At his desk at approximately 23h that evening, Gilles considers Luc through the window, across the courtyard, and in his own window. Luc is, though not quite a friend, a comrade, a compatriot. Each evening about this time, Luc leans out his sill and slumps onto his elbows, keeping his amber cigarette vigil.
There he is now. Gilles is, as is usual at this hour, pressed up against his own window, preparing for the weekly meeting with headmaster Felix Defossez and by candlelight mapping out practice quizzes, individualized for the needs of thirty-two of his students (in the case of Pascal, the pathos of the blank page is, for Gilles, immobilizing): circumference problems with no radius given, to develop Celine-Marie's sense of humor, a request in Hebrew for the rebuttal of the Pythagorean theorem for Simone whose mother claimed she was not being sufficiently challenged, equations with two variables, the values of both given in highlighted four-centimeter symbols for Henri, whose xenophobic father suspected his son was being intentionally and singly overly challenged. In the midst of creating an ominous horoscope in couplets that will eerily cease rhyming at the end (for Hugo who often dozes off during Gilles's most inspired moments), he pauses to meet Luc's gaze.
It is difficult to see his face at this hour, but the steadiness of the gaze is apparent if not always its object. Gilles has learned Luc's language, the significance of his gestures, his in breathing and out. The direction of the exhalation is tight with meaning; for example, a downward gust almost always times perfectly with the arrival of someone, a hissing cat, a storm in the court. Gilles would instinctively flex and reach for something sharp: a compass, protractor, fine-tuned pencil. He thoroughly enjoys the element of danger in this rapport, he and Luc sentinels on guard for the well-being of each of the 112 residents of 111 rue des Dames. However, all their duties have not been hazardous; a well-aimed leftward exhalation often corresponded to a rise in the pitch of Mylene's near-midnight lovemaking song (not to be confused with the low strumming morning hymns or the twilit pre-theater anthem; this last she perfected with her Spanish conductor, calling out his name in refrain, the emphasis landing painfully on the O. This was the one that Gilles, personally, found the most unbearable to simulate, which, in fact, catalyzed his rigorous amassing of a classical music collection and walkman that he played in defiant exuberance at these moments.) Mylene grew increasingly soulful, outdid herself, hitting undoubtedly illegal octaves ever since the evening (23:05 hours, a Thursday) she sauntered in (in a pink-ribboned Kookai leotard and wiggly skirt; he knew this despite the dark as he'd watched her leave thus attired four hours earlier) with this summer's singer from the rue de Lappe tapas bar, just by the Bastille. This was Otravez and he entered her life via her room and did not resurface for four days. It was a long weekend in May for three of these days, and on the fourth Gilles took a sick day. His face quilled with a stubble like petrified moss and resounding in his yellow bathrobe, he crouched in the corner that joined Mylene's and awaited the intermission. He was ill-nourished; with the whizzing blade of his portable fan he sawed off chunks of an archaic baguette. He was sick at heart, his hand, sometimes, clumsy against his groin.
By the dawn of the third day he learned to match her timing and, for these groaning guttural moments, Otravez ceased to exist, and it was he, Gilles, who was discovering that shuddering primal space with Mylene, mentally replacing the name of the other to whom she cried out with his own. Through the paper thin wall on the morning of the fourth day, there was the splash of running water and tea whistles and a doorknob, at long last, turning. Flat against his peephole, Gilles watched Otravez emerge, pulling a hand through his hair, black as a devil's wing; behind in robe and slippers was Mylene, wrapped round him like a belt. Through the peephole, their curving together was fetal, their heads like large stars colliding. Gilles flung open the door.
--Bonjour, he said, indignantly.
In the course of Otravez's grin one was left with the sensation that he had flashed a gold tooth.
--Bonjour, Gilles, said Mylene with a gaiety bordering on rudeness. --I would like to present to you the love of my life.
--Otravez, Gilles said.
--Y el primero ? said Otravez, turning a cross face to Mylene.
--You've met? said Mylene, with a dazzling lift of the brows.
From the smile she sported of the glad heart she held, Gilles had a fluttering wonder as to whom she was referring to. But their kiss was, like Spanish, a language he knew not.
Once Otravez wound down the five flights and was thumping through the courtyard, Mylene placed a hand briefly and gently against Gilles's face, a hand he would have liked to keep there like a novel and forgiving appendage.
--Gilles, she said. --I've been meaning to ask you. Have you had any luck?
--I don't know what you're talking about, he said.
--Gilles, she said. --We've heard. And we're all very sorry about your situation.
--I don't know what you mean.
All at once, he felt a fool, an overripe banana in his yellow robe. She nodded slightly. Her fingers were in his hair, which had then not quite yet reached his shoulders.
--Take care of yourself, she said.
So he had a situation. This nearly inspired pride in him. They were all sorry to have heard; this made him nervous. Who were they, exactly, and how many of them were there? Just what had they heard? His joining in their lovemaking, those intimate carols? It would be unforgivable of him if she had. One's bed was a space that should not be entered without invitation; this was a law in some countries. His mother in those last months, a sliver of a person against pillows wide in the house in Villefranche, had said as much.
--A bed, Gilles, is like an illness, she told him. --It is private, it should not be invaded, neither your bed, Gilles, nor my illness. And so I ask you to go now. Go north to Paris, to the place I have found for you. Make a fresh start. It is close to the work you will begin, food for the spirit. I tell you now to go.
He was kneeling, doubled over by her side, a knight, a devout person, crippled. His sobs wracked his body like an imprisoned wind and in his hands he twisted the edge of the sheet in which she lay, leaving him.
--After all these years, Maman, he wept. --You have never spoken of my spirit. You did not want that I take this job. You promised we would stay together and you asked the same of me. You promised. And now, after all this, you tell me to go. Who in the world do I have besides you, Maman, who will love me like you do?
--I am dying, Gilles, she said.
So he prayed neither his mother nor Mylene had heard him actively awaiting her completion of that last heaving D-minor. Luc as well often seemed to be waiting, inhaling in her direction. But any sense of camaraderie Gilles felt with him at this point was curtailed sharply by the fact that Luc's wife roasted chicken every night for him in her garter belt, no stockings, the straps swaying gently against dimpled flesh. To make matters worse, she was an exhibitionist: if one were to hoist oneself up over Gilles's sill, twist an ankle round the base of, for example, a desk for support, grip the edge of Mylene's neighboring sill, and stretch out along one's own, all the while crooking and extending the neck, and recollecting Talmud passages in order to appease God in the event of a fall-- there in the inner chamber she would be, clear as a well-rested eye, bending and basting, her ass raised to the air like a toast. She caught him once, watching, pulled a dishrag to her upturned breasts, and looked away quickly. A faithful wife.
It was odd that she went to so much trouble. After all, she purchased the bird pre-roasted each afternoon from the quiche vendor on the rue de Levis. Gilles was there once when she made the deal. Breasts and thighs sizzled on caged turning spits and he pretended to study the startling variety of ham and cheese, broccoli and ham, leek and ham, ham, and pizza quiches. Luc's wife glared at him.
--Clochard, she muttered, collecting her change. --I've seen you. Got nothing better to do than follow me around all day? And dressed like that, too. A walking banana. Why don't you go find yourself a job, or even a hobby? You should be ashamed, a man your age.
--I am on my lunch hour, he replied with dignity.
He could understand her embarrassment; that's what her anger was, essentially. He was privy now to the web of deceit she'd wound tight around her husband: bending to roast what had not only been roasted all along, but basted. It was, admittedly, an act she carried out with great skill, the stroking of poultry in the kitchen limelight. But it was an act of deceit nonetheless. Small wonder Luc needed air, rested his head in his hand, sometimes, and massaged the temples, as if contemplating the leap and fall, the splintering earth and its jagged sky that would beat down upon him blue blue blue in the irrelevant court.
But none of this matters now; her scorn, Pascal's desertion. Now he is a friend. The word is bright as a lollipop on his tongue. The girl spent the afternoon napping and has been fixing up her room since 18 hours (noon her time). He can hear her and his heart beats delight. The commode groans along the wall, a snap clack of suitcases bursting open, clanging hanger chimes, vacuum gusts, the flapping wing of a giant bird: a rug beaten for dust against the window railing. Three telephone calls.
--Hello, I've just got to Paris now.
--Hello, I've just got to Paris now.
--Hello. Yes. I'm here. I'm really here.
He has a friend, even a rendez-vous. He clips his papers and pushes them aside. He does not want her to be settling , translating alone her Boston afternoon. He scrubs his plate and butterdish to a toothy gleam. He shuffles his horoscopes into zodiacal order. With his compass (and selected toenails) he plies the grime from the bathroom tiles. With the square of Indian silk reserved expressly for this purpose, he wipes his mother's photograph dust free and, finally, splashes the tub sudsy, yanks open the valise, and one by one baptizes each of his thirty-two-and-a-half birthday bears. His mother had given him one every year of his life: the sloping Gund, the ship-delivered FAO Schwartz Hanukkah bear, Mama, Papa and Baby Bears, Paddington, Pooh, Curious George (his mother insisted upon the development of a good imagination). The grizzly on the back of whose head she sewed another face (the half) when he was ten and she spent the savings on a pair of grossly oversized buckle shoes for him, to replace those she'd found so unmanly she'd burned them with his copy of Plato's Symposium (Alcibiades was a bad example and Diotima's ladder was not portrayed in a manner compelling enough to balance this evil). The bears are now dyed a darker hue, dense with cleanliness, and he lines them up against his bare wall--her wall-- to ease her descent into a charmed sleep. If she is still wearing the Swatch he noted face-up on her slim wrist and if she were wearing it in Boston, or even if she is wearing it here, or even if she were not wearing it, it would be 10:33 there, adding up to his favorite type of number: prime. She sleeps now, sighs a lazy swimmer's sigh. He remains there against the wall, wanting to touch her, to not wake her, wanting nothing more.