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the 13-year houseguest


IMG_20140402_151515186-1If you’re anything like me (a public school educated American), you probably didn’t learn about Jean Cocteau in school.   You may have intuitively envisioned him (or her) as elegant, artistic and French. You might have sometimes confused him/her with Jacques Cousteau, or some famous old school French actress (hey, Jean is a girl’s name, right?).

cocteau

Photo of Cocteau at Villa Santo Sospir

At any rate, if someone mentioned Jean Cocteau in a conversation, you’d nod knowingly (knowingly, because the name sounds familiar) and say nothing for fear of embarrassing yourself by responding with something like “she was a great beauty, fine artist and a pioneer in deep sea exploration.

Turns out, Cocteau is pretty famous over here (male, FYI).   And he was no one-trick petite cheval.   He’s famous for poetry, literature, theater, art, ballet, films, music, set design, and the list goes on.   Dude did everything.   He was the first to adapt Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et le Bete) to film (yeah, I thought it was Disney, too).   He even designed jewelry! (I discovered this at the Musee de Cocteau in Menton).  Dear Lord and American school system, where has he been all my life?

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A few facts:   He was born in 1880 and died in 1963 (a few hours after his close friend, Edith Piaf’s death).   Not a bad run for a once sickly child before the invention of penicillin.  His father was a lawyer and amateur painter who killed himself when Cocteau was nine.   He published his first book of poetry at 19.   He was a hard partier and drug addict.   He was good friends with Picasso and Matisse.   Hell, it appears He was good friends with just about every famous person alive, from Coco Chanel to Marlene Dieterich to Igor Stravinsky.    Something tells me that if the E network existed in his time, he’d be top news everyday and much more popular than the Kardashians.   It appears, he was visionary enough to have his own Facebook page.

jmfbabbHe was bixexual, but his longest relationships were with men –Jean Marais was an actor (starred in most of Cocteau’s productions) and Eduoard Dermit a young writer he eventually adopted.    He struggled with opium addiction.   He lived like he was rich, but he wasn’t. Which is a nice way of saying he was a bit of a mooch; living well off of other peoples’ coin.   I guess he was just so wonderful, charming and clever, people just wanted to be around him and invited him to stay with them.

Which is how he wound up spending 13 years at Villa Santo Sospir on Cap Ferrat.

Cocteau, Weissweiler and Dermit

Cocteau, Weisweiller and Dermit

Francine Weisweiller, a rich socialite whose husband spent most of the time in Paris with his mistress, owned the villa. She invited him and his extremely handsome adopted 23-year old son, Eduoard Dermit to be her guest in the Villa for a week.   They wound up staying until over a decade later, when after a huge fight with Francine, Cocteau stormed out and they never spoke again.

IMG_20140402_150233772I’ve heard differing stories on the nature of Francine and Cocteau’s relationship.  I tend to think that putting up with a guest for that long without killing them indicates a love beyond reason, but that could just be me. One thing is certain, Cocteau never really left her. He left his imprint in the form of murals, tapestries, tiles and doodlings all over the house.  Santo Sospir was his sketch pad.

IMG_20140402_154519920After Francine’s death in 2003, Villa Santo Sospir was passed down to her daughter, Carole.  In order to avoid the huge inheritance tax and because the historic and cultural nature of the villa, the family had it classified as an historical monument. Unlike many historical monuments, it still evokes the essence of the people who lived there.  It seems unchanged, as if they’re all still present, possibly getting very drunk and having wild, celebrity/intelligensia-studded orgies on the terrace overlooking the sea.

The villa is open for tours, but unlike nearby Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild and Villa Kerylos, you have to make an appointment. Eric, the caretaker and once caregiver to the aging Francine, conducts the tours, and offers unique, intimate insight, much of which I probably either miss or misunderstand because the tour is in French.

It doesn’t matter. The setting is spectacular and It’s like Cocteau opened his brain and splashed it all over this quirky place.  You can practically feel the stories that happened over those 13 years.

In many ways, Villa Santo Sospir is the embodiment of the epitaph on Cocteau’s tombstone: “Je reste avec vous” or “I stay with you.”

No kidding.

A tour of Villa Santo Sospir

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trouble in paradise


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I have a small balcony. Well, actually, I have three tiny balconies.  There’s not a ton you can do with them.   There’s a small table, two chairs and a plantation growing on them.

IMG_5257To me, plants are like added decor–they add color and warmth inside and out.   And in many cases, they also provide handy kitchen necessities, like basil, chives, mint, etc.     In fact, I think my little garden ups the real estate value of the apartments facing mine; maybe the whole street.  I’ve been to the apartment across the street and my balcony is a joy to behold.   It’s tres freaking charmant, I tell ya!   It’s like the hanging gardens of Babylon on Rue Vauban.   My own private Idaho.

It’s spring and everything is blooming.   Including this yellow flowering plant that smells pretty nice.   This is the time of year I love my tiny balconies.   It’s not too hot to sit and have a cup of coffee out there in the morning, smell the flowers and look across the port at the still snow-capped alps.

But today, as I sit out here with my coffee, I hear buzzing.   I don’t think much about it, until I notice an inordinate number of bees out here.   Usually, there’s one or two.   This morning there’s more like six.  Or 10.   Or a hundred.   I scurry back inside and make sure all the doors are shut and locked before I investigate.

There’s a freaking cloud of bees circling my balcony that houses the nice-smelling yellow plant.   The yellow flowers are dripping with bees suckling on it.   Meanwhile, the air is thick with bees circling the plant and balcony waiting their turn.   It reminds me of the sky above Kennedy Airport on a busy day.   Or The Birds, if the birds were bees.

I’ve never seen so many bees in one place.  I don’t know what the hell is going on.   It can’t be the yellow flowering plant, it’s been blooming for a few weeks now.   Why are they suddenly attracted to it now?   Is this the only plant bees like in France?   Maybe they’ve conducted a pilgrimage here and have just arrived.   It’s like the hajj for bees and this one yellow plant is the bee equivalent of the black box.   Or maybe they bees are after me.   I have been eating a lot of honey lately.   Maybe they’re pissed.

What I do know is I can’t live with a gazillion bees circling my sanctuary.   Hell, what if they build a nest?   What if they have already?   Do they have bee exterminators?

But wait, I don’t want to kill them.  As my mother constantly reminds me, “Bees are good.  And they’re disappearing” (I beg to differ).  “The vanishing bee population is a sign of the end of the world.  Or the decline of civilization as we know it.   Or something really, really bad.”

Don’t worry, mom, I won’t kill them.   I just want them to go worship some other plant.  Preferably one in Italy.   Oh my God, they’re practically covering the glass on the door.   KILL THEM!

I Google bee repellant and discover that orange essence keeps them away.   But even if I had orange essence, I’d be afraid to go out there and spray it.   What am I gonna do?

I weigh my options.   Find a new apartment?   Marry a bee shoe-er?  Get rid of the pretty yellow flowering plant?   Never go out on the balcony (or open the doors) again?  Start making honey?

I close the curtains, because if I don’t see them they don’t exist.   But as I try to distract myself by writing something deep, meaningful and/or arty, a heavy feeling of doom settles over me.   I try to shake it off, but it keeps sneaking back in there.   It’s the bees.   They’re going to ruin everything!

beekeeper-clothing

my new outfit

I go over to check if they’re still out there and I don’t even have to open the curtain. I can hear them buzzing.   Now I’m cowering and whining pathetically to the heavens ‘Why me?   Why me? Why me?’   Worse, now I’m full of self-loathing because I just un-ironically sounded just like Nancy Kerrigan.

I need to do something that will totally get my mind of this whole bee situation.   Just forget about it.   Maybe it’s just some passing seasonal thing and will pass as quickly as it arrived.

So I go shopping for a few spring fashion necessities and buy a whole new outfit.

I feel better already.

a little lesson in french law

law_ebay_french_courtThere are somethings that just aren’t covered in the books on living in France and can be only learned from experience.

A friend of mine, who I’ll call Michel, learned something new just last Friday night.   This is his story.

What he remembers:   He went to a friend’s house, drank a bottle of champagne, a bottle of rose followed by ¾ of a bottle of Jack Daniels. He headed home around 3AM.

His final memory of the evening was singing Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” while performing an awesome air drum solo as he walked home.

He woke up the next morning in his bed with a bad hangover, which was to be expected. What he didn’t expect was to find himself wearing a pair of boxer shorts that he had never seen before. They were definitely not his.

Clearly, there were a few blank spots, so he called the friend he spent the evening with to find out what he missed.

Turns out, somewhere between the drum solo and home, he was arrested.   He was quite incoherent, but managed to give the cops the name and number of the friend who he had spent the evening with (merci a dieu it wasn’t me).   The cops called him and asked him to pick up Michel and to bring some pants.

His friend went to the police station and found Michel quietly playing poker with imaginary cards and opponent.  He also happened to be buck-naked from the waist down.   As near as Michel can figure it, he must have seen the bus station which is very close to his apartment, figured he was almost home and started taking his clothes off.

Apparently, the neighbors complained about the noise and the cops came to investigate and found Michel singing, without his pants on.   They brought him in, not because he was half naked, but because he was loud, and very, very drunk. They were worried he was a threat to himself.

As you might imagine, Michel was feeling pretty crummy as he told me all this.   Being the pain in the ass I am, I asked him if he learned anything from the experience.

He thought about it for a moment and I could see see the sparkle of realization in his eyes.

“Yes!   It’s legal to walk down the street naked in France!”

all hail the mighty lemon!

Monet's rendering of a branch of Menton lemons

Monet’s rendering of a Menton lemon tree branch

Last year in French class, there was a discussion about the Menton Fete de Citron.   My friend Michel scoffed at the idea, wondering how can they have a whole festival for a goddamn lemon?   He wound up going and returned a changed man, with a newfound respect for both lemons and the French who gave the lowly fruit the love and attention it deserves.

This year, my friend Angela and I embark on the same pilgrimage hoping for a similar transformation.

Menton is two or three train stops east of Monaco/Monte Carlo (about 10 minutes), on the French/Italian border.   You can feel the Italian influence as well as hear, smell and taste it.

IMG_6954For a place you’ve probably never heard of, it’s quite beautiful with grand buildings built in the 1900’s when rich nobles wintered here. It boasts a long pebbly beach fringing blue, blue water, an old town splashed in the warm sunny colors of this patch of the Mediterranean. It’s surrounded by dramatic cliffs that seemingly drop from Alps to the Sea in a heartbeat creating a perfect micro-climate (316 days of sunshine a year, they say).

So, what is Menton’s main claim to fame?   Lemons, of course.   Well, citrus in general.   But the Menton lemon is special.   It’s larger, often misshapen.   It’s also supposedly sweet enough to eat like an orange (I beg to differ).

Legend has it that when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, Eve grabbed a big, golden lemon from paradise and took it.   When they finally settled in Eden-like Menton (which was probably called something else back then), she planted it.   An industry and tourism hook was born.

Every year at the end of February-early March, the town of Menton holds a Fete de Citron.  It’s their equivalent of Mardi Gras except replace the beads, masks, great music and young people with lemons and oranges.

IMG_6812The place is packed.  I’m a little frightened despite the fact that half the attendees are walking slower and more laboriously than me (the median age here, appears to be about 70—I feel like a spring chicken)..  This is my first major public outing without my walking boot, and one pushy German could ruin my hard won, still tenuous mobility for me.

Orange trees line the streets, full of ripe oranges, festive in their own right. There’s something very reassuring about a place where food grows on trees.   I put Menton down on my list of possible places to be broke and homeless.IMG_6845

The theme of this year’s festival is “20,000 leagues under the sea.” I honestly don’t know what it has to do with citrus, but what the hell. The parade is the strangest combination of floats: ships, fish made of citrus, mermaids and the most baffling float of IMG_6797all, a kangaroo made of citrus.   Possibly left over from the Australian themed Fete de Citron, or maybe the Marsupial themed one?  There’s also a garden of displays (like the Eiffel tower and pagodas done entirely in citrus) and fireworks at night, and all kinds of citrus based products being sold.

Rumor has it, the lemons and oranges used in the floats and displays come from  Morocco—which I suspect is true, given their uniform, smallish size.  Some of these Menton lemons are bigger than a pamplemousse!

Possibly the most exciting part of the Fete de Citron for me, is the Menton lemon honey I sample in the one the stores, Mille et un Miels.   OMG.   Give me a straw.   Hell, I’ll chug it straight from the jar.  I’ll eat it with my hands.   Angela and I both buy a jar.

When I get home, I sit down to Google Menton over a nice hot cup of Lemon Honey (with a little water).   I discover that Jean Cocteau the French poet, novelist, dramatist, designer, playwright, artist, filmmaker. and general post-modern Renaissance man was an important part of Menton.   There is a Cocteau museum showing his work, as well as that of his friends’ Picasso and Matisse.   You can see more of his art in the Bastion, on the waterfront.

Being a person of taste and culture, suddenly, I’m obsessed with going back to Menton.  I’ve got to get more of that lemon honey!

my triumphant return to new york

IMG_6684I haven’t been to New York in over six years.   Going there in the dead of winter with a broken foot probably wasn’t my wisest decision.  Doing it during record cold and snowstorms, well, what can I say?   I’m an idiot.

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Rex Bennett

When I get to my friend and host, Debbie’s apartment she’s on the phone with her 18 year old son,Rex, who is away at college.   She tells him she’s giving Dante (their dog) an M&M (she isn’t).   Rex’s response comes booming from the little iphone:   “DON’T give the dog chocolate, it will kill him!!!!!”

Apparently, now that Rex is a college man they practice this ritual in many of their phone calls,.   It’s called long distance button pushing.  I’m familiar with the practice.   I do it to my mother all the time, except in our case, I’m the tormenter.  Just replace “I’m feeding the dog an M&M” to “Hold on a sec, I’m lighting the bong” or “I’m putting a glass of water on the coffee table without a coaster.”

Debbie has been my partner in crime ever since we met at Scali, McCabe Sloves, an ad agency where we were copywriters 20 years ago (or so…I don’t have the heart to do the actual math).   We first met while waiting for our shared art director in her (the Art Director’s) office.   We chatted as I watched Debbie open the drawer, take out a tampax, open the tampax, free the tampon from its cardboard applicator and color the cotton with a red magic marker.   When we gave up and left the office, Debbie casually tossed the now red tampon on the Art Director’s chair.   At that moment, I knew we’d be friends for life.   We’ve been saying, doing and laughing at inappropriate things together ever since.   We’ve been ROFL before it became an acronym.

So here I am in NYC, at Debbie’s with a broken foot, snow all over the ground and frightening ice patches everywhere.   I had originally planned to see friends, wander around Manhattan and revive my materialistic longings with window shopping in Soho.  Not gonna happen.  The sidewalks terrify me.   We decide to stay in, order Chinese and watch the Olympic opening ceremonies.

After dinner, right around the time the teams enter to wave their country’s flags, we break into the Lindt Chocolate bars she had purchased for my arrival.

Naturally, Dante comes over to investigate what we’re eating.

I don’t know exactly whose idea it was, or how it happened, but the following series of text messages transpires.   Whether it’s inappropriate or not, you’ll have to decide.  So far, the comments have ranged from blank looks, to hysterical laughter to wondering how much therapy Rex will need.

8:17PM (to Rex) IMG_1272

8:20PM (to Rex)

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8: 23PM Rex:  stop, you monster

8:24PM   Deb:   what?   do you think the hot pepper flavor is too spicy for him?

8:27PM (to Rex)IMG_1290Deb:   not to worry, I’m giving him the heimlich.

8:30PM  Rex:   You are sooooooooo LAME

8:35PM (to Rex)IMG_1294Debbie:   I’m giving him mouth to mouth.   tastes like chocolate.

8:40PM (to Rex)

IMG_1298Deb:   Oops.   You were right.

In the end, I didn’t accomplish a lot in NYC.   Nonetheless, t can leave knowing that I got everything I possibly could out of the once in a six-year visit.   My work here is done.

No animals were harmed in the making of this post. Rex is another story.

french vocabulary for the lame

les bequilles

les bequilles

Since my recent Strasbourg trip (in every sense of the word), I’ve learned some new French words and phrases that have come in handy.  This list should prove invaluable to anyone who plans to break a foot in a French-speaking country.

English:  I need a doctor.

French:   J’ai besoin d’une docteur.

 

English:  My foot hurts.

French:   Mon pied me fait mal. (or just point frantically at your foot and say:  “ce fait mal!”)

 

English:  I climbed to the top of the cathedral and when I came down, I fell.

French:  Je suis montais au les hauts de la cathedrale et quand j’ai descendu, j’ai tombe.

 

English:  X-ray

French:  Radio

 

English:  Plaster cast

French:  Platre

 

English:  My foot is broken.

French:  Mon pied est casse.

 

English:  I hate these crutches.

French:   Je deteste ces bequilles.

 

English:   Kill me now.

French:  Me tuez maintenant.  (this is when you’re addressing someone formally.   The familiar would be “me tues”)

 

English:   No!   Wait!  Don’t kill me!  I’m not serious.

French:   No!   Attendez!  Ne me tuez pas!   Je ne suis pas serieux.

 

English:  I hope you don’t mind that I’m leaning on you.

French:  J’espère que cela ne vous dérange pas que je me penche sur vous.

 

English:  Do you deliver?

French:   Livrez-vous?

 

English:   Great.   Please deliver me home.

French: Superbe. S’il vous plaît me livrer à domicile.

 

English:  Excuse me.   Can I borrow your wheel chair?

French:  Pardonnez moi. Pourrais-je emprunter votre fauteuil roulant?

 

English:   Do you have a strong back?

French:  Avez vous un dos forte?

 

English:  Please carry me.

French:  Me porter s’il vous plait.

 

English:  I’m sorry if I smell bad.   Bathing is difficult with this cast.

French: Je suis desolee si j’ai un odeur mauvais.   Baignade est tres difficile  avec cette platre.

 

English:  Are you blind?   Can’t you see I have a broken foot?

French:  Etes-vous aveugle? Tu ne vois pas que j’ai un pied cassé?

 

English:  I’m sorry.   I didn’t notice that you really are blind.

French:  Je suis désolé. Je n’ai pas remarqué que vous êtes vraiment aveugle.

 

English:  Help me!

French:  Taxi!

i’ve always depended on the kindness of cab drivers

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Where we left off: God just pushed me down the final step of the Strasbourg Cathedral stairwell and did something mauvais to my foot.  I’m in the lobby of the Hotel Gutenberg waiting for the doctor.

The doctor arrives.   He only speaks French so we communicate in the language of pain.   He taps my foot, moves it around and I yelp when it hurts.   He tells me he thinks it’s broken (casse) and I’ll need to go for “radio”.    He gives me a couple of pills, makes a few calls and escorts me (okay, drags me), downstairs to get a cab.

After a brief conference with the doctor, receptionist and cab driver, the doctor passes me off to the driver who pretty much holds me upright as I hop to the cab muttering “merde, merde, merde.”  He compliments me on my French.

Somewhere along the way, the pills kick in and I start to enjoy the chauffeured tour of the outer reaches of Strasbourg.   Woah, full moon.  We arrive at the Clinique St. Anne Urgences entrance and the driver gets me a wheelchair.

In the back of my mind, I believe that once I sit in the wheelchair, all is lost.   So it’s either that, dumb pride or that all-powerful feeling you get when floating on a schedule 3 narcotic that makes me refuse the chair.

I hop bravely up the ramp to the door…well, half way to the door.  Fortunately, the cab driver has the foresight to follow me with the wheelchair, providing a comfortable place to collapse.   He wheels me the rest of the way in.

off to get an X-ray

being chauffeured to my X-ray

I sign in, give them my insurance card, fill in a form and somebody pushes me to the waiting room.  I’m not sure, mais je pense I’ve been parle-ing fluent Francais and understanding tout ce qu ils disent.   Yaaaay!

There are a few people already ahead of me, so I fear a long wait.  Five minutes later, my name is called and I’m wheeled into x-ray.   An intern takes a picture of my foot and tells me to wait for the doctor.   Gotta love French healthcare.

In another few minutes, the doctor comes in and introduces himself as David.   Not Doctor David, just David.   Maybe he’s a night janitor.  I don’t care.  He’s cute.  He confirms that oui, my foot is broken and I will be getting a cast up to my knee.  Honey, you can put that cast as high as you want.

Then a horrible realization hits me.   I’m wearing skinny jeans.  There’s no way I can fit a cast under them.  I’ll have to take them off (well, at least one leg).   I haven’t shaved my legs.   I need a pedicure.   Dear God, what underwear am I wearing?   What will I wear back to the hotel?   What will I wear home?

After the cast is put on, the intern devises a lovely outfit by jauntily throwing the empty pant-leg over my shoulder.   She cuts some gauze as a belt and fashions a skirt out of a paper scrub top.   I feel like I’m on Project Runway. Fortunately, I have no photographic evidence of my one-of-a-kind look.   I’m pretty sure Tim Gunn would be mortified.

My cab is waiting, and I’m faced with a new dilemma.   In France, the hospitals don’t give out crutches, they’re prescribed.   It’s 8pm and god knows how I’ll deal with it.  It’s times like this I wish I was married.   Not that my husband would be of any use to me.   He’s probably back at the hotel watching football. Bastard!

bad

evil crutches

The cab driver, lady at the registration/incoming wounded desk and I discuss the problem and the next thing you know, the taxi driver makes a few calls, finds an open pharmacy and we’re on our way.

The pharmacy is in a huge complex set back about 30 meters from the sidewalk.   Both the driver and I know there’s no way I’ll be able to hop up there without taking several naps along the way, so he goes in and gets my crutches.

I had envisioned myself swinging breezily from the kind of crutches that rest under your arms, but in France these forearm wrapped ones are de rigueur.   I hate them.   The design forces users to rely on balance and core strength, neither of which I seem to have.   I’m more of a leaner.

I attempt a graceful exit from the cab.   The driver’s arms are out, ready to catch me as I stand up shakily and freeze like a dog on an escalator, trying to figure out what goes first, the crutch or the foot.

The trip to the hospital and pharmacy took an hour and a half.   It takes another hour and a half to get to my room.

I immediately start to pack (well, after a short rest).   My plane leaves at 7:30 AM and I have a lot to figure out before then. I’m happy to discover that I did pack pajamas.   I can wear the bottoms to the airport.   A thrill rushes through me knowing that for the first time ever, I will have worn everything I packed.  I’m also pleased to discover that I’ll save a lot of time in the morning because I can’t take a shower.

The next morning, I get to the airport (by cab) without a hitch.   The driver passes me off to the wheelchair and attendant he wrangled for me inside the airport.   I feel like a rolling baton being passed from person to person.

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At first, I’m a little embarrassed.   Yes, I’m that unkempt person in pajama pants being wheeled through the airport.   But as they whisk me through security, keeping close track of my passport, purse, coat and even wheel me over to the cash machine on the way to the gate.  I even get a whole row to myself on a packed plane (could this be because I can’t take a shower?).  They even fasten my seat belt. I could get used to this.  Maybe I’ll save the cast and crutches for all future travel.

Another wheelchair and attendant await me in Nice as well as my checked bag.  Once I’m comfortably in the cab, I realize a new set of obstacles await me.   Have I mentioned that I live in a third floor walk-up?

I’m pretty sure  I can get the driver to carry up my bag, which despite being small is way too much for me to handle with these godforsaken crutches.   But what about me?   I just fell down a stair.   The thought of three flights fills me with terror..   Maybe I can crawl?   Slither up on my belly like a snake?

In the foyer of my apartment building, the cab driver assesses the situation and has an idea.  First he carries my bag up the three flights.   Then he carries me,  piggy back.   He sets me down and holds me upright, while I open the door.   He carries my baggage in and helps me inside.   I pay him (HUUUUUGE tip).

I close the door and lean against the wall feeling an enormous sense of triumph and relief.   I made it!   I’m home!

A half hour later, once I’ve rested from the exertion of being carried up the stairs, I make the ½ hour trek to my couch   I begin to realize that getting home was the easy part.   How the hell am I going to get out of here?  How will I bathe?   How will I cook?  How will I get groceries?  How will I clean the apartment? How will I hang up my goddamn coat?   I’m alone now.  I have nobody to love and care for me. I’ll probably starve to death and my cat will have to eat me until someone discovers my remains.

Or, I can call a cab.

 ***

Postscript:   Don’t feel too sorry for me.   My niece, Alex came down from Switzerland and waited on me.   I’m so glad my sister had the foresight to breed!

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