elle

| her (pronoun) | /ɛl/

You loved to watch her read. But you feared the storm that lingered beneath the surface of her smile. Indeed, her eyes betrayed a certain sadness, stemming, perhaps, from the realization that her life would never mirror the fantasies found between the pages of her books. And her staccato nights, fuelled by equal parts panic and epiphany, threatened everything. You wondered if she weren’t unlike a child, who shaped a structure to send it crashing to the ground. She pressed her face to window panes and yearned for a faraway somewhere. She spoke a language you did not understand, a language laden with longing. Hers were symbols fashioned of sorrow and shame. You had accepted long ago that she could not be kept. She was her own. She rode caffeine highs and benzo lows, and you waited ’til she could ride those whirling wakes no more. She measured her life in intervals—telling herself, if she could just survive this day, a week, one month—and before you knew it, a year had passed. Yes, a whole year had passed as you strove to solve the coded strain of her sacred smile and the glory of her harrowed gaze.

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horreur

| horreur (feminine noun) | /ɔʀœʀ/

This is my seventh year in higher education, and I’ve just learned that the highly disturbing, fucked-up books I love so much actually belong to a respected literary genre, the contemporary American Gothic; I have thus decided to refine my professional and academic research to this genre and become somewhat of a “horror scholar.” I love all types of literature, but I’ve always been fascinated by psychoanalytical literary theory and representations of mental illness in literature. As a child, I marveled at my father’s psychiatric texts, never realizing that my interest was bizarre for a girl of thirteen. And, preferring literature, I’ve never been much a cinephile, but I’ve developed a deep passion for horror films as I’ve grown older. Conducting research in this field has been a journey in self-discovery, and I’m continually asking myself why I so adamantly love a genre that most find appalling.

As someone who’s wrestled with those vicious demons of the psyche, I’m always eager to explore new forms of escapism, anything that doesn’t leave me feeling emptier than before. While most people seem to find that delicious escape in comedies and romance, these films only depressed me further. They don’t reflect reality, at least, not one with which I’m familiar. For me, watching these films only served to underline the contrast between a delightful delusion and a bitter reality. And I cannot cope with that great distance. At the film’s end, I was left feeling dejected and alone, instead of happy and fulfilled, the way I thought I should be.

The horror genre may be equally fantastical, but it often explores the undeniably real and disturbing facets of the human condition. Horror films enthrall me. They are able to capture my attention in a way no other films can. For those two hours, I am consumed with terror, and the film’s dénouement is addictive in its catharsis, like wakening from a nightmare to find you’re safe in bed. Edmund Burke, whose treatise to Gothic writing was central to the development of the genre, stated, “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the idea of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible subjects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” In this way, terror transports us; it consumes us, suspending our faculties of reason. I believe, as human beings, we must acknowledge and address the darkest, most depraved tendencies of our kind. Do not close your eyes.

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figue

| fig (feminine noun) | /fig/

I originally considered writing my master’s thesis on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. But rereading the novel and devouring research on the fragmented female identity, as portrayed in Plath’s novel, resonated too much and sent me spiraling. If you’re unfamiliar with the book, The Bell Jar chronicles the emotional breakdown of Esther Greenwood, an intelligent, highly-ambitious young woman living in the 1950s. The text was originally published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, because it is an autobiographical account of Plath’s struggle to reconcile society’s dualing ideas of femininity: the nurturing housewife and the successful career woman. Written at the height of the second-wave feminist movement, Plath believed that these two “personas” were mutually exclusive.

Using the image of a fetid fig tree, Plath outlines her dilemma as follows:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Plath’s story saddened me, because I identified so closely with her inability to unite these supposedly “dichotomous” expectations of herself. Plath never succeeded in doing so, and she committed suicide at the age of 30.

I finally stepped away from my research and chose another topic. Sentimentalizing the work was breeding an unhealthy relationship, and I knew I couldn’t continue.

But I wonder, if a fig tree stood before me prophesying my future, what would I see? Perhaps one fig would be a renowned scholar and professor of comparative literature. Another would be a loving mother in a cottage in the French countryside. Or maybe a private school teacher in the mountains of Vermont, where I see myself sitting on a porch sipping sour beer and stroking my dog. One fig might be a travel writer whose feet have treaded the sands of Senegal and admired the hillside cabins of Poland and India and Peru.

But unlike Plath, I do find myself reaching toward one of these fruits. My fingers graze the surface, and as it snaps from its branch, my hands begin to shake. While these futures aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive possibilities, there are sacrifices to be made. And I find myself questioning my ability to choose. How do I know I’m not making a grave mistake?

And my isolated locale distorts my perception and amplifies my fears like a strange and horrible reflection in a funhouse mirror. I am alone in the mountains, my only companions the hot sun and the endless sky. I wonder if I’ll feel more confident once I’m in Paris. Or maybe I’ll find myself gazing out a window and wondering, “And if I had chosen the other fruit?”

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lire

| to read (verb) | /liʀ/

In two months, I will take up my studies again and prepare a second Master’s degree in Anglophone literature. My imminent re-entry into academia has made me contemplate the reasons why I chose to study literature so many years ago. It’s an easy answer. Indeed, after so many people questioned my decision to major in English and French literature (“What the hell are you going to do with that degree?”), I quickly grew accustomed to defending my choice.

Since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Of course, there were phases during which I also wanted to become a relentless Harvard lawyer or an empathetic psychiatrist or a ground-breaking epidemiologist…but those dreams were short-lived, and I always found myself coming back to books. Because science and math never made sense to me the way literature did. How could there only be one possible answer? And no room for interpretation? A and B don’t always equal C…life is so much more complex than that, isn’t it? These subjects made me feel restless and confined. For example, I didn’t enjoy writing lab reports for my mandatory chemistry courses in college, because I couldn’t insert my personality, my voice, into those assignments, and the writing felt hollow and sterile.

And reading formed the foundation to my self-confidence at a young age. I was a fretful and introverted adolescent who envied her friends’ effortless beauty and affability. I’ve never self-identified as beautiful, and I’ve never been particularly athletic or artistic either. And in small town East Tennessee, this translates to “invisible.” I thus decided to cultivate my intelligence, reasoning that, if I couldn’t be beautiful or athletic or artistic, perhaps I could be smart (not that these qualities are mutually exclusive). To me, intelligence was a trait that no amount of loneliness could strip away.

To this day, I find myself fighting self-deprecating remarks with reassurances that I am so much more than just a body. And as the voices grow louder, screeching their profanities, I think back to a quote by James Baldwin: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

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histoire

| story (feminine noun) | /istwaʀ/

All of my belongings fit neatly in seven cardboard boxes, and I can stack them all in the back of my boyfriend’s Peugeot.

I do not own a house, but I have many. One is made of stone. It is nestled in the Appalachian mountains and has a tin roof that sings in the rain. And there is a cottage in Normandy, where the air is sweet as sugar, and the braying donkey wakes me at dawn. It is always warm and smells of fresh-cut wood. Then there is the bright, three-bedroom apartment in rural Lorraine, where the sun dives through the windows and makes us sweat at all hours. There is so much space, but we have found a way to fill it with laughter and beer bottles and a cilantro plant on the balcony. When I cook, the halls fill with the scent of sweet onions and curry powder, and the spices make our eyes bloom fat teardrops that roll down our cheeks. And soon, I pray, I will have an apartment in Paris. It has hardwood floors and large windows that look out on a street where the sun sets just right.

I do not have children, but I have many families. Their accents, stories, and personalities are as varied as the languages they speak. They have nourished me with champagne and creamy cassoulets. They have fed me heaping plates of spiced potatoes and scrambled eggs, and we’ve shared many Sunday morning mugs of milky coffee.

And I do not own a car, not in France anyway. But that has not kept me from crossing borders. I have ridden trains, some headed in the wrong direction. And I have white-faced flown over deserts and mountains and oceans.

No, I am not married. Nor am I engaged. But I do have someone who loves me. We’ve kissed in seven different countries, and we eat at least a burger a week. He says the house feels empty when I’m gone, even if it is a little quieter…

I am twenty-six, and stability is a concept as foreign to me as cyrillic. I cannot tell you where I’ll be two weeks or two months or two years from now, but I can tell you stories. I can tell you how to pack a suitcase or navigate a metro line. And I can tell you when the lavender fields of Southern France are in bloom. I can tell you that the Adriatic Sea is as blue as cerulean and that it is full of sea urchins. And I can tell you with honesty that my life has never felt unfulfilled for lack of a permanent address.

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sang

| blood (masculine noun) | /sæŋ/

While I was in Prague, I visited the Kafka Museum and marveled at a 100-page letter Kafka had written–but never sent–to his father, someone who remained an oppressive figure throughout Kafka’s life and work. Some people may ogle at this lengthy handwritten letter and think, What a waste that he never sent it!

But I identify with Kafka. His feelings toward his father mirror my own toward another family member. I can imagine how cathartic it must have been to purge himself, even temporarily, of the fears and insecurities that followed him into adulthood. To be able to address this threatening and omnipotent figure without fear of repercussion. And sometimes we don’t need a response. We don’t need someone to validate our experiences, to argue and dismiss the feelings we know we felt. Kafka wrote, “The effect you had on me was the effect you could not help having. But you should stop considering it some particular malice on my part that I succumbed to that effect.” Our pain does not render us flawed or feeble. And the fact that you’re my family does not excuse you from any wrongdoing.

If I could write you a letter, I’d explain that you misinterpreted my words and intentions. I’d say that you were too quick to dismiss how I felt, telling me that, during the darkest crisis of my life, I was “stupid” and that any attempt to address your complete deference during that period is my way of “playing the victim.” Maybe I’d tell you how your scathing remarks make me feel less than human, how they have caused me significant pain and grief. Maybe I’d tell you how I cried in Paris, after you belittled one of the most important things I had ever done. I was happy and proud, and you eviscerated me. Maybe I would tell you that your apathy frightens me. Maybe I would include a poem I wrote for you. Maybe.

But I know that I would close that letter by saying that any advice I ever gave you was never indicative of a superior wisdom or intelligence. It was simply my attempt to save you. If I could protect you from grief, heartbreak, disappointment, and shame, I would. I tried.

Should I too write a letter I’ll never send?

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an

| year (masculine noun) | /ɑ̃/

This was a year of radical change. Somewhere, something broke, and I offered the universe an ultimatum: Hear me, or I will go. How idiotic and narcissistic I was to believe the universe could bend and fold to my feeble will. Who was I to plea? I ricocheted between believing I was God and thinking I was ash. What fetid sorrow. What scalding white hot madness. No, I am grey and uninspired. I am boring and unlovable. I am only half girl. Half human. I am the nothing powder of crushed white bone. I am the suffocating silver of pre-dawn goodbyes. The wet breath of winter singed by lonely enamel sun.

In 2016, I mapped the geography of my sadness and ran screaming toward the Adriatic. I fell in love, and he threatened to leave because I was self-destructive and terrifying. I had some ephemeral quality, a tenuous and unwilling grasp on mortality. He sensed it wouldn’t be long before I severed that wiry and serrated cord. And I am sorry for the times I collapsed resigned on the inky midnight lawn, in sheets reeking of cigarettes and dust, in shadowed bathrooms locked against your pleas. On the streets of Budapest, running, laughing, gasping, falling.

I excavated the rambling surface of my euphoria and found the peaks of Nordic mountains I had clawed and climbed. I found too a weathered, tufted chair and the feathered twilight texture of your hair. The yellow stuccoed walls, the mosaic window panes, the ruins of an empire, my tear drops sullying a page.

Sifting through this strange debris turned my nail beds black. I tilled and scraped. I grasped and sweat while taking stock of a year gone past.

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