Paris, 13 November.
Friday night. I’m home with a bad cold. I get the news. The first Paris friend who texts me to ask where I am and if I’m safe makes me cry. I’m so grateful anyone would even give a shit.
I’m scared. Will they spread out through the city? Will they come here? Until I remember that my very Jewish quartier is heavily patrolled by armed National Guard thanks to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. It’s fucked up, but it makes me feel safer.
I stay up until 3am anyway. I notice my neighbor doesn’t come home. I feel vulnerable, frightened again — he’s Muslim. I’m worried he’s somehow caught up in all this, and he’ll come back and kill me too, even though he’s a nice guy. Once as I was heading out in my famous blue coat, he stopped me in the hallway and told me I didn’t need it because it was really warm outside. Such a small thing, the kind of thing your mom says, that only comes from an everyday kind of love, and easy kind of care. I’m ashamed to admit to myself that even despite this, deep down I’ve been a little frightened of him all along.
Sunday afternoon. I’m visiting a friend and her baby. She gets a cryptic call from one of her husband’s employees: he tells her not to worry. She asks if something’s happening. He says yes and hangs up. I watch her try not to panic–aware the tension is so high, aware people are a little goofy sometimes, aware her baby can pick up her fear. We check our phones, check the news. Learn soon enough of a false alarm in the Marais and at Republique — where her husband’s restaurant is. We learn firecrackers went off in the Marais, someone drove by Place de la Republique screaming about a man with a gun. We learn the Place cleared out immediately, everyone in the restaurants hit the floor without really knowing what was happening — but we all know why. They stayed there for 10 minutes, and then learned it was nothing. Exhausted and angry, cheated of 10 minutes of their lives, thinking they were the last 10 minutes they would ever know.
I still haven’t heard my neighbor come home. My fear of him has changed to fear for him. I can’t check the victim rosters; I never learned his name.
Monday. Emails and messages are still trickling in: are you ok? I simply say yes and then get apologetic excuses for not asking earlier, mistaking my short reply for petulance instead of the reality, which is that I have nothing else to say.
The Facebook flags, the solidarity, the defiant memes and complaint memes and outrage and theories and cries in the dark: what about us? They’re all popping up, blossoming, flourishing. I don’t want to engage. It’s a delicate time, a dangerous time. Footage of Sunday’s false alarm also makes the rounds, mostly news footage of interviews suddenly interrupted, a terrified glance at something off-camera, people fleeing. The cold dry panic on the faces in the restaurants as they seek the floor, pile up the tables against the doors. Waiting to see if it is their turn to die.Despite the defiance, the cris de coeurs of mini skirts and music, of terraces and champagne, those images from Sunday’s false alarm stick with me more, belie the tidal wave of fear just there, in the corners, ready to flood in, that national pride and humour are meant to keep at bay. I hate it, the defiance, but it’s all so human too. It’s hard to hate that.
I work up my nerve and knock on my neighbor’s door. His voice from inside makes me jump. He opens the door. Relief. I explain I was worried about him because I hadn’t heard him come home for three days. He says thank you, that’s very kind. I don’t think to ask his name. He doesn’t ask mine. Nothing has changed.
I tell someone I have a crush on that I like them. I figure no one has anything to lose at this point, not any more than we’ve all already lost. Apocalyptic thinking, I call it. It’s a stupid thing to do. Why not tell people when life is fertile and full of promise? Why wait until you have nothing to lose? I’m a hypocrite. And hindsight is 20/20.
I realize I need to make love. I need to connect with another human, get deep inside someone. Let them get deep inside me. Just to feel it. Just to say hello.
Monday night. A Russian artist who will stay with me for a week arrives. It’s his first time in Paris. He tells me that he uses his art to deal with the tragedy, the fear, the pain, the travesty of governments and justice and religions gone awry. He says it works, making art helps him go on. But just before he came, he went to a meeting at his art collective. All they talked about a refugee woman recently arrested in St Petersburg for not having working papers. Her 5 month old baby was taken from her. The baby dies in custody a few hours later. It doesn’t work for that, he said. It doesn’t work for that.
Tuesday. I show the Russian artist around my quartier, bubbly and chatty. Until we get to a restaurant I know, that I go to from time to time. I like it there. It’s closed, barricaded with flowers and cards, notes and drawings. Notre Belle Equipe, they say. Three servers and the wife of the owner were killed on Friday, out celebrating a birthday among them. I’m amazed at how fast my mood drains, how quickly I fill up with sorrow. And fear, the fear creeps in too, again: so it comes closer. That long, craggy finger of the terrorist attacks… it’s almost touching me. I recoil. We all do.
Tuesday night. My string instrument class at the Philharmonie. For the first time, the instructor remembers to take attendance at the end of class. It’s a cacophony — everyone scratching away on their instruments while he calls out names. We’re all here! he declares over the noise. Someone very quietly says “nous manquons une”. Silence. We all know what it means.
I take a long walk, wind up in a funny little corner bar near my place. It’s late. I’m the only one at the bar. I order a wine, then a whiskey. A woman my age comes in, takes a seat a stool away. Orders a whiskey and a water back. A few minutes later, another woman about the same age comes in. She knows the bartender and his helper, gives them the bises. Orders a whiskey. It’s after midnight, almost one. Three woman in their 40s, drinking whiskey at a bar. We talk about the restaurant in our quartier, our neighborhood’s loss. The bartender puts on Gil Scott Heron’s “I’m New Here”. We listen.
Susie Kahlich is an American writer who has been living in Paris, France since 2010. She works as a broadcaster and arts journalist, making art accessible to people who are intimidated by art. She hosts the weekly radio show, Expo Paris, a personal journey or carnets de voyages through the biggest museums and the smallest galleries for World Radio Paris. Her fiction has been featured in Estomac Onirique, Her Royal Majesty, and The Artist Catalogue. She is currently working on an opera electronica, The Beautiful Now, an eight-movement cycle about life and death.
All photographs courtesy of work4food project