We have fallen into the TV while watching the events in Paris. We can’t get out and don’t want to. We, that is, my partner and I, my friends and family and colleagues throughout New York City: Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx. We don’t want to go too far from home, from the TV or radio, even as reporters report the same news over and over and air the same interviews, the father and son who survived the concert that turned carnage, the blond British journalist who somehow dodged the bullets at a Cambodian restaurant, along with so many stories of those who played dead in order to live. We endure the repetition to gain on the reality of the thing – for it feels unreal, surreal, wrong – and for any new information that might make sense of the nonsensical. And, more, we do so out of loyalty, to be caught in as close a proximity to the shattered world we once knew as whole and as wholly itself – Paris, rightly celebrated as the lovers’ city, the gourmand’s city, the walking city, the reading city, never mind the city of lights. We get e-mails that tell us to light candles in our windows at nightfall for Paris, and we do it because what else can we do?
When I do this for a second night, Sunday, as the sun goes down, I see a cruise ship slip by on the Narrows, the deep part of the East River just outside my apartment window, and am shocked. There are still cruises? Vacations had? Now, when Paris is under attack? And I remember how powerful and unrelenting life is in its beating on and how we humans scramble to seize our part of it and pursue all of the things a place like Paris has given us, certainly me, so generously: a continuity of culture and sturdy, unapologetic culture expressed by art and architecture, certainly food and wine, and literature, not only by way of France’s towering authors but through a reverence for literature there, foreign and domestic works, that people like me wish could be had here, in the US, but can’t be, not in the same way, with the same sense of history and expanse and willingness to know and know deeply, fully, and darkly.e’
When I was a student in France, in college, the mother of the family with whom I lived called Americans “babies.” She said it with affection, and I didn’t disagree, because I was a baby then, 19, my brain still completing its neuronal pathways and networks, opinions and habits forming and unforming. During that time I read Celine and Sartre and got acute instruction on humanity’s darker potentialities. I believed I’d lost my innocence at last or at least was making progress on losing an American naiveté that had kept me from seeing things as they were rather than how I’d very much like them to be. It was 1980s, and I was regularly schooled, and often scolded, about just how nefarious the American government was (recently handed from Reagan to the first Bush) and about the sins it was committing internationally. I took the berating as a tonic, good for me in the long run, though I might meekly assert, “I did not vote for Bush.” And I didn’t vote for his son, either, or for a way of dealing with international relations that often puts use of force before diplomacy – even facts – and conjures the “us vs. them” of video games or Hollywood action films.
In the many images shown us from 13 November is the shot of a woman hanging from a window in the rear of the Bataclan theater. We know from video and follow-up reports and interviews that a man saved her and that she was pregnant. “She wanted to let go,” we are told. Among the looping images shown of 9/11 you see bodies in the air. These people did let go and in numbers, and how small they look: Even before they were dead, they became debris, lost to us and falling and falling, forever falling. How could that have been real and not another scene from a Hollywood film? But it was and I can see those images given us then as distinctly in my mind’s eye as I see what is on CNN now: American politicians criticizing Obama for not declaring war, the ruddied, porcine face of Donald Trump shaping the word “weak” with his strange, angry little mouth.
The media here and elsewhere has been criticized for not covering the recent attacks in Beirut as it has those in Paris. And that criticism is well deserved and the conversation about how and where we parse our compassion and our attention a tonic – necessary – but Paris for Americans is a place of aspiration. We have been raised – and quite contentedly – on its romantic images, and the city and by extension the country is embedded in our expressions of love and sensuality. When we kiss with our tongues, we French kiss. When my novel was published there and was well received, a writer friend of mine said, “Of course the French love it; they love sex and death.” Whereas Americans often fretted that my book was “too dark,” French readers saw experiences of everyday and psychology they recognized and could embrace. The French are more pragmatic, even nonplussed, than Americans about human appetites and mortality; their history is longer than ours; they have endured much. Indeed the mother of the family with whom I lived in Paris replied to my concerned e-mail about the terrorist attacks, “Do you remember we had the same problem for 15 years in Paris? People can’t stop making war, each century in another way.” She is right of course, and during the time I lived with her and her family the city was recovering from bombings attributed to Hezbollah and French soldiers were posted in the streets armed with assault rifles and scowling expressions. CNN, a medium of the moment, has not mentioned these attacks or how Paris recovered itself. As to whether it can again, I force myself to look away from the TV for answers. Today I walked to a pier that gave full view of the new World Trade tower. Days ago, for two nights, its spire bore the colors of the French flag. That spire usually a vivid but ghostly white is what allows the building to make claims about its great height. For years we New Yorkers worried and argued about what would stand in the place of the towers that had been torn from our skyscape here, but I for one immediately liked One World Trade upon seeing it completed. It was not boastful and looked resilient to my eyes. Strong. Certainly up to code, and it marks the place of a memorial which is all the more vital during a period of human existence that moves so quickly and is lived so fiercely not just in the moment but often in a doomish future that we can forget to mourn and notice just how we survive – imperfectly, with rancor and fear, tears and scars – but survive we do.
When I come back to the apartment as night falls tonight, which happens to be my birthday, I light a candle for Paris again. My editor there has just e-mailed that “Paris panse ses plaies, toujours un peu trop de silence, mais la vie reprend le dessus!” That is, “Paris bandages its wounds. It is still a little too quiet but life goes on.” My partner, who is posted before the TV in another room, calls to me, “The pregnant woman who nearly fell from that window is refusing interviews. She doesn’t want any publicity.” I am relieved by this somehow. She is withholding herself from us. Her story at least for now will not be lived in front of cameras. He continues calling to me, “She just wants to thank the man who saved her.” So do I. I am immensely grateful to him and for that baby who, when she arrives, can claim that she survived before she’d even drawn her first breath or had seen daylight and deemed it too bright.
Amy Grace Loyd
Amy Grace Loyd is a writer. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Her first novel, The Affairs of Others was published in 2013 (Picador).