Cascade Street 1998
[An advert from the Officiel or Pariscope of that week in 1998 that I tore out and stuck away. I just learned that Pariscope ceased publication in 2016. Another piece of my Paris of the ‘90s gone…]
A cinema somewhere near the Bastille, tucked away in one of the side streets. A hole in the wall, a projector, a screen, a place to shelter from the sun and to dream.
I was watching a lot of film, trying to forget something. The something was a fantasy that I had created inside my head about a love story, a random meeting on a subway transformed into a romance and into a life together against everything, against fate and against death.
The fantasy did not come to be, as they typically do not. But I had somehow come to believe, however briefly, that it would, so dramatically committed was I to the poetic life at this strange, magical moment in my tenure on the planet. In the manner of the hopeless optimist who pretends to be a pessimist because he believes perhaps in this way he will fool destiny, I pretended that I had known it all along. If the miraculous thing is not really wanted or expected, perhaps it might then be decreed by the fates as a punishment? “I do not really think it is possible, and I hope that in expressing that disbelief that it will come to pass just in order to prove my ability to know anything about the future or to gainsay my destiny is non-existent.”
I had kissed her on a bridge over the Seine.
I had held her hand while we two stood beneath that same bridge, near the water’s edge, marveling at the fact that the river was there and we were there and all of this was truly happening, as a dream made real.
But it did not come to be, and that truth was coming to nest in my brain, burrowing about, looking for materials with which to build itself a home so that it could rest comfortably there and force me to understand that my will could not budge the world.
In the novels, in the poems, in the movies, things sometimes go otherwise. So I sought the otherwise.
I knew almost nothing about the film I set out to watch that evening. It was the story of two women, one my spiritual copy, her gaze firmly downward and her expectations minimal but yet desiring desperately for the dream to come true. She, downtrodden, no one, adrift in the ocean of castaways, stumbles across a well-off lover, and she thinks he can give her the happiness denied her at every turn before he appeared.
But the dream failed here in this cinema world too, and the young woman who was my soul’s twin was destroyed by it. Delicate, beautiful, vulnerable flower, pretending to be cold and hard and fierce, but defenseless and decimated and ruined by the deceit of another.
That sadness was however not the film’s meaning.
The other, her friend—seemingly emptily delusional about the reality of the world, too happy—she works a miracle. She is a saint. She saves the life of a young girl in a coma through the sheer determination of her love and prayer.
And in the film’s conclusion, she returns to a life of drudgery and work, and it should be unbearable, and we should know that her friend was right to give up and to remove herself from this horror of failed fantasy and realized defeat and unbearable boredom.
But it is not thus. The saint turns to the work with inner joy, aware that love is in the world, though we do not know its workings and it surprises us, always.
There is music accompanying her labor, as she connects innumerable wires to innumerable posts, and it is spiritually elevating, medieval and modern at once, signaling the angels that dance as we turn to quotidian tasks if only our souls can open to mystery as hers abundantly has.
Her smile is without affect or purpose other than to radiate adoration of the marvel of being alive.
We see other women working the assembly line, reaching for the posts and the wires, their eyes tired, yet still shimmering with all the life and the love and the heartbreak and the experience of the years they have had and the years that are to come, the promise of just being alive, breathing, seeing, feeling, ready for anything.
One of these, delicate profile, with heavy, huge eyes, reaches for something. Her head tilts in a way that seems somehow familiar, a way that expresses in just that little movement, that slight incline of her head, the uplift of her brow, something of the weight that has been brought to bear on her in her short life and something of the energy she still has in abundance to carry it. Her arm is scarred, a riposte to the perfect lines of her nose and her mouth. Her life, full of everything, beauty and pain.
My heart fills watching her, watching all of them, this army of feminine soldiers on a crusade for all of life itself.
The song’s lyric is “When I’m asleep, I see nothing, when I’m asleep, I hear nothing.” A violin recapitulates the melody at the end. It is unbearably, achingly lovely.
As I walk out into the street, the evening is settling in, the glow of the recently departed sun drizzling down on the buildings, and I forsake the train to walk instead the several miles home to my little apartment.
I see the dead woman, I feel her loss and her pain and her failure, but I see too the other, the one alive, the one at work, the one going on despite it all.
I see her smile and her shining eyes, and I see the others working alongside her too, with their big eyes and their big hearts, and I hear that music. And I want to be here, right here, walking these cobbled streets at dusk, the traffic quieting as night approaches, following the river, my heart beating, my mind racing, my disillusionment now redeemed by art, ready to go on.