Authors: Maureen Gibbon
You’re mixing them up
, my soldier said.
The brunette is Denise
Louise is the redhead
. But instead of pointing with a knuckle, he lifted his chin, first to Denise and then to me.
“Do you want coffee?” Eugène asks us now when he sees the waiter coming our way. Eugène—that is his name, or what he tells us is his name.
I do not even have to look at Denise. If he is going to spend any more money on us, we want some say in it. When we first sat down, we did not know which one of us he liked. I kept thinking it was me, but then he would turn his attention to Denise. And in a little while, I understand.
He likes both of us. The two of us, red and brown.
“I don’t think so,” I say. “I’d rather go for a walk.”
A walk is free. No one is beholden to anyone for it, and at any point it can be broken off. If something does not please you, you use a corner and make excuses, which is easier to do if you are moving. Or you keep going, talking and dawdling. I walked with my soldier until I liked him well enough to kiss.
“That suits me,” he says. He stubs out his cigarette and stands. Leaves some coins on the table.
Outside, he offers us each an arm. As we start to walk, Denise keeps the conversation going. I have words in my mouth, but they never seem right, and by the time I work out what to say, the conversation has moved on and I cannot say the thing I planned. So it is easier to be silent. To let myself go quiet and wait. I am just beginning to understand there is a power in being like that, in keeping things to myself. Yet without Denise it would be awkward. Without her I would have to talk.
“If he thinks life is so tragic, then he should kill himself,” he tells Denise. “You know, kill yourself and stop pulling the rest of us down. Don’t you think?”
They are talking about a play, I know that much, but when he turns to me for my answer, I just say, “No one needs any more sadness. It’s better to laugh.”
He looks at me as I say the words. I let him—I don’t care if he knows I have not been listening. It does not matter to him. I see that. I have been holding his arm, walking beside him. Those things matter.
“I don’t know,” Denise says then. “Tragedy has a place.”
“To hell with tragedy,” he tells her. “Life is tragic enough.”
The words that come out of his mouth—I know they are real and that he means them. But to me they are only sounds in the air. The only real thing is how his arm feels against my side. First there is the smooth cloth of his coat, but underneath I can feel muscle and even bone. He is slender but his arm is hard the way mine is not, the way a woman’s cannot be. When we pass by people on the street, he draws Denise and me close to his sides, and that is how I begin to get a sense of him, of what it feels like to be close to him.
“/////////////////////////////////////////////////,” he says then.
Denise laughs and looks at me. I missed whatever he said. Whatever it was that made her laugh like that.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. “What did you say?”
“You’ll have to ask your friend.”
“Nise, what did he say?”
“Oh. It’s better coming from him, I think.”
When I look at him this time, he is not smiling but his eyes are kind, and I know whatever he said was teasing—I know that. It is part of the game. He looks at me and then looks straight ahead again.
“I just said a little thing,” he tells me then. “I just said I have one talkative wife and one silent wife.”
When I hear his words, I know something happens in my face. I do not know what it is—I can only feel it inside. I know he is teasing but it still shocks me.
We go on walking then, but it is just a short way to La Maube, and when we get to the bottom of our street, Nise says, “This is us.”
I do not know why she said anything—we could have gone on walking. But he lets go our arms. Any closeness I felt as he held my arm against his side is gone. I feel the loss in my hand and arm and along my side.
“Have dinner with me tomorrow,” he says. But when Nise says
yes, we would like that
, he makes a point of looking at me.
“What about you?” he says.
“Yes, I would like to.”
He kisses each of us then—a brush and a peck on the cheek—and tells us where to meet him.
That is how we leave him, in the doorway of the building on the corner of Maître-Albert, where the window says,
Enseignes Médailles Décorations Spécialité
. A stranger, except we do know his name.
All the way to our building I feel the loss of his arm and side along my arm and side. I feel it just as much as I can still feel my soldier’s kiss. My body feels it.
e’s harmless,” Denise says when
we are back in our room, when we are getting ready for bed. She is already lying down but I am still standing, washing my face with a wet cloth.
“I don’t know,” I say. “What does he want?”
“What do you think? He called us his wives. He wants to sleep with us.”
When I do not answer, Nise says, “What? You don’t think so?”
“I don’t know. He’s not in a rush about it.”
“He’s bored. He has time on his hands.”
“Maybe,” I say.
“I liked him. I thought he was handsome.”
“So see,” I say. “Maybe he’s not so harmless.”
“We don’t even have to go if we don’t want to,” she tells me then. “I just meant he doesn’t have to be anything to us.”
I want to say,
No one has to be anything to anyone, that’s the problem
. But I do not. And when I go on not saying anything, I hear Nise move on the bed.
“So you don’t want to go?” she asks.
“What, and miss dinner?”
She snorts then, the way I mean her to do, and I crawl into bed, too.
But there is something that keeps turning itself over and over inside me. I keep thinking about the way he looked at me before he said,
I have one talkative wife and one silent wife
. It bothered me when he said it, and it still bothers me. I thought I understood why, but now I do not.
I go on thinking in the dark, waiting to hear or feel Nise move, listening for her breath to change when she falls asleep, but it sounds like she is still awake. Maybe she is thinking about him, too. Maybe both of us are thinking of him and pretending to sleep.
So I try to think about my soldier. I do not remember things the right way, though, and when I climb inside the thoughts to make myself feel the kiss again, it seems faint, and I can hardly feel it. And when I do fall asleep I am not thinking about my soldier but of him. Of him and Nise and me.
e live at 17 Rue
Maître-Albert, just at the elbow in the street. The room is furnished with one bed, a deal table, a spidery chair, and a washbasin on an old dresser. We use my trunk as a nightstand, and the first thing I see when I wake up is the blue box of La Favorite candles we keep there.
Exiger le nom
, the box says.
Brûlant sans huile, 8 Heures, Lacorre Frères, Paris
. Except the box doesn’t look blue, it looks gray. In the early morning light, things still have not regained their color: not the box of candles, not the dark maroon paint someone used on one wall, not the dirty white of the other walls, not my blue dress or Nise’s brown one—not even my green boots. Everything is gray or black, or a shade of gray or black.
So the room is shit. But at least it has a window. High up—I have to stand on my toes to see out—but it is a window. And if I get up on one of the beat-up chairs and stick my head out, to the right I see Maison Perrier, the Quai de la Tournelle, and the river itself. Directly across the street is the shop that hangs out brushes and brooms and baskets, and if I could somehow see around the corner, around the dogleg the street makes and down to Place Maubert, I would see my favorite shop.
Bois et Charbon
, the sign for the shop says, but it is the little painted plaques they have all over the front of the building that I like so much. The plaques show cut logs, all sorts of trees, and leaves in every shade of green. The owner stands outside sometimes in his vest and apron, and I do not know which is blacker, his pelt of a beard or his eyes.
That shop is like a forest in the city.
But I do not go to the window just yet. I lie in bed and look at the colors that are not colors and the box of candles.
. I want to touch the sore place at the base of my tongue so I can remember the soldier’s kiss, but I think of what happened the night before so I do not. I do not want to lose the feeling of the kiss altogether. Or maybe it is already lost and I do not want to know. Instead I remember the way I kept my hand up by the soldier’s mouth when we kissed. I felt the way he hungrily bit me. I felt it with my mouth but also with my fingertips.
Last night’s kiss was nothing. A soft moment when lips pressed against my cheek. Men’s mustaches and beards usually smell of smoke and their dinners, but the kiss he gave on the street was so swift I only felt the brush, and there was no smell at all. But I remember the way his eyes looked as he came in close to me. That is the thing that keeps going through my mind.
Nise turns then in the bed, pulls her pillow close with her hand. I see that out of the side of my vision just before I close my eyes. I do not want her to know I have been up, thinking—it is my bit of privacy. I used to have to block her out entirely to sleep because I did not like the feeling of sharing such a small space with anyone, not even someone I knew well, but it is not that way anymore. I can be private in my mind and be right next to her. And I know her better. I thought I knew her before but I did not. Now she is like a sister to me. She has:
A faint brown birthmark on her back that looks like a small island.
A tiny triangle of space between her thighs when her legs are closed, just below her sex.
An eye that looks off to one side just the slightest bit.
When she looks straight at me, it seems as though she is looking at me and seeing me but also seeing something just over my shoulder. As if there were a little bit of space around me that only she can perceive. I have watched people study her and try to understand what is wrong with her eye, but then they stop. They accept her gaze as part of the prettiness of her face, and in a little while they begin to feel that bit of space around them, too. They grow calm and kind. If her eye turned inward it would be a flaw, but as it is, it makes her face unique.
It is always the flaw that interests me.
And she could tell you intimate things about me, too. Like how I sometimes sleep with one hand between my legs to keep my fingers warm, or how I have a single, fine reddish-blonde hair that grows beside my right nipple. I pluck it out as soon as I can pinch it between my fingers. I used to try to hide that from Nise, and do it when she wasn’t looking, but then I thought, why bother?
You get to know someone pretty well when you share a bed and a slop bucket.
When I open my eyes this time and look at the box of candles, I can see the blue is just starting to come back to it. I try to watch the color come back degree by degree, but it makes my eyes hurt to study it that way. It is easier to look away and then look back. By now I have watched the box so long it would not surprise me if it began to move, if it lifted off the trunk and into the air. And I think that is how the world should work. If you think about things hard enough, you should be able to will them to do what you want. And maybe things do work that way. Maybe I just have not learned to think hard enough.
Inside the trunk the box of candles is resting on, there is next to nothing. Two pillowcases my mother made me embroider when I was a girl, and a coppery scarf with most of its fringe missing. Also a gift from the whore. She gave the scarf to me the same day she gave me the green boots. She found out I had been sick when she came by to pick up the sewing she hired my mother to do, and she asked my mother if she would be offended by a few hand-me-downs. My mother said no, that she would be glad for anything to distract me.