“It’s the way things end. I watch it all slow down around me the moment before it fades. I try to inhale the last moment when every step is a last step.” – Dec. 15, 2009.
It’s a Wednesday after work in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, where the front door spills out onto a street that looks up to the white towers of Sacre Coeur and Montmartre, if you remember to look up. The first day I came to the office, in May, I had a paper clutched in my hand with directions on it, and I did not look up. I was scanning the building numbers and looking to the paper, as I walked and found my way. The second day, I looked up.
After that, I looked every time. Between blue-sky days and gray-sky days, when clouds pressed around the cathedral on the hill above, Sacre Coeur was ever glistening in the spring—and, then, summer—light. The light changed but the view was comforting, present, steady.
On Wednesday leaving work, it’s already been six weeks of walking up the street with that view, and I’m trying to breathe and walk slower because it feels like time might too, if I do. I pause to watch the hill in the sunlight. I look into the faces of people who hurry by. I get onto the subway.
As the train operator buzzes the car doors shut and it rocks away, I settle into my seat and pull out a book my French tutor bought me when I left the Netherlands. The book bursts with anecdotes and images, in the long, running colors about life in Mexico. It’s called viva, and it’s filled with artists and revolutionaries. I don’t love the story, exactly, but I love reading it.
At my stop, I slip the book into my bag. Coming out of the subway, I walk like I don’t want the sidewalks to end. I don’t want them to. I breathe the red warmth of the paint on storefronts and dyed-fabric awnings.
I’m going home every day to an apartment with wide windows that open onto a courtyard where children play and breezes get trapped, hurling into homes and slamming my bedroom door. I watch the sunset at night from these windows, on the nights that I don’t go out for a walk to the Champs de Mars or to Trocadéro. Three times since I’ve been here, I’ve sat under the Eiffel Tower and cried in public, feeling so completely at home and yet so distraught at how temporary it all is.
In the mornings, I run to Île aux Cignes where it is quiet and green. The Seine sparkles on either side of the island. Here, there are dogs wandering off leash and calm owners who wander behind. There are runners – a father and his son, a wrinkled old lady, a quick young man. On the weekend, there are brides with photographers and clean-shaven grooms. A homeless man sleeps on a bench in the shade. My second week here, I sat on one of those benches by the trestle that crosses over the island, and I counted the hours by the trains that passed, until it was dark, and I could no longer write in my journal, so I walked home.
I feel time slowing down, even as it flies. The moments now have an acute sense of ending. I think they always did.
I was eleven the first time I realized life wouldn’t let me hold onto the things I love. To be precise, I was eleven after a tropical storm. The storm had raged for a day, and I stood at the top of a drainage ditch with my little sister, looking into its depths, which were swollen with rain and flowing like a river, deep and tempting.
I had spent most of my childhood playing in storms, in puddles, and in ditches. My mom would throw us out of the house and allow us to race into the furious water that swept through the afternoons in North Carolina. After Hurricane Fran, we swam in flooded backyards and creeks. Every time, we wore raincoats we soon lost, and we’d be gone for hours, stomping up waterways and coming home drenched.
I stood at the top of the ditch debating with my sister if we should strip and go in for a swim, and I felt like something was ending. At eleven, I saw the frightening horizon of adulthood, which I didn’t want to come, and I stripped my coat and said to my sister, “This is the last time we’ll be able to do this.” It felt like I wanted to tell her, loudly, to shake her with my own terror, “We won’t be able to swim in ditches anymore. We’re going to be too old soon.” I am not sure if she grasped the meaning, as the fear of growing up gripped me. We swam. I remember that swim, how it was like the whole evening became a childhood in itself, as it slowed down and stretched out, my sister and I shrieking and paddling in the gulley.
It was the last swim. We didn’t have another tropical storm that year. The next year, I got my period and a neighbor scolded me for having skinned knees when “Now, you’re a lady.” I stopped getting skinned knees. I stopped swimming in ditches. I stopped playing outside. I started reading more and eating less.
Ever since, I get the same feeling when things end, as I did when I stood at the top of a drainage ditch with my sister. A painful sense of life, as I know time is slowing down, hovering in view for one last second, before it changes. It is giving me one last glance.
After I eat supper on Wednesday night, I take a walk to a park in the neighborhood. The wind is blowing in the tall flowers along the gate. Boys are chasing each other around the walkways, one on a scooter, another two on foot. I settle into a park bench and watch the finches flit and peck under a tree that has dropped berries on the path. A smell comes down from the apartments where people are cooking. The sounds of voices echo from the homes to join the songs coming from the trees in a chorus of chirps. I sit and I sit. A guardian comes around and says the park is closing. I nod, and I prepare to walk home. The boys run indoors, and the other kids clear from the playground to head toward doorways, dusty and warm.
In a way, I get to create life as I know it. I get to chart the future I want. In another way, I don’t chart anything at all. I just follow the arrows that whisper, “That’s next,” without a plan for how it will turn out. There is no formula, just moments, just walking down streets in new places and wanting to belong to them.
These past eight weeks in Paris, these past six months in Europe, I’ve been belonging, and even though I don’t want them to end, from every ending I’ve had in life – from growing up to kissing goodbye to leaving old states to taking off from continents – I’ve loved each ending in its own bright, beautiful, soulful, righteous way. I have cried all the right tears. I have loved all the right people. And when time slows down, when it careens gently into something new and unknown, when it lets me feel all the heartache and trouble that comes with letting go, again, the only overwhelming sense that remains is a passionate gratitude for having lived so well for so long.
I have that on my mind on Friday night, in the subway when a man is playing the guitar in the long hallway at Concorde. But this time, when I pause to listen to the music, I cannot tell if it is 2017 or 2009, January or June, if maybe time moves at all or if the time does not matter because the feelings are forever.