Jumat, 30 September 2011

WRONG SIZE SHOES by Peter Nolan Smith

Twenty-five minutes after the stroke of Twelve New Year’s Eve 1982 a masked assassin shot dead the main investor a block away from the Continental Club on West 25th Street. The FBI and NYPD’s Internal Affairs investigating Viktor Malenski’s murder quickly drew lines between the dots. My ex-girlfriend was living with the dead man’s partner. My boss had been wearing a wire. I had paid bribes to cops in patrol cars. The scandal hit the papers. My name had been mentioned twice. Everyone thought I knew something. They were more right than wrong.

I avoided turning state’s witness thanks to a phone call from a Paris nightclub owner. He offered me a position of ‘physionomiste’. My inability to speak French was considered a plus. A ticket was waiting at the airport and I left New York without leaving a forwarding address. 

Paris was a relief. The nightclub on the Grand Boulevard was popular. I got free food, drinks, and the right to treat the French as rudely as necessary. They loved me for this rude behavior. It was the perfect job for an American in Paris.Any time I thought about returning to New York, I would call my friends. They said the Internal Affairs investigation was in full swing. The FBI has asked several people my whereabouts. Paris was home and I made the best of it.Young models from foreign lands and svelte dancers from the Folies Bergeres dragged me to flats throughout the various arrondissements. My troubles seemed 3000 miles away and I had no intention on settling down. 1982 became 1983 and 1984 arrived without any commitment to a conventional life. All that changed when a mischievous teenager with a froth of golden brown hair accompanied me to my hotel room in the Marais.I attributed our having sex five times in one night to her half-Puerto Rican/half Jewish blood. Candia didn’t leave the next morning and two days later the long-legged model/actress asked me to live with her in La Ruche, an artist commune. Staking my heart on the whims of a girl fifteen years my junior was dangerous, however the atelier in the distant 15th arrondissement overlooking the Lost and Found bureau of the Paris Taxi Commission was a welcome change from the Marais Hotel. Famous artists had lived on its ground. I started writing a novel about pornography in LA.

My friends. Albert and Serge, opened a dance club in the Bastille. I was the doorman. Black Jacques the bouncer. We were a good team. The Nouvelle Eve was popular with the young rich. Candia modeled in Germany, Italy, and Paris. We laughed, fought, made up, and went on vacations. Life was bliss. The summer was spent in love. Our lust tapered off in the fall. After an October trip to Milano, the phone rang at odd hours. If I answered, the caller hung up.Candia slept far from my touch. The art dealer Vonelli said that the happiness of a relationship can be measured by the distance between a man and woman in bed. Ours was a meter. There was someone else. I said nothing. She would have resented my accusations. The well-bred girls frequenting La Reve offered solace, yet I remained true to Candia, hoping one day she would respond with the same dedication.

Two days into 1986 Candia left Paris for a photo shoot in the Alps. Three days later she phoned to say her boss had invited the fashion team for a ski trip to Isola 2000. Having heard her opinion that skiers were too poor to vacation in the tropics, I bit my tongue and spent the weekend drinking heavier than normal. Candia called on Sunday to say she was staying an extra day. I envisioned her naked in bed with another man.

She hung up and I told myself this was just a fling. Candia would come back and everything would be like it was before, otherwise she would have never bothered with the call. On the day of her return I cleaned the apartment, bought flowers, chilled a bottle of champagne, and sprayed a perfume on the bed for a night of coaxing her heart into my arms.She arrived late. The shimmering silver fur coat accented cinnamon skin untouched by the alpine sun and my heart crumpled like a cheap beer can. The telephone rang and she snatched the receiver out of my hand. After several whispers Candia announced, "I have to meet a client at the Hotel Crillion for dinner."

Stopping her was impossible. "Go ahead."She left without mentioning what time she'd arrive home. I went to my nightclub. By 3AM I had drunk myself partially deaf and dumb. My partner stopped my dancing on a stool to Chic’s LE FREAK. "What’s wrong?"

"Nothing another whiskey-coke wouldn't cure." I shouted for a refill and Serge annulled my order. "Why don't you go home and sleep this off?"

"Because a house is not a home." I staggered to the entrance. A runway model from Baltimore accosted me with an obscene proposition. The redhead was beautiful. My girlfriend was probably making love to another man. The hotel across the street charged 200 francs for a room. I opted for the high moral ground."Another night.""Another night?" She blinked in disbelief. No male in their right mind had ever refused her favors.

Leaving the club I weaved through the errant snowflakes to the Seine. The water lay like between the two banks like an oil spill. Candia’s betrayal shielded me from the cold. Nearing the 15th arrondisement, I realized while I might not forget this trespass, I could forgive her sin. I just needed a chance. 

On the Impasse Dantzig I lifted my eyes. The lights in the atelier were off. She might have stayed at the hotel. I prayed she was asleep in bed. She had chosen another course. Inside the door lay a pair of shiny Gucci loafers. They were not my size or style. A man’s moaning answered any question about their ownership. I charged into the bedroom with a wounded roar. A balding man lifted his arms too late to deflect my fist. He tumbled unconscious off the mattress.

The venom geysering through my veins transported me 300,000 years to a fire-lit cave. I seized Candia by the hair and threw her on the floor. The girl nursing my cold, the lover cuddling me after sex, the dinner companion laughing at my jokes were gone.“Why?”

“If you have to ask why, then you will never know the answer,” she spat with an unrecognizable hostility.

I envisioned a deadly blow, police, and trial. Her infidelity wasn’t worth a life sentence in the La Sante prison. I chucked her Mickey Mouse telephone through the window into the street and I scourged the naked couple from the apartment with the frayed wire.

Once alone I packed my clothes, journals, tape deck, camera, and photos. The man’s suit and shoes went out the broken window. The pettiness of the act felt good. I imagined police sirens in the distance and hurried from the apartment.On the nearest boulevard I hailed a passing taxi. The hour and my bag explained the story. The unshaven driver shrugged knowingly, “Un hotel?”“Ouais, le Hotel Louisiana." The stuttering images of my girlfriend’s infidelity accelerated my breathing and the driver asked, "Mssr., vous etes okay?"

"Ouais." It was the one word I could managed betwen the gasps for air.I lowered the window. The cold air failed to pluck the splintered razors from my lungs. A bottle of sleeping pills was lumpy in my coat. Overhead the sky glowered with a miserly gray dawn. The driver stopped at Rue Du Seine. I paid with a 100-franc note and said to keep the change. He drove away without a merci.

Waking the old woman at the hotel desk was almost a sin, except I had almost broken the 5th Commandment. I rang the bell. She blinked several times before recognizing my face from a previous stay. "Ah, Mssr., je imagine que vous voulez une chambre.""Une chambre pour un nuit." A room with a bed and bath fulfilled my physical needs.

"Chambre 312." She passed over a brass key and pointed to the elevator.

The room was clean. The bed soft.  I dropped two sleeping pills and saved the rest for a more desperate occasion. Sleep collapsed on me as heavily as a tombstone. Five hours later I woke more from a coma than sleep. My first thought resurrected Candia’s infidelity.

She had brought back her lover on purpose. My hands mimicked the act of strangulation. Thin air was no replacement for a seventeen year-old’s neck. French court had never convicted a man of a crime de passion, but I was only a murderer in my most grievous thoughts.

I tore up the photos of Candia naked in the changing cabinets of the Piscine Deligny, singing in Clermont-Fernand, and visiting her grandmother in Vichy. The shreds built a pyre of dead love in the hotel ashtray. I set them on fire. The flames wrinkled her face and body. An acrid fume corkscrewed into my nose. Fearing Candia's soul had invaded my body, I flushed the flaming photos down the toilet, then left the hotel.

I needed a drink and the icy wind hurried me down the Blvd. St. Germain to the Cafe le Flore. No one was braving the sidewalk tables. I sat on a chair behind a glass wall. The waiter took my order of a cafe au lait, croissant, and a single shot of Calvados and disappeared inside.Waiting for my breakfast, I viewed each passing couple with a jealousy bordering on hatred. Three Calvados numbed my disapproval, the wet wind, and my girlfriend’s betrayal.

After the fifth Calva I barely noticed my partner sit beside me.

Serge looked like he had just woke up. "I've been looking for you."

"Why?" Rubbing my face was an ineffective method of erasing the effects of the alcohol.

"I called your house this morning and spoke with Candia." Serge lit a cigarette and signaled to the waiter to bring us another round.

"More like my girlfiend." Dropping an 'r' from friend was lost on the Frenchman. "What the bitch say for herself?"

"She is very worried about you." My partner’s eyes pursued two schoolgirls.

I blew into my hands. "If she cared about me, why she bring home that man?"

"You Americans treat women as men. They are not. They are women and we have to protect the double standard, otherwise the battle between man and woman will be lost." Serge waved to a model on her way to a casting call. "You allowed her to have affairs and she concluded you did not care about her."

"Not care? I almost killed her." My fists clenched white.

"C'est vrai, and now she appreciates you care about her. A woman is a horse. You hold the reins tight and the horse will throw you. Too loose and she will runaway.” His eyes beamed with macho pride. "You showed her that you are a real man."

"That's insane." My parents had reared me to not hit a woman.

Serge inhaled deeply on his cigarette. "The caveman drags a woman by the hair to the cave. They have a little corps-a-corps. She stays with him. Not the man who lets her have an affair with another caveman."

The only examples of a caveman dragging a woman by her hair had not painted in Neolithic caves, but stretched in TV cartoons, however man's dominance over woman needed no historical anchor for its machismo in France. "This is the almost the 21st Century.”

“Eh, alors, even more reason you must establish a ‘rapport de force’." Serge stubbed out his cigarette. “Yell at her, hit her, and make love. She expects you to act like a man, not a mouse. If you let this wound bleed, you will be no good for the next woman you meet and believe me you will always have another woman. A plus tard."

To prove his point Serge stalked a fashionably attired woman in her thirties. Within a few paces she rewarded his boldness with a smile.
He was right and I shambled to the boulevard, foreseeing my kicking in the door, only every taxi was occupied by other couples. The chances of winning back Candia smoldered in the icy drizzle and I returned to the hotel room.

I was alone. I would never love again. I sat on the bed. Twenty sleeping pills would provide an eternal blanket. My head fell into my hands and I spotted a photo on the floor. It had been taken almost twenty years ago.

My grandmother sat on the porch of her house in Westbrook, Maine. A simple string of pearl circled her neck. A cameo was pinned to her black dress. The stacks of the SD Warren paper mill rose over the neighbor's roof. I could smell the sulfurous stench from the mill with my eyes closed.

Maine was calling. People there spoke with my accent. My grandmother made the world’s best beef stew. I’d sleep in a four-poster bed under warm covers. My bank account was full of francs. I’d skate on Watchic Pond and sled down Blackstrap Hill.

I called the nightclub and told Serge I was leaving town for a few days, then bought a one-way ticket to America from a travel agency on the Boulevard St. Germain. A taxi got me to Charles de Gaulle Aeroport with an hour to spare. The change in my pocket weighed a ton and I fought the urge to phone Candia. We had nothing to say. Finally the ground staff called for the passengers to board and I left Paris, knowing I was headed for the USA.The 747 fought the winter headwinds across the Atlantic and made landfall over the coastline of Maine. I peered through the plane's porthole. Watchic Pond was an icy white dot beneath the wing and I followed the white snake of the Presumpscot River to the SD Warren Mill in Westbrook. I took out the picture of my grandmother and turned over the yellowing photo to check the date.

The picture had been taken on the 4th of July of 1965.

I remembered the day minute for minute.

My brother and I were vacationing with my grandmother. We went to the lake for the weekend and came back to Westbrook on the 4th. I went into the drugstore to buy a comic book. The counter girl asked me to walk her home. I almost lost my virginity along the Presumpscot River. The girl laughed at my fear and i ran back to my grandmother's house. She had explained the birds and bees as she might to a grown man and we watched THE SEVEN SAMURAI that night. Neither of us said anything to my older brother.

I landed at JFK and stepped out of the terminal. People wore snow parkas, hats, and scarves for survival. I hadn't crossed the Atlantic to appreciate the Tri-State weather and boarded the A-train to Penn Station, where I rode the Northeast Unlimited to Boston, arriving at Route 128 near Eleven O'clock. A taxi drove to my parents' house. They both asked if everything was all right. I lied about Candia and said I wanted to see my grandmother. They exchanged a secretive glance and my father announced, "Your grandmother is in a nursing home on the North Shore near your aunt."

"Why didn't anyone tell me?"

“Your grandmother didn't want you to worry being so far away." My father was clearly worried about his mother. This was more than a cold or flu.

"Can I visit her?" I planned to free her from this old age prison.

"We'll go tomorrow. She's weak, so we can only stay for a short time."

"That's all right. I still want to see her." I spoke with my parents for a few minutes. We were tired and bid each other goodnight. I went upstairs to my bedroom. The airplane models, books, pictures, and trophies belonged to a stranger. I slept in the musty cellar. In the morning my father and I went to breakfast. He had divined the state of affairs in Paris. "You should come back to Boston and settle down with a nice Catholic girl."

It was easy for him to say. My father had married the woman he loved, raised six children, and worked for the same company thirty years. "I'll keep that in mind."

"How many more years you intend on messing around?"

"I don't know." I verged closer to tears.

"I'd expect 'I don't know' from a kid, not a thirty-two year-old man. Life goes fast. I’d hate for you to find yourself ten years from now, thinking it was a waste." My father wasn't the type of man to witness his son’s breakdown and paid the bill at the cash register. As we walked to his car, I asked, "How's grandmother?"

"She has cancer."

"How bad?"

"Terminal. She had a lump and let it go."

“She must have known it would kill her.” My grandmother had been a nurse.

“Probably.” He didn’t understand her neglect either.

The full extent of my grandmother’s condition had to wait until the nursing home. She was resting on a bed facing a window. Her breathing was pained. A morphine tube was attached to her vein. While she had lost weight, her face was a mirror of the woman in the photo sitting on the porch. She smiled with a drugged gentleness. "There’s a sight for sore eyes."

My father bent to kiss his mother and I held her frail hand. They spoke for several minutes and he said, "I have to speak with the nurses."

Once he left the room, my grandmother patted my face. "How's Paris?"

Her time was measured in days, not months. "Paris is Paris."

"You forget I met your grandfather in Paris during the Great War. We were young and in love, so don’t tell me Paris is Paris." Her opiated eyes delved deeper into me. “You can tell me your problem. It might be one of your last chances for my help.

"Don't say that."

"It's the truth, of course the doctors say I'll live to ninety.”

“They do?” I remembered my mother lying the night of her mother’s death. She had said it was to soothe my Irish grandmother and Nana had accepted the lie to alleviate my mother’s sorrow.

“They lied to me. The end is closer than anyone says." She brushed her hand against my face, the skin smelling of lavender. "Let me guess. Your romance in Paris has ended."

“Romeo has no Juliette.” I blurted out the entire story. At the end my grandmother said, "Hitting a woman is wrong no matter if she did something wrong."

"I didn’t hit her.”

“You came close.”

“It’s not the same thing.” The madness in my blood was only defensible in a French court and my grandmother frowned through a mask of pain.

"What did you expect from such a young girl anyway?"

"She said she loved me."

"Maybe she did in her own way." My grandmother coughed and I stood to fetch the nurse. She said, "Not yet. Please give me a glass of water."

I gave her a few sips and she closed her eyes. I worried she might not wake up, but after several seconds the agate green orbs flashed with life. "It's been thirty years, since your grandfather passed away, but I can remember the first days we met and our years together as man and wife.”

“Maybe I’ll never have that.”

“Let me tell you a story. You remember my friend, Marie."

“She’s still alive?" Marie chain-smoked and drank two bottle of rose wine daily. She was hard to forget.

“Marie will outlive me. Guess her drinking was her fountain of youth.”

"You're not gone yet." I wished my caresses might cure her.

"It's only a matter of time, anyway Marie had been a beautiful woman. She married young, acceding to her father’s wishes. Her husband wasn't capable of giving her romantic love, but people stayed together those days because it was the thing to do. After the Great War Marie accompanied her husband to Germany. One trip she met a sea captain and fell in love. This time for real. Of course it was unrealistic. She was married and the war came. He served as a U-boat commander. When Marie heard he was missing in the Atlantic, she went to pieces and began drinking. Her husband tolerated her behavior. Guess he loved her in his own way. Anyway he passed away a year ago, making Marie a free woman."

Fearing she was ranting from the drugs, I fidgeted on the chair and she admonished me, "That is the problem with you young people. Always in a hurry for the ending, so you miss the good parts."

"Sorry, grandmother."

"You should be. Anyway Marie was sitting in her house and the doorbell rang. She opened the door to this old gentleman. Marie mistook him for a friend of her husband. He had a German accent. Only one man in her life did. It was her sea captain. He hadn't died during the war. He had married his childhood sweetheart. After her death he sought out Marie to tell her that his only desire was to spend the rest of his life with her. And they are living happily ever after. So as sad as you are, one day you’ll love again. Now give me a kiss and fetch that nurse."

I kissed her forehead and brought a nurse to the room. My father said it was time to go and in the parking lot he read the sadness piled atop whatever had happened in Paris. He had to say something. “Your grandmother wouldn’t like you hurt.”

“I know.” She would want me to live in order for her to exist in the future.

"She loves you very much."

Marblehead Harbor was mirror flat. I had sailed it with my grandmother in my uncle’s little Sunfish. Soon she would only exist in memories of Maine.

“She loved you too.”

"How about a plate of fried clams?" He opened his door.

"Sounds good to me." Winter wasn't the best season for fried clams and my father's offer wasn't a soothing hand on my brow, however fried clams were a good remedy to the sight of another man’s shoes, especially if the Barnacle in Marblehead was open for lunch.

My grandmother was right.

One day I was going to love again and until that day I would have to live like that moment might be the next or else it would pass me by and I was too young to wait as long as Marie to find love again. When was only a question of time.

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