Some people swear by their inner child but Juliana has something more unique. It’s lying sideways, resting on her leg; an earthworm, pink and new, with one slit eye staring up at her.
When the phone rang, she was still horizontal on the lumpy sofa. She poked her arm out from under the comforter to prod under a bag of chips, an empty box of cookies, and some glossy French Galas strewn over the floor. Paul’s voice came from three thousand miles away.
“Honey, guess what,” she said, her voice cracked with sleep.
“Did I wake you?”
“I grew a penis,” she said.
“A dream penis.”
There was a sharp exhalation of breath and then a burst of laughter. “You’re too far away,” he said.
Juliana pushed the curtain of hair from her eyes. “I haven’t been myself since you left.”
“I’m counting the days,” he said and changed the subject to renovations for their new apartment in Seattle, which he’d purchased without her. He’d seen a minimalist style in Wallpaper magazine and planned for them to strip off the purple and orange wallpaper, paint every room in a particular shade of beige, no, not beige: milky coffee. They’d buy an antique brass bed and seek out treasures from flea markets because that was her thing. “Shabby chic” he called it.
“Abandoning the city of lights for the city of rain doesn’t seem like a fair exchange,” Juliana said and threw the blanket off and rose from the sofa, naked from the waist down. She cradled the phone between ear and shoulder.
“But you said it would be a relief, to come home,” he said.
Juliana held her pajama bottoms up in front of her to thrust her leg in, but got twisted up, fell back onto the sofa bed, and dropped the phone. She picked up the phone again, and he was still speaking:
“Don’t get all mopey on me. We’ve gone through this a million times.”
Juliana let the phone fall onto the bed, stood up again, and aimed for her pajama leg. She was getting cold.
A week ago, they’d moved out of their Parisian apartment, which was on the fifth floor of a walk-up in the eleventh district right beside an award-winning bakery. What they left behind were sun stains on the walls from the outlines of posters: Depardieu and Deneuve in Le dernier métro and Juliette Binoche in Blue. She’d rolled the posters into tubes and sent them with Paul. When she had swept the living room, she found francs lodged under the fireplace which she washed and polished and packed into her jewelry box. Her herbal tea collection went to friends, and she gave the American Library most of their books which Paul had considered too heavy and also replaceable. But in Seattle she’d never find a second-hand book on Hilaire Belloc, she knew that much.
Paul left Paris to start something new, while Juliana stayed behind in a temporary room to finish off something old: her job as a teacher in a high school in the ninth. In one week she and Paul would reunite in an empty room with tubs of paint and stacks of old English newspapers. Would she find le Figaro?
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH BETTY
The sloping lawns in the Luxembourg Gardens are off-limits to everyone but the gardener. For its protection, a short man in an oversized uniform is on patrol. His French is difficult to understand, but his foot, planted every so often on the low railings in front of whoever is there – sunbathers, readers, and daydreamers – is a reminder not to cross that iron line. What is forbidden to everything but the eye is a green oasis mowed in thick, alternating stripes with the centre piece a stone Apollo, naked, with his arms and eyes raised to the sky. It’s a museum of nature with velvety grass framed by sculptured flowerbeds, chestnut trees humming with birds, and everything just out of reach.
Jonathan sat in one of the park’s iron chairs with this view spread out before him. He had stuck his thumb in his book though, to hold its place, ever since she’d pulled up a chair beside him.
“The English do not speak French to us when we go there,” she said. “They refuse, mais, when they come here they can speak French, I have heard those tourists, they are not very good but I have heard them speak French et alors they will not speak with us in their own country.”
“That’s too bad,” he said.
The woman adjusted her fedora, tucking strands of wiry hair back into the black hat which was covered with cottony fluff from the shedding trees. She called out to a middle-aged man who sat in the next row of chairs: “Les anglais sont mauvais, non?”
“Oui, Mama. C’est vrai,” the man replied. He was wearing a private school boy’s outfit with a white shirt buttoned up to his chin, a black bow tie, and sported a black moustache. Nestled into a chair with pages of newspaper spread over his lap he reminded Jonathan of a Botero sculpture – rotund, smooth and benign. The hatted woman turned her attention back to Jonathan. “You are not English,” she said.
“I’m Canadian, from British Columbia.”
“Ah, so you are British and hiding in le Canada,” she said and then told him he had a funny accent but still she would consider him for what he was: a French cousin after all. She wanted to know if it snowed six months of the year and if bears lived in his back yard. Since nobody had taken an interest in Jonathan since his arrival in Paris, he happily explained Canada’s drastic weather patterns and the Farmer’s Almanac predictions, before she cut in.
“You are lucky not to be le vrai Anglais, from the Grande Bretagne,” she said. “C'est très cher là-bas. Do you know how much we paid for a hotel in Kent when we arrived?”
“Kent? But it’s much cheaper there than London,” he said. “And they would not serve us breakfast after ten, can you comprehend? We had no breakfast for one week as they would not serve it after ten. And who gets up before ten? C’est incroyable, non?” She pulled up her nylons which had slumped like beige earthworms around her ankles.
Three thin German women, sitting on one side of them, chatted together with fluttering hands. On the other side, a teenage girl sitting in a boy’s lap kissed his closed eyelids.
“Then, we had to go to an office to look up his grandmother’s name, to track her down, you see, and did that office not suddenly disappear. We spent the money on this trip, with the ferry across – oh, that dreaded ferry – only to find no office, no more. How was he to find his grandmother? They did not think of that, oh no. You see, he has the dual citizenship. His father: British – I cannot tell you who he is, non, non – and he has never met his grandmother. C’est tragique, non? And then we go back encore, another time on that ferry to be sick again. We French are, how to say – sensitive?”
Jonathan pulled his thumb completely out of his book, shutting the pages on Anatomy of a Naval Disaster: The 1746 French Naval Expedition to North America by James S. Pritchard. The sun strained through the chestnut leaves and cast long shadows on his feet. He rested his eyes on the statue of Apollo: strong, still, quiet.
1. Montreal. Winter.
The snow is, as expected, up to the knees. The woman doesn’t know yet about global warming or tropical times to come. She takes careful steps along boulevard de Maisonneuve, admiring the dazzling banks of white, plowed to the sides. She could have skied to work; it crossed her mind when she watched the neighbor leave on hers.
The woman flips her collar up and the lining – a slash of red – is revealed. A woolen scarf, a recent gift, knotted around her neck, while a thinner one winds around her upper chest like a mummy’s wrap. The woman doesn’t feel the chill because she’s thinking of him, waiting at the café with a cigarette perched on his lips. Waiting for heaping bowls of pasta, red wine, spicy kisses and busy fingers.
He had approached her in a queue at the bank of all places. She was purchasing a GIC while he, he later confessed, was paying an overdraft. He overspent on everything: money, time, love. The man was deeply in debt.
That first morning she awoke with his fingers in her mouth, and on her pillow her silky black hair mixed with his salt and pepper. He was expected at a conference in Toronto that weekend, but skipped out of it. He was a man who knew his priorities.
Yes, she’d noticed his ring and still accepted his invitation for coffee which led to dinner and later, a drink. She welcomed what came after too. Yes, she most definitely saw the gold band, and no, she didn’t have a problem with it.
And so on for eight months. No talk of making their routine permanent, or skipping town together, or any promises of any kind. It was pure, encapsulated, undisguised pleasure.
As she turns the corner, a gust of wind knocks her sideways and she struggles to catch her breath. There it is, unravelled before her. A new story. An indelible image, but not a photograph, a painting or a film; this cannot be rewound, erased or destroyed. This isn’t caused by internal mishap: seconds lost while tuning a radio, or hands off the steering wheel, or an uncontrollable sneeze. No, this is about snow and ice and Mother Nature taking a life.
So there it is: crushed steel, smoking engines, red-streaked snow and a rescue worker with a giant’s pliers, ripping a door off one of the cars. Using the tool like a can opener. Inside is a man dressed (prophetically) in black, with his head flung back on the seat and a line of blood traced down his chin.
Twisted metal parts steam in big hills of snow. Or little mountains of snow. Whichever way she looks at it, it doesn’t matter because there it is: red on black on white.
She staggers into a pharmacy and finds a chair to sit on before she falls. Red lights blink on the heart monitor machine, and she slips a narrow finger into a black plastic hood and watches the screen flash while a message appears: Unable to read heart-rate. Try again.
She fills a shopping basket with items: five bottles of water, eight boxes of aspirin, ten boxes of Kleenex, five packs of gum, five chocolate bars and three packs of cookies. She weaves up and down the aisles, takes another basket and piles in: hair products, nail polish, makeup remover; checks the shopping list in her hand and sees an address instead. Fornicello’s Italian Restaurant.
Outside, she lowers her head and squints at the ground to follow a blur of white, just enough definition to stay on the path. The sirens have stopped their wail and it is far too quiet. The plastic bags cut into her gloved hands. She hears the man from the red car groaning as he’s lifted onto a stretcher. But the other car, the silver one was abandoned by the rescuers. There it is: the license plate, the French flag on the bumper, and inside, a salt and pepper head thrown back on the seat.