i’m no more your mother than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow effacement at the wind’s hand.

same time around last year, i was in paris. it was the beginning of spring and people were out on the streets and there was a slick breeze off the seine that would come in the afternoons to let us know that the evening would require a jacket.

as always, i stayed with michelle. who if you will recall, is the mother of my exboyfriend, the frenchman. michelle lives in a 4 bedroom flat just off the boulevard saint michel, on a street that swells and then thins so narrowly, only a single car can pass on it. rue de st. jacques, which if followed southerly will lead you to the gates of the luxembourg gardens. the gardens which are filled to the brim on the weekend by parisians, young and old, sunning themselves without a thought to SPF, and smoking luxuriously, slowly, the way of course i will always remember michelle smoking, without guilt.

this was my fourth time in paris but the first time i was alone with michelle. the frenchman was in london, her daughter had moved out with her boyfriend, her youngest son was away in spain for school. there was another boarder, her beautiful niece, florence, who was going to university nearby and who was young and wore bold red lipstick first thing in the morning and i thought, looked like a film star. i saw her intermittently and we talked about art and books and then she was off to her glamorous life.

by the time i had arrived in paris, i had gone through about 20 very dusty countries and was relieved to be on the continent. for the first time, in a long time, i was in no rush. no tours in the early am, or getting myself acquainted with the surroundings; i had seen notre dame, and knew where the monoprix was. paris felt like a loose kind of home. i slept till very late in the day and read and went around. i walked aimlessly seeing the old places that i had seen before. i popped into stores that sold useless, beautiful things and foolishly took up the limited space in my luggage by buying coetzee’s latest at shakespeare & co. finally, i went to pompidou for a whole day and the art made me miss new york.

but mostly i stayed at the flat, which had the cool serenity of a cave. like, i imagine, the kind that jesus was buried in, and then left. that exhale a sudden excavation leaves.

in the late afternoon, michelle would come home with a bag of groceries and i would stand in the kitchen and watch her cook. something i did often with my mother, who was a good cook herself, and thus shared this one virtue with the lovely michelle. michelle who was so shy and quiet when i first met her. a chin-length brunette with wide, almost asiatic eyes. who kissed me on the forehead to wake me up one the morning, no joke, as if i were madeline. there is a wedding photo of her, in a starch white dress with puffed up sleeves where she is holding an expression of piercing timidity, a kind of vulnerability that beautiful women accrue by being looked at too much.

one night her mother came over, and we all sat down to a simple french dinner, of which there were no less than 5 plate changes. nadine spoke english in a drawling scottish accent, picked up from her husband. she asked of all the places i had been, which country had had the handsomest men. i replied, turkey. she sniffed triumphantly, and said if she were to marry again (she is 88 years old), that she would still marry an englishman.

my last afternoon in paris, we sat down for aperitif. just michelle and i. i don’t remember how the words unwound themselves. we sat on her ochre-colored leather sofa, with glasses of white burgundy, the likes of which i have never tasted in the states, both of us smoking. i know we talked about her son, her curious as to what kind of man he had become; me, reserved with my responses. and then a turn in conversation to her deceased husband, about how to deal with loss (there is no way). he died very young and unexpectedly and she never remarried. she gestured girlishly, a finger to her own chest, recalling when they first met and said that she felt he had picked her and “just decided.” she wept freely and was unable to speak for awhile. true grief is inarticulation. the sun filled her living room with a cymbal-gold light and i of course, in my impotence, could offer her nothing in equal value except finally this memory.

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