The summer before we stole the car from the English electrician, our friend who arranged for us to pick grapes in Southern France, Eve, gushed from her perch in the 107th Street bistro, glass of wine in hand, fresh-faced and rested from what we would later learn was an extended stay at a sanatorium.

“I’ve spoken to the Madame, and her grapes are definitely growing,” Eve’s smoky laugh tinkled imperceptibly in the noisy bar. “She’s very excited to host you girls in Provence this fall. Oh, I wish I were going,” Eve lamented politely. “I’ve got to finish this semester, though. I’ve got to finish something.”

I admired so many things about Eve: her frosty hair and lined face seemed worldly at 20, as did her dry pride in the social nuisance of finishing college in four years. Add the fact that she kept disappearing, keeping my travel partners and I guessing about the grape-picking gig, and she quickly became just the right type of mysterious to me. One week I’d bump into her on the crowded city campus, finishing a blue cigarette by the Pan statue before our creative writing class. “See you upstairs in a minute,” she’d said with a weary smile. But when her empty chair persisted for that day and days after, Eve’s power only grew in my mind. She was living an urban, Cheshire life and I couldn’t think of anything more romantic.

I longed to break out of my suburban girl’s shell. Besides working as a hostess in a dingy, Upper West Side jazz club, I lived a fairly sheltered life for a twenty-one-year- old, commuting by bus from my parents’ house to Columbia University, scrunchies in my ponytail, buried under books in the magnificent library after lectures. I had no social life to speak of since relinquishing my cool magazine internship (I couldn’t afford not to be paid). New York was all around me, but I hardly felt like a city girl.

According to Eve’s pitch, if I was willing to take a semester off and fly to France, I could work the harvest for a few weeks and stay with Eve’s family friend, Madame Beauvert, who prevailed over acres of what would become Cotes du Rhone. My imagination conjured not backbreaking work, but lavender fields and nearby Mediterranean beaches; and Paris. I could live in France instead of read about how Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller did. So I withdrew from the upcoming fall semester and bought non-refundable plane tickets in cash, my first two major decisions made without parental consent. With a few hundred dollars saved from drunken tippers, I boarded a plane with a borrowed backpack and an elevated feeling that I was both finally living and pulling off a stunt meant for other, more privileged people.

But once seated and angling into the air, I felt sweat seep into the armpits of my Putamayo dress. In retrospect this onset of in-flight panic, prompted by fears of a future ruined while sipping free champagne on Air France, stood to reason. I had had no direct contact with Madame Beauvert. Our “plans”, arranged through Eve, had no confirmed dates of beginning or ending. I had no credit card, and of the three of us traveling, my college-level French was by far the best (I had gotten a B- in Conversation).

My travel partner, Mae, shook her head. “We’re in the right place at the right time,” she said, as one who had the glorious trait of worrying about nothing might. Mae was my age but Southern. She waited tables and lived alone in her mother’s Washington Heights apartment, and one of those circumstances made her as fearless as a secret agent.

Kay, our party’s third member, agreed. “Traveling is one of the good things in life,” she soothed, and because Kay was an artist and daughter of a tragically famous New Yorker, I believed she knew more about life than I.

We lugged our bags through the chaos of Orly airport, amid the human-smelling crowds and sexy, overhead announcements. Not one familiar face, sound or scent. Nothing to read, study or intelligently discuss. Someone stepped on my foot, but I didn’t care. I glimpsed a crepe stand and while waiting for a taxi, my fears became small and ornamental. That safe state in which I had lived, that of dissatisfied longing, had gone. I leaned my head out the window, feeling the urge to make a mark strike my face like raindrops on headlights.

For weeks, Paris was wet. We walked over puddles in our black city shoes and red lipstick, exploring old cathedrals and desecrated cemeteries that, while lovely, didn’t match my visions of sun, wine and the Mediterranean Sea. I had imagined there would be an obvious beginning by now, the pop of a cork, a magnanimous “welcome” from Madame Beauvert and ensuing directions of how to get to our new jobs at her palatial estate. Mae tried calling Madame Beauvert once or twice a day casually, as if it didn’t matter, and Kay echoed Mae’s cool calm about money more easily than I, sketching leisurely in the Left Bank tabacs. She had already finished college, and since Mae had no real intention of going back, the two of them shared a drifter’s context perfect for long afternoons in the Latin Quarter. I was alone with my urgency.

In order to not worry about money during the day, I tried evoking what I imagined would be Eve’s demeanor, smoking and ordering water and coffee to keep from wanting to eat more than camembert on baguettes. At night, I counted my remaining francs and dollars, about 150 total, and imagined myself as Eve, sitting by the statue of Pan, Greek God of the Wild, awaiting a change of fortune.

It was as if I had inadvertently said a prayer.

“Hi Madame Beauvert? My friends and I have arrived in Paris.”

“Sorry?”

Mae cleared her throat and spoke loudly into the youth hostel pay phone.

“We came from New York to work on your vineyard? For the harvest? For faire le vendage?”

“You are American?”

“Yes. Our friend Eve said she had spoken to you about our arrival. We’re here to pick–”

“I have men from Spain and Portugal to do that.”

“I see. Eve had said–”

“I am not well. I cannot take care of three girls. I’m sorry. Please enjoy Paris. Tell Eve I’m sorry.”

*

A few days earlier, a nun in a church vestibule where I had waited out a rainstorm had looked at me with pity. I scanned the wall full of nanny job postings, but her stare reminded me I didn’t belong, so I grabbed a few free publications like Libre Paris and France/USA, and covered my head across the street to the post office. In line for postcard stamps, two classifieds had caught my eye.

1. Join a crew of hot air balloon professionals for a two-month race across Europe. No experience necessary.

2. Restore a medieval farmhouse in the Provence countryside. Light construction/electrical experience preferred. Room and board.

My parents’ postcard, Dear Mom and Dad, Paris is beautiful never slipped down the mail slot that day; the line for stamps was too long and the message felt untrue. But now, this morning after Madame Beauvert refused us, the sun cracked through gray clouds while Mae fed the phone franc after franc, finally reaching the medieval farmhouse (the hot air balloon line buzzed a constant busy).

“You can do construction?” the male voice asked.

“Let’s just say I know how to use a hammer,” Mae replied.

“Let me talk to him,” I grabbed the phone. Picking grapes had slipped through our fingers, but a medieval farmhouse in the French countryside, and the grand adventure I now felt entitled to, would not.

“I’ve helped build my grandfather’s shed,” I lied into the phone without the least bit of regret. “I’ve carried wood, I’ve worked in gardens. I’ve even dug a ditch.”

“You did all of this in New York?”

“Upstate New York. It’s very rural. But we can tell you about it when we meet. How do we get there?”

Within one hour, our bags were packed. I amended my parents’ postcard message, Dear Mom and Dad, Paris is beautiful. We’re taking the train to Provence this afternoon but I was so excited, I forgot to drop it in the mailbox.

End of Part 1

Writing non-fiction used to be hard.  Journalists would spend months researching a topic, pulling their hair out with the devastating thought that their careers might be over if they got the story wrong.  Memoirists would contact the subjects in their books, haunted with the idea that getting the facts wrong might damage someone’s life or career.

When I was fourteen, I stood before the deacons of my church and lied.

The deacons sat in a half circle of red and gold armchairs that seemed incongruous with the church’s Puritan ancestry. A small group of my peers sat behind me, waiting for their turn to speak, truth or lie.   I told them all I believed in God, that I believed Jesus was the son of God, and that human beings were made in His image.  The head deacon knew I was a liar, but he liked me.  When I finished my statement of faith – required for confirmation – he threw me a few softball questions.  One deacon tried to catch me in the lie.  She asked me why I hadn’t talked about attending church, about the congregation, in my statement.

I told her, and the rest of the room, that I believed in the ability of the individual to navigate his or her own way through the complicated, conflicting, confusing world of faith and belief. For me, independent inquiry and intellectual and spiritual curiosity were more important than participation in a congregation.  I quickly added that I did acknowledge the value of a pastor’s leadership, and the ability of the congregation to infuse my own spiritual quest with needed energy and knowledge.  Lying again.  They let me in.

On confirmation day, the pastor grabbed my arm. “Listen to my sermon,” he said. “You’re its inspiration.”

The pastor, at the pulpit, told the congregation that one of its newest members had inspired him to grow as a Christian in a way he had never considered before.  He said that the independent spirit of this young person had moved him to preach that day about individual curiosity, introspection, and honesty.  Don’t say what you think is right to believe.  Say what you believe, listen to others, and you’ll grow.  I was beaming. I had fooled them all.

Then, we, the about-to-be confirmed, approached the front of the congregation and knelt in a half circle on the red carpet. We waited for the pastor and the deacons to walk to each of us, lay hands on our heads, and pray.  I was last in the half circle.


***


The pastor taught our year-long confirmation class himself. Congregationalists don’t like ritual and pomp, and they certainly don’t pay much attention to the Catholic obsession with saints. So it came as a surprise when the pastor told our class about his latest idea to make confirmation more exciting — each of us were to be assigned a saint, based on his assessment of our spiritual needs and personalities, and we were to research that saint and find a spiritual connection to their story. We each got a pendant in a white cardboard box, and the pastor explained to each of us his decisions.

Mine was Saint Anne, Grandmother of Jesus, the patron saint of housewives, women in labor, miners and poverty. The pastor said he saw Saint Anne as part of my nature, the part that made me exceptionally strong-willed.

I thought, “Is this a joke? housewives, poverty, and labor? I’m going to be a doctor, a pathologist. I’ll be neither poor nor pregnant.”

On the pendant, Anne held a book. She wasn’t looking at the book. She was staring up to the sky, to God. This saint was meant for me somehow but the joke would be on the pastor. I decided Anne was studious, well-read, and wise. She was the grandmother of Jesus, the holder of precious knowledge beyond her time. I imagined Anne reading the Book her grandson would pass to the world two generations early. I thought of her as a happily silent prophet, who would treat those close to her with odd bits of information, and revel in their misunderstanding and confusion. Unlike tragically misunderstood Cassandra, Anne was content to be the only one who knew the full meaning behind her eccentricities. Like most artists, I thought, she’d be best understood once she was long dead and the rest of the world caught up.

St. Anne, praise her, helped me take pleasure in my secret knowledge.


***


Finally, the pastor and deacons reached me.  He had handpicked crosses for each of us to wear.  Most of the girls had large, silver crosses with embedded jewels.  Mine was plain, small, gold, with flared edges, more like what he gave to the boys.  The pastor and the deacons placed their hands on my head, and the pastor leaned in close and whispered in my ear:

“I know you have hardened your heart, and I pray to God that one day He’ll open it.”

They finished praying, and the newest members of the church stood up to lead the congregation in a hymn.


***

 

I had lost my faith about three years before this moment. I don’t remember when, exactly.  It was before I saw the pictures of the Mengele experiment victims, but after the death of my grandmother.

Nowadays, I ask other people to tell me how they found God, and they ask me to tell them a story, too. Have I lost mine? If so, where do I search for God? Testify. Fair’s fair, but there’s no story.  So, what do you say: truth or lie?



Whenever I begin to feel bad about the sorry state of my memory, I like to consider the Borges story “Funes the Memorious.” The titular character, Ireneo Funes, “suffers” from having an outlandishly excellent memory–so good he has to hide himself away in a dark room, so all the intricate detail of his own experience won’t haunt him forever.

In the story, Funes essentially loses the ability to understand abstraction and generalization, because he’s so mired in the particular. He becomes a kind of monster, inhuman. Truly, it’s a redeeming story for those of us with sieves for a mind. Memory can be a disability.

It is an interesting story because it’s a Borges story, of course, but it’s always been of particular interest to me because my memory has always been so terrible. I’ll often forget a certain word–even quite common words–or name, and in the process of trying to remember, forget even those word clusters around it that should be helping me remember. It’s as though my forgetfulness is a metastasizing tumor that feeds on my will to recall. The harder I try, the more I forget.

So, as anyone with any self-esteem would do, I’ve sought to find a silver lining, something about my forgetfulness that will save me from feeling like an absolute failure. My solution–whether reasonable or not–has been to associate forgetfulness with fiction. More specifically, to associate the capacity to forget, with the ability to create. Nice trick, huh? (Of course, as a teen, this impulse also resulted in a whole lot of lying, but that’s a different post.)

I wonder how many other fiction writers suffer from bad memories.

Twenty Dollars

By Ben Loory

Memoir

When I was in fifth grade, I was in love with Shirlene DuJack. We used to draw pictures of TIE fighters together. It was the ideal relationship. The only problem was that the school bully, Wayne DeCourte, was also in love with Shirlene DuJack. A fact which I found annoying. Apparently he felt similarly, because one day he announced that the two of us were going to have to fight after school for the hand of Shirlene DuJack. This made sense to me, so I agreed, with one stipulation: I had piano lessons that day, so could it be tomorrow? Wayne said sure, and we shook on it. It was all very gentlemanly.