Imaginary Numbers

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Buying Identity

Rouen, France


“The first thing we have to do is buy you some clothes, my dear.”

Vivienne was draped in a nun’s oversized habit, wearing a pair of shoes fished out of the hospital’s lost and found. The clothing felt comfortable—more or less. It was the only real clothes she had knows aside from the hospital gown with its missing backside. She tried to imagine the person she once used to be: a woman with a past, a woman who made choices about her lifestyle and her fashion, a woman with a fully-formed identity.

“Ok!” A tiny irrepressible laugh escaped along with a wave of excitement she could not conceal. The professor opened the car door for her, and they took off towards the nearest city, Rouen.

The drive was not too long, but seemed slower than it should have been, because both of them remained silent. The professor was enveloped in his own thoughts; he was concerned about the burgeoning experiment in Geneva which was progressing without him. He made a mental note to check in with Marius once they stop. He was also keenly aware of his new responsibility for this girl. A duty he was intellectualizing, analyzing, and dissecting as they passed country estates, and green highway signage.

Vivienne was staring out the window. Nothing looked familiar to her. She saw the golden drapery of grasses and crops undulating across the bocage landscape. Barren trees concealing nests of green holly—to her, a very unusual sight. She frowned, wondering what those hanging green dabs of colour might be, and noticed her own face reflecting in the glass.

She had seen her own image before, briefly, in the shiny instruments of the hospital and once contorted in the cameraman’s lens the day the news station came to film her, but this was the first time she has had the opportunity to study her own face in detail. As she took in the new information, her hand reached up and felt the bones in her face. The shape was angular, the nose straight and long, a dividing line of symmetry, separating a pair of almond shaped eyes, outlined with dark lashes. The skin beneath her eyes felt smooth and soft. Her eyelids disappeared in a tight pinch next to the nose, and slanted ever-so-slightly upwards to the peaks of her cheekbones. She ran her fingers over her philtrum, a beautifully geometric divot that leads into her angular lips, which turned up at the corners in a natural smile. Her chin was small and round.

Behind her reflection, blurred images of pasture flowed by, and she imagined that her empty mind contained a space not unlike the fields blowing in the breeze outside the car. She wished that she could see through herself into her interior, so that she might know what landscape lies inside.

“What are you thinking?” The professor’s question startled her, and she remembered that she was not alone. She looked over at him focussing on the road, both hands gripping the wheel, exposing a polished cufflink.

“Well, I was thinking about my face. It seems so unfamiliar to me.” She let her hand cascade over the contours of her cheek and onto her lap. “I guess, I just need to get used to it again.”

“Hmmm…” The professor shots her a glance. “There is a mirror on top over there, if you fancy a closer look.” He flipped the passenger’s visor down for her. “See?”

“Thank you.”

The professor returned to the road and asked, “Mind if I turn on the radio?”

“Not at all.” The girl was preoccupied with her face, drawing it into a variety of wildly differing expressions. To the man next to her, she seemed childlike.

The radio sprung to life, filling the vehicle with jazz from a local station.

He was contemplating the origins of life. In his mind, he was far away, perhaps at the beginning of time on earth, witnessing just as the road spreads out in front of him, the limitless expanse of the primordial soup. He saw in it potential, pure possibility. It is an ocean of futures—the undivided egg.

His Citroën hugged the road as at twists through the Norman countryside. He was on autopilot as cortex memory guided him through the driving mechanics unconsciously.

In his mind, he crafted a meteorite, the perfect combination of rock, ice, and amino-acid. It travels in an elliptical trajectory at incredible speeds past celestial bodies, which tug at it desirously. The frozen rock is loaded with the fundamental building blocks of life; it is a cosmic spermatozoa edging its way towards the blue planet.

* * *

The city of Rouen is a combination of modern and ancient, overflowing over the old Roman walls. Cobblestone streets wind past squares and cathedrals. The population was moving about, each person fulfilling their daily obligations of work, play, love, and consumption. Most wore dark fabrics, which seemed to the professor like an expression coinciding with the gloomy clouds on the sea-bound horizon.

He parked the car on the street, and when they stepped onto the sidewalk, Vivienne remarked, “This is beautiful.”

“It is Rouen. We’ll find you some clothes here.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it before. Such a big city.”

They walked down the avenue towards a row of brightly lit shops, where fluorescent signs jut out of the 18th century façades, advertising brand names to passersby.

Ten chimes echoed off the post-and-beam houses, bouncing down narrow alleys and careening under renaissance archways. The Gros Horloge with its astronomical face, still guided Rouen through time.

Vivienne looked around, curiosity overflowing from her bright eyes. She was a wound spring, set off by every shop’s window and each individual brick.

The professor admired her for a sense of wonderment he wished he still had. He had to drag her by the arm past a group of school children, lined up like ducklings on the sidewalk.

“They are so cute.”

“Indeed.”

A girl at the end of the line, her ponytail hanging below her canvas hat, turned and waved to Vivienne, who squealed in delight. They paused in a small square with a statue of a boy in armour, holding a sword to heaven. The professor’s phone rang and he excused himself, telling Vivienne to wait a moment.

“Hello?” he said. “This is Dr. Borgiac.” The girl watched him. She studied his stoic face, which quickly changed into an expression of shock—brows knit, mouth open. “He did what?!” The professor held up his hand, signalling that he would be back in a minute. “Well, we have to get them back. Hepworth and Gagnon were my best assistants.” Vivienne could hear that the conversation was serious, and that it might take a few minutes. As the professor walked away to get some privacy, she listened to him say that he would call Marius to clear things up.

She stepped closer to the statue. It was a delicately carved marble, of a boy in plate mail armour, hands in prayer position, holding a long lance with a battle standard flying high above. There were flowers surrounding the figure, as if the citizens still honoured this long dead hero.

Vivienne tried to read the historical plaque, but it is all in French and the only information she could glean from it were the dates AD1412 - 1431. For some reason, she was transfixed by the statue. The face was so beautiful. It was serene, and illuminated by a ray of light falling between the buildings of the square. She started to read aloud, sounding out “La Pucelle d’Orléans”, when an old man interrupted her.

Excusez-moi! You are a tourist, yes?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Can you read French?”

“No, sir.” The old man’s gentle eyes wrinkled when he smiled. He stepped a bit closer to her, and placed his hand on her elbow.

“Are you doing your vows?”

“Sorry? I’m not sure I understand.”

“I mean,” he said and leaned a bit closer to her, “You want to join the church, mademoiselle?” It became apparent to her that the man was confused by her black robe.

“Oh no,” she laughed grasping the rough fabric between two fingers, “someone gave this to me. I lost my clothes.” She looked at the professor, who was still gripped in the emotional throes of his very serious conversation. “It’s a long story.”

“Ahhhh, I see.” The old man pointed at the sculpture and said, “Did you come to see Jeanne?”

“Who is Jeanne?” She noticed the surprise on the old man’s face, and then added quickly, “Sorry. I am new here” as if that would make a difference in his opinion of her.

“Perhaps you use a different name for her in English. Jeanne of Arc. Surely, you know her?”

“Actually,” she bit her bottom lip, “recently I suffered an injury to my head. I don’t remember much.”

“Ah bien. It’s no problem. I too have struck my head once. I was a resistance fighter when the Nazis occupied France. We used the catacombs beneath Paris. Life was terrifying then.” The gentleman was reliving some memory, and Vivienne wished she could reach back into her own past. She studied the man’s expression and wondered what things he had seen. In particular she wondered what a Nazi was, but she didn’t want to interrupt him. “The war had been raging three years, and most of the country had been destroyed. Outside of the cities we lived in a desolate wasteland of artillery craters, and burnt farmland. Families went hungry, and life itself has turned into a nightmare.” The man suddenly snapped out of his reverie and apologized. “Mademoiselle, I am sorry to bring up such a heavy topic.” She saw in his eyes a story of sorrow. This sensation flowed into her own heart and she felt such a profound connection that she desperately wanted him to continue.

“Not at all, sir. Please continue. I may not remember much of my life, but at the very least, I can listen to your memories.”

“You indulge me, so I will get to my point tout-de-suite. I was 17 when I decided to trek to Paris to join the fight. Still young and naïve, but I had spirit. I saw ruin everywhere, and wanted nothing more than life to return to France. I remember the bright colours of the meadow flowers and the beautiful girls of my village, the bright sun, and the sounds of horses galloping. This is how I remember the world before the war. Afterwards, everything changed and I found myself one day existing in the tunnels under Paris. We were just boys living next to the dead. Every day I lived in those catacombs, surrounded by walls built of bones, eating watery soup and stolen bread, I was becoming more like the dead. We were growing paler by the day, and even the memory of what it means to be alive was fading. Aboveground there was sky, but nothing was different. The world the Nazis had created was just as terrifying. Red banners and tanks were everywhere. SS soldiers with lugers and machine guns patrolled the streets, staring down at us from their pedestal of superiority with their glowing eyes and caps that bore the same skull motif our underground chapel was built out of. I really thought it was hell.

“But I could see no other option than to fight for freedom and beauty and life, those scared values I grew up with. Then on my 2nd mission, I was caught. We were to sabotage a shipment of parachutes on a train leaving from Gare de Lion. It was low security, but the guards came back on the train before I could get off. I alone was trapped, while my comrades slipped away. I hid under a cot, listening to the Germans’ snoring most of the night. Early that morning, an officer came in. I know it was an officer because he had high black boots. They were stained with dust and when he clicked his heels together, a cloud of dirt rose up and I sneezed. They pulled me out and beat me savagely. The officer said something in German, which I assume was “Don’t waste a bullet on him”. They took me outside, holding me between two cars. I prayed then to live longer. I prayed to God and he listened, because when we crossed a bridge, they tossed me off. I fell hard and far, rolling down the rocky edge. I hit my head.”

“What happened then?” The girl’s eyes were huge, and she covered her delicate mouth with her hand.

“Well, I woke up in a fisherman’s house, hidden in his attic. He kept me there until I was well, and then I returned to Paris to fight again.”

“Wow! That’s quite a story.”

“Everyone who lives long has a story.” The old man leaned on the balustrade, then added, “And sometimes those who live short lives leave behind the most exciting stories.”

The professor approached, shaking off the long conversation he had just finished.

“Vivienne,” he said using the name the villagers gave her, “I am sorry to keep you waiting.” He smiled politely at the old man and said, “Ah, I see you’ve made a friend.” The men shook hands, and parted ways. Vivienne looked back over her shoulder at the old man standing in front of the statue of Joan of Arc.

“Goodbye,” she yelled.

Adieu,” he said.

They entered a woman’s boutique, where they are greeted by a clerk who affected an artificial calm at the sight of such an odd pair.

Bonjour, Mademoiselle. Could you please suggest some clothing options for this girl. Unfortunately she does not speak French, but if you need, I shall translate.”

“Ah...C’est pas une problème. I can speak un petit peu of English.” She turned to Vivienne, placed her hand on the girl, and drew her past the racks of clothing into a world of female fashions and seemingly limitless accessories.

“What size do you wear normallement?”

“I don’t know. Sorry.” Vivienne’s face crinkled up in a gesture stuck somewhere between embarrassment and shame, as if she really wanted to answer the girl as much as for her own sake. “What do you think?”

“You don’t know?” The clerk was surprised, and cocked her head to one side. “Do you utilize, uh, differente system in America?”

“I am not from America. I don’t think.” The clerk threw her hands in the air, resigned to the fact that she will have to do all the work.

“Very well. Come!” She proceeded towards the back of the store, taking hangers off the racks as she went. “Follow me, if you please.”

At the back, she handed Vivienne an arm-load of clothes and told her to try them on. She looked at the clerk, then glanced around the store, which was empty aside from the professor who was wandering around near the front, feeling the various fabrics between his fingers, his right eyebrows raised above the rim of his glasses.

When Vivienne came out of the change room, she was draped in the most unimaginable combination of patterns and fits, a scarecrow of over-sized and mismatched designs.

“Oh! No no no no! Horrible.”

“Did I do something wrong?” Vivienne shrugged. “Let me try again.”

Intrigued, the professor looked up at the commotion by the change room and saw Vivienne running behind the mirrored door in a hurricane of twisting, whirling fabrics, and a firework display of tassels. Had she wrapped herself in only the scarves? the professor wondered. He went to investigate and found the salesclerk donning the faux attitude of the Parisian underground fashion movement. Lips turned downwards, sharply cut locks of dyed red hair line her face like geometric patters—the oblique isosceles, the professor thinks, and he could tell that she was about to unleash a tirade in French how foreigners don’t know style like the French do.

Mademoiselle,” he interjected, “soyes patiente, si’il te plais!” He was about to explain how this is the girl who fell in Beloeuie, and she was an empty shell of her former self, that she couldn’t even remember the Beatles(!) when the change room door flew open and Vivienne appeared in a solid imitation of the shop clerk’s own style: a knee-length black skirt worn over puce leggings; a leather jacket, which she clasped tightly around her body, obscuring the shirt she decided to wear; and tyrian purple gloves. The only thing that didn’t match, right off the bat, was her bright, white converse sneakers. The salesclerk clicked her tongue against her palate, and squinted her eyes. Vivienne spun around and peeled away her jacket, revealing a maroon knit sweater and a pied boa scarf.

“Not bad,” the salesclerk declared, and jumped to make her tweaks here and there. She offered advice on other shoes. “I will bring you more,” she said and danced between racks, collecting a set of alternatives. To the professor they seemed like young girls playing dress up, and he liked the smiles reflected generously off the mirrors. He smiled back at no one in particular, feigning interest in the variety of knee-high leather boots lining an entire wall of the store. To him it was a scientific study. He followed observation and statistics, and measured the thickness of the leather by pinching the top of each shoe next to the zipper if they have them.

When they checked out, the clerk found the multicoloured boa hidden amongst the other clothing they had mutually decided on, and asked, “Really?”

“Yes, please,” Vivienne smiled, “it reminds me of all the colours in nature.”

“It what?” The professor’s interests suddenly peeked, he looked into her green eyes and asked, “Why does it remind you of that, Vivienne?” While the clerk continued ringing items through and bagging them, Vivienne closed her eyes, attempting to dive into the depths of her own subconscious, but came up short.

“I don’t know,” she said after a moment, “but I like the brightness, the warmth. It’s like sunlight all year round.”

Elle est poètique, t’pense pas?” The clerk took the professor’s credit card elbows at right angles and slid it through her machine. “Merci!”

In the car, he asked again about the scarf, but gets no further. She made him stop to pick up some water, so he bought a two 1L bottles, which she finished before they even crossed the street.

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