Article - Winter 2014

Eric Rohmer and Me

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What a classic film from the French new wave taught me about the illusions of my youth

By André Aciman

December 6, 2013


 

April 1971. I am 20 years old. My life is about to change. I don’t know it yet. But just a few more steps, and something new, like a new wind, a new voice, a new way of thinking and seeing things, will course through my life.

It’s a Thursday evening. I have no papers due tomorrow, no reading, no homework. I still have my daily ration of ancient Greek passages to translate, but I can always take care of these on the long subway ride to school in the morning. This, I realize, is another one of those very rare, liberating moments when I’ve got nothing hanging over me. I was right to leave work before dark: it’s a perfect evening for a movie. Tonight, I want to see a French film. I want to hear French spoken. I miss French. I miss France. I would have preferred going to the movies with a girl, but I don’t have a girlfriend. There was someone, or the illusion of someone a while back, but it never worked out, and then someone else came along, and that didn’t work either. Since then, I’ve grown to hate loneliness and, more than loneliness, the self-loathing it stirs up.

But tonight I am not unhappy. Nor am I in a rush to find a theater. After working all afternoon in a dingy machinery shop in Long Island City (where I was lucky to find a job because my boss, a German-Jewish refugee, liked to hire other displaced Jews), I want to hurry back to Manhattan, not to my home on a dark, sloping 97th Street, where the occasional roadkill reminds me that this modern megalopolis could just as easily be a gigantic culvert, but to the twilit avenues of Midtown, and the busy luster of their lights. They always remind me of J. Alden Weir’s spellbinding nocturnes of New York, or of Albert Marquet’s nights in Paris—not the real New York or the real Paris, but the idea of New York and Paris, which is the film, the mirage, the irrealis figment each artist projects onto his city to make it his, to make it more habitable, to fall in love with it each time he paints it, and, by so doing, to let others imagine dwelling in his unreal city.

It is this illusory Manhattan, glazed over the real Manhattan, altered just enough to make me want to love it, that I see now. I like this sudden break from reality, this mini-spell of freedom and silence at dusk that lets me feel that I belong in this bright-lit city. Its people going places after work lead exciting lives, and, because I’ve crossed theirs by stepping on the same sidewalks, their bracing vitality has rubbed off on mine. There’s something refreshingly grown-up about leaving work without needing to rush home. I like feeling grown-up. This, I suppose, is what adults do when they stop at a bar or sit at a café after work. You find an uncharted moment in the day, and because it’s earmarked for nothing, you allow it to linger and distend and slow things down, till this insignificant moment, normally smuggled between sundown and nighttime, becomes something from nothing, and this vague hiatus in the evening unfolds into a moment of grace that could stay with you tonight, tomorrow, for the rest of your life—as this moment will, though I don’t know it yet.


I don’t like going to theaters by myself. Always afraid people might see me, especially if I am alone and they are not. But tonight I feel different. I am not even thinking of myself as a lonely, unwanted, ill-at-ease young man. Tonight I am another 20-year-old with time on his hands, who, on a whim, decides to go to the movies and, seeing he has no one to go with, buys one ticket instead of two. Nothing to it. I’ll sit through this film for 15, 20 minutes. If it doesn’t do it for me, I’ll pick up and leave. Nothing to that either.

I wasn’t even planning to see Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s that night. There had been such a to-do about it, especially after it was nominated a year earlier for best foreign film at the Academy Awards, that I needed to let things die down, put distance between me and what others were all clamoring about. I was intrigued by what I’d read about the film, by the story of the practicing Catholic played by Jean-Louis Trintignant who, owing to a snowstorm, finds himself forced to spend the night in Maud’s home and, despite her disarming looks and unequivocal advances, refuses to have sex with her.

The movie theater on West 57th Street is nearly empty—this is the film’s last run in New York. I hear voices on screen. I have no sense of how much I’ve missed or if coming late might ruin it. The sudden disappointment of missing a part of the film distracts me and gives the entire viewing an unreal, provisional feel, as though seeing it now doesn’t really count, might need to be corrected by a second viewing. I like the option of a second viewing that is already implied in the first, the way I imagine seeing places or hearing tales a second and a third time while I’m still experiencing them the first time—which is how I confront almost everything in life: as a dry run for the real thing to come. I’ll return, but this time with someone I love, and only then will the film matter and be real. This is how I went out on dates, answered job ads, picked my courses, made travel plans, found friends, sought out the new: with enthusiasm, sloth, and a touch of panic and reluctance—the whole occasionally bottled up in a brine of incipient resentment, perhaps disdain. Diffidence as an instance of desire. I withdraw before the real.

I light a cigarette—in those days you could, and I always sat in the smoking section. I put my coat on the seat next to mine and begin drifting into the movie, because something about the film has already grabbed me. It has as much to do with the film itself as with me, the viewer. The twining of the two—the film and me—was not incidental, but in an uncanny, perhaps untenable way, essential to the film itself, as though who I am matters to the film. Everything happening in my very private life matters to the film. The ferment of lights in Midtown Manhattan suddenly matters, my longing to be in Paris instead of New York matters, the drab machinery shop I’ve left behind in Long Island City, the passages I still need to translate from the Apology, my misgivings about the girl I’d met at a party in Washington Heights more than a year earlier, down to the brand of cigarettes I am smoking, and—let’s not forget—the prune Danish I had purchased on the fly to snack on, because something about prunes brings out a sheltered, Old World feel I still associate with my grandmother, who lives in Paris and loves France and keeps summoning me back there because life in France, she says, gives every semblance of extending the life she’d known before moving there—all these have, like unpaid extras, chipped in and are playing their small part in Eric Rohmer’s film.

The personal lexicon we bring to a film, or the way we misunderstand a novel because our minds drift off a page and fantasize about something superfluous, is our surest and most trusted reason for claiming it a masterpiece. The spontaneous decision to head to the movies tonight is now forever grafted onto My Night at Maud’s. Even walking halfway into the film has cast a strangely premonitory, retrospective meaning to this evening.


Jean-Louis, the protagonist of My Night at Maud’s, lives alone, likes living alone, though he’ll tell Maud that he wishes to be married. His life has been crowded with many people, diversions, and women; he welcomes his recent, self-imposed reclusion, seemingly putting his personal life on hold to take time out in Ceyrat, near Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne, where he works for Michelin. He is not sulking or brooding, just serenely withdrawn. No shame, no loneliness, no depression. This is not Dostoyevsky’s underground man, or Kafka’s Josef K., or for that matter yet another jittery, self-hating existential Frenchman. There is something so untormented, so cushy, so restorative in his desire to be left alone that I suspect what makes my own loneliness unbearable by contrast is not so much solitude itself as my failure to overcome it. This might ultimately be the most insidious fiction of the film: the airbrushing of loneliness until it seems entirely voluntary. There is a big difference between Jean-Louis and me. He is not being deprived of company; he can have it any time he wants. I cannot. He could be lying to himself, of course, and he could be wearing a mask and moving in a dollhouse world from which Rohmer had managed to purge all vestige of anxiety and dejection, the way some 18th-century comedies ignore the realities of almshouses, suicide, syphilis, and crime. The world Jean-Louis steps into—and this world is made clear enough from the very first shot—is not the stark universe of
action-driven films where people hurt, suffer, or die; instead, it is inhabited by a highly rarefied, elitist band of soft-spoken friends trying to figure out the meaning of conventional love with an unconventional mix of profound self-awareness and boundless self-delusion. There is no violence here, no poverty, no disease, no tragedy, no exchanges of fluids, not even any abiding love or self-loathing; there are no drugs, no breakdowns, seldom any tears. Everything is whitewashed with irony, tact, and that perennial French gêne, which is the chilling sense of awkwardness and unease we all feel when we’re tempted to cross a line but are held back. Youth shirks off gêne, doesn’t accept it; grown-ups savor it, like an impromptu blush, the undertow of desire, the conscience of sex, a concession to social mores.

Jean-Louis and Maud are adults. They are versed in the affairs of the heart and in the sinuous course desire takes. They do not shun others; but they’re not compelled to seek them either. Rohmer’s men, as I would later find out from his other Moral Tales, are all on a hiatus from what appear to be thoroughly fulfilling lives. Soon they’ll return to the real world and to their one love awaiting them there. The mini vacation in a villa on the Mediterranean in La Collectionneuse, the return to a family villa in Claire’s Knee, or the adulterous, afternoon fantasy world the husband dreams up in Chloe in the Afternoon—all these are interludes punctuated by women whom the male protagonist already knows he won’t really fall for.

Rohmer’s Moral Tales are nothing less than a series of what may be called unruffled psychological still lives.


To a 20-year-old, the 34-year-old Jean-Louis seems old, wise, and thoroughly experienced. He has traveled to several continents, has loved and been loved, doesn’t mind loneliness, indeed, thrives on it. At 20, I have loved one woman only. And I am just that spring beginning to recover. The longing for her, the phone messages she never returned, the missed dates, her snub-nosed I’ve been busy, coupled with her evasive I won’t forget, and always my self-reproaches for not daring to tell her everything on the night I stood outside her building staring at her windows, wondering whether I should ring her buzzer, or the night I walked in the rain, because I needed an excuse to be out when she called, if she called, which she never did; our perfunctory kissing as we waited for the Broadway local one evening; the afternoon I spent at her place when she changed her clothes in front of me, but I couldn’t bring myself to hold her because suddenly everything seemed unclear between us; and the afternoon many months later when we sat on her rug and spoke of that time when I’d failed to read her meaning as she took off her clothes, and, even after we had confided all this, I was still unable to bring myself to move, but fribbled our time together with oblique double-talk about an us we both knew was never going to be—all of these, like untold arrows driven into Saint Sebastian, remind me that if I’d never be able to forget loving the wrong girl, I should at least learn not to blame myself for having trusted that love.

Jean-Louis, like almost all of Rohmer’s men, has already been there and come out on the other side seemingly unscathed. This is the first time that I am even aware of another side. As bashful and tentative as I am, I see that there is still hope for me.


Early on we meet Jean-Louis in church. He is a devout Catholic. He is eyeing an attractive blond named Françoise. He has clearly never spoken to her before, but by the end of the sermon he decides that one day this woman will be his wife.

Nothing could sound more prescient or more deluded. But, once again, the braiding of foresight and delusion is typical of Rohmer. One feeds the other. Their collusion is not insignificant. The stars are aligned to our wishes or to what is best for us—but never as we thought.

Outside the church one day, Jean-Louis tries to follow Françoise but eventually loses track of her. A few days later, on the evening of December 21, he suddenly spots her on her motorbike but once again loses sight of her in the narrow, busy, Christmas-decorated streets of Clermont-Ferrand. On the evening of December 23, he is strolling about town in the hope of running into her.

And of course he will run into her. But not just yet.

He will, however, bump into someone else: his friend Vidal, whom he hasn’t seen since their student days. In a café that night, the men begin talking, of all things, about chance encounters and, of all authors, about Pascal, the writer most associated with chance, hasard, and as chance would still have it, the very author whom Jean-Louis had been reading. Coincidence thrice removed.

These multi-tiered coincidences beguile me and won’t let go of me and keep insisting that a greater design is at work here, as though the convergence of so many coincidences, however farfetched, underwrites the whole film, and that this conversation between the two men about coincidence is merely a prelude, a tuning of the instruments for things to come in the bedroom scene everyone has been talking about. The confluence of three hasards in the film, added to my own hasard in happening to see this and not any other film tonight, plus the creeping realization that there is something uncannily personal each time I apprehend anything occurring on multiple removes: all these don’t just stir me intellectually but in some inexplicable manner ignite an aesthetic, near-erotic charge, as if everything in Rohmer has to come back to sex, but ever so obliquely and ethereally, the way everything about Rohmer has to come back to my life as well, but only in an oblique and ethereal manner, because multiple removes keep reminding me that I too like lifting the veil and looking under things, denuding one alleged truth after the other, layer after layer, deceit after deceit, because unless something wears a veil, I will not see it, because unless something is partially derealized, it cannot be real, because what I love above everything else is not necessarily the truth, but its surrogate, insight, because unlike truth, insight comes from me—insight into people, into things, into places, into the machinery of life itself—because insight goes after the deeper, hidden truth, because insight is insidious and steals into the soul of things, because I myself was made of multiple removes and had more slippages than a mere, straightforward presence, because I liked to see that the world was made in my own image, in shifty layers that flirt and then give you the slip, that ask to be excavated but never hold still, because Rohmer’s characters and I are like drifters with many forwarding addresses but never a home, many selves folded together—selves we’d sloughed off, some we couldn’t outgrow, others we still longed to be—but never one identifiable identity.


So here are the two men: I am here, says one, and you are there, says the other, and between us there’s time, space, and a strange design, which to some is no design at all but to us, proof we’re onto something whose meaning nevertheless eludes us.

It is the search and the possible discovery of an undisclosed design in their lives that suddenly enchants me, because everything in Rohmer is about design, which is another way of saying that everything is ultimately about form. Form is the imposition of design. In the absence of God, in the absence of identity, in the absence of love even, is design—perhaps even the illusion of design; but form is how we reason with chaos and make sense of the nonsense around us.

The world teems with coincidences—chance meetings, chance sightings, chance insights. In fact, chance is all there is. In Rohmer, however, there is an algorithm to chance—or at least the search for such an algorithm—just as there might be a logic to happenstance. This logic is not to be found outside the film, or even in the film. It is the film. Form is the algorithm. Form, like art, is seldom about life, or not quite about life. Form is both the search and the discovery of design.

The plot of My Night at Maud’s screams the design of symmetrical reversal, what Pascal most likely also meant by his renversement perpétuel. Jean-Louis has his eyes on the blond Françoise, a seemingly virtuous churchgoer. Meanwhile, he meets Maud, the brunette, a typical temptress who wishes to sleep with him but whom he manages to resist. He spends a whole night in her bed wrapped in a blanket as in a metaphorical chastity belt. However, the morning after leaving her apartment, Jean-Louis spots Françoise on the street and does something he says he’s never done before with a stranger on the street: he boldly walks up to her and confesses that he has never spoken to a stranger before.

As with Maud, he will end up sleeping under Françoise’s roof, but not with her. He does indeed marry Françoise, only to discover, completely by chance, when he and Françoise run into Maud at a beach five years later, that Françoise had been the mistress of none other than Maud’s husband. In fact, Françoise may be the cause of Maud’s divorce.

At the beach, Jean-Louis is about to confide to his wife that nothing has happened between him and Maud. But before telling her this, he realizes in a flash of insight that what seems to disturb Françoise at that very moment is not that he and Maud might have been lovers. It is something else—and the symmetrical reversal and double remove here couldn’t be more stylized. He looks at his wife and realizes that she is just then inferring what he himself was just inferring about her. Nothing is ever stated in the film, but the inference is clear enough. Françoise and Maud have slept with the same man, and that man is Maud’s husband. Jean-Louis tells his wife that Maud was his final fling, but he asks nothing of her and, by so doing, saves face for her. In life, their pairing is simply reversed; in art it is corrected.


If Rohmer has frequently been “accused” of being literary, it is not just because his screenplays are extraordinarily well written; it is because he always wagers that the key to the psyche, like the key to every accident in our lives, can be found only in fiction, and this because fiction, and more broadly art, is the only instrument with which to capture however tentatively the demon of design. The thought that there may be no design instead of some design is aesthetically unacceptable.

Sitting together at the café, Jean-Louis and Vidal, like almost all characters in Rohmer’s films, derive a peculiar, self-conscious thrill in finding themselves eagerly discussing the very thing that is right this minute happening to them. Is there a meaning to our meeting, or is it just luck? Since there is no way to answer such a question, one has to wager—Pascal again—that there must be a meaning behind coincidence, if not in conventional, ordinary life, then at least in the conventions of art. How dear are those moments when we suddenly perceive in a series of accidents something like an omniscient intelligence deploying—or, as Proust likes to say, organizing—one by one the events of our lives, such that it is not just their alignment that strikes us but their resonance, the specter of meaning. What can be better for those who are loath to exercise their will than to espy in real, day-to-day, humdrum, desultory life the light touch of the great artificer himself framing our lives according to the covenants of art? Happens once or twice in a lifetime—called miracles.

But the discovery that form is a way of attributing meaning to coincidence is sidelined by another discovery: namely, that this ability to move on multiple removes—to discuss the act of discussing—is itself meaningful and becomes unbearably erotic when transposed to the boudoir. And this is exactly what happens about 20 minutes later between Jean-Louis and Maud. This kind of candor and this kind of self-conscious thinking and lifting of layers could end up only in a bedroom. It isn’t even candor, though it bears all the inflections of candor: at once very frank and intimate, spoken with the confiding grace with which people open up to each other, all the while maintaining a guarded distance. They analyze and overanalyze each nuance of desire and discomfort and then turn around and confide this to the very person who is stirring these feelings of desire and discomfort. They might as well be flirting. In every spontaneous avowal lies the inscription of artifice, the intrusions of craft. Tell all the truth but tell it slant—success in circuit lies. Emily Dickinson. I had never seen things this way. Nor had I ever spoken about desire while I was prey to it. Watching Jean-Louis and Maud think aloud about themselves and speak ever so eloquently about love on their one, snowbound night together, I am reminded that insight is at its very core erotic, almost prurient, and that speech can give voice to passion, without dispelling or intruding on it.


Left together, and yet clearly ill at ease, Maud and Jean-Louis continue to talk. While she is under the covers, he leans over and sits on her bed, fully clothed in his double-breasted gray flannel suit and, in a moment of silence as uncomfortable to Maud as it is to the spectator, stares intensely at her while she returns his gaze, the two of them at a loss for words and yet already unburdening themselves to each other. She tells him of her life, of her ex-husband who had been unfaithful, of her lover who died in a car crash, of her terrible luck with men; he paints a broad picture of love affairs in the past, but far more cagily—Maud will later call him cachottier (secretive). They discuss his conversion to Catholicism, his avoidance of light sexual affairs, his desire, as she sees it, to marry a blond woman, since, in her prescient view, all pious, Catholic women are necessarily blonds. Then, as they stare at each other, Maud, in an unhinged moment, says: “It’s been ages since I’ve spoken like this to anyone. It’s good for me.”

In the makeshift boudoir, Jean-Louis and Maud are analytical in a situation that could not be more intimate and in which most people would let their senses take over. But analysis is not allowed to slip into hasty sensuality. Here the mild gêne and the occasional lapses into total silence are so intense and so disarming—one is tempted to say denuding—that gêne and silence, more than the bed itself, keep stoking the hovering sensuality of the moment.

The senses cannot deflect analysis; they become analytical. Passion in this instance, as is more often the case than people admit, is not really the end but the cover, the way out, the pretext; physical contact often buries the tension between two individuals who cannot stand either tacit ambiguity or the rising awkwardness between them. In some cases, it is speech that is spontaneous, not passion: speech undresses us; passion can be a cloaking device. This, as would become the hallmark of so many of Rohmer’s films, is not just using talk to attenuate or defer sex. It is, rather, a desire to find the sort of intimacy that sex, allegedly the most intimate act between two individuals, hastily cheats us of by sidestepping intimacy altogether. In Rohmer’s universe, passion is nothing more than a desired blindfold that allows us to work around the grueling, unbearable moment when we are forced to disclose who we are and what we want.

But at some point, and as though to undo all these layers of analysis, conversation, and subterfuge, Maud will stare at Jean-Louis and sum up his entire behavior that night with one word: “Idiot.”

While watching the film, and feeling the growing discomfort of the two would-be lovers stuck in the same bedroom, I am thinking of the girl from Washington Heights. One night a year earlier, I had taken her to Central Park, right by Bethesda Fountain, and begun making out with her. How suddenly it had all happened: her call, the Paris Cinema on 58th Street, getting a bite to eat in some unnamed place, then heading through the park until we’d reached 72nd Street. All of it so unplanned, as if life itself had taken things in its own hands and told me not to intrude, don’t even think of meddling, everything is taken care of. Two policemen walked up to us and told us that the park was closed to lovers. There was a snigger in their voices, while I thought to myself, So we’re lovers now, fancy that! We joked with the officers until we’d walked out of the Women’s Gate on West 72nd and then headed uptown on the CC train to Washington Heights. When we reached her home, she asked me to come upstairs. So I hadn’t misread the signals at all this evening. She put some water to boil to make instant coffee, and we began to kiss on the sofa, then on the rug where months earlier we’d had our long conversation about the cue I’d missed the year before. We kept speaking about that until, during a pause in our conversation, she told me that her mother might wake up in the room right next to the living room. Not to worry, I said, we weren’t making noise. But after a pause, she said that perhaps I should start heading home, it was getting late. So she’d changed her mind, I thought on my way to the subway station that night. Only then did it hit me: I had hesitated. I had wanted to resolve the mystery of the afternoon when she’d taken off her clothes in front of me, I had wanted to resolve the past, to speak not just freely but intelligently about that day or about the party where we’d first met, wanted so many things that were obviously not scripted for tonight. Without knowing it yet, what I’d wanted was a Rohmerian moment—that magical span when a man and a woman, unwilling to rush things to where both know they are headed, heed another impulse: to distend their chance encounter, to dissect how they got to where they are, and to unlock the beauty of how desire and fate are indissolubly fused, and having thought about these things, turn around and confide them to each other, which is when they’ll also bare their hopes and their oblique maneuvers, only to be told that these were hardly unnoticed by the other. I wanted that extra span of time, that durée, which is seldom given in life.

Only then does it occur to me that I am borrowing Rohmer’s fictions on screen and projecting them retroactively on my own failed love. I am replaying my life in the key of Rohmer—misreading my life, and certainly misreading Rohmer, but in both cases finding something eloquent and arresting in the transposition. Our conversation on her mother’s sofa, my hand under her shirt, her story about an ex who wasn’t doing it for her but wasn’t disappearing fast enough, and suddenly the kettle whistling just when I was about to tell her that I knew she’d be calling me this evening—we might as well have been speaking French and living in the black-and-white world of the New Wave years.

But perhaps what is also happening to me in the theater can as easily be reversed: it is not I who am casting a retrospective glance on that night in Washington Heights; it is Rohmer. He has borrowed my night for an hour or so, pared down its roughness and trimmed it of all psychobabble, given our scene a rhythm, an intelligence, a design, and then projected it onto the screen while promising to return it to me after the show, though slightly altered, so that I’d have my life back, but seen from the other side—not as it was, or as it wasn’t, but as I’d always imagined it should be, the idea of my life. The idea of my life in France. My life as a French movie. My life symmetrically reversed. My life scaled down and cleansed of all chaff and all interference until what was left was its irrealis watermark on a sheet of paper on which was written a might-have-been life that hadn’t really happened but wasn’t unreal for not happening, and might still happen though I feared it never would. I couldn’t have felt more rudderless—or more liberated.


I walked out of the film that night knowing that even if I was destined to remain totally feckless when it came to courtship and romance and was too timid a lover to speak as boldly or as intelligently as men and women did in Rohmer, something about the film had enlightened and allowed me to see that in Rohmer everything bearing on love, on luck, on others, on our ability to see through the mirages life throws our way was reducible to one thing: the love of form. His film was classical. It didn’t care about the way things were, about the here-and-now, about urban blight, the war in Vietnam, World War II—the story first sprang in Rohmer’s mind two decades earlier, during a curfew in France—or about what everyone else was busy filming in the late ’60s; it was beholden to and chastened by a higher principle: classicism. A short film where nothing happens and where mind is the plot. This was totally new. I was enchanted. It had never occurred to me until that moment that classicism had never died and that art itself, which is the highest mankind can aspire to, may indeed be just a bubble, but that what’s inside this bubble and what we learn from walking through that bubble is better than life.

Outside the movie theater the city looked nothing like J. Alden Weir’s or Edward Hopper’s, or like that of any other painter who had touched up Manhattan to make it his. I could see it clearly now. Without patina, without art coating its buildings, without layers, the city could so easily lose its beauty, its kindness, its friendship and just as easily radiate nothing, mean nothing. Watching Manhattan grow lusterless at this late hour, I began to realize something more disheartening yet: that I was losing France, had lost France, that Paris too was not my city, had never been, would never be. I wasn’t quite here, but I wasn’t there either. Nothing seemed to work. The woman I wanted I did not have. The street I lived on wasn’t my street, and the job I had would never last. Nothing, nowhere, nobody. In the words of Dos Passos, No job, no woman, no home, no city. All I had was a film and an illusion.

What I took on my subway ride home that night was an imaginary Paris and an imaginary New York, places that weren’t real, where people spoke a medley of bookish French and bookish English, who watched unreal things happen to them, almost as though they knew they were being filmed and belonged in a beautifully composed screenplay and had grown to like their lives done up that way, because they too distrusted this thing everyone called brute reality, because brute reality did not exist, wasn’t even real, had no place in the world, because the things that mattered to me were not real, could not be real. I was not interested in the world as we know it but had never had the courage to say this. I wanted something else.

I took the subway, not to 96th Street but all the way north to 168th, then crossed over to the other side and took the downtown train home. She and I had done this once, riding the subway north, rushing over the footbridge to take the downtown, and getting on just as the doors had closed the first time and then suddenly reopened to let us in. Before she got off at her stop on 157th Street, she kissed me deep in the mouth. The kiss stayed with me all the way to 96th Street, then up 97th, then to bed, and when I awoke the next morning, I could tell it had spent the night with me and hadn’t gone away. It never did. On my way uptown, I knew that after 116th Street the train would bolt out of the underground as it comes up for air and races on the El to the 125th Street stop. I liked that brief intermezzo on the El before the train chugged its way back underground. I even like watching the train today, when I walk on Broadway past 122nd Street and glimpse the Seventh Avenue suddenly gun its way out of the tunnel like a giant armored vehicle bearing down on the tracks with lockstep speed and purpose, its luminous red light in the front, like a watchman’s lantern telling the world that its course and its passengers have not changed since the night John Sloan painted his views of Manhattan’s Els.

On the night I discovered Rohmer, I had headed uptown hoping to run into the girl from Washington Heights. I knew that such encounters seldom happen in life. But I liked the thought of it, and I liked the things we would tell each other, and I loved her sprightly repartees each time she’d take my insights about why things hadn’t worked between us and turn them around to show me that however clever I thought I was, there was always going to be another way of seeing things, and that if she had to speak her mind, she’d tell me plainly that I was an idiot, a real idiot, because on the night she said her mother might wake up in the next room, all she was doing was asking me to take what she’d already offered. She’d tell me that it was a good thing we’d finally run into each other on the train tonight, because this wasn’t an accident, because she too had been hoping to see me now, and that this time, she hoped, I was going to come upstairs and stay, wasn’t I?

André Aciman is the author of Alibis, Eight White Nights, Call Me by Your Name, Out of Egypt, and False Papers and is the editor of  The Proust Project. He is distinguished professor of comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.


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