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My Father’s Mariannes


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Lester Sloan in Paris. Photo: Aisha Sabatini Sloan

My father is lingering a bit too long on the subway platform. The doors of the train are about to close when I grab him by the lapels and pull him onboard. I must be shouting, “Dad, come on,” because when the doors slam shut my ears are ringing with the sound of my own voice, and everyone on the train is staring at us. I feel flush with shame. We ride in silence.

I’d surprised my father with two tickets to Paris, a chance for him to be a stylish photographer in his favorite city again. To put on a new suit and tie and retell his favorite stories. To hit the streets after a good rain, when the cobblestones refract the light like so many scattered gems.

But he is in his late seventies. He walks more slowly now, has trouble remembering the last time he took his insulin. His arthritis has made it harder for him to negotiate the f-stops on his camera. I become the parent on the trip, and my concern becomes monotonous: Dad, watch out, you’re going to bump into someone. Dad, don’t follow her down the alley, that’s stalking. Dad, don’t put that glucose strip on the table.

So far our days have been beset by unexpected detours. My father wanted to stand in the middle of Hotel de Ville and reminisce about the summer we spent there watching the World Cup on a giant screen in an enormous crowd. He wanted to echo the sound of a passing siren by shouting “tambourine, tambourine” into the wind. I trailed behind him as he followed a woman with his camera because she was wearing red shoes, and, Oh look, that looks so good against the graffiti.

***

We emerge on the streets of the Marais, a storybook neighborhood. Boutiques emit a tungsten glow. Everything is cute, which is to say, expensive, but also a little bit edgy. One store has a sign out front that reads, “Juliette has a gun.” It is almost dinner time, and we aren’t entirely sure where we should be.

We are arguing when a woman approaches. She is petite, and wearing purple. Her silver hair is curly. We keep bickering until she says, “Fantastique,” and we swivel our faces to her. She is not quite smiling at us; it’s as though she’s centering us in the frame of her gaze, like a director. I am not as fashionable as my father, but today I’m wearing a long, brown coat, which I bought for a job interview. “Vous-êtes Americains?” she asks. She has her finger on her chin. After a short chat, she says, “Come with me.” Her name, she tells us, is Marianne.

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Lester Sloan. Photo: Aisha Sabatini Sloan

This is not the first time my father has been approached by an admiring stranger. He is, in his own way, a fashion icon. When he began working as a photojournalist, he wore suits on his assignments as a survival tactic. He lived in the era of respectability politics. How else was one of the only Black men in the press corps going to board Air Force One with Ronald Reagan? While his experiences as a journalist were riddled with racism, he was also frequently invited into people’s homes, fussed over and flirted with for being the most elegant man in the room. To this day, he will put on a fedora just to go to the grocery store.

Over the years, my father has met all manner of Mariannes. Sylvias. Beatrices. Women, often older than him, who begin as strangers and soon become guides, docents to the unknown. A painter in the south of France. The sister of a French director. One Marianne took him to a tango parlor, and to a flea market with singing Charlie Chaplins. She pulled a wad of cash from her wallet and suggested they take the Orient Express as far as the money would go. She later married Picasso’s son.

On one VHS tape I found at my parents’ house, a blond woman sits at a restaurant, feeding table scraps to a small dog sitting on her lap. The woman is talking to the waiter, and she keeps gesturing to the camera and rolling her eyes. My father is filming, presumably with one of those massive, over-the-shoulder video cameras. At one point, the woman picks her nose, in what seems like an attempt to get my father to stop recording. She juts her chin toward the camera and asks, “Why are you filming?” She speaks first in French, then translates into English. “It’s my job,” my father says, trying to make his English sound French. “I am… journalist.” “For who? The news?” she asks, making her lips puff, sounding incredulous. “Newsweek magazine,” he says. She turns back to the waiter and rolls her eyes again, translating the encounter back to French.

That video was taken during my father’s first trip to Paris. After he turned off the camera, he says, he told the woman that he’d come back to the restaurant later and if she was still there, they could have dinner. When he returned after meeting a friend, there she was. The way he tells it, the blond woman, once she decided that he was, indeed, a journalist, became obsessed with showing him “the real Paris.” They ventured into the night together, and she knocked on an unmarked door, which opened to a nightclub. The next scene on the VHS tape is of a woman and a man, under blue and purple lights, singing a very earnest rendition of “Memory” from the musical Cats.

“Turns out, her brother was a filmmaker,” my father explains. “He made that film Diva, and Betty Blue.” As my father’s stories go, this one is a classic. It hits all the notes. Somebody didn’t believe he was who he said he was? Check. He had to prove himself? Check. Somebody wanted to take him on an adventure? Check. That somebody was related to somebody famous? Check. The famous person was a director whose work can be analyzed to better embellish the anecdote? Perfection.

Over the years, I’ve watched both films repeatedly, Diva in particular. My favorite scene involves a mailman on a motorcycle riding down the stairs of the Metro, trying to escape a policeman who is chasing him on foot. The motorcyclist rides the wrong way along a people mover, past shiny red subway tiles, as electronic music plays softly in the background as if in approximation of river water, like a song by Pharoah Sanders, and people jump to get out of the way. In my imagination, my father’s first trip to Paris was laced with a similar air of mystery and danger, with secondary characters as compelling as those in the film: the Buddhist, the woman in a trench coat, the opera singer in the silver dress.

Now, on the streets of the Marais, it takes only a brief glance and shoulder shrug between my father and me to confirm that we will, indeed, follow this Marianne. As we pass the Musée Picasso, she relays stories about people she knows who may or may not have slept with James Baldwin. We follow her past a gallery, around a corner, into her apartment building, and up the stairs. We sit down around a small dining table. She gives us a soda to split and shows us a book she has written, as well as a few by her late husband. I look down at one cover and realize that he shares a last name with my wife’s great-aunt. “Might they be related?” I ask. “It’s possible,” she says. She is orbiting us, collecting things from around the apartment and placing them on the table as though assembling an altar of items that might connect us more concretely to one another.

A friend of Marianne’s comes over, and he’s not in the mood to hang out with spontaneous Americans, so we promise to come back the following day for lunch.

The sun is pink in the gray sky. A tiny, off-leash dog is padding slowly down the sidewalk, a good half block away from its owner. No one is in a hurry. The world feels blissfully quiet.

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Photo: Aisha Sabatini Sloan

The next day, we go to the Musée Picasso. We are feeling lighter, laughing more. I take a video of my father as he stands in front of a wall featuring the gently rotating shadow of a Calder mobile. Afterward, we wander over to Marianne’s apartment. She is in a bit of a rush. She tells us that she is sorry, she doesn’t have time for a long lunch. She has a house outside the city, and her neighbor there is giving birth, and she promised to feed this neighbor’s cat. Perhaps we’d like to join her?

Soon, Marianne is driving us on the freeway, moving slowly alongside fast French semis, en route to an ancient village. After getting out of the car, a bit nauseous, we walk into what feels like an Olivier Assayas film. There is a beautiful garden. The cat wanders languidly over to greet us. Marianne opens the door to her house and invites us inside.

It’s evening. My father sits talking with Marianne in the living room, and I wander around the house, looking at the pictures on the refrigerator, noticing the David Hockney book on the shelves, laughing that we have the same taste. I can’t remember whether or not there is a fire in the fireplace, but my father gets sleepy, and soon he is dozing on the couch. “You will stay over, no?” Marianne asks, catching my eye. “I can make beds for you upstairs.”

She and I make tea together in the kitchen as she tells me how she met her husband and knew instantly that she would marry him. Marianne’s late husband, is, in fact, a distant relation to my wife. We confirm this when I recognize one of his daughters in a photograph—the daughter had recently gone on a trip with my mother-in-law. Marianne speaks of the plays she used to put on at La MaMa in the Bowery when they lived in New York. “I took a class at La MaMa in graduate school,” I tell her, remembering the small class, the cacophonous room, imagining the ghost of her life overlapping with the ghost of mine. She seems unfazed by the growing number of coincidences.

She tells me about her grandchildren, her nieces and nephews. She describes the rhythm of her days now that she is getting older. She complains about the emptiness of French TV. She is eager to come visit Detroit after seeing a documentary about it the other day.

“You are sweet with your father,” she says, after a pause. “It’s nice to see. It makes me miss my own father.” The comment takes me by surprise.

***

Later, my dad and I go into town to get some Chinese takeout. Back at the house, underneath a beautiful red and blue abstract painting, my father and Marianne get into one of those non-argument arguments about politics. We drink wine, eat the salad she has made to accompany the meal. We call my mother to assure her that we are safe, and put Marianne on the phone. She walks us upstairs, shows my father to his room on the second floor, and then me to mine, in the attic. I sleep underneath a shelf full of old issues of Granta magazine, amid my wife’s distant cousin’s papers and books.

When I wake up early the next morning, I look out the window and listen to the birds. The moment feels strangely comfortable, ordinary. Here we are, quite at home inside my father’s most recent adventure.

On a bulletin board downstairs, I notice a photograph of Eugène Ionesco. One of my favorite children’s books growing up was by Ionesco: Story Number 2. In it, a little girl asks why her father is on the phone, and he says, “It’s not a phone. It’s cheese.” He teaches her that nothing is what it seems: “The music box is called a rug. The rug is called a lamp. The ceiling is called floor. The wall is called a door.”

Later that morning, Marianne takes us to the train station. An onlooker would think, from our tearful goodbye, that we have known each other for years. My father and I board the fast train back to Gare du Nord. We stand in line for coffee and croissants. My dad says, “What should we do now?”

Aisha Sabatini Sloan is the author of the essay collections The Fluency of Light, Dreaming of Ramadi in DetroitBorealis, and Captioning the Archives. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at University of Michigan. Her column for the Daily, Detroit Archives, received the 2021 National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary.

 

You can hear a version of this essay on Episode 22 of the Review’s podcast, which is out today.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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