Thursday, March 27, 2014

Shameless


The world changes, 
love stays.
~Charles Aznavour

I don't know why I've been thinking of it again. Not thinking, exactly: The memory flashes for just a second or two, a few whispered words in the dark, a slight movement caught in a spotlight. The feeling of exposure. It was so long ago, but it's just that this image intrudes more and more—while I'm doing ordinary things, like washing the dishes or petting the cat or turning out the lights—and there must be some explanation.

          My mother sat beside me in a dark theater, looking pissed off and resigned; I was only seven and didn't know what to expect. Charles Aznavour, the world-famous chanteur and protégé of Edith Piaf, was in town to do a show and my mother's cousin Levon was his lighting guy so we had free tickets and an invitation to come backstage after the show. It was supposed to be a great honor except my mother hated him, the way she hated Chopin, because his music was embarrassing and self-indulgent.

          Forget Edith Piaf, or the accolade "France's Frank Sinatra": Aznavour is to the Armenians what Barbra Streisand is to the Jews. For Streisand's cross-eyes and big nose, Aznavour has no discernible upper lip and is barely five-feet-three-inches tall. These two simultaneously confirm and absolve every ethnic slur.

          At a low point early in his career, Aznavour had gotten drunk and written a list of his deficits, "My shortcomings are my voice, my height, my gestures, my lack of culture and education, my frankness and my lack of personality ... I am incorrigible … I say ‘merde’ to anybody, however important he is, when I feel like it.” When he sobered up, he realized the only way to succeed would be to channel his shortcomings. In every song you will find his bluntness, his lyricism, his existential grasp that we're always in the process of losing what we love most, his street-savvy arrogance, his small, expressive body and his languid, direct gaze.

          My mother was right; Aznavour was embarrassing and self-indulgent. But he was also shameless and unapologetic, and when he sang to us, when he sang to me, spoke to me in his rich, tremulous, heartbreaking voice, he also spoke for me. Which is a little strange because he was a man in his 40s then, singing songs, mostly in French, about the passing of time, love and grief, how memories mix with desire, but mostly, he sang about sex. He ends his song Toi et Moi, for example, with the words, "Pleasure me, make love to me." I didn't understand the words, but I felt them.

          Singing isn't precisely the word for what he does. He uses his body, as well as props; a cigarette (he smokes while he sings), a white handkerchief, a chair. He turns the chair the wrong way and straddles it, resting his head on the chairback, as if he's too tired to fight it anymore, this woman, these emotions, time itself. He lights a cigarette, exhales smoke, and begins to talk. (In a recent interview, when asked if he thought he was the end of his musical lineage, he answered that rap, when it has the feel of street poetry, is the new chanson.)

          He speaks English with a heavy French accent, and although most of his songs are in French, the one I remember was in English, and the part I remember is when he stops singing, mid-song, and begins to talk to an imagined lover.

          What he does next is incredible—as he's telling his phantom lover how he wants to hold her when they dance, he turns his back on the audience and begins to dance alone, embracing himself, miming the hands of a lover. He murmurs adoring words to himself. While his hand reaches around to caress his shoulder, his hair, the back of his neck, he becomes both lover and beloved. The audience applauds.

          I could barely breathe; my mother called it kitsch.


When we went backstage, cousin Levon sent us to the back of the line so we could stay and chat. I watched women of all ages blush and stammer as Aznavour shook their hands and signed autographs. In the end we approached and stood before him like the wretched before God himself. In the middle of the empty room, under a glaring light, Aznavour was seated on a high stool. It gave him a taller appearance as long as you didn't look down at his dangling feet.

          Aznavour said something in French and Levon handed him a towel. After he rubbed the sweat from his face and hair he tossed the damp towel back to Levon, who made our introductions in English.

          "Speak to me in Armenian," he said to my mother. They were about the same age and though neither had been born in Turkey, both of their parents had been Armenian exiles so Hayeren had been their first language.

          "That's artificial to me," my mother said. "Why should we speak Armenian when can both speak English?"

          "It's not artificial, it's natural. It's only artificial when you make it that way." My mother looked like she wanted to slap him while he, in return, just seemed amused. They understood one another, but they spoke different languages—he continued to speak in Armenian but she answered in English.

          "Do you like my music? Tell me your favorite song?"

          "You're putting me on the spot right now."

          "Yes, I am."

          "I suppose ... Yesterday When I Was Young," she said.

          "And what about you?" he asked me. I answered truthfully that I liked all his songs.

           Aznavour reached over and picked up a record album and a pen from the table beside him and signed the album cover for me. He offered my mother a cigarette and lit both his and hers with a single match. He took his time lighting it.

          "It has been a very great pleasure meeting you," he said in English, extending his hand first to my mother, and then to me. Right away, I slipped my hand into my coat pocket and made a fist, to hold onto his touch.

          As soon as we were in the street, my mother dropped the cigarette and crushed it under her heel.

          "Well, I'm glad that's over with!" she said. "He's so full of himself. I just can't stand men like that."

          That first time I had disagreed with my mother we became complete strangers for a moment—but only I knew that. For the first time, I had a secret. A real secret.


If to love is to recognize yourself in another, then love is both a doubling and a uniting, is both dependent and independent. When a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? When I love and my beloved isn't there, does love exist without that person's presence? Logic has no place in this conversation; besides, we know the answer already.

          Before my mother died, she told me I would find a box of love letters written by my parents to each other before they were married.

          "It will be very interesting for you to read," she had said. "But not now."

          After her death I found the box of letters hidden in a closet. She had labeled the box for me with her customary attention to detail, but I've been afraid to open it without her. My tough, pragmatic mother had been a closet romantic all along. Her unwillingness to share her secret until after she'd reached the relative safety of death makes me feel indescribably lonesome.

          Tonight I drive past the hospital for the first time since my mother died. I would gladly go out of my way to avoid it, as I've been doing for the past three months, but there is no other way to get to my destination. Because dying is pitifully hard, lonely work, we lived out the last eight days of her life in that hospital together. All its windows are lit up now with the suffering of new inhabitants, but this also suggests to me the continuation of my mother's suffering. Her anguish is no less real for me now than it was during her final days. For anyone to say "she's not suffering anymore" is offensive and inaccurate. I drive with a vengeance, tunneling through the air as if I'm mining a world of pain, drilling through solid rock, just to get away.

          After a while, when the hospital recedes and my mood clears, I catch a glimpse of Curt, my first love. Just a flash of him, the same way I flash on Aznavour turning his back. I summon this image of Curt again, and then again, till the sputtering flash of still pictures assembles into a moving reel. I drive through this projection as gladly as a bird flies.

          When I started seeing Curt again a couple of years ago, after decades apart, I'd felt as if a germ had entered my body. I'd wondered if I had the flu. Later, when I began to understand, I told myself it was irrelevant, nothing to be troubled by, that wanting to touch him was as natural as breathing, and had only to do with sex.

          But what better description is there for love than a germ entering the body? To deny love because it's impractical or unrequited is logical, but it's absurd. The world changes, love stays.

          Loving Curt is a curious kind of self-love. The thought of kissing him, which won't happen again in this lifetime, always gives me an exquisite belly ache. I kiss him over and over in every conceivable way, to my heart's content. But my heart is never content and the reel is on an infinite loop.

          I recently overheard a playful conversation between Curt and a lovely Asian girl less than half our age. "Love," he told her, "is a risk worth taking." He is shameless. I was so angry at him, so terribly hurt, but how can I disagree? Pleasure me, make love to me. Or not. Either way, I will love as if my life depends on it. I give myself such pleasure by loving him, although that pleasure is equal to the pain. Love, every kind of love, is always exactly worth its weight in grief. [Applause.]
Aznavour's Les Bons Moments and Dylan's Cover

Aznavour interviews in Armenian.
She starts by asking, "How are you?"
He answers, "I'm tired. But I'm 80, that's to be expected."
Eventually, Aznavour lapses into English.

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