Wednesday, May 10, 2006

In which Cupcake pays homage

A shop window in Paris held a shirt I wanted you to wear. It was a pirate’s shirt, with open ruffles at the chest, and billowing sleeves that from the elbow to wrist, tied tight with criss-crossing laces-- the better to swashbuckle with.

A shirt like that demands a certain something. Not many people can carry it off. Napoleon, maybe. Errol Flynn. And you. You could wear that shirt. It would show, outwardly, who you are.

I didn’t know you then. I saw the shirt while I was waiting for my friend Rupert to buy a sandwich. We were walking to Napoleon’s Tomb, and we made two stops along the route.

The first stop was for Rupert to buy sandwiches. They were beautiful sandwiches, in long thin baguettes. He bought two and offered me one.

”Thanks, but I’m not really hungry,” I said.

He smiled. “I knew you’d say that,” he said. “The real reason I bought the second one is so I could eat it. If I pretend it was for you, I’m not indulging myself.” He made me take a bite of it to give credence to his self-deception. The sandwich was delicious. Made more so, no doubt, by my having already given it up.

The second stop was at a flower shop. I bought three pink roses. They were large buds, like babies’ fists. My friend had finished his sandwiches by this time, so he came in the shop with me.

The florist was a dignified elderly gentleman who wrapped the stems carefully, as though it truly mattered to him that the flowers were fortified, safe within the paper for their journey to the rest of their lives. .

“Ces fleurs sont pour l’Empereur,” dit mon ami Rupert. “Ils sont pour Napoleon.”

The florist had been quite formal, almost stern. But upon Rupert’s words, he smiled. He handed the flowers to me with a flourish and a little bow, and as we left the store he watched us, approvingly, from the window.

We walked on to Les Invalides, to the Tombe where Napoleon rests.

Buonaparte died and was buried at St Helene in 1821. In 1840, his nephew (who’d just appointed himself Napoleon III) had him exhumed and returned to France and laid in for eternity at a celebrated veteran’s hospital and war memorial called Hospital des Invalides.

The tomb is on three levels. The crypt itself, made of porphyry and self-consciously grand, sits on the ground level. It is encircled by two galleries where observers can lean against the banisters and look down, standing above Napoleon. (This seems a cruel final irony to me, as we know he was self-conscious about his height.)

Rupert and I stood there at the tomb. My idol lay within a big marble Victorian box. I started to unwrap the roses, thinking to drop them, naked, onto the floor of the well encircling the crypt. But Rupert looked at me skeptically.

”You’ve come this far,” he said. His look was a dare, but it was not mischievous. It simply asked me to reckon what this gesture meant to me. His look said, “This is where you decide who you really are. What you risk shows what you value.”

This startled me. I knew he was right. But I hadn’t been thinking in such terms and was unprepared. Still. What would Napoleon do?

I glanced around quickly to make sure no guards were looking, and then climbed over the marble barricade and jumped the five or six feet to the floor below.

I laid my offering beside the tomb. I reached up to lay my arms along the marble side of it, thinking of the Little General within.

A flash went off, and I looked up anxiously, afraid it was an alarm. But it was only a Japenese tourist taking my picture.

Rupert helped me back up to the other level.

I’ve always been glad I leapt down to deliver the flowers in person. And that I touched the tomb, paid my homage to Napoleon. I admire him so.

I admire him because he dared himself to embody the magnificence he knew was inside him. Because he knew no obstacles and would not, himself, have hesitated to leap into the well. It would never have occurred to him to do otherwise. Whereas me—I have to be reminded of things like that. That’s why I keep a framed postcard of Napoleon on my desk. My office, in Vermont, is filled with prints of him—two of which I bought there at Les Invalides, right after I delivered the flowers.

The thing is, I have always remembered that shirt. The shirt I saw while Rupert was buying his sandwiches.

When I see you in my mind, you've always worn it, Pirate that you are, taking on Destiny with brilliance and courage, and the daring,relentless spirit that inspires legend.

I would buy you the shirt, if I could find the store.

5 Comments:

Blogger ducklet said...

lovely homage. you're right. not many can pull off the pirate shirt.

12:29 PM  
Blogger SRH said...

I think risking getting thrown out of Les Invalides could warrent a pirate shirt.

7:30 AM  
Blogger cuff said...

That's a daring move. I should have done the same thing at Voltaire's in the Pantheon. Considerably easier to get in and out of.

9:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Such shrits are only worn by retired pirates, when they deign to be dressed by thier lovers

1:26 PM  
Anonymous peefer said...

I would have had to be in a special mood to do the same. Spontaneity is funny that way.

I liked this story. Hi.

3:24 PM  

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