Finding Oscar Wilde
“Who are you looking for?” the woman in the yellow blouse asked from her perch on a shaded bench. A cigarette dangled between her fingers and she gave it a flick, sending a wisp of ash into the light Parisian breeze. My tattered map of the cemetery was bent and torn in places and it flapped in the wind as I stared dumbly at her, at once intimidated and intrigued.
“I see you walk through these same graves three times,” she said in her deep, heavily-accented voice. Something Eastern European, all strength and timbre. “Who are you looking for?”
My feet felt heavy as lead, but I approached with a smile and a fluttering chest anyway. The memory of promising myself I wouldn’t say no to any experience on this trip thrummed in my brain. Traveling alone was always the plan, but that didn’t mean I’d have to be lonely. “Oscar Wilde,” I said, holding up my map again. “He’s supposed to be around here, but –“
“He’s this way. Come,” she said with a beckoning wave of her hand. “Come,” she said again, more persistently. With a deep breath, I followed this perfect stranger through the forty-acre sprawl of Pere Lachaise cemetery.
“Thank you,” I said politely, though I’m not sure why. She hadn’t really done anything for me yet, and she might have been leading me away to murder me.
“I’m trying to find Edith Piaf,” she said, looking forward. “You can help?”
“Oh, she’s back there.” I pointed in the opposite direction, the opening notes of “La Vie en Rose” having just sprung into my mind. A fitting soundtrack for Paris. “I just passed her. Her grave’s really inconspicuous. Easy to miss.”
“Okay, we go,” she said, turning on her heel and walking with purpose toward the final resting place of Ms. “Je ne regrette rien” herself. I wanted this trip to help me to regret rien as well. Rien de rien. All at once, I found myself on a mission with a stranger in a foreign country, walking amongst a bunch of very famous, very dead people.
She turned to me and looked me over. “I am Radha,” she said. “You’re American, or you’re Canadian?”
“American.” She nodded, then offered me her hand to shake. A new friend. “Do you live here?”
“No, my boyfriend, he live here,” she said. It always seemed odd to hear a woman around my mother’s age say “my boyfriend,” but I nodded and smiled.
“Oh, that’s really nice. You’re lucky to be in Paris,” I said. A bird was tweeting somewhere in the tree we’d just passed and I looked up to find him. The sun was shining so brightly through the trees that the sweater I’d put on before leaving the hostel that morning was becoming less and less bearable the more we walked. I unzipped the sweater and tied its arms around my waist. Checking my phone’s fitness app, I noted that I’d walked 8.41 miles that day, and my legs creaked more every mile.
Radha was walking more slowly now, hands clasped behind her back loosely. She wore gold bangles on both of her wrists and they clinked together like tiny bells.
“I guess lucky, yes,” she said. There was a question in her voice, as if she’d been weighing the particular luckiness of being in Paris. “My boyfriend work a lot. He’s not here often. I come by myself this time.” I wasn’t sure if she meant the cemetery or Paris itself. Judging by the look in her eyes, she was alone far beyond the walls of Pere Lachaise’s giant sleeping city.
“That’s too bad. Where are you from?”
“Bosnia,” she said and smiled. “You ever meet anyone from Bosnia before?”
“Never have,” I said. This made her smile more, and the sunlight dappled through the trees onto her blonde hair as she tucked an errant curl behind her ear.
“It is beautiful country. Nobody knows,” she said. Suddenly, she stopped. “Where we are on the map?”
The cemetery was so large it had street signs – the larger cobblestone streets were numbered, the smaller paths named. I looked around, one hand shielding my eyes from the unrelenting sun to search for one of the small black signs. “I think that says Rue Sixième, right?”
She squinted, following my eyeline. “Yes.”
“Okay, so that puts us…” I spun slowly, unfolded the map to its fullest, and tried to locate a grave I recognized. “Wait, if that’s Chopin,” I said, pointing at a gated grave covered in flowers, “then we’re with the musicians. Jim Morrison is up there. If we get to the corner of Rue Sixième and Jim Morrison, we’re on the right track.” We set off again down Rue Sixième, and Radha made a noise halfway between a grunt and a grumble. “Jim Morrison,” she said with disdain. “Woman-beater.”
“Really?” I’d only earlier stood in front of Mr. Mojo Risin’s grave with reverence. I even left my hair band wrapped around the gate protecting his grave as a token of my appreciation, as many do.
“Give a man a power, he beat everybody with it,” she said. I needed a moment to recover from this revelation that the lead singer of the Doors, a band so much a part of my childhood, was an abuser. “John Lennon, too.” The punches just kept coming.
“I didn’t know that,” I said. We were both quiet for the next few moments. My mind flashed back to what I’d come on this trip to forget – Matt’s angry fists coming at me faster than and stronger than I could fight off and words carried on whiskey breath assuring me it would never happen again. I tried to shake the thought away. This was the “City of Love,” and I was escaping all that violence. Matt didn’t deserve to be thought about on a sunny day in Paris.
“Come, it’s okay,” she said with a wave of her hand when she noticed my expression. “They’re dead.”
Her bluntness made me laugh, which surprised her enough to start laughing herself.
“I like you,” she said. “Americans laugh so easy.” Something caught her eye and she turned and pointed. “Look!”
“What is it?”
“Edith,” she said as her long legs propelled her toward the grave.
Radha’s excited smile crinkled the corners of her blue eyes. She let out a little yip and clapped her hands like a child as she approached the modest grave. It was small, and rather cramped. Edith Piaf is buried with her parents and cousin in a simple raised plot. No fence and flowers like Chopin, no shrine like Jim Morrison, no kisses like Oscar Wilde – just a few dead roses scattered nearby. It seemed a shame to me that a woman whose music exposed the world to so much of French culture lay in such a plain grave. I expressed this to Radha and she turned to look at me, her eyes aglow with reverence.
“Does it matter to her now?” she asked.
I supposed it didn’t. We stood in silence for a few moments. Radha looked at the grave the way my late grandmother looked at the statue of St. Anne in our neighborhood church when I was a kid. She worshipped her. Saint Edith.
“Do you want a picture with her?” I asked, breaking the silence. Radha had a digital camera on a strap slung around her wrist and I motioned to it. She didn’t look at me, but she smiled.
“No, no, honey,” she said. “We can just let her be.” I nodded. We started to walk away, our ultimate destination not exactly clear. Radha’s search for Edith had made me forget why I’d wanted to see Oscar Wilde in the first place. After a few paces, Radha stopped abruptly and walked back to the grave. She stood over it, looking at the name etched on its surface. Her face showed a curious mixture of joy, wistfulness, despair, and something more. A sort of longing. Just as quickly as she’d turned around, Radha bent down and kissed the grave. When she righted herself, she patted the spot she’d kissed twice, nodded, and turned on her heel to walk back to me.
“Where we go now? Oscar?” Just like that, she was all business again.
“We can, sure,” I said. “If you don’t mind me asking –“
“She had a hard life. Me too,” she said. “But her music was…” She paused, searching for the right word. “Something.”
“It was,” I said. To my surprise, she grasped my hand gently as we walked and gave it a little squeeze before letting it go.
“Thank you for helping find her,” she said quietly. “Now I help you find Oscar Wilde. He’s right by the entrance on the north side. You must have come in the back, by Balzac. This way.”
I followed her down the lane of graves until we reached the very end, where the painters Modigliani and Miro are buried side-by-side. “These two,” she said, wagging her finger between the graves. “Bad apples.”
“Like Jim Morrison?”
“In a different way. Users. Used women and toss them away like a tissue,” she said with disdain.
“I know men like that,” I said, nodding.
“We all know men like that,” she said. “We all. You married?”
“No,” I answered quickly. So quickly and apparently loudly that she snapped her head in my direction and raised her eyebrows.
“Very much not married,” she said. She chuckled and shook her head. “Probably good. Stay that way long as you can.”
I paused before I asked, “Were you ever married?”
“Twice,” she said. We began to walk again. “The first one was a Miro. Then there was a Morrison.”
“I had a Morrison, too,” I said quietly, eyes downcast on the cobblestones beneath my feet.
Thinking about Matt here was a habit I couldn’t seem to break. Growing up sheltered, I’d never been around addicts. It took me too long to realize that Matt had been addicted to heroin for years. When I met him, he’d just completed one of his many rehab stints, managing to stay clean for several months. And then he didn’t.
He very rarely acknowledged he had a problem, until the night he shoved me, hard, and threw his cell phone my face because I’d tried to hide his drugs in a last-ditch effort to save him. He didn’t remember doing it until the next day, when his friend, Timmy, reminded him. What I remember about that moment was a sort of crumbling.
I was icing my lip on his couch the next morning when he looked at me, concerned, and asked tenderly, “Baby, what happened?”
I remember looking at him, not with love, not with hate, but with a neutrality I’d never before felt for him. That felt worse. I put my head down. He looked at Timmy.
Timmy looked back and forth at Matt and me then said, “You threw your phone at her face, dude.”
I looked at Matt to assess his reaction. The night before, I had made a promise to myself that if he looked remorseful I would stay.
I still loved the Matt that I’d known before the drugs and his temper shattered our relationship. I missed everything about him. I slowly realized I’d been missing him for a long time. I thought clinging to the hope that he would come back made me strong, but I finally came to terms with the fact that the boy I’d fallen in love with – who loved me, kept me safe, laughed with me, rubbed my back – was dead.
While Radha and I walked, I touched a hand to my cheek to catch a tear I didn’t realize was there. Sometimes traumatic experiences creep up on you; a word, an image, a smell, a simple fleeting thought makes it all raw again. Sometimes traumatic experiences cause you to cry in Paris with a tall, middle-aged Bosnian woman you just met.
To her credit, Radha said nothing and just held my hand. Any more would have kept me crying for hours.
It was a long walk to Oscar, and we stopped along the way several times to admire graves we passed. One grave in particular made us laugh so hard our sides hurt. A man’s grave, decorated with his sculpted likeness in repose. His bronzed crotch had been rubbed shiny by what must have been years of tourist’s palms.
Finally, we saw it: a giant monument covered in lipstick kisses. Oscar Wilde. I took the notebook and pen from my purse and quickly scribbled out a tribute in my favorite language.
Wilde, donnez-moi le courage d’etre ecrivaine, poete, humaine. Toujours l’amour. Xo
“What did you say?” Radha asked me, peering over my shoulder.
“Mr. Wilde, give me the courage to be a writer, poet, human. Always love. X-O,” I answered. “Too much?”
“He’s dead, he’s not going to read it,” she said and shrugged. I giggled and placed my note with the slew of others at the base of the grave.
“Should I kiss it?”
“Of course! Kiss, kiss! Put your lipstick on, I take a picture!”
I handed her my phone and dug around in my purse for my lipstick. It was called Coral Fixation and I bought it at the airport in Atlanta because it made me laugh, something I hadn’t done in weeks. After slathering on far too much of it, I gently pressed my lips to the cold stone. Radha laughed.
“Perfect,” she said, showing me the picture she’d taken.
“Thank you,” I said. I smiled at her. “It was really nice meeting you.”
“Keep strong,” she said. She wrapped me in a hug and kissed my hair. “Don’t be stupid girl.” With a pat to my cheeks and a warm smile, Radha disappeared into the graves and I walked away, casting one brief glance back at the cemetery. The sounds of the city were nearer now, and I remembered that my new acquaintances at the hostel were waiting for me. We were off to the Moulin Rouge that night.
I stopped briefly at a fruit stand and picked up an orange. After paying the older gentleman with the wrinkled, happy face, I tossed my orange up into the air and watched it sail back down into my hand. I smiled. I felt breezy after my trip to Pere Lachaise. I didn’t know if it was Radha, or Oscar Wilde, or my jaunty walk back to the Metro, but for the first time in months I finally felt the coiled up boa constrictor that was Matt loosen from around my neck. The lump in my throat was still there, the fear of men, the ache of wanting to be loved and left alone simultaneously. But my heart was lighter, and I could breathe again.
Iris Ouellette currently lives in Northeastern Pennsylvania with her cat and has earned her M.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. Find her on Twitter @wild_iriss and Instagram @wild.iriss.