Going north

Dear Blog,

I don’t remember the name of the hotel, or even the name of the street it was on. There was a note for me at the front desk from an American named Brian. It was a friendly note, an I-heard-a-Canadian-was-staying-here note, a let-me-show-you-around note, a come-knock-on-my-door-I’m-in-room-302 note. I should have known better, but I was twenty, I was in Paris by myself, I wanted to meet people and have adventures. So I went and knocked on the door of room 302.

*

Seventeen years later, I’m reading Stuart Little to my four-year-old son, J. All I remember about E.B. White’s first novel is the premise: a mouse born to a human family in New York City, bravely navigating the Great Big World. We get stuck on chapter 7, in which Stuart races a boat at Central Park, because J wants to hear it over and over. I’m surprised, because I don’t think he can possibly be following all the sailing lingo, but apparently it is enough for him that a race is happening, even if he doesn’t understand every sentence. Also, a policeman is knocked into the water, which he finds hysterical. After reading chapter 7 for several nights, we finally move on to chapter 8. Stuart meets the bird Margalo, who tells him, “I come from fields once tall with wheat, from pastures deep in fern and thistle; I come from vales of meadowsweet, and I love to whistle.” J cheers wildly when, in defense of the sleeping Margalo, Stuart shoots the cat Snowbell in the ear with his bow and arrow. I have a feeling we’ll be reading chapter 8 for the next few nights.

*

I don’t know why I assumed that American-Brian-in-room-302 would be a young student backpacker, like me. I hoped that he would be handsome and hilarious and that we’d have a torrid summer fling. But when the door to room 302 swung open, there stood a gangly, unkempt man in his mid-forties with black teeth. He beamed, boomed niceties, and ushered me into his room. Because I was an idiot and did not learn how to be rude until I was 25, I went into his room, wondering if he was going to cut my throat and stuff me under the bed. Instead, he made me dinner, which was canned tuna mixed with canned corn (I ate it, wondering if it was drugged) and told me his Life Story. He had a free room at the hotel while he waited for a settlement in a case he’d brought against the police for beating him up some months ago, but he had previously been “on the streets,” as he put it. He told me he had no problem with work, but he would never take a job, he would never let himself be tied down. He told me he’d started traveling the world at my age, footloose and fancy-free, but while others went home, got jobs, got married, he just kept on going. Once I had adjusted to the reality of Brian not meeting my hopeful expectations of summer-fling material, and once I had concluded he was probably not a murderous psychopath, I found him excellent company. When he asked how long I planned to be in Paris, I told him I’d wanted to stay a month but that it was too expensive and I would have to head somewhere cheaper for my money to last. Brian scoffed. I can show you how to have a good time in Paris without spending a centime beyond what you’re paying for this hotel, he said. Well, but even food… I said, and he cut me off. You don’t need to buy food.

*

Stuart Little comes and goes as he likes, and he never lets his small size deter him from doing things, or the larger size of others intimidate him. The book passes lightly over the odd fact of Stuart being a mouse born to a human family, and J does not question it. For a good laugh, read some of the one-star reviews of the book online. “There is no explanation for why he is a mouse!” But J gets it. Stuart is small and the world is large. Stuart is a little different. In spite of being small and different, Stuart does as he pleases and has wonderful adventures. It is the perfect story for an intrepid, self-absorbed young person, dwarfed by the Wide World.

Then Stuart’s beloved Margalo disappears, frightened away by a murderous cat, and the book changes. Instead of one amusing episode after another, we have a Quest. Stuart leaves his family behind, taking only a hair from his mother’s comb to remember her by, and sets out northward to find the bird he loves. Every night, settling down to read, J asks me anxiously, Does he find Margalo? And every night, I tell him, I really don’t remember, because I don’t. I sort of assume he will find her and they will return to their home in New York City or something. I keep forgetting to check the ending after he goes to bed. I should have guessed how it would turn out, though. One should never look to E.B. White for a pat, happy ending.

*

Brian talks a lot about Josephine, the woman he’s been in love with for twenty years, as long as I’ve been alive. It didn’t work out, but they still love each other, he tells me. She has kids – two of them are his – and she lives in the south of France. She’s still a crazy hippie, he says, laughing warmly, his eyes full of love. I ask him how old his kids are, and he struggles to remember. “That’s terrible, isn’t it?” he says, and I shrug and laugh along with him. I’m not sure if he really can’t remember, or if he doesn’t want to admit that they are my age.

In the evenings, we eat canned corn and tuna in his room and he reads Simenon detective stories to me in French. He sits on the bed. I sit in the chair. He asks if I want to sit on the bed with him, patting the blankets invitingly, but I say no, I’m comfortable. In the mornings, we go to church basements for a free breakfast. The nuns pour porridge into a bowl for me, “pour la jeune fille,” and I wonder if this is horribly immoral. We sit at long tables with the broke and homeless of Paris. Everybody is curious about me, of course. Brian tells my story for me in flawless French. If the people here think it odd or improper that I am a tourist eating free church meals, they don’t say so. They are kind and welcoming and want to hear my impressions of Paris. We fill a bag with bread and cheese and fruit for lunch, and then we walk – to parks, to churches, to cemeteries full of famous graves, to free galleries and free performances, along the Seine, up to Montmartre. Brian is right. I’m falling in love with the Paris he shows me, and I haven’t spent a franc or stepped inside the Louvre.

We lie in a park, chatting dozily after lunch – one of the parks where you are allowed on the grass. I’m almost asleep when I feel his hand on my bare back, under my shirt. I move fast, yank my shirt back down. He says, I was going to give you a backrub. I say, No thanks. He doesn’t try again. I’m a little cool to him for the rest of the afternoon, I go off on a walk by myself, but come evening I knock on his door. After ten days, we are set in our routine. He has dinner for me, reads me the next detective story chapter, and doesn’t invite me on the bed.

*

Stuart’s journey takes him to “the loveliest town of all, where the houses were white and high and the elm trees were green and higher than the houses, where the front yards were wide and pleasant and the back yards were bushy and worth finding out about, where the streets sloped down to the stream and the stream flowed quietly under the bridge, where the lawns ended in orchards and the orchards ended in fields and the fields ended in pastures and the pastures climbed the hill and disappeared over the top toward the wonderful wide sky.” Here, he meets Harriet Ames, a two-inch-tall girl, pretty, sporty and good-natured. She is Just The Girl for Stuart, and for a moment one wonders if he has found a place for himself in this ideal town with this ideal girl and will leave off his impossible quest, his journey without end. But Stuart sabotages his date with Harriet, becoming moody and petulant when the perfect evening doesn’t go quite as he’d planned. She is willing to try again, to give him another chance, but Stuart is too wrapped up in his own disappointment and frustration to bother about Harriet anymore. He carries on, traveling north. Oh Stuart – you don’t know a good thing when you find it. My husband asks J, “Do you think he should have stayed with Harriet?” But J is young, like Stuart. The very suggestion shocks him. No, he says. Stuart can’t stay with Harriet. After all, he has to find Margalo.

*

I ask Brian if he thinks that he and Josephine will get back together one day. He says he has no doubt. They will be old together, toothless and wrinkled, gazing at each other over a bottle of wine. This thing with us, it never changes, he says dreamily, and I don’t ask him, Then what are you doing here?

One evening, we break our routine and meet some of his friends at a bar. They are a bunch of miserable, grey-haired Frenchmen, but I am feeling like quite the seasoned anthropologist, ready to absorb their tales of woe. Brian knocks back a glass of wine and abruptly declares that he’s tired and is going back to the hotel. Startled, I say, Wait, I’ll go with you, but No, no, stay and have fun, he says, and the other guys are clamoring, Stay, we just bought you this drink, stay! Because it is another five years before I learn to be rude, because they bought me a drink and I haven’t touched it yet, I stay, sipping at my beer and quietly panicking. It is dark and I realize I’m not even sure where I am. I don’t have a map. I’ve just been following Brian around, passive and puppyish. Denis sits too close to me, shows me the scars on his wrists from his suicide attempts. I say, I really have to get back. Or what? he asks. I turn into a pumpkin, I say, trying for levity. I bet you’re a beautiful pumpkin, he says.

*

If you look at reviews of Stuart Little on amazon or elsewhere, those who don’t love it complain about the ending. SPOILERS AHEAD if you haven’t read it: Stuart doesn’t find Margalo. He doesn’t go back to his family. He keeps on traveling North, hoping to find her. J is unsettled. I think there’s another book, he says, having learned about sequels. No, I tell him, there isn’t. That’s how it ends. His brow crumples. E.B. White, you piece of shit, I think, even though I love this ending. I suggest writing our own sequel. J enthusiastically agrees. In his sequel to Stuart Little, Stuart turns around. He goes south instead. He finds Margalo. There is a mouse vs. cat battle, and Stuart shoots the Angora cat through the eye with his bow and arrow. Margalo comes back to New York, and when they are seventeen years old, they get married. All the mice and birds in New York come to their wedding, as well as some of the nice cats. I can’t believe he is four years old and, I swear, he is not fed on Disney, yet we are ending with a wedding. Well, there we go. Happily ever after. He falls asleep quickly, satisfied, and the following day he asks me to read him the “sequel” several times.

*

Denis offers to walk me back to the hotel. You don’t want to walk alone in this neighborhood! I am furious that Brian, having been rebuffed, left me with his friends so that they could have a go. We are in a park, climbing a hill. Suddenly I’m dizzy and confused. There’s a great view up here, says Denis. My head is spinning, my heart racing, my mouth dry. I ask Denis, Did you put something in my drink? What did you give me? Nothing, nothing, he says. This is how girls end up dead in the woods. I keep telling myself to run, but I can’t seem to do anything but follow him up the hill. He’s right, the view is sensational, Paris lit up below us. He leans in to kiss me. I beg him to take me back. I promise that he can come up to my room. I let him kiss me, once. I let him hold my hand. I am so scared, so scared. He walks me to the hotel, past the front desk, up the stairs. Outside my door, lurching a little, I tell him: I think I’m going to throw up. He takes a couple of steps back, holding his hands up as if to say, not on me, girly. I get in the room and slam the door on him. He starts pounding on the door, screaming obscenities. I throw up in the sink, because there is no toilet in my room. I yell at him that I’m really sick, I’m throwing up everywhere. He calls me some more names and goes away.

In the morning, I go up to Brian’s room and lay into him for leaving me with his scary friends. I tell him that Denis tried to attack me, tried to force his way into my room, though in retrospect I realize that’s not how it went down. I don’t know if they slipped something in my drink or if I was having a panic attack. I don’t know if Denis was dangerous, or just thought we were on a date and got mad when I freaked out. Brian brushes the whole thing off. He says, you didn’t have to stay if you didn’t want to. He says, why didn’t you have a map, why didn’t you take a taxi? He says, you need to grow up. He says, I’m not your dad, OK? All fair points, and I know I’ve been unforgivably stupid, but I also know that he set me up.

*

Stuart finds himself telling his troubles to a repairman from the telephone company at the side of a long road heading north. The repairman has stories of his own to tell, but Stuart sullenly declares that he doesn’t want to hear them. He is too wrapped up in himself. I may have wanted to hear Brian’s stories – I fancied myself the sort of person who was interested in other people, a good listener – but the less flattering truth is that I was wrapped up in The Story Of Me Befriending A Vagrant In Paris Because I Am Such A Unique And Original Sort Of Girl. When I left, I told him, “I thought you were my friend,” and he shrugged, like I was being ridiculous, which I was. We could have been friends. Conversation was easy, we laughed a lot, I think we genuinely liked each other, but we each had our own idea of what the other might be good for, and neither of us really had friendship in mind.

The repairman doesn’t take offense at Stuart’s rudeness. I suppose he remembers what it is like being young, just setting out on a journey, and how hard it is to see outside oneself. He tells Stuart, “There’s something about north, something that sets it apart from all other directions. A person who is heading north is not making an mistake, in my opinion.” And Stuart replies, “That’s the way I look at it. I rather expect that from now on I shall be traveling north until the end of my days.”

*

I leave the hotel that day. I go to a youth hostel on the left bank, where a bed has opened up, and there I make friends with a group of girls my own age. I still keep in touch with them, but I don’t know what happened to Brian. He must be 60 now. I would like to think that he and Josephine are gazing at each other over a bottle of wine but I somehow doubt it.

At the time, I wondered about his kids. What would it be like to have this man as your father? Now, I wonder about his mother. I never thought to ask him about her. I pass men on the streets all the time, staggering, ruined men whose bodies are failing them, whose brain chemistry has betrayed them, or whose open roads led to one dead end after another until they landed here. I think of my own soft-cheeked boys and I wonder about their mothers. It gets harder to see the difference, as one gets older, between being tied down and being anchored. We all yearn for freedom, but we all need a safe harbor, too. Maybe they had no mothers, or maybe their mothers were terrible and cruel and that is why they are here, but that’s too easy, and anyway, they are everywhere, these men, all over the Green in front of the library, in the plaza outside the food coop. There must be legions of mothers out there who may or may not have known how to be mothers, who may or may not know what has become of their dear little soft-cheeked boys, who couldn’t help them. It gets colder as you go north, too.

*

 J knows how a story is supposed to end. A great battle. A wedding. There may be a journey, but in the end, you go home. E.B. White would no doubt spin in his grave if he could see J’s sequel.

I like E.B. White’s ending, myself. The happiest moments of my life have been in transit, depending on how you define happiness, I guess. At some point, you have to choose a life for yourself, close some doors, or at least, there are consequences for not choosing. That doesn’t make it easy. My own choices feel so accidental, even the well-considered ones. It seems random and strange to have washed up on this particular shore, and the longer I stand still, the less I look around and really notice things.

In the Sahara desert late at night, nothing but dunes and stars around our little camp, I asked our teenage guides where I should go to the bathroom. OK, it was a dumb question. They fell around laughing, pointed to the horizon, and shouted Libya! I wandered into the dark, so far that I could hardly hear their voices, the light of the fire hidden behind a dune, and I scared myself thinking What if I just keep walking? It seemed like it would be so easy to just disappear, out there.

Trying to find Rose Spit in Haida Gwaii, where we intended to camp, my best friend and I found ourselves on a wooded path where the moss on the trees was so heavy it broke the branches, and the moss on the ground was like a thick blanket, and he said, We’ll never get home, we’ll just have to lie down here, pull the moss up to our chins and die. It seemed so funny at the time because of course we were young immortals, and so far we’d always found our way home.

Our car broke down on the Karakoram highway between Kashgar and Karakul Lake and I sat on the hill, useless but happy, watching the driver tinker with the engine, watching the man I would later marry photographing the long, long road. I felt that anything could happen, anything at all. Maybe we would never arrive anywhere. Maybe the changing scenery would be enough to live on forever.

And before all of that, Brian and I climbed the steps leading up the hill towards Sacre Coeur. There is a poster on a wall for a circus of some kind, with a picture of a tiny giraffe in the palm of a person’s hand. We examine the poster, trying to figure out if this is something we can attend for free. Brian says wonderingly, Do you think they really have a giraffe that small? I give him an are-you-kidding-me look, and it’s like sunshine breaking through cloud when he guffaws. We laugh so hard we have to sit down on the steps, nearly weeping.

It seems unlikely that Stuart Little could ever find Margalo, but you never know. Surely it broke his mother’s heart, the way he left without a word, and maybe he’ll never go home, maybe he’ll really just keep on going North forever. It’s not a happy ending, but I don’t think it’s a sad one, either. The very best we can hope, for ourselves, for our children, for anyone, is that we are heading in the right direction.

Yours, writing-E.B.-White-fan-fiction-with-a-four-year-old,

Catherine

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