Read Paris Red: A Novel Online

Authors: Maureen Gibbon

Paris Red: A Novel

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To be accurate is not to be right.

~SHIRLEY HAZZARD

T
hat day I am seventeen
and I am wearing the boots of a whore.

I wear the green boots of a whore and I stand with Denise outside a shopwindow. Behind the glass, scissors hang from hooks. Large shears on top, then a row of smaller scissors, then tin snips, pruning shears, pocketknives and switchblades. A few round silver plates and bowls mix in to break up all the sharpness. The man who owns the coutellerie told us he was from the Aveyron. The capital of knives, he says.

I stand in my bottle green boots and I am drawing a cat asleep on a shelf in the store window, just behind the
R
and the
E
of
Repassage Tous les Jours
. It is some cat, I think, to sleep so calmly among all the blades. The owner says he does not care that we stand there, drawing. We make people pause or stop by the store, which is fine by him.

So it is a white cat, the same white as the color of the letters on the shopwindow—except how do you draw white with a pencil? I consider that, guessing at how to draw the cat and what is around the cat, but it is not as if I know anything. Denise, either. But we draw anyway. It makes us unusual. Two girls with tablets and pencils. But Denise with her faraway eyes and me in the green boots of a whore, what we mainly draw is attention. I tell people that when they ask, and they laugh. But it is true. What I do not say is that drawing helps me see things, that it is a record of the day. Yet it is true, too.

So we stand outside the coutellerie and I am in my boots that are the color of grass, and I am trying to get the cat right as it goes on sleeping behind the
R
and the
E
, but my mind is elsewhere. I am looking at the cat and the scissors but in my mind I am thinking about my soldier, the one I stood kissing in the street the night before. The base of my tongue is still a little sore, that little ridge underneath, and I cannot help but run the tip of my tongue over the sore spot. It is peaceful to be standing next to Denise, absorbed in the cat but with my mind elsewhere, remembering the kiss. The soldier held me, and he leaned back against the stone of the building as we kissed. Even though the soldier was my cushion, I could feel the stone through his chest and his thighs. As if it were a wall in our own private room. I do not know how long we stood there. Long enough for the night to chill. But I was not cold and neither was he. At first his mouth tasted like him, at first he had a taste—smoke and alcohol and the taste of his mouth. But then his taste became my taste, and I could not tell us apart in the kiss.

“Look,” Denise says. “It’s going to stretch.”

The cat opens its eyes a little and extends all four legs, pushing back against something invisible. Then it relaxes again. The only thing that changes is that the cat tilts its head to the side and shows the underside of its chin and throat.

“Now I have to change what I drew,” Denise says.

So I look at my own pad, at the rounded shape I drew, and that is when I feel him. Not my soldier—a stranger.

He is standing somewhere behind me, off to the side. I feel him before I see him, and then I see him out of the corner of my eye. And I wonder how long he stood there, watching as I drew and daydreamed. Any other day I would have felt him as soon as he approached, would have felt him at my back and over my shoulder. But today I was thinking about my soldier and the way his thighs were like a cushion, and I did not feel the stranger approach. Was not aware of anything except my own sore tongue.

Behind my shoulder, in the vestibule of my eye—that is where I feel the stranger. He observes Denise and me the way we observe the cat.

But I am seventeen, in leaf green boots, and I know he will come over to us. And I know that when he comes over he will find a way to ask something. Anything.

And that is what he does. He moves out of the vestibule of my eye and he comes to stand beside us. He picks me to talk to, my shoulder to look over.

I know he has no interest in my pad or the shopwindow or the glob of a cat. I know it is just a way to stand close and begin talking. And I know that when he says
Pardon
and
May I
, that it is just a way to go on talking. But it is part of the reason Denise and I draw things: to be noticed, to be talked to. Because at the same time I know there is nothing at all special about me, I am seventeen and also know I am different from everyone else.

When he asks for the notebook, I give it to him. And when he asks for my pencil, I give him that, too.

“I’m no artist,” he tells me when he takes my pencil.

I think about charming him. I think about telling him I have been drawing all my life. I think about saying how, when I was little, I used to beg pieces of charcoal from the coal man so I could draw on the pavement. But I do not say that. I do not say anything. Maybe because my tongue is sore and I am still thinking of my soldier. Or maybe because I know I do not have to say anything, and he will go on standing there. So I am silent and I watch him the way he watched me when he first came up and I didn’t know he was there, when he was just a shadow in the corner of my eye.

He looks at the shopwindow and then looks down at my pad. In a moment he adds in shadows behind the cat. Which I would have done. But then he does something I would have not thought to do no matter how long I stood looking at the cat asleep on the shelf. After looking back at the store window, he adds a crosshatched mark above the cat, up in the right corner.

It is a surprise, that mark. As soon as he makes it I cannot stop looking at it, and yet he did it without hesitation. Without thinking.

If I look at the crosshatched place one way, it looks like a smudge on the paper, but if I look at it another way, I see it makes the paper a window. The drawing now looks exactly like what it is supposed to be: a picture of a cat behind a glass window. Except that it is all on paper, and paper should not be able to look like glass.

“That did it,” Denise says. “Now it looks real. Don’t you think?”

She is right—without the crosshatched mark there is no window, and without the window, the picture makes no sense. And now I wish the cat was better. It looks all wrong, as if a child drew it. But I nod and say, “Ça marche.”

Denise keeps turning her head to look at him, and by the way she holds her chin close to her shoulder I can tell she likes him. Likes the look of him. He is slender and has longish hair brushed back on the sides. He is older than we are but he stands with his shoulders back, the way a young man stands. I cannot tell exactly what his face looks like, not with the mustache and beard, but there is something raw about his eyes. They do not match the rest of his face, and he cannot hide them the way he hides his mouth, just as he cannot hide what he is doing, which is taking the time to stand talking to us. Girls in the street.

“How did you know to put it there?”

“What?”

“That shadow,” I say, because I cannot stop looking at that spot, or how it has made the cat look flat, like an outline.

“It’s just a reflection. That reflection,” he says. He looks at the shopwindow and then looks back across the street to the pale building making the reflection.

As soon as he says it, I know that is the word I should have used—the mark is not a shadow at all. And I see what he means about the building across the way. But the shine of the building across the way is white, and the mark he made is gray, and it does not make sense to me. It does not make sense how a black pencil mark could show a white reflection. But it does. And then it comes to me: however white the reflection is, it is not as white as the paper. Nothing can be as white as the paper.

“The paper is the glass,” I say.

I know he does not understand what I mean. The paper does not matter to him and the reflection does not matter to him—it was all just a way to take something from my hand, to go on talking to Denise and me. But he nods anyway, and that is when I know he is kind. At first I thought he was older but I see now he is not so old—it is just the beard and mustache, and the way his hair is carved away above his temples. His eyes are young and the skin around his eyes is young. I already know Denise likes him, so I decide to like him, too. That is how we pick him.

Or he picks us. I do not know. It does not matter.

I am still thinking of my soldier and the hard way he held me against him, but I choose this one, too. Because I am wearing the bottle green boots of a whore, because I am seventeen and I can choose who I like.

There on the street beside the shining knives, we all pick each other.

 


I
’m from Gennevilliers,” he tells
us at the small café down from the coutellerie.

He ordered for us, baba au rhum, and when the plates arrive, I glance at Denise. We both would have rather eaten a meal instead of dessert, but he invited us and is paying so there is no way to ask for it. Still, it is better than nothing, and when Denise will not catch my eye, I look away and begin eating.

“I’ve never been anywhere but here,” Denise says.

“You could go to Gennevilliers. If you wanted. It isn’t far.”

“What do you do in Gennevilliers?”

“I’m a tax collector,” he tells her, then gestures to our plates. “It’s not enough, is it?”

At first I think he read my mind about the dessert, but just as quickly I realize it is not that at all, he is just watching us wolf down our food. So I make myself put my fork down as if I am getting full.

“It’s delicious,” Denise says.

I do not want to seem piggish, so I say, “I like it, too.”

He smiles and looks away, into the smoke of his cigarette, to the other tables. And I wonder what we must look like to him. Both of us shiny-faced, in bad clothes, the ones we have worn for weeks, washing the armpits out in a basin in our room. But we are allowed to look like this—we are young. It is the only thing that matters. It is why he has brought us to a café, it is why he is sitting with us. It does not matter if our faces are oily or our dresses are thin. What matters is us, Denise with her dark hair and faraway eyes, and me with my red hair and bottle green boots. The other day, after my soldier and his friend bought us a drink, the friend kept pointing at us with his knuckle.
Rousse et brune
, he said.
Denise et Louise
.

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