Marzipan Memories or the Scent of Plum Kernel Oil, Essay 15 of #52essays2017

Plum and Rose Eye Serum by Yes Organic.

My best friend Indigo, owner of Yes Organic Boutique in Albuquerque, sells a handcrafted Plum and Rose Eye Serum that makes my mouth water. The first time I smelled it I felt confused. It smells a little of rose but not at all like plums, a sweet scent, familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Then I looked up plum oil and found that plum kernel oil is taken from the soft center of the common European plum (Prunus domestica), and is famous for smelling like marzipan. Prunus is the genus of the so-called stone fruits like nectarines, apricots, cherries, and yes almonds too.

Besides tempting me to drink my beauty product, the marzipan scent of this Plum and Rose Eye Serum takes me back to a strange and somewhat lonely moment in my life when I stayed in a studio apartment in Paris. Back then I was neither blind nor sighted and, damn it all to hell, the iPhone had not yet been invented.

The first summer I spent in Paris was to learn French after my first year of grad school, but being unable to read normal print or see much in the way of street signs or the expressions and hand gestures of French people, I failed. I did a lot of wandering around aimlessly, walking from one end of Paris to the other and somehow finally met a guy who seemed to sort of change things. It felt like it anyway. I had been lost and then I was found. We traveled together to Limousin to visit with family and ate very well. We camped out in the shadow of the Pyrenees and loved and argued quite a bit, but that is all another story.

Prunus domestica on tree.

The following summer I returned to Paris to try again. This was after my French love had come to New York and we realized there was no future together, and my friend set me up in her sister’s place in Belleville. It was the first time I’d ever lived alone, no mother, no boyfriend or friend, no roommates, and it was, as I said, strange and lonely.


Fruit shaped marzipan.In those days I had an only child’s tendency to cheer myself up with food, and a poor child’s greedy appetite. Whenever I had the chance, I guiltily pilfered the food of others. From babysitting gigs to roommates, their food always tempted me, and I would eat without feeling good about it, stealthily and with an attempt at taking a little at a time so that the food would not be missed.

I hadn’t lived in a household of plenty growing up, and for my mom and I eating groceries was a matter of finishing and replenishing, hopefully. We never had extra, not like the rich friends I went to school with who had boxes and boxes of cereal to choose from and freezers stocked with infinite meal possibilities.

So in that little studio up the street from the Canal, in an area of lower class and ethnic Parisians–a few miles and a thousand worlds away from the Champs-Élysées, I tried to work on French grammar using my portable CCTV which blew up letters big enough for me to read–much bigger than any magnifying lens could do and in high contrast so that my peripheral vision could make sense of the letters–a task it was not meant to do, and be repelled into the tiny one-person pantry to snoop. Unable to read labels, I used my fingers and my nose to ferret out points of interest.

It was during one of those gluttonous reconnoiterings that I found the tube of marzipan. From that moment forward, I obsessed over that foil tube. As I, day by day, chipped away at the sticky, mealy, nutty sweet stuff–almost savory with its dark undertones of almond smoke–my understanding of almond flavoring was forever altered. I had certainly tasted it before, but not in its natural state. No. Almond flavored items from America with their synthetic benzaldehyde pushing itself into cakes and cookies on the cheap could not compare to that ambrosial and addictive paste.

That second summer, I did not fall in love, but got better at French. I took language classes at the Sorbonne, learning the language with other foreigners who thought I was quite weird and stupid with my CCTV pulled out of its mysterious black suitcase and plopped onto my desk. The class was too hard for me and I didn’t really know how to study. I did not meet any friends until after I gave a presentation on Derrida and other postmodern theorists that I worked on in my head smoking cigarettes at the Canal. I composed and memorized my little presentation in perfectly acceptable French, and they were impressed.

I believe I spoke of the Siècle des Lumières and quoted Diderot, and when it was over I was invited out on the town for the first time. Not much came of it, but a sense of gratification and relief. The class ended, and friends from America would visit soon.

Paris eclipse.

One of those friends (whom I somehow lost) and I visited Paris Disney and we twirled in a teacup, innocent still. There was an eclipse that summer also, and I saw the strange light filtering onto the upturned faces wearing funny glasses. The light had been so odd, silvery eeriness with the earth and the moon and the sun aligned, that I took a picture. I can never remember which is which–solar eclipse versus lunar eclipse. I only remember the light and how everything glowed that last summer in Paris.

 

*This is #15 of #52essays2017. Check out #14 “The Hand That Extends” here*

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A Paris Wasting, Catherine’s story from Death of Godin

Saint Catherine of Siena 19th century painting (anonymous). She wears a nun's habit and a crown of thorns. Her head is encircled by a halo, and in her hands, she holds a cross and a flower.Catherine had been exalting in out of body bliss but the flesh sucked back. I must get up. She rolled onto her belly and lifted dizzily onto hands and knees. She executed a wobbly circle on the futon that lay on the floor and pointed herself towards the kitchen. A kitchen made for one in a studio apartment made for one on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, but just exactly like so many other such solitary places she had sublet around the world.

Catherine opened the little refrigerator and slammed her eyes shut. The lurid light pierced her brain. She groped amongst the cold. She took ahold of the distinct jar. Then in the door, the bottle. She pulled it out. So heavy. How would she get these things over there by the window where she wanted to be? Baby steps. Her favorite coach used to say that the only way to do the impossible is to break it down into its constituent parts and tackle one bit at a time. Of course, in the end, you simply had to forget all and just let the horse jump.

With her eyes still shut, Catherine put the bottle in one hand and the jar in the other and slid them ahead as she crawled behind along the narrow path between the futon and the television. When she felt she could go no farther, she opened her eyes and saw the dim dawn filtering through the pale curtains. Her head felt so heavy that she wanted to drop it and the whole endeavor but willed herself to want food and water instead. If she did not fight her body, her mind would surrender to the calm inevitability.

Thankfully, the bottle’s top had already been opened. It exuded a small sigh. She lifted it and drank an explosive sip. She put the bottle down and held the bubbly water in her mouth, afraid to swallow. She lay back carefully, pointing her knees up in defiance of the desire to be prostrate. She tapped the count, One. Two. Three. Swallow. She waited, fighting with all her might not to wretch. Please stay down. The water felt positively poisonous Trampling along her esophagus. It pushed into her lower organs. This was the crucial moment. Though some would argue with her, she did not want to die. It stayed down. Give that girl a ribbon!

She let go the bottle and, still lying down, took hold of the jar. It was an unmistakable shape, bought during her first exuberant week in Paris. She had been eating then. But as the empty days of writing-avoidance stretched on, the old familiar lack of hunger set in.

A Paris month had barely passed when she’d begun translating Baudelaire, even knowing that, though it was gratifying, it was not her novel, merely a diversion with dangerous pitfalls. Almost as soon as she’d started translating, she’d stopped going out. Catherine recognized the signs, but the feeling that she was accomplishing something became her drug and she would not have gotten out of bed without the dictionary and Le Spleen de Paris to draw her. She rationalized that she was preparing for her reimmersion into University life, but it had all been superfluity. The disgust and fatigue soon weighed her down and pressed her into bed. She stopped visiting her desk. Dangerous time had passed.

This was precisely what they—the doctors, her family, her few friends—had all been afraid of. The decision to go to Paris in the summer so long before her teaching position started, with nothing (as they saw it) to do seemed to them an eccentricity fraught with foreboding. For Catherine, it was the writer’s dream. Three months of solitude in the city of writers!

Eyes averted to the ceiling, she unscrewed the top and stuck her index finger blindly into the goo. Then, extending the soiled finger away from the jar, she screwed the top and let the weight of it drop to the floor. She folded her hands, right over left over her ribs. Except for her knees and the straightened finger, she might have been a corpse.

An unsought memory put her eight-year-old self with her friend Michelle at the kitchen table of her family home surrounded by grey paper and charcoal horse drawing efforts. They were eating Nutella and giggling. It must have been a rainy day. Catherine’s cracked lips parted into a painful smile as she remembered the paces she’d put Michelle to when the days were fair. Catherine would set up hurdles and time her friend over them, all the while judging as she would have been judged herself in the children’s competitions.

It had all been so much fun then. When did it turn ugly? It had been gradual, that shift from love to loathing, but the beginning arrived with puberty, when the coaches turned mean and the friends turned competitive and the competitions revealed their ludicrous pomp. When the dream of starting fresh in New York City became a reality in the form of a Columbia acceptance letter, Catherine quit show jumping, suddenly and without explanation. The insular world had been stunned. Secretly she wanted to be involved in what she naively thought of as the real world. She did not want to move blindly through college as she had through high school, thinking always of the next show or the last. Silently she had planned to reinvent herself as a writer and intellectual. But the triple major and endless clubs and activities put her into a fever pitch of excitement that was not unlike her final years of show jumping so that, if she were very honest with herself, her metamorphosis had been incomplete. The truth became undeniable when grad school was put off for the first of her hospitalizations.

Grad school was reclaimed, but from then on, each time she moved, from New York to Russia, China to Honduras, she would think the loneliness and anorexia were gone for good. It was her fatal flaw to believe she was cured. That hubris that suggested sovereign power over self had been inherited from her father. But what fueled Mr. James Mirth, CEO extraordinaire, consumed his daughter. Inevitably, almost without her being aware, the evil twin pillars would rise again out of the seemingly smooth sea of activity and bar her way to happiness. Finally, again, she would have to be rescued from her far-flung existence.

Her family attributed her troubles to her excitable nature, and constantly tried to dampen it. They were not misguided. She had seen for herself on countless occasions that her enthusiasm was off-putting to people who did not know her well. And worse, though she felt it to be right to be passionate, her passions too easily turned into the flames of an insatiable furnace that burned up all mundane appetites.

Catherine had no religious convictions to speak of, but she sometimes felt like her anorexia had more in common with her saintly namesake than might be expected from the average intelligent, cosmopolitan, twenty-first century woman. As a self-examining humanist type, she hated that she did not understand this part of her. She considered her Nutella dipped skeleton finger. She considered her literary ambitions. She felt a failure. She was thirty-three and on the verge of dying a starved virgin in the city of food and love.

Catherine rolled her burning eyeballs to the left at the neglected desk. Could she ever admit this to her pen? Was it somehow lack of honesty that made writing so hard? Her novel suddenly seemed false, a translation of her show jumping prodigy childhood into a concert pianist prodigy childhood. Was it subterfuge or merely an attempt to write fiction rather than memoire? A lesser genre if you asked her.

Her head ached. She could not figure this all out now. The important thing was to fight the urge to give up. She did not want the story to end here.

Letting go of intention, Catherine lifted her hand and kissed the back of it, as you would that of an Orthodox priest, her hand even more boney than those consecrated Russian ones. Thrice she lifted and kissed and then, thoughtless, she put the Nutella into her mouth. Please. Stay down, she prayed to her body. Beneath the waves of nausea that threatened negation, she felt a feeble acquiescence echoing deep in her hollowness.

 

[First published in Newtown Literary Issue 7. You can read about the investigation into the mysterious death of my childhood friend that gave fuel to this story in “The Detective Story Behind ‘A Paris Wasting'”.]

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