How to survive in a drowning city

By Ellen McQueen


“The reader” / Lucy Marti / flickr

It’s been raining for what feels like over a month in Paris now.

I ask everybody, Is this normal? and they say No, I don’t know, but even if it was there’s nothing we can do about it.

Skeleton umbrellas lie prey to floods pouring into the gutters, and whole islands of trash are the only things that can fit under the bridges of the Seine. All I want to do is sit in the window of my warm apartment and read Wuthering Heights, listening to the drops drowning my city, but somehow life goes on, and our jeans get soaked and our sneakers drenched, and we walk past each other thinking, hoping, praying, that the sun will be out tomorrow.

I’ve read The Great Gatsby every summer since I was fifteen when my high school American Literature teacher assigned it to us and I got through the whole thing in one sitting and I realized I wanted more than anything to write something as beautiful, as emotional, as lyrical as this. My copy — the 2004 Scribner paperback edition whose pages are thick and yellowed; dog-eared and graffitied; ripping at the edges and bleeding with coffee stains, wine stains, ink stains; made illegible from the time I dropped it while reading in the bath. 

It’s been with me from Connecticut to New York, to Paris, to Berlin, to Spain and Italy and Israel. It was there that day in New York I went to see the Alexander McQueen exhibit for the third time and it was about a thousand degrees in July and before I went in I had two strawberry cocktails, my margin notes from that day becoming illegible drunken scrawls as I read and drank a third and became intoxicated by the words.

It was there that day I scribbled on the last blank page of the book “wasn’t it so great in the beginning before I went crazy and you went cold,” and I dated it May 29th, 2015, and I don’t know what prompted those words but I do remember being entirely fascinated and enthralled by the complicated relationships Fitzgerald was able to intertwine. It was there for me that day I underlined the words,

“He was never quite still; there was always a tapping foot somewhere or the impatient opening and closing of a hand,”

and wrote next to them, in all caps, “familiar anxiety.” My favorite quotes are highlighted for those dead winter days I need a reminder that

“I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life,”


“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart,”


“We beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

It is my safety blanket book, something every avid reader has.

That book you can nearly recite.

That book you drive your friends insane with by quoting in every relevant situation (and most situations seem to be relevant).

That book whose characters you know so well they have become your intimate circle of friends, and every time your favorite one dies you cry, and every time the main one boards a plane you’re with him as it leaves the tarmac, and every time you read that line where she’s fallen in love you’re in love too, sure, you know exactly the way she feels, grateful beyond belief someone else has put it into words so you know you’re not alone.

You hold those pages to your chest and your heart is warm. Someone a hundred years ago wrote them, but they wrote them for you, and they’re with you in this room as you light another cigarette and make sense of the world together.


“paris” / victortsu / flickr

Yesterday it was gray still, but I couldn’t stand another minute inside, so I convinced my boyfriend to take me on a scooter ride, just driving around the city with him choosing the way and me trying to stay in love with this place even though I hear it’s been eighty degrees and sunny in New York.

And then suddenly we were at the top corner of a park, I don’t even know what it’s called, where we’d gone last summer because I’d begged him to find a patch of grass where we could lie. It was August then and Paris was empty and the grass had been so warm and the sun was about to set and there was a promise of a summer night out until the morning with champagne and heat and spontaneity. We were at the top corner of that park when suddenly the sun came out, I swear the first sun I’ve seen in weeks, and the park was just as green as it was last year, and I felt actual warmth on my face, and I remembered in that moment that this is the first year in almost twenty that I have not had a last day of school, but that it was time for me to open The Great Gatsby again.

So this morning I started reading it, for the ninth time, and on page four were the lines:

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”

It’s still grey; it will rain this afternoon. Probably tomorrow and the next day. Life goes on and my safety blanket book stays close. Life begins again and my close circle of friends are with me as summer (they haven’t cancelled it this year, right?) fights to set in, and we prepare for a few months of warmth and travel and maybe a little psychosis and adventure and perhaps heartbreak and perhaps falling in love, new experiences and old friends and reading our safety blanket books on beaches or on planes or in parks. They’re there for us whenever we need to feel a little less lonely, a little more optimistic, a little more in love with things.


Ellen McQueen is a graduate of New York University where she studied English Literature and Creative Writing. She is currently living in Paris and working on a novel that will incorporate her love of travel.

3 thoughts on “How to survive in a drowning city

  1. Pingback: How to survive in a drowning city | Anna Gillian

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