His drink is an invisible thread along which he feels his way through the geometry of clipped streets and gardens. It is a thread that sews him back together. He begins to sense the thrill of her proximity as he turns down the rue des Dames and enters the courtyard at 111. He recaptures the gifts she has given him: the new and rapturous experience of the door, frame, stones, a newspaper bundled on the concierge steps, the trash spilling over the green bucket, ready to be collected, the black-and-white photograph, frame splintered against it.
His lungs heave as the wind flees him.
The black-and-white photograph of his mother, tearing from the uppermost edges where the frame has cracked off, one eye daggered with the ripping line, a nostril halved, the curl of a slashed lip.
He collapses to a crouch on the ground.
--Maman! he cries. --No, not, no!
He gathers the battered picture into his arms; it is an awkward jumble of angles and edges, but he cradles them as best he can, rocking on his feet, his finger cut by the ragged frame. He does not know how long he squats there, softly crooning, but when he stands his arms ache as if they carry the horrific load of the head itself. His eyes shriek open, throat smarts with air and once and for all he has to know.
He rushes back to the rue des Dames, nearly slamming to the ground the blur of man and guitar case entering the courtyard, looks left, frantic, right, the photo clutched against his pounding chest, and enters the brasserie next to the parfumerie across from the cobbler's, taking the down stairs to the telephone. The half-francs clink into place and he dials.
--Hello, she says.
--Angela, he says. --Angela, what about that drink?
--Who is this? she says.
--C'est moi, Gilles.
--Gilles. Oh. Could I call you back? I'm just out of the bath and dripping everywhere.
--No. No you can't call me back. I am not near a telephone. I am not near a telephone you can call me back on. I am not in Paris. You must answer now.
--Gilles, are you okay?
He squeezes his eyes shut, tries to release his breath.
--Please what? I don't understand.
--What about that drink?
--You said.-- Exhale, inhale. --We would have a drink. Sometime. Tonight.
--Oh, I'm sorry Gilles. I've got plans tonight. I thought you knew, I mean, you even said -- oh, never mind. Anyway, you're not even in Paris.
--That has nothing to do with this.
--What? Forget it. Okay, Gilles, whatever, no problem, we'll do it some other time. But could we talk about this later?
--What about this weekend?
--Oh, I'm so sorry, Gilles, she says. --But I am going to Madrid this weekend.
--Did I already tell you?
--You promised a drink.
--I didn't promise.
--You will take the night train.
--Yes, she says. --As a matter of fact, yes. Why do you ask?
--I don't know why I ask, he says.
As the sentence rises to his lips it is a mournful soliloquy; by the time it is complete, traveling through the intricate system that unwittingly presses her lips to his ear, it is an accusation. He clicks the receiver down. The telephone is a telephone again and nothing more.
He runs back, the photograph held ahead of him like a shield, the mother's cracked face turned away from the son, leading. They take the stairs one, then two at a time and he raps on the door twice and thrice with the staff of splintered wood in his hand.
The door and frame separate a slit the black of crushed velvet. A stretch of leg, and face, take shape from darkness. Her hair coils in glistening tumbles to her shoulders. He cannot tolerate the fact that he beholds only a fraction of her when just moments ago, it seems, he had millions of Angelas in that sacred spinning circle; at the same time, thrusting the photograph straight to her face, he cannot tolerate the treacherous fraction he beholds.
--What, he cries. --Is this?
--Gilles? she smiles. --I must have misunderstood. You're back. How nice. But now isn't a good time.
--This -- shaking the portrait before her as if it is on fire. --What is the meaning of this?
--Oh, I know, she says, opening the door a centimeter more and smoothing back a lock of hair. --Odd, isn't it? Someone left it in the night.
--How could you do this?
--How could I do what?
--This, this, how could you do this to me?
Her calm is unnerving, the way her hand glides across the untroubled forehead. His eyes follow dizzily; he lunges forward, just missing the meshing of their faces in a violent kiss.
--What?-- she pulls back, hand dropping, hair winds back into her wide eyes. --Gilles, it was you?
--How could you throw it away like that?
He tries to maintain balance, focuses on the valley where her heart thuds in her neck.
--How could I? How could you? she cries. --I don't understand. Are you mad, ringing at that hour? I was a wreck. Are you absolutely mad?
--I did it because I love you.
--You don't even know me!
--I know one thing.
--So you come calling at god knows what dead of night and leave a picture of, an x -ray of, of a skull of another woman at my door?
--Don't say that.
His hands begin to shake; he plunges them deep into his pockets.
--Was it you who made those calls as well? Do you have any idea what it is to be a woman alone in a city? No, no. Of course not. What were you thinking? Were you thinking? Was this some kind of joke?
--I thought you were different.
--I was terrified. I do believe you're crazy. Don't you ever -- I don't know what your story is and I don't need to know. You stay in your world and I'll stay in mine-- that's why there's a wall between neighbors, for god's sake.
She straightens and takes a long swallow of air. When she speaks again her voice is slow and dry.
--Just go, I ask you to please please go.
--I loved you, Angela.
She is shaking her head. A laugh chokes up from her throat.
--You really don't get it, do you, she says. She closes the door. The chain clicks into place.
It is hot in his room. He loosens his tie. He is in the chamber of the new beginning and the heat is oppressive. He lets his pants drop to his ankles, kicks over them, shimmies until his jacket slides, ushering in the rustling descent of the crisp white shirt. Working his stammering hands into yellow robe sleeves, he wonders whether he is coming down with something. His eyes dart about the room in an attempt to find something to linger upon but even the birthday bears, still lined up against the wall and weary with the chronology of his life, cannot pull him down into their softness; the thought of the furry warmth against his flushed cheek dizzies him. Through the window, Luc is not yet outside but he catches a glimpse of his sundressed wife passing in the inner room, her arms wide as wings with goods from the market. She will begin to cook soon, supper for two.
This heat for a winter's day. He snaps off the single bulb beneath whose glare the sweat beads upon his lip, and throws open the window. Wind surges over his burning skin, coaxing goosebumps from flesh, and sets to rattling the wounded photograph at his feet: rat tat tat.
There are moments when even thin lines between things do not exist and the structured nature of them is laid bare. To look upon a map of the world requires great faith, to picture distant points is difficult, to imagine the sense of a journey, impossible. He would like to be very still, for just a moment stall the earth's futile spinning, but he hears her water shot tea squealing laughter, each note a shivering drill through his fever.
Rat tat tat. He leaps from his apartment and slams his palm against her door; the door slams against his palm. Again. Again, again.
--Angela, he calls.
--Angela! he screams.
She opens that crushed velvet width. Her face is pale. She looks like the inside of something empty. She looks familiar.
--I am afraid, says Gilles, and his voice rises, wavers above him like a soul over a sickbed. --I will have to ask you to turn off that music. It is an insidious cacaphonic sensory nightmare. And your telephone calls in the middle of the night. This must stop. It is like waking to a house on fire to hear those endless hello how are yous, i miss yous, i'll write yous. You won't write; you and I both know that. I have lived here for two and a half years. That is nearly nine hundred and thirteen days. Have I not merited something?
His voice drops, spent.
--All I ask is that you remain quiet. Very very quiet.
She opens and closes her mouth. Her hands are shaking.
--I am sorry to have shouted, he says. She has many hands. There is something in his eye, in both eyes that makes her one and then two and then one again, that shifts and slips down long, spreading like roots. Raindrops on the ceiling. Raindrops on a school bus pane when he was seven. He notes with interest how they spill in sudden ardent rushes, gem his lashes, swing from the tip of his nose. --I am very tired. You understand. It has been an exhausting day.
He leaves her there slumped against her doorframe, eyes chasm wide, and turns to enter his apartment. His room stretches into the night space. He cannot see the end of it but there is a wind that dances upon his cheek and he makes his way toward it, stepping out from his yellow robe, it is very near, this cool cool wind.
This wind tugs at the curled edge of the photograph at his feet. He bends to it, feels his way along the tear and pulls, suddenly, the dividing angle of paper. The edge leaps rolling toward his fingers and, before it reaches, he tosses it through the open window. The one-eyed creature remaining is not so familiar, and even less so the half-eyed one that follows, the fraction of lip, a gliding bone, blind. He is shredding furiously, she is gone gone, fluttering in glossy black and white flakes, up down up, down to the distant cobblestones. He leans from the window, flinging this winter's confetti. The snow falls falling, does not land, makes the unmistakable sounds of an empty house.
© 1995 Tanuja D Desai