AM I AN ADVENTURER?

 

 

At five, I jumped down from short stone walls because my father forced me until I cried. I also had to learn to pee in the grass during week-end outings although it was a traumatic experience at first.

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At six, in Paris, I had to take the public bus from my home to school and back. I forgot my bus stop once and rode alone as the only passenger when the driver saw me and tried to take me safely to school.

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Still at six, I travelled to Spain alone, sent away by my parents in a Colonie de Vacance (summer camp). I did not receive parental mail and my wire mesh mattress was broken. I learned I had to watch for myself. We did mile-long hikes in the sun with sombreros on our heads.

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I realize I am starting to sound like Henry le Chat Noir, and his existential drones. But bear with me.

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At school, I rode a carriage drawn by a white horse with a rose on his head with my boy-friend Bruno. That was an imaginary carriage at recess but I never forgot it, or Bruno. He was well-versed in operetta and sang to me La belle de Cadix.

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On summer vacation at my grandparents’ village in Brittany I dared to say no to the boys who played “kili-kili maillot” (a version of doctor, in a group) in a dark cabin.

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In an attempt to build a cabin in the woods with my brother I wounded myself on a rusty nail, which resulted in an impressive life-long scar on the left side of my torso.

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I fed rabbits and chickens and was shocked by my grandmother’s cruelty as she killed them. My favorite dish was my mother’s Civet de lapin, i.e. rabbit stew.

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At six and a half, I was the only kid who could spell Ecureuil in the new school I attended when my parents left me and my brother in the care of our grandparents while my baby brother was born.

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At seven, my brother and I wandered in the wasteland across our street in the suburb of Nantes, searching the ruins of the house that had burnt down in the middle of it. We brought home at least one lousy chair that we used for years.

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At 16 I took a train to Germany to meet a pen-pal. There I drank Apfelsaft and I shoplifted a David Bowie cassette in a department store.

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At 17 I spent a summer in an English family. There, I bought a millinery hat with the money that was supposed to pay for my stay with my host family, but that they insisted on leaving on the kitchen counter. Another day I waved to Lady Diana as she made an appearance in a parade during my stay in Lincoln. During that stay I served as a model in an art class in the high-school. I had my clothes on.

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At 18, I set out to swim across an inlet that had a far stronger current than I thought, and I found mid-way that I had overestimated my capabilities. I thought I was going to die, but somehow in a superhuman effort mastered my panic attack, gathered my strength and made it to the other side, and then back.

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The following summer I left for Manchester as an au-pair for an Iranian woman whose husband had died. She was 23. The babysitting experience was excruciating (severe case of the terrible twos) but I learned to cook Basmati rice.

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I had my first kiss in a car in the parking lot of her apartment.

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My hostess had an Iraqi friend who was impressed by my literary aptitudes: I was reading A Man for all Season of my own volition, to prepare for the upcoming academic year. He took me to visit the Brontë sister’s museum in hope of seducing me later. He told me that all the restaurants were closed and that he had to cook spaghetti for me. He did cook a good spaghetti sauce with meat from a bag he pulled out of the freezer. He had a heated pad on his mattress and turned the heat very high. I wouldn’t lose my virginity to him.

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My hostess taught me to smoke cigarettes and to drink wine.

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My second year of college in Angers, I rented a rat-infested apartment without heat but with a large key. I didn’t stay very long but learned about real estate.

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There was no boy in my class and I spent a lot of time wondering when and how I would lose my virginity.

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At 21 I lost my virginity to a student of Greek nationality who was studying French via the language program in his school in England. He used the word “socialize” and taught me about AIDS.
The morning after (he left very early) what I thought was normal bleeding turned into an hemorrhage. I took myself to the nearest hospital where a doctor and his medical students set out to sew my vagina back with sharp needles.

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After 22 years of Catholic school upbringing I had serious philosophical and spiritual questions. The answers came in the form of a professor who introduced me to spirituality.

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For a master’s thesis subject, I chose Henry Miller over Virginia Woolf, another interest, because she was sad and committed suicide, whereas he was “always merry and bright,” which was more the direction I wanted to follow.

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I sought out that professor in Paris to ask him to become my thesis director. I was wearing a woolen dress and granny underwear because it was cold and on my way to England for an internship in a steel factory.
He gave me his early poetry books, which I read in the overnight bus to England that was reeking of marijuana smoke.
A few weeks later we met again in London, but he wouldn’t sleep with me because he had a cold, or he chickened out, or both. I was deeply disappointed. (He was not my professor anymore but had left to be the editor of a spirituality collection.) We went to visit Keat’s museum.

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At 22 an assistantship in an American liberal arts college landed in my lap. There I found students who played guitar, played hippie, played Frisbee and cooked hamburgers on a spectacular campus on top of a hill. Orange juice glasses were four times the size of glasses in France. I never heard words such as professional outlets or unemployment which had permeated my childhood.

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At Kenyon College I took one French lit class and studied A Rebours by Huysmans. I never forgot the tortoise painted gold and encrusted with gems who died from the weight of that decadence. I also took Swimming 101 and became so sick I broke two ribs coughing and had to stay in bed for several weeks.

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With material I had gathered at U Mass Amherst, Columbus, Ohio; and Paris libraries I finished writing my Masters thesis entitled Henry Miller and the Transcendental Spirit in the summer of 1989 on a rinky-dink Apple computer that showed green letters on a black screen.

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In 1990 I got a job at Procter & Gamble France as a secretary, moved to Paris, tracked down my French ex-professor and rented a studio in the same arrondissement.

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At night, I blissfully typed his novel on his own new Apple word processor. The novel was never published.

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While I lived in Paris I was mostly interested in visiting the American bookstore Brentano’s on Avenue de l’Opéra. I bought Couples by Updike, which I read on my bed in my lonely studio longing to return to New England where I had left my heart.

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In exchange for my typing services, the author introduced me to People in his circle, including Alejandro Jodorowsky. I was invited to join an intimate dinner in a restaurant following one of his tarot readings. I wished I had something interesting to say, a joke, a brilliant conversation. But alas. I recall this vividly, and the fact that Jodorowsky ordered osso-bucco.

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That busy year, I left my lonely studio and moved in with three young Irish people who were teaching English in Paris. I had met Jane at work where she was also a secretary. Later that year, Jane tried to rescue a fellow expat from New Zealand from a heroin addiction. In our apartment. She gave her the bedroom she normally occupied with her boyfriend and left a bottle of Thorazine on the shelf outside the door. She warned us it could become violent in there.

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At 24 my boyfriend and I got married: we bummed a ride from a German tourist we befriended the previous afternoon in front of the John Harvard statue, among the squirrels in Harvard Square, and brought a marriage license to the town hall in Gloucester, Massachusetts. After the ceremony, or lack thereof, the wedding party of five had lunch in a fried fish restaurant and went to the beach. We stayed married for twenty-two years.

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While waiting for a green card, I advertised myself as a French tutor to pay rent and buy a coat and clothing suitable for winter in New England. I taught a Harvard student from Hong-Kong who invited me to empty classrooms for the lessons. He was trying to choose between Math and Piano as a life path. French wasn’t one of them.

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Another student was a tall blond MIT PhD student in math who was reading Anna Karenine in French and could not eat his Pain au chocolat from Au Bon Pain without dusting his lips or nose with powdered sugar, which puzzled me – I couldn’t reconcile this clumsiness with the fact that he was extremely attractive physically and intellectually. He invited me to his student lodging once on the pretext of showing be a book, but I just glimpsed into his room. I was freshly married and conscience stopped me there. I could only fantasize and act out with my own husband.

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I took a job as a waitress at the Greenhouse coffee-shop as soon as I received my green card. We served breakfast and one morning, a prostitute (I am convinced she was prostitute although I will never know for sure) left me a $5 tip, which was way too much for just a coffee. I thought she might have been confused or tired although it could very well have been altruism. I did need the money and I will forever be grateful.

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In 1991 I started working at the Medieval Academy of America as the Editorial Assistant. Down the street, panhandlers were selling their own mag, and a street musician relentlessly repeated Bruce Cockburn’s song Lord of the Starfields.

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The Cambridge Center for Adult Education put out catalogs which I studied from cover to cover. I learned all the Creative Writing classes descriptions by heart. I followed the advice, bought Writing Down the Bone by Natalie Goldberg and Ira Progoff’s Intensive Journal, and used them to the core, writing on my bed while my husband was still at work. Then I made dinner for the two of us.

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One day at 26 I was reading Anais Nin’s diaries on the train from Boston to Manchester-by-the-Sea on the way to the beach, and told myself I was getting old and I should start living now, or else!

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I made an apple pie from The Joy of Cooking. Then I tried the lemon pie. Theses made me feel very American and very domestic. At some point I made one pie every week. That was too much.

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One day I bent down to kiss my husband who was sitting on the porch at breakfast time. One of my hoop earrings got stuck in his nose. It hurt him. Somehow, I got it out.

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At 28 I was temping in Paris while the economy was at its worst. I recall an interview where the employer showed me his fax machine spewing one resume after another which piled up on the floor. I interviewed for BMG records but didn’t get the job. I was in demand for being bilingual but didn’t get any job.
Radio hits at the time were Everybody Hurts (REM), Runaway Trains never coming back (Soul Asylum), and What’s Up, hey, hey hey, what’s going on (4 Non Blondes) wailing in my head when I wandered in the metro from interview to interview.
That was about the last year I really looked at my horoscope. I realized that it made me feel even more trapped and depressed.

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In 1995 I was back in Boston, temping. I wore “career suits” I bought at Filene’s Basement, nylons as required by companies’ dress-code, and big white sneakers like all American women to walk faster in the street. We changed shoes at the office.

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At 29 I took aerobics lessons and developed a crush on the instructor, a beautiful androgynous blonde with short hair and golden skin. One day she changed in the same locker room and I got a glimpse of her breasts. I realized I didn’t know what lesbians do or feel. I thought about approaching her with a fake interview so that I would learn more about her, on a deeper level. I didn’t do this however and became pregnant instead.

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At 30 I knew I would not be a writer, and I didn’t have a career either. I hated the idea of moving out of the city, which my husband wanted. I couldn’t go back to France either as I was dependent on him. All I could do was shut up and care for my baby. Which I did.

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At 37, I was a French teacher in the public schools. I hoped it would be a good way to develop my writing skills, what with all the school vacations. Like most people, I had not realized how much hard work and how all-consuming teaching is.

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At 39 I was a French instructor in college.

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You might notice that I am loosing steam in the end. Why do life events in youth seem decisive, vivid, colorful, and the same or similar incidents more beige at mid-life. Who can say if my life is not even more adventurous now?

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At 40 I started meditating and simultaneously started a writing group in the basement of the local Unitarian Universalist church. That was the most fun and laughter I ever had.

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At 45 I asked for a divorce, which became official the following year. The day of the court meeting, a truck crashed into an electric pole, shutting down the electricity for the whole road, including the manufacturing facility where I worked, and thus giving me the afternoon off as a present.

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At 50, this is the beginning of the rest of my life which is, well, in the process of being written. I changed the batteries in the carbon-monoxide detector on the ceiling of my apartment at 7:00 am a couple days ago which I thought was pretty adventurous.

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Here is my answer to the question you were all asking yourselves!

Please note that this brief and focused autobiography was inspired by Wayne Koestenbaum’s piece “My 80s.” I’ll be happy to answer any questions  you have about the cryptic illustrations.

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