It’s Sunday, the day Chantal comes to the cafe to buy bread. She does this every Sunday, promptly at 8. I also come to the cafe on Sundays, not to buy bread, but to wait for Chantal. Each Sunday, five of them now, I sit and sip a demitasse and pick at a half-eaten croissant on the plate in front of me as I wait and watch for her to come in.
At first it was only about Chantal. It’s still about Chantal, but this Sunday thing has become something more for me. Blending in with the other Sunday people who come and go and linger at small tables around me as I wait for her, I feel free. Free to be an anonymous girl surrounded by strangers, freed from being myself, able to be anyone, and no one, for a few hours.
I feel safe here, too. The terracotta floor under my feet, solid as the earth it’s named for, comforts me, like a warm embrace. Sunlight slashes through the tall windows and crashes onto it, running off at angles in disregard for the floor’s repetitive squares, and still it remains, unchanged, unchanging. So different from my life.
I imagine I’m a solitary figure bathed in light, a wood nymph in the forest, yet grounded on the unmovable reddish-brown earth. A daydream that feels real. I wish it was.
My solitary reverie is broken when, at last, Chantal comes in at the time she always does and goes directly to the counter. She’s tall and lean, her long tawny hair, down to her waist in back and half wrapped around her like a flag or a cape, sets off her almost painfully fair face. Her body is as loose as her hair, lithe and supple like a cat’s as she leans forward into the counter to collect her bread.
I watch without being able to stop myself as she takes the crusty loaf in her hands and brings it to her nose, sniffing in its freshness. And then my heart stops as she turns toward me, squints her green, almond-shaped eyes in my direction, and cracks a smile so subtle only I can see it. This has become part of the Sunday ritual, too, a kind of dance of looks and glances and smiles between Chantal and me.
Chantal is more like a lover than a mother to me. And more of a mother than my real mother. She is neither, in reality, but these are the roles I mentally assign to her. She is my employer, my muse, my madam. More than anything, she is my friend. Well, as much of a friend as a sophisticated 30-something woman who runs a high-class whore house in Paris can be to a half-educated teenage runaway from god only knows where.
“Bonjour, chérie,” she says cheerily as she arrives at my little table. “Ça va?”
“Ça va,” I reply in my slowly emerging French. “Will you join me for a coffee and some breakfast?”
“For a coffee, oui, but breakfast, non. After last night my stomach would not take it, I’m afraid.”
Last night. I understand without having to say so.
Chantal sets her wrapped bread on the table and sits down beside me, so close I can feel her warmth. It’s what I’ve come to expect. I’m sure she wants me, well, that’s what I wonder, anyway, but she doesn’t touch me. I think she just wants to be close. My lover, my mother. Neither. My heart stops again as I look into those eyes, so close, next to me, looking into my eyes. So close to my own eyes.
Chantal’s eyes are green, like I said. Green, like mine. Except my one eye, the right one, that’s half green and half gold, the outcome of a genetic split somewhere in my hazy ancestry. I call it my golden eye. Sounds like it could be a James Bond movie. You know. The name’s Bond. James Bond. You’re the girl with the golden eye, aren’t you? Yup, that’s me.
No matter. Chantal sits beside me, and I don’t know how she can be so awake and look so good after those Saturday nights. But she is, and she does. I’m still waking up, even with the petits noirs, little blacks, as the French call them, I’ve been sipping, and I was sent home long before Chantal threw the last customer out and got to bed. She seems to be one of those people who doesn’t need to sleep, who is always awake and on cue.
Chantal orders her macchiato and directs her attention back to me.
“You did well, chérie. The customers like you. You are the happy little bird in the drab cage.”
“Customers.” Such a neutral word. Even I have come to use it. “Johns” is more like it. But somehow that word doesn’t seem to fit Chantal or her establishment, which is anything but a drab cage to me.
“Happy little bird.” Happy isn’t a word I usually associate with myself. It jars me almost as much as those green eyes, which seem to see inside me. All I can do is blush, which embarrasses me.
“Will you come this afternoon, chérie?”
“Do you want me to, Chantal? Do you need me?”
“Chérie, I would have you there every day and every night, if I could. But I have some special customers coming today, and I am sure they would find you to be a joy.”
Until now, Sunday has been one of my two days off. The other is Wednesday, when I have an extra session at the cooking school. I don’t feel pressured, but I can’t refuse Chantal’s request. Not after all the kindnesses she has shown me.
“Bien sûr, Chantal. Je serai très heureuse de venir aujourd’hui.”
I’m proud of my French, as haltingly as it comes to me. And I will be happy to be there. What else might I do on a Sunday afternoon in Paris? Practice making soufflés in my small apartment? Lay about on the grass in some languid park somewhere while couples grope each other in the shade of linden trees? Wonder what Sid is up to, if he’s still alive in some third-world hell hole where’s he’s gone to? Sure, Chantal, I’ll be there. Bien sûr.
If you’re wondering who Sid is, since I mentioned him, he’s my so-called boyfriend. Well, that’s a poor word for what Sid is. He’s my pimp, my abductor, my protector, my rapist, my lover, my abuser, my owner, my daddy. He’s the one who put me in Paris, paid for my culinary school, got me my apartment – all right, it’s his apartment, too, when he’s in town – and set me up with Chantal. It’s just easier to call him my boyfriend than try to explain all that. Some boyfriend.
When he’s not using me as his partner in crime, Sid is off doing what Sid does. Which is traffic narcotics from country to country, and sometimes more than narcotics. Guns. Girls. Whatever tickles his fancy and fills his wallet. It didn’t take me long to figure out what Sid was about.
I don’t really give a fuck about the drugs and stuff. They’re not my thing, but they’re somebody’s thing, so who am I to judge? I’m pretty messed-up myself, so I don’t think I have a right to say what someone else is into is any worse. Never been a pot to call a kettle black. My aunt, my Aunt Carol who is an American like me but lives in South Africa, would say something like that. “Look at the pot who’s calling the kettle black.” That’s something my Aunt Carol would say. She’d say that about me sometimes, though I don’t think she was right and I’ve always tried not to be that pot. I’m more the kettle.
Getting back to the point, I’m happy to go to Chantal’s this afternoon if it helps her out. She’s been such a sweetheart to me. Une chérie, as she would say.
“Please be at my place by 2, Rosie. I’ll only keep you a few hours, mon petit oiseau.”
Chantal finishes her macchiato and is on her feet. She reaches down and gives me a double cheek kiss before clasping the fresh bread to her breasts like she’s holding a lover.
“À tout à l’heure, chérie.”
“À tout à l’heure, Chantal.”
I’m not ready to go, and I sigh watching Chantal make for the door. It’s like only she’s in focus and everyone around her is a blur. I’m sure I see her aura.
My lover, my mother. Neither.
Once Chantal is out the door and back on the street I realize I wish I hadn’t thought about Sid. I’m happy when he’s not around, happy to forget him, if even for just a little while. Mostly I’m happy to be away from the abuse I’m so often the recipient of. I guess that’s the right word for it. Abuse. Even if I take it from him, sometimes even get off on it. But that’s another story.
My thoughts turn to Aunt Carol. It’s the beginning of winter there, cold unlike the welcome late June warmth of Paris, and she’s probably curled up in front of the stone fireplace, engulfed in clouds of Marlboro smoke. I wonder if she’s thinking about me, thinking about her little Lizzie, as she affectionately calls me. Remembering is always painful to me. It’s not like I wanted to hurt my aunt. I love her too much to do that. It’s just me. There are some things you just have to do, you just have to. You know? Even when they hurt the people you care about, the people who care about you.
That’s how it was with me. Running away with Sid. I just had to get away from home. Away from my parents. My awful parents. At least that’s how they seemed to me. It wasn’t Aunt Carol at all. She’s the only person in the world who really understands me. So she probably understands why I did it. But I know it still hurt her. Especially the lies I told her. Yeah, I lied to her. Still do. But what else could I do? Can I do?
That’s kind of what I’ve come to wonder about Sid, too. Or, more exactly, about staying with Sid. If I decide to leave him, and I can think of lots of reasons why that’s a good idea, what else could I do, and where can I go? And I wonder what Sid would do, how many pieces I’d wind up in, and anyone I cared about, if I did leave him. That’s the scariest part. I know all too well what Sid is capable of.
I don’t like these thoughts. Hate them, really. It’s so hard for me to face my personal demons when they come out of their hiding places. But there they are, when I least expect them. Like this morning. It would have been perfect otherwise. Damn.
Most Sundays I can sit here for hours, enjoying the quiet solitude Sunday mornings give me, sipping a small coffee and picking at a croissant, feeling safe with the terracotta floor beneath my feet. I’ll stay awhile longer today, too, but then I need to get back to the apartment to shower and prepare for my afternoon at Chantal’s. To be her happy little bird, there to please her special customers.