Des plaisirs simples
Word-for-word is so deceptive. The expressions match so exactly: “simple pleasures for simple minds” – “des plaisirs simples pour des esprits simples”. But where is the compass point?
Preparing an entire academic department for a move to a new city, taping closed box after box on a shimmering June day. Finally feeling that the show is ready to go, but feeling it through the fog of the monotonous job. Two fingers slip into the roll of tape, one from each side, press out, start to turn. The roll rolls in sharp circles. The strange fidget is noticed by the one member of the cleaning staff (l’agent de service) who has stayed to clean and close the classrooms. As a smile begins its design, the fingers – carefully observed by their owner – stop abruptly. Then reverse. The smile passes to a laugh. The comment emerges.
“Des plaisirs simples pour des esprits simples.”
The laugh evaporates. The fingers, suddenly confused, stop again, grasp the tape.
Out the front door, the final turn of the key, the slow steps away and toward home. Halfway there only, the flash sparks. Whose mind did she think was simple?
He was the second most gorgeous student I had ever taught. Blond, blue eyes, tall (taller than I, a rarity until the turn of the century). Chiseled face.
The eyes were big and round and lost right then. A little boy’s. He had received a bad mark for an assignment that he had fulfilled too incorrectly. The voice was higher than the one he gave his classroom answers with.
“I wasn’t sure just what the assignment was, so I tried doing that.”
“Instead of trying to clarify the instructions by asking me questions?”
The eyes suddenly became slightly less round. The eyebrows lost a hair of altitude.
“Next time let me know when I need to explain things better.”
I walked away, bewildered by the miniscule modification I had seen. Then immediately, suddenly became less so. How many other teachers – women – had seen the round blue eyes in the handsome face and relented in their marking?
I never saw the little boy eyes again. I also never saw confused, half-done assignments again. And when he came back from his internship, I saw a young, competent businessman. No high voice. No high eyebrows. Eyes direct but not round. A graduate-to-be.
All three of us stared at the book, at the map, back at the book. Each of us ready to believe that madness had set in, if we had not seen the evidence of collective confusion.
The book, a guide to hiking trails in southern France, showed a black outline on a white page, a trajectory that would have shown drunken staggering in a circle if it didn’t represent about ten kilometers. The IGN map showed the topography in its familiar IGN green, black, white, its concentric rings warning of a thirsty climb or promising a winding downward ease.
But the two just would not cooperate with each other. We found no trace on the map of the contours described in the text blow-by-blowing the wobbling black circle in the guidebook. No belvedere with a vaunted view into the valley, no scare at the slippery stony descent, no boon at the bottom of a wooded walk by the blue line of a brook materialized in the IGN curves to say that the book was not a liar.
Then Jacques smacked his forehead, grabbed the book, and turned it sideways.
It was a most exquisite piece of old, old glass. And old, old glass is something that can hold me in place for hours. I went once to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the time that I did not spend gazing rapturously at centuries of silver I spent gazing rapturously at centuries of glass. And that was all.
But this piece was special. A beaker of clear glass, cupped in what looked like an open-work metal web of decoration in blue and gold and blue metal letters around the outside of the rim that spelled out “drink, and may you live long” (in Italian? in Latin? in something mutating between the two?).
And it was luminous, in spite of the centuries of scratches. The raspberry of clear whitish glass hung suspended in its blue and gold basket, and the museum lights gave it even more of an air of floating, perhaps in some phantom hand. Its lip opened out, searching for the wine that would add ruby to its rainbow. It was almost big enough to contain a heart, and I felt like mine was attempting to slip into it as if into a warm bath.
As always, I found it difficult to turn my back on that magnificent object to read its short but fascinating history.
Made in Germany or Italy or Albania . . . probably fourth century . . . made by etching . . .
My eyes jolted to a stop.
. . . made by etching . . .
I spun around to the beaker, and around to the text again.
. . . made by etching to obtain open-work attached by tiny filaments of glass . . .
I spun back to the case and gaped and smiled and shed tears.
It was one piece.
All one piece of glass.
Only one piece of glass.
Editor’s note: you can find a photograph of the beaker by clicking here.
It was like being married. For six and a half years, the cat and I symbiosed, snuggled, slept together. Learned each other. I came to understand that it was in the middle of the bed that I was to sleep so that she could choose her side. She learned – yes, learned – what surfaces she was not allowed to walk on.
Agane was very intelligent. Perhaps that’s why she indirectly taught me that you can give orders to cats, if you are firm enough. The pointing finger told her “put yourself there”, and she did. Whether it was in my lap, off the dining table, onto the bed, or out of the cellar.
One evening we sat next to each other on the bed, facing the closet with its sliding-door mirrors. I gave her a few pets, looked into her mirrored green-gold eyes, watched her give those affectionate cat-blinks to me, but wished to change into pyjamas. She was too close, I would have bumped her.
I pointed the finger farther away on the bed.
She saw the mirrored finger, hesitated a moment, then rose and walked to the real one.
published 16 April 2011