The Pulse: Paris
Martine wasn’t sure why she wanted to do it, but she thought it had something to do with the way Kenneth made her feel. At the flea market he told her that she couldn't tell the difference between an original Isis and a knock-off of the Virgin Mary. He seemed serious, but then he said he was joking. But she couldn’t tell the difference.
She thought, I’ll meet him at L’Etoile de Montmartre and give him the ring. He’ll have to wear it, or it’s over. And when he wears it, it’ll remind him of the story that goes with it. He thinks he knows everything.
Martine got there early so that she could be at the table by the front window, the one in the spotlight. She didn't want him to miss a thing.
As usual, Kenneth was on time. She knew he would arrive on the dot — as English people loved to say, as a replacement for spontaneity. So she had his favourite, a café crème, on the table when he sat down. Between her espresso and his café crème lay a sparkling ring, blue and silver. He started to say "Salu—" but she stared at him sharply, as if he were late for the show. The curtain was already half way up the stage.
She put her fingers up to her lips, as if she were about to cry. She pitched her voice an octave higher than usual, and inserted jagged breaks, to make her emotions seem even more real than they were.
She started abruptly, yet obliquely, like when the heroine blurts out the most significant details before the eyes of the audience have adjusted to the light: "There's no way I could've known. I was having a drink with Jean-Marc in La Maison de Verlaine, fifty blocks away. I had just bought this ring, this beautiful light blue ring. It's exactly the same colour as the pendent my mother bought me for my sweet sixteenth." She pronounced the last two words with a Southern belle accent, which Kenneth thought was a wonderful thing to hear at any time (he could almost hear the echo of Tennessee Williams). It was especially wonderful coming from the lips of a stylish Parisienne.
She pointed between her considerable breasts and said, "This one." But the pendant, on the end of its silver chain, was lost down there somewhere.
She opened her blouse further so that he could take a better look. It was a foamy, light blue rock onto which Aphrodite herself might have emerged from a smooth white swell.
She looked deep into his eyes, as if to draw them upward to the eyes of the protagonist on the stage. After a pause, she said, “I want to give you this ring. It will connect us. It matches your eyes. The dealer said it’s kyanite.”
She stared at the ring for several moments before continuing. “Jean-Marc was telling me something about a course he was teaching. Japanese Anime and the Art of the Postmodern Something or Other. I was just pretending to listen. All of a sudden I looked at the ring, which seemed for just a fraction of a second to become darker blue and brighter white, both at the same time. I said to myself: My mother is dead.
"At first I felt a heaviness, as if she were pressing down on my chest, like when I was in my teens. But then I realized I wasn’t responsible for what she did to herself. Why should I always feel guilty?”
Martine looked introspective, then hurt, then defiant, then continued: “I was sitting there, drinking with Jean-Marc the whole time. We had been there for three hours and we were on our second bottle of wine. Jean-Marc was rambling on about manga — or manganese, or anomie, anime, qu’importe! — while my mother was draping herself for the last time over her velvet chaise-longue. Long past plastered. In her velvet and crimson living-room across from the theatre."
Martine looked nostalgic, then sad, as if face-to-face-with the existential drift of our tiny planet, and added: "Her eyes were fixed open, looking at the theatre across the street. Le Funambule, The Tight-rope Walker. From one stage to the next."
"I can imagine the drama in my mother's head in those last minutes, after she'd taken the poison. She would play her final role as her favourite character from Hamlet: Gertrude, accidentally poisoned by the king who hoped to poison Hamlet instead. My mother always said that her husband was too cowardly to stop her from drinking the poisoned wine. Le Cochon! He let me drink it because he didn't want anyone to know he was to blame.”
“She blamed him for everything. Her death would prove it. But she also knew in her heart of hearts that he loved her, despite his evil ways. She whispered, Hamlet, the drink... and her head fell into a world of velvet."
"My mother died as the ghost had died, as Ophelia had died, and as Gertrude died: betrayed by them all. She would drift upward to the stars, joining Ophelia among the crow-flowers and the long purples of heaven."
Martine stared into the tiny black well of her espresso, thinking that death was only a moment in time. Soon even the thought of the great void — le grand abîme — would also be gone. She looked up at Kenneth.
It was time for the protagonist to end the soliloquy, and bring the audience back to the real world. The coffee was the transition, the objective correlative. She cast her eyes slowly along the table, passing over the blue ring, to his café crême. "That's how I think of it now. Back then, all I knew was that she was dead. The blue ring told me. I raised my glass to Jean-Marc, and said to him, My mother is dead."
Martine had told Kenneth the story of her strange intuition on a number of occasions. Each time, it bothered him to think of a mind that could experience such a thing. A mind he was otherwise enchanted by. But what bothered him this time was that her experience occurred while she was drinking with Jean-Marc. That part of the story was new.
Kenneth was never quite sure what Jean-Marc meant to Martine. She often stopped herself short when she started to talk about him. Jean-Marc kept calling her on his stupid pink cellphone with the Hello Kitty beep, which he called "ironique." Kenneth wondered if there wasn’t something ironique about his irony.
Martine said they were just friends, but Kenneth couldn’t get used to the way they kissed each other hello and goodbye, as if it were part of some great drama. He'd pull her toward him with one hand, his fingers creeping up her back and disappearing somewhere near the clasp of her bra. Then he'd pull her face closer to his lips, adding a mock gesture as if to say, Oh, darling, the servants have put out the candles on the veranda!
Martine loved this sort of thing. Kenneth didn't know if it was because she was French or because she yearned to be back on the stage. Yet whenever she dipped into Jean-Marc's arms, she didn't look into Jean-Marc's eyes, but into his.
Martine was in tears now, the way she used to do it at Le Funambule. She had it all balanced as if she were a tightrope walker: on one side she was thinking about her mother on the crimson velvet; on the other side, she was remembering the time her father told her she was the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen.
She was seventeen and heading out the door, confused about who she was and how she'd make it through her final exams. Her nerves were shot and she had two small pimples above her left eyebrow. That morning she had a twenty-minute oral on Meaning in French Drama, from Racine to Sartre. Only the French could do this to their children. Her clothing was too tight in one place and too loose in another when her father stopped her and told her that she was the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen. He kissed her on the nose, and watched her body lift from the boards and fly out the door.
Three years later her mother had worn her father to the ground. Martine often saw him on her way to university, under the elevated metro at Barbès, hawking kaftans and leather hats from Senegal. He had a thing for African women. He called them the farthest thing possible from les salopes de Montmartre. She remembered seeing him a week before he died, disappearing down Rue de la Goutte d’Or, bewitched by the swaying hips of an African woman half his age.
Martine swore to herself that she would never be like her mother.