CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Too Much for Adele
Adele meets Charlie at a party. He’s an American who speaks to her in his poor French, and tells her he would very much like to date her. Adele laughs when she hears him talk, and then she puts her hand around his mouth to help him form the sounds he needs to make his French understood.
He brings her to a pension where he is renting a room. He photographs her in bed after lovemaking, with her feet together up against the wall. He tells her she has beautiful legs. “Really?” she says, and she looks at her legs, wondering what Charlie sees when what she sees are the bony caps of her knees and a bug bite on the wrinkles of her Achilles heel.
Adele learned English in school. She is in terminal lycée, the equivalent year of a senior in high school. She makes fun of the way Americans dress, telling Charlie that his shoes are so big and thick, they remind her of loaves of bread.
During the day Charlie kisses her under the Eiffel Tower, and at night he tells her he hasn’t enough francs to take her out to dinner. She says she doesn’t care about going out to dinner, she’s always going out to dinner with her father anyway, and sometimes she’s tired of a waiter always refilling her water glass when sometimes she just doesn’t want anymore. And so Charlie and Adele buy wine and drink in the pension without using glasses at all, just trading the bottle back and forth.
Adele is the daughter of a diplomat. Her father is a liaison for the consulate. Adele’s mother died when she was young, and she and her father and her younger sister all live in a flat in Paris.
Adele’s sister looks like a waif with a haircut like she’s wearing a bowl on her head. Her legs are as thin as her arms. Adele has nicknamed her Little Frog, Le Moucheron; and Le Moucheron pleads with Adele to take her with her when Adele and Charlie go for a walk. Le Moucheron walks behind them, whining for sweets or chestnuts every time they pass a vendor’s cart. Charlie tells Adele he has to go back home in less than a week because he’s run out of money, and when he takes Adele and Le Moucheron back to their flat after the date, Adele tells him to wait just a moment. She runs upstairs, her heart beating hard and in time, she thinks, with each fall of her foot on each marble step. She comes back down with a cigar box and hands it to him. Inside the box is more spending money than Charlie’s parents gave him to vacation in Paris in the first place. “Now you can stay!” she says, her voice out of breath and so weak she thinks he may not have heard her.
He sits down on the low curb. His knees rising high. “This curb’s so much lower than what I’m used to back in the States. It’s as if all the people walking on the streets of Paris over all the centuries have worn the stone down,” he says.
Now, in a louder voice, she says, “Did you hear what I said? You can stay with this money,” and she taps the top of the cigar box.
“From here I can see up your dress. I can see your beautiful legs and your midnight-blue panties,” he says smiling, and then he stands, clutching the cigar box by his side, and kissing her on the mouth, using his one free hand to hold the back of her neck.
That evening they leave Le Moucheron at home and they go to a restaurant on Rue Baudin. They sit side by side, the cigar box on the other side of Charlie while they eat their meal, kissing in between bites of rabbit cooked in brandy and bacon. Charlie tells Adele about Harvard, how his parents practically insisted he go there, but he feels his years were wasted studying so hard. “And for what?” he says. He throws his hands up in the air the way he has seen so many French do since he has been in Paris, throwing their hands up as if to say, “Poof, all is gone.” “Ask me about Dickens and Kipling and I can tell you, but what would you do with the information? What good is it? Can it stop a leaking boat? Can it put out a raging fire? Can it move the masses to overthrow a regime? It can’t even get me a job.”
Charlie tells Adele about his father, a chemist, manufacturing copy ink and on the side trying to invent a recipe for instant tapioca. Adele doesn’t know what tapioca is, and the only way he can describe it to her is to tell her it is like small pearls you can eat. “But human beings can’t eat pearls,” she says. “Are you sure you’re not another life-form?” she asks. And then goes to kiss him, wanting a long kiss, but Charlie pulls back. He wants to keep talking. He explains to her, his words coming quickly, how even his father, selling ink, can make more money than his son who has the framed diploma from Harvard in his room at home. Adele doesn’t have dreams yet of becoming anything. What she likes best is when her father takes her horseback riding in the country around a lake on whose surface she can see the silver shadows of the trees, or when she can dress up in a floor-length gown and go to a dance with all the other diplomats. When she graduates she may go to université, or she may just live at home until she decides to marry. There have already been offers, but she doesn’t pay attention to them. She’s never dated an American before. She likes how Charlie tells her everything he’s thinking, and then asks her what she thinks about his ideas. He thinks going to France should be a mandatory course in college for all Americans. “From you,” he says, “they could learn not to always be in such a rush, to sit back and enjoy a meal, to really love a woman, what do you think?” he says. She laughs. She doesn’t have answers for him. She likes how he sometimes takes out his camera when they’re in the pension and snaps photos of her while he’s talking to her, as if the snap of the photo were some kind of punctuation mark at the end of his sentences. “You are gorgeous!” he says and then “snap” he takes a picture. “Pass me a cig, would you?” then “snap” he takes another picture of her while she’s leaning over, reaching for a pack on the nightstand beside her, her breast resting on the wooden edge.
Charlie reads Adele a letter his mother wrote to him at the pension. She wonders how he’s getting along. She imagines that with the amount of money they lent him he could stay in France at least another month. When Charlie reads this he laughs, as the money is already long gone, and all the money he has is Adele’s and sits on his bedside table still in the cigar box. On the letter paper is a pencil sketch his mother drew of a groundhog that’s been plaguing their garden. She drew it on all fours, and then upright on its hind legs. When he shows Adele she shakes her head, “This kind of animal we do not have in France. I’ve never seen one. Are you really from Earth?” she says.
The next day on a walk with Adele and Le Moucheron he tells Adele, “If I can’t stay in Paris, then I’m going to take a little bit of Paris home with me.” Adele wonders what that will be. Will he take a loose cobblestone from a street?
“Come back with me to the States,” he says.
Le Moucheron jumps up and down. “Hurray, we are going to America!” she says.
Adele has never been to America. She imagines everyone there looking like they come from Texas, wearing big hats and chaps because she has seen a number of John Wayne movies. She imagines the landscape alien, the earth reddish, dry and crusty, covered with the small rodent, the one sketched by Charlie’s mother in her letter. Charlie hands Adele back the cigar box of money she gave him. “This is enough for you to buy yourself a single one-way plane ticket,” he says. The cigar box feels heavier to Adele than it did when she first handed it to Charlie. She wonders if he’s mistakenly put something in with it alongside the money. Is there a glass ashtray in it from his pension? One of the ugly American shoes he wears that make his feet look like they’re wearing loaves of bread?
“One ticket! What about me?” Le Moucheron says, stamping her patent leather shoes on the slick cobblestones, wet from a mist rising from the Seine and falling on them as if sprayed from a bottle of perfume.
“My father will say no,” Adele says, picturing her father saying more than just no, but also cursing and throwing papers off his desk and throwing books at the wall the way he usually does when he is very angry.
“You’ll be eighteen in a week, you can do anything you want then.”
Adele laughs. “There is nothing I can do without him consenting. He will find out where I am. He will bring me back. He knows everyone. You have to see it to believe it. We can go to any restaurant in all of Paris, and they know him. They give him free champagne and make other couples move from seats with a view just so he can have the view.”
“I’ll tell on you if you leave without Papa’s consent,” Le Moucheron says. “You’ll have to take me with you so I don’t tell.” Adele hugs her sister. “Le Moucheron, sweet Le Moucheron,” Adele says and she breathes in her sister, wondering how long she’ll be able to remember her smell, and if the memory of a smell will last as long as the memory of how a person looks.
At home, Adele packs what she’ll need. Charlie is right, she thinks. In a week’s time she won’t have to ask her father’s permission to travel. She packs all her cashmere sweaters. Charlie described to her how on the hill beside his college dormitory he would sit on metal food trays from the dining hall and slide down the snow. He described how the cold air made it easier to hear, and so if a person dropped a key, for instance, on the path, its sound could be heard all around campus, as loud as a church bell. She would like to live in a place like that for a while, where everything could be heard so clearly there was no question about what it could be. In Paris, sounds always seem muffled. The Seine seems to trap sounds in the early morning mist that rises up from it. The heavily draped windows in her house trap the sounds of the voices of people on the street going to work. She is never sure if it is the baker or the policeman who is calling out hello to a passerby. Even the pigeons sound like their voices are trapped. Sitting on her ledge they coo as if they are trying to clear something caught in their throats by swallowing over and over again.
Le Moucheron braids the tassels bordering Adele’s bedspread while Adele packs. “I will tell Papa what you’re planning. I’ll ruin it for you,” Le Moucheron says.
“But I will send for you to come join me, and if you tell Papa, you won’t be able to come. Be good, Le Moucheron, don’t tell Papa on me. Think of all the attention Papa will lavish on you while I’m gone. He’ll take you everywhere with him. He’ll take you to the dances. He’ll let you stay up late with him in the club playing mah-jongg. Just think, you’ll be the one he waltzes with, and you’ll be the one he rides home with in the taxi, you’ll be the one leaning against the warm fur of his collar, smelling of his cologne and the late-night air.” After Adele says all this, she knows she will miss her father more than she thought when she first told Charlie, that yes, she would go with him to America.
On the plane, Charlie cannot stop talking about what she will see. Their first stop will be Hinsdale, of course. Not that there is much to see there, but he would like to show her his home where he grew up. He tells her how he feels that he is someone special, and will do something amazing in life. He has known it from the time he was such a small boy. It was not something he could discuss with his parents. They would have thought him egotistical, he tells Adele.
After Hinsdale, Charlie says he will show Adele the eastern seaboard. He will take her to the Atlantic Ocean on his country’s shores, and they will eat lobster pulled live from the traps. Of course, he will take her to New York City too. There he thinks he will do the amazing thing he was meant to do. “I will be the amazing person I was meant to be,” he tells her. He says he will show her Park Avenue, with its endless sea of taxis and cars, and the skyscrapers that lord over the skyline and pierce the sun with their flashing spires and tops. He reaches over and kisses Adele. He takes the bag of unfinished peanuts she is holding, and he stuffs it into the seat pocket in front of her, then he leads her back to the restroom. When the stewardess isn’t looking, the both of them enter through the narrow, folding door. The plane increases their excitement, its roaring engines right beside the restroom wall make them both shudder, even before he is inside her. All the power of the engines, Adele feels, is inside her now, and the power is flowing from him inside her too. When they are done, he is breathing heavily, and he tilts his head back under the bathroom light and she can see the light through one of his flaring nostrils, making the cavity glow red. When she pulls her skirt back down, she laughs, she notices that she has been supporting herself against the sink, and a small bar of soap clings to her rear momentarily before it falls off, down to where a smell of urine rises from the floor and feels sticky on the bottoms of her shoes.
Charlie’s mother serves Adele Jell-O salad with mayonnaise, and when Adele tastes it, she excuses herself and goes to the bathroom and spits it into the toilet and flushes. This is not any kind of mayonnaise she has ever tasted before. The mayonnaise she knows is creamy yellow and tastes pleasantly of garlic and a dash of mustard and pure virgin olive oil. The Jell-O made with the mayonnaise is green. Did Charlie’s mother want to feed her the food of Martians? One flush does not destroy its evidence. She flushes again, but the Jell-O floats and separates on the water’s surface. Again, she flushes, but the bits of green do not submit. She is in the process of using a bit of tissue to pinch up the bits of green from inside the bowl, when Charlie’s mother knocks on the bathroom door. “Are you all right?” she says in a clipped voice. Adele does not answer at first. Charlie’s mother is a large woman, who reminds Adele of the huge white refrigerator that is in the mother’s kitchen. There are no soft corners to her. She did not even hug Charlie when she and her father picked them up at the airport. Instead she let him kiss one of her cheeks, and all she could manage was to lift her hands and rest them for a brief moment on his shoulders. When Adele first met her, Adele leaned close to her to kiss her on her cheeks, but she stepped back from Adele and simply shook Adele’s hand. Now the woman has her mouth close to the hardwood door, asking if Adele is all right.
Adele wants to say, “No, no, I’m not all right. I’m not sure what I’m doing here, and who is your son Charlie anyway? I think I hardly know him. And what is this green Martian food called Jell-O salad you served me that’s making my stomach somersault and that can’t be sent down your sewers? I’m from Paris, where just about everything can be sent down the sewers! We’ve sent entire revolutionary soldiers down the sewers. I miss my sister, Le Moucheron, and I miss my father, and …” But instead, Adele says, “I’m fine, thank you. I’ll be out in a spiffy, oh, I mean jiffy.”
When she goes back to the table Charlie and his father are arguing. It is about money. Charlie is asking for more money from his father to go to New York and show Adele our country’s most famous city. There he will be able to find the job of his dreams, he just knows it. Charlie’s father says, “But we just gave you money to vacation in France.”
Charlie’s mother stands from the table and wipes her hands on her apron. “I’ll clear,” she says. Adele helps her. From table to kitchen, Adele walks back and forth with the plates and dishes. Charlie’s mother passes Adele so as not to rub shoulders with Adele, in fact she walks so far away from Adele that Adele thinks at one point that Charlie’s mother is going to exit the room, but she is obviously just trying to avoid having to be close to Adele.
Charlie’s father seems like the type of man who never yells. It is Charlie who Adele hears is yelling. He accents it with pounding his fist, sending up the saltshaker so it jumps, before it lands back down on the top of the table.
“Can’t you see what an opportunity this would be for me and Adele?” Charlie says.
In a quiet voice, Charlie’s father says, “Adele?” and for a moment Adele thinks the old gentleman wants to ask her a question, but then she realizes he is just trying to comprehend the significance of Adele in this equation.
“Yes, I plan on marrying her,” Charlie says.
Adele is almost glad it is the leftover Jell-O salad she drops to the floor at that moment. It means she won’t have to be served it again at the next meal. Charlie and his father just look at her and look at the green mess on the floor. They do not come running to help her. When Charlie’s mother comes out of the kitchen to see what accident has occurred, and she sees her Jell-O salad on her Persian dining-room rug, she too just stands there looking at the green mess of Jell-O and mayonnaise.
Charlie’s mother’s lips become straight and tight. When she speaks, it seems incredible to Adele, because it does not seem as if any air could pass between those lips, or that if it did pass through it would sound like air released from a balloon. But in a voice that does not sound human, that is so low and monotone one could mistake it for the quiet humming motor of the refrigerator kicking in, Charlie’s mother says, “I’ll fetch a wet rag.”
Then, all at once, Charlie and his father and Adele are bending over to help clean up the mess. They scoop up the Jell-O salad in their hands and toss it back into the bowl to get it off the rug. Picking up the cool wobbly salad in their hands feels good. It makes Adele feel playful. She has the urge to throw some at Charlie’s face. For a second, she thinks, no, I’d better not, but then as soon as she thinks she had better not do it, she does. A handful goes flying at his face. For a moment, he can’t see through the Jell-O salad, but then he blinks. The mayonnaise is white on his eyelashes and pieces of Jell-O make his skin lumpy, as if he has broken out in green boils. Charlie isn’t laughing, but Adele is. Her laughter is loud. She knows she cannot stop it. She points at Charlie. “You have to look at yourself in the mirror!” she manages to say through her laughter. Charlie’s father isn’t looking at Charlie. He is looking at Charlie’s mother, who, standing there with the wet rag, is furious. Instead of using the wet rag on the Persian carpet, Charlie’s mother uses it on her son’s face. Her downward strokes are hard. Adele can see how the force of her hand pulls on the skin of Charlie’s face, dragging his jowls down, and pulling the skin from underneath his eyelid down so that the inside is exposed and she can see his tiny veins branching like so many red streams across the curved yellow-white surface, the same color as the inside of an oyster.
Later that night, while she sleeps in the guest bedroom, Adele wakes up. She thinks she can hear a bucket of water sloshing, and the sound of scrubbing. She imagines Charlie’s mother is digging hard, working her elbow into the Persian rug, and the colors of the dyed wool fibers bleeding.
No one told her she could not use the phone. In the morning, when Charlie’s mother and father are out at work, and Charlie is still asleep in bed, Adele picks up the receiver and dials the overseas operator. She starts to cry when she hears Le Moucheron’s voice.
“What are you crying for? You’re the one who wanted to leave,” Le Moucheron says.
Adele nods, but she is still crying, and can’t speak for a moment. Finally, she is able to say, “How are you? How is Papa?”
“He’s begun combing his hair over, to hide his bald spot. It looks ridiculous,” Le Moucheron says. Adele laughs. “Me, I’m fine. I tried to swing so high on the swing that Sister Matilde made me get off. She says the day will come when I should be so close to God, but now she wants me closer to the ground. How is your Yankee?” Le Moucheron says.
“He’s fine. What about Papa, really? What did he say when he found out I was gone?”
“He cursed and called you a whore and then he went out at night alone, and when I heard him come back home I heard him fall as he opened the door, as if someone on the other side had opened the door too quickly for him, and he landed on the floor. Then he came into my room and stood over me and said, ‘I know you’re awake and I want you to promise me you’ll never do what your sister did.’ So I sat up and told him that you promised to send for me, and he said, ‘Over my dead body.’ So now I don’t get to go to America and I’m stuck here with Sister Matilde who wants me to do all my calculations in my head when I’ve told her I can only do them on my paper, and she told me there are reams and reams of paper in my head, if only I bothered to look for them. That’s what you’ve left me with, so I hope you are happy with your Yankee and your groundhogs and your John Wayne.”
Adele is going to tell her that Charlie was thinking of marrying her, she wants to hear herself say it out loud and hear how it sounds, but Charlie comes down the stairs. When he hears her talking in French, he grabs the phone from her and hangs it up. “Tell me you didn’t just call Paris?” he says. His hair is flat in the back from having slept so long, and his breath reminds Adele of soft cheese far too ripe, the inside almost as runny as pus, the rind yellow and grey. The smell overpowering.
“I didn’t call Paris. I called my sister, she is hardly all of Paris,” Adele says, thinking of her sister’s thin arms and small face.
“You what? Do you know how much a phone call to Paris is going to cost? You might as well buy a plane ticket there for the price,” he says.
“It can’t be as expensive as a plane ticket. That’s ridiculous.”
“All right, then half a plane ticket, but still it’s expensive. When my parents see the bill, they’ll be furious.”
Adele wonders where half a plane ticket would get her. Would she end up halfway home? Would she end up over the ocean, over the deepest part where the largest fish live and ships become lost?
They leave for New York before the phone bill arrives. Charlie’s father gave in and loaned Charlie the money. Charlie’s mother drives them to the train. Before they board she hands them a brown paper bag with two sandwiches of liverwurst and mayonnaise and then she pats her son on the arm saying good-bye, and then pats Adele’s arm.
Along the way, looking through the train windows, Charlie points out the corn fields, how the sweetest kernels are the bicolored ones called honey and pearl, and Adele doesn’t understand. She thinks she may as well be on another planet. In France corn is for animals, no one eats it by the ear, the way Charlie describes, rolling the ears in sticks of butter sitting on the table and sprinkling hickory smoked salt on top.
When they’re close to New York, Adele becomes sad. Something about a girl by the tracks bending down in her wool coat to arrange a baby doll in a toy baby stroller makes her think of Le Moucheron. Even walking the streets of New York by the Hudson River pier, the smell of the salty wet wood, reminds her of the Seine. Charlie takes her picture as she descends the subway stairs spotted with black circles, the cruddy remnants of gum chewed and then spat out. Her high heels she bought months ago on the Boulevard Saint-Germaine becoming scuffed and dull at the toes from all the walking they’ve been doing.
Charlie finds them a flat in Queens, and before she sees the place, she thinks it must be glamorous with such a name. At night, though, the subway shakes her mattress and jostles her bedside water glass.
She feels as if a butterfly is trapped inside her. She can feel its wings beating against her inside walls. “You idiot,” Charlie says. “You’re pregnant. Didn’t you know to mark the calendar?” he says. She didn’t know about marking the calendar. She didn’t know there were good times and bad times to make love, as Charlie now tells her.
Charlie gets the only job he can—working at a golf course, collecting lost balls and caddying for men who talk as if he isn’t there beside them. They marry at City Hall. Charlie forgets a ring, and instead Adele has to feel his fingers pretending they are holding a ring, gliding up her finger in front of the Justice of the Peace.
Sometimes Charlie comes home from the golf course with a ball in his pocket, one he picked up and forgot to return to the clubhouse. Invariably, it’s nicked or has a grass blade clinging to its pocked surface. When she gathers Charlie’s clothes to do the laundry she sets the ball on the mantle, over a fireplace that doesn’t work, and where the ball wakes her up in the night when it rolls off from the vibration of the elevated subway driving by.
She writes to her father, but the letters come back unopened with his handwriting on them that says “addressee unknown,” and all she can do is hold the letters in her hand and tell herself that at least she knows her father held the letters in his hands, and now she’s holding them too.
All the letters she sends to Le Moucheron aren’t sent back, but neither are they answered.
Adele dreams of her dresses. Back home in her closet she is touching them, bringing the silk cloth of skirts to her cheek.
The pictures Charlie takes of her stop, the film costs money of course. She wears his shirts and pants now, the baby growing, sometimes making her twinge, making her feel as if someone is inside her with a needle and thread, making stitches, piercing the deep folds of her flesh.
In the corner drugstore she sees women working at the cash register. They look tall behind the counter, standing on a platform so they can see potential thieves pilfering high-ticketed items down the aisles; or, on Sunday mornings when the liquor stores are closed, the bums trying to steal mouthwash made with alcohol. Adele thinks she could do that, stand on the platform, counting out change to customers and telling them to have a nice day.
Charlie laughs. “Who will hire you with your belly like that? You won’t fit behind the counter.”
The days are becoming shorter and snow flurries sweep through one evening, the flakes resting on her hair, collecting on her shirt, on the shelf her protruding belly forms, they sit like crumbs that fall after a bite from a slice of baguette.
Charlie doesn’t get up to go to work one morning. She shakes his shoulder. It takes a while for him to wake up. She wonders if he just thinks her shaking him is the elevated train coming by. “Do you think people golf when it’s below freezing?” he asks her when she tells him the time. “I’m out of a job,” he says.
He buys the racing form and sits with a slide rule at the kitchen table for hours, making marks beside the names of horses that sound to Adele more like ways you should behave when you need to be strong than the names of animals. Names like “Ride the Storm,” “Grit Your Teeth,” and “Raise the Flag.” In the early afternoon he leaves for the track, taking a shoebox with him that holds all the money they own. While he’s gone she walks into the drugstore, asking to speak to the manager. The manager, an Asian man with hair that looks as soft as her brush for putting rouge on her cheeks, doesn’t seem to look below her neck. She’s wearing one of Charlie’s coats so maybe it just looks like she’s fat instead of with child. She can start the next morning. He’ll teach her how to align the products on the shelves. He’ll teach her the register.
Charlie doesn’t come home that night. In the morning she leaves him a note saying she’s working at the corner drugstore. She’s learning how when someone gives a bill larger than a $1 you’re supposed to lay it crosswise over the bill compartments while you pull out the change, that way if someone tries to roll you, and tell you they gave you a twenty when all they gave you was a ten, the bill is out, and you can show them as proof.
When Charlie comes into the drugstore, she thinks he’s coming up so close to her to give her a kiss, but what he does is open the half swing door up to the platform where she stands at the register, and he grabs her by the arm and pulls her out. He pushes her out the half door, even though she’s telling Charlie her shift isn’t over, she’s got three more hours. The manager comes over and asks if there’s a problem, and Charlie says, “No problem, Confucius. My wife’s quit, by the way,” and the manager looks at Adele and Adele shakes her head and starts telling the manager she hasn’t quit, she’ll be back in a minute, but the manager doesn’t hear her, because by now Charlie has pushed Adele halfway up the block, and the train is driving by overhead, and the whole street is shaking and metal is shrieking against metal.
The money is all gone. Adele wants to know why he bothered to bring the empty shoebox home. He tells her it’s not his fault. All his calculations were right. His system is foolproof. It was the jock’s fault. The jock, who never held tight on the reins in his entire career, must have held tight on them today, because the horse he was on stayed back in the field at the start of the race, and never made a move up to the front.
Charlie gets out pen and paper and starts writing a letter to his parents asking for more money. Adele can feel her baby move, as if it’s trying to turn completely around inside her. A foot sweeps up under her rib cage. When he’s done writing his letter, he gives Adele pen and paper too. “Write to your father and ask him for money,” he says.
“He won’t open the letter, you know that,” she says.
“Tell him about his grandchild on the outside of the envelope, and he’ll give you the money,” Charlie says.
She writes the letter while Charlie is sleeping, his mouth open, his snoring sounding exactly like wood being sawed. In the letter she asks for a ticket to go back home. She gives the address of the drugstore she worked at as the return address. When she tells the manager of the drugstore, he says he understands. He tells her to come by every day after three when the mail comes to check and see if the letter has come. He will keep it for her. It comes close to Christmas, when the shop windows have wrapped boxes in the windows under decorated fir trees and when a Santa on the corner rings a bell all day long next to a round pot people drop coins into. She doesn’t have the money for the subway even to get to the airport, so what she does is she walks by with a penny in her hand, pretending to drop it into the pot, but instead she pulls up a handful of change, cold to the touch, and she smiles at Santa and he tells her “Merry Christmas.”
She doesn’t bring anything with her, just the clothes of Charlie’s that she’s wearing and her passport. She climbs the subway stairs and waits for the train, listening to Santa’s bell ringing.
At the check-in counter she explains to the attendant that her passport picture looks different than her own face because, of course, the weight she has gained due to her condition makes her look like another person. The attendant says she can order Adele a wheelchair, and Adele says she’s fine. She’d like to walk anyway. Really, she’d like to be able to run, just in case Charlie comes to find her. She’d like to be able to duck into the ladies room so as not to be seen.
On the plane, the doors cannot close fast enough. Even on line for the runway behind other planes, she thinks she’s not safe, and Charlie will bound up on the wing and bang on her round small window, smashing it, and reaching in to drag her back to Queens.
“What are you wearing?” Le Moucheron says when she first sees Adele step off the plane in Charlie’s jeans and his old button-down shirt. She doesn’t answer her sister. She hugs her instead. “What did you bring me?” Le Moucheron says.
“A niece or maybe a nephew,” Adele says, and opens wide her coat, showing Le Moucheron.
“I was thinking more of a cowboy hat,” Le Moucheron says. Her father stands back, waiting for her to finish saying hello to Le Moucheron. She goes up to him.
“Papa, I am so sorry,” she says.
Her father nods, and then he says, “You will give up this child. I know people who will take good care of it, who will find it a home.”
They don’t drive to Paris. They drive up into the mountains. They reach a house surrounded by pine trees. A woman with small beady eyes, and who wears a kerchief over her head like a gypsy, leads her in through the front door. The woman’s name is Madame Bouclé, and after Le Moucheron and her father leave, she puts her hand on Adele’s belly and says, “Two months.”
During the day Adele gathers firewood for the house, and Madame Bouclé makes sure that Adele eats proper meals. “A healthy child is always easier to give away,” she says. Adele can see what must be the heel of the foot of her baby through the skin on her belly, stretching it, but it is stretched in such strange shapes and at such odd angles that it is as if what is inside is not healthy, but something freakish that once born will summon its spaceship from up above and disappear back to its planet without a word of hello or good-bye to the woman who carried it for so long.
One night, in the middle of the night, the baby’s hiccups wake up Adele, and Adele has trouble falling back to sleep. She can’t help thinking about whom her child will be given to. She can’t help thinking how she doesn’t want anyone to have it. She hopes that when the child is born it is so lovely that Madame Bouclé will let her stay in her house and raise the child here. She imagines how they will search for wood together. The child holding a small bundle in its arms, and Adele holding the larger bundle that she lets fall from her arms and onto the hearth.
She is not sure of Charlie’s face now. She can see his nose, but the image of the exact shape of his eyes is fading from her memory. She sees a fox one evening run in front of her when she’s taking a walk, and she thinks the fox’s eyes and Charlie’s eyes are the same, and it isn’t until later that she realizes that couldn’t be true, people’s eyes aren’t gold like the fox’s eyes. If a person’s eyes were yellow, they wouldn’t be of this earth.
That night Madame Bouclé tells Adele that when the time comes she is not to worry, Madame Bouclé has delivered over one hundred babies and they all came out perfectly healthy. “Really? All of them?” Adele asks, and Madame Bouclé says, “Well, almost all of them.”
Her father sends a letter with money for Madame Bouclé. He has enrolled Adele in a junior college near their flat in Paris. When she returns she can start right away. Le Moucheron sends her a box of chocolates, with a few of them missing and half eaten, and a note that says, “I thought you shouldn’t eat all of them.”
She breaks her water in front of the wood stove while she’s bending down stoking the coals. The hearth beneath her is already hot, and the rock hisses when her water hits the surface. She doesn’t know what to do with the pain, it is so huge she thinks it would be helpful if someone could just take the pain from her and move it somewhere else. She wonders how long she can feel the pain without dying. Madame Bouclé tells her to push, and what comes out from Adele is feces. “I’m so sorry,” she says, and Madame Bouclé says, “I told you, I’ve delivered over a hundred babies, nothing is new to me. Push again,” she says. “You will be so happy when this baby is out of you. Think of that. Think of how you will bounce around the room. You will be light. You will fly like a bird.”
She shivers when the baby comes out, all of her vibrating. Madame Bouclé doesn’t let her see it. She washes it and wraps it and puts it in a bassinet across the room, and then she sits at Adele’s feet again. “Here, we’re almost done,” she says. She delivers the placenta and then she begins to sew Adele. The sewing takes a long time. “You tore yourself ten ways,” Madame Bouclé says. Adele tries to sit up, to see the baby in the bassinet. “Lie back. I can’t do this with you moving around,” she says. Adele looks over at the bassinet, just turning her head. The bassinet is wicker, and it slightly shakes, as if they were back in the flat in Queens when the subway drove by. When she’s done, Madame Bouclé puts on her coat and takes the baby in her arms and heads for the door.
“Where are you going?” Adele asks.
“The monastery, where else?” Madame Bouclé says. Adele has seen the monastery on the hillside, though most of the time she has only seen the bottom half of it, the top half so often being lost in the clouds. Adele stands, and begins to walk and find her own coat. “You’re not going anywhere,” Madame Bouclé says. “You’re not to set eyes on this child. If you so much as set eyes on it, it will never find a good home. It will never love its new mother. You don’t want to curse your own child, do you?” she says.
Adele sits back down on the end of the bed, where it’s wet with her fluids and her blood. She can see her placenta filling the enamel bedpan. Madame Bouclé closes the door, and Adele can hear her footsteps crunching on the trail that goes up behind the house. Suddenly Adele stands and swings open wide the window facing the hillside.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” she yells at the figure of Madame Bouclé walking up the trail. The cold air hits Adele, making her colder where she’s still wet between her legs, and where she still has sweat on her chest and at her temples from all her pushing. Madame Bouclé doesn’t answer her. The wind has blown Adele’s own words back to her.
She doesn’t remember the pain of her labor when the pain of her breasts begins. Her breasts feel like they’ve turned into rocks and she imagines she’s been living in some fairy tale out here in the woods where a spell’s been cast on her and she’s slowly turning into stone. For three days afterward she soaks cloth diapers in a pot of boiling water on the stove and presses them against her breasts to relieve the pain. Madame Bouclé has taken the placenta out to the woods and thrown it down a hillside, and at night Adele hears what she thinks is the howl of a fairy-tale wolf coming from where the placenta was thrown. “Look at you, so springy,” Madame Bouclé says when Adele walks across the room to the stove to get more hot compresses.
When Adele goes outside she stands and stares at the monastery. She looks at the bottom half, the only part she can see below the clouds. She cannot make out any people walking around the monastery, all that she can see are its stone walls, and she feels she truly knows the hardness and pain of that stone, because of the days she had rocks for breasts.
Her father comes in a new long sleek black car to pick her up. Le Moucheron sits with her in the back on the ride home, showing her how there is a place where you can rest your cigarette and crush the stub and a headrest on the seat where Adele can lean back, which she does. The pine trees shooting by as her father drives quickly, and Le Moucheron humming a tune she’s never heard before.
In the flat in Paris she leaves the window open at night, and ties back the drapes, listening to the sound of all the people speaking her language. One evening her father comes to get her. “Wear your silk yellow dress that goes to the floor,” he tells her. He takes her to a ball. Men invite her to the dance floor, which is a raised circular platform. It reminds her of the platform in the drugstore in Queens. From up above she can look down at all the people. She sees how they tip glasses to their mouths, how they stand with their hands in their pockets, how they light each others’ cigarettes, how they put their arms on the small of each others’ backs.
Driving home, her father is in a good mood. He keeps telling her how many men admired her beauty. “You will meet the right man in no time,” he says.
One man she danced with, who was in the Navy and stationed on a submarine, invites her to dinner. “Go,” her father says. The naval officer tells her about the high seas, about the relentless waves, about the hot bunk he shares with two other men. He kisses her and his lips are wet, as if he keeps salt water inside his mouth.
He asks her if she’d like to have lunch with him a few days later. She says, “Yes, can you drive?” He borrows her father’s car, and she tells him there’s a town, high up in the woods, with a beautiful monastery, where she’d like to go for lunch. She packs food for them, there will be no need to stop and waste time at a restaurant along the way.
On the steep road she presses him onward, telling him to keep driving even though he’s afraid the car won’t make it up the incline. “This is the best new car there is. My father only buys the best. It will make it,” she says. She can see the monastery at the top of the hill, but the naval officer stops the car and pulls the emergency brake, afraid to go farther. “Let’s walk, then,” she says. She takes his arm. The walk up the road is difficult. The wind is strong, and it’s against them. Adele’s swing coat flies back at the hem, flipping the coat back so that the silk lining is exposed.
The monks don’t answer the door. “They’re probably at prayer. We don’t need to go inside, do we? We can see how it looks from here,” the naval officer says.
Adele presses her face up against the door.
“Where is my child?” Adele yells, so that she’ll be heard over the wind and through the heavy wooden door.
“What are you saying?” the naval officer says. The door swings open. A small monk wearing thick glasses has opened it.
“We’ve come for the child that was born a fortnight ago. It was delivered by Madame Bouclé,” Adele says.
“What are you talking about?” the naval officer says to Adele, and then he turns to the monk and says, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what she’s talking about.”
The monk shakes his head. “There are no children here,” he says. He begins to close the door.
“My child, he’s here, Madame Bouclé brought him here,” she says. The monk steps outside the doors, closing them partway behind him, where they move slightly back and forth in the wind, and then he turns to Adele. He speaks in a whisper. “Your child is no longer here. He was given away,” he says.
“He?” Adele says.
“Yes, he,” the monk says. “I’m so sorry,” he says.
“What’s that then? Is that him crying? Don’t you hear it?” Adele says, lifting her head and then turning to the naval officer, grabbing his arm. He shakes his head.
“Come, we should go back to the car,” the naval officer says, turning so that he’s facing down the road.
“You still have him, don’t you?” Adele says to the monk.
“No. He was only with us a night. The family came for him right away.”
“But that’s a baby crying. I can hear it,” Adele says. The monk turns and opens the huge wooden doors on their metal hinges, he opens and closes them partway a few times so that they creak. “This is what you’re hearing. It’s the wind. It sounds just like crying, doesn’t it? But I assure you it is only the wind,” he says, and then he stands so that he is behind the doors, closing them shut against Adele.
On the way back down the road, Adele sobs into the naval officer’s stiff jacket.
The naval officer drives while she lies in the back seat of the car. When they arrive home, her father is in the courtyard, waiting for them. He asks them how their lunch was. The naval officer says it was a delightful afternoon, but that maybe the warm spring sun was too much for Adele. Her father takes her upstairs and lets her go to her bed. Le Moucheron bounds into the room, showing Adele a new skirt she is wearing, that when she twirls, flies up around her. “Do you like it?” Le Moucheron asks.
“Very much,” Adele says.
“You’re sick, aren’t you?” Le Moucheron says. Adele nods.
“I’ll come back later,” Le Moucheron says.
“No, stay with me,” Adele says and reaches out to grab her sister, but Le Moucheron quickly moves away.
“You didn’t stay for me. You left for America. You left me alone,” she says, and she skips out of the room.
In the night, Adele leans out the window, looking at Paris, wondering where her child is, if she will ever meet him in her lifetime. She thinks how maybe one day she will pass him on the street, but they will not know each other. How is it then, we call ourselves human? she thinks, if we will not know our own child when we pass him in a crowd?
A letter comes from Charlie. The envelope contains signed divorce papers that her father arranged for Charlie to authorize. In return, her father will send Charlie a large sum of money.
“Well, that’s over and done with,” her father says when he’s standing in her room showing her the papers. After he leaves, she goes into her closet. She shuts the door and sits in the dark. She brings up the silk skirts of her dresses and holds them against her cheeks. So soft, they are like water, she thinks, and she’s not home and she’s not in America. She’s only made it halfway in between, she’s in the deepest part of the ocean—the part where the largest fish live and ships become lost.
Yannick Murphy is the author of five novels: This is the Water (HarperPerennial), The Call (HarperPerennial), Signed, Mata Hari (Little, Brown & Co.), Here They Come (McSweeney’s), and The Sea of Trees (HoughtonMifflin). She is also the author of two short-story collections, In a Bear’s Eye (Dzanc Books) and Stories in Another Language (Alfred A. Knopf); and three children’s books.