Fiction: Robert Redford Speaking French by Charlotte McGuinn Freeman

Alice is in Paris on the first anniversary of Peter’s death. The day had borne down on her like a train coming through a tunnel. She had to do something. She had to mark it somehow, the end of her year, the end of the time she’d given herself to be a wreck. She had to mark the beginning of the next part, the long next part of her life where she was going to have to live without her brother. And she couldn’t stay home in Montana, where it had happened, where everyone had descended on her little house and had filled it with food and people and had carried her through this gruesome year. So she’d come to Paris, where she always fled when she had some money and she didn’t know what to do with herself. On the day itself, one year exactly, the end of the time during which she could think one year ago he was … dating June, or building my garden, or taking the dogs for their morning walk or simply living over there in his apartment on the other side of town, she finds herself standing halfway across the Pont du Sully. She can’t decide where to go for lunch, so she leans over the railing to watch the water below. It surges beneath her, opaque, the color of concrete. The Seine. It looks less like a river than like some muscular force rubbing up against the bridge, an animal of some kind. She can’t imagine it as a real river, flowing through trees, between grass-covered banks. It seems like it exists only here, pulsing around the abutment.

I could just fall in.

What? Alice looks down at the water. Fall in? Where did that come from? Alice is terrified of drowning. And as unbelievably sad as she’s been this year, she’s never wanted to kill herself. That’s Peter’s thing. And her mother’s. Alice is the sturdy one, the survivor, the one who cleans up after everyone. She should have been named Martha.

But … if she fell into the river, this would all be over. She wouldn’t have to keep missing Peter. One year today. One year ago today the assistant coroner of Park County, Montana had walked into her yard. “I’m sorry Ma’am. There’s no good way to say this …” If she fell into the river she wouldn’t have to do this anymore. Wouldn’t have to wake up every morning knowing she was alone. Knowing she was going to have to do this every morning for the rest of her life. If Alice slipped into the river and drowned, then she would no longer be someone with no family. She just wouldn’t be. She’d be gone.

She is in Paris alone, renting a flat. Who would know if she disappeared? How would anyone ever find out? No one even knew where she was staying. She could escape. Disappear. The thought hangs there for a long moment, dangles like some sort of delicious fruit.

Oh please, she thinks, her practical self coming back to her. Throwing myself in the Seine. How stupid.

When she’d emerged that morning from her rented flat, Alice thought of those big bouquets they hang all over Paris on the anniversary of the Liberation. She’d been so startled at 20, when she stumbled through the tall wooden doors of Michael’s courtyard building, when she’d nearly knocked an enormous bouquet off the doorway. It was at least 2 feet long, hanging upside down from a hook. The hook was affixed to a plaque. Someone had died, there in the doorway, during the Liberation of Paris. A boy, not much older than she was at the time. Right there, in the doorway. Every year the city hung bouquets from the plaques. All over the city that day, she kept seeing memorial plaques.

That’s what she needed, she thought as she walked to the corner café for coffee. A big bunch of flowers. A bunch of flowers as big as her grief. A bunch of flowers to memorialize that she’d survived this year. To memorialize that although she’d done everything that had been required of her, she was still brokenhearted. She was still broken. She was still …

One year ago right now he was alive. One year ago right now he hadn’t yet gotten in that car, hadn’t driven Hodges home up that bad gravel road, hadn’t turned around to come back, too drunk to drive. She looks at her watch, does the math. There is about an hour left until she could no longer think, “one year ago, he was still alive.” One year ago right now the assistant coroner of Park County, Montana had not yet come into her yard, had not yet stood in front of her flower bed filled with late-summer roses and cosmos and asters, had not yet taken off his feed cap, put his hand on her shoulder and said those words that could never be taken back.

Alice pushes herself off the bridge railing. Drowning herself. Right. And how would that work exactly? She’d climb up over the bridge railing, like no one would notice that? Splash then flailing then remembering how terrified she is of drowning. Ambulances and police and a scene. That would really cap off her trip to Paris. Making a spectacle of herself. Being hauled out of the Seine, a failed suicide. Because she wouldn’t drown. She knows that much about herself. She’d fight it, and then where would she be? Dragged out of the river, mad and wet and in trouble with the authorities. Of all the dumb ideas she’d had since Peter died.

If there was anything she’s learned this year it’s that there’s no escape from this life. There are moments when she forgets that Peter is dead, but for the most part, it seems that her job is to put her head down and keep going through it, as though grief was an endless thicket of underbrush. She’s stuck with it. He’d left her with that, the asshole. Left her behind to do this by herself. That wasn’t their deal. They were supposed to be in this together. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever forgive him.

At the Place de la Bastille she finds a big, anonymous café and takes a seat several rows back from the sidewalk. She’d considered that good café at the other end of the Île St. Louis, but she couldn’t bear it. She could nearly see the girl she’d been at 20, sitting along the banquette at the back with her notebook, scribbling away and waiting to see what her life would become. What would that girl have thought, to look up from her hot chocolate and see herself now, at 40, in this unimaginable place where Peter is dead? At 20 she already thought she was a survivor — their father dead, killed by a heart attack when she was 10, Peter was just 8. From happy family on the big farm in the country to big-eyed survivors in a house in town in one short year. Peter and Alice learned early that the only way to survive was to stick together, and they had.

What would she have thought, that girl? She would have thought go away. She would have thought no, not that. Anything but that.

Alice watches the people pass in front of the café and realizes she’d failed utterly on the flowers. She loves the idea but it seems so excessive. So self-indulgent. Finding a memorial bouquet would require going into a florist, then navigating a complicated discussion in French. It would involve telling someone. It would involve not crying. Alice wishes she was that kind of person, like someone in a movie, someone who believes that because she finds a romantic idea really compelling, like buying a huge memorial bouquet on the anniversary of her brother’s death, that she should go out and procure such a thing. Alice had walked past a number of florists shops that morning, had peered in the windows at the very beautiful French flowers and realized that she was not that person. As much as she’d like to be that sincere, romantic girl, one who’d storm into a French florist visibly upset, trembly with loss and love and insisting in bad French that she must have a bouquet of precisely these dimensions, she realized that the mere idea embarrassed her.

Besides, what would she do with such a bouquet? Throw it in the river? Probably better than throwing herself in, she thinks. She looks around the café; she’s never entirely sure which cafés they come out and took your order, and which ones you have to go in to order, but she figures she’ll just sit for a moment, see what happens.

A big bouquet. So she’d order such a thing, and then what? There’s no grave upon which to leave it. Her mother, on the phone that first night, screaming that she wanted him back, wanted him back whole. “I’m not shipping a body,” she said to Natalya as they sat on her front porch. Talya who had come when Alice called her, called her from that same porch while the assistant coroner of Park County idled in his white pickup truck, unwilling to leave until he saw that she had someone on the phone, that someone was coming over. Talya, the first person she’d had to say those words to, doubled over on her front step while Talya shouted “Oh my god! I’ll be right there!” and hung up the phone. Sitting on the porch together during that interlude between the Assistant Coroner leaving and word getting around town, during that interlude during which Alice and her aunt Lily had found a group of people to go tell her mother, during that interlude after her mother’s screaming hysteria poured through the telephone lines, while Talya smoked a cigarette and Alice wished she smoked. “I’m not shipping him home,” she said. It came to her with a certitude that surprised her. Clearly, someone was going to have to take charge, and it was going to have to be her. “I’m not shipping him home and propping him in some box in the front of St. Mary’s.” She realized she didn’t actually care, at that moment, what her mother wanted. Hard won, this hard heart, but finally, there it was. “He’d hate that. Being made a spectacle like that.”

So she’d had him cremated, which he’d told her once is what he wanted, and she’d only taken half of him back to Chicago. She never discussed it with her mother. If she could have taken an urn full of barbecue charcoal she would have, but she thought that the God in whom she no longer believed might disapprove. It wasn’t right, even Alice knew that. So she took half of poor Peter home where he languished for days in Lily’s TV room before their mother decided to take possession again.

A waiter appears and Alice orders a jamon beurre and a glass of wine. Maybe she should head up to Pére Lachaise. She hasn’t been there in years. She could leave her imaginary bouquet on Proust’s grave. But that’s Michael she thinks of as being buried in Proust’s grave, because she has that old photo from the summer she stayed here with him. He was so young, and blond, and making his funny Carol Merril hand motion sitting on the black granite. The summer he’d gotten infected. The summer he figured out he was gay. Just before they all knew what AIDS was. She’d seen him a few months before he died. He told her he’d come back to Paris, the 10th anniversary of that summer, a bunch of people had come back. It made him feel a little better he said, hearing how everyone else had been sleeping around too. They were the last of the post-pill, pre-AIDS generation; it was just that Michael had gotten caught.

But that doesn’t make any sense. Michael isn’t Peter, and although it still pains her that he died; it isn’t Michael she’s mourning.

Maybe what she needs is a hook on herself. Maybe she should just hang a huge memorial bouquet from her shirt collar, like a sign. I’m in mourning. Or rather, like she is the memorial plaque itself. He doesn’t have a grave. He only has her, carrying him with her wherever she goes. When they were little she’d complain: Why does Peter have to come too?  She and her cousin Cece were awful to him, the tag-along. Leaving him places as a mere toddler. In the reflecting pool behind Cece’s house. It had been drained for winter, but Alice can still see the clot of dead leaves, the few inches of water in the deep end. He could have drowned. But now she feels like she carries him inside her like a stone. She’s the only one left. He left her with a tin canister of ashes. He left her holding their stories.

The waiter sets down her sandwich, and her glass of wine. Alice nods her thanks, takes a sip, watches the people walk past the café, people who still live out there, in the regular world. People going to work, or shopping. People who aren’t walking memorial plaques, bouquets swinging like metronomes as they walk. She misses being out there. It is her fervent hope to one day make it back outside, back out to the normal world, out of this isolating tunnel of grief.
Johnny Cash is singing “Hurt” in the chapel at Salpêtrière. She’d come for the Nan Goldin exhibit and the last thing she expected to hear is Johnny Cash. Her lifeboat this past year, those late songs. The voice getting rockier, especially after June died. Johnny Cash died the day before Peter’s last birthday. A little over a year ago. Peter had a birthday right before he’d died. They’d all had dinner in their friend Sam’s restaurant. Peter wore a kid’s blue birthday hat.

Alice is thrown. Johnny Cash. The album she’d played, loud, when she needed to cry. Here in Paris, in the chapel of this old mental institution. What was it the sign said? “A prison for prostitutes, and a holding place for the mentally disabled, criminally insane, epileptics, and the poor.” It was also, she read, “notable for its famous population of rats.” Charcot practiced here. She remembers reading him in grad school, after Freud, before Lacan. The things she remembers.

Useless fucking Theory. What good is Theory when it can’t help with something like this? Peter dead, Alice standing in a nearly-bare chapel in Paris on the anniversary of his death waiting to get into a Nan Goldin installation about her sister the suicide, while the voice of a dying Johnny Cash booms from the speakers around her. Theory. The locked room in which academics sought to escape from all this messiness. From feeling and sorrow and love. This isn’t just a linguistic construction she is experiencing. Losing Peter is more like losing language altogether. He was the person who carried all her stories. He was her corroborating witness.

The music pauses and a group of people emerge from behind the curtain, and climb down the metal staircase. They look shell-shocked, blinking in the daylight. There is some milling about, rifling through brochures, the actions of people who aren’t quite ready to emerge from an experience, not quite ready to go back out there. The attendant nods and they climb the staircase, duck behind the dark curtains.

Inside, they stand on a scaffolding platform, about halfway up the chapel walls, looking down into a space delineated by large projection screens. There is a diorama down there. A terrible diorama. A stiff manifestation of a sleeping woman or girl, in a bed. Her breasts exposed. An ordinary bed with ordinary nightstands cluttered with stuff, books, ashtrays, glasses. Lamps. She isn’t dead — Alice has seen dead. Peter, dead on that gurney in the Franzen-Davis Funeral home. Naked under a sheet. One ear was torn, and mended with surgical tape. Chest “flailed.” Leg broken. Dead. Not sleeping — that grey color had nothing to do with sleep. She couldn’t get past the doorway. It was him. It was Peter, they hadn’t made a mistake. And he was dead, there wasn’t any mistake about that either. It was all she needed to see. That it was him. That he was dead. She couldn’t go in there. The doorway was as far as she could go.

It was Jenny who’d gone into the room. Jenny who’d patted him on the chest. Jenny who had leaped off the couch in the funeral director’s office to come join her when Alice had asked the chorus of them, the girlfriends who had insisted on coming along, “does anyone think they need to see him?” She remembered Natalya and Barb looking at one another, their eyebrows going up, when Jenny, who was only there because she’d picked Barb up at the airport, leapt off the couch. But Alice supposes it was okay in the end. Someone had to touch him, and she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t go in that room. He was a stranger to her on that gurney. Her younger brother, they’d shared a room most of their childhood, been roommates as adults, had talked to one another nearly every day of their lives and she couldn’t walk in there. In death he was a stranger, and he scared her, and she just wanted out. So Jenny had patted him on the chest, had touched him like someone who knew him before they put him in that box, slid him into the flames.

There are projection screens behind the diorama, the story of Saint Barbara. Barbara was Nan Goldin’s sister. Barbara killed herself on the railroad tracks. Barbara was incarcerated in a mental institution for kissing black boys. The psychiatrist told Nan she’d be just like her sister, wouldn’t live past 17. All the lost ones. It isn’t like Alice is so special. Grief is normal. Everyone dies, right? So why is she here? In this chapel a year after Peter didn’t come home, trying to figure out how to keep living.

Barbara was a suicide, and Nan wasn’t. Alice thinks of her mother, her aunt Carol. Carol was a suicide, Marie isn’t. Carol drank herself to death. Lied to them, all of the kids. Carol was the stable one. Carol was the one with the house by the lake, the one who made up games, the one who took them in every time there was trouble. Carol hiding vodka bottles under the sink, in the clothes hamper. “Poor Carol,” Marie said before they figured it out. “Her sinuses are so terrible, look how her face is puffing up.” How could they not have known? Drinking herself to death. Pawning everything in the house. And Marie. Marie didn’t kill herself, she just threatens. “I guess I won’t kill myself now,” she’d said to Alice the day after Peter’s funeral. Alice was driving. It was all she could do not to pull over and order her mother out of the car. “Let’s not talk about that,” she said, calm, trying to be good. Thanks Mom, she was thinking. Don’t worry about leaving me here all alone or anything.

More music. Photos now of Goldin’s lost years. Parties in New York. Running away from home at 14. Coke in the Limelight bathroom. Spiked hair in colors, gay and straight and black and white. Cutting. Cigarette burns on her own arms. I hurt myself today, Johnny Cash sang, to see if I still feel.

The stories. Nan’s parents story about Barbara, that she was out of control, that control was important, that they could save her if they could control her. The stories. Her mother, all those years of stories about their dad, their grandmother, her boyfriends, all the people who had done her wrong, all the people who had ruined her life. The stories, about Alice’s sins, telling Peter to be careful, to watch her, telling him she’d steal his money. Stealing. All the people Marie had accused over the years of stealing from her. She and Peter had spent years parsing the stories. What did he remember? What did she remember? What was Marie’s version? Theory again — they’d decided they probably couldn’t ever know what had “really” happened, but they could agree on a version, they could agree on a version that had common elements that they both remembered, they could agree on a version that seemed to make sense in the outside world, the world outside that hothouse of story and conspiracy and paranoia in which they grew up. It’s what they did. They agreed on a childhood.

The music swells and the images continue to flash on and off the three screens. Goldin institutionalized. Goldin out. Goldin with her parents. A happy ending of sorts. Barbara killed herself but Nan didn’t. Nan’s parents did the wrong thing for the right reasons. Nan and her mother, like any family snapshot. An old lady. Her father, an old man. Goldin old. Barbara will never be old. Goldin returns to the railroad tracks. Pictures of the place, the exact place, a train flying past. The violence of trains.

Every time she drives to Bozeman for groceries, Alice has to pass that willow thicket. The willow thicket where Peter’s Bronco went off the road late that Friday night. Went off the road at “a high rate of speed.” Went off the road and flipped end over end, throwing Peter up and out the back window, his leg breaking on the way out of the truck, flipping end over end in the air until he landed, flat on his chest, “flailing” it.

It was fast, the Assistant Coroner told her that day. He wouldn’t have felt much. The leg breaking, he would have felt that, but the impact, it killed him right away.

She’d worried he’d been alive. Alive and dying alone in the dark. He would have been scared. She knew him. He would have been scared and upset and would have known he’d screwed up. He would have died upset like that. It was what worried her. But they told her it was instantaneous. They told her that hadn’t happened. Rob had gone up to walk the site. Rob who’d photographed wars. “There wasn’t any blood,” he told her. “If he’d still been alive, there would have been blood, from the broken leg probably. There wasn’t any blood. They’re not lying. He must have died right away.”

The train. Goldin uses video of the train going past. Then photos of her, now, middle-aged and standing in that railway bed. A suburban railway, embankments on either side, a bridge above. The train. Filling all three screens.

The thing is, no one found him until late the next morning. He’d hit a fence. The rancher went looking for whoever had pulled his barbed wire off, saw the skid marks. The coroner hadn’t come to her house until late afternoon. She’d been calling him all day. His cell phone, ringing out there in the willow thicket. Her voice on his voice mail. “Where are you?”

Pictures of the headstone. Barbara Holly Goldin, 1946-1965. Cece the morning of the funeral, helping Alice stuff programs. “Hey! He wasn’t older than me!” Alice had gotten the dates wrong. She’d put 1963. Alice was born in 1963. Peter was born in 1965. Cece is between them. Photo of Nan Goldin, healthy again, on a bus. Smiling. Not burning herself with cigarettes any more. A promise? Hope? Like this afternoon, watching the people go past the café, people out there. People in the outside world. The music ends and the lights come up and the half dozen people on the metal scaffolding look at one another, dazed. No one says anything as they turn, pass back through the blackout curtains, carefully descend the metal staircase. Mill around. Flip through brochures for the Festival d’Autommne. Stalling. Not quite ready to go back outside into the light, into Paris, into the city.
Alice stands on the stoop and punches in the door code. Every time she comes back to the apartment she doubts the door code. This isn’t her building, she doesn’t actually live here and there is a part of her that sees herself, every time, stuck out there on the stoop, locked out of this strange apartment building where she doesn’t belong.

She’d been the same about leaving home. All year, she’d been a wreck when she had to leave the house. She’d take the dogs, even if she was just driving over to Bozeman. She couldn’t stand it, the thought that something might happen to them. Driving over the pass, past that willow thicket where Peter died, poor Owen panting with carsickness. And this trip. She’d had to force herself to get on the plane. There was part of her that still thinks it has all disappeared behind her. Her little house she’d worked so hard to buy. Her garden. The dogs. All of it just gone, as if it never existed. Like a nightmare.

It takes a specific act of will to remind herself that thinking like that is irrational. Her house is still there. It exists, in her little town in Montana, even if she isn’t in it at the moment. She can get back to it. The point of this trip, she supposes, as she navigates the tricky corridor, courtyard, corridor setup of this building, each with its own door code. The plastic grocery bags bang against the glass courtyard doors, and the big blue bag from the baby-clothes store gets in the way, but both codes work and with relief she finds herself inside the slightly mildewy flat she’d rented for the week.

Paris isn’t working. She feels like such a loser. She’s come all the way to Paris, Paris — the place she always flees to when things get weird, and it isn’t working. She’s wasting her time wandering around moping, thinking about throwing herself in the Seine. The point of the trip is to get over it, to mark that point where she has to turn a corner, where it’s supposed to get better, and instead she just feels worse.

She puts the bags on the counter. She’s being melodramatic. Paris is fine. The Nan Goldin exhibit, for instance, was cool she thinks. Dark, probably not the sort of thing that’s supposed to cheer someone in her state up, but it kind of had. And then walking home through the Jardin des Plantes. Looking at plants, all lined up in rows, neatly labeled and there, as if it were an ordinary specimen, burdock. Late fall burdock complete with furry Velcro-y seedheads. A metal sign, pushed in the ground beside it, American Burdock, Arctium Lappa. Alice laughed out loud. Looked around for someone to tell. The bane of her childhood, coming home with burrs in her hair. The most ordinary thing she could think of, labeled, in a botanical garden. So French. She’d laughed out loud. Peter would have cracked up. It was exactly the kind of thing that made him laugh. And he wasn’t there. No one was there. She felt even more stupendously lonely. She realized she hadn’t actually spoken to anyone who wasn’t a waiter in a couple of days. She puts the baby-clothes bags on the table and goes into the kitchen to unpack her groceries.

Alice unpacks her groceries into the tiny fridge. She’s lamed out entirely on the food front. She wanted one of those chickens that rotate on the spits outside of shops up and down the rue Mouffetard, but like the flowers, she found she couldn’t negotiate the shop. She’d have to go in, and have a conversation, and figure out the French code of politesse for purchasing a chicken. It was more than she could handle. It’s not the language that’s the problem, she speaks a very broken but serviceable French, it’s the whole social interaction. Everything in France involves some sort of code — it wasn’t until that first trip to France after she finished grad school that all that Theory made sense — in France it’s true, everything is a social construct, everything is dictated by a formula of politeness, and one is either correct, or a hapless rube. Being polite is ingrained in Alice, and so, because she doesn’t know how to politely buy a chicken, because she doesn’t have the mental energy to figure that out, she went to the supermarché instead.

She bought food she’d never have eaten at home, soups in a box — cream of mushroom, a tomate frais, French frozen food — lentils with sausages, Poulet Basquaise. She’d bought some bread too, and cheese, and paté, and a bottle of wine, and some cookies. She unpacks the bags. That girl from Ohio. It was so long ago, and Alice was so mean. What was her name? The one who was afraid of everything in the market. Alice and Tim, her college boyfriend, bought everything, especially if they didn’t know what it was. Pointing at patés and strange runny cheeses and ordering cent grammes, s’il vous plait. The tarte au poireaux. “It’s not pear,” Tim said, grinning through a mouth full of pastry crumbs. “But it’s good.” Artichoke. That poor girl, so American, so clean-cut, so afraid of anything that didn’t come sealed in plastic from the supermarket. And here is Alice, all these years later, unloading her stupid little boxes of processed food. Serves her right.

Alice starts to run a bath. Thank goodness this flat has decent hot water. The last time she’d come to Paris, the flat had a tub. That first night, she’d found herself after a day of walking around a sleety Paris at Thanksgiving, naked and freezing in a bath that only filled about 2 inches before the hot water ran out. She’d been so mad. Alice squirts in a big dollop of lavender bubbles and starts to undress.

At least she managed to buy two fabulous outfits for the babies. She’d run across a Jacadi near the Jardin des Plantes and the saleslady had seen her a mile away. A new word, les jumelles, twins. Girl twins. Boy twins are les jumeaux. She hates to think what she’d just spent — the amount in Euros is sort of staggering but she didn’t even do the math in her head, she just signed. One outfit is a deep rose pink, and the other is a lighter beigey pink, both in the softest wool you could imagine. The dark rose one has a hoodie with little buttons made from ribbon roses, and the lighter pink one has a plain hoodie with fluffy mocha trim. They’re gorgeous. Gorgeous and expensive and a tangible investment in the idea that those babies are going to be okay. All summer they’d driven to Billings together, to the hospital with the NICU. Natalya is pregnant with twins. Natalya’s last baby was stillborn. Spending all that money on the babies feels like the most normal thing Alice has done in months. Normal people buy baby presents. Normal people think that pregnancies lead to babies. Alice and Talya are trying very hard to achieve such a state.

Her bath has gone cold. Alice gets out, wraps herself in one of the towels that never do seem to get dry in this ground floor flat and pours herself a glass of wine. She isn’t that hungry, so she opens a carton of mushroom soup, pours it in a bowl and puts it in the microwave. It smells pretty good, and because it was in one of those cartons, at least it doesn’t have the tinny taste of soup in a can. She flips on the television as she pads to the bedroom to get dressed, scrolling through the channels until she finds the BBC news. TV as companion, TV as background noise — she’s never watched as much TV in her life as she has this past year. It seems like weeks she was stranded on that red couch in her living room, one dog on either side, heads planted in her lap as if to keep her tethered to the world, watching bad TV for the noise, for something to do. The microwave dings, and Alice pads back to the kitchen in her PJs to get the soup.

Parking herself on the couch, she flips channels to see what’s on. A familiar landscape stops her. Montana. Robert Redford speaking French — a dubbed version of The Horse Whisperer. Alice sits on the couch in her tiny rented apartment in Paris, surviving the first anniversary of Peter’s death with a glass of wine and a bowl of mediocre soup, watching, from halfway around the world, a movie shot in the next valley over from the one she lives in. There’s the West Boulder. There’s Big Timber. There’s home. Maybe it does still exist. There it is on the TV after all.

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