Wednesday, 14 January 2009
Wednesdays Illustrated Fiction post.. enjoy!
Lila tried to lean against the iron fence that kept tourists away from the walls of Notre Dame de Paris and read the guidebook her father had bought her, but the posts dug into her body so much she couldn't concentrate, so instead she watched Parisians trickle past. Since it was the middle of August, most of the city was on vacation, and the morning traffic was sparse. Despite the season, women wore long pants, elegant scarves, and makeup. Their satchels matched their shoes. Even the old women, the retired grandmothers who trudged slowly toward the market for their daily bread, wore sophistication in their wrinkled cheeks. Lila looked down, frowning at her own outfit and physique. She wasn't wearing a fanny pack, or white sneakers, or a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of a sports team or university, or any of the other ugly emblems of tourists, but still, in her wrinkled linen pants and sandals with too many straps, she felt subpar, old even, and noticed the French women had smooth skin in even colors while her own flesh was spotted and unfirm. There were many times in the last week she'd wanted not to be in Paris, and here, again, was another.
As she sunk back into the guidebook, hoping the time would pass quickly until the bell tower would open, a couple bounded towards her, exhibiting a kind of excitement that reminded Lila of puppies.
"Is this the line? To climb the belltower?" The husband spoke breathlessly, as if they'd rushed here, fearing that they'd miss their chance to get in if they weren't first in line.
The husband and wife traded a glance. Then from the wife: "Ess-ke voo..."
Lila turned the book over, displaying its title, An Insider's Guide to Paris. In case that wasn't clear enough, she added, "I'm American."
The husband and wife jostled each other in another moment of animalistic happiness and then answered in chorus, "We are too!"
Lila smiled thinly and nodded. They were almost the same height, both with dirty blond hair and light eyes, and if not for the fact that they couldn't stop touching each other, Lila might have taken them for close siblings--they had that air of doting about them but it lacked the desperate devotion present in new couples, who tended to be proud of the extremeness of their feelings and actions, utterly sure of their ability to do better than any couple had ever done before. Perhaps not every new couple was like that, but the ones that ended up in Lila's office, sitting apart on the sofa across from her, imploring her to decide who was right so they could get on with their marriage already, were. She told every couple the same thing at their first session: "If you want to know who's right and who's wrong, call a referee. I'm a marriage counselor, and what I do is different and more expensive."
"I'm Jed, and this is my wife Sheila." The wife tittered slightly at hearing her new title.
"Lila." She shook their hands. Lila was bad with names but good with faces--hers was long and horsey; she had big gums and he was big and square, the jawline of a homecoming king--and if she were walking across an airport terminal, she'd be able to pick them from a crowd. But she would never know their names. If she happened to be treating these people, Lila would employ her usual learning device--asking them to address one another by name, which she silently repeating in her head. But for once she was off the clock, and delighted in knowing they'd remain nameless to her.
"Any chance you speak a little French?" The husband asked.
"Some," Lila said.
"Because we both took a little in college and we're completely stuck on something."
Lila remained silent, waiting for Jed to continue.
"When you say 'parlez-vous anglais', is there a liaison between the 'vous' and the 'anglais'? I mean, is it par-lay voo zahng-lay? Or just par-lay voo ahng-lay?"
Lila paused for a moment and weighed the possibility that they may not be serious, that this was a joke of some sort. But their faces were creased with expectation, and so Lila recited the phrases over in her head. She came to Paris every few years (mostly for the food, though she loved the museums, and simply wandering the streets for a few days, careless, anonymous), and the French she'd acquired in college had become passable, though by no means elegant or even frequently correct. She mulled over the phrase, running each pronunciation through several times, waiting for one of them to sound correct. But she'd never quite understood when French people connected the sounds between words, and in fact, hadn't cared. The point was to make yourself understood, in whatever ramshackle fashion was available. As Lila watched a petite young woman with voluptuous black hair whiz by on her bicycle, amazingly able to ride discreetly in a skirt, she tried once more to unravel the question, but could not. Her father wouldn't have known either, but she still wished he was with her.
"You know, I'm not really sure. Let me think on it a bit, and I'll let you know if I come up with anything." Lila turned to face the door that would open in a few more minutes, allowing them to creep up the slippery, stone stairs in the half-dark, till they emerged a few hundred feet higher and could take in the view of the city that the gargoyles enjoyed all the time. Each time Lila visited Paris, she climbed the bell tower at Notre Dame.
"Our French is kind of rusty, but this isn't our first time in Paris," Sheila said to Lila's back.
Lila didn't want to talk to these people anymore but out of habit she turned and let the wife say what she wanted to say.
The husband stroked the wife's hair. "I came to visit Sheila when she was studying abroad here, 15 years ago! We'd been on and off since the beginning of college and I thought if I flew to Paris, she'd finally get it. You know, that I was the one."
Sheila jumped in without hesitation to continue the story, as if this were a pre-rehearsed two-man show that many before Lila had heard. "But I was too naive to see Jed's point, his true feelings, and after a week of pure bliss, I told him I was too young to commit."
"We lost touch after college, but then, years later..."
Lila let the scintillating narrative unfurl, feigning involvement by mimicking their facial movements, unleashing grins when they did, knitting suspense in her eyebrows when they did. Even without concentrating, she picked up the storyline of drifting apart, reuniting, a whirlwind courtship, knowing after all these years, she or he had been the one. Lila could listen in her sleep. And yet, although she could fully absorb these people and the needs they had in that moment, Lila thought only of her father, with whom she would have enjoyed privately mocking these folks later. It was only in his later years that her father had even entertained the possibility of traveling with Lila. He finally agreed to short trips--a few days in Chicago, a long winter weekend in Orlando--but this would have been his first trip abroad. She wasn't sure if he'd have been able to climb the bell tower, but she had decided they would give it a shot.
"Isn't that a great story?"
"It is a great story," Lila replied.
"So is this your first time in Paris?"
Lila shook her head, but was unable to say anything. She'd developed an unhealthy habit of being unable to talk about herself, not because she was uncomfortable with disclosure, but because she knew that the world had problems, problems that she could help with. Her own could be postponed. Also, it seemed unfair to dampen the couple's idiotic joy by explaining that her father had had a crippling stroke before she could show him the loveliness of Paris. Lila had been by his side for the last three weeks, and even when Dorothy flew in from the coast and urged her to take the vacation she always looked forward to, Lila refused. In keeping with the generosity he'd shown them all his life, her father died a week before they had been scheduled to leave. There was a funeral, a reception, and then her sister dragging her to the airport. Lila couldn't say it to her sister, but she was glad for Dorothy's presence, and glad that Dorothy knew when to leave her alone, like this morning, when she said she'd rather sleep in and have a walk around the Tuileries on her own. They'd planned to meet up near the Louvre later that morning.
On the other side of the iron fence, a wooden door swung open and a man with a gray beard coughed deeply as unlocked the gate and waved them in. He alternated between "bonjour, el-lo, bonjour" and "billets, tee-ket, billets, tee-ket" as he pointed to the entry where there was a small desk, a cash box, and a sleepy old woman.
Lila always visited first thing in the morning because she liked to be the first person up the stairs that day. It was always clumsy coming down, crawling over those going up, clinging to the stone walls, which gave no traction, trying neither to slip nor come too close to a stranger, but going up Lila could be unfettered, ascending the dizzying spirals with each hand on the wall not for balance, but because she liked the feeling of the cold, hard stone.
That day, the couple behind her twittered between themselves as they all went up, and Lila couldn't help but listening to their incessant exchanges--"are you okay?" "isn't this exciting" "How could they ever build something so magnificent?" Somewhere along the way though, the wife became frightened, a little off-balance, and she could hear them agree to rest, pressing themselves against the outer wall to let those behind them pass. The silence carried Lila up and up, till it bore her out onto the first landing where sunlight and gargoyles awaited her. Paris appeared the way it always had to her--each time she came upon it from this angle, going high enough it seemed possible to meet the city at eye level, it looked both marvelously undiscovered, vibrant and pulsating, and also possibly a fabrication, nothing more than an image of a city projected onto a bedsheet someone had nailed to a wall.
She had her elbows up and was leaning against the wall, contemplating the Eiffel Tower (actual structure? or toothpick model?) when the husband and wife burst noisily out of the stairwell and onto the ramparts. They said hello to her as they shuffled past, heading towards the enormously heavy bell in the south tower.
Lila watched the people shuffle around in the courtyard in front of the cathedral, imagining, as she always did, spitting on their heads. She pulled out her guidebook again, and flipped to the back. It was not Lila's habit to read about the places she visited; unless she was keeping a file on something, writing it all down, facts didn't stay with her that long, so there wasn't much use in trying to learn the history. As she thumbed through the pages looking for the index, she came upon a section entitled "Useful Phrases," which, to Lila's surprise, had been highlighted and annotated by her father. And right at the top of the list, next to "Parlez-vous l'anglais? (par-lay voo lahn-glay)", her father had written, "Here's one I won't need to practice!"
They always say people somehow know when they're gonna go, which Lila had pretty much considered bullshit her whole life. The husband and wife, having seen what they'd come to see, having snapped all the appropriate pictures, casually called a goodbye to her as they bounded back along the path, toward the dim stairwell, a tricky descent, and the rest of their day's plans. Lila didn't respond. She just watched the little people below meander around like lost little ants searching for food, turning around and around, as if they didn't know which way was up.