At the bottom of the stairs, I brace myself for the walk. I tip my fedora lower and tilt my head down, stepping out onto the street. A veil of rain falls in large drops, turning the short distance ahead into misery. Gray swallows all—even the air is fetid with shadow.
The sweater James gave me is no match for the biting chill. Scratchy. He presented it so proudly on Christmas morning. “I’ve been looking for the right shade. Are you sure you didn’t know?” His arms held me in deep affection after I shook my head. No time to think of him now. I press on: eyes on the pavement, arms tucked, muscles tense.
France is abuzz with the excitement of the upcoming first Winter Olympics in Chamonix. It’s all anyone in Paris can talk about. Boring. It spurred me to leave the city and come back to this musty town. If only to say a proper goodbye. I can use a break from work anyhow. I’d prefer flaying my skin with a dull blade over continuing to write my second novel.
The door to Café Minuit opens after a slight skirmish. I’m greeted by the familiar scents of dark grounds and sweet pastries. All the tables are empty but one: occupied by an elderly gentleman, asleep in his chair, the table before him covered in yellowed newspapers. Shaking off the dampness, I hang my coat and hat on the wooden rack by the entrance.
The large window on the left side, where we always sit, exhibits fractured markings. Foggy, partially opaque glass attempts to carry the café’s name; time has collected fragments of the paint and left a barely legible “Café inuit” behind. I know the “M” was there, in all its glory, when we started our annual meetings almost two decades ago. But I don’t recall when it disappeared, as if someone walked off with it—seeing a grander destiny for it that does not involve gracing the window of an aging café.
Sarah isn’t here yet. This gives me some time to find my bearings. When James asked if I was attending the conference (an event I conjured years ago as a cover), I hesitated. The meetings started as a much-needed release—after my second year of marriage and Sarah’s third. I wrote to her suggesting a reunion of sorts, at the place where we began. That year, I trailed circles in whiskey on her gooseflesh skin and traced them with my tongue before they could dry. I returned to Paris weightless and wrote my first novel. We agreed to meet again the next year, and the one after that, and the one after that. And so on. But what do you do when release no longer offers relief? When paradise is an extension of prison?
In recent years, it seemed that Sarah needed this more. I saw it in her eyes, barely visible by the glow of the short, brassy lamp on the nightstand. An urchin searching bin after bin for a scrap of something, anything. Today, I fear I will disappoint her. The years when anticipation for this event built are mere memories. I have come to recognize the cruel truth. There is no better way to say it. I have grown tired of her.
The café door opens.
Standing at the entrance, folding an umbrella and removing a fur-trimmed coat, Sarah reveals a cranberry-red dress. I straighten from my slouched position. She waves, her smile radiant even in this weather—especially in this weather.
“Hello, Georgina, darling. Have you been waiting long? This rain is absolutely hellish, isn’t it?”
A kiss on both cheeks. Her pleasantries protect something terse and unfamiliar. As we sit down, Sarah continues to talk, but I am consumed by inspection. She covered the dark circles under her heavy-lidded hazel eyes with powder, but the sunken skin is stubborn, refusing to support the illusion. Thin lines and creases crack the skin on her forehead, and around her eyes. I walk the paths they form; the valleys on her forehead are deeper and I lose my way. Were they there last year?
The waitress arrives at our table. Sarah orders for us both, then focuses on me. “How’s James?”
“He’s decided to rebuild the den. Again. The first three times didn’t truly capture his vision.”
“What a dear that man is,” Sarah says with warmth.
“How’s Robert these days?” We are, after all, in polite society. One must ask about the well being of Robert (or whatever one’s mistress’s husband is named), or risk appearing inconsiderate.
“He’s been traveling to Austria of late. Some new research project has him in a tizzy. Just as well. Leaves me more time to write.” Her fingers tap a spectral typewriter, summoning the spirit of her beloved Underwood No. 5, a machine she’s described to me via poetic paragraphs in her letters.
“I read your piece in The Times. Quite good. Congratulations.”
“Wow! A compliment from the famous Georgina Baker. My career is finally complete. I can retire in peace now.”
Her laughter is light but anchored.
The waitress returns bearing two squat formerly white mugs resting on matching thick dishes. She places them on either side of the table and returns to deliver a gossamer cream cake. The chipped and etched dish where the cake resides is bereft of the protection of a doily. I raise a blemished ceramic cup to my mouth, and the inky liquid inside swirls.
Before I had a career, before I had a spouse, I had Sarah. We met at the nearby library, known for its collection of ancient tomes. She was working as a research assistant for a biblical scholar. I was searching for my future in other writers’ pasts. Days of sifting through nearly translucent sheets, their dusty musk mixing with her soap and cigarette scent. Intoxicating. Evenings of decadent dinners and soul-warming whiskey led to other indulgences. Dark nights lit bright—our bodies puzzle pieces in the soft glow emanating from below a velvet shade. I fit with her, like I never have with anyone, before or since. Pushed together by happenstance, two American women in a foreign land.
I look up from the strong elixir. Sarah is taking gentle, distracted stabs at the clouds of raspberry-tinged cream spilling out of the precarious pastry.
“How’s the novel coming along?” she asks me.
As I begin to tell her, Sarah’s eyes trail down to her coffee, then to the window. They stay fixed on an unseen, faraway point. I stop talking. Her hand acts in defiance and reaches across the table to hold mine. Eyes still locked on a distant place, her body and remaining limbs face away from me. Stiff. Sarah’s slim figure has remained unchanged; she never bore a child. A blessing and a curse, she once confided. I view my decision to avoid offspring as blessing entirely; not only are they distracting, but an attempt to raise a proper human being is pure hubris. No such creature exists.
The folds of Sarah’s dress wink at me, the cloth crinkles and wrinkles as she crosses and uncrosses her legs. Once. Twice. If I buried my face in the fabric, would it still smell like soap and cigarettes? My eyes fall back into Sarah’s landscape; I dive from her skinny crooked nose into the luxury of her full lips, tinted to match her frock. The effect is alluring. Has she worn that color red before? I pace along her bottom lip, treading softly—fighting the desire to lie down and allow the flesh to cocoon me in comfort.
The woman who sits in front of me is polite, aloof. This is not the woman who wrote to me years ago, describing an elephantine ache only I can soothe. A black certainty weeps from my mind down to my stomach, ink dropping onto paper in lethargic absorption. I have been replaced. No doubt by another who can produce more than one novel in a twenty-year period. I imagine my life without Sarah. Grime cloaks the world. The cream cake, the café, its scattered patrons, even the rain—they all dim under this weight. All but her. I am a child clinging to an abandoned toy only at the threat of its removal. No, it’s more than that. Sarah is more than that.
“Let’s go!” my voice commands from miles away.
Huddled under her umbrella, we slip between raindrops and other people likewise hunched. Hurried. A single car struggles through the street; the plague of automobiles has yet to take this town in its oily grasp. The innkeeper acknowledges our arrival with a nod—he believes we are sisters—and hands me a lusterless key chained to a brass heart. The words “Déposez dans une boîte aux lettres en cas d’emport” (“If carried away drop in any mailbox”) rise in lighter tones on the heart out of the soot above our room number. Wooden floorboards release pained groans beneath a once plush, rose-hued rug, announcing our presence in the second-floor hallway. We pass two other rooms, the bronze numbers on the doors tarnished by time.
Behind those doors lay double beds separated by two rickety nightstands, each topped with its own short brassy lamp. Stains on the faded crimson shades and scabs of paint mark the light sources as unloved and forgotten. Defiled. Yet they bear silent witness to lives on parade: quiet indifference, loud arguments, louder lovemaking.
I jiggle the key in the lock, my hand shaking. The door relents and we move into the room. Sarah stands by the window as I pour two shots of whiskey into heavy glass tumblers. A geometric diamond pattern, sliced deep into the glass, forms a titillating texture. Some of the golden liquid is left behind in mirrored puddles on the rough wood of the bedside table. I deliver one glass to her and she swallows a civilized sip. My glass is emptied in one smoky swallow.
“Why am I here, George?” she asks me.
“Because you want to be.”
“Do I? Do you?”
The word is at first trapped behind my teeth: “Yes.”
My arm travels around her waist and gathers her toward me. The dress ripples against my skin, the fabric more delicate than any she’d ever worn. Sarah always preferred function over fantasy. I’m tempted to tear it apart. Instead, I join my lips with hers, drinking to quench a thirst. Bitter oak dances on my tongue. The last light of day penetrates the room through a bleak shroud of clouds and rain. Her body relaxes into mine.
The distance gone, we are puzzle pieces once more, seeking the embrace of sheets and pillows. Whispers lead to gentle kisses. Intimate caresses. Sarah coaxes for more and I oblige. Half the night is spent, and so am I. Sleep beckons. It soaks in as the water falling outside slows from assault to sequester.
The sun opens my eyes like a battering ram. Two empty, heavy glasses sit on the rickety table, by a short, brass lamp. A white ray exposes haphazard flurries drifting in the room’s stagnant air. Specks. The umbrella and fur-trimmed coat are both gone. Will she return?
I know I will.