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The Art of Falling

A story by Viken Berberian
Pierre Michaud/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
The Louvre, Paris

When I was in first grade, my class went on a field trip to the Museum of Modern Art, but Mom said she didn’t have enough money to buy me a ticket. And then came her slap like an unyielding bolt of lightning. Two decades later, I’m unable to stand very long in front of a canvas. Ten seconds at most and six of these are spent reading the name of the painting on the label next to it. I try to walk away with a feeling. Hopefully. Or a thought. Or both. But then I get restless and run out of the museum faster than you can say “Rauschenberg.”

If I blame my mom for being impatient, I credit Madame Moreau for my love of Rauschenberg. It’s largely because of her that my canvas presence time has increased threefold, which is the same multiple as the difference between our ages. She is seventy-eight and I am twenty-six. But I’m straying. Allow me to recount the events of the week from the very beginning based on the entries in my diary. I first met Madame Moreau in a museum, two hours after my plane landed in Paris, and two years before Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France. It was a bright Monday, with the exception of a silvery patch, a sunlit cloud in the shape of a cauliflower. The streets were packed with pigeons and their collective coos bounced off the city’s soot-cleansed walls. How lucky I was to be a student poet in Paris. How awesome to have left the company of my buddies in Brooklyn. I had so much time in my hands: time, time, time, and my faithful phone.

I thought of sitting down at a café to call my wife, but rented a bicycle instead. I threw my bag into the Vélib’s basket and rode to my favorite museum, the Pompidou. There, I would find the inspiration to write my poem. “You reap what you sow,” my college adviser had said, and she was right, of course. It was a bumper year for student poets, an auspicious time to tap into our endowment. The university was flush with cash, harvesting its sixth year of gains from an unrelenting bull market, and funding all sorts of brazen literary conceits. My MFA adviser really wanted me to go to Paris because “all poets spend time in La Ville Lumière, at least once in their lifetime. You have everything you need there. Bridges. Bedbugs. Beckett. Baguettes. It’s a wonderful place to ply your trade.” And so, when the Department of English accepted my travel grant proposal to compose a poem in Paris, I packed my leather holdall without delay. You see, the trick is to do as much as you can in as little time as possible.

Which is why I never sit still. On my way to Beaubourg, I updated my Tumblr page, sent a text message to my wife, and liked an online photo of a friend I don’t really like. Call me magnanimous. As I walked into the Pompidou, I vowed to spend less than twenty-five minutes on seeing the museum’s entire collection. The deficit would have to be covered by postcards of modern artwork in the museum’s gift shop. I slid my finger across my phone and realized that I had been in Paris for almost two hours. I had done so little, wasted so much time. I slammed through the Abstract Expressionists like a storm, gliding past a Gorky in a fury. This was when everything came into focus. The blur of abstraction around me receded, and life reasserted itself in its reassuring shapes and wrinkles.

An aging, beautiful, woman with a height of sixty-five inches, roughly the same as the canvas, slipped in front of a Jackson Pollock. It was Madame Moreau falling down, her limbs splayed across the floor in every direction. I am unable to trace now the trajectory of Pollock’s random drips dried on the canvas, but I will never forget the portrait of seduction that lay sprawled before me. She wore a gray wool skirt, a crow-black cardigan, and a cloche hat with a flamboyant silvery bow. Her tender feet, which I discovered that very same afternoon, were covered in elegant hold-up stockings.

Was there someone else before her? In point of fact, there was. Madame Moreau’s dark complexion reminded me of a black-and-white photo of my grandmother. They both had drop-dead-gorgeous dimples, and deep-set eyes, but unlike grandma, Madame Moreau rarely drank, and never spanked a little boy in her life.

By the time I reached her, she had managed to sit on her rear. There was no one next to us when I held her hands, which were covered in cashmere. My wife calls it glove at first sight, and it is true, I do miss holding her hands. My grandma, too, once suffered a fall—though according to my mom, one with more serious consequences. She ended up with a fractured hip while reaching for a bottle of Johnny Walker in a liquor store. Unlike Johnny, she stopped walking and died three years later at the barely ripe age of sixty-four. The cause of her death was another failing precinct in the human body. This time, it was an aching liver soaked in a cocktail of alcoholic drinks. Could Madame Moreau be the perfect grandmother I never had?

I often hurled books at my mom and grandma when they terrorized me while taking a break from a bottle of brandy. They took turns spanking me, because, they said, I cheated in class, or because I couldn’t find my shoes before going to school, or just because. The truth is they hurt me even when I didn’t cheat in class or when I found my shoes. I was beaten like a dusty, suburban sofa for the better part of half a decade, until I was big enough to sit on them. Using that kind of deterrence took a while because I was much smaller in size than other boys my age.

When my French teacher at PS 181 sent me home for copying others or disrupting the classroom, Mom would let loose a tirade of abuse. My cheating, of course, was her excuse. “When are you going to smarten up?” she would ask. “You’ll never become a great translator like me if you fail your French class. You’ll never become anything.” This would be followed by other humiliations, until my face turned red. Like an angry, matriarchal wrestling crew, they gave me the old one-two. They shared books, bottles, and pills. Grandma was typically too tired to fling more than insults, though she once threw a Borges (hardcover) at my bulbous nose. Mom, a minor translator of technical texts, delivered the less philosophical beatings, after which, I would retreat into my bedroom and begin my readings. I searched for answers in everything I read. My favorite poets were downloadable, and dead.

Mom, who is as fond of vermouth as she is of Valium, alleged that I once pitched a copy of Proust at grandma’s forehead. This was before the age of Kindle, and I do not have any recollection of doing that, though I do harbor the occasional violent thought, mostly against the humiliations I endured and her undeserved jabs. In the end, however, I would dissolve my anger in a cup of Lipton tea. My relationship with Mom was bittersweet. I remember how lovingly she ran her fingers through my hair, scoured my scalp, and snapped her nails, pretending she had wiped out a battalion of lice crawling over my cranium. She made me laugh so much. She made me wince in pain. She made me cry, but never more than when I found out that Dad had left us never to come back. He said he wanted to practice architecture in Florida one day after Hurricane Hazel destroyed large swaths of the state. Who, or what, should I have blamed for his departure? Global warming, me, or his violent bouts with Mom? “All great architecture is the design of space that reassures, cuddles, and comforts,” Mom once said to him, “and you failed on all three counts.” And then he slapped her. This left me at the mercy of two suburban drinking women at the ripe age of five.

*

After Madame Moreau fell, the medics arrived, and I took the ambulance with her to the hospital. She asked what it was like to grow up as a boy in Brooklyn. I told her that I didn’t particularly enjoy school, except for French class. “Good,” she said, in perfect English. “I like teaching French.” Madame Moreau visited the Pompidou every Monday. She spent at least five minutes in front of a canvas to give it a proper read. “My ankles couldn’t support any more than that.” I didn’t bother telling her that my limit to consider an oeuvre was ten seconds. As the ambulance siren blared, a swarm of electronic messages gyred around us. It was the android phone in my pocket buzzing.

When I took out my phone, Madame Moreau asked if I would be so kind as to put it away. Here she was, suffering, and all I could think about was whether I had snared another email. My wife would have to wait. I switched off my phone and thought about how fragile the human body is; how the organs that age the fastest in one person may not do so as rapidly in another; how pituitary glands can fall prey to disease; how anxiety can trigger palpitations of the heart; how a book slammed against the head can harm the hippocampus; how a sudden stop at an intersection can send a driver hurtling through the windshield of a car; and how a poke in the eye can swell the retina. God knows how many times I was in danger of losing an eye. Did anyone care for me? It’s not a rhetorical question that I ask. How would you like it if I slapped you for not finding your shoes before going to school? And it wasn’t because I didn’t want to go to school that day. I really couldn’t find them.

At the hospital on Rue des Plantes, Madame Moreau underwent an exam while I sat in the visitors’ room, my bag in my lap. In one of my more patient moments, I tried to imagine where in Paris she lived. Did the Madame snore under the abstract glare of a Kandinksy, or something big and horrific, like those shockers by Bacon, his screaming popes and apes? The only way to find out was to somehow get myself invited. The occasion presented itself that very same afternoon when the radiologist concluded that her injury “wasn’t serious at all,” and Madame Moreau could go back home. During the cab ride to her apartment, I held her waiflike fingers, which must have weighed less than the precious stones surrounding them, and considerably lighter than the sins that now weigh so heavily on me. According to my journal entry, she invited me to dinner the next day.

Tuesday. I took the metro from my hostel to the canal. I settled on a bouquet of tulips from a corner shop. Madame Moreau lived along a canal-side neighborhood teeming with baby-strollers. I could not but help think that some seventy-five years ago, Madame Moreau was a toddler, too, with adorable buttocks and resilient fat tissue. Seven decades later, she was as wispy as a short-stemmed daisy with most of her life behind her. Madame Moreau greeted me in a wheelchair. Her silver hair was bundled in a chignon and her face did not bear any sign of make-up. She wore a black top and matching wool skirt. I could see that a red lace slip draped her silk stockings, and almost felt the friction of her thighs rub against the velvet pillow seat of her wheelchair.

“Thank you for the tulips,” she said. “Hold on to them for a second, will you? We have the whole place to ourselves, and we have all the time we need.”

All the time for what?

“Let’s take things slowly,” she said.

Her apartment was elegant and unadorned, like her face. It was full of light, glass, and bent wood. In one corner of the living room was a stack of modernist stools made by a Danish designer. She had told me his name, but it now escapes my mind. Behind a mid-century desk, large windows overlooked a bronze statue of a poet along the canal. I looked at his epic, unheralded nose. Was it the largely forgotten poet, Claude Aragon, or maybe it was someone else, a contemporary of his? He preferred to be unpublished, he once confessed in the critical quarterly The Art of Falling, rather than to attribute the name of another more famous poet to his work. Soon, his statue would come down, too, to create more space for another prosaic, pigeon-side café. My experience with verse is very different from Aragon’s. I am unable to abandon a poem, let alone abandon myself in a poem. The same is true for my haiku, which, on my second day in Paris, I had not spent a minute working on.

“Do you live alone here, Madame Moreau?”

“No,” she said, pointing to the walls. “I live under their wings.”

A pageant of butterflies covered the living room walls. I walked up to one while the tulips hung from my left hand like a broom. The butterflies had tawny eyespots on their ventral wings, like the constellation of age spots on Madame Moreau’s temples. Their iridescent forewings were ageless, pinned carefully inside wooden boxes. I placed the tulips on her lap and followed her across a rug, begging for a beating. “See this? This wall is dedicated to my father,” said Madame Moreau. “Father died of pulmonary embolism, mother of chronic heart failure. People thought that they would die from drinking too much, or from smoking too many cigarettes, but that wasn’t the case. These butterflies, I bought them in their memory.”

“They’re beautiful.”

“When I’m alone I can hear them. The flutter of so many wings, and everything else in the city comes to a full stop.”

She turned to another wall.

“These here are known as Junonia coenia bergi,” Madame Moreau said. “They come from a warm island where father had one of his hedge funds registered. It was called Junonia Long-Term Capital Management, after the butterflies that die in about ten days.” I thought it would be impolite to ask if the fund was still around; if it had outlived the butterflies, or the Great Recession. Perhaps on our second date.

That night, I helped her serve a medley of meat. Unlike my vegan wife, Madame Moreau was a committed carnivore, and I soon found myself between medallions of beef and a bowl of poultry stew. I was in a confessional mood, maybe it was the chicken soaked in red wine—the only alcohol I had that week—for I almost blurted out how Mom had smacked me once with a bent Berberova. I know what you’re thinking: better a book than a bottle. But Madame Moreau had a smile on her face, and I didn’t want to sour the mood.

“All of a sudden you look sad,” she said.

“Serious, not sad.”

“Serious and sad.”

“Not sad. The bumps don’t hurt.”

I pressed my fork into a piece of poultry.

“What bumps?”

“Life bumps.”

“Life bumps? How did you get them?”

“Don’t want to talk about it.”

 “Then don’t. You’ll write about it one day.”

“I prefer not to.”

That’s when I grabbed my smartphone to change the subject and shot a short video of the dinner table and the Madame. My phone as witness, for one of the greatest atrocities is the death of the witness, a famous nineteenth-century bard, whose name I have forgotten, once wrote. We agreed to see each other again at the Pompidou. She proposed that after our first dinner date, it would be fitting to meet Thursday in front of Charlie Rozen’s An Amazing Feast. My grandmother, too, enjoyed spending time in the kitchen. Stooped over the counter, she would ponder how many ice cubes to drop in her drink before taking a swing. And then, right before going to sleep in the chaos of our home, she used to roll her short gray hair in plastic curlers and sleep with them at night. All those little teeth from the curlers digging in her head—it must have been painful, though surely not as excruciating as having my hair yanked for stealing twenty dollars from mother’s handbag.1

Wednesday morning. As I review my diary, it seems as though it was a drowsy day; I spent most of it digesting the previous night’s meal. It was around lunchtime by the time I made it to the library. The lines were long and the food was pitiful in the cafeteria of the immense library. Most people brought sandwiches and other forms of packed lunches, which they ate in the uncomfortable lecture halls. I overheard a researcher complain about the coffee vending machines to a compatriot, that they were at three times the price of the ones at the old Bibliothèque Nationale. I walked through the library’s quiet corridors lined with chairs. Researchers, poets, and not-yet-full-fledged scholars sat on these chairs, and they all had a book on their laps. Those with the biggest seemed to snore the loudest. I sat down next to a bearded man, and after two-and-a-quarter fleeting thoughts, fell asleep. But right before doing so, somewhere between his heavy breathing and the smell of bad coffee, I wondered if I would ever write my haiku.  

Wednesday afternoon. I woke to the sensation of my vibrating phone flashing a message from my wife back home: “Leaving Brooklyn. On my way to Paris. Kiss.” This was followed by an emoji of a giant red heart containing many smaller motley-colored hearts. No smiling dolphins, for some reason, this time. I switched off my phone and returned to my haiku. I wrote three lines, each consisting of 5-7-5 syllables, in the vein of Ichirou Kiyabu. I also made a photocopy of an untitled poem about a fragrant lotus in an old pond. It was nighttime when I left the library. I took the metro back to the hostel, but before calling it a night, I retreated into a café and ordered a cup of tea, thinking of my wife, and how much I missed her.

Thursday. I managed to roll out of bed, less than an hour before my date with Madame Moreau. I washed my armpits in the communal bathroom of the hostel, pulled on a T-shirt and a coat, and ran out. Soon after, I arrived at the Pompidou, that ordered jumble of a glass box dressed in scaffolding and tubes. Every week, Madame Moreau negotiated her way up to the museum’s fifth-floor collection, which is where I saw her. She sat in a wheelchair in front of a Rozen. A pensive smile graced her face, a beautiful portrait, which now had me as its own private audience. I was happy to see her, too, my grandmother-orphan with deep-set eyes, who had lost her parents when still in her fifties. I bent down and gave her a peck on her lips like a red-orange brushstroke. Was it a Rothko? “Touching,” she said. “I’ll keep it. I don’t want it to evanesce like everything.” We then stared at the painting for almost five minutes—a record for me. And I walked away with a number of facts about this most amazing artist-cook named Charlie Rozen.

It may interest the reader to learn that there is more than an ounce of Rozen in me. An Amazing Meal was the result of a collaborative effort, not unlike my lingering, lumbering haiku. In 1963, Rozen cooked in a Monmartre gallery called Post Fauve in the company of friends, artists, and critics. The dishes were then served to the invited guests by famous French critics, which seems to me a particularly sensible way to garner positive reviews. After consuming their dinner, the guests were asked to glue their utensils to the table. “So who is the real artist? The art critics, Rozen, or the collective of guests?” I wanted to ask. I should have. But I looked at my phone instead, which now had me as its own private audience.

In truth, I admired this painting so much. Unlike a book with uneven parts, one either loves a painting or hates it at first glance. And unlike writing, where I find myself grappling with the idea of harnessing chaos, Rozen’s work seems so painlessly random and unbound. I know what you’re thinking: that there is no such thing as randomness; that every stroke, even a Surrealist one, is deliberate. It was with this accidental idea, not unlike our momentous first meeting, that I pushed Madame Moreau’s wheelchair into the elevator. Up we went to the museum’s rooftop with a flock of hungry tourists. It is true that I, too, find museums ravenous work, and so we sat in a restaurant next to a window overlooking the panorama that was Paris.

“So much culture below us,” said a worn-out visitor sitting at the table next to us. “I mean it’s huge. Un-fucking-believable. I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.” His gaunt girlfriend, whose platinum hair looked like a cheap version of Warhol’s, concurred about the culture below them. “I know, and don’t you love this modern stuff more than the Mona Lisa? Just take it in,” she said, and sank her spoon into a velvety red something. I reconfigured my phone and Madame Moreau ordered raw meat. During lunch, I shared news of my wife’s imminent arrival and how much she hated beef in all its incarnations.

“And what about animal cracker cookies, are they allowed?” Madame Moreau then invited us to dinner. After lunch, she complained about a sharp pain in her feet. I decided to give her a treat. I went down on my knees and removed her shoes, to the dismay of the restaurant staff. I held her tender legs and kneaded her feet. “Infinitely more divine than my therapist,” she said. “Squeeze a little harder.” As I held her limbs and rubbed her mottled shins, my Sturm und Drang showed signs of life. She placed her hands on my head and let out a sigh. “Ooh, ahh,” she said. “Don’t stop now.” I wasn’t planning to, Madame.

Friday. I bought a butterfly for the Madame. This should have sufficed as an adequate thank-you for her hospitality, but I never know when to stop. So I walked along the canal and sat down at Les Douze Coups. There wasn’t a whole lot to do. I ordered a cup of bitter tea and pulled out my notebook to work on my haiku. Was it Mom’s heavy hand, or the cumulative carcasses of all the writers and poets I had read, that nearly crushed me? At such difficult times, when the past reasserts itself, and their humiliations are too great for me to bear, I morph into a monster, an unrepentant hydra capable of growing a new head for each one that is chopped off. Cut off Ginsberg, and I shall grow a Gibran. Decapitate Gibran, and I shall sprout a Gogol. And smack, poke, and pinch my nose, dear mother, and I shall blow through 10,000 nostrils.

I stared at my notebook, hoping to write a poem for the Madame. The words resisted at first, but then I consulted my copy of the poem about the fragrant lotus in the old pond and transcribed a verse, and three lines later, I resurrected a metaphor, word for word. I was certain that Madame Moreau would fall in love with the water lily in the old pond. Writing has never been easy for me. It is difficult work. Each word that I borrow is a privilege of my sorrow.

Later that afternoon. According to my diary entry, I took the metro to the canal, walked into a bar and ordered a cup of Lipton tea. I wasn’t exactly drunk when I went up to Madame Moreau’s apartment. She opened the door dressed in a bathroom robe. “I’m about to take a shower,” she said. “Make yourself at home. There is expensive pizza on the kitchen counter if you like Corsican cheese.” I took out my poem and made a small correction. A waft of steam followed her when she stepped out of the bathroom, and my Sturm und Drang emerged from its shell.

“How are you feeling, Madame Moreau?”

“Excited. My feet just need a little rubbing, and please call me Céline.”

Friday night. I woke up an hour later in the warm mist of Céline’s snore. I went to the living room looking for my backpack. My poem was handwritten in a notebook I had bought from an Afghan merchant along the canal. I carefully opened the notebook to our haiku. I say our in deference to the forgotten poet, for he provided much of the inspiration for my gift. I placed the notebook and the butterfly on the kitchen counter, being careful not to wake up Céline. I wrote her a thank-you note, and left the apartment to pick up my wife from the airport. That night, my wife and I cuddled in the hostel bed as I recounted most of the events of the week. Above us hung a peeling poster of a Pollock, and above him in the damp room, a leaky pipe and its measured dribbles. “This feels very much like our apartment back home,” I said. “Except our wall has a peeling poster of a Kandinksy.”

“You mean Kandinsky,” she said, and fell asleep.

Saturday morning. My wife rolled out of bed, put on her sneakers, and forced me out of my sleep. The entry in my diary is faded and difficult to read here, but I remember we strolled along the canal, past a smiling mob of white teeth. We sat at a café and I told my wife about the haiku I had written for Madame Moreau. Though my wife has yet to see my poem-in-progress, she was certain that Madame Moreau would rightly recognize my burgeoning talents. After a cup of mint tea, we rented bicycles and rode to the Pompidou. We made our way to the permanent collection and stood in front of the painting. “Here is where I came to her rescue,” I said. We held one another’s hand, comme les amants des temps perdus. By the time we left, it was almost dinnertime.

Saturday night. We arrived at her apartment with a box of cheap chocolates, the kind struggling graduate students buy. We drank a toast to a forgotten troubadour and one to the Madame. I remember raising my porcelain teacup and reciting a text I had read somewhere: “If you’re lucky enough to have lived in the company of such a tender and kind-hearted woman as Madame Moreau,” I said, “then wherever you go, for the rest of your life, she will stay with you, for her home is truly a moveable feast.” Our dinner table did not look unlike one of Rozen’s paintings, a mess of colorful dishes and improvisations.

It was two in the morning and our host was tired. “The metro has shut down,” she said. “I’m about to fall asleep, if you’ll excuse me, but you’re more than welcome to spend the night.” We gratefully accepted. At this time, for some unknown reason, my journal entry switches from blue to red ink. I was in the kitchen with a stack of dirty plates when Madame Moreau walked in with a cane in one hand and my poem in the other. She asked to have a word with me before retreating to her bedroom. I should have grabbed her cane and engaged in an act of self-hatred, the way they spanked me for not finding my shoes.

“You’re guilty,” she said.

“Of what?”

“Of plagiarism.” She waved my haiku in the air like a jury handing down a verdict. “I’ve read him and you’re definitely not him.”

“Who are you talking about? Read who?”

“The poem you gave me, the fragrant lotus, we had to learn it by heart in school. I read it in my teens.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“Do what? We’re leaving in a few days, anyway.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said.

“But it does, and no need to accuse me.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

But it did, and now I write this with more than an ounce of regret. My diary says that Madame Moreau walked to her bedroom, and we retreated to the adjacent guestroom. “Are you sure it’s okay to do it here?” my wife asked, touching my Sturm und Drang, and we did, with the door left open, and one moan followed another, and I wondered if Madame Moreau had heard what must have sounded like a whooping whale call, except that it wasn’t the “fire in my groin groaning, and it wasn’t a whale call either, I swear it, but a billowing wail expanding in the pregnant darkness, across the wall of butterflies and the other rooms of the apartment; a wet lament that startled my wife as she clamped down her hand over my face in panic,” according to the penultimate entry in my diary. I held my breath for a moment, wiped the tears off my face, and exhaled.

Sunday morning. We fell asleep nearly two hours later. It must have been four in the morning when I heard her crying in her bedroom. I’m sorry, Madame Moreau. When we woke up, there was no one else in the apartment and she had left a note for us on the counter. Madame had an appointment, it said, reminding us to shut the door firmly behind us after leaving, preferably sooner rather than later. Next to the note was the fragrant lotus in the old pond. I picked it up and confessed to my wife that I wanted to rework the ending after our return to Brooklyn. “Why don’t you email it to her? Unless she’s super-special and you want to buy stamps.” My wife put the kettle on the stove and I toasted bread. We wondered when Madame would return.

“Let’s go out,” my wife said. “There is a Rauschenberg exhibition at Beaubourg.”

“We’re in Paris,” I said. “Why do you want to see more New York painters?”

“Let’s just go before the long lines,” she said.

“You know, I’ve never told you this, but my mom never took me to a museum when

I was little.”

“Which is why we should go to one today.”

“I’ve been thinking about that day my class went to the modern art museum,” I said. “I had to stay home. It was so humiliating.”

“Why would she do that?”

“I don’t know. It must have been because she didn’t have the money to buy the ticket. That’s what she said.”

“Well, I’m inviting you today,” she said, and kissed me.

My last journal entry says how much I admired the wall of butterflies. I stood across from them and listened, just as Céline had, but could not hear anything. All I could hear were Mother’s taunts from another time.


The author would like to acknowledge the reference to Kelly O’Brien’s public post about her grandmother’s curlers’ digging into her head.