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.
The sands lolled and swam in the sun’s blazing rays all day, then when darkness fell, they patiently waited for the sun to rise. As far as the eye could see, the sands swelled in every direction, wild and silent. It even felt like they were stealthily watching us. Everyone except the leader and I slept like the dead. We had walked barefoot the whole day, but the journey ahead was still long. The sun had hollowed faces and etched deep lines; lips were painted the color of ash.
Life became nothing but a dark tunnel. The mothers’ milk had dried out, none of them had eaten since yesterday. Emaciated and pallid, hunger shone from their vacant eyes. Returning home was a forlorn hope because home was gone. Chased by fatigue, thirst and hunger, we fled amid the growing clamor of children crying. I heard fear in their panicked screams, perhaps alarm at a threat not visible to us, the adults. Their ribs clearly defined, the children wept with tearless eyes and pinched faces anything but childlike. Hunger and the strong rays of the sun had robbed them of their vitality during the arduous journey.
The boundless sands merged with the horizon to make the desert in front of us unending. No hint of clouds absorbed the blazing heat. The drought had invaded valleys where mirages shimmered. Drought and war had crushed even the most resilient desert plants.
The leader was a tall imposing man who watched the group closely as they walked. He was silent and fearless but helpful to all and with respect for everyone. Now he spoke of fortitude, his voice kind and gentle. “Now, we eat. Then we must continue marching.”
Then the leader went to pray. In a clear voice, he recited his prayers and asked Allah to ease the sufferings of the journey, bless the children and provide solace to anyone mourning the loss of their home. Then he made his own lengthy and mournful supplication.
We resumed our journey across the sands. Our group included fifty women, ten children and a pregnant woman about to give birth.
Time passed so slowly, every minute felt an eternity. We walked a long way until, in the middle of the wasteland, we reached a village. Engulfed by sand and barely visible from a distance, the village stood alone against the hellish winds of the desert. Half a dozen families inhabited the village, and they came out of their huts to welcome us. Dressed in filthy garments damp with sweat and gritty with sand, they had rifles over their shoulders. Their faces were blistered as if they had emerged from the underworld. Even more wretched than us, they had nothing to offer. Their thatched huts were the height of a man with entrances just above the dirt. There was no place for us to rest. With the emptiness still ahead, we continued crossing the vast expanse of sand. The sun crawled toward its final abode, its rays still flaming.
Our guide said to me, “Beyond that tongue of sand is the border, but first we have to pass the village of Turayba just before the border.”
We walked in silence, even the children’s screaming died out. The donkey’s hooves the only sound. The calm was shattered by a woman’s screams. It was her time to give birth.
Quickly, we picked a place to camp and set up a tent for the pregnant woman. Other women sat with her in the tent, while her mother, who said they would need hot water, lit a fire. Shortly, the pregnant woman crawled out of the tent screaming. Other women followed the trail of blood behind her. It seemed she was hemorrhaging and I asked them about her husband. They said he had died in the last attack, the one that had forced us to leave our homes. The pregnant woman was pouring with sweat. The other women gathered around her while I stood back observing the situation to see if they needed me. She gripped her mother’s arm, begging them with her eyes.
One of the women pointed at me. “Dig a hole the height of one and a half men and get a thick branch long enough to rest over the top.”
The guide and I wasted no time in digging. The pregnant woman’s moaning grew more distinct, yet sadder and deeper, and one of the women shouted, “Hurry up or she’s going to die.”
When we had finished, the oldest woman told us to tie a rope to the middle of the branch The other end of the rope was looped around the pregnant woman’s hands, so her body could be suspended inside the hole. It was my first time to see a rope delivery.
Unable to stand, the pregnant woman hemorrhaged blood all over her clothes. Her palms tied together with the rope, I carried her to the hole and lowered her down. The woman who told me to dig the hole also climbed down and sat on the bottom where she undressed the pregnant woman. The other women gathered around the edge to offer encouragement.
The woman in the hole called up to us, “It was a very difficult birth and she is still bleeding.”
Her mother was sobbing loudly, so I went over and stroked her head. “She will be all right. Pray for her.”
“Half of our women bleed to death. She will die,” said her mother.
I didn’t know what to do. My body trembled like a pigeon as our eyes, mine and the women’s, moved to the baby, who moaned softly. She was a tiny girl. Compassion tugging at me, I lifted her in my hands and hugged her as passionately as a real mother who had just given birth. Then I laid her tiny body, newly washed with blood, on a piece of cloth stretched out on the dirt inside the tent. The girl child was long and a native desert-brown color. Minutes passed like centuries, and I wished I could stay with the women inside the tent. Overwhelmed by emotion, I immersed myself in the child. Outside the tent, the new mother continued to bleed. The women tried hard to stop the bleeding with no success. The new mother stared at a point on the horizon where a mirage and false hopes shimmered. Despite the pain, she smiled. She was fifteen years old, her mother told me.
Everyone was distraught except her. Even the leader lost his patience and circled the tent like a millstone. Mute, her earthly body still, the dying woman calmly surrendered her soul to divine salvation and crossed purgatory into the Holy Kingdom. The women loudly mourned her, throwing handfuls of sand over their heads. I mourned too, but with the silence of a Darfurian man already ravaged by disaster that had left him dispossessed of his homeland, robbed of his home, and forced from his village.
Some of the women busied themselves preparing the body, while others ceaselessly wept. Then they noticed that the new-born girl was not moving. A gnarled old woman picked up the motionless child. Largely silent during the trip, she yelled now in a voice bigger than she was, “The child is dead too.”
Everyone drifted along a stream of sadness, their tears falling to the sand before being rapidly absorbed. They wrapped the body of the mother in her own clothes with the baby on her chest. Wailing, we carried the bodies to their last home, lowering them in after praying for them. I could no longer stand as I pushed the dirt into the grave, so I fell to my knees and keened at the edge. The sun had completely vanished, the darkness condensed and hid the expanse of space.
The guide said, “We have to keep marching so we reach the border quickly.”
Huddled together, we walked slowly on. The guide followed the stars, and we used the moonlight to guide our footsteps and keep us safe from the menacing darkness. War had slain the life of the desert, the ancient trees, the hardy thorn bushes that fed the cattle during drought. Everything had gone.
As we fought to resist the aching breath of the desert, the voices of our women mourned the home, the birthplace, they had fled. Everybody was hungry, children and adults alike could not bear it, and we had little food left. When most of the women were unable to keep going, I distributed a handful of dates. Their eyes followed me, speaking the language of misery. Fleeting looks, enough to translate the feelings behind them. Before the hunger could fade, thirst took its place.
We camped and lit a fire to make gruel. Hollowed out by hunger, the women worked steadily until a breathless and horrified voice from the back of the group broke the silence. The leader spun around, tripping over his own feet as he rushed to see what was wrong. I was close behind him.
“Batool!” said the woman standing near a prone body.
“Is she dead?” asked the leader.
Not replying either yes or no, the woman’s eyes overflowed with tears as she stared down at the dirt. There lay Batool on her back, eyes so wide open they were ringed in white. She seemed to be staring at the distant horizon, caught in a futile struggle to see the refugee camp beyond the mirage of the border. Her vacant stare was so strange that fear and horror percolated through me. In her last desperate expression, I saw dignity savaged by the loss of land, farm and home. She gazed at the heavens, at lost hope. Her hands clasped the sand where we buried her in a moment charged with fear and reverence. When the funeral was done, we laid a big stone on her grave.
The leader sat on a low mound staring into the vastness. “My son, most of the sand you see was once spanned by villages. Hundreds of families flourished here.” He sighed deeply and continued, “Now they’ve dissolved into nothing, forever a part of the desert.”
The leader withdrew into the darkness, and I followed him. We sat together under a sky free of clouds as the desert sank into darkness. In the face of the impenetrable silence, nothing could be heard except the sound of faith in Allah the Almighty, silent in His glory.
After midnight and before dawn, the voice calling to the journey summoned us to resume marching across purgatory till we reached salvation.
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?
The tie is doomed, just as the larger Asian elephant is doomed.
8 January 2018
I can’t stand them. I’d burn them in a dirty flame, a diesel flame, no sandalwood or ceremony necessary. Their prints are ridiculous. They combine chickens and unicorns, vines and roses, diamonds and golf clubs. Their linings are always garish: sapphire blue, duckling yellow, pumpkin orange… they represent an era, the glorious 70s and 80s in Spain when the best restaurants were full of smoke, wine, steaks and laughter. My father’s ties are all hugs, jokes, camaraderie and whisky. The male bonding that was so crucial to sealing business deals. Of course, they’re made of Italian silk, stitched at the finest workshops Milan had to offer. Their images make a filigree, infinite symmetries worthy of Escher, sewn by artists well aware of the fine line between the original and the ridiculous. Plain blue ties, the kind I wear, are for men with ice in their souls. Only an idiot like me would seek to broadcast their suffering.
My father loves light and, especially, the spotlight: he likes to run meetings, organize dinners and solve other people’s problems. The latter most of all. Whether you want him to or not, he’ll get you the best radiotherapy for lung cancer, or find your bags for you even if you lost them in New York. In a tornado. And then, of course, he’ll expect your eternal gratitude. A man like that would only ever choose to wear ties that stand out like a castle made exclusively of fireworks. When he turned eighty, he gave up wearing them and now heads to the office in checked shirts and a Barbour jacket, as though he were going duck hunting. So he’s started giving them to me. As with everything he does, he does so in a methodical, orderly fashion: every Monday morning at eight he leaves two on my desk, wrapped carefully in tissue paper. In all, there are two hundred and forty-four, which he accumulated over dozens of Christmases, birthdays and board meetings. Sometimes I imagine their hundreds of drawings and colours stretched out on the floor in an eye-watering mosaic worthy of a museum of horrors.
I can’t wear them. Going to the office in a yellow tie would be like coming in in a tracksuit. An old, grey, baggy tracksuit, I mean. A junkie’s tracksuit, not those skin-tight Nike ones that it’s now apparently perfectly acceptable to wear to breakfast at the Ritz. Of course, an alpha male like him, elderly as he is, can’t help but criticize my cowardice, which he associates with my lack of enterprise.
He’s the founder of our legal firm and its honorary president. A self-made man who rose out of the ashes of the post-war period. I don’t know if he ever went hungry, or if his father wore a tie. Although I’ve been running the business for over ten years now, I’ve never dared to ask for his office. I’m still in my broom cupboard, sharing it with piles of paper that reach right to the ceiling. Meetings are held in the room adjacent to his office, underneath photos of him with two kings, five presidents and the great Alfredo Di Stefano. They aren’t just decorative: clients trust lawyers with genuine pedigree. So far, we’ve managed to get through the economic crisis and keep our clients in the face of savage competition. On average, I work about twelve hours a day. My eyesight is shot and, beyond the odd Christmas card, I’ve lost all my friends but of course, my father takes the credit for our healthy balance sheet.
I’ve decided to hide the ties from my wife. They’re piled up at the back of my wardrobe, Italian silk be damned. I’m not brave enough to just throw them away. If they were cotton I would have but how could I get rid of yards and yards of soft, vintage Italian silk? The ties aren’t just occupying space in my wardrobe, they’ve taken possession of my subconscious as well. I won’t countenance hanging them around my neck, but still, they cause me continuous anxiety in my chest, stomach and lungs already worn thin by tobacco.
12 January 2018
My father didn’t attack immediately, he just observed, waiting for the right moment to pounce, like a feral cat. Today, Friday, at 12 noon, a moment calculated to create a maximum amount of guilt over the weekend, he came into my work space, grabbed my blue tie and, in front of all the employees, asked:
“What? Are you ashamed of your father?”
“No, I’m very proud of you. Why do you ask, dad?”
“No reason, son, none at all. I’ll give my ties to someone who’ll appreciate them, then.”
“It’s just habit, I always wear these. I love yours. They’re very original.”
“Don’t lie to me. You’ve always been a pansy. You’re almost fifty and you couldn’t sell a sandwich to a starving man.”
17 January 2018
As one of my mottos in life has always been to avoid conflict, to try to understand others, I decided to take a couple to the office and put them on before I go in. A couple of the more discreet specimens: yellow polka dots on a blue background and some innocuous steam engines over orange stripes. But this noble intention only served to highlight my lack of character. I got so nervous that I didn’t even think to hide in the bathroom. Right in front of my employees I undid my plain blue tie and put on my father’s one, without doing up my top button or straightening my shirt. It just dangled, like a clown tie. The first day, he just laughed. Today, he called me into his office and, looking me in the eye, said:
“If you don’t like my ties, don’t wear them and accept the consequences, but don’t play me for a fool.”
Meanwhile, my anxiety coursed through my body at the usual rate, spilling out of my mouth and into my lungs until it came to settle in my stomach. I left the office in silence, the black smoke puffing out of the steam engines’ smokestacks ruining their child-like beauty.
18 January 2018
I arrived at midday and gave a couple of ties to old man Tomás, a horrible lawyer who takes naps in the afternoon and is only good for scraping and bowing to clients whose contempt for him grows every day. At least, thank God, he’s stopped kissing women’s hands. I know that, as usual, it’ll do no good. One of the causes of my plight is that I always strive to keep regular habits, not realizing that good intentions mean nothing when faced with the power of a father of biblical proportions.
I’ve just come to a decision. I don’t know if it’s about the past or the future. We always think that we’re making progress; we need to just to go on living. We need to construct an epic about ourselves, to have faith in our advances, even if we’re just stumbling around a void. That step has been to leave the house without a tie – it’s the modern way, I tell my wife and son; in Silicon Valley only squares wear ties – hide one of them in a computer case and put it on in the lift, thus avoiding the embarrassment of walking through my neighbourhood in a tie with a blue daisy print. The employees murmured and giggled the first few days. Or maybe they didn’t, I’ve always been a little paranoid. Probably, they didn’t even look at me. They don’t normally: their boss is the same man he’s always been. They don’t respect me because I pay them at the end of every month. They respect me because I’m his son. Blood of his blood, even if it is more watered down, not quite so scarlet. They even look for his approval when I ask them to do overtime.
5 March 2018
One of the firm’s businesses is the administration of building organizations. Today I went to a meeting that went on until two in the morning. Do you know what it’s like to listen to ten neighbours screaming at each other for eight hours, without pause, unburdening themselves of all the anger they’ve built up with the family, or at work or just because they’re growing old? You don’t, dear readers. Even if you think you might be able to imagine it, you don’t know the true horror. You think that psychopaths are the murderers you see on Netflix, but that’s not it. The real psychopaths are presidents of building associations. My father could smile all the way through them: he knew humanity better than me. He knew that human beings aren’t governed by reason but emotion: leaks aren’t what’s important; it’s the need for compassion and understanding. That’s what his colourful ties and eternal sympathy conveyed. Perfectly kept accounts don’t demonstrate love as well as a sensitively-shared handkerchief swarming with paramecia. I stepped into the cool night, dog tired. I just wanted to get back to bed. I went straight back home, forgetting to take off my tie. This was the first my wife knew of it. My father had been supplying them to me in secret, like a drug dealer.
“What a lovely tie,” she said from the bed, half asleep. She turned on the lamp on the bedside table, got up and started to ask about the meeting; she even made me a mug of warm milk and honey, so I decided to share my secret and showed her the back of my wardrobe, which was full of bright, dust-repellent colours.
“They’re beautiful, works of art. Why did you hide them back there?” she asked as she smoothed them out on the bed. “We’ll iron them tomorrow.”
“Please don’t start. You know that my father and I have different styles…”
“You need to brighten up your life. Wear them: anyone who renounces their father, renounces themselves, she said quietly, looking me in the eyes. “Also, your father is a much better salesman than you. Maybe you’ll learn, honey. It’s about time you took some responsibility and let him enjoy his grandchildren.”
I put on my pyjamas, took a sleeping pill and slept for two, nightmare-strewn hours. The next day, I didn’t go to work. I called my father and told him, with butterflies in the pit of my stomach, that I was sick. I spent the day walking up and down the Gran Via with my head down and my hands in the pockets of my trench coat. There was only one thing on my mind: dad, dad, dad, dad. At five in the afternoon, I went into the Museo del Jamón where I ordered a sandwich and a lemon shandy. I looked at my wrinkled, forty-seven-year-old face in the greasy mirror. I couldn’t go on like this. Either I allowed him in or I quit the firm and maybe went to a Buddhist temple in Nepal: at almost fifty years of age, I couldn’t risk poverty. Suddenly an answer came to me like a lightning bolt from heaven: I am my father, I can’t help that, fighting it made no sense. I am my father, I am my father, I said to myself as I went down the stairs to the metro station, took out my metro card and waited for the train. In the carriage, I decided that I’d wear them every day. Even the yellow one with the blue lilies, the kind that a French prince high on cocaine might wear. You can’t fight your genes.
12 March 2018
It was difficult at first, but everything gets easier with time. My father pretended not to notice initially but when he saw that it was sticking he came into my office and pointed at my tie with the biggest smile I’d ever seen on his face:
“Lovely, one of my favourites.”
He invited me to lunch with D. Fermín, an aristocrat who owns hunting lodges where partridges are slaughtered with the best shotguns in Spain. Until that moment, he saw me as a kind of manager, lacking the soul one needs to take real decisions. He didn’t say anything about the beautiful purple tie with Christmas baubles I was wearing, even though it was Spring. But he did let me talk, and allowed Fermín to ask me how the firm was doing. Afterwards, he said that I could go to the next lunch on my own. That marked the beginning of the shift. He even started coming into the office less often. He signed up to a painting class and the day before yesterday told me that his office had got too big for him, that he was thinking of making a change. My entire life has improved: I’ve started going back to the gym, my wife fondles me every morning and my son tells me that he loves me every night. Of course, I’m still wearing the ties. Every morning, as I brush my teeth, I repeat the mantra: I am my father and there’s nothing I can do about it. Before they become aware of their powers, superheroes usually go through a period of suffering, a time of resentment, slings and arrows. For me, that period lasted forty-seven years. I’m the first superhero with grey on their temples.
My ties, which are either plain or have sober geometric patterns, are piled up, wrinkled, at the back of the wardrobe. No-one asks about them. One day the maid ironed them and hung them up next to the ones belonging to my father but I shoved them back to the back of the wardrobe. I’d like to give them to my son, but I want him to have my father’s. Even in a post-human world run by robots in eternal polluted twilight, those who accept their past are bound to triumph.
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.
I remember a tree. Its crown awning the path. I remember a large trunk, thicker than any I had seen before. I remember roots cleaving the black earth, bursting it asunder, like snakes fighting free and then, twisted by the chill of the air, plunging their heads back underground. There was a large crevice in the trunk. I peeked inside and ran.
A storm is coming. A black spot gradually growing, widening and expanding, stirring the skies until it is transformed into a whirlpool, crimson over the Jerusalem mountains. Red and terrible, the wind glides down the arched mountains, winding down over the pathways. It collects under the porch, then climbs the walls built with Jerusalem stone, blows through the neighbor’s house with the little garden that is punctuated by dwarfish citrus trees and a gray plastic doghouse for the miniature canine, Zoe, that has been barking for hours, tail stretched and ears erect.
“Shut up already! The neighbor screams, blind to the crimson wind, slithering its way to me like a poisonous snake, wishing to paint the soles of my feet with drops of blood.
I press my legs together, shrinking into myself, holding the white rail that encloses the porch, following the movements of the wind, waiting to hear the sound of jackals urging each other to howl at dusk, their wailing breaking against the mountains only to be carried up into the sky. I have only moments to stand like this before my husband notices my actions and commences scolding me to get back into bed and not to leave it again. Not even if I need to pee? Not even. This is why they have brought me a bedpan, and Vivie from 10:00 am to 12:00 pm. Then Vivie leaves my house to do some overtime with Pops, her invalid patient in the next building. She sits him in a wheelchair, his lips flapping around his gaping, toothless mouth. She places a blanket over his knees, tightens a sock hat on his head, and rolls him to the rendezvous point in the garden to meet her friends, each with their own elderly invalid. They line them up in a circle of silent, stuffed people, all facing one another, urine bags hanging beside their wheelchairs, while Vivie and her friends sit on the benches, chattering in their foreign language. At six thirty she comes back to give me a bath.
From the porch, I see how she stretches her small, slender body and waves her raven-black straight hair, marching expeditiously. She doesn’t look back because she has a work permit she keeps in a waist pouch under her clothes. Close to the body.
“What do you need to get up for?” My husband asks. He is wearing his uniform, attaching the police pager to his belt, along with his cellphone and handcuffs. He shoves the gun into his pants.
I remember. I found shelter from the rain under the crown of the tree. I stood under the weeping leaves for long moments, shrouded by a veil of drops. I listened to the swaying movements of the branches whispering above.
I stretch my body, just a tiny, teeny bit, pressing my fingers, swollen like risen bread dough, into the mattress imprinted with my shape and sunken at the point at which I bleed. I raise myself up and kneel in bed, on all fours, like a heavy, obese bitch, then I reach out a hand to the window and open the shutter.
A cold wind blows in. I return to lie on my back inside the body-shaped depression in my bed. Alert. I send a hand between my legs to check if the blood is trickling and cringe when I discover it isn’t.
The house-call doctor comes to scold me. I promise not to move, not to move. “You mustn’t get up,” he says. “Except for ten minutes at noon.”
A walk around the living room. Vivie holds my hand tight. She is adept in holding those that can barely walk, knows she must lead them along the shortest possible infinite route, in circles, on wheelchairs down the path, from bench to bench, from bedroom to living room, slowly, slowly.
I remember a truck with mud-splattered wheels, driving slowly past me. I clung to the trunk and watched. A woman in a green dress, her hair black and long. It covered her back. She knelt over a wooden casket. I remember a procession of black-clad men and women following the truck, the men leading the way in silence, the women following closely, weeping, screaming, beating their chests with their fists. I remember the wailing and screaming drifting away.
We pay him, so he comes. My husband, panting, puts the bed up on its side. Then he turns and rotates it, trying to find an angle that will allow him to move it from the bedroom to the living room. Goddamn it, let him just come and do his work without any big ideas about how to furnish the house. He wipes his sweaty forehead with his hand. No use, the bed won’t come out this way. He needs to dismantle it, screw-by-screw, then put it together in the living room.
Until he finds the time to dismantle the bed, he drags the mattress alone from the bedroom, pushing it with his large, bear-like hands. “But if now the mattress is in the living room, you’ll stop getting up, then it will be worth my while to sleep on the folding bed as if I was in boot camp. No, don’t get up, that’s the last thing I need, you get up now.”
My husband wrestles with the double mattress, stained with the marks of a relationship. He barely manages to squeeze it through the corridor and drops it on the floor with a muffled thud.
“That’s it,” he says. “Now you have nothing to get up for at all.”
“The house-call doctor charges three-hundred and fifty per visit. In this country, only private healthcare offers you proper treatment,” my husband tells me, although they could have charged less for placing a monitor on my belly. It pays off for him to place the mattress in the middle of the living room, in front of the porch’s large sliding door, to the right of the television. And I won’t need to move my hands, or head, or belly, until Vivie returns from Pops.
“There,” he says. “Now you can lie down without moving. Not even a muscle, you hear? Tomorrow I’ll put the bed together and we’re done.”
Then he goes, leaving me sprawled on the mattress, wallowing in his concern, observing how, in the corner of the living room, where the wall meets the ceiling, an old spider is spinning her webs on the spindle of her body. She has been here for long days, un-banished by a swing of the duster brush. Circle by circle she spins a fine net, like thin patches placed over my watching eye.
A distant shifting of clouds ruffles the air. The Earth yields to the movement of the sky and convulses, rattling the foundations of the building, the cars, the sidewalk, the rubber flooring in the kindergartens that whiffs of tar in the summers. At seven in the evening, after my walk around the house, Vivie bundles my hair into a knot and takes me to the shower.
“All right – all right,” she tells me.
“All right,” I answer.
“Okeydokey,” she says.
She soaps my back, scrubbing all the places I can’t reach. Silently, I look at my large white breasts resting on my belly, like two Beluga whales stranded on a beach. Lower down, I see two swollen legs now covered with white scented foam. How ugly I have become.
I remember. I was walking barefoot along the bed of a shallow stream that led all the way to the forest. The stream gave onto a small natural pool. I placed my feet in it, then removed my dress and, with a quick movement, hurled it to the bank beside the pool. I sat in the water.
“Air, I have no air,” I tell my husband. “Open the porch.”
“It’s winter in Jerusalem, do you want to catch pneumonia?”
I wait until he leaves for his night shift, then open it myself. The rustle of the coming storm blows into my face. A single jackal howls as hard as it possibly can. The wind carries the miserable howling to my ears, the scent of its moist fur and its warm breath to my nostrils. The neighbor’s dog barks at the top of her lungs. The neighbor has gone to work and locked her up in the house because of the cold weather, but she has sensed the wind and, in her agitation, has knocked over an alarm clock that rings loudly until its battery runs out. The neighbor will beat her with his belt when he finds out she has scratched the door with her paws.
I sit and the mattress sways under me like muddy soil. The closets in the house are creaking; someone is dragging a chair across the floor; a woman’s high heels sound like muted gunfire as she walks. The lights in the neighbors’ houses go off one by one. A crying baby. I get up. One step, two steps, three. I make it to the armchair and sit down, filling the chair with my body. I pull the lever, popping up the leg rest.
My pulse knocks against my temples. My breath quickens, my hand extends towards the phone, but I draw it back. There’s no one. The drape hovers like a ghost. There’s no one… I begin to cough. I take a deep breath. The house-call doctor has taught me to count to ten. My breasts sway from side to side, rubbing against my arms in a waltz of vibrating flesh.
I remember. Clear and quiet water surrounded me, there were little pebbles, smooth, round. I slid them down my cheek. Naked, I emerged from the stream and sat by the pool, dipping my feet in the water, patches of light shortened and elongated and sparkled, the skin on the soles of my feet wrinkled.
“I think,” I said to Doron, “that there are wolves in the mountains. And no, it isn’t Zoe.”
“No, there aren’t any wolves here,” says Doron. “What are you blubbering about?”
He sits in his uniform. A cup of black coffee is placed on the little table in front of him. His smoking-trained hand sketches empty gestures in the air. Desperate, he picks a cigarette from a packet, strokes it from tip to filter with a yearning finger, narrows his mouth, sucks in the void.
“What a night I’ve had,” he says, then inspects the sheet, seeking blotches.
I remember. I had risen from the water and piled the stones into a little mound. I remember. A white blotch flickered among the trees. The tip of a tail appeared and vanished. I held my breath. I heard soft footsteps. I looked into the forest.
Black ants climb from the garden up to the pipes and into the house. From the mattress, close to the floor, I see them, a little convoy, parading out of the crevice between the wall and the panels, marching to the kitchen, invading my house. I rise and drag myself to the kitchen. I take a deadly spray from under the sink. Seven steps from the kitchen. I tower over the ants in the spread-legged posture of a landlady. I raise the can and spray. I close the windows so the insecticide will thoroughly soak in, so they won’t come back. From the pains of her body, the spider is still spinning her webs. And through the threads, she watches me closing my eyes. She continues to circle over me in her own orbit.
“Are you insane?” My husband screams. “Do you want to kill the child?” He forces Vivie to wash the insecticide off my body and calls the house-call doctor.
“Everything is fine,” he says. “But do me a favor, baby, lay off the chemicals. Really, I don’t understand what is going through your head. Are you all right?”
I remember. From inside the rim of the forest, a beautiful white wolf returned my gaze, his eyes two clear crystals, his tail erect. “Don’t run away,” I whispered. I remember how, completely naked, wet and dripping with water, I approached. “Don’t run away.” He was almost the same height as me. His nose quivered. I stretched out a hand, almost feeling the soft touch of his fur. Suddenly he trembled, turned and disappeared into the thicket.
“Vivie,” I tell her, “you can leave early today. It’s okay. A storm is coming.” Vivie looks at me in silence, and I return the exact same gaze. “Go, go to Pops. It’ll start raining soon. You don’t want to be caught in the storm.”
The wind howls, the building quivers. I guess they haven’t properly secured all the fixtures and connectors, nor did they anchor the foundations to the ground when it was being built.
I get up and open the window wide. I reach out with a heavy foot to pin it to the floor. The wind whistles, entering the living room through the porch. It ruffles the bedding on the mattress. Zoe barks at the top of her lungs.
From the darkness of noon, howls rise from the bottom of the earth. There, inside the asphalt plated earth, in a place where no roots can reach, and only the void exists, is the wolf. Here, he rises from his crouch, shaking the dirt from his fur and howling as loudly as he can. And the howl rattles the foundations of the building and shakes the city above him. The city that swallows his howls and forces him back inside it time and again, so he won’t be seen, or heard, so he won’t frighten anyone. But he calls to the wind and waits for the storm. He stretches his body and digs with his paws, as hard as he can, the way out. And on his way, he spreads open the building above, gaping chasms into the roads.
“A wolf!” I cry. Yet no one can hear my voice. Zoe’s barks dance about me like wild witches. I open the porch door wide, the wind ruffles my hair, the rain wets my face. I sense drops of blood trickling between my legs, mingling with the rainwater wetting my clothes.
“A wolf!” I cry to the wind, looking down into the pits dug by the wolf as he emerged from the earth. Then I place a hand on my belly. The baby moves. The spider quivers on her webs in the cold wind.
“Come,” she says. “Come, hold on to the webs.”
Mom gave me a block of cheddar cheese and a sleeve of Fig Newtons when I left home for California in August of 1983. Apparently back then, when crossing the country alone in an unreliable foreign car, it wasn’t money, a map or even an old blanket, but foodstuffs from home rolled up in a paper bag that really said you care.
The Fiat station wagon with the fake wood side panels rattled like a rusty birdcage as I deposited the last of my albums inside and slammed the hatchback. Mom was waiting for me on the sidewalk in her faded yellow zip-up robe, arms crossed at her stomach. She hunched a bit like she ate something bad. To her credit she had dragged herself out of bed at dawn for my farewell to Michigan, an undeniable feat for someone who raised eight kids and liked to stay up late smoking Kents, drinking red wine and writing letters to cousins in Wisconsin.
Despite being just over five feet tall, my mother was a warrior, a fighter you didn’t cross. She once killed a snake with one whack of a hoe while balancing a child on her hip. She could deliver sermons worthy of any Catholic priest from the Kalamazoo diocese and for twice as long. She could hold a grudge for years, if not decades. But now Mom’s eyes, normally narrowed in skepticism, were wide and watery as a baby seal’s. She was weeping for me, her sixth child, the quiet daughter, the untalented one, the one for whom no expectations were ever expected by anyone. Even me.
I could have left already. The sun was rising through the neighbor’s maple tree, the one Mom hated, the one with leaves as big as plates. I was politely standing before the woman who tortured me for the past three months about my meager plans to leave for LA. The woman who railed about my quitting the radio station. The woman who would not let me forget that the Fiat was really her car even though she sold it to me for four hundred dollars the year before.
Our family did not embrace physical affection, especially back in the ‘80s, before people coast to coast started hugging each other like Mafiosi. Growing up, any affection from Mom stopped when my little sister Kitty arrived home from the hospital. I was seven then and didn’t get much more than a pat on the back after that. So when I left home there were no hugs or kisses expected. Mom stood still. I shifted around.
“Someone from WHFB called the house yesterday asking for you,” she said. “He said there is a job opening. You could live at home and work right in town.”
Much was wrong with that horrifying suggestion, but instead of insisting I’d never want to live at home again, I flailed my arms in the direction of the stuffed yellow car. “But I’m all packed.”
She took a step forward and concocted another argument. “But Mims Dear, what will you do at Christmas? All alone?”
“I’m not worried about it Mom,” I said, slowly inching to the car.
Now following me down the driveway, she gave it another try. Desperation gripped her face. “But what if you fail?”
I wanted to laugh it was so absurd. “Would that be so terrible?”
Seeing my mother in tears was unusual but the idea of failure was not. Failure I have known since 7th-grade gym, 8th-grade gym, high school gym entirely, 10th-grade geometry, college boys from Bay City, Econ 101 and the teaching assistant from English Comp 167. Failure was my normal. I expected it. To Mom it was unacceptable. Failure could ruin social standings, job opportunities, dating prospects, marriage proposals, and God forbid, your reputation. Avoiding failure was so important to both my parents they legally changed my name from Martine to Miriam on the advice of Dad’s hot-shot boss who came to dinner one night in 1960. I was six months old. The family had just moved to Michigan for Dad’s new job. He must have been under a lot of pressure. The unfortunate name change was not meant to bolster a child into life, but to spare me a lifetime of Dean Martin martini jokes and spare them the debilitation of having a daughter who might be called Tina.
Instead of enjoying the je ne sais quoi of a French name, I grew up with one so Biblical no one in the family used it. By the time I was in first grade at Brown School, I still had no idea I was anyone but Mimi. One day Mrs. Cleveland said “Write your real name on your paper. Mimi is not your real name.” Confusion buzzed my brain and lit my cheeks on fire. How did old Mrs. Cleveland know my name and I didn’t?
Running home from the bus stop I imagined a name like Cathy or Susie, regular 1965 stuff. I was excited. My sisters had pretty girl names: Mary, Michelle, Elisa, Catherine and Christiane. That afternoon Mom sat me down at the kitchen counter and told me the genesis of the name Miriam, from historic Bible story to fateful dinner party. It was a heavy name for someone just six years old. Why was I being punished?
Mom taught me how to spell Miriam and produced an official green replacement birth certificate from the county courthouse which I immediately hid in my dresser drawer under my anklets. No cute birth certificate with footprints for me. The entire miserable experience fueled my adoption fantasy for years in which I’m the only child of rich, loving parents who buy me pretty clothes, give me my own bedroom with a canopy bed and call me Candy.
One day after school I was shuffling through eighth grade when my record player had just crackled through my favorite John Denver album for the millionth time and I realized I could not live another day without music ruling my life. I strode to the kitchen, boosted by thirteen-year-old girl hormones and the power of pop music. Standing next to the stove I confided to Mom my dream of being the female version of John Denver, complete with guitar and mountain cabin.
Without looking up from the spaghetti she was breaking into boiling water, she imploded. “Do not even think about becoming a musician. Besides, you have no talent.”
I backed away and slid down the hall to the tiny blue bedroom I shared with Elisa, swishing as quietly as I could in my pink corduroy bell bottoms, the ones I bought with babysitting money, the ones that matched the purple heart I drew on my right cheek in honor of Elton John and Glitter Rock. The subject never came up again.
After that, I practiced my flute and suffered through piano lessons, but for no purpose beyond satisfying my parents and keeping the peace. For a few years, there was a rebellious dream of learning sound-mixing and going on the road with a rock band. This idea I lifted from an advertisement in the Whole Earth Catalog. It coincided nicely with my plan to run away to San Francisco, get my own apartment with a porch and hang some glass Chinese wind chimes, the kind they sold at the dime store.
My senior year in high school my parents suddenly took an interest in my life, sharing with me their ideas for my so-called career. Dad suggested I become a stewardess. “They look like they’re having fun!” Mom thought the Navy was perfect for her listless daughter. She was a WAVE in Pensacola during WWII and apparently had the time of her life despite the war. “It will give your life some structure.”
Neither of them suggested going away to college but pushed the community college instead.
Both were surprised when the University of Michigan sent me an admittance letter. “Must be because your sisters and brother already go there,” said Mom as she explained away the academic anomaly. Maybe it was true. I didn’t care. Then Michigan State also sent an admittance letter, but I decided against it because it has a huge campus and would require more walking.
The summer after my freshman year, Dad invited me along on a short business trip to Champaign. He graduated from the University of Illinois and got his start in advertising down there and still knew plenty of large farming businesses around the state.
“Put a dress on,” he said standing in the bedroom door. “You’re coming with me today.”
I didn’t own a dress. I was in college. So I zipped myself into a tight blue corduroy skirt and was pulling up some coordinated knee socks when Dad appeared in the doorway, appalled. “For God’s sake, put on some nylons!” I didn’t own nylons. I was in college.
Four hours later we were peering over Reuben sandwiches the size of footballs at a dinner with Dad’s client, a sweat-braised farmer who brought along his tall, blond son who would someday inherit the family chicken farm. “This is my son Bobby,” the farmer says, laying a baseball mitt of a hand on his boy’s shoulder. “He just graduated from the University of Illinois.” Bobby tilted his head in polite embarrassment and fluttered sun bleached eyelashes. In an instant, I knew what was going on. And it explained the nylons. This trip was not part of a plan to show Mimi a side of the advertising business. It was my parents’ plan to marry off their drifting daughter to a rich farmer.
The ride home was long and quiet as my anger turned to sadness. Cornfields threaded the prairie together into hours and miles of monotony. Then the blue sky turned a shade of orangey-pink, my favorite. As the sun drooped down I distracted myself with its beauty before we turned east to round Lake Michigan and head toward home.
A year later I chose my college major: Broadcasting/Film. Since my parents wouldn’t pay for music school I opted for the thrill of seeing my name scrawled across the big screen for producing the adaptation of my poignant best-selling book, the one that pushed my young readers to sob into their pillows for days. It would have to do. After graduation and a year of working on the radio, I decided to move to LA.
If it had been fifteen years earlier I would be driving an orange VW van to San Francisco for some acid and a Grateful Dead concert. In comparison, how could I not be way ahead? LA’s famous greed was in full swing and jobs were plentiful. If anything was going to fail it would be the car, but I had $800 and a can of Fix-A-Flat. I was prepared. Failure would have to wait.
Two days later I was crawling across Nebraska in 112-degree heat, slugging lemonade and bringing in the sweat pooling under my legs. My co-pilot, the block of cheese, had separated and curdled on the seat next to me. Five hours later we slid off the prairie and into an avalanche of green clouds that barreled down I-70 from the foothills above Denver.
A few miles east of the Continental Divide in the roiling guts of the storm, the little yellow car grew weary. It was something about rolling the wheels, running the wipers and driving uphill at the same time. My student-driver pace of 55 miles an hour slipped to 35, then 25 and then — nothing. If only we had made it to the Eisenhower Tunnel I could have floated all the way to Grand Junction on a river of rain.
While I waited at the side of the road, the temperature dropped at least 30 degrees. I shimmied into a pair of Levi’s, fully expecting a cop or trucker to stop at any moment. But there I sat with blinkers on as the car shuddered with each stampede of semi trucks that whizzed by. No one stopped. Bullets of rain hit the roof for an hour and a half before I realized I had to do something.
Hitchhiking was a heart-pounding success. Within a minute of sticking my thumb out a burly Ford Bronco roared up, handsome mountain man at the wheel. “You need a lift? I’m going as far as Silverthorne.”
As luck would have it, I was going anywhere he was going. I peeked into his car. There was a mug on the dashboard and whiskey on his breath. A confident commuter. He made me miss the farm boys I left behind in Michigan who could maneuver a car the size of a corn combine through a foot of snow at 70 miles an hour with a beer between their legs and a dead deer strapped to the roof. If this guy could drink and drive in this rain he must be a pretty good driver. I hopped in, relaxing deep into the seat which exhaled a perfume of cigarettes and aftershave.
The feeling of actual horsepower is comforting to us Fiat owners. We roared up the mountain, through the tunnel and into the next town, achieving in minutes what my car had been trying to do all afternoon. The mountain man offered to put me up for the night. Tempting, but after driving all day I had no energy left in case I had to fight him off. “Oh no thanks, I’ll just get a room,” I said in a tone I hadn’t heard myself use before, as if I had gotten many rooms many times before from travels with a temperamental vehicle.
He deposited me at the gas station next to the Super 8 motel and drove off with a casual hand out the window. “Don’t leave,” I whispered to myself. If only I was brave enough to let him help me more.
The green wooden bench outside the gas station was wet where the paint had peeled away, but I sat there anyway, feeling it soak through my jeans. The clouds broke apart and the sun began melting the events of the day from my thoughts. Water dripped from gushing gutters into a puddle in the gravel parking lot. The station guy droned in the background as he called around for a tow truck. Traffic from down the street echoed in the wetness. Life was resuming after the storm and with a cool mountain evening approaching, I felt fall waiting in the pines.
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.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel awoke to the alarm of his Nokia mobile phone at exactly 6:05. He tried, like every morning, to cover his face with a pillow, but he felt an awful weakness. He could not move. The ringing of the alarm hammered and hammered louder and louder in his head. Eventually, he decided to reach over to the bedside table and silence the alarm; then he would give his heartbeat a few minutes to settle down before getting up. But he felt debilitated again. He had no sensation in his hand, in both hands, in his head, his legs, his whole body.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel had a shocking realization: he had turned into something else. He was no longer the person who had fallen asleep late the previous night, physically exhausted after a long evening at work. As he mentally gauged his rigidity, he became certain that he had metamorphosized into something metallic. Something stiff and hard lay in his place on the bed.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel spent some considerable time trying to get used to the hard, stiff body that had replaced his body of flesh. He then became aware of the voices of children racing through the streets on their way to school and the shouts of the sellers of vegetables, household items, and milk calling out their cheap goods. He had a strange feeling that the sunlight had started to seep into the room through a crack in the ceiling. In a panic, he remembered that he was very late for work at the government office and that a deduction from his wages and a rebuke from his stern boss awaited him. He made an effort to stand up quickly, but his heavy metal body failed him and pulled him back to the bed. In a panic, he thought, “I’m made of iron. I’ve turned into iron.”
Citizen Jabir Sabeel managed, after furious efforts, to fall out of the bed. In fact, he flung his whole new iron body onto the concrete floor. With the loud clang he made, he discovered that he had the equivalent of two long thin legs. He somehow willed himself to prop himself upon them, and he tottered over to the full-length mirror set in the middle of his wardrobe. He discovered something else: he had what appeared to be a single, seeing eye. Its sight was powerful and it led him with great accuracy towards the wardrobe.
He stopped for a few moments before lifting up his thin iron legs and positioning himself in front of the mirror. As he looked at the reflection of his new iron self, Citizen Jabir Sabeel could not stop himself crying out in a strange voice of shock and fright that made him spin around like crazy. Bullets sprayed from a tube sticking out of his front and lodged in the walls and furniture as they flew all over the place.
Jabir Sabeel was devastated to see that his new body had turned into a machine that looked like a cross between a DShK machinegun and a four-barrelled howitzer. Its sights were telescopic, like a deadly eye; its muzzle blazed like Hell; its two sturdy supports seemed to have been made to bear death. His sense of devastation worsened when he sensed the deadly bullets continue to fly out of his blazing body in every direction. His body jumped around erratically and led him into the street, leaving a trail of death and destruction all around.
We used to jump, Lydia and I, as high and as often as we could, hands high over our heads, wearing colourful dresses, our knees pulled up, our feet in stout shoes we were allowed to keep on while jumping, though they sometimes came loose and fell off. Down there at the harbour where a few boats bobbed on the water behind the high fences and the no-entry signs, only four or five boats, perhaps because it wasn’t really a harbour, just brown water bordering an endless expanse of concrete where a circus set up its tents and trailers and stalls during the summer months. And a trampoline, a big trampoline we could jump on for fifty pfennigs, Lydia and I.
Lydia peered through the telescope someone had installed by the water, near a fence, long before our time, when there were still cranes and ships and sheds and box cars, and she peered through other telescopes too wherever and whenever we found them. It didn’t make sense to me, why she loved looking through a dark tube that made the world look a lot smaller and only showed a tiny piece of it, but maybe the reason I didn’t like it was because Lydia loved it, because for once I wanted to dislike something that she liked, even if it was only looking through a telescope. I didn’t understand what she could see, what anyone could see, for that matter; all I ever saw was green, and by the time I figured out how to hold the telescope and angle it, the lens snapped shut and it all went black.
Lydia always behaved as if she was the only person who could see what she saw, as if no one else could see it, as if the telescope through which she peered was not any old telescope you could throw a coin into but one made especially for her, to be operated by her alone. She never skipped a telescope on our rambles and expeditions, not the one on the viewing tower in the forest nearby, nor the one on the observation deck at the airport. Each time she would step up onto the tiny steel platform in the same stout shoes, summer or winter, grab the handles left and right that always stained her fingers red, and haul herself up.
There came a time when Lydia no longer liked these things, though neither she nor I knew why; not the telescopes, not the jumping, not the candyfloss we used to pull off in pink or white wads that left a sugary coating on our teeth, not even the summer sky, high above us, with its clouds and the occasional seagulls and jet trails, this sky Lydia had always loved because it changed colour every time we looked up. Before, we had been happy just to lie on that concrete expanse near the boats and look up at the sky, where the other children’s kites flew among the fluffy clouds and the seagulls, kites which they got from the circus folk and which, as soon as the wind changed, came crashing down on the concrete near our heads, their noses pointing down like arrows in flight. We called this summer sky our sky, because we liked the way it allowed us to fly kites, chasing them higher and higher to meet the sky, and because it changed colour from one moment to the next.
On her sixteenth birthday, Lydia stopped wearing the dresses her mother bought for us and never touched them again. Lydia’s mother used to order these dresses with the little bit of money she had to spare, out of catalogues left in hallways in spring and autumn; she would leaf through them for days, weeks, marking pages whenever something took her fancy, putting paper clips on anything she thought would look pretty on Lydia and on me.
Two years later, Lydia packed her bags, the two small holdalls she had, taking only the bare essentials – two books, two notebooks, a photo, and just a few clothes. She had given her mother and me plenty of notice of her new life and described it the way she saw it. She knew it already, before it had so much as begun; she had even started to fit out what would soon be her new room, filling it in her mind with furniture and rugs that would be different to her mother’s. She’d wear gloves all year round, Lydia had said, gloves of palest leather, and she’d buy her clothes in London, only in London, no other city in the world would do. We let her talk, Lydia’s mother and I, without believing a word of it, because Lydia often talked about things she seemed to forget as soon as they were out of her mouth, things that never happened in the end, at least not the way Lydia described them or imagined them. Maybe we didn’t want to believe her because we didn’t want our life to be a life without Lydia. Lydia used to say to me, when we are old, you and I, really old, we will still have each other, or we’ll have each other again, and nothing will bother us any more, not autumn, not winter, not our white hair. We will have each other; she said it again two months before she disappeared, leaving me behind wondering when.
Lydia’s mother spent a lot of time sitting on a chair by the window, a chair Lydia and I had painted white the previous summer, because that summer we’d painted all of Lydia’s mother’s furniture white. Lydia’s mother let us do it, because she always gave Lydia permission for her projects, and so, after Lydia had left, she sat by the window on this particular white chair, the only one on which Lydia had painted a stripe and two pale pink roses on top of the white, using a stencil she made herself. She never took her coat off now, the old check one that didn’t go with her skirt, the same coat Lydia had always wanted to hide or burn; she kept her gloves on too and clung to her coat with one hand as if this piece of cloth could hold her in place.
We waited, Lydia’s mother and I, and it took a long time for us to grasp that Lydia was gone, that she had let the door close behind her, had floated down the stairs, up the street to the bus stop, wearing her woolly hat and her dark jacket, holding the two bags and the ticket she had saved so long for, away to the airport and onto a plane Lydia’s mother and I did not want to watch taking off. But we imagined all that as we sat by the window on the white chairs, and during the days and the weeks that followed, imagining Lydia rushing with her two bags to the observation deck in the last few minutes before her flight was called to take one more look through the telescope, grabbing the handles left and right one last time.
Now there’s this postcard on my bed, and beside it a key on a ribbon, a bright red ribbon, an address in London, and Lydia’s kiss, also bright red, with which she stamped all her letters, and beside that the PIN code you have to key in if you want her door to open, and six words in her typical style, more catchphrase than letter: Come to see – autumn and me.
It takes some time for me to phone her, perhaps because I find myself thinking, too often, that she never came to see us, not even for a day, not even to see her mother, that every summer she came up with excuses that weren’t really excuses; and because I still find myself thinking, too often, how she didn’t just pretend that we weren’t right for her any more but actually made me think that we, the two of us, had never been right, that it had never really existed, me and her, not the clothes from the catalogues, nor the place we called the harbour, nor the circus that set up a trampoline and handed out kites, nor the telescopes for Lydia to look through. So I’m relieved, now, when all I get is the answering machine, Lydia’s voice repeating in English the number I just dialled, and I say something in a weak, faltering voice, something beginning with: Hi, Lydia. So… A stupid, meaningless So that doesn’t preface anything, and later, a few hours later, Lydia rings back and says: Are you OK? You sound really weird.
She meets me at the airport, smiles her big wide smile and doesn’t stop, puts her arm around my shoulder and doesn’t take it away, not even later, on the train or on the escalator, in her entrance hall beside all the letter boxes, or in the little lift that takes us up once its black scissor gate has closed. She lets me open the door, using the key she sent me, the one with the red ribbon, and stands beside me, studying my hands as I turn the key in the lock, looking as if she had been longing for this moment, waiting for it to arrive.
Her apartment is painted white, a white bordering on cream; the bedlinen is white, the towels in the bathroom and kitchen are white. Lydia says she can’t bear any other colour, not on the furniture or on the walls. She has put a single photo up on the wall with two pins, over the sink in the kitchen, next to the white tiles; it’s one Lydia’s mother took of Lydia and me back then, with no heads. The picture isn’t of us; it’s of our new dresses on us, the fabric with its pattern full of flowers, tiny flowers. Even without the heads you can tell who’s who straight away, if only by how we hold our hands, each in her own way. My hands are clenched; it looks like I want to hide them, pull them back. Lydia’s hands are open, moving even while she stands still. Lydia says: Do you remember – those catalogues? She tries to smile but it looks like she’s angry still. Pretty little dresses, Lydia’s mother used to call them, and Lydia called them that too, though in a very different tone, and I’m quite sure that Lydia’s mother, when she was taking that photo, did not want Lydia’s face to be in it, nor the look in her eyes, just the dresses, which fit us for more than one summer and which we wore with skinny plastic belts and grey cardigans. In one corner, in thick pencil, Lydia has written: Lydia and Vicki – beautiful, even with no heads.
She walks around the apartment, makes coffee, says: Do you still take it that way? Then she says she has a ring for me, a ring she designed herself, just for me, in pale blue, because blue was my colour, blue like the blue of the sky back then, that blue that never stopped changing, it was exactly that blue – did I remember? I slip the ring over my finger, wondering how she managed, after all these years, to design a ring for me, to craft it here under her little white lamp, with her little pliers, a ring wrought of wires and stones I can see through, and I like it immediately because it has my blue, and it fits straight away, and Lydia says, it looks lovely, the ring, on you, on your finger. And she studies my hands as only she can, her eyes a little smaller than usual, her head to one side, her hands on her hips.
Lydia looks the way she looks because she doesn’t eat, because she suppresses her hunger, because she puts cotton wool soaked in herbal tea into her mouth if I don’t stop her. Her little fridge is empty, almost entirely empty – a bottle of juice, long past its sell-by date, and a gel mask Lydia puts on her eyelids in the mornings, when she drinks her de-caffeinated coffee in her white bathrobe, her wet hair in a white towel turban, her feet in white towelling slippers with her varnished white toenails peeking out. When she sits like this in the mornings, across from me, by this sash window, which has white glazing bars and which Lydia opens after every third, fourth cigarette, then I cannot help thinking that we will not see old age, the two of us, at least not the way Lydia envisaged it back then, shortly before she left: herself and myself, old and stooped, holding on, holding on to each other. Later, at intervals throughout the day, it is that one sentence that keeps coming back into my head: We will not see old age.
I find myself thinking it again when we leave the apartment and Lydia goes charging from one shop to the other, from one coffee shop to the next, in and out, the entrance bell announcing us, then her loud hello-o-o with the long, fading O the way only Lydia can say it, this hello-o-o that seems part invitation, part challenge, but also part threat, as if everyone else were only there to amuse her. We will not see old age, I think, perhaps because Lydia does not seem the sort of person who grows old, who sooner or later looks old, who allows wrinkles to appear in her face; I am thinking this now, as I watch her walk diagonally across the floor of this shop, with her Jackie O sunglasses, that strand of highlighted hair stuck to her forehead, that little black suit with the skirt cut just below the knee but still showing enough leg to make me feel slightly sick, perhaps because her legs are the way they are, and those shoes with the high heels and the straps around her bony ankles that divide Lydia’s legs into a top and a bottom part.
Back then, at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, when we had each other every day, every hour, it never bothered me when people took Lydia and me for a couple. I liked the fact that people thought I could be with someone like Lydia, that Lydia would want someone like me. It amused us to spread rumours and lies and stories, and we laughed when other people believed us, when they whispered and giggled behind our backs and pointed at us. But now it bothers me, for the first time, that people might take us for a couple; it bothers me in all the cafés and all the shops, every time Lydia opens a door and the entrance bell rings and people turn to look at us, at Lydia and me.
We go for a cup of tea, which is served in a silver teapot, with scones that Lydia doesn’t even touch. Later we take a walk through a big park, because I insist on it, and Lydia looks bored there, with no people, no shops. Leaves flutter down, yellow and brown autumn leaves. There’s a leaf in your hair, I say, d’you want me to get it? Lydia nods, I pick the leaf out of her hair, a little red one; I show it to her, then it flutters to the ground at our feet. A boy wearing one of those short, dark coats children wear here is running across the grass, this lush, bright green grass, holding a line in his hand. His kite is flying in a colourless sky, way up high, like the kites we used to see back then, when we lay on the concrete at the harbour, our arms crossed behind our heads. Lydia stands still, looking up at this pink kite; a gust of wind catches it, and it pulls and drags the boy, who grows smaller and smaller, running faster and faster, and we stand like that for a while until Lydia says, it looks like it wants to lift him up and away.