“For those who are against breastfeeding in public the issue is often not about themselves, but in protection.”
—“The Breastfeeding in Public Debate,” published on a site focused on women’s health
I tell myself, do not trip over that bag on wheels, or that bag on wheels, the one overflowing with bananas and avocados and fruits of which you do not know the name, and do not run into the man in the center of the walkway of the marché selling toothpaste and shampoo and underwear. Do not forget to hang your pocketbook over the front of your body. Beware of pickpockets. Beware of odd smells, human urine and the sweetness of fresh bread, baguettes and brioches and croissants, and blood, which you’re nearly stepping in. Burnt umber pooled on the pavement, you remember your white canvas shoes. Beware the blood from the pig’s feet stacked on a vendor’s glass container of meat, poulet et boeuf et who knows what else, you barely have time to stop and look, you have to keep going. You tell your boyfriend, take out the recorder, these are good sounds, listen to the languages, a man yelling in Arabic, in French, in what language you wonder, you must keep walking, you must remember the sounds. Don’t we need some pasta and garlic, maybe some sardines to go with it, some rosemary and fizzy water too? We might as well buy the water because it is cheaper here than at the grocery, and we are not from this place, and our currency is weaker than this country’s, but just barely because this country is in trouble, ten percent unemployment, this country where people sitting at sidewalk cafes now look askance at anyone who stops on the street with a bag and a certain fervent look in their eye and a certain tone to their skin.
Bags on the ground. They are everywhere, but you cannot worry. There are too many people and too many bags to worry. You buy the pasta and the sardines and the rosemary and the garlic and you keep walking until you see a table covered with sandals and sneakers, five, ten, five euros, and your boyfriend stops and looks at a pair of blue mesh running shoes, and he unlaces his boots and puts the right blue sneaker on his right foot but he can’t find the left shoe so he asks the attendant, in broken French, if he can help him find the other shoe, so this attendant, a man with a diligent look, a look that says, my livelihood depends on finding this shoe, whose skin is a color that causes him problems in this country, goes and digs in the pile of shoes, and the man in the center of the pile of shoes, the head honcho, asks us something but we cannot understand him, and we realize he is speaking in Italian, he is counting in Italian, and the man thought you were Italian, which you take as a compliment. A man from North Africa approaches you and says, in clean English, “Where are you from?” and you say America, the word tingling on your lips—it sounds like a place people want to be from—and he repeats the word America, and the head honcho exclaims “George Bush!” along with some muttered words in Italian, and then “Clinton!” and gives a thumbs up, and you laugh and smile but you are not sure what he is saying, and the attendant finds the shoe and you hand the foreign bills to the head honcho and you keep smiling, secure in your privilege, and you walk away.
You have temporarily forgotten about the bags all around you, the people all around you, the fear all around you, and you are moving and—you see her eyes first before you make out the rest of the shape. The almond eyes, the hijab, the breast and attached to that breast, a baby, and a hand over the baby’s heart that is attached to a man who is gripping a sign in both Arabic and French, who removes the hand from the baby’s heart to show us his passport, to prove that he is from a country that no longer wants him and his family, a country that is no longer safe, to prove that he is here in Paris because he has nowhere else to go.
Another Syrian infant did not make it this far. “We had no life vests,” the boy’s father said. Though maybe they did but they didn’t do what they were meant to do. Nevertheless, all we have left is an image of a boy on a beach, the milk-white froth washing over him.
In your shirt, your nipples stiffen against the wind’s stiffening cold. Over your chest, you barricade your arms, folding into yourself.
You think back to that article you read about breastfeeding in public, and how you shared that article with friends and family, so people knew how you felt about it, how you flew your opinion like a flag for all to salute.
Lee Matalone lives in Louisiana. She writes a column on death, loss and mourning at The Rumpus, “R.I.P.” Her work has recently been published in The Austin Review, Joyland, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. You can find more of her work at leematalone.com.