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–19– Climbing Montmartre -­ I’m recently post-­ op, having just risen after over a month on my back, and nearly every day my steps turn toward Montmartre. I’m living in Paris for some months, while my boyfriend (I’ll call him Tristan) does graduate work at one of the Universities of Paris. (There are about ten of them; they’re numbered; he’s at Number Four.) From the end of our block you can see Sacré Coeur. “A hideous whitehead protruding from the highest point in Paris” is how one guidebook aimed at the backpacker segment of the market describes the aesthetically offending cathedral, pointing out that when you are on top of the hill with your back to it, not only is all of Paris spread out before you but also the banlieux, or suburbs , France’s answer to the inner city, with concrete housing projects like immense gray tombstones that—again I’m quoting the guidebook from memory—were built to establish a safe distance between the immigrant working classes and the Parisian bourgeoisie. I’ve just been diagnosed with a degenerative lung disease whose name I cannot remember, let alone pronounce. I’m reduced to placing a sticky note on the wall over my desk with the name printed across it in block letters. It runs to several lines. When I glance up from the screen it catches my eye, and I trust that with time, lymphangioleiomyomatosis will start to roll off my tongue. –20– Before this diagnosis, I thought nothing of hopping a flight to Siberia or Thailand if that was what my peripatetic livelihood required, but now I’m told that plane travel is contraindicated, as the pressurized air in the cabin can cause my lungs to collapse during landing, leading, as I already know, to a stabbing sensation in the chest, followed by an inability to breathe. Funny how our bodies have such an intense need for the substances that surround us in nature. Oxygen hunger makes the heart flutter, the muscles weak, the voice drop to an involuntary whisper. Our temporary digs are in a third-­ floor walkup. When I returned from the hospital in a taxi, too weak to climb the stairs, Tristan, skinny as an adolescent but surprisingly muscular, carried me up in his arms, ignoring my protests. I bared my teeth and moved to nip his shoulder, the handiest line of attack. After a moment, though, I found the ride was not at all precarious, and my fighting spirit subsided. “Am I very heavy?” I asked, after some moments had passed. “Like a feather,” he said, pausing to catch his breath. “A wet feather.” ————— Almost every day now, I descend these stairs and head toward Montmartre. I pass through the courtyard, usually empty except for the Portuguese concierge compulsively hosing down the cobblestones and, in the evening, a trench-­ coated man in his sixties grumbling through a blue haze about his wife, who turns him out of doors when he smokes. I turn right, passing the bistro next door, called Á l’Affiche (Now Playing) and decorated with posters of Yul Brynner, Clark Gable, and Vivien Leigh. After that, the corner store, the kind of place that sells pot holders, athletic socks, and towel racks at prices so low they hint at child labor in countries just over the horizon, then past competing bakeries whose proprietors set out –21– baguettes in the morning and chocolate truffles at evening rush hour, past the most famous couscous joint in town (a recent poll declares couscous the favorite food of a majority of the French, demonstrating vividly the extent to which Arab ways are now striking at the heart of French culture), numberless cafés, a bookstore , and the beginnings of the porn strip on the Rue Pigalle. (Poor Pigalle! A popular sculptor in his day, his name is now linked with streetwalkers and the trade in red patent leather zipper-­ covered dominatrix outfits, with which, as far as I know, he had absolutely no connection.) Now I’m at the foot of the big hill, looking up, taking in its shops and narrow, zigzagging streets, preparing for the assault. The peculiarity of this will occur to me only after some time has passed: laid low by a lung ailment, I am pulled inexorably toward the highest hill in town, climbing it with the longest stride I can muster. But now I think instead of all the times over the past twenty years...


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