You don’t have to choose to leave the place you were born – sometimes you are pushed. And sometimes you are claimed. Angela Natividad, who grew up in California, meditates on how Paris claimed her.
I know I was claimed because I know the sense of being purged.
Whatever Califia promised my Spanish ancestors, who came to stab a flag in her like it did the kingdoms of Maharlika, whatever shining dreams she lay before the ’49ers and before my parents – themselves purged, sold and bartered from lands that washed them out in a torrent of blood; she offered nothing to me, born on a tired, worn teat, a conflict place, an air force base.
Even my mother was too tired to offer milk, or a name.
(The nurse gave me my name. “An angel,” she murmured. She was the only one who wanted to touch me.)
“Happiness is in you,” said a man who didn’t know me, his smile not meeting his eyes. People kept saying that.
“What are you running from?”
You don’t have to run to have to leave. Sometimes you are pushed, excreted painfully. California became that way. Her rolling hills became prisonscapes; her vastness tightened like a vice. Wherever I went, I saw faces I knew, people who decided they’d met me when I was twelve, nine or three, whose eyes shuttered to the living fact of me standing before them. The food had no taste and my family had no love, none left that I could feel. Even friends had purged me – I was not strong or too strong, wanted the wrong things. There was nothing to do but make money, grow bitter, get mean.
And yet when I decided to leave they all said “what are you running from?”
I was seven or eight when, at a party, I stole my cousin’s French dictionary. I hid it under my sweater, a blue hardbound book that I stooped to obscure until it was time to go home. I fingered and touched its drawings. I was four or six when, at a family party, Uncle Franklin, who is not even my uncle, regaled everyone with gifts from his travels: Coins with holes, copper and silver. Ribbons and shawls of cashmere. I wanted a children’s book I found in his suitcase: Poucelina. His eye sharp and playful, he took it from my hands and wrote a dedication in French. He chased down my parents’ car so he could give it to me.
Why Paris? I don’t know. She claimed me before I even arrived.
In high school I started foreign languages late, but when I did, I knew, already, how to wrap my tongue around the accents, to drop the last letters of words and roll consonants. French spread itself before me, transparent, bricks waiting in a chest. No other language was easier to learn.
“Why not Spanish? It’s more practical.”
“Why not Mandarin?”
“Why not Tagalog? That tongue is your mother.”
I don’t know.
My French teacher became like a second father. He thought I was lazy but talented. He said he would walk me down the aisle if my father was busy. He wrote me a recommendation letter for grad school. In a way it was the same thing – walking me down the aisle toward myself, almost 20 years later.
When I finished my bachelors, I told my company I wanted to go on my first vacation. I sat, resolutely, in front of the HR director, ready to fight for the two weeks I’d earned over three years, working around my study schedule. I was their marketing director. Nobody went on holiday.
Her name was Mercy. She looked at me, a secret in her face. “Is this about Paris?” she asked. “Will we ever see you again?”
How did she know? I had never mentioned it.
Nothing happened when I went on that hard-earned vacation – an attempt to shake Paris out of my system, move on with my life. I travelled in silence from one hostel to the next: République, then down, down, to Bordeaux, Cannes, Lyon. The language I learned was not very useful. The streets felt indifferent to me, the French mystified by my presence. But once, while waiting for his lover to get a haircut, a kind old man took me across the street and bought me a pain au chocolat. “You have to try it once before you leave,” he said, a smile in his eyes.
On the last night of that trip, the sky was red. I sat on the steps of the Sacré Coeur while Spaniards with dreds played ‘Wonderwall’ on the guitar—that old seduction song for would-be expats and dreamy backpackers imagining new ways to live before settling, neatly, into lives back home. I was infused, my arms wrapped around my knees, shrouded in a gypsy skirt I bought at a kiosk. “Tu es belle,” the vendeuse had said.
Another traveller tucked my cold hands into his parka pockets and kissed me. I never saw him again.
I returned to Califia and languished. I dreamed of Paris. I could smell her when I opened books.
I ignored it and moved to New York instead – Ithaca, where I could be hidden away, from myself and from the longing. I rented a room in a big house, with a landlord who became fond of me, and a roommate who pushed and pushed until we became lovers. I told him I would stay a year, but when the year was up, he said, “Stay longer, we can plan for Paris. You have no plan.” I agreed, and signed my name beside his on the lease.
But the dreams kept coming. They began to make me ill. I dreamt my parents picked me up from the airport and drove me to Paris instead of home, in the dead of night, dropping my bags on the cobblestones while I insisted they’d made a mistake. They drove off without me, left me there, under the gazes of curious men outside of bars. One day, wide awake, I stepped outside into Ithaca autumn and smelled Paris on the wind, then burst into tears, my muscles shaking. My body could no longer wait for my mind to decide.
I bought the ticket the next day. I had nowhere to live and no plan. My boyfriend, heartbroken, found a new roommate and bought me a ring. “A promise,” he called it.
(Where did that ring go?)
Then I arrived, still with no plan, in a studio apartment in République that belonged to a grandfatherly arms dealer, steps from my first youth hostel, and barely left that room for months.
Yet a life bloomed around me. Little by little, bonds formed: People expected me places. I entered the labyrinth of immigration, one room after the next, long lines of people from different countries with different smells. People kept offering me things.
Walking the Marais, where I could feel vestiges of my younger self discovering it for the first time, Paris absorbed me without comment or complaint. But I am an introvert too, and I knew what it meant; I did not have to ask if she wanted me. She folded me softly into herself, the wolf who warmed Sainte Geneviève tucking me in with her own pups.
The sub-prime crisis descended and my American employers fired me. “You’re young, you can always move back home,” my boss – who, years ago, promised me security – breezily said. Such a trite thing to say to someone who crossed an ocean. I wondered when the money would run out. I wondered what fates and choices separated me from the cheerful, hard-eyed prostitutes of the Porte Saint-Denis.
“Will I die of syphilis, like Black Venus?” I asked my mother, despairing. She laughed. “You’re not that kind,” she said.
What kind of person dies of syphilis?
I was so lonely. One day, as if possessed, I bought craft paper and wrote wishes into it, then made boats. I had never made paper boats before.
‘I let the water take my wishes’
I didn’t know how to get to the Jardins de Luxembourg and was afraid to try alone. A man who loved me agreed to take me, and we took the Métro there together. He introduced me to Sainte Geneviève, her stone braids winding down her body. I looked up at her face and met her, though I didn’t understand, then, who she was.
I set my boats afloat on the fountain, surrounded by children. I let the water take my wishes.
Then, maybe before or after, people picked me up. A new boyfriend, obsessed with my integration. New clients, eager to fold me into their systems, to teach me things – how to make invoices, to resist the compulsion to hug. I became busy. I got a fidelity card at the grocery store. I had my own keys. Mail arrived with my name on it. Inexplicably, and as it always does, the UC Berkeley alumni magazine found me.
Life shifted. I had a permanent phone number, a social security number, a carte vitale.
When, one night, I saw the red sky again, I remembered the longing of my last night in Paris as a tourist. This sky is part of my life now. I gaze into its expanse from the balcony. Sometimes the opera singer who lives nearby sings into the street, and people clap. The recorded voice of the SNCF wove itself into my synapses. On the metro, I fall asleep, my head tucked carelessly into its walls, like I once did on BART in the Bay Area. Sometimes I dreamt I was crossing from one train system to another, car to car, BART to the Métro to the SNCF, languages shifting.
A year passed, then two and three. Four, five, six, eleven, twelve. I moved and moved again, changed jobs, kept friends, lost some. Attended Thanksgivings and Easter lunches.
I stopped asking when I would leave. My visa renewals fell, like clockwork, year after year. I began to build my citizenship dossier. I did not marry in, like my parents, whose ties were unhappily brokered – the cost of welcome into America. I did it, instead, on the hardest visa, the freelancer visa, and the immigrants who ran the neighbourhood nail shop coached me. The citizenship interviewer laughed with me. We talked about plants, and making new homes. She was an immigrant too.
“You’ll lose job opportunities,” Americans said. “Your finger will slide off the pulse. You’ll feel so desperate there.”
Their voices faded. Life is long and strange. None of us knew enough to give, or heed, that kind of advice.
I am French now – but not French of the soil. I am French as my parents are American: by effort, small acts of integration. French by books and by exposure. The French stopped making jokes about Americans around me. And when I, in turn, make jokes about them, they stare earnestly and say, “But that is you, now, too.”
‘The trees know when I am coming’
My accent changed. I don’t understand, anymore, the slang or references of people I left. I built a company, drawing into it a mix of people from many places. It is the only totally English-speaking advertising agency in central Paris. I have friends whose doors are always open, who laugh around shared tables, a lover who coached me through my first vinaigrette.
The trees know when I am coming. And when I walk home, alone and late at night, the city embraces me. No harm come. I am her child. I know her shapes in the dark, the spirits that dwell in her corners.
When the terrorists came and marred us, we mourned together – quietly, bound tighter still.
“I think this means you need to come home!” a cousin joked after November 13, the day I was quietly married in the rain, in the Mairie du 5ème. It was like a slap. You don’t abandon your heart when it hurts.
I passed the Mosqué de Paris one night and sneezed, and the armed police murmured, “a vos souhaits.”
When I return to the land of my birth, my cousins introduce me to places I already know, places I once knew well – as if I never lived in Califia’s breast. I see her, now, with affection. The hills are new again, the sky vast in a way I never appreciated. She offers me the charm and magic of a hostess on best behaviour. Sometimes I even believe her.
I was called; claimed, but at cost: I will never quite be of either place. In this way, my ancestors, too, were able to claim me, and me them: It is our greatest commonality. We shifted and moved, were kidnapped, purged, negotiated or negotiating, claimed in turn by roiling destinies and cultures we didn’t know, earth that didn’t birth our feet.
I have no idea why Paris claimed me, why it summoned like a siren regardless of what I thought I wanted or needed. But my body seemed to know, that wordless skin-and-bone knowledge that lies so often fallow and forgotten within us. And the earth seems to know: We are of one another, twin atoms animated by spooky action at a distance, vibrating in time through space. We have always needed to be together. The ways in which we changed, together, are the answer.
It escapes explanation. But when I call, I hear a response. Maybe it is only an echo, but it doesn’t seem to matter.
Angela Natividad is a founding contributor to MusebyCl.io, co-founder of esports and gaming collective Hurrah.group, co-author of Generation Creation, and a compulsive storyteller. For more about her, check out http://liveanduncensored.com, or follow her on Twitter at @luckthelady, which she updates far too often.
Words © Angela Natividad 2021. Main photo ‘Paris Panorama’ © Nick Kenrick. Photos used under Creative Commons licence.