Authors: Maureen Gibbon
That is when I decide I am not upset anymore about being caught off guard at Baudon, or even about his pretend shabbiness—as if you could put a life on with a coat. I bring myself back, I focus on the street and walking beside him. And in a little while I slip my hand in the crook of his arm. I do not walk as close to him as I have at night—there is the bundle of apron between us and the daytime. And that is the thing: it is not nighttime, it is daylight and the front of my dress is still damp with the crocus martis and soap suds we use when we are burnishing, and I stink in the exact sharp way that comes from working in the heat of the shop. I am not wearing the green boots of a whore, I am not drawing in a notebook, I am not eating a fancy meal or listening to made-up names.
I am my daylight self.
Yet I am not just myself, either, because I became something different the day I met him. Just the way I became something different when I kissed my soldier, or when I stayed out all night with a boy against my mother’s wishes. I keep changing. Keep wanting to change.
Girls with rough hands in dirty dresses—that is what he wants. Not the story we made up for ourselves in the restaurant, not anything pretend. That is what I understand on the street.
When we sit
in the café off the Boulevard du Temple, he seems different somehow.
I think at first maybe it is just the clothes changing how I see him, but in a little while I am sure it is more. He slides down in his chair, his words sound loose, and even the tone of his voice is altered. It is a little deeper somehow, and slower. I listen and watch for a while and then I think, he is like me, he alters for the occasion.
After we get our wine, we sit with the
Journal Pour Tous
that he brought, looking at the pictures. He lets us leaf through it for a while and then he shows us the drawing he said made him think of us. It is titled “Langage des Cheveux,” and it shows the heads of four different women. There is no color in the newspaper, but the hair colors are shaded differently, and each of the women is labeled: blonde, noire, rousse, brune. Underneath the color of the hair are words that describe each woman’s temperament. Blondes are sweet and devoted, black-haired women are ardent, redheads are coquettish and full of tricks, while brunettes are discreet and sincere.
“Brunettes are dull,” Nise says. “Discreet and sincere.”
“Well, redheads are troublemakers,” I say.
“I don’t know,” he says, smiling a little. “I think there’s some truth to it all.”
“How could there be any truth to it?” I say.
“If I slept with you, you would exhaust me,” he tells me. Then he turns to Nise and says, “I think you would renew me.”
After he says it, I know he is watching, studying our faces for our reactions. But I keep mine as blank as I can.
“It’s just what I think,” he says.
I know he must be trying to shock or agitate us, but nothing changes in his expression, and then I know he is serious, or half-serious. Which is ridiculous. Not because he said something outright about sleeping with the two of us, but because he thinks he has some idea what it would be like to be with either one of us.
“So the two of you would exhaust each other, and I would be left to pick up the pieces,” Nise says then, shaking her head. “No thank you.”
We laugh, even he laughs, and that quickly, in an instant, everything becomes teasing again.
But even though Nise has made his words a teasing thing, it is clear he is willing to say anything to us. And I know I am right about him. It all may be a fantasy or a game to him, but he is intent upon the game. Intent upon us.
The three of us go back to paging through
Journal Pour Tous
, chatting idly, but in a little while he tells us he has to go and meet a friend. That he really just stopped by Baudon to see if he could catch us.
“My working girls,” he says. “You have a demanding schedule.”
“What friend?” Nise wants to know.
“Antonin. Tonin is what I call him.”
“D’accord,” she says. “I just wanted to see if you had a name ready.”
He shakes his head and kisses my cheek, and then kisses Nise’s cheek. Before he goes, he leaves money on the table. It is more than enough to pay for our wine. Enough to pay for our wine and buy us dinner.
After he leaves, Nise says to me, “What was that about, really?”
“He wanted to tell us what he thought it would be like to sleep with us.”
I look over at the couple at the table closest to ours. They are playing dominoes and do not look up, but I know they heard everything that has been said. I do not care. I am seventeen and neither my mother’s rules nor my father’s love could change me. I do not care what anyone thinks of me except for Nise.
I do not know it yet, but that is something else he is giving me. Even with my dirty hair and in my filthy work dress, there is something in me that sets me apart. I thought it was the green boots of a whore and the way Nise and I look when we stand drawing, like we are some kind of picture ourselves, but now I see it is not just that. It is something else altogether and it does not have anything to do with a pair of boots or anything I can slip on.
It has to do with me.
After le maître brings the bowls, we sit in our damp work dresses and eat our beef stew. Listen to the sound of the dominoes clicking down.
he day we met him
, Nise told him she had never been anywhere, but it is a lie. She goes back home to Toucy every couple of months. There was no reason to tell him anything that day when we were just making conversation, and maybe it does not count because Toucy is her home. In any case it is her business and her business alone.
I went along once. Because I was curious but also to keep her company. Because I knew it busted her up to go. It always does. She always says she should go, and yet she dreads to go. But if she puts it off too long, she feels miserable.
Her parents raise the girl as if she were Nise’s sister. And in a way she is: Nise had her when she was fifteen.
Sometimes I want to ask her what it was like to have a baby. I think she would tell me, but I do not ask. The day I went with her, she was quiet most of the day and got happier the farther away we got from Toucy. Or maybe that is putting it too strongly. Maybe she just seemed relieved. Glad it was over but also glad she had gone. Glad the duty was over for another couple of months, which would mean a couple of months she would not have to think of what she should do.
“Do you miss her?” I asked on the train back that day.
“I don’t know her.”
I nodded and she looked at me and smiled a little, but then she looked away. She did not say anything else for a long time, and after that, I noticed how her eyes were puffier. It was not from crying—I would have heard that. I mean it just tired her to go. The skin under her eyes stayed puffy for the whole next day, and her faraway eye looked especially tired.
The thing is, nothing about Nise makes you think she has a kid. She is always going on about how she is more practical than I am, and she is. But there is a kind of sweetness about her that seems so real and is so real, even when she is being tough and cursing in her funny, husking voice. It does not seem to fit with what she had to go through. Or maybe it does fit. Maybe it is the sweetness and the goodness in her that makes her able to be the way she is in spite of everything.
And maybe that is the thing he sees. Her kindness. Maybe it is why he said that stupidity about how she would renew him after I exhausted him. Or maybe he thinks she is innocent altogether. For one thing, she does not look nineteen, and there is always that dream men have, that someone is innocent under her skirts. As if anyone ever were innocent, or innocent for very long.
Anyway, that is how she comes home today. Tired from the trip. Eyes puffy. Quiet. She tells me something about the train ride, but that is all. It will take her a couple of days to get back to herself.
Aimée. That is the little girl’s name. She looks a little like Nise but mostly not.
his time we meet him
outside a brasserie, Flicoteaux’s.
We all go inside together, and when we get to a corner table he stands aside so I can take a seat along the wall, on the banquette. He goes on standing and waiting, and I assume that Nise will slip in beside me, that we will both sit across from him, which is how we sat both other times. He takes the duty of feeding us seriously, and I think he likes being able to watch us stuff ourselves.
But Nise does not do what I expect her to do, or what he expects her to do. She takes the chair opposite me.
Maybe she just wanted to give him the more comfortable seat on the banquette because it is where you can see the rest of the room instead of turning your back to it. But whether it is on purpose or not, she makes him choose who to sit beside, her or me. Brunette or redhead.
And in a second he does decide. In a second he is sliding next to me, and Nise is on the other side of the table. If she feels anything she does not show it, at least not that I can see. But maybe I am not looking hard enough.
We are not there long before a man comes over and stands beside the table and begins to talk. The man looks like a student, only older, and it is clear the man is some kind of friend of his, or at least an acquaintance. Though he does not invite the man to join us, he willingly talks to him.
“So things are fine in your mind, then?” the man asks. “The coup succeeds and there’s nothing more to it?”
“People got tired,” he says. “They got tired of mobs in the streets. They wanted something to happen and it did. Louis-Napoléon happened.”
“And now everyone’s content to be shipmates of a pirate, as Hugo says.”
“Not content. But they accept.”
“But how can that be?” the man asks. “You were there at the Sallandrouze. You saw the carnage.”
“I was there,” he tells the man. “Even so.”
And everything changes at that moment. I know then that he does not want to go on talking to the man because his words have become clipped, precise. But the man does not hear it.
“How can anyone align with that?” the man says, and for the first time I really see the wildness in the man’s eyes. He is dressed like a student but he is too old to be a student, and there is something off about him, something haggard.
“It’s not a question of alignment,” he tells the man, and his voice is even quieter than before. “It’s just living day to day.”
“I’m surprised that you would say that. Above all people.”
He laughs a little. “Don’t be surprised, Legrand,” he says. “I’m no better than the next man.”
I go on listening for a while, I do, but then I let the words become sounds. Sometimes when he is listening to the haggard man speak, he leans my way a little, and I feel the hardness of his shoulder against mine. Or when he picks up his glass of wine, sometimes his arm bumps against me. But I never move away—I want to feel him against me.
And in a little while, whether from the sitting close or just the wine we are drinking, I want to feel more than just occasional bumps against my shoulder and elbow. Maybe I want him to turn his attention back to us and away from the man. But as soon as I think it, I know even that is not truth.