Gift

I will rewrite the chapter on the heart.

I might simply rewrite the chapter on the heart in this anatomy text book my friend and college roommate Elizabeth gave me.

My move to France began with some lost luggage, and the airport baggage claim attendant being mildly impressed that I spoke French, which I interpreted as racist. I continued on to my final destination, a school in a remote village in the north, where a principal told me he was surprised to see someone who looked like me show up to teach English, as he was expecting, “you know…Baywatch.” I couldn’t disagree. What the fuck was I doing here, indeed. But it worked out, in that the worst thing I was called by students was merely che-lou, a slang pig-latin of the word louche

I lived in a town outside of the village where I worked, because the village was frankly, too small for words. In the marginally more populous town, I started frequenting a cafe in the center square. It was the only one young people went to, though the drink menu was the same as that of any other cafe on the plaza. I fell immediately in love with the manager? Server? Owner? A guy named Jerome. He and Yannick were always behind the bar. God. Jerome was like an ad for “hot French men” the likes you hear about in movies but immediate spoiler alert: I said nothing, nothing happened. I was just attracted to him physically and that was kind of all the reason I needed to go anywhere at that point in my life. 

I learned a lot while I was at the cafe, though. My job didn’t require much of me, and for at least the first few weeks, I had nothing to do in the morning but drink several espressos and learn about the locals. One of their regulars started talking to me after a couple months. Nic. He asked if I liked Nick Cave. I very much didn’t, but to be polite I said yes. Nic-not-Cave told me I should read Nick Cave’s novels. I politely said yes again. I really must emphasize how very much I did not like Nick Cave, or more precisely, how much I feared his fans when I was in college. But Nic suggested I might learn more French if I read something in translation, rather than Zola’s Nana, which I had been reading at the time he chatted me up because I was (am) a pretentious asshole. He didn’t think Zola would prepare me for advanced conversational French.

The next time I saw Nic, he gave me a copy of Cave novel, translated into French. No, I don’t remember the title. He started to hand me the book when he yanked it back as he had a second thought. You know what, let me sign it so you know it’s from me, he said. He then opened the book to the copyright page and inscribed something about birds and left a flamboyant signature in it. I politely accepted it and said that was really nice of him. After he left, Jerome joked that I basically had to date Nic now. I had to absentee the cafe for weeks to avoid this.

I share this story with so much regret. Not because nothing happened with Nic of course. I mean the regulars were all toads. But my regret is in accepting gifts I do not want. I regret that the only way I know to reject this is by accepting it and disappearing. I regret to have to tell you that these are nice attachments but that I will relish in none of them. I regret that when I reorganize my luggage these will be the first things I throw away. We all say that nothing but consent is consent, but I regret to inform you that all gestures are consent. Between flirting and gaslighting and sexual mores, all gestures are consent. For women.

All I wanted was to tell Nic that only an asshole would sign a book they didn’t contribute to, and only an asshole would want to talk about Nick Cave in translation, to me. No that would be rude. Instead I amassed a collection of gifts.

I might just rewrite the chapter on the heart in this anatomy text book Elizabeth used to get her credentials as a registered nurse. She is another person who has been flooded with gifts.

What’s the most unbelievable gift you’ve received from me? Are you politely accepting what you do not want? Would you want it to be something I’d rewritten from a text you understood?

Would that I could figure out what I want.

Many years after France, I had a neighbor in New York who happened to have been a friend. He gave me gifts. Ones I should have refused, by volume. He didn’t like my friends, which shouldn’t have mattered. He complained about my lifestyle, which shouldn’t have mattered. He complained that I took him for granted, and wrote long emails explaining what I’d done to hurt him though we had no sort of relationship besides a shared address. But after all, hadn’t he given me all these gifts? When I told him his behavior was scaring me, that it was inappropriate, and that he needed to stop contacting me, he went ballistic—*I* scare *you*? What do you think I’m going to do? You think I’m scary? What the fuck do you think I am going to do to you?!—and then I never went back to that apartment again. I hired people to move my belongings into storage and convinced my landlord to let me cut my lease. I described the ordeal as a mild case of stalking, but while no one was surprised by his behavior, no one disavowed him for it either, leading me to occasionally wonder even now if this is a conflict I can still resolve. But I never asked for these gifts, and I would sooner be perceived as an asshole for refusing to privilege his generosity than to live in that kind of fear again. I would interpret his behavior now as deranged and sexist.

Everything is consent when you’re a woman who wants things and yet I do not know how to ask for what I do want, in words outside the disdainful clichés of sentimentality or emotional excess. Funny that I don’t like Nick Cave then. The gifts keep coming but I can’t afford not to be a woman of desires. I still need to tell you what I want.

I might simply rewrite the chapter on the heart in this text book on anatomy that Elizabeth gave me. A gift I asked for.