Hadiya would visit us with her mother. On sunny days, we did our homework together under the grapevine; in winter, we did it by the stove. Her books were often torn: she didn’t like books or school. I held back my anger and reasoned it didn’t mean there was anything wrong with her. She was such a beauty, white as milk, her eyes pools of honey. Her beautiful plaits were fit for a man to hang himself with, or be led to the gardens of eternity by. Beautiful girls have no need for school; they themselves are knowledge, culture, and poetry. They are the prize.
I reproached her for being careless with her books. Unlike me with my tiny pot of glue that dried out as soon as I opened it, her father had a bucket full of glue always exposed to the air. Ever since I discovered the miracle of white glue, I was drawn to her damaged books, repairing and binding them to heal their wounds. While I repaired her textbooks and notebooks, I reveled in the clean smell of the glue and the film it formed as it dried on my forefinger. I would peel it off happily, as day peeled off the skin of night.
In the neighborhood, I was known as the book repairer. Fathers sent me their copies of the Quran, and I reacquainted the leaves separated by the fingers of time. I learned how to sew the spines of the books. I even repaired the leather-hard covers of the Qurans from the mosque, although the worshipers warned me that they were endowments. Nevertheless, I kept repairing them in secret.
Hadiya and I were neighbors and we shared a long narrow alleyway, only wide enough for two people to walk, holding hands across the edges of a stone gutter—it was the only alleyway of its kind in the entire town.
Our front door faced Hadiya’s, which had a brass latch plated with a design in zinc. Along the middle of the alleyway ran an open culvert that collected the rain and made it stream over a Sakia wheel—her father was a carpenter. Hadiya liked rivers and making boats, while I liked binding books and making bird traps. In other words, she loved tearing and I loved pasting. Her paper boats were always well crafted, while mine listed, capsized, and sunk.
My mom asked Hadiya’s mother for Hadiya’s hand for me as, one winter, we clustered around the stove roasting chestnuts and smelling the aroma of roasting orange peel. Hadiya’s mother agreed, and Hadiya smiled her consent. I assured my bride that she was free to tear up her books because I’d repair them all when we got married. But something unexpected happened. As if by magic, Hadiya grew up. And treacherously behind my back, she got engaged again. Beautiful girls get engaged in a flash, plucked from the bunch like the first ripe grapes of summer.
When my mom reminded Hadiya’s mother that Hadiya was engaged to me, Hadiya’s mom disagreed, saying that I was Hadiya’s milk brother and forbidden to her. My mom argued it depended on how often the suckling took place; two feedings did not make her forbidden. But Hadiya’s mom claimed she had fed me to satiety for an entire year. If only I had stayed unfed. If only we hadn’t grown up, the little lambs hadn’t grown up. I believe that my mom lied about the number of feedings. Defeated, she knew her son, who played with marbles and chased birds with traps and worms, couldn’t outpace Hadiya in the race to grow up, even if he drank rivers of milk and honey.
I wasn’t too upset; I was still her brother. And what could be better than the striking Hadiya, who turned overnight into a mighty fine woman like her mother Hawa, being my sister? I admitted defeat. I only had two options available, a victorious lover or a defeated brother.
But Hadiya changed. All I wished for was that she would say hello back. On the narrow lane, it was as if a butterfly passed alongside when she was going to school and I was coming home—boys had school in the morning, girls in the afternoon. I would say hello and she wouldn’t respond. She just kept going as if a ghost had gone by! Perhaps I had gotten thinner and she couldn’t see me, or her fiancé ordered her to cut me. She became a butterfly, while I stayed stuck to the ground with white glue like the cover of a book. Wherever I went, I carried the glue pot. I wanted to paste clouds to the sky, street to street, north to south. The butterfly flew far away to countries where enormous boats traversed majestic rivers.
Hadiya left school, and her marriage was celebrated in a magnificent wedding ceremony that felt like a funeral. Her marriage contract was the only paper that I doubted I would restore if I found it torn. I asked my dad to open a door onto the street at the front of the house instead of onto the narrow lane that depressed me, lined as it was with the debris of sunken paper boats. In its gutter, I buried my bundle of precious memories. I became a disobedient child and deserved the Lord’s anger. I refused to visit, even during Feasts, my second mom’s house, Hadiya’s mom, who had made me replete me with poisonous feedings.
My mother tried to comfort me when I removed the film of white glue from my wounded finger. She said, “Oh, my son, son of my flesh, apple of my eye, you will grow up and repair all the books in the world. Then you will get married to one a thousand times more beautiful than her. I will bring up my grandsons and marry them to fair wives.”
I no longer saw Hadiya everywhere. I didn’t have her photo, although I wished I had kept one of her torn books. Her handwriting was messy; dots hovered like bees around the inconsistent letters. Still, I had loved it and it had intoxicated me. I used to ask her to write my name in honey on my books and on the walls. She signed them as if she were a film star, her handwriting an old master painting.
The river in our town dried up. The winds buffeted my paper ships as they lay wrecked on the shores. My wealth of hellish colored marbles got lost in the oceans. My memories stuck together with glue until they were completely erased. I had stitched together thousands of pages using the white glue. I had caught hundreds of birds and then freed them again in hope of good news, but I never found anyone more beautiful than Hadiya; my heart remained torn to pieces, its yellow pages have strewn everywhere like autumn leaves. I waited for Hadiya to repair the cover of my heart and its lost pages just like I had repaired her books and paper.
She forgot her brother who once shared her mom’s milk and the glue flowing from my mom’s breast. She also forgot her lover, who travelled with her across the seas, for them to live on desert islands and shepherd flocks of gazelles, elephants and tame dinosaurs with beaks; her lover, who, like a tobacco addict, still carried a pot of glue with him wherever he went, in an effort to bear the pains of his broken heart. With the glue of his pure-white soul that had been torn apart thousands of times, he mended thousands of books; books of love, philosophy, religion, and the world, science and poetry; books in Arabic and those translated from the languages of jinn, man and bird. Between their lines, behind the shadow of the words, under the rubble of numbers, he searched for her ghost and the scent of orange peel diffusing like perfume over the hell of longing.
He’s confused. Too shy. His sister died of leukemia when he was thirteen. He’s not over his wife yet. He’s intimidated by your sarcastic sense of humor. You’re smarter than he is and he can’t handle it. He’s lost. He doesn’t know what he wants. He’s never had a long-term relationship. He’s young. He works too hard. He’s brilliant, contemplative, needs to learn that it’s okay to be vulnerable. Immature. Terrified. He needs to grow out of his Peter Pan syndrome. But you know what? She really hurt him.
Remember when he pushed your hair out of your face and tucked it behind your ear just like in the movies? And worked hard to make the perfect tuna casserole, sweat gleaming from his forehead under your kitchen light. He admired the dew on the spider webs and knew his fauna well. That one time, he said something so funny you almost peed your pants. Remember when you studied together at the Café Gourmet and you pretended to read The Color Purple and he was so beautiful, looking down at his book, his hand resting on his cheek, writing in the crooked left-handed way of his. He admired your Bettie Page poster.
He says your name before he comes. He’s affectionate after. You both love Woody Allen films, making fun of stupid movies, sushi, Indian food. You agree you’re not sure what happens when you die, but the two of you verge on hopeful atheism. He said you are the sexiest woman he’d ever met. He did the dishes without you asking. He’s not bad in bed. If only he would read something besides Nietzsche or Jack Kerouac.
He’s in medical, dental, law, graduate school, trying to finish his dissertation on Chaucer. He can’t leave Maggie, his golden retriever, overnight. He once had major surgery. He doesn’t realize he’s homosexual. They moved around a lot when he was a kid. His mother was a bitch, cold, too protective, insane, unsteady, emotionally abusive, demanding, a martyr. His father made him play football when he didn’t want to. He’s an only child.
He taught you how to identify a deciduous tree, appreciate the artist Lempicka, comprehend Aristotelian philosophy, admire alternative country music, pick a good avocado, appreciate vintage Spiderman comic books.
His parents divorced and he still blames himself. His parents have been married for thirty-five years and he’s afraid he’ll settle for a love less bright or some shit. He’s an Orthodox Jew. He’s moving to New York in three months. He has a yet-to-be diagnosed personality disorder.
He would never hit you. He’s a feminist, a vegetarian, a fallen Catholic, a poet, a canoe-maker, a yogi. He said, You’re the smartest person I’ve ever met. He bought you a beautiful red dress and took you out to dinner and then fucked you over a chair. He knows how to talk to babies. You look prettier without make-up, he said. His life—it’s too complicated right now.
You shouldn’t have slept with him the first night. You shouldn’t have waited. You confessed too much. You didn’t tell him how you really feel. You shouldn’t have said that thing.
It’s not him; it’s you.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Aimee LaBrie from Wonderful Girl
The autumn felt more like summer than the summer had. I was wearing my blue silk dress, and I had the little Pekinese they’d given me for my birthday when I arrived at my boyfriend’s house. I remember that day clearly.
“Jealousy rules the world,” said Mrs. Yapura, thinking I didn’t want to marry Romirio out of jealousy. “My son sleeps only with the cat.”
I didn’t want to marry Romirio, or hadn’t decided whether I wanted to marry him, for other reasons. Sometimes the words people say are changed by the intonation of the voice with which they say them. It seems like I’m getting off topic, but there’s an explanation. The voice of Romirio, my boyfriend, was repulsive to me. Every word he uttered, even if said with the utmost respect for me, although he hadn’t touched so much as a toe of my foot, sounded obscene. I couldn’t love him. I felt bad about this, not so much for him as for his mother, who was generous and kind. The only negative trait she was known for was jealousy, but she was old now and had even lost that. And should we believe the rumors? People said that she had got married very young to a man who soon betrayed her with another woman. Once she began to suspect, she spent a month without sleep trying to uncover the adultery. When she did, it was like a knife wound to the heart. She didn’t say anything, but that very night, as her husband slept beside her, she threw herself at his throat and tried to strangle him. The mother of the victim came to save him; if it hadn’t been for her he would have died.
My courtship with Romirio had gone on too long. “What’s a voice,” I thought. “It’s not an insolent, groping hand, it’s not a repulsive mouth trying to kiss me, it’s not that obscene and protuberant sex I so fear, it’s nothing physical like buttocks or hot like a belly.” Nevertheless, Romirio’s voice was much more disagreeable to me than any of those things. How could I bear living alongside a man who broadcasted that voice to whoever would listen? That visceral, lewd, scatological voice. But who would dare say to their boyfriend, “Your voice displeases me, it repulses me, it scandalizes me. It’s like the word lust in the catechism of my childhood”?
Our wedding was put off indefinitely without any obvious reason.
Romirio visited me every afternoon. Rarely did I go to his dark house, because his mother, who was sick, went to bed early. But I very much liked their little garden, full of shadows, and Lamberti, Romirio’s reddish-gray cat. There was not a more timid couple in the neighborhood. We might have kissed at most once during the summer of that year. Did we hold hands? Not a chance. Embrace? Slow dancing was out of fashion. This unusual behavior sparked a suspicion that we’d never marry.
That day I took the Pekinese they’d given me to Romirio’s house. Romirio picked him up to pet him. Poor Romirio, he loved animals so much. We were sitting in the living-room as usual, when Lamberti’s fur stood on end, and with a spitting sound he ran away knocking over a flowerpot. Mrs. Yapura called me the next day crying. That night, as always, Romirio had slept with Lamberti in his bed, but in the middle of the night the cat went into a frenzy and clawed Romirio’s throat. The mother went running in when she heard his screams. She managed to pull the cat from her son’s throat and she strangled it with a belt. They say nothing is more terrible than a frenzied cat. It isn’t hard to believe. I hate them. The incident left Romirio without a voice, and the doctors that looked after him said he wouldn’t ever recover it.
“You won’t marry Romirio,” his mother said crying. “I had good reason for telling my son not to sleep with that cat!”
“I will marry him,” I responded.
From that day forward I loved Romirio.
I was intending to paint a picture of David as the Shepherd, but nowhere could I find a suitable model for the face; there were several white and ruddy,’ but none which had on them the impress of the born King, or the inspiration of the Psalmist. One day I was rowing up the river, and came across the very face I had been seeking for so long. He was a boy of about fifteen, clad in flannels, alone in a boat which he had moored to the shore of a little island in the middle of the river; he was occupied in sketching. ‘This is lucky,’ I thought, ‘it will be a good excuse to begin a conversation,’ so I rowed up to him, and saying that I was an artist, asked to see what he was drawing; he blushed, and showed me. Of course I had expected the usual smudged landscape; but imagine my surprise to find a certainly beautifully conceived drawing of Hylas by the river’s brink, with the Nymph stretching out her arms towards him. He was merely copying the rushes and trees of the island as a background. The Hylas was not at all a bad portrait of himself, but my surprise was still greater to find that the face of the Nymph was an evident copy of my own last picture called ‘The Siren,’ which I had recently sold to a certain Professor Langton (at a very low price, as I knew the Professor was not well off and his genuine enthusiasm for my work was so refreshing after the inane compliments of those who thought it the thing’ to admire me because I happened to be the fashion just then). I praised the drawing, and pointed out one or two faults, then asked for paper and pencil, and reproduced the drawing as it should have been. The boy watched with ever- increasing eagerness; at last he said with a deep blush, May I ask you what your name is?’
My name is Gabriel Giynde,’ I replied.
‘Ah, I thought so all the time you were drawing. Do you know, your pictures have always had a peculiar fascination for me; father has lots of them, at least drawings, only one painting, that one called “The Siren,” from which I copied that: you must know father, he went to see your studio the other day;’ then, blushing still deeper, ‘May I come and see your studio too?
‘Certainly you may; but I ask something in return: that is, that you will sit as model for the “shepherd David.” I guess from what you say that you are the son of Professor Langton; am I not right? May I ask what is your Christian name?’
‘Oh, Lionel,’ he said simply; ‘there’s only father and me; I don’t mind being a model if you like, and will let me see your studio, though why you should think I should make a suitable David I am at a loss to understand.’
There was a mixture of simple boyishness, and at the same time education, about his way of talking which puzzled me, but the explanation was not difficult to unravel. We rowed down together: I took him to tea at an old wayside inn covered with honeysuckle, then went straight with him to his father’s. He had told me all about himself on the way. He was his father’s only son, he had never been to school, his father had taught him everything himself, he had no companions of his own age, and amused himself alone. He liked riding and rowing and swimming, but hated shooting and fishing (curious this, that he should share my own ingrained dislikes), but what he loved above all was drawing and painting; he had never learnt to draw, but he had always drawn ever since he could remember. His father knew everything, but could not draw, but was very fond of pictures, but nevertheless would not let him go to an art school, etc. So he prattled on. I could not help remarking that he seemed very much more educated than boys of his age usually are, though wholly unconscious of the fact, and yet, at the same time, showed a singular artlessness and innocence about the most common-place things.
Professor Langton received me with the utmost amiability, and the end of it was that I stayed there the evening. After he had sent his son to bed, he expounded to me his ideas on education. He did not approve of schools of any kind he said; boarding schools were an abomination, but day schools, perhaps, were a necessity. ‘But in my case,’ he said, ‘happily not, indeed, what is the use of being a Professor if I cannot instruct my own boy?’
Well, the end of all this was, that having Lionel as a model, I took a great fancy to him and the more I saw of him the less I liked the idea of his going to an Academy school. Perhaps to a boy ordinarily brought up the usual conversation of art students would not do much harm, but to Lionel — this exotic flower — I shuddered to think of it. I never before had had any pupils, wishing to be individual, and not to create a school but then Lionel was of my school already. So the end of it was that I offered to take him as a gratuitous and exclusive pupil, for which his father was intensely grateful.
Years passed by, and I taught him to draw and to paint very well; perhaps I impregnated him a little too much with my own individuality. I used to chuckle to myself, “This is just like Leonardo da Vinci and Salaino. Critics in the future will be disputing which is genuine “Glindio”. I do not mean by this that Lionel had no imagination or inventive power — on the contrary, he was, as I have said before, a `genius`, an artist, born, not made — but merely that his style of execution was based on mine; indeed, I even hoped that he might surpass in my own line.
One does not realise what a frightful responsibility one incurs in introducing one person to another. In nine cases out of ten nothing particular may ensue, but the tenth case may be the turning-point in a life for good or for evil. Thus it was when I introduced Lionel to Lady Julia Gore-Vere. When I say introduced him, I did nothing of the kind; she was having tea with me in my studio, and Lionel, who I thought was going up the river that day (that was one of the reasons I had selected that day to ask her), suddenly walked in. Well! what could I do but introduce them.
Lady Julia bore the name Gore-Vere because she had two husbands, both alive and kicking, and through some anomaly of the Divorce Court, she could not legally ascertain whether she ought to bear the name of Mr. Gore or Mr. Vere, so she split the difference by giving herself both appellations. What her past was I did not know, and did not care to inquire—it was no concern of mine; what did concern me was that she bought my pictures. She was certainly the last person I should have liked Lionel to meet. She was a very lovely woman and very clever (when I say clever I do not merely mean sharp and witty, but really cultured), and when she talked about Art she really knew what she was talking about. Except for a moment of irritation, I did not see any particular harm. Lionel knew nothing about her; there was nothing remarkable in the fact that she took an interest in him; and he took a childish pleasure in showing her his sketches, which she criticised and admired, justly, for, as I have said before, they were remarkably good.
I had always thought of Lionel as a child, and never realised that he was now grown up. Happening to know Lady Julia’s age, it did not occur to me that to people in general she looked a very great deal younger than she really was. Well, they met several times. One day Lionel said, ‘How like Lady Julia is to your picture “The Siren.’” I have always maintained that artists give models for faces, as much as faces give models for artists. I had done so many pictures since, I had quite forgotten about ‘The Siren.’ Now ‘The Siren’ was entirely an imaginative face, taken from no model at all, but when Lionel said so, it struck me she was like ‘The Siren.’ Then I thought of his drawing the first day I had met him. A disagreeable sensation and vague fear haunted me; I took to watch him more closely. Then the truth flashed upon me—he was hopelessly in love with her. She was doing her best to egg him on; what an idiot I was not to have seen that before, I who pretend to be observant of all things.
No, this would not do at all, it would be the ruin of his life. I must save him at any cost. Perhaps I had been wrong all the time, I had kept him too much under a glass case; perhaps if he had had more experience he would not have become so suddenly and completely infatuated. Oh, how wicked of her! I raged and gnashed my teeth. Had she not the whole world for prey that she could not spare this poor boy? What could he be to her? But then, perhaps, she did not realise what harm she was doing. I would go and expostulate with her myself; from what I knew of her she was by no means heartless.
So next day I called on her, and somewhat rudely came to the point at once. `Why,` I said, do you seek to ruin that poor boy’s life? You know whom I meant–Lionel. Surely such a conquest must be nothing to you?
I spoke very bitterly, she answered calmly, ‘You ask me why? I will tell you the reason quite simply: first, because I am jealous of him; secondly, because I thought you cared for me a little, and I thought I might make you jealous of me, and finally, because I love you!
I was utterly dumfounded; for some time I could not speak at all. Then I said, ‘If it is true, as you say, that you love me, do at least this one thing for me—spare him! She answered in the same calm voice. ‘There is one way to overcome the difficulty.’ I went out without a word.
All that night I remained without sleep, thinking. ‘There was one way to overcome the difficulty.’ I had said I would save him at any cost, and the cost was to sacrifice myself. However unselfish one’s motive may be, selfish considerations are inevitably intermingled. I thought, After all, the sacrifice is not so very terrible, the way out of the difficulty comparatively easy—I certainly liked her well enough, and now that my studio parties were on a much larger scale than heretofore, it would really be a great convenience to have a lady in the house. And then I thought, trying to be unselfish again, I shall be doing a good turn to her; by giving her my name I shall re-establish her reputation and people will soon forget that her name has ever been Gore or Vere. . . Lionel would soon realise the absurdity of his own position, and of course would not think of making love to my wife.
So next morning I wrote to Lady Julia, asking her if she would be willing to exchange the ambiguous name of Gore-Vere for that of Glynde. She wrote back to say she would be very pleased to accept my offer, but she thought I might have phrased it more kindly.
Fortunately Lionel was going away the next day on a walking tour by himself (a thing which he was very fond of doing), for I could not bring myself to tell Lionel about it just yet, or indeed till the whole thing was over. There was no reason whatever for delay, so we arranged to be married quietly in Paris before a Maire, as, for obvious reasons, it would be better not to be married in London. When the marriage was over I made up my mind to write to Lionel. I tore up several letters in various styles; at last I resolved to adopt the flippantly facetious. I said, ‘I am now in Paris, and who do you think is my companion? You will never guess—Lady Julia Gore-Vere, only her name isn’t Gore-Vere now, but Glynde, because I have married her; but it won’t make any difference, you must call her Lady Julia all the same.’
To this letter there was no response; to this I attached but little importance. ‘Of course,’ I thought, ‘he will be a little sulky at first, but he will soon get over it; his innate sense of humour will show him how foolish he has been.’
In spite of all people might say against my wife, there could be no more charming travelling companion, always amusing and amused, and intelligently critical; indeed, if I had not always had the haunting thought of Lionel, I think we should have enjoyed ourselves very much.
Will you understand me if I say that I was sorry to find out my wife’s was by no means as black as it was painted; indeed, she was much more the wronged than the wrongdoer. This, I suppose, is inverted selfishness; it is a luxury to pose as a hero. What was my heroic self-sacrifice? Simply getting a charming wife, who really loved me, and who had never loved any one else before.
I wrote to Lionel once more—a long, lively letter describing the places we had been to, interspersed with graphic sketches of persons and places. To this again I received no answer. But then as I had addressed it to the last country place where I knew Lionel had been staying, I came to the conclusion he could not have received it, possibly having left no address behind him.
At last we came home; I learned that Lionel was staying with his father. I sent a note, saying: ‘I insist on seeing you. Come this evening. Waiting for an answer.’
There was no answer; but in the evening Lionel came in person.
Lionel, I say? Could this be Lionel? He was utterly changed. All youth and buoyancy had gone from him; he rather dragged himself along than walked; he was quite pale, and wore a look of utter, absolute dejection. I tried to pretend to take no notice.
Well, Lionel,’ I said, with sham cheerfulness, ‘what have you been doing all this time?’ He answered in a dull, apathetic voice, ‘painting a picture.’
‘A picture? What about?’
‘You will get it the day after to-morrow,’ he said in the same dull monotone.
‘Child, what has come over you? Why do you keep aloof from me? Why do you not answer my letters?’
‘I think it is somewhat needless for you to ask that question,’ he said.
‘No, but tell me—explain,’ I cried, stretching out my hands to him. He went backwards to the other end of the room, and then said in a voice filled with tears, ‘You have taken from me all that I loved; I should not have thought that of you. Of course you had a perfect right to do so, but still, at least, you might have told me first.’
‘All that you loved? ‘I said.
Yes! All except yourself, and you have killed my love for you, he said, almost with a wail.
‘But, Lionel, listen; I do not love her.’
Do you consider that an excuse?’ he said fiercely; if you did I might forgive you; but as it is I cannot. ‘But listen, child,’ I cried; ‘hear me out; it is not her that I love but you; it was to save you from what I thought would be your utter ruin that I married her.’
‘A strange way of showing love to break my heart,’ he said in the same spiritless voice as before; ‘Good-bye,’ and then he turned his back on me, and held out his left hand—it was quite cold, and fell limp to his side; he turned once round as he opened the door with a look of mute reproach which will haunt me for ever.
The day after tomorrow I took up the morning paper, and saw this:—
SHOCKING ACCIDENT WHILE
‘Near —— Island (the island where I first met Lionel), the body of a young man was found yesterday. There was little difficulty in identifying the body as that of Mr. Lionel Langton, a young artist of much promise, as his clothes were on the shore, and a pocket-book containing cards and letters was found in the coat pocket, and also as Mr. Langton was well-known in this neighbourhood, being particularly fond of bathing at this spot. The fact of his being drowned has caused much astonishment, as he was known to be a remarkably good swimmer. Death was attributed to sudden cramp. His father, Professor Langton, was immediately telegraphed for, and seemed quite overcome with grief. He deposed that lately he had been much distressed about his son; he had been unwell and very depressed, also strange in his manner, for which he, his father, could assign no cause.
Hardly had I read this, when there was a violent knock at the door, and two men came in bringing a picture. Never had I seen anything so good from Lionel’s hand; it was simply wonderful. It represented Hylas lying at the bottom of a river, seen through water. The figure of Hylas was a portrait of himself as he was when I first saw him, but somehow into the closed eyes he had infused the expression which I had last seen in his face. Looking down, reflected in the water, was my own face. Starting up, I caught a sight of my face in a mirror; by what prescience did he know that I should look thus on hearing the tidings of his death?
Tara was fat. Her husband made it clear that it didn’t do his image any good to have her waddling around, jiggling rolls of flesh.
“I don’t waddle,” she said, hurt.
“You do,” said Abhay and that was the end of the matter. So far as words were concerned it was an established pattern that he had the last one.
Later she cried. She wiped away the tears that rolled down her soft, slightly flabby cheeks with a handkerchief clutched in a smooth, plump hand. She would like to be slim and svelte, a credit to her husband, but it was no use. Life without food, especially chocolate, was not worth living.
Her husband couldn’t be too serious about her losing weight, after all, he was her main supplier. She thought of his latest offering from Europe. Twenty bars of Swiss chocolate, seductively wrapped in green, orange, blue, and red, gleaming with pictures of fruit, nuts, and glasses of wine, rolls of marzipan, with the grainy paste of almonds covered with chocolate so smooth, it dissolved on the tip of her tongue, and the piece de resistance, two big boxes of cherries in liqueur set in cups of dark chocolate. Even when she wasn’t eating them, she could feel in her mouth the sharpness of the liqueur, the bitter sweetness of the liquefying chocolate, the tanginess and gentle crunch of the cherry.
He was always assiduous in catering to her tastes. As he handed the chocolate to her he would tell her how busy he had been and how much he wished it were possible for her to accompany him. Then he would lightly rub the roll of fat around her belly to prove his love. At times the rub would get a little hard, but marks of physical affection between them were rare, and she took what she got.
When did it happen that Tara first got to know about her husband’s affair? Something that the readers of this text will find obvious to the point of banality? A man who is stuffing his wife with chocolate in such quantities has to have an ulterior motive.
A short history of her life will place her stupidity in perspective.
School: Ages 3-17. Convent, all girls. Strict emphasis on studies and nothing else. Tara’s free time is taken with going to dance and music classes. Her mother says these things are important. Give grace to a girl.
College: Ages 17- 20. An all-girls college. Her parents don’t think it wise to send Tara anywhere else. She chooses English Honours, considered a soft option. She isn’t very clear what to do with her life, and English seems a good, no-purpose subject. Besides she has always been fond of reading.
English Honours turns out to be not such a soft option after all. She had never thought reading could be so strenuous. Literature didn’t seem to be about stories. All the emphasis was on ideas, history, context, Marxist-feminist interpretations, and a pursuit of meaning that went beyond the obvious into the totally obscure.
Tara spends her time in college going to films with her friends, bunking classes. She complains to her mother about how hard her teachers expect her to work. Her mother consoles her. She has to somehow graduate, then she will get married.
The wedding preparations coincide with the prep leave for the exams.
What to do, beti?” her mother says when Tara protests. “I know it is a bad time for you but then these are the auspicious dates.
“But Amma, how will I study?” complains Tara.
“Well, the boy is good. And the family is very keen. Some things cannot be put off.“
By the time Tara’s results are out, she has come back from her honeymoon. She has got a third division, and is mildly surprised that she has passed at all.
Her husband thinks she is upset.
“Never mind, darling,” he says clutching her in his strong, manly arms, “You have me.”
Tara’s heart beats fast, as she feels herself squeezed in that marital embrace.
“Yes, it’s true,” she whispers. “I have you.”
The family then waits for the children to come. In time it becomes evident that if they came at all it would have to be through divine or medical intervention.
Tara started with the medical intervention front first.
“Maybe we should go and see a doctor?” she suggested to her husband.
“You go if you want to,” replied Abhay. “There is nothing wrong with me”.
After the doctor had examined Tara she said there was nothing wrong with her and maybe a look at the husband was in order.
“But he doesn’t think so,” said Tara mournfully.
“What rubbish!” exclaimed the doctor, who was sick and tired of encountering such attitudes in her practice. “You tell him it is not only the woman who is responsible for bearing a child. The sperm has to be healthy. It may be that he is infertile, it may be that his sperm count is low, it may be that he has been drinking too much, or that he has some kind of latent infection. It may be any number of things.”
Tara blushed. How was she supposed to convey all this to her husband?
Abhay agreed to see the doctor after a somewhat acrimonious discussion, in which he pointed out to Tara how completely wrong she was.
“Shouldn’t I come too?” asked Tara, as Abhay was going.
“No,” he said briefly. “I’ll deal with it on my own.”
So Tara never knew what happened at the doctor’s. Abhay came home tight-lipped and cross, and refused to comment.
“But what happened? What did she say?” she asked several times.
“She’s a fool. Huh! No point in your going to her either.”
Medical consultations were not possible after this.
On the divine intervention front, Tara was told she should take a trip to Vaishno Devi, crawling on her hands and knees.
After she had crawled up Vaishno Devi on her hands and knees, she decided to do the hands and knees stuff at other shrines. She had thought she would feel embarrassed, but she didn’t. This was routine at these places.
Her husband thought all this was a great idea. So did her mother-in-law.
“Poor Tara!” she heard her say once. “She is trying so hard,” and then in a lowered voice, “but she is unhealthy from the inside.”
When there were no signs of conception after all this, Tara took to wearing certain stones around her neck and fingers, and her husband took to feeding her chocolates.
It was chocolate that drew her attention to a certain lack of something on the part of Abhay. He became casual in getting her what she wanted.
After an excess of peppermint she hinted that she would look forward to more variety. He had complained.
“I don’t get the time,” he said. “All I can do is pick up these things from the airport, and peppermint is what airports happen to have.”
“But so much?“
She turned the green and white boxes over in her hands. Edwardian Mints, Crème de Menthe Mints, Bitter Chocolate Mints, Wafer Mints, After Eight Mints, After Dinner Mints, Mints in White Chocolate.
She felt sick at the idea of this much mint. But her craving for chocolate was so strong that she ate them all anyway.
And then he did it again.
“Didn’t you remember?” she asked.
“What?” He looked preoccupied.
“What I said last time. About the mints.”
“Last time? Oh, oh, yes, of course. But you see the airports…”
She looked at all that revolting peppermint.
“But before you managed…”
“Well you know these airports. Not very imaginative.
That’s not what Tara would have thought as she remembered the brochures that Abhay frequently got, advertising this airline, that airport. They seemed to contain virtually everything under the sun.
After Abhay left, Tara remained lost in thought. It was odd that he had forgotten her request – her reasonable request – about the mint chocolate. Abhay had a good memory. But then he was always so preoccupied. And hardly ever at home.
And in between these two thoughts, sequences in a chain, suspicion pounced and bent the links in another direction.
Within a matter of seconds, Tara was convinced she had found the clue to much of Abhay’s behavior. Could it be, could it be that what she had read about in her college days, could it be that the Other Woman had appeared in her life as well. She made up her mind to spy on him. The results were predictable.
After she had gone through the gamut of emotions ranging from shock, confusion, despair, anger and resentment, she toyed with the idea of knocking her brains out. To help reach a conclusion she automatically went to the fridge to take out her chocolates. She needed consolation. Absent-mindedly she bit into one. It tasted like sawdust. She bit into it again and gagged. This was the only pleasure she had in her life. What was happening to it?
She felt a burning sensation at the back of her throat, and the sour ugly taste of bile. She quickly put the chocolate back into the fridge and closed the door. Nausea overcame her, and she barely made it to the bathroom.
She never ate another piece of chocolate again. Every time she looked at the dark shining pieces glistening invitingly at her, she saw Abhay’s eyes sunk in them, tempting her to bite into a piece and get fat.
She lost weight. The feeling of nausea she had about chocolate helped put her off eating. She grew thinner, thinner than she had been in years. She took the rings off her fingers. There seemed little point in wearing them now. From saris she moved to salwar-kameez. She looked younger. She felt more alert and alive than she had for a long time. She began to think about strategies.
She must win him back, she thought. She decided to join cooking classes. The way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. Abhay hardly ate at home. But now… She must cook. She would be the source of all things delectable.
Tara joined Mrs. Singhal’s Cooking Classes, which guaranteed mastery of Cordon Bleu, Continental, Chinese and Indian cuisines in just a year. Tara discovered in herself a light hand, and a flair for improvisation. Her teacher praised her too, and that helped. No one had ever praised her learning anything in her life — academics was out of the question, and even her dancing and singing teachers had felt that she needed to apply herself more.
For Mrs. Singhal a meal was not just eating. It was an Aesthetic Experience. The table, the colours, the setting, the flowers, everything had to be perfect.
Tara dived into Experience like a duck into water. Cooking was endlessly creative, she discovered. The taste which she had exhibited in doing up her home, had scope that was infinitely various on the site of the dining table. She experienced the joys of putting before a husband – however errant – things he could not resist. He became quite greedy and demanding, entertaining small numbers of friends more often at home.
Imperceptibly Abhay began to put on weight. Tara could see for herself the fruit of her labours, and her sense of power grew. New thoughts began to enter her head. She increased the cream in her desserts and began putting more cheese in the Italian dishes. Abhay’s clothes did not fit him anymore. He began to talk seriously of dieting.
At this point Tara looked him over speculatively. In her mind’s eye she saw him as she herself had once been. “You waddle,” he had said at the beginning of the story, and she predictably female, had replied in pain, “I do not.” Now she wanted him to waddle, though her position might not allow her to rub his nose in the fact as he had done hers.
When Abhay’s affair broke up, a certain moroseness tinged and deepened the yellow of his already saturnine complexion. For consolation he turned to serious eating. He listened to music, he drank, and he demanded hot and spicy tit-bits from Tara’s ever fertile kitchen.
When he began to waddle, she, trained to find her husband beautiful in all his manifold aspects, started to find him ugly.
Given the circumstances of her revenge, she needed an affair to give it a finished ending. She chose a friend of his, the most convenient male to hand. The friend had dropped certain hints, Tara decided to pick them up. She indulged herself with him without taking precautions. She had long given up the possibility of conceiving, and when she found herself pregnant, she was exhilarated. The first thing to do was to get rid of the friend.
“Abhay suspects,” she told him.
Then she told her husband. “I think perhaps it has been your improved health,” she said. “You look so much better now. Before you were too thin. That is why I have been blessed with this baby.”
A puzzled look crossed Abhay’s face as he took in the air of quiet triumph in his wife’s manner. He started spying on her, but her affair had been so brief and circumspect that he found no traces of it.
When Tara’s daughter was born, she crooned her lullabies of brave women warriors, and made sure that all her education was oriented towards a career that would make her independent.
The waiter at the Café Au Chai de l’Abbaye, Claude, asked me to finish my drink quickly. It was a quarter past two in the morning and he had to close up the café. I walked a few paces and sat down in Place Furstenberg. This was where I ‘cleared’ my mind every day. Opposite me was the house in which the famous painter Delacroix had spent his last years, and which was now a museum. I started to smoke a cigarette. I thought of walking to Austerlitz, but I couldn’t sleep now, I was in such a troubled mood.
‘How long will the French go on repeating this tedious drama?’ I shouted loudly as if addressing the great painter.
I meant those enormous military parades that they put on every year. Thousands of soldiers, hundreds of tanks, rockets, and artillery, scores of planes circling in the sky, and everywhere thronged with people, with traffic policemen closing the main roads leading to the heart of Paris. All this led to complete chaos that lasted the whole day. The television channels broadcast these parades live. We could see the same pictures on the screens of hundreds of thousands of television sets displayed in the windows of electrical shops. I love France, but I never liked this day they call ‘Quatorze Juillet’ (14 July), when they celebrate the anniversary of the French Revolution.
I left Place Furstenberg and decided to take a stroll around Saint-Sulpice church, waiting for dawn to break so that I could go into the first café I found open. At the end of Rue Bonaparte, where it meets Rue Vieux Colombiers, I noticed an attractive woman walking in a way that caught my attention. She was wearing white shorts that allowed one to see her sturdy legs. I guessed that she was nearing fifty. As the distance between us narrowed, I thought she looked sad. Without expecting any reply, I asked her, ‘Why are you sad, madame?’ I was drunk, and it was nearly three in the morning.
The woman stopped. ‘Yes, I am very sad, monsieur,’ she said, trying to put on a little smile.
‘I am very sorry, madame,’ I said.
‘I lost my little dog on quatorze juillet, monsieur,’ she explained. ‘Isn’t that sad?’ she added in a coquettish way, licking her lips and pouting.
‘And I lost my country on quatorze juillet, madame, isn’t that sad?’ I said sarcastically.
She laughed and closed her eyes flirtatiously, ‘And how did that happen?’ she asked.
‘It’s a long story, madame.’
The woman remained silent for a moment, then said, ‘Listen, would you like to have a drink with me? I know a place that stays open till dawn.’
We crossed Boulevard Saint-Germain and walked on past the church. ‘I live on this boulevard,’ she said. ‘Isn’t it wonderful for someone to live in this quarter?’
‘It’s just a dream, as far as I’m concerned,’ I replied.
‘For me too,’ she said cheerfully, then added, ‘Think how wonderful it would be if we were to find my dog now!’
‘We’ll find it, madame, believe me. I feel it,’ I said.
She stopped and looked at me. ‘You are kind,’ she said. ‘You make me feel I’ve found a friend. You said, “We’ll find it”. That’s very kind of you.’
I shrugged my shoulders and didn’t know what to reply.
‘Yes, you are kind,’ she repeated.
When we went into the Café Conti I was greeted by Damien, the manager, who shook hands with me.
‘It seems you are famous,’ said the woman.
‘Only in bars,’ I replied.
She laughed loudly.
I asked for red wine and she asked for a Kir Royale. I noticed Damien leaving the bar, and knew that he would be going to the storeroom behind it, near the toilet. I immediately made for the toilet and waited for a few moments for him to come out of the storeroom, then said, ‘Damien, please, if we have to drink a lot, can I settle the bill tomorrow? I only met this woman today.’
‘Certainly,’ said Damien. He added, ‘She’s only been living in Paris for two weeks. She was in California before.’
‘You know her?’
‘She comes in for a drink in the evening. She lives only a few steps away from here.’
The woman said that her name was Micheline, and asked me my name, about my life and what had happened to my country. I told her that I was working at the moment in a translation and printing company and that my ambition was to be a film director. About my country, I told her that on Quatorze Juillet 1958 a group of wicked officers had carried out a bloody military coup that had done away with the monarchy in Iraq and that since then the Iraqi people had been living under the rule of the loutish military.
‘Are you a royalist?’ she asked me.
Yes, I’m a royalist. I believe that the monarchy in my country was better for us.’
She nodded her head in an understanding way. ‘I lived more than fifteen years in California. I had a big restaurant there, specialising in French cuisine. OK, it was owned by myself and my husband. I separated from him a month ago.’ As she ordered another drink, she added, ‘I’m a professional chef. I thought of opening a restaurant here in Paris, but I decided to test the waters first, so I took a job as a chef in a well-known restaurant behind the Palais de Justice. My customers are among the best-known judges in Paris.’
After a moment’s silence, she asked, ‘Where do you live?’
‘A little while ago, I left the place I was living in near here, and I’m now living in a small studio near the press where I work. Near the Bourse de Paris.’
‘A nice area, but it’s a long way away from here,’ she said.
We went on drinking until the café closed its doors. She invited me to continue drinking in her house, ‘It’s only a few steps away, come with me.’
In the morning, Micheline appeared out of the bathroom while I was still in bed. She said good morning and bent down to kiss me, so I pulled her back into bed.
‘You know, I’m a royalist as well,’ she said. ‘I’m a chef, and chefs have to be royalists, don’t they?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, pulling the large towel from her body.
Micheline went to work and left me to sleep. When she came back, I was in the bathroom taking a shower, singing Charles Aznavour’s song ‘Dans tes bras’ with vigour. She started singing with me as she took off her clothes and got under the shower.
‘I know Charles Aznavour personally,’ said Micheline as we ate some wonderful French food she had brought from the restaurant. ‘I was the personal chef of the pop singer Lionel Richie.’
‘Wow, I like Lionel Richie a lot,’ I told her.
‘Me too,’ said Micheline. ‘I was his favourite chef for several years. Once, Charles Aznavour was one of Lionel Richie’s guests and I was in charge of the cooking. Lionel Richie said to me, ‘Micheline, please pay even more attention to the food than usual. Charles Aznavour is our guest. He’s a stickler, he puts his nose into everything in the kitchen, big or small. Please, I don’t want him to complain!’ And when Aznavour came, he did indeed meddle in every detail concerning the food. He’s very fussy and demanding.’
‘Is Lionel Richie a nice man?’ I asked Micheline.
‘Very,’ replied Micheline enthusiastically. Then she asked me whether I had contacted the translation company to tell them I wouldn’t be going in. I told her that they were used to my habits. ‘Don’t forget that yesterday was quatorze juillet,’ I reminded her.
‘Quatorze juillet, that reminds me, we should go out and look for my dog. Perhaps we’ll find him where I lost him.’
‘In Place Saint-Sulpice?’
‘Yes, near Catherine Deneuve’s house, the actress, do you know about her?’
‘Who doesn’t know about Catherine Deneuve?’
‘True. Yesterday you said something to me about the movies.’
‘I’d like to be a film director.’
‘Yes, I remember that.’
We went to the police station opposite Saint-Sulpice church and Micheline handed in details of her lost dog. Then we spent the afternoon wandering around the streets near the church. We drank a few glasses of white wine in a café in Rue Lobineau. Then she told me she had to go back home and afterward go to work. She suggested I go with her so that she could give me a spare house key.
‘I have a feeling I’ve begun to fall in love with you,’ she said.
‘Me too,’ I said.
Before she left for work, we went to bed. Then Micheline took a shower and went out. I got up and put a small table by the window overlooking Boulevard Saint-Germain. I brought the bottle of bourbon and began to drink. Since the apartment was immediately above the Old Navy Café, which I was forbidden to enter as a result of an argument with the café owner, I imagined myself sitting on the upstairs floor of the café to spite him.
So far as work was concerned, I still had no steady job. There was just a small company undertaking translation and publishing work, run by a Lebanese called Jean, who needed me occasionally for typesetting a few pages in Arabic. Luckily, a week before I met Micheline, Jean had told me he had signed a contract with a French company, well known in the arms manufacturing trade, to translate some catalogs of arms that the company had sold recently to a number of Gulf states. The Arab states were making it a condition that the catalogs should be in Arabic. Jean was happy that day, inviting me to have a few drinks with him as he gave me the news of the deal. He told me that he would need me ‘for two months at least’, then gave me a sum of money on account.
Before Micheline came back from work, the telephone rang. There was a young Frenchman on the line who asked for Micheline and said that on quatorze juillet he had been in a café with his girlfriend when a small dog had come up and sat beside them. When they left the café at dawn, they had taken the dog with them ‘because we realised it was lost’. Then he explained that he had seen an American telephone number on its collar. He had called the number and a man speaking English with a French accent answered and told him that the dog belonged to his former wife who was now living in Paris. Then the man had given him Micheline’s telephone number.
I thanked the young man, asked for his telephone number, and told him that as soon as Micheline came back from work she would call him.
‘Didn’t I tell you we would find him?’ I shouted at the top of my voice as I lifted her up, along with the bags she was carrying.
‘Be careful, be careful, there are bottles of white wine!’ said Micheline, then stopped dead in her tracks. She stared at me. ‘I can smell bourbon, please don’t play games with me.’
‘I’m not playing games, Micheline, we’ve found your dog.’
‘Where? Did the police get in touch?’
I shook my head and told her the story. She took the telephone number and started to dial it, while I occupied myself with emptying the bags and putting the food and wine in the fridge.
‘We have to celebrate this news,’ Micheline shrieked. ‘It’s a big celebration!’
She had satisfied herself that the news was correct, and started dancing, hugging me and pulling me towards the bed. Before taking off our clothes, she asked me to open a bottle of white wine and leave it beside the bed.
I never did like Micheline’s dog. It was ugly. She kissed it all the time. From the moment it was there with us, it started to annoy me. When Micheline was at home, it would bark the whole time in protest at my being there. When Micheline went to work and it was left with me, it never opened its mouth at all. It would disappear from my sight and hide away, in God only knows what corner of the apartment. It stayed there until suddenly it would run out, come up to me, look at me in an impudent way, and begin barking in my face. At that precise moment, the door would open and Micheline would come in.
Despite the petty arguments between us, the result of differences in temperament and mood, Micheline started to feel comfortable with me and buy me clothes, especially shirts with designer labels. She particularly liked the Agnes B brand. And because I had some experience in printing and publishing, she bought a computer and a colour printer.
She said that she was going to write a book about French cooking, that we would supervise the technical production of it together, and ‘you can use the computer to write your script. It’s better than a typewriter’.
We never missed a chance to go to bed. Before leaving home, when we returned, after a meal, after a shower. One day, on the way back from work, she said that she was inviting me to a fancy Mexican restaurant. In the restaurant, she put to me the idea that ‘we should live together permanently’.
‘What do you think?’ she asked.
‘But we are together, Micheline,’ I replied.
‘True, but so far we haven’t talked about some important details.’
‘Let’s leave it until another time,’ I said offhandedly, clinking my glass against hers.
‘As you wish,’ she scowled.
This ‘As you wish’ didn’t come from her heart, though. As soon as we had left the restaurant and taken a few steps, she started to shout, ‘You all take advantage of my good nature in the same way. I take you out for a first-rate supper to talk about our relationship and all you can do is answer coldly, “Let’s leave it until another time”. What other time? Eh? Tell me. At the moment you just want to drink and fuck, isn’t that the truth, you bum?’
She opened her eyes as wide as she could and stared at me as she said ‘you bum’. I looked at her in astonishment.
‘Naturally,’ she said, ‘I asked about you. They told me that you lived on movie fantasies and slept on the streets. Despite that, I put up with you, even invite you to one of the best restaurants.’
She continued her tirade, which was attracting the attention of some passers-by, ‘You all take advantage of me in the same way. My husband cheated on me with my closest friend while all the time I was working for him.’
‘And you were also fucking a young Mexican boy while your husband was taking his siesta. You told me the story yourself!’
‘That’s none of your business,’ she said, then fell silent.
We walked on a few paces. She turned to me and said, ‘Give me the key to the apartment, please. Come tomorrow and get your things. I’m sorry, I’m not going back home now, I’m finishing my evening entertainment.’
I gave her the key as we stood there in the middle of the street. She went to finish off her evening in the bars of Rue Princesse. I headed for my favourite place, Au Chai de l’Abbaye, where I stayed drinking until two o’clock. A few minutes before the bar closed, Micheline came in and ordered a drink. Majid and Claude were astonished to see her standing beside me without talking to me.
I put my hand in my pocket and was about to pay my bill. I hesitated for a moment and thought of paying hers, but I was afraid of her reaction. I was conscious of the fact that I was wearing a shirt she had bought me. Who could guarantee that she wouldn’t demand it back in front of the customers? I was in a dilemma.
A Japanese customer, a regular, was standing at the bar. He was an eccentric fellow. He would go for days refusing to speak to any of the other customers, then on another day he would come and talk to everyone. He had a habit when he was talking to one customer, of withdrawing in the middle of a discussion and going to talk to another.
The Japanese man went up to Micheline and asked her if she’d like a drink. They started having a cheerful conversation and Micheline’s loud laughter could be heard throughout the bar. I took the opportunity to slip out. Not for a moment did I think that she would follow me and actually lure me in so that I would end up seeing in the dawn in a police station.
At first, I thought of getting away from the quarter, especially as the cafés that I drank in were all closed – Danton, Le Relais Odéon, Tennessee, Atlas, Bonaparte. I was reluctant to go to the Opera or Montparnasse quarters. I went to Café Conti. It was only a few moments before Micheline came in, with her arms around the Japanese man.
She came up to me and said calmly, ‘Take this key, please. Go and collect your things. My Japanese friend and I have decided to get married, and I don’t want any hassle.’
‘OK,’ I said and took the key, while she began to kiss her Japanese boyfriend.
‘Oh, my love, my Japanese love.’
Some customers were looking at us and smiling, some of them were regulars who knew that she was supposed to be my girlfriend. As the apartment was only two hundred metres away from the Conti, I went at once and began to gather my things together. The dog looked at me from its corner, trembling. I smiled at it. It carried on panting and staring at me. Before putting the bottle of Jack Daniels in the bag, I thought of having a drink. Micheline wouldn’t come back before five, or so I thought. But no sooner had I started to drink than the dog began to bark and Micheline came in with her Japanese friend. She patted the dog, then flew into a rage when she saw me sitting with the glass in my hand.
‘My apartment’s not a bar, do you understand?’ She tried to snatch the glass from my hand, so I pushed her hard towards the sofa. The dog began to bark, and I saw the Japanese man undo his flies and go into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him.
‘You hit me!’ she shouted.
‘You’re a bitch,’ I told her angrily, grabbing hold of her.
She took the telephone and dialed the police. She wouldn’t let me leave the apartment until the policemen had arrived and she had told them that I was a violent man and was refusing to leave.
‘You’re a lying bitch, Micheline, and you know it,’ I said as I left with the police. The Japanese man was still in the bathroom, and the dog seemed happy in her lap.
In the car, one policeman asked me, ‘Did you buy a new dog?’
I looked at him in astonishment. He said that he had seen us when we came to the station to report the loss of the dog. I told him how we had found the ‘ugly’ dog. The policeman laughed. Then he told me politely that they were obliged to detain me until eight in the morning. I asked him whether it was possible to stay until eleven as I wanted to sleep a little.
‘I don’t think so,’ said the policeman, adding, ‘Actually, my shift ends at nine so I won’t wake you before then.’
But the policeman and I had both forgotten that it was Sunday and the bells of Saint-Sulpice church wouldn’t let anyone sleep.
After that incident, Micheline began to look for me in the bars and to call my office. Two or three days later, she found me sitting in Place Furstenberg. She told me she had been drunk and stupid and that she was sorry, and she blamed herself for her tactless behaviour.
Then she repeated her account of her hard time with her former husband. ‘Oh, you don’t know how cruel he was to me in that foreign country!’
She lit a cigarette and went on: ‘I was a foreigner like you. America wasn’t my country and I was afraid my husband would throw me onto the street and I’d become exactly like you, a vagabond or a refugee.’ And she added, ‘What does it mean for someone to become homeless? Anyone of us could become homeless at any moment.’
She concluded, with a reference to the two famous cemeteries, ‘There is no stability in this life except in Montparnasse or Père Lachaise.’
I listened, nodding.
‘He would come at night and throw himself onto the bed and keep on snoring until morning. Of course, I knew he was sleeping with the Mexican maids in the afternoon.’
‘But, Micheline, you told me about your own adventures with the Mexicans as well!’
‘One adventure, with a good-looking guy,’ she said teasingly.
I remember, one evening we were lying on the bed and Micheline had told me this story: ‘We had a large villa about seven kilometres away from the restaurant. My husband preferred to take his siesta at the restaurant, while I would go home as soon as lunch was over. Until that is, the young man who worked as a dishwasher told me that my husband used to stay at the restaurant in order to spend his siesta sleeping with the waitresses. I broached the subject with him and we argued about it a lot but to no avail. I had to do the same, in the end, I’m not stupid. Especially as I knew that the dishwasher, who was a strapping young man, dreamed, like any Mexican, of sleeping with blonde women. I used to notice his glances in my direction as he worked in the kitchen.
‘One day, I went up to the young man, told him I had left the car trunk open and asked him to get inside it, then shut it behind him. After work I opened the trunk and found the young man stretched out, dripping with sweat. I closed it again and headed home, where we, too, began to take a siesta every afternoon. After a bit, my husband found out, fired the young man and began to keep watch on me until he turned my life into hell.’
I agreed to go back to Micheline to get away from the hell of the street. The period I had spent with her, as a resident of Boulevard Saint-Germain, was a happy one. It helped me escape from the vagabond life I had led for nearly ten years. I had persuaded myself that the best way of staying with her was to go out every morning as if I was an employee going off to work and to come back in the evening to spend time with her like any couple.
But this plan only worked for a few days. I began to pine for the streets and cafés again and drinking with friends. Whenever I went to meet friends, Micheline would end up spending the evening with us. She’d search every café until she found me. Sometimes she made trouble between me and my friends, and on many occasions, she said to me, ‘You go home, I’ll follow later.’ We had several arguments, and I had to leave the apartment more than once, but then we’d makeup and I’d go back.
One morning, an official holiday, the sun had been slipping through our window since the early hours of dawn. I woke up in a cheerful mood and began to caress Micheline, who was rousing slowly, responding to my caresses with a considerable appetite. Afterward, I suggested to her that we should go to spend the day at Versailles.
‘Aren’t we royalists, after all?’ I asked her.
‘Wonderful,’ she said. ‘To Versailles. That would be really nice.’
We made an assortment of sandwiches, and I took two bottles of Muscadet from the fridge. Then we took the train to Versailles. We wandered around among hundreds of tourists. I took lots of pictures of Micheline at the palace gate, in the fascinating palace grounds, then Micheline asked a Japanese tourist to take a picture of us together wearing sunglasses. And we found a cozy spot under a tree where we finished off the sandwiches and Muscadet and lay down.
When sunset approached, I said to Micheline, ‘I’ll hire a rowing boat so we can spend the sunset on the lake.’ Micheline smiled and seemed very happy.
‘You’ll see the strength of my arms,’ I added, making rowing motions.
No sooner had we got into the boat than Micheline, looking left and right, said, ‘But almost everyone has gone.’
‘The tourists like to look at the rooms inside the palace,’ I replied.
‘The place is so beautiful,’ said Micheline in a gentle voice. ‘Imagine, after all these years the Palace of Versailles is still like paradise. Admittedly, at the time of Louis XVI, it was far better.’
I nodded in agreement.
‘You’re right, I feel proud to be a royalist,’ she said, massaging my outstretched feet between hers. Micheline was talking as I guided the boat towards the far end of the lake, to a place where overgrown trees touched the water, until we were in a secluded, almost completely shaded spot.
I started to look left and right, then at Micheline, smiling. She got her camera out and took a picture of me.
‘Why don’t you speak?’ she asked.
I was smiling as I looked into her eyes for a moment, then at my own arms as they worked the oars in the water of Lake Versailles in that enticing sunset.
‘Won’t you say something?’
I looked left and right and pulled on the oars vigorously to steer the boat into an even more shaded area.
‘Say something,’ said Micheline loudly.
I didn’t reply but continued to stare at her.
‘What are you thinking about? Come on, what are you thinking about? Say something, please! Tell me what’s going round in your head!’
I looked into her eyes and said nothing.
She took out a cigarette and began smoking. ‘But say something! Come on, what are you thinking about, come on, tell me what you’re thinking about.’
‘I’m thinking about Hitchcock, I’m thinking about a movie of Hitchcock’s, Micheline.’
She looked at me and said in a pleading tone, ‘No, that’s not true. That’s not what you’re thinking. But you did tell me you wanted to be a film director, didn’t you?’ Micheline began to look left and right, while her face turned completely red. I felt that she was about to lose her power of speech completely. Finally, she said, ‘Don’t scare me, please, you’re too nice.’
‘You too,’ I said to her, smiling, then asked her to light me a cigarette.
‘Right away,’ she said, sighing. She lit the cigarette and added, ‘Now it’s my turn to row.’
She began to row quickly. ‘Don’t you think that we’d better go back?’ she said, out of breath.
I nodded agreement.
She rowed like mad – as if she were trying to escape drowning. I was smoking my cigarette and looking at her. A big smile came over her face whenever our eyes met. When we reached the jetty, Micheline became confused. ‘I have to go home quickly, yes, quickly, I’m very tired,’ she said.
We didn’t talk at all on the train. Micheline quickly opened the door to the apartment. She made for the telephone, which she carried into the room overlooking the street. She shut the door from the inside and spoke to me through the large glass window that separated the two rooms.
‘Please take your things and leave me to myself. Our relationship is over, over, over.’
‘Au revoir, Micheline.’
I took my things and went out, without hearing any reply.
That night I wandered from café to café and carried on drinking until dawn, without Micheline appearing. She didn’t appear the following day either, or the next one. I didn’t see her for more than a month, and then one day I heard she had left Paris and gone off with a Moroccan dishwasher, who had been working with her, to another city where she had decided to open a restaurant of her own.
One Sunday afternoon a family was digesting its midday meal and having a desultory debate about which of the many dishes they’d just put away was chiefly responsible for their present lethargy. From one corner of the living room, sitting in an armchair in front of the screenatron, grumpy old Uncle Misio had turned his back to them. A redheaded girl named Segal’Ena was sitting at the surly man’s unwashed feet, covering her nose. Uncle and niece were watching a show in which people told supposedly true tales about their calamitous lives. The competition lasted for months, and each week the public voted not for the best or most distressing episode but for the tale that seemed the most truthful. On this particular Sunday, a former minister of education was describing in great and morbid detail how the protagonist of his story – him – had decided to poison his secretary, who was going senile, before the masseuse who’d seduced her screwed her out of every last penny she had. Resting a bunion on the girl’s shoulder, Uncle Misio wondered how the politician was able to conceal so perfectly whether he was telling the truth or not. On the other side of the room, the family was a still life of bodily satisfaction and emotional disgruntlement. In the silence, Segal’Ena whispered to her uncle that she was sure that the former minister was lying. In spite of the uncle’s dismissive snort, a couple of months later detectives for the show presented an autopsy report stating that the secretary hadn’t been poisoned but had simply electrocuted herself with a toaster. Soon everyone had forgotten about the compelling but deceitful narrator and Segal’Ena’s hunch, but the girl was beginning to discover that her intuition hadn’t been a fluke. Although she wasn’t exactly psychic, she had an innate talent for reading facial expressions, as though she were translating from an original text. She could divine feelings, intentions, opinions and whatever other secrets might lurk in people’s souls. Segal’Ena soon learned to make use of her gift. At the educational dispensary, she knew when the birthday girl really wanted her to come to her party or not, or when a boy was coming on to her out of genuine desire or just to spite another classmate. As she got older her uncanny intuition would help her friends and relatives to vote for the politician with the best intentions, or the best-hidden ulterior motives, depending on each voter’s approach to politics.
Some years later Segal’Ena, now a young woman, had become an expert diviner of the soul. But it wasn’t as though she’d compiled a glossary of facial expressions, it was more about the process. She ignored repeated or spontaneous tics, blinking, frowns, squints, glances, skin smoothing, ear waggles, flashing or clouding of the pupils, wavering pronunciation and stutters to concentrate instead on the general feel of what the subject was projecting plus, occasionally, their tone of voice, and she was never wrong. It wasn’t about drama or semiotics; she saw through the fronts people put on without falling back on prejudice, prior assumptions or analysis of their body language, confident that a face cannot hide anything from the clear-sighted examination. Given that she specialized in sincerity it should not come as a surprise that she was open to her moment of enlightenment. She ended up training to be a civil servant on the island of Dórdica, choosing the ministerial route rather than taking the entrance exam for the police or security services. She applied to the Centre for the Maintenance of Public Life on the premise that the community would find it useful to know whether the people who applied for the subsidies granted by the said body were being honest or not. Although it pained her to report frauds, and especially to refuse funds to private individuals, she was steadfast: Not that one; he’s a cheat. Occasionally she was also called upon to decide criminal cases. The fact that she never failed could be attested to by a string of convicts who, minutes, days or weeks after hearing her pronouncement finally cracked under the pressure of her precise, measured, well-meaning judgment and either out of sheer exhaustion or with resigned joy had accepted themselves for who they really were. Of course, sometimes Segal’Ena declared that people were innocent, too. However, the ability to discriminate between guilt and innocence came at a heavy cost: it made her painfully aware of her responsibility. Every soul suffers from tectonic shifts and tremors, not to mention the odd hidden mangrove swamp. Segal’Ena was tormented by the idea of weakness. Sometimes, when she looked in the mirror, her face revealed the most flagrant deceit she’d ever seen in all her years of mentalist therapy. Segal’Ena was a solid building vulnerable to erosion: a corrective institute for herself. There was always some flaw that needed to be remedied. And she never ruled out the possibility that she might be wrong. Once, in fact, she really did mess up. One night in autumn a second-rate screen actor called Arlio Duruache was enjoying the fire frenzy at the Anis Festival when one of the reveling drunks firing into the air shot him in the head. The small-caliber bullet lost momentum after bursting through the temporal bone but still managed to pierce the right eye before settling in the nasal cavity. At the hospital awaiting treatment, still gushing blood, Arlio had sneezed, and the bullet had dropped to the floor. An insufferable police inspector demanded to know who had hurt him. Arlio said that he didn’t know the guy. The police called upon Segal’Ena to help them decide whether he was telling the truth. Meanwhile, Arlio had undergone surgery on his retina and elsewhere. The right half of his face looked like a splodge of blackberry jam with a cloudy blue eye stuck in the middle. The sunken cheek and small, dark pupil had borne the brunt of the pain and seemed to have slipped downwards as a consequence. Segal’Ena examined the face: it was the picture of both luck and misfortune. She knew that Arlio was telling the truth. But she was wrong. In a way. Arlio, who had a keen conscience, went back to Segal’Ena a week later to tell her that it hadn’t been a random accident; he’d been attacked by the distraught father of a boy to whom he’d supplied fraghe during a time when he was out of work and made a few bits on the side selling intoxicating substances. Segal’Ena observed that you’d have to be an idiot to waste your life smoking fraghe cigarillos. Sure, said Arlio, but I came to tell you that you can make mistakes after all.
I must have been confused by the state your face was in, she said.
Yes, but you aren’t infallible. You need to be careful with your judgments. I say this because I hold you in such high esteem.
Who’s to say that my intuition didn’t sense that you wanted to forgive your attacker?
Well, it wasn’t that so much. Perhaps it sensed my remorse. But much more to the point, Segal’Ena, can I buy you dinner?
In keeping with her predilection for frank behaviour, not to mention the fact that they were both redheads, Segal’Ena immediately fell in love with the love Arlio already felt for her.
Segal’Ena and Arlio were together for a year and a half. With the exception of a couple of cases of facial paralysis, she continued to read strangers’ faces correctly, but she began to be alarmed by the very occasional instances when Arlio questioned her reading of his, sometimes with a little giggle, sometimes rather indignantly. Maybe romantic feelings weren’t as clear cut as those relating to death, greed or power. At least when it wasn’t the kind of love that was cut with a little death, greed or power. How many men have been prevented from feeling emotions both profound and superficial because they’ve grabbed onto the first boulder they came across, refusing to be swept along by the current? It was for such reasons that Segal’Ena and Arlio broke up.
For Segal’Ena time passed in its inexorable way and, although they might initially have aspired to permanence, other loves came and went along with it. Eventually, undercut by uncertainty, attempts to prolong them simply grew embarrassing and they were unceremoniously curtailed. Segal’Ena began to notice not only that what she saw in men’s faces often differed from what they claimed they were feeling inside (and, because they tended to act more or less honourably, she was inclined to believe them) but also that men were misreading her as well. The imbalance was a critical romantic impediment. Segal’Ena found that rather than reading her as she did them, men tried to interpret her. Eventually, she and they became radioactive elements that, while not exactly toxic, were certainly out of phase. One of them put it like this: Segui, our faces are on different wavelengths. And it was precisely when she broke up with that man that Segal’Ena experienced the second moment of clarity in her life, one that was as well timed as it was devastating.
What she had gleaned from her murky explorations of desire was that it wasn’t her reading that was out of kilter, it was her feelings. And this applied to more than just her romantic life, family and friends. She constantly had the sensation that she was coming at things backwards: when feelings came into play she became completely disoriented. She knew that her feelings had always come to her in precisely the opposite way as they did to other people, but now she was really noticing the difference. Given the rough, lukewarm sensation in her torso, one might also say that the difference was feeling her back as well. When the city was troubled and gloomy, she always felt rather joyful. People had learned from the writer Scarvel that life was a long process of decline, but if she ever worried about death it was because it would get in the way of her endless constructivism. When others enjoyed a fesbulot cocktail on ice, she was upset that the cold was hurting her teeth and ruining the flavour of the fesbulot. Segal’Ena might have put this down to her rebellious spirit or, even better, a yearning for freedom, but she had spent so much of her life striving to be objective that she wasn’t going to let herself off with vague reassurances now. Her eyebrows were almost always damp, not because she sweated with anxiety but from the endless drip, drip, drip of questions. People at the theatron were moved more by mysteries or crime stories when they were set on the island, especially if the playwright was local. But she was more upset by a violent drama when it took place far away. And why did she find films at which other people laughed from beginning to end depressing? The disconnect had grown irreversible. It tore her up inside because she liked to bawl her eyes out at sad movies, and it was hard to cry when everyone around you was howling with laughter. For instance, people laughed at someone tripping up in the street, even though that person must be mortified by their pratfall. Sometimes the spectators laughed at the suffering of animals, like ornamental birds kept in huge cages. For them, animals were different, a sub-species, while Segal’Ena saw no great difference between herself and a painted dirdul. It made her feel like breaking all their necks. Maybe she was doomed to regress back to the weird little girl she’d once been. The little girl she’d once been had owned a pet dirdul, and she’d loved it so much that she’d called it Sérkugo, after the smelly, grumpy Man in the Delta de la Torcedura horror stories, just to demonstrate how much she disliked it when people laughed at monsters. And yet it was hard for her to suppress her own laughter when she saw someone vomit, even if they were very sick, or when siblings were deceitful, in real life or in films, or even at a heart-breaking, unnecessary farewell between lovers. She found it so hard, in fact, that in the end she always burst out laughing, and then the other members of the audience would give her disapproving looks. It made her feel guilty.
This was who Segal’Ena was, she’d laugh for no reason and cry in the midst of great joy. They were difficult years of inverted value judgments, of faith in her coruscating gaze based on a foundation of enduring immaturity. Today, after several fleeting romances and accurately divining so much human emotion, the last thing that Segal’Ena wants is to be contrary. Lately, she’s been asking herself whether she’ll always be a little girl. Attempts to reassure her do nothing of the kind – in fact, they drive her crazy.
Every morning Segal’Ena’s virtual maid prepares a maxim for her along with her cup of cofeto. One morning it’s this: Life is as fragile as a cobweb, and the wind never stops blowing. Segal’Ena drinks some of her cofeto and comes to a realization: her love for men will never last, and neither will men’s love for her, regardless of the man, unless she works out how to control her reactions. But she doesn’t think she can. What if she can discipline them or disguise them? On another day she is asked to assess the sincerity of the statements made during a debate between the candidates for city rector. Segal’Ena refuses the invitation because an electoral promise to reduce grodotexamin might well be a lie that nonetheless allows the candidate, when they are elected rector, to eradicate the unscrupulous quasiquarn industry. Behind or underneath a hidden truth of any temperature, other truths both glacial and incandescent may lie. Beneath the sincerity of the girl that Segal’Ena once was there may be an attempt to sabotage the adult Segal’Ena’s love life. Is Segal’Ena burning? Will she be scorched? She feels an urge to turn her contrariness inside out like a jacket, to expose her lining and shake free the bits that get stuck in the seams. But she can’t find anything on which to get a purchase: she has no edges, sleeves or cuffs. She is an untouchable, possibly impermeable skin. It’s not that she’s frustrated by her failure – she’s discovering that everyone is a little like that, just one continuous surface – but she is saddened. In her resignation, rather than turning herself inside out, Segal’Ena becomes contemplative.
Now the contemplative Segal’Ena looks at people’s faces without examining them or trying to understand them. She sees their bodies without listening to their hidden murmurs. She regards the Lagrinach peaks without longing to climb them and stares at objects without feeling the urge to take them apart. She can gaze at the round face of the clock in the kitchenette for five or seven minutes at a time, or at a page among hundreds of others, with no idea of what on earth she’s looking at and, once a period of innocence has passed, whatever it is leaves her indifferent. In many of the things she contemplates she begins to see shapes that don’t belong there. Rather than hindering her enthusiastic use of the senses, she now finds her bureaucratic job assessing sincerity stimulating. Segal’Ena sees a demon with a pipe in the smoke of a burning textile factory, the head of a canary in the hair of the city rector’s wife, her Uncle Misio’s bunion-riddled foot in a puddle of oil on the pavement, Arlio’s wonderfully asymmetric features in the crust of a cheesami tart, a woman raising her arm to the sky in a beehive. She sees the phrase It is forbidden to stop working in the scales of a catfish, an accountant asleep at his desk in the wake of a boat on the Synnah lagoon. She sees a girl reading on her belly in a rolled-up carpet, the skinny, somewhat rigid form of her friend Paghy in a table lamp. She sees herself in the dirty white screen of the cinema when the movie is over. Days later old Uncle Misio is going to tell her that she’s somatic. Thinking you see shapes in objects isn’t an illness exactly, but it is a symptom, the name of which is Simidolia. When her uncle shares his diagnosis, Segal’Ena’s head reads it the wrong way round, which is to say she reads it correctly: she reads the beginning of a verse from the poem Ay Lodia… and remembers the response that she learned in school: life is fragile as a cobweb… Soon afterwards she detects a subtle message hidden in the lyrics of a recent hit. It’s in a dialect she doesn’t know but fastens itself to her head like a tick made of sound. The verbal invasion doesn’t bother her, it doesn’t happen again. Mostly because, as time passes and Segal’Ena wins more mental space for herself by refraining from judgment, she occasionally sees the shape of a face in the face itself, a duplication of features that is not a copy or even a perfect reproduction but which isn’t fake either, rather the natural result of spontaneous physical activity, an organic sculpture of a soul eager to give of itself.
She finds the fidelity of these faces to the information they wish to convey moving.
One afternoon in autumn, to give her mind permission for the clear-out it has been hankering after, she sits down to watch the dance of the waves and the twinkling lights of the bay. Sitting next to her on the bench is a man with a bottello. He drinks in measured sips and eventually, between one sip and the next, says hello to Segal’Ena. He tells her that he’s going to bother her a little because he finds it impossible to stay quiet. He asks her what she can see in the river; she seems to be examining it very closely. She tells him that right now she can’t actually see anything, only the gentle waves. The man says that if she’s staring so hard but can’t see anything, maybe it’s because she’s waiting for something. But what? Well, it’s not that I’m waiting, says Segal’Ena. I have the feeling that one of these days I’m going to fall in love for a long time. The man asks her if she’d like to toast the intuition. She asks what he’s drinking. Beer and human bones, says the man. It’s made from hops and barley like ordinary beer but with the addition of the powdered bones of a relative one hopes to remember before they’re buried. Or cremated, Segal’Ena suggests. The man, nodding, says that the ingredient gives the beer a unique spice, because nothing can be truer than bone, can it? Or a marrow. Segal’Ena takes a sip and allows the bitterness, or spice, to make her shiver. She sips a little more and returns the bottello. Human-bone beer, the man says. I invented it.
Segal’Ena knows immediately that one of these statements isn’t true. But she doesn’t care.
The restaurant is crazy busy and my entire head is engulfed in the heat and steam and smell of all the dishes being cooked and readied on the line. I am tired. I am always tired but this is where I like to be. Where I belong. Everything seems to be as it always is but when I look up from the trout I am just about done sautéing and see someone I don’t recognize standing where the servers stand while waiting to pick up their orders, I think I am hallucinating.
He is young, maybe thirty, slight, not smiling. But his lips are parted and his teeth—very white—are clenched down in a hard bite. He is too handsome. There is menace in the way he is looking at me.
“You need some help,” he says.
I am thinking the same thing. I need some help, I should call out for some help, because despite the kitchen heat my skin is cold and I know the hairs standing up on the back of my neck have nothing to do with the kind of fear I normally have when I am feeling threatened. This is something else.
But maybe I am dreaming. God knows I am exhausted and no one notices anything is amiss. Waiters use their hips to back him out of the way as they reach for plates and he disappears but then like a wave, he rolls back up after they’ve gone. I close my eyes, open them fast and there he is. I want to swallow but my breath is in the way.
“You need help,” he repeats, morphing through the steam this time into a lost boy, his forehead the kind you want to brush hair off of.
I hear myself say, “I don’t know, do I need help?” and when it comes out it sounds like flirting. Someone is flirting with this stranger-boy on my line in the middle of my dinner rush. The trout is overcooked, beyond saving.
His face relaxes then. “You look like you do,” he says.
There have been some things I wish I’d had the prescience to understand before acting on and when I remember them, I want to set myself on fire. But right now time is moving too fast for memory to intrude. When I don’t answer, he says, “I put in an application for a cook. Your ad said you needed some help.” That is true. Then he looks around the madhouse that is my kitchen and says, again, “You look like you need help.”
What do I look like? It has been so long since I have thought about it, since I was pretty. I have been sweating behind the line for two hours, for too many years, and sweat makes my small face wet and a bright red. At the end of every dinner shift, when I go into the employee bathroom at midnight to splash cold water on my face, I find my morning mascara, that small homage to vanity, has left my lashes and settled into the deep cups of skin beneath my eyes. I am forty-five years old, always bone-tired yet plagued with nervousness all the time, even when I sleep. I am married to my South Beach restaurant, entering it in the dark mornings and leaving it in the darker nights so I never see what I am supposed to look like, the public I might be compared to were I ever to put myself among them. I hardly see the daylight. I wear chef whites every day, stained with grease and sauce. I know exactly what I look like and feel surprised, and then ashamed, that I am so sorry about it right now.
“Why did you do that?” I ask him. It is the next morning and he is here to fill out the paperwork.
“Do what?” he asks. He is wearing the same jeans and black t-shirt he’d had on last night but now, somehow, they are miraculously clean.
“Just show up,” I say. “Come into the kitchen like that, at the height of the dinner rush.” I sound like a punishing mother, someone trying to teach someone a lesson.
“Because I knew you’d be here then.”
I have to admit that makes some sense. I look at his application. He has left the space for his address blank.
“Where do you live?” I ask.
“And it’s true,” he says. “You need me.”
I am not afraid anymore. Last night, when I finally got a hold of myself and told him “Fine, go back to the prep kitchen and help,” it felt like I was doing something that absolutely needed to be done. It felt like we both needed help. Now he tells me that when the restaurant closed, he had gone to an all-night Laundromat and convinced two drunk girls to let him throw his clothes in with theirs. While his jeans and shirt washed and dried, he sat in his boxers reading the newspaper. They had given him two beers. I can imagine the whole scene, him charming them with his good looks and serious stare, their wanting to help him.
I hire him for a two week probationary period. I don’t know him, don’t know who he is or who he’s been so I try to watch him when I can. I can tell he has worked in a restaurant like mine before, can tell by the way he handles the equipment in the prep kitchen, by his movements and his focus, by the fact that he never asks anyone any questions. But there is so much to do when you own a restaurant and today I am all over the place—in my office planning menus, then working on the books, in the stock room taking inventory, then the walk-in cooler doing the orders and much of the time I don’t know what he’s doing. I don’t forget about him but I’m not always sure where he is.
In the late afternoon, I find him on the line. He has made a shimmering pea mousse to serve under my house salmon. I am surprised but then I am angry. I ask him who he thinks he is. I ask him how he made the mousse and he won’t tell me and that is how I discover he is a trained chef. I am a trained chef and never share the recipes I’ve invented with anyone. I know all about the relationship between privacy, thievery and pride. Still, I find the secrecy insulting until he gives me a bite and I am whisked away on the pleasure of peas.
After the two weeks, I let him keep the job because there were mashed potato cups filled with foie gras, the pineapple-jalapeno salsa and Serrano Ham panini, the roasted marrow toasts, a peach bombe, old customer raves, new customers—younger and so hip—forming a line outside at night, willing to wait however long it took to be seated. In my restaurant.
He is quiet, never late. I don’t know where he lives. Or what he does when he is not at work and sometimes I forget about him but then when I realize that he is at the restaurant during every shift, even the ones I don’t pay him for, I start thinking about him all the time. This is my restaurant, I am the boss, so I ask him questions, try to figure him out.
He answers everything too vaguely. I think he thinks his life is none of my business. Maybe he is right. He is a good worker, that’s all I need to know. Or maybe he is shy. I am shy, I get that. Then one day, out of the blue, he says he thinks we should close between 4 and 6, that that would give the kitchen time to regroup, the staff a chance to have a meal together. He’s already prepared it—lentil soup, spinach salad, grilled ham and manchego cheese with roasted tomatoes and pesto. The food is so good, comfort food but with an indefinable touch. He tells me to sit down, next to him at the table with the staff, and I do. We eat.
I start to like him, and then I discover I like having him there. Everyone else likes him, too. He does his job in the back kitchen but then when I’m not looking, he helps everyone else with their jobs. He shows the waiters a new, more sophisticated way of laying the napkins on the tables. He teaches the bartenders to make a drink with vodka, shaved ice and shards of fresh ginger; they start to offer it as a house specialty and we can’t keep up with the demand. He asks me if we can serve our scallop appetizer on the ceramic spoons I only use for private tastings. He cooks the staff meal, the family meal, every night.
One night he sees me struggling over the books in the office and he tells me he can help. He was right from the start, I need help. I let him install a program in my aging computer that transforms my bookkeeping into some-thing I actually like to do. He smiles. He works the day shift but is still here for the whole night shift and the hostesses tell me the customers love him. At night he greets them, sometimes walks them to their tables. I can’t explain why I didn’t know he was doing this, how he managed to do so many things without my knowing even though I knew he was there. I am not sure why I am letting it happen except that I am so much less tired than I ever was before he came. And business is booming.
Last night I found a stack of our linen napkins layered and folded into the shape of a pillow in the basement storage room. It was on top of an oversized garbage bag he was obviously using for a blanket. When I confronted him, he said I saved his life.
And when I wake up one morning some weeks after to the sound of the water running in my shower, I wonder what has happened to my own life. For the first time in ten years, I am sleeping in my bed. We drink our coffee there. He shampoos my hair, reads comic books out loud, makes love to me as if I am something precious, rare and fragile, something he must take care not to break, as if he knows me. After, he rubs his white teeth barely over my skin and I am afraid that he will bite me but he never does and because he never does, I relax. I know I should be at least a little frightened but I’m not.
When we are not at my apartment, we are both at my restaurant working. All I know for sure about his past is that something he won’t talk about happened and when he came to me, he was jobless. Homeless. But instead of wondering how on earth I’d let a stranger, practically a boy, infiltrate my small life, I fall headfirst into the supreme relief of not having to do everything myself in order to keep everything going. I fall into having someone to sleep with at night. Now I never look for him, wonder where he is. Like magic, he appears without warning beside me wherever I am—the line, the prep kitchen, the salad station—puts his arm around my waist and presses into me. Kisses me on the mouth. I do not know who I am. I think I am falling in love.
I discover he is a wizard with numbers so I let him oversee the purchasing. He is a whirlwind of energy and sometimes everywhere at once—the bar, the walk-in, the prep kitchen, the front of the house. I start to forget that he has not always been here, that we did not build this restaurant together. That I used to be alone.
Before he came, once in a while a guest would request to see the chef, and I’d tuck the wet sweaty hairs back into my headband, wipe my hands on my apron, and go out into the dining room to accept the compliments. But I had forgotten how to be social, comfortable only with people who worked for me and slipping in and out among the strangers in places I needed to go—the pharmacy, the grocery store, the dry cleaners. But he is so different, as easy and happy in his chef whites in the prep kitchen as he is in a suit in the dining room. Every restaurant needs someone like that.
He has even made some friends. A group of guys who eat dinner in the restaurant every Saturday night. He joins them. They are all unemployed chefs. I ask him if he thinks we should hire any of them but he says they are looking to start their own restaurant. At first, I like the stories he tells me about them. They are easy to listen to and I remember what it’s like to have pals and I am happy for him. I never expected to be enough for him. But then one morning, over coffee before work, it hits me.
“Are these people you are going into business with?” I ask.
“Honey,” he says, “I’m with you, aren’t I?” He frowns, as if I am hurting him. “You’re acting crazy.”
Because I am crazy. I am living with someone fifteen years younger than I am, someone who appeared in my restaurant and knew exactly what was going to happen, assumed things I didn’t know myself and was right. I went from working 15 hours a day without a break to spending an hour in the ocean every day at 3:00. I went from sleeping alone on my couch to spending nearly every waking and sleeping minute with a stranger who I thought was an illusion. I feel like he has always been here, that he is solid and I am safe. I didn’t know I needed that kind of safety until it was there everyday.
I have a right to be crazy. I am middle-aged, bony. My face is thin, drawn. There are a lot of wrinkles. But this man touches it. He wipes it when it sweats, he moves the stray hairs from it, he looks right into it. He kisses it all the time.
“Maybe you are crazy,” I say because when I think about this life, I know I don’t understand. And then I don’t want to think anymore so I say, “Maybe they are crazy. You don’t really know these guys. They could be thieves.”
I know an assortment of psychotics and thieves. They go anywhere they want with the extraordinary self confidence of the desperate who have nothing to lose or the stupidity to believe they will lose nothing. If they want money or liquor or sex, if they want to scare someone for real or just for kicks, if they merely want something to eat for free, they walk into places they don’t belong and demand to be seen and to be served. In South Beach, where bums and drunks share the streets and beaches with celebrities and wealthy tourists, it is often hard to distinguish between the real threats and the mere expressions and that’s what makes it so dangerous. Once I barred a mogul from entering my restaurant because he looked like a thug. Once I let a pair of thugs stay late in the bar because they looked like moguls; after we closed, they robbed two of my waitresses on the street. Some killers look only like thieves. Some thieves are a special kind of killer. I know these people, and I watch out for them.
So it makes me nervous to hear about these guys he eats dinner with every Saturday night, makes me wonder who they really are. I become afraid for him, start to think that he is being conned. I know he picks up the tab for their dinners. I don’t care about the money. I tell him to be careful because I want to protect him. He says, “don’t worry. I think people are basically good. You gave me a chance, didn’t you? And I know them better than you knew me.”
This is true. He’d come from a mystery I still know nothing about to the places—my restaurant and my home—that I know best. And he knew I would take him, and then trust him. His instincts are good.
I don’t have any friends. I tell myself it is by choice though, truly, I have morphed into this solitary person without realizing it. After my husband left, I didn’t know how to turn myself back into someone who could trust anyone again. I threw myself into culinary school and then into work. I like the people who work for me and I am glad to have them near me but before he came, I thought I only needed myself. I thought I knew myself, which is why I didn’t sense my own loneliness creeping up on me. I never saw it coming and then, abracadabra, it disappeared.
Just like a thief, while I wasn’t looking, he took away all of the things I had been afraid of. And he replaced them with the things I had forgotten ever wanting, like coming home and having a brandy and listening to music with my aching feet in someone’s lap instead of falling asleep on the couch in my chef clothes, having sworn off my bed years ago. Like having someone to walk home with after work, to scramble late night eggs for, someone to touch, who wanted to touch me. Slowly, subtly, bit by bit, he took me and left me fearless.
I think I am lucky, blessed. That somehow someone or something divine decided that I deserve this life I am living, really living, now. But then the spell is broken because the one morning, I wake up alone. I want it to be a dream. It isn’t the first time I close my eyes to conjure back what I think I can’t live without but before him, I had sworn it would be the last time. Back then, before the restaurant, before the work, when I learned that I was the kind of woman it was easy to leave, I had crumbled. Then I had begged and pleaded and promised to do anything to fix myself, to make myself right. Even though I did not know what was wrong.
This time, I am ready for a fight. By the time I get to the restaurant, my teeth are rattling. It is a steamy summer morning but I am shivering. I go back into the kitchen and he comes out from behind the line; it is clear he has been there for hours. He’s reorganized the walk-in cooler and now everything we need is in clear view. He’s dusted all the bottles in the bar. He’s taken the crate of lemons that had begun to spoil and made forty individually-sized citrus cakes for the dinner service. It is seven in the morning and the rest of the staff won’t be in until ten. In the dining room, he’s set a table for two with a bottle of champagne chilling. He pulls lobster burritos from the oven and feeds me mine while he explains that sometimes when he can’t sleep, he just needs to work. I understand this because it is true for me too but it doesn’t take away the ache and panic. I am so angry. After the first bite, I say, “Feeding me is hokey,” because I am so unsettled by the way I love it. But he is undaunted. He says, “You think this is hokey?” and leads me downstairs to the office where he has blown up an air mattress and lit candles.
The last time I had felt this way was the first time and I knew nothing. I was so young, thought it would last forever, didn’t understand how love can be consumed by fear and instead of stomping it out like a fire, I stoked it, tended it, fed its restlessness bite by bite so that it could never be satisfied and never be finished. I was so frantic trying to keep the fire alive that I didn’t see it growing out of control.
He says, “Look, I know I scared you. I’m sorry. But everyone comes to everyone with a history. We’re learning how we are together, but we’re still who we were before.”
I don’t know who he was before. And I had left who I was before a long time ago. I replaced her with someone who saved her heart for taste and texture and smell. Who used her head for everything else. Who made things make sense. Making sense is what saved me, sustained me. It’s what pulled me out of the ashes and wed me to a career that relies on all the properties of fire. It’s what recreated me into a person surrounded by people, by cooks and waiters and bartenders and dishwashers and vendors and customers, so I didn’t know I was alone. What I learned, in addition to how to cook, was that every time something went wrong, if I could make sense of it I could make it right. I didn’t take chances until I let a stranger into my kitchen, into my bed.
I made sense of him. He was young but already too tired. He wanted stability. He wanted to make a life with someone in an industry he loved and understood. He knew how to operate every piece of equipment, how to increase profits, how to train cooks and servers. He was a fabulous, inspiring, inventive cook. He could butcher meat, he could skin a Dover sole in one move, he could suspend caviar in sabayon as easily as he could make grilled cheese. These things made him happy and they made sense to me. He knew that by just giving me a bite of something I hadn’t had before, I would cave. That my heart would take over. He knew how to get there.
So when I get to the restaurant this morning, after having been with him for over a year and a half, and my key won’t turn in the lock, I know I am dreaming. About banana pancakes. I was not surprised that he left me in the middle of the night because since the first time, it has become a ritual and one I celebrate like a teenager. This morning I showered and shaved, put on lotion, per-fume. I hope he is making banana pancakes because that’s what I have a taste for. Banana pancakes with pecans and caramel syrup. I will let him feed them to me, bite by sweet bite, because I always do. Because I am certifiably hokey in love.
I try the key again and again and then so hard it actually snaps off in the lock. I look like a thief, trying to break into my own restaurant. It is only seven in the morning and no one is out on the street yet. I cup my hands to either side of my face like blinders and peer inside. The lights are all out and so it gives the illusion that nothing is there, that my restaurant is an empty room. Like when I first started, when I had been emptied out and bought a space I could fill. The tables and chairs seem to have vanished. Maybe he moved them. Maybe he is redecorating the dining room or washing the carpet. I knock. And wait. I knock again, and call out his name. No one comes. So I knock again and again and again, each time harder and then harder than that so that he will hear me, emerge from wherever he is and make the fear starting to smoke and smolder inside me curl back into ash.
A police car cruises by and the officer gets out and asks to see some ID but I have nothing that says this space belongs to me. My key is broken in a lock where it didn’t fit. My face is wet so I know I am crying and my teeth are clenched and they hurt—everything hurts—and then without seeing it coming, I start screaming, appear crazy, delusional, all the kinds of crazy I know, like someone to fear. Me. Someone to fear.
The cop pats my shoulder and asks me to calm down. When I do, he looks through the window and then asks me to tell him what is inside my restaurant. My description does not match what he sees. “There’s no stained glass hanging there, maam.”
“What about the coffee station?” I say. “In the back corner? The espresso machine, regular coffee maker, two pots, one for decaf…” I rattle off my inventory like an auctioneer.
“Nothing back there, maam. Nothing at all. Is there someone we can call?” Of course, there is! I think. Call him. We’ve been robbed! He is probably tied up somewhere in the restaurant, waiting to be saved. Why didn’t I think of this before? How much time have I wasted? He trusts everyone. He would have let anyone in. He could be dead in there!
I recite his cell phone number and while the officer dials, I wipe my eyes and gather my strength and stand up straight. I’m coming, don’t worry. I’m here. I’m coming, but a message on his cell phone says it’s been disconnected. I paid the bill last week.
“Is there anyone else?” he asks me.
Anyone else? No, no one. There is no one else.
“Uh, ma’am?” he says, because I have not answered him and am staring into the black window, my place. “An employee maybe? A manager?”
Yes, there are employees. Waiters and dishwashers. There are hostesses, line cooks, two sous chefs, busboys, a sommelier on the weekends. There are day managers and night managers. Sometimes there is a harpist in the dining room, a quartet in the bar lounge. There are lots of people, really nice people, who come here every day and night to eat. An entire world of wonderful people.
I want to tell him this but don’t know how when I look up and see Adele, the night manager, standing there. I hear her identifying herself, asking what’s wrong. I hear her identifying me. I hear her saying she is here early because she left her cell phone in the hostess stand last night and needs it now to call her mother. I wonder why she didn’t just call her mother from her home. I wonder what would have happened if we had been naked on the air mattress in my office, eating banana pancakes with our fingers, hearing someone upstairs rummaging around the hostess stand. We would have thought we were being robbed. We have been robbed.
Another policeman comes and together the two men bust open the door and Adele and I walk in. Adele says “oh my God oh my God” over and over again. I do not speak. Adele starts walking around the dining room, touching the walls, moving one hand over the other as if the missing tables, chairs, linens, vases, flatware will miraculously reappear from behind the dusky pink wallpaper I put up myself. In my lonely days. When I thought I was safe. Poof. Everything has disappeared. There is nothing in the dining room, the bar, the lounge. All the plates and glassware, the water pitchers, the creamers and sugar bowls, the cream and sugar. Gone. The kitchen is an empty stainless steel vault. The huge Hobart to the tiny paring knives, the pots and pans, the tongs and spatulas and slotted spoons, and strainers, everything has vanished. The food is gone, the steaks and chops and fish and ribs, potatoes and onions and garlic, all the oils and vinegars, the spices and herbs, the truffles, pates, flour, butter, yeast, milks, the extracts. The walk-in cooler is cleaned out, except for a crate of rotting lemons.
I pull one out and my fingers fall through the soft blue and white mold to the decomposing flesh with its rancid sorry smell. How did he ever use these to make cakes? He was a magician. I sit down on the cooler floor, the terrible lemon in my palm, and try to turn magic into sense. Sleight of hand.
The police are asking me questions, but their words are jumbled and meaningless so I can’t answer. They turn to Adele, who is crying. I hear her say his name, describe him, but the description doesn’t sound like anyone I know.
The bigger of the two policemen very gently slides his hands under my arms and lifts me up. He walks me into the dining room, forgetting there is nowhere to sit, and just as gently settles me onto the carpet that apparently could not be pried up in time.
“Is there anything I can get you?”
But what can you pull out of thin air?
“Can we call someone else?” the officer asks. I try to conjure up the image of his Saturday night friends, men I never met. He could not have done this alone. I hear Adele rattling off names and numbers.
“Ok. Good,” I hear the officer say. “We’ll call them. In the meantime, do you want to go get your boss something? A cup of coffee? She needs something.”
What do you need when everything is gone?
Something small. Just one small thing, something that I could make disappear, something irreplaceable that would be gone for good. The tip of a finger. The bottom pearl of an ear. A toe, something I could run my teeth across and then bite off, clean and fast. a real thing, a real loss, that by being gone would say over and over again, forever, that I had been there.
*This story is taken from: Party Girls by Diane Goodman, Autumn House Press, 2011.
*Copyright © 2011 by Diane Goodman.
The woods were already filled with shadows one June evening, just before eight o’clock, though a bright sunset still glimmered faintly among the trunks of the trees. A little girl was driving home her cow, a plodding, dilatory, provoking creature in her behavior, but a valued companion for all that. They were going away from whatever light there was, and striking deep into the woods, but their feet were familiar with the path, and it was no matter whether their eyes could see it or not.
There was hardly a night the summer through when the old cow could be found waiting at the pasture bars; on the contrary, it was her greatest pleasure to hide herself away among the huckleberry bushes, and though she wore a loud bell she had made the discovery that if one stood perfectly still it would not ring. So Sylvia had to hunt for her until she found her, and call Co’ ! Co’ ! with never an answering Moo, until her childish patience was quite spent. If the creature had not given good milk and plenty of it, the case would have seemed very different to her owners. Besides, Sylvia had all the time there was, and very little use to make of it. Sometimes in pleasant weather it was a consolation to look upon the cow’s pranks as an intelligent attempt to play hide and seek, and as the child had no playmates she lent herself to this amusement with a good deal of zest. Though this chase had been so long that the wary animal herself had given an unusual signal of her whereabouts, Sylvia had only laughed when she came upon Mistress Moolly at the swamp-side, and urged her affectionately homeward with a twig of birch leaves. The old cow was not inclined to wander farther, she even turned in the right direction for once as they left the pasture, and stepped along the road at a good pace. She was quite ready to be milked now, and seldom stopped to browse. Sylvia wondered what her grandmother would say because they were so late. It was a great while since she had left home at half-past five o’clock, but everybody knew the difficulty of making this errand a short one. Mrs. Tilley had chased the hornéd torment too many summer evenings herself to blame any one else for lingering, and was only thankful as she waited that she had Sylvia, nowadays, to give such valuable assistance. The good woman suspected that Sylvia loitered occasionally on her own account; there never was such a child for straying about out-of-doors since the world was made! Everybody said that it was a good change for a little maid who had tried to grow for eight years in a crowded manufacturing town, but, as for Sylvia herself, it seemed as if she never had been alive at all before she came to live at the farm. She thought often with wistful compassion of a wretched geranium that belonged to a town neighbor. “‘Afraid of folks,'” old Mrs. Tilley said to herself, with a smile, after she had made the unlikely choice of Sylvia from her daughter’s houseful of children, and was returning to the farm. “‘Afraid of folks,’ they said! I guess she won’t be troubled no great with ’em up to the old place!” When they reached the door of the lonely house and stopped to unlock it, and the cat came to purr loudly, and rub against them, a deserted pussy, indeed, but fat with young robins, Sylvia whispered that this was a beautiful place to live in, and she never should wish to go home.
The companions followed the shady wood-road, the cow taking slow steps and the child very fast ones. The cow stopped long at the brook to drink, as if the pasture were not half a swamp, and Sylvia stood still and waited, letting her bare feet cool themselves in the shoal water, while the great twilight moths struck softly against her. She waded on through the brook as the cow moved away, and listened to the thrushes with a heart that beat fast with pleasure. There was a stirring in the great boughs overhead. They were full of little birds and beasts that seemed to be wide awake, and going about their world, or else saying good-night to each other in sleepy twitters. Sylvia herself felt sleepy as she walked along. However, it was not much farther to the house, and the air was soft and sweet. She was not often in the woods so late as this, and it made her feel as if she were a part of the gray shadows and the moving leaves. She was just thinking how long it seemed since she first came to the farm a year ago, and wondering if everything went on in the noisy town just the same as when she was there, the thought of the great red-faced boy who used to chase and frighten her made her hurry along the path to escape from the shadow of the trees.
Suddenly this little woods-girl is horror-stricken to hear a clear whistle not very far away. Not a bird’s-whistle, which would have a sort of friendliness, but a boy’s whistle, determined, and somewhat aggressive. Sylvia left the cow to whatever sad fate might await her, and stepped discreetly aside into the bushes, but she was just too late. The enemy had discovered her, and called out in a very cheerful and persuasive tone, “Halloa, little girl, how far is it to the road?” and trembling Sylvia answered almost inaudibly, “A good ways.”
She did not dare to look boldly at the tall young man, who carried a gun over his shoulder, but she came out of her bush and again followed the cow, while he walked alongside.
“I have been hunting for some birds,” the stranger said kindly, “and I have lost my way, and need a friend very much. Don’t be afraid,” he added gallantly. “Speak up and tell me what your name is, and whether you think I can spend the night at your house, and go out gunning early in the morning.”
Sylvia was more alarmed than before. Would not her grandmother consider her much to blame? But who could have foreseen such an accident as this? It did not seem to be her fault, and she hung her head as if the stem of it were broken, but managed to answer “Sylvy,” with much effort when her companion again asked her name.
Mrs. Tilley was standing in the doorway when the trio came into view. The cow gave a loud moo by way of explanation.
“Yes, you’d better speak up for yourself, you old trial! Where’d she tucked herself away this time, Sylvy?” But Sylvia kept an awed silence; she knew by instinct that her grandmother did not comprehend the gravity of the situation. She must be mistaking the stranger for one of the farmer-lads of the region.
The young man stood his gun beside the door, and dropped a lumpy game-bag beside it; then he bade Mrs. Tilley good-evening, and repeated his wayfarer’s story, and asked if he could have a night’s lodging.
“Put me anywhere you like,” he said. “I must be off early in the morning, before day; but I am very hungry, indeed. You can give me some milk at any rate, that’s plain.”
“Dear sakes, yes,” responded the hostess, whose long slumbering hospitality seemed to be easily awakened. “You might fare better if you went out to the main road a mile or so, but you’re welcome to what we’ve got. I’ll milk right off, and you make yourself at home. You can sleep on husks or feathers,” she proffered graciously. “I raised them all myself. There’s good pasturing for geese just below here towards the ma’sh. Now step round and set a plate for the gentleman, Sylvy!” And Sylvia promptly stepped. She was glad to have something to do, and she was hungry herself.
It was a surprise to find so clean and comfortable a little dwelling in this New England wilderness. The young man had known the horrors of its most primitive housekeeping, and the dreary squalor of that level of society which does not rebel at the companionship of hens. This was the best thrift of an old-fashioned farmstead, though on such a small scale that it seemed like a hermitage. He listened eagerly to the old woman’s quaint talk, he watched Sylvia’s pale face and shining gray eyes with ever growing enthusiasm, and insisted that this was the best supper he had eaten for a month, and afterward the new-made friends sat down in the door-way together while the moon came up.
Soon it would be berry-time, and Sylvia was a great help at picking. The cow was a good milker, though a plaguy thing to keep track of, the hostess gossiped frankly, adding presently that she had buried four children, so Sylvia’s mother, and a son (who might be dead) in California were all the children she had left. “Dan, my boy, was a great hand to go gunning,” she explained sadly. “I never wanted for pa’tridges or gray squer’ls while he was to home. He’s been a great wand’rer, I expect, and he’s no hand to write letters. There, I don’t blame him, I’d ha’ seen the world myself if it had been so I could.
“Sylvy takes after him,” the grandmother continued affectionately, after a minute’s pause. “There ain’t a foot o’ ground she don’t know her way over, and the wild creaturs counts her one o’ themselves. Squer’ls she’ll tame to come an’ feed right out o’ her hands, and all sorts o’ birds. Last winter she got the jay-birds to bangeing here, and I believe she’d ‘a’ scanted herself of her own meals to have plenty to throw out amongst ’em, if I hadn’t kep’ watch. Anything but crows, I tell her, I’m willin’ to help support — though Dan he had a tamed one o’ them that did seem to have reason same as folks. It was round here a good spell after he went away. Dan an’ his father they didn’t hitch, — but he never held up his head ag’in after Dan had dared him an’ gone off.”
The guest did not notice this hint of family sorrows in his eager interest in something else.
“So Sylvy knows all about birds, does she?” he exclaimed, as he looked round at the little girl who sat, very demure but increasingly sleepy, in the moonlight. “I am making a collection of birds myself. I have been at it ever since I was a boy.” (Mrs. Tilley smiled.) “There are two or three very rare ones I have been hunting for these five years. I mean to get them on my own ground if they can be found.”
“Do you cage ’em up?” asked Mrs. Tilley doubtfully, in response to this enthusiastic announcement.
“Oh no, they’re stuffed and preserved, dozens and dozens of them,” said the ornithologist, “and I have shot or snared every one myself. I caught a glimpse of a white heron a few miles from here on Saturday, and I have followed it in this direction. They have never been found in this district at all. The little white heron, it is,” and he turned again to look at Sylvia with the hope of discovering that the rare bird was one of her acquaintances.
But Sylvia was watching a hop-toad in the narrow footpath.
“You would know the heron if you saw it,” the stranger continued eagerly. “A queer tall white bird with soft feathers and long thin legs. And it would have a nest perhaps in the top of a high tree, made of sticks, something like a hawk’s nest.”
Sylvia’s heart gave a wild beat; she knew that strange white bird, and had once stolen softly near where it stood in some bright green swamp grass, away over at the other side of the woods. There was an open place where the sunshine always seemed strangely yellow and hot, where tall, nodding rushes grew, and her grandmother had warned her that she might sink in the soft black mud underneath and never be heard of more. Not far beyond were the salt marshes just this side the sea itself, which Sylvia wondered and dreamed much about, but never had seen, whose great voice could sometimes be heard above the noise of the woods on stormy nights.
“I can’t think of anything I should like so much as to find that heron’s nest,” the handsome stranger was saying. “I would give ten dollars to anybody who could show it to me,” he added desperately, “and I mean to spend my whole vacation hunting for it if need be. Perhaps it was only migrating, or had been chased out of its own region by some bird of prey.”
Mrs. Tilley gave amazed attention to all this, but Sylvia still watched the toad, not divining, as she might have done at some calmer time, that the creature wished to get to its hole under the door-step, and was much hindered by the unusual spectators at that hour of the evening. No amount of thought, that night, could decide how many wished-for treasures the ten dollars, so lightly spoken of, would buy.
The next day the young sportsman hovered about the woods, and Sylvia kept him company, having lost her first fear of the friendly lad, who proved to be most kind and sympathetic. He told her many things about the birds and what they knew and where they lived and what they did with themselves. And he gave her a jack-knife, which she thought as great a treasure as if she were a desert-islander. All day long he did not once make her troubled or afraid except when he brought down some unsuspecting singing creature from its bough. Sylvia would have liked him vastly better without his gun; she could not understand why he killed the very birds he seemed to like so much. But as the day waned, Sylvia still watched the young man with loving admiration. She had never seen anybody so charming and delightful; the woman’s heart, asleep in the child, was vaguely thrilled by a dream of love. Some premonition of that great power stirred and swayed these young creatures who traversed the solemn woodlands with soft-footed silent care. They stopped to listen to a bird’s song; they pressed forward again eagerly, parting the branches — speaking to each other rarely and in whispers; the young man going first and Sylvia following, fascinated, a few steps behind, with her gray eyes dark with excitement.
She grieved because the longed-for white heron was elusive, but she did not lead the guest, she only followed, and there was no such thing as speaking first. The sound of her own unquestioned voice would have terrified her — it was hard enough to answer yes or no when there was need of that. At last evening began to fall, and they drove the cow home together, and Sylvia smiled with pleasure when they came to the place where she heard the whistle and was afraid only the night before.
Half a mile from home, at the farther edge of the woods, where the land was highest, a great pine-tree stood, the last of its generation. Whether it was left for a boundary mark, or for what reason, no one could say; the woodchoppers who had felled its mates were dead and gone long ago, and a whole forest of sturdy trees, pines and oaks and maples, had grown again. But the stately head of this old pine towered above them all and made a landmark for sea and shore miles and miles away. Sylvia knew it well. She had always believed that whoever climbed to the top of it could see the ocean; and the little girl had often laid her hand on the great rough trunk and looked up wistfully at those dark boughs that the wind always stirred, no matter how hot and still the air might be below. Now she thought of the tree with a new excitement, for why, if one climbed it at break of day, could not one see all the world, and easily discover from whence the white heron flew, and mark the place, and find the hidden nest?
What a spirit of adventure, what wild ambition! What fancied triumph and delight and glory for the later morning when she could make known the secret! It was almost too real and too great for the childish heart to bear.
All night the door of the little house stood open and the whippoorwills came and sang upon the very step. The young sportsman and his old hostess were sound asleep, but Sylvia’s great design kept her broad awake and watching. She forgot to think of sleep. The short summer night seemed as long as the winter darkness, and at last when the whippoorwills ceased, and she was afraid the morning would after all come too soon, she stole out of the house and followed the pasture path through the woods, hastening toward the open ground beyond, listening with a sense of comfort and companionship to the drowsy twitter of a half-awakened bird, whose perch she had jarred in passing. Alas, if the great wave of human interest which flooded for the first time this dull little life should sweep away the satisfactions of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the forest!
There was the huge tree asleep yet in the paling moonlight, and small and silly Sylvia began with utmost bravery to mount to the top of it, with tingling, eager blood coursing the channels of her whole frame, with her bare feet and fingers, that pinched and held like bird’s claws to the monstrous ladder reaching up, up, almost to the sky itself. First she must mount the white oak tree that grew alongside, where she was almost lost among the dark branches and the green leaves heavy and wet with dew; a bird fluttered off its nest, and a red squirrel ran to and fro and scolded pettishly at the harmless housebreaker. Sylvia felt her way easily. She had often climbed there, and knew that higher still one of the oak’s upper branches chafed against the pine trunk, just where its lower boughs were set close together. There, when she made the dangerous pass from one tree to the other, the great enterprise would really begin.
She crept out along the swaying oak limb at last, and took the daring step across into the old pine-tree. The way was harder than she thought; she must reach far and hold fast, the sharp dry twigs caught and held her and scratched her like angry talons, the pitch made her thin little fingers clumsy and stiff as she went round and round the tree’s great stem, higher and higher upward. The sparrows and robins in the woods below were beginning to wake and twitter to the dawn, yet it seemed much lighter there aloft in the pine-tree, and the child knew she must hurry if her project were to be of any use.
The tree seemed to lengthen itself out as she went up, and to reach farther and farther upward. It was like a great main-mast to the voyaging earth; it must truly have been amazed that morning through all its ponderous frame as it felt this determined spark of human spirit wending its way from higher branch to branch. Who knows how steadily the least twigs held themselves to advantage this light, weak creature on her way! The old pine must have loved his new dependent. More than all the hawks, and bats, and moths, and even the sweet-voiced thrushes, was the brave, beating heart of the solitary gray-eyed child. And the tree stood still and frowned away the winds that June morning while the dawn grew bright in the east.
Sylvia’s face was like a pale star, if one had seen it from the ground, when the last thorny bough was past, and she stood trembling and tired but wholly triumphant, high in the tree-top. Yes, there was the sea with the dawning sun making a golden dazzle over it, and toward that glorious east flew two hawks with slow-moving pinions. How low they looked in the air from that height when one had only seen them before far up, and dark against the blue sky. Their gray feathers were as soft as moths; they seemed only a little way from the tree, and Sylvia felt as if she too could go flying away among the clouds. Westward, the woodlands and farms reached miles and miles into the distance; here and there were church steeples, and white villages, truly it was a vast and awesome world
The birds sang louder and louder. At last the sun came up bewilderingly bright. Sylvia could see the white sails of ships out at sea, and the clouds that were purple and rose-colored and yellow at first began to fade away. Where was the white heron’s nest in the sea of green branches, and was this wonderful sight and pageant of the world the only reward for having climbed to such a giddy height? Now look down again, Sylvia, where the green marsh is set among the shining birches and dark hemlocks; there where you saw the white heron once you will see him again; look, look! a white spot of him like a single floating feather comes up from the dead hemlock and grows larger, and rises, and comes close at last, and goes by the landmark pine with steady sweep of wing and outstretched slender neck and crested head. And wait! wait! do not move a foot or a finger, little girl, do not send an arrow of light and consciousness from your two eager eyes, for the heron has perched on a pine bough not far beyond yours, and cries back to his mate on the nest and plumes his feathers for the new day!
The child gives a long sigh a minute later when a company of shouting cat-birds comes also to the tree, and vexed by their fluttering and lawlessness the solemn heron goes away. She knows his secret now, the wild, light, slender bird that floats and wavers, and goes back like an arrow presently to his home in the green world beneath. Then Sylvia, well satisfied, makes her perilous way down again, not daring to look far below the branch she stands on, ready to cry sometimes because her fingers ache and her lamed feet slip. Wondering over and over again what the stranger would say to her, and what he would think when she told him how to find his way straight to the heron’s nest.
“Sylvy, Sylvy!” called the busy old grandmother again and again, but nobody answered, and the small husk bed was empty and Sylvia had disappeared.
The guest waked from a dream, and remembering his day’s pleasure hurried to dress himself that it might sooner begin. He was sure from the way the shy little girl looked once or twice yesterday that she had at least seen the white heron, and now she must really be made to tell. Here she comes now, paler than ever, and her worn old frock is torn and tattered, and smeared with pine pitch. The grandmother and the sportsman stand in the door together and question her, and the splendid moment has come to speak of the dead hemlock-tree by the green marsh.
But Sylvia does not speak after all, though the old grandmother fretfully rebukes her, and the young man’s kind, appealing eyes are looking straight in her own. He can make them rich with money; he has promised it, and they are poor now. He is so well worth making happy, and he waits to hear the story she can tell.
No, she must keep silence! What is it that suddenly forbids her and makes her dumb? Has she been nine years growing and now, when the great world for the first time puts out a hand to her, must she thrust it aside for a bird’s sake? The murmur of the pine’s green branches is in her ears, she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together, and Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heron’s secret and give its life away.
Dear loyalty, that suffered a sharp pang as the guest went away disappointed later in the day, that could have served and followed him and loved him as a dog loves! Many a night Sylvia heard the echo of his whistle haunting the pasture path as she came home with the loitering cow. She forgot even her sorrow at the sharp report of his gun and the sight of thrushes and sparrows dropping silent to the ground, their songs hushed and their pretty feathers stained and wet with blood. Were the birds better friends than their hunter might have been, — who can tell? Whatever treasures were lost to her, woodlands and summer-time, remember! Bring your gifts and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child!
They are nomads. They grace only Paris with their presence for months and are niggardly to Berlin, Vienna, Neapoli, Madrid, and other capitals. In Paris they feel quasi-at home; for them, Paris is the capital, their residence, and all the rest of Europe is a boring, pointless province which can be gazed on through the lowered curtains of grand-hôtels or from the stage. They are not old, but they have already been to all the European capitals two or three times. They are bored with Europe. They have begun to talk about a trip to America and will continue to talk about it until they are convinced that her voice is not so splendid that it must be shared on both hemispheres.
It’s hard to catch sight of them. You can’t see them on the streets because they travel in carriages, and they travel in the evening or at night when it is already dark. They sleep until lunch. They usually awaken in poor spirits and do not receive anyone. They receive visitors only occasionally, at odd moments backstage or at dinner.
You can see her on postcards, which are for sale. On postcards, she is a great beauty, but she has never been beautiful. Don’t believe her postcards. She is hideously ugly. Most people see her on stage. But on stage she is unrecognizable: white face, rouge, eye shadow, and someone else’s hair cover her face like a mask. It is the same at her concerts.
When she plays Margarita, this 27-year-old, wrinkled, lumbering woman with a nose covered in freckles looks like a slender, lovely, 17-year-old girl. On stage, she couldn’t look less like herself.
Should you want to see them, wangle an invitation to attend their luncheons, which are given in her honor or which she occasionally gives before leaving one capital for another. Getting an invitation isn’t as easy as it might seem at first glance; only the chosen few sit around her luncheon table… The chosen include such gentlemen as reviewers; social climbers passing themselves off as reviewers, local singers, directors, bandleaders, music lovers and devotees with their hair slicked back over bald spots, theater habitués, and hangers-on who were invited thanks to their gold, silver or bloodlines. These luncheons are not boring. They are quite interesting to an observer. Dining with them once or twice is worth it.
The famous among them (and there are many) eat and talk. Their poses are rather informal: neck turned one way, head the other and one elbow on the table. The older ones even pick their teeth.
The newspaper men grab the chairs closest to hers. They are almost all drunk, and their behavior is quite forward as if they’ve known her forever. If they had just a bit more to drink, they’d be cheeky. They make loud jokes, drink and interrupt each other (never forgetting to say “pardon!”), make high-flown toasts and apparently are not afraid of making fools of themselves. Some gallantly heave themselves over the table to kiss her hand.
The social climbers passing themselves off as reviewers chat in a patronizing tone with the music lovers and devotees. The music lovers and devotees are silent. They are envious of the newspapermen, smiling beatifically and drinking only red wine, which is often especially good at the luncheons.
She, queen of the table, is dressed in a wardrobe that is modest but terribly expensive. A large diamond glitters under lacy chiffon on her neck. She wears massive, smooth bracelets on both wrists. Her hairdo is highly controversial: ladies like it, men do not. Her face glows as she bestows a wide smile on all her fellow diners. She has the ability to smile at everyone all at once, to speak with everyone, to nod her head sweetly; her head nods are for each person at the table. If you look at her face, you’d think that she is sitting with a group of her closest and most beloved friends. At the end of the luncheon, she gives some of them her postcards. On the back, right at the table, she writes the name and surname of the lucky recipient and autographs it. Naturally, she speaks French and switches to other languages at the end of the meal. Her English and German are comically bad, but her poor language skills sound sweet coming from her. Indeed, she is so sweet that you forget for a long time how hideously ugly she really is.
And him? He sits, le mari d’elle, five chairs from her, where he drinks a lot and eats a lot, and is silent a lot, and rolls the bread into little balls and rereads the labels on the bottles. As you look at this figure, you feel that he has nothing to do, that he’s bored, lazy and sick of it all.
He is extremely fair with streaks of bald spots across the top of his head. Women, wine, sleepless nights and traipsing all over the world have furrowed his face, leaving deep wrinkles. He is about 35 years old, no more, but he looks older. His face seems to have been soaked in kvass. His eyes are fine but lazy… Once he was not hideous, but now he is. Bowed legs, sallow hands, a hairy neck. In Europe, for some reason, he got the nickname of “pram” because of his crooked legs and strange gait. In his frock coat, he looks like a wet jackdaw with a dry tail. The diners do not notice him. He returns the favor.
If you are at the luncheon, look at them, that husband and wife, observe them and tell me what brought and keeps these two people together.
When you look at them, you’ll reply (more or less), like this:
“She is a famous singer and he is just the husband of a famous singer, or, to use backstage jargon, he is the husband of his wife. She earns up to 80,000 a year in Russian money, and he does nothing, so he has time to be her servant. She needs an accountant and someone to deal with the entrepreneurs, contracts, and agreements. She only associates with her adoring public and does not deign to deal with the box office proceeds or the prosaic side of her work. She has no time for that. Therefore, she needs him. She needs him as a lackey, a servant… She’d get rid of him if she could take care of things herself. He gets a considerable salary from her (she doesn’t know the value of money!), and like two times two is four, he robs her together with the maid, throws away her money, carouses recklessly and very likely puts away something for a rainy day — and is as pleased with his place as a worm on a juicy apple. He’d leave her if she didn’t have any money.”
That’s what everyone who sees them at a luncheon thinks and says about them. They think and say that because they can’t get to the heart of the matter, so they judge by appearances. They regard her as a diva, and they avoid him like a pygmy covered in toad slime. But actually, that European diva is tied to that toad by the most enviable, noble bond.
This is what he writes:
People ask why I love this virago. This woman is really not worthy of love. And she isn’t worthy of hatred. She ought to be shown no attention and her very existence should be ignored. To love her, you must be either me or insane — which is, in the end, one and the same thing.
She is not pretty. When I married her, she was hideously ugly, and now she’s even worse. She has no forehead. In place of eyebrows, she has two barely noticeable lines above her eyes. Instead of eyes, she had two shallow crevices. Nothing shines out of those crevices — not intelligence, not desire, not passion. She has a potato nose. Her mouth is small and pretty, but she has terrible teeth. She has no bust or waist. That last flaw is covered up prettily by her fiendish ability to lace herself up in a corset with extraordinary agility. She is short and stout. She is flabby. En masse, in all of her form there is one flaw that I consider the worst of all — a total absence of femininity. I do not consider skin pallor and physical weakness to be feminine, and in that, I do not share the views of a great many people. She is not a lady or a woman of fine breeding. She is a shopkeeper with a crude manner: when she walks, she waves her arms around; when she sits, she crosses her legs and rocks her whole body back and forth; when she lies down, she raises her legs, and so on.
She is slovenly. Her suitcases are a prime example of this: she tosses together clean underclothes with soiled ones, cuffs with shoes and my boots, new corsets with broken ones. We never receive anyone because our rooms are always a dirty mess. Or why tell you about it? Just look at her at noon when she wakes up and lazily crawls out from under the covers, and you would never guess that she was a woman with the voice of a nightingale. Her hair unbrushed and snarled, her eyes sleepy and puffy, in a nightgown with torn shoulders, barefoot, hunched over surrounded by a cloud of yesterday’s tobacco smoke… is that your notion of a nightingale?
She drinks. She drinks like a sailor, whenever and whatever. She’s been drinking for a long time. If she didn’t drink, she’d be better than Adelina Patti, or at least no worse. She lost half of her career because of her drinking and she’ll lose the other half soon enough. Some nasty Germans taught her to drink beer and now she won’t go to sleep without drinking two or three bottles before bed. If she didn’t drink, she wouldn’t have gastritis.
She is impolite, which the students who sometimes invite her to their concerts can testify to.
She loves advertising. Advertisements cost us several thousand francs every year. I loathe advertising with all my being. No matter how expensive that silly advertisement is, it is always worth less than her voice. My wife likes it when she is patted on the head. Unless it is praise, she doesn’t like it when people tell the truth about her. For her, a Judas kiss that is paid for is finer than honest criticism. She has no sense of dignity whatsoever.
She is intelligent, but her intelligence is not trained. Her brain lost its elasticity long ago. It is covered with fat and is asleep.
She is capricious and fickle. She doesn’t have a single firm conviction. Yesterday she said that money is nothing, that the purpose of life is not in money, and today she is giving concerts in four places because she has developed the conviction that there is nothing on earth more important than money. Tomorrow she’ll say what she said yesterday. She doesn’t want to learn anything about her homeland, she has no political heroes, no favorite newspapers, no beloved writers.
She is rich but doesn’t help the poor. In fact, she often shortchanges milliners and hairdressers. She has no heart.
A wicked woman, thousand times over!
But look at that virago when she is made-up, corseted and every hair in place as she approaches the footlights to begin her duel with nightingales and larks as they welcome the May dawn. Such dignity and such loveliness in her swan-like walk. Look at her and, I beg, you, look carefully. When she first raises her hand and opens her mouth, those crevices are transformed into enormous eyes, glimmering with passion… Nowhere else will you find such magnificent eyes. When she, my wife, begins to sing, when the first trills fly about the air when I begin to feel my tumultuous soul quietening under the influence of those marvelous sounds, then look at my face and you will understand the secret of my love.
“Isn’t she magnificent?” I ask my neighbors.
They say, “yes,” but that is not enough for me. I want to destroy anyone who might think that this extraordinary woman is not my wife. I forget everything that came before, and I live only in the present.
Do you see what an artist she is! How much profound meaning she puts in every one of her gestures! She understands everything: love, hatred, the human soul… It is no wonder that the theater shakes with applause.
After the last act, I escort her from the theater. She is pale, exhausted, having lived an entire life in one evening. I am also pale and fatigued. We get into the carriage and go to the hotel. In the hotel, without a word and fully dressed, she throws herself onto the bed. I silently sit on the edge of the bed and kiss her hand. That evening she doesn’t push me away. Together we fall asleep, we sleep until morning and wake up to curse one another…
Do you know when else I love her? When she is at balls or luncheons. On those occasions, I love the fine actress in her. What an actress she must be to get around and overcome her own nature the way she does! I don’t recognize her at those silly luncheons… she turns a plucked chicken into a peacock.
This letter was written in a drunken, barely legible hand. It was written in German dotted with spelling mistakes.
This is what she wrote:
“You ask if I love that boy? Yes, sometimes. For what? God only knows.
He really is not handsome or likeable. Men like him are not born for requited love. Men like him can only buy love; they never get it for free. Judge for yourself.
He’s drunk as a sailor day and night. His hands shake, which is very unattractive. When he is drunk, he grouses and gets into fights. He even hits me. When he is sober, he lies on whatever is around and doesn’t say a thing.
He’s always very shabby although he has plenty of funds for clothing. Half of my earnings slip through his hands, who knows where.
I will never attempt to monitor him. Accountants are so very expensive for poor married artists. Husbands receive half the box office take for their work.
He doesn’t spend it on women — I know that. He is disdainful of women.
He is lazy. I have never seen him do anything. He drinks, eats and sleeps. And that’s all he does.
He never graduated from school. He was expelled from the university for insolence in his first year.
He is not a nobleman. He is the very worst — a German.
I don’t like German people. Ninety-nine out of Hundred Germans are idiots and the last one is a genius. I learned that from a prince, a German with some French blood.
He smokes repulsive tobacco.
But he does have some good qualities. He loves my noble art more than he loves me. If they announce before a performance that I can’t sing due to illness, that is, I’m acting up, he stomps around like a corpse and makes fists.
He is not a coward and is not afraid of people. I love this quality most of all in people. I’ll tell you a little story from my life. It took place in Paris, a year after I had graduated from the Conservatory. I was still very young and learning to drink. Every night I caroused as much as my youthful strength would allow. And, of course, I caroused in a company. On one spree as I was clinking glasses with my distinguished admirers, a very unattractive boy I didn’t know walked up to the table, looked me right in the eye and asked, “Why do you drink?”
We laughed. My boy wasn’t embarrassed.
The second question was more insolent and came straight from the heart.
“Why are you laughing? These blackguards pouring you glass after glass of wine won’t give you a cent when you ruin your voice from drink and lose all your money!”
Such cheek! My guests got very upset. I seated the boy next to me and ordered that he be served wine. It turns out that this temperance worker drinks wine very well indeed. A propos, I call him a boy only because he has a very small moustache.
I paid for his impudence by marrying him.
Most of the time he says nothing. When he speaks, it’s usually just one word. He says this word with a deep voice deep, with a catch in his throat and a facial tick. He might say the word when he is sitting with some people at a luncheon or a ball… When someone — regardless of who it is — says a lie, he raises his head, and without a glance and not the least bit ill at ease, he says:
That’s his favorite word. What woman could resist the glint in his eye when he says that word? I love that word. I love the way his eyes shine and his face twitches. Not just anyone can say that fine, bold word, but my husband says it everywhere and any time. I love him sometimes, and that “sometimes” — as far as I recall — coincides with his utterance of that fine word. But really, God only knows why I love him. I’m a bad psychologist, and in this case, I guess a psychological issue is involved…
That letter is written in French in splendid, almost male handwriting. You won’t find a single grammatical error in it.