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BOUTIQUE MADEMOISELLE

"Bless us," Beck called up the stairwell. "If it isn't the Sax Machine."

I followed him to the landing where you towered behind Margot. Beck picked Margot up and whirled her around, then set her down and kissed her with loud smacking noises, as if she were his six-year-old niece. I stood in front of you, Bou, and my soul ran at a fast clip up to my eyes and leapt in a shallow, long-jump arc across the air into your eyes and was gone. I felt my metatarsals bow up and open, my lungs widen. I longed to take your hands in mine, lace my fingers in yours, squat and rock on my heels with you. We'd begin, eye to eye, forehead to forehead, knees wobbling, to balance and whisper together. Instead I stood to one side. Bou? I asked. A hat store, you said. Really two, both called Boutique Mademoiselle. The main branch was under the table where your mother and her friends played bridge. They had all called you Bou.

That made no sense at all, but Margot was greeting me now, her hands under my elbows, her cheek against mine. A loose, lost-and-found arrow surged up and through me. I kissed Margot with closed eyes, and didn't need to see her because I already knew the high Eskimo curve of her cheeks cresting above me, the blue of her eyes, the trill of her tongue speaking, the spiral fall of her hair, the weight of her breasts not in my hands. I listened for my heart and found it plashing away inside her, and I realized I'd lost that, too. And so it was there on the landing during that first long moment that I learned I loved you and Margot, not indistinguishably but inseparably, and always.

Margot led us into the apartment, poured out mugs of wine, and sat me on a sofa with a rounded back at one end, which she told me was a chaise longue. The whole place was full of battered antiques with names. Under a tall candelabrum with forty-watt bulbs in orange hats stood an inlaid writing desk, its broken hood rolled two-thirds of the way up. A scarred wooden table with legs like ironwood trunks grew across the alcove by the kitchen. In the living room grate was that fossil of a Path‚ Marconi TV, a little Sputnik, complete with vacuum tubes and a bell fuselage. The apartment was surprising and intricate, and Beck jumped on the subject while I was still trying to decide what had just happened to me twice, or once.

"Most excellent crib," he told Margot in the kitchen. "One imagines a lock of chestnut hair tied with velvet ribbon in that defunct ‚critoire, and a dried rose petal between the pages of a musty Baudelaire in the study. Down the hall, beneath a tear-dampened handkerchief, a last letter from the front, cut by a single gold-rimmed bullet hole. Why else comes faint but unmistakable lamentation from high in the corners of this twilight salon, which heard such laughter, saw such love? Yes'm, truly a mysterious and alluring rental property. Ours is a little simpler. N'est-ce pas, Daniel?"

Beck pretended you didn't exist, as was his way when he wanted to get to know a woman more than he thought she might want to know him. The music of Thelonious Sphere Monk moaned from the tiny cassette player in the kitchen. Margot chopped and sauteed mushrooms. You told me about Yale and how of course you remembered Beck, he'd danced with you at a party once. You were concentrating in modern European history and theater, and I was concentrating on the symmetrical and economic grace with which you moved through the room. I stood and helped set the table, and you told me about your family while I looked at your cinnamon lashes and the strength of your forearms and hands, which held an invisible bridle together with forks and spoons. Your father was a financial counsel which was actually a kind of lawyer, and your mother a preschool teacher and perpetual student of early childhood. My father was a doctor, I told you, and when you didn't ask what kind, I had that sinking feeling that always comes before I talk about Mom. I was about to go through with it when you said that you had two brothers, but that the middle one, Nathan, had drowned. We stopped setting and looked at each other.

"He was seventeen," you said. Mom was thirty-four, I told you. We didn't need to whisper because we weren't telling secrets, and both Beck and Thelonious were at full volume. But we leaned across the table and once more looked into each other's eyes, as if to glimpse those always present, always absent ones. In your tensed shoulders, Stonewall Jackson chin, smoky eyes, and cropped blond hair, I found him.

Beck went off to the toilet, and for the first time Margot tried to teach me how to fold napkins. I still work at it every once in a while. What amazes me is that in five years I've never repeated the same mistake. My napkins are like snowflakes. She was patient and thought I wasn't just watching her eyes and lips above the conical nests of linen she wove while her unpredictable, low-high voice spun instructions in the air like birdsong. She was busty and sturdy, and she looked up at an angle that included my middle but took in all of me, so that standing in front of her, I was entirely present.

Beck returned full of enthusiasm. Plumbing, he told me right past you, was an astonishing invention. We should look into it at once. We three sat down and ate the mushroom omelet and salad while Margot made a second omelet. We ate that, two yogurts, and all the bread while Margot got out a leftover chicken. We picked the chicken apart and finished the second and half of the third bottle of wine, along with a hunk of reblochon and a box of toasts. Margot nibbled the salad.

It happened that fast. We'd been at Rue Berlioz just over an hour. The pattern of feasting, and of who loved and nourished whom, was already firmly in place. Two hours later I soaked myself and my tights in Berlioz's lion-footed, rowboat-size bathtub. When I was dry, I went to your bedroom and hung the tights over the glowing sconce, which clung like a phosphorescent barnacle to the wall. I set a towel on the cracked marble table to catch the drip, and lay my muscle shirt over the radiator. Margot's two saxes, one taller than the other, stood by the hall door like a big and little brother. Opposite them was the oak armoire with the handles like saucers. A row of books ran from its feet to a knitting basket in the corner. Threadbare velvet drapes were roped back to expose the middle halves of the balcony windows, which reflected the olive-and-royal-blue madras spread tucked under the wide futon. A worn, eyeless elephant lay in the deflated cleavage between the missing pillows.

I tiptoed down the hall. You and Margot spooned like a beautiful dwarf and a handsome noblewoman in the TV moonlight. You held one hand protectively under Margot's head, her dark hair falling across you. Beck, too, was asleep, leaning back against the chaise on the dried-out herringbone floor. His head was tilted past what looked comfortable, and his knees were Egyptian left. He wore a bleached Texaco attendant's shirt, which said Jess in once-red thread above the pocket.

I stood first watch.


Excerpted from the book LOVE Enter by Paul Kafka, 
reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Copyright (c) 1993 by Paul Kafka.

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction
in whole or in part in any form.

mende@het.brown.edu