by Jessie Aufiery
He took the metro to the Place de l’Etoile, and walked from there to the Centre de Yoga Iyengar. Today an old man was in the back corner sweating through Trikonasana and Downward Facing Dog, his knobby limbs creaking and straining through the postures, a miracle of determination, however futile. A dark-haired girl with smooth thighs and yellow shorts looked to be in her mid twenties: at least a decade younger than Ludo. Acrid fingers of cigarette smoke floated through the open window along with traffic’s beeps and quick accelerations and the steady chug of diesel engines. Sweat poured from his brow. As usual he had to marshal the sum of his physical and mental forces just to keep up with Jean-Luc’s barked commands. The slight man was a barefoot Napoleon, dark eyes flashing as they scanned the room. “Lift the kneecaps!” he shouted. “Kneecaps in!”
Ludo contracted the fronts of his thighs and wondered what his wife would make of the teacher. Compact and sleek as soap, the little man oozed sexuality even as he recalibrated sweating students with nudges of his fingers and toes. He and Jen made love only a couple of times a week, and for that she had to be cajoled, but every day he felt his body’s demand for release. Sometimes he suspected her of pleasuring herself on the sly while he dealt with traffic and ball-busting clients, keeping the leaky ship that was their family afloat.
After class he pulled on his street clothes. People changed quickly and didn’t linger in the Center’s one changing room. The girl in yellow shorts, her small breasts barely concealed under a sports bra, was trying to untangle a barrette from her dark curls.
“Shit,” she said, looking up at him. “I can’t get this out.”
His hands trembled as they freed the trapped strands from the thick silver hinge. A scent of apricots clung to his fingers.
“You could keep things in there,” he said, gesturing at her thick spiraling hair. “Your wallet, keys…”
“Oh my God,” the girl said, eyes wide. “I blow it dry, iron it. It does what it wants.”
“Think of it as an advantage,” he said. “This way if you get kidnapped you just pull out a screw driver out and jimmy the trunk.”
“Or a pillow,” the girl said. “For a little nap.”
“A cigarette to smoke before your execution.”
The girl smiled, a blush creeping up her neck.
“You have beautiful eyes,” she said.
“They come from a rare eyes dealer,” he said, feeling a jolt at his groin. “He’s at the flea market behind the carpets and copper pots…”
She put a hand in front of her mouth and laughed. He grinned and slung his backpack over one shoulder. Halfway to the door, he turned and said:
“I should get your number.”
Her eyes, surprised, flickered over his left hand. He thought she would pretend she hadn’t seen the gold band but she smirked and asked: “What about your wife?”
“I don’t think so,” he said with a grin. “My wife doesn’t give her number to strangers.”
Outside he found the metro, jumped on a train, and waited for his connection at Champs Elysees. The train thundered up, brakes whining. A dark skinned black teenager wearing headphones, sweat beaded on his forehead, stood on the other side of the car. The train rumbled on. Ludo felt a tugging of eyes, an oppressive sensation of being observed. He glanced to the side and was startled by his reflection in the glass. Not bad for forty. He hadn’t flirted in ages and the great feeling was only a little marred by the fact that he was riding on public transportation. As the train eased into Varenne station Rodin’s The Thinker, a ragged hole in its hollow right thigh, glided into the window like a snapshot. The hydraulic brake-release hissed and the train rolled forward again. At the next station a group of fifteen or so high school students crowded into the wagon. A tall boy with a Catholic medal, one of the newcomers, said loudly in French: “Whoever’s doing that, you’d better stop pinching my bum.”
A few beats of silence and everyone laughed. The boy’s shirt was open to the third button and he wore a silk scarf loosely knotted over his bare chest. Amazing how people continued to accessorize, even in this heat. Ludo noticed a crucifix dangling alongside the medal and he briefly loathed the handsome, dark-haired kid though he couldn’t think why.
He arrived home to find his wife’s portable easel set up in the living room next to the French windows, a portion of floor covered in newspaper and tubes of paint. The easel had that just out of the box look, all unblemished pine. Boris must be at one of his activities. Monday was Judo, or perhaps Drama. The living room reeked of stale coffee and turpentine rags, and his wife’s canvas was heavy with slabs of saturated color. Looking at the thick globs, he thought of the money she spent chasing fantasies. She’d started hesitantly introducing herself to new acquaintances as an artist. The first step in making something happen, she tentatively said, was in believing it couldhappen. He wanted to hold her from behind, work her pants down with one hand while unclasping her bra with the other and playing with her breasts. Where was she?
The drapes were yanked to the side and the windows open. Across the street the neighbor’s curtains ballooned against his wrought-iron balcony. The man often appeared with disheveled hair, a kimono knotted at his waist, sniffing the air with his large Roman nose. Ludo had noticed him on the town square in a velvet jacket reading a paperback. Waiting, he supposed, for salvation to appear out of the ether: a girlfriend, a job, a spaceship to the moon. Now through the gauzy curtains he recognized the man’s gray-streaked mane and discerned a familiar figure sitting on the couch beside him. Putain de merde. Fucking shit. Last time it was a grungy Scotsman with a six-pack. She had introduced herself in the grocery store just because the guy and his girlfriend were speaking English. This absurd reaching out to strangers was unbearable! Why did she do it? He pictured the scene: his wife at her window, the neighbor at his, each trying to catch a breeze in this stifling heat, it was natural to exchange a few words of neighborly greeting, and then, very casual, Oh—do you paint? Did you catch that marvelous Lucien Freud retrospective at the Pompidou? I bought the book. If you like you can come over and have a look…
He squinted through the window, grimacing, and saw two wine glasses and a bottle, heads bobbing in animated conversation. His wife complained about the difficulty of adapting, the emptiness of her days when he was at work and their son at school. She dropped her painting class despite the non-refundable fee because she said the other students were all doing boutique art and she wanted to do something real, maybe even start making installations. It was boredom, he knew that, a lack of purpose. She was too proud to try to get in with the other mothers as they gathered at the café each morning, never inviting her, and there was no one else to talk to. If they had stayed in New York, she said, she would have a job and friends. Her parents would be within driving distance. She could shop at the co-op.
He thought with pleasure of the girl in the yellow shorts, young and smiling. Through the window he saw his wife waving her arm, the neighbor’s vigorous head nodding. The fraud! As if he gave a damn about what combination of words came out of her mouth. Ludo did a quick run-through of his options. He could call to his wife through the window, or ring up her cell phone, or pound on the fraud’s door… All of which would make him look like a jealous fool. He couldn’t let his wife find him here seething: couldn’t confront her until he’d settled on his revenge.
He slammed out of the apartment and stormed down the street to the Café des Sports. In three gulps he downed a 1664 lager, releasing a hissing belch behind his hand, and then signaled the waiter for another. He finished that and ordered a third, which he sipped while looking at photos of Carla Bruni and le president de la république in the pages of an abandoned Paris Match. As dusk settled he felt a pinching in his heart. He’d drunk the beers too fast and was now a little drunk, but at least the alcohol had numbed the pain in his shoulder. Beside him the window winked its cool eye. He thumped his chest and looked at the dour silhouette of the town’s city hall, a concrete slab wedged against a darkening cobalt sky. A yellow clock illuminated the building’s façade and, several yards in front of this, the grim trickle of a fountain, a cement rectangle whose only whimsy was its spray of municipal water misting the heat-flushed faces of passerby.
Ah, familiar faces! Mothers in fur vests and dark denim bending towards children who prattled relentlessly about the latest trombone lesson or judo slam across the dojo floor. Bureaucrats trailing the ghost of their thirty-five hours. A blue-suited city worker manning the wheel of a small truck while his partner, high above on a wobbly mechanical ladder, screwed light bulbs into street lamps. A drunk with his pants at half-mast struggling with the door to the public toilet. Children kicking balls and jumping rope. All these frenetic silhouettes—actors in a shadow play—reminded Ludo of his wife laughing it up with the bachelor across the street, of his bank account filling and emptying in a cyclical tide. Outside, friends and neighbors plodded forward as if this shadow life was real, buying houses, businesses, investing their lives…
He took out his cell phone and dialed. Upon hearing his voice she said a happy Oh, hello! and he felt a wonderful galloping like horses over roses. Her name was Natasha, and she agreed to meet him tomorrow…
He arrived early and ordered an espresso. The café, a few steps from her apartment, she’d explained, was of Natasha’s choosing. Two young men, kids really—from his wizened four-decade perch he could call them that—sat at a nearby table. The bearded one with elbow patches stood up and attempted a chiropractic manipulation that involved pumping his friend’s arm. Next to Ludo a man in a leather porkpie hat kissed his tattooed girlfriend. The soul of pretension! Ludo writhed in inner discomfort. Everywhere he looked, he saw stupidity, ugliness.
Conscious of his suit and tie he drank his espresso and manipulated the keys of his Blackberry. Last night he’d lain awake horny and sweating in the terrible heat while she refused to come to bed. And still not so much as an SMS! As if his display of anger when she returned flushed with wine and accomplishment made him the bad one.
“But I invited him to dinner Saturday,” she said.
“Well, uninvite him.”
He remembered coming to this very café with his son, Boris, after they sailed a rented toy boat around the fountain at Luxembourg Park.
Looking like a small man in his black pea coat and scarf, Boris had stridden in and announced to the girl with the nose-stud behind the bar:
“I’m having a diabolo menthe!”
The girl had laughed and brought over a glass with two-inches of green syrup, and a bottle of Sprite.
“At last!” she said as she set it in front of Boris, who was sitting as straight-backed as a miniature Mao Tse-Tung. “Enfin! A man who knows what he wants!”
Ludo had loved this generalissimo moment, and guarded the memory of it like a jewel. His son—the bright child of a spoiled, overeducated, but endlessly encouraging American mother, and unblemished by the filthy trailing weight of Europe and France—would know how to command. When he recounted the story at a dinner party no one seemed impressed so he added another detail. He told everyone that as they left the café he, Ludo, spotted twenty Euros in the gutter. He picked the money up and put it into Boris’s pocket. It felt like a benediction, a sign of good things to come. “Spend it any way you want,” he told everyone he had said to his son. “Buy a giant bag of candy!”
The café door opened and his heart flew.
No. This person was in her forties, a woman trying too hard in stilettos and a tulle skirt. Her friends leaned toward her admiringly, exclaiming: “Wo-ow.” The place was crawling with artist types. His wife could bring the neighbor and look deep into his fraudulent, Neanderthal eyes.
A head of dark curls was moving toward him. Natasha. Wearing a tight sweater and Converse high tops. Away from the yoga studio, she looked different. She dropped a textbook onto his table and grinned. He felt an icy sliver of disappointment.
She’s a student.
Her thick brows slanted in a way that reminded him of Renoir, of Renoir’s soft-faced Michelin nudes, and he briefly visualized a thick muff of dark hair between her legs.
“Coucou!” she said, tapping the table with the big ring she wore on her forefinger.
“Sorry,” he smiled, standing to kiss her cheeks. “Seeing you makes me think I might do something I’ll regret.”
“Regret?” she said with a laugh, raising her hand for the waiter. “Coming from you, that sounds funny. Come on, let’s order some drinks…”
Walking to the metro he stopped to gaze at a lumpy bronze statue of a soldier, Capitaine Dreyfus. Dreyfus stood with a broken-off sword was in one hand, and a pigeon fluffed on his brimmed cap. At the statue’s base a plaque in French said: ‘If you wish me to live, have them give me back my honor.’
Ludo picked a bottle cap off the ground and chucked it at the pigeon, his shoulder igniting with a burst of pain. The pigeon flapped to a nearby branch, dust motes spinning in the silvery light.
A jogger thudded past.
American, he estimated, as her firm buttocks and pink thighs wobbled past, a baseball cap tucked low over her eyes. Who else would run down the middle of the street?
Massaging the painful shoulder, he descended into the metro. In California everyone wore baseball caps and jogged. His own memories of a childhood trip to the Golden State were foggy, though he retained the image of waitress setting a miraculous stack of fluffy pancakes topped with maple syrup and a cloud of whipped cream in front of him. Ludo felt that if he returned to California—now, today—the state’s sunshine would wrap itself around him like a long-awaited homecoming embrace.
His train arrived and he hurried on. As it lurched forward he lost his balance and stumbled over a girl’s white sneaker. The girl—a sallow, lank-haired Parisian—glared at him like he was an assassin. He smiled, thinking of Natasha, who, in hindsight, seemed almost more American than his wife. In California he and Natasha could wear baseball caps and go jogging. They could politely ignore the movie stars who were also jogging, and when they had jogged their requisite five miles, they could stop at International House of Pancakes and order a tall stack with bacon, after which they could sit on a beach and watch the golden afternoon roll in…
The train slid into Varenne station. Ludo noted that a too-small metal patch had been soldered over the hole in The Thinker’s thigh, leaving a thin uncovered strip: an entrance for a family of cockroaches. Even people repairing master art works in this country were incompetent! As he stood there swaying in the overcrowded wagon, his mood plunged. All he wanted was a feeling of fulfillment, a relaxed body and mind, yet his wife, instead of helping him reach this goal, chatted up the neighbor and pushed him, her husband, away! She was a good one for complaining about a lack of marital solidarity, but wouldn’t lift a finger for the benefit of their team!
At home he swung open the door, his keys jangling in the lock. His wife was perched in front of her easel, and did not greet him as he came in. Her sharp little profile made him want to slam the door over and over until it fell off its hinges. But this was his home and not a monkey house, even if his wife insisted on acting like an ignorant ape. He pulled the door to until it gave a soft click. He dropped his briefcase, shed his clothes and showered, the hot water drumming his tight, painful shoulder. The pain was now radiating up into his neck. Afterwards he slicked back his hair, poured a tumbler of Bailey’s on ice, and walked towel-waisted into the living room. Jen was still working away, and it occurred to him, dim hope igniting in his chest, that she might be inspired to strip away his towel. He dropped onto the couch and pointed the remote at the television, his body radiating a moist heat.
“Do you mind?”
“No,” he said, flicking past CNN and the 24-hour airport channel.
She sighed and squeezed out some white paint. Through his peripheral vision he noted that the curtain was closed, and that she looked pinched and pale. This was deeply satisfying: perhaps, for once, she felt chastened. He found a UFC match, turned up the volume, and took a long swallow of his drink. Two guys beating each other bloody. His wife smeared a gob of paint onto her canvas. The sweet icy liquid flowed down his throat, and he propped a cushion on the coffee table and positioned his feet, adjusting for maximal comfort. He noticed that the nails of his big toes had been molded into claw-like points by his lace up work shoes. He retrieved the nail clippers from the bathroom, returned to the couch, trimmed the nails and gathered the slivers into a mound next to his drink. It felt good to be clean. It felt good to begin to relax.
His wife stared at him, her mouth hanging open.
“You’re a pig—do you know that?”
He held her gaze for a long moment, chuckling and watching her face redden as it became apparent he wouldn’t dignify her attack with a response. Finally he broke eye contact, gathered the clippings into his palm, and dumped them into the ficus. Amidst the hoots and applause of the UFC crowd, the boom of the American announcer’s voice, he dressed and walked outside into the heat.
The sky drooped. Three workers with grit clinging to their bare arms were installing maroon awnings above the Monte Carlo pizzeria, tools scattered across the sidewalk. Massaging his burning shoulder he walked to the metro, imagining the relief of a cold beer flowing down his parched throat.
On the train an old man suddenly grabbed at the air and tumbled at Ludo’s feet. Ludo stared down in bewilderment while a woman leapt forward and crouched at the man’s side. His white-headed wife gaped from several feet away, her hands clutching shopping bags. The old man convulsed briefly and opened his eyes, very blue, looking confused.
“It’s the heat,” someone said, and the man was ushered out at the next station, I’m all right, I’m okay, flanked by his wife and the female Good Samaritan. As the metro pulled away the two old people were sitting on molded orange station chairs staring straight ahead, white-faced, backs erect. Ludo looked at his shoes, the ridged floor where the man had fallen. I should have done something, he thought. Shown initiative, taken control… He wanted a drink, to lie down, to feel the coolness of fingers in his hair…
Outside it looked like rain. He found the blue door and the name: N. Bontemps. She rang him up on the third buzz, he climbed the stairs, and a wave of apricot incense rushed his nose as she opened the door.
“Were you standing there long?” she said, touching his arm. “I had the stereo on.”
“I wanted to see you.”
“Oh.” Her cheeks turned pink.
She led him in and locked the deadbolt. His eyes began to itch: somewhere in this stifling studio was a cat. The couch beneath the loft bed was scattered with fur-coated cushions. They sat amongst them.
“I’m boiling,” he said, tugging at his shirt collar. “Do you have anything to drink?”
“Sure,” she said with a smile. “Tap water okay?”
“Anything wet,” he said, disappointed, picturing the gently sweating bottles his wife stocked for him in the fridge.
The water was filled with tiny bubbles and tasted tinny. He drank deeply. Her brows jumped as he drained the glass, his throat clicking.
“Excuse me,” he said.
She laughed behind her fingers. He wiped his mouth and set down the glass. Outside the window a sparrow chirped, and a motorbike could be heard bombing at top speed around a corner, its tires squealing. A tremor flickered across one of her eyelids, her gaze steady on his face. Quiet descended. He leaned in and kissed her. She curled into him, climbing his calves with her toes. He was suddenly charged up, light and strong. He pulled her close, tilting his head to change the angle of the kiss, and his neck made a soft ominous click and blasted him with pain. Damn it. He jerked forward, a gesture she seemed to misinterpret.
“Come,” she said, slithering up the ladder to the loft.
He followed, his shoulder and neck electrified: stage-one of a searing discomfort he knew from experience would last for days. The sheets were rumpled, a large white cat luxuriating across the pillows. Staring at him, Natasha removed her shirt. He moved toward her on his knees, head bumping the ceiling, and reached for her small firm breasts.
“Lie down,” she commanded.
He did and she removed his pants, caressing him through his shorts. He lay back and tried to concentrate on her fingers’ light touch, her lips moving down his belly. His eyes and throat itched and pain radiated from his shoulder up through his neck.
She took him into her mouth and he stared at the greasy marks on the ceiling, feeling himself shrinking, lifting his gaze to catch a glimpse of a glistening pale mushroom poking out of his black pubic mound. He felt a flash of anger and pushed himself into a sitting position, his neck leaping in agony.
“Stop,” he said, her mouth a crumpled O. “My neck—”
“Relax,” she said, tousling his hair. “We’ll get it to go up…”
“Wait a minute,” he said. “What?”
The cat stood and stretched the length of its back, rattling its fluffy tail. Natasha gazed at Ludo in silence, her legs folded neatly beneath her. An unpleasant feeling squatted on his chest. He felt the tedious necessity of justifying himself, explaining… Suddenly her hand flew to her mouth and she gave a mighty yawn. This must be very dull for you, he wanted to say. Forgive me for boring you. Heat shimmered from his torso and limbs, hovering, trapped, at the ceiling.
“Unfortunately, I really have to go,” he said, with an unpleasant tightness in his throat. “I only stopped in to say hello, but now—”
She gave a nervous little laugh: “Oh, come on. You have to stay!”
But he was already halfway down the ladder.
He sweated through Trikonasana, and his shoulder, better after a week of ice packs and gentle stretching, sang with joyous release. Jean-Luc walked the room, tapping his slender toes against students’ feet to nudge them into alignment. Ludo examined the teacher’s slightly bowed shins as the man lingered, eyeing him for fault.
“This shows an understanding of the posture,” Jean-Luc finally said, and Ludo’s blood surged with vindication.
In the changing room, Natasha’s yellow shorts showed half-moons of sweat beneath each buttock. She glanced over as he walked in, and then quickly averted her eyes and made a show of rummaging around in her bag. Relieved, he pretended not to notice her.
At home he found his wife working on a watercolor. The carnival-like beeping of a video game drifted in from their son’s bedroom. The watercolor—pastel clouds on creamy paper—was weirdly soothing.
Ludo crouched and placed his head on Jen’s lap. He felt a slight shift in her posture and the weight of her hand, tentative, on the top of his head.
Jessie Vail Aufiery has lived in Miami for the past year and a half after more than a decade in Paris. She is World Literature Editor for The Literary Review, and lives with her husband and twin daughters.