1. I lived in France for one month when I was twenty-two, just after I’d graduated from university. Today a single month passes in an instant — you blink and it’s over — but those four weeks stretched into a gorgeous and delicious lifetime.
One of my father’s co-workers had an apartment in Paris. It was usually occupied, but there was a gap between the last tenants and the next and with my graduation approaching, my parents arranged the trip, bought me the plane ticket and gave me spending money. The apartment was a studio on Rue Perronet, just off Boulevard St. Germain, and I knew one person in the entire city, a friend from school named Hélène, who had studied in Toronto for a year. We weren’t close, but I called her when I found out I’d be going, and she sounded excited to see me again.
On my first night, she met me at the apartment and we smoked off the tiny balcony in the front room. There was only enough space for one chair, so we stood with our arms slung over the sides of the wrought iron bars and waited until her boyfriend picked us up. Jean-François drove a rusted green Citroën and he insisted I sit in the front, since I was the guest. He brought us down the Champs Elysées and when we passed the Eiffel Tower, it was dark and shadowy, its outline twinkling with little lights. Jean-François kept taking detours through the narrowest streets or slowing down to point out different landmarks, some touristy, like the Notre Dame Cathedral, some important only to him (his dentist) while other cars honked their horns behind us. If it hadn’t been for Hélène’s hovering cigarette smoke, I would’ve forgotten she was with us in the back seat.
The next evening, Jean-François came over uninvited, alone. I was sitting on the balcony — I spent most of my time there — and he honked from the street. I yelled at him to come up.
Jean-François spoke broken English and I spoke broken French, and we would spend hours talking to each other, laughing and teasing the other person’s attempts at their language. I love you, he said, and I hit him on the arm.
One weekend he drove me to his parents’ home in a town called Langres, which is known for a particular type of pungent cheese that I only pretended to like and then eventually did like, but only when I was older and no longer in contact with him. We passed champagne vineyards on the way over, golden and pale green fields stretching out into the distance like squares on a quilt, and I still remember how peaceful I felt when I realized we’d left behind the grey sprawl of Paris. It was as if the peacefulness were an entity unto itself, gently blanketing me.
Langres is surrounded by high stone ramparts and Jean-François took me for a walk along them at dusk. We saw large flocks of swallows darting back and forth above us, looking like they were going to smash headfirst into the walls, but at the last minute they swooped gracefully, impossibly, into small crevices hidden in the stones.
On our way back to Paris, Jean-François took a detour along a mountain road. Halfway up we stopped the car to get out and smoke in the fresh air and, while we were standing, I heard a soft clanging noise. I thought of a marching band or an ice cream truck, but there was no one else around. We got back in the car and drove to the highest point and found a herd of cows in a field of soft yellow-green grass. The clanging I’d heard had been their cowbells.
I saw Hélène a few times before I left and she didn’t know I was sleeping with Jean-François, but she talked about how she hardly saw him anymore and that he was a bastard and that she was through with him. I didn’t take any pictures of Jean-François and I together, so the snapshots I have are of just me in front of the Eiffel Tower, me standing along the ramparts in Langres, me on the side of the road with the cows in the background. Other than some passing references to a friend I spent time with, I didn’t even mention Jean-François in the letters I wrote back home, so for all intents and purposes, our relationship could’ve never happened. There’s no proof of it.
I was thinking about Jean-François because I was on a plane headed to Paris. Daniel bought us tickets without telling me; he just forwarded me the itinerary while I was at work, with the subject line Surprise! He planned the trip so that we would go soon after my daughter Zoe had moved away for university. The night before he bought them, I had shown up at his condo, calm, but then burst into tears when he asked me whether Zoe needed any boxes for her move. Paris, he thought, would be a good distraction.
I realized I was nervous about the flight when the plane taxied down the runway and the lights went off in the cabin. I hadn’t expected it and the darkness made me think, for a second, that something was wrong. We were seated above the wheels and I could feel the whirr and crunch of gears beneath me. I closed my eyes and reached for Daniel’s hand.
When the plane stabilized and the seatbelt sign clicked off, I opened my eyes again and smiled sheepishly. I was always slightly relieved when I noticed I still had the capacity to be surprised. For a while nothing surprised me, and I didn’t think anything would ever again. Even the most horrible things — earthquakes levelling cities, sinkholes opening up and swallowing houses and their inhabitants, planes exploding on takeoff: these kinds of events made me sad, but they didn’t surprise me. Of course they happened, I told myself; the world was unpredictable and cruel and any number of things could go wrong at any moment. It was like I’d been dulled, nerves cauterized and accustomed to electric shocks so that they’d barely quiver when the voltage got cranked up. I expected things to occur, good and bad, and when they did, an event out of the ordinary, it was simply a confirmation of my expectations. I stopped feeling this way eventually, but the fear that it would happen again, that I’d be engulfed in numbness, hovered at the back of my mind.
Recently I’ve been thinking about the importance of telling stories and talking about memories. If they aren’t shared and if there isn’t tangible evidence of them, what is the proof that they ever actually existed or occurred?
I spent the first years of my life in a house near Kirkland Lake, where my father worked as a mine geologist. When my mother talked about those years, she never failed to bring up the fact that we lived in a cottage, not a house. There was a clear distinction. A cottage was a place best suited for weekend summer visits and two-week stretches at Christmas, if you were feeling ambitious. It was not meant for year-long living, and certainly not for half a decade. The owners of the cottage rented it to the company my father worked for, and we lived in it for free as part of his salary package. There was a wood stove and a seemingly self-replenishing stack of firewood piled high outside. During the coldest parts of winter, we had to keep the faucets on a trickle overnight to keep them from freezing. “It would be quaint if it wasn’t home,” my father would say as consolation, even though he, unlike my mother, loved living there.
When my father got a promotion, we left and never returned, not even for a visit. The drive was too long, but mostly it was because my mother refused to go back. She wasn’t the type of person to flaunt her opinions, but when she had convictions, they were unshakable.
My father enjoyed the quiet of our rural home, and in the winter, he liked the feeling of his family barricaded as one against the snow, the harsh climate. His career was built on examining the particular geographies of the Canadian landscape, so he respected them, was humbled by them in a way most people can’t seriously muster, but when he was offered a research position back in Toronto, one far less hands-off than what he was doing in Kirkland Lake, he knew he had to move back. For my mother. It was her turn. I was too young to remember any hardships, but I could always easily conjure up an image of the lake. How big it was. I visited the area one more time when I was older. I was with my first husband and I was a few weeks pregnant with Zoe, but didn’t know it yet. I’d expected the lake to have shrunk as I got older, but it still seemed as vast as when I was a small child.
I remember the lake most clearly in the summer, the darkness of that water until you peered in and realized that it wasn’t actually opaque, but clear and dark green, and that there were things floating in it, particles and feathery plants and sometimes, if you were lucky, a small swarm of fish, like little flecks of gold that your father could catch and show you. Removed from the water the fish were actually muddy brown and twitchy, still magical, but in a different, grotesque way. I would dip my toes into the lake slowly and jump back as the cold shot up my leg and into my body. I remember walking along the dock, the shuffle of dry, bare feet on wood, my mother holding my hand. I got a splinter once and my father extracted it with a hot needle, holding my foot firmly with one hand while he prodded it out with the other. And there were so many pine trees! A giant mass of them surrounding us, and the smell of fallen needles on the ground everywhere. Stepping on them barefoot was like being nipped by invisible mites. I don’t remember talking much when I was there, but I remember screaming and yelping and laughing in delight.
I grew up thinking my mother hated that time, regretted it, but then years later the basement flooded, and although the majority of the items destroyed were junk, the photo album from those years was also ruined. I was with her when she found the waterlogged book, the pages swollen, smelling murky and mouldy. She flipped it open and cried instantly, the loss of those pictures and that time.
My parents are now dead, so they can’t vouch for me anymore, for my existence between the ages of zero and five. The photos have been ruined for years; Zoe has never seen what I look like as a baby. I keep meaning to tell her what I remembered about growing up there, but I wasn’t sure why it would matter when there were so many other things I should tell her first.
Maybe it doesn’t matter what memories are shared or what photographs are taken. Whatever happens shapes me as an individual, and how I’m shaped affects the people I know, and how I react in given circumstances. Maybe that’s all that counts, that’s sufficient proof.
About the Author: Teri Vlassopoulos is a Toronto-based writer. Her first book, Bats or Swallows, was published by Invisible Publishing in 2010 and she is currently working on a novel. "Proof" is an excerpt from that novel. You can find her at http://bibliographic.net.
Story Song: "Spill Yer Lungs" by Julie Doiron