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The locals and tourists loved Sunday mass in the spacious Cathedral. And their good fortune seemed to lead to guilt feelings that always filled the styrofoam cup that I held out. My mother, Balthar, played the role of the crazy gypsy. Screaming across the square, she would yell at my sisters in our dialect of Rumanian, causing the worshippers to stop and stare. My sisters would yell back and take taunting stances, showing off their ripe pubescent bodies. Father, leaning on his crutch and smoking a hand rolled cigarette, would shake his head in disgust, while Uncle Ralida pretended to be blind, but not deaf. Aunt Erganya never left her position by the wrought iron gate next to the vaulted entrance, ignoring the drama my mother created. These were the players from our family, although the other gypsies made our entourage add up to nearly a dozen. Our turf was the Cathedral of Notre Dame and Paris was our treasure. Mother made sure our flat in Montmarte was clean, but she never forgot to smear dirt from the gardens that surrounded the square on my cheeks. I was not allowed to wipe the snot from my nose or tie my shoes, but I would get a swat if I failed to smile when I pleaded for Francs. The days began with the short ride on the underground and the longer walk from the station to the square. Father wasn’t very fast on his crutches and he was usually drunk no matter how early we arrived. The pants that covered his stump were pinned to his upper thigh and sometimes came undone, causing him to trip and my sisters to giggle. Father knew swear words in more than 10 languages and there are many ways to say “little whores”.
When we got to the square in front of the Cathedral, we would have a family meeting. Father always led, saying the same thing. “If we get 500 francs today from the smelyin, we’ll stop at the chocolatier.” We never failed. He always remembered to warn us about the plain clothed gendarmes and to run to him if they tried to hassle us. Father would then tell the girls to wipe off their lipstick and for Aunt Erganya to go to her spot. It never varied, except sometimes he was less steady on his feet than others, due to a late night at the bistro around the corner from our flat. On this January Sunday, the Parisian sky was blue and the air was crisp enough to make mother shiver under the layers of ankle length dresses. Her scarf was pulled tight and the wool shawl that covered her plaid jacket rippled in the breeze. Pigeons scavenged for crumbs and the bum with the dog tied to his cart was already next to the stairs down to the toilets. The square was full of the reverent and curious enjoying the sun and the view of gargoyles before going inside for the midmorning mass. Mother squatted on the curb 10 meters in front of the Cathedral. I was tucked between her thighs and felt warm and comfortable, my right hand holding out the white cup. When a good mark approached, mother would usually hiss in my ear, “Smile, you little goshin.” Sometimes, she would pinch me, but today my clothing was too thick. Father was smoking and resting on one crutch next to Aunt Erganya. The sisters were no where to be seen. They usually snuck away to flirt and smoke cigarettes in one of the alleys beside the Cathedral. Mother squeezed her thighs together and said, “Smile.” A woman was walking slowly toward us, holding the hand of a little boy who must have been about my age. Five. The boy stared at me. He was dressed in the finest Gap for Kids outfit. I knew about Gap
for Kids from the fashion magazines my sisters brought home and shoved in my face saying “you’ll never be like them.” I couldn’t figure out whether I wanted to or not and where their parents begged that allowed them to buy such expensive clothes for their children. I thought Notre Dame was the best place. As they got closer, mother pushed me to my feet. I almost stumbled over my untied shoelaces. The two pairs of pants made my knees stiff. I held out the cup and smiled, a line of snot tickling my upper lip. The blonde haired mother stooped and pushed the boy forward, whispering in his ear. The boy stepped to me and held out a Franc in his mittened hand. I let it drop in the styrofoam and heard it jingle with the other coins at the bottom. This scene had played out many times before, especially on Sundays. But this time something popped in my brain. For some reason, I wanted to be him. I wanted the pressed pants. The thick new leather coat. The shiny shoes. The blonde haired mother. Thoughts like this had never entered my mind before. I dropped the cup and hugged the boy, kissing his cheeks like my father always did with the other gypsy men. The boy began to pull away and I held him tighter. I didn’t want to let him go, thinking that maybe I could become him. Some of the gypsy women said it was possible to become someone else if you said certain words and drank a potion. I didn’t know the words and only had a bottle of Evian in my mother’s pocket to drink. Maybe squeezing hard would make my soul his.
The boy began to cry and push me. My mother was screaming “let go of him” and pulling on the back of my jacket. The boy’s mother tried to pry my fingers away. I held tight. I noticed other people were watching and moving toward us. I didn’t care. This blonde woman would take me home and make me hers. I would have a poodle and a bed of my own. Toys made of something other than unpainted wood and soft stuffed animals with real eyes, not buttons from my father’s old shirts. Meals with fresh croissants, not just greasy stew. My new bike would be parked by the door and I would ride it on the Champs, her laughing and running after me through crowds of grinning tourists. At night, she would read to me in French about little girls who lived in churches. The gendarme reached us at the same time as my father. They began yelling. Hands grabbed from both sides and I couldn’t hold on any longer. The boy’s mother pulled him to her and began to stroke his head through his stocking cap. His face was smeared with my snot, little streams of his tears making paths through the dirt from my cheeks. I could smell her. She smelled nothing like mother, who rarely bathed and sweated unendingly under all her clothes except for the nights when she went out to dance. The boy’s mother reminded me of fresh lavender that grew in the park near our flat. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my father push the gendarme, who shoved back. Father fell to the cobblestones, his crutches bouncing against the curb. Mother was screaming louder than I had ever heard. Uncle Ralida had made his way to the commotion forgetting for the moment that he was supposed to be blind. Even my sisters had appeared, shrieking at the gendarme to “leave my father alone.” Aunt Erganya leaned over father and tried to help him up as the gendarme
stood threateningly above him. Father sputtered, calling the gendarme names in many tongues. We were surrounded by a crowd, a few of them Japanese taking pictures. But my eyes never strayed from the boy and his mother. I was under a spell stronger than any my grandmother recited from her book. I wondered how anyone’s hair could be as blonde as this woman’s and how her eyes could be so blue when all I knew were black hair and eyes. How could her teeth be the white of the nun’s habits and her earrings sparkle like the summer sun on the Seine? The scene around me was getting louder. More gendarmes came to help. The gypsy family was joined by the street people who lurked in the corners of the square. Dogs barked. Onlookers pushed to get a better view. Soon, a riot would break out. The boy was watching me and crying. I stepped forward and held out my hand. He didn’t hesitate, taking it in his. I knew he knew. Five years old and he knew I wanted to be him. And never could be. Everyone close by saw the gesture. There were “oohs and ahhs” all around. Mother stopped yelling and father even stopped splutterring. It took father another five hundred francs to the gendarmes to reserve our place again, but we were back in business the next day, my rear still sore from the lashing. But I knew I would never be the same. There was a world of lavender and diamonds out there and Notre Dame was not my last stop.
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