C marks the spot on the floor where the body had fallen. She moves heavily from the sunlight brought out by the open windows to the shadowed corner on the right of the sofa. On the floor a broken ceramic ashtray lay in pieces. She doesn’t think now, she doesn’t breathe; all matters less in the quiet afternoon. The air smells of blood and anger, filling up the room like a fog. To pass the time, and to put her thoughts together, she takes a cigarette out of her back pocket, lights it, inhales quickly and exhales slowly through her mouth and holds the cigarette between her right index and middle fingers staring at the stain on the floor and absently stroking the bruise on her face. To the left of where she stands a clock ticks the seconds away. In the bedroom down the hall she can hear the faint conversation of the television, which had been previously turned up to help drown out the crying and the voices of she and M as they argued. M’s body now lay at the front of their bed wrapped in a sheet; the sheet still aromatic with the scent of sweat and sex they had the night before. No trail of blood from the stain where M’s body had hit the floor to the bedroom. She had been carefully conscious of the need to wrap his upper body with a sheet as fully as possible. She had known what to do almost instinctively. A telephone rings in the apartment next door.
C thinks of the first time she had met M. They had been students in the same class. She was intent on thinking through the outrageous adventures of an errant knight from La Mancha through a feminist lens, and M was intent on her. M’s persual of C lasted four months, three weeks, and two days before he could finally convince her to have coffee with him one day after class. That all seemed so long ago now as she stood above the stain of his blood on the floor; a stain she herself had caused.
They arranged to meet at a café not far from campus, one that was frequented by students and faculty. C arrived first, deciding to wait for him outside since the day was cool but not uncomfortable. She had been waiting for only a few minutes when she saw him come walking toward her, beaming. His longish hair, disheveled from the wind, his blue jeans and sneakers, his leather jacket and that red scarf he seemed to wear everyplace he went, and which was now an infamous part of his persona, trailing him like some blood red vapor trail. As he draws closer she remembers the feeling of time slowing down, almost as if she (or he) were in a dream, or moving under water; his steps, beaming smile, leather jacket and scarf suspended in midstride, holding its place a second, then moving forward; not in fits and starts, but in some kind of barely perceptible movement. She thinks of him at this moment as a movie star, stepping out of the screen to approach her as she stands in the aisle of some ancient theater. What she recalls through the cloudiness of time is that she sees him and his surroundings in black and white, with the sole exception of his scarf, red against the mono-chromatic street.
He rushes then, disrupting the stoppage of time and embraces her—holding her a bit longer than appropriate, she thinks. They quickly find a table inside. Although she feels as if his gaze never leaves her, M is always a gentleman. He buys the coffee, he waits for her to sit before he does (although he fails to pull her chair out for her—but she is okay with this since such behavior would only embarrass her), he lights her cigarettes. They both smoke continually, she slowly and methodically, he one after the other, in unhealthy succession. M’s eyes never leave her, not even when a friend of his stops at their table to say hello. C feels slightly disconcerted, slightly aroused.
So they sit there, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and talking about nothing. Small talk bores her, but she can’t think of anything to say that might raise the level of conversation. As the afternoon moves on, the shadow from the waning light crosses over his face. “He’s in,” she thinks. “It’s only a matter of time before he asks me home.” He does, and to her surprise, she refuses. She won’t be that easy. The barely perceptible hint of disappointment does little to reduce his charm.
C did not intend to kill him it just worked out that way. As she stands there, straddling the stain, she thinks of how the afternoon sunlight catches the shards of the ashtray, smashed to pieces and scattered over the floor like specs of new-fallen snow beneath a full moon in the middle of winter. She does not shake now, she does not sweat. She thinks of how eerily calm she has remained throughout the whole affair. But then it comes, the surging nausea and the urgent need to be sick. She runs to the bathroom and vomits loudly into the toilet. Later, resting her head against the cold porcelain she thinks of how the plumber said that all toilets sweat. Funny, she’s suddenly preoccupied and bothered by the condensation of water on her toilet. Sweating toilets, sweating perfume, sweating blood. How many things in her life are unable to contain the buildup of pressure? At that moment she knows that things will never be the same. It has taken her nearly two hours since she struck M in the head with the ashtray to realize this. Out there, beyond the numbness, she knows that she’s a human being capable of love. She knows that she feels. She was once a wife, a mother, a friend. But now, enveloped in this fog of numbness she realizes what it means to leave one’s humanity behind. By striking M she closes the door behind her, not shutting him up, but shutting herself out. Beyond the reach of her love, of her compassion, of her humanity, lurks the ghost of her anger, lying in wait.
Lying there with her head against the toilet she remembers the first time M had hit her. She was three months pregnant with their first child and M was out late after work. She had intended to wait up for him, but had fallen asleep with the television on sometime after midnight. On the coffee table beside her was a glass with the ashes and stubbed out ends of four cigarettes. She meant to take the glass to the kitchen for empting and rinsing out during the next commercial, but had fallen asleep just as Harry Lime emerged from the shadow of a doorway. The sound of M’s keys in the door woke her. Groggy, she lifted herself onto one elbow, waiting for him to enter. M stumbles through the door and into the kitchen, which looks out into the living room where C lays propped up on one elbow on the couch. The room is lit only by the flickering light of the television. M walks across the kitchen and lays his keys and cigarettes down on the coffee table right next to the glass containing the stubbed out cigarettes C has been using. He looks from her to the glass and back again. Before she has time to register his intention he slaps her across the face. The slap (as she recalls) is not particularly hard, but it is quick. He stands over her saying nothing, not even looking angry. After several seconds, and just as she is about to say something, he begins to hit her repeatedly in the face and on her arms as she raises them to protect her head. In the background the light of the television continues to flicker. Outside, a siren from an ambulance begins to whine, first softly, then louder, until it passes and recedes into the night. She thinks of how this is happening to her right here, right now. She thinks of the absurdity of the situation she now finds herself in; a situation that she might have read about in a magazine or newspaper article, or story that might have been reported on the evening news. She thinks of herself, not as a victim, but as a character from a story caught in an absurd situation. She feels less and less as M continues to pound. Now, thinking back, what C remembers most is the angle of M’s cigarettes and keys on the coffee table and its proximity to the glass containing the stubs.
When she finally emerges from the bathroom she walks over to the stain of M’s blood on the floor. The room has grown a shade or two darker in the waning afternoon. She crosses the floor, carefully stepping over the stain and broken shards of ashtray and moves into the kitchen. She gets a glass down from the cabinet and turns on the sink. Filling the glass all the way to the top (so that the water overflows and comes down the sides like a waterfall), she drinks down almost a quarter of the water and splashes the rest into the sink. She watches as the water trails down the drain. She turns her back and leans against the sink. Over on the kitchen table she notices the remains of their lunch. Suddenly panic overtakes her and she moves across the floor, unconscious that she is following a pattern of light laid across the room by the remains of the afternoon sun. She paces from the kitchen to the bathroom to the bedroom and stands at the door gazing down at M. She bends over him and gently, almost lovingly untangles the sheet from his head. She studies his face and notices that it’s not exactly in pain, but neither does it have a look of repose. She notices for the first time that he isn’t wearing any socks and this strikes her as strange. It’s so unpredictably unlike him not to have something on his feet. Then she remembers that the fight started in the bedroom just as he was getting dressed after his shower. She recalls the faint smell of his shaving cream following him from room to room as the argument started. She had not been a willing participant at first, but she never was. M displayed his emotions as he lived his life, on the surface, where the nerve always lay exposed. She can’t recall what started the fight, but she thinks it was something she said about his outfit, and the fact that he always chose his clothes with great care and attention, “like a woman,” she said. Yes, that’s what started this. She had made the allusion that he took care of himself like a woman, and, since M believed himself to be fiercely masculine, he blew up at her, or more accurately, all over her.
At the living room window C gazes down toward the park below. A woman wearing a babushka is walking her dog. C remembers that when she had first arrived in Paris she was astounded by the amount of dog waste everywhere on the street. At certain times of the day it seemed as if one could not stroll the sidewalk without stepping into something. Later, when she had gotten used to it, she affectionally referred to Paris as “Dog Shit City.” She took great amusement in mentioning this in every letter or phone call home. When M and she bought this apartment they did it for two reasons: the view of the city, and the light. In a city that valued space above all else (there was so little of it left that what was left was going for prices that only the privileged few could afford) they were lucky in picking a location that would, for the most part, still remain much the same as it had a century ago. Now, things were changing and they would never be able to afford this place today had it been on the market, had they been looking. But, of course, they weren’t. M’s inability to move beyond adjunct professor status kept them tied to the apartment in a way that suffocated him. He was never shy about telling her that he was suffocating, and she took his outbursts in stride, ignoring them for the most part, but silently keeping track of each time he said it. Now, at this particular moment, as she gazes down toward the park below, she thinks of dog shit, blood, and tears.
In all of their years together (now more than twenty) C had never thought of herself as M’s wife. In fact, she hadn’t thought of herself as a wife at all; being a wife was a role she felt she was expected but unprepared to play. She did think of herself as a lover, however. Over the years she had taken many lovers, but always with the stipulation, the personal promise to herself, that she would never have the same encounter twice. Over the course of twenty years she had engaged in over one hundred one-night stands, each ending in the same way: a gesture of farewell in the form of placing a kiss upon the forehead of her lover. The gesture always struck her as maternal, as if she were kissing her children through her lovers and protecting them from what she was doing. She had been good at adultery. It came easy to her and not long after her first affair she began to crave the excitement of sneaking around on M. Not that M would have noticed, since he was busy with affairs of his own. Was M equally as skilled at marital deception as C? C could only think that he was. And in this she drew (strangely enough) much comfort. Had M discovered that C was unfaithful he surely would have killed her, which was why she had not engaged in her first affair until their children were in school. For the first eight or nine years of their marriage C had been the perfect wife: thoughtful, compassionate, sexual (but not sexually aggressive), and obedient. Because she had always thought of herself as a sensible woman, she found it increasingly difficult to argue in favor of leaving him. She would sooner have made a break with herself than tear apart what semblance of a family she had tried to build. It wasn’t so much that M had hit her on occasion as it was his remoteness from their marriage that drove her into the arms of countless anonymous lovers (for she had never asked their names—something she remembered from a Brando film—she didn’t want to know their names, because that would have signaled an intimacy she was more than reluctant to grant on these occasions). Time and again she told herself that it was M’s inability to find a teaching position that kept him on constant edge, and for a great amount of time she did indeed believe this. Soon, however, C found ways to become remote from their marriage as well. And it didn’t take long before either of them felt anything close to love. She had quickly gotten used to being in the background, first to M, then to their children. Although she believed that her children loved her, she had rarely heard from them since they moved away; one child had moved to Spain, and the other to Santa Cruz, California. Both were successful, both were happy, and both learned early that in order to be happy they would have to leave home.
It is ten steps to the door from where C is standing, just above the stain of M’s blood. The need to escape, to breathe (she’s suffocating, she cannot get the smell of M’s blood off her) suddenly overcomes her. She realizes that her coat lay just to her right, casually draped over the arm of the black leather captain’s chair M had insisted on buying years ago. She steps over the stain, gives it a glance, then picks up her coat. Slipping into the sleeves she opens the door to the apartment. She doesn’t look back as she slams the door behind her and moves toward the stairs. Moments later, when she emerges from the lobby door and steps into the early evening, she thinks of M in the apartment above. She stands there for several minutes, undecided whether to cross the boulevard or take the metro to some as yet unknown location. Lighting a cigarette, she moves toward the Café Lorre some twenty paces from her building. The seats on the terrace are beginning to fill up, and she glances at the faces buried in their evening papers or their drinks as she begins to walk more quickly down the boulevard and away from her building.
Time after time she told herself that if she had been a passionate woman then maybe her life would not have ended up so empty, so devoid of love. She did have love for her children, but it was a parental kind of love: sanitary and safe. She enjoyed the fact that her children, at least when they were young, had loved her unconditionally, as only very young children do. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her children; it was that she had failed at finding a passion for life. She was the organizer, the expeditor, but never the initiator. Her children needed to show their love for her, and they did, long before she could allow herself even that much emotional investment. Once, when her youngest child had slipped down some steps and landed head first into the corner of a wall, revealing a vertical line on her forehead, first white (and the shocked look on the child’s face, as if she was scared she had done something wrong rather than showing the fear of being hurt) then as she began to breathe and cry, the blood came like a deluge down into her eyes, then onto her face and neck, soaking her shirt, C rushed her to a nearby hospital. Waiting for nearly four hours in Emergency, she was surprised to discover that she only felt mild concern for her little girl as she sat in her lap bleeding and sobbing. What C did feel was mild annoyance. It wasn’t so much that she blamed the nurses on staff for keeping them waiting as she blamed the child for placing her in this position. In the darkest, most hidden part of her consciousness she did not want to wait with her child; she did not want to hold and comfort the child. It was not that she had failed to love her daughter; it was more of a mild annoyance at having someone depend upon her for comfort, for love itself. Earlier that day she had arranged to meet a man she had met at the hotel pool for that evening. M had been busy getting drunk in the hotel bar. (M didn’t swim, so taking the children to the pool had not been an option for them.) As she sat there holding her child in the emergency room of this foreign hospital, she thought of that man she had planned to meet and the missed possibility of what that meeting promised. So, it wasn’t that she didn’t love her children; it was more of a remoteness she had trained herself to practice in times of crisis. She would carefully remove herself from the situation as totally as possible. So there, in that hospital, and miles from home, she fantasized of fucking another man while she held her trembling daughter and waited for the attending physician to see them.
As evening approaches C makes her way through the Paris streets. At first she wanders down the Boulevard Saint Germain toward the Quartier Latin with the intention of walking around the Sorbonne for a while until she could pull herself together. But she’s walking so quickly and so intently that she keeps on going until she makes it to the Pont De Sully. Stopping to gaze down at the Seine, she takes out her last cigarette and lights it. As she inhales she comes to the realization that she really doesn’t want to “pull herself together.” In fact, as she feels herself coming apart she begins to enjoy the sensation that it brings with it—a sensation of timelessness and spacelessness. It’s as if she was leaving bits of her consciousness behind the further she walked away from M. Coming apart was the answer then. Coming apart would finally set her free from the entanglements of a life she only barely wanted to live.
Coming out of her reverie she begins to move down the Quai La Tourrelle, occasionally reaching up to touch the bruise on her face. She thinks of the smashed ashtray still scattered over the floor and remembers the trip to Marrakech and the hotel from which it was taken. Together, she and M had filled the ashtray with countless cigarette butts as they talked and fucked through the night. It was, she now thinks, the closest they were to being really happy, to being almost normal.
C continues walking until she reaches the Quai Voltaire, where she descends a set of steps that lead to a walkway running parallel with the Seine. A slight breeze begins to blow and she pulls her coat tighter to keep herself warm. The further she walks, she thinks, the further away from her life she gets. With each step she tells herself that she’s tossing another memory out of her head. As she threads her way through the other walkers she begins to feel the weight of her life fall away little by little. The street lamps begin to go on as people hurry back to their warm homes. C is left with no one now except the ghost of her anger trailing her along the Paris streets. In the early October evening the wind stirs the leaves from the trees and C thinks that with each falling leaf she is leaving another part of herself behind. As she stops to gaze out over the Seine she starts to feel confined and confused. She begins to take her coat off, and the wind rushes over her. It is a feeling she enjoys, like drinking a very cold glass of water on a hot day. Hoping to sustain the sensation she begins to remove each article of clothing one by one slowly and methodically. Soon she is standing stark naked staring down at the waters of the Seine. She doesn’t notice the people who stop and begin to stare. A small crowd begins to gather around her but she is no longer there to notice. As she gazes out over the Seine she starts to feel as light as air. She thinks of herself as just another dead leaf tossed around on the wind in the Paris evening. When the cold waters of the Seine envelop her she’s smiling.