J'ai Deux Amours
By Madeleine Schwartz
Teacher: Sarah Morgan
I'm only half here.
My other half lives in Paris, 314 rue St. Jacques, in a pale
yellow room facing a small street. Next door is baby sister Jeanne's
room, and on the other side, Leon and Jules. Upstairs sleep Papa
and his wife Laurence. Continual movement surrounds me and I am
part of it. "J'en ai assez!!" "I've had enough!!"
Papa exclaims at least five times a meal, pulling one boy by the
ear and telling the other to eat. Laurence feeds Jeanne and calms
Papa down. At some point there are tears. I am far away from the
quiet rooms in New York, where my mother reads the newspaper silently
over the breakfast table.
School in Paris is public. The teachers don't always come, and
there are no substitutes. Twice I had no school at all because
of absences. Mme. Rannou, the math teacher, handing back a test,
tells the class that they should all consider vocational careers.
Mme. Maillot, who teaches French, tends to get overexcited when
she is mad. Once, when she decided that a student had been too
rowdy, she moved the class armoire and placed him behind it. In
English class I am half star, half trained monkey. The teacher
uses me as her tape player, reading out texts to the class. Sometimes
the status is too much and when English class comes at the end
of the day, I don't always go.
After school, I explore the city. I surf the metro to get to
some of my favorite places. In the Marais, where the old Jewish
quarter abuts hip new shops, I buy kosher sausages and admire
all the clothes that I would buy if I won the lottery. I search
for French stars in St. Germain des Pres. One sunny spring afternoon
when classes were done, I walked down to the modern Institute
Cartier, a glass building that looks out-of-place among stone
ones. Jean-Paul has created a show to celebrate his completion
f the Atkins diet; He has fabricated replicas of the most famous
dresses in bread. Women wearing breadbaskets walked around selling
black and white striped croissants and baguettes.
Sometimes, when I don't want to go far, I walk to the Luxembourg
Gardens. Regulations determine by rotation which lawns are open
for sitting and Tai Chi. I find the day's lawn and read. I exchange
my books at the English language bookshop Shakespeare and Co.
and pretend that I am following Hemingway, who came here often.
This comfort has cost me my ease in New York. I long for noisy
dinner and cringe at the taste of a rubbery American baguette.
French spurts out of my mouth when I talk with friends and I struggle
to find words in English that should come easily.
It wasn't always that way. The first time I visited my father
in Paris I was five years old. I had met him before, but I think
we both felt too out-of-place to really learn about each other.
My mother accompanied me and together we went to his apartment,
a modern building in a dreary neighborhood, where what surprised
me was how many shades of gray could exist side by side. My father
asked me questions in accented English about school and the rest
of the conversation was probably about the weather.
The next few visits, my father and I adopted the habit of taking
walks in the countryside. He would tell me different names of
plants, speaking to me slowly in English. My most intense memories
don't involve words. Once, we stopped in a field of wildflowers
on the side of the road. I was enchanted. For me, flowers had
always been fancy bouquets that my mother received as gifts for
hosting a dinner party. We picked a few and brought them back
to the car, where we found them a few days later, a red, sweet-smelling
One day, as we were ambling across a village, Papa exclaimed,
"Aha!" In the garden in front of us was a little gnome.
He was smiling, frozen in the act of pushing a wheelbarrow. Before
I could say anything, the gnome was under Papa's jacket. He walked
a little more briskly, leaving me standing in front of the house,
yelling. Finally, seeing that he was getting into the car, I rushed
after him. I was flustered and mortified. My father, stealing?
Adults weren't supposed to steal. Would he be caught? What would
the kids at school say? Why was he doing this?
I got neither answer nor explanation from Papa. The gnome moved
to a shelf where other ones were already standing. I noted the
size of the collection each time I came to visit. The gnomes crowded
the shelf after periods when Papa had made trips to the countryside,
and the population dwindled when friends each received their own
gnomes as gifts.
The number of gnomes on the shelf isn't the only thing that has
changed. Since the day when I first say Papa steal a gnome, there
have been other additions to the family. When I was seven, my
father met Laurence, and since I have two brothers and a sister.
I no longer converse in English with Papa. I don't know when I
started to speak French fluently, but I am told that when Leon
was born 6 years ago, I started speaking as if I had been doing
so all my life.
Years have passed, and yet Papa still shrugs off my questions
about garden gnomes with the same smile on his face as when I
ask him about his relationship with my mother. I've abandoned
the prospect of ever knowing why, and have come to my own conclusions
about garden gnomes. There is something incredibly delicious about
doing wrong, a wrong that does no harm. In daily life, one gets
so caught up in obligations that stealing garden gnomes is a way
to escape, because it makes no sense.
Gnomes were omnipresent in my daily life in Paris. They migrated
around the house when Jules was bored. Some days, when I came
home from school, I found a gnome standing in a corner of my room
or lying on my bed. One Christmas, I took a gnome back to New
York. It now sits on the windowsill, and although it is smiling,
it looks out-of-place.