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We met, at least as I remember it, in the basement of the Alliance Francaise school in Paris, registering for classes or looking for housing or something equally bureaucratic. He must have said something to me first, or maybe he looked at me first. I said something about the process, using the word angoisse, agony, which he didn’t know, surprisingly, though he was fluent. That in itself should tell you everything: my state of mind, the difference between the two of us.
When we went out the first night I brought along my portable breathing machine, which I used twice a day for asthma. In those days, before AIDS, before anyone even worried about herpes, and in Paris, where the metro stopped running around midnight, you assumed you’d spend the night; you’d either have a one-night stand or the beginning of a Relationship.
I remember that first time he came too fast. I was 20 or 21, my junior year abroad. I suppose he was my age. He was from Tunisia. I remember thinking that he looked like a North African Elvis Presley, but in a good way. I remember tight white jeans, and white teeth, and my stopping on the street to yell at him in French: But I am very intelligent in English! I was explaining the theory of national character that I’d read the year before at Northwestern, and he thought that was stereotyping, or else I was making a case for a feminist view that the hierarchy of the family replicated the patriarchal system. I had joined the English-language Paris Organization for Women, and borrowed books by Kate Millett and Germaine Greer from a POW member. They were personally inscribed, and I assumed my friend had a deep friendship with the authors; I didn’t know then that authors inscribed books personally to strangers at readings. I didn’t know much then.
I thought I could stay on in Paris alone and make a living creating personalized collages (which I didn’t even attempt). I thought I could cut myself off from my family, nuclear and extended, because they were the source of my angoisse. I thought my allergist in Texas would be eager to get my ten years of medical records translated into French so he could send them to a doctor in Paris. Did I think I was in love? Maybe. His name, he said, was Fetty, the word for gros, in French, and it took me a second to realize he meant Fatty. His name was Fethi, and he lived in a room without a shower, and he would sneak into dorms at City Universitaire, a campus that provided housing and food, but no classrooms, for the city’s universities, to take a shower, and we also ate there and I remember one time he made lewd gestures with a banana.
He was Muslim and I was Jewish, which we both thought was dangerous. We were both atheists, I think. I went to a party with him once at his brother’s apartment. There were North African and French students, and a shelf filled with volumes by Marx. Everyone was speaking French, and I understood some but couldn’t quite follow. He’d had sex the first time when he was young, in the back of his family’s shoe store. (I think this is right.) He grew up under colonialism, and would be punished in school for speaking Arabic. We American girls did not have the French preajudice against Arabs. One blonde friend had a boyfriend from Algeria or Tunisia named Momita, at least she thought that was his name for months, until it was revealed that that was his last name and his first was Azzedine. I remember after Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was shown on TV, followed by a televised discussion, French people were polled and the majority said that they would prefer an African to an Arab next door. That was probably because there were fewer Africans around.
Months passed. He criticized me for washing underwear and socks together, and I wasn’t as attracted to him any more, and he went to a place I’d never heard of, Abu Dhabi, to make money. He sent me post cards, at least one after I’d already returned to Texas. But before all that, I remember a foggy walk one night across Paris, and when we were crossing a bridge from Rive Droite to Rive Gauche, sans premeditation, we both started to pretend that it was years later, and we happened to be on the same bridge, talking without recognizing one another. I knew a boy, I said, when I was 20 or 21, and we would walk on this bridge, and I don’t know what happened to him. He said, Ah oui, I once knew a girl here in Paris, many years ago, an Americaine—and in the late night, in that gray city in the mist it seemed like we were floating above our so very young (it seems now) selves and listening to our older selves, whom, we thought, couldn’t have much to do with us now if they had become so impossibly forgetful, of this.