foot on the center column. This column that I pass in this winter happens to be named after July and a revolution that transpired across these cobblestones. The gilded statue threatens to lift off its perch and alight down upon us as we loop.

“No! Wait! Don’t go around again!” Cécile shouts.

I’ve missed the street shooting off the roundabout toward the clinic.

Taking the focus off of me, I ask Cécile how she’s feeling. She claims just fine, which makes me more aware of my own predictable panic and the imminent new lungs we are carrying to its safe first gasp.

I careen through one more full unnecessary orbit thinking I could turn forever. I could keep spinning in circles but we would only come back to being at home, where more of us won’t stop being French and we’ll no longer pause to wonder why we ever conjured better places to begin.

Stamps

About Nathaniel Missildine

Nathaniel Missildine lives in Dijon, France with his wife and two daughters. His recently published travel memoir, Save for Fireflies, chronicles his family road trip across the U.S. as a kind of native tourist. For more, visit nathanielmissildine.com.
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5 Responses to Light Sleepers

  1. Duke says:

    Well, now that you’re playing for the Browns, and I’m still with the Rams (let’s say), we have an uneven relationship in terms of commentary, which I mean to hereby correct.

    I was reminded, while reading this piece, of several experiences I had while traveling, the meetings with bureaucrats, the paperwork that needs to be filled out just so. There were many such meetings in Eastern Europe when I lived there.

    Also, I was reminded of how history shapes us before we’re even born; but for 9/11 and the resulting policy changes, you and your family might be living in the U.S. now. I think history did you a good one.

    I don’t know that American even crash into beauty. I think we deep down loathe it for its exclusivity, and we swerve to avoid crashing into it if we can’t bypass it, which we’ll accelerate in the hope of doing. It’s gotten much worse in recent years. I only hope this loathing of beauty doesn’t catch on in those places outside the U.S. where it isn’t already dominant.

    Of course you must know that, with enough such pieces, you’ll have a book. That’s my goal with the stuff I’m doing now, as thankless a task as it seems. But my motives are existential, not practical, and if yours are the same, you’re, again, in exactly the right place, non?

    • Yes, there is a loathing for the exclusivity of beauty in the US, true and tragic for sure. Still I miss the collisions and the messes and the flux that snaps a person to attention. Though perhaps this is best viewed from afar.

      This piece happens to be a nonfictional counter to an adventurous, continent-hopping work of fiction I just wrapped up, that works along this theme. I couldn’t even begin to tell you which is more honest or accurate. But thank you, as always, for making me feel like I’m getting to the right place.

      Meanwhile, I like to think I’m playing for both the Browns and the Rams, suiting up for whomever lets me in the game.

      • Duke says:

        Well, I did suit up once as a Brown and run out onto the field for a minute. I’m not sure if that qualifies as a violation of my contract.

        I wonder how long we could continue making jokes in this vein.

        L’America is definitely best viewed from afar, methinks. When I lived in Eastern Europe, I felt like I got just enough American culture. Of course that was eleven years ago, before the Internet had become quite what it was now, but anyway, American culture is like sugar: more than a pinch a day will ultimately kill you.

        • I feel like we could keep making these jokes until one of the defensive coordinators runs out onto the field to pull us out.

          The Rams refused my most recent play. I think it’s time for a Hail Mary.

          Actually, if I keep talking like this my metaphor will get mixed.

          As for the subject at hand, one of the principal reasons I have so much trouble ever making the decision to move back to the States is that I’ve come to relish adoring the country from afar. I worry if I lived there again my contempt might creep back in and my writerly angle on the place will badly skew. From France though, I’m the most red-blooded patriot you’ll ever meet.

  2. Duke says:

    I don’t know that I’ve been anybody’s idea of a red-blooded patriot since my early adolescence, but when I lived abroad, I found myself behaving warmly toward the rare Americans who crossed my path, and I probably wouldn’t have been that warm back in America. But I love the old America, the one that started to disappear during, well, my early adolescence. That’s when I noticed its disappearance anyway, but one starts to notice a lot of things at that age.

    Weird about the Rams and rejection, but what immediately comes to my mind about it is probably better left to a private exchange.

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