Saint-Michel: A Moment in Six FormsAndrew Valencia
Two weeks before Vincent left home to spend a semester abroad in Paris, his cousin returned from Iraq badly wounded by a roadside bomb. The day before his flight, his grandfather was admitted into the hospital (and then quickly ejected right back out) because his diabetes was threatening to kill him (but could be managed at home with medication). In the hours preceding his departure, his mother got no sleep and seemed to live at the hospital. There was no question, at any point, of whether or not he would still go to Paris. He had already bought his ticket, and, what’s more, this was the opportunity of his lifetime, as his mother told him. He left California six days after New Year’s Day. There was snow on the ground when he arrived in Paris.
He spent three weeks feeling like the jetlag still hadn’t worn off. He barely paid attention in classes, neglected to test his language skills with other students, and went straight home on the metro at the end of every day. Then, one afternoon, he got off the metro at Saint-Michel with the idea of taking a little walk. He stood outside the metro for quite a while staring at the statue on the fountain of Saint Michael. He liked the way the statue looked. An old man on the street passed by and commented on the statue, then walked away. Vincent stood a little longer and continued on his walk. None of the problems he had before the walk went away, but afterwards he felt better in spite of it all.
1:18 p.m., 13h18: Saint-Michel Metro Station. A sunless winter sky, the same shade of gray as the Archangel’s wings. The city of Paris alive under its fixed gaze. Vincent reciprocated the gaze right back at it. The entire world was cold today. But back home in California it was warmer. Vincent’s arm brushed against a stranger walking past. He liked the way the statue looked. But he didn’t like the way it looked at him.
It’s a fantastic statue, isn’t it? The old man had come out of nowhere. Americans abroad cling to one another in the cold and pretend not to recognize one another on a sunny day.
Yes, it is, Vincent replied. The marks of age on what he could see of the old man’s face brought up other visions. Tired joints struggling to carry a bent back across a hospital floor. Crooked blue veins bulging under the transparent flesh of a hand. The chorus of an old French song rang in his ear. Non, je ne regrette rien. He wasn’t sure if he had regrets. But he had ample guilt.
What do the plaques commemorate? Commemoration. When would his cousin get commemoration, if ever? He hadn’t been killed, after all. It’s the corpses that make history, not the wounded. Vincent knew what history meant. Hastings, Waterloo, Bunker Hill, Omaha Beach. Joyce was right, and wrong. History is a nightmare. But you never wake up from it.
French dead of World War II.
After midnight, alongside a row of beds in the emergency room of the county hospital. His mother desperately berating the night doctor and his nurse for discharging his grandfather only hours after he had been admitted with life-threatening high blood sugar. A day’s starvation had brought it down to high normal, and they need him to free up the bed. His mother scratches her arms compulsively when she’s exasperated. His job: help his grandpa get his pants back on. Pale, saggy white thighs. Torn, saggy tighty-whiteys. Chapped old lips mumbling in dementia; empty threats of suing the whole goddamn hospital. At the airport, his mother’s impassioned plea. Have a great time abroad. Don’t let it ruin your trip. The first in our family to see Europe. Find joy abroad. I need to live through your joy right now.
Vincent saw the old man’s face through his hood as he nodded. He smiled before he walked away. He smiled cheerfully in the bitter cold. There was so much life in him yet.
Early afternoon. Saint-Michel Place, Paris. A cold wind blows off and on. Vincent stands looking up at the statue on the Saint-Michel Fountain. He likes the way the statue looks. An old man enters.
Old Man: It’s a fantastic statue, isn’t it?
Vincent: Yes, it is.
Old Man: What do the plaques commemorate?
Vincent: French dead of World War II.
Old Man: Ah.
Exit the old man.
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Saint-Michel: A Moment in Six Forms