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Issue 67, January-March  2015
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
Prime Decimals 67.3


Martha Clarkson
What I Know About You, What You Know About Me

Daniel Hudon
Night Trains

What I Know About You, What You Know About Me
by Martha Clarkson


Brittney Scott
To the Teeth

Don Raymond
Darwin's Angel
To the Teeth
by Brittney Scott

Darwin's Angel
by Don Raymond

There is another world, not far
from this one, where some four-odd
centuries ago he sat, watching apples fall, 
and wrote that all things moved 
by love's inverse square,
desire multiplied by will (as well as a constant)  
and once acted upon, may act upon another, 
through vector fields of contagion - 
what is touched remains touched, 
a piece of the thing is the thing itself:
the First Law of the Principia Thaumaturgica.
Some of this is known, even in our world. 
Quantum echoes of all the myriad ways,
vestigial memories in Victorian folios full
of water horses and boilerplate rhinos; 
misunderstood monstrosities, it was said, still lurked
in the hidden corners of the globe,
where the sun never set, water flowed uphill, 
and women gave birth to lizards, whose basilisk glares 
filled gardens with frozen astonishment and bliss.

But Darwin, bound by gravity,
knew effects must follow causes
fortunately for us. Seeking some primal germ,
boarded the Beagle with his nets, bottles
obsessive interest in earthworms and barnacles:
workaday miracles more subtle than the ones she loved - 
Permutation's angel, on Plymouth's shore
swam ahead, warning the sea monsters 
to dive deep, seek the silver line 
where this world blurred into that one.
Where no one thought twice about patchwork monsters 
or how they came to be: half lion, 
part horse, a piece of something else.
It was obvious, the mathematics simple
beaks breaking through cardioid shells of stone, 
hatching in moonlight; no need of a mammal's inner ocean.  
The legendariums emptied 
with every island he touched, the blank spaces filled.
As the kobolds crept deeper 
into mountains made mythical, a home
where the catoblepas could finally
raise its head without fear.

Darwin, it is said, dreamed of her
and smiled, as if he knew
and agreed to set aside a place,
a home for unicorns and sirens, where mandrake fields 
dreamed beneath a goblin moon.
But not this world.
Whose wounds wept for penicillin,
where the plague that plagued the rat, too small to see, 
rewrote the map.
There was room, between a scribbled note about earthworms
and this drawing of a finch's beak, for mystery.  
He took his time when he opened his eyes
lest some camelopard be late in fleeing.
The dragons, stubborn, shed their wings
and swam like hell for Komodo,
while in Australia, the platypus
still worried its poison thumb.

Don Raymond lives in the tiny hamlet of Alturas, CA, where he works as an accountant at the local casino, which is not a career path his counselors had ever mentioned to him. He spends his free time mediating the Machiavellian feline politics of his household. You can read more of his work at The Saturday Evening Post, Bourbon Penn, and Architrave Press. He also once didn’t make a left turn at Albuquerque.


Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: Like many great works of literature, this piece began with a challenge to use the word “catoblepas” in a poem. I took a great deal of inspiration from Sarah Lindsay’s “Elegy for the Quagga” in Twigs & Knucklebones, as well as David Quammen’s The Boilerplate Rhino.  

Benny and I work the customer service counter at Sears and Benny’s saving me; keeps me from my attraction to the bottle. Because of Benny, the thousands my parents invested for my stay at Hilltop House are safe so far.

He’s worked here for six months and me just a month. It’s not an easy job behind that catch-all counter – layaways, taking in broken chainsaws, finding parts for dryers, sorting out revolving charge card bills, wrapping gifts where we have to make our own bows. Returns are a big deal – we get all the ones without receipts, which are mostly people with stuff that’s either used or from Target.

The customers love Benny because he tells jokes. “Two hats are on a hat rack,” he tells Tony, the old man with dyed red hair who tried to return a ten-year-old pan and now just comes back to shoot the breeze with Benny.

“Keep it clean, Benster,” Gloria says as she passes behind him. She’s our gum-chewing supervisor. He always does but she always says it.

“Hat #1 says to Hat #2, ‘you stay here, I’ll go on a head.’” Tony’s got a great cackle you can hear all the way down in sporting goods.

His other fan is Sylvia, who also has dyed red hair and is old. She comes down to return things even with the receipt, but I think it’s just because of Benny. She lost a son in Vietnam and Benny would be about his age. Once he told her the joke about the football coach kicking the broken vending machine and shouting “I want my quarter back!” and she laughed until she cried, but later we found out her kid was a football star too.

Benny and I work the same shift and he drives me home every night. I don’t have my license back yet. We eat dinner in my tiny apartment, because he’s afraid I’ll go to the store for beer or worse. When I’m alone, there’s nothing like the draw of the 7-11 on the corner. We’ve had sex a few times, but it’s not like we’re a couple. “A coupla whats?” would be Benny’s answer to that. I figure the sex is just something I need to give him for all he’s doing for me. I really don’t think about a drop of liquor when he’s around. The other day he brought me a new blender (though it didn’t have a box) because he’s got me addicted to smoothies. I really do love him.

Benny’s trying to get transferred to jewelry. “Don’t worry, I’ll still be here in the store,” he tells me. “I need something different. I want to sell something.” The transfer is taking longer than he wants and Gloria refuses to update him.

Monday morning we had a young woman with cat-eye glasses return a man’s fancy shirt, we took in two broken chainsaws, and a non-whacking weed-whacker, ordered a new pump for a washer, and wrapped a baseball bat that took forever to get looking decent.  

Benny was off in the afternoon because he had to go to the dentist and take his mom to the oncologist, but Tuesday he’s back. He’s wearing a new shirt that looks awfully similar to the one Cat-Eyes returned. Gloria admires the shirt but doesn’t make the connection, thankfully, because I can’t stand it if Benny gets fired. There are temptations upstairs in jewelry and at the corner store.

Martha Clarkson manages corporate workplace design in Seattle. Her poetry, photography, and fiction can be found in monkeybicycle, Clackamas Literary Review, Seattle Review, Alimentum, elimae. She is a recipient of a Washington State Poets William Stafford prize 2005, a Pushcart Nomination, and is listed under “Notable Stories,” Best American Non-Required Reading for 2007 and 2009. She is recipient of best short story, 2012, Anderbo/Open City prize, for “Her Voices, Her Room.”


Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 
A: How much it was about someone I knew and how much it wasn’t.

Available now: Prime Number Magazine, Editor Selections, Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4Learn more...

Catherine Campbell
Before and After

Why Paris?
Patty Smith

I was born, a brontosaurus sister,
with no incisors. They never formed in utero, 
a defect, crooked
smile left of the nose, my turtle chin sucking
overbite back into the throat. 
It could be I was forgotten, 
displaced, in those crucial weeks,
for my already born brother
perfect and insane. 


Stored in a wooden box 
my rotten ectopic teeth 
filled a painful silver,
smelled like a hollow cave. A constant 
rattle to childhood memory, 
She’d be so lovely if she fixed her teeth. 
At month’s end there was no money for the soft spoken 
and I have the furthest thing from fangs.  


In reoccurring dreams, my palm is a bowl of teeth,
mouth without means to receive 
some important message.  
A robed African woman 
climbs the hill to my door,
two men at each elbow, 
it is snowing silently all around them.
This has no footprints, 
only homecoming and departure.


Mouth also means entry, 
a doorway to a long velvet hall. 
Tusks are elongated incisors, 
so necessary for social exchange, 
dominance, protection, 
tools for digging if nothing else. 
I am a sonata played underwater, 
the notes float to the surface, 
muted and dissonant.


On a lover’s neck, my bite marks form 
an imperfect ring, a gate that lets 
the dog out, rabbit in to eat 
everything delicious in the garden 
so there’s nothing left for dinner. 


Chinese folk lore warns of teeth
falling out in dreams,
a foreshadowing of death. That, 
or your jaw-deep wisdom 
teeth are missing. Mine came in, 
room or not, like old plateaus, 
and the wind keeps coming, the sun 
sets over the colored dust, the sun sets 
but nothing's forgotten. 


Kentucky fields pushed their history skyward, 
arrowheads breaking the surface. 
My brother and I parted the bluegrass
for gnawed stone, judo and bodkin points
sticking up through the fleshy soil. 


Dust coated the open nerve
where my front teeth were knocked,
hit in the mouth by a chain  
my brother swirled around him 
like something coming into fruition. 
I gummed a spoon of mud. Blood 
a collection of circles in the dry dirt, 
cells multiplying in the fever, 
my teeth nowhere.

Brittney Scott received her MFA from Hollins University. She is a recipient of the Joy Harjo Prize for Poetry as well as the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best New Poets 2014, Prairie Schooner, The New Republic, Narrative Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, North American Review, Crab Orchard Review, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. Her fiction has appeared in Quarter After Eight. She teaches creative writing at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond.


Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: “To the Teeth” was written out of obsession, insecurity, and pride. The teeth, and all their manifestations in this poem, are mine. I have bad teeth. I own them. 

Before and After
Catherine Campbell
followed by Q&A

I was able to give my seven year-old son a new hand today. A prosthesis fashioned in the basement of an orthopedic appliance clinic, a place that smelled harsh like cleaning solutions that can strip a table. The prosthesis is made from the same materials they use to build spaceships at NASA, the prosthetist told us, winking at my son. My son just shrugged the shoulder he was born with and the harness automatically closed his new hard, plastic fingers. 

Tonight, after he went to bed—the hand hanging on a hook near his pillow—I sat with a bottle of wine. It had been a hard workweek and now it was Friday and everything would be okay. The weekend revives us, we tell ourselves. All it takes is two days. 

I started thinking about the hundreds of soldiers in the Iraq War who returned home without pieces of their bodies. Arms, legs, fingers, feet. In the absence of these: strange angles. Stitches like railroads. And other anomalies...the stuff you can't see, the stuff that happens inside a person. Their sacrifices directly created this push for research, money, and focus so that by the time my son was born he could access his own opportunity to feel like a whole person. I felt damn lucky and grateful to be on this journey with him, and at the same time I couldn't help but acknowledge all that loss that came before us, the unbearable pain experienced by other men and women, just so that my son could one day tie his shoes on his own, or feel the exhilaration of racing downhill on a bicycle. Maybe the space shuttle program would be funded once again and he could be an astronaut. 

After a forest is wiped out by fire, the little epilobium angustifolium—waiting underground for years—will shoot up and bloom. Purple and red flowers. It is a sight to behold, they say. It spreads across the singed earth, locking roots and binding the soil. It revives the idea of the living. Although it cannot replicate exactly what we held, it is a beauty and a hope we need; we watch as it spreads uncontrollably. 

Catherine Campbell's work appears in Atticus Review, Arcadia, Ploughshares online, Drunken Boat, Pank, Fwriction Review and elsewhere. She is a Masters Review finalist and Pushcart nominee.


Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 

A: I had no idea where I was going with this. All my little essays begin as wanderings and streams of consciousness. Then I came across this article on forest regrowth and regeneration, which tied my entire piece together without even trying to. A new layer of comprehension was suddenly there. By looking outward we often find the answers inside of us. 

Night Trains
by Daniel Hudon

Two trains cross in the middle of the night; one is going nowhere and the other is heading in the opposite direction. Inside the cars, the passengers doze with dreams about being on the wrong train or missing the station. Those who are awake, and there are many of them, try to read, stare straight ahead or watch the lights flash by out the window. In the sudden streak of sound, they wonder who is traveling with such urgency. 

Among them, the living mingle with the dead for they each have forgotten when they boarded, where they are going, how long they have been on the train. When asked, the conductor always says the same thing: We’ll be arriving on schedule. Some have been traveling for ages, through as many countries as states of mind, and no longer care. They lean forward to get a better look at the train passing outside the window – it’s been so long since they’ve seen one. Near the back of one of the cars, an old pale-faced man with hunched shoulders refuses to look, sure that the other train is full of doppelgangers. 

Above, bright enough to obliterate the stars, the moon shines down on the snow-covered ground, casting a silver light that few passengers notice. In the meadows, in the forests, nothing is seen to move, and one could think that time had frozen if not for the other train eclipsing the view. 

Momentarily jostled from their reveries by the commotion at the window, many passengers return to the hope, however slight, that if they ever arrive, someone will be waiting at the station. 

Daniel Hudon, originally from Canada, is an adjunct lecturer in astronomy, math, physics and writing in Boston, MA. He has recent work appearing in Atlas and Alice, l’Allure des Mots, Feathertale, the Little Patuxent Review, Clarion and Riprap. He is working on a book of stories about recently extinct species. He lives in Boston, MA. 


Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 
A: In trains, one often doesn’t feel the motion, so it’s usually a great surprise to me when another train passes in the window. I guess the surprise to me was that I could write a whole piece around this “sudden streak of sound”. 

Why Paris?
Patty Smith
followed by Q&A

The question seems silly, obvious even. As if there needs to be a reason, something beyond the picture-postcard beauty of it all--the white stone buildings, the river, the flying buttresses. So maybe that's not the question at all. Maybe the question is how and how in the world? The truth is, it might not have been Paris, but that's where I went. And I had to go somewhere. This was a truth I knew instinctively from the time I was small. Going was what I did--what I learned to do well--a legacy I inherited. 


On warm spring nights when I was nine, my grandfather sat in a round, wicker chair on our screened-in porch or piazza as he called it and quizzed me on state capitals. The air hummed and smelled of sweet cut grass and lilacs, perfumed and damp. My grandfather lit his pipe. "Rhode Island?" he asked. My mother's father, he must have been in his seventies then, a sturdy man with thin white hair worn well off his forehead.  

"Providence," I said. That was too easy, a warm-up question. Rhode Island's domed capitol building hovered right outside the car window on Route 95 when we drove through Providence to my cousins' house in East Greenwich.  

My grandfather tapped one of his sturdy brown shoes in an uneven rhythm, puffed to keep his pipe lit, hummed a few bars of one of his songs. In my grandfather's songs, someone was always "on the spree." I never understood the rest of the words. The songs sounded the same to me, quips and whispers, little pieces of music, a foreign language. Each song, no matter how it began, ended with the drawn out words "And now he's on the spree," a finality in my grandfather's high-pitched wavering voice. I assumed the songs, like my grandfather, were Irish. He puffed on his pipe, threads of white hair soft across the top of the mottled skin of his head. "North Carolina?" he asked. Pipe smoke spiraled upward, lingered in the air above us, thin stretched-out clouds, the porch with an atmosphere all its own.

"Raleigh!" I said, triumphant. For social studies, I needed to memorize all the state capitals. I was good at New England, pretty good at the South. I got mixed up with those states in the middle and the ones out West, the places I couldn't yet picture. In fourth grade, we also learned about the Westward Movement, and my view of any state beyond the Mississippi included covered wagons, cowboys and Indians, log cabins and saloons, images reinforced by episodes of Gunsmoke and The Big Valley.

My grandfather's sucking sounds mixed with the crickets outside and the crack of aluminum bats and baseballs from the fields up the way. He kept one hand planted on the knee of his workman's blue chinos, and with the other, he held his pipe. Curled in a matching wicker chair, I wanted to ask him about his songs, but I never did. They sounded like laments, as if going on the spree was a terrible sadness or burden. I knew only about shopping sprees, which I associated with wild abandon. Every Christmas season, the Sears Wish Book arrived, and I lost myself in its glossy pages, circling everything that caught my fancy in spite of my mother's warning that money was tight and not to expect much. The Wish Book allowed me to dream of all the possibilities, all the girls I might become. There were kits: Make-Your-Own-Camera. Candles. Weather stations. And the dolls—the ballerina who danced when you pushed a button in her crown; the life-like babies; all the Barbies and their accessories. If I could actually go on a shopping spree and buy it all, I didn't see how that could be bad. But the way my grandfather sang his songs, being on the spree was a curse, like the Wandering Jew, condemned to walk the earth for all eternity.

At nine, I would have been all for both seeing the world and living forever. I would have settled for visiting state capitals, cities with exotic names like Baton Rouge or Pierre. Was it during that time of warm spring nights and baseball games that I started to imagine French-speaking places? Did Paris begin to form itself then, puzzle piece by puzzle piece, as I watched my grandfather smoke his pipe and I gave him capital after capital, the French ones like crème-filled bon bons melting on my tongue? Or was Paris always there, the idea of it floating in my blood, ancestral DNA shared through the generations? My father's maternal grandmother had a French-sounding last name—Ronayne. From County Cork, Ireland, she might have shared roots with Celts in Brittany, might have emigrated from the coast of France to the coast of Ireland. It was an idea my Irish-American self wanted to believe, a story that I told myself in order to justify the idea of going, the need to get myself, first, at least, to France. 

And so, two years later, when we sixth graders were introduced to French, I took to it like a natural, soaking up vocabulary, conjugating verbs. I was hungry for more, writing stories in French, substituting English words for the ones I didn't yet know, desperate for the attention of Mademoiselle who sauntered into our classroom with an air of elegance, her black cape swirling, an emphatic statement: I am not from here.


Not far from the Palais Royal, off the Rue Richelieu, a tiny bar called La Champmeslé sits tucked in the 2nd arrondisement of Paris. From the street, you entered the front room of the Champmeslé, windowed and dimly lit. You passed the bar on the right side and one row of square tables along the opposite wall. In the back room, longer tables and banquettes lined the perimeter, paisley Indian fabric covering the cushions and pillows tossed at uneven intervals. Thick white candles burned at each table, dribbling wax onto fat stone candleholders. No men were allowed in the back room, and tourists—older married couples –sometimes wandered into the Champmeslé thinking they had discovered a quiet neighborhood bistro.  

But the Champmeslé was a lesbian hangout.

From behind the bar, Josy reigned as owner and den mother, bartender and boss. Emmanuelle and Sylvie waited tables. For me, fresh out of college in my early twenties, they were the main attraction. I had a crush on Sylvie and I'm pretty sure she knew it. Emmanuelle did. She always whispered to me about Sylvie, about how I should call her, about how cute Sylvie thought I was—schoolgirl stuff, which I loved. Both Emmanuelle and Sylvie were big flirts, especially Emmanuelle with her wide brown eyes and dark, elfin hair. She bounced from table to table, sometimes sitting next to the customers, elegant French women who didn't look like any American lesbians I knew. 

Truthfully, I didn't know many lesbians yet, American or otherwise. I had my idea of what they looked like based on the ones I did know and my one college experience at a gay bar in Hartford, Connecticut. I didn't know yet if I was a lesbian or not, though I was aware of my crushes on other girls and had felt both an excitement and a sense of belonging in that bar in Hartford. I liked the idea of being gay, liked the idea of being "woman-identified," a "woman-loving woman." On the campus of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, I had learned about feminism and the cult of domesticity. Liberation theology. Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. I liked the idea of sharing my life with a woman and not with a man, but about my own sexual identity, I remained woefully unaware.

My few sexual experiences up until then had been of the fling variety, all with men. I couldn't figure out whether men were actually interested in me or in having sex with me or in having sex period. I couldn't separate those things. Did men want to sleep with me because they thought they could, or did they really want to have sex with me? I thought men couldn't possibly be interested in me; as far as I could tell, men were only interested if you were attractive in that French woman sort of way. My end of things didn't concern me much, whether or not I wanted to sleep with them. Throughout my four years of college, I could not figure how intimate relationships seemed to work. 

Though I spent an average of two nights a week at the Champmeslé during the two post-college years I lived in Paris, and though I developed a camaraderie, even a sort of friendship with both Emmanuelle and Sylvie, I was never entirely comfortable at the Champmeslé. I remained an outsider, a fact made clear by the few conversations I ever had with any of the French customers. I was clearly American. You can spot an American a mile away in Paris, a fact I was always trying to deny by wearing scarves or sweaters the way French women did, tossed casually across their backs or looped around their necks. My attempts looked ridiculous and I had to settle for my own non-sense of fashion, my own clunky self, too big to be graceful in tight Parisian spaces, in cafés or on the métro or at small round tables in the back room of the Champmeslé.  

One night a tall, sleek French woman leaned over from the next table, her red lipsticked mouth a sneer: "You prefer French women, then, c'est ça?" she said, her voice a tease, a dare. I had no answer, just blushed and drank my beer.

The women in the Champmeslé scared and fascinated me with their short skirts and high heels, their long hair and leather pants, lipstick stuck to the filters of their Gitaines and Gauloises. They seemed confident, all of them, certain of their place in that bar, in the world. I had first frequented the Champmeslé with my American friends Eileen and Stephanie, but even after I'd become a regular, someone Emmanuelle and Sylvie greeted by name, I still had to count to ten before I could bring myself to walk through the door alone.  

I'm not sure what compelled me to bring my mother to the Champmeslé. I'd been living in Paris for about a year and my mother flew over to visit me. 

It's a woman's bar, I told her.

"Oh what a nice idea—a bar for only women," my mother had said.

"Well, except these women will be in couples. They might be kissing," I said. (It would be years before I could say the word gay in front of my mother). 

"Can I wear dark glasses, then?" she said. "So I can stare?" 

I was excited to have my mother visit me in Paris. She had never been to Europe before, and I was eager to take her all around, show her my favorite cafés and the bridges and buildings I loved the most. I wanted to take her to Giverny, to Monet's house, to Versailles, everywhere. I wanted my mother to love France as much as I did, to see what compelled me to come live in Paris after finishing college.

I was living in Paris partly because I didn't know what else to do with my life. I wanted to be a writer. I had a romantic notion of living the expatriate life of writers in the twenties—Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein—and writing The Great American Novel. In Paris, I felt at home in the world for the first time ever. 

It wasn't that I felt exactly wrong at home, either. Not exactly.  

Back in the suburbs, in my grandfather's house-with-a-piazza, we lived on a dead-end street with an unpronounceable Irish name. We were taught to say "Marr." People wanted to call it "Meager." Later, when I visited Ireland, I asked a shopkeeper how he would pronounce M-E-A-G-H-E-R. "Ma-hair," he said.  

The street was quiet. Most of our neighbors were older, retired people. Most of them didn't like it much when we played kickball after supper. For a while, Peggy lived next-door, until she moved when I was eleven. Then a young couple with small children moved in, and another family with two small boys bought a house across the street.

I craved action. I wanted something, anything that would take me out of my ordinary life. I read books. I read mysteries and then all the books in the young adult section of the public library. I had to beg the librarian for an adult card before I was technically old enough to apply for one on my own. In school, I was good at book reports. I made them into plays, recruited classmates to rehearse during recess. Late at night, my mother typed carbon scripts onto onion-skin paper, the typewriter heavy on the edge of the dining room table, lace cloth folded over in half. I always took the leading role, the main character, or protagonist, a word I had to explain to each narrator of my plays. She's the one it's about, I would say, the whole reason the book was written in the first place. I must have imagined these protagonists as real girls who had real lives far more interesting than my own, who solved mysteries in rambling houses perched on cliffs, lived on islands, made friends with boys. They rowed boats or bicycled for miles. They traveled. They were the girls I longed to be, adventurous and daring.

Instead, I was chubby and awkward. I caused fights. My brother, eighteen months older, organized kickball games in the street after supper on spring nights, but he never wanted me to play.

"You always ruin it," he would tell me, and he was right. Each time, I got Peggy to play in the games with me, I would end up in a huff, upset over some unfairness only I could see. Even Peggy wouldn't side with me. I would cause a scene that would bring our mother outside to end the game, and each time, I would promise not to fight again, not to start a scene, but it was as if some hidden force inside took over. I always ended up storming into the house, upset and alone. 

In my mind, I was such a good girl, obedient even. In reality, I was difficult, argumentative, stubborn. I fought with my brother and sister, who teased me about my weight. I bit my nails, a habit my grandfather insisted would keep any nice man from ever marrying me. I had a lot of questions -- about being Catholic and about God, questions that didn't seem to have any answers. What I was good at was school. I was good at using language, writing stories. I was good at reading. And even in those early years, I was good at French. 


My mother wanted to know why I went to the Champmeslé. I think I said, "Because I like it." I still hadn't yet had any relationships with women, though I was more and more certain that I wanted to. I didn't have the courage to see if what Emmanuelle said about Sylvie was true, equally scared to discover what would happen if Sylvie didn't think I was cute or what would happen if she did. If I asked Sylvie out, would I be a lesbian once and for all? Would Sylvie discover that in "real life" I was nothing like the woman she saw in the bar, that I was, in fact, a more boring version of me?

In the most romantic city in the world, I lived alone. I had a few good friends and enjoyed my time with them, but I did the bulk of my living alone. I went to movies and museums by myself. Read books, took long walks, sipped coffee in cafés. On days when the rain puttered rhythmically against the tall casement window of my seventh-floor chambre de bonne, and the normally gray Paris sky seemed hopelessly dark, I did want someone to be with. I wondered what it would feel like to be in a relationship. But most of the time, I was content. I loved my Parisian life.

And yet, while I might have given any number of reasons if asked why I loved this city so much—most of them focused on the architecture, the history, the feel of the city—there were other reasons. Somewhere at the cellular level, I knew this. Didn't I have those long-ago porch sessions with my grandfather, like a tattoo imprinted in my memory? And didn't I also have the echoes of my grandfather's voice reminding me about the spree, infusing my life away from home with a melancholy tinge? 

In her memoir French Lessons, Alice Kaplan describes her experiences at a Swiss boarding school and her joy of learning a second language. French, she said, allowed her to become a wholly different person than the one her family knew back in New Jersey. Kaplan says that people "adopt another culture because there's something in their own they don't like, that doesn't name them." By learning French, I could begin to reinvent myself, much the way, years later, my French students could by re-naming themselves Marie or Suzette or Jean-Paul. In French, I could make myself into somebody interesting and smart. I could be attractive, an intellectual, a less boring version of me. I could be a woman who loved other women. 

It took communicating in a language that wasn't mine to discover my voice and trying on an identity in a foreign land in order to find my home in the world. These are the truths that all these years later I can acknowledge when someone asks me, "Why Paris?"  

Patty Smith has been teaching American Literature and Creative Writing at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School since 2006. Her nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies One Teacher in Ten: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories (Alyson Publications, 1994); Tied in Knots: Funny Stories from the Wedding Day (Seal Press, 2006); Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing, (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009); and the 20th anniversary of One Teacher In Ten (Beacon Press, fall, 2015) and most recently in Broad Street: A New Magazine of True Stories


Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 
A: I have been working on some version of this essay for a while, putting it away and coming back to it over a period of time. I don't think I connected the idea of living in Paris with my sexual orientation/identity until this most recent revision. 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: When I graduated from college, I asked my thesis advisor—I wrote short stories for my undergraduate thesis—Franklin D. Reeve, whether or not I should apply to MFA programs right away. His answer: go live in the world. If you can find you can live without your writing, so can the rest of us. I followed his advice. I didn't get my MFA until I was almost 40. 

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Tough question; there are so many! For nonfiction specifically: Patricia Hampl—her memoirs Virgin Time and Romantic Education along with her book about writing nonfiction I Could Tell You Stories; Mark Doty and Heaven's Coast; Marita Golden and her book Migrations of the Heart; and Richard McCann, one of my earliest writing teachers, and his book Mother of Sorrows

Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?  
A: I write in a room in my house, a study where the morning and early afternoon light shines in through the venetian blinds. I write at an antique desk—a secretary—that used to be my mother's and my grandmother's before that, with the two cats sleeping nearby.