There is a beautiful golden croissant, half-eaten, on my breakfast table. That, and a café au lait in a large blue bowl, still warm.
Behind my kitchen window plane tree branches form a translucent jigsaw puzzle. There is something like renouncement in the November light morseling its way through. It all speaks to me. I feel like pieces of this puzzle, yet unassembled. Exploded. Thrown in the air by some capricious wind.
There was that call, a moment ago, from one of her lovers. No, not her last one. That one is more broken than I am, I bet. Just one among her collection of men. I can’t remember the name. Yet I have a good memory when it comes to voices. For I heard them all at one point or another, oh yes. Either to complain about her, to lament, or to spit out the rage they didn’t have the courage to throw directly at her when she discarded them like outdated goods. This one was raspy, with a slight tone of arrogance. Not too much of it. Just enough to let you know the man was well-to-do, but not necessarily self-confident. It had, in fact, the voice of the season, of a broom sweeping away autumn leaves. Evanescent, yet seductive, with a touch of fragility. Just like she likes them. He just said, “Allo? Solange?” Of course, I said, “oui,” since I am indeed Solange. Solange Beaulieu, anchored as such on rue Jean Ferrandi for the sixty-four years I have lived on this planet. A planet I know little of, since I am no traveler. I hardly leave Paris, nor do I feel the need to. Even getting away from the 6ème arrondissement demands a real effort on my part. Each Paris district is like a small town with its own little idiosyncracies, its own little markets, boutiques, cafes and occasional beggars, and I am perfectly satisfied with my rive gauche corner. I am two steps away from Le Jardin du Luxembourg —close to Paris’ oldest and most beautiful trees. And should I ever fall into the trap of religion, there is always Le Couvent des Carmes next door, although it’s Carmelite brothers, not sisters, who have their cells and chapel there. But there is a convent not far from here, whose charities my mother contributed to. Every time I walk by it, I can’t help but wonder about the lives of its nuns. Is God easier to live with than men? Of course I don’t believe in God. That doesn’t mean an imaginary creature is necessarily comfortable, does it?
I duplicated my “oui.” Perhaps the caller didn’t hear me the first time, or perhaps I didn’t want to be heard. For I knew the call would have to be about her, about one of her nasty little tricks. What did she do this time? What kind of destructive pattern did she invent, just for the hell of it, as she would say? My fingers were clawed around the cell. I was then an eagle suddenly afraid of its own aloneness, facing an apocalypse.
She would make me relive so many of her apocalypses. It’s a good thing there is no heart condition on either side of my family. Just something about nerves. But then again, I have a good prescription for tranquilizers. She, on the other hand, never takes medications, not even aspirin. After her agonizing narratives, she is reborn. A sphinx. Of course, she has emptied herself; I am her convenient little receptacle. “So calm you are,” she says. She is well aware this is a chemically induced calmness. I swallow pills for the both of us; I know this amuses her.
After my second “oui” there was a silence that lasted for two long breaths. It reminded me that I never saw the ocean. Ah, but Paris has the Seine. They cover its banks with sand in the summer, so we have beaches of sorts, right in the middle of the city. I don’t like it. Sand and parasols around the Seine feel like a cheap wig on a beautiful woman. Useless and stupid.
The trees are a consolation during those crazy, touristy times. Any time, in fact. Did you know that, among all European capitals, Paris is the one that has the most trees?
“She’s dead,” the raspy voice said. And then killed the connection. Like that.
I stood looking at my cell, at if it were the rude culprit. The phone slipped away from my hand, fell from the kitchen table. My eyes saw without seeing. Hit by the anemic sun, the kitchen window was shivering now. Or perhaps it was the plane tree branches brushing against it, undoing the puzzle they had so carefully assembled in their immobility. The half-eaten croissant suddenly looked like some swollen worm forgotten by the birds, and the café au lait, hardly touched and now cold, invaded the small space with a smell that grew more nauseating as the minutes stretched. And yet I sat there, unable to move, my glance fixed now on the phone on the floor.
My rive gauche apartment could now sell for twelve thousand euros per square meter, obviously something I couldn’t afford if I hadn’t inherited it from my parents. To the decor I knew in my childhood I have made very few modifications. Painting jobs now and then, a change of commode, a more functional sink in the kitchen. Nothing much. The furniture is the same. Antiques, mostly Empire (indiscriminately first or third), some Louis XVI bibelots. I make sure everything is kept in shape. “The refurbishing must cost you a fortune,” some friends tell me with their little Parisian mocking tones. “Why, sure, but when there is no rent or mortgage to pay, it’s easily affordable,” I respond, equally mocking. I, too, am a Parisienne, and not some Rastignac, not some arriviste like most of them, but a true native. The furnishings and the quiet landscape paintings (among them, a Corot that was the pride of my father), complement the high ceilings quite well, I would think; as well as the tall windows with the wrought iron on the outside, the parquets and the whole 19th century architecture. But it’s entirely demode these days, they tell me, implying, of course, that I am as demode as the furniture. With few exceptions, old and new Parisians of a certain generation go for tough lines, tough colors, aggressive motifs on their walls. Antiques are only good if they are repainted in the brashest of tones. It’s the goût du jour. It’s their malaise, I say, and I let it be. My own malaise is too much empire in these surroundings, too many Napoleons. I let it be as well.
Of all the people making fun of my living accommodations, she is the most sardonic one. Was the most sardonic one? But no, I cannot use the past tense. Surely, Raspy Voice has gone crazy. She’s not dead. She can’t be dead.
My cell phone rings again. From my chair I bend over and grab the phone. I check the screen and see it’s the same number. I don’t want to talk to Raspy Voice again. Why can’t I remember his name? I pick myself up, start throwing the café au lait in the sink until I hear Bastet ’s faint meow. I grab a small bowl from the cupboard, empty some of the cold café au lait, cut what’s left of my croissant into small pieces, dip them in the liquid, and place the whole thing on the floor. “Here’s breakfast, my beautiful little cat.” The way the feline looks at me, I know she’s giving me her stamp of approval. She then begins her gourmet feast, happily, but never in a hurry. The innate zen rhythm of a cat.
Bastet is a present from her. She always wanted a Siamese, she said. But she got tired of her just two weeks after she bought her. Me, I was fascinated with those intense blue eyes, the way they blend at the center of the face.
“Blend at the center of the face! What are we talking about, a sauce, or a feline? You’re so damn affected sometimes!” she likes to say. “Eyes do not blend. The fucking cat is cross eyed, like all Siamese cats.”
In any case, that and the sleek walk reminded me of her. Bastet always came to me when I visited. She jumped on my lap and stayed there until I left, at which point she started to produce what sounded like little cries of anguish. “Here, you want it?” she finally said as she handed Bastet to me.
The ringing has stopped. But I suspect it will start again.
Fifteen minutes later, it does. I pick it up. “When I said she was dead, I didn’t mean that she had stopped breathing. Not anything like that.” That’s all he said. And then he disconnected.
I should scream. Throw the phone against the wall. I almost do that. But the cell phone is a practical device, and it helps my routine. And when you’re sixty-four (and not losing your hair; indeed, a friend who thought she was funny played The Beatles’ song on her guitar during my last birthday party), you love routine as much as you love people, it seems.
I want to pull my hair, but I have just been styled by Jean-Michel from Salon Bonaparte.
So I just choke and shake a bit. What I want is to cry. Fall under an avalanche of tears. I should be so lucky. Instead there is a knot in my throat, some dizziness, the feeling that things are unbearably unsubstantial.
What the hell did that s.o.b. mean? Is she dead? Or isn’t she? I decide to call him. What’s his name? I always call people by their name. Always. The screen on my cell only indicates a number, no accompanying name.