Drunk and Pregnant in Paris by Jane Hammons
Drunk and Pregnant in Paris
In 1988 we move to Paris. We have some reason to believe we might find success as artists if we take some time off from our day jobs.
I quit my job teaching writing at UC Berkeley.
Michael quits his job with a gasoline torch manufacturing company.
As a young teenager Michael had been the lead singer with a popular Bay Area band that eventually booted him because he refused to practice. When I met him, he still thought of himself as a rock star, though he hadn’t played regularly with a band in years. Several of the songs he wrote were recorded: he got small royalty checks. I’d received an Academy of American Poets award when I graduated with my B.A. in History from the University of New Mexico and had been publishing fiction and poetry since then in literary magazines, occasionally getting paid.
We are thirty-five and have been casually hoping for a baby, though not calculating my ovulation or using a fertility calendar. We just assumed I would become pregnant. When I didn’t, Michael blamed my sister: she had one of my kidneys. Deep surgery can affect fertility. But how to explain the years before I became a kidney donor when I had used no birth control?
Finally conceding that the problem might not be entirely mine, Michael allowed me to jerk him off into a sterilized jar that had previously held Cara Mia marinated artichoke hearts and rush his sperm to a nearby lab. (Years later when his borderline personality disorder is diagnosed in full bloom, he will refer to this incident as a sexual assault while arguing for sole custody of our children.) When the doctor called with the results, Michael refused to talk. So I took the information. Michael’s low motility rate might be the result of his work with cutting torches, the doctor said. Overly-warm testicles can damage sperm production. He suggested Michael wear a bag of frozen peas on his scrotum at night or stuff an icepack in the crotch of his jeans while at work. Michael suggests I never again bring up fertility testing.
We have some reason to believe we might never have children and thus do not need our jobs, our health insurance, anything so reassuring as financial security.
The plan is to stay in Paris for at least two years. I would have been happy with the impermanence of a passport, coming and going every ninety days like a tourist, but Michael wants visas—a commitment to France—so before we arrive we undergo background checks, choose a doctor from the list we get at the French Embassy in San Francisco and have thorough medical examinations. At the chosen doctor’s office in Oakland, a nurse is very concerned about the goopy stuff that looks like bacon fat in a vial of Michael’s blood. When she shows it to me, I tell her to show it to him.
His cholesterol level is not my cholesterol level.
His medical conditions are not mine.
I am not his mother. I am not anyone’s mother.
When we arrive in Paris, we must first register at the Préfecture de Police for the 5th arrondisement. When that is done, we go to L’Office français de le’immigration et de l’integration where we huddle with the masses from around the world on wooden planks set out in a vast yard to keep us from sinking into the mud created by the downpour that occurs on our appointed day. From one Left Bank hotel to another, we haul his guitars and far too much luggage while we look for an apartment. Eventually we settle for a small room in a large pension while we continue to search for something more permanent. Michael heads off to bars with his guitar and suggests I find a café to sit in and write something.
While waiting for our visas to be approved, we had spent a month at my sister’s house in Albuquerque. Early autumn, the colors blaze against the bright blue sky. Leaves purple and gold; earth brown and red. Contrasts inspire. I write for hours every morning, working on a novel, finish two stories—one set in Albuquerque, the other on the farm in Roswell where I grew up. I feel at home in the warm haze of Indian Summer. The air is chilly and filled with scents of cedar and piñon. My sister’s house, heated by the adobe bricks in her floor, is heavenly. I imagine a solo life: Michael goes to Paris. I live with my sister.
But when our visas are approved, we leave together for France.
The husband and wife who own the five-story pension live on the first floor with six dalmatians that lounge on the couch and unfold like colts when we come into the lobby. They growl at me, the only person they have never liked, the wife enjoys telling anyone in earshot every time I enter the lobby.
Michael is amused. He believes the dogs detect my mauvais caractère. I’ve accepted the role of the bad one in this marriage. Our second marriage. To each other. Our first marriage was an obvious mistake.
1975: I am driving. Michael is drinking. This is our usual mode of travel.
We make our way north along U.S. 285—a bleak stretch of highway Robert Frank captured in the mid-1950s for his collection The Americans—returning to Albuquerque after spending a weekend with my family in Roswell.
Nine months earlier, I made this drive alone—on my way to begin a summer poetry workshop at the University of New Mexico. As I reached to turn the radio dial away from KBIM in Roswell, I heard on the news that my boyfriend had been murdered. Except that I didn’t know it was him, because the identity of the Eddy County rancher is being withheld pending notification of family members. I dialed in KOMA from Oklahoma City and didn’t learn until I arrive at a friend’s house in Albuquerque that the murdered rancher was my boyfriend.
A good therapist would have counseled me not to make any big life changes after such a traumatic experience. But I didn’t have a good therapist or any therapist at all in the summer of 1974. Therapy was for people like Woody Allen. I had a poetry workshop.
Michael’s stepmother is a student in the workshop. Chris is a decade older than me (and a decade younger than her husband). She appreciates the raw emotion, the fury and the sadness, in my poetry and takes copies of my poems home with her to read more closely. We meet for coffee and talk poetry. Hers and mine. She introduces me to Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich. We become close friends over the poetry of women. Late in September she casually mentions that her stepson, visiting from California, has read a batch of my poetry he found on her dining room table. He wants to meet me. She passes this information along in a dutiful way. She knows I’m in no shape to begin a new romance. I decline, and she doesn’t mention him again. But weeks later, I meet him at a party he attends with Chris and his father.
We talk about my poetry, smoke pot and drink too much. He sings me a couple of songs. I am flattered by his attention to me and to my writing. We are twenty-two, our lives are tinged with darkness. Murder is mine. Abandonment his. He has come to Albuquerque to reconcile with a father he had not seen in over a decade.
Pain is a sheer fabric upon our skin, and we revel in the theater of our tragedies.
Somewhere north of Vaughn, about halfway to Albuquerque, Michael proposes. His proposal is reckless, as is my response. When we met, I had been making plans for graduate school. He had been on his way to Australia. We are attracted to each other, possibly even in love, but neither of us is prepared for the responsibility of marriage. It does not take long for both of us to regret this decision. I act on mine and begin having an affair with a married man. (I carry this secret and accompanying guilt into the second marriage.) I don’t want the married man to leave his wife for me. I’m glad he’s married. He is merely comfort as I divorce Michael.
Divorced, but not entirely separated—I remain close friends with his stepmother—Michael and I talk often on the telephone. We call each other when we are drunk and lonely and full of what ifs, our story incomplete. When I finish graduate school in 1980, I go to California in search of a more satisfying conclusion, and ask Michael to marry me. Recklessly, we begin again, but for a while, we find our footing. I teach. He maintains a steady day job while playing and writing music.
And then we move to Paris.
Outside our balcony window Christmas lights decorate Rue Saint-Jacques. Gigantic round bulbs strung on a sagging wire hang like something from the Grinch cartoon. The street is gray and empty.
The Metro, on intermittent strike, is heavily patrolled by gendarmes who often pull Michael aside—long-haired, black-leather-jacket-wearing, big-boned-Polish-frame-with-dark-Tuscarora coloring—perhaps he resembles a terrorist they are looking for. Paris in the 1980s is plagued by bombings as it is again now. From him, the gendarmes frequently request ID and make him empty his pockets. During one search, I discover the drugs he takes. In one small brown bottle marked with his prescription for the Vicodin he uses for back pain, he carries vitamins but also other pills—Valium, Percoset, Trazadone—prescription drugs that he does not have prescriptions for. Michael knows French better than I do, but he is an uptight speaker of the language, afraid of a misplaced article or erroneous verb tense. Easily tongue-tied. So I jump in to explain in my ungrammatical French—mingled with Spanish and English—that he has packed his medications into one bottle as a matter of convenience. I, too, show ID—along with my passport, I display my still current UC Berkeley faculty ID, hoping for some credibility. The gendarme returns the pill bottle and suggests that he separate the prescriptions and leave his extra pills at home. Full of swagger after they leave, Michael likes the idea that to the gendarmes he represents some sort of threat.
I begin having terrible migraines and am plagued by insomnia and nausea. My inability to sleep or eat increases. I think I’m dying of something and make an appointment at the American Hospital in Paris. Michael accompanies me, and without gendarme or strike incident, we take the Metro all the way from our 5th arrondissement digs in the Latin Quarter to Boulevard Victor Hugo in the 16th.
We exit to find a noisy, colorful flea market. Michael lingers to browse and eat while I go to the hospital and fill cups with pee and vials with blood, am weighed, measured and given a physical exam for which I lay freezing and naked upon a cold metal examination table—no backless gowns for the French—and listen to the doctor make his observations aloud in a mix of French and English that I mostly understand but do not know how to respond to.
“These could be varicose veins.” He takes one of my legs by the ankle and lifts it, pointing to a few thin purple veins on the inside of my knee that are in no way varicose. He flexes my arm and pokes my bicep, telling me that I am not in bad shape for my age. As he inserts the speculum into my vagina, he wonders aloud why I have not had children. None of your fucking business, I want to say in Ugly American English, but remain mute upon the chilly slab throughout the examination.
Afterwards, I find Michael at the flea market. We discover the Metro has gone on strike, so we begin the ten-mile hike back to the Latin Quarter. Michael is a man of many quirks: one of them the refusal to take buses. He will not ride even a French bus. I’m feeling sleepy and nauseated and think I’m probably better off with him than by myself on the bus. I am wrong. Along the way, I stop frequently to purchase and down gigantic plastic bottles of water that then require me to frequent the public toilets. We have no other appointments, no place we need to be, but Michael grows more and more angry at my stop and go method of covering the mileage before us. He begins taking long quick strides that I cannot keep up with, and rather than struggle to do so, I wait for him to walk out of my sight, and then I catch a bus, arriving at the pension before him. Though it is considered rude to not stop at the desk and chat with the owners while their dogs growl at me, I scurry past the lobby and up the stairs through the hallway that stinks of urine, to our room where a case of Kroner fills the bidet and the sagging bed reeks of mildew. I manage to make it to the bathroom we share with an Australian soccer team before I begin vomiting.
As the only female on the fifth floor, I often get a front of the line pass to the bathroom. Sometimes I take advantage of that; sometimes I don’t. When I don’t, it’s because Rob, a forward on the team, is last in line. I’m a big fan of Australian movies and like talking with him about them. The landscape of Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout remind me of home. When I explain to Rob that I am from New Mexico, he begins calling me Vaquera when we pass on the street or in the hallway, but only if I am alone. If I am with Michael, he does not speak at all.
Late one night the bathroom door is unlocked and there is no line, I rush in to find Rob, slightly drunk, finishing up at the toilet. He gives his dick a shake and does not leave, but lingers, leaning against the wall in nothing but satin gym shorts.
I really need to pee and don’t much care if he stays or goes. I lower the seat that he has left up, lift my nightgown and sit.
Like dogs we sniff the territory. His piss. Mine. No doubt a bit of Michael’s. The entire soccer team’s. I don’t know exactly what he’s thinking, but I imagine that like me, he is calculating the risks of a quick stand-up fuck—the grime that coats every surface, discovery by Michael, his fellow teammates. I flush and leave, my plastic flip-flops meant for the sandy beaches of California clicking and sticking to the filthy bathroom floor as I go.
A couple of days after our trip to the American Hospital, Michael gets a call to audition for a band. The caller hopes he can come right away. They have a gig coming up. They need a bass player, someone who can do vocals, too. Michael is drunk when he leaves for the audition and doesn’t come back until the next day. While I wait for his return, I resist the urge to go down to the lobby and ask for help calling hospitals—something that has become a habit over the years. Given his run-ins with the gendarmes, I add the possibility of jail to his locations. I don’t sleep, but I don’t make any calls either.
In a new country, I begin to imagine a new life, one in which I have no need to make these calls because I have no one to make them about. When he eventually stumbles in, stinking of booze, jeans torn, cut lip, black eye, he says he took a bad fall and spent the night in the street sobering up. It looks to me like he’s been on the losing end of a fistfight, but I say nothing. He got the job, he tells me before passing out on our moist, stinking bed. He’ll be playing with the band three to four nights a week and has practice every day while he learns the set list.
A few days later Rob calls to me from the pay phone on the landing between the fourth and fifth floors, “Hey, Vaquera, it’s for you.” A nurse from the American Hospital tells me I am pregnant and schedules my follow-up appointment. Surprised but ecstatic, I hurry back to the room to give Michael the news. Hung over and only half awake—late rehearsal with the band the night before—he squints at me and says, “If you’re jerking me around I’ll knock your fucking block off.” Stunned by his response, I run from the room to a nearby café where Rob—having overheard the father-to-be’s reaction—joins me. It is to Rob that I express my joy about the news while he hugs and consoles me. We celebrate with a bottle of eau minérale naturelle.
This is how my life as a mother begins.
© 2017 Jane Hammons
After thirty years of teaching writing at UC Berkeley where she was the recipient of a Distinguished Teaching Award, Jane Hammons retired to Austin, Texas, where she writes, takes photographs and listens to a lot of live music. Her writing has been included in several anthologies including Hint Fiction (W. W. Norton), The Maternal is Political (Seal Press) and Selected Memories: Five Years of Hippocampus Magazine (Hippocampus Press). She has published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Contrary Magazine, Full Grown People, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, and Southwestern American Literature among other journals and magazines.
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