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Peut-Être Combien?

ISSUE:  Spring 1977

They had left the city during the same week eight years before: Michael to get married and James to visit Paris—for as long as his money held out. Both decisions had been sudden. In early October they had been looking for an apartment together; before Christmas they had shared a last drink at The Lion’s Head, and James, wearing an old tweed suit and a new black turtleneck, had posed by the bar, patting his various pockets and bulges. Le compartiment du passeport, he had chanted, a bemused grin angled raggedly on his long face, le compartiment du billet, le compartiment de la monnaie, and then, the pat elaborated gingerly and the voice deepened, le grand compartiment du peckère. He had done a sharp jig, shaken hands, bobbed out of the bar in a walk quick and bandy as Chaplin’s, had flagged a taxi without looking back.

The abrupt decisions had a little intimidated them both, had conferred upon both projects a muffling sense of adventure. They had kept in touch, perfunctorily perhaps at first, both of them perhaps a little lonely and surprised in their sudden new lives.

And then one day in the early spring a letter had come from James. Quite earnestly and out of character, he wrote of that sense of adventure, spoke of passing through the short period between decision and embarkation in a state of almost numbed wonder. He was in Spain by then, living alone in the country, sorting some things out, he said. The letter went on to describe the stark beauty of the Spanish countryside and the curious satisfaction he found in the simple ordered life he was leading there.

The description of the life had stirred Michael and he had come home the next day with a bottle of rioja and a stack of travel brochures. Susan, the taut, shy, dark-haired girl he had married, had always liked James, and Michael thought perhaps they might visit. But at about the same time Susan had discovered she was pregnant and so nothing had come of the visit.

It had not been the descriptions of Spain anyhow which had really struck Michael. Rather it had been James’s mention of that recurring vague mixture of surprise and pride at their own audaciousness that both had experienced during the last month in New York. I think of it often, James had written, sometimes by choice and sometimes not. I think perhaps I wouldn’t have persisted myself had you not been doing what you were. It seemed so much more daring and when I got afraid I told myself, I can always come back from Paris. Or go somewhere else. It’s only a visit and I envied the confidence you had to make such a choice, such a commitment so calmly.

In Cherry Hill, where he had been transferred at his own request, Michael too had found himself thinking of that time. It had seemed a time of high adventure to him; he had felt as though people passing must discern some new sternness in him, some inner strength that hardened his eyes and firmed his cheeks. In April, visiting the New York office, he found himself sometimes missing the city, missing really the loneliness of it, the opportunity of sitting alone and detached in a dark city bar, of walking home neatly among possibility. He said nothing of it to Susan for he had already become hesitant to express doubts or uneasiness to her. She took such things so personally, her moods were so sudden, her fears and bitternesses so haphazard, it seemed, and deep. It made him afraid of her in what he thought of as a protective way.

And so when James’s letter had come Michael took it almost as a sign. He did not, it was true, think of the matter in exactly the terms James used. But it pleased him that they both thought it special. He wished that they had spoken more openly in New York, that he had known then how James felt, as if such knowledge might have clarified something for him. He found himself thinking of James at odd times, wondering sometimes what James would think of one act or another.

It was to James that he sent the first telegram when Annie was born, almost exactly a year after they had moved from New York, and to James that in the first week Annie was home he wrote, trying to explain his feelings about being a father. Those feelings, set down on thin airmail paper, had surprised him at first with their conventionality and he had hesitated to send the letter. But finally he had sent it, and been unaccountably disappointed by James’s reply, its tone now neither arch nor earnest, but merely direct. I’m not sure that I can understand all that you say. Not being a father myself. But I’m glad that you’re so pleased and a little awed again at the choices you can make. I wish you could visit. Hello to Susan.

It was the tone that James’s letters had retained over the years. The couple-month lag between James’s letter and his had also become characteristic. Though that first time there was a reason: his money gone, James had returned from Spain to Paris, where he had found a job teaching English, and Michael’s letter had been some while catching up with him.

Now at last he was going to visit James and to see the life he had made. He had promised himself and promised himself, and now he was really going. James’s letter suggesting the visit had come just as Michael had been thinking about inviting himself. Like the earlier letter from Spain, this one and its similarly coincidental timing seemed to Michael peculiarly significant. His own life suddenly scattered and garbled, he felt the letter portentous, the visit somehow crucial to him.

He was going alone. He and Susan had separated. Susan and Annie were in Cincinnati with Susan’s parents. The parents and Susan seemed perfectly satisfied with that arrangement.Annie doesn’t even ask for you, Susan had said when he called to say goodbye. And though he knew enough about Susan by now not to believe that, thought he knew enough about Annie as well, the prospect had sucked through him like a vacuum, had gaped his mouth and brought tears to his eyes.

He was to stay with James at the Paris apartment James shared with a French woman named Nathalie. He thought he would walk from the Gare du Nord to avoid the metro. But the woman who took him up on the train from Boulogne insisted that would take three hours at least.

“But look how long,” she exclaimed. “But no. Paris is a big city. No, no, you mustn’t walk.”

She was in her late thirties, craggy and declarative, very pale and dry in the face, with hard shaped black hair and high black crescents for eyebrows, a lambent dark red mouth. She had once lived in America, in Louisville, but that had been a long time ago. What she had liked best about America, she said, was the hamburger, though later, so that he thought perhaps his response about the hamburger had been cool, she confided that what she had liked best about America was the television.

“It is so wonderful there. You have shows even in the mornings.”

Intermittently, she would grope into the huge black purse she carried, extract a bottle of Givenchy, dab some on the back of her hand, and thrust the hand under his nose.

“You see? Is not Givenchy. Is just cheap stuff. Is not even a perfume.”

She would sniff at herself extravagantly and thrust the hand back toward him.

“You see. Is faded already. Oh. La Liberté. Is not right, you know? Oh, I was so mad when I discovered,” she said, turning full toward him.”Is not right, you know?” And she would tell him again how, returning in the middle of the night to the small south Kensington hotel at which she had stayed in London, she had found her nightgown disturbed so that she had checked the bottle beneath it, and found that the toilet water had been substituted for her perfume, and how then she had been so angry that she could not sleep until she had called the people she had eaten with. After a while she would change the subject, talking to him about America or about the English husband from whom she was separated and whom she had been visiting in London, but then the perfume would drum into her thoughts again and she would halt, sometimes in mid-sentence, and grope in the bag for the bottle.

Behind her he knew the French countryside was passing, but night had fallen and when he squinted, trying to shape the blurs and quick hulks into something recognizable, he succeeded only in distorting his own image in the sleek train window.

“My husband,” she said, “but what am I to do? He says he cannot leave her because it will hurt her. But I think of me and of my little boy. I say to him, you must leave her if you want. But I think a man must know what he wants. I think he is not a full man. You know what my friends tell me? They say, she took him away from you. And oh when I knew, my heart it died. I wouldn’t show it. I was too, you know, proud? But my heart it died until finally I had to leave. But my friends say now you must take him from her. You must hurt her how she hurt you, you know? And I think, sometime I will do that. But how can I, you know, when he won’t leave her? I think he is weak, you know, because he says he still loves me, but what can I do? You are smart. Do you think things are fair in life? Do you think bad people suffer?”

“No,” he said.

“No,” she said. She reached out and touched his hand. “I don’t either.”

Her eyes went off. Seeing how carefully she was put together, how precisely the makeup was applied, he was moved to say, “I’m separated from my wife too.”

“Oh,” she said. “You are so young. And do you think you will get back together?”

“No,” he said.

“You think there is no hope?”

“No,” he said.

“Are there children?”

“Just one,” he said. “A little girl.”

“A little girl. It is hard on them,” she said. And then, after a second, suddenly, “Sometimes I think to myself I would go back to him just so that I would not have to work for anyone. It is hard when you are my age, even if you do not look it. It is hard, after so long, when you are not used, you know, to go to work, to have to do as others say.”

A couple of rows ahead, the English boy who had picked up the only girl in whom Michael had been interested stood, stretched, looked blandly around. He fixed Michael’s gaze for a haughty second before he turned away and sat again. Now Michael saw that he was better looking than the English boy, thicker and taller, handsomer. The boy was pale and had no chin. Michael looked again into the window, seeing himself there all hard lined and shadowed and romantic, reflected against the night’s gloss.

He thought, I should have said to her, Hey there, I’m from the big apple. He must remember to tell that to James. I’m from the big apple, babes. He could hear James’s cackle at that.

But he was not. He was from Cherry Hill. It depends on how you think of from, he thought then. In six months, perhaps a year, he would go back in. But right now he needed to get used to being single again. Perhaps it was just that he had married young, but it seemed to him that things had changed. There were things he had to learn again, or merely learn, and he was angry at himself that he had not approached the young girl, who had after all spoken to him, been, he realized now, willing.

The girl was slight and olive complexioned, with a round mouth and the hint of a moustache and defiant round promising eyes. After awhile she passed him, swaying along the aisle, her long suede coat open. He looked up and met her eyes but she looked through him.

“How long are you going to be in Paris?” the woman beside him asked.

“Only a couple of weeks,” he said.

“Here,” she said. “I will tell you some places to go. Paris can be very expensive if you don’t know where to go.”

She took out her address book and paged, through it, selecting restaurants for him.

“Where will you be staying?” she asked. “Do you like pizza?” she said, looking up brightly.”This one,” she said, “I have not been to, but I am told that it is very good. But it is dear. Do you want?”

As he copied it down, he noticed that almost every address in her book was that of a restaurant.

Around ten that night, Michael, James, Nathalie, and a friend of theirs named Simone sat cross-legged around the white table in the living room of James’s apartment, drinking champagne toasts and eating ham and pâté. Then while James translated, Michael made them all laugh, telling about the woman on the train and the way she had splashed the toilet water in her hand and thrust the hand under his nose.

“Out of nowhere,” he said, “she’d think of the goddam perfume and” He sat across from Simone. During supper he occasionally had caught her eye, her face downtilted, eyes cocked curiously up. Lacking language, he had smiled, been rewarded by her smile in return.

“You approve?” James had said from his end of the table.

“Indeed,” he said.

James said something in French.

“What did you say?” Michael said.

“I told Simone that you thought she was very pretty.”

When he looked to Simone, she had already looked up. She was blushing. The smile shook on her lips and when their eyes met it broke, simplifying her face, emptying her eyes.

He laughed too. “I haven’t seen a girl blush in ten years,” he said.

Again James said something in French.

“What did you say?” he said.

“I just translated what you said.”

“Why don’t you just tell her I want to go to bed with her?” he said.

“That’s obvious,” James said.

And then he translated that.

Michael had looked back toward her, watching the play of her face. It was a wide face, pretty enough, dusky. But it was her hands that he had noticed most, small hands, a little pudgy still like a child’s, the fingers, bridged even as they rested on the table, slight and anomalously graceful. He imagined those fingers moving neatly on him.

Now, telling the story, he looked again to her, saw her gaze go from James, translating, to him and back to James. She sat stiffly. Her red sweater fit her closely. She wore the sleeves of the sweater pushed up a little on her forearms so that his look was drawn again to her hands, their incongruously fine fingers, the long oval of nail, as they rested in her lap. He thought then of the hands of the woman on the train: dark, serried, harsh edged. The skin on them had been thin and ridged with veins.

“It was sad really,” he said then. “When she got off the train, a friend had brought her little boy to meet her.”

He paused, understanding only now the fearful complexity of that moment: the woman on her knees before her son, clenching him and then pulling back, wiping something from his sweater and then, gently, something from his eye, her head moving fast and disjointedly, In the haze of the station they had seemed spotlighted. After a minute, all three, the woman, her son, and her friend, had come aware of Michael’s gaze and looked toward him. Then the woman had smiled, the smile a little to the side and impersonal now, and Michael too had smiled and walked on.

“It was awful,” he said abruptly, thinking momentarily of Annie.

They went out then, squeezed into James’s Deux Chevaux and drove across Paris. The night was bright and warm. Out of the car and walking, they broke into couples, James and Nathalie in front, Michael and Simone falling a little behind. They parked near the Place du Tertre, walked around it and across to look briefly at Sacré” Coeur, then back, up and down along the narrow streets.

“That’s a working vineyard,” James said. “Right in the middle of the city. It harvests a wine crop every October, There’s a huge festival.”

He had turned around and was walking backwards down the hill, his hands jammed in the pockets of his duffel coat, his steps making a little dance, He made a curious figure, Michael thought, in the loose fitting duffel coat, uniform of their American boyhoods. The bindings were unfastened and the coat was open to the night. Though the colors of his clothes were unusual and carefully put together—a purple neck handkerchief, an almost violet vest—it was only now, muted in the night light, that Michael really noticed them. He remembered James from their time in New York then, doggedly wearing out the button-down collar, short sleeve shirts and the loafers he had brought with him from Montana, gazing in Village store windows at black turtlenecks and olive corduroys, wearing the brown flannels he refused to throw away until they wore out. The clothes he wore now fit him as the corduroys and turtlenecks, when finally he got them, never had. The corduroys had always bagged in the bottom; the turtlenecks ridden up and chaffed his neck so that he held his head stiffly. These fit him easily. He moved in little springs, spoke in flurries like a wind-up toy chopping from one listener to the next, from Michael to Nathalie to Michael to Simone, his long face, caught in a grin, surprised and ironic. He knew places and their backgrounds, dates and anecdotes. Going backwards down the hill, he lurched and stumbled, regained his balance and laughed broadly at himself.

“But surely you know all this,” he said.

“No,” Michael said, suddenly bitter. “I don’t seem to know anything.” And then, after a moment, catching himself, he said.”Who’d have thought it?”

“Thought what?”

“That you’d stay here, I guess.”

“It makes a kind of sense to me,” James said. “Now, anyhow.”

“Maybe I’m still just unsettled from the trip,” Michael said.”But doesn’t it strike you as odd? I mean, that I should be just plunked down in the middle of your life and that that life should be so set and steady? When you left New York, you didn’t know where the hell you were going and things were so set for me that I was ready to take a mortgage on a house.”

James chuckled. “I’m not sure my life is as set and steady as you think. I don’t see it that way at least.”

“No, of course not,” he said. “It just surprises me still that you could pick up and just go so easily.”

“I didn’t do it so easily,” James said.

They had returned to the Place du Tertre, Looking across it, aware of Simone close at his side, Michael suddenly thought the brightness eerie; as though the dark had been merely drained from things—from the stunted trees and few chairs, from the ground of the place itself and the cafes around it—or chalked over. There seemed less rather than more clarity for it. He wanted to explain his reaction to Simone.

“La lumière,” he began, “la lumière est tres blanche.”

He saw her hands then. They were steepled in front of her. They too were held in that light. The lines of her knuckles and tracing of her nails had disappeared. The fingers seemed foreshortened, dominated by the pudginess of the hand itself. Their touch, he thought, like that, would be haphazard and bland.

“James,” he said, “can you say for me that the light is very strange?”

“Yes,” she said nodding when James had finished. “Okay.”

Only her eyes were specific. Watching them, he could not be sure that he read them correctly.

Nor could he be sure an hour later when they dropped her at her apartment. The apartment was in an old building on a narrow street, down the hill, back toward the city itself from Montmartre.

He lingered a moment in the doorway.

“I hope I will see you again,” he said slowly and distinctly. “je crois—

“It is okay,” she said. “I understand. I too. I hope the same,”

She smiled. The makeup around her eyes bracketed them darkly. Her face was pale, a big face, he realized then, so that her expressions seemed broadened and simplified. The eyes were intent, almost melodramatic in their directness, and if he had been confronted with that expression in America, even newly single as he was, he knew that he would put his arm around her easily and go in with her. Now he was unsure and aware as well of James and Nathalie waiting a little down the street, and he did not even kiss her.

“Ah, French women,” James laughed when he had rejoined them, and Michael laughed along with him.

“Will we see her again?” he asked.


“What does she do?”

“She’s a student.”

Then Nathalie said something in French and in James’s reply he heard his own name, made strange by its context, and realized that James was translating for Nathalie what they had said. She said something again, her voice crisp.

“Nathalie says,” James said, “that Simone already has enough emotional complications.”

“How so?” he asked.

“Her love life is pretty full right now,” James said, and then he turned and repeated what he had said to Nathalie, his face half amused, his voice earnest.

“Oui,” she said when he had finished. “D’accord.”

It had occurred to him in the middle of the night that he was free now to pack his things and move, as James had done eight years before, to France. Or to London or California; anywhere, for that matter. Everything connected with what he had once thought the substance of his life now urged him to go. He was not to be allowed to raise or even to know his child anyhow; better be free then; better grab his own destiny at least. The idea came weighted with a suddenness and hope that made him laugh aloud. He had pulled the blankets high about his shoulders, tugged his arms around himself, and, smiling, gone back to sleep.

Now, the next day, he stood on the right bank side of the Pont des Arts and watched James go away, All day, intermittently, peripherally, vague and exciting, that sense of possibility had visited him. He wanted to be alone now, not so much to think about it as to wait for it. It was a little past five, He was to meet the others at eight at a restaurant, the location of which James had marked for him on his small tourist map. He thought he would walk.

He watched until James disappeared, then turned the other way, pleased at the prospects of small adventure and solitude. He walked briefly along the Seine, turned left and then at the crowded Rue de Rivoli, right. He thought of calling Simone. Tucked and purposeful, people struck past him.

To go away; to live here. He named the prospect in his mind. To make a life. Perhaps sometime long in the future he could explain to Annie.Don’t you see, he might say, that I couldn’t have been any help to you anyhow? Perhaps, older, she would come to Paris and he could explain to her in some small café where the waiters knew him. Perhaps he would live successfully with someone then. Simone even. Someone anyhow sure and easy, not jumbled, frightened, lashing as Susan had been. Not as she had been anyhow at the last.What could I have offered you, he would say, if I had stayed where I could only be constrained and then broken?

He thought then of James. James had done it. He had packed up and gone. He had stayed.

At lunch Michael had asked him, “Do you miss New York?”

“Sometimes,” he had said.

“Do you ever think of going back?”

“Not really.”

“I don’t mean to pry.”

“Not at all. I’m not trying to be evasive. There were times, God knows at first, when I thought of going back. But for some reason I stuck it out. And I really don’t think I do much anymore.”

They had been at La Coupole, on the cheaper side, beside each other on the banquettes, facing out. James cut some meat, drank some wine, his motions preoccupied and delicate, a patient mulling, getting things exact, that Michael only half remembered from New York.

“For a visit perhaps,” he said finally. “But not to stay. No.”

“Did you plan to stay when you came?”

“I don’t think I had any plans really. You mean because I said I stuck it out? No, I didn’t plan to stay. It just happened. I realized one day that I felt more at home here than in New York. Not at home, just more at home. There are at least people around me here who are at home. In New York no one seemed to be.”

He had been cutting a piece of meat and then, like a machine unplugged, his motions slowed and lost force. He sat that way for a second more, hands again arched and forgotten on the utensils, his face stilled. And then, abruptly, he turned to Michael.

“Dear God it was lonely,” he said. “It was like nothing I’d ever imagined. I don’t think I could go through it again. You have no idea what loneliness is like until you try living in a city where you can’t speak and can’t understand. It’s not like being alone. I’ve done that too. When finally I couldn’t stand it anymore I went down into Spain and set up alone in the country for three months. I wrote you about that. But that was entirely different. You had different pleasures. It was nice. Or good anyhow. But it was nothing like going into cafes and hearing people talking all around you and not being able to join in, or restaurants.”

“But you spoke French,” Michael said.

“Only to get by,” James said. “You have no idea what it was like.”

After a moment, feeling the lameness of the question, Michael said, “Why didn’t you just go back?”

“I thought I should stay at least until the loneliness passed.”

Again James paused.

“And by then you were getting laid a lot,” Michael heard himself say suddenly with a harshness that hung in the air like a bray.”Always a source of difficulty in the big apple.”

There was just a momentary lag.

“That, too, of course,” James said then and arched his eyebrows.

He had come by now to the intersection of the Rue de Rivoli and the Boulevard de Sebastapol. The light was against him. People bunched and shuffled, off work now, dour and impatient. He realized that he did not want to go on into the crowd. He turned around, jostled past some people still making for the corner, started back the way he had come.

Almost immediately, at the Rue St. Denis, he realized he had passed this way earlier with James. He looked to the right, where, a couple of blocks along, the street narrowed. The shadows there seemed dramatic, the people few enough to be interesting. Then he saw as well the fenced-off excavation that James had pointed out before and he turned along that street, oddly pleased to find something familiar.

The land that had been excavated had once been part of Les Halles. When the market had been moved to Rungis, the government had taken over much of the land, mapping out grand plans for urban renewal—underground parking, a huge cultural center, an international commercial center. Millions of francs had been spent buying up land, demolishing buildings, beginning excavation. Then a foreigner had been selected to be the museum director; Giscard had replaced Pompidou; objections had been raised, funds held up, work halted.

James had found it all quirky and amusing. “I come by to look at it every now and again,” he’d said, “to reenforce my faith in governments. A million dollar hole in the ground. I hope they leave it. It seems more appropriate somehow than any cultural center.”

Michael peered through a cut out in the fencing. Two other men had stopped at a cut out further along. The man nearer to Michael was short; he grasped the lower edge of the cut out with both hands and bobbed a little on his toes, his face craned through the open space.

Inside was the hole. It marked out a city square, perhaps two stories deep, its edges uneven. Irregular puddles lay sleekly along the deepest parts. He wondered what had been here before, what the hole had replaced. As he stared into it, it seemed suddenly dimensionless. It seemed to drift out from itself, huge beyond guessing, and then with no change of light or marking, to fold in, small, remote, inconsequential. You could focus in such a way, he realized, that the hole had no edges of its own, no bounds, then no measure. The puddles in the deep sections might have been markings on the moon, water in a cavern. They might themselves descend forever. He turned away, passed the little man on tiptoe and his companion. The sidewalk was boarded over, the street strewn with mud and haphazard debris.

In the next block he passed two men stopped in the middle of the pavement, staring into a doorway opposite. Behind the door, in white satin halters and shorts, posed three young girls. On the left, a tall pale girl lolled her backtilted head on her arched neck; her dark hair was coiled thickly on top of her head; her eyes were hooded, her mouth cupped open; her tongue swung slowly over her lips, drew back, licked out again. Beside her a blonde, her hair waved and tumbled thinly, her face pouched, lifted a breast with one hand, let the hand linger down her side, lifted the breast again. The girl beside her, he realized then, was astonishingly pretty.

She could have been 17. Her hair, like the blonde’s, was waved like the edge of some Victorian bricabrac and tumbled past her shoulder. But it was thick dark hair. She had high padded cheekbones, flared nostrils, her full mouth almost a circle, its color blended with the duskiness of her complexion; she stared out with an expression so even that it suggested challenge, then complacency, then perhaps timidity; one hand set pertly on her hip; with an abstracted rolling motion, she was chewing gum.

The girls were framed with incongruous formality by the windowed door. They seemed unaware of each other. Yet the frame was too small so that they overlapped, the akimbo elbow of the pretty girl cutting across the front of the blonde. Ludicrous, artificial, garish, banal, they excited him nonetheless, and when he turned away he found himself recalling the high cheekboned face of the young girl who had gazed out with such ambiguous blandness.

In the next block another man stared into another doorway. The girls here were heavier. They wore red short slips. The entranceway here too seemed to cramp them, run them strangely together, muting the particularity of their dumb-show and at once increasing its appeal. He paused only quickly, hardly broke stride. The fat ladies in red made him think again of the girl in the first doorway.

He turned back a darker street, went along it, turned right and then right again, heading back toward the Rue St. Denis. It was half past six by now. He would stop for coffee in a café he thought, and then go on to the restaurant. Perhaps Simone would be there. He had hinted to James that he would like that, but James had said only that he didn’t know. He might stop and look at the girl in the first doorway as he passed.

Here and there along the street girls and women were stationed. He hardly looked. And yet he was muffled in a curious excitement, as though in turning back the side street he had committed himself in some general and unforeseen way. He remembered scuba diving once in a Vermont lake, the strange effect of the cold water as he went deep, numbing him and at once concentrating all sensation vibrantly at the edges of his body.

Then about midway along a girl did speak. “Désirez-moi?” she said.

He was stopped by her tone. It was stripped and sneering. He had not been aware of looking at her, but as he stopped he realized that he had been. Her oval face in the light was puffy and pale, the features like little jottings gouged into it. Her hands were in her jacket pockets and curtly she swung the jacket open now, revealing a sweater tight across her breasts.

Désirez-moi?” she said again.

And then, while he continued to stand before her, he saw another face. It was the face of the woman on the train from Boulogne. It seemed somehow a bad fit, like a ready-made wig. Brittle, it strained in a hopeful smile and then the face beneath, the real face, bumped into it and its right cheek shuddered, fell away. It came to him fleetingly; then his own too, reflected in the train window, all its loosenesses obscured, handsome, stern; then, though untouched, it too spreads, goes shapeless around pinched features.

Now another face occurs. It is his wife Susan’s. Unlike the others, hers is fitted to the bones and muscles beneath. The face is thrown back for she is standing pressed against the white wall of their Cherry Hill bedroom. Her arms are angled at her sides, the hands clenching and opening, scraping the wall almost soundlessly. Her head angles more sharply from her torso, her neck taut. Her dark hair is lank and spread heavily behind her. The face is all in arcs, reddened and feverish, the mouth fully open in a long sucking of breath. Her hair has fallen oddly around her right ear, seeming to set it off, pale and iridescent.”I didn’t choose,” she is saying, the words running together on the gasp of her breath.”I didn’t want this. I didn’t choose any of it.” Her clawed hand comes forward and pulls down her face, marking it with paled bars. The bars seem, like the drained translucent ear, to glow, to shimmy, to lift from her taut face, close into it again.

And then it passes. The whore, when he looks back, still waits. She appears merely bored now. Whatever emotion had sharpened her expression has passed.

“Yes,” he says; then, quickly, “No.”

“Non,” he corrects himself, “merci, mais non.”

Still she waits. Standing in front of her he feels drained.

“Oui,” he says then, “Peut-etre. Combien?”

But she has lost interest. She has looked away, has hunched her short jacket around herself, moved back against the wall. She looks resolutely off in the direction he came from.

“Peut-ètre,” he says again. “Combien?”

She does not move.

After a minute he moves along, makes his way out to the brighter Rue St. Denis and back toward the Rue de Rivoli.

Perhaps Simone would be at dinner, he thought. Perhaps he would stay on here, talk to James and learn how he had done it. It would be easier of course with James to help. Perhaps he would go on somewhere after dinner with Simone, return later to her apartment on the nifty old side street, stay on. He would need only a closet, he thought. Or perhaps when he returned something substantial would have changed, Susan given him custody of Annie or set him free from his support obligations, anyhow something. Perhaps he would return here after a year or so, speaking French by then and with some money saved, make a life as James had done, sit someday in a café and explain to his grown daughter: make it all clear, all simply well.

It was nearly seven. He slowed as he passed the first doorway. The blonde had disappeared. A short redhead had appeared. The pretty young girl stood as before and he stopped for a moment to watch her.

You did choose, he was thinking, you did choose.

There’s so much to choose from and I didn’t choose this, Susan answered./ didn’t choose any of it. Don’t you want more than this? Sometimes I think you don’t want anything.

I want, he pleaded, I do. And I chose, I did choose. I chose and so did you, he pleaded, sure of it.Didn’t you know all along that I chose you? I chose and now there’s no choice left.

He came aware of the redhead then, gesturing to herself and then to the stairs behind her, a puzzled inquiring look on her face. She rolled her hips in a perfunctory grind, and he realized that he had been mouthing his words as he looked in the window. The pretty young girl had stilled, watching his pantomime. Her jaw rolled again on her gum.

He went on. When he passed the fenced-off excavation, the little man was still there. His companion had gone on and he was alone now, straining tremulously on his toes, clinging like a child at his cribside, watching the hole intently.


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