Authors: Maureen Gibbon
“The boots are too loud,” she told my mother and me the day she brought the things she wanted to give me. “They don’t go with anything. And the scarf is sad.”
Her whore name was La Belle Normande, but I knew her real name. Julie. Whenever I saw her on the street, I admired her clothing—a blue dress and a gold one, a garnet coat. I was ten and could not understand why she would not want the green boots.
“They’re too gaudy,” she said. “Même pour moi.”
“I like them,” I told her after I put them on and buttoned them up. But when I tried walking in them, my foot slid all the way forward, and the heel of my foot was nowhere near the heel of the shoe.
“Maybe you can play dress-up with them,” Julie said. “Do you play dress-up?”
There were no extra clothes in the house, just my mother’s things that she wore every day, and a black lace mantilla she sometimes wore for church. A couple of times when I was little I put it on over my hair. So I told Julie, “I used to play dress-up. Sometimes.”
“Then the boots are yours. Along with the sad scarf.”
Now the boots fit me. I think the color goes with everything, the way grass goes with sky and flowers and dirt. Even when the leather gets damp, the color does not change. It is still emerald. As if I would know what an emerald looks like, but in my mind I know the stone must look something like my boots. What I know for certain is I am always sure of myself when I wear the boots, the way I was sure of myself yesterday when I felt him standing just behind my shoulder, when I was sure he would come over to talk to us. Maybe that is the way to will things to happen: not to think hard about things to get them to happen but to be so sure of them that they do happen.
Or maybe what happened yesterday was just this: when one man likes you, others do, too. It is like a smell you carry on your skin, or a look that changes your face. Maybe I was standing differently on the street yesterday because of how long I stood kissing my soldier the night before. Maybe my daydreams of kissing my soldier changed the way my face looked as I stood outside the coutellerie and drew that lump of a cat.
I rub the tip of my tongue over the base again and now it does not ache at all. Already the soldier is fading. But I tell myself it does not matter because the next thing has begun to happen.
“Why are you up so early?” Denise asks then from the bed. She is waking up, stretching her legs, pushing out with the palms of her hands into the air. Stretching just the way the cat in the window did. “What’s the story?”
She would listen if I told her—she always does. But she would also tease me for waking up early to daydream about my soldier or about the new one. She would say,
They’re just men
So I shake my head. “No story,” I tell her. “Just the day.”
he next night he takes
us for dinner to a place off one of the boulevards. Nicer than anything on La Maube, but what wouldn’t be. The point is it is not La Maube, but it is still not so nice as to make a person feel odd.
“You don’t live in Gennevilliers,” Denise says after we sit down. “You know the streets too well. Is this your neighborhood?”
“I only said I was from Gennevilliers,” he says.
“You’re not a tax collector, either, are you?” she asks.
“Maybe I’m a glass blower from Venice. Does it matter so much?”
“Maybe it does,” Denise says. “Do you want us to believe the things you tell us?”
“You should believe what you want. My brother-in-law is a tax collector. Is that enough?”
“Is what you told us even your real name? Eugène?”
“For now,” he says. “It will do for now.”
But he is not angry at her for asking, and when I see that, I understand something. He wants us to be his equals. We have to be his equals in some way or there is no point. He could buy a woman if he wanted that. It is something different he wants from us. With us.
Nise says, “Well, if you can lie, we can, too. It goes both ways.”
“You’re both what, eighteen? You don’t have to lie.”
“I’m nineteen,” Nise tells him.
“Everyone has to lie,” I say. It is the first thing I have said after he kissed us each hello and brought us into the restaurant. I do not correct him to tell him I am seventeen, and I do not look away when he turns to me. I let him look at me.
“My silent wife,” he says.
I tell myself the word sounds silly. I tell myself that it is all a game. That is what I see in his face. Nise and I are an amusement to him, a pastime. In his coat and tie, what else could we be? But if we are a game for him, it is also true that he would like us to play with him. Wants us to play with him. I see that in his eyes, in the plum shadows beneath his eyes. But I do not turn away, will not turn away, and in the end he is the one who looks down to his cigarettes.
“You can be Eugène,” I tell him. “If we get to pick our names, too.”
“What names do you want?” he asks.
“You have to let us think,” Nise says. “No, I know. I’m Pâquerette.”
“Pâquerette,” he says, shaking his head. “Of course. It’s ridiculous. What about you?”
“Victorine,” I say.
“Not like that,” I say. “Not fancy. Vic’trine. Maybe just Trine.”
“Not sweet like Daisy.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” he says, and picks up a menu. “Order what you want. No soupe aux choux tonight, or whatever you’re used to down on La Maube.”
He says it to tease us, but it is true enough. Except we live on less than cabbage soup sometimes, less than even what he imagines. There is no place to cook in our room, and even if there were, we would not. We eat fritters at lunch and whatever we can bring home to our room for dinner. We do not sit down in cafés, not even for thin soupe aux choux. We eat in our room or on the street.
“We don’t go hungry,” I say. “We’ve never gone hungry.”
“I didn’t think so.”
What I meant is there is a difference between going hungry and wanting more. Between having something and having enough. But somehow everything at the table changes then, as if there is a wire connecting the three of us. Almost as if we are touching knees under the table. But we are not touching. It is just the three of us sitting, and everything alive in the space between us. Maybe just because I used the word
, which is another way of saying
But all he says is, “Order what you like.” And nods at the menu.
We eye the list of truite à la Vénitienne, poulet à la Singarat, filet de boeuf Richelieu and something à la printanière. Then, we order not just enough, but enough to fill us.
So that is the first thing he gives us. Bellies tight and round as drums.
Sometime during the
meal I take a long time to study him. I thought I knew what he looked like the day we met him, but I did not. He was not a person to me then, and I could only see what I thought he was. This is what he really looks like:
Nose crooked, the bridge going off to the left and the tip to the right. But it is a fine-tipped nose, with elegant nostrils, if you can say such a thing. Hazel irises that look pale because of his deep-set eyes. One vein that shows slightly under the skin of his forehead. Deep lines carved down to the corners of his mouth. There is something fine-grained about his face in spite of the riotous beard and mustache. He would look younger without them, but he wants to hide behind them.
He wears a black coat, pale clay-colored pants. At first I thought his vest was black, too, but it is not. It is dark purple, sister of black, the darkest shade there is, skin of blackberries. Why that and not plain black? How much money and how much trouble to buy a color instead of black? It must matter to him. But why?
His tie is dotted. Held with one pin whose head is a dull, red stone. A garnet? A ruby? To me it is the color of jam.
In all he could not be more different from my soldier, and just thinking that makes me remember the soldier’s kiss and the salty way his skin tasted when I put my mouth on his collarbone.
But by then he has seen me looking, studying him.
“Do I pass?” he asks.
“You do all right,” I say.
He watches me for a second—maybe he can see what I was thinking, maybe he knew I was thinking of what my soldier’s skin tasted like. Yet if he could see what I was thinking about my soldier, then he must know what else passed through my mind: that I’ve held his arm in mine through the streets, that I already am beginning to imagine what it is like to be with him.
Neither of us moves—not him toward me or me toward him—and he turns back to Nise. He does not even go on looking at me. But that is when I feel the wire between the two of us get a little tighter.
Just a little tighter.
Somehow during dinner
it comes out that we work not so far from there, on Rue Pastourelle.
“That’s how we met,” Nise tells him. “In the big Baudon workshop room.”
“What’s Baudon? What exactly do you do?”
. Silver burnishers.”
“You polish silver?”
“That’s the last step,” I say. “We’re the step before. We ground the silver plate onto the metal.”
“How much does that pay?”
I know he is just curious, but I do not feel like saying. When I look over at Nise, I know she feels the same.
“It pays better than some jobs,” she says.
He nods and takes Nise’s hand and runs his thumb over her fingertips, and then he takes my fingers with his other hand.
“You’ll have to walk me by there after dinner,” he says. “By Baudon.”
“I don’t think so,” Nise tells him. “We see enough of the place during the week.”
“There’s nothing to see anyway,” I say.
“How many girls in your workshop?”
“Twenty-four? Twenty-five? Some come and go.”
“That would be something to see,” he says. “Two dozen girls working.”
“They aren’t all girls. Some are women and some are old hags,” Nise says. “I’ve been there since I was fifteen.”
“I’ve been there a little more than a year,” I tell him.
He does not say anything then, just keeps our fingers in his hands.
“What, did you think we just went around drawing, picking up men?” Nise asks. Teasing. She looks down at her plate when she says it, but then she raises her eyes to look at him, to see his reaction.
There are plenty of whores. Or what people call whores. A girl we know, Marie Mousseau, got picked up in bed with two firemen. Her landlord gave her up. But she was a cook. We saw her go to work, we saw her at work. If she was just a whore, why would she bother cooking and cleaning up in a shitty café on La Maube? So money changes hands because one person has more and one has less. Why call it anything?
“I knew you worked,” he says then. “I didn’t know at what. I just wondered how you got on.”
“As an apprentice, you go three months without pay,” I say. “Then you get a franc a day. Now we get ten francs a week.”
Each of our dinners will cost 1.50 francs, the prix fixe, plus the wine. I start adding, then multiplying. I want to say, we do not make much, but it is enough to live on. I want to say we are with him because we choose to be, because he interests us. That if he had been someone else—crude or boorish, or if we did not like the smell of his hair or the way he wore his jacket—we would have never said yes. That one thing does not mean another.