See, the darkness is leaking from the cracks.
I cannot contain it. I cannot contain my life.
- Sylvia Plath, "Three Women"
I was stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany in 1981, and had the opportunity to spend the last weekend of August in Paris, France. These, now, are my memories of Paris, for the tragedy that unfolded before my eyes on that Saturday afternoon overshadowed any of the sweeter sights and sounds of the city.
It was a dark and quiet Saturday afternoon in the Latin Quarter of Paris, on the left bank of the Seine. A man stood on a rooftop and shouted. He shouted down to the people on the street below and at the people in the sidewalk café. After a final blood-curdling scream, he dove into the air, and landed headfirst on the roof of a small blue parked car. Then he rolled off the car and spilled onto the cobblestone street. He died, lying there with a dark crimson pool of blood spreading slowly out around his head, and his light brown overcoat crumpled up around him like a shroud. Nobody came crying out to him. No one seemed to care.
A little boy was making his way down the street playing kick the can with an empty Orange Crush can. He stopped and looked over at the man, curious for a few moments, then went back to the business at hand, kicking his cylindrical toy down the street, around the corner, and out of sight. Some of the patrons in the café continued their meals, but the small band of tourists who had stopped for lunch at the café stood wide-eyed and open-mouthed, standing near the little white picket fence that separated the café from the sidewalk and the general public, watching helplessly as the tragedy unfolded.
After a few minutes a small police car and an ambulance came squealing around the corner, red lights flashing and sirens blurting, and came to shrill tired halts. The police officers and ambulance attendants got out of their vehicles. They inspected the man lying in the street and the caved-in roof of the parked car. Then a man came out of the building, which sat like a silent witness to the tragedy, and spoke to them; the officers took out their note pads to begin their paperwork about the incident.
After all the questions were answered, the workers tucked the man's body neatly into the back of the ambulance on a stretcher and covered with a clean white sheet. The men got back into their vehicles and drove away. All that remained to mark where the man had died was a dent in the parked car and a dark stain on the cobblestone street. The tourists gathered their belongs and shuffled onto the bus that had come to collect them, and that was it; it was over. Paris and the day moved on.
We had been raising our wine glasses to toast Paris when the shouting began, and with our meals hardly eaten, we mournfully watched as they picked the poor soul off the street, shoved him into the ambulance, and drove away. On the way to the Louvre, our tour guide told us that the suicide rate in Paris was astronomically high because of the country’s economic circumstances. He said that the Eiffel Tower had become such a popular place for people to jump off that it now had to be wrapped with barbed wire fencing in certain places where people could gain access to jump into the Paris sky and certain death. He went on to say that Parisians were not callous, but numbed from the sight of seeing people die this way.
I sat slumped in my seat, unable to rid myself of the vivid images in my mind: the man dying, the boy with the soda can. I shuffled through the rest of that weekend in Paris like a zombie. A large part of the wonder and excitement of being in Paris, the “city of lights,” had vanished.
I was twenty-four years old when I rode on that tour bus to Paris, and that event has stayed with me through all the years since; it crouches in the corner waiting in some deep dark recess of my mind. I have learned to live with it and move on with my life. I have quietly become uncomfortably numb.