I have been under the weather since late New Year's Day. Some pestilential cold I picked up off a tainted 50 centime piece, the exhalations in the metro of a Typhoid Marie, or perhaps the damp fingers of a friend-of-a-friend's two-year-old. Fine. File under "Winter Hazards."
From wherever it came, the truth remains that I have spent most of this year asleep, and when not asleep, I have not been quite myself. My body is very confused in general, and so feeling strange -- just in a blanket kind of way -- is becoming normal. My responses to stimuli are all out of whack, my synapses are out of synch, and my usual je ne sais quoi kind of buoyancy has sunk to the bottom of the deep end.
Oh, and I can't speak French so good no more.
The good news is that I am getting better. And that I was able to rally last Wednesday night and head to David's apartment for King Cake and company. One must get one's galette des rois on while one can. In the end, I was able to give it up for Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior for exactly 40 minutes before having to go home. But it was well worth it, simply to see the dozen smiling faces that awaited upon my arrival.
And as I told David "it would have killed me to know that everyone was here, and that I was home in bed." He replied that he was happy that I had made the effort, and that frankly he was relieved to see me in my reduced state. "You Americans are always so healthy, so energetic." Luckily for him, he's a fiercely loyal and wonderful friend. Otherwise I'd have given him a healthy, energetic coup de grâce, if you feel me.
So when I found myself feeling a little strange in Monoprix the other night, I thought very little of it. I had felt out of sorts walking in, light-headed as I briefly flipped through a rack of t-shirts, and listless as I selected shampoo. So when I felt as if I was being watched in the paper and stationery aisle, I ignored it. For a moment, anyway.
Until I realized I wasn't feeling strange at all. I was feeling a little girl -- about five, but closer to four -- nearly pressed up against me, and clearly waiting for my attention. I recognized her from the toy aisle, where she had been pushing the button repeatedly on some talking toy that said, "C'est gagné!" ("We won!"), and where I, in a brief moment of insanity, was considering buying some Christmas decor at half off for next year. (That I was considering this at all proves just how unwell I am.)
Her eyes were huge, but hard to read. Very serious for such a relatively small person. I smiled at her. And did the thing you always do in France. The thing that you always do. I said, "Bonjour."
"Where's my mom?" she asked.
And she stood there, just like that, waiting for my answer. Her head was tilted back in that way kids do when they are trying to make themselves heard by someone much taller than they are. Her pink parka was buttoned up all the way, and her little backpack snugly over both shoulders. Her hair was parted on the side, the better to make way for two very tidy ponytails.
That wasn't seriousness in her eyes, necessarily. It was a little fear, I decided, mixed with the difficulty of finding the courage to ask a stranger for help.
"Are you lost?"
"O.K." I said, steering her gently by the shoulder. "We'll go find her. Is she tall or short?"
Stupid question, of course. To her, all adults are tall. On the other hand, I was happy to see that my French had come back.
"What did Mommy want to buy today? Some clothes for you?" The Monoprix is small, but we had a choice of two directions in which to head off first, and I wanted to choose the right one.
"I don't know."
Again, my bad. I decided I needed to give her a question she could answer. "What's your name?"
"OK, Laetitia. My name is Jean. And you and I, we are going to find your mom." She didn't look convinced of this at all. She was nowhere near crying, but the look in her eyes in fact made me feel as if I had somehow underestimated the gravity of the situation. As if it were just she and I, on the surface of the moon, all by ourselves. So I said, "Don't be afraid." N'aies pas peur.
And so we headed toward the kids' clothes. I figured her mom would be there, or in the women's department, which was not far after that. She walked slowly beside me, with a sort of measured gait.
"N'aies pas peur," I said again. Just to remind her.
I bet it did take a certain amount of little-girl courage to ask for my help. So in addition to feeling immediately and very reflexively protective of her, I felt her pain. I never have liked to ask strangers for
anything. I wet the floor of the Safeway in Carmel once, when I was
five, preferring that somehow to asking a store clerk where the
What couldn't have been more than about 15 seconds later, I saw her mom. I recognized her by the way she was smiling at Laetitia. Without any concern or reproach. She extended a hand to her daughter, and said, "N'aies pas peur."
She thanked me, and that was that.
In truth, I still don't like asking strangers for anything. Which is super-ironic, because as someone who is always on the lookout for work, and who is currently, as it happens, looking for an apartment, I am little but a machine that has to ask strangers for things. I don't even have the words for how uncomfortable I am with that. Most days I'd rather wet the floor than pick up the phone. Honest.
But maybe -- maybe -- it would be easier if I could only learn to accompany myself through life with even a fraction of the empathy I had, reflexively and instinctively, for Laetitia. And if I could learn to say to myself, "n'aies pas peur," with just as much tenderness. And with the same conviction. It sounds like a good goal, anyway. And the closest thing to a new year's resolution you're getting out of me.