Chapter One: Bouquet
The young au pair had grown up only twenty minutes from Grafton Street, in the pastel-colored clapboard suburb of Finglas, and she had expected Paris to be somewhat like Dublin, if bigger. But automobiles here careened down narrow streets, a subtle and capricious grammar tied the language in knots, men and women in flowing desert robes passed her as she walked the children home from school, and everywhere, on everyone's minds, on the tips of their tongues, like a secret they could not keep, there was sex. On the way to the museum with Marie and Melanie one afternoon, Nula entered a metro station in which every billboard carried the same advertisement for a line of lingerie. The adverts were huge, reaching from floor to ceiling, and were composed entirely of a close-up photograph of two breasts gently cupped by a white lace bra. The image was repeated on nearly every inch of wall space in the station, even alongside the system map, all the way down the stairs, and then on every platform. As the train pulled from the station, the breasts flickered in Nula's eyes.
The girls, ages ten and eight, didn't miss any of it. No, they wouldn't. They stared at the advertisements and, once aboard the train, launched into a discussion about a schoolmate who had begun wearing a brassiere.
"She stuffs it with tissue paper!" cried Melanie, the eight-year-old.
The two of them fell against each other, giggling. The other passengers looked away.
Marie and Melanie knew the au pair's discomfort; this was their revenge. They hated museums. They would have preferred to spend their Wednesday afternoons, when school was let out early, in the Luxembourg Gardens children's park or at Trocadero, where they would watch helmeted youths, some just a little older than Marie, glide and spin on skateboards down the Palais de Chaillot's long driveways. Nula had taken them there once but, burdened by the knowledge that the French school authorities had thoughtfully set aside the half day for educational excursions, she now insisted on searching the newspapers for exhibitions, matinees, and recitals.
It was their first visit to this museum, a majestic block of carved stone, not like those joke structures, all glass and plumbing fixtures, that had been thrown up around the city in the last few decades. Dedicated to the diffusion of scientific knowledge, it sailed through the neatly tended, grassy square like a battleship trimmed with granite weaponry and other appurtenances: a tower, a clock, a gallery of togaed figures perched between decks. Nula swept up the steps with the girls, past a scattering of men sunning themselves at the institution's prow. Some of them squatted and spat seeds. An elder passed, dangling a single watch for sale from a rough, misshapen hand. Teeth flashed at an unkind remark.
A young man lounged by the museum door, wearing a brown leather jacket and a rakishly askew, oversized plaid cap. He stared at each woman passerby, regardless of her age or appearance, fishing for her eye, and mechanically moved on to the next one after she was gone. It was the cap that caught Nula's attention: its vulgarity amplified his projection of self-confidence. He thought he was good-looking enough to wear anything. Nula glanced at the youth for only a moment, but the moment was too long, for he smiled at her and knew that she saw him smile.
She looked away, but before she and the girls could enter the building he had reached them. "Good day," he said. His politeness just accented the tiny leer that began around his eyes and turned up the little parabolas of skin at the ends of his mouth.
"Excuse us," she replied in French, passing the children around him.
"English?" he guessed.
"No," she said, and was in the door. Melanie started to look back at the youth, but the au pair seized her and thrust her into the queue at the ticket counter.
When it was time for their baths, the girls would dodge her, running through the flat stark naked, hiding underneath the dining-room table, and once even dashing out onto the terrace to display themselves to the whole of Passy. They were hardly better behaved in their parents' company. The other night after dinner, when Nula came in from the kitchen with the coffee, she found that Marie had stuck two cups under her shirt and was playing the vamp with Melanie, who examined her sister's chest with mock lust. But Madame Reynourd had only suppressed a laugh and lightly scolded them: "Dégoûtant!"
Monsieur and Madame Reynourd were easy-going people, if a bit disorganized. They shambled through their flat either half dressed or half undressed Nula could never be sure in which direction their disarray was heading; they left large sums of cash lying about; they could never remember what plans had been agreed for the children that day. Already in their forties and each a stone overweight, they were nevertheless enveloped in a kind of ripe, luxuriant youthfulness. Paul played rugby on Sundays and came home soaked in sweat. Elizabeth wore her blouses virtually unbuttoned. She flirted with the husbands of friends and, accompanying Nula to the butcher and baker, even with the young shop assistants, on the au pair's behalf. Nula nearly cowered behind her. At night in her room several stories above their flat, she lay awake and, against the current of intention, her thoughts drifted to the couple below and their seething sexual restlessness.
The girls' inability to concentrate descended from their parents like a congenital stain. Here on the second floor of the museum, within a glass case, a tree bloomed with stuffed tropical birds outlandishly feathered and preserved so close to the edge of life that Nula could, or thought she should, almost hear them singing, but what drew Marie's attention was the device that recorded on a rolling scroll the humidity behind the glass. Nula shooed her away from it. The two girls began to jog toward an exhibit describing the construction of the Eiffel Tower and then in a moment of insight realized that the surface friction of the hall's polished marble floors was less than the forward momentum of a little girl in new penny-loafers. They slid the rest of the way.
"Marie! Melanie! Stop!" Nula hissed. The young man (an Algerian? a Libyan?) approached, grinning. He had followed them into the museum and had been shadowing them through it. He had lurked near her in the dark of the astronomy exhibit, his bared teeth purple in the ultraviolet light. In the metallurgy hall, he had stared intently as she read to Marie the explanation of how an iron forge worked.
"Come here," she now called to the children, but, embarrassed in his presence, she called too softly for them to hear, or at least softly enough for them to pretend not to hear.
"Well, you are a American?" the Algerian confidently asked in uncertain English. "You are a student maybe. I am a student. Do you know Vincennes?"
"No." Her education had gone no further than her secondary school leaving certificate.
"My degree is almost finished," he said. "I am two years at Jussieu, and now I am at Vincennes, at the Department of Sexology."
rNula didn't reply. She looked past him, at the children, who ignored her.
"Do you know the sexology field? Very fascinating field. We are the most foremost department in Europe and America. We include the study of anatomy, anthropology, mass culture, economy, philosophy, human relations. The whole gamut, as it were. Every academic discipline must include a contemplation of human sex, don't you agree?"
Marie and Melanie, having exhausted their interest in nineteenth-century engineering, took another run and, squealing, slid out of the hall. Nula shook her head at the Algerian and took off after them at a brisk trot, mentally compiling a list of punishments, through one coolly lit hall after another, past the minerals exhibit and the insects and through the computer room, whose collection of computing instruments began with a Chinese abacus and ended with a model of a large punched card ordinateur dating from the Fourth Republic. Every time she thought she had lost their trail, she heard the girls giggle and shriek, and they'd skitter through the door at the far end of the room.
But then, when she was sure they had gone as far as they could into the dim recesses of the building, Nula found herself in a large, bright, completely modern hall, with the girls standing right there before her, as quiet and attentive as a pair of dolls. The au pair's face was moist. She could feel the wetness above her lips.
"Now you'll catch it," she said in English. She hunkered and roughly fastened a few buttons on Melanie's blue school uniform that had come undone. "Mama will hear of this, I promise you. No television tonight. And don't ask me to buy you cakes on the way home. You've been very, very naughty."
But the girls weren't listening. Nula turned, looked up at the object of their attention, and gasped. The opposite wall contained a floor-to-ceiling backlit color transparency of a man and woman, standing shoulder to shoulder, completely naked. Their arms were at their sides, their private parts exposed. The couple were perched on a diving board and behind them were a range of forested hills and a rich blue sky. Their smiles were placid, as if they noticed neither each other nor the camera. Nula fell silent. The man's penis seemed small in relation to the rest of him; the mossy equilateral between the woman's legs was exceptionally black. Then Marie said something Nula didn't hear what to Melanie, and they both giggled.
"Oh, this is biology," Nula said, her mouth dry. "Come, let's look at the rocket ships."
"We want to stay," Marie told her.
"It's boring," Nula said.
Marie and Melanie remained where they were. Nula took a few steps toward the exit, and the girls, less tentatively, went in the other direction.
The entire hall was devoted to reproduction and sexuality. A film projection demonstrated amoebas splitting. A DNA spiral stairway climbed to the ceiling. Next to it, a plastic model the size of a school bus showed the pistil and stamens of an archetypical flower, accompanied by a softly buzzing mechanical bee suspended from wires. One display diagrammed the courtship dance of two hummingbirds; another the egg-laying strategies of frogs; a third showed two elephants mating.
Side by side were similar exhibits explaining human reproduction, as if men and women were no more than rutting animals (they're no less, Elizabeth would say). Across from the elephants was a diagram of the developing human fetus, along with a picture of the completely naked mother, her breasts splayed, her belly distended, at the corresponding stages of pregnancy. An actual fetus floated in an amber liquid in a display case below the diagram. Nula's two charges stood by it, making little trilling sounds of awe. Nula herself stared for a moment, shivered, and then remembered the girls.
"Don't you want to see the butterflies?"
But they had already moved on to the next exhibit, drawings of the human male and female at progressive ages, including labeled diagrams of their genitals. And, squatting by them, talking quickly and in earnest, was the Algerian! The tawny skin between the top of his jeans and the bottom of his shirt shone like the skin of a piece of fruit. Marie and Melanie listened attentively.
"Monsieur!" Nula cried. The girls snickered. "What are you doing? What do you want?"
He stood and offered her a warm smile as she approached. "My little friends were asking of me some few questions."
"Their questions are not for you to answer," she said. "Leave it to their mother."
"Madame " he began, allowing a question mark to bob in the pause.
But Nula said, "I'm not their mother," turned to the children, and briskly told them, "Let's go."
Melanie danced away from under her arm. She joined her sister to stare into the next display case, their faces pressed against it. The idea of the dirt squeezing into the pores of the girls' skin disgusted Nula. She glanced inside the case. It contained a variety of devices, accompanied by a text and diagrams that described their uses. She didn't recognize a single one.
"Look, here's a playground!" she said desperately, glimpsing a patch of green outside an open door around the corner. "Don't you want to play?"
The two girls ignored her. Nula cooed, pleaded, and demanded and finally bribed them outside with the promise of a bag of chestnuts. They held out for ice cream, and even then had to be shoved out the door. As they left, the Algerian winked at her.
In the small park and sculpture garden adjacent to the museum, old men sitting on weathered benches gazed at the statuary; couples strolled arm and arm along the park's paths. Nula bought the girls two chocolate esquimaux from a vendor. "We have a half hour," she told them. "Have fun."
She might as well have told them to do the following week's homework. "Play," she said, and finally they sulked off down a tightly manicured row of rose hedges, ice cream already dripping to their fists.
Nula was glad to be free of them for the moment. She could find a bench and relax, and perhaps enjoy an ice cream herself. The park was lovely. The flowers were in bloom, the day had turned fair. She wished they had come here from the start. The girls were too young for science.
She turned and glared at the Algerian standing beside her. He grinned.
"You're a terrible man to fill their ears with such filth," she told him.
"The way you talk and they're so young."
"But sex is part of life."
"I won't have it," Nula said, her temper rising. "There's a proper age for everything, and a proper way of learning about this."
"What age, what way did you learn it?"
"Sexology. I don't believe there is such a thing."
"Are you a virgin?"
"Yes I am," she said.
The defiant admission made her flush. She had never told anyone this before. Yet she did not regret the confession: She enjoyed its recklessness. She had told the truth as if it didn't matter.
The Algerian merely nodded his head in a professional manner.
"Have you a boyfriend?"
"It is best," he said pleasantly, "that the first time be with someone who understands the necessary gentleness and is also very expert."
"The first time will be with someone I love."
The Algerian's shrug was nearly Gallic. "Why begin love with anxiety and frustration?"
"Where I come from, people look for romance. You don't study that, do you?"
"On the contrary "
"If you don't go I'm calling the police. There's a guard over there. Are your residency papers in order?"
Nula was looking directly into the Algerian's face as she said this, but she missed the moment his expression changed. He still wore a smile, but his face had hardened around it, leaving his smile not too far from a grimace. The transformation revealed that he was hardly older than she was. The ridiculous cap on his head now looked like something he had to wear because he didn't own another. The youth started to speak a retort, a challenge, something fierce but he interrupted himself to say, "I'm very regretful to have made a disturbance."
He abruptly turned, passed through the door into the museum, and disappeared around an exhibit devoted to venereal disease.
The au pair strolled alone through the labyrinth of hedges and abstract statuary. She was angry at herself and embarrassed by her shrillness. She wished she hadn't made the remark about the Algerian's residence permit. There were many people in Paris who didn't have the proper papers, yet had nowhere else to go. And in the end, the Algerian had been harmless, even flattering. When was the last time (she imagined Madame Reynourd asking her) a man had courted her with such persistence? Of course, she had no choice but to ask him to leave (she imagined telling Elizabeth), but (she admitted) she needn't have been unkind.
Nula turned a corner and found Marie and Melanie studying a statue, smiles of delight and discovery playing on their faces. This cheered her. No matter what ugliness and corruption there was in this world, Paris's beauty was fair compensation. She stepped beside the girls, gently running a hand through Melanie's long hair, and examined the unusual, centaurlike mass of bronze. It suddenly resolved: a man behind a woman, both on their knees, his hands firmly gripping her hips.
"It's bad!" she cried, pulling the girls away. "Bad! We're leaving now!"
Nula raced Marie and Melanie, momentarily silenced by her vehemence, down one lane and then another, past a dozen statues that only now were recognizable. Nearly every one showed a man and woman in some position of copulation-and those that didn't, well they were much worse. Prière de ne pas laisser de détritus, no littering, warned a sign along one path, and under the warning was the legend, Musée de I'Histoire Naturelle: Jardin de la Sexualité. "Don't look," Nula shrieked as they passed a grouping of marble figures demonstrating several forms of oral sex.
As soon as they reached the street, Nula furiously cleaned the girls' ice cream-smeared hands and faces with the premoistened towelettes she always carried in her purse.
"You're hurting me," Marie whined.
"Being clean doesn't hurt."
"The woman was drinking the man's pee-pee," Melanie said.
Her sister started to explain, but Nula shouted, "Shut your mouth!"
Marie replied with an obscenity.
Someone called from across the street. "Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle!" Nula, still on her haunches, didn't need to look up.
"Bloody hell," she muttered.
"Mademoiselle," the Algerian called again, dodging traffic. He approached, breathing hard. "Accept my apology please for such misunderstanding that I made."
He thrust a bouquet in her face.
Stunned, Nula rose and took the flowers, a clutch of white lilies, yellow peonies, tulips, and a single sunflower, wrapped in newspaper.
The Algerian said, "I too look for romance."
Nula kept her lips pressed together, maintaining her expression of annoyance.
"I want that you should see," the man added. He removed a black vinyl wallet from his jeans. In it was his carte de séjour, his resident permit. On the card, under his long, unpronounceable family name and his twentieth arrondissement address, was a line reserved for his profession: étudiant.
"I have right in Paris like you," he told her. There was less rancor in this statement than pride. Nula had come to France on the ferry from Rosslare; his journey had been much more difficult.
"So you do," she said evenly.
Marie and Melanie stared at the Algerian and then at the flowers. Marie sniffed at the bouquet. "They're nice," she mumbled, dazed by his gallantry.
"Well then. I now say farewell ladies. Farewell."
The Algerian, or perhaps he was a Libyan or even a Tunisian, bowed and straightened, then turned on the heels of his Adidas and hurried down the street. He didn't look back before he vanished around the corner. "Men like that," Nula began to tell the girls, but she didn't complete the sentence. She really didn't know men like that at all.
By the time they reached home, by way of a crowded, overheated train, Nula, Marie, and Melanie were exhausted. Madame Reynourd met them in the flat's foyer and asked if they enjoyed the museum. Marie said it was boring, and she and her sister trudged off to their bedroom unbuttoning their school uniforms.
"And how was your afternoon?" Elizabeth asked Nula.
"Marvelous," Nula said.
It was then that Elizabeth noticed the flowers, still in Nula's hands, unwilted and fragrant despite the crush of the metro. Elizabeth raised her eyebrows in an expression of curious amusement. But Nula, surprised by her own reply, didn't wish to answer any more questions. She pushed past her, hurriedly explaining, "I must put these in some water."
Nula found a blue cut glass vase in the kitchen cabinet and ran the tap. She removed the cellotape and unfurled the newspaper. As the flowers shifted, an object fell from between their stalks and onto the tiled floor. It was a key chain, without keys, and attached to it was a small tag with a phone number written on it in a very tight, careful print, and a charm: an anatomically correct, dusky plastic phallus.
Nula put her hands to her chest and shrieked, and she was sure the shriek reached every flat in the building, and into the concierge's office, and onto the street, frightening passersby and perhaps even stopping traffic. But when Madame Reynourd came into the kitchen, it was with an unalarmed step and, when she saw what lay on the floor, it raised a soft, pleased smile.
Copyright © 1998 by Ken Kalfus