by Aleyna Rentz
Midnight, no stars, moon like a rusty nail puncturing the dark sky, the three of us—me, Louise, and my roommate, Joel—sitting on a red gingham picnic blanket next to Marcel Proust’s grave. In our picnic basket are porcelain tea cups and saucers for lemon madeleines and tea; on our blanket, because we want to make the right impression, a vase of fresh hawthorn blossoms. We set four places on the blanket, certain he’ll show up, then go through the necessary procedures—lighting candles, holding hands, shutting our eyes tight as Louise asks Marcel Proust if he’d care to join us for tea.
I open my eyes and there he is, hovering above his grave in a black suit, white gloves, and a tall hat, an asthmatic ghost choking on his own vapors. He greets us with a coughing spell so severe I wonder if he might cough himself into another death. Finally, he clears his throat and asks what’s in the basket.
Her voice confident, Louise says, “Madeleines. Cigarettes, too.”
But her hand betrays her, shaking as she hands Proust’s ghost one of the pastries, which he dunks in his tea and chews silently. We wait, breath held, time paused.
“It’s lemon,” he says at last. “I prefer them plain.”
Hastily we give him a cigarette to get rid of the taste and make mental notes for next time, if there will be a next time, another tea with Proust. He asks me to scoot over, please, and sits down.
A spirit concerned with the temporal, he wants to know who we are—names, professions, social standing? Sparse with details, Louise introduces us. We are Henry and Joel and Louise, three college students from disparate parts of America who have recently arrived in Paris to study abroad for the summer.
I have a tendency to read everything, and yet somehow I’ve never encountered Proust before this summer’s course. Immediately I am hooked, content to wander through his prose for hours, to be pulled under by it, swept away in its magnificent tide. There are so many questions I’d like to ask him: his favorite color, his favorite composers, his favorite flavor of gelato (another delicacy I’ve fallen for this summer), but I’ve lost the ability to form words in front of this man of so many.
“Um, I, uh,” I stammer incoherently. I am always stammering incoherently, a malady that has followed me ever since I learned to speak. My tongue is like a car that won’t start, whirring and sputtering until I finally stop trying.
Louise looks embarrassed. “We shouldn’t have bothered you like this.” She impetuously starts packing the basket, sloshing tea everywhere and crushing the hawthorns. “Come on, guys.”
Because she had organized the séance and assumed unofficial leadership over us, we can do nothing but stand and smile helplessly at the ghost, faces that say look, Proust, we are sorry, but what can you do?
“Wait!” he cries.
When Proust tells you to wait, you do. We all exchange glances. For a moment, I forget about my stutter and the shame that accompanies it. In others’ company, I usually feel like a burden, a thing to be endured, but perhaps this summer will be different, for this summer has Proust.
“Take me with you,” he says, and because he is Proust, we do.
We decide that we love him. We are shy around him, self-conscious in front of this genius, but we love him nonetheless. There are few other appropriate responses to befriending a famous ghost. Joel and I let him stay in our room, where he sits at the window all night, marveling at the lights and sounds of the modern city, occasionally jolting upright at the sudden bleat of a car horn.
Ghosts, we learn, do not need sleep.
Proust does, however, need fresh air, even if he no longer requires it to breathe. Even in death, he is a man who takes pleasure in aesthetics, exposing us to the latent beauty of the world, impossible for us to see until it is extracted by Proust and then given to us—monologues on hawthorn blossoms, homilies on church steeples, speeches celebrating the music of rainwater plinking against Louise’s yellow umbrella. We do not mind when he stops mid-stride to examine a rose bush for several minutes, tugging at his phantom mustache as he scrutinizes each petal and thorn. Sometimes he assumes this position for hours, communicating with something we assume must be accessible only by reclusive French geniuses.
We love him because he is like stained glass, sunlight filtering through his translucent body and throwing rainbows on black asphalt.
Our classmates stare at him in awe, amazed the writer we’ve been reading came all the way from the grave just to visit us. Our professor is so stunned he cannot speak, puts a wavering hand to his forehead, and wilts like a flower deprived of rain. Proust immediately fetches him a glass of water and rouses him into consciousness, then offers to teach because the professor is still in shock. The class cheers.
Proust is our hero.
His cough rattles deep in his chest, keeping me up at night, although I don’t mind this—the great novelist Marcel Proust lives in my dorm room. I offer him cough drops, and, a connoisseur of etiquette, he politely declines. We are insomniacs together, talking deep into the night, Proust filling me in on every detail of the fifty-one years preceding his death, the china patterns on tea pots at dinner parties, the tiny figures passing by his upstairs window while he lied in bed and wrote.
“What about you?” he wants to know. “Tell me about yourself.”
A reader is an amalgamation of every writer he has ever encountered, every artificial world he has chosen over this one, and so I give him a series of names and places, nouns that somehow, when strung together, faintly resemble me: Dostoevsky and Dickens, Flaubert and Fitzgerald. I recall afternoons spent adrift choppy waters with Captain Ahab, gusty mornings at Thrushcross Grange, places much more fascinating than the farming town on the Missouri-Kansas border where I grew up, and with friendlier inhabitants who don’t mind when I let them dominate conversation.
With Proust, I realize, my stutter disappears.
He nods at my long-winded answer, a slender novella in its own right, but says those are all just stories—what’s my story?
This request makes me pause, but finally I admit to him that not everyone has a story, that some of us are just here to listen.
“Oh,” he says, confused.
Sometimes Joel joins us, but usually he prefers to sleep.
Proust doesn’t look both ways before he crosses the street. He is so excited about seeing the Champs-Élysées again he forgets to check for oncoming cars. A taxi runs right through him and he stops in the middle of the road, staring down at his wispy vaporous body in alarm, as if he has momentarily forgotten he is an apparition. We double over with laughter, thinking death must not be so bad—when you are dead, you are also alive forever.
I think it’s safe to say Proust and I are best friends. Truthfully, he’s the only best friend I’ve ever had, the only person around whom I’ve been able to escape the confines of my stutter. Joel and Louise, however, don’t speak to us much anymore, a silence whose origins make me nervous, but I choose to assume they’re tired of Proust, of having their lives narrated in ornate, meandering French. Maybe it’s my narrative style they loathe: red-faced, sputtering, sticky consonants that imbue even the most mundane dialogue—ordering food, saying goodnight—with suspense.
But Proust, I keep telling myself, isn’t for everyone.
Louise, at one time breathless with excitement as she plucked hawthorns to use as a centerpiece for our picnic, has discovered other pastimes: the Parisian nightclubs and a boy from Tuscon, his skin tanned a deep brown by the Arizona sun.
Joel walks around with hair sticking up like tenacious weeds, stubble springing up in uneven tufts all over his face. He has the look of an unkempt lawn, and only because he’s trying, without words, to send us a message—he cannot sleep. Our conversations keep him up at night. But Proust has so much to say, and I want to listen.
Joel eventually changes rooms, opting to sleep and eat amongst only the living.
On nights when Proust is quiet and busying himself at the window, I lie awake haunted by his question—what is my story? Childhood in Missouri, tornadoes and overdue library books, speech therapy and quiet Friday nights, nineteen years navigating a flat, low plain. I am made up of prose without adjectives, sentences that stop before they really begin. I try to imagine Proust writing about me and snapping his pencil in frustration: there aren’t enough details to fill even a single paragraph.
Maybe I do have a story, after all, and this is it: Proust and I meandering through Paris, one of us a tourist of the city and the other of this century. We window-shop, people-watch, let gelato drip down our hands from their perch atop sugar cones (chocolate, I’ve found, is his favorite flavor). I convince him to buy a tacky t-shirt of a cartoon mouse wearing a beret, and he sheds his old black coat, outrageous in the summer heat, for this new accessory.
I stop an American tourist, obvious with a clunky camera weighing down his neck, and ask, trying my hardest to retain my stutter, “C-c-could you take a p-p-p-picture of me and Marcel P-p-p-proust in front of the Eiffel Tower?”
“Sure,” he says with a shrug indicating the name Marcel Proust means nothing to him.
He takes my cell phone and tells us to scoot a little closer together, yes, that’s it, now say cheese.
“Cheese,” Proust says, grinning in his mouse t-shirt, and the flash blinks, preserving our friendship for posterity.
The last day of our study abroad program arrives, bringing with it used tissues and smeared mascara, friends bidding each other permanent farewells before they venture back to their respective portions of the globe. We are all gathered on the lawn of our dormitory one last time, waiting for the bus that will carry us to the airport. Awkwardly standing near a lonely tree, I watch Louise impose a parting kiss on the boy from Arizona’s cheek. Nearby, Joel and another boy—his new roommate, presumably—compare snow globes and shot glasses.
I go to tell Joel goodbye, hoping to salvage whatever’s left of our friendship, but the word gets caught in my teeth like paper in a fan.
“Have a good rest of the summer,” Joel says, his tone suggesting he doesn’t mean it, before returning to his snow globe.
Rather than a cheap souvenir, I’m bringing home Proust. He has never flown in an airplane before, nor has he ever been to the United States, let alone Missouri. Leaving Paris is not his idea. Even though France is dear to him, I can’t stand to send him back to the cemetery, the unyielding boredom, the perpetual gloom of his afterlife. I imagine a monochromatic country, the Elysian Fields in a season of drought.
A storm roars as our plane hurtles across the Atlantic Ocean, murderous clouds pulsing with lightning outside our window. Proust, understandably, is terrified; to calm him down, I provide him with a briefing on life in America, how quickly everything moves, cars rushing down interstates with headlights like fireworks.
I wait for his response; I want him to glow with excitement, to grab my hand and list all the cities we’re going to visit, all the places we’ll stop for gelato and flower-picking, leaving behind us little trails of plastic spoons and flower petals.
Instead, he looks at me tragically before throwing up into a paper bag.
When we arrive at the airport, I spot my parents right away, Mom still hobbling on crutches after her foot surgery, Dad with his missing left index finger that’d been sliced off in a construction-working accident. With his relentless cough, Proust will fit into the family perfectly, a group of people with missing and damaged vital parts.
Proust, of course, is missing his entire body.
“Henry!” my mom cries, hugging me.
“This is M-m-m-marcel—” I stop, take a deep breath—“Proust.”
Mom releases me from her clumsy embrace, takes one look at Proust, and jumps backward, nearly losing balance. Eyeing him with suspicion, she says, “Hello, Marcel.”
Unsure of how to greet a ghost, my dad extends his maimed hand and awkwardly pulls away.
When I tell my parents Proust wants to move into our house, I’m afraid they’ll chastise me for bringing home an undocumented traveler and demand this phantom promptly return to whatever afterlife he came from, but they surprise me by allowing Proust to stay with us as long as he does his part around the house—take out the trash, unload the dishwasher, read my little sister Kitsey bedtime stories.
Kitsey is five and decides almost immediately she hates Proust. She is terrified of ghosts, albeit respectful of them; she doesn’t mind if they stay in their proper places—under beds, stuffed in closets, tenants of cobwebbed attics and damp basements. After a week of living with us, my parents decide Proust can no longer join us at the dinner table or in the living room for Sunday movie nights—a great disappointment because animation fascinates him, paintings of princesses and fairies miraculously springing to life—for Kitsey screams every time he comes near her.
This is how Proust comes to live under my bed.
To make him feel less alone, I rarely leave my room, where I sit low on the floor, the two of us eating meals and playing board games together. He lives in a dejected community of the forgotten—foggy marbles, middle school math worksheets, a purple stuffed dog missing his left eye. These haunted and dusty living conditions do little in the way of improving Proust’s health. His cough is brutal, wet, thick with immortal phlegm. My family is desperate for a night of uninterrupted sleep.
Heartbroken by his relentless cough, I plead with him every night, “Please have a cough drop.”
“No,” he whispers back.
My mother wonders if he should see a doctor.
“Mom,” I say, “he’s a, he’s a g-g-g-ghost.”
But she takes him anyway. Dr. Willow puts a stethoscope to Proust’s see-through chest and goes pale when he can’t detect a heartbeat. He sends Proust back to us without a diagnosis.
He is a doctor, he tells us, not a coroner.
That night, my parents call me into their room for a family meeting. There are terse whispers, aggressive hand motions, exasperated sighs, Kitsey whimpering in an armchair and stroking the hair of a rag doll. Apparently she’d wanted me to bring her home an authentic French beret she could bring to show-and-tell.
Between little hiccups, she explains, “I don’t think ghosts are allowed at school.”
My parents tell me they didn’t spend good money for me to run around with an apparition. “We wanted you to make friends,” my mom says. “Real friends.”
“He is my f-f-f-friend,” I say.
Ignoring this rebuttal, they say they’d hoped I’d immerse myself in a new culture and come back a better person for it, improved and enlightened, speaking fluent French on the phone with friends I’d made, regaling fun stories from Paris at the dinner table in flawless English.
They wanted to spare me another dull summer at home reading, but what did I do? I brought a writer back from the dead.
“Please l-l-l-let him stay,” I beg.
But no, they tell me, this is not a haunted house.
Summer approaches autumn, leaves blushing crimson prematurely, a sign I know well—it is time to return to school, to a solitary and silent existence, and for Proust to go home to Paris. I buy a plane ticket and suppress tears as I watch him float through security. Our goodbye is terse, abrupt, no poetic lines of resolution. He does not sneak one last glimpse at me over his shoulder, just leaves. He is Proust, after all; he knows he won’t be forgotten.
I want to watch him take off, so I head to the observation area at the top of the airport. From there, one can see everything: the parking lot, the runway, planes cutting through the sky and disappearing into the clouds.
Standing in this room, I fall back into my usual role, the spectator, and am aware that there are two places where one can experience the entire spectrum of human emotion—books and airports. From where I’m standing, the people are no bigger than paint splatters, but combined they are some opulent work of art, laden with the tragedy of separation and the joy of reunion, feelings of displacement and trepidation and excitement in an unknown city, everyone at the end or beginning of some landmark moment they will always remember. And when the sun hits the window in a particular way, I can see my reflection, airy and diaphanous, hovering over everyone. In this airport, amidst all this life, I am there, too.
Aleyna Rentz is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and a reader for Salamander. She recently won 3rd place in the January/February 2018 Glimmer Train New Writers Contest. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net; it has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Fifth Wednesday, Wigleaf, Blue Earth Review, Barrelhouse, Hobart, and elsewhere.