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Twinkies: A Brief Encounter

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The Billionaire

Once again, I’d been dumped. That wasn’t the hard part. I was getting used to being dumped, and had developed a routine involving a lot of sushi and frequent chair massages. Learned to see the advantages in not having a man in my hair all the time. No, what really smarted was that I’d been on the verge of dumping my dumper (Aha! For once it would be me in charge!) when he’d beaten me to it. Long distance, no less. And then, of course, I’d changed my mind: “No, wait!” READ MORE

Apropos of Nada

The velvet headband! READ MORE

How to Become a Cartoonist in About 20 Jobs

"They're for the man who has everything," she said. READ MORE

Scala Coeli

("Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.”

In older translations, it’s “calves of our lips,” but Rupert Van Deutz preferred the former for reasons that will become obvious.)

After a month of rain the sun is finally shining through the windows into my Medieval Latin class. We’re reciting and translating the “Scala coeli,”or “Stairway to Heaven” from Latin to French at nine in the morning, a bitter irony. We're all so groggy that all we aspire to is the coffee machine in the hallway downstairs. “Scala Coeli” is, from what I can make of it, a savagely bullying book of so-called “edifying” stories compiled at some point in the Middle Ages supposedly with a view to inspiring Christian piety and putting aspiring penitents on the first tread of Led Zeppelin’s famous stairway (or maybe that great big escalator I once saw in an old movie). This is how most of the stories go: hapless, well-meaning optimist goes to bed at night, saying to self: “Ah, I’ll become a nun tomorrow,” or “I’ll devote my life to the Lord after this one last delicious wench,” then wakes up dead the next morning.

TOO LATE! These informercials have been brought to you by God, and that one-time offer was valid for a limited time only. If you’d accepted the offer last night, God would’ve forgiven all your sins. Not just some of them, but — yes, unbelievable — ALL of them! But wait! That’s not all! He’d also have thrown in a harp for your afterlife.

(as advertised)

I’ve just finished my American-translating-Medieval-Latin-into-heinous-French act. I like the performances after me to wipe away the memory of mine. Said professor having heaved his usual sigh of relief when I finished up without offering to do one more paragraph, I’m now basking in adrenaline and looking around at my classmates while I come down. And that’s when I notice, while someone else begins their Latin-to-French murmuring, that there’s yet another person sitting among us with a part of their body wrapped in white, sterile gauze.

What is it about Medieval Studies that makes us all begin to resemble mummies? When the History students vacate the classroom to let us in, the difference between our groups is dramatic: they’re all rosy-cheeked and fashion-savvy. The men wear thick, textured scarves jauntily, and the women wear cheery lipstick and flippy skirts, even high heels. They smile. Unlike us.

Is it all the old books embalmed in dry, worn leather that we read? Or the crumbling manuscripts that we handle with white cotton gloves in funereal archive rooms, soaking in through our eyes the harrowing narratives of torture and martyrdom? It’s a fact that at any one moment during this last semester, there has always been at least one person sitting among us with one or more bits of their anatomy wrapped in some kind of medical dressing.

There’s the woman sitting across from me with her foot in a plastic bag. Not to mention the obsessively neat guy with the apparently homemade or vintage (or just old?) cravat, and not an ironic cravat, but a dead serious cravat — who seems to have glued his hair to his head with a thick layer of black shoe wax, and sewn down the flaps of his jacket with heavy thread. He’s not suffering from any apparent injury, but there’s still a sort of if-I-glue-it-all-together-maybe-no-one-will-notice-I’m-falling-to-pieces spirit to his outfit and morbidly self-conscious demeanor. To his right is the Russian girl in sandals with her toes stained yellowish with iodine tincture and covered in some kind of stick-on plastic epidermal shield. And, voila, here we go: the pretty blonde, a musician (a cellist, I think), has three of her fingers swaddled in white gauze today.

Did the Devil appear to her disguised as her cello?

What happens to these medievalists? Is life just one long bloody battle between their bodies and the material world? Do they blindly step out of dusty library archives, right into open manholes? Are their insides constantly aspiring to become outsides?

What worries me mostly is when I begin to wonder how I fit in with them. So far, no bandages. But there may be something going on with my head. For some reason I think I’m feeling the Earth’s inner concentric shells sliding slowly and loosely, faraway and muted, fragile and tremendous ... a long, soft murmurous sliding. Could this be the "music of the spheres” the saints describe so ecstatically? If I listen carefully might I hear something beautiful? The saints were visited with such visions, usually after fasting and other bodily privations. Which reminds me: my throat is parched, and I’m currently staring sadly at my empty plastic coffee cup with a stupid, dog-like insistence unbefitting of my level of education.

I woke up much too early and haven’t had enough coffee, is what’s giving me visions. My dog, Carmen, is in heat and wakes me up at sunrise now. The first thing I see every morning is her eyes, turned on me at hi-beam, full of urgency, and welling up with expectation, as if she knows that this time, when we go outside, I’m going to lead her to the strange and intense fulfillment that she only begins to suspect as she searches the sidewalk for traces of it, her teeth chattering softly in her tension. Her eyelashes seem longer. She’s developed a sweet, babyish musk.

Yesterday, we were pursued for an hour in the Jardin du Luxembourg by a lost and enamored poodle, who I had to escort to the commissariat, and he jumped — not walked — yes, jumped like a kangaroo, jumped as high as my waist, boinged all the way there in an effort to reach Carmen (who I was now carrying in my arms for birth control reasons).

There, a sarcastic gendarme refused to take him in. He tried to palm some mediocre discourse off on me about the “birds and the bees,” implying that I was at fault for walking around with a bitch in heat. Saying outright, not even implying it, that  I deserved to have “des difficultés” — as if his lesson in dog-owner civics changed anything for the lost dog!* There was a huge scene in spite of me and my limited (non-academic) French. I probably blustered out an archaic subjunctive usage or two. But I couldn’t help it. I was so worn out and frustrated from running away from dogs all week. The next two weeks will find Carmen leading a cloistered life with me upstairs in our garret, our own personal gynaeceum, members of a harem of two, for my own peace of mind, and hopefully limiting the number of lost dogs in Paris.

Professor Schindler is now recounting an erotic vision of a famous medieval penitent (Rupert von Deutz), and my ears prick up: did I just hear something about an “extraordinary mouth to mouth” and an “erotic trembling”? Wait, Rupert is kissing who? Did I hear that right — he’s kissing Jesus Christ on the cross? And there’s tongue involved? Did I hear the word “breast”? At the front of the room Professor Schindler is asking, “Should we go over this text again?” and looking around. He repeats the question, his eyeglasses flashing in what might be mischief. He’s just put a bustle in our hedgerow, and I can’t believe these sad-sack medievalists aren’t crying out simultaneously with a lusty “OUI!” as I’m tempted to do in a mix of worldly joviality and schoolboy titillation.

In my mind I yell, “Yes, s’il vous plaît, re-read le texte!” and raise a Rabelasian glass of red wine to cheer him on, but my mouth, like the rest of my body, has gone somehow dormant with the rest of the class. I want to rewind that bit about the “tremblement érotique.” Undiscouraged, our professor is looking up at us between sentences, asking, “O.K.?,” (pronounced “Oh-keh? Oh-keh?”), as he elaborates on the “bouche à bouche”and the “baiser extraordinaire.” Maybe he, too, is beginning to wonder if we are all simply embalmed stiff with academic turpitude. Thinking we could all use a baiser extraordinaire right about now.

Oh, re-read the text! It can only help. I start to raise my hand. It’s Spring, and the sun is out. There are reflections of open windows glimmering gently on the ceiling.

*NB: Two weeks later, Carmen was out of heat and back to neutral doghood. On our way back from the park, we saw the enamored poodle in a doorway down the block from our place, now very scruffy, with dead grass clinging to his matted fur, a desperate, haunted look in his eyes. But he didn’t recognize the one he’d given it all up for now, because she didn’t smell the same. He just glanced at us blankly, then turned away to strain his gaze upon the park entrance across the street. Sort of the way I looked at my coffee cup that morning.

Previously: The Devil's Coach, or A Weekend in Bordeaux.

Carolita Johnson's cartoons appear in The New Yorker and at Oscarinaland.

The Devil's Coach Horse, or A Weekend in Bordeaux

One day, back in the late 1980s, some friends of mine in London decided to do me a favor and fix me up with an almost famous British author who was coming to “write” in Paris for a while. They thought it was time I dated someone with more to offer than the dinner check or Chlamydia. Yes, my last beau had been a broke photographer who’d given me Chlamydia (hey, it happens to the best of us), and immediately previous to him I’d dated a strange man (I still don’t know exactly what his profession was) who’d declared me “an angel” in a café — an unfortunate misreading of my personality. Things had gone rapidly downhill for us when I’d noticed a large, moist green-grey booger in his nostril one day, from which point I was helpless to look at him without thinking I was seeing one again every time the light played on his nostrils, which just happened to be naturally lumpy and shiny to begin with. He wrote me an affectionately psychotic farewell love poem that contained the word “larval.” Last I heard he was living on a remote Polynesian island, having fathered a large family. READ MORE

One That Got Away

This may sound familiar. I was in my late thirties, and I had nothing. No savings, no house, no career, no husband, no kids. You can hardly blame me for wondering, “Where did I go wrong?” I called to mind every possibility I could think of, never asking, at least for the moment, “Where did I go right?” No, instead I let self-doubt overload my cognitive faculties as I ran down the list of things that could possibly have led me astray, roads I might have taken toward personal fulfillment and long-term love but didn’t. Okay, let’s face it, I was a post-feminist woman approaching middle-age who had categorically rejected everything my pre-feminist mother had taught me to value in life, and I was wondering about men I might have married but didn’t. Marriage had been the one road I’d never gone down. READ MORE

The Bir's

One night in his Paris garden apartment, my best friend Juan was making me dinner (spaghetti with frankfurter rondelles, carrots, tomatoes, and onions, his specialty), and he told me that a bird had come to visit him the day before. He was puzzled that birds were always coming into his apartment from the garden. I explained to him that it was only to be expected: viewed from the garden, his place didn’t really seem to be inhabited by a human being at all. The back windows opened onto the garden at eye level — and by opened, I mean opened wide every morning, all year round, whatever the weather, because Juan believed in fresh air, and he never put the heat on. READ MORE

My Gift of the Magi

I’m sitting in an airplane to New York for a holiday visit to my family. Economy class. Next to me, my neighbor is dozing off, intermittently leaning ever so slightly over in her sleep toward me, then jerking herself upright and away, again and again. It’s a valiant effort. But it’s no use: she’s much too sleepy and is at the complete mercy of her drowsiness. She continues to dip sideways toward me in her sleep, her upper body sliding gently to the right in little jerky shifts, down, down ... farther and farther down ... down … down … almost as if pulled to my lap by invisible, warm, gentle arms. Each time she whips herself up again in a convulsive 90-degree swoop, it’s only a matter of seconds before she begins dipping again, even more perilously. READ MORE

The Magic Trick

One day I overstayed a birthday visit to Paris by about 10 years. That tenth spring found me in that awkward phase we 30-somethings often go through, called “still between boyfriends.” This phase had gone on for so long that I didn’t even want a boyfriend anymore. In fact, ever since noticing a beautifully wrinkled and mysteriously sensual older French woman at a friend’s party, and, having inquired if she was the wife of the frizzy-haired, balding older man with the huge, horn-rimmed glasses next to her, and being informed that, “Nooo, she’s his mistress. They’ve been lovers for many years,” I’d decided that loverhood was what I aspired to. READ MORE