Photograph mosaic, deep-blue.
Dark night’s tectonic friction, you.
Untitled, Michael Evashevski
Photograph mosaic, deep-blue.
Dark night’s tectonic friction, you.
Untitled, Michael Evashevski
They were more likely to bomb London, so we chose Paris instead. We had already celebrated Christmas once that year, before the snow had fallen at the house in Brockport. My father drove into town for a bottle of wine and returned with two bottles of expensive French champagne. He’d gotten them at half price. France had not supported the war, and America no longer drank French wine. America no longer did anything French, for that matter. Maybe that was why we had chosen Paris after all — not for safety’s sake, but because we longed to be abandoned by the war as well.
You knew Paris better than I. You had spent your summers there, in apartments rented by your mother while she met with curators from the Louvre and the Pompidou. You told me the story of how, when you were twelve, the two of you were beside yourselves without your father there. You rushed out the moment you arrived and bought a chicken at the market before it closed, but had no idea what to do with it once you got it home. Your mother called your father in tears, and the two of you ended up eating at the café on the Place des Voges where the glowing heaters make warm canopies over the tables on the square.
This was where we came when we arrived in Paris, suitcases and all. You didn’t touch your menu. You ordered in French exactly as you had seven years before, as if nothing could have changed. That was peace, I thought.
That day, you wore your emerald green coat, the one with the black buttons that I bought for you at the vintage store upstate. If someone had taken your picture just then, as you sat at the table with your fur collar turned up, warming your hands with your tea, the person looking at the photograph would be challenged to name the time or the place in which it had been taken. Your clothes were part-costume, part-time machine, and fit you in slim dark lines, as if they had been meant for your body alone. Others had worn these clothes to play pretend, to re-imagine themselves as different people in different times. But it was you they were truly suited for, like fragments of a past life.
Our apartment was on the fourth floor of an old stone tower on Rue Saint-Paul in Le Marais. There were windows along the south wall that brought the morning, frosted and blue, and the evening, warm and pink. The windows were hung with thick burgundy drapes, heavy as quilts, and we would keep them closed in the evening so we could be naked and make love whenever we wished. When the drapes were closed and the lamps were lit, the room—the apartment was no more than a room—gave us a deep sense of warmth and wellbeing. When the curtains were open and we were not cooking or eating or making love, we would write—I in my notebook, you at the key- board, fingers striking the keys like gunfire. The typing fingers of a journalist at wartime, I thought—deliberate and clear.
There’s a picture you gave me of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, taken for the cover of Rolling Stone. In it, a naked John lies curled in bed, fetus-style, around a fully clothed Yoko. That bed was where they protested, at home, alone. Even with the reporters and the flashbulbs bursting, they were still alone, weren’t they?
There were days when I would walk around the city while you were in class, and I would pass the Dakota and imagine John and Yoko still there, still in love, still wrapped around each other. And I would stand across the street, looking into the mouth of the entrance where John was shot, and I would think of how an agent of death had found them, too.
The wolves in the museum. That was us, you said. Suspended in the night, in their glass case, two blue wolves hunting. I kissed you when you said that, as we hid in the corridor from the soft squeaks of footsteps on the marble floor.
The apartment on Rue Saint-Paul had a kitchen the size of a walk-in closet, and in between meals it smelled of sweet roasted garlic and sage. There we would work in the evenings, elbow-to-elbow, prepar- ing dinner, chopping vegetables we bought at the market and tearing pieces of bread from the loaf in its white paper sleeve. We bought our bread at the bakery on Rue de Rivoli each night in hopes that Sophie would be there and it would just be the three of us in the shop, alone. Sophie was part-Dutch, part-Arab, part-Japanese, and part-Venezu- elan. She was a global drifter who’d happened upon the job at the bakery by the same principle of chance that had governed all her life’s journeys. Her beauty drew from every corner of the globe, taking the best elements of her ancestors and remolding them into the most ex- otic and thrilling creature. Her clothes were always dusted with flour, and her skin, a smooth, rich tan, set off a thick mane of crow-black hair that she kept swept back behind a red bandana.
You would tell me stories about Sophie as we lay in bed together, about where she had been and the men who had known her. You told me about the night in the mountains in Argentina, about the man who was her guide—who believed her to be half-goddess and shook when they made love for fear that she would explode his body into a thousand shards of light. Or the businessman in Naples who’d picked her up off the street and kept her at his home and abused her with his touch, and how she’d let him, because she was consuming him without his knowing. In your stories, you would make her hot and you would make her cold, and you would tell me to make love to you as though you were her. And in those moments your body would change be- neath me—your breasts and your hips and your rhythm—and your soul would lift itself and hover above of the bed, watching you be someone else—a girl who had known so many other men.
I proposed a month after we met, at the hotel in Maine, in our room upstairs, with the sounds of New Year’s coming up through the floor. Our bodies hadn’t even found their rhythm yet. The nakedness was still new, full of fumbling and awkwardness. And afterward, I would imagine the baby that would one day grow inside you, and how it would be safe there. I knew how healthy and beautiful it would be, and how the world would welcome it, because it was made of us, made of our love.
I told you I would marry you when you were ready. I didn’t ask, because it was better if it wasn’t a question. “I knew you were going to say that,” you said. “And I know it, too.”
And at that moment the world changed. We sensed the danger in all things. The agents of death walked among us. We heard their footsteps behind and before us.
The wave was a mountain made of the sea, and it moved toward the fishing boats. It lifted them above the clouds and folded them into heaven. The people on land didn’t see the mountain, and they didn’t know that minutes later they would be dead. Waiters attended their tables at the restau- rants overlooking the water. One waiter in particular, a man two years younger than I, was at the end of his shift, collect- ing his tips at the bar. He was saving up to buy a ring for his girlfriend, and he counted the money and did the math and knew that at this rate, with the good holiday crowds, he was only two weeks away. He did not see the mountain either. The mountain moved too quickly, and when it struck, it was like the sun flashing from behind a cloud. And then the restaurant and the tables and the man were gone.
The tsunami took the lives of twenty thousand people in the first wave, swept them out to sea, twisting like mermaids beneath their homes and cars and animals. Money floated to the surface like fallen leaves. Enough money to buy a thousand rings.
A year before we met, before I lay beside you in the room in Maine, I lay in another bed in another room, alone. My grandmother, Frances, sat in the living room, propped up in my grandfather’s chair. The TV mumbled through the closed bedroom door.
This was the intermediate stage of Alzheimer’s in which the sickness sleeps—a hibernating parasite feeding on memories, unlearning everything, until one day its host would forget how to breathe.
We had lived at the house upstate, Frances and I, for nearly a year. The rest of the family rarely visited, because none of them wanted to acknowledge that she was dying, or be part of the process.
My grandmother was an anomaly in an unfair world. Her love, a time capsule, remained true and without condition. She had not seen the fat, bumbling adolescent, nor the awkward, acne-faced teen. She didn’t see the boy who had grown into a broken-hearted young man. All she saw was her grandson, and, if nothing else, I wanted to have those eyes look upon me one last time.
I didn’t know that I would meet you one day soon. I didn’t know that this would be just a chapter, or that you could mourn a person before they were gone. All I could think of was the thief living inside her, the one that had taken her brother and her sister before that. The thief lived in me, too. I could feel it nesting there, behind my eyes.
I walked into the living room and turned off the TV. Frances slept sitting up, with both arms on the armrests like a dozing queen. I kissed her good night and went back to my room and closed the door and knelt down beside the bed. I slid my hand between the mattresses and felt the barrel of my grandfather’s pistol.
You found the old photos I kept. I’d left you in the bedroom and was making us dinner in the kitchen when you appeared in the doorway.
“You kept pictures of her,” you said. It wasn’t a question. “How many others? All of them?”
Before that, you’d gone through my letters. You found them stacked in a box when I moved to the apartment in Queens. I found you on the sidewalk, sitting on a milk crate, going through them like tax records. A few sheets had blown off the curb and were floating in a puddle.
It wasn’t fair, you said. “Why would you keep them? Why?”
The apartment in Murray Hill was meant to be a gift. That’s what your mother told you. Your grandparents rarely used it anymore, and when you graduated it would be yours. Your grandparents had never told you this themselves, but it was inferred, and it was nice to think that amid the unknown territory of adulthood there would at least be a familiar place to call home.
Your grandparents called me “your friend.” I wasn’t brought up in conversation when they met you for lunch in New York. And when they asked, “So, tell us what’s going on with you,” answers were meant to be limited to the topics of school, travel, books, and family. Inevitably you would use the words “we” or “us,” and this would inspire an uncomfort- able shift in your grandmother’s demeanor. Your grandfather would call the waiter for another round, and your grandmother, finishing her drink, would touch your arm and say how young you were, and how she was young once, too.
At the few family gatherings to which I was invited, I was referred to as “the Boyfriend.” I could just as easily have been called “the Help” or “the Pool Man.” The sentiment was the same. The older women knew that I was a writer and found this charming; they forgave you for what they would have done themselves, or had done, when they were your age. They whispered about the ring on your finger, trying to imagine what your parents must think.
I gave you the ring on our one-year anniversary. We were already married by then, in our own minds, ever since that night in Maine. But I knew you wanted a ring. You appreci- ated the formality. It was a simple ring, a plain steel band in- laid with a row of five white diamonds. I took comfort in the way the steel hugged the diamonds in place. I slipped it onto your finger and you turned the stones upward. I later noticed that this had become a habit, correcting the position of the stones. I would sit beside you on the subway at night, and in the window reflection I would see you look down at your hand, fan out your fingers, and turn the diamonds upward.
“So what, are you married now?” That was your mother’s initial reaction. You hadn’t presented the ring. You’d let her discover it on her own. “What’s that?” she hissed.
She knew exactly what it was, just as she knew that this was supposed to be a sentimental moment between mother and daughter—that she was meant to react in a particular way, a Good Housekeeping sort of way. But this type of reaction went against her nature, and because the ring had inspired such a poisonous response, it in turn poisoned her own kind of memory making.
That summer, the Murray Hill apartment was sold without your knowing. When asked why, your grandmother replied, “Our independence is the greatest gift we could ever hope to give our children.” I imagined your grandmother writ- ing the line, studying it, then delivering it with the clear, even elocution of a seasoned actress. It was a line that had the power to transform one gift into another, and to place the guilt on you for wishing it otherwise. It was an outstanding maneuver that could only have come from a lifetime of training.
The Ferris wheel rose above the rooftops of Paris like a brace- let of pearls. The air was crisp and smelled of chimney smoke. Your arm encircling mine, you held me close as we walked, your boot soles echoing up the narrow cobblestone street.
You told me we needed to get out of the apartment, that we should be somewhere special when midnight struck and the seconds ticked into Christmas. And so we set off with this mission in mind, with no destination in particular. The cafés would be closed by then, the restaurants—everyone home with family, asleep.
On those quiet winter streets in the night-shaded city you couldn’t miss the wheel. It rose like a crystal sunrise over the towers and steeples, drawing us unwittingly towards it, a beacon for a tiny boat at sea.
Lying beside you, I thought the hour or the darkness would finally get the better of us, but I knew from your breathing that you were still awake.
Why had I kept the photos and letters, you wondered. How could I love you and still hold onto them? What else was I holding onto?
You must have fallen asleep at some point, because you didn’t feel me leave the bed. I pulled the door closed gently behind me and walked barefoot down the hall and into the living room. I opened the window and curled up on the couch and shut my eyes, listening to the cars shush by on the street below.
“What are you doing?” Your voice woke me. It came from the darkness, out of the mouth of the hallway. You stepped into the blue light of the room.
That night, you’d accused me of keeping things from you—you’d said that I was harboring old feelings, that I had been dishonest with my love. You despised the fact that anyone had been in my life before you, loathed them for experiencing me at a time you would never know me in. We would never be in school together. We would never sneak into each other’s rooms in the middle of the night. You loved me for my broken heart, but you also longed to be the one who’d reached me before it was broken, who’d saved me from my loneliness the way I had saved you.
You had only been with one other boy and it had been nothing, you’d told me, a service to yourself, to put your virginity behind you and prepare you for something real. Your life had begun the moment I’d entered it, but these photos, these letters, were proof that it hadn’t been the same for me. I knew how time could change things, but you couldn’t have known what that meant. You could only see in absolutes. These photos and letters were a bread crumb trail leading you to an ugly truth—that I would always love some- one, but never you, never truly. I would never write a story about you, and why should I, because you were so certain that you meant so little.
“What are you doing?” you asked. Your black eyes shined with tears. I wanted to think it was just about that night and how angry I had been for what you’d said. Maybe it was just that, something repairable. But what I saw was something else—that one day there would be a break and no way to mend it. One day, I would feel the way you felt at that moment, and it would be me uttering that question in the dark.
“What are you doing?”