May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
February 13, 2020
Dragging open the iron-barred door for my friend, Dagmar, I felt uneasy. On this spring day in 2015, our Paris sublet had just fallen through. The owner—struck by illness—could not travel as planned to her country house, and she had arranged for us to stay with “son amie,” Simone. Dagmar and I trundled suitcases down a dark passageway toward the elevator. Imposing on a stranger felt awkward, and my discomfort rose as the birdcage ascended.
The doors parted. Simone stood on her threshold: petite, with a shining sweep of white hair, attired in lavender cashmere and gray trousers. She was as regal as one of John Singer Sargent’s Edwardian aristocrats, still as a portrait. Her grave smile diffused my worry.
Beyond the foyer lay two high-ceilinged rooms, where jewel-tone paintings hung between deep-set windows; these overlooked a side street in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Volumes of art crammed bookcases. A baby grand shone, reflected in an ornate mirror. Raw silk pillows—raspberry, lapis, marigold—pinwheeled from end to end of a linen sofa. On the mantle, a gilded Japanese fan spread its folds like a peacock.
Opposite these rooms, across the hall, a bedroom and kitchen overlooked a garden. The flat’s story unfurled: Simone’s grandfather had built this house in 1900; then, 110 years later, she, her brother, and son had pared it down, making individual apartments. Her rooms formed a three-dimensional portrait, where time would double back in our conversations and enfold us in her life.
But for the moment, all that penetrated my jetlag was the aroma of lamb navarin. Simone seated us in the diminutive kitchen; on the table she centered a vessel fragrant with garlic, bouquet garni, and lamb with baby carrots, green beans, peas, spring onions, new turnips, and tomatoes. She poured wine, toasting our arrival.
We ate and shared with Simone about the outer contours of our lives—how a married writer and a now-retired teacher with four children and an ex-husband met in Berlin four decades ago and rendezvous every year. Between Simone and my own slight form, swathed in an ivory pashmina, Dagmar towered in an electric-blue tunic. Ebullient as the high-pitched yellow and brilliant bittersweet oils I’ve seen her splash on canvas, Dagmar seemed to soften the politeness of our hostess. Simone described her son, daughter, and grandson, whom she babysat often now that she had retired from office management. She mentioned her husband was at their house in southwestern France.
“He wanted us to move there full time,” she revealed, “but it’s too provincial for me. I am a native Parisienne.”
Bidding Simone au revoir, Dagmar and I melted into April’s mist. For hours, we sauntered through Saint-Germain, trading the recent highlights of our lives. At Ladurée, we lingered over pots of chocolate thick as pudding; its warmth and my weariness converged. At six, we headed back to the apartment with a baguette, cheese, fruit, and wine. Dagmar invited Simone to join us. Quelled by exhaustion, I listened to them talk for an hour. When I crawled into a daybed in one of the front rooms, a nocturne of barely audible French lulled me to sleep.
After a morning at the Musée Picasso, Dagmar and I crossed the rain-spattered courtyard to a quiet bistro. We sipped Vouvray—Honeycrisp apples on the tongue—with the plat du jour.
Dagmar leaned forward. “I learned more of Simone’s story. Her husband is Japanese.”
“No kidding.” I tore open a warm baguette. “How did they meet?”
“At the university. After they married he brought his mother here from Japan. She has lived with them ever since.”
“He must take her with him on these stays in the country.”
“Can you imagine? For forty years his mother has never learned to speak French.” My friend, fluent in four languages, shook her head. “I told Simone we will stay for three days and then move to the place I rented in Montmartre.”
“Oh good. Did she understand?” We had agreed that three days was long enough to intrude on a stranger.
“She tried to talk me out of it. I told her we appreciate her hospitality but feel this is best.” Dagmar added, “I think she might be a little bit lonely.”
The three of us had agreed that we did not need to take all our meals together, but that night Simone joined us again. Wine—or our growing rapport—inspired another confidence.
“We moved in here when we got married. After forty years, my husband decided to move to Toulouse. When I refused, he chose to stay there most of the time.”
Dagmar, who has lived in Berlin Mitte most of her life, could empathize. She told Simone that she and her partner, Rolf, enjoy weekends at their country cottage, “but permanently? No. It would feel like exile.”
They traded tales about their grandchildren, white heads bent toward each other. I basked in the warmth they radiated. How traditional was Simone’s husband? I asked myself. Did her refusal to succumb to his wishes surprise him? How were they navigating a long-distance relationship? Maybe our hostess missed the intimacy of sharing space.
Before dinner I had read from a biography of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the geologist, priest, and philosopher of evolution. As a five-year-old in 1880s’ Auvergne, he had loved rocks for their resilience, and he grew up to collect fossils, first in England and then in Egypt during his studies for the priesthood. His thinking about the origins of the earth matured through contemplation. Memories surfaced of my mother’s cluttered closets, the castoffs she was not ready to give up, which I excavated after she died. We had stumbled into Simone’s life, and in her kitchen our talks had already unearthed relics of her history. Each telling added another dimension, much as the patina of evening light shaped and reshaped the shadows around us.
Wednesday, a duet of conversation in French rocked me awake like an aubade. Dagmar pulled out a chair for me and poured coffee; Simone carved crusty bread. She handed us yogurt from the refrigerator, then withdrew a parcel wrapped in white paper.
“If you like, I can make us halibut this evening.”
“That would be wonderful,” I told her, touched by her tentativeness.
“I bought this for us yesterday. We should eat it while it is fresh.”
Dagmar and I spent the morning walking alongside the Seine. Sleeping bags and tents of the homeless littered the riverside ledge; gilded statues on the Pont Alexandre III glittered above. We took seats in the Petit Palais café adjoining the circular courtyard garden.
“Now, my friend, for the next chapter,” Dagmar lowered her voice. “Simone and her husband are divorced. He left her for another woman.”
Stunned, I forked my quiche. “Did this happen before or after he moved to Toulouse?”
“I wonder how the other woman feels about living with his mother?”
“La mère is in a nursing home there.”
“How did their kids react?” Simone’s son and daughter, as teenagers, had declined to learn Japanese.
“They were upset. Neither one speaks to their father.”
Chubby, cherry-red tulips thronged the florist’s; Dagmar scooped up an armful. Their grassy scent met the aroma of beurre blancwhen we entered Simone’s apartment. Behind her bedroom door swirled a blizzard of French. In my room, I tagged along on Teilhard’s first fossil hunt near China’s border with Inner Mongolia. Camped in the Ordos Desert, he wrote: “I am a pilgrim of the future on my way back from a journey made entirely in the past.”1 Spiritual and scientific, his pilgrimage resulted in prophetic writings about evolution—writings the Roman Catholic authorities silenced in 1928. Anguished but obedient, Teilhard exiled himself to field research in China for twenty years.
I put down my book, and I thought about Simone’s story. When we first arrived, she had suppressed the whole truth. I suspected that our dignified friend had taken refuge in silence since her divorce. Some women harbor shame after their husbands leave them, and they lose themselves in feeling wronged. I thought of how suffering can diminish or enlarge us. Did each of Simone’s revelations rise from her desire to live a bigger life?
Her light tread passed my door; francophone rills cascaded over my transom. I crossed to the kitchen, and I paused to watch Simone take our entrée from the oven. Flustered, she apologized for the sauce as she spooned the halibut on our plates. “I did not have the time I wanted to cook.”
Shallots, vinegar, white wine, heavy cream, butter, and white pepper coated my taste buds with pure, aromatic pleasure. The old black rotary phone rang.
“Sorry. I must take that.” Simone rushed out. Her tense voice bore down the hall toward us like a mistral.
“Something is wrong,” Dagmar muttered. For five full minutes we sat in silence.
“D’accord.” The receiver clicked. Our hostess took her seat, slumped.
Her mother-in-law had died that morning. All day she had tried to book travel. Her son, Philippe, had just landed from Singapore. Her daughter, Celine, was trying to find a sitter for her three-year-old. “Flights to Toulouse are full.” Japanese funerals, she explained, take place as soon as possible after death. She would take the night train tomorrow.
“I have to change trains in the middle of the night.” Her voice trembled.
“Can’t you get an express?” asked Dagmar.
“Not to Toulouse.” Simone shook her head. “Burial is late morning. I’ll return to Paris right away.”
Dagmar and I finished our meal to the staccato buzz of the telephone and breakneck French. We tidied the kitchen, and I went to the window in my room. My thoughts restless, I sank into sound: a motorcycle put-putting, the click of heels on pavement, a murmured bonsoir. For forty years a woman sat here, wrapped in a kimono and silence. Was her death like a thread that, once pulled, would unravel a span of Simone’s history? Could this funeral dissolve a labyrinth of emotion, spoken and unspoken, spun around that figure?
I woke early. Dagmar stood at the kitchen window. “Did Simone firm up her plans?”
“She came into my room late to say Philippe will accompany her. Celine is still trying to find someone to stay overnight with her son.” Dagmar scanned the overcast sky. “It is good that we are leaving tomorrow. I would want my place to myself after such an emotional journey.”
We did not return until eight that evening, to give Simone ample time alone. She looked chic in trim black pants and a jacket, her chignon flawless, yet she wandered through the apartment as if it belonged to a stranger. Dazed, she scrabbled in cupboards for candles to place at the graveside. She looked like someone wrenched away from solid ground. How grim would it be for Simone to share this loss with the other woman?
The phone rang. Dagmar listened to one end of the conversation. She translated.
“Celine’s husband was able to get home from his business trip early. She will meet Simone and Philippe at the station.” Dagmar’s eyebrows arched. “Simone has told her she can manage with Philippe, if it is too difficult. Their father will just have to accept it.” Another torrent of French that sounded happier, and Dagmar smiled. “Celine insists they will travel as a family.”
Simone said goodbye. Dagmar and I settled down to our last night in her apartment.
Hours later, unable to sleep, I sat by the window. Diamond-bright as the moon, an image flashed in my mind’s eye: a young stretcher-bearer under this same moon on a different night in 1917. By that night, Teilhard had carried casualties off the battlefield and said Mass in the trenches for three years. In that darkness, in Chemin des Dames, the number of French dead, wounded, and missing had risen to two hundred seventy-one thousand in nine days.
Surrounded by devastation and loss, Teilhard’s passion for life surged. Energy, he later wrote, reverberated deep within him and up and down the front lines: “The front cannot but attract us because it is the extreme boundary between what one is already aware of, and what is still in the process of formation.”2 With the slowness of rocks, the human spirit ever shifts, stretches, compresses, and expands. This quiet work takes the spirit past old boundaries; it can invite us onto paths we would not choose, but ones that are ours to take. Under tonight’s moon Simone’s train hurtled through the night, toward a destination where she no longer belonged. Might the moon shed just enough light to draw her into and through the darkness? And when she returned to her birthplace, to this apartment, would she give voice to the future coming to life within her?
Gail Tyson has an MFA from Stanford University and has attended juried workshops at Collegeville Institute, Looking Glass Rock Writers Conference, and Rivendell Writers Colony. Her writing has recently been featured in the Antigonish Review, Appalachian Heritage, Still Point Arts Quarterly, and volume three of Press 53’s Everywhere Stories.