Matisse, The Bay of Nice
July 15, 2016

In Nice

France and French things have been part of my writing life for a long time. I’m thinking of Nice today, so I’m posting a poem set in Nice, which is in Magdalena, my prose poem collection. Nice isn’t named, though I do refer to vieille ville, old town.

Trains carrying sleepers

The dolphins made me stay in that town. The first time I saw them I could not believe they swam so close to shore. The water darkened and blistered above the places they swam, and the strange blister of sea moved, ignoring the current. When the dolphins broke the surface, I could see their fins above the roiling water. On sunny mornings, the dolphins’ bodies looked gray-blue against the silver surface of the ocean, but on cloud-filled days or in the evening, the dolphins were black arcs. When they left the shore, they headed toward the southern horizon, the coast of Africa. If I did not see them on a certain day, I imagined that they stayed in some brighter water to feed.

I had a cheap room in the town, far from the water, in a pension near the train station. The coming and going of trains broke my sleep but comforted me, too. I liked to wake and think of all the people sleeping in their compartments, going further along the coast or north, and then I would sleep again. I didn’t care that my room was small and that my sheets weren’t changed every day – I was there for the sea. 

I walked to the beach every morning and did not go back to my room until night. In a week, my skin was brown and accustomed to the sun. I believe I could have stayed all day in the light, but always I left the beach at noon to buy fruit for my lunch and to find a quiet place to sleep in a park that overlooked the city. No one bothered my sleep, though they might have – a woman alone. My reddish-brown skin and tangled hair, my cheap clothes, even my smell since I bathed only in the sink in my room and at the showers on the beach – something protected me in my sleep. When I woke up, I went back down through the vieille ville to the beach for evening.

I lived like that for a month, then another month. I was too poor to go anywhere except the water, but I didn’t care. At night I walked home along the avenue, my skin brown and tight, and watched people promenading in the night air. I could have had lovers – the owner of the pension knocked on my door with magazines in English and asked me not to call him vous, but I didn’t want him. I didn’t want the young Swedes who threw francs in my window when they saw me bathing, and I didn’t want the young Arab workers on vacation from the industrial cities who hissed at my pale hair when they saw me walking on the boardwalk.

They were handsome enough, but I did not want a man. I wanted to sleep on my dusty sheets that smelled of my hair and skin, of baby oil, and the strange sea-sweet smell I carried between my legs. I lay in bed each night listening to the trains carrying their sleepers, and I thought of the dolphins. I longed to touch their blue-gray skin, and I wished for a tail strong enough to carry me through the dark sea. I wanted a body that did not split at the hip, that did not open and open.

 

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About Maureen Gibbon

Writer. Author of the novels Swimming Sweet Arrow, Thief, Paris Red.

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