The Green Night
Long after dark, a truck driver was making his way through the winding dirt roads of the countryside. An ominous green had covered the darkened sky and he was eager to get home, since that usually meant there was a tornado or at the very least, hail, which could break his windshield. There was a loud boom and a flash of lightning, and he was able to make out the silhouette of a person crouched on the side of the road. Forgetting his own worries, he stopped the truck and quickly got out to inspect what was wrong.
“Are you okay?” he said to the shadowy figure. From what he could tell the person was not seriously injured but they didn’t respond to his voice and they were shivering. He crept forward and tapped them on the shoulder. The figure jerked upwards and exchanged a scared look; it was a young fair skinned man with short red hair and oddly green eyes. “Are you okay?” the truck driver repeated.
“Y-yes, I’m just waiting for someone here...” said the crouched man, shrinking away in fear.
“It’s okay buddy, I won’t hurt you. It’s rather dangerous though with this storm going on. You should get in my truck with me and I’ll drive you to a safer location, okay?”
“No,” the man responded, very firmly unwilling to go.
Then the wind picked up and the noise around them seemed to die out. Hurriedly the truck driver grabbed the other man by the sleeves in order to drag him to the truck but the man slapped the hand away. For a split second, a picture of a happy family-the drivers family-fell from the man’s hands onto the ground and an ear shattering scream bellowed from the man’s throat as his eyes pulsed green. The driver, freaking out, glanced back and saw an incoming wall of wind and death. He rushed into his car, abandoning the screaming man, and floored it forward, unwilling to stop.
When he had gone far enough to be confident to look back he saw the tornado as the moon seemed to light that one spot, breaking through the clouds above. The whirling mass of wind seemed to stop and through the dark the driver could swear that he saw in its midst a tide of green light and a large, floating object. Then the light cut away and the tornado vanished and the driver, feeling hail as it crashed onto his truck, drove off confused and worried.
As the driver finally arrived home he bolted from his truck and ran inside his countryside house. It was evident that his wife and children were sleeping upstairs and realizing this, he slowed his pace as he crept upwards. At the top, he paused as he looked in the mirror and there he saw the same face as the man on the road, his eyes glowing green and fear overcoming him. His body was then overwhelmed by cold and the last thing he saw before his mind blanked was a flash of green.
When he came to he was on the side of the road, crouched over in fear and shivering while holding a certain picture. Bewildered, he felt a tap on his shoulder and he looked up to a face he would have never guessed to see.
“Are you okay?” said the man he once was, and then at last, everything in the world seemed to fade away...
Chess vs. Checkers, and Other Diplomatic Dances
Tony Billinghurst lives in the West of England and has long been fascinated by old houses; when empty, they have a silence like no other. He has recently published in The London Journal of Fiction, The Ham Free Press, The Fiction Pool, CommuterLit; Fiction on the Web & has been accepted for the 2019 Fantasia Divinity’s summer anthology.
10 Strinburg Place
10 Strinburg Place was a period house set in a large garden surrounded by trees; once it was imposing and filled with laughter, now it stood unkempt and silent. Paul parked outside and turned to Amelia
“Can I see the will again?” She handed him the large envelope containing her grandfather’s will. He switched the engine off and skimmed through the pages.
“Took long enough to clear probate.”
“My cousins contested it.”
“‘I give, devise and bequest’……. left his savings and investments to your cousins; house and contents to you… and his bureau - ‘hope you cherish it… when you use it, think of me.’ Must be quite a piece.”
“Not from what I remember…,” but Paul wasn’t listening, he was still reading.
“Good grief! - your cousins did well – he was rolling in it.”
“His father owned a shop – a furriers. Probably how they bought this place.” Paul switched the radio off and handed the envelope back.
“The will doesn’t mention the diamond.”
“You’re forgetting grandma’s family were a bunch of crooks. Don’t know how her aunt acquired it; some dodgy means no doubt. As soon she got it, her kids started bickering over who’d inherit it, nearly broke the family up. They knew too much about each other, a bust up was risky. She decided none of them would have it.”
“She could’ve sold it.” Amelia put the envelope back in her rucksack.
“It’s a blue diamond, they’re rare; supposed to be worth mega bucks – you can’t sell them without provenance.”
“Why leave it to your grandmother?”
“She liked her. Could trust her to keep quiet about where it came from. Good call, Grandma was so secretive, we couldn’t even see it.”
“Not surprising with her background.”
“She was odd as well, and smoked. She smoked so much she went around with her own fog. And you could hear her coming a mile off, she walked heavily and dragged her foot; she wore a built-up boot.”
“Sounds a nightmare.”
“She didn’t trust anyone either, she hid the diamond in the house. She used to tell us: ‘if you lot get your hands on my diamond, I’ll come back and haunt you, see if I don’t, that thing’s bad news, I’m not having no squabbles over it, none of you are having it, so forget it.”
“Could have left it to your grandfather.”
“Wouldn’t help; anyway their marriage was rocky by then. They were a miss match, can’t see what they saw in each other.”
“How’d they get along?”
“When she was being difficult, grandpa’d go and do his cabinet making.”
Was he any good?”
“He thought so. Despite grandma’s moods, I liked coming here, it’s a great place for a child. We made dens, climbed trees, slept in tents, sailed boats on the pond. Grandpa told us stories; you’d have liked him. He read a lot…. talked about things Dad didn’t; he was special, I was fond of him, miss him still.”
“Can’t remember my grandparents.”
“They had a rough start. Their first son died in an accident. Dad said grandma doted on him. She held séances to contact him. Grandpa didn’t approve, they had rows about it. He wanted a divorce then; she wasn’t having any of it.” Paul took the keys out of the ignition,
“Which lamp do you want?”
“We came once, he’d nearly finished his bureau. When we were alone, he told me ‘your grandma’ll leave that diamond to some Dog’s home, I’ll be bound. If I had my way, you’d have it, you’re level headed for a young ‘un’. Then for some reason he didn’t finish it for a long time. He told me several times, ‘One day girl, that bureau’ll be yours, don’t part with it and don’t let anyone take it off you – promise me?’ Apparently, just when he did finish it, they had the row that ended their marriage. Then he left her.”
“And the diamond disappeared?”
“Grandma told the police he’d stolen it.”
“She said what?”
“Well, - she told them he’d stolen her jewellery. They found him in Leeds but didn’t prosecute him.”
“Do you think he stole it?”
“Don’t know – hope not.”
“How about the rest of your family?”
“Most were dead by then. Grandpa told the police grandma’s memory was bad and she hid things in the house and forgot where. Police told grandma what he said, that’s when she tore the place apart. Maybe she thought he’d found it and re hidden it to spite her.”
They picked up their ruck sacks.
“For some reason, Grandpa sent letters taunting her. Got nasty. She’d been ill for eons. Some specialist said her illness was terminal; she never could handle being ill. Think she’d gone loopy by then anyway, pushed her over the edge. Eventually she committed suicide.”
“In this house?”
“Guess so. Eventually grandpa heard she’d died. The house was in their joint names; he moved back. The first night he was here, something happened, he had a massive stroke; hadn’t even finished unpacking. He was in a terrible state, had to go into a nursing home where he died.” Amelia didn’t say any more.
“You all right love?” Paul put his arm around her shoulder. Amelia nodded. “Let’s look at this legacy of yours.”
The huge trees cast gloomy shadows over the house. The gate hung at an angle and the path was overgrown. A breeze blew leaves in swirls around them. Amelia opened the door, switched her lamp on and picked up the mail from the mat. The top letter was marked ‘urgent’ and was addresses to The Occupant. She opened it.
‘Dear home owner. We at Walcott Developments are urgently seeking properties like yours where we can build our luxury retirement apartments. Call us right away for an informal chat. You’ll be amazed at what we can offer…….’
“Vultures are gathering” she said, flicking the light switch. Nothing happened. Paul turned his lamp on as well, then Amelia took them on a tour of the ground floor. The house had large rooms, most were decorated with hideous floral wallpaper, some of which was peeling off the walls. The few pieces of furniture that remained was strewn about, some were piled in heaps. The kitchen had an uneven tiled floor and an assortment of obsolete equipment. They then went back to the first room and started to search through it carefully. After they’d nearly finished, Paul sat in thought.
“Have squatters been in? Most of the furniture’s wrecked?” He asked. Amelia shook her head.
“That was Grandma looking for the diamond. She could be a tenacious old bat and had a short fuse”
“She did this on her own? Wouldn’t like to have got in her way.”
They worked systematically, carefully inspecting each room and its contents. The only cupboard they couldn’t open was in the kitchen. Paul gave Amelia a hammer and chisel to prise it open. Just as Amelia started to open the door, Paul picked up a coat stand and pulled some wallpaper from the wall.
“What are you going to do with that?” She asked.
“Burn it, it’s got wood worm.”
“Goodness sake check it carefully.”
He took it to the garden and started a fire with other broken furniture. When he’d returned, Amelia had opened the cupboard and was reading a letter; it was addressed to her grandmother.
“Look at this,” she said reading it to Paul. “ … ‘Remembered where you hid your bauble yet my dear? No? Well keep looking…’” She put it back in its envelope and handed it to Paul. “Put this on the fire. I’m surprised at grandpa; they must have hated each other in the end.”
After they’d worked for several hours they stopped for a break. Amelia gazed out of the grubby window as she eat her sandwich.
“I used to climb that tree, got stuck up it once, it was ages before anyone came to get me down.” Paul glanced at the tree.
“Where have the carpets gone?”
“No idea, grandma must’ve taken them up.”
When they’d searched the ground floor, they went upstairs, their footsteps echoing on the bare boards. Amelia showed Paul the bedrooms. Garlands of cobwebs hung from light fittings and the window sills were sprinkled with dead flies. Amelia tried to open a bay window but the sash was broken. A skirting board had been ripped from the wall in the master bedroom. The second bedroom had a birds nest in the fireplace and black mould by the window. One end of the curtain rail had come away from the wall and the curtains hung in a heap on the floor. They went into one room that was in a better state than most.
“This would make a lovely nursery.” Paul didn’t answer.
They went further down the passage, Amelia opened another door.
“This was grandpa’s room,” A floor board by the fireplace had been pulled up and thrown aside. There was a huge book case against one wall, the books had been strewn around the floor. Shelves had been fitted to an end wall, some of which still held some books and a broken pair of glasses.
The bureau was beside the window. Paul put his lamp on a shelf besides an open Bible.
“This your bureau?”
“Yes.” Paul heaved it into the room. A large spider ran up the wall. The smell of damp permeated the room; Amelia opened the window. Paul turned and looked at her.
“Why did he say this was special? The proportions don’t even look right.” He held a lamp closer to it. “And he was no French polisher, that’s for sure.” Paul sat on the only chair and turned to Amelia. “Look love, I know you dream of living here, but this place needs a fortune spent on it. Its way beyond us and this bureau - well it’s just ghastly.”
“I know, but Grandpa wanted me to have it; I’d like to have something of his.”
“We’re struggling with the flat mortgage as it is, we can’t borrow more to do this up.”
“Don’t see why not. We could sell the flat, move in here, then do it up.”
“For heaven’s sake love, we haven’t any equity in the flat and…..
“And whose fault is that?”
“Oh, for goodness sake – don’t bring that up again. This place needs a load of major work, it’ll cost a fortune. We can’t live here while that’s going on.”
“Paul, this is a proper family home. I’m sick of the flat, we can’t have children there; it’s like living in a broom cupboard. Feels like our lives are on hold.” Paul got up and walked around the room.
“How about this: find the diamond, sell it, do this place up, sell the flat, pay off the mortgage. Then we’ll have a tidy asset to borrow against. We’ll be well set up. What do you reckon?” Amelia gave him a blank look. “And if we can’t find it, we’ll talk to somebody like Walcott. Maybe a developer would build houses here and we can do a deal with them – and have one.”
Amelia was quiet for a while as she considered Paul’s idea.
“Paul, I’m not letting this house slip through our fingers in another hare-brained scheme. Anyway, it’ll take two or three years before the new houses are built. You know what planning permission’s like. We could have this place done up in a few months. My clock’s ticking - I want a family – is that too much to ask?” Paul didn’t answer the question, he just said:
“No one gets every deal right.”
Amelia picked a copy of Ulysses from the floor and put it on a shelf.
“We’ll find the diamond, see what its worth before we do anything else.”
“It’s a once in a lifetime’s chance….”
“That’s why we’re not rushing it.”
Paul changed the subject.
“A lot of the furniture’s wrecked, the rest looks like junk, let’s clear it out.”
“Some of it might be ok.”
“All right; he said emphatically. “If any of its worth keeping, let’s put it the lounge then. I’ll put the rest on the bonfire. Can you find the rest of your grandfather’s tools, then we’ll check over the bureau.”
When they’d searched all the rooms on the first two floors, the only place left was the attic. As neither wanted to go there alone, they went together. The entrance was down a long passage and up a steep staircase. The door at the top was stiff and screeched when Paul opened it. The attic was empty except for a wasp’s nest in a corner and an empty packing case under a beam. Paul went to a corner.
“Mould.” He muttered. “And no insulation.”
The rest of the roof space didn’t take long to inspect. As Paul searched, Amelia stayed near the door. She shivered and wrapped her jacket around her.
“Can we go now, I don’t like it up here?” Paul followed her to the stairs and slammed the door shut behind him. When they’d reached the study again Amelia poured herself another coffee.
“Out of curiosity, how did your grandmother commit suicide?”
“Hung herself.” It didn’t seem appropriate to say more, so Paul picked up some more books from the floor until Amelia had regained her colour.
“We’ve looked everywhere for the diamond, you sure there’s nowhere else?”
“Only the garden.”
“We’ve no chance of finding it if it’s there. Look, I’ve been thinking. Your grandfather seemed to be fonder of you than of your cousins.”
“Look at how much he left them, a load more than this place’s worth.”
“Haven’t thought of that.”
“And your cousins weren’t satisfied with that, they contested the will, which means they think the diamond’s in the house.”
“Of course, that’s why we’re looking for it.”
“You’ve missed the point. If he intended you to have it, he could’ve sent you a note telling you where it is, he wouldn’t risk you not being able to find it. Let’s face it, your grandma couldn’t find it and we’ve looked and we can’t. Are we missing something? He wanted you to have the bureau and the diamond; the odds are, it’s in the one thing he insisted you keep – his bureau; shall we take it downstairs?” Amelia shrugged her shoulders.
“Might as well.” They took an end each.
The sun was now behind the trees and dusk was setting in. The fire was well alight in the garden. As soon as they tried to move the bureau, the fire spat manic showers of sparks sending shadows flickering across the wall. And there was an eerie noise in the attic. Amelia jumped. They both froze.
“Did you close the attic door?”
“Of course I did.”
“Paul – something’s up there!” They both held their breath and listened. Then the sound started again and with disturbing resolve, shuffled and thumped unsteadily across the floor. “It’s going towards the door!”
Paul snatched up the poker in one hand and a lamp in the other.
“Get that lamp, let’s see what it is – come on.”
“Are you mad? I’m not going up there?” Amelia said, stepping back against the wall.
“If something’s up there, I’m not waiting for it to come down here - and that’s final. Anyway the attic’s empty – we checked it, didn’t we? Come on.”
Not wanting to be left alone, Amelia grabbed his arm and they raced down the passage and stopped at the bottom of the stairs. He turned to her. “You ok?” She replied with an uncertain nod, then they started to cautiously creep up the stairs. They’d reached half way when Amelia wrenched Pauls’ arm back.
“Look! The door’s open!” They stood looking at each other for a few seconds, then Paul took a deep breath and shook her hand free, rushed up, kicked the door wide open and with the poker raised, charged in. Amelia followed. The attic was empty. Void. No one was there. It was as they saw it earlier. They searched frantically over and over until they were satisfied they really were alone, then after carefully closing the door behind them, they returned to the study.
“Paul, I’m getting a nasty feeling about this place.”
“Me too.” Paul pointed to the bureau. “Let’s get this thing down stairs, then lock up and come back tomorrow.”
But try as they could, they couldn’t get the bureau down the stairs, so they pulled it back into the study. Paul poured them the last of the coffee and thought for a moment.
“Look, if the diamond’s in the bureau, it’s got to be possible to find it. Give me that tape, let’s have another look. Amelia sat on the chair and drank her coffee as Paul took the drawers out, inspected them and put them in a pile against the wall. He took the copy of Ulysses from the book shelf and as he measured the bureau, inside and out, he wrote the measurements on the fly leaf. After a few minutes, he turned to Amelia.
“That’s odd, all the joints are dove tailed with a peg glued through them.”
“That’s not necessary; the only way you’d get this apart is to break it up, why’d he do that?” He took Ulysses and studied his measurements. After a few scribbled calculations, he did a little jig.
“What?” Amelia demanded. “What?”
“There’s something in the middle. It’s quite small and I can’t find a way into it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely - it looks like a cube of some sort, can’t see any reason for it to be there, or….or – it’s a box. A small box!” Right love - it’s your call. What do you want to do? If the stone’s in the box thing and we break the bureau up to get at it, we could have it professionally restored and keep it as a memento. If it’s not inside, your grandfather’s playing a sick joke on you, so what the heck, we just burn the thing. What do you reckon?” Amelia snatched the book from Paul and read his calculations.
“You sure you haven’t made a mistake, you know what you’re like?” Paul grabbed the tape and getting on his knees, re measured, calling out the measurements as he went. Amelia checked them off. When he’d finished, he looked at her quizzically. “Ok,” she said, “they’re the same”.
“Thank you - thank you very much.” He said in mock agitation. “So?” Amelia fidgeted with the zip on her jacket.
“I’m not sure, I’d like to think about it.” The second she said that the wind blew and the open window rattled. Before Paul could say a word, Amelia raised her hand to stop him. “Did you hear that?”
“Yes, the window rattled.”
“No, not that, didn’t you hear that squeaking sound upstairs?”
“No.” Paul replied, listening intently again. “Get a grip, it’s an old house. There’s no one here except us. You know that, don’t you?” She looked at him attentively.
“Do I?” She turned all three lamp fully up. “Paul - I want to get out of here - now. For heaven’s sake break the thing open and let’s go.”
Paul took the rip saw and rendered the bureau to pieces, eventually removing a small wooden cube from its centre. It was a box, but it didn’t have a lid, the sides were glued down. He shook it, then carefully cut one end off.
“There you go love,” he said pushing the dismembered bureau aside with his foot, “You open it – positive thoughts now!”
They brought the lamps closer, Paul crossed his fingers and Amelia tipped the box up. Out slid a piece of folded paper. She held the box to the light, there was nothing else in it. She unfolded the paper.
“It’s a note from grandpa.” Amelia read in silence.
“What does it say for heaven’s sake?” She didn’t reply. A lone tear trickled down her face as she handed it to him. He read aloud.
If you are reading this, I’m deeply disappointed in you. I expected better. It means you have destroyed my bureau to find grandma’s diamond. Well, it isn’t here. I appointed a company of solicitors to keep it safe. I won’t tell you who they are, or where they are. Had you kept my bureau for just six months, they would have contacted you, inspected it and given you the stone to do with as you wished. However, by destroying it, you have forfeited the diamond, it will now go to the dog’s home as your grandmother wished. I made the bureau so it can’t be mended so don’t waste your time trying to fool the solicitors. I hope you learn well from this lesson. Farewell my dear. Grandpa.”
As he read, the fire died down and the house seemed to relax and be at peace. The only sound was of Amelia sobbing. She took Walcott’s letter from her rucksack and pushed it into Paul’s hand.
“Let them have it.” She said, then walked past the bureau and out of the room.
. . . . . . .
Our foreheads are pressed upon each other’s, our hands are intertwined as we sway to the melody that the phonograph emits. Our fireplace warms the room, yet his warmth is all I yearn for. I am his Honey, his delectable treat. He is my Wine, my buzz that I never want to sober from. He is aged and rugged, he is the one whom all go out of their way to try to get. However, I was the lucky one. For this was our first anniversary, united as one.
The doorbell rings. We exchange a stare. Who would be here? Especially at midnight? I thought this night was reserved for us. We cleared our work schedules just to dedicate this time for each other. Maybe it was one of his friends? He is more experienced with life than I. Even so, I would have expected him to tell his friends he is busy tonight. He releases the grip we shared and heads toward the front door.
“Did one of your little boyfriends bring this?” he asks.
My heart plummets to my stomach. He had his back toward me but yet I could feel all love dissipate. He closes the front door and turns back toward me, a bottle of wine clenched in his hands. I need to answer. I need to. Yet I do not have any answers he wants.
“Who brought that? Was anyone at the door?” I say.
“No. It was left here. I’m sure I know who it was - who bestowed such a gift for you,” he responds.
Moments pass. I spew pillow-talk in order to try to resume our previous delicate moment. Yet he leaves me with no answers this time. His utter silence provokes me. I know exactly what he is thinking. Thinking preposterous lies because I am just a child in his eyes. How could he change his mood so quickly? Tonight, we were supposed to celebrate us, but it seems neither of us are love-drunk.
The bottle of wine sits at his nightstand. Tonight, we slumber so far apart. I want to scooch over and at least press my head against his back. I want to wrap my arm over him and somehow convince him that everything is okay. I do not know how. I’m a failure of a wife.
“I love you...”
The morning finally comes. I roll over, only to see the bottle staring at me. The drawers to the nightstand and armoire are open and empty. Just like me. Today marks the day. I am sobered. However, I am an alcoholic - yearning to be drunk, at least once more. Yet it was a bottle that shattered us.
I suppose Wine and Honey doesn’t make a great elixir. The bitterness is so profound alone, why would you want to mix it with something so overwhelming? It’ll simply kill off the taste that the wine has had. For that night, we both took wretched swig of it. However, one’s glass was filled to the brim while the other only had a shot. The taste was powerful, leaving our throats tainted.
It was a dream. It had to be a dream, and I desperately wanted to wake up. Midnight had come and gone - it seemed like ages ago - and my guests had dwindled down to a manageable nine. The visitors from earlier in the evening were but a vague memory to me now. Perhaps the punch I was drinking was more spiked than I had imagined. No matter. These nine stragglers would soon be gone, and then I could rest.
It had been a successful party - I guess. The guests had been well fed and entertained. They all appeared to have enjoyed themselves. There hadn’t been any rowdiness as in other house parties. Everyone seemed to have gotten along. So why was I feeling unhappy, as if something was amiss, as if the whole party had been a failure?
Something was definitely off - and it wasn't just my equilibrium.
Troubled, I listened tentatively to the melodic sounds coming from the stereo. New York, New York, ole blue eyes' signature song, was playing - a sure sign the night was ending. It was time for everyone to go home, but would my remaining guests get the hint?
I was alone, standing in a corner, doing my best impersonation of a potted fern. The numbness in my fingers - from holding my chilled glass too tightly - had spread throughout my body. Why wasn't I mingling?
With mixed fascination, I watched 7 maintain a captive audience, despite his slurred words. 8 and 9, the girls with him, hung onto his every word. Maybe his Kiss Me, I'm Irish tie was more charming than I thought.
My curiosity piqued, I found myself gravitating towards them like an apparition.
9 rolled her eyes when she saw me coming - huh? - and whispered something in 8's ear. 8, in response, pursed her lips to suppress a grin. 7 was more accepting. With a raise of his glass and a wink, he welcomed me into his circle before continuing with his off-colored joke.
"Ah señor, you have excellent taste!" 7 continued, sounding like Speedy Gonzales. "Those are bull testicles from the bull fight this morning. A delicacy!"
I had heard this joke before. It was about a Spanish waiter and an American tourist. For something risqué, it wasn't so bad. Although 7's exaggerated accent was almost criminal.
"There is only one serving a day since there is only one bull fight each morning. If you come early tomorrow and place your order, we will be sure to serve you this delicacy!"
The lingering odor of 7's cologne, a strong musk, made my nose itch.
"The next morning, the American returned, placed his order and was served the one and only special delicacy of the day."
Adding to my irritation was 8's pervasive perfume. It was like chemical warfare on two fronts.
I felt a sneeze coming on.
"After a few bites, and inspecting the contents of his platter, he called to the camarero and said, 'Hey, these are much, much smaller than the ones I saw you serve yesterday!'"
Should I try to get away? But I had just joined them!
Maybe if I pinched my nose.
"The waiter promptly replied, 'Si señor! Sometimes the bull-"
I got my arm up just in time, unable to suppress my sneeze any longer.
Both 8 and 9 frowned at my disruption.
"Sorry," I said, in a voice barely audible.
7 wiped his tie in a slow and garish fashion, as if I hadn't covered my mouth. 8 and 9 giggled at his pantomime.
"Well, any punch-line I give now would be anti-climatic," 7 said, maintaining his Speedy Gonzales persona.
The smirk on his face made me cringe.
Apologizing once more, I excused myself from the group, using my empty glass as a pretext to get away.
Before I could escape to the kitchen, the jarring sound of shattering glass caught my attention. It had come from the basement.
I descended the stairs warily - and it wasn't because of the few empty beer bottles littering the steps – as if I expected to stumble upon a den of vipers.
Grunts, groans and excited cries came from the Games Room - sounds more suited to an R-rated movie.
Of course it was none of that - so why the hyperbole?
2 and 3 were nearing the end of a heated match. They were playing FIFA Soccer on the Xbox.
For all the damage they had done, I think I would have preferred the slithering snakes.
The remains of a crystal vase lay scattered on the tiled floor. The vase's usual resting place - when intact - had been on the wooden side table next to the futon. I imagined 2, during vigorous game play, not being very vigilant with his protruding elbow.
The beer stains on the futon - I had picked up the old thing at a garage sale - didn't bother me too much. As for the overturned chip bowl ... well, I guess I'll have to do a lot of vacuuming in the morning. But the broken glass needed to be attended to.
With a sigh, I grabbed a broom and dustpan from the nearby closet.
"Can you guys be a bit more careful, please?" I asked, while pushing the debris together into one pile.
"Huh? ... Yeah, sure," 3 quickly replied, barely giving me a glance.
There was no response from 2. The tight scowl etched into his face prevented him from communicating.
As I bent down to sweep the broken glass into the dustpan, my right foot accidentally brushed against 2's ankle.
"Hey! Watch it?" he whined, disproving my previous claim. "Can't you see I'm in the middle of a match here?"
I looked up to find myself almost flattened by his disparaging eyes.
What's he so mad about? It's only a game.
At that moment, 3 scored.
"Goooooaaal!" he crooned, imitating a Latino sportscaster.
"See what you did!" 2 grumbled. "Thanks a lot!
"Don't mind him," 3 said. He gave me a thumbs up for my interference. "2's always been a sore loser."
"Says you, asshole!" his rival snapped, but then, with a slow sneer broadening his face, he asked: "So ... what do you think? Best 2 out of 3?"
Wh ... what?
My world reeled. I became unsteady on my feet. It was like a dense fog had risen, and I didn't know which way was up.
Closing my eyes, I waited for my head to clear.
When I opened them again, I saw 2 and 3 playing FIFA Soccer once more.
Looking down at my empty hands, I briefly wondered what had happened to the broken glass. Had I disposed of it? Dismissing this thought, I looked at the still overturned bowl on the coffee table. For some reason, it bothered me - almost obsessively so. After grabbing it, I headed for the stairs. I didn't want to stick around the basement anymore - especially not after my dizzy spell!
"Oh, hey!" 3 called out. I paused at the bottom of the steps. "Since you're on your way up, can you get us another round of drinks?"
As I ascended the stairs, I felt a bad taste in my mouth, as if bile was rising in my throat. Being a good host, I picked up the discarded beer bottles on the steps.
From the top landing of the stairwell, I had a clear view of the hallway leading to my bedroom. The door was ajar.
A nerve pulsed erratically in my left temple.
Access to my room was forbidden – that’s why I always kept the door closed.
I set the bottles and bowl down on the ottoman in the hallway.
While imagining many different scenarios - none of them appropriate - I traversed the length of the hall. Fuming, I grabbed the doorknob with an unsteady hand. The pulse in my temple grew stronger.
I only relaxed once I heard the soft, incessant snoring emanating from my room.
Chancing a peek, I glimpsed 6 passed out, lying spread-eagled on my bed - too much drinking and dancing I suppose.
I didn't relish the idea of sleeping on the couch - assuming the rest of my guests eventually went home - but there didn't appear to be another option.
Shutting the door behind me, I retraced my steps. While retrieving the items from the ottoman, I heard lively chatter coming from the kitchen.
I was heading in that direction anyway, so it's not like my curiosity got the better of me.
My entrance, though, was unexpected. Sitting on bar stools by the kitchen island were 4 and 5. Their eyes widened once I came in, and their dialogue abruptly stopped.
Strange ... my ears weren't burning so they couldn't have been talking about me - or was that just an old wives' tale?
"Didn't mean to startle you," I said, amicably. "Just dropping some stuff off."
Their silence weighed heavily on me like a plague.
"I hope you had a good time tonight." I said, trying to get a little feedback.
A glance passed between the two of them before 4 answered. As she spoke, a slow grin spread across her face.
"Actually, I was gonna write about your party on my blog tomorrow ... let all my friends know what a blast we had."
"Really?" I tried to recall her last posting but came up blank.
"Sure. Before you joined us, even 5 was marveling at what a great host you were."
For some reason, I wondered if 4's comment was tongue-in-cheek, but even before I could complete the thought, 5 snorted, almost spitting into her drink.
Frowning, 4 chastised her friend.
"I told you not to drink too much! Now you're drunk!"
"Am not, bitch!" 5 hiccupped, before laughing at her own inebriety.
"Seriously," 4 continued, turning her attention back to me, "I'm gonna rate your party on my blog." She paused for dramatic effect. "... and give it 4 out of 5 stars." 4 could barely contain her laughter.
My world, as before, teetered but only for a second. The realization that I was being toyed with - again - bothered me more.
My hands clenched at my sides, as a troublesome truth finally came to the surface - one I was hard-pressed to admit.
My party was a sham!
Overcome with dismay, I felt a cold chill pass through my body, like a ghost had touched my soul.
OK ... calm down ... think this through.
Why did I invite 4 and 5 to my party? They weren’t my friends. Why did I invite any of my guests to my party? At best, most of them could only be called acquaintances. And why was I being treated so poorly? Didn't everyone have a good time?
I looked at the glass screen door that separated the kitchen from the patio outside, and saw my reflection. Seeing my familiar round shape, I finally realized my problem. I was a zero … a nothing … a zilch … nada. The revelation came to me unexpectedly: I felt a sudden shortness in breath. I had to step outside. Going out onto the patio, I could hear - or was it my imagination - 4 and 5 laughing as I closed the screen door behind me.
I sat down in one of the patio chairs quickly, afraid that my legs would give out. I was that rattled.
Looking up into the cloudless night sky, I wondered how I could have been so clueless to my dilemma. No wonder I couldn’t relate to the other numbers. I bet some of them didn’t even consider me to be a number. I was a big joke to them. Sure, I was good enough to hang out with when I was throwing a party. Who wouldn’t accept an invitation for free food and drinks? But when was the last time I got invited to a party?
None of these numbers were my friends, I finally had to admit. A friend was someone you could rely on and feel close to, and I didn’t have any. Maybe that’s why I continually held these parties, with the hope of finding a true friend. After enough time went by, I’d forget how much of a dismal failure my parties were and try again. Feeling rejected and alone, I unexpectedly heard a voice coming from the patio swing across from me.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” The voice asked. “I love looking at the stars at night, especially when it’s this peaceful and quiet.” I couldn’t tell who it was due to the darkness. The moon wasn’t out, and I hadn’t turned on the patio lights. The voice, sweet and friendly, was definitely female.
“You can sit beside me if you like,” she continued. “We can look for the constellations together.”
I walked over to the patio swing and sat beside her. It was 1. I had forgotten about her, although I couldn’t imagine how. Now that my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I was able to make her out. She looked so striking sitting there next to me. She also seemed genuinely glad to have me near her.
Unlike 8, 1's scent was gentle and pleasing like a freshly picked nectarine. And its lingering presence, like an underlying feeling of déjà vu, was subtle.
1 began to point out the visible constellations, cheerfully explaining how each one could be identified. I was impressed with her knowledge. As for myself, I could barely make out the Big and Little Dipper on most nights.
“Before I forget,” she began, “I wanted to thank you for inviting me to your party. It was very thoughtful of you.”
My world tilted sideways.
Is she for real? I wondered, increduously.
Thankfully, 1’s gaze was still heavenward, and she didn’t see the puzzled look in my eyes.
Frowning, a wave of guilt washed over me. When had I become so cynical that I couldn’t even recognize bona fide gratitude?
Incoherent words wanted to tumble out of my mouth, but 1 suddenly pointed to the night sky. She grabbed my left hand in excitement with her right, and my heart did a back flip.
“Look!” she exclaimed. “It’s a shooting star. Quick! Make a wish!”
Barely glancing at the glowing apparition above, I knew with all my heart what to wish for. She sat there, without saying a word, looking at the miracle above. I could barely take my eyes off the miracle before me.
Once the cosmic event passed, I noticed she continued to hold my hand. Was this forgetfulness or something more?
“That was exciting,” she said, looking at me at last.
“It's the most exciting thing that's happened to me this evening."
Oh, geez! Did I say that out loud? It sounded sarcastic.
1 gave a little shake of her head, implying she didn't understand.
“To be honest,” I quickly explained, “This night has proved very disappointing for me - until now!"
“Why? The party was amazing!" There wasn’t even the hint of a lie in her voice.
“I’ve recently learned most of the other numbers think I’m a big joke, someone to laugh at.” I couldn’t believe I was opening up to her, but I wanted her to know I was sincere.
“Why would you think that?” she asked, furrowing her brow.
"So far tonight, you’re the only one who has thanked me for her invitation. No one has ever done that before. And just once, I'd like to be the jubilant invitee instead of the beleaguered host.”
1 laughed unexpectedly, as if I had just told a funny joke.
“You Silly!” she said, but not in an insulting manner. “Don’t you know? You’re the only one who ever throws a party! The other numbers couldn't be bothered putting in the time and effort
needed for a successful gathering. They all lack the patience and dedication, and no way would they want an array of guests in their home. They’d be too traumatized by the cleanup afterwards.”
I felt blindsided. Why wasn't I aware of this? All this time I've been lamenting for nothing - well, almost nothing. I still had the little problem of being friendless.
1 saw my bewilderment and explained further.
"A good host has to be considerate and selfless - none of the other numbers have those traits."
“But…” I stammered. “I’m a zero.”
“Don’t ever feel sorry for who you are,” she said, crossly. “Only feel sorry for the things you do out of spite or anger. Everything you’ve done tonight reflects your caring and giving nature. There’s no shame in that.”
“But I’m no one special,” I started. “Look how popular 7 is. Compared to him, I’m just a shadow.”
“7's a narcissist who loves the sound of his own voice,” she retorted. “And he’s not special, although he likes to think he is. He can fool other numbers into thinking he's unique but his charms have no effect on me.”
My head felt numb. This was a lot to absorb. Why hadn’t I had this conversation with 1 before?
I tried to remember if we ever had the opportunity to be alone.
“You’re the only one who is truly unique,” she continued. “The rest of us all have our negative counterparts but not you. In fact, you separate the positive and the negative. How special is that, huh?”
“I wish we had this talk earlier,” I said. “It would have cheered me up immensely."
“I’m usually the solitary type but don’t take offense. That’s just my nature,” she explained. “I tend to shy away from crowds. I’ve wanted to talk to you a number of times, but you were always so preoccupied looking after the needs of your guests."
“You don’t seem shy to me now." I gestured towards our clasped hands.
Embarrassed, she smiled a little, and then gently squeezed my hand a little tighter.
“Come, let me show you something,” 1 said enigmatically, as she motioned for us to get off the swing. Curious, I walked with her across the patio stones, and felt a mild breeze beginning. The breeze hinted at a change in weather. Perhaps, it also marked a change for me as well.
We entered the kitchen through the glass doors to find 4 and 5, still seated at the kitchen island, sipping their mixed drinks. When they saw us together, their mouths dropped open in unison.
I wondered briefly, what 4 would put in her blog now, but decided it didn't really matter anymore.
1 continued to lead me through the house, passing through the living room where the other numbers were. They were surprised to see us together. Even 7 paused in the middle of his story - another joke perhaps? - to glance our way.
We arrived at the end of the hallway and entered the bathroom jointly. Simultaneously opening the lights and closing the door behind us, 1 asked me to face the broad mirror before us. Standing behind me, so her image wouldn’t appear in the mirror, she asked me what I saw.
“It’s just me,” I said, slightly confused. It was a common occurrence to see my own reflection.
“I don’t see anything remarkable,” I continued.
“Well, I don’t agree,” she said, a little annoyed, but then she instructed me to close my eyes.
“Huh? How come?”
“Just humor me, okay?” She was definitely up to something.
Doing as she instructed. I could hear her step to my left side. At the same time, she held my hand once again.
“Open your eyes now, and tell me what you see.” Her voice trembled just the slightest.
Looking at my reflection once more, I tried to imagine what she wanted me to notice. Okay, I thought, so maybe I wasn’t such a loser. I began to see beyond the image, and realized I did have appreciable attributes. Is this what 1 wanted me to realize, that I was special and unique? If I was special, then so was she for making me feel this way. I was about to say this to her when suddenly I saw it. How could I have been so blind? 1 stood next to me not saying a word, patiently waiting to see if I would catch on. In the mirror, I saw the two of us together. We were now more than the sum of our individual parts. Jointly, we enhanced each other but we were, at the same time, still complete unto ourselves. This connection is what she was striving for. I looked at 1, hoping I hadn't misread her motives. Her shy, expectant eyes were the only answer I needed.
Leaning forward - and pushed by a new feeling of bravado - I brought my lips close to hers. To my delight, 1 quickly closed the gap, and the taste of her cherry lips was intoxicating.
1’’s rosy cheeks turned a darker shade once we pulled apart, but that didn't stop her from beaming a warm, radiant smile.
When we left the bathroom, she switched to my right side so we could match the image in the mirror.
Our entrance back to the party caused quite a few turned heads. We were now the center of attention.
The other numbers surrounded us. We were trapped by our newfound popularity. Even 7 was awestruck.
When it was most convenient, we politely excused ourselves from the group and retreated to the patio. Once more on the patio swing, we spent the night talking with each other, enjoying each other’s company. The other guests must have sensed we wanted to be alone. They soon left, one by one. Even 6, when he awoke with a hangover, managed to phone a taxi to take him home.
When 1 and I were sitting on the swing, I marveled at how the night had changed … and in my favor, too. Was it just luck, an after-effect from wishing on a shooting star, or was it something more? It didn’t really matter. At long last, I had someone to feel close to, and that someone also felt close to me.
Since that day, 1 and I have been inseparable.
It’s a story I tell our grandkids often. They never get tired of hearing how a zero, who wasn’t really a nobody, become a somebody.
The End of the World
It was the day the world was supposed to end. But it wasn't ending. Now it was almost midnight and nothing was happening. And it was almost the end of the day the world was supposed to end.
It was almost the end of October 22, 1844.
“The Lord will not fail us,” said Nathaniel Bennett confidently, dismissing his daughter's unspoken skepticism.
“It is not the Lord who would be failing you,” Sarah pointed out. “It's William Miller.”
“William Miller didn't conceive this date out of thin air!” Nathaniel said. “It says in Daniel 8:14 that in two thousand and three hundred days, the sanctuary shall be cleansed. The day-year principle makes that this year. Christ will return today!”
“And yet he's not returning,” said Sarah.
“There's still about three minutes left!” declared Nathaniel. “Our Lord will return to cleanse the world and we will ascend into heaven. Or at least I will. I pray you will be taken too, but...” His voice trailed off.
“Remind me again,” said Sarah, “is this the first time William Miller predicted the end of the world? Or was there another time when he was already wrong?”
“The first time he overlooked the fact that there wasn't a year zero,” Nathaniel replied. “This time it'll work. Everyone knows it's coming. That Prussian fellow even wrote a play about it.”
Sarah didn't think that writing a play about a suspected apocalypse was the act of a true believer, but decided it wasn't a point worth raising. It was no use trying to argue her father away from his unshakable belief in William Miller. The only reason he wasn't in the Millerite encampment outside the city was because she had refused to leave with him.
“How do you think the world will be cleansed?” she asked after awhile.
“I don't know for sure, of course,” he said, “but I believe a planet will strike the Earth and create a polar shift.”
“Which planet?” she asked.
“One that hasn't been discovered yet,” Nathaniel said. “It will come out from behind the Sun and fly into the Earth.”
“I'm pretty sure there are eleven planets in the solar system,” said Sarah. “Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Vesta, Juno, Ceres, Pallas, Jupiter, Saturn, and Herschel. If there were a different number of planets, I think we'd know about it.”
“Or maybe it will be a comet,” Nathaniel suggested. “Its tail will pass over the Earth and snuff out all life with its poisonous gas.”
“And why hasn't this happened every other time there was a comet in the sky?” asked Sarah.
“What does it matter how it will happen?” insisted Nathaniel. “Look at the world around us. It's obvious we're living in the end times. There used to be a time when people admired the President, but not anymore. First Martin Van Ruin took away our jobs and now we're living under the reign of His Accidency. This wasn't what the Founders intended! Then the Missouri River had its biggest flood in history and the Catholics tried to take the Bibles out of schools in Philadelphia. We're reaching a confluence of tipping points.”
“Bad things happen all the time,” said Sarah. “That doesn't mean it's the end of the world.”
“But things are getting worse all the time!” said Nathaniel. “You can't tell me things aren't worse than they were ten years ago. President Jackson once fought the monster bank for us, but everything's gone to pot since he left. Now we have presidents who only care about themselves.”
Deciding that there was no use arguing politics, Sarah kept quiet. And the clock ticked down the last seconds of the day. Despite herself, Sarah couldn't help tensing up a bit. When the clock struck midnight and began chiming, she resisted breathing a sigh of relief. To look relieved would be to admit she'd been scared and she really hadn't been. She'd known nothing would happen, even if that hadn't stopped her heart from speeding up. Sarah let the chimes carry on for a few more moments.
“I think Jesus is late,” she said eventually.
“Jesus is not late!” yelled Nathaniel. “The clock's just wrong!”
But the clock's chiming continued for a few more moments before finally dying out. They had unmistakably crossed the event horizon into October 23, 1844.
“Well, I imagine this will be a great disappointment to the Millerites,” said Sarah. “I suppose we won't really know when the end of the world will be until it happens.” Nathaniel thought about that for a moment.
“Maybe,” he said resignedly, “but the world will end if Governor Polk is elected in November.”
Life Leaves Marks
Her perfume, delicate and whispery, enveloped me as she leaned in and touched the scar in the crook of my right elbow. I inhaled deeply, adding her scent to the memory of the glorious sex we'd just had. Now we lay together, calm and sated. Her fingers traced the irregular oval white shape that had adorned me for a decade.
"I got burned."
She looked up at me with her bright emerald eyes. "How?"
"I was cooking spaghetti sauce and I used too much tomato paste. It was a thick, gloppy mess by the time it had simmered for an hour. I took the lid off the pot and was transferring it from the stove to the hot pad so I could serve it when a bubble burst and sent a dollop of sauce arcing through the air. I saw it all in slow motion. I had the sauce pot in one hand and the serving spoon in the other one. There was nothing I could do, no way I could move fast enough to avoid it. It landed and, damn, did it burn! This is what was left after it healed. A permanent reminder not to use too much tomato paste."
"Yeah. It did."
Her fingers traced upward, over my bicep, landing on my shoulder and the puckered skin found on it.
"What happened here?"
I sighed. "Drive-by. When I was a kid."
Her head snapped up and she stared, her eyes wide and her mouth open. "You were in a drive-by?"
I nodded. "I was asleep in my room when some gang bangers sprayed down rival gang members hanging out near my house. A bullet went through the wall and lodged in my shoulder."
"What the hell?"
"It wasn't the best neighborhood."
"How bad was it?"
"What? The neighborhood?"
"No, the gunshot."
"Pretty bad. Bad enough to spend two days in the hospital when we didn't have insurance."
I nodded. "It wasn't my favorite way to wake up."
"Was the neighborhood that bad?"
I half-smiled. To call that neighborhood bad was like saying mud is opaque. You couldn't walk down the street without being hassled for money, whether it was for an outright handout or an offer for drugs or prostitution. Half the houses were boarded up, and the other half were falling apart. Ours was the only nice one, with little flowers planted in window boxes and paint that was less than three years old on the walls. I'd come a long way since then. Too bad I hadn't been able to bring my mother along with me. She died when I was sixteen. Dad, well, who knew where he was?
"Yes. It was bad."
She pushed her lips out a bit but said nothing. After a moment of silence, her fingers traced on. I knew where they would land next. It was the cousin of the shooting scar, a thin, straight line of white across my chest. You can't see one without seeing the other.
"Should I ask?" Her fingers traced up and down the line, tickling me on the skin around the scar.
"Knife. Same neighborhood."
"Oh my god. What happened?"
I chuckled. "I wouldn't give a bum money."
She shuddered as if she'd been electrified. "I don't like that word."
"What word?" I already knew, but her comment pissed me off. This was my story to tell, not hers.
"Bum. It's insensitive. People sometimes call me a bum. You don't know what that man's story was."
I shrugged. "Oh yes I do. And it's hard to be sensitive about a man who cuts you with a knife."
"But, that doesn't make him a bum. He was probably just a starving homeless person. Or someone just needing some extra money."
"Carl was homeless, and that's a fact. He was also a burnout who smoked meth. If he were still alive he'd probably still be smoking meth. He never worked, never even looked for work. He squatted in one of the abandoned houses on our street. He begged for money for a living. And he slashed me with a knife. I think that if I want to call him a bum, I should be allowed to." I shifted in the bed and continued.
"Carl was a microcosm of everything that was wrong with where I grew up. You weren't there. You didn't know him. I'm sorry if the word offends you, but grow up. Someone might wind up on the streets through no, or, at least, little fault of their own, but you don't stay there unless you're a bum. I saw all kinds of homeless pass by when I was growing up. Some people made it back. Some just seemed to be permanent victims. Still others were trapped forever in a hell of their own making. Carl was one of those."
I was silent as time ticked by, waiting to see her reaction. Finally, she dipped her head, kissing the scar. I understood. She was leaving the subject alone. That was good. I don't harbor much ill will about my past, but Carl is an exception.
"Tell me about it."
I sighed. I've told the story so often it comes out as mechanical now. "I was coming home from school. That alone made me a mark. By my age most guys were in gangs already and school was just somewhere to hustle drugs and alcohol. Carl hung out three doors down from my house. Him and about four other burnouts squatted there. In the front yard a sign hung from a single chain link, alerting anyone interested that 'The Barnaby Team' was trying to sell the property. As if it were sellable.
"That day I was walking home, and Carl came out demanding that I pay a toll. Said my family had money and there was a toll for using the sidewalk in front of his house now.
"We didn't have any money to spare, you've got to know that. My mom worked two jobs and I had a part-time job after school to help out. But I never had any money in my pocket. Didn't eat lunch at school because Mom made too much to qualify for free lunches and we didn't make enough to pay for it every day. Not and get her medicine too. And she needed her medicine to stay alive.
"I told Carl I didn't have any money, but he just stood there demanding it before he'd let me pass. I tried to walk around him, but he pushed me back. Said I had to pay. I said I couldn't. He pulled out a knife. I tried to go around him again and he slashed me across the chest. It was bad. Too bad for Mom to treat on her own. She took me to the hospital because they have to treat you there even if you can't pay. They washed out the wound and stitched me up. Cops came, asked me a bunch of questions, but Carl hid out until the heat blew over and then came back to squat in our neighborhood again. We called the cops a few times, told them Carl was back, but they never came out. Guess I didn't matter to them. What's one more poor kid, right?" I looked at her, gauging her reaction.
"That's terrible." Her voice was low, breathy.
"That's life. You grow up poor, you get marginalized by the system. Too many problems, too many people needing help, and too few people dispensing it. Resources only stretch so far. We had jobs, we could mostly pay our own way, so the system didn't have much to do with us. We made enough to survive but not enough to escape."
"I can't believe all this," she said, shaking her head. "So much violence in your life."
It was quiet for some minutes as she traced lazy circles on my chest with her index finger. I looked around her bedroom. Gauzy pink curtains were tied back, letting in the afternoon sun. The walls were a more delicate shade of pink. Between the two windows hung a painting of a horse.
Tensing my back, I said, "I should go."
She didn't move. "Please. Just a little longer. This is nice."
I settled back into the soft mattress and sighed. I wanted to go back to work, but nothing was urgent.
After a couple of minutes passed her head popped up and she looked at me. "I have to pee." I admired her body as she climbed out of bed. It was magnificent, and what had first attracted me to her. She'd been playing a violin on the street with the case open, begging for money. She'd had some talent, but her beauty was what drew me to stop and listen. I dropped a hundred into the case and waited for her to notice. When she did and looked up at me, I smiled. I'm told I have a winning smile.
"Can I buy you lunch?" I asked. She nodded and silently put her violin away, laying it on top of the coins and bills she'd collected. I walked with her to the nearest deli. She had a Reuben, which she ate with gusto.
"You were hungry."
She nodded, wiping the Thousand Island dressing from her lips.
"When was the last time you ate?"
She grinned. "This morning. A bowl of Cheerios with a banana cut up in it."
I nodded. "So, what's your story?"
"Yes. You're playing a violin on the street for money. I figure you must have a story."
She'd opened the bag of chips and poured them onto her plate. She'd gotten the BBQ flavor, and I liked that she didn't eat them from the bag. "I'm a student at the university. I have a job, if that's what you're asking, but I play on the street because I have to practice somewhere and my neighbors complain to the landlord if I do it in the apartment. So I set up outside, and I figured I'd turn it into a side hustle too. I mean, what's it hurt?"
"What's your major?"
I'd liked her. She'd asked about me and I'd started from my own college days and quickly skipped to the part where I was doing well in real estate.
"That's not why I'm here, by the way," she said, bringing the straw in her drink to her lips.
"Your money. The hundred you dropped in my case. That's not why I'm here."
"Oh? Then why are you here?"
"Yes. It's an interesting face. I wanted to get to know the person behind it."
"But the hundred didn't hurt anything?"
"Well, it got me to look up at least."
When lunch was over we didn't say much else to each other. It was like a foregone conclusion that neither of us questioned. I took her arm in mine and she led me to her apartment. There had been no making out, in fact hardly any kissing at all. We entered her apartment, our clothes came off, and we had slow, quiet, intense sex.
And now I was stuck in that awkward place after sex with a total stranger. She came back from the bathroom, all pert breasts and long legs. She flopped into bed and turned to look at me.
"I probably should give you a scar."
I sat up, quickly. "What?" I sputtered.
She lay back and laughed. "I should give you a scar."
"Whatever would make you say that?"
"You have great stories behind your scars. I want to be one of those stories."
I lay back on my elbows. "I'm not sure I like that idea."
She rolled over. "Just a little one?"
"Do you do this often?"
"Sleep with women you barely know?"
I could feel myself blush, and didn't answer her.
"That's what I thought. I want you to remember me. I want to be a scar story."
"Couldn't we just have dinner next week?"
She stuck her lower lip out in an exaggerated pout. "It's not the same. I want to be a story you tell to a woman twenty years from now. The crazy sociology major I banged in 2017."
I looked at her emerald eyes and disarming smile, and seriously considered what she was suggesting. It really would make a good story some day.
Cambria Schenck is currently enrolled at Full Sail University for Creative Writing, set to graduate in spring of 2020. When not in front of her computer, Cambria can be found traveling back and forth from Washington State and her other residence in Florida. Currently, she is working on a book and multiple short stories. You can follow Cambria Schenck on Twitter and Instagram at @cambriaschenck.
An Arm for an Arm
Brynn woke up in a cold sweat, her doorbell pulsing through the apartment. Heart pounding, she took a breath and swung her legs over the side of the couch. Glancing at the clock, she frowned when it read only eight. Who the hell is at my door right now? Office hours don’t start till nine. No one likes going to a funeral home before noon anyways.
With a grimace she pulled herself off the couch, another night spent in rumpled clothing. Brynn walked to the door, raising herself on her toes, glanced out the peephole, and realizing that a box had arrived on her step.
Turning the lock, she grabbed the box and moved it to her lab. No return address, no delivery address, no symbols on the cardboard. With a sigh, Brynn grabbed for her scissors and ripped the package apart in seconds.
As soon as the cardboard unfolded, the smell reached her nose. With a grimace, she promptly pulled back from the package with a strangled sound.
A single arm sat amongst the packaging, sawed off neatly, even better than Brynn could do in the safety of her embalming room.
“I’ve heard of cheap funerals,” Brynn muttered to the arm, “But this is a really disgusting way to save a buck.” She moved the arm carefully to her lab table, where all other unimposing dead bodies ended up. “Now,” she said, examining the arm, “Who exactly do you belong to?”
A knock on the door shook Brynn from her interest, turning from the lone arm and continuing to the top of the stairs. She welcomed the client into the parlor, smile on her face.
“Hello,” she said, “My name is Brynn Fairland, welcome to the Fairland Funeral Home.”
The stranger moved inside, a woman dressed in black. “Hello,” she said, “My name is Dabria Ayler.”
“Well, Ms. Ayler,” Brynn said, “What can I do for you?”
“We have been looking for a while.” Dabria spoke as she walked around the viewing room, Brynn following behind. “My father is making his funeral plans,” she said, “He has a fear of embalming rooms, he wants to be safe even as his body is being ripped to shreds.”
Brynn felt her brow raise, surprise at the blunt language. “Your father will be perfectly safe in my care,” she said, “I swear it.”
The woman turned around sharply, her floaty eyes bearing into Brynn’s. “I should hope so,” she said, voice hovering around the room. “Could you show me?”
“Show you?” Brynn asked, “What would you like me to show you?”
Dabria smiled, wide and inhuman. “What does it feel like to be there?” she asked, “I want to know that my father will be safe.”
Taken aback by the strange request, what kind of person wished to see where their father was going to be opened? Brynn put a smile on her face and opted to humor the strange woman. “You can walk through with me, if it makes this easier.”
“It does,” Dabria said, nodding for Brynn to lead.
Walking down the steps, Brynn stopped, eyes rapidly looking for the right arm she had left just a few minutes ago.
“Have you lost something?” Dabria asked, appearing to the left of Brynn’s vision.
“What?” Brynn looked up sharply, shaking her head. “No, of course not, just making sure everything looks alright.” She walked to her desk. “Go ahead and take a look around.”
Dabria lifted her head in acknowledgement before walking around the lab. “Tell me,” she said, looking at Brynn, “Do you know what it feels like to have these tools dig through your body?”
Brynn froze, turning to look at Dabria, who held the bone saw in her hand. She should have seen the hit coming, yet she simply allowed it to happen, reflexes too slow.
Bodies. Limbs. Blood.
Eyes opening slowly, Brynn felt a bright light shine on her. A dark figure standing to the side.
“Good,” Dabria said, looking down, “You’re awake.” She flicked a needle and moved beside Brynn. “I suggest keeping still for this. You have no control over your limbs—” the twisted smile was back in place “—but it will still hurt with every cut I make.”
Brynn grunted, eyes falling shut again. “What,” she said, “What are you doing?”
Looking at her curiously, Dabria said, “I asked you if you had ever felt the weapons you use.” She held up a bone saw to inspect. “I, for one, know you have.”
Brynn looked at the rotten flesh stretching across the table, her heart pumping the blood through her body and onto the floor. She stared up at the woman and begged, no words, just sounds forming an incoherent need.
“This is what happens every day,” the woman above her whispered, bringing the bone saw down on Brynn’s right arm. “You can’t temper with the homes of the dead, the bodies we abandon, and not expect us to seek our revenge.” She moved her face to Brynn’s ear. “You morphed our bodies and destroyed who we were,” Dabria said softly, “You acted like God, but you will live forever with the pain of man.”
Gasping out, Brynn felt tears pool in her eyes as the metal dug in. “I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry.”
Tutting, Dabria said, “You always try to apologize, but we both know you meant to everything.”
Dabria lifted the removed arm slowly, looking down at Brynn’s ruined body. She asked, “How about we leave this out tomorrow?” A demonic smile reaches across her face. “It’ll be on the step for you just as you wake up. I’ll make sure to ring the bell.”
Brynn let out a scream, her world going black.
Bodies. Limbs. Blood.
Brynn woke up in a cold sweat, her panic slowing down as she realized she sat on the couch in her office. Just another late night.
Then the doorbell chimed.
James C. Wilson is a former Santa Fe journalist who taught journalism and creative writing at the University of Cincinnati for 30 years. He has published six books, including two memoirs: Weather Reports from the Autism Front: A Father's Memoir of his Autistic Son (2007), and Santa Fe, City of Refuge: An Improbable Memoir of the Counterculture (2019). He has two works currently in press: The High Desert Guide to Downtown Chaco Canyon (UNM Press, forthcoming 2020), and Hiking Chaco Canyon: the Trails, the Ruins, the History (Sunstone, forthcoming Oct. 2019). He lives in New Mexico, where he allocates his time between writing and photography. His photo website is: Facebook.com/james.c.wilson.18.
My father expressed his dismay when I told him that after finally graduating from college I intended to spend a few months in Paris studying French. “Why would you want to do that?” he asked. “What’s wrong with English?”
How do you respond to a question like that?
“Nothing’s WRONG with English. I just want to learn French.”
He looked at me with heavy eyelids, a big man with steel gray hair and a gruff demeanor that we supposed was a result of his experience as a POW during World War II. “Well I’d hope nothing’s WRONG with English, since that’s what you call a major. Ten years to get a college degree in . . . English?”
My father considered me a damn fool for majoring in English, since to him a degree in English was both nebulous and utterly without application, a clear sign that I’d taken leave of my senses. As his last child, born when he was nearly 50, I was the product of elderly, infirm sperm that had reached its biological expiration date. Either that or I’d been damaged by some genetic enervation or toxic exposure that had robbed me of ambition and therefore a future. I stood in shameful contrast to my older and more successful brothers, one a tenured professor at the state university, and the other a newspaper reporter for a metropolitan daily.
“I mean, we already speak and read it, so what’s to study?”
To be fair, my father hadn’t had an easy life after coming back from the war with a Purple Heart and injuries that plagued him for the rest of his life. I understood his reasons for wanting me to study business or engineering, something practical that would provide a more certain livelihood. Here I was at the ripe old age of 30 with nothing to show for my years except a bogus B.A.; and now to make matters worse instead of looking for a job I was running off to Paris to study French and waste a few more precious months.
He shook his head. “No, I wouldn’t go to Paris if I were you. I’d stay away from France, and you should especially avoid Italy and Germany. I wouldn’t go to Poland either.”
I knew my father had been captured in Italy and then transported to a POW camp in Germany, but I had no idea why he added Poland to his list of verboten countries, other than a general distaste for a continent against which he held a personal grudge. His experiences there had been less than enjoyable, to put it mildly. He had come back so traumatized that he refused to talk about the war except with people who’d actually been there and done that, namely his drinking buddies, who grew fewer every year as age and illness took their inevitable toll on their generation.
That turned out to be our last conversation before I travelled abroad. I doubt he even knew I’d gone until he received the first of my postcards from Paris. By then I was ensconced in a cheap hotel on the Left Bank that overlooked the garrets of other cheap hotels and tenement houses on the Left Bank. The size of a walk-in closet, my room contained a single bed, a writing desk, a sink, and that essentially French fixture that so perplexes Americans: the bidet. I’d been forewarned about the bidet, so I managed not to embarrass myself.
On checking in I’d asked the concierge about a bathroom. Two years of university French provided me with the linguistic sophistication to utter: “Ou est la sale de bain?”
His pinched, darkly handsome face glared at me as if I were a little slow. Finally he shrugged and flipped his wrists in the air, which I took to mean the bathroom was somewhere out in the hall and I could damn well find it myself.
Sure enough, I found the bathroom at the end of the hallway, a narrow stall containing a stark industrial strength toilet that no one ever seemed to clean. A chain dangled from the ceiling, and when you pulled it the rush of water sounded like Niagara Falls.
My first few days in Paris I spent sightseeing. Mostly I stood in long lines waiting to buy tickets to get into this or that museum. After several tries I managed to squeeze into the Louvre, where I followed a busload of Japanese tourists and a mob of school children who pulled each other’s hair and bonked each other over the head with their back packs. We ended up at the Mona Lisa, with the Japanese tourists and the school children fighting for position, leaving me an occasional glimpse of the Mona Lisa and her famous smile.
I fared better at the Eiffel Tower and the Rodin Museum, but my two favorite places to visit were Notre Dame Cathedral and especially the Luxenbourg Gardens. I enjoyed sitting on a bench and looking out on the ornate, orderly gardens and pool, where small children came to sail boats and students from the nearby Sorbonne came to talk politics or philosophy or sex.
After about a week I started to feel homesick, so I spent several days sitting like Proust at my writing desk and furiously penning postcards to family and friends back in the States. “Dear Dad,” I wrote, “Paris isn’t so bad after all. I’m sure it’s changed a lot since you were here. For one thing, there are no Nazis shooting at you. I think you might like it now, but maybe not, since the people here do speak French.”
The majority of my postcards went to a gaggle of old girlfriends who had dumped me for one reason or another. I wanted to let them know that I was now living the high life in Paris so they might regret their decisions to eliminate me from their lives.
When my epistles began to sound like sour grapes, exercises in self-pity, I decided to strike out on my own in search of friendship or at least a random conversation with a Parisian. How else would I learn French? So I started spending hours each day walking around Paris and sitting on benches along the Seine or in the Luxenbourg Gardens. Evenings I would spend reading Rimbaud or Baudelaire at one of the student cafes near the Sorbonne. Most of my ‘conversations” consisted of one or two words: “Bonjour.” “Merci.” “Ça va?” “D’accord.”
My first real conversation came one afternoon when a stylish young French woman brushed by me carrying an art portfolio and sat down on the other end of my bench. I waited a few minutes, just to play it cool, and then said, “Bonjour.”
She looked at me askance, over her reading glasses, a dark-haired beauty with a silk scarf tossed casually over her shoulder. “Yes . . . ?”
“Oh, je . . . “ I started out in French but quickly lost confidence.
“What’s the point?” she asked. “You don’t speak French, and I don’t speak English. Voila.”
“But you’re speaking English now.”
She frowned. “I didn’t say I can’t speak English, I said I don’t speak English. Comprendez-vous?”
“Je suis Americain . . . James . . . “ I tried again.
Sighing, she grabbed her portfolio and walked off down the sidewalk.
“D’accord. Au Revoir,” I said, trying to retain some small morsel of dignity.
All I heard in response was: “Merde!”
I had better luck in the cafes, where I could strike up passing conversations with waiters and other patrons sitting at nearby tables. Just for this eventuality I carried a small French-English dictionary in my back pocket, which I could whip out when the need arose. As it turned out the need arose pretty much every conversation, not because I lacked vocabulary but because the Parisians spoke way too fast, as though they were possessed or on some kind of amphetamine high.
The problem with the French, I decided, was that they resented you for not speaking French, and then they resented you when you tried to speak French and spoke it poorly.
Still, I managed to learn enough street French to get by in casual conversations. What I lacked was the ability to transcend basic conversational French and rise to the level of literature and philosophy. I remembered Madame Michaud, my university French teacher, saying that to truly speak French you had to read Flaubert in the original. “You must read Madame Bovary. . . and ZEN you will be like ZA Fran-SAYSA.”
So I bought a cheap paperback edition of Madame Bovary at a book kiosk along the Seine, and every night after returning from the cafes I would climb into bed with my Madame Bovary and my little French dictionary and start the process of becoming Francophonic. On most nights I managed to read a paragraph, sometimes even an entire page, before falling asleep.
Try as I might, I could never find just the right moment during my various café encounters to drop a flowery line of Flaubert prose. It wasn’t as though you could order a beer and then remark: “Sa femme avait été folle de lui autrefois . . . .” So I wrote a postcard to Madame Michaud, explaining my quandary and asking for her advice.
About this time I started receiving responses to my earlier postcards. Surprisingly, none of my old girlfriends mentioned having any regrets about dumping me, even if I was living the high life in Paris and they weren’t. My last girlfriend went out of her way to mention all the guys she had been “dating” in a “whirlwind” of newly discovered sexuality. Just what I wanted to hear! Why couldn’t she have discovered her sexuality with me?
Such was my first heartbreaking lesson that you can’t revisit the past without getting your ego bruised, especially if the past you revisit involves old girlfriends who are now having better sex than they had with you.
In his response my father was as unenthusiastic and laconic as ever: “Glad you like Paris. Would stay away from Germany and Italy, though. Remember what I said about Poland. P.S. Your mother cries every time I mention your name.”
We hooked up one afternoon at a small café near the Sorbonne. I was studying my finances, trying to figure out a way to stretch my rapidly diminishing bank account so I could remain in Paris for another five or six months. Paris might have been a moveable feast (whatever that means) to Hemingway back in the 1920s, but the City of Light was fantastically expensive today, more like dinner at the Ritz.
When she sat down at the table next to mine I couldn’t take my eyes off her. With short dark hair, purple lipstick, pierced nose, and an enigmatic smile, she looked like a punk version of Audrey Hepburn. She wore a paisley wraparound dress that spilled open in front when she leaned forward to sip her glass of wine or turn a page of the book she was reading. It was very sexy, because when she leaned forward her breasts would pop out of her dress, revealing the shadows of her nipples. Before long I found myself entranced by those fleeting shadows.
“Hey–are you staring at my boobs?” she asked suddenly, out of the blue, speaking in English with a French accent.
Embarrassed, I started to deny everything but then decided why bother. She’d caught me red-handed staring at her tits. “How did you know?”
“Because I was staring at YOU,” she said, with a feisty twist at the end, almost a challenge. “Let me guess. You’re English … a student at the Sorbonne. So how come I haven’t seen you in any of my classes?”
“By the way, I’m Emily,” she introduced herself when I didn’t immediately respond.
“James,” I said. “Actually, I’m not English or a student at the Sorbonne. I hate to disappoint you, but I’m … I’m an American.”
“What? Are you sure? You don’t look like an American. They dress like slobs, with big baggy clothes and running shoes. You’re wearing a sports coat and leather shoes. No, I don’t think you are an American.”
I laughed. “No, I’m sure. I’m an American.”
She recoiled in mock horror. “Too bad. I don’t like Americans.”
“Why not? What’s wrong with Americans?”
“They’re . . . how shall I say? Ils sont des cochons!”
“Pigs? Why are Americans pigs?”
“Because of their brutality! Just look at what they did to Vietnam . . . look what they’re doing to the Mideast.”
Though I knew it was against my own best interest, I had to call her on this Vietnam business. The irony was just too obvious to overlook. “Wait a minute. Vietnam is ancient history. And you started it. The French were in Vietnam first, in case you’ve forgotten. We just made the stupid mistake of trying to finish what the French started.”
“Yes, but at least we had enough sense to lose quickly,” she said, her lips pouting. “America is too big to lose, so you never leave, even though you’re never invited in the first place.”
“Hey–we lost too, remember? And anyway, I’m not a typical American. That’s why I’m here trying to learn French.”
Now her expression softened. She looked at me closely. “Non? My room is just down the street. We could have been friends, maybe. If you were an English student.”
I threw up my hands, helpless. “Why don’t we restart our conversation, pretend we just met. This time I’ll just tell you I’m an English student studying at the Sorbonne. What do you think?
She laughed. “I like English students.”
One thing led to another, and soon we were chatting about our lives: hers as a student at the Sorbonne, mine as an American ex-patriot in Paris studying the French language.
Finally she stood up and looked me over one last time, deciding.
I watched as she placed a five Euro coin on the table and grabbed her book, Ensemble, C’est Tout, a popular novel by Anna Gavalda that I’d seen in a bookstore at the airport.
She walked past my table toward the street, then stopped and turned around to face me. “Are you coming?”
I followed her down the street to a cream colored stone building with garrets. Her apartment was on the top floor, a tiny efficiency not much bigger than my hotel room, with a counter that served as a kitchen, a bed, and a desk. As soon as she stepped through her door, she kicked off her sandals and unfastened her dress, which she unwrapped slowly, allowing me to watch as the silk fabric poured like water onto the floor, revealing a diaphanous black G-string and two magnificent breasts, braless.
“Viens,” she said. “Reading Anna Gavalda makes me horny.” With that she threw her arms around my neck and kissed me, darting her tongue into my mouth. The next moment we were free falling onto the bed and into each other’s arms.
After we finished, much too quickly, Emily poked up from under the sheets with her hair mussed and a smudge of purple across her mouth. She propped her head up on the pillow and said, “You’re not a very good lover, yeah?”
“Sorry … it’s been a while,” I said lamely. Now I knew why my ex-girlfriends had dumped me. I sucked as a lover.
She looked puzzled. “A while for what?”
“Since I … fais l’amour,” I said, trying to sound sophisticated, like I knew my way around conversational French even if I didn’t measure up as a French lover.
“We don’t say fais l’amour,” she said, touching a finger to my lips. “Coucher is better but baiser is best, you know. As in baise-moi … plus vite … plus fort … like that.”
I nodded, unsure if I should feel grateful or insulted.
“Because you are not very good at seduction. For that you will need to pretend you don’t care about l’amour. Turn up your nose. Oooof! Why bother with love and sex. Who needs them?”
She shook her head sadly. “And you will also need a better vocabulary.”
“Thanks.” By now I was feeling totally inadequate, hopeless in the arts of love and seduction.
“So … time for your first lesson.” With that she sat up in bed and rifled through the covers until she found my half aroused sex, which she held up on display. “La bite.” Then she climbed out of bed and, standing naked in front of me, pointed to her shaved pubis. “La Chatte.”
I laughed, not having heard it called that before. “Cat?”
“Bien sûr cat. Why not? It purrs when you stroke it … and smiles. But you must never enter without permission, not until you hear ‘viens en moi’ … never before.“ For emphasis she bent over the bed and slapped me lightly on the wrist. “Naughty, naughty!”
When I tried to pull her back into bed, she shook her head. “I’m not finished. The most important thing, you know, is that you must never stop until you hear: ‘Je jouis!” You must satisfy your lover. If not, she will find someone else to satisfy her. We French must be satisfied … we demand satisfaction! Tu comprends?”
I sat up I bed so as to better admire her strikingly beautiful body. “So … what are you, some kind of expert on sex … some kind of philosopher of la chatte?”
This made her laugh. “That’s funny! Le philosophe de la chatte. Yes, c’est moi! You see, you are seducing me at this moment. You have learned your first lesson well, monsieur.”
“There’s more?” I asked.
“Of course. When we meet again, for your second lesson, I will teach you all the bon mots for the female body … and, if you are lucky, the names of the sex positions, from s’empaler la foufoune to l’amour en levrette. Or maybe I will save that for lesson number three. You must know all this … if you want to be a great lover. Especially in Paris, where there are many great lovers. I should know!”
“So you do like Americans, after all…?” I asked, hopefully.
“Maybe a little … but then, you are not a typical American, are you?”
After our third session Emily announced that she could no longer be my tutor, saying she had nothing else to teach me about sex and seduction. When I protested, she pressed a finger against my lips and said, “Tais-toi. Enough instructions. You must now practice with others. To master la baise it must be done every day. You can’t do it every once in a while, as you said when we met. Every day is the French way.”
“Can’t we hook up on occasion, like friends with benefits?” I practically begged.
“No, you must go . . . how you say? Cold oiseaux? Cold bird?”
“Cold turkey,” I corrected her.
“Yes. And plus, you are impostor. You are not an English student.”
Though I begged shamelessly, Emily would not reconsider her decision to cut me loose, and so I found myself back on the streets looking for friendship or connection, a chance to practice what I’d learned from Emily. As before, I found it difficult to strike up a simple conversation, never mind a hookup. Before long I was at loose ends, all sixes and sevens. I missed Emily, and I had absolutely no idea what to do next.
What saved me was a letter from an old friend back home. Mel and I had been enrolled in the same university French classes two years running, which is why I had written him a postcard upon arriving in Paris. In his response Mel informed me that he’d finally managed to graduate after first summer term and as a reward to himself was coming to Europe for the rest of the summer and perhaps the fall. Eventually he wanted to visit me in Paris, but first he planned to spend two or three months in Munich. In fact, he’d already rented an apartment he’d ’found online from a German lady who sounded a little nuts, but how bad could she be compared to old Madame Michaud? He gave me an address on Maximilliansplatz, not far from downtown, and invited me to come for an extended visit. The offer was too good to refuse.
The way I looked at it, staying with Mel for a few weeks would ease my financial situation. After I got tired of Munich, I could return to Paris and finish my French studies. Maybe Emily would have a change of heart in the meantime. Like the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder, although in our case it was clear from the very beginning that our relationship involved different organs than the heart.
So the very next day I checked out of the hotel and carried my backpack all the way to the Gare de l’Est, hoping to catch a cheap afternoon train to Munich. Much to my surprise the only cheap train to Munich departed at midnight. That meant I’d have to wait around for another eight hours for the overnight special, the only train I could afford. My other option was to get in some last minute sightseeing and then come back later, possibly after a light dinner, which seemed like a better choice until I stepped outside into a cold, hard rain. Discouraged, I walked back to the waiting room and settled in for a long day’s journey into night.
The long wait was bad enough, but the train ride was even worse. I shared a compartment with three German soldiers returning home after a weekend blowout in Paris. Already drunk, they passed around a fifth of Schnapps until one of them vomited on the window and the other two fell asleep. I watched vomit streak down the window for a while and tried to imagine being elsewhere, back in my hotel in Paris or my apartment in the States. The compartment reeked of Schnapps and vomit.
Sometime during the night the train lurched to a stop at the French-German border. I woke up to find German customs officials checking passports. Then back to a fitful sleep until early the next morning when the train pulled into München Hauptbahnhof ,or Munich Central Station. I was so tired I lay down on a bench outside the station and slept until nearly noon.
Maximilliansplatz turned out to be within easy walking distance of the train station, so I didn’t bother calling Mel’s cell phone. I thought it might be more fun to surprise him and see the expression on his face. He’d done the same to me on many occasions. In less than 30 minutes I reached the stairway up to his second-floor apartment. I knew from his letter that the landlady lived below him on the first floor.
Feeling energized by the walk, I dashed up the stairs and knocked loudly on the door. No response until I knocked a second time, and then the door opened just a crack. I could see one of Mel’s blue eyes glaring at me from what appeared to be a darkened apartment. Suddenly the door flew open and Mel reached out, grabbed me by the arm, and yanked me inside.
“Shhhhh! Speak quietly! My landlady’s crazy–she doesn’t like any of her tenants to have company, especially me!”
I set my backpack on the floor. “What do you mean?”
“I’m her newest toy! I’m her sex slave!” Mel wailed, smacking his forehead with the palm of his hand. “She expects me to sleep with her every night. I mean, she comes upstairs every night and climbs into my bed and expects me to perform. I tell you I’m worn out! I’m her slaaaaave!”
“Jesus, Mel. How did you get into this situation? Where online did you find the apartment advertised?” Mel had a reputation for being something of a loose cannon, a self-diagnosed manic-depressive, but a situation this bizarre was over the top even for him.
“On Craigslist, under women looking for men, except it was supposed to be for someone to rent an apartment . . . I think.”
“Hmmm. Well, what does she look like?” I asked, trying to look on the bright side.
“Let me show you.”
Mel led me to a window overlooking a back garden, from where we could see the landlady watering her rose bushes. She had pale skin, red frizzy hair, and a cigarette dangling from her mouth. From two floors up she looked to be in her mid to late forties.
“That’s what she looks like, the Bride of Frankenstein!” Mel said. “Her name’s Uta. Have you ever heard of a name like that? Uta?”
I shrugged. “Just a German name, I guess.”
“Let’s get out of here–let’s go get drunk,” Mel said. “Here, hide your backpack in the closet. She’ll never find it there.”
After we hid my gear, Mel and I crept down the stairs and stole away into the busy pedestrian traffic on Maximilliansplatz. Mel knew exactly where to take me. “We’re safe here,” he said. “This is the one place she won’t come.”
“The Hoffbrau Haus?” I asked, looking inside at the scantily clad beer maids carrying multiple liters of foaming beer in each hand, their fingers white with foam. “Why’s that?”
“Some restraining order, or whatever it’s called in German. They won’t allow her to come inside.”
We found seats at the end of a long table, near the front window, and ordered two liters of Hoffbrau.
“I still don’t see how you ended up with someone that crazy–“ I started, then stopped when our beer maid returned with our beers.
“The thing is, I can’t just walk away from the apartment, because I gave her two months rent in advance. That’s all the rent money I can afford. Man, I sold everything to raise money for the trip: my car, my computer, even my books. I was hoping to stay until Octoberfest . . . now I don’t know if I can even make it to September.”
I wasn’t ready to give up. “Have you tried asking for your money back?”
“No, you don’t understand, she’d shoot me! Seriously! She has this pistol she waves around when she thinks one of her tenants has tried to sneak someone into their apartment. She’s crazy!”
We went back and forth likes this until the beer started to kick in, and then we sat there shaking our heads and drinking one round after another. By 10 p.m. we were pissed, so pissed that our beer maid actually shut us off and made us pay the bill, which totaled over 50 Euros, an enormous sum for Mel and I.
So together, arm in arm, we swerved down the street and then with some effort managed to climb the stairs to Mel’s apartment, but once inside we couldn’t seem to keep our distance from nonmoving objects, namely the furniture. When one or both of us stumbled into a side table and sent a lamp crashing to the floor, I knew we were in for trouble. Sure enough, we heard loud footsteps coming up the stairway and a shrill voice: “Mel! Haf you got vimmen in there?”
A moment later she burst through the door into the apartment waving a pistol wildly over her head. “You got vimmen?”
“No! Uta, I swear! No women, just an old friend of mine from the States, James.”
Uta lowered the pistol and examined me carefully from head to foot. “Ya? James? Will he spend za night?”
Mel shrugged, helpless.
“Vell,” she said, her lips curling into a lascivious smile, “In zat case, I’ll be seeing you, zen . . . “
“You see!” Mel said as soon as Uta left the apartment. She won’t let me alone. And now she wants you too. Just wait, she’ll be up here crawling in bed with you, and if you protest . . . . ” He threw up his arms, at a loss for words.
“She’ll shoot me?”
“Who know what she’ll do, she’s fucking crazy!”
“Maybe she’ll shoot both of us.”
“We need a plan,” Mel said. He thought for a moment, unsteady on his feet. “Oh hell, let’s get out of here. Let’s take a road trip. I know . . . let’s go down to Venice and visit the house where Ezra Pound lived for the last twelve or fourteen years of his life. What do you say?”
I knew Mel, a political science major with a minor in English, had an obsessive interest in Pound. Not Pound’s early poems, but the abstruse, impenetrable later work, especially the Cantos. I’d taken English literature classes with Mel where, no matter the historical period or subject matter, he would bring the discussion back to Ezra Pound who according to Mel encompassed all of human history and literature, from ancient Chinese philosophy to Homeric myth to Modernism, which Pound had invented. Mel so loved Pound that he’d actually voted for the dead poet in the last presidential election. “What other choice was there?” Mel said afterward. “Tweedle Dee or Tweedle Dum? I don’t think so.”
Given my impaired condition, and given the unnerving situation with Uta, going to Venice to visit the Pound house on the spur of the moment seemed the most rational thing in the world. “Absolutely. We need to pay our respects.”
So while Mel stuffed some clothes and his dog-eared copy of the Cantos into a backpack, I retrieved my gear from the closet, and the two of us lit out for the territory ahead, namely Venice. I have no memory of walking to the train depot, buying our tickets, or getting on the train. My first memory is waking up to Homer’s rosy fingers of dawn with a splitting headache and a stiff back somewhere near Milan on board a train traveling between one hundred and one million miles an hour. Mel was sprawled across the seat facing me, snoring loudly. I kicked him in the leg to wake him, and then kicked him a second time just to let him know that I blamed him for this stupid expedition.
“Whoa . . . occupied!” he said, snapping awake.
“Do you have any aspirin?”
“Yeah . . . shit . . . I think I’m still drunk. Where are we?”
“Not far from Milan. We’ll be in Venice in less than an hour.”
We self-medicated ourselves with aspirin and orange juice, and by the time our train pulled in to the Venezia Santa Lucia train station we were ready to roll. We followed the Grande Canal around to St. Mark’s Square, where we stopped to play tourist and ogle the brightly colored gondolas bobbing on the morning tide. Then we had lunch, Panini and beer, and asked for directions to the Ezra Pound house, which turned out to be on Calle Querini, a short but confusing walk through the labyrinthine streets of Venice. The house wasn’t much to look at: small, brown stucco, with a plaque over the door commemorating Ezra Pound and Olga Rudge, his partner and mistress and a professional violinist of some renown. They had lived in the house together from 1958 until Pound’s death in 1972.
“So this is it,” Mel said, pacing back and forth in front of the painted black door to 252 Calle Querini. “I can’t believe I’m here. This is where he ended up, the greatest poet ever, writing the last of the Cantos, trying to make all the fragments of his poem and all the fragments of his life fit together, right here!” Mel pulled his copy of the Cantos out of his backpack and read: “But the beauty is not the madness / Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me. / And I am not a demigod, / I cannot make it cohere.”
“You’re getting weird, Mel,” I said, noticing the manic look in his eyes that usually meant his bipolar tendencies were about to surface, Dr. Jekyll make room for Mr. Hyde.
Mel continued to pace, waving the Cantos in front of him as though it were a crucifix meant to scare away vampires.
“Aren’t you forgetting that Pound made those broadcasts during the war . . . you know, supporting Mussolini?”
“So? He wasn’t the only one . . . he thought Mussolini was a great man, an intellectual, who would restore the Roman Empire!”
Hours later, over drinks at our hotel bar overlooking the walkway along the Grande Canal, Mel was still rambling on about Pound: part rant, part exegesis, and part philosophizing. Every so often he would pick up the Cantos and read a passage, as though quoting from scripture: “That I lost my center / fighting the world. / The dreams clash / and are shattered– / and that I tried to make a paradiso terrestre.”
“You see, that’s what he was trying to create, an earthly paradise!” Mel protested, on the verge of tears. “To create the final encyclopedic work that would–Oh shit! Look at the woman coming down the sidewalk now, Italian women are the most beautiful in the world, don’t you think?– encompass all human thought, philosophy, and literature, but how do you do that and stay sane, it’s not easy, man–hey, let’s get another drink, maybe some whiskey or vodka, I need to relax, too much stress–I mean, how do you make all the pieces fit together, you can’t, because nothing fits together, our lives are just fragments of experience–moments, thoughts, ideas, dreams, and all the other debris we leave behind–remember reading Sartre and Camus in Madame Michaud’s class?–where’s the goddamn waiter, I need a drink NOW!–I mean, sure, I’m as much of an existentialist as the next guy, and sure, I know life is absurd and meaningless and that you have to make your own meaning–thank you, it’s about fucking time, where were you?–but the idea that you can ever make some sort of permanent, overarching meaning is bullshit–just tell me this, how do you fit Madame Michaud and Uta into any coherent meaning, see what I mean?–Don’t look now but I think those two women at the table are looking at us, do you think they’re lonely . . . ?”
“I think they’re looking at us because you’re talking too loud.”
“No, I’m sure they want to hook up with us,” Mel said, grabbing his drink and heading for their table.
The two women dismissed Mel with a flip of the wrist and a burst of Italian profanity, which sent him reeling back to our window seats. “Nope. Shit! That was cold. Italian women are beautiful, but they can be cruel. I wonder how they are in bed? Have you ever slept with an Italian woman?”
It took a few more whiskies to get Mel calmed down and back to our room, where he collapsed fully clothed onto the bed and fell asleep instantly. I threw a blanket over him and went out by myself for beer and pizza.
By the next morning Mel had cycled down to a more typical state: mute and depressed. Not only did he have another hangover, he had to face the return trip to Munich and the dreaded Uta.
After breakfast we walked in silence to the train station. Mel bought a ticket to Munich, while I bought a ticket back to Paris, where I planned to continue my French sojourn until I ran out of money. Mel’s train departed first, a full hour before mine, so I had some time to collect my thoughts.
Munich had been a big mistake. Now I would only be able to stay in Paris another few weeks before running out of money. My thoughts returned to my former life in Paris . . . and to sweet Emily. If only I could find a way to get back with her. I couldn’t stop thinking about our lovemaking, our dirty French lessons.
Only one thing remained to do before I boarded the train. I bought a postcard at the newsstand and wrote: “Dear Dad, you might be right about Germany. The Germans don’t seem very friendly. I went to Munich to stay with a friend, but his landlady tried to shoot us, so we ended up in Venice, Italy. It’s a long story.”
The desk clerk recognized me as soon as I walked into the Left Bank Hotel where I’d been staying before my ill-fated trip to Munich. “Ah, monsieur . . . le retour éternel?” he muttered, more to himself than to me.
“Nietzsche,” he said, noticing my confusion. “Never mind. I don’t think Americans read Nietzsche, yes?”
I nodded my head, not wanting to tell him that most of my countrymen hadn’t even heard of Nietzsche, let alone read him. Their idea of an intellectual was Larry the Cable Guy.
“Same room,” he said, and slapped the key down on the counter.
If anything, the room looked even smaller than before, but at least it was clean and cheerful, a quiet refuge from the craziness of Mel and Uta.
My first stop, after unpacking, was a flower stand on the way to Emily’s building. I bought a half dozen red roses, their petals moist and spread wide, and carried them up five flights of steps to Emily’s door. She didn’t answer when I knocked, so I sat on the landing and waited for her to return. Just a few minutes later I heard the downstairs door open and close and then someone shuffling up the steps, carrying a heavy load. It turned out to be Emily, practically dragging her book bag up the stairs. She stopped when she saw me. “James . . . Ça va?”
“I think you mean what’s up,” I said, correcting her.
“Okay, what’s up? Why are you here?
“To bring you roses. I can’t stop thinking about you.”
Emily dropped her book bag and accepted the roses. “Voila! You seducer! You’ve become a Casanova!”
I laughed at her sarcasm. “I’ve missed you.”
“Missed me . . . or missed la baise?”
Emily looked amazing, absolutely stunning. She wore her dark hair streaked with red and matching red lipstick that deepened her smile. Out of breath from climbing the stairs, her upper lip moist with tiny beads of sweat, she was incredibly sexy. It was all I could do to keep from reaching out and touching her.
As someone who had lived on life’s surfaces, I could not remember ever being passionate for anything. My entire life I’d managed to avoid committed relationships, permanent employment, anything resembling a fixed life, but at that moment I knew exactly what I wanted: Emily. The realization came as something of a shock.
Emily laughed at the look on my face. ‘ Hey–don’t look so serious, you’re scaring me.”
“Can we talk?” I asked, my throat dry and hoarse from lack of sleep.
Okay . . . are you hungry? Want to get something to eat?”
“I’d like that.”
“First let me drop off my books,” she said, unlocking her door and waving me inside the apartment. I obeyed, waiting while she went into the bathroom, hiked up her dress and peed without bothering to close the door. After washing and changing into jeans, she came back to where I was standing.
I smiled, feeling nervous.
She reached out and smoothed my hair back out of my eyes. “You look so tired, James. What’s happened? Are you sick?”
I told her about my trip to Munich, about my crazy friend Mel and his crazy landlady Uta, who used Mel for sex, and about how Mel and I had gotten drunk one night and on impulse took a train to Venice, where we’d visited the house where Ezra Pound had lived during the last years of his life and then continued drinking into the evening hours until Mel, who was bi-polar, passed out in the hotel room, and how the next morning I’d managed to get him to the train station and on the early train back to Munich, where he had two months left on his lease and two more months of sex with Uta.
Emily shook her head. “Arret! No more! Incroyable, c’est histoire! No wonder you look tired. Better watch out . . . you’re going to lose those boyish good looks, and then you won’t be able to get any French girls into your bed!”
“That’s what I’m trying to say, Emily. I don’t want ANY French girls, I want you.”
She looked at me for a long moment, curious, and then changed the subject. “Shall we go? I know a good Moroccan restaurant on the next street.”
So I followed her down the stairs and around the corner to a tiny mid-eastern restaurant where we ordered lamb and couscous followed by Turkish coffee and pastries that looked like miniature croissants filled with a sweet mixture of dates and figs. Emily avoided eye contact until we were nearly finished eating. “Supposed to be a sex aid, you know, an aphrodisiac,” she said, breaking the silence. She swirled a drop of the sweet filling with the tip of her finger and licked it clean.
“But then, we don’t really need an aphrodisiac, do we?” I said, trying to be cheerful, wanting above all else to return to our former intimacy.
She looked at me finally. “So what do you want to talk about?”
“About us. I miss what we had before . . . don’t you like me any more?”
She blushed. “Like you? You want to know if I like you? Maybe I do . . . a little.”
“Then why did you break it off? I don’t understand.”
“Because I like you, that’s why! What do you think?”
“I don’t understand.”
“James, don’t you see, you’re American, I’m French,” she said, her voice softening. “What’s the point? It’s impossible!”
“Nothing’s impossible. Not if you want it badly enough.”
Smiling, she reached out and touched my hand lightly. “I think we’re making a big mistake . . . “
“Oh, come on, have some more aphrodisiac.” I passed her another pastry.
She laughed. “Hey–it’s not me who needs the sex aids. Who’s the teacher, and who’s the student?”
“I didn’t teach you anything?”
“Well, okay, you maybe taught me one thing . . . but I won’t tell you what until we know each other better.”
So we talked, getting to know each other. She said she was a third-year student at the Sorbonne studying to be a teacher. I said I was a college graduate who’d apparently studied to be unemployed, since I wasn’t qualified to do anything but go to graduate school. She said her family lived in Strasbourg, a city on the border with Germany, where her parents were both retired and one older sister owned a bookstore. I said my family lived outside Chicago, where my father was a grumpy, misanthropic World War II veteran and my mother a saint for putting up with him for all these years, and where I was clearly the black sheep of the family because both my brothers were gainfully employed and successful while I . . . well, while I wasn’t.
“Aha! So you are slacker!” Emily said.
“You too? You’re not even part of my family. Not yet anyway.”
She rolled her eyes. “So if you stay in France, what will you do then? Unless you are a rich American, with a lot of money, you will need a job, yes?”
“That I had a lot of money.”
“Ah well, . . . then you need a job. Did you know that I work part-time at a bakery near the Sorbonne, and there’s a new Starbuck’s opening next door. Maybe they would give you a job, since it’s an American company and you are an American, I don’t know. It’s worth a try. Have you ever worked as a barista?”
“Actually, I have. At a Starbuck’s in Chicago,” I said. “Just for a few weeks, until I got fired.”
“Why did you get fired?”
“I forget. Oh wait, I think it was because I didn’t show up at work for a week or two.”
“ Probably too much sex on your mind.”
I nodded. “Probably.”
“If you worked at the Starbuck’s next to my bakery, we could meet for coffee break, I suppose. But don’t be possessive, I don’t like possessive.”
“And you don’t like Americans,” I reminded her.
“Or American coffee,” she added, making a sour face.
We stayed at the café talking until the owner asked us to leave because he wanted to close for the night. I paid the bill. Emily left the gratuity.
Walking down the street I reached out to hold her hand. She laughed and pulled her hand away, but a few moments later she changed her mind and put her hand through my arm, and together we walked arm in arm back to her apartment where we continued talking into the night. Though we didn’t make love, didn’t even kiss, I could not remember ever being so happy as I was that night.
Three days after I moved in with Emily my father called. I recognized his voice as soon as I picked up my cell. “So . . . we got your last postcard . . . your mother wants to know why your friend’s landlady in Munich tried to shoot you.”
“Oh . . . well . . . it was all a big mistake,” I said, trying to ignore Emily laughing in the background. “She wanted to sleep with us . . . I mean, she was already sleeping with my friend, but I think she wanted to sleep with both of us, you know, at the same time.”
“Great!” my father grumbled. “How am I supposed to tell that to your mother?”
“Tell her not to worry. Everything’s fine now. I just moved in with a fantastic girl. She’s giving me French lessons.”
My father guffawed. “I can imagine.”
By this time Emily had managed to unbuckle my belt and pull my pants down to my ankles. Next thing I knew she was running her tongue in circles around my penis. “You taste salty,” she said. “When was the last time you washed?”
“What?” my father asked. “Washed what?”
“Never mind. I’m just talking to myself. I have to go now. I’ll call you soon. Love to mom. Bye.”
“So . . . “ Emily said, losing interest in fellatio now that I was off the phone. “I’m a fantastic girl, am I?”
“Yes. Don’t stop,” I muttered.
“Fellatio is for teenagers who don’t know how to fuck!”
“I’ll remember that. Maybe you aren’t as fantastic as I thought.”
“More. Plus fantastique!” she said pulling me down on the carpet.
Every day it was the same. Gravity pulled us in, brought us together, heavenly bodies exploding in supernova. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other no matter where we were. We made love two and sometimes three times a day, either in bed or on the floor. Sometimes we didn’t make it past the doorway. When the fever came over us, we couldn’t get out of our clothes fast enough. I felt such desperation, I lived to be inside her again, to hear her moan and and scream, “Je jouis! Je Jouis!”
Once we made love in the bakery where Emily worked. I’d come to the bakery at closing time so we could walk back to the apartment together. Instead, she locked the front door and took me downstairs to a storage room where 100-pound bags of flour were stacked on the floor. We stripped and made love right there, and while we moved together on top of the bags, the air filled with clouds of white flour. By the time we finished our bodies were covered with a layer of white flour streaked with sweat. We looked ridiculous, like a couple of ghosts. We laughed all the way back to the apartment.
By then I’d already started working part-time at the Starbuck’s next door to the bakery. The manager, a sympathetic guy from New Jersey, offered to help me get a work permit so I could continue living in Paris with Emily. I gladly accepted his offer and promised to be a model employee. For the first time in my life I was actually happy to have a job, even if it involved serving Starbuck’s overpriced coffee to homesick American tourists desperate for a taste of home. Most of the Parisians turned up their nose and walked the other way when they saw the Starbuck’s sign. I couldn’t blame them.
We loved our routine. Emily took classes at the Sorbonne in the morning, and we worked at adjoining shops in the afternoon. That left our evenings free for the cafés and clubs, followed by another night of pleasure in our apartment.
After a month of cohabitation bliss, Emily announced one night after sex that the time had come.
I sat up in bed, pulling down the twisted sheet and kissing both of Emily’s magnificent round pink nipples. “The time has come for what?”
“For you to meet my parents.”
I continued kissing her rounded belly down to the moist spot between her thighs. “Why do you want me to meet them now, all of a sudden?”
“Arret!“ she said, laughing. “Why do you say sudden? I’ve talked to your parents, sort of. Don’t you want to meet my parents?”
“Sure, but why do I have to meet them right away? And as I recall, you didn’t actually talk to my parents, you were molesting me while I was talking to them.”
“Oh, so you a prude now?”
“No! You’re the one who just told me to stop kissing you down there.”
Emily gave me a dirty look.
“Okay, let’s go visit your parents. Any time you want, just say when. I’d love to meet them, really.”
“Good, because I told them we would come this weekend. Is that too soon? I mean, why delay? They want to meet you, so we might as well get it over with, yes?”
“Whatever,” I said, not pleased but not wanting to start an argument. “I’ve overheard you talk to your parents on the phone. What have you told them about me?”
“I told them you were nice guy. That I like you.”
Hearing that she liked me enough to tell her parents I was a nice guy gave me the courage to ask my next question. “So what will you tell them about our future? Do we have a future together?”
Emily made a funny face, as though exasperated by a question she had also pondered. “Well, there is one small problem.”
I waited, not knowing what to expect. “Yes?”
“My parents don’t speak English. And they dislike Americans. Even more than me.”
“Did you tell them I’m not a typical American?”
“Great,” I said. “Should be a fun weekend.”
Saturday morning we took the fast train from Paris to Strasbourg, and as the green hills and valleys of eastern France blurred together outside the window of our compartment, Emily told me more about her parents, saying there was “stuff” I needed to know before actually meeting them. Important stuff.
“Well, they’re kind of old fashioned. You know, old school French.”
“Old school French? What do you mean?”
“I mean they live back in the era of De Gaulle. You’ve heard of the slow food movement in Italy and France? Well, my parents might as well belong to the slow life movement. They’re totally disconnected: no computers, no cell phones, no wireless anything. Now that my father’s retired, he doesn’t even drive much anymore. They walk every day to the bakery and the market. They still tend their garden during spring and summer. They live exactly the same way they lived back in the 1970s. When I go visit them, it’s like stepping into a time warp. You know, I just wanted you to be prepared. So you don’t freak out.”
“You make it sound like they’re living in the Middle Ages or something.”
Emily laughed. “Just wait! You’ll see!”
When we reached our destination, Emily and I gathered our belongings and walked outside the train station. I expected to find Emily’s father parked out front in his car, but Emily kept walking around the corner to the Avenue des Vosges, a main artery that seemed to go on forever. “Isn’t your father picking us up?” I asked.
‘No, I told you, he doesn’t drive much anymore. He prefers to walk.”
So we walked, carrying our bags, for eight or nine blocks until we came to a multi-storied brownstone that looked more like an office building than a private residence. Emily’s parents lived on the first level, separated from the rest of the building by a long hallway. Emily knocked on the door, while I stood behind her hiding.
Emily’s mother answered the door, a small friendly woman with dark hair and a twinkle in her eyes. “Bonjour, Emily, bonjour!” she said, hugging and kissing Emily. Then she turned to me and opened her arms wide, saying “Venez!” and kissing me lightly on both cheeks. She took us into the kitchen, ordered us to sit down, and poured each of us a glass of Grenadine. “Vous parlez francais?” she asked when I didn’t immediately join their conversation. I laughed and stammered, “Un petit peu.” She waved me off. “Mais non, vous parlez bien!” This time all three of us laughed. I couldn’t tell if we were laughing at my linguistic limitations or her ironic comment.
Emily asked about her father, wanting to know his whereabouts. “Au jardin?”
“Si, si,” the mother said. “Allonys-y.”
We left our bags in the kitchen and followed the mother. On the way out she retrieved a bicycle from a storage area off the front hallway, and then we were off, her pushing the bicycle and chatting nonstop with Emily, me just trying to keep up with them. The jardin turned out to be a communal garden, where a number of families had small wooden cabanas and garden plots on which they could grow vegetables.
“Bonjour . . . bonjour!” the mother announced as we arrived together, winding down a narrow path that led to the family’s cabana, a ramshackle structure made from sheets of plywood and tin. Out front of the cabana a flagstone patio was bordered by beds of flowers and herbs, with lawn chairs and a chaise arranged in a tight row. On the chaise reclined Emily’s father with his mouth wide open, sound asleep. Stout, gray, and nearly bald, he looked at least 10 years older than her mother.
As we approached we could hear him snoring. There was a bottle of red wine and an empty glass on the table beside him.
“Arret!” the mother said, shaking him awake.
Startled, the old man looked around wildly, expecting pranksters or hooligans until his eyes alighted on Emily and he broke out in a huge smile. “Cherie!”
He hugged Emily tightly and kissed her on both cheeks. “On bois?”
“Si! Si!” the mother said, and brought out three more glasses from the cabana, which she filled with red wine.
Meanwhile, Emily introduced me to his father. He looked at me askance and then grabbed my shoulder and shook it as though wanting to make sure I was real.
“Ah … James,” he said, paused, and then asked, “Vous etes Américain?”
I admitted as much.
“Je suis très désolé!”
“Thanks. I’m sorry, too,” I said.
By this time the mother had raised her glass and made a toast to Emily and I, something about l’amour and le bonheur and who knows what. My French comprehension, always rudimentary, began to break down as soon as the conversation became effusive, but that didn’t prevent me from raising my glass with the others and drinking to love and happiness and whatever.
Not to be outdone, the father then made a toast, and this time we finished the bottle of red wine. The father wanted to open another bottle, but the mother had other ideas. I caught the word “auto” but not much else because they argued fast and furious, gesturing with both hands and pointing at me as though I were an object, a piece of furniture maybe, that they had to get to a certain location by a certain time. Eventually the mother won. I could tell by the way the father flapped his arms at his side and then stomped off down the garden path.
Emily shot me an I-told-you-so look. “My mother wants my father to take you on a tour of the old city. He goes to get the car now. We’ll meet him back at the apartment.”
So off we went, following the father, who by this time had already disappeared into the pedestrian traffic on Avenue des Vosges. Emily and her mother chatted away, while I smiled dumbly, pretending I understood and agreed with everything they said. They spoke so fast the only two words I could make out were ‘papa’ and ‘idiot’, which pretty much told me what they were saying.
Papa, the idiot, was waiting for us back at the apartment, sitting outside in the front seat of his vintage Citroen, which had seen better days. When he saw us approaching, he rolled down his window and banged on the side of the car door. “James! C’est un Citroen . . . un classique! He totally ignored Emily and her mother after they returned from storing the bicycle inside the apartment. Still angry, he motioned for me to sit in the front passenger’s seat and the two women in back, and then, after revving the engine, he eased the Citroen out into traffic for a snail’s pace tour of Strasbourg.
We made it across the river Ile and into the old city centre, the Petite-France district, without incident, but as the streets grew narrower and more congested, traffic started to build up behind us. Soon horns were honking, drivers were shouting, and mopeds and tiny Fiats were squeezing by us and speeding away, usually with a final insult or gesture. “Ta gueule!” the father would shout as yet another angry driver roared past. “Ta gueule!”
Emily covered her face with her hands and slumped down in the back seat, trying not to be noticed.
The father, driving so slow that pedestrians were passing us now, pointed out rows of Rhineland black and white timber-framed buildings, followed by Strasbourg’s famous red sandstone cathedral, and finally the medieval stone bridge known as the Ponts Couvert that took us out of the city centre, each site punctuated by horns blaring and angry drivers shouting insults. “Ta gueule!” the father shouted back. “Ta gueule!”
“Voila,” the father said when he dropped us off back at the apartment. Smiling, a look of contentment fixed on his face, he asked Emily to ask me if I liked Strasbourg.
“He wants to know do you like Strasbourg,” Emily said.
I said I did, except maybe for the traffic.
Once inside, the mother cornered Emily and whispered something not meant for me to hear.
“Ah non! “ Emily snapped. “Le marriage ne m’intéresse pas! Pas du tout!”
Our troubles started about the same time Mel showed up in Paris. Not quite a month had passed since our return from Strasbourg, our weekend in hell, when Mel called one morning and announced he was in Paris. After the lease on his apartment in Munich had expired, he’d said goodbye to Uta and his life as an indentured sex slave. He was flying to London that night but intended to spend his last few hours on the continent sightseeing in Paris and wanted to know if I would accompany him.
“Uh, I don’t know if I can,” I said, immediately rousing the suspicions of Emily, who was just about to leave for the Sorbonne.
“What? You haven’t forgiven me for Venice? Is that it?”
“I suppose I could skip work this afternoon,” I said, avoiding Emily’s disapproving look.
“Okay, meet me at Père-Lachaise in one hour. I have to visit the Lizard King before I go back to the States.”
He hung up before I could get more information.
Emily frowned. “Was that your friend from Munich? The one who took you to Venice?”
I confessed it was. “But he’s leaving tonight . . . he just wants to do some sightseeing before he goes.”
“Well, don’t bring him over here. I don’t want him to know where I live. Understand?” She slammed the door on her way out.
So I called Starbuck’s to tell them I wouldn’t be in that afternoon, grabbed my walking map of central Paris, and headed for Père-Lachaise, the most famous cemetery in the world. Why Mel would want to spend any of his few precious hours in Paris visiting a cemetery on a cold, gray December day was beyond my comprehension. And who or what was the Lizard King?
As I approached the main gate I saw Mel pacing back and forth, alternatively checking his watch and looking at a map of the celebrity gravesites. When he spotted me, he came running up to me waving the map. “Man, you won’t believe who all is buried here! Abelard and HeloÏse, Marcel Proust, Honoré de Balzac, Oscar Wilde, and Isadora fucking Duncan! Oscar Wilde? Go figure! How the hell did he end up here?”
I shook my head. “Are you sure you don’t want to start at the Louvre, or maybe Notre Dame? It’s kind of a dreary day to be walking around a cemetery.”
“What are you talking about? The only reason I came to Paris was to visit his grave. I don’t give a shit about Notre Dame or the Louvre.”
“Jim Morrison! The Lizard King! Follow me, I already got directions.” With that, Mel was off racing down the main thoroughfare until he came to a junction, where he turned right and hiked through the tightly packed graves. On all sides the stones and monuments were a ubiquitous gray color that matched the color of the sky. The trees surrounding the walkways had long since lost their leaves, contributing to the gloomy atmosphere.
“Here it is!” Mel motioned for me to come quick. He stood before a hollow marble slab filled with bunches of roses, mostly wilted. The headstone at the far end read “James Douglas Morrison, 1943-1971.” The nondescript marker was scrunched between a zillion other marble monuments, with hardly an inch of ground separating them. Row after row of nondescript marble slabs, a city of the dead.
“See the Greek inscription below? That means ‘true to his own spirit,’” Mel said, off on another of his tirades. “He was the master, man, the Lizard King. I mean he could just stand up there on stage and read his poetry–he didn’t even have to sing–he was that cool–no way he should have died at the age of 27–what a loss!–heroin overdose–stay away from that shit!–I mean, Jim was the King, man–fuck Elvis!– he could sing blues and rock ‘n’ roll, you name it, he could sing it all, or just stand up there on stage and read his poetry–he was a goddamned poet!”
“Calm down. Don’t fall apart on me, Mel,” I pleaded.
“Just look–“ he said, extending his arms in all directions, surrounded by thousands of graves. ‘Can’t you just her Jim sing ‘The End?’”
“This is the end . . . my only friend . . . THE END!” Mel intoned in his best Jim Morrison voice.
By this time the security guard that was always positioned within eyesight of the Morrison grave had noticed our antics and was heading our way. To avoid him Mel darted off down the pathway, leaving me behind. I followed gamely as Mel stopped at one celebrity grave after another, pausing just long enough to check his map and locate the next attraction. I finally caught up with him in the far northeastern quadrant of the cemetery, where he was kneeling beside a beautiful monument with a sculpted crucifix on top. Vases and urns planted with flowers encircled the tomb like a wreath. The simple inscription on its front read: “Famille Gassion-Piaf.”
“Little Sparrow . . . Little Sparrow!” Mel was mumbling to himself as I approached slowly and touched his shoulder. When he turned, his eyes were filled with tears. “Little Sparrow–“
How would I ever get Mel on the plane to London? I checked my watch. “What time does your flight leave?”
“Seven o’clock, why?”
“Well, it’s already past four, so we should leave now. You need to get there by five . . . to get through security.”
Mel looked at me as if he thought I was trying to get rid of him. I was.
“Okay,” he said meekly.
Fortunately, a subway entrance was just outside the cemetery gate, and though it took the rest of the afternoon to get him to De Gaulle and through security, I managed to put him on the plane to London. Or at least I assumed he boarded the plane after spending over an hour in the security line. Just to be safe, I turned my cell phone off and headed back to Emily’s apartment, hoping she wasn’t still pissed.
She wasn’t, but that didn’t last long. Partly our falling out was due to my misbehavior on New Years Eve. The manager of our Starbuck’s decided to stay open on the 31st, so Mary, one of the other American baristas, brought a bottle of vodka, which we kept hidden in the back room and then used to refill our glasses all night long. By closing time Mary and I were more than a little tipsy.
The incident happened while we were cleaning up and accidentally bumped against each other. Up close and personal I could feel the heat from her body, I could smell her perfume and the vodka on her breath, and before I could restrain myself, my hand reached out and touched her blond hair and then my mouth fastened on to hers. We kissed, slumping back against the counter, groping one another.
“Ah-HEM!” came from the front of the shop.
I turned to find Emily standing in the door. She’d come to meet me so we could walk home together.
“Want some vodka–“ Mary warbled.
Emily stepped back outside and walked away. I rushed after her, trying to explain that she’d seen nothing more than an innocent, drunken moment.
“Don’t talk to me,” Emily said. “You PIG!”
When we got back to her apartment, she proceeded to gather up all my belongings and stuff them into my bag, which she tossed out on the landing. “GET OUT!” she shouted and then slammed the door in my face.
I pleaded with her to let me in, but to no avail. So I spent the night slumped against her door, hoping she’d have a change of heart.
The next morning she found me there, cold and shivering and still hung over from Mary’s vodka. “What are you doing?” she asked, incredulously.
“Please let me in. I’m crazy about you.”
So we made up, sort of, but after that we were never as close as before the vodka incident. She didn’t trust me, and before long I didn’t trust her either because she began spending more time with her friends from the Sorbonne. Whenever I tagged along with them to the student cafes, I always felt left out, like an intruder. I could understand only about half of what they said, and I couldn’t speak French fast enough to join their conversations. I was especially jealous of one tall, dark, and handsome student named Daniel. Emily always seemed to be with him, either with a group of friends or just the two of them. I began to hate Daniel, suspecting the worst: that he was already fucking Emily.
Finally one evening I couldn’t stand it any longer. I stood up from our table and shouted, “Leave my girlfriend alone, you ASS HOLE!”
Everyone at the table looked at me in horror. Then Daniel and the rest of them got up and left, leaving me alone with Emily.
She was so angry her hands were shaking. “C’est fini! It’s finished! You understand? Go get your stuff out of my apartment and be gone when I get back.”
I’d made such a fool of myself that I didn’t even try to plead my case. Instead I did as she wished, got my belongings out of her apartment and walked slowly, dejectedly toward the hotel where I’d stayed before Emily.
The desk clerk recognized me yet again. “Ah bon, c’est vous . . . monsieur éternel retour. Did you get it right this time?”
I dropped my bag on the floor, confused. “Pardon?”
The clerk laughed. “Nietzsche. Never mind. I can tell, you didn’t get it right.”
By the time I made it through security I was cranky and depressed and in no mood for the perky young woman sitting next to me on the plane. I’d seen her in the waiting room at Orly, bouncing around in her seat and singing softly to herself, oblivious to the stares of those sitting around her. Her behavior, though odd, was no crazier than her felt hat, not a sexy fedora or a Justin Timberlake model, but a squashed green pork pie hat that an elderly man might have worn, not an attractive young blonde who couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. As we boarded the plane I thanked my lucky stars that the chances were remote that my seat would be anywhere near hers. Well, guess what? She was waiting for me when I stumbled down the aisle to my seat and stowed my gear in the overhead compartment.
“I switched seats with you. I didn’t think you’d mind,” she said, sitting in my window seat.
I barely had enough time to sit down in my–that is, her–seat before she let out a whoop and pumped her fist in the air three times. “Isn’t it great to be going home!”
“I guess,” I said, not wanting to explain that I was heading home after a failed romance. Maybe she was an American student studying abroad and that’s why she was so excited to be going home to friends and family.
“The good ole U–S–of–A!” she squealed.
“So how long have you been gone … the summer, or the whole year?”
“Since yesterday,” she said, and pumped her fist in the air a couple more times. She still hadn’t removed her pork pie hat, which was pulled down over a wisp of blond hair.
“See, there was a mix-up,” she began, and while we prepared for take-off, I listened to her incredible story. It seems the day before she had flown from Chicago to Paris, planning to meet up with some friends who were renting an apartment on the Left Bank, but when she got to Paris she discovered they‘d skipped town and left no forwarding address. So what did she do? She walked around Paris yesterday afternoon and evening, checked into a youth hostel for one night, and changed her ticket for this morning’s flight back to Chicago. And here she was, sitting next to me in my window seat, now telling me about all the sites she’d seen on her afternoon walk: Notre Dame, the Seine, the Louvre, the Champs Élysée, and the ever popular Eiffel Tower. “I saw everything I wanted to see and more,” she bragged.
“Really? Did you like Paris?”
She shrugged. “It’s okay, I guess, but it’s no CHICAGO!” She whooped again and pumped her fist. I was beginning to wonder if she were epileptic. I could understand why her friends would want to ditch her, who wouldn’t? By this time I was looking around for an empty seat, but the Air France flight was completely full, which meant I was stuck for the duration of the 10-hour flight. Lucky me.
“You’re from Chicago? And you like it?”
“What’s wrong with Chicago?” she snapped back at me. “Chicago’s the greatest city in the world, and that includes Paris. Who needs the French, anyway? They can keep their Eiffel Tower. Gimme Chicago any day.”
I checked again for an empty seat somewhere in the rear of the plane, far away from Miss Chicago.
Suddenly she burst out in song: “CHICAGO! CHICAGO! MY KIND OF TOWN!”
Fortunately one of the flight attendants came to my rescue, telling us to fasten our seatbelts and prepare for take-off (and, by implication, to shut up).
As soon as we were in the air and had reached our cruising altitude, the young woman perked up. “Oh well, let’s make up and be friends. I’m Ellie. What about you? How long have you been abroad?”
“Over a year,” I said.
Noticing the sadness in my voice, Ellie asked, “So why are you coming home now?
“I’m running away,” I confessed.
“A failed relationship. My girlfriend and I split up.”
“She was French?”
I nodded, not really wanting to talk about it.
“Wow! How romantic. Oh well, you know what they say . . . ”
Soon she lost interest in me and started humming to herself, as chipper as ever. Then she buzzed the attendant and asked for a Coke, which she downed in a few big gulps. Ten minutes later she excused herself to go pee. Then she ordered another Coke, which she drank down just as quickly and then climbed over me again to go pee. This went on for about an hour–Coke, pee, Coke, pee–with me thinking all the while that the last thing Ellie needed was more caffeinated drinks loaded with sugar.
Eventually the sugar high passed and left her slumped over and limp, her head bobbing against my shoulder. Her hat, squished between the two of us, rubbed against my bare skin and itched like hell. Now what was I supposed to do, I remember thinking, as I tried to move sideways, away from the slumping young woman who was now snoring and drooling on my shoulder. I moved again, this time a bit too far, which allowed her head to plop down into my lap, her hat falling between my legs and landing on my foot. Without her hat she looked very young and pretty, I couldn’t help but notice. It was the first kind thought I’d had about Ellie, but it didn’t last long.
“HEY!” She jerked her head up out of my lap, awake now. “Are you getting FRESH with me? Are you trying to take ADVANTAGE of me?”
The attendant rushed over to calm the situation. “Is there a problem here?”
“You bet there is, he’s getting fresh with me. I woke up with my face in his lap. HIS CROTCH!”
“That’s because you fell asleep,” I protested, mostly to the flight attendant, who looked at us like we were insane, a couple of loonies. Just like that my warm feeling toward Ellie was gone with the wind.
“Well, please keep it down,” the attendant said, frowned, and walked away.
“Here.” I reached down and picked up Ellie’s hat. “Let’s make up and be friends. I’m James.”
That seemed to satisfy her, at least temporarily. I tried to defuse the situation by keeping busy, first reading the in-flight magazine and then writing in my journal, which I had woefully neglected while in Paris. If I kept myself occupied, maybe I wouldn’t be so annoyed by my neighbor. Maybe I would forget about her altogether. Problem was, she continued to get up to go to the bathroom every half hour or so. Her bladder must have been the size of a thimble.
Finally, after her fifth or sixth trip to the bathroom, she came back shaking her head, which I read as an apology of sorts. “Okay, I’ll admit, I have a bladder infection. My boyfriend isn’t circumcised. You know what I mean?”
I raised my hands to fend her off. “Please. That’s too much information. I don’t want to know.”
She shot me a dirty look.
“How about this. Why don’t we change seats–that way you won’t have to crawl over me every time you have to go to the bathroom?”
Nice try, but Ellie was indignant: “Oh, so you just want my seat? You don’t even CARE that my pee-pee is all red and swollen! Nice guy!”
“You mean MY seat,” I replied, avoiding any comment on her red and swollen pee-pee.
This time the flight attendant looked pissed. “What’s the problem now?” she asked, standing in the aisle with her hands on her hips.
“He’s an ASS-HOLE! That’s the problem!” explained Ellie.
“Please, miss, keep your voice down. We have children on board.”
“Only if he apologizes.”
“Apologize for what?” I asked, flabbergasted, looking to the flight attendant for support.
“For not caring about my bladder infection.”
“You have a bladder infection? Oh, great!” the flight attendant muttered.
“Well … let’s both apologize and make up. Let’s be friends again. I’m Ellie.”
“James,” I said, extending my hand.
The harried flight attendant gave Ellie and I a look of incredulity, shook her head, and then rushed off to attend to other needs.
Before either of us could say anything and violate our truce, which I figured was inevitable, given the volatility of our previous exchanges, I excused myself and walked to the back of the plane, looking for a bathroom or an exit, some way to hide or escape from Ellie. I was that desperate.
The flight attendant caught me as I came out of the bathroom. “Do me a favor, go easy on the girl. She’s only 18.”
So that explained Ellie’s behavior. Sort of. She was still a teenager.
Following the flight attendant’s request, I decided to put on a smiley face and return to my seat with a new resolve to be kind and gracious to Ellie. As it happened I didn’t have to be too kind or too gracious because by this time Ellie had turned toward the window, having decided to ignore me. I took the opportunity to close my eyes and try to fall asleep, but it seemed that every time I nodded off my head would jerk to the side and snap back as 18-year-old Ellie brushed past me on her way to the bathroom, dragging her red and swollen pee-pee over my lap.
Eventually, after hours of fitful sleep, I woke up just as our plane landed in Montreal. About half of the passengers on board exited. Those of us who were continuing on to Chicago had to stay on the plane for what was supposed to be a brief 20-minute stopover. But 20 minutes turned into 40 and then 60, when finally the captain came on over the P.A. system and announced that there had been a bomb threat and that all checked luggage would have to be re-screened. Sure enough, when we looked out the window, we saw dozens of suitcases spread out on the tarmac, where Air France personnel and airport security guards were examining each suitcase with dogs and hand-held scanning devices. Looking for a terrorist bomb.
“Oh, great,” Ellie said. “I hate Montreal!”
Given the situation, I couldn’t disagree.
To amuse herself and pass the time, Ellie suggested we sing Burt Bacharach songs. I declined, not because I disliked Burt Bacharach’s music but because I had the world’s worst voice, but Ellie jumped right in: “What … do you get … when you fall … in love?” And so on. She sang every song in the Bacharach catalogue at least once. Every so often she waved her hat and bounced up and down in her seat as though she were lap dancing.
Two hours later our plane finally took off without exploding in mid air. And we landed in Chicago, three hours after that, without exploding. “Better safe than sorry,” was our captain’s parting comment. I wasn’t so sure it was an either/or situation. I was both safe and sorry.
“Thank you,” the flight attendant said as we made our way toward the front exit, nodding at Ellie and I. The look of relief on her face said it all: she was glad to be rid of us, her two troublemakers.
Ellie was all smiles, doing a little dance step as she stepped out of the plane onto the ramp. Just then her blond curls fluffed out from under her pork pie hat, making her look even younger than 18.
As we exited the plane she tapped me on the shoulder. “Say–you wanna get something to eat, a burger or maybe a pizza?”
I thanked her but said I had to catch a bus.
Ellie looked offended. Again. “Okay, loser! OR–VWAR!
Like Odysseus after the fall of Troy, I drifted for years after my personal fall from grace. Searching for Ithaca, for somewhere to call home, I stumbled through life making a mess of everything. I finished an M.A. in English because I did not know what else to do and then found a job teaching English Composition at a local community college. There I met another instructor, Rachel, who seemed to have similar interests. Our marriage of convenience lasted less than a year before we realized we didn’t really enjoy spending time together, that in fact we’d made a common error, mistaking convenience for a deeper connection, call it love or desire, what you will.
My teaching position was cut to part-time in 2008, a victim of the global recession, which left me far too much time to reflect on my many failures. The following year my parents died, father first and then my mother six months later. My two older brothers and I buried her on a blustery March morning, after a brief graveside ceremony that a few family friends attended. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and then he three of us stood there listening to the hollow sound of dirt echoing on the coffin lid, wondering where we would be buried and if anyone would come to say goodbye. Years earlier our parents and grandparents together had bought a family plot, but the idea of a family plot seemed archaic now in such a transient, disconnected society.
That night we spent talking and drinking heavily at our parents’ house, sharing an intimacy that we had rarely, if ever, experienced. We came from a long line of somber, standoffish males who avoided emotional subjects as if they were taboo, a weakness not allowed our gender. Yet that night as we talked from the heart I found myself weeping uncontrollably, confessing that I considered myself a 40-year-old failure. Much to my surprise, my two older brothers, who’d I had always looked up to and tried to emulate, confessed to much the same. My oldest brother said he’d been having problems with obsessive-compulsive behavior and had to take an unpaid personal leave from his university. Our middle brother said he’d been fired from his job as a newspaper reporter. Sloppy drunk, the three of us wept like babies.
The next morning, embarrassed and with monstrous hangovers, we went out for breakfast at a nearby cafe and then came back to our parents’ house, the only real home we’d ever known. Without much discussion, we called a trash collector to come clear the house, a cleaning agency to clean it, and a real estate agent to sell it. Then we went our separate ways, vowing to stay in touch, as we had done a hundred times before, and knowing we probably wouldn’t.
Shortly after we sold the house, feeling more homeless than ever, I began searching for Emily on the Internet. At first I had no plans other than to discover if she used Facebook or other social networking sites. I found her on the French edition of Facebook, still living in Paris and now teaching at the École Primaire Normandie. She listed her relationship status as “célibataire.”
One night I managed to work up enough nerve to send her an e-mail saying hello and asking how she was doing and if she was happy. Waiting for her response proved excruciating. Days went by, then a week, and still I hadn’t heard. When she didn’t respond, I began to imagine what would happen if I flew to Paris and appeared at her doorstep unannounced. I played out different scenarios in my mind, some ending happily, some sadly. Every night I dreamed of Emily.
Finally I could wait no longer. What did I have to lose? So I booked a ticket on an Air France flight from Chicago to Paris. I arrived on a Saturday morning, taking the subway into Paris and going directly to my former hotel on the Left Bank only to find it transformed into a boutique hotel that cost twice as much as it did a few years earlier. The concierge helped me find Emily’s address and locate it on a map of Paris, warning me not to get caught in the anti-Sarkozy protests planned for the day. Then I hailed a taxi and a few minutes later found myself standing outside Emily’s apartment building in the trendy St. Germain-des-Pres neighborhood. The front door of the building was locked, and there was no response when I buzzed her apartment on the intercom, so I took a seat on a nearby bench and waited.
Several times I got up from the bench intending to walk away before I could make a fool of myself. But I stayed, somehow managing to overcome my fear of rejection. My heart was pounding when at long last I saw a group of people carrying anti-Sarkozy signs coming down the sidewalk. They were chatting and laughing, evidently returning from the day’s protests against Sarkozy, the French president. I spotted Emily well before she noticed me. She’d lost the nose ring and the purple lipstick, but otherwise she looked much the same, just as animated, just as beautiful.
It was when she turned away from the others and began walking toward her building that she saw me sitting on the bench. She took a few tentative steps and then stopped, staring at me as though I had just returned from the land of the dead. “James?” she asked, unsure of her eyes. “Qu’est ce que tu fais? What are you doing here?”
“Remember that time you said I’d taught you something . . . but you couldn’t tell me what it was until you knew me better?”
She blushed ever so slightly. “I never got to know you well enough to tell you.”
“For that, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Emily. For my jealousy, for everything.”
“Why did you come back?” Her voice was flat, a monotone.
“I’d like to know what it was. I really would.”
She looked at me with uncomprehending eyes. “So. Are you married?”
“I was, but it lasted only a year . . . a big mistake. What about you?”
She sighed. “Yes, but mon mari liked his mistress more than me. We’re divorced now. That’s the problem with French men–they like their mothers and their mistresses more than their wives. I think maybe American men are better, after all. Who would have thought,” she said, smiling.
“Yes, one infant, une petite fille. Four years old. She’s with her father this weekend.”
“Why didn’t you answer my e-mail?”
“I didn’t know what to say.”
Neither did I. The 10 feet separating us felt as daunting as the five years we’d been apart, an insurmountable gulf to bridge. But I tried.
“So . . . you joined the protests against Sarkozy?”
“Bien sûr!” she said, as feisty as ever. “He’s a petty little tyrant, a Napoleon. He’s tried to take back the social reforms of the last 40 years . . . reforms working people have fought and died for. Now he wants to take away our retirement age of 60. You know, he wants us to work until we’re 62, and then what? Will 65 be next, or maybe 70? Who wants to work until you’re 70? Next will be our vacation time, you wait and see. No more month of August en vacance. He wants us to become like America where there is no life but work. Life becomes fast food–unimportant, cheap, just something to fill up the time between work. We say no to Sarkozy and his henchmen! Those of us on the Left voted for Ségolène Royal! What? Why are you laughing?”
“I love how excited you get,” I said.
“Yeah? The only thing I like about Sarkozy is that he’s married to Carla Bruni, the chanteuse. She’s hot!”
Laughing had taken away some of my nervousness, so that I was almost prepared for her next question. Almost.
“James . . . why did you really come back?”
Not quite ready to say what I had come so far to say, I joked: “I think I need more lessons.”
She shook her head. “You never needed any lessons. You just lacked self-confidence.”
The time had come; it was now or never. “Okay, the truth is . . . I never experienced passion before I found you, not with anyone before or after . . . only you, Emily, only you.”
“Just you. I’ve never cared for any one else. Ever.”
Nodding, she came and sat beside me on the bench and then placed her hand on my leg. We sat together in silence for several long seconds.
“So . . . are you asking for a second chance? Or is it a third chance by now?”
I laughed. “I lost count.”
“Well,” she said with a big sigh, as if she’d made up her mind. “I suppose I could give you lesson number four. That’s the one you missed, the last one. And I suppose we could use another body tomorrow in the anti-Sarkozy march on the Champs Élysée. The teachers from my school are all going together. Here,” she said, handing me her sign, which displayed a circle with a line through it superimposed over Sarkozy’s name.
“Down with Sarkozy!” I chanted.
She looked at me askance. “If only you were English instead of American.”
“Here we go again,” I said, thinking maybe this time we would get it right.
Emily read my mind. “If Ségolène can be President, who knows?”
Well, Ségolène did not become President, but Emily and I managed to stay together, the three of us living at her apartment in St. Germain-des-Pres. Not terribly ambitious, I’m content to pick up part-time teaching gigs at the English-speaking universities around Paris. Emily refuses to marry me because, as she points out, “Who would want to be married to an American?” I’m fine with that, marriage is not all it’s cracked up to be, but I’m determined to discover what it was I’d taught her when we first got together. Emily smiles every time I ask, then shakes her head.
“Yes, yes, I will tell you. When I know you better.”
JAMES C. WILSON
JEAN E. VERTHEIN
MATTHEW ROY DAVEY
This website uses marketing and tracking technologies. Opting out of this will opt you out of all cookies, except for those needed to run the website. Note that some products may not work as well without tracking cookies.Opt Out of Cookies