In October of 1999, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I tumbled into shock. Why me? I said. I was 64. There was no pain, no outward sign. My urination was rushed, a telltale symptom. The rectal exam read normal. But my PSA was up, and the needle biopsy showed a dozen little pockets of the bad stuff. To stay sane, I wrote about my disease. My reaction, my fears, my madness, which I hoped was temporary. I had surgery on the morning of January 1, 2001, six hours after the dreaded Y2K. In March, my wife and I went to France. We ended our trip in Paris, near the Deux Magots, where Hemingway had written in the Twenties. I was still reeling from my cancer experience when I walked through the rain to the Deux Magots, hunting for Hemingway. I wrote the following piece from notes taken that day. When Jack and I taught the Memoir Course, I expanded the Paris experience with the Memoir Moment using Natalie’s favorite startline, I remember. Let me know what you think.
I remember Paris. I remember Sunday, Day of the Dead. The room was glass. The cafe was Aux Deux Magots. I walk to the Deux Magots in the rain. My wife stays in the hotel, writing postcards. The sidewalk seats are wet. But the Brasserie Boys have built little greenhouses on the sidewalk. Filled with smoke of Les stinky Gauloises and that other black cigarette. The waiter frowns at me. He waits a long time to take my order.
Du the, I say.
Deux the, he says.
Deux the ou un the? he says.
He holds up his thumb. That means one in France. Then he holds up his thumb and index finger. In France, that means two. I give him my thumb. He wants me to order a croissant. The tea is 65 francs. Ten bucks American. I don’t ask the price of a croissant. I don’t have the words, the time, the strength. French grinds me down. I am dust. Dust gets wet, it turns to mud.
When I said “du” which means “some” the surly waiter thought I said “deux” which means “two.” Since my French sucks, the waiter takes the time to tutor me. He is the master; I am the slave. Language lessons from the French waiters and bus boys shunt me back to French 101, where I left my 200 words. I want my money back.
I hunker down at the Deux Magots. Cane. Umbrella. Raincoat. Wet feet. Rain pounds the glass roof. My tea arrives. I’m writing about Hemingway in the twenties. Did he sit where I sat? Were the waiters surly? Did his tea cost 65 French francs? Ten bucks for a cup of tea to sit where Hemingway sat across the street from the Brasserie Lipp. Next door is the Cafe Flore. I have paid my dues to visit Hemingway Country. I pay in francs and centimes, little coins to force the waiter to count. I fold the notebook. It’s pocket size for….
If you click your way to Memoir Moment, you’ll see the steps for writing one: theme and variation. Because we are writing teachers, we test techniques. I used Paris to test the Memoir Moment.
- Theme: I remember the first time…
- Variation 1: and that reminds me of the time when…
- Variation 2: and when she said that, I remembered…
- Recapitulation: but nothing can be like the first time
- Segue: Later, when I am
Theme: I remember Paris in April. Remember the Easter crowds. The lines at Notre Dame. A sign reads Beware of Pickpockets. Warnings at the Hotel Luxembourg. I remember tourists. American middle class demi-elites riding high on the stock market. The French franc was down against the American dollar. No problem. Parisians jack up their prices. Ten bucks for an omelette. Ten bucks for a beer, une pression. Cops on the street. Cops in busses. Cops forming up like soldiers. Cops strapping on riot gear. Plastic protectors for knee and shin. A parade by socialists stops traffic at the Hotel Luxembourg. Cars line the one-way streets. Boul Mich closed. Cops like space soldiers, masked, like Darth Vader.
Variation 1: It reminds me of Paris 20 years ago. Margot so young. Bob so young. No fatigue from PCa, the hovering near-death of surgery. We rode the bus across the river to the Right Bank. Lunch at Cafe Fricassee. Outdoors on the sidewalk with the poules passing. The waiter knew us. Flapped his arms. Said Fricassee with a grin. Pointed us to a table. We were regulars. When we left Paris that year we said goodbye to the waiter. He took us to the proprietor. They toasted our return with Calvados. Apple brandy that blew out your ears. Exploded behind your nose. Brightened your brain. After lunch at Cafe Fricassee we took the camera and shot some poules.
Variation 2: But nothing could be like that time again. Paris had grown. Crowded buses. Packed metros. At Easter the Parisians exit the city, flee to the countryside. Our tour guide has a house in Normandy. Our friends here have a house in Provence. Parisians leave the city and here come the foreigners. Catholics pop out of the woodwork in Europe. Catholics form snake-lines leading away from Notre Dame across the bridge on Boul Mich. Crowded cafes. Surly waiters. My 200 words of French, spoken through a Texas accent, make the lips curl. Tea at the Deux Magots on Sunday morning costs 66 francs. Eleven bucks.
Variation 3: Embedded Memory. And I remember that she told me about her daughter’s purse. Her daughter is young, blonde, Paris pretty – half French and half Swedish. Stylish dresser. Trendy baggy pants, trendy army jacket, chic little helmet hat, silk scarf like Isadora Duncan. A Retro Twenties jeune fille who left her purse under her chair at McDonalds, Paris of the Golden Arches. Reached down for money to pay the bill. No purse. On the street in Paris young people press cell phones to their ears. I phone my broker. Buy Nokia, I say. Buy some Ericsson. At the cafe on Boul Mich we order coffee. Deux express. Gone in three sips. The waiter eyes my empty cup. Wants us to go, head up the street, make way for a real customer. Twenty years ago we lingered in cafes. Like the guidebook says.
Recap: I remember Paris that first time. My first French rabbit at Le Lapin Agile. The cafe, the rabbit stew, the poster on the wall. Rabbit washed down with vin ordinaire. In Paris that first time a table carafe of red wine made me happy. Lunch alone away from the tour bus, all those chirping children. It rained. I didn’t care. I was high on red wine, twenty-three years old, soaking up the city of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Now the small cafes are hidden away. Tucked out of sight. Cafe Fricassee is no more. I am three months out of cancer surgery. Fighting the Dragon of Fatigue. I get tired and I get pissy. Snappish. Turn back the clock. Crank back the hands of time. Give me the old Paris.
Segue: But later when I am older. Older means 65 instead of 64. I ache in the morning. My bones talking. A lecture about yesterday’s exercise. Hey, Ray. It’s Mr. Bones here. Lay off the stair-stepper, guy. Mr. Bones is an inhabitant of my memoir. Good work on today’s writing. Jack’s bee-bop structure. My knee pops and Mr. Bones calls. Hear that noise, he says. That’s our knee cracking. It hurts down here. How about some pain killer, bud? How about some Valium? Where’s the ice pack? You want weight machines, try some red hot inflammation. Later. How can it get later when it’s already too late?