An excerpt from Failing Paris

This is how it is. It’s as if I’m watching you stare at the lines nom, prenom, on which have been typed Wilcox, Sabine, fingering the edge of your student card. The room smells stagnant, as if it has never been dry. You are gripping that card because you might not recognise your own name when it’s called. That could happen. That really could happen. You could forget that you have come to the Hôpital Saint-Louis to undergo the perfunctory psychological evaluation, the one required by the French government that will allow you to make another appointment for next week, when you can have the abortion. L’avortement, which means the failure, the plans which have fallen through.

In the next five minutes or fifteen or even two hours from now (how does time parcel itself, one moment becoming separate from another?), there will come the most difficult French test of your life. There’s a chance you will have to argue why you must have this procedure. They will say, How many weeks has it been? and you’ll say, I don’t know. I never keep track of these things. If the nurses even hint there is some question about you being a deserving candidate, that you waited too long to do it safely, if they say in that way meant to console, What’s the worst thing that can happen if you carry to term?, you will give specifics. You could even draw a picture.

In Mesilla, New Mexico, Miss Ortiz has framed the article the Doña Ana County Courier published about your scholarship from the Lion’s Club, the largest one ever given, probably in the whole state, or at least south of Socorro, since big things happen all the time up north in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. That’s the way they would say it. Big things. You were in the parade at the Whole Enchilada Fiesta. People said isn’t Bean (because Sabine sounds so fancy) such a good student, she gets to go all the way to France, and isn’t it inspiring how she got beyond that tragic situation when the police were called after Nick Navarro took his rifle to the barn? People said, Her mother fell to pieces and just depended on that girl, and other people said, The woman was already broken.

Miss Ortiz has placed the Courier piece right next to the blackboard and points to it as the example of what can be accomplished. If the follow-up to that was that you got pregnant, quit school, the article would come down. Not that it would be a shock, how you turned out. It just wouldn’t be exceptional. Most would say, look at the odds. How could it be otherwise? She is the daughter of a woman who burns bridges with an arsonist’s zeal. You think you carry a mark because of that, have always tried to hide it, but let’s admit now that it will never be removed, no matter how many layers you peel from your skin. The saying goes that you shouldn’t lead a life of crime and extravagance with a tattooed face, but what choice is there, really?

You know how to study (a series of repetitions, the paths of neurotransmittters) but it has not explained how they evaluate, what they will weigh, measure, and so there is no way to practice the answers for this test. What you mean to say is, it’s been all this time and still you haven’t been to the arrondissement where the Eiffel Tower is, but you do know by name the transvestite waiter at the restaurant, Le Mouton Enragé, the Furious Sheep, the one near the cemetery where you pretend to visit dead relatives. You go to the Louvre on Sundays because there is no entrance fee, and you shake at the beauty you find there, though you do not recognize the names of the artists, or the styles of the brush strokes or the forms of the granite. But you take the pamphlets. They’re free. You want to learn.

A name is called and you check your card again but you have stared at the lines so long they no longer make sense. Is it you? No. Another woman gets up and moves to the door, her hair dull as a cowbird’s wing and chopped unevenly at the back.

The nurse brushes past the others in the waiting-room but hesitates in front of your chair. – Ne vous inquiétez pas, Don’t worry, mademoiselle, it is just a formality, the nurse says, and this is a lullaby in her throat.

You look up, startled, and your eyes dart around. Relax. She’s talking to you. Smile now, and even start to laugh, the pitch and crack of it high enough to pierce. The nurse regards you oddly and so do the other women in the waiting-room but you continue. Worried. How could you look worried? Finally it has become clear. Voilà, the real moment, the moment to which all others have led. The joke was on you, memorising dead French poets, in your bedroom parroting cassettes of absurd conversations you would never have about the weather and the character of others, il fait un temps épouvantable, Coco n’était jamais sympatique, elle était toujours un vrai monstre sacré. This in your house with aluminum siding that doesn’t even pretend to be wood grain, with its tears in the screened-in porch, red caliche earth, pecan trees rooted deeply in their rows, the interstate’s whining rubber never far off. Why you rode your horse bareback across the pasture to the French teacher’s house during school breaks, the old maid with yellow barrettes in her black hair, an au pair thirty years ago but she gave you all she knew.

Yet, despite your diligence, when you arrived you were so far out of your element you felt the way the drowning must feel, struggling and choking and the flood of what’s all around coming in too fast.

So to make your way, you used skin like currency across crisp cotton sheets, the attention of men so much easier, the only ones who have anything to gain by talking to foreign girls. It was all in trade for the ease of saying exactly what you mean, to have language without seams. At this moment you are doing the conversion, realizing the rate of exchange.

When your name is called you will first explain that you’re sharing a single at the back of a hotel, near the église Saint-Sulpice, and the church bells often break conversation. You have a roommate named Pascale who wears braids like onyx pulled from her sharp face, her lips architecture in garnet. She’s never surprised. A cigarette balanced with the index finger and thumb. If you told her, she’d want to know the name of the guy, Comment il s’appelle d’ailleurs, ce mec qui t’a fait ça? Pascale is no friend and besides, you can’t tell her because you’re not sure what his name was. Probably something hyphenated. Jean-Paul, Henri-Michel. What does it matter. Someone who taught you the subjunctive during those mornings that unravelled slowly, and he went chez le boulanger to get fresh bread, maybe a croissant, and he didn’t return for hours, making you understand that you were supposed to leave.

Maybe it was that lawyer who never called back. He was the one who took you to Versailles on Armistice Day and knew a back way in, there was no one around, and you played hide and seek by that cottage with the water-mill, or maybe you just read about that? Sometimes it’s hard to tell what you’ve actually done and what you spent a childhood dreaming of, but the part was real where the two of you got locked in after dark because he kissed you in a gazebo when you didn’t know the right expression, or maybe you just used the wrong one on purpose, and he said, It’s one of those charming things about American girls. As his lips pressed thickly onto yours you were thinking, strangely, of Marie Antoinette, how the sound of her skirts must have rushed in the wind as the autumn leaves did then.

Very soon after the lawyer there was another man, who wrapped his hands in your hair as if he were sinking and it was a lifeline and called its colour noir et feu, black fire, and you thanked him. But he probably has nothing to do with this metal folding chair and this flat enamel wall and this silence, which is the heavy air created when women sit waiting to rid themselves of what they cannot bear. It is a secret too impossible to speak even to the woman in the next chair. She catches your eye and the look means I know, je suis complice.

– Mademoiselle Weeeelcoc? Sabine Wilcox? The nurse calls, eyes scanning the room for the figure belonging to that name.
– Present, you say. It is the same word in both languages, the French one just fluffier at the edges, a puff of a word.

Suddenly, as if overcome by nausea, you lean forward with a jerky motion to put your hands over your face, hoping that shutting out this room will transform it into a bad dream, thin enough to dissipate when you open your eyes. It doesn’t work. There are always consequences: some things die, others live. I see you breathe out and sit up straight. What it comes down to is that for nineteen years you were just waiting for the break in the fence, for a chance to make your own life, and now how could you possibly be a mother, and everything that implies?

The question is, this multiplying cell (how much it feels like a cancer), or you, fully formed? You are going to say, It’s me who’ll get out alive, and you will not hesitate.

Excerpted from the novel Failing Paris by Samantha Dunn, originally published in 1999 by The Toby Press, reprinted by Lake Union Publishing in 2012.

Samantha Dunn is the author of Failing Paris, a finalist for the PEN West Fiction Award in 2000, and the memoirs Not By Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life (Henry Holt & Co.), a BookSense 76 pick, and Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex and Salvation.

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