Departures, Cont.


II. Vendredi

I have come to regard anyone who speaks more than one language as the bearer of great and unearned power. You say bilingualism and I imagine ice sleds, healing factors, and flight. In New York, I am surrounded by the secret schoolmen of Salem. They speak and my fingers dabble at the inhibitor collars.

I am deep in my dark and twisted lab. I am building a machine of fantastic power and awesome savoir-faire. Soon I shall flip a switch, and all those who laughed at my "Parlay-vouz" and "Jay Nay Say Pahs" shall turn, light leaping from them into the cone of my terrible device. Then they will stagger before brilliant me, blinking and depowered. For now I just murmur "Mutie scum" under my breath and bide my time.

I am in Geneva, like the only human on Asteroid M. They told me that the people would switch to English as soon as they heard my French. But this only happens when we are discussing money. An entire conversation will go over in French. Then from out of nowhere a merchant will say "twenty-five" and then there is nothing but French. I was unprepared for the loneliness of thought. The only spoken English is in my head.

But people were as people usually are--kind. I expected fewer black folks. But they were there. They did not nod, or flash a secret sign, as they sometimes did back home. There's no real reason for them to do so. Skin prejudice in America is a specific thing, which is different than saying skin prejudice in America is a unique thing. How it shows up in Switzerland (beyond the obvious) I don't know. But I made no assumptions.

I took a train into Paris--just under four hours--then the subway to my hotel. Here, the manager could smell all of America wafting off of me and spoke to me in English.

"You won't mind if I inflict my terrible French on you, will you?" I said.

"Not everyone can speak French," she said politely laughing.

"Not yet freak," I thought. "The ion correlator still needs work."

I showered. Rested. Changed clothes. Walked the streets. No one should ever write a single word about Paris ever again. Everything has surely been said. Forgive me for all that follows here.

It was Friday. The blocks were overcome with people. The people came in all configurations. Teenagers together. Schoolchildren kicking a soccer-ball on the street, backpacks to the side. Older couples in long coats, scarves and blazers. Twenty-somethings leaning out of any number of establishments looking beautiful and cool. It reminded me of New York, but without the low-grade, ever-present, fear. The people wore no armor, or none that I knew. I was in the sixth arrondissement. I felt myself melting in the stew of it all. There were whole blocks which had doubtlessly sprouted a generation of poorly-executed romantic comedies, though they seemed a good idea at the time. Side-streets and alleys were bursting with bars, restaurants and cafes. Everyone was walking. Those who were not walking were embracing.

I was feeling myself beyond any actual right. I was rocking a blue blazer, a mint-green button down and wing-tips. I had traded my writer's beard for a caesar sharp as the Wu-Tang sword. In my head I heard Big-Boi sing "Sade in the tape deck, I'm moving in slow motion."

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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