Chapter 7. (See all other chapters here.)
The gypsy played an accordion while her daughter, a toddler wearing multi-coloured rags and a face full of dirt, walked the length of the metro, outstretching a McDonald’s paper cup for change. The girl was so tiny, at every stop I was certain she’d be launched through the air. But the little creature, no older than four, with two brown eyes the size of apricots, beautiful and sad at the same time, was a natural. Even as the crowd of passengers rocked back and forth, with the push and shove of the train, she would remain steady, riding the propulsions through her legs, like a miniature, professional surfer. When she wasn’t walking the aisles, she’d jump up onto an empty seat, next to any stranger, and kick around her feet.
The gypsy played a song I knew – some Brazilian tune that all the Argentines listened to, and it brought me back to the other, to days in the sun, her singing while cooking in our kitchen, her singing while hanging the clothes to dry on the roof of our little apartment, her supine on a sun-chair next to the pool, her body warm and brown, humming to the same song with her headphones in, a book left face-down and open on the deck. It was the same song I saw her sing at one of those nightclubs – Rose Bar, Isabel, somewhere dark and loud in Palermo – scrunching her face the way she did, when she danced, that first night, as if she knew she was the most beautiful thing I would ever see, as if she knew that little face twitch, that song playing, would scar itself into my memory, as if it was all planned, all along, some strange, sadistic implant, which she knew I would never forget.
I gave the gypsy toddler two euros as she passed by and when the mother stopped playing, she told me “god bless you” in a strange French accent.
"Can you play it again?" I asked in French.
The woman seemed not to understand, so I asked once more, much more slowly. The passengers on the train started to look at me. Angela and Meredith stopped chatting. Then I tried it in English.?
"That song, can you play it again?"
She shook her head, saying: “Italiano.” Angela and Meredith started to laugh. So I let it go. A minute later she was over in the next car and I could hear her start to play. It was a different song. Something I didn’t recognize.
“Funny guy,” said Meredith.
“I think it’s sweet,” said Angela.
There was another ten minutes on the train until we reached our stop. During that time, I lived in two worlds. In one, I was zooming through the underbelly of Paris toward an unknown place with the blonde and black angels of Rue Boursault. Meredith was in her hat. Her sister was now wearing a delicate wreath, of little white and red plastic flowers, on her head – keeping her short black hair behind her ears. I was content to simply see them there, across from me, and to know that I was with them.
But I was also in another world, somewhere else. I had not spoken since getting on the train in Batignolles. And the gypsy’s song only made my pain worse. I was stuck all over again in that place that I had escaped, that morning, on the little bed of the chambre bonne with Merry. The place that Jane had rescued me from with her green hat. It all came back and hit me in the gut like a pound of cold, steel marbles, rolling around inside me.
Open your eyes, man. Open your eyes. Open your eyes.
“Uhp. This is it,” said the one, adjusting the brim of her hat as she stood.
I followed the two girls from behind as we climbed the steps into the open air.
Open your eyes.
We emerged from the metro in La Monnaie, near the Seine. The cold evening – the sun had left us – made that vein of brown and grey water pock marked and rimy. The bateaux mouches sped by, mostly empty, with a few tourists with their faces behind their cameras, taking in Paris at full speed. We began to cross the river by Pont Neuf. When we reached the center, I stopped to look over the edge. A bateau mouche had just gone past leaving behind its wake. I saw the Eiffel Tower. I saw the two sisters.
“I want a picture.”
I wanted to hold on to Merry, to put my arm around her, to have the Eiffel in the distance, to be in Paris and to be happy, a perfect little composition. I thought only of the other, and her seeing me there. I gave Angela my phone. I took Merry by the waist. I tried to look calm, but my fists were tight. I didn’t know what to do with my smile. Meredith removed her hat. She placed her arms around me. Click.
In the picture, Meredith was looking up at me, as if we were old lovers. Her mouth was slightly open, smiling. I looked almost dead. There was no smile. My lips puckered like a woman turning away a man, or considering herself in the mirror. I pressed the share button and sent it out into the world – a message in a bottle, floating in the sea, with only one recipient in mind. We came to the other side and we walked alongside the red clay terraces that were just opening for dinner.
“This is the place,” said Meredith.
The restaurant was painted blue with gold trim, making it stand out from the rest of the white stone building. Belle Époque gas lamps and wooden placcards, with hand scrawled menus, hung from the outside walls. Inside, all was polished red wood, brass, gold and marble. A warm palace that smelled of dust, you could nearly see the ghosts of old Paris drinking aperitifs, and hear their horse carriages cruising by on the mud streets outside. The host, dressed with a white collar and bowtie, offered to seat us near the window, but Angela shook her head.
“No. The booth at the back if you please. The one with the mirror.”
We were taken to the darkest corner of the restaurant. A rounded booth, draped in thick wine coloured velvet, sat beneath a table-sized mirror, ornately shaped like a family crest and framed in blackening gold. The mirror, lit by the dim chandelier, was devastated with millions of scratches, tiny violent etchings of pure white. Squiggles. Loops. Hard and straight lines. I ran my fingers over the indents, then took a seat next to Merry. Angela was at the far end of the round bench, directly across from me.
“Funny, he noticed it first thing!” said Angela, eyes as wide as the little gypsy girl’s.
“What, the mirror?”
“Yeah, the mirror,” said Meredith. “That’s what this place is all about.
… Hold on a sec.”
The waiter came to the table holding menus but Meredith declined them with a shake of her hand.
“We’re ready to order,” she said. “You don’t mind do ya, Jack?”
“No, by all means.”
“Good. Écoute, Monsieur. We’ll have a bottle of Bourgogne …”
She listed a handful of things which I could barely keep track of, French specialties with names of creatures, prepared in unknown ways. It was as if the order had been rehearsed. She gave no pause, no flinch, in its delivery.
“Been here before?”
“Only a few hundred times,” said Angela. “Daddy used to bring us here when we were young. Then after, we just kept coming. A kind of tradition.”
She was spinning the bread dish under her finger, with her head resting on her other hand. She looked up finally.
“Go on Merry, tell him about the mirror.”
“Right. Those scratches, you know what they are?”
“No. No idea.”
“Well, a couple hundred years ago, in the olden days, you know, ballerinas were practically worshipped here. They were the major celebrities of the time, you know? Just up the street they would dance in this incredible opera house, bigger and more beautiful than any cathedral. Russians. French. Germans. The most beautiful women in the world, would all be here in Paris. After the show, this was the place they’d all come to. Their lovers would bring ‘em here. Their suitors would chase ‘em here. Rich men. Nobles. Real deal kind of guys. And they gave them diamonds. It was always diamonds. And just so the girl knew she wasn’t being cheated, she’d take her little gift, come up to the mirror right here and give it a good scratch.”
“You’re not telling it right,” said Angela. “You always say it was ballerinas.”
“Well it was.”
“Yeah but it wasn’t just ballerinas. It was mistresses, too. Fur coated women brought here while the wives weren’t. Cinq à septs. Anyway. It was dancers and sluts. But she always tells it like it was just the ballerinas.”
“It’s true. And you know why, Jacky?”
“Why she always says just ballerinas?
“It’s because she always wanted to be one of those ballet chicks, here in this bar, with the diamonds.”
“Angie, you don’t know what you’re talking about.
She turned to me.
“I was in ballet for a while. But I just like this place, is all. And so does she if I’m not mistaken.”
“Me? I just come for the atmosphere.”
The waiter arrived and, after testing the bottle with Meredith, poured us all a glass. Angela immediately chugged hers back and refilled her glass.
“You danced ballet?”
Look at this girl, I told myself. A goddamned ballerina. The light came down onto her from above. Behind her, her blonde hair reflected in the scratched mirror. What a story, the girl with dreams of diamonds and dancers. This is where you are, right now. With the ballerina and her sister. I drank the wine. A warm feeling came into me. And I drank again. I imagined the other for an instant. Then, picturing her like a little ball of light in my mind, I swatted it away. I was here with Meredith, I reminded myself. And god, look at her. I placed my hand on Meredith’s lower back. She moved closer to me. We all drank again.
“For a few years, I danced. Was pretty fucking good too. Came here to Paris a few times with dad, to see the shows, to audition for a few schools. And it, then… then I stopped after a while.”
“Oh Merry, so timid. She was fucking fabulous. Everyone just loved her to death. All anyone seemed to talk about. ‘Beautiful Merry. Merry’s gonna be a star.’ Don’t be so timid baby. Don’t be so damn timid.”
Angela huffed out a brief, insincere laugh.
“She only stopped after daddy died.”
“Angie, I’m serious. What’s your fucking problem?
… Sorry about her.”
The sisters looked at each other in silence.
“Look, darling, forgive me. I didn’t mean it.”
“It’s fine. Just cool it, will you?”
The food arrived and it never seemed to end. We were the sun of the little Paris restaurant, and all the stars of candles and silver cutlery twirled around us. The red cushion of the seat. The sparkling, diamond scarred mirror. The smart looking waiter. The three bottles of wine. The whiskey on ice after. Smoking outside with the Seine and the city lights. Back inside to eat more. The coffee. The desert. And then, it was only me and the girls. There I was. No song of the gypsy. No song of a long lost city or dream. No crush. Just the girls. Just me. Just the girls.
We were drunk. I paid the bill with my credit card, insisting, without looking at the amount, telling myself it was all worth it somehow. Angela finished the little bit of whiskey and ice water left in her glass then jumped up on the seat, and stepped between Meredith and me. She was running her hand over the mirror.
“Hey sis,” she said. “Why don’t we take off those earrings of yours and give this a shot.”
“Fuck.” She looked at me, smiling. “I’ve always wanted to.”
She kissed me holding my face in her hands.
“Why the hell not?”
Meredith removed her earrings and passed one over to her sister. She stood up and they each began to carve into the silver canvas. Meredith stuck out her tongue as she traced tiny lines in the corner, trying to write her name. Angela drew in huge sweeping gestures, like a child with a paintbrush.
The waiter had run over to the table.
“Hey les dames! Are you crazy?”
He went for Meredith’s legs, grabbed them into his arm, and was struggling to pull her down.
“How dare you!” said Angela. “Don’t you know who she is?”
The restaurant suddenly hushed.
“This, monsieur, is the prima ballerina Miss Merry. And you better take your filthy goddamned hands off her! Or it will be off with your head!”
The waiter struggled with Merry and pulled her off the couch.
“Get down, Madame,” he said to Angela.
“The Prima Fucking Ballerina, Sir!”
She hopped to other end of the bench and the poor waiter followed, then she hopped back to the side with the mirror and left one more enormous scratch along it, before jumping to the floor.
“This my friends is a disgrace! We’re leaving!”
Then it was taxis back to Montmartre. Then it was walking, singing, smoking cigarettes into Pigalle. Then it was a nightclub and hipsters and a room full of couches, cocktails and skirted women with thick-rimmed glasses. Then we danced, the three of us. Then all the sounds, all the drinks, all the feeling of pure mirth. The vision of the two girls etching their diamonds into the mirror at the restaurant. The laughter when we’d all remember it. “The Prima Fucking Ballerina!” I’d shout as we drank a shot, and everyone would laugh. I would grab Merry’s waist, and Angela would whack me on the back. Then it was Merry in my arms, kissing her as we stumbled on the dance floor. Then, when Merry went to use the bathroom, it was Angela pulling me close to her, telling me: “Hey, let’s get a smoke.” So we climbed the stairs up to the smoking room, where dozens of kids, wearing leather jackets, plaid skirts, and fake gold necklaces, crammed into a room, hazy with clouds of cigarette, the size of a doctor’s office. I gave Angela a smoke. Then it was the girl, her red lips, her goddamned eyes, making my stomach ache. Then she was telling me: “Kiss me.” And then it was me, pushing my lips onto hers.