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How It Feels | Jordan Holman

I remember the exact moment she asked me like it was yesterday: the white button down shirt and red lipstick and the velvety texture of chocolat viennois being poured into a porcelain cup. We had chosen to eat at Les Deux Magots, of course. Neither one of us cared for Hemingway, but it was the place where all great writers used to rendezvous. She was passing through the city, and I had only been there a week. She talked about the grad school application cycle and how she hoped by this time next year she’d be enrolled in an MFA program. I tugged at the loose thread on my tights and we held back tears as we agreed that we wanted to be great or nothing at all. Perhaps we had to be great or nothing. She admired the backdrop and told me I was lucky. I would write the next Great American Novel because I was living in a postcard. “How does it feel?” as rain pelted the windowsill on Boulevard Saint Germain.


I hold that November morning in the palm of my hand, and I can answer the question only now.

 

In Paris it feels as though I belong to a ferocious current—to its people and to its relentless push and pull. The air inside the metro station is musty; it reminds me of the sweltering, cavernous attics in the Deep South. The smell stains the soles of my shoes, the faux leather boots I bought to feel cool—to feel Parisian—and I come home and lock the door behind me. The room spins after several drinks and I let my body follow its curved, dangerous path—like a tilt-a-whirl ride at some carnival in some forgotten part of the Midwest. The faded blue stamp on my left hand belongs to the nightclub in Chatelet, to the bright lights and pulsating music that reminds me of my heart when it beats too fast.

 

I open my notebook and manage to scribble the words, “You are having so much fun in this moment, and I don’t want you to forget how it feels.” I unravel the scarf from my neck, the silky one with the stripes, and drape it elegantly across the floor like a Renaissance woman—like someone reborn.

 

I belong to the chambre de bonne in the 17th arrondissement, to the friends I let crash on the ragged carpet and the time we stayed up until dawn sharing who we were before we moved to Paris, hoping they loved the versions they never got to meet. I belong to this new family whose lives I’ve infiltrated for a year, whose stories will soon become my stories. I belong to the woman with the crinkled eyes who owns the boulangerie down the street, and to the broken “Franglais” we kindly speak to one another. To the people watching and the couples dancing and the skirts that fly in the wind at Jardin Tino Rossi. To the cobblestones on the river, and twilight ricocheting off our dangling legs. The peanut butter latte and the vintage store and the stoop alongside Canal Saint Martin. The Saturday morning walks in Batignolles. The metro map I could draw in my sleep. The letter I wrote to myself on my birthday and pinned on the Shakespeare & Company wall: “Like the writers who came before us, we draw our most ecstatic, most addictive thrill from the deepest sources of our own pain and curiosity and adventure. I hope I can use them for good. Here’s to turning 23.”

 

I belong to the friends whose faces are now pixelated, whose voices glitch and whose words break apart. We talk at ungodly hours, catching glimpses of each other’s dreams. And I hope they know that when I tell them I miss them what I really mean is that they are the keepers of my identity and my body aches that I’m not sitting next to them now.

 

I belong to the juiciest nectarine we’d pick together every Sunday morning at the farmers market. I belong to the steps of the college library and the way we held our deepest secrets up to the moonlight. I belong to the bar we used to dance at, with the live band and the one bartender I was hopelessly in love with. I belong to the lavender sky and the ocean we used to throw ourselves into. I belong to the intersection of Sunset and Temescal Canyon just as I belong to Lombard Street—and the first time I drove the hills of San Francisco alone.

 

But I belong to them, to the new friends who ride the train home with me at night—our accented laughter reminding us of where we came from and where we’re going. She tells us she can’t remember her new address and we burst into a fit of hysterical howling. Our flailing, aimless bodies collapse onto each other, drunken smiles flittering across our cheeks. The melodic whoosh of a lullaby. The train rocks us back and forth and we are momentarily held by silence and maternal familiarity.

 

Recently I saw a child nestled in her mother’s lap at the park next to my apartment, the one with the address I can also barely recall, and I felt it then: a watercolor canvas of longing and belonging and liberation. Maybe it’s some kind of misery, or maybe I’m just 23.

 

My breath quickens, skipping, like a pebble across a pond. There’s something I’m supposed to say to myself when I feel this way but I can’t remember what it is.

 

My hands soothe my racing heart by themselves. They dig into my chest, close enough to yank it out entirely. We’re allowed to let ourselves cry.

 

In my apartment, dizzy and weightless and musty, I scroll through memories and notes to future me and promises to my younger self. Itineraries for the weekend, messages from old friends, a to-do list full of replies, faux leather boots, the sunset from the balcony, unopened voicemails from my father. I write something down about self-belonging.

 

***

 

When I visited Europe for the first time exactly a decade ago we decided to spend a month traversing Italy. We wandered through the alleyways of Florence as my mom retold the stories of her youthful summer spent here. We meandered through the Uffizi Gallery and I pretended to understand her critical analyses. We sat in the piazza in Venice and I inquired about the writing on the lock. My grandfather, my biggest fan, the artist, the insatiable traveler, the person I hoped to emulate most in the world, placed in it my hand as my grandmother’s smile widened. “To Joy, you are my home.”

 

I didn’t fully understand it back then — how could I? — and I suppose I still don’t even now. Their love for each other was cinematic. And despite my wishes, and very feeble attempts, the vision of an emotionally intelligent, motorcycle-riding Jean Pierre did not come to fruition in Paris. The closest thing I got was the French guy’s hand on my leg as he asked me where I’m from.

 

“The States.”

 

“I’m sorry,” he said.

 

I rolled my eyes but then refreshed the news and told him I was sorry, too.

 

“But she’s not an American, she’s a Californian,” my friend called out as she swung her arm around my shoulder. “Such a Californian,” and I rolled my eyes again.

 

I’m not sure what always gives it away: my firmly progressive politics or the (fake) blonde pieces of hair or the fact that I ordered an acai bowl for lunch. I gave a half-hearted toast to being “a citizen of the world” and I searched for home in the crevices.

 

And now I’m back, a decade later, traversing Italy on my own. I search for my grandfather in Venice, in the sculptures on Murano and in the stained glass windows of a church and as I write along the canal.

 

But I was there before he took his last breath on our torn-up couch three years ago. So instead the thinly veiled silhouette of a ghost places a hand on my shoulder and the cello hums in Saint Mark’s Square.

 

I search for my mother in Florence, in the clothing stores and gelato shops and at the top of the Duomo and amongst the fashionable women who pace the street.

 

But she sits in California on the light green couch, the brand new one without the stains, instead awaiting a text from me and drenched in a mother’s worry.

 

I’m staring at the painting in the Uffizi’s upper wing and it’s staring back at me. Rosy cheeks and downcast eyes. She’s nursing a baby—he’s clinging to the only home he knows—and she resents who she’s become. “It’s a painting about the beauty of new life,” the man next to me whispers. It’s a painting about loss.

 

I sit down at Cafe Gilli and order off the same menu my mother’s hands touched when she was 19, the same one my fingers scanned a decade ago—when I ate the meal that 13 year old me deemed “the best dinner of my life!” They have everything except the famous cannellini beans, and now there’s a lump in my throat that tries to choke me. Children in the square toss their neon batons in the air with the same naive delight I had back then, too. There’s an old carousel to my right, untouched. Rhythmic and cyclical and infinite. The words on the awning are painted in the same squiggly font as before, and I belong to the things that remain unchanged.

 

I’m sure there’s some answer out there that I’m supposed to grab onto. But home isn’t where the heart is (it’s not that simple). Despite what the aspirational aesthetic portrays, home isn’t a meal eaten alone or a book read quietly on a park bench; more often than not you’re just lonely. Your leg shakes under the table or you reach for the phone, but home doesn’t live in there either. Despite the hackneyed wellness jargon, home isn’t inside your mind—especially when it tries to betray you. It can’t be found in the depths of your camera roll or on the Ponte Vecchio or at the bottom of your third glass of Aperol, no matter how hard you try.

 

I read the story she wrote most recently while I’m on the train leaving Italy, sandwiched between the tabs full of half-finished job applications in New York. We’re not as famous as Hemingway (yet!) but it’s great. Really great, I tell her, and my mind wanders to the tiny room in the English building and the elongated table. The “fictional” stories that were likely anything but. We played pretend together. Our stories — the most searing and painful and heart-wrenching things that have ever happened to us — were beautiful and belonged to near-strangers and yet were completely safe.

 

But I daydream now about making the West Village my future home and about leaving California behind, faster than I can process that Paris is also now a thing of the past. “How does it feel?”

 

Like wisteria that cascades over Parisian rooftops during the first week of April. Invasive but impermanent. I search for home in the crevices.

 

 ***

 

A friend sends a photo of a bear in her backyard and I reply in shock and we exchange our typical dry-witted banter as the metro car shakes. But it’ll be weeks until we can properly talk because Anchorage is 10 hours behind Paris. The last time I saw her was in the parking lot of our favorite outdoor shopping center: we sit outside the bakery and stomp on the crumbs as they fall and I tell her, hesitantly, about the crippling anxiety I’ve had every night since deciding to move. She makes her own self-deprecating joke but looks at me kindly and I know I can speak about anything. Her workplace will soon be the Alaska wildlands and love will come in the form of an aurora borealis.

 

I sit with another friend at the abandoned gazebo along the gravel overlooking the water. The fog rolls in, slowly, taking its time. Eventually she’ll head back to school on the East Coast and I’ll be in Paris. Our dreams are illuminated and we’re happy but it’s windy and our wounds are exposed to the air. We start to talk but the words are trapped in our lips. We want to preserve what we created together: the friendship that is electric and fun and enviable, and if we share what makes us sad we’re convinced it will change somehow. The 11th hour passes and we laugh about a memory from high school and give thanks to this backdrop, the place that housed us: the care and the fear and the uncertainty and the isolation and love in the form of distraction. The last time I saw her we let allusions form like clouds and implications loom overhead. And then one day I’m crying on the Champs Élysée because I sought belonging so desperately that I was convinced it could be found even amongst a swarm of tourists. I’m crying and I can’t stop and I pick up the phone because there’s no else I’d rather call. She answers with the sweetest hello and the stories roll in, slowly, taking their time.

 

The last time I saw this friend I was spending the night in her new Hollywood apartment, preparing for the visa appointment that would hopefully send me on my way to France. Somehow we were old enough to be adults with rooftop pools and grocery lists and views of downtown and bills to pay. We played “tourist” and put on fake accents when we walked into the souvenir shops along the Boulevard and resented the idea of actually growing up. We strolled along the avenues and meshed the future with the past and ran into someone from high school who had just moved to the city. We proudly rattled off our favorite spots in LA as if we’d lived there forever. And when she asked if we had “any fun plans after this” we laughed hysterically under our breath. She kissed me on the cheek and stepped into the car and we waved goodbye in front of my therapist’s office as my evening plans illuminated themselves in the harsh October light. I wiped a tear in the lobby as I waited and I probably didn’t mention it.

 

A friend comes to visit and we picnic in front of the Eiffel Tower as the sky slowly dims to black. She tells me about her life and there’s a shield between us but it’s shiny and beautiful and can be pierced but not fully penetrated. The sparkling wine at our feet is scarlet and cheap and inviting. I want to unscrew the cork in celebration, and watch as anything or anyone that has ever hurt her catapults across the lawn. I want to cradle the sadness to mend it, or join in it, or both. But then we laugh obnoxiously and dance wildly at the dodgy spot in Bastille. We’re foolish enough or young enough or hopeful enough to walk home, with the world at our back —free of pain or the things we’re too scared to talk about. And the sun sets over Sacre Couer the following night and Montmartre is bathed in golden light and our punctured conversations suspend in the humid air and I’ll cry as soon as I realize we cannot save each other.

 

Another friend comes to visit and we’re lucky enough to travel to Spain while she’s here. Between the flamenco performance and the palace and the boats in Parque Retiro I receive the puzzle pieces from life in our hometown in exchange for a chaotic swarm of Paris content. The elephant in the room is the distance and the ticking clock but we ignore it blissfully. It’s warm inside the restaurant and we let the words, the laughter and the deep confessions, glide peacefully into the air. We sit together sharing tapas and maybe it’s the sangria but god I just can’t shake the feeling that this is life in its purest form — and then her taxi drives into the cold, grey mist and I wrap the scarf around my neck.

 

The push and pull.

 

The image of my parents in our pale green house on the hill. The memories and the yearning and the complications and the missed calls and the unconditional support and the deepest love I’ve ever known amidst the desire, even still, to start anew.

 

The family I created in France, the friends that scatter the U.S. and the ones who fill the pockets of Europe and the piece of my heart that now lives in South Africa.

 

The promises of friendship from the glacier. From the rust-colored leaves in New Haven. From the Hollywood Sign. From the shores of La Jolla. From the Golden Gate Bridge.

 

All the nights sitting on the banks of the Seine or on each other’s ragged carpets. All the conversations that started with “I’ve never told someone this before,” and ended with communion and the relief of doing so.

 

All the hands I squeezed in front of Haussmann apartments and all the refusals to say goodbye.

 

 ***

 

The (soon to be) doctor in Nashville. The other in Chicago. The researcher and the students and the nurse and the mathematician and the greatest writers I’ve ever known.

 

You are proof that home exists.

 

My baggage on the train and my laundry list of countries and my California accent. The push and pull.

 

The car jolts and I capture sadness, anger, nostalgia in my left hand, excitement and a tiny shred of hope in my right—and for some reason it doesn’t kill me. I remember what I’m supposed to do. “You are living fully in this moment, and I don’t want you to forget how it feels.”

 

Jordan Holman is a recent graduate of UCLA's Department of English and an emerging writer. As cliche as it may be, she spent the past year living and working in Paris and aims to share her unfiltered experiences as she navigates both the world around her and her innermost feelings.

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