The velvet headband!
I was standing in front of my apartment building in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, wondering where to go next. The woman who’d rented me her servant's quarters, a room on the 11th floor adjoining her apartment and accessible by an outdoor walkway that passed her kitchen window, had just raised the rent on me for the third time in three months.
I knew where I wasn’t wanted: four months earlier she’d asked me to stop cooking “smelly things” (like spaghetti or vegetables) in her kitchen (access to which had originally been part of the deal), and then asked me to stop cooking things she could smell through her walls (everything, apparently) when I cooked on my Bunsen burner in my own bathroom.
What I’d done is, I’d made the mistake of turning her dog into a normal, healthy dog while she was away in St-Tropez. At least, that’s what I thought I’d done wrong, though I didn’t realize it’d been the wrong thing to do at the time. Madame had left me with instructions: cut Lulu’s calf liver into small pieces, then feed it to her with a fork until she finished. She might not finish it all, she’d said, but I should try. Otherwise, Lulu’s concerned owner seemed sincerely to believe, she’d probably starve. Lulu also had a “pathological obsession” with her ball, which her vet had told her was incurable. If nobody threw that ball for her all day long, she would get depressed and need to go on meds. This is for real what I was told.
Lulu was the only dog I’d ever met who, when you asked, “who wants to go out?” would just lay in her bed as if dead. No interest at all.
I was the proud owner of Lulu’s sister, Carmen. Both were dachshund/terrier mixes from Spain. But Carmen was the opposite of Lulu. Lulu was all black and Carmen was black and tan. Carmen was boisterous, tough, daring (stole a roast chicken right off Madame’s dining room table while I was at the library once), and athletic. I’d taught Carmen to jump from my arms and land on her feet. All I had to do was let go of her while carrying her, and she knew what to do. In fact, this skill had saved her life when she fell off a cliff in Spain once: she’d landed like a stunt man after quite a tumble, gotten up completely unfazed. Once, I made the mistake of dropping Lulu from my arms to get my key, expecting her to land like Carmen, only she fell to the floor like a small sack of potatoes, horrifying me. I still remember the sound of it. Eech.
Anyway, when Madame went away, I decided life was too short to cut Lulu’s calf liver up into tiny pieces and feed it to her as if she were Colin, the invalid from The Secret Garden or something. I gave her the same dog food I gave Carmen and ate her calf’s liver myself, sautéed with onions. Lord knows I needed it, living as frugally as I was those days, legally unemployable until my second year of French university. When the little cur came to me with her famous ball, I’d tossed it a few times, then told her to cut the crap and sit down with me and Carmen while I did my grammar exercises. As I fully expected, this made her amazingly eager to please me, and she began to sit with her chin on my lap while I did my homework, like a matching bookend to Carmen, whose chin would be resting on the other side of my lap.
I trained her a little in jumping from low places, too, gradually making the jump-off point higher and higher, till she was almost as good as Carmen at landing on her feet. She was a quick learn. She was descended from a long line of very smart dogs, after all. She even began jumping up and running to me when I’d call, “Who wants to go out?” By the time Madame came back, I was happy to report to her that Lulu was actually a perfectly happy, normal dog, with nothing about her warranting such inordinate special treatment as she’d gotten used to at all.
The first sign that something was wrong was when Madame called me over one morning to say she was worried about Lulu.
“Lulu’s constipated,” she said.
“Really? How do you know? Has she tried to, uh … and failed to, uh … to … you know? Poop?” I asked.
Further questioning revealed that Lulu displayed no actual symptoms of being constipated.
“It’s just something about the way she is,” Madame said.
Well, it wasn’t long after that, that my cooking was objected to, and my rent raised. And raised again the next month. And then raised once more the month after that. I surmised that I was no longer welcome. Was I really that annoying, I wondered? Or could it be that it was because Lulu had been happy while Madame was away? That was the one thing that might have conflicted with Madame’s expectations, I speculated. I wondered if I should explain to Madame that it wasn’t that Lulu liked me better, but rather that it makes a dog happy to be treated like a dog and not like a baby.
But if that was the thing I’d done wrong, there was no explaining it away. It was a matter of having fixed something that didn’t actually want fixing, maybe having upset the dynamics of their relationship. I’d made a mistake, there, thinking Madame would be happy about it. How do you like that? You learn something about human nature every day.
But being philosophical about it wasn’t helping me now. I’d just come back from seeing Madame’s mother, a fine old lady with what I was pretty sure were Braques and other famous artists on her walls, who lived across the street with a view on Madame’s window from her living room. She’d offered to pay the difference in the rent for me. She felt her daughter was lonely, that she tended to “use people up like Kleenexes and throw them away when she was tired of them,” which was, she implied, what had happened to me.
I agreed with her summation of the situation. It was simpler than mine.
Madame’s mother nevertheless wished I’d stay, because she liked knowing I was there for her daughter, keeping an eye on her. Maybe she was worried about all those sleeping pills her daughter took: “Lexomil,” the scourge of the bourgeoisie. (I’d taken them myself during a rough patch, given them by a friend with an unlimited supply, and knew first-hand that they made people forgetful: and Madame had almost forgotten to give me my university acceptance letter on time. I’d found it under the passenger seat of her car only a few days before it would have been too late to register.) Madame’s mother said she thought I was a caring person, and I was, I guess. But I was also a sensitive person. I didn’t want to stay where I wasn’t wanted, even for free, I told her, thanking her all the same.
So there I stood, halfway between her place and mine, pondering my predicament. It would be hard to find another room for me and my dog. That’s why I’d moved into Madame’s guest room in the first place. While I indulged in a moment of panicked paralysis, a Spanish cleaning lady I knew from my building came out on her way to work and asked me what was wrong. “You look upset,” she said. I told her what had transpired.
“Stay here,” she ordered me, “I’m going to my job just around the corner and I know my employer has a room she can rent you. Her son is visiting, and I’ll ask him about it, because she’s too old to deal with these things. If he’s open to it, I’m sure you can rent that room. The only thing is, you’ll be living next to a crazy woman.”
“Hey, I’m living next to a crazy woman right now!” I said.
“I mean really crazy,” she said, “but … oh, I’ll explain later.”
Whereupon she scurried off to her job. She was back in 15 minutes, telling me to come with her. The upshot of all this was that I was welcome to rent this room for next to nothing in exchange for four hours of babysitting Madame G___, who was 98 years old, while her regular keeper took the afternoon off on Saturdays. The room was to be rented to me “as is,” meaning they couldn’t be bothered to install a phone line, and there was no heat, no hot water, and … a crazy woman living next door who might make my life a living hell, but as long as I could handle that, I could move in as soon as I pleased.
For the second time that year, I went to the airport to send the dog to my parents’ house in New York in a kennel donated by my friend the Spanish cleaning lady. I’d sharpied the words “LIVE DOG” and “CHIEN VIVANT!!!” all over it, because you never know. Carmen was a good sport, and the airline employee I handed her off to promised to keep her company till boarding. They were bonding when I left, tears in my eyes. What was ironic was that it had been Madame who’d generously brought Carmen back to Paris from New York for me in the first place, when she’d heard through her son, a good friend of mine, that I was living dogless on a barge, or “péniche” in St-Germain-en-Laye (Paris’s equivalent of Hoboken) after coming back from Spain. I’d sent Carmen to New York from Spain because I hadn’t been able to arrange a place for us in Paris ahead of time and didn’t dare chance room-searching with a dog in tow.
What Madame had wanted was a playmate for Lulu. Unfortunately, Carmen was just more dog than Lulu was, really. Lulu wouldn’t dream of getting out of bed to steal a roast chicken from Madame’s dinner table, for example. Carmen simply made Lulu look like a sad-sack. Lulu’d started peeing on the sofa in protest.
Poor Carmen, I thought, blown around like a leaf on the winds of my student life.
My dad was overjoyed, though. He loved Carmen. Most people did. Anticipating what life had in store for me, I’d raised her to be very sociable and flexible about her owners, and as a result she was beloved by all who knew her. When he called to let me know she’d arrived all right, Dad claimed that the overture from Carmen (the opera), had been playing as he approached the airport to pick Carmen (the dog) up. He probably brought her straight home and right down the stairs to the basement to sit in his E-Z Boy and watch his favorite BBC comedy series, “Yes, Minister,” on VHS with his feet up, a can of macadamia nuts on the armrest, and Carmen nestled contentedly in his crotch.
I spent a day moving my stuff from my room to my new garret on foot, using an old luggage trolley. It was a true garret, in every sense of the word. It was all the way up on the seventh floor, the lower level, so the more deluxe level of servants’ rooms. The cramped eighth-floor rooms were now just storage space for the apartment dwellers. You got out of the elevator on the sixth floor and walked to a little metal passerelle, or footbridge, to a spiral staircase outside that led to the hall of garrets. It was all dark gray in there, the kind of gray that theater set designers strive to recreate when they build scenes of Dickensian poverty. There were six toilets behind six gray, scuffed doors. They were the hole-in-the-floor kind of toilet. Good for avoiding hemorrhoids, I’ve been told. Something to be grateful for, anyway. I would build up my thigh strength using those for a couple of years.
My new room was about twelve by seven feet, the seven being at the door end. The window end was more like four feet wide. There was a tiny little sink, almost like those sinks you find next to a dentist’s chair, a twin bed and tiny desk against one wall, and a chifforobe against the other. There was a tiny stone balcony from which, miraculously, I could see the Eiffel Tower if I leaned over and looked to the left. Inside, the walls were yellow, but it was hard to tell if the paint was originally yellow, or had become yellow. Later, when I’d take my baths crouched in a galvanized steel washtub I’d bought at the flea market (luckily electricity was free, so I’d boil water in an electric tea kettle and fill pitcher after pitcher with warm water to rinse off the soap), the steam would make that paint peel off in long, resigned strips.
On one of my trips to my new room, my arms filled with various belongings, the door to my left opened. It was my neighbor, the crazy woman, or “La Serbe,” as she was known by all the other garret dwellers. (“She’s Serbian. You know: the ones who are killing everyone in Eastern Europe,” they told me.) She looked exactly like Joseph Stalin, in a velvet headband and housedress. Nobody knew her name. All they knew was that she was crazy. Mean crazy, not fun crazy.
I greeted La Serbe politely, introducing myself as her new neighbor and apologizing for the noise of my comings and goings as I moved in. She acknowledged my apology with a brusque harumph, and informed me that she was “very sensitive to noises and smells.” I told her I’d try not to let her suffer too long.
I thought I’d handled that pretty well, actually. But the next day, as I chopped up some fresh basil to put on my spaghetti with a little olive oil, I could hear her grumbling and knocking things grouchily around against our shared wall. When I saw her later, as I left my room to bring the garbage down, she’d opened her door to inform me that her “whole apartment smelled like basil,” even her clothes, and that she’d had to open all her windows to “avoid suffocating.”
This was nothing compared to what happened when my boyfriend started visiting. My boyfriend, a Lacanian psychoanalyst and topologist, was very longwinded. This was actually one of the things I liked about him. It was like having an educational program playing on loop while he was around. I learned all sorts of things from him about logic, topology, Borromean knots, structuralist linguistics. He also told funny jokes that almost always, to my delight, ended with chicken’s lips; played the blues guitar; and loved to indulge in observations about people measuring each other’s worth by the size and quality of their belts: what socially “holds people’s pants up.” He was more educational and entertaining than public radio, and I found him irresistible at the time.
La Serbe did not appreciate him the way I did, though. As my genius sat on the end of my bed talking about the vicissitudes of topology (or whatnot), through the walls I began to hear La Serbe grumbling:
“What a loud voice! Oh my god! That awful voice! Oh! Oh!”
I tried to ignore her.
She proceeded to exclamations of, “Will he never shut UP????”
The thing is, I could sort of understand her. Boyfriend was a talker. I laughed about it, and luckily he had an ego the size of the Titanic (an apt comparison, by the way), and found it just as amusing. It made him talk even more, just to bug her. But La Serbe’s pièce de la résistance was in the morning, when she realized he’d spent the night.
“WHORE! American WHORE!” she literally hollered through my door, standing outside in the hallway. “She’s an American WHORE!”
We got used to her. But one day my boyfriend was feeling mischievous and decided to do what he called “a little Chinese Opera” on her. As soon as she positioned herself outside my door to begin her denouncements, he yanked open the door to her shocked face and shoved his own face right into hers, nose to nose, and bellowed at her to go back to her room. She tried to outbellow him, but she'd met her match, and he interrupted her every attempt with a “NO! NO! NO! NO!” until she broke down, literally – you could see her body just crumble inwards in fear – and ran into her room, yelping, “Il est fou! Mon dieu, il est fou!” (He’s crazy! My God, he’s crazy!) Once inside she turned all four of her locks. Which was when we realized her keys were still in the door outside. My boyfriend went to grab her keys, perhaps thinking he could lock her in, but I stopped him. “C’mon,” I said, between gasps of simultaneously compassionate and awed laughter, “She’s suffered enough.” He drew back his hand chuckling to himself as only a Lacanian psychoanalyst can.
For a week La Serbe’s behavior was exemplary. My boyfriend came over more than usual, seemingly just to test her, which was uncharacteristically chivalrous of him. But it soon transpired that even though she was afraid of him, she was not at all afraid of me. Mornings when my classes started late, I’d be sleeping in, it might be around 9 a.m., and I’d hear the vacuum cleaner switch on next door. That I didn’t mind. There was something homey about it. But soon the vacuum cleaner would ram into the wall that I shared with La Serbe, and I’d hear, between violent thuds, “Lazy BITCH! Sleeping! (THUNK!) … all! (THUNK!) … day! (THUNK!) Lazy! LAZY LAZY LAZY!”
I’d been told there was no point complaining about La Serbe. She refused to talk to any Social Workers, and her previous employer (La Serbe was now retired) let her keep her room out of pity. Where would she go if they didn’t? She was unbearable, unemployable, nobody would stand her antics anywhere else. They were afraid of her themselves, and asked me to be patient and pity her.
Well, at least I knew I wasn’t the crazy one, right? For once? (At a previous garret, before becoming a student, I’d learned that my [then] manic-depressive lifestyle of alternating between hearty bouts of sobbing, then joyously singing loudly along to tapes of musical films like Brigadoon while chiseling reliefs of birds into roof beams I’d dragged home when I wasn’t dancing with my dog had earned me the title of “La folle du quatrième étage.” This I found out when someone in my building asked me what floor I lived on, and having told them I lived on the fourth floor, was warned to “watch out for the crazy woman on the fourth floor.” As I walked up the stairs to my room after thanking him, I realized I was the only woman living on the fourth floor. Dang.)
So, armed with compassion and the need for a super-cheap room, I put up with her and went on with my life. We had a relationship of sorts. I’d sneeze in the middle of the night, and she’d yell, “WHAT THE FUCK IS SHE DOING NOW!” I’d pretend I was in an episode of The Twilight Zone where I was apparently the last person on Earth after a nuclear holocaust, and that her complaint in the darkness was the long-awaited sign of another surviving human. “Thank you!” I’d yell, and she’d reply, “SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
I began to listen to her movements, trying to envision her life behind that wall. In particular, one noise she made intrigued me. It was a noise she made at the sink around bedtime. I’d already noticed that we almost always brushed our teeth at the same time. Maybe we’d synched like women do with their menstrual cycles, or maybe some toothbrushing preparation noise she made on the other side of the wall made me think to brush my teeth just then, subconsciously. I could always tell she was brushing her teeth because of the water sounds that were just like mine. You know, first the little blast of water to moisten the toothbrush and fill the tumbler with water. Then, water off. Silence while brushing. Sometimes I thought I could hear her brushing, but it was probably just me. Then the water would come back on when it came time to rinse. And then … then there was one more noise that I couldn’t figure out for the longest time.
It was a tapping noise. She was tapping something on the edge of her sink. At first I thought she was reprimanding me for using the sink at the same time as she was. If I ran water at the same time she did, it made her drain gurgle. She hated that. Sometimes she deliberately ran water in her sink for ages, just to make my drain gargle, again and again, in revenge. But one day I heard the mysterious tapping noise when we weren’t brushing our teeth at the same time. That was intriguing. I’d been silent, so she couldn’t have been reprimanding me for anything. What the heck?
It came to me one night when I was done brushing my teeth and noticed my toothbrush was waterlogged and filled with debris. Eureka moment: but of course! She’d been tapping the toothbrush against the sink, bristles down, to dislodge the debris and shake as much water out of it as possible. I tried it, and voila! It worked! I couldn’t believe I didn’t learn this trick till I was, what? Thirty-something years old? I was standing there marveling at the genius of it, when I realized that La Serbe had let loose a furious torrent of expletives on the other side of the wall, obviously thinking I was mocking her.
“Merci!” I yelled to her, and “You little genius,” sotto voce, still marveling. All her crap had been worth that little nugget of practical knowledge, I thought. She’d changed my life forever!
But the peace I’d made with her in my mind didn’t last. One day she simply began to annoy the hell out of me. My patience was not what it had been when I moved in. Things weren’t going well with my boyfriend, for one. He was losing his shit. I’d been typing his book for him, a book on the theory of knots. And it had been a beautiful book, really. I still have a copy of it somewhere on a diskette, which I made to save it from his impending self-destruction. I was almost more in love with his book than with him at that point. It was our baby, and he was killing it. He’d started putting faulty formulas into it that I was catching when I proofread it. When I wasn’t looking he’d change things so they didn’t make sense if you really read it carefully in parts.
“Why should I do everyone’s work for them? Nobody did the work for me,” he’d say,“Let them figure it out for themselves.” The book was taking longer and longer to write. Apparently the publisher was balking. He eventually lost the book deal, which made him bitter. And I’d noticed there was a lot of gin being consumed at his place. Wine as no longer being bought in bottle form: it came out of a plastic spigot on big waxy boxes of cheap wine in his fridge now. Not to mention I’d noticed there were some women’s clothes hanging in his closet, clothing he carefully-offhandedly claimed belonged to some student of his with a name like “Amber,” I believe, who’d needed sheltering from her abusive boyfriend once or twice, or maybe more. To top this all off, he’d been getting meaner and meaner.
This was a lot of crap to take from a guy I’d bought France’s first proto-cell phone to remain in touch with when I moved into a place with no phone line! God, I loved my little Bi-Bop. It was like a walkie-talkie and made sounds that reminded me of Captain Kirk’s “communicator” on Star Trek. I usually had to stand outside on my balcony to make a call, or find that one spot in the room that caught the signal and never budge, but that was the height of cell phone technology at the time. La Serbe would always grumble from her own little balcony that I was talking too loud, and I would ignore her in the service of love.
But the honeymoon was over. I wasn’t going to put up with La Serbe’s crappy social skills anymore. I started working at the library as often as I could, to avoid being home. One day, coming home, I was about to open the door to my garret when I saw, on La Serbe’s doormat, a letter. This was unusual. From day one the concierge had made a point of obliging us to knock on her door and ask for our mail every day. She’d either pissed the concierge off into revealing her identity (as I said, nobody knew her name and the concierge would never divulge it when you asked), or the concierge had thought the letter was urgent enough to warrant leaving on La Serbe’s doormat. In any case, I picked up the letter and read the name of the addressee: Nada P___.
I put the letter back where I found it. No wonder she’d made sure none of the mostly Spanish garret dwellers knew her name: in Spanish, her name, Nada, meant “nothing.” For a moment I felt sorry for her, thinking what Fate must allot to a woman named “Nothing.” But then, “Ah, Nada, my little tiggy-winkle. I have your number now,” I thought, and went straight to the phone book to look it up. And there she was. I rang her number and sure enough, heard the phone ring behind our shared wall. My stomach began to tickle with pure joy as I wrote the number on a Stickie and put it on the headset.
The next time she went to the bathroom, I listened as she closed her front door, locked all four locks, put her keys in the pocket of her housedress, and stomped down the hall to her preferred toilet stall. I heard her close the door to the stall, and then, in my mind, I watched her turn around, hitch up her housedress, pull her big baggy panties down, and begin to slowly squat. When she was halfway to start position, I hit “appel” on my trusty Bi-Bop, which I’d pre-dialed. The phone in her room rang out loud and clear in the silence.
All hell broke loose: I heard a commotion in the toilet, then heard the door slam open against the hall wall. Then: stompstompstompstompstompstompstomp!!!!! as she ran down the hall back to her room. Heavy panting outside my door as she unlocked all four locks on hers: “kachunk-kachunk-kachunk-kachunk!” A few muted footfalls that told me she must have some surprisingly plush carpeting in there, and finally the phone picked up and I heard a breathless, “Allô?”
I hung up. The gleeful laughter inside me was turning my insides into a party, but I couldn’t let it out. I rubbed my hands together with a wicked smile. I really did. Rubbed my hands together like an evil genius. I knew I would do this again.
And I certainly did. There was even a time when I lay in bed for hours deliberately to deceive her into thinking I was out, because by then, she’d begun to suspect me. Not stupid, Nada was. But I bluffed her out, having chosen a day when I had no classes and could afford to stay immobile in my bed all morning for just that purpose. That time, after I pranked her out of the toilet, she hovered around my door, literally sniffing around it and mumbling to herself that she was sure I was in there. But I was like Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear, by then — psychotically patient in deploying my revenge.
You may be thinking, “How far can this all go?” And you’d be right. It was getting out of hand. I’d begun to imagine escalating things into leaving rubber turds or fake pools of vomit on her doormat, which I’d remove after she ran down to the concierge to report the deed. The concierge coming up with a mop and pail, saying, “Nada, you’re losing your mind, old girl, there’s nothing here.” (Evil laughter on my side of the door.) Or buying a mouse from a pet shop, which I’d toss from my little balcony onto hers — a totally do-able feat — and imagining her hysterical screams when the mouse ran into her room as she opened her French windows in the morning.
But it never came to that.
One New Year’s Eve, I was alone in my garret, realizing that this was something I had in common with Nada. Wow. That was some wake-up call. I wondered if Nada had a mean Lacanian psychoanalyst boyfriend who thought dating the same woman time after time was like “repeating the same meaningless word, like, itsy, itsy, itsy, itsy, ad nauseum.” Or who refused to honor popular holidays due to their meaninglessness as anything but a social monument, even if it meant his de facto girlfriend would be alone in a cold garret while everyone else was having fun.
Undaunted as of yet, at midnight I opened my French windows and stepped onto my tiny balcony, pointed my Bi-Bop antenna towards the signal pole, and called Mr. Genius. He was at home, working on some math, he said. (He probably really was, that’s what a stubborn bastard he was. Also, the woman [not “Amber,” but another itsy] I eventually learned he was having an affair with at the time probably wasn’t in town for him, being too good to throw her full-of-valuable-psychoanalysis-world-connections self at a jerk who’d lost an academic book deal.) As we chatted, Nada began to yell that I was talking too loud and at an ungodly hour.
“Happy New Year!” I yelled to her as I came in from the balcony, flipping the phone closed. (Actually, I said, “Bonne Année!”)
“Go fuck yourself!” she yelled. (“Allez vous faire foutre!”)
“No! Happy New Year!” I yelled again.
“GO FUCK YOURSELF!” she yelled back.
I began to dance around my room, singing, “Hap-py New Year! Hap-py New Year! Happy New Year? YES, Happy New Year! Happy HAPPY New Year! Happy, happy, New, New, Year, Year! ... Happy! ... New! ... Year!” to her.
I eventually stopped, to prevent her from busting an artery. That crazy old Nada, she sounded like she might actually have a stroke from rage.
We never did get to be friends. I moved out a few months later, by public bus. (Without the conventionally to be expected help of Mr. Genius, you see.) Moved to a new garret above the Garde Républicaine, the cavalary of Paris. Every morning I woke up to the “Reveille” on a bona fide bugle. At night, it would play “Taps.” Sometimes on a hot summer night I’d wake up in the dark smelling hay, and hear the sound of hoofs in the distance, coming closer, then fading away, coming closer, then fading away... Tuka-tump, tuka-tump, tuka-TUMP, TUKA-TUMP, TUKA-tump, tuka-tump, tuka-tump.
My dad, a Navy veteran and still a fan of military music, was pen-pals with one of the Garde officers, so I got to go downstairs and dine with them in the Officers’ Mess as his translator when he came to visit and trade CDs of rare recordings. This was how I learned that horses sometimes escaped from their stalls at night, but instead of trying the front door like a smart horse would, they’d just run around and around the circular exercise track, perhaps imagining they were free and on their way somewhere, till they tired themselves out or were caught.
I still think of Nada every time I tap my toothbrush against my sink, which is three times a day, usually. That seems like a lot, considering what a nasty old harridan she was, but look at it this way: I might be the only one in the world thinking of her.
Carmen and I were reunited once more, and she died a happy dog at 13 in New York. Lulu jumped to her death off the walkway a few years later at 15.
Previously: How to Become a Cartoonist in About 20 Jobs.