Catherine lit a cigarette. The whitish line she exhaled meandered upward in front of her squarish face, widening as it passed her dyed red hair. Her features were broad and her voice as warm and husky as brandy. She must have been about 70 by then, but there remained something coquettish about her, the pastel summer dress she wore. Watching her ex-mother-in-law, Petra guessed that Catherine could still enjoy a man. The last time Petra had seen her, she’d had an Egyptian living with her.
“Yes, his craziness was a big part of his charm,” Petra said. They were discussing the sudden death of Catherine’s only son, who was also Petra’s ex-husband, Rémy. The conversation was in French because Catherine knew little English.
Catherine looked over at Petra, who seemed younger than forty-something. Her freckles bore some of the responsibility for this effect, but Petra liked to say it was because she was immature for her age. Then, Catherine’s gaze took in Petra’s two little girls, “Your daughters are so cute,” she ventured in English.
“Mommy,” asked Zoe, the younger girl, twirling a strand of her long dark hair, “when are we going to eat?”
“Soon, honey. Very soon.” Zoe and Kaia wandered into the dining room to look at a couple of magazines on the table. From time to time, Kaia’s voice wafted back to the living room as she tried to read some of the French words.
“Lez seecrets dee lay beauty,” Petra heard her say. Les secrets de la beauté. A bell of laughter issued from Zoe when she heard the strange sentences her sister pronounced.
It was twelve years since Petra had been in Paris and more than 22 years since she’d been there with Rémy. She’d been a kid back then, barely 20.
One night, Petra, at a desk in the small maid’s chamber they’d rented, had filled pages in her journal while trying not to wait for Rémy.
Just before 3:00 a.m., he stumbled in.
Petra’s eyes nailed him. “Where were you?”
“Minou,” he whispered, “Look what I’ve done. Pour toi, ma chérie.”
Thirty-seven hundred-franc notes stolen from the Parisian equivalent of a Home Depot had floated down onto the bed, orange as autumn leaves.
Petra looked through the lenses on Rémy’s wire-rimmed glasses into his blue eyes unable to tell whether the bewilderment there was his or her own.
Now, so many years later, Petra was in the 13th arrondissement with her two little girls in green corduroy overalls. Back when Petra was with Rémy, Catherine, had been a chatty woman who cleaned houses for a living. Every morning, she’d start out talking about how well or poorly she’d slept. “There wasn’t enough air,” she’d say. “I couldn’t sleep.” Or, on a good morning, “I feel great! I slept so well. I’m going to make a tomato sauce today.”
Now, pauses punctuated her conversation, as though what she really wanted to say would not come to her.
Catherine had chosen McDonald’s for dinner. These days, she earned her slight living caring for a little girl and boy, who clamored to go “chez McDo.” She spoke of her young charges as “mes petits enfants,” like a classroom teacher might, as though they were really hers.
“Mom, can we eat now?” asked Kaia, coming right up to her mother and fingering the bright blue beads that hung from Petra’s neck.
“Yes, we’re hungry,” said Zoe, squeezing in beside her sister and tugging on her mother’s hand.
“Okay, let’s go,” Petra said.
She was remembering a conversation she’d had with Rémy while they were married. Walking west on 86thStreet in New York, he’ d said. “I will die a hobo.” He was smiling.
She hadn’t imagined herself married to Eric, with two little girls.
They took the narrow, cagelike elevator down the stairs. The girls were singing a French nonsense rhyme Petra had taught them:
“Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, violette, violette,
Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, violette, bicyclette.”
“What’s wrong, Mommy,” asked Zoe. She was only three and alert to her mother’s slightest discomfort.
“Nothing, honey. I was just sad that Rémy died.”
“Oh,” said Zoe. “I’m sad, too. I didn’t know him, but if you’re sad, I’m sad. He was your friend.”
“This way,” said Catherine, leading the group to the corner so they could cross the Boulevard.
The McDonald’s had a playground with a red, blue and yellow jungle gym and fat tubular slides. The girls busied themselves playing. Petra and Catherine went to order food. Two Arab boys worked behind the counter. Catherine ordered a couple of glasses of beer right away and a hamburger. Petra got orange juice and a salad and happy meals for the girls that came with little booklets of fairytales in French.
The two women sat down at a table near the play area. “Oh, que j’aime mes petits enfants, Petra, tu devrais les voir.” Now that she’d lost her only child, it was only natural that Catherine would talk about her new children, the ones for whom she babysat. Petra thought about Catherine’s old boyfriend, Nordin, how he drank hard cider and smoked Gitanes. He’d gone on his way a long time ago. Who had been there to hug Catherine when she’d heard about Rémy’s death? Petra had an urge to punch Rémy.
In the play area, Kaia slid out of a tube, her feet emerging in their red Converses, followed by her overalls, then finally her freckled face and short brown hair. Zoe, with long hair and fewer freckles, came down head first and put her hands on the ground as she tumbled out of the tube.
“Mom, did you see us?” she called.
“Yes, I saw. That was great. Come eat now.”
The two girls flopped over to the table like Raggedy Anns, squeezing in next to Petra, then taking a few bites of hamburger and fries. Zoe opened her carton of milk, inserted her straw and took several sips. Kaia did the same with her apple juice.
“What’s the toy?” asked Zoe, pulling it out of the bag. “Oh, a book. I don’t like it.”
“Neither do I,” said Kaia. “Is that all they have?”
“I don’t know,” Petra said, “but I like it. I can use it to teach you French.”
“We don’t want to learn French,” said Kaia.
“Yeah,” said Zoe, “We don’t want to.” Then they ran off again to the playground.
By the time the children were back on the slide, Catherine was on her second beer. She started to cry.
“What’s wrong?” Petra asked.
“Chais pas, Petra. I don’t know. Seeing you, I . . . ” Then she blurted out, “Why didn’t you stay together? What was wrong with Rémy? What was wrong with my son?”
“Nothing was wrong with him.” Petra remembered how they’d run out of things to say to one another, she and Remy. They had sat across the table from one another in silence. She’d felt old suddenly. Older than she felt at present.
“You should have had a child.”
“He told me that you were pregnant once. You should have had a child. You could have been happy together.”
“Twice. I was pregnant twice—but I wasn’t ready to be a mother.”
“Ready? No one is ready to be a mother. Was I? I had to give Remy to my own mother to raise. Ready?! What an idea!”
Petra had, in fact, waited until it was almost too late to have children, miscarrying once before Kaia, and twice before Zoe.
And having children was something that she and Rémy had argued about. He’d wept all afternoon after her first abortion.
Catherine drained her second beer. Her eyes looked a little glassy, but she asked for a third.
“Are you sure?” asked Petra.
“Yes. I need a little extra tonight.”
Petra went and got the third beer. Then, she told Catherine how Eric, her current husband, had lost his younger brother.
“Oh, no,” Catherine said, eyes bloodshot. Was it the beer or the tears? “How did it happen?”
“Car accident,” said Petra.
“So I know how you feel.”
“His poor mother.”
“Yes. It was hard for her. Very hard. Eric always thought that his brother had done it on purpose, though.”
“Oh, no,” Catherine said, shaking her head for a good long time. “I am sure that he didn’t. It’s not possible.”
“He had a lot of health problems. He had a thyroid problem. The kids at his high school didn’t understand what was going on with him—why he was so angry—they thought he was weird. Eric thinks he was driving too fast on purpose.”
“It’s not possible.” Catherine repeated. She started to weep again.
“Come. Let’s get you home,” Petra said, starting to get up and approach the older woman.
“Wait, I still have some beer to finish. Catherine pulled a tissue from her purse and dabbed at her eyes. Then she took a few more sips of beer. “On y va?” she said at last.
“Ça va mieux?” asked Petra.
Oui, ça va.
“Girls,” shouted Petra. There was no answer. Petra looked for them, but didn’t see them. For a moment, the room went dark.
Then the giggling children ran to her.
Somber, the women walked back across the Boulevard, but the children skipped across the cobblestone-lined street singing “Frère Jacques.” It was dusk, around 8 p.m. in July. The sky was rosy at the edges and the clouds pink and red. The smell of diesel fuel surrounded them.
Back in her apartment, Catherine said, “I’ll put up coffee.”
“You don’t have to,” said Petra, “we can get it at the hotel.”
“When are we going back to the hotel?” asked Zoe.
“Soon, honey,” Petra said.
“No. You have to stay for coffee.” Catherine looked too tired for company, but she also looked like an old woman who shouldn’t be left alone.
Her make-up had worn off. Her face was cottony and lined. Frown marks between her eyes were little fjords.
“Okay, okay. We’ll stay, said Petra. If we have to, we have to.”
Catherine weaved into her kitchenette and started to boil water for coffee. The doorbell rang. It was Eric. He’d come to pick up the family.
After introductions, the conversation was cut short. Eric, a Brooklyn-born Italian with slicked back hair, didn’t speak French. He began looking over a book of photographs that was lying on the coffee table. The photographs depicted Paris streets and buildings. It had been lying beside a few paperbacks—detective stories and was so unlike anything else of Catherine’s that Petra knew Rémy had stolen it from the lobby of some art gallery and given it to his mother. Doesn’t she know? Petra asked herself. Doesn’t she understand who her son was? She thought about her few years as Rémy’s wife, long before motherhood had come to her—simplifying her, calming her.
It was true that Rémy’s mother had given him over to her own mother for raising. Years later, while in the French Navy, he had scrawled a tattoo onto his upper left arm. It slanted upwards. “I am alone,” it read, in English, in block letters that a school child might have struggled to print and, as though the child had recopied a dictée, it repeated again underneath, slanting downward this time. “I am alone.”
“Le café est prêt,” called Catherine.
“Do you need help serving?” asked Petra. Petra took the silver tray from Catherine and set it down on the mahogany coffee table. Little cups of French Roast stood on the tray, along with a creamer and a small ramekin of sugar cubes. Large bowls of chocolate milk awaited the girls.
The china was white with the most involved rose pattern Petra had ever seen. She got tired of trying to follow the vines around the cup and looked over at the sheer lace curtains that hung in front of the long windows.
Petra had begun to mourn old possibilities. Why wasn’t she living in this city? “Eric, if you want to go off on your own again tomorrow, it’s okay,” Petra suggested, handing him one of the cups of coffee.
“You sure?” he asked. “Maybe we should spend tomorrow together.”
“Yes, I’m sure,” She was used to her life with Eric, but it was hard on her French. As long as he was with her, everyone—except Catherine—would try to speak English.
“Write to me when you go back to New York,” said Catherine, as she sipped her coffee.
Leaning forward, Petra asked,
“Catherine, why do you think Rémy was walking along the train tracks?”
“It was the way home.”
“Wasn’t there another way home?”
“I don’t know.”
“When he tried to cross the tracks . . . “
“When he tried to cross the tracks, what?”
“Well, there were trains coming from both directions. Did you know that after we broke up, I got a call from the police in Los Angeles? Rémy had climbed to the top of a hotel and was threatening to jump. I didn’t do anything, Catherine. I just told the woman on the phone that we weren’t together anymore. She said, ‘That’s it, Miss?’ I said, ‘Yes. That’s it.'”
Catherine looked down. The lines in her face gripped shadows cast by the lamp beside her.
“Why didn’t you go get him?”
“I was young. I thought he was just playing. Now Petra choked up. She had loved Remy’s Frenchness, bien sûr, but had she ever loved him?
“Catherine, he was sad, wasn’t he?” she said, placing a hand over the older woman’s.
“No. I don’t think so.”
“There were trains coming in both directions.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it, Catherine. Mon Dieu, there were trains coming in both directions.”
“I don’t understand. He didn’t take his life,” said Catherine. “He didn’t take his own life.”
Petra walked over to where her daughters giggled over their hot chocolate. She stroked their hair. After awhile, she went back to the sofa where Catherine sat, bent down toward her and said, “Come visit us in New York. Promise you’ll come.”
Catherine looked dazed, like she was awakening from sleep. “Oui, oui,,” she said.
“Girls,” Eric called, “Let’s go.”
Everyone hugged and kissed both cheeks. Then, the family rode the elevator down thirteen flights and walked to the car.
“The suitcases are still there,” said Petra, who’d been worried about Eric’s parking near the housing project where Catherine lived.
“Good,” said Eric, “but you didn’t have to tell her.”
“Tell her what?” Petra asked. Then she looked into his eyes. “How did you know?”
“I could tell,” he said. “And I know you.”
“Hold me,” said Petra. “Please hold me . . . for a minute.”
“Put your seatbelts on, girls,” Eric said as the children scrambled into the car, and then he turned to the woman beside him. Petra felt her husband’s arms fold around her, heavy and uncertain, as though all that was left of her were air.