Fiction - Hyssop and Hermetics, The Absinthe Literary Review

Last Time in Paris
a short story by Tua Laine
 

Mikkel keeps a wary eye on the books at my bedside. Life after life. Life after death. Life on a limb. Books by doctors and actresses and clairvoyants. Just a crutch, I tell Mikkel. A Band-Aid to get me through. 

“You can’t seriously believe in this stuff?” Mikkel says, thumbing through Premonitions and Omens. He throws the book on top of the pile.

“Of all the people ...” I begin but stop when he grimaces.

A civil servant with a sailor’s soul, Mikkel is a connoisseur of food and wine and women, and everything else the French make best. Always stressed out, surviving on too much wine and too little sleep, he’s eternally broke and forever late and more often than not on crutches. Mikkel had driving accidents and biking accidents, skiing and diving and walking accidents till he lost count of the times he’d had stitches or gotten new front teeth. His friends wondered darkly about his masochistic streak and secret death wishes.

Where Christer was tall and pretty, Mikkel is battered and portly. Women love Mikkel. Christer thought it was his cuddly teddy bear charm, but I know better. It’s his voice, lowest of low and melodious, a singer’s voice, smooth and rough at once. A man’s voice.

Bye-bye love, bye-bye happiness, I think I’m going to di-ie,” I say in sing-song. ”Every morning leaving for work. He knew something was going to happen.” 

All That Jazz,” Mikkel says. “We saw it together, remember?”

We had—Mikkel and his other half Lili, Christer and I. After the movie, Mikkel walked straight into the side of a van backing out of a courtyard. Unlike Fosse and the rest of us, Christer teased, Mikkel wouldn’t need to worry about heart disease—Mikkel would never live that long.

“It’s easy to find meaning in retrospect. To create connections where none existed. Still ...” I say.

 “Logically speaking, premonitions don’t make sense,” Mikkel says. “Que sera, sera. Like a cruel cosmic joke, a heavenly Catch 22, the real ones have to come true.” 

 “Maybe the dead are in a parallel universe. Or a dimension we can’t sense. Who knows what we lost to evolution? Maybe we only developed the senses that helped against saber-tooth tigers.”

“And maybe there’s a reason for it,” Mikkel says. “The mediums—I don’t know—it’s all so ... tacky!Cheapens death. Let the poor chap go. Please. Let him have his dignity.”

But I can’t.

There was something indefinable about that summer, like the faintest hint of decay you can’t quite smell yet know is there. There was the time I found Christer sleeping on the couch and thought he was dead. His face looked like a mask—mottled skin stretched tight over bones, eyes sunken into the skull. The warm summer air grew suddenly chilly and I stared till Christer stirred and dissipated the odd vision played by the deepening shadows.

The night before he left for Tunis we made love like we always did before travel. Afterwards, just as I was falling asleep, I hit the wet spot on the bed. Wasted, I thought. Christer’s perfect genes gone; the opportunity forever lost. The baby fever was getting out of hand, I reasoned, shaken awake by the odd thought. I was afraid Christer was developing a terminal illness, heart perhaps or cancer. But the autopsy found no sign of illness, nothing to explain it. I checked.
 

~
 

The phone rings in the night.

Don’t answer it, I warn myself. No good ever comes from answering the phone in the night. Don’t answer it and maybe the nightmare never unfurls. 

Time after time I rewind the events in my mind, frame by frame, in slow motion, hoping to undo the call. 

A moment of hesitant silence while the night grows heavy and the world shrinks, till it only contains a stranger’s voice in the night. I put the receiver back in the cradle. The phone stops ringing. A man in Tunis takes his hand off the phone. An ambulance drives backwards, the lights turn off. A crowd disperses from a pier. Blood and pieces of something grey and awful sink back into the depths. The boat reverses, Christer comes to view. The boat backs away till it disappears into the horizon. Sun and sea and clear skies. Christer swimming.

All the possible consequences of all possible actions in all possible universes.In this life, I answered the phone.
 

~
 

The embassy in Tunis promises to call me anytime, day or night. Tuesday afternoon they finally do and then cancel, something still missing from the paperwork, more red tape. On Wednesday they call again. Christer has left Tunis on the afternoon flight. I call Mikkel.

 “I’ll pick you up in five minutes,” Mikkel says and leaves his dinner date at the table. We dash to the airport but Christer has missed his connection in Paris. He’d be on the last plane out if there was space.

“Let’s just wait,” Mikkel suggests and we do, watch people file by, dragging tired suitcases and cranky kids. 

It’s way past midnight when the plane lands and rolls to the gate. The cargo doors open and workers pull out suitcases, bags and boxes and, finally, something that could be a casket.

“Welcome home, Christer,” Mikkel says, choking. He wraps an arm around me and walks me to the customs. The officer points a thumb over his shoulder. The cargo terminal is on the other side of the airport. 

“Cargo terminal?”

He nods, unconcerned. “Corpses fly cargo.”
   

~
 

Mikkel’s face is ashen when he comes out with a sheaf of papers in hand. He opens the car door and sits down, looks straight ahead. 

“They’ll bring him out in a few minutes.” He wipes a cheek with the back of his hand. “When the hearse gets here.”

“Death certificate?” I ask. 

“It’s in French. You don’t want to see.”

 “Show me.”  

Mikkel shakes his head, hangs onto the papers. “He didn’t drown. Looks like he died instantly.”

I reach over and pull the sheets from his hand. The death certificate is on top. My French is poor, but I understand.

“The propeller cut through the back of the head into the brain, all the way to the front.”

“You know more French than I thought,” Mikkel says. “I don’t think you should be reading that.”

“It broke his arm.”  

“He must have seen it coming,” Mikkel says thickly and clears his throat. “Probably tried to dive, the poor bastard, protect his head with his hand.”

The roar of an engine, louder and louder. A desperate attempt to grasp air and dive, bubbles bubbles bubbles too late too shallow too close propeller gleaming coming too late too close too ...  I wonder how much he felt, was it all over with the first dull thud when the blade hit his shoulder and turned once and again, did he have time for pain before the final blow came, how does it feel when a blade cuts through your brain, do you feel it still or is it all over already, all darkness, all nothingness, did he see the blood and pieces of his brain floating, the water turning red, and know he was dying? Or did he see it the way I always do, underwater first, with foam and bubbles and green water and the propeller gleaming, and then I’m watching from above when the blood hits the surface, a dark red slick that grows and grows till the body pops up like a raggedy doll, all white and obscene and terribly broken, in a cloud of deep red in the shining shining sea.
   

~
 

I joke to my friends I’ll keep Christer in the fireplace, ashes to ashes, but dress carefully and apply an unusual amount of make-up when I go for him. I’m feeling almost festive: Christer is coming home. Maybe his spirit will too. I’ve been expecting him, waiting for him. That’s what happens in the books I’m reading. That’s what happened to the secretary at work when her husband died in a car accident. He’d stood behind the curtains in the living room after his funeral, then walked through his home one last time, saying goodbye. And the young widow who lives in our building whose husband was killed in a plane crash, she told me her husband comes back every night in her sleep.

I haven’t dreamt of Christer once.
   

~
 

The crematorium is in a mustard-colored building with a narrow tall smokestack near the Hietaniemi graveyard. I tended flowers there one summer when in college. “Another soul goes to heaven,” the regular workers would sometimes say, nodding at greasy dark puffs of smoke in the sky. Or “must be a burning day,” said with a wrinkled nose. “Smells of barbecue.” The cemetery was next door to the city’s best beach. It had been a great summer job. 

There’s no smoke in the sky when I go for Christer. I’ve been told he’d be cremated a few days after the funeral; when exactly, they wouldn’t say.

“What kind?” the clerk behind the counter asks. 

I don’t understand. 

“Which urn?” he repeats in a loud voice as though speaking to a foreigner, then gestures at a display of white and black and gray urns with handwritten price tags.

I study the urns carefully. “The black one on the right,” I say. “I think he’d like that. Understated yet elegant.” 

“200 marks,” the man says. “Sign here.” He takes the black urn and disappears behind a curtain, only to reappear in seconds holding the urn with both hands away from his body, like men hold a baby. He hands it to me.       

The urn is heavier than I expect, and a little warm. I wonder how he filled it so fast. I feel dizzy and oddly foolish, and consider asking for a shopping bag. They probably don’t have any.

“Could you please call me a taxi,” I ask. I don’t want to take the naked urn to the tram.

I cradle the urn in the taxi and hug it for hours after I get home. Later, I break the seal, pry the lid open and bury a hand in the ashes. They are cool to my touch and look nothing like regular ashes. Coarse and grainy and wet with tears, they feel like sand on a coral beach.
   

~
 

The first psychic gave an address deep in the blue-collar part of Helsinki. The street number led to a decrepit building that had once housed a grocery store. Ghost letters still spelled Colonial Wares above the door and brought back the smell of oranges and flour and newly ground coffee. The shop windows were boarded up and the doorway dark, the bulb in the overhead lamp a jagged memory. I thought I had come to the wrong address and turned to leave when the door opened a crack and an old woman in curlers and a pink jogging suit peered out. 

“Yes?” 

“I’m looking for Madame Zuzy,” I said. “I have an appointment.”

The woman opened the door a little more and motioned me in. 

“Come,” she said. “I am.” When I hesitated, she said, “Come in, come in!” She locked the front door and limped through the dimly lit store, waving for me to follow. The shelves were empty except for some leftover junk: an empty cardboard display case, a half-roll of register printout paper. The cash register was gone too but for a worn-out spot in the floor, gouged by countless impatient feet waiting for their turn.

Madame Zuzy switched the light on in a cluttered bathroom, lowered the lid and sat on the toilet.

 “Take a seat,” she said, pointing to a chair that was propping the bathroom door open. Looking busy and businesslike, she picked an empty plastic yogurt jar—strawberry—from the sink and filled it halfway with tap water.She stirred the water with the eraser end of a yellow pencil.

HB Number 2, I noted. Must remember that. And the cracked mirror that cut her in half.  

“So what do you need?”

“Ahhmm.I’m having problems reaching my husband,” I said.

 “Sometimes the water is cloudy and I can’t see straight. Put money on the table. Money clarifies the water. Then I can see.”

“How much?”

“Fifty marks.”

I put the money on the table and the old woman stirred the water one more time.

“It’s all clear. He’ll come back to you.” Madame Zuzy rose, poured the water into the sink and switched the toilet light off.

I couldn’t stop giggling on the way home and planned interesting ways to tell Mikkel the story of the Colonial Ware psychic. I could make it into a joke. What’s the difference between a Colonial Wares and a psychic business? One sells nuts for fruitcakes, the other fruitcakes to nuts. Not much of a joke. In the end, I never told Mikkel.
   

~
 

The fall is turning into winter when Anna calls. Christer’s first wife.

“Something needs to be done about the BMW,” she says, all business. “The forecast promises snow.”

The car sits where Christer last left it, like a dog waiting for its master on the street outside my window . It gives me curious comfort to draw the curtains in the mornings and see the car right there as if the phone never rang in the night. 

“Anna,” I say, stalling. “How’s Rikki?”

“As well as can be expected. Kids are resilient,” she says, her voice drawing a line. Without Christer, Rikki and I have no link.

“About the BMW now ...” Anna says again.    

I’d offered to buy the car but Anna refused. It was Rikki’s now, and he wants it though he’s too young to drive.

“I found a garage,” Anna says. “I can have it taken there this morning.”

“No,” I say. “No need. I’ll ask Mikkel.”
   

~
 

The sky is heavy in the snowstorm way, the sun already low when we leave with the car. We say little. Mikkel is concentrating on the sleety road, and I don’t feel like talking. The car still holds a trace of Christer’s aftershave, an echo of his pipe. I only need to close my eyes and he’s right there, on the way from Paris to Helsinki, proposing.  
   

~
 

We drink wine on the train back, bottles of wine. My head’s swimming when Mikkel walks me home. It’s late, past midnight. 

“Cognac?”  

Mikkel nods. He takes off his shoes and coat and walks into the living room, sinks into the couch. I don’t put the lights on. I know he has tears in his eyes. Mikkel is the only one who grieves like me. He’s the one I call when the pain grows unbearable and I think of ending it all. Time after time, Mikkel drops everything, hurries over and sits there, holding me, warming me, keeping me alive.

I take out a bottle of Courvoisier and slosh way too much into three glasses. I put one on the table, give one to Mikkel. He swirls the amber liquid in his cupped hands.

“To my best friend Christer,” he says, toasting the glass on the table.

“To my best friend and other half,” I say and drink the cognac like tea. I wonder if anything will ever feel like something again. 

The room is full of shadows, the only light from the street. Everything is exactly as it was when Christer left. His coat still hangs in the hall. His pipe in the ashtray on the table, next to the book he’d been reading, carefully book-marked.

Mikkel pulls me close and hugs me tight, wipes his cheek with his free hand. I snuggle closer. Mikkel is warm and safe and smells of tobacco just like Christer. 

Mikkel and Christer, friends since the start of time. Christer and Mikkel. Where one went the other always followed. Except Mikkel was always the one supposed to die first.

I close my eyes to draw in the smoky smell. My lips brush against Mikkel’s stubbly cheek. Just touching him feels incredibly sweet, familiar and comforting. Nobody understands how it is, going to sleep alone, waking up alone. I want to rub my cheek against Mikkel’s until my skin stings and bleeds and feels again.

Eyes closed, I let my lips brush along Mikkel’s cheek till I find his mouth and kiss him softly on the lips. Mikkel grows still, absolutely still, and then kisses me back, gently, gently, a friend comforting a friend. His tears are dropping on my face, salting my lips.

Just don’t say anything. Let me pretend. Just for a little while. Be him for just a little while. Make the pain in my heart stop.  

I let my hand drop in Mikkel’s lap and stroke lightly, absentmindedly almost. Mikkel sits still, not breathing, his lips not moving under mine. I open my mouth and trace his lips with the tip of my tongue. I feel him stirring under my hand and then he kisses me for real, his mouth rough, his tongue deep in my mouth. I unbutton his shirt, open the zipper of his trousers, kissing him all the while, keeping him still, shush, quiet, just don’t say anything, let’s just pretend.

Mikkel gasps and pushes me away, shakes me. 

“Mei, no! I’m not Christer,” he says urgently. “I’m not him, you understand!”

I keep my eyes closed and he shakes me again. 

“Look at me! Look at me! Mei!I’m Mikkel ... Mikkel, you hear! I don’t want to be a substitute.”

“I know and you are not,” I say though of course he is. Why couldn’t he let me pretend? I pull the sweater over my head and step out of my jeans.

“Christ, you are beautiful,” Mikkel says. I’ve lost weight since Christer died. 54, 53, 51. The numbers on the scale go down and down and the face in the mirror grows translucent, the eyes huge and hollow. 50, 49, 48. In the shadowy room I am perfect, a white apparition floating free.

I open Mikkel’s belt and his trousers fall to his ankles. He kicks them away, looking instantly ridiculous the way men always do when they wear only black socks. He lowers me onto the Chinese silk rug, kisses my breasts and pulls my panties down. I lift my hips to help him.

“Are you sure?” he asks one more time. “Quite sure?” Trying to make me look at him. 

“Hush,” I tell him. “Don’t talk. Please don’t talk.” I keep my eyes closed, just nodding yes, yes, and then he can’t wait but finds his way in.  
        

~
 

“Let’s just leave everything,” Mikkel suggests. “Marrakesh or Havana or Calcutta, the first plane out. Say yes and we’ll be on our way. A clean new start. Please say yes!”

I go along for a while but shake my head before long, no, not really. I’m much too practical. I don’t like uncertainty. I don’t like loose ends. I’ve been poor too long to start knocking on doors in a strange city, looking for a job.

“Let me make you a baby,” Mikkel whispers in my ear at other times. Maybe, I tell him, but not quite yet. It wouldn’t look right. People wouldn’t understand. Nobody would understand that it was for Christer, about Christer. 

I imagine Christer’s spirit floating above us. Could anything be better to bring him back than the baby of the two people who love him most? But then I look at Mikkel’s battered face and imagine his genes with my irregular features, and I know we’ll never do.
 

~
 

In retrospect it’s hard to see how I did it, talked my bosses into sending me to London. Surely they must have wondered. But then I look at a news anchor on TV, so cool and composed and professional after her husband’s death, and suspect I was just as good at pretending that I was fine, just fine, that life was still going on. And I was determined to get to London, for London had the best mediums in the world.

The headquarters of the Spiritualist Association were at the Belgrave Square, a short and easy walk from the Marble Arch station. Private séances were held in tiny rooms upstairs, demonstrations of clairvoyance on the ground floor, seven days a week, twice a day. 

The demonstrations started with a prayer and ended with a prayer and in the middle the mediums talked to the dead. In this world, some thrill seekers came, and the lovelorn of course, but the rest were like me.

In the other world, all kinds of spirits lined up.

 “I have a tall middle aged gentleman here with heart trouble,” the medium would say, or “a gray-haired lady with a name that starts with an M,” and somebody in the audience would gasp and hastily claim the loved one. There were spirits of children and husbands and wives; of daughters and sons, and neighbors. No spirit ever went unclaimed though it sometimes took a while until someone remembered a namesake or a great-great aunt. 

I never spoke up though I might have once or twice when the spirit was tall and blond and had suddenly died, but I took long to decide and someone else claimed him first.

“Thank you for the flowers,” the medium channeled and I was glad I’d held back. It wasn’t Christer. He would’ve thought of something unusual and unique, a real sign.

“He says you’ve been looking at a photo,” the medium said and the woman who’d claimed him nodded and burst into tears. “John? The name starts with J? Or an M. Michael? No?” 

Christer never came through. Always an intellectual snob, he probably couldn’t stand the motley company, the imperfect mode of communication.

After the second anniversary, I stop going.
 

~
 

My last time in Paris is with Mikkel. My last time with Mikkel is in Paris. Both sentences are needed and true.

Mikkel is in Paris with a trade delegation, and I fly from London for the weekend. He’s staying at George V; my hotel—smaller and cheaper and much less conspicuous—is around the corner. The room has a narrow bed with a French country quilt, busy Pissarro posters on the walls, and a small window that opens onto a courtyard. The setting sun has painted the sky lilac and pink and rainwater blue.

I shouldn’t have come.

Mikkel calls around nine. He’s stuck with the French, would come as soon after dinner as he could. It might be late but the secretary of commerce is leaving in the morning and he’d be free. We’d have a gorgeous weekend, just the two of us.

Three, I think. If not four. Maybe five. Just the two of us, and all our ghosts.

I shouldn’t have come.

He comes right after midnight, smelling of garlic and cognac and expensive cigars.  

“My love,” he says and sweeps me into a bear hug, covers my mouth with wet sloppy kisses. I feel him against my stomach and hate myself. I’d have to make love to him and it was my own fault. In desperation, I open his zipper before he can stop me and bring him off, gagging only a little on his come. I’ve never liked oral sex. It’s not sex really but a service, impersonal and fake. It doesn’t touch you deep inside, not where it matters. Even prostitutes charge less for blowjobs.

“Wow,” he says when he catches his breath. “And I had thought of making love to you all night. I need a minute or two now, “ he says, stroking my hair. “I’m an old man, remember. Not to mention the two bottles of Baron Rothschild’s best at dinner.”

“All the time in the world,” I murmur in his lap. “Tomorrow.”

“Would you mind awfully,” he asks after a while, “if I went back to the George V for the night? I have to take the Secretary to the airport at sunrise. You could sleep in.”

“No,” I say. “In fact, I wouldn’t mind at all.”
 

~
 

In the morning, he comes straight from the airport. 

“I’ve been thinking,” he says. “Let’s go to Versailles. Have you been there?” 

“No.”

“We’ll take a train. It’ll be fun!”

I wonder about Mikkel. The secretary of commerce left but the rest of the delegation stayed; we might run into someone who knows Lili. 

For all his declarations of love, for all the suggestions of running away, Mikkel is still living with Lili. Theirs wasn’t a union that needed marriage vows, Mikkel used to insist, the bond was stronger without. Together since high school, they’d fused like two trees planted too close. His friends and classmates could separate and divorce and remarry but Lili and he would never part. Affairs, mistresses, one-night stands—they meant nothing to Mikkel. Entwined in a dark frozen pas-de-deux that only he and Lili knew steps to, Mikkel thought little of bedding any of the women he always attracted, even kept a mistress or two at times, but he’d always be there for Lili. 

And then I came. 

Or did I?

 

Christer and Mikkel.

Christer, Anna and Mikkel.

Christer and Anna; Mikkel and Lili.

Christer, Mikkel and Lili.

Christer and Mei, Mikkel and Lili.

Mei, Mikkel and Lili.

Mikkel and/or

A short short in 30 words.

 

Or maybe it should read:

April in Paris,

A dashing diplomat

Meets a starving student.

She dances so well.

Four characters in a five-penny romance.

Life imitating art
 

~
 

“I don’t care,” I say and Mikkel looks at me, surprised.

“Something wrong?” he asks. I grab my fur.

“Let’s just go,” I say, cursing under my breath. “Paris doesn’t agree with me.”

The day’s cold and overcast, the streets icy and treacherous under my high heels. I take Mikkel’s arm and he pats my hand and beams. I look at his battered profile when we walk to Gare de Lyon, dodging dog messes on the street. A solitary ray cuts through the clouds and Mikkel bursts into song. “I love Paris in the springtime.” Passersby smile and applaud, clap clap. 

“I hate Paris in the springtime!” I snap. “It’s dark and gloomy and smells of dog shit!”

Mikkel throws his head back and roars. “Whoa, careful! Remember you are talking about the most romantic city in the world! Tread lightly in other people’s dream cities.” 

My eyes sting and I have to turn away.

“Tell me,” Mikkel says, pulling me to his chest.

If I closed my eyes, I could still pretend he’s Christer. 

I lean away to see his eyes, trace a scar on his face.

“You look good in scars ”  

He looks surprised, lets go and reaches into a pocket for his pipe. I allow myself a sour little smile, just a curl of the corner of the mouth, on the side he can’t see. Mikkel knows his women; he isn’t going to spoil the weekend with the wrong remark. He draws out a thumbful of tobacco and pushes it into the pipe, presses it tight.

 “Thinking of giving me a new one?” he finally jokes, groping for matches in his pocket.

“Same teeth for months now. And no new stitches. What happened?”

“That’s what everyone asks. The ER nurses hardly know me anymore.”

“Yes,” I say. “You haven’t been yourself lately.”
 

~
 

A bitter wind tears at us when we walk from the train station to Versailles; the snow comes when we reach the palace. The square in front is deserted, the rigidly landscaped grounds and perfectly trimmed trees gray and dead, a testament to the futility of human aspirations, a gotcha! from nature.

“Good, we’ll have it to ourselves,” Mikkel says. “Thank you, weather gods!”

There’s a handwritten sign at the door: Closed for Inspection

“C’est la vie,” Mikkel says and shrugs an exquisitely French shoulder shrug.

We eat in a small restaurant near the train station. Mikkel asks the waitress for a carafe of house red and three glasses.

“To Christer,” Mikkel says and waits.

I sip the wine, hold it in my mouth before swallowing, let the acid bite into the tongue. Two lumps of sugar, maybe more. Sweetness masking vinegar. The taste of almonds, black currants and newly turned soil.    

Mikkel lights his pipe, veils himself in smoke.

“You’re over him, aren’t you?” he asks through teeth clenched on the pipe stem. “The last stage. Acceptance. Moving on.” His voice is paternal and wise but his eyes hurt.

A stage. Like sex. That’s right in there too, in the grief handbooks, one of the stages. Death makes people horny. That’s why there are so many babies born during wars and famines. Did you know that? Did you?   

On the other side of the window, April snow is falling on dogs and their walkers in too-thin spring jackets, on laughing couples running hand in hand to catch a train, on mothers pushing strollers. I think of snow hitting my face, sticking to my eyelashes and melting into tears.

Mikkel doesn’t look up when I pass by the window, making new tracks in the snow. The smoky windowpanes and neon lights give him a blue phantom double, and I briefly consider going back in and telling him how appropriate it all was.

  

© 2003 Tua Laine

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