Authors: Maureen Gibbon
I want him to turn his attention to me.
He has kept things fair between Nise and me and maybe I should, too, but he chose me to sit beside and it is my side he keeps touching tonight, and I want him to know my feelings.
So I make him pay attention to me.
I pivot—that is the only way to say it—I pivot my arm at the elbow, turning it so my shoulder does not move, so only my forearm moves, there underneath the table. And I slip my hand over his leg. A secret touch that I tell myself Nise will not see, nor the man who is standing there, talking and talking.
He is mid-sentence in something, still talking to the tattered man, and he does not turn his head my way or break his speaking in any way, but he immediately takes my hand in his. Squeezes my hand hard in his and then holds my hand against his thigh. And then it does not matter that I kept my shoulder still because my whole arm moves in tandem with his, and it becomes perfectly clear what I have done.
Nise sees it. Something bright flashes in her eyes and then she shifts in her chair and looks away. And I tell myself she should not care, because even if he had taken the chair beside her, she would not have dared to pivot her arm and touch him. I know that. If he chose to sit beside her, it would have all been wasted on her.
But it is not wasted on me.
Because there is nowhere else to look, Nise stares up at the man who is too old to be a student, who is still standing beside the table. And the man sees her watching him, sees the brightness in her eyes, and decides she has a genuine interest in the conversation. So he says to Nise, “What do you think, then, of our leader, mademoiselle?”
“I think no matter what the emperor does, I still have to go to work tomorrow,” she tells him. “That’s what I think.”
There is not much the too-old student can say to that, and I want to laugh at how dismayed he looks by her words. But she is right. Because whatever else is true, it is she and I who go to work each day. Not the one who looks like a ragged student, and certainly not him, even if he does put on a shabby coat when he comes to see us.
The man turns away after that. It finally seems to dawn on him that he has been intruding on an intimate dinner, and he looks for a way to exit. To leave us all to our own devices.
After the man walks away—leaves or goes to stand next to someone else’s table—I say, “What’s Sallandrouze? What were you talking about?”
“The Hôtel Sallandrouze,” he says. “It’s just a place.”
“Did something happen there?”
“Something happened there and I saw it.”
“What was it?”
He rubs his fingers over my hand for a long time before he answers. Keeps going back to the calluses.
Looking at neither of us, he says, “It happened a long time ago. And I saw what everyone else saw that day. Soldiers and shooting.”
Both Nise and I are quiet, but in a moment she says, “It sounds terrible. I don’t think I want to hear about it.”
“I don’t want to tell you about it,” he says. “And it’s foolish to talk about it, even here. Legrand should know that.”
So I do not say that I want to hear. That I want to know. I want to know because I know it matters to him. I can feel that it matters in his hand and along his leg.
“Let’s talk about more pleasant things,” he says to us then. “What’s the gossip on the floor of Baudon?”
But neither Nise nor I volunteer anything, and in another moment he says, “It seems we’ve run out of things to say. It seems you’re both my silent wives.”
Maybe we have all of us run out of things to say, or maybe it is just the quiet after all the political talk. But of course I know it is something else: Nise is quiet because she knows I am touching him, still, and it is usually she who keeps the conversation going.
I am about to say something—anything—but just then the waiter brings our food.
Only then does he give me back my hand. So I can use my knife and fork. So I can use my hand to eat.
After we finish
dinner, he reaches across the table and takes Nise’s hand and then he takes my hand again. He studies Nise’s fingers, whose nails are cut down almost to the quick, and mine that have a sliver of white on each nail. But both our hands are red, and I am sure he is right about our calluses. They probably are in the same spots on our palms and fingers.
“I want to sleep with both of you,” he tells us.
That is all. No more comments about who would exhaust him and who would replenish him. He says only what is necessary.
Nise looks at me and then at him. “Both of us together,” she says. “That’s what you mean, isn’t it? That she and I share you.”
“We share each other,” he says. “All of us together, as we are now.”
Nise waits, so I wait, too. I know she will say something, and I want to hear it. I want to hear it before I say anything.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she says. “What if I don’t want to share my toys?”
He looks at her after she says it, after she tries to turn his words into a joke. She does not say anything else, though, and when he looks at me, I do not say a word. Because I am the silent wife? Because I cannot say now what I would have said before?
“It’s the only thing I think of,” he tells us then. “Not politics, not history. Just the two of you.” And he goes on holding her hand and mine. Watching us.
Even though Nise just said she did not want to share, at that moment she is. She does not pull her hand away, so she is sharing him with me, and sharing me with him. All of us are connected whether she wants it or not.
But I do not say that. Because I think words are just sounds anyway.
That night when
he walks us home, he turns at Rue Jacinthe, which is a street that is more like a passageway or an alley than a street. He stops at the first doorway down from the wine shop. When I see what he wants, when he stops and turns toward Nise, I let go of the crook of his arm. Before I walk away, though, I see his arms go up around Nise’s waist. I watch that much and then I walk back down to the window of the wine shop and wait.
I wait a little while, thinking of Nise and him, and then I wait longer, thinking of everything he said at Flicoteaux’s. Not just what he said to Nise and me—I think of what he talked about with the man who was too old to be a student. I think about the way his face looked when he said, “Soldiers and shooting.” At first I didn’t think those words fit in with the rest of the night—with touching him under the table, or with him telling us he wants to sleep with both of us. But now I think the words do fit. The words fit because they happened. Time is never just one way, and nothing is ever just one thing. Things always blend together.
I do not know how long I wait, but when I hear Nise’s footsteps come toward me, I hardly glance at her. I walk in the direction she came from, down to the darkened doorway.
He is waiting there, leaning in the entryway, one shoulder against the frame of the door. And then I am not thinking about soldiers or the ragged man or how things get blended together.
“You look like a real type,” I tell him. “Un maquereau. Just waiting for his girl.”
I want to be the one to talk this time. To tease him. To show him that I am not always silent. That I am there not because he chose me but because I choose to be.
He takes me by my hands and I think he will kiss me then because I saw him kiss Nise. But he does not kiss me, not right away. Instead he holds my hands and moves them down so they are against the front of his coat, the front of his trousers. When I do not stop him, he moves them all the way down. So I can feel him. He keeps his eyes on mine, and even in the dim light I can see him watching my face as I touch him through cloth.
But I am studying him, too. The long hair that waves back. How his face looks so bruised and open.
“You aren’t afraid, are you?” he asks, and his voice sounds bruised, too. “You’re never afraid.”
So I say, “I’m never afraid.”
I say it because he wants me to but also because it is true. I am seventeen and I am not afraid of anything yet.
He kisses me. I keep one hand pressed against him, fingers down. I put the other hand up by his mouth so I can feel the kiss that way, too, the same way I did with my soldier.
What I can feel is he is hungry the way Nise and I are hungry when we sit down at a table with him. I am seventeen and at that moment I understand that when a man is hungry like that, what he really needs is to have something taken from him.
So I take his tongue on mine. Like fruit, like chocolate.
hat night after Nise and
I go to bed, I wait until we are both lying in the darkness. I want to ask her if she touched him the way I did, if he held her hands to him the way he held mine.
But I already know it was something he did with me alone. Because I pivoted my arm, because I slipped my hand over his leg at the restaurant, because I am the one who would exhaust him.
Because Nise is different. He assigned her a different personality, a different role in the game.
So instead I ask, “Do you want to stop?”
“Then why ask?”
“Because we can,” I say. “We can stop.” Yet even as I say the words I am not sure I mean them. I am not sure I can stop.
What I do know is she is my family, not him. Ma frangine.
And then, almost as if she can read my thoughts, I feel her do what she sometimes does: she reaches across the bed and wraps her hand in my hair for a moment. Gives it a gentle tug.
“I think we would have stopped already if we wanted to,” she says, and uncoils her hand.
“Do you still think he’s harmless?”
“What is he then?” I say.
I think she might say something else but she does not, and neither do I. If he kissed her differently than he kissed me, I do not want to know. Because even though he has tried to keep things equal, they cannot be, and she and I both know that. Or maybe I know it especially. It would seem I would have the advantage tonight because I am the one who touched him under the table, because it was my hands he held up against him, but it will hurt me if Nise tells me he said something sweet to her when they kissed. Because maybe she gets the sweetness and I get the hunger.
I lie awake thinking of the way the cloth of his trousers felt, and how his cock felt through the cloth. I think about how the last man I touched was my soldier, the one I walked with until I liked him well enough to kiss, the one who held me on the cushion of his thighs. I think about all those things until I hear Nise’s breathing change. It is a little rasping sound, the tiniest scraping.
Like a fingernail against cloth.