The Unspeakably Sad Reminder of the ‘Other Paris’

Ava and I visited Paris twice on our vacation, at the beginning and again at the end of our trip. On those two occasions we saw two different cities, like the two city-states that occupy the same physical space in China Miéville’s novel “The City & the City,” whose respective inhabitants, living side by side, are forbidden to notice each other, and must obtain passports to visit one another’s worlds.

When we first arrived, we walked to the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame and the Opera House; saw “The Raft of the Medusa,” Monet’s water lilies, and the phantasmagoric Gustave Moreau Museum. We watched “Wild at Heart” (“Sailor et Lula” in French) at one of the city’s myriad cinemas, and ate at sidewalk cafes whose awnings overflowed with cascades of artificial flowers. We sat under a willow at the tip of the Île de la Cité, dangling our legs over the Seine and drinking a bottle of wine, listening to a high school brass band blatt out klezmer covers of “Born to Be Wild,” “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” by Kiss, and the Austin Powers theme.

“I really like Paris,” Ava decided. She had never been to Europe before. “It’s lovely.” I told her it had that reputation.

On the night before our return visit, after a two-week road trip to Toledo, Spain, and back, I got to enjoy an authentic experience of being a Medieval lord by spending the night in the turret of a castle in the Loire Valley, retching in pain. Ava’s mother, a former nurse consulted by text, suspected a kidney stone. So we spent the first night of our second Paris stay in a hospital emergency room. For about an hour I sat alone on a paper-covered exam table waiting for a doctor to see me, with not much to look at but a small plastic container of my own urine. Ava, meanwhile, spent that time in the E.R.’s waiting room, where she got to experience another aspect of Paris — the obverse of the romantic, touristy city of lights. You might call it the 21st Arrondissement.

There was no TV in the waiting area, no magazines, and eventually Ava’s phone began to die, cutting off her line of communication to me, so she was forced to read whatever pamphlets, signs, and labels were in English, and, finally, to pay attention to the people around her. A little girl who’d gotten stitches in her forehead pantomimed stitching her own parents’ heads. A man was brought in on a gurney whose screams we could both hear from our separate locations. Consulting later, we diagnosed him with a kidney stone as well. Listening to his moans and wails, I realized that, excruciating as my previous night had been, I’d gotten off comparatively easy. Ava, in the waiting room, saw the man’s adult daughter helplessly listening to her father’s agonies, her head in her hands, her face gray. Everyone in the waiting room ached for her, but they also wanted to respect her privacy, the privacy of people suffering in public, so Ava restricted her sympathies to kind looks and silent offerings of water and Kleenex.

I’d been spending a lot of time in such places lately. For much of the previous year I’d watched my mother disappearing into a husk of herself in the memory care unit of an assisted living home. A lot of my friends are currently attending their parents’ dissolution into enfeeblement or dementia. And it’s just around the time your senescent parents die, releasing you from your last grim filial duties, that you start noticing signs of your own incipient decline. Arthritic hips, ovarian cysts, herniated discs, breast cancer. You begin to appreciate the unsung pleasure of not hurting. It’s as if we were all devices made by some big tech company, designed to start falling apart the instant the warranty expires, and to be ingeniously difficult to repair, with zero support for older models.

A couple of months ago it was my turn to sit in a hospital waiting room while my beloved friend Carolyn — whom I still see as the impetuous, persnickety 20-year-old she was when we met — underwent her first round of chemo, receiving DNA toxins through a port in her chest. Ava just visited a friend of hers, now suffering from dementia and confined to an elder care facility, who was once an artist of note — a dancer with Martha Graham’s company, a friend of Willem de Kooning, her sculpture collected by major museums and former presidents. She’s still capable of appreciating beauty and taking an interest in the world, but there’s nothing beautiful or interesting in her environment. Just daily bingo games.

The world is arranged to discreetly conceal this side of life from us — the messy, ragged back of the tapestry. Arranged, I should say, with our enthusiastic complicity. We prefer to see, and very much to be on, the side with well-dressed couples promenading through the streets, eating at elegant cafes, having drinks at bars or clubs, going to cinemas, buying used books and silk scarves. It’s not as if the pretty facade is false, and the obverse the ugly truth; it’s all life. We just try, for as long as possible, to keep that other side hidden from ourselves — the hospitals and nursing homes, prisons and sweatshops, mortuaries and slaughterhouses. But at some point, by the end of our lives — unless we’re very rich, or dubiously lucky enough to die suddenly or young — that other side is the only one we’ll get to see anymore. It’s where we’ll live. We’ll have been banished from the other, lovelier world, because we’ve now become one of the things that needs to be concealed.

My glimpse into that other Paris was a reminder that patients in hospitals and residents of memory care units are people just as fun and cool and adventuresome as ourselves, falsely imprisoned in dilapidated flesh and dismal institutions. Maybe our foreknowledge of the beige plastic and unforgiving fluorescents that await us can hone our appreciation of fine linen and flattering candlelight. We’re all just out on temporary reprieve. The Paris hospital did a CT scan, confirmed that I had a kidney stone, and gave me some effervescent codeine tablets and mysterious French painkillers that came in glass ampoules I was supposed to break over sugar cubes, like absinthe. Then I was released back into the “real” Paris — the public, lovely one.

It’s always an odd shock to walk out of a hospital or nursing home back into the supposedly normal world — like walking out of a matinee into bright daylight, reality restored, the clock magically turned back. I still remember how furtively exhilarating it was to punch in the code to release the lock of my mother’s memory care unit, and how guilty I felt closing the door against a resident who casually tried to slip out along with me. I felt I was getting away with something, as if my own escape was undeserved. I knew it was only a temporary reprieve.

On our last night abroad, Ava and I went to a restaurant a friend had recommended, owned by a gentle cellist who runs the place out of his own home. We ordered Breton oysters — some of the best I’ve ever had, briny and clear, in liquor so pure Ava said it tasted like vodka — and when we complemented them our host brought over a poster to show us where they’d been harvested. The other members of his string quintet came by for a meal, and they all sat together at a long table, their soft voices blending like an ensemble, their conversation the evening recital. We’d already learned, after one three-hour meal that was supposed to have been more like a pit stop, that the French do not bring you your bill, not even when you say you’re finished eating; you specifically have to ask for the check. We were at ease with this custom by now. We’d learned to savor a meal and the luxury of time spent together; the pleasure of lingering, for as long as we’re allowed.

Tim Kreider is the author of the essays collections “I Wrote This Book Because I Love You” and “We Learn Nothing.”

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