You’re sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car, someone else’s. You don’t have your license; you’d love to take the test but you don’t have the cash. Rock is driving. She’s parked across from a Haussmannian building in Paris’s 6th arrondissement. You roll the window down when you see Rock light a cigarette. She goes ´You don’t have to open it if you’re cold´, and you tell her you don’t want to smell like an ashtray for your first day. You’re five minutes ahead of schedule; it’s safer. ´Alright, I’m going´, you say to Rock. She says good luck, keep in touch, bisous. Bisous. You barely have a foot on the ground before you realize you have to piss. You look around you. Nothing. Not a single fucking cafe open to satisfy this need. You don’t have the time, anyway. It’s three minutes to 6 and God alone knows when it’s important to arrive on time in this city. You check the door code on your phone; a sharp sound blares just as you try it for the second time. In the lobby, there’s a large mirror to your right, half-decorated with green plants and colored garlands. You take a deep breath before pressing the intercom, making sure it’s not for more than two seconds. You count in your head and wonder what they must be doing, taking this long to respond. You look at yourself in the mirror across from you; you’re not wearing makeup but you laid a pretty heavy hand on the perfume; usually you wear that one you found at the dollar store, the one with “Paris” written on the bottle, but tonight you’re wearing La nuit.
A woman’s voice goes Hello, and you give your name with a smile, as if the voice could see you; she says On the 6th floor. Clic. The elevator’s on its way, and as it makes its gentle sound you think the machine must be well-maintained. At any rate you don’t wait for the sliding doors to open, like at your place, instead you have to open the door yourself with the help of a gleaming handle. The cabin is tight, the light soft, the carpet red. The ideal decor to perform the ritual.
You close your eyes; relax your body’s muscles to return to a state of total abstraction. You forget. You forget skin color, you forget history, you forget colonization, slavery, you forget racism; you forget everything to focus on the essential, the human beings you’re getting ready to meet. Nothing crosses your mind except the present moment, with its doubts, its joys, its unpredictability. The only thing you keep in your head is your sex, you are a woman and that you hold on to, because in the bundle of things you didn’t choose being a woman is a secondary problem; you’re a woman with no one inside, empty and without color. Abstract so you can look after a kid that you can’t even pretend is yours; abstract to protect yourself because in this society you can’t look at everything through the prism of race; abstract because otherwise you would do nothing with your life and might as well keel over and die right now, right here in this elevator. Rock never thought about this shit when she was working this job, but it takes on this whole political sense for you. So you abstract from reality to continue smiling, breathing, looking for little quotidian wonders and doing your best to savor them. It’s an abstraction that you’ve mastered well enough to see beyond the fire, a complete abstraction, but it lets you cut the world down to just this room, and appreciate the company of a personality, a temperament, an attitude, and you’re watching for those now, your eye eagerly awaiting the smallest detail of the face of the woman who’s coming to open the door. She’s wearing a thin bracelet on her right wrist and she has a baiseuse at the corner of her mouth, a beauty mark. You can read each quality of character in her face: the discreet tucked beneath the lip, the majestic furrowed beneath the forehead, the tender hanging from the earlobe, the playful cresting on the tip of the nose. It’s an absolutely miniscule beauty mark; you wonder if she drew it on with black eyeliner. Abstract. She must have shampooed her hair that day, judging by the way it’s swollen up with static, sure evidence of a hairdryer.
She presents Valérie, 6 years old, three apples high in her little red-checkered dress. Say hi, Valérie, the woman says. Hi says Valérie, to you, or maybe to her mother’s leg, which she’s clutching closer than a melting ice cream cone. She’s a little shy, the woman clarifies. She’s beautiful when she says that and suddenly you want to kiss her. Abstract. You don’t even know why. Abstract. The woman gives you a tour of the apartment, the girl’s bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room; it’s cosy. Throughout all of this, Valérie won’t let go of your eyes; she’s running you through her innocence-scanner, she’s running everything: your coat that you left on a chair at the entrance, the way you walk, your scent, your hands, your eyes, your smile, your braids, everything that’s visible, your mouth, your nose, your arms, your shoulders, your shoes. Once the mother has left, you approach the little one and ask her age—even though you already know it, just so you can gain her confidence—and then in return she asks you why you’re brown. You say because I eat too much chocolate, and you? Why are you white? She pulls at the hem of her dress, head cocked to one side, and then says because I drank too much milk when I was little. You’re so close to laughing but you hold back; it’s not every day you can have a serious discussion with a kid you just met. Valérie walks up to you, gives you a wet kiss on the cheek, takes you by the hand and brings you to her room. You’ve made a friend.
Text by by Seynabou Sonko, translation by J. Arthur Boyle.
Photography: Valeria Rossato