A Drink With Angela
© 1995 Tanuja D Desai
Through the dividing wall, heart crashing in his chest, he listened to her leave him: Mylene off for the summer (to her Otravez and burning Madrid) on a night train (sleeping car). For weeks she hummed gleefully and hunted for a subletter, finally finding a surely American girl, as all arrangements were carried out at odd hours and in her halting English.
The first time Gilles sees the girl, at approximately 6:45 hours Sunday, she is stranded in the courtyard, shoulders sagging with the weight of a leather knapsack, and one small and one enormous suitcase with wheels that stick all the way along the grey cobblestones. Mylene left only days before; he can imagine her scarves still sweet with perfume, the slippers cast upon her heater puffed slightly where her toes had curled. Gilles swirls butter and nutella onto a large slice of bread, scanning his horoscope collection for an agreeable one by which to conduct his day, and preparing for the mathematics course he teaches in the nearby Parc Monceau; Gemini promises change. He has been feeling melancholy. He will miss his thirty-three students during the holidays that approach at a menacing pace. He glances at his valise, stuffed to the seam burst with its thirty-two-and-a-half secrets, and smiles slightly. The light loosens and wraps itself like a shawl round the girl's shoulders, the small hopeful fountain, slips hanging to dry from the sills of 111 rue des Dames. 7:00 hours: the raindrop dance of the ancient mother and aging daughter who live above him will soon begin. Da da da da dee. From his fourth floor window, the top of the girl's head flashes vagrant sunbeams as she struggles to balance her possessions. He thinks how kind it would be should he help her in this distress, how she would lift to him a face stunned with gratitude. He nibbles his bread.
The second time he sees her he nearly does not recognize her, as it is at eye level, and in the hallway where he is accustomed only to the presence of Mylene (the third apartment on the floor is used sparingly by a surfer who spends most of the year in Biarritz, crouching at unusual angles). Though he trailed her down the rue de Levis since the metro at Villiers, letting her mount the stairs a calculated moment before pressing the elevator's four-button, the sight of her inspires in him a quick urge to rush to the shelter of a four-floor higher perspective, but there is no eighth floor and it is too late, here she is, yanking at her door, a six-pack of skim milk, a Sauvignon, and assortment of petites madeleines collapsed against her ankles.
--Passe-la-moi, he says.
--Well, hello there! I'm sorry but I didn't quite catch that.
--I'm sorry, she says. --Je no sais francais.
She wears her cocoa bean hair in what they call a French braid but she is not French. She is clearly American, zipped into a denim minidress, and with talcum-white tennis flats; she has sculpted calves and smells of strawberry bubblegum. When she speaks she neither puckers like the French, nor flails about like those of the hot Mediterranean villages. She stands with her feet at ballerina angles, fiddling with her belt loops. She sounds perpetually thrilled.
--The trick here is to shake the key, he says, --then give the door a bit of a kick.
It is exhilarating speaking English, like traveling, the breathless odyssey of the h.
--Yours does the same? she asks.
--No. Yes. Well, I've seen Mylene do it a thousand times. Here, like this.
He jiggles the key, executes the kick. The door swings open a half meter. He feels invincible.
--Merci, she says. --Oh, I am so lucky to have a neighbor like you! Thank you, how do you say? mille fois!
The girl has the wide desperate smile of certain women; he finds it touching. Suddenly, he does not want to let her go.
--You are here on vacation? he says.
--I am here to learn French. I learned Spanish last summer in Madrid. Next year I will learn Italian and perhaps Croatian. I would also like to do an internship with a literary magazine.
--You are a student.
--In Rhode Island.
--Well, like Boston.
--Oh, Boston! The Harvard University.
--Yeah, like that.
She looks pleased.
--You are a friend of Mylene's? he says.
--A friend of a friend of her boyfriend's. A musician. A really really good musician. So original! That's how I found this place. What luck! So close to the park! And even an elevator.
--But you took the stairs.
--But you take the stairs?
--Yeah, well, I've got to do some serious climbing to burn off all that wine we'll be drinking.
She lavishes a wink upon him and picks up her Sauvignon.
--Well, thanks again, she says. --Mmm...?
--Gilles, he says, presenting his hand.
--Oh yeah,--fingers tipped with tiny hearts in his palm. --Angela.
Her yeahs, Angela's yeahs, are soft and drawn out. And that wink. Was it a wink? Or did he just misconstrue a blink? He scratches his elbows, shy.
--I have truly amused myself talking to you, he says.
--Yeah, me too. We should get together sometime. You know. You could come over for a drink or something.
A glimmer of hope.
--You are alone, then, in the city?
She laughs, softly.
--No, she says and, twirling the strand of hair by her earlobe, --I have a friend.
Her laughter like sunshine and diamonds. Her eyes the grey of birds in flight.
She slips inside; he, too, home. Their walls touch, are sometimes one.
He has a friend. He has not thought of himself in such a capacity since--? He was once a student, tenant and teacher; until two winters ago, he'd been a son. He reigned briefly as president (of the Entropy Anonymous club he formed the year before--the essence of which was the working out of the mathematical structure of astrology in order to increase the techne and decrease the tuche associated with human existence--and in which he doubled as member after his students, baffled, bored and one or two struck with terror, deserted it.) But, now, a friend. What would he wear for the drink they would share? Would he take up smoking, his arm nonchalant along her divan, ending finally in the cognac glass upon whose rim his fingers would tap to her favorite melodies? She was American; would she prefer beer? Rolling Rock, he whispers to himself, controlling the tumble of the R. Heineken. A solid H.
He had a friend once, an ex-student, precocious and gangly, with the air of one who is on the verge of toppling from a height. The friend, Pascal, sat alphabetically arranged and leaned incessantly--over Simone's shoulder, elbow on Henri, son of the xenophobe's desk-- blowing his bangs from alarmingly large eyes. Pascal had the mind of a twelve-year-old, which he was, but as the other students were mostly ten and eleven, this was striking. He came to see his teacher nearly every day after class, at first with deviously simple algebraic questions, later, simply, to share a coffee and tartine. Sometimes it was all Gilles needed to get through that last post-lunch pull of class when the students no longer attempted to mask their disintegrating attention; they wiggled and yawned and stretched like the crucified before him. At these moments he persevered with the knowledge that one of them, this fourth-row slender one, pale like birch and with the petulant lips and disdainful brows of bon-chic-bon-genre French boys, would be waiting for him, Gilles, and him only, under the awning of the corner brasserie.
The boy once asked Gilles why instead of sipping from his cup like a man, he took his coffee by the spoonful, sucking around the sugarcube there, crumbling.
--So I can mark and thereby create the vanishing, Gilles said. He did not mention that it also took about eleven times as long to finish off a coffee that way, equaling eleven times longer the stay at the brasserie. The boy did not pass the class. He was bright, Gilles assured him of that, but did not apply himself, in fact tried less and less in direct proportion to the increase in time they spent together, as if relying on some sort of numerically-focused osmosis to occur and thus vindicate his lazy mind. Upon release of the news that he would, nevertheless and once again, remain in the section--Gilles nearly wept to tell him this, though secretly pleased at the prospect of another term with him--he abruptly told Gilles that he would meet him no more.
--But, Pascal, you will need me even more now.
--You are suffocating me, said the boy.
--Why suddenly this?
So this had been his friend. Glancing now at the contour drawing Pascal actually posed for one long evening with Gilles, and the sketches he composed of him in the longer evenings that followed--on grid paper, napkins, bonbon box lids -- and stacked now upon his commode (just below the black-and-white of his mother), he feels that duller pain which is the memory of pain.
--I must go now, the boy said.
--Stay, Gilles pleaded. --Let us discuss this a little longer.
He announced (and invented) rare theorems, sketched out sudden mysterious equations and, all else failing, rotated a memorable solid several times around the y-axis--anything to keep the boy to keep him from the raw emptiness of the room awaiting him at 111 rue des Dames.
--Logarithm, he cried as the boy rose from his seat.
--Null set!-- as the thin figure slipped down the rue Legendre.
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