“You walk strong and look people in the eye.”
That is how I remember Paulette’s advice, though I am not sure it was her advice. It is hard to remember dialogue when you didn’t really understand it. I had no concept of cities. It sounds a little off now. More likely she said, Walk strong and pay attention to your surroundings.
Paulette moved to Chicago when she was 18.
She was an incredibly fascinating hipster, and I wanted to grow up to be just like her. Chicago was a great city: the Sears Tower, the Renoirs at the Art Institute, the lake! On a trip to Chicago with my mother, we stayed at the Palmer House, bought clothes on sale at Marshall Field, popped into the Art Institute, bought a psychedelic poster in Old Town, a reputedly counter-culture area, and had lunch with Paulette.
I visualized Paulette living happily in Old Town. (She probably did not live in Old Town.)
Later, I would live in a city, in an apartment in a slightly dodgy neighborhood, and I would instinctively know how to act. (How you act is: move into a better neighborhood as soon as you can.)
Paulette told us everything was going well. She had a vaguely bookish job typing ceaseless articles for a twentieth-century lit professor. She checked his bibliographies, because he was a little sloppy. She mimeographed handouts, which he usually made up at the last moment. She said he drove her mad quoting Robert Lowell, who was mad. (She tore a poem out of a library book–bad, I know–and gave it to me: “Harpo Marx, your hands white-feathered the harp—/the only words you ever spoke were sound.”)
She loved her apartment in a dilapidated building in a bad neighborhood. She was friends with everyone in the building, it seemed.
I am haunted by an image of what happened later: her boyfriend hacking the ice in her apartment to salvage her possessions after a fire.
There was a big fire. It was winter. The building froze when the firemen doused it with water.
Paulette died of smoke inhalation. Others died, too. We cried and cried.
I wonder when they let her boyfriend into the apartment. Perhaps he snuck in, slipped past the yellow tape x-ed over the doors. Did he use an ice pick? I picture stalagmites and stalactites. I do not know what he saved.
Nobody talked about the cause. Code violations? Neglectful absentee landlord? Sad, irrevocable.
I have always been puzzled by another memory. When I was five, another friend, Pauline, and I were riding on the merry-go-round on the playground. Kids shouted and mocked her because she had freckles. “Shut up!” I was a strong girl. They did.
I do not remember her last name. She is not in the class picture. Did she move away?
The other day I suddenly realized: Paulette/Pauline. Paulette had freckles. Perhaps I dreamed about Paulette as Pauline? Paulette was a trusting, vulnerable girl with freckles. Perhaps I sensed that she needed protection?
But was it a dream? Was there a Pauline?
Paulette was real.