So those went into the curry pile along with the tomatoes, which looked fine from where I sat. I sat in the declined empire chair, looking into the balcony window. We listened to a World Saxophone Quartet tape that Margot adored and that I thought sounded like sax players making fun of folks who buy cassettes full of squealing nonsense.
I could never make Beck understand how I kept falling in love with both you and Margot during those weeks. It didn't need explaining, I thought. Every other day or so I sat by the window looking through the iron balustrade along the ancient wall of tan-and-amber fieldstone, over which grew the dark, cordate leaves of vineyard ivy. I talked with whichever of you was there about whichever of you wasn't. You were lovely separately and you fit together perfectly, not in spite of but because you were tall and Margot was short, you were moody and Margot wasn't, you were messy and Margot was a housekeeper, a scientist, and a jazz person all rolled into one.
"She's having a tough week," Margot said, chopping all the wrong vegetables.
Margot shrugged. Nathan had been dead for seven years.
"That's part of it. That's always there."
Her hair hung in black curlicues over the navy sweatshirt she wore three days out of four. When she looked up from the cutting board she lifted her thick eyebrow--her monobrow Beck called it--and her eyes drew mine.
"So what do you do?"
"I wait," she told me. "Bou talks eventually. When I can't stand it anymore, I rush her. Then we get into these terrific arguments about whether I want to discuss everything because I want to be a shrink, or whether she's like the rest of her family and never talks about anything difficult. What bothers her is that I came out to my parents and she hasn't and won't. She's competitive about everything."
I could never think of Margot as being the same age as the rest of us. She looked a whole epoch more mature, the way the senior girls at Arlington High did when I was in ninth grade. Margot made me wish I'd had an older sister back then, so that she could have had Margot for a friend. That way I could have fallen in love with her when I was fourteen and she was seventeen, and she could have pretended that it was just a game, while really she would have been mad for me, too. But I didn't have a sister, I didn't meet Margot until I'd finished college, and I was fifteen months older than she was.
"She's even competitive with you. You know she did ballet when she was little, before she started riding all the time. The other day she said she wished she hadn't quit so she could take class with you."
"That's not competitive."
"You don't know her," Margot said. "What she really means is that she wishes she could dance better than you."
All at once I saw you. You were three feet tall, hopping around a lawn in a pink tutu over white tights.
"Her riding teacher said she wouldn't improve if she kept missing saddle time. The ballet school said riding would deform her legs."
There you were again, an eight-year-old rider in a hard cap, boots, tiny jodhpurs, like a young Princess Anne. Everything Margot said, I saw instantly. I had Bou the ballerina, Bou the horsy girl. From what Margot had told me two days before, I especially knew Bou the shy Andover junior who didn't go on dates, smelled permanently of manure, and thought lesbians were transvestites who smoked cigarettes in holders and flattened their hair with brilliantine. Often that fall I felt like my own medium landlady, Germaine. I was absorbing too much information from sources that were not apparent to me.
"Bou said she didn't care how her legs came out. When she was six, Mam took her down to New York to see this famous rider, Rodney Jenkins. He was an old friend of Mam's, and he took Bou up on his saddle and rode her around the edge of the jump course. That was it for ballet. Only now she's jealous of you."
From the moment I met Margot, I felt as if I'd been in Hebrew school with her every Saturday of my life. Yet I knew I'd never known anyone like her. She did what she wanted to do, she thought about things I'd never heard of, and still she listened to me attentively, which made me smarter than I was. She had quick hands for cooking and touching. She could walk up to wherever I stood and fit herself against me like a cat. She loved women and men.
"Is Beck still having wet dreams?" she asked. It was after six. The last of the previous night's wine tasted like pencil shavings. From the once regal chair by the window, I could look toward the courtyard and at the same time see Margot reflected in the glass. The window glass aged and mellowed what occurred inside that apartment, like instant barrel wood.
"Haven't heard any. He probably has them after I leave for ballet."
"Does he miss Val?"
"I suppose so. He talks about her body for hours."
We all gave away each other's secrets, but Beck was difficult to rat on. His confessions were so detailed and personal that there was almost nothing left to give away. He'd already informed you and Margot about his earwax problem, the way he bullied his mom, what occurred or didn't occur each day in his bowels, the tantrums he threw when his dad beat him at tennis, his feverish need to make money, his obsession about women whose breasts were widely separated, and his guilt over Ralph Powers, the boy in his fourth grade class whose lost eye he felt responsible for, though it had never been conclusively established that it had been Beck's jump from the sled that had sent Ralph into a fire hydrant. The only topic about which Beck was stubbornly mute was his brother, Brian. Still, I did my best.
"He's secretly glad she's in Manchuria," I said. "Dreaming her has got to be easier than dealing with her."
Margot laughed like a silly little girl with a chest cold.
"Valerie," she said, "is truly a pain. Talk about arrogant."
She took the challah out of the oven and set it on the table. In the window, the bread was golden. After a moment the air smelled like summer. I curled deeper into the faded needlework roses.
It had been only two weeks and a day since Beck and I had come to Rue Berlioz. That night I'd watched over the three of you, then gone and fallen onto the striped bedspread. I'd woken in the morning with the bald, eyeless elephant, Phunt, tucked under my chin like a violin. I was sleeping between love and love, you and Margot warming me with your bottoms, your backs curled away from me like a pair of wings. I nuzzled your hair and Margot's hair, and before either of you had woken I decided I would stay encamped in that nest forever. I loved the perpetually mild season, and the potential for flight.
"I really only know Valerie from self-defense," Margot told me. "She was just there the first week."
"They threw her out?"
"She wouldn't shut up. She had the goalie from the soccer team with her. They did Moe and Curly routines with all the little whoops and chuckles when we were learning eye jabs. The instructor asked Val if she thought she could control herself. She said no and left, taking her partner with her. I think she has an attention problem."
Valerie did sound like the ideal mate for Beck. It was natural, too, that even at the beginning of October, Margot believed that Val's inappropriate behavior indicated an attention disorder. This was right in the beginning of Margot's attention fixation, when she was just starting to see everything in terms of her lab job. She hadn't yet gotten around to dividing up all learning activities into global or selective attention categories. It would be over a month before she put those colored cards on everything to increase her French vocabulary, and two months before Beck would stay up all night writing dirty limericks on the cards and switching them around. I still can't look at a thick-slice toaster without seeing bright green paper and thinking SALT SHAKER (SALIţRE, f.) and There once was a boy whore from Ipswich, et cetera, in that order.
"Are they going to get hitched?" Margot asked.
"Who knows. Beck talks."
Margot thought Val was the only woman on earth who could tolerate prolonged exposure to Beck, and vice versa. She told Beck and he agreed. Beck and Val were both overachievers intent on being totally independent together. He was the musical premed meteor, she the soccer and Chinese studies star. Each was attractive in an overinflated way, to judge from the picture of Val on the wall by Beck's cot.
"I'll bet she already has a pair of Chinese boys doing her bidding," Margot said. "She's been there two months. If she wanted Beck, she'd be here."
"She was supposed to come to France with him," I said, pleased that Margot didn't know. "He was going to put off med school and follow her wherever she wanted to live next year. She changed her mind when she got the Fulbright."
People on their way home from work filed down Berlioz. None of them was you or Beck.
"No Westerner has ever been to her town for more than a night. She couldn't pass it up."
"They'll have a lot of use for English, then," Margot said.
She put down her knife and disappeared into the kitchen. Then she came out along the wall, spun on her right foot, and dropped back into her chair with her arms full of green peppers and an eggplant. Margot's figure--her wide hips and low butt, together with her breasts which filled her sweatshirt a few inches closer than I ever expected to her suddenly narrow waist--her figure gave her the overbuilt, road-hugging grace of an early '70s Corvette. Especially the '72 Stingray coupe.
"He runs downstairs for the mail every day," I contentedly ratted. "He sends Val long letters on Mondays and Saturdays. They're so thick he has to tape them closed. Every once in a while he gets a postcard from her with big writing."
"He wants a Paris woman to make him forget. Or at least help him wait."
I abused Beck as well as I could. It was my way of forgiving him for the casual put- downs he threw my way whenever the four of us were together. I knew he was just being entertaining, but his jibes still hurt. I was forever playing Zeppo to his Groucho. I took my straight man's revenge.
"He can't find the girl," I said. "His charms don't translate. Here he's just a fat guy with a red face and a terrible accent."
"What's he usually?"
"Suave and accomplished."
"Oh, come on," Margot said.
She knew I was right. In English, Beck was physically acceptable and intellectually intriguing. Women found in him a sort of egotistical Yogi Bear, with brains and a trust fund. But in French his lunkish form overshadowed his wit. The foreign women he'd met during the summer were not impressed. He'd first tried his moves on two Austrian substitute nurses, Hilde and Berthe, who were perhaps the only two members of the H“pital Forcilles staff not to be bowled over by him. Beck invited them on a day excursion to Versailles, with me along to make it look like he wasn't trying to seduce both, or rather either, of them. The next Sunday he took all three of us to lunch on Rue de Paradis, and then to the Mus‚e du Cristal to look at the Baccarat perfume bottles which were Berthe's obsession.
It turned out that Berthe was engaged and not kidding about it, and that Hilde was frightened of being touched below the waist. This didn't definitively bother Beck until he found out that she was also frightened of touching anyone else below the waist.
"He claims he was busy at Yale."
"Beauty and the Beast appeal," Margot said.
"He told me Val had to fight for him."
"It's true," Margot said. "I don't understand it, but he was in demand."
Not so in Paris. For a month I'd watched him try to pick up women in bars, on the m‚tro, at the bank where he could flash his dollars. Even there he had no luck. A few days after we moved to the city, he met a Dutch philology student at the library at Beaubourg. Meanwhile he was dropping in on an Argentine waitress who worked at the tabac on Rue Paul Bert. Neither responded, and in desperation Beck went after an actual native at the BNP in Reuilly while drawing on his bottomless credit cards. I watched him sidle up to the prospect, who looked like a slightly elongated Demi Moore, and speak a few words of his patois to her. She told him quite loudly she was not free Friday night. He didn't understand and went after her again. She broke down and said, in unaccented English, that she would never be free, not on a Friday, not on any day of the week. Beck went home and wrote a long letter to Val.
"You don't think he's attractive?" I asked, thrilled.
"He's not my type."
I didn't know how to interpret this.
"Have you ever, you know--"
"Screwed guys? Sure. In high school I was with the jazz band director. He was married."
I was immediately granted a picture of a dark, popular, sixteen-year-old Margot in faded cords and untucked flannel shirts. She spent all her time with the boys in the jazz band and with the band director. She had breasts, and she was brilliant at trigonometry. Margot hadn't told me any of this, but it all turned out to be accurate. My Germaine Lagachian powers were not limited to your past alone.
"He said he loved me. He wanted to get a divorce."
She crushed garlic.
"You were sixteen."
She stepped to the kitchen.
"We would have been cool for a few years, until I graduated."
I saw the young Margot at once, pretty and efficient, making decisions that most grown people can't handle. In the afternoon she did math, had sex, played sax. She always played sax.
"Where would I be now? In Newton, married to a high school band teacher, that's where. I loved Wayne, but I wasn't a pinhead. Besides, Dad wanted Yale for me."
Margot and I were from the same background, both middle-class Jewish onlys with a hard-wired success wish. My dad had made it out of Opa and Oma's teetering little house in downtown Poughkeepsie to a golfer's split-level in Brentwood. Hers had made it all the way from Jersey City to a dental practice in Massachusetts, with a two-car garage and a boat in the driveway. Margot had told me her dad was so proud of her he could hardly bear to let her explain what she'd accomplished last. He was always too busy trying to repeat the success story to Margot's mom. That was true, even on Thanksgiving of her first year at Yale, when Margot was telling him, while she helped cook, that she'd figured out she liked sleeping with women. Bobby was about to say to Miriam, That's our girl. Instead he turned to Margot, offered her a spoonful of cranberry sauce, and said, I don't think there's any reason to worry, honey. This is very common at your age.
I'd never sprung any comparable revelations on Dad and my almost stepmom, Brenda. I did startle them when I started taking modern dance five days a week freshman year. I made the switch after I realized that if I trained as hard as I could and didn't injure my knees or shins again, I might be the seventh fastest sprinter on the JV squad. Over the phone, Brenda said she loved dance. Dad was silent, but I could hear him wondering if his great nightmare, the Gay Son, was about to be visited upon him.
But my point was that Margot and I were from the same caste, whereas you and Beck, well, you know who you are. Beck says your father's people arrived in New England on a wooden boat, swapped beads for Beacon Hill real estate, and settled down to wait for you. Meanwhile your mother's folks went on up to New Hampshire, cleared the land and named it Logs.
"Did you date guys at Yale?"
"I went out with my physics section leader," Margot said. She braised eggplant.
"What's this with you and teachers?"
"That's a long story," she said happily. She obviously had some complicated psychological theory about it. I wallowed deeper in the chair, nursed the wine in my coffee cup, and waited. James Blood Ulmer was on guitar now, making a sound like a litter of piglets being tickled.
"I've got time," I told her. I loved to hear Margot talk sex and psychology. Her theories were like dirty fairy tales for big kids, with the moral built right into the middle. But as it turned out, I didn't have time. Beck clomped up the stairs and banged on the door.
"No," I said, with feeling. Margot let him in, cutting knife in hand.
"Peace pipe," Beck told her, guiding the knife to the side. "Me powwow giant white squaw ray long fish over cold waters."
He had another stock tip for you, from his brother at Kidder Peabody.
"She's not home yet," Margot said.
"Go away," I said.
He threw his leather saddlebag at me, the one he used all the time, though it weighed more than whatever he put in it. He'd bought it one Sunday at Les Puces for an undisclosed sum and thought it was authentic Polish cavalry, circa '38. I knew it was Andalusian contemporary and that he'd been handsomely ripped off by a Frenchman posing as a gypsy. I batted the bag down.
"Where have you been?"
"Working," he said.
This was secret agent talk for sleeping the afternoon away. I'd finished the worst of the cleaning the week before. Then I'd bought materials to begin repairing the walls, which needed to be patched before I painted them. Beck, in the meantime, had finished the beers of Belgium and started on those of Holland. It wasn't as if he'd been idle.
"How's it hanging, Sweet Cheeks?" he said.
He walked up behind Margot and didn't goose her, it was slower than that. He massaged her ass affectionately for a moment with both hands, grunting to himself in a boarish way. He could do that, just as he could say anything.
"Zubir's got a sister. Did I tell you?"
"You told us, Beck," I said. "You tell us every night."
"Zohra doesn't play an instrument, but she's part of the band now. She comes to all our rehearsals just to see me."
Margot rolled her eyes. Beck had found the bass player, Zubir, on the bulletin board at Beaubourg. There were lots of musicians' cards up, he'd told us, but most were the whinings of pathetic basement rock stars. There in the middle of all the rubbish was a message neatly printed in English--M. Zubir Derouiche, bass acoustic. In research of the bebop experience.
"Why didn't you show this morning? Zubir and I waited for you."
"My J-O-B," Margot said. "Remember? I told you about those."
"I'll show you the charts. We set 'Y.A.T.A.G."
Beck, Margot, and Zubir played together all fall. They needed a drummer, and the trio, christened The Tone Wizards in time for the first of their Thursday gigs at the Tahonga, would have been a quartet. Instead they stayed a threesome, Beck played with his West Indian big band, and Margot and Zubir started gigging as a duet at Le Cambridge and King Op‚ra Twenty One. Everyone grew artistically and got paid once in a while.
"Red stuff?" Beck said.
"You were bringing it. I left you a note."
Beck weakly slapped his forehead.
"I am aweary," he said in brogue.
I dragged myself upright and held out a palm. This was the way all our disagreements were resolved--Beck's money, my time. Before I was out the door, he had usurped the chair and was contentedly listening to Margot's voice and the sounds of saxes and cooking. I understood him and almost forgave him his interruption, but couldn't quite until I ran smack into you on the landing.
"Bonk," you said. You leaned down from the heights of your boots and kissed my cheek. I led you back down the stairwell, across the courtyard, and through the gate.
"Wine," I told you, as if the word alone justified not letting you say hello to Margot. The cool print of your kiss melted from my cheek in the October breeze. In the shop on Rue Duret you asked advice in French good enough not only to formulate questions, but to understand answers. I had a standing directive from Beck about how much to spend. We would drink three bottles in descending order of value as we lost the power of discrimination. You chose a fifty franc Domaine de Villemajou, a white Muscadet for half that, and a vin du pays du Var for twelve francs and sous. The man wrapped our bottles in pieces of white paper so they wouldn't catch cold. I suppose that was his reasoning. He didn't offer us anything as useful as a bag.
It had been a long day. Ballet was becoming more painful, just when I thought it couldn't possibly. Beck's dormant existence appealed to me, as did your double career as an actress and Parisian intellectual. You'd spent your morning on Boulevard Raspail at a seminar on Napoleon's legal, political, and social impact, and how France wouldn't have come out looking at all French if it wasn't for him. Then you'd gone to your acting workshop with the enthusiastic but brutally honest Monsieur Jano Hanbowski, Polish dissident playwright- director. He taught drama disguised as dialectics, or was it the other way around? Now you looked culturally aware and refreshed, and I was jealous of your rich interior life. It made me wish I'd been less premed at Syracuse, but I'd graduated and it was too late. No matter how much money I made, no matter what kind of physical shape I kept myself in, I would spend my days becoming less and less sophisticated, until I died an unexamined death. That was when you started laughing.
"I'm thinking," you explained, "about the guys on the green motorcycles."
"Who suck up dog shit."
"You don't know," you said, "what I mean."
You held open the door for me and I maneuvered through with the bottles.
"They ride down the sidewalk. They wear green overalls with Des Trottoirs Nets on the back."
We walked into the last rays of sunlight.
"They wear white helmets," you tried again. "They hold metal vacuum cleaners down over the poop."
Then your sight memory entertained you on a different level and you couldn't talk at all. So much for your intellectual life, I thought. We stopped beside a bucket of chamomile bouquets at the florist's. I tried to zero in on what you'd seen, but my new powers worked better on your childhood than on temporally proximate occurrences. Your eyes squeezed shut. You hugged yourself and bobbed in place.
"They wear rubber boots," you said. "They rev their engines. Water shoots out."
You looked volumes at me.
"They push a button. That vacuums it back up."
"It's like a rug shampooer. Except for sidewalks."
Tears rolled down your face and right off your chin. You wrapped your arms tighter around yourself and bent over until your nose was between your knees.
"Why not use a shovel?" I asked.
You stood up holding your breath and started forward. I took rapid baby steps to match your pace. When we stopped next, it was in front of Giorgio's, where a yellow belt cost a lot, I remember that. You wiped your eyes with the hand that wasn't clutching my arm. Then you started taking full steps and I held on to the bottles for dear life. We zoomed across Avenue de Malakoff and through into Berlioz. I still don't know how you managed to see through your laughter and catch that bottle, the Villemajou of course, when it finally slipped its wrapper and headed for the stone. But you did, and so it was the two of us who landed on the cobbles, side by side, under the linden tree in love.
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.