What Is the News from the Rue de "S"?

Margo Berdeshevsky


This is my body. I keep forgetting. I've moved to a street where I could . . . converse with Madame de Sévigné's ghost: the crawling ivy's whispering, the cobbles have feet. Thick old stone walls and stillness are my protectors, but am I safe? Where are the sparrows, and what god should I thank? Why are there so few birds in my eighteenth century courtyard?

Will she invite me to a long-gowned tea in her salon, lace at our bosoms; will she brush my cheek with bonjour ma chère, as we pass on a pewter clouded afternoon?

The statue of Minerva that tops the Carnavalet Museum just across the way . . . is shrouded, bandaged for repairs; under white gauze, is her eye on the sparrow? Is her wisdom available for a woman at her next-door window, loose in her dressing gown and thin skin?  

I heard a single crow, a torn satin cry rises at dawn.

Crows. Older women. Sorceresses. Am I the woman who used to wake up here? Did she slip into my skin like a silk robe, while I slept? Maybe. I believe a ghost will speak, or I hope . . . I am that lonely for contact. All contact. Hungry for nothing a cupboard holds. I'm so starving for a revolution, its utter un-zipped skin. Its teeth. Its seed. Maybe departed Madame la marquise will write to me in her mid-seventeenth-century cursive on an ivory vellum page. Maybe my fantasies about the café owner around the corner are true as well; he's tall as the park fence, he winks, he passes by on his motorcycle carrying lettuce and carrots in saddle bags, he parks his engine and he brushes by my front row table; bonjour, he grins, and calls me by my first name as though he knows me well. But I've only just moved to this neighborhood . . . and he looks so like a towering Belgian soccer star whose breastbone my head just touched when we danced, who taught me the cha-cha, who broke my adolescent heart by telling me the truth, that there was a girl at home. Café owner, don't break my heart. Just be a bit of an attraction, be a bit of a . . . living ghost.

Maybe my cat will stop hiding in the chimney then clawing at the closet doors, maybe he will calm from the recent move and let me sleep tonight. Maybe fantasy is good for the aged heart. I'm young forever, I'm middle aged, I'm like the old widow who lived here before, I'm nothing like her, she was sad and alone, and I've heard her husband committed a tragic suicide. I'm a presumptive princess with a twenty-four centimeter thick mattress and pictures of naked statues in my rooms, and icons of baby Jesus, and the Buddha's hands, and more naked women and angels scattered on my newly painted walls. I'm a born-again pagan, born-again European, lapsed Catholic, never a Catholic, always a doubter, afraid the ghost will make me cry. Should I find new art? New breath for my lungs that are hitched to my heart, new breath, so that I could have the cafe owner for hours on a rainy afternoon, for just one hour, not much more? I want him for breakfast. Ghost, send me him or someone better for my new ivy-walled nights. Do ghosts have power to influence prayers? 

I'm lunching at the corner table with my new neighbor who looks like me. In fact, we're cut of the same cloth. I love strangers, she says. I've lived everywhere, she says, just like you. But you're braver than I am. What's bravery, does it taste like islands in the middle of far seas, or drinking from green-tinged rainwater in a barrel, or no, I'm sure we're cut of the same bolt. She prefers Anaïs to Simone. We'll speak of this, in time. We turn to our full plates.

Unobtrusively, I observe her crow's feet. Her delicate hands. It's a good thing to admit one's aging finally, isn't it? But how the hell did it happen? I who have always thought of myself as a woman sitting at some elder's knee, listening to wisdom. She and I are old enough to advise one another. I say nothing.

Soon the café owner passes and flirts as outrageously as I like; I return the favor, with my neighbor watching, I wink. I'm dressed in long black, just a flash of red silk at the buttons underneath. It will all lead to a winter day in the rain. Maybe. In fact I have two working cheminées, maybe I'll tell him. We could light a fire in each.

I turn back to my neighbor who looks like me. We sip the rosé wine. We're women past fifty who still have good sex occasionally. Both unmarried, both have lovers, sometimes; one, more regularly than the other: I'm the other; nothing has been regular in my life since I was thirty. Both have long straight hair worn loose, hers is a little longer, grayer; neither brushes the stray strands out of her eyes as we rest from the arduous task of being human and women, late summer stirring the slow air. Winter is a long time from now. I order the tarte au chèvre, it's made with goat cheese and cream, I feel rich and fat today; she has a raw tartare de saumon, a woman who's always been lean, it shows. What will the ghost eat? Does she eat? Will she leave me a rosewater scented letter before I've lived here a week? Does this new neighbor happen to know her? Could she put in a few good words for me?

Really, what god should I thank for letting me live in the finest stone neighborhood in Paris? Does the ivy feel her breath, the ghost, I mean, does it feel her low whistles . . . does it feel . . . protected by the walls it climbs, will I be a content woman, here, at last, when the winter chill comes?

That shrouded statue of Minerva is as much a shade as my fantasized lady of letters in the climbing ivy. I can't see if mythic snakes are coiling in her hair. Are they? She's very quiet, under her protective netting. How long will it be, until she's repaired? What's really wrong with her, underneath those bandages? A chipped stone breast? A weather-beaten fold, a pockmarked cheek? The chestnut trees in nearby parks are dropping their seeds. Squirrels and rats are waiting for the bounty. Summer will stop singing, soon. Other women have been on vacation, and they are returning with show-off tans, bicycle-muscled buttocks. I'm pale. Tired. Occasionally optimistic, more often the black clothes I wear reflect the middle European soul under my skin, like a Chekhovian ingénue at . . . face it . . . sixty, in mourning for my life, why's that? This hunger will not go away. This is my body. I keep forgetting. New mattress, clean handkerchief in my pocket and a few published slim volumes of poems to thank a god for, after all, after all these years of impotence for stardom, and waiting at the bus stop. I've waited to be famous, waited to be loved, waited to be aware. Wise. I'm incurably human. A sweet rain has begun. Why is my body so suddenly cold?

But the ghost isn't in the ivy. How could I have been so ignorant? She's the woman I'm having lunch with. She's my lean neighbor with hair as long and loose as mine. My dear, she bends close to my face from across the small round table, the neighborhood's waiting for you. My fingertips turn to stalactites, it's still August, she's smiling softly at me, she's wanting to be my very best friend, she reaches a warm hand to cover mine, to welcome me to the army of transparent ones —we have salons to attend, old and literary letters to write.