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Annie Reed walked along the rue de Rennes wondering if her husband still loved her. Paris was colder than usual that fall. She loved this time of day, la crépuscule, the nebulous period that floats between day and night. Her heels clicked as they struck the cold pavement. She wished that she had gone to the basement storage in her apartment building to take out her boots. The approach of winter had crept up on her. Gone were the golden dry October days, like those you saw in movies, where couples strolled along the Seine, pausing to look at old prints and books in open carts. The damp November air had already settled into her bones.
Dreary, dark, dusk--words she was trying to put into a poem on the seasonal shifts that changed the mood and tempo of the city. She admired the French poets who were able to capture the feel of the tight, cold air, the closing down and pulling in particular to this time of year. The French language had a musical quality, a natural lyricism, that belied the darker message within. Annie wanted to capture this feeling in English. She wished she could breathe in this poignant beauty and exhale the words and images onto the page. She could hear the words, like puzzle pieces floating in her head, but she struggled to find the flow, the thread that would order the images and bring them to life.
Why did she bother? She tried not to think of the envelope in her briefcase. Stopped at a red light, she drew her shoulders up and released them, trying to get rid of the tension in her neck. Her job at the Liberal Arts Abroad program had kept her cooped up in an overheated office all afternoon. She had published only a few poems in the last few years. She wanted her poetry to take precedence again, not easy after years of being busy with other things. Wesley certainly didn't seem to care. A thin sheet of ice had formed between them.
Annie arrived at the subway station and descended toward the rumbling trains. She pushed open the steel-and-glass door at the bottom of the steps, trying not to inhale the warm, dirty air rising from the tunnels below. Annie disliked crowds and walked toward the far end of the platform hoping to find a less busy spot to wait. She longed to be home; being with people all day tired her. The dark tunnels hummed with the possibility of approaching trains.
On the opposite platform Annie noticed an unusually tall young woman in a brilliant blue cape. She had to be foreign. When Annie moved to Paris over twenty years ago with Wesley and baby daughter Sophie in tow, she'd wanted to fit in, to look French. She loved the way French women dressed; understated, discreetly fashionable, they wore their clothes confidently, hinting at sexiness, suggesting the unexpected. Most of the women here on the subway platforms wore coats in subtle colors--brown, gray, or black--with perhaps a bright scarf arranged artfully at the neck. The first thing Annie had noticed when she moved from New York was the French addiction to scarves.
The woman across the platform looked like an exotic bird, unafraid to flaunt its colorful plumage. The theatrical-looking cape had a black velvet collar and could have been from a vintage clothing shop had it been more worn and faded. Her honey-colored hair fell heavily, just reaching her broad shoulders. She was more handsome than beautiful, with wide-set eyes and a full mouth. Annie thought of Baudelaire's words, "Luxe, calme, et volupté." She knew she shouldn't stare, but her eyes kept going back to the woman. There was something disconnected about her. She looked calm, almost dreamy. While probably in her thirties, the age of a young mother, she didn't have the intense fixed look of a mother eager to get to the school or day care center to find her children.
Moments later a train pulled up to the opposite platform, stirring up the odor of wet clothing, tired bodies, and stale air. Passengers jostled their way into the full cars, and Annie lost sight of the woman. The train pulled out of the station, and she experienced a momentary feeling of loss when she looked back at the empty place where the woman had stood. Why had this woman caught her attention? Lately she found herself contemplating other women's lives. Studying the faces around her, particularly women close to her own age, Annie wondered if they too felt the ache of an empty nest, or faced unhappy husbands at the end of the day. Her own train arrived and screeched to a halt. The doors slid open. Annie clutched her briefcase and got ready to board the crowded car.
Darkness blanketed the city when Annie emerged at her Métro stop, Hôtel de Ville, in the Fourth Arrondissement. City of Lights, she thought, what a misnomer in November. A cold mist, not quite a drizzle, gave the streets an oily sheen. Drivers blew their horns impatiently in the heavy traffic. Annie looked at the closed shutters of the apartments above the street. She loved the sight of lamplight seeping out between the louvers. At the end of the afternoon, she relished going from room to room in her own apartment closing the outside shutters and drawing the curtains. The sense of warmth and enclosure of a home tucked in for the evening filled her with pleasure.
She used to love coming home and having an hour or two alone when she would putter, look at the mail that the concierge had slipped under the door, and start to put dinner together. She might take out her poems and revise work that she had started that morning. Late afternoon, with its dense quiet, was a productive time of day for her. Now Wesley would be there, awaiting her return.
The fierce noise of a motorbike revving its engine at the next corner jarred Annie back to the present. The rue des Archives teemed with small cars, motorbikes, and pedestrians carrying parcels from neighborhood food shops along with the necessary baguettes. She made a quick stop at the greengrocer to buy haricots verts. Heavy woven baskets overflowed with tender carrots and fat bundles of broccoli; robust purple cabbages glowed in the evening mist. She smelled chickens roasting on a spit in the butcher shop next door. She went in and selected one, which the butcher, a pasty-faced man with multiple chins, wrapped and added to her shopping bag.
Almost home. Annie imagined the exotic woman she'd seen in the subway entering a quiet, dark apartment, throwing the blue cape over the back of a chair, pouring a glass of wine and nibbling on a slice of pâté left over from the night before. She wouldn't have to face a disgruntled husband or worry about a daughter living on her own far from home. Annie arrived at the heavy wooden door of her own building, number 38, pressed the digits of her code, releasing the lock, and stepped into the quiet courtyard.
"You're late today," Wesley said. "Where've you been?"
Annie didn't answer. Asking about her whereabouts had become a habit since he'd started working at home. She'd been out all day, but he didn't come over and pull her into his arms for a kiss, not even a quick brushing of lips on her cheek.
"Did you hear from Hal today?" She pulled the chicken out of the bag, set it next to the stove, and turned on the tap. The water was slow to warm up, and she shuddered as the cool stream splashed over her hands. Her delicate wedding band glimmered through the water. She wished she were heating the kettle to make a solitary cup of tea. But it was time to start dinner.
"The phone hasn't rung all day," he said flatly.
"Well, it's early in Washington. He could still call tonight." Annie closed the curtains and turned on the kitchen-table lamp, casting a cozy glow on the yellow plaster walls and high ceiling. She'd painted the kitchen that golden color to remind her of Provence with its lavender-scented fields and sunny days. Her polished copper pots hung from a rack above the stove. She placed a colander into the sink and dumped the green beans into it.
"I've been waiting all afternoon." He picked up the mail from the kitchen counter and sat down at the table. "All we get are bills."
"Wesley, I'm sure that Hal will call."
"Well, I'm glad you're so sure. I wish I were." He thumbed through the stack of envelopes and said in a louder voice, "Annie, getting this business really is important."
"I know that. Just think positively."
"Think positively. Now, that's helpful."
Annie turned toward her husband. At fifty-one he still had boyish looks despite deep wrinkles in his face and the graying blond hair, which now fell across his forehead. His gold wire-rimmed glasses gave him the appearance of a kindly intellectual. He was as thin as he had been in college, but he moved with more purpose and economy of gesture. She thought he'd grown more handsome through the years, his regular features more interesting. It was as if the city itself, the Paris they both loved, had cast a glow on them that had woven them inextricably together. However, now their life seemed tinged in a different light, and Wesley's uncertainty was beginning to unravel both of them.
She leaned against the sink. Wesley's lips were set firmly in a straight, closed line. "If Hal can't offer you the project, something else will come along."
"I still can't believe the firm closed the office here," he said, leaning back, balancing on the back legs of his chair.
"It wasn't your fault. I just wish they'd given you more time to turn things around." They'd had this conversation before. The Paris office hadn't been generating enough business.
"Yeah, right. Time is money. That's the old saying. I keep thinking I should have gone back to New York."
"Let's not talk about it anymore. It doesn't do any good. Besides, if you went back, you'd really be starting over completely. You always said you wanted to practice on your own."
"Yeah, but it's harder than I thought. My clients seem to be evaporating."
"You're a great lawyer, sweetie. I'm sure you'll get other clients."
Wesley shook his head and lowered his chair. "When? They're not exactly lined up at the door. I'm amazed that you still believe in me."
Annie still remembered when Wesley, in the summer before his final year of law school, got the offer from Wilson & James. The name had sounded loyal and steadfast, suggesting a place with mahogany desks, Persian rugs, leather-bound books, a sea of dark suits, silk ties, and polished shoes. The firm stood for excellence and tradition. Annie and Wesley had spent their entire week's grocery money on champagne to celebrate the start of his career at the auspicious law firm.
"Of course I believe in you. I love you, for heaven's sake. Come on, let's have a nice evening. Are you hungry? I bought a roast chicken."
"So I see. It smells good." He gave her a weak smile and went back to the mail. "By the way, no e-mails from Sophie."
Wesley seemed to miss Sophie even more than she did. Sophie was so much like her father: industrious, diligent, taking pleasure in her work. As a small child in a French school, she had delighted in showing her father her cahiers, the thin blue notebooks of lined paper, filled with her small tidy script. Wesley coached her on her spelling words and praised her for her excellent memory. When she was twelve, Annie took her out of the French primary school and moved her to a big international school, hoping she would have a more creative experience. Instead, she took all the prizes in mathematics and went back to the United States for college, where she majored in economics. "Numbers are creative too, Mom. We don't all want to spend our time playing around with words."
"She'll probably call this weekend. Why don't you pour us some wine?"
Wesley went over to the tall pine cupboard on the far wall and got out two glasses. He pulled the cork out of a bottle of red wine that they had started the previous night. The purple liquid had trickled down the bottle, staining the label. He handed her a glass, sat down at the kitchen table, and opened the Herald Tribune.
The Reeds' kitchen, large for a Paris apartment, had been Annie's favorite room when they moved in during their first year in Paris. The table, covered in a faded pink provincial print, sat in front of the window overlooking the courtyard. When they had guests, they ate at an old French farm table at one end of the living room. Tonight Annie decided to use their good dishes, pottery plates from Quimper. They had purchased them when they rented a cottage in Brittany one August. She took a long sip of wine. The rich Burgundy tasted of warm, mellow afternoons far from rue des Archives. She thought of that little house in Brittany, with its thick stone walls, solid and unyielding to the relentless winds that battered that wild coastline even in summer. She pictured the three of them wearing sweaters and long pants as they hiked along the beach, Wesley's arm around her and Sophie chasing gulls, her laughter sailing off with the clouds. At night they would burrow under a fluffy eiderdown quilt, while Sophie slept on a tiny cot at the foot of the bed. Annie captured those idyllic days in the poems she wrote that summer, poems that contrasted the dramatic weather with the tender love inside the cottage.
Gray gulls diving through silver sky
laugh in the wind and pierce the fat clouds as
they soar toward heaven.
She thought of that line whenever she saw seagulls flying above the Seine.
Now, the beans almost ready, she got the silverware from the drawer and set the table. "Two more weeks until Christmas break," she said. "Mary's giving me a lot to do at the office. I'll be glad for some time off."
Wesley poured more wine into his own glass and topped off Annie's.
"Would you mind carving the chicken?" Annie pushed a strand of hair behind her ear.
"Yeah, sure." Wesley pushed back his chair. It scraped loudly against the tile floor. Annie handed him a knife. The comforting smell of roast chicken cheered her. She thought of Sophie. As a little girl she called her favorite meal "white dinner": roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and applesauce. It had been quite a long time since the days of her picky eating, when Wesley would take forkfuls of food and make chugging noises like an approaching train. "Uh-oh, here comes the choo-choo. Where's the tunnel?" At the very last minute she would open her bow-tie lips and accept the next bite, her bright eyes riveted to her father's.
"This is a lousy knife," Wesley said. "Where's the sharpener?"
"I don't know. Do we still have one?"
"Never mind." He continued slicing, the meat falling easily from the bones. He served the chicken onto the plates. Annie drained the green beans and returned them to the pot with a lump of butter. She added salt and a grinding of pepper while the beans sizzled in the residual heat of the pan.
"Maybe this weekend you could help me bring up the rest of the winter clothes from the basement storage, I wished I'd had boots on today." She carried their plates to the table.
"Sure. I want to see what wine I've got stored down there too."
They sat down before their rapidly cooling chicken. "I got another rejection today," she said. The discouraging thin envelope was still in her briefcase.
"I sent the series I did on Paris churches. Remember the one on Saint-Eustache? I can't believe it. It's a really good poem. They didn't take any of them."
"Why don't you send them to the Canterbury Review? Didn't they publish one last year?"
"That was two years ago. Anyway, that magazine folded."
"Well, try somewhere else. At least you still have your job. Besides, you can't make money writing poetry."
"That's not the point. You know that." They finished the rest of their meal in silence. She could see the worry in the lines across his brow, and she didn't want to complain further about her own disappointment.
Annie got up and carried the dishes to the sink. She could feel Wesley watching her as she loaded the dishwasher. Her hair swung forward as she reached for a glass. She knew he liked her thick bangs and simple hair that she usually wore loose, falling a few inches below her chin. Wesley stroked her hair soon after they first met, before he'd even kissed her. "Fawn-colored silk," he'd called it. It was his first gesture of intimacy. Now, as if reading her mind, he walked over, put his hands around her waist, and kissed the exposed pale skin of her neck. She couldn't remember when he'd last hugged her, when they'd last made love. There had been a gradual decline after the firm closed Wesley's office in the spring. She hadn't worried about it during the first uneasy weeks, but now it hung like a veil between them. She hadn't realized how important their sexual life had been and how keenly the loss of it would affect her.
"I'm sorry. I don't mean to be such a crank. I'm sorry about your poems; I really am."
His tentative embrace caught her off guard. She put down the plate she had been rinsing and turned to face him. "Oh, Wes, I need you so. I miss you too, in every way." She reached up, putting her arms around him. She nestled her face into his neck and inhaled his familiar scent. He felt brittle, the muscles across his back tight and unyielding. "I hate to see you worrying so much about your work," she said, drawing him more tightly against her.
He pulled away, shaking his head. "Do you mind if I go back to the computer and finish a few things? I'll get the phone if it rings."
"No, go ahead." She made an effort to smile and turned back to the sink, her arms more empty than ever.
By eleven-thirty that night, the phone still had not rung. Wesley had spent most of the evening in his office. Annie had hoped he'd come join her in the living room and finally took refuge in bed, the big down comforter pulled up around her. She leafed through a book on Gustave Courbet. She had studied art history in college and, after reading a recent biography of the nineteenth-century painter, had started a series of poems inspired by his work. She studied the reproduction of A Young Woman Reading. Courbet had painted an ordinary-looking woman of no particular beauty, reading in a lush green forest. Her neck and arms are browned from the sun, but her round, plump shoulders, revealed where her summer frock has fallen away, are pale, the skin having never been exposed to sunlight. Annie wondered how she could capture in her poetry the solitude and sensuality of this woman lost in thought. She picked up her pen and began to write whatever words came into her head. Her eyes went back to the picture in her lap, the white shoulders against the deep green of the woods, a woman alone except for the artist, whose eyes had translated the moment with paint.
It was almost midnight when Wesley finally came to bed. "What do you think of this one?" She gestured to the page of her book, still resting in her lap.
"I'm not in the mood to look at art books."
Annie closed the book. "I'm sorry Hal didn't call."
"I'm sorry too, but that doesn't change anything."
She looked over at him. It was as if his good nature had faded like his cotton pajamas. "Maybe Hal thinks it's too late to call here," she said; "you know, the time difference."
"Annie, that's enough." He sat heavily on his side of the bed.
"Why don't you give him a call?"
"That makes me look desperate. I refuse to do that."
"Wesley . . ." She reached for him.
"Please, leave me alone. I don't want to talk about it anymore."
He lay down, drew the comforter up around his shoulders, and rolled over to face the wall. Annie put her book on the skirted table next to the bed, tossed the big extra pillow onto the floor, and turned out the light. She listened, waiting for his breathing to shift into the deep regulated rhythm that indicated sleep. She loved Wesley. She couldn't remember a time when she hadn't. Now, lying still in the darkness, she felt her worries intensify. What did she have to be afraid of?
Pulling her knees toward her in a protective curl, she forced such thoughts aside. She pictured Courbet's woman in the forest and wished for some of that bucolic peace. She remembered the woman in the subway. She could still see the blue cape and the handsome face. She had the same kind of natural beauty as the woman in the painting, the kind of beauty made to be touched. Annie wondered if she lay alone too, listening to the November night. The early-evening drizzle had turned to a hard rain that now beat steadily against the windowpanes.
Copyright © 2006 by Katharine Davis