The Empty Space in Front of Your Hand

Originally published in Green Mountains Review

Michel was an old and charming man as only an old and charming painter in a Parisian atelier can be. He was our neighbor. Whenever we ran into each other in the courtyard and spoke, I let him touch my hands and in the summer even my bare shoulders. This was a huge thing for me, although I didn’t know at the time whether it meant a compromise or a victory. Michel was also my second novel.

Do we live inside a prewritten reality?

When I first moved to Paris from The Netherlands to study Descartes’ Discours de la Méthode at the Sorbonne, I met a young man (not Michel) who lived on rue Descartes. I didn’t meet him there, though. I met him inside the apartment I shared with an English girl. The girl and I both had plans to move out soon and the man, an American, had come to see whether he wanted to move in once the apartment would be available. He was sitting on my couch when I returned from the library, annotated Descartes under my arm like a baguette.

That’s her, my roommate said.

Earlier, in my absence, she had shown the man the whole apartment, including my room. My walls were hung with about twenty pictures of friends and family. I was only in one of the pictures and the American had apparently pointed me out and said, I need to meet that girl.

He had waited for me to return and now that he saw me in the flesh, he wanted to have a drink with me. I, however, felt ambushed and wanted to study cogito ergo sum.

The name of my street was rue Dante, by the way, and I’m not making any of this up.

He was Monsieur A. to us at first, then became Michel until I named him Lucien in my book and I got confused. He didn’t mind being made into a character, he said, but he didn’t like the name. I should have consulted him first. I objected. An artist is free to use reality anyway she sees fit. Oui, oui, he said, pinching my arm, yet he was free to dislike his character’s name.

Why are we afraid when something inexplicable happens? Because we’re no longer protected by causality? Because, from that moment on, anything goes? It would explain why we don’t accept the inexplicable and keep looking for a cause. I, at least, decline to live by non-sequiturs. My ignorance makes me vulnerable

Michel’s atelier was dirty and dusty, full of paintings wrapped in brown paper, leaning every which way against the walls and each other. There was a small sink with running water, but no kitchen to speak of and no bathroom, not even a toilet. Michel used the communal toilet next to the mailboxes, which was his private toilet, really, because none of the other neighbors used it anymore.

The ten ateliers around our courtyard had been built to accommodate the artists and artisans who flocked to Paris to work on the World Exhibition of 1889. Whenever we want to impress our visitors (my husband and I still live there), we say our place is spiritually and historically in synch with the Eiffel Tower. We’re not lying.

After the World Exhibition, the artists stayed in their ateliers and at some point (I’m unsure as to the when and the why of this event) the French government gifted the studios to the artists who occupied them. Later, their children inherited the ateliers and turned them into apartments with bathrooms and kitchens and more. By the time my husband and I moved into our particular one, at the turn of the twenty-first century, Parisian ateliers were extremely sought after, especially by non-artists, and it would take a lot of words to explain how we managed to call one our home. I can also keep it short: luck.

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