I am on my usual walk through Pére Lachaise, and the February air is as crisp as the layers of pastry in a mille-feuille, fragile as the thinnest crust of frost.
A touch will shatter it.
I am here to meet my friends. Henri doesn’t approve, and he would rather I not talk with them. But the room my son provides me at the back of his apartment is cold and small. There is nothing for me there. Every morning, I rise at 7 hours. I make the bed, wash, dress and then have a petit déjeuner of black coffee and bread from Poilane.
Then I step out onto the streets of Paris.
I board the metro and get off at Gambetta station, where I walk to Pére Lachaise cemetery. Exactly 237 steps.
Every day, at the same time, I perform these tasks. They have become strong, smooth walls that hold back the sadness.
You have to understand that there is nothing left for me in the present. My wife, Mireille, and the shop where I fixed timepieces for the wealthy for 50 years, are gone, except in my dreams. Waking for me is a sad departure.
Today I make my way to the cemetery gate, knowing there is one person I want to talk to: Marcel Proust.
The long cobblestone streets within the cemetery walls stretch out and intersect like a busy metropolis of the dead. The crypts and tombs clustered along the streets are miniature neighborhoods, meeting places for the departed and their friends. The faithful come with their gifts. On the tomb of Oscar Wilde, they leave red lipstick kisses on the sculpture of a soaring angel. The tomb of the American, Jim Morrison—tell me, why is he here?—is surrounded by beer bottles, colorful cords and bamboo reeds plastered with chewed gum.
Proust’s stone is shiny black granite, respectful. When I approach, I see my reflection in the mirror-like stone. He sees that I am here, and I bid him bonjour. Proust talks about himself most of the time. But he does it so well, I don’t really mind.
“Sometimes, Marcel,” I begin, “I smell lilies, and a day with Mireille comes back to me, as rich and alive as when I lived it 50 years ago. We are in the Tuileries, and she has told me she is pregnant with Henri. The sun is at an angle just so.”
Proust clears his throat. “Oui, that is how it is. We are beings of memory. Once I dipped a madeleine in my tea. As I tasted the crumbs with the tea, I was transported back to my childhood, a day I spent with my Aunt Léonie.” This reminds him of something else, and he is off on another story.
But I am distracted. A woman, in a whorl of bright reds and orange, has sat down on a nearby tombstone. I hear the ugly noises of crunching and slurping. She is an assault on my eyes and my ears.
Proust continues talking. But his words are drowned out, since the woman on the stone has started to sing. She sings so loudly, the dead must be holding their ears. The only break in the noise happens when the she pulls out a bottle and takes a drink.
I offer my apologies to Proust and walk over to the stone.
“Madame,” I tell her. “This is a place for quiet. You are disturbing the dead.”
She finishes chewing her apple and smacks her lips. She takes a drink from her bottle, then opens her red lips and laughs at me. “The dead don’t mind, Monsieur. Don’t you think they get bored, too?”
Her orange dyed hair is pulled back into a tight chignon. Her hands are as gnarled as the branches of an oak tree; she is as old as I am. Still, her cheeks are rouged and her blouse is stretched tight across her bosom, with a green scarf wrapped around her neck for the cold. She reminds me of Toulouse Lautrec’s paintings of dark, garish night clubs.
“Your drunkenness is not appropriate in this place, Madame.” I intend it as a polite reminder, as someone would tell a passerby that a bit of paper is stuck to his shoe.
“You are telling me this? You are the one who is talking to dead people,” she says accusingly and drops her empty bottle back behind the tomb. I open my mouth to say something then shut it. When she is gone, I will retrieve the bottle and throw it away.
She makes my head ache. All I want is for her to go away so I can continue with my day. I hurry back to the tomb, but even there, she flashes in the corner of my eye like the lights on an emergency vehicle. I determine that I will not be distracted, and I continue my conversation. Proust has become tedious, going on and on about his mother. With a nervous look back at the creature, I say adieu. I must continue my route through the cobblestone paths. I will stop by to see actor Yves Montand and, of course, Bizet, who sadly died before he knew how much the world would love his Carmen.
The next day I enter the gates, headed for Proust’s tomb. We have our usual chat and I move on to Edith Piaf. She is at the far corner of this section, at the end of Transversale No. 3, but the walk always feels good. There is a longing in my heart to see the Little Sparrow. If Paris could sing, it would sing with her voice.
Her grave is marked by a large, flat granite block, with a crucifix on top so large it looks like Jesus has laid down to take a nap. I close my eyes and pay my respects. Then I hear her voice:
Avec mes souvenirs
J’ai allumé le feu!
I set fire to my memories!
Startled, I open my eyes and she is there. The drunkard. She is singing with her head turned up to the sky. Really, it is the noise of a hound yelping. She is off key, and she slurs the words. But it is “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” Piaf’s greatest song. I know it well and begin humming it to myself.
Car ma vie, car mes joies
Aujourd’hui, ça commence avec toi
Because my life, my joys
Today, they begin with you.
I join her as she pours out her song defiantly and makes the clouds above shrink back. Air rushes into my lungs and my skin tingles. I feel as if I am singing it for the first time; in fact, I have no memory of ever having sung before. My head feels light and empty, as if a cage has been opened and all the birds have flown. After we finish the song, she swipes at her eyes with the back of her hand and looks at me. Black makeup has smudged her eyes and she looks like a smiling corpse.
She nods to me. “Merci.” As I wait for something else to happen, she totters away without a word, down the cobblestone path.
The absence of noise now is unbearable. I no longer remember where I am supposed to go. After standing alone in the brittle cold, I walk back through the cobblestone streets and try to retrace my steps to Gambetta station. In the process, I lose count. I look up to see a pastry shop, with madeleines in the window case. They look so golden and simple, I walk into the warm shop to purchase a bag.
The shop girl tells me I look like her grandfather. Her eyes grow soft when she tells me how he used to make paper boats for her to float on the pond at Luxembourg Gardens.
When I enter the metro, I see my singing friend again. She leans heavily against the rail as she makes her way slowly down the stairs to the trains. She is smaller than I remember. I hear her cackle echo through the station as she talks to someone on the platform. In a flash, she has boarded the train. The last I see of her, the doors are closing over the bright green of her scarf.
And now there are times when I walk through the streets of Paris, and I catch a momentary glimpse of those colors.
I am taken back. To a song, to a place.
To a freedom I have only started to taste.