How to Find Love at 50 in Paris
(And Other Important Questions)
By Pascal Morin
Translated by Victoria Sheehan
They had to put the casket at an angle. Horizontally, it wouldn’t fit through the door of the brick recess that had been reserved in the wall of concrete cells in the public assistance section of the cemetery. That’s how fat she was.
Catherine Tournant, standing in the back, serious and dressed in black, was struck by the horror of the situation. She, who only a few seconds earlier had been ruminating ironically on the death of Sylvia Jackowska, mother of her student Natasha, saw too precise an image of the interior of the box to remain detached. So she stopped the flow of cynical thoughts germinating in her mind. Under other circumstances, she’d have allowed herself to make a pithy remark in red ink in the margin of the scene she was living. She’d have given free rein to her occupational compulsion to annotate the situation. But that day, she didn’t allow it.
“This makes me sick!” thought Natascha Jackowska. Her mother would not be laid to rest peacefully – stretched out on her back, hands folded on her stomach like a recumbent statue. No, her position would be humiliating for eternity. Her mother had never been like everyone else anyway. She was enormous. A phenomenon. The coffin, the largest size available in the municipal stock, was stuffed with her body, not like a bed, but like a tub. That was the vision Natasha Jackowska had in mind. Her liquid mother. Filling the coffin to the lid, fortunately sealed shut, packed to the brim like an overly fatty pâté. Her mother, in her very death, was marginal. Natasha had always known it. Since childhood, she’d understood. And Natasha Jackowska, a student in her last year of a literature concentration at the Lycée Saint-John-Perse in Aulnay-sous-Bois, where she slaved for meager results, yes, Natasha Jackowska, daughter of this Polish immigrant stifled by her own deformed body, an orphan of seventy-two hours, for the first time in years, gave a hint of a smile.
Catherine Tournant noticed. She wondered what, at a moment like this, could be the cause. Despite the practical help she’d given her, accompanying her to city hall to make the funeral arrangements and scheduling an appointment with a social worker, she didn’t really care about Natasha Jackowska. She reproached herself: “Be more considerate of others.” Moreover, she was determined to know what could possibly amuse the young girl, in the midst of so much misery.
Natasha Jackowska quickly pulled herself together and again put on the emotionless face of the sad child that she’d always worn as a mask. She’d been a legal adult for two months already. Eighteen in July. She’d been held back in the 5th grade, but never again. She always passed into the next grade by a slim margin and she hadn’t taken the literary track by choice, but by calculation. She was completely useless in math and spoke Polish -- which had convinced her teachers to push her in to this academic track for which she saw no use. She didn’t like to read, or to write, and she could only tolerate the never-ending philosophy courses by taking refuge in a fantasy world of absolute freedom and violent settling of scores; she was always silent and smooth, distant. She didn’t really understand why Catherine Tournant was so interested in her.
“I’m an adult and I can take care of myself,” Natasha Jackowska repeated.
She counted the people. Fourteen. Not a single family member. Five municipal employees. Catherine Tournant, dry and dignified. Cindy Pruvot, her only friend, who was in her usual oversized multi-colored wool sweater. Seven other classmates, who came to the funeral as an excuse to skip school. Her whole world was here. And now her mother was dead. This woman who never had a husband, never had a man to serve as a father to Natasha Jackowska. And no other child but her.
“And what will you do now?” worried Catherine Tournant who donned, at the end of the funeral, the role she reproached herself for not playing earlier, that of an experienced confidante, both attentive and human.
Natasha, hearing this question, understood that the ceremony was already over. She saw that they were closing the cavity with the help of a cement shutter, smoothly immuring the casket, on its side for centuries and centuries to come. Sylvia Jackowska, her mother, could now soften at leisure, like butter in the sun. Natasha was entirely certain that she would not return to this cemetery. She felt like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders, and this time she couldn’t help smiling sincerely at Catherine Tournant.
“I don’t know,” she responded stoically.
She politely refused the invitation to lunch with her teacher, pretending that she had everything she needed at her house and that she needed to be alone. She waved at Cindy Pruvot and turned away.
Catherine Tournant returned to the platform of the RER train. She was simultaneously horrified by this funeral service, which she qualified as “unprecedented,” and worried about her student. “I know her so little,” she said to herself, “how can I comfort her?”
Just the day before, Catherine Tournant was explaining to her class that a narrative always needed a “trigger element” to give it life.
“You understand,” she said, “after establishing a stable scene, for example: ‘Once upon a time there was a poor fisherman and his wife,’ something has to happen: ‘One day, he caught a small golden fish.’”
Yes, you had to break good fortune with an accident, shatter solitude with a meeting, jeopardize wealth with disaster. There were myriad possibilities, and authors had experimented with all sorts of strategies, but it was impossible to do without it. So the stillness turned to action, the description to narration, the progressive past to the simple past, thanks to the adverb “suddenly.”
As she often had in recent months, Catherine Tournant let her mind wander among the mistletoe-covered poplars that she could see through the window at a distance. She knew they lined the whole length of the Ourcq Canal, although she had never ventured so far. She’d been working at the Lycée Saint-John-Perse, her third position, for the past 17 years. One school year after another, she’d seen thousands of high schoolers, to whom she’d patiently re-explained concepts normally acquired in middle school. She’d stopped questioning the merits of the program’s technicality, the dullness of overly-examined books, and the disappearance of reading for pleasure. Gradually, she’d let herself turn numb. Catherine Tournant only felt well when lost in thought, beyond the confines of the school, among the poplars. She lectured without being there, discreet and efficient, irreproachable.
Before the end of the hour, she’d noted the absences in the pale yellow notebook provided for this purpose. Natasha Jackowska was missing that day, and Catherine Tournant mechanically asked her students if she was sick and if they had any news.
“She isn’t sick,” replied Cindy Pruvot, who usually shared her table with Natasha. “It’s her mother. She’s dead.”
When the shock of this announcement had passed, amid the spontaneous silence that had fallen on room 221, her room, Catherine Tournant, asked herself how she could help her student, determined not to remain an anonymous teacher under such circumstances. She held to her principles. She had always made it a point of honor to remember that behind every face there was a person. An individual. “Humanity.”
Unquestionably. But that late September morning, on the eve of the grotesque and lackluster funeral of Sylvia Jackowska, amongst a colorless succession of identical days, she didn’t recognize this event as a “trigger element” of the same scope as those very theoretical ones that she’d trained her students to recognize in narrative fiction. If someone had told her that there would be enough time this school year for her to fall in love, she’d have refused to believe it. And yet the unlikely scene that she would witness the next day would have unexpected consequences, like the storied butterfly effect.
Life naturally resumed its course after the funeral and two weeks was enough for Catherine Tournant to relegate the event to its place and conjugate it in the past tense. It was Monday night, and Catherine Tournant, hard at work, was scrupulously correcting a stack of papers that she’d decided to return to her seniors the next day. She wanted to rid herself of this chore, and she was prepared to sacrifice her night to get it over with. Of course she’d have preferred to watch television, but she refused to be like some of her colleagues, who unabashedly returned written assignments weeks later, if at all, under the pretext that they were bad, rather than recognizing the extent of their own laziness.
So, she found herself in a state of intense concentration, her field of consciousness closed up on this back-and-forth between thepapers and her mental commentary, which she of course transcribed in red ink, taking care to tone down her remarks in the process. It wasn’t a fun job, contrary to what her friends thought when she made them privy to the most comical blunders that she jotted down in a notebook she called her “Gem Collection.” For Catherine Tournant grading was a serious and tiring job that plunged her into a floating state, halfway between consciousness and dreaming.
Would she have understood what was happening in her student’s apartment, at the exact moment when she began correcting Natasha Jackowska’s paper, becoming internally irritated by the poverty of her thought? Or would she have made a mistake, seeing futility where there was a profound, almost organic, impulse of rejuvenation? Would she have suspected that soon after she would be following her example?
The same afternoon, Natasha Jackowska was at the meeting that Catherine Tournant had arranged for her with Clarisse Renant, a social worker. The latter told Natasha that she’d have to leave her one-bedroom apartment, which she no longer had the means to pay for, and move into a boardinghouse for young working women. Everything that had belonged to her mother would be seized to reimburse the creditors. The table and the three chairs, the bed, the television. Natasha could keep only her clothes and her school things. Clarisse Renant also helped her open an account at la Banque Postale into which social services would soon deposit five-hundred euros. She gave her thirty euros in cash to hold her over.
Then Natasha Jackowska invited Cindy Pruvot over. It was the very first time. She wanted to enjoy the television before it disappeared with the rest of her meager furniture. When her mother was alive, she was not allowed to invite classmates over. Natasha never rebelled against this unspoken ban. She understood perfectly that her mother was ashamed to show herself. Sylvia Jackowska never went out; Natasha even did the shopping.
Natasha Jackowska, unlike her mother, felt no shame. She lived in an apartment in the Aulnay projects, enormous high-rise buildings of a cyclopean dimension whose architectural strangeness didn’t affect her. It was like she’d never really lived there; she’d always taken refuge within herself, away from the black hole that her mother embodied. So this new freedom was not the reason for inviting Cindy over – there was something else, something deeper and very confusing within her. And for this, she needed help.
“Cindy Pruvot is fat,” Natasha Jackowska said to herself at the exact same moment that Catherine Tournant was correcting her paper, “Not as fat as my mother, but she’s only seventeen.” For Natasha Jackowska, all the girls were on the wrong path, on the way to rapid weight gain. She didn’t think of herself as an exception to the rule and that’s why she never ate much. Cindy’s plumpness was, in comparison, very reassuring. Natasha wouldn’t go as far as asking herself if it was precisely this plumpness – Cindy’s full cheeks and her prominent stomach, her bosom – that had attracted her in the first place. She saw no deep connection between Cindy Pruvot’s appearance and her own attachment to her.
Seeing others eat ruined her appetite. It had started years ago, watching her mother devour a barely-thawed lasagna still in its aluminum tray. Natasha had sworn to herself never to look like that. “She’s an ogress,” she thought, “It will kill her.” Cindy usually had food in her hand--cookies, candies, even bread-- while Natasha deprived herself of everything. She was tall and thin like a dead twig.
And on that Monday evening, two weeks after her mother’s funeral, stretched out on her bed next to Cindy Pruvot, watching television, she had a feeling of déjà-vu. Cindy ate chips from the bag non-stop; Natasha didn’t touch them. Certainly not. She refused with all her might. To expel the unpleasant thought that, through Cindy, her mother was there next to her, she repeated the same phrase as at the cemetery, her interior mantra each time she encountered an obstacle: “I’m an adult and I can take care of myself.”
Natasha Jackowska and Cindy Pruvot passively let themselves get sucked into an American TV show devoted to plastic surgery. Ordinary women underwent multiple operations and became the prettiest in their families, their neighborhoods, and even in their entire towns. It was called Extreme Makeover. They didn’t show any of the actual surgeries and almost none of the long and painful recoveries, and they raved over and over again about the impressive results. They dressed up these guinea pigs like princesses for the grand receptions where they were reunited with their families. The women arrived in limousines, in a halo of warm lights, to the sound of violins. Natasha loved these kinds of shows. She channel-surfed to track down everything that had to do with image consultation, cosmetic surgery, and weight loss. She was fascinated by the before-and-after pictures. “Now,” she said to herself, sitting next to Cindy Pruvot, slumped on the bed, “Yes, now is the before. But the after’s getting closer.”