Rue Nélaton

While I was in Paris in 2018, I walked past the corner of Rue Nocard and Rue Nélaton, a strange bourgeois neighborhood in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, where eight years earlier I had said goodbye to my old partner Heather for the last time, before she got in a taxi with her cat, leaving the country. It was a grotesque street in the history of France, I later learned, since at this spot in 1942, in what had once been a stadium, the Vélodrome d’Hiver, thousands of Jews had been detained before being deported to the camps. When I came back to the street, I found that the faint spring leaves were unfurling gradually, and pigeons hid up there in the trees, clumsy and furtive like flying rabbits, while so many façades frowned down at you. We had only lived in this apartment for a few weeks, at n°8 rue Nélaton, sub-subletting from some wealthy family away for the summer; what had stuck in my head from those weeks was the glass coffee table, the brightly lit kitchen, and the fractured state of our relationship at that point. Eight years later, I sat on a bench down the block and the light brightened, as if fighting to escape the fatal weights and shadows of the clouds pressing down on me. At the end of the block was the river Seine, where I found myself the only evening visitor to a memorial recalling the “racist and antisemitic crimes” committed by the French Vichy government. The memorial was artfully worded to avoid taking too much present-day official responsibility. All around me were soft brown flower husks and cigarette butts. This is just a place, I wrote in my diary, just a place, with no trace that I had ever lived here, no trace of any last embrace by a taxi, no trace of any kind of loss. This is just a place full of other places, a place full of hidden rooms, closed doors, bourgeois towers, mirrored windows, spaces within spaces, feelings within feelings; and all of a sudden the sun rose out from under the clouds, almost harshly, almost starkly, and I couldn’t help being a little warmed up.

The absence of an absence was somewhat painful to me, somewhat disconcerting. I don’t know what I had expected to find on that corner, but all I had found was the anonymous city, the ordinary city. We rarely know what anything is when we’re still in the middle of it: it takes time for histories to find their meanings, and we make sense of things later, or too late, when we see what things were on their way to becoming. It’s hard to feel loss directly, in the form of an absence. Instead you meander, you ramble around these scenes, like a worm in a broken garden, as the pigeons make hissing sounds above you. You’re here but a part of you has gone back eight years earlier, wishing that your history didn’t have to hurt. The sun comes out at dusk and yet a night wind hints at night and creeps in through your clothes. You think you know exactly where you are, but you’re completely lost; you can’t write, even though you’re writing; you want to vroom, but you are a caterpillar; you are sad but you’re not stuck; you are half in the light and half shutting your eyes so hard; you are stuck and trapped but the evening is beautiful, and there is nothing to see here, but seeing that nothingness makes the words pour out of you. I had thought that coming here might bring me closure, but what I found instead was a place where I felt the indeterminacy of everything that exists, the absolute openness of life to its own losses. Loss isn’t necessarily an endpoint; it opens things up, it’s some kind of beginning. I found nothing that day. It was just what I needed to find.

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