My Three Bodies

In 1958, between college and my first year of graduate school, I went to France for a summer to take courses at the Sorbonne. I had never been abroad before and had never traveled any long distance alone. Jet planes were not yet used on commercial flights; the trip took 14 hours. Paris seemed strange and gray to me, nothing like what I had expected. I didn't know what European cities were supposed to look like. I had a reservation in a small hotel on the Left Bank. When I arrived, I was told to follow a young - and very beautiful - woman to my room. She ran up the stairs to my room on the cinquième étage, which turned out to be the sixth floor, not the fifth. I followed with my luggage. I asked how to make a phone call to the United States and was told to go to the Post Office. It sounded like strange advice to me, but I did it and spoke to my parents, telling them I had arrived safely.

America had gotten very rich between the end of World War II and 1958. Maybe the same thing was happening in France, but the war was a significantly more destructive experience in Europe, even in Paris, where the buildings had not been harmed. Everything was poorer and stranger than I had expected.

My flight had been long and tiring and I tried to take a nap. The mattress sagged; when I tried to sleep I felt I was facing uphill. I don't know whether I slept or not, but I felt there were three people in the bed, one on each side of me, each a little higher than I was. I got out of bed and felt I was three people. We were named 20, 40, and 60. 60 was in the middle. Our sizes were in proportion to our numbers.

"Here I am on a continent where I don't know another human being and I'm going crazy," I thought. Maybe walking would help. I went downstairs, all three of me. I - we - walked through the Latin Quarter. "If 20 is attacked," I reasoned, "40 and 60 can certainly beat off the attacker." I assumed the attacker had to be the same size as the attackee. "If 40 is attacked, 20 and 60 still add up to 80 and will win. The big problem is that 60 may be the one attacked. Then 20 and 40 only add up to 60, and there will be a 50-50 chance of losing."

I - we - found this thought quite scary. But the chances of 60 being attacked were only one in three, and in that worst-case scenario, there was still an even chance of winning, making the odds that we would lose only one in six.

"Being crazy is very mathematical," I thought. "I have to become sane. Maybe an Alka Seltzer is the answer. But is there Alka Seltzer in France?" There was only one way to find out. I approached a passerby. "Pardon, monsieur, je cherche une pharmacie," I said. He directed me to a drug store.

Now the moment of truth was at hand. "Existe-t-il en France quelquechose comme l'Alka Seltzer?" I asked, dreading the possibility that it didn't exist and that the clerk wouldn't know what I was talking about. He handed me a package of Alka Seltzer without a word. I paid for it and headed back to the hotel, all three of me, and climbed back to my room on the cinquième étage. I - we - dissolved two tablets in water and watched them fizz, just like in the good old USA.

60 drank the Alka Seltzer; 20 and 40 blurred into nothingness. I was one person. Never again in my life did I experience being three people. I had returned to my singular status before 20 or 40 or 60 was attacked. Boy was I lucky!

The next problem was finding the bathroom, but I'll save that story for another occasion.

This essay appeared in And Then, Volume 11, 2003