In Absentia

I wasn’t dressed appropriately for this ride, but when La Déesse calls, only the most self-defeating, self-loathing chump would pout this round.

Paris is stunning already. The City of Lights, people used to call it, and at night it can seem like a transplanted fairy kingdom, something lofty like that. But it’s daytime now and brisk winds are whipping through my bespoke linen shirt (hey, what can I say? I got an advance, I splurged. Spend it while you got it, ’cause it don’t last) and vest, and I can’t keep my clove lit in our velocity. At this altitude, however, there’s nothing to complain about in the view: Paris is remarkable in its geographic layout, with arms reaching out and lanes crossing a little like a spiderweb, with the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile right in the center—obviously, in the heart of the star. There’s something cheery about its symmetry and layout, the organization. It makes one think of jolly civic designers coming together and trying to envision their ville aimée from… well, the altitude of the gorgeous creature who brought me along.

She turned her head to the side just the way a planet rotates in the heavens. Her immense, fleshy cheek parks in a sharp grin. “What do you think, Monsieur l’écrivain? Is it not glorious? Inspired?” She winked cutely at me, if an eyelid like the canopy of a Mini Cooper convertible can be cute. Well, it can.

There’s no room for cynicism, up here in the clean, cool air. “It is literally inspiring, O my muse. I don’t know how we haven’t blown my Oxfords straight off, when the air rushes in straight down to my toes.”

She turned away again, eyes far above her mighty, broad strides. For a moment the waves of her long hair washed over and around me.

“No, it’s true, ma déesse. I’m not among the first thousand to declare this one of the finest cities in the world: ‘To gild refined gold, to paint the lily … is wasteful and ridiculous excess.’ All I can do is spread my arms and open my eyes and drink it all in.” I watched the arms of the streets rotate far below like slow-moving wagon wheel. “I just have to push from my mind that Napoleon straightened these crooked streets, the better to fire a cannon into the bellies of his inevitable protesters.”

Again, that huge eye rolled toward me and rolled away. She knows that we love many of the same things about this town, “but I don’t think it is very healthy for you to dwell on such dark thoughts. It’s bad for your stomach, isn’t it?”

Now I look away, pursing my lips. She’s referring to a time not long ago when I was smarting off to her—correctly, if impudently—and she flicked the nail of one massive middle finger into my midsection. Such is her grace that she forgave me not writing that week while I recovered. “I should feel terrified of these heights, but I don’t. I’m higher than any building around here, with a purer, clearer fall, but I’m with you, so I’m not.” Briefly I stroked her broad, bare shoulder with my minuscule fingertips. “I really should be. The greater the heights we attain, the more devastating the inevitable fall.”

“Oh, pooh,” she said, pushing out her fat bottom lip to a heroic degree. “Many glorious souls simply climb down the other side of the mountain, rather than pitching themselves headlong and calling it fate. And anyway, this isn’t a concern of yours, not for a long while yet! Why fill your head with that stuff and nonsense, when you should be drinking in… this!” She spread her immense arms wide, wide enough to embrace the sky like a sleepy child, and of course I couldn’t help notice the way her perfect bosom swung and bounced in the rarefied atmosphere. Who would I be if I didn’t? But she meant the city, all of her lovely city, her literal stomping grounds—though my muse was careful never to dent neither car nor skull as she strode, never appeared to any peeping eye that might wander upward into her thighs. I doubt they could see me around her shoulder, either. Trips like this were just for us, quiet and invisible moments to strip away as much of ourselves as possible and immerse in the sensation of anything, anything else, to reduce ourselves to as perfect observers as we could be.

She brought me with her on these journeys, and these journeys called her to me. Reciprocal, recursive. I had waken up badly this morning, stiff in one hip, gassy from last night’s poor dining choices, and stupidly dehydrated. There was no excuse for that but my own laziness and carelessness. I was working on restoring my sleep, but along with that must come hydration and exercise, and I’d stepped out to my lovely little balcony to watch the sunrise. Well, I couldn’t see the sunrise from the side of the building I’m on, but I could see how it tinted the rest of the sky and flowed over the buildings below and around me. That was when I took my first real breath in a long time, and before I knew it, there was the giantess beside me, her head by my balcony, basking in the same view.

Now we perambulated the upper altitudes and observed the broad boulevards, where they emptied into a park or narrowed into a shopping district. The brands, the styles, I was eager to see them all, and then my attention drifted to une boulangerie, and I knew exactly where I had to prendre mon petit déjeuner. And her nostrils flared, as though picking out from up here the melt of butter into rising, flaky crusts. I’ve begged her, once or twice, to permit me to toss some baked goods into her waiting maw, but her broad face tightens imperiously with great restraint: “Don’t you know, women like me eat writers for breakfast? I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again if you’re not careful.”

Gosh. Who wouldn’t take the opportunity to throw themselves into the gullet of their muse? Couldn’t only good things come of this? Yet she seems convinced otherwise, and for now I’ll respect that.

“You’ve been doing very well for yourself lately, have you not?” We rounded Boulevard Pereire and the sun beamed upon her right side and then her left. I could only imagine how her buttocks must glow in the sunrise; it wouldn’t take much effort to find out, but at what cost?

Instead, I answered. “Yes, I’ve been practicing some momentum. I had a good few weeks, and you know, I don’t want to lose the… magic, I guess. It feels good right now.” I looked at her, at the curve of the back of her jaw; bold, early light glowed like fire in the hair spilling behind her head. “I want to keep it up. I want this to go on, as long as it can, whenever I have a moment. It’s really all I can think about all day, and I’ve thought about breaking the rules and taking measures to write during the day, when I should be doing other things entirely.”

“I hope that you do not… burn out, again.”

“It doesn’t feel like that.” But I understood her concern: years ago, I was very excited about producing and introducing myself through my efforts, and I burned very hotly for a long time until I necessarily melted down. “I don’t want you to overreact or anything.”

“Should I be worried about you?”

“No, exactly not. You should be the opposite of worried about me.” I scrunched my eyes, thinking. “There are other ways to care for the things we love than worrying about them. Some tarot reader said that; I overheard it.”

I could see her cheek bunch up in a wide smile. “That is a delicious thought to play around with. But what you say sounds familiar, and I wonder if it’s that—”

“No, ma déesse, it’s fun again. It’s fun for now,“ I amended quickly, but it was too late.

“Oh! Ma petite épée! This is wonderful to hear! How long has this been going on? When did you know?“

I waved her questions off exactly as I’d wave off oncoming traffic. “Nope, nope, nope. I’m keeping this casual, I’m not examining it very hard. I’m only focused on the fun of sitting in this chair and selecting from a broad and deep buffet of long-forgotten stories.”

“You have many of these.” I sensed her tone darken slightly. “You have quite many of these, I think. Old, forgotten children waiting in the dark for their master to deign to shine his light their way.”

If I was too tiny to see her expressions at this sharp angle, she was too massive to turn and perceive mine. Sometimes she could be so fucking dramatic, and perhaps needlessly bludgeon-like. “But they waited patiently, either sleeping in peace or burning with the faith that one day the massive lighthouse of my soul would swing around… you know what, I’m already tired of this contrived metaphor.”

“Oh, pooh.”

“I’m just having a good time with it, and I’m very carefully having a good time with it.” I looked down the sheer slope of her arm at the embassy for Togo and the society for protecting animals. Such a gorgeous, slender arm, proportionally speaking. How I would’ve loved to swing through those long, graceful fingers, wrestle with them for a happy afternoon. “It’s still light-hearted, unburdened by obligation. Ha, for that matter, I’ve thought so much about ending it…”

The colossal woman nearly stumbled. “You must not say such things! You have no idea how this wounds me to hear. What greater failure would there be for me than—”

I thumped her great shoulder with my widdle fist. “No, not like that, ma déesse. (Though of course I still think of that, too.) What I mean is… well, I’m tired of saying it, but thinking about my place in the system, where my cog fits in the grand machine. For that matter, I feel like I live in the heart of an engine that was long ago removed from the vehicle and is resting, rusting by the side of a garage. And I’m the only one who hasn’t noticed the cold, and I still harbor the belief that it’s all waiting for me to spark to life again, and everything will be fine when it does.“

Her laughter quite disturbed a flock of birds gliding high above Rue de Courcelles. “So it is that the little man is evidently tired of fraught metaphors, no?”

I sighed deeply. “There’s something about being this close to you that does funny things to my spirit. You know this, you rely on it, I think. But I’m serious, sometimes I feel like a broken gear spinning itself out in defunct machinery, or not even spinning. Trusting that the machine… you know what, you’re right. This is dumb, too.” I switched from gazing beneficently upon the metropolitan arena to picking out the few stars that hadn’t yet been hidden by the brilliance of the dawn.

“So, what has changed, my charred and angst-filled macaron?”

“I don’t know what. It was the determination of the last month, I think.” Did that make sense? Last month was yet another novel-writing contest in which I had no intent to write a novel, but used the time to build out a lot of short stories for various uses. “It was intimidating to stare into the throat of 50,000 words, or it should have been. It certainly has been before. Now, it’s just looking at one day of those words, pulling out my old habit of writing 2,000 words in a sitting. And when you write that many words in a night, they can’t all be good. The difference is that I anticipated that they would not be, and I let them be not good. I let myself write crap, just to get into the practice of writing a lot and completing a daily goal. And if you’re going to do something as heedless as that, you might as well have fun with it, right?” I thought about the new ideas I’d acted on, that I hadn’t allowed myself to do in the past. I’d thought that I was obligated to continue working on things I’d started: “Instead, I took up the infuriating (to the reader) habit of launching into all sorts of new and unrelated stories. Stuff that was not intended to go anywhere or lead to anything. It was just writing for writing’s sake, and if nobody read it, or if five people accidentally read it, or if a thousand people broke the laws of the universe and read it, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t for them, it was for me.”

I tilted my head at that. For so many years, I’d argued bitterly against the concept of writing for myself, then just as bitterly noting that this was “the correct answer, of course,” and I knew it but couldn’t live up to it. I certainly hadn’t let myself. “Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge all said that the best way to write a story was to hold one person in your mind and write for them. Don’t write for an audience, and do not write to please everyone, because this is impossible and self-defeating. You stray further and further away from what you want to write, accruing an audience (if one wants that) very slowly that way, but it’s the right audience. No, you write to please one person, make them laugh and cry, get them angry or frighten or arouse them, and them alone.”

The gigantic woman shimmied her shoulders saucily. “And is it me you think of, when you write these things?” She assured me she was kidding while I answered, and I knew, really knew, that she meant it.

“Don’t take offense, ma déesse, but no. I haven’t written for you in a very long time, to be perfectly frank. I haven’t.”

She took it in stride, as she did everything between Avenue des Ternes and Avenue de la Grande Armée in a single step. “This is fine. You know I’m pleased with anything you do; you cannot write anything specifically for me.”

“I have had held others in my mind. I’ve written stories to them the way one writes letters to a friend, definitely.” My breath shuddered in my chest, and not from the cold. Well, not the chill of the lower atmosphere. “But these targets shift, and sometimes they go away. There’s nothing to be done about that but allow it to happen. Otherwise you just make an ass of yourself.” I was putting a lot of energy into being glib, or else that energy would have dumped somewhere a lot uglier. “But lately I’ve been writing for myself, like ‘this is my idea, I’m going to see how it turns out, for me’.”

“And how do you feel about this new process? Is it working for you?”

I demonstrated my answer by spreading my arms, lifting clear of her shoulder, and performing a couple barrel-rolls across her nose.

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