Blinded by the Light
By Amy K.
My last night is still a bit blurred by the lights. Sarah, my host, had taken me to a celebratory dinner at her father’s Italian restaurant. She had had to work that night, and I’d taken a taxi cab home alone, paid the driver in euros, and typed in the code to her apartment to get inside. Sarah’s mother greeted me warmly, slurred some kind words through bisous, and patted my head gently.
“Madame? C’est possible de…?”
She interrupted me with her overly French toothy grin. Go, she said, the night is yours.
I made my way out of the apartment and down the street into Trocadero Square. Cafés lay open at midnight, espresso sifted into the air, romance seemed to ooze exactly as they assured me it would on those Parisian streets.
I stopped at the small carts which old vendors wheeled out at nine, carts which sold small pins and flags and emblems. In particular, at the cart which seemed to have the least people around it, as an old woman of about 71 caught my eye. Her eyes wandered over her display of treasures as if she were eyeing gold for the first time, inviting me to share in her magic. My fingers sifted through a particular pile of metal key chains which resembled the Eiffel Tower. “Pick one up,” I could hear her saying, “for you, mademoiselle, for you.”
As much as I had wanted to buy something from her at that moment, I was reminded of the last remaining coins I had clanging in my purse. “Désolée,” I told her.
As I began to walk away, I heard the woman call out behind me. “Mademoiselle, mademoiselle,” she chanted, as if I were a young princess left to wander the roads.
I turned around quickly, nodding my head in remorse and assuring her I couldn’t make a purchase, but her eyes pulled me back. She took my hand and placed a keychain inside it. “For you,” she said, “because you are beautiful.”
I looked downward, walking away after only having thanked her with my eyes, and continued towards my destination. Suddenly, it appeared before me, lit up in all its glory: The Eiffel Tower.
I’d been there other nights, Sarah had taken me, but on that night, the neon seemed to swirl more quickly around the structure than before. I stopped for a moment to purchase a Crepe, using the last of my coins, and smiling to myself while sitting down directly center facing the Tower.
I took pleasure in every man who passed me and winked, “belle,” they said, “belle.” I licked the chocolate off of my lips, clutched my small metal keychain, and reclined upon the old stone wall. I felt romantic. Belle, belle, belle.
Okay. Hold up. Cut. Stop the clock. You’ve got to be sitting there about now thinking, “Cut the crap, Amy, we’re not writing a Hollywood screenplay here.” Well, I’m sorry to disappoint, my entire overly-clichéd tale is true: I did go on the French Exchange, I did get a gaudy pink Eiffel Tower keychain, and perhaps least admittedly, I did spend my last night in Paris alone, lustfully staring up at the Eiffel Tower.
Secretly, I love this tale. I love thinking of myself tearing down la rue, being beautiful enough to receive the generosity of that old wrinkled woman, being alone with the night. The night was mine, my French mother had said, and I had attempted to make it so.
However, the truth is that I never really succeeded in making that night mine. I suppose according to my plan things couldn’t have gone more perfectly. To any passerby, I’m sure I appeared mysterious and cultured and independent. But, to be honest, I didn’t feel one of these things. I suppose that I thought all of the ingredients to my perfect night would add up in some perfect concoction. Deep down, I imagined a dark, brooding French men walking over to me and kissing my hand. He’d escort me to his minibike and I’d grip to his body tightly while we flew through the tiny streets on our way to some exotic French restaurant where he’d order me Escargot and feed me French dessert. Finally, he’d escort me to the top of the Eiffel Tower and perhaps propose to me; an offer which of course I would decline in my typically modest and American way.
I have to admit that in revealing my inner hopes for that night, I seem to create a rather ridiculous portrait of myself. What type of naïve person honestly holds such outlandish ideals? Surprisingly, according to Henry James, Miss Isabel Archer, the “portrait of a lady” herself, is just as outlandish as I am. In the introductory chapters of Portrait of a Lady when we are first being acquainted with Miss Archer, James is quick to state that Isabel often compares her days at Gardencourt to idealistic scenes from literature. Even in her first conversation with Ralph after her arrival in England, we see Isabel’s innocence as she says that “she had hoped there would be a lord” at Gardencourt so it would be “just like a novel!” (Portrait of a Lady, James, p. 70) While this statement seems laughable, I suppose that the reader must also take the fact that Isabel has never experienced anything other than her quaint American life before arriving in England into account. What else is she to base her knowledge upon other than the fantastical stories she has read?
I think the dangerous aspect of romanticism for both Isabel and I, is the intrusive threat it poses upon the shaping of future events. When Isabel has such marvelous ideas about the proposals of men and the landscapes of Europe, she is only setting herself up for disappointment in the end. Even when she has multiple proposals, these alone soon do not live up to her expectations—we see her refusing marriage offers and wonder whether she is doing so in order to fulfill the desires she has for her own life or the desires she has for the picture of herself in her own novel. Often as I read about Isabel, I have the sensation that I am watching a woman about to step into her starring role on a Broadway stage. Perhaps this is why I am drawn to her; I cannot help in sharing this affinity for making my life into its own play. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that much of my attraction to pursuing a life on stage as an actress is related to the desire for ideal drama that Isabel and I share. As James says, Isabel “sometimes went as far as to wish that she might find herself some day in a difficult position, so that she should have the pleasure of being heroic as the occasion demanded.” (Portrait of a Lady, James, p. 105) When Isabel searches so hard for beauty, and she actually finds it, she either can’t believe it or can’t appreciate it. I feel I have encountered this complex as even in waiting for some romantic occurrence at the base of the Eiffel Tower. In looking at the situation in retrospect, I see myself putting so much effort into creating a most ideal situation while perhaps simply having missed the great opportunities sitting under my nose.
Even now as I’m applying to college, a constant conflict arises with my parents about my desire to spend my collegiate years in California. They continually reassure me that I will be disappointed by Hollywood. They say that the desire I feel to place my hands in the cement prints of Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, the hope I have to eventually place my indents beside theirs, is a wish that one too many starry-eyed girls keep glistening in their pupils. These wishes lie in the dirty gutters of Los Angeles, they tell me, where they receive no attention and where glitter filled stardust turns into ashy soot. They neglect to remember that I spent a summer in California already. They neglect to remember that it is too late; I am hooked. They do not know that my lust for Los Angeles still mingles around inside the jewels on the rings of my fingers, in my blush of deep rouge. They do not know that my ideal has yet to be shattered. I know how it feels to sit in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower which so many claim causes romance and to feel nothing, but I can also feel the looming hopes of millions of young starlets and still feel individual in my longing for California. I believe that as easily as ideals can be broken, they can too break through.
And so, as I am in the middle of Portrait of a Lady, I await the fate of Isabel. Will she truly find a life which fulfills her idealistic hopes? Will she abandon these hopes and find happiness elsewhere? Or will she cling to her ideals and ultimately only be grasping onto hope in the end? I ask these questions of Isabel and myself, and I sympathize with Isabel because I know that you cannot simply let go of your longing to be beautiful, your desires for romantic nights, and the seemingly urgent need for drama.