Must have been in 2007, Paris. Nuit Blanche, the white night, the sleepless night when the City of Lights opened herself up for all hours. It was a night of contemporary art, of cultural happenings. The event was first established in Nantes in 1984, but by 2007 it had gone global. Museums stayed open, galleries too; of course, the usual cafes, dives and bars welcomed all. If I remember correctly, the Louvre was open, Mona Lisa smiling like a 24/7 diner. But of course I don’t remember. It was a long time ago, quoi? Also, I was young and, as the night wore on, less and less sober.
Staying up all night versus staying out late are two very different beasts. Even if one rages fantastically, if by 4 a.m., one goes to bed while the sky is still inky, a nuit blanche it is not. There is, however, something about witnessing dawn as a continuation of dusk that cauterizes the night, closes it, keeps whatever happened in those hours safe somewhere.
I was maybe halfway through failing my course at the Sorbonne called Le Langue et Civilization Française. I had moved to Paris in pursuit, of course, of a woman but she, perhaps sensing my arrival, had moved to London to study war a few weeks after my arrival. [She’s now my wife.] I had taken up with a much younger woman, a student from, I think, Ohio State named Hannah who had one fake boob, an engaging smile and once made a mix tape for me with Paul Simon’s Obvious Child on it. She must have really dug me. It was with Hannah I found myself on my nuit blanche. Hannah, her friend whom I can barely just make out through the shroud of time (heavy-lidded eyes, bad skin, quiet, kind) and my best friend at the time, a kid named Eric.
There are two memories I have, both which I hold precious. The first is probably around midnight. We — the four of us — are standing around at Place de la Bastille on this little area, elevated from the sidewalk by a few steps. The streetlights were yellow, not white. And what I stands out most about it, a sensation weirdly left untouched by time so I feel it just as keenly though increasingly accompanied by more melancholy, is just wide open possibility. We were young and the night was ahead of us. We were in Paris, for gosh sakes! And we knew we wouldn’t go to sleep. That, we were all clear on.
I think we had gone in for a few Pastis at Le Perle, a bar in the Marais which would gain infamy years later for John Galliano’s no good very bad night. We were drunk, mostly on pastis, but also just on wild freedom. What’s so poignant to me now, and what makes me look back not only at that night but at that moment in particular, is how little we knew of ourselves. Or at least I knew of myself. (I’ve lost touch with everybody who accompanied me that night.) Time’s passage hadn’t yet revealed that though I had had freedom before me, I wouldn’t know what to do with it, that I would ultimately renounce it for a conventional life.
It’s scary to be free, that’s for sure. I thought, at the time, anything was possible and it was. In the sense that both night and we were young, it was. But I had no idea how daunting it could be nor so rare. That period of eight or nine months when I lived in Paris was the most free I’ve ever been and the most free I’ll ever be. That night and that moment on those cobblestones was it. I see it now but didn’t then.
The second memory starts with a crack. It must have been around 4 a.m. We had ended up at a public pool in the 11th arrondissement. (I still think one of the best ways to get a feel for a city is to visit its public swimming facilities. Something about the institutional buildings and the people there and the chlorine really tells you about the society.) At this one, I bereft of a swimsuit because who the fuck thinks they’ll end up swimming wasted at four in the morning, had bought one in a vending machine. I vaguely remember feeding francs into a confusing contraption in the locker room. Then I remember being in the pool itself. Loud music was playing which, every time I was submerged, became muffled and peaceful. Loud, quiet, loud, quiet. Also, voices echoing off the tile walls and high ceiling.
The next thing I remember is kind of like the sound crack and like a feeling crack but it almost went beyond perception. It just was a crack. I had swum head-on into the shoulder of another poor sod. His shoulder was fine, I gather. My nose was broken. Blood in the pool. Blood everywhere.
That’s what I remember: red blood, ridiculous tiny black speedo. Not sober, not fluent, busted nose. Staring into the bathroom mirror. A sensation.
I don’t remember the pain though I must have felt it. I also don’t remember going to a hospital. What I do remember, however, is gallumphing triumphant down the street as the sky grew lighter, the four of us. I do remember feeling exhilaration and loving that we could get a fresh baguette and caffe noisette and that the night was over, we had done it. Too young, I suppose, to realize not every night could be a nuit blanche and not every night could be like this — highs and lows that were also high.
In fact, no other night would be like that, at least that I’ve had since — so sleepless, so free.