In the headmaster's office, where he stops in before class, it is always the same:
--Give me a chance.
--Not this again.
--I deserve that much.
--But we don't. This is a respected institution, Gilles. If you had read the letters, heard the calls. We were put greatly at risk.
--It has not been easy for me.
--Bien sûr. We know that Gilles. And I assure you it was not easy for us to do what we had to do. But the pressure you put on them. Especially the Charbin boy. They are children, do you understand that? They cannot be out all hours in bars, in cafes; for god's sake, you can't take them home with you. What were you thinking? They cannot balance your world upon their small shoulders.
He feels himself trembling and clutches the headmaster's hand.
--That only happened once.
--It should not have happened at all.
--We were only making pictures.
--His mother was frantic.
--Mon dieu, says Gilles, choking.
--Not this again.
--I feel, says Gilles, --my heart may burst.
--I'm going to have to ask you to go now.
Their voices are so similar that if one in passing were, despite a more noble upbringing, to hesitate outside the door, it would seem the single hinged barrier to a schizophrenic's refuge. The likeness pains Gilles, for he believes it only just that at some point and without much difficulty their roles should be reversed, but not only are they not reversed, his is no longer even discussed. The headmaster is impassive in his swivel chair, with a moon-shaped scar by his left eye, Gilles notes sadly, whose origin he would perhaps never know.
When he takes leave of the respected institution, he turns to contemplate the high window of the room in which his students are. André Gide, who titters indecisively when asked about the relation, and still appears baffled to find himself transported from Basel to the blackboard, is there, framed. Gilles has seen him before, a gasping twitchy man who seems always short on oxygen and to have an itch he dare not admit to. He is agreeable; Yes, Gilles has overheard him telling the headmaster, You couldn't be more right and, during braver moments, Of course, of course, it is just as I saw it. André Gide shifts from view, blue clouds brush against each other and trail off. The building looks strange from the outside, as if it does not have an inside.
He is walking home. He tries to appear like a man who is meandering during a sudden off moment, still vigorous with the purposefulness of his vastly more numerous on -moments. He is wondering whether he should have chosen Capricorn today and then--Angela mille fois, spinning in crushed black velvet before him. Through the vitrine of the boutique just diagonal from the laverie beside the keymaker's next to the pastry shop across the street. She emerges from a dressing room, making candle-flick movements on narrow heels. Every mirror in the place matches another to reflect her to infinity and, occasionally, the salesgirl kneeling at her feet. It is a magical moment: dusk. When he steps closer, into the open doorway, he sees the girl is pinning the hem to lift it a jaunty six centimeters higher up the milky thigh. Angela squints at herself in the mirror, a little less as the hem rises. Turning, she sees him.
--Gilles! she cries. --Oh, I am so happy to see you! I'm just a disaster shopping without my mother. What do you think? I know, I know-- it's a bit wintry but, you know, I like to live on the edge a little and it is on sale.
She throws out a hip, one hand upon it, and pushes the fingers of the other through her dark hair; they stick, momentarily, in her braid. On the floor, the salesgirl squats, sewing circles around her.
--Why aren't you saying anything?-- both hands on her hips now --Do I look too fat? I look too fat.
He smiles. Too too too.
--I knew it. I knew I looked too fat.
She turns back to mirror, wrinkling her nose.
--You're all so skinny here. It's definitely because you don't have elevators. Usually. And the way you count floors.
She looks absolutely miserable.
--You have so many verb tenses.
--Angela, he says, wanting to say it again and again. --You are sublime.
--Oh, Gilles, she says, flinging her arms round his neck. --I am so glad you think so. It is very important to me.
-- After all, she winks, --tomorrow night's the night.
He is dizzy from her twirling, reeling from her stillness, but manages a big wink back, like the ones from the early films.
--And when does it all begin? he says.
Eight o'clock. He has one hour plus twenty four, twenty five hours. His life is thrown into perspective, as if a small child dies now, inexplicably, in his arms. He mumbles excuses, flustered, takes the avenue des Ternes from the rue Poncelet, straight to Courcelles, beyond the carousel and the Sacre-Coeur's distant shadowed curves.
He cuts from the impasse, stumbling through to the rue des Dames. He feels he is swimming, pushing wide the door with mighty strokes, a fish's leap over the high wooden frame into the courtyard.
How strange, he thinks, this courtyard bright with stones, these stairs I have climbed and unclimbed, or at least this elevator I have ridden, at least two times a day, seven days a week, fourteen times a week, 1825 times in two and a half years, even this green bin of trash and this button I have pressed to illuminate the corridor all my nights.
All changes now for him. The hall light is sunlight, her doorknob, the sun.
They will have a drink together.
--We will have a drink together, he confides to Bear Twenty-Four, an ingenuous sort with oversized ears and a bewildered expression.
--We will have a drink together, he mentions casually to Number Nine and, turning it over, --We will have a drink together.
Each time he intonates further down, pulling the melody from the words until he is, at last, uttering a statement. Will it be under an awning or lights dimmed, crosslegged on her floor? Does one dress for these things, is there a ruby port rapport carried out in tweed with the vivid recounting of equestrian experiences at large summer homes, distinct from the vested red wine exchange that begins with Baudelaire and unfailingly results in glimpses of God and that certain depression which causes one to telephone ex-lovers overseas? Or, terrifyingly, beer. Would he need to appear robust? Perhaps it was not too late to take up a sport.
He is restless. He organizes his records in order of increasing bass, and then his milk liters by expiration date. He switches two of them so as not to seem too neurotic and, having experienced this, switches them back. When he hears the unmistakable footsteps clicking up the courtyard, it is the sound of ice cubes clinking in the tall glass of a burning man. He is at his railing and in the last light he sees she is swinging a shopping bag from the crook of her arm. Luc, seeking air early this evening, inhales in her direction and exhales in Gilles's. It is that evident, the dance developing between them. He is a man who will soon be having a drink with a woman, and it shows.
She is inside her apartment; she plays a staticky radio, sings baby, baby and oh la luna.
--Hello, she says through the paper thin wall. --Is it you? I've been meaning to write and I promise I will.
--Hello, she says. --How are you?
--Is it warm? Do you miss me?
She is poetic and endearingly close to her parents. He must draw her closer still and he dials, trembling at the barely muted jingling on the other side.
--Hello? she says through the wall.
Hello in his ear. Simultanéité. He cannot contain his gasp of pleasure.
--Hello? she says. --Who is this?
--Angela, he whispers.
--Who is this, she says. --Please. Tell me who this is.
The raindrop dance of the aging daughter waking in the night to take her mother to the toilet begins upon his ceiling. Gazing up, he maps out the constellation of their movements. Luc is on his third cigarette. Angela is everywhere. There is nothing that is like this moment. There is nothing that this moment is not. The telephone, a solid pulse against his cheek. A tear falling plink! to the floor. He sighs, utterly simply happy.
--This isn't funny, she says.
When he hangs up, there is absolute silence. He lies very still. He does not want to so much as crease the quizzes he has begun to fill out upon his desk. He wants to lie very still and develop a mode of expression for how he is feeling. She is turning in her bed, the litany of the bedsprings traveling intermittently toward him. He is overcome with the desire to stun her with a truth, or a gift. What does he have to give her? He contemplates the room.
With her as the catalytic thought, he is able to view the apartment as in the first days and he recalls now that fresh start. Even empty, the room smelled of old medical texts and the suits of people's fathers, but as these were things he was not so familiar with, he still considered the environment conducive for a beginning, an unsettling. He arrived at this apartment new to Paris and with a new job. He did not unpack his valise. He purchased only what was necessary: Cup/ plate/ bed/ slide rule/ protractor/ compass/ fridge/ fan/ six sets of clothes scribbled on a shred of paper and a bathrobe for the seventh day. He filled the carton in which the mini-fridge had been packed with the six outfits, slung the bathrobe over it, and christened it a commode. He was indulgent and obtained a fold-out desk and swivel stool (uncannily like that of Félix Défossez); he positioned them by the window. The panels of swirled wood were cool against his feet. His mattress floated in the bareness like a raft. He wanted to maintain the air of one who is just passing through; from his ceiling, a lightbulb dangled off a piece of twisted wire.
It was not like the house in Villefranche. That house was the color of his memories, the deep mahogany hues of overripe things. Drapes thick with velvet, loveseats stuffed as well-fed children, canopies and cushions and finely carved keys that opened nothing he knew of, thus ensuring that something he did not know of remained soundly locked. His mother stood in the salon, in the space where there should have been a piano but was not, smoothing her nightgown.
--Do you know why I love this house, Gilles? she said.. --I will tell you what is remarkable about it: You can fall anywhere, but you will never land. As if you were to slip from a roof to catch a wind, a strong cool wind.
She spoke as if they had wandered by chance into this architectural phenomenon when, in fact, she herself had designed it this way, selecting items high and low (but not between) and edgeless, with painstaking care from the market, ads, graphic design artist moving to New York City.
Inside, the house was silent; it was like snow falling. She danced with him sometimes, humming, the folds of her nightgown caught in her fingers. Her bare feet glanced upon the braided rugs. Da da da da dee. Illuminating the foyer was a large overexposed black-and-white photograph taken of her years ago; she was distressingly ethereal in its whiteness, her hair pulled from her narrow face to merge with the black backdrop, her bones iridescent, emerging, the irises so pale, as if there were none, simply two immense pupils transfixed in circles of ice. Whether or not she was beautiful was questionable; she was arresting. Her eyes followed one everywhere and the slight curl of her lip was as readily a grimace, a scowl, as the expression of a tenderness. Childhood pictures of Gilles, posed occasionally with a birthday bear, perched on mantels and cabinets precarious with china, and carried him up through the age of about nine, at which point no new ones appeared, as if his development had been arrested at that point, as if he had died tragically and abruptly, an ice skater's death. They had a guest once, which Gilles remembered as one would a vision or ghost; he tried to forget it this way as well. His mother brushed her hair thick to the waist with the silver-handled brush, and Gilles's too, and they stood very quietly in the foyer, a full half hour before his arrival, waiting: Gilles lost and ill at ease in the excess space of his new manly shoes, his mother glancing sidelong at the photograph of herself as if at a mirror, casting upon him a disapproving look if he so much as shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
The guest arrived, stepped in a long grey coat from a wind of rain, freezing. Gilles simultaneously backed into the shadow of the staircase. He glanced at his mother who was trembling. It was winter. The guest thudded to the mantel and surveyed the photographs there.
--Théodore, she said, her hair blowing back, wet with wind.
--This? he said, slapping down a photo: Gilles at seven, balancing a big red umbrella at a bus stop. He seemed angry. He laughed a hard even laugh. --This? But he is small, he is weak and he is ugly. You have lied. Of course. Again.
--I do not know why I came here. But I am here. So, you do the honors. Let us examine the damage.
--He is not here.
--Well, putain, Hélène, where is he? Hiding? Napping? Rocking his playthings to sleep? Or, admit it, did he never exist in the first place?
--He is dead, she said.
Gilles did not understood and understood completely, sunk into that fraction of a second when every instant of life, all that has come before and shall come again flits a patch of gold through the brain, a quick peripheral butterfly. He realized he could not feel his feet if he were standing still, only the floor iced against them, not his limp hanging arms, but the wailing gust that raised the soft hairs upon them as the guest exited and his mother bolted the door behind him. Without movement of some sort he could not be certain of his own being, without a hand upon his face, could not have a face at all, nor a head, nor even a sorrow.
That night, he was awakened by the scream in his dream of his limbs being torn off; in his room, the wind had bewitched the curtain into a mad dance. He opened his eyes and his mother was kneeling before him on the quilt, nightgown shimmering, caught like a thief in a strand of moonlight. She leaned over him and gripped his head with both hands, locked him in the swinging chamber of her dark hair.
--Gilles, she said. --This life is filled with devils. Angels are for the dead and, perhaps, the dying. They are too light to walk among us. That is what is good about them, not their deeds so much as their lightness, their spines upright. But devils come clothed as angels. That is their greatest evil. That is their greatest strength. Beware, Gilles.
He felt shot through with thorns, she held him so relentlessly close to the follicles. Suddenly, she wriggled under the quilt, pulled his head into her lap and kissed him fervently, twice, upon the eyes.
--Promise me you will never leave me, she said.
He dreamed of landscapes that were her face, blue moons downhill rivers wound full of rain.