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By Chuck Manson All Rights Reserved ©


Chapter 1

I remember Elise standing on the platform at Gare Saint Lazare, auburn hair pulled back by a shoelace-thin yellow ribbon. Her eyes scanning the crowd of weekend travelers for a sign of me but I stood next to a newspaper stand, nervously fingering the keys in my pocket and out of her view. Those eyes, green like a willow from Monet’s garden, those eyes that had caught mine so many hours before as I had lied, pulled themselves reluctantly from the crowd to catch the movement of the clock.

She had swept into my life on a quiet Sunday afternoon as I strolled the back alleys of Paris. Dancing to her private music, ubiquitous white earbuds sprouting from beneath her swirling hair. I was watching a bad artiste sketch the middle-aged prostitutes who spent their days sipping wine and smoking cigarettes at a rundown bistro when she appeared from nowhere.

“You are American, no?” she asked over drinks later that night.

Too much swam around my head then, the lights of Paris, the bad singing of tourists infected with too much wine, the flashing of Elise’s eyes as she spoke, half to herself.

“Yes,” was all I could muster.

“I knew it the moment I saw you standing there.” Her nose wrinkled as she giggled. “You looked so serious, so intent on that shit drawing. I thought you had to be either American or blind to what Philippe was scratching out.”

“Yes, he is very bad,” I agreed.

“He is shit,” she proclaimed and raised her empty glass.

I toasted him too. “Shit.”

She was always making such decisions, declaring what she thought of something, an instant impression, and I would be risking my life to disagree with her. Even now, standing on the platform, I could see her beginning to decide what my status was, my value. I watched her leaf through the tickets and maps, ducking back into the shadows when her eyes seemed to sweep towards my position.

I had arrived in Paris two months prior to study the city, the people, the way time had passed yet stood still. Arriving from a small village in the countryside, Elise had seized the city and found her place amongst it’s constant buzz. Somehow we seemed to fit together despite approaching the world from different angles. I lived to make plans and she lived to live, swirling through each moment. For me, everything was part of a puzzle, a grid laid out with the patterns just waiting to be deciphered. She seemed to work it without a key.

“Not everything can be thought through,” she whispered in my ear once as I contemplated purchasing a sketch by Philippe. “Just decide.”

I rankled at the chiding and shoved a few francs into Philippe’s grateful hand. “I can be impetuous when I feel like it,” I reminded her.

She furrowed her brow as she examined the drawing. “You should choose your moments better though, Mon Ami.” Standing on the bed, she pinned it the ceiling of the apartment I was renting, “when the time comes, you will have to listen to your soul.”

“My soul talks to me quite a lot, actually,” I caressed her leg.

She slapped my hand away, “ha, that is not your soul talking now.”

“That is not what I was talking about. My coming to Paris was impetuous, a sudden decision.”

“Yes, yes after you got your passport and your visa and told all your girlfriends goodbye and made sure your plants were watered. Such rashness!”

I pouted, unsure of how much playfulness lay behind her teasing.

From my vantage point in the shadows, I watched her adjust the bag she carried on her shoulder and check her cell phone. There was a flash of irritation across her face as she brushed her hair back and began to realize that I was not coming. Would she try calling before giving up?

That morning we had sat in the courtyard of the apartment building sipping our rosehip tea from chipped, china. My landlady, Mme Durand, insisted we have at least one cup each day though we usually managed to avoid her but that morning’s dose was accepted as it came with two of her freshly baked croissants. Elise had been talking for several days about taking a trip to Venice and she waited till I had the warm bread in my mouth before bringing it up again.

“We should go with Philippe today to Venice. He says that he has friends who can put us up for a few days while he sells some of his works,” her eyes cast down and aside, playing innocent to me.

The tea was tart and gave me a moment before I had to reply, to disappoint her. “You know I can’t go. I have too much still to do here and commitments.”

She sighed and looked up at me, “file your papers from Venice, from the train or anywhere but come with me today. I’m tired of Paris right now.” She dumped her tea into the plants next to her. “I can get us tickets and arrange everything so all you have to do is come to the station.”

“And tell Ruelle what? That I’ve decided to take a sudden leave, that I’m going to be ill for the next week or so?” I shook my head, “it just doesn’t work that way.”

“Bah!” she flicked crumbs at me. “It works anyway you want it to, Mon Ami, but I think you simply do not want to come with me. I thought that perhaps we had broken you of your cautious ways.”

I stole a glance at my watch and stood quickly, smarting from her taunt. “You know I’d want to come with you but I can’t just abandon my responsibilities here.” I slipped my satchel over my shoulder. “Two weeks and I’ll be finished with Ruelle and then we can travel.”

“In two weeks I will be dead or mad,” she pouted, “or both.”

I kissed her head and inhaled springtime. “Call me later.” I left her there in the garden with empty teacups and unfulfilled plans.

My phone vibrated against my chest and brought me back to the station. I peeked out and saw Elise pacing irritably with her phone pressed against her ear. It shook eight times before the voicemail picked up. Three heart beats later, it danced again but this time for only seven times. Five heartbeats passed before it moved again for five times. I reached in to touch it, tempted to pick it up but it stopped before I gave in.

Elise put her phone away and I breathed out empty. I did not think I could hear her voice again and knew if I did I would not be able to lie again.

.She was waiting for me at a cafe near my apartment with tickets in her hand. “I got us two tickets for the seven o’clock train,” she started almost immediately.

“I never said yes,” I pointed out as I sat.

“Don’t start with me, we are going and that is final,” her green eyes narrowed at me, ready for any argument I might conjure up.

“I’ve still got to go to Pigalle and meet with some clients of Ruelle’s in a couple of hours.” In the back of my mind I began to see it all; the trip to Venice, weeks walking along the canals then off to wherever her muse pulls her. She had talked before of Switzerland and of Portugal and I had felt the same temptation each time.

But then what? Where would we settle or would Elise ever settle?

“I can see the wheels turning, Mon Ami. Tell me what you seeing,” her hands reached out to me, soft and warm hands that shook with excitement.

“I don’t know,” I confessed my indecision. “It would be fun to get away but I’m so committed to Ruelle and his projects.”

Her hands squeezed mine tighter. “Say you will come, you will meet me at the station and we will travel with Philippe. Say it and I will believe you.”

So much light radiated from those green eyes that I could focus on nothing but her. She could not be stifled by my denial, her future lay out before her and I knew then that it would not, could not, include me. Paris had been idyll but now was her time to venture past the Cherubim and for the garden to fade for me. I had a life mapped and I was powerless to veer from my course.

“Mon amour,” she whispered hoarsely.

“Yes, yes,” I looked down at the brightly painted fingernails that dug into the back of my hand. “I will meet you at the station.”

I can see her now as she gets onto the train, Philippe waiting at the door for her with his portfolio under his arm. With one last glance back at the thinning crowd, those green eyes lock with mine as she steps aboard the train and I am left behind .

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