The Brittany rain fell hard, soaking darker spots in my sweater and twisting my hair into tendrils that wound around each other in heavy locks.
The air still sat comfortably against my skin at 54º, and the wet was not a big enough deterrent for the human sea that swallowed Rennes’ Charles De Gaulle metro meeting point. The whole city, men, women, and everyone in between had shown up for the feminist march on International Women’s Day.
I found my pink-haired friend, Margot, in the colored crowd, and we filtered through the swarm together. A few minutes passed as we took in the sights and listened to Amy Winehouse sing through four-foot speakers.
The street was flooded with all different types of people, and it felt so good to stand alongside all these voices claiming progress.
I felt at ease among like-minded people and led Margot to meet up with a boy I had spent the past weekend getting to know.
His purple jacket matched the crowd with the same color purple worn by all those supporting the movement, and if only I knew what irony would soon fall from his mouth.
Look at me.
No, not like that.
Not like I am an exception to the rest of the female race
you fail to understand.
I am a representative.
Don’t give me your affection
because you think me cooler
more masculine while remaining femininely pretty
than any girl standing next to me.
I am not any more than her.
I am not different,
I am not special,
not in any new way,
not in a way anyone else isn’t.
Look at me.
No, not at my legs,
not at my breasts,
not at the curve of my spine.
Look at me.
Like I am a brain, and my body is an afterthought,
not the other way around.
Look at me- me
like the only differences between us
are the things I have to say.
Not the shape of my mouth as I say them,
or what you want to do with it.
Look at me- in the eye,
and not just at the color.
Look at the piece of soul that glints through these portals
and let my body dissolve from my name.
A kiss on either cheek and an exchange of “ça va?” smoothed a smile across my face before his declaration that he is “not a feminist” planted a pit in my stomach. I saw the question in Margot’s eyes and felt the same one spread across my face.
What we saw as a joyful celebration and passionate protest for equality was a mob of angry women in his eyes. As he described what he thought of as the stupidity of people’s protest, a practice he believes will elicit no real change or attention, I could no longer swallow my beliefs.
His ignorant statements quickly turned into questions of “don’t you want your man to protect you? To make more money than you? To provide for you? To be stronger than you? Taller than you?” that fell flat on our queer ears.
As he continued burrowing into his hole of conservative ideology, we spoke plainly, expressing our experiences and countering all the misguided expectations he held for our gender.
I felt as if I had been transported thirty years into the past, speaking to a man who thinks he should be praised for accepting the existence of gay and trans people so long as they don’t act out their personhood in front of him. Like he should be celebrated for knowing that no means no.
My heart sank deep into my chest, beating away any affection I held for him a mere hour before.
Here was a man, one I had kissed and held hands with in public, telling me that men and women will never be equal, that protests are stupid and will never work, that no one cares about women’s rights, and that the world will never change. Telling me all this as if all the world’s progress in human rights has happened miraculously, without people shouting and demanding change. Telling me this as we stand amid a feminist march in a country known for its love of protest.
Though disappointed, I felt lucky to live in a time when his statements shocked me. A time where these notions have been primarily preserved in geriatric minds and where I have reached the age of 22 without ever hearing these statements fall from such youthful lips.
And what better way to reaffirm your beliefs than by arguing with a straight man at a feminist march?
The third time I told him to go, he finally did, but not without asking me if I truly believed everything feminists stand for.
Yes. How could I not? It is the 21st century, isn’t it?
Margot and I left him behind, laughing and tracing through the crowd until we reached their friends near the front of the parade.
After feeling decades behind, the chanting protesters brought me back to the present with their demanding signs and painted faces.
We marched on, reading the cleaver phrases in a mix of French and English, and even when they were not cleaver, they were true.
“Je te crois”- I believe you.
“My favorite season is the fall of the patriarchy.”
“Valeurs actielles a la poubelle!” – current values to the trash!
“Mon corps c’est pas Tripadvisor. Tes commentaires tu peux te es garder”- my body is not Tripadvisor. You can keep your comments to yourself.
And the classic “patriarcaca”- I don’t think this one needs a translation.
Margot pointed out a sign next to us, which has since stuck with me. “I should not be called brave for walking home alone.”
Living in Chicago and now in an unknown European city, I am so accustomed to clutching my pepper spray close, gripping my keys between my fingers, and outwardly ignoring the men who follow me down the street yelling, “you are beautiful, drink with me?!?”
Men love to tell women that we should “take it as a compliment” that we are pretty enough to attract attention, that this is just how life works, and wouldn’t we rather be beautiful and stalked than ugly and ignored? But these men will never feel the same fear grip your insides when a tall shadow rounds each corner with you. They will never experience the panic that clutches your heart when the man at the bus stop boards the bus with you and rides until your stop. They will never have to tell someone no over and over again until they acquiesce because you finally lied and said another man has already claimed you.
But it’s a compliment to feel that your body and life could be so quickly taken into the hands of a stranger if you don’t balance your responses between disinterest and politeness. Terrified that if you make eye contact, they will take it as an invitation, and if you don’t, they will grow angry.
But it’s a compliment. Don’t you want to be beautiful? That is the best thing about women, isn’t it? Our beauty?
Though I could only understand ambient bits and pieces of the speeches and chants that embodied the street, I understood enough. That in all countries, women’s rights need to be continuously demanded and fought for with both words and actions. There will always be people arguing in a crowd of protesters that this rally will change nothing, just as there will always be people ready to rise and stand together to make a change.
I see Malaysia, China, Italy, the United Kingdom. Across the way, a few French Bordeaux-red books line up for preboarding while the Spanish woman next to me asks which group has been called.
My American blue book feels so small between my fingers, the whole country reduced to a collection of pages. It amuses me that the picture taken when I was 18 will serve me until I am 28.
I wonder what I will look like then. I presume the same golden hair will fall over my shoulders, and perhaps the cream I smooth under my eyes each night will preserve them. Only time will tell.
Introspection is unavoidable at the airport. So many people coming and going. You feel so small, so individual. Just an American-born body taking up seat 20E on this flight to France.
I am pensive, boarding this flight, and more than I usually am. This flight will take me to France with a definitive end date. I will live the life I have nested into for six more weeks, and after, I will fly right back to Chicago for an indefinite timeline—an inverse of the exchange I am used to.
It is hard to admit to myself that my time in France will be intermittently over.
I have found real happiness here, among the language I’ve learned to love, and in the friendships I will forever cherish. I find comfort in the euhs and heins of people passing, to Rose at noon, and the smell of cigarettes wafting dans la rue.
I dream in French. My eyes shifting under my eyelids through REM francais. My body lays here, heavy, like it knows it has found a natural resting place. Somewhere safe, away from everything that spells out comfort.
One thing I know for certain; there is more to my French histoire. I know I will return, ready and willing to find permanence.
Americans are loud, inconsiderate, and annoying. Yet I find myself keeping my differences with pride.
I like standing out with my bright clothes in a crowd of cultivated black coats, hearing my voice speak their words just a step off-key, but everyone understanding me anyways. I love making small talk with those who sit and wait at the bus stop, giving them the correct directions because I know this city. I love saying no to cigarette offers and drinking my cold pint inside rather than outside with red fingers.
I am the first to hate on everything American, but here, I feel pride in claiming this identity for the first time. Not for the virtues of the country I left behind but for the fact that it has made me who I am. I am here, a world away, and my Americaness has primed my eyes to see the little differences that mark France culture.
It is a beautiful way to live, finding little treasures in the way other people live and embracing the parts that feel they have always been meant for you.
Enchanted World. for my best friend, Amani.
There is no magic light that can cast away the world’s real darkness
but here, in the hallow of our enchanted world,
we shine our light like a spotlight on the best angle of our faces.
Golden hour glow, and the sun that lives inside
the girls everyone is watching.
There is no dissolution of sadness,
but what comes as enchantment is the gravity of everything.
The black cat that crossed your path is just as earnest
as the woman who spoke to only you over the counter.
It is everything happening for a reason
because you know your life is just one long story.
It is not a power, but the knowledge that everyone wants you
because they do, don’t they? If it came down to it.
You live here with me,
though no one else sees through our shared sepia filter.
saying all the things we know are more real
than the skin pulled tight over our bones.
We stay here, two wives,
more in love than anyone who acts out the feeling with their bodies.
We are in love in the way we see the same world
through our same-colored eyes.
In the way we watch everyone watch us and whisper,
The Summer of 2021 found me tanned and studious, legs propping up my laptop by the pool, screen open to a remote class on the history and artistry of graffiti while I let the Grecian sun polarize through my sunglasses. It should have been irritating, being made to study during an astonishing vacation, the first I’d dared to embark on since the pressure cooker of COVID began.
It should have been, but it wasn’t. Instead, I found the course vastly interesting, one of those lessons that adds an asterisk to your eye, noting a new layer of appreciation over the kind of art your vision previously skipped over.
The bold beauty of graffiti feminist pioneer Lady Pink paired with the Agean island like the fine cheese and wine I dined on. Ever since I’ve held them together.
Now, 2023 Winter has me in Rennes, France, a student-filled city that does not dare skimp on the intersection of forsaken architecture and graffiti artwork. The air in Rennes hangs in abundance as time lags between human presence on each alley street. There is just a feeling of vacancy, like you are the only one watching, a sense that you are the sole observer of this cold beauty.
This is what I feel here, and I hope I do the feeling justice.
Rusted Wall Box.
The rusted wall box has no other name but this,
no friends but the crust of itself
and a gray paint that chips into deeper colors.
What do we guard but the empty room of ourselves?
Grown over by vines and teenagers,
a can-string phone line echos in two vacant halls.
Clank me into the vibrations you understand
and maybe you won’t lose me
in the gray-chipped paint that becomes
No matter who levies the last lash of color,
the acrylic blood will pool.
Dripping just off the edges
of the most prolific overwrought signatures,
but who can make a mark without bleeding?
We are remembered for our bloodstains,
not our discarded scabs, not for the wounds we heal over.
Though we never know the difference.
I could imagine myself overwhelmed by the organic splat of rouge
while the rest of the world’s eyes only sees a spring-wound dancer.
That tiny ballerina cradled in the two jointed pieces
of a painted jewelry box, holding the red crystal of solved wounds.
Still, these jewels must stalk somewhere,
so they do.
Framing plywood backboards with colors
that bleed into themselves and stay.
A pierced heart sacrificed for nothing.
I can play all day I am great
& I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t fine.
I am fine. Of course, I am fine.
It’s just this juxtaposition as sinew between my bones
this wanting of nothing more
then for him to hold me in the dark,
to paint over my beige body in his dark colors,
only in the dark where we can hide our faces and feelings
and all the while, I can hold the trauma he gifted me
and I can still hate him.
It’s a decision, every day,
to stand up out of the darkness,
to stop relying on quick fixes,
to grow green over spray-paint stains
to choose yourself over and over,
even if you are the only one.
Words are beautiful, just like his paint was,
I need to borrow their beauty
& maybe together, we can build a more permanent love.
The little prince nuzzles my hair,
white-gold locks that mock the white of his world.
Some aristocrat made him,
but we can’t make our makers,
we can only remake their art.
Repackage their good message, only this time
it is meant for everyone.
Little prince dreams in galaxies,
ones that parade around in billowed colors, soft and primary.
Little prince doesn’t want to challenge you.
Little prince will take your friends and paint them pastel,
any color pleasing to the eye half asleep.
He learned this from his little fox,
that all of us are made from the same array of colors.
Some aristocrat made him,
but he can take his colors and build this world into the softest galaxy.
Little prince curls into my arms
and I can’t mock the way it feels so sweet
to hold someone’s planet and close your eyes,
to fade into someone else’s idea of perfect innocence.
Taking and bending
No rules line this space between
The weight of everyone
Who have found nothing between their fingers
And cruelty rings my ears
Time dulled by the puff and exhale
The big smoke from nothing but the hot air inside, escaping
And I just want to add to my savings.
Startled into 1984 brotherhood,
these hard lines beg
for concrete companions on the pavilion.
Rigid and cold without any contrast
like your spine bends backward
out of open eyelet window.
This attic habitat
and the frigid air that flows,
clinging to the hot puffs of breath
that sail over the street.
Inhale this cold and let go
of what you think is warm.
You don’t need it in backbends
in the broke backs you shape into proverbial mountains.
You aren’t gay, just like
you aren’t completely sold on men, either.
Convince yourself you are flawed in the face
so you can secretly believe you are the face
every fem girl wishes to see in the mirror without guilt.
You aren’t a narcissist because you love yourself,
but maybe you’re that self-pining flower for another reason.
You are filled with contrasting truths
only you can weave together.
Count yourself lucky because you are.
Call your sister. Tell her you love her because it’s true
and imagine she says she doesn’t judge
the mistakes she would never make.
No matter what she really says, you’ll never truly trip,
just break your back into a new window,
tricking a different pipe dream into truth.
Fade to Fuzz.
The men themselves cross their puffed arms at each curved corner.
The French are circles.
It is said in every slopped rock.
They love borders of portal blocks,
straight edges manipulated into hooks.
The green tea bird beaks its water into my cup,
spilling over its own lip to warm into shallow pool.
Do all these things count as something?
Trapped in this charm-edged world,
the Ty Anna ticket will take my coins with the same clink
owned by any jar.
You learn quickly that any destination hangs foreign deceits
before you learn to weave your straight lines into its circles.
The morning birds sing sweetly into four ears, their owners my charge and me, listening together with two words to describe the artists. I say bird, and Victoire says oisseau, but we both agree that we love their sound. “J’adore le chanson de la matin.”
Her tiny legs wrap around my waist as she takes her perch, and I take us through the slow-swung gate to school. Here, she greets her friends, Brune, Leon-Paul, et Margot, as they hold their parent’s hands and greet me with “salut la nunu de Victoire.”
“Bonjour,” I say, “vous etes pret pour l’ecole?”
“Oui oui,” they say reluctantly, slipping out of their jackets and reaching high enough to stuff their scarves into their cubbies.
I give Victoire a hug and an “au revoir, I’ll see you later,” before I leave her, waving once more through the window, then I am all mine again. At least for the next six hours.
At this nearly nine am moment, I always debate my immediate future. The promise I made myself at seven to return to sleep seems less important now that the sun has risen. Perhaps yoga, a happy medium between the meditation of sleep and the rising crack of tired bones saluting the sun, will take its place.
It is this peace that I missed during my time in America. This soft entrance of sun passes through my window and yellows the wooden floor under my pink-striped mat.
Downward facing dog folds me into two sides of a triangle, then a chaturanga into an upward-facing dog pulls my heart through my planted hands.
A few warrior flows later, I bend over my folded knees and press flat hands into each other for a namaste.
Now it is time to check the bus intervals, which one arrives in which ten minutes, and I pack my ambitions into the yellow side bag my mom gifted me for Christmas. I choose my French workbook, throw in my Virginia Woolf, laptop, and notebook.
Arriving in five minutes
and the station is a three-minute walk
but does that mean from my room and down the stairs
or from these floating coordinates to the next
and by that time, will the bus be passing or stopping
in this delicate interval.
Like the negotiations of a love affair
I don’t want to be too early, too desperate,
left in the cold, waiting.
And what if it doesn’t come?
Or it stops too long at a different stop,
and I look a fool for counting
on the virtual promise it tells my phone.
I can’t trust anything behind a screen.
What lies my apps believe.
What time stamps pass with minutes ago that never came.
So when I dress and bundle and pose,
and the wide window winds the corner
I sign in my cold relief
and raise my hand to say- take me! Yet my chest still tightens
until the doors stop rolling and open
just for me.
I flow through a dozen or so pages of Mrs. Dalloway as the bus rolls through the twenty-minute ride, and as always, I jolt up at the last moment when I realize the mass of people descending past me.
Republique, the center stop of Rennes, swells with the crowd and observes bursting flocks of birds that fan out like open arms and circle above.
While this crowd walks in universal black jackets, I miss the bright orange puffer I left in San Diego. Today I don my yellow race jacket, the left breast labeling me correctly with “Maxwell” under a yellow car patched over a neon orange stripe as a callback.
It may be conceited, but I cannot help but derive pleasure from the clinging looks of passers-by. I suppose that is my downfall, wanting to be seen in a crowd, yet I also believe it is my power. Without this desire, my life across seas would be exponentially more frustrating.
There are plenty of people looking when I settle in and open my French workbook.
They say that when you begin to speak another language, you start to develop an alternate personality. Not entirely, of course, but you are not quite at ease as you are in your mother tongue. Thus, you pay more attention to what you say and what others say; you don’t act and react with nothing but that single and between them. You pause, think, digest. You speak, however incorrectly, with more intention.
A friend of mine tells me she likes her English personality more; she feels sweeter, more endearing with her words. For me, speaking French means experiencing social anxiety for quite nearly the first time.
This foreign feeling hovers around my lips as I speak a word, and worry I will not be understood or seen as rude for the words I blurt out unexpectedly. It is a strange one, this feeling, and one that I am grateful for experiencing.
Before entering France and trying to live among the French comme ca, of course, I was sympathetic to the plight of immigrants and foreigners, but it was the type of sympathy that hollows without understanding. Not forming into arrogance or disdain, but in a dismal overlooking of the intricacies and everyday difficulties that face those living in a country that speaks their second language (or third, or fourth).
Since arriving here, I feel the gravity of every interaction. I notice conversations in a way I never have before. I appreciate everyone who speaks with me with love akin to that I feel for my friends, even if it is simply the girl at the bus stop asking me if her bus has passed or the person sitting next to me with a tattoo I can compliment.
I feel like a child, and everything is brilliant and bright; it can be glaring sometimes, but it fills me with an unquantifiable wonder. The whole world extends beyond my fingertip in colors I have forgotten vibrancy in.
It is a new world, unlocked inside me just as much as it is out.
I only wish my love for the language meant I could learn it faster, but alas, the world is still the world, and my intelligence measures the same in France as in America.
The World our Mind Conceives.
Are we infinite in quantity, and
is it in quality that we deplete?
Are we thus lessened by our lessons
the lectures we copy through eyelids, and
do the synapses snap ancient electricity
trading the colors of that one unimportant Fall,
for the words that make this one
in parallel life.
Tell me if it is true,
that memories pixel from HD to SD
each time we take a new face
and hold its picture inside.
And if this is true, are we different models?
Do some of us come with more storage?
And as babies, we lie there,
crying because all we have is empty space
and we are hungry to have enough to choose what we keep.
But then, do we have a choice
what has and holds us?
What haunts us in new dreams we remember
in faces that burn into our brains?
Does it take us til 80 to run out of space? And for some
is it earlier? And only then there is too much
and we record over parts of ourselves,
sacrificing our grandchildren’s names
for our father’s smile, but starting
with an x over yesterday
and a perfect transcript of prom.
Or, somehow, is the mind simply a home
filled with furniture we’ve built or inherited,
creaking frames that sound but remain soft,
warm and known as we sink deeper.
A cafe, latte, and croissant later, I have scrawled my mind through more than my diary and close my eyes to the headache my French practice invites.
Before long, it is time to return to school and my Victoire. The 3h35 gate opens with a hum, spilling forth with children hungry and excited to return home.
Victoire asks me again to carry her home, and I say yes because she is a free weight at the gym I conceive through my day.
We walk through her day, coloring between stenciled animals, carrots at the cantine, and cache-cache with Leon-Paul while I pair her sentences with their English counterparts.
She asks what I have done, and I continue this balancing game, finding the quality of English she will learn without crying and nodding through the exchanges we have that live on one side.
The crowds swallow the street in tufted beanies and wound scarves, hands plunging deep in puffer pockets while chins tuck into the wrap of their necks. It is cold, but there are presents to purchase.
Wooden stands make two wide isles in front of the white-painted Ferris Wheel and mingle pottery and jewelry with sugar-stuffed churros and vin chaud. I look over the artisan spreads next to everyone else with an open mind and a closed wallet. I have neither the space nor spare change to pick up stray beauty, but it’s fun to hold rings and ceramics to the sky and play into pretend consideration, isn’t it?
(I won’t lie to you; I did give into a bright pink beanie. Though, in my defense, it was cold, cheap, and cute; a kryptonic trio.)
My crew shuffles through the wide eyes flitting between passing fancies on our way to the imposing wheel. Five euros each buys us a place in a small box car rotating three times slowly before the inevitable dismount.
From this angle, the city expands, but away from Rennes’ central buildings, there is not much to see beyond the bustling market immediately below us. The nearest intersection sighs with the crude exchange of cars and exhaust, hot tufts in the air. Clashing against the cold, a shade or two denser than the warm breath that escapes us.
Feet on the ground once more, we take ourselves to L’Arts de Fou Marche in front of the Rennes’ Opera Theater. Here, artisans of tactile art line a long loop of sculptures, jewelry, bowls and cups, and installation pieces. All these leading softly into a tented pavilion for the quiet consumption of wine and beer. The art relies heavily on animal shapes and nature’s form broken from the canvas of raw rock.
Impressive in every sense of the word, but expensive and regrettably reserved for the high class. The only place I can picture these pieces is in the grand and cold entryway of a mansion inhabited by whisps of white. To be looked upon and appreciated by everyone but its owners.
Just another three minutes away takes us to the most Christmas-heavy marche in front of Rennes’ parliament building.
A larger-than-life Christmas tree stands, somehow, dressed decadently in red bows and reflective globes. This pop-up center sticks to the food side, selling crepes, churros, and pastries alongside metal pots of vin chaud and hot cider.
With my hot cider in hand, we crowd around the handmade tables of stumps and logs that surround the larger sapin. It tastes of cinnamon and closed-eye inhales on Christmas. Gloves are replaced by the heat of our paper cups, and we look at each other through the steady wisps of steam that rise from the rim.
The cider settles over the lunch we shared before exploring these marches. This morning we met at a restaurant called Avec, a fairly unassuming name though it still subtly begs the question, with what?
As I entered the surprisingly American warehouse structure, I realized they worked with every auxiliary business they could fit into their overwhelming hipster aesthetic. Don’t get me wrong, the turquoise and burnt-yellow shaped furniture and displayed motorcycles cradled an atmosphere that was anything but tacky.
Yet, including a tattoo parlor, barbershop, merchandise shop, and auto-moto workshop in their bare metal restaurant undeniably draws the image of a 2014 man sketching graphite over his black notebooks, sipping teaspoons from small cortados. I could almost see him among the crowd with his nondescript face, which did nothing but bring an amused smile to mine.
Avec’s food and beverage side mixes cocktails and burgers for brunch before offering an ice cream bar for dessert. I inhaled my homemade fries and burger without guilt; it is the holiday season after all. Besides, I might as well take that first step back into American culture.
Each Saturday, vendors by the dozen drive their trucks and trailers to Cesson’s old town center. They open their pop-ups to the waiting crowd of weekend shoppers that disperse, filling each row in the Church parking lot.
Families stride along the older generation’s wheeled sacks with paper cups of espresso and the tin foil that rounds galettes. This Brittany staple is my first objective upon entering the colored maze.
The rye flour crepe is flipped and wrapped around a saucisse with your choice of mustard or ketchup. I opted for mustard, obviously, and exchanged two euros eighty for my breakfast.
It only took a few minutes before my gloved hand was unwrapped and replaced by the warmth of my galette saucisse.
Biting through the layers, I wandered shop to shop, quickly realizing that though the market certainly covers the expected assortment of vegetables, fruit, bread, coffee, meat, and your other weekly necessities, it also hosts a vast array of ulterior vendors.
These sellers propagate their stands with everything from locks to scarves and a/c units to handmade cutlery.
I walked, in wonder, thinking about the assortment of lives that must exist behind each tent and trailer.
We do the same.
See the same,
Talk the same,
Breathe the same.
The same people greet us, don’t they?
With the same assortment of coins.
I wind violet scarves around dainty necks
and these pale-faced women reflect
pretending like they want to take them home
this week, or maybe next, though really, they shouldn’t.
I stuff their husbands with stuffed sausage,
stabbed samples in not-quite-the-same size,
and they act like an absence of splinters would change their mind.
We do the same.
Stop breathing the same.
Choke sounds the same,
The same eyes fade before mine, don’t they?
When I’ve sufficiently stalked the most interesting perimeters of these pop-up shops, I cross the slow-moving street. Opposite the market’s occupation of the old church parking lot grows a lush garden of flowers, even in this Winter’s early days.
Pink bursts in roses and green vines wind their way down the manicured maze that tracks visitors through each end of the garden. I let my eyes wander this landscape, pausing on purple and fluttering over yellow flowers. I found my favorite space nestled in the marriage of two stone walls, just beyond a row of trees that break for a full view of the garden’s expanse.
The wind’s lagging gusts set the pace, and I finish my saucisse slowly. Despite the cold, I am in no rush. I only have one more Saturday market before I break from this French alternate life and return to my America for nearly a month.
It is bittersweet, splitting my heart between what I know and what I’ve come to know. I don’t know how it will feel, but I do know part of me will stay here—nestled among the fleurs and arching arbres of this French fantasy.
It’s so exciting, isn’t it?
Laying your new silhouette over your old outline.
Seeing what parts of you still fit.
Maybe you will feel the same as you always have.
Too big here, too small there.
To everyone else, you look the same. Beautiful, even.
But you’ve outgrown this box of beauty.
The word means something else now.
You know too much about yourself,
because now you know nothing.
You know too much about this place,
because each minute change slaps your skin
like a new floater on the glass of your eye.
Everything hovers, holding same
by holding the nature it never quite stays.
Like a city can get botox,
self-tanner on the same performative parts,
Angelina’s leg buffed and bold.
You see this now, as you saw it before
and the same sad sticks to your wave-washed feet
salt for the wounds of constant summer.
The sun reds your nose rather than the burn of snow
Not unlike Johnny Cash, as he sings, “ I keep the ends out for the tie that binds… I walk the line,” I walk this tightrope without slack. I’ve already cranked the dial, bit by bit, consuming everything untaught in the years of weeknight poetry groups and the tight art circles of strangers.
Hung low in these rooms was the kind of cigarette smoke embedded in the fabric of suburban kids’ trench coats as they all sing their hymns of too much and too little in the wrong categories.
Here, in the anonymity of a crowded room of the like-minded, I shed the last scales of self-loathing and read it into the past tense.
There are so many ways we are ourselves with the people we love. They are all true and carried and backed by watchful eyes that back your own out of authority. How many times can you break bones and find something different in front of the same people?
In the 2019 first freedom of dorm room homes and month-long family, I broke into new poses of myself countless times. My roommates heard “you know what I just realized?” more times than they heard the word “sick” tumble from my mouth. It was just as automatic.
This constant phrase changed its ending every time, contradicting its predecessors and followers with the kind of truth borne from this second’s reality. Each break in my brittle bones offered a new way to look at what makes marrow.
Every observation is true, even existing in opposition. That is the value of poetry.
These moments of clarity, spurred thought from another person’s words, or the sight of water dripping that begs a reality from inside you, can be immortalized as any emotion in art.
So as my friends tired of my repeated self-realizations, I spun them into ballads of wavering woe.
These first months of poetry classes, and the new opportunity for spoken word Wednesdays in the 7 pm writing center room, allowed me to pull a new authenticity from myself.
I didn’t have to be the blonde, suburban kid with too much privilege to divert her attention from issues of self-image and intimacy. With these same materials, I could be a voice that walks directly over human metaphors and recognizes the quiet thoughts that whisper in each person’s ear.
I fell in love with metaphors, allusions, hyperboles, conceits, just lyric. Words that can be read in an infinite amount of ways, each time plucking a chord of truth. Like humans, poems can mean a million different things to a million different people.
I became a voice, a speaker, separated from myself, my name, and anything about me except the immovable fact that my mind made these words.
It’s true, what some people say, that most of the time, strangers are the only people you can be completely honest with. I took this expression to heart and wrote from each crevice of my ever-changing understanding of my world.
We try on many different selves, don’t we, when we realize that first permission to make ourselves what we want. When we remember that people only know what we tell them, people only see what we show them.
So I dyed my hair purple. I pierced third holes in my ears with only half the materials required. I stabbed my wrist with stick n poke mistakes that are all mine. I ate the dining hall’s macaroni n cheese pizza for breakfast and drank their black coffee for dinner. I kissed boys and girls and left the party. I apologized and said “I wish” to people who asked me for cigarettes even though I never smoked them myself. I painted blue around my eyes, debuted them at the campus underage bar, and gave them an encore in COM 103 the next morning.
I followed through on every thought that hung around my head for longer than a class period, and then I read the email, and everything changed because I felt I couldn’t anymore.
Covid stole my dorm room home and new-friend-family. It stole my unencumbered realizations and my poetry evenings and everything new I had begun to call myself.
But, in the shelter of my old room, I continued to write with the self that now dominated me, and I hurt people.
Instead of calling strangers closer in rooms that called words home, I tugged on the heartstrings of my original home with words that family felt rejected every good thing they ever gave me. Still, I selfishly refused to give up the part of myself that reveled in the honesty that poetry allowed me without focusing on the facts that surrounded me.
Emotional truth is real, without needing physical fact to bolster the feeling.
Time here passed, somehow, and we can still debate whether or not it’s over. Both are true.
I wrote myself through another two years of English classes, poured my soul into poetry workshops, and earned practical credit in marketing courses. I presented a thesis collection based on an ancient religious poet and my conflicted feelings for my ex-boyfriend. I heard enough praise that I held no hesitation in creating this blog space for my self-indulgent travels and self-promoted poems.
I love it. Having a place to post thoughts I can no longer subject to whatever unfortunate group is trying to relax in my living room. But with this kind of platform, I have lost the complete anonymity I am used to.
I write for no audience, then send my words into the ether that is truly, if we want to talk about objective facts, made of friends, family, and followers who know my real name.
I want to be completely honest, but I am not used to hurting anyone but myself with my words.
I am running. Face twisted with concern, yet with each step the muscles find slack. I thank the border control woman in every language I know.
I showed her my train ticket fifteen minutes ago, and without her kind decision, I would still be standing deep in the inching queue, sweating inside instead of out.
The officer who stamped my passport didn’t even meet my eye, pressing ink over my niceties, and I didn’t mind, not if he let me go.
I slide through the train’s chomping portal with mere seconds to spare and swear I can feel the metallic bite of air behind me.
I have been traveling since 3:30 am this morning, and my day’s journey is not yet over. Planes, trains, and automobiles, so the story goes, have carried me across the kiss of Anglo-French air. Now, my body can rest beyond another transfer as I sail over iron tracks on my way to the next station.
I have not slept, but the weekend was worth it.
Can you still miss your train if you can see it leaving? You can’t miss something you never truly had. You can hold this idea of a train ride, this ticket stub of intention, but reality was all too real for a dream. Your real steps couldn’t keep up, not with the way your fingers flicked through each screen. You don’t have to slide plastic through its arrowed cousin anymore. Memorize the numbers on your credit card, so you can keep charging yourself for things without touching them. You can toss your money to the wind without rouging with the sting of scattered coins. You don’t have to feel something to wish it was yours. But typing a thing and doing it are not the same. I would know, I miss your train every time.
My long weekend in Cambridge came unexpected; an Instagram message from an old friend turned into a real plane ticket, crossing our ironic European proximity.
It must have been four or five years since we had last seen each other, and never without the family context of PC childishness and parental supervision. But we aren’t children anymore.
Seeing her was melting a younger (older) version of myself into my skin, rediscovering a girl with stories and jokes long forgotten.
The two-hour drive from Heathrow to her home just out of Cambridge was filled with endless chatter and a spinning web of memory. We tied 2010s trips through the California-Nevada desert, filling in each other’s gaps and planning our next-day hello to the larger city.
Saturday drove us on the wrong side of the road to Cambridge’s center. We walked the outline of the Grand Arcade mall, took lattes for takeaway, and indulged in Nando’s peri-peri before meandering our way to the city’s botanical garden.
Fall had crisped green into orange-yellow and scattered this over evergreen grass in nature’s layers.
We abandoned the map’s predetermined path for our own, dipping into the damp greenhouse to see tropical plants wind around each other in humid reflections. Baked by the focus of sun-lit windows, we traced plants from each part of the world until the archway released us. Outside, the simple grounds of the garden’s deepest boundaries came in shallow hills swelling in slight curves as the dirt-carved path snaked through trees and around flower beds.
The mild day cooled us enough to pull jackets back around our bodies, and by 3 pm, we had finished our tour. While we departed, time set fire’s arch, keeping it until the next morning.
This time a friend of a friend was behind the wheel, and we parked at the Grand Arcade, over-indulging in tights and knit sweaters. Soon my caffeine headache dragged us to the TikTok (and city) famous Fitzbilles for their highly-praised Chelsea buns and the cold coffee ordered only by Americans.
We unboxed our buns on the way back and stickied our fingers with the maple syrup that replaced creamed icing on the classic cinnamon rolls we were used to.
Still good, but different. Not as sticky sweet, but coating us in sugar just the same.
You can’t unlove a city unlove the swarm that rounds out its voices different from yours. You can’t unknow the train lines, the rusted bus stops, rain-soaked metal awnings. Cities have veins and we are white blood cells; there are too many of us bleeding onto the street, running out of ways to heal ourselves. It’s not healthy to erase memory, to erase this metro matrix other fingers have lined on your body. Abandoned buildings are still buildings, even when they’ve lost life. You can’t untangle the strands she left on your pillow, not without smelling me. Just as I can’t smell my own sweater, without the threads reminding me I used to love you. I can’t unlove the way it felt to love, even if I don’t love you anymore.
I think about Maleficent’s thorny throne, Phillip chopping through hardened stems, severing rose bud necks, and drawing shallow red rivulets over his cheek, but as we conquer these steep steps, it is clear that here, the vines are nuns and monks, rose buds are stone busts, and their thorns are Christian judgment.
Le Mont St. Michel stands impressive and imposing. Man’s stone on nature’s rock, here, predates the middle ages. It is said that in 708, Saint Aubert, bishop of Avranches, built the first religious sanctuary on the former Mont Tombe.
Ever the saint, he believed that this vision did not come from his mind but from a divine decree, and he was simply fulfilling the wishes of the archangel Michael. Saint Aubert claimed the angel had appeared to him thrice in his dreams, enlightening him to Mont Tombe’s future. This initial sanctuary remained atop the rock for over 200 years until a community of Benedicts built its first church in 966.
It was in the 10th century that construction began on the still-standing abbey of Mont St. Michel, but this period of construction was not completed until the 19th century. Over its 1300 years of history, St. Michel endured the passage of religious pilgrims, a long stint as a prison, an impregnable fortress during France’s Hundred Years War with England, and a return to its initial purpose as an Abbey.
Though Le Mont has held fast to its French authority throughout these conflicts, discourse remains as to which region Le Mont belongs to. Situated between the border of Normandy and Brittany, the island technically lies within Normandy’s domain, but that does not stop Brittany loyals from claiming the island.
What they are having.
I’ll take a toke,
a drink or a puff,
a bump or a smoke.
What is it this time?
What Gods live here?
Are we visiting or being visited
by the angels that lie between tabs of acid?
They must be real
if we can see them in mushroom meals
or drink them in the nature of peyote.
Should we tell them? The others? The ones who believe us?
Or should we keep this divinity for ourselves?
Roll Jesus in a joint and tell them what we remember.
Crush Abraham with the flat of our fist,
he coats our nostrils with his heavenly fire.
I won’t tell, as long as you give me a line.
They can think angels live in the sky,
and we can sit in chapel circles,
passing our God,
telling each other what we see,
denying the reality of darkness,
and calming overdoses of thought with stories.
Bundled in borrowed green and crocheted yellow, I wove my gaze between bus seats as Le Mont St. Michel came into view. Pointed, the Abbey invites the imagination to see stone join sky as the steeple pierces the clouds.
Our first order of business, braving the chill that exits the bus, was lunch. We followed the upward trend of foot traffic, the path that passed gift shops and tourist traps between overpriced restaurants.
After passing on a few 36 euro meals, we found a cute creperie with everything we needed.
The small eatery, Le Chapeau Rouge, fell back from the street and the tight-knit tables allowed for only a narrow squeeze to our corner.
Filling into our seats, it wasn’t long before we were ordering galettes complet to quell the rumble of our hunger. Ham, egg, and rye crepe came quickly, and we ate just as fast, ordering a second crepe for dessert. These crepes au citron shortly followed, and we rolled the bittersweet lemon over our tongues.
the french word for fold is plier.
like a ballerina
they make halves.
gentle fingers crease gentler messages,
papers plie for their envelopes
& flattened batter folds around a metal spatula
i try to bend with this elegance too,
but my hands don’t move with the same grace.
mine graze over sloping beauty
cursive intentions crease pages with an alibi.
my body curls in on itself,
in a c, not a plie,
& all these french faces know
i am not one of their own.
Braving the sea-breeze outside of the creperie, we renewed our hike to the Abbey carved into the mount of Mont St. Michel. Staccato steps faltered over cracks and traipsed through the stoney wonderland of souvenir shops and medieval tourist traps.
Joan, the one of the Arc, stands as a statue halfway up the island in all her romantic and religious armor.
The sole woman among thousands of men, immortalized in this same fashion. The only indication of her feminine figure was the two rounded plates bonded to her chest plate.
Gift shops boast this same Joan in plastic figurines for children, but most flock to the crowded walls of synthetic swords and painted gold shields. Toddlers point with sticky fingers, and parents fall prey to the out-of-town prices.
At last, through the sea of open doors, we reached the Abbey in all its gray and godly glory.
I expected this catholic monument to come colorful and adorned in stained glass light and devoted strokes of paint. St. Michel did not deliver on this front, but as we followed the preconceived order of rooms, I was overwhelmed by the dull gray of its stone. It was rare for color to peak through rudimentary windows, and the bleak ceilings hung heavy without the lift of paint.
The immense building, anywhere else, would be a complete disappointment. Its size and echoed halls are nothing without its perfect placement on the mont’s original rock.
That is the point.
Constructed under the supervision of monks and nuns of the Catholic faith, the abbey lets the island’s natural beauty speak for itself. Unadorned windows are blown open by the ocean’s breath, the payoff of seemingly endless steps and steep cliffs.
Our legs continued to climb, pulling muscle tight with each step and loose behind our eyes as we adjusted to this brand of beauty. Sand, tan and damp, extends infinitely from the circumference of the mont. Waves kiss this intersection and draw their body back out to sea.
Close your eyes and breathe salt, learn what beauty can exist behind shut lids, and smell the simplicity of what the monks call “god’s work.”