Sunset Over Brittany
Sandrine threw me out this morning. She has
done it before. Today I have on jeans and an old sweatshirt because I had to dress while
Sandrine stood in the doorway screaming at me in a mixture of French, Breton, and English,
and throwing things. When she threw cutlery, a knife struck the floor beside my foot. She
left a constellation of bruises on me. Periodically, I mash my thumb into them to make the
I am determined to push all negativity
and unpleasantness out of my mind. Sandrine will calm down soon enough, and when she does,
shell call me on my mobile, sobbing, near panic. Shell beg me to come home.
Shell say shes terrified she has lost me forever. Maybe she has. I cant
predict the future. Perhaps Ill set myself on fire and webcast my death over the
Internet. Maybe Ill go to a supermarket and buy all the fruit from the produce
section, return home, and pelt her into a coma with pears and apricots and tangerines. Or
I may go to a gay bar and pick up a man, and run away with him. Sandrine has accused me of
having that tendency often enough. Maybe shes right. Maybe she has lost me forever.
Who can say? I drink cup after cup of black coffee, evil black lava from a place on
Telegraph Avenue. With all this energy I have to do something creative.
Im in Berkeley. The weather is
warm and clear. And I have my camera.
Here in the East Bay, an updated
version of the old streetcar network, the Key System, is to be resurrected. As part of the
PR campaign, Im photographing crowded streets, bored people slumped at bus stops,
backed-up entrance and exit ramps to the freeways that crisscross the region. I also snap
pictures of people in parks, at sidewalk cafés urban scenes of the sort one sees
in European cities. The message: we can keep things as they are (images of traffic-related
misery), or we can run trams down busy corridors and make life better for all. Not subtle,
but then neither is the Bay Bridge at rush hour.
Children play in the park down the
street from me. Sandrine wants children, but she cant have them until she finishes
her Ph.D. Too busy. I dont want kids, myself, but I think theyre excellent
subjects to photograph. Sandrine would always cry when I showed her the pictures I had
taken, so I stopped. I do my job. When the trams come, we will have more parks. The air
will smell better. Children wont be run over by cars as often. That ought to make
her happy, but somehow it doesnt.
Patrick, I cannot look at you
today. Get out of here! she spat, out of nowhere, twin pigtails bobbing up and down.
I sipped coffee and maintained my
Whats the problem,
She threw her half-empty cup of orange
juice at me. The cup missed my head by an inch but drenched my shirt. Citric acid stung my
right eye. I radiated peace and gentleness at her. I visualized doves.
You are a terrible person! You
are full of petty cruelties! I cannot stand you for another moment!
How am I cruel? Why am I
terrible? I dont understand at all, Sandrine.
I dont even want to talk
about it! I am too upset! I want you to get out of this house now, or
Sandrines nostrils flared. I pictured a thoroughbred fresh off the track. A bright
spot of pain began to glow behind my left eye, an infernal nuclear red. The side of my
head throbbed. It still hurts. And my shirt smelled like Florida.
Nothing makes Sandrine happy. So I had
to leave. Again.
I have taken a seat on a bench with
a good view. This will be a good park for my photo essay: one of the tramlines will pass
within three blocks. More people will come. The park will gain more picnic tables, more
playground equipment, more flowers. It is my task to show all interested parties what this
place could become.
To my right, an Asian family: Mom, I
guess, with three kids, a girl and two boys. They have monopolized the swing set. I wonder
whether the children have English names. Local folks, or visiting? The girls legs
are too short to reach the ground. Her little dress flies up when she swings. Her older
brother, the middle child if height is any indicator, is showing off. See how high I
can go. The oldest, also a boy, seems bored, but his mother has that Have fun or
Ill punish you dragon-lady look about her. Very fierce.
Off to my left, sitting on the next
park bench, one of those Berkeley women who dress in clothes her neighbors donated to
Goodwill when Grandma died ten years ago and they finally had
to get rid of her gunny-sack housedresses. I steal glances. She has ribbons tied in her
hair and political buttons on her faded, no-color vest circles of red, white, and
blue. Shes talking to the pigeons warbling at her feet.
Over here, a group of kids, the
standard Berkeley assortment: all shapes and sizes, all colors, several languages audible
in their babble. I pick out individual children to follow with my lens.
That sounds a bit depraved, I know.
Im just taking pictures.
Sandrine hovers near, accusing.
Shes invisible, and at this particular moment I know she is at home gluing shards of
china together, but I can sense her presence. She thinks I have illicit intentions. She
hisses foul names, polyglot. If you dont get out of this house within ten minutes
I will break everything. Every object you own, I will smash it. If you are still here when
I finish, I will then smash you. Understand? Maybe I run against the grain, but
Im involved in a public works project, for God's sake. I am a public servant, not a
Something from the hail of objects she
sent my way this morning grazed my side. Perfect timing: my shirt was
off, and she broke the skin. The wound stings. I touch it with a fingertip and feel
shooting stars, comets, supernovas. A personal sunset just below my nipple. Why
didnt I steal a packet of salt from the café? Id have something other than
soil to rub into the wound.
Here is a little girl who catches my
eye. She looks like a younger version of Sandrine, to tell the truth. Her
kindergartners voice will have an accent when she speaks English. Ill call her
Brittany, after Sandrine.
I abandon my bench seat to get closer.
Brittany wears a ruffled white
sundress. She has a yellow ribbon in her perfect golden hair, and Im reminded of a
shampoo commercial. All the moment needs is gauzy soundtrack music instead of car horns
and distant traffic. Brittany is talking intently to two other children, a black boy in
corduroy pants and a T-shirt, and a tan girl in matching yellow shorts and T-shirt.
Theyre pointing at something on the ground. A bug? Brittany stomps on it and claps
her hands together in glee.
The little boy moves to a sandbox and
joins an effort to build a sandcastle.
The girl in yellow begins picking
flowers out of a wooden planter: petunias, jasmine, some pink things I dont know the
Brittany climbs up the monkey bars.
One thing I love about Berkeley is the
unexpected vistas. If you look west from certain places here, toward the Pacific down some
of the latitudinal streets, you can see across the bay to the hills of Marin County. The
Golden Gate Bridge can be seen if theres no fog. Today, as usual at this time of
year, it is still possible to see the bridge. As the sun sets, the sky and clouds turn
dramatic shades of pink and salmon. I'm surprised when I realize how late in the day it
At university in Rennes, Sandrine
from a small town on the Breton coast, me studying abroad for a year. Marriage had seemed
like a good idea: romantic, reckless, vaguely doomed. Now? Regrets.
Sandrine leapt up from her chair,
seized her china plate where vegetarian sausages and perfect yellow circles of polenta
cooled, and tossed it all at me. I fell sideways out of my chair and lay helpless. The
floor tiles left their checkerboard pattern on my cheek.
The vein at your temple looks
like a pipe on the Pompidou Center, I told her. Its very
You are cold inside and I hate
you! There is something badly wrong with you! When you fuck me it feels like I am being
stabbed by an icicle!
Brittany thinks she is a gymnast
and is trying to walk across the monkey bars, hands out at right angles, head held high. A
Someone screams: a woman, rushing
through the cluster of children, a stricken look on her face. Also perfect.
You should do something, you
miserable bastard! Sandrine is near. She is my conscience when I normally just have a
camera. She smells like violets. Where would I be without her?
The woman screams for Brittany to come
down, and when she turns to see what the commotion is about, she loses her balance. She
wobbles back and forth on the monkey bars.
Why didnt you stop her, you
useless prick? Why didnt you make her come down? Sandrine hovers like a wasp,
following me everywhere, ever the critic. You should have flown through the air to stop
The wound in my side sings a
glorious chorus of pain, no finger-jab needed. I hold my breath as the sweat cools my
brow. Brittany is airborne. I take pictures.
Brittanys sundress rises like an
angels robe, revealing perfect white panties underneath, no socks, white sandals.
The yellow ribbon comes undone and floats, weightless.
Screams shatter the air all around us:
kids, adults, Brittany herself. Her mouth opens, a capital O ringed with pretty white
teeth. In the distance, a car alarm joins the din. I hear a siren, but I doubt its
Brittany falls, legs creating a
45-degree angle, toes pointed like a ballerinas. The sun is a brilliant red-orange
ball between her left heel and the metal edge of the monkey bars. I steal this last shot
and pray it turns out: sun, girl, playground equipment, all aligned just so, a combination
unlikely to be seen again. I wont include this one in the photo essay. Brittany
lands on her head with a loud THUNK, and the screaming intensifies.
Its over, Sandrine. Its
I turn and leave.