Of that day I have two photographs and, of course, my memories.
We had arrived at the Gare du Nord with over three hours to spare. There were, after all, a tremendous number of traveling cases and trunks. It took us two taxi rides from the apartment to the train station before all the pieces could be accounted for. A small group of photographers, who had gathered for the occasion, volunteered to watch over the first load while we returned to the rue de Fleurus for more. My Mesdames accepted their offer without hesitation. They had an almost childlike trust in photographers. Photographers, my Mesdames believed, transformed an occasion into an event. Their presence signaled that importance and fame had arrived, holding each other's hands. Their flashing cameras, like the brilliant smiles of long- lost friends, had quickly warmed my Mesdames' collective heart. More like friends too new to trust, I had thought. I had been with my Mesdames for half a decade by then. The photographers had not been there from the very beginning. But once the preparation for the journey began, they swarmed to the entrance of 27 rue de Fleurus like honeybees. I could easily see why my Mesdames cultivated them. Every visit by a photographer would be inevitably followed by a letter enclosing a newspaper or magazine clipping with my Mesdames' names circled in a halo of red ink. The clippings, each carefully pressed with a heated iron, especially if a crease had thoughtlessly fallen on my Mesdames' faces, went immediately into an album with a green leather cover. "Green is the color of envy," my Mesdames told me. At this, knowing looks shot back and forth between them, conveying what can only be described as glee. My Mesdames communicated with each other in cryptic ways, but after all my years in their company I was privy to their keys. "Green" meant that they had waited desperately for this day, had tired of seeing it arriving on the doorsteps of friends and mere acquaintances; that the album had been there from the very beginning, impatient but biding its time; that they were now thrilled to fill it with family photographs of the most public kind. "Green" meant no longer their own but other people's envy.
I know that it may be difficult to believe, but it took the arrival of the photographers for me to understand that my Mesdames were not, well, really mine; that they belonged to a country larger than any that I had ever been to; that its people had a right to embrace and to reclaim them as one of their own. Of course, 27 rue de Fleurus had always been filled with visitors, but that was different. My Mesdames enjoyed receiving guests, but they also enjoyed seeing them go. Many had arrived hoping for a permanent place around my Mesdames' tea table, but I always knew that after the third pot they would have to leave. My Mesdames had to pay me to stay around. A delicious bit of irony, I had always thought. The photographers, though, marked the beginning of something new. This latest crop of admirers was extremely demanding and altogether inconsolable. They, I was stunned to see, were not satisfied with knocking at the door to 27 rue de Fleurus, politely seeking entrance to sip a cup of tea. No, the photographers wanted my Mesdames to go away with them, to leave the rue de Fleurus behind, to lock it up with a key. At the Gare du Nord that day, all I could think about were the flashes of the cameras, how they had never stopped frightening me. They were lights that feigned to illuminate but really intended to blind. Lightning before a driving storm, I had thought. But I suppose that was the sailor's apprehension in me talking. It had been eleven years since I had made a true ocean crossing. For my Mesdames, it had been over thirty. The ocean for them was only a memory, a calming blue expanse between here and there. For me it was alive and belligerent, a reminder of how distance cannot be measured by the vastness of the open seas, that that was just the beginning.
Copyright © 2003 by Monique T. D. Truong. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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