What is consciousness? Is it in your head or is it something your head encounters? Is it in the world itself, can you touch it? Or does it touch you? Our brains are matter, of course, like rocks, or stars, or like that stick of butter melting in the sun on my kitchen counter. Our brains are things. Soft and greyish. Bumpy. They say electrical impulses carry our thoughts and these impulses jump from synapse to synapse. Sometimes deep paths are worn over long trails of synapses, and these constitute habitual thought, like rote memories or those odd connections that haunt you on a regular basis. For example, say there’s a certain stop sign at a certain street corner with a certain sticker on it with the name of a certain band that, for no reason you can think of, reminds you each and every time of your mother’s garden.
I bought a wheel of brie the other day and started thinking about these things. Brie isn’t even pâté, but it is French, and I suppose that must have tripped the process. I actually love pâté, but I haven’t eaten it for many, many years. I have ideas about why this might be. I even know the answer. I mean, I bet I know what Freud would say, if I ever had the opportunity—just speaking hypothetically—to discuss it with him. He would say that pâté reminds me of the goose, and the goose reminds me of Alain, and Alain reminds me of what he did to me—which by some people’s definitions might be called rape, although on this point I, myself, have never been a hundred percent certain. But really, they’re much, much more than that, my thoughts on pâté. For instance, pâté makes me think about the benefits of cruelty. And also about the love of sons for their mothers, and of daughters for their fathers. And it makes me think about the loneliness that’s wedged, like cotton, like some kind of dense packing material, between us all.
I should probably say, in the interest of clarity, that the French make a grand distinction between pâté and foie gras, and while I’ve eaten neither of these things since I was sixteen—because, to my mind, they are one and the same—I am in fact thinking of foie gras when I say pâté. And it was foie gras that Alain’s grandmother served, a shimmery, liquidy, shivery pyramid of it, the day I met her in the south of France, in a town whose name I forget, but one that was as podunk as towns in France get.
“They were pro-Vichy,” Alain said of his grandparents on the way to his grandmother’s house. We were in his little green Porsche, smoking Gitanes, driving behind his parents and his sister, Juliette, in their Audi. I was living with the Martens for the summer as an exchange student, and while I’d been happy enough to leave home, once I’d actually arrived in Avignon I’d found I missed my family terribly. My family that I normally so hated. It was surprising. Every night I went to bed feeling very tender for them.
Alain liked me, and I liked that he liked me, but I can’t honestly say that I ever felt anything more for him. I shared a room with Juliette, who was my own age. This room had two twin beds with matching yellow bedspreads and two large windows with shutters that we opened in the day and closed at night. Juliette had a round, flat face, with enormous blue eyes that seemed only rarely to blink. Her arms and the smooth planes of her cheeks were covered with a pale down that looked white in the sun. Even in her dreams, Juliette struck me as impossibly innocent: the sounds she made while sleeping were sheep-like and soft.
Madame Martens—Catherine—was addicted to Valium. Sometimes she and I would have long conversations during which only she would talk, and then only infrequently, as if through a cloud that absorbed most of her words before they left her mouth. She liked to sit at the edge of the family’s very small, very blue pool and put her legs up on a chair to get relief from her varicose veins, which she claimed were unbearably painful. My own mother had varicose veins that she never complained about, but hers were large and lumpy. They seemed to collect at her ankles. Catherine’s were fine, dark threads that climbed up her calves and over her thighs in a rambling network. Her snakes, she called them.
But I can barely conjure these people now. It’s only the father I really remember, Monsieur Martens—a man I was expected to vouvoyer, just as his own children did. This was a formality so old-fashioned that my teachers that summer were shocked and even, I think, disinclined to believe me when I told them about it. In any case, Monsieur Martens had the face and build of an owl—huge green eyes, flaring grey eyebrows, a thick neck, and a strong, barrel-shaped chest.
My time with the Martens is the only period in my life that I’ve ever been what you might call an early riser. For those six weeks, I made it a point to get up when Monsieur did, before the rest of the family. We sat across from each other at the tiny kitchen table in the family’s tiny, olive-green kitchen and read the newspaper. I dipped, as Monsieur did, chunks of baguette, spread with butter and strawberry jam, into my bowl of café au lait. The sun came into this kitchen at an oblique angle in the mornings and set everything softly, greenly aglow—the vinegar bottle, the soap in its dish, Monsieur’s white shirts and striped silk ties. . .We said, as I remember, very little to one another, although sometimes mon père, as I was encouraged to call him, would wait for me at the bottom of the stairs.
“Tu viens?” he would ask, just loud enough for me to hear, and, half-awake, I would throw on my clothes and hurry to meet him.
This brings me to an idea that first occurred to me long after those breakfasts—an idea, in fact, that occurred to me only recently—that it is entirely possible to fall in love with only parts of people. And while this love might not be broad—while this love might, indeed, be exceedingly narrow—it can be deep. I believe I was, in this way, a little in love with Monsieur (I never did get in the habit of calling him mon père) and that he was a little in love with me, too. I think this is why we waited so politely, with such gentle smiles, for one or the other of us to pour the coffee, or the milk, or to pass the butter or the jam. You might even say—or, rather, I might say—my love affair with Monsieur was the most perfect, if only because the most circumscribed, love affair of my life.
But, of course, at sixteen we are mysteries to ourselves. And it can take such a long time to understand certain things. To even begin to understand.
Catherine drove slowly. It was the Valium. Alain passed her, pressing on his horn and waving madly, as if he’d just noticed his family in their Audi and was amazed and surprised to find them on the very same road we happened to be taking. The other three laughed behind the silence of their rolled windows. Alain was known as the family clown. Le bouffon. I sometimes thought he looked a little like Buster Keaton, only chubby, and not as sweet.
“We’ll dip in here,” he said when we lost sight of his family once again. “And catch up with them later. It’s a secret place.” He drove through an opening in a stone wall. There, in a clearing, was an abandoned chateau—not large, made of crumbling, yellow blocks. I remember there were leaves everywhere, and tall grasses—everything was bright green: even the powdery stone walls of the chateau were covered with ivy, and strands of ivy hung over its empty windows. And all these green things—the leaves and weeds and ivy—were swaying gently in the summer breeze. Alain and I sat in the grass, under the shade of one of the leafy trees, and looked around ourselves. Maybe we smoked. I can’t remember. He picked a flower—a tiny white one—and gave it to me. We watched the clouds. Then we got back in his car.
Alain’s grandmother lived down a long dirt road in a low, ramshackle building with a corrugated tin roof. This structure included several one-room apartments, each of which had a single door that led out to a common grassy area where there were two very casual-looking vegetable plots and also a goose—tall and white—tied closely to a stake by a ribbon at its neck.
When we pulled up next to the Audi, which was already parked alongside Madame Martens’s apartment at the back of the building, a dark-skinned woman came outside and waved to Alain. He called her name and inquired after her health. She gave an unsmiling response, then turned and disappeared into the shadows of her apartment. Alain explained as we got out of his car that his grandmother was looked down upon, in this little town, for renting, as he put it, to “Negroes.”
The Martens were extremely well-off. Monsieur was a respected lawyer, and they were the only family in Avignon to have a swimming pool—lucky for me. So I was taken aback to see the conditions under which Monsieur’s mother lived—the worn grey tiles of the floor, the crumbling paint on the walls, the bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. But she seemed not to mind. Her smile was broad and came easily to her lips when she saw her grandson in the doorway. She was very old, and even though her shoulders were deeply hunched, I could see that her torso, like her son’s, was wide and squarish, and that, also from her, Monsieur had inherited his great, green eyes.
“Alain,” said the old lady, taking her grandson’s arm and giving him her cheek to kiss—once, twice, three times. I was introduced as the young American girl, and she bobbed her head very pleasantly at me, saying, “I see. I see.” And also, “You will eat. You will eat with us.”
Then she went back to making lunch, shuffling with small, determined movements around that part of the room which served as her kitchen. She was putting together a salad and Catherine was trying to help, but not with conviction. She touched her hair, the pearls at her neck. She tugged at the hem of her pastel sweater.
“Maman, permettez-moi, “ she said once, making a feeble attempt at grabbing a tomato from her mother-in-law.
Although the day was bright and summery, inside Madame Martens’s apartment it was dark and very still. A low murmuring came from a television set high on a shelf in a corner of the room, near the dining table. Its volume was turned down, but its colors were hiked to the brightest possible settings, so that instead of people and things moving in ways that made sense, there were only pops and bolts of shocking greens and blues, jagged lines of black, orange, and purple.
I can’t remember where Juliette was. Perhaps sitting near her father—loyally, silently, docilely. Mostly what I remember, mostly all that’s left, is Monsieur sitting at his mother’s wooden dining table, crying quietly to himself. I don’t know why he cried, but out of his large, green eyes the tears streamed freely. They spread down his cheeks and fell from the edge of his jaw.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Alain, taking my wrist. “Lunch won’t be ready for a while. I’ll show you around.”
In a sense, what you know and what you don’t know add up to the same thing. I mean, we’re all forced to navigate the world with incomplete knowledge, and the gaps in our knowledge must be reckoned with at least as much as the facts we know, since such wide, careful berths must often be made around certain forms of ignorance. For instance, I can only guess at the shape of Monsieur’s grief that day. Did he mourn for his dead father? Or for his mother’s poverty? Was he somehow shamed by his mother—had she poked him? Called him fat or lazy or uncaring? Or did he just happen to find himself at the edge of one of those voids we sometimes rush up to without realizing it? Did he feel the finitude of his own life? Or of his mother’s? Did he feel the limits of his love for the people in that room? Or the lack of such limits? I have no idea. Yet if I had known why Monsieur cried that day, the delicate feelings I felt for him (feelings I can summon now in only the faintest, most evanescent of flashes) would certainly have been altered, one way or the other.
There are many unknowns like this, many questions around which I pick a careful path. For instance: how do you fall out of love? Does it happen, first, in your brain or in your body? Does love seep away of its own accord, like snow drawn off in the spring? I look at my old wedding pictures and I see a woman who looks like me, only younger, and a man who looks like Daniel, only younger, but she’s not me anymore, and he’s no longer Daniel. How did that happen?
Of course, the things each of us doesn’t understand are not necessarily mysteries to other people. For instance, my mother says she knows why I got divorced. Another example: many, many people understand how F-stops work on cameras—but I can’t grasp this. Also: every snowflake is unique, some trees live for 6,000 years, some fruit flies for less than a day—these are facts I appreciate but do not understand.
The goose, which had disturbed me when I’d first seen it, disturbed me even more when we walked past it again. Its feathers had a yellowish cast and cleaved down the bird’s front, reflecting the anatomy of its two long breasts underneath. It stood only a few inches from the stake to which it was tied, and waved one of its webbed feet over the dusty ground in a spastic cycling motion.
“She wants to move,” I told Alain.
“Of course,” he said.
“Why is she tied like that?” I asked, and he explained to me the process of fattening geese. The cord around the animal’s neck was not just to prevent her from exercising and thus growing tough and lean, but to keep down the food that Madame Martens stuffed into her gullet twice a day. The cord, in other words, was tied too tightly for regurgitation.
Perhaps I cried when I learned these things. I was a sensitive girl. I don’t remember. In any case, we kept walking. Alain showed me his grandmother’s garden, then he showed me the abandoned bakery that was at the very front of the long, low building. His grandparents had run this shop together for many years before his grandfather died. Along one wall of the store were dozens of glass jars filled with hard candies. These were over fifteen years old.
“They’re still good,” Alain said, handing me a pale jewel shape wrapped in cellophane. The candy had an odd texture, almost gummy; it tasted like mint, and I spat it out.
Behind the counter, at the back of the store, was the kitchen where Alain’s grandfather had baked bread, long baguettes on long trays that fitted into long ovens. These trays were so long they looked like stretchers, and Alain told me to lie down on one. I thought of the Nazis, for some reason, and refused. Bending to touch one of my calves, Alain asked if I knew what these were called. They were called “petits pains,” he said, which meant “little breads,” and I smiled. I knew this wasn’t good. Alain had an eager look that made me nervous. I suggested we go back for lunch, and he put his hand on my throat and kissed me. This undid me. Although I had never liked Alain in this way, some part of me melted when he did this and I sat, or, rather, allowed myself to fall back onto the baking sheet.
There was of course in Alain’s gesture a whiff of danger, but to my sixteen-year-old nose, this smelled like nothing so much as wild roses and raw earth. But what was at first intoxicating quickly became confusing. Alain’s hand moved to my jaw, and the issue, as I understood it at the moment, was that my head was being held, and without my head I could not move my body. I worried for my neck, as if it might snap if I moved too sharply, but, of course, this was highly unlikely. I also worried that I must look ugly because Alain was squashing my cheeks, and above all I wanted him to stop doing this, I wanted him to not make me ugly; although I also realized that he was not even looking at me—his eyes were clamped shut, his eyelids dark and crinkled with a thousand tiny lines I’d never noticed before.
His movements were remarkably brief, the pain sharp and unfamiliar. But I don’t remember the pain. I remember the mint and cigarettes on Alain’s breath, the grit of ancient flour under my thighs, and the heat of the sun, coming in through a dusty window, pressing heavily on my face.
The dress I was wearing was one my mother had made me before I’d left for France, and although it’s dated, and full of bad memories, I still keep it in my closet because it has eleven tiny mother-of-pearl buttons running down the rose-pink bodice and these speak of what my mother wanted me to be, or perhaps of what she wanted for me. And the buttonholes for these little buttons are just tiny twists of silver cording, and that dress—I remember every time I catch a glimpse of it in my closet—was a real labor of love.
I called Alain un cochon—a pig—when we walked back to his grandmother’s apartment, and told him never to speak to me again, a request he more or less obeyed, although not before saying, almost inaudibly, as he moved his hand across his face, that he was sorry. In French, this sounds like our word “desolate.”
Inside, everybody was laughing and the air smelled like the green herbs that Madame Martens had sprinkled into the soup. I saw that Monsieur was still sitting at the dining table, but he was no longer crying. In fact, he looked extremely happy, almost boyishly so.
In our absence, the table had been set with white plates and wide, shallow bowls. There were also the salad and the soup and a long loaf of bread. But first, said Madame, the foie gras.
Because I was the guest, I was offered this delicacy before everyone else. It was Madame’s specialty—she raised three geese a year for just this purpose. I was told how people from miles around begged for her secret, or at least a little taste. I had never seen such an awful-looking food in my life: a liquid pile of brownish grains, glistening with pink iridescence. I thought it must certainly be rotten. I declined, but the family insisted. Monsieur assured me I would like it. He reminded me how much I’d liked the escargot and the frogs’ legs and the steak tartare to which the family had introduced me on other occasions. He said, “You live only once.” And he said, “You eat it like this,” and ripped a little piece of bread from the loaf on the table, then smeared a bit of the trembling gooseliver onto it. He held it to my lips and whispered, “C’est bon.” He said, “Je te promets.”
I watched his eyes. I opened my mouth. And I was amazed.
Kim Adrian’s memoir, The 27th Letter of the Alphabet, is forthcoming in fall 2017 from the University of Nebraska Press. She is the editor of The Shell Game: Writers Borrow Readymade Forms, an anthology of hybrid essays also forthcoming from UNP. Her book Sock is part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons Series. She teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Brown University. (updated 10/2016)