Pieces of Eight
When, in my thoughts, I find myself walking through the streets and allées of Nantes, along its quais and across its squares, my gait—hesitant, turning this way and that, getting lost much like my faltering memory twenty years later—differs little from the way I wandered through the city during my first months there.
Because even then, in those streets, I walked as if in a dream—no, as if in a deep sleep—, walked without paying much attention to my surroundings or the other pedestrians and vehicles around me, as though I were invulnerable, or perhaps a ghost (not yet alive? already dead?!). I walked without destination, changing direction and wandering into the darkest, remotest quarters without even stopping to think that I could become a target. I’d sit down in the dirtiest, smokiest bars and read the original French edition of Thomas d’Angleterre’s Tristan fragment and attempt a letter to Annemarie, or I’d jot something down in my blue notebook. Sometime after midnight, I’d trudge through the Allée de la Gloriette and respond to the women’s come-ons, their “L’amour ou la pipe?” with the same words over and over again: “Non, merci beaucoup, Madame,” more often than not wondering if “Mademoiselle” wouldn’t have been more appropriate. And then, at the gate to the tower I was staying in and under the watchful gaze of the Mesdames or Mademoiselles (and a few Messieurs hiding in the bushes, too?), came a long and clumsy search as I held my backpack up under the meager light of the streetlamp or entranceway or spread its contents out on the ground, picking through them as I looked for my keychain, no, for the key.
Once I wandered into a railway tunnel, holding my camera out in front of me like a blind flashlight. The tunnel was decommissioned, it stank of excrement, but I kept walking, venturing deeper into the long tube, which grew darker and colder with every step. My plan was to photograph the graffiti spray-painted on the inside walls. My camera’s shutter release had broken off, but with the help of a paper clip, bent so the tip made contact with the mechanism inside, it worked almost as well as it did before. I walked until I could no longer see the walls in the darkness, and took a picture. It was only when the flash lit up the tunnel around me that I could see where I was. On the photo I had developed in the Galeries back in town, a single black scribble was visible. It read: “Les humains vivent au froid.”
I wandered from the internet café to the tower, from the tower to the tobacconist, from the tobacconist to the hypermarché on Avenue Carnot, and then back to the tower again, where I grabbed the dirty T-shirts, underpants, and socks that had been piling up at the bottom of the wardrobe since I’d come, threw them into the bags I’d brought them in, and left—loaded with two suitcases and a man-high Interrail backpack, as if I’d just arrived, as if this were still my first day here! (or: as if I were leaving again, moving on?!)—, walking across to the empty lot where the harbor used to be, covered now in gravel and asphalt, the lot I’d gaze down at from the roof terrace whenever I went up for a smoke.
The laundromat was right on the Quai de la Fosse, a few doors down from the internet café but still a ways past the Aquarius bar—a long way for someone carrying such a heavy load. The salon was old but clean, with yellow walls and large windows overlooking the quay. The sills, as I immediately discovered, were just right for sitting and reading once the washing machines began their cycle.
I emptied out the bags and loaded the clothes into two of the ten or twelve machines there, and then I went over to the huge iron contraption at the back of the room, which had a kind of dial along with rows of buttons and compartments with little windows attached to them. It turned out to be the system’s control center.
After dropping several ten-franc coins into the iron box, cranking the wheel, and pressing several buttons according to the instructions posted on the wall next to the machine, I purchased a portion of detergent and watched through one of the little windows as it trickled through a tube and down into the plastic cup waiting below. I opened the hatch, took out the cup, and poured it into the dispenser, and then, after activating the first machine, I dropped a few more coins into the box and proceeded through another sequence of buttons and dials and turned on the second one. And then I sat down on one of the windowsills, leaned against the backpack I’d wedged against a side wall, and opened my book to the Tristan fragment.
It had stopped raining outside. Gazing at the many puddles that had formed on the quay, reflecting the rays of the evening sun peeking out from under the bottom rim of the clouds, it was as though the Loire were sparkling now where the port used to be, as though I were sitting here, at my window, on the real quay, as if I were dangling my legs (which weren’t “dangling” at all, but were propped up against the opposite wall!) from the seawall, no, from a railing—as if they were dangling above a river, or the sea. . . Now and then a car passed by.
If I had cried out
“. . . when . . .
. . . holy
. . .
. . . in this mad desire.”
[A blush] colors her face,
[Then it loses all] color
[As happens to a woman] by sea
Seized and imprisoned.
[On Tristran] she leaned
[No more intimately than] was proper—
[If this pleased her] it was no miracle.
“[God’s] grace come to me—
[The sea] so holds me—
[How can I] please my heart
[While embarked] on the sea?
[Had I known] what the sea was like—
[That it would be] like this—
[Never would] I have placed myself
[on a ship. . .]”
While I was at sea with Tristan and Isolde, leaning not against my backpack, but on the shoulder of Marke’s nephew Tristan (the same Tristan who’d killed her Uncle Morold, but whom she was fond of, at least since they took a love potion together that was intended for Marke and her—far more than good manners would normally allow!), on board the ship with Isolde that took her from Ireland to England and to her future husband Marke—while I stood at the railing with Tristan, feeling Isolde lean into me, and how her body jostled lightly against mine, in time with the ship, in one and the same rhythm with the waves; while the engines pounded and roared and the sun outside sparkled on the water and shone upon Isolde’s face, which resembled Annemarie’s to an amazing degree, one moment blushing and the next pale, looking up at me from the lines of text on my lap—at exactly this moment, a couple, joined in a tight embrace, entered the laundromat.
They had nothing with them but a guitar case. But where are the bags, I wondered, peering at them over the top of my book, where’s their laundry? The two slipped out of one another’s arms. The woman had long, light-colored hair with reddish overtones; she sat down at the window sill in the next bay. The man was gaunt and grim-looking, and sported an undershirt, dreadlocks, and an anchor tattoo on his upper arm; he headed straight for the iron contraption I’d dropped my coins in. He took the guitar out of the case, which was when I noticed that it wasn’t a guitar at all, but something else. Something completely different. The instrument the man pulled out of the case was, in fact, a kind of weapon (an axe?).
Ignoring the instructions, the man stuck the pointy end of his tool in the slot of the little box I’d dropped my coins in. He then proceeded to hammer it in, angling it down to widen the gap just enough for the coins to spill out. He expertly caught them with the plastic cup meant for the laundry detergent, and then returned the container to the contraption with a quick, well-aimed blow from his “guitar.” The difference was invisible to outside eyes.
It wasn’t until he turned around that he spotted me. “Tu dis rien, eh?” he growled.
“Non, non, Monsieur,” I replied assiduously, “je ne dis rien.” Immediately, I wondered whether my use of the correct grammar (“je ne dis rien” instead of his slangy “tu dis rien”) was somewhat misplaced, given the situation. I resumed reading. The last rays of sun peeking from beneath the clouds drifting across the sky transformed the wet quay outside into a glistening, shifting surface. From the adjacent window well, where the man took a seat next to the woman, there came an occasional rustling, a sound of giggling. I heard her whisper.
“As you believed, my friend;
If you weren’t (here?), I wouldn’t ever have been,
And I wouldn’t have known anything about the sea.
It’s odd that people don’t hate the sea
When they know that at sea there is such bitter ill,
And that its anguish is so bitter!
If I can ever get out of it,
I’ll never go back in, I think.”
Then, silence fell at the neighboring window. The first of the machines I’d turned on also fell silent. I got up and transferred the load of laundry into one of the two dryers to the side of the entrance; I walked back to the contraption, tossed a few more coins into the slot, set the timer on the dryer, and sat down with Tristan again.
Tristran has noted every phrase,
But she has confused him here
By “the sea” on which she has rung such changes
That he doesn’t know if this pain
She has is from the “sea” or “the sea,”
Or if she is saying “sea” for “the sea”
Or is saying “the sea” is the “sea.”
And suddenly, I understood that when Isolde said “the sea” (“la mer”), she meant all sorts of things. She used “the sea” to denote the actual “sea” (“la mer”) as well as “bitterness” (“l’amèr”) and the verb “to love” (“l’amer”)! No wonder Tristan was confused. I had never dreamed of the possibility that a single word could mean such completely different things. I wondered if that happened a lot—and about everything that might have escaped me previously. . .
When Annemarie, saying goodbye to me in Graz, said that she didn’t know whether what she felt for me was still “love,” was she talking about the same thing as Carmen, who had called me “amor” at the Croatian more of Silba? And when I took my leave of Annemarie that first time, was I right in saying that I now “loved” someone else? What if, in reality, my feelings for Annemarie and Carmen had been about two completely different things? Just as the Croatian Adriatic was also called the “sea,” but the warm, still waters I’d swum in with Carmen were altogether different from the surf, sandy beaches, and storms of the Breton Atlantic, storms like the one Annemarie and I got caught in while we were camping just three years ago?
And who knows, I thought as I inserted one of the paper clips I always carried around with me for the camera into the Tristan page as a bookmark, who knows: maybe I wasn’t all that far off when I left Annemarie that first time. I mean, what I stammered that gray summer day into Annemarie’s light-green eyes brimming with childlike tears. Yes, maybe that time, I actually came close to telling the truth, just like that, on gut instinct: and yet, as I now knew all too well, I still managed to say the wrong—no, even worse, the most brutal—thing: “I love someone else, but—I don’t hate you.”
When the second washing machine reached the end of its program, I got up again and loaded the laundry into a neighboring dryer. Then I dropped the last coins I had into the slot. According to the digital display, the money was just enough for a drying time of twenty minutes. I pressed the “Start” button, and the drum began to turn.
As soon as I sat down again, Tristan, as I now called him in my mind, was back at the contraption. He pulled out his tool, inserted it as before, and hammered; and once again, coins—the very coins I’d just thrown in!—rattled into his cup. He put them in his pocket with the rest. The woman sauntered up and wrapped her arms around him. When the two of them marched past me in step and out of the salon, Isolde’s hair shone as brightly as the quay outside in “the last sun”.
“Au revoir, Madame!” I stammered. And then immediately wondered if I hadn’t (yet again!) made a mistake. “Mademoiselle” might have been more appropriate.