by Sarah Russell
It was 1963, and at age 19, I felt like the original American in Paris—cafés echoing Hemingway and Fitzgerald, dapper Frenchmen to flirt with, and classes at the Sorbonne when I remembered to go. I was living La Bohème on the Left Bank in a one bedroom, fifth floor walk-up I found with Helen, another American stray from Redlands, California.
These were not the plush digs of the 16th Arrondissement. The place had no hot water and little heat, but we kept reasonably warm if we wore sweaters now that November winds rattled the windows. We shared a toilet in the hall with seven other people who lived on our floor, and I showered once a week down the street at the public baths. I stepped over winos to visit the corner crêperie at midnight when I studied late and ignored the whispered obscenities of vagrants who followed me home. After I opened the heavy outer doors and crossed the deserted courtyard, I would yell up the stairs and hope someone would turn on the hall light to guide me to the top floor. The light only stayed on for two minutes, so I always arrived breathless, often stumbling up the last flight in the dark.
Helen and I had a quid pro quo with two American guys who lived on our floor. We cooked and cleaned for them; they bought the groceries. We ate dinner together if we didn’t have dates, and on the 22nd, Mike from Tucson had just asked me to pass the bread when Peter from Detroit told us to shush as the words “blood on Jackie’s clothes” and “Dallas motorcade” came over the radio and into our consciousness. We sat stunned as the BBC announcer said the president had been taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital; they were operating; there had been a sniper. A short time later the sonorous, very proper British voice intoned, “I am sorry to inform the world that president Kennedy is dead.” Then, incredibly, he added, “And now, I believe we should all take a moment to compose ourselves.” And with that, the BBC went off the air.
Broadcasting resumed twenty minutes later, with moving tributes by members of Parliament and other dignitaries. The four of us stared at one another in grief, anger, denial. It was incomprehensible that this could happen. Not in America. Not to our president.
The next day on my way to the Sorbonne, the flags on government buildings flew at half-staff, and the buses had one French and one American flag in their brackets. I thought I looked like a native after six months in Paris, but apparently that was not the case since total strangers stopped me to say how sorry they were, as if I had lost a member of my family.
And, of course, I had.
Sarah Russell is in metaphor rehab after spending a career teaching, writing, and editing academic prose. Her short fiction and poems have appeared in print and online venues including Kentucky Review, Red River Review, Misfit Magazine, Everyday Fiction, and Shot Glass Journal among many others. Follow her work at www.SarahRussellPoetry.com.