A Fine Romance

         It was late in the afternoon when he entered the café. He paused in the doorway and waited for his eyes to adjust themselves to the gloom, then he raised a hand to the waitress, turned and went back outside. After a minute or so, the waitress followed him out. She was tall and young, very pretty, with her dark hair pulled back in a way that fully

accentuated the sharpness of her cheekbones and the rich green of her eyes, but she considered him as he sat before her and quickly dismissed his chances, and after that she became distracted. He looked up at her as he ordered, waving away the offer of a menu and settling instead for a glass of the house red, but she had seen all she wanted to see and refused to meet his eyes. She just scrawled down his order on a small notepad, nodded and sauntered back inside.

         Well, he decided, as he watched her retreat, maybe she wasn’t all that beautiful. She had a little upturn to her nose, a quirk that probably had all the boys swooning now, while her flesh was still young, but which would turn ugly in a hurry once the wrinkles set in.

         He was glad of his overcoat. He put his hands in his pockets and sank down inside the collar. This wasn’t the weather for sitting outside. It was dry, for now, but the air was sharpened by a cold breeze that swept in waves down along the river and the sky overhead moiled muddy spools over a steely veneer. There would be snow by morning, maybe even by nightfall. The few other patrons had all elected to accept the sanctuary of the café, but he preferred it out here, despite the cold. All the keenness of the morning had faded, giving ground to a kind of stupor, and while the imminent closing in of evening would bring with it a second wind, that tumbling darkness always full to teeming with whispered promise, murmurs of love, adventure, the thrill of the hunt, for him none of those things could compete with the empty yawn that so defined Montmartre during late afternoon. He found this stretch of day to be most soothing, comfortable in its own lack of expectation; contentment, he had learned, lay in the still moments.

         When his wine came, he didn’t bother to look at the waitress, or even to speak. He was finished with all of that now. She set the glass down on a folded paper napkin, muttered something that he didn’t quite catch, probably some exhortation to enjoy, and then she was gone again, in a hurry to be inside. He sat, legs crossed, and turned the glass with slow care, around and around. The table’s yellow-flecked Formica surface squealed resistance, stopping only when he helped himself to a sip. Good or bad was all the same to him, wine was wine and he’d never honed his palate to any level of expertise. All he knew was that its taste suited him, and that if he put away a sufficient quantity of the stuff he’d get to where he needed to be.

         A woman was watching him. He noticed her almost as soon as he had sat down; she took up one edge of a bench just across the street, her frail posture nervous nearly to the point of apology as she hunched over a ragged paperback novel. While he waited for his wine to arrive he had surveyed the street; his eyes had noticed her and then passed her by. Now, when he looked again, in the same casual manner of before, he was startled to find that she was watching him. Her novel was still in place, wedged open in her lap with the encouragement of a book-marking thumb but, for now anyway, forgotten. For a moment, he began to question whether or not she was watching him, wondered if perhaps she had simply fallen into a trance that just happened to lie somewhere off in his direction, but when he raised a hand in greeting, the friendliest gesture he could think to make, she stirred and looked hurriedly away, and that panicked sharpness of her reaction removed all doubt. From all the way across the street he could feel her embarrassment. A few minutes passed, but just when it was beginning to seem that she had finished with him, there it was, another quick, daring turn of the head, another risked glance, and this time he was ready for her. He rose a little from his chair and beckoned to her. She seemed to stiffen, probably trying to decide whether to acknowledge him or to run away. Then, abruptly, she flopped her book shut and stood.

         She had a lithe way of moving, a dancing walk that was all toe and hardly any heel, and she flitted across the road, judging the flush of the traffic and stuttering from lane to lane. As she drew closer, certain details began to emerge. He saw that she was young, a little older than the waitress, perhaps, but still a distance shy of her thirties. She was small and frail, with narrow shoulders, thin limbs and a pale oval face made haggard by inner things. He stood when she drew to within a few yards and tried to smile away her uncertainty. Please, he said, making his voice as soft as it would go. Won’t you join me? She paused and glanced around, looking either for an excuse or a reason to escape, then lowered her eyes in small surrender. Feeling his heart beating more quickly than it had in a long time, he pulled out a chair for her, the gentlemanly thing to do, and she sat, perching almost weightlessly on its edge.

         Now that they were close, there seemed less to say. He studied her, carving her details into his mind, the anxious pull of her thin lips, the nose that seemed too wide for her face, its hammered-down bridge broken almost to perfect flatness with her cheeks, the tiny furrows that grooved the paper-thin skin of her high forehead. Her hair had been badly cut, falling to shoulder-length in uneven ropes the colour of washed-out sand and leaning thickly out from the sides of her head, and her clothes were cheap and possibly second-hand, all coarse wools and ill-matched flannels. Unkempt was that word that described her best. If there was beauty in evidence then it had to be largely imagined, yet for all of that he knew in his heart that it was there.

         They ordered more wine, and filled the silences with sips and tiny blushing smiles. There were things that he thought of asking, but didn’t because whatever it was that they had found between them was finely balanced and a wrong word now could very well tip everything out of synch. He decided to let her take all the risks and confined himself to straight answers and insignificant small talk.

         She too was hesitant with words. She held her glass in spindle-thin fingers and spoke in a small-cracked voice, into its rim. When the words came, asking him about what it was that he did, where he lived, where he was from originally, the airy effort of them flared her broad nostrils and caused her upper lip to sink a little. On anyone else in the world that detail would have weighed as resolutely ugly, but on her it didn’t seem that way at all. In fact, after ten minutes of struggled conversation, he felt something shift inside of him and he knew that he would long forever more to hear that voice. She had come to Paris from the south, she said, waving away the need to mention exactly where. Paris wasn’t all she’d hoped it would be, but it wasn’t so bad, either. She worked mornings in one of the bigger used book-shops along the West Bank, had a small bed-sit apartment that she could just about afford, and liked to fill her after-work hours with walks through the city. “There are some perks to the job,” she said, raising the novel that she’d been gripping the entire time. The corners of her mouth curled when she said that, and he nodded and smiled too, though he detected a sadness in her that he wanted more than anything to just kiss away. The novel’s cover was pale yellow and blank, now that the embossed words had worn to nothing. He decided that with a closer look he could probably have made out the title, or at least the author, but suddenly it seemed better not to know.

         Somehow, an hour passed. The evening had taken on the bruised tinge of dusk, and without even realising, they had drawn closer together. He cleared his throat, suddenly realising that her face lay mere inches from his own; so close, in fact, that he believed he could feel the press of her breath against his cheek.

         “It’s getting late,” she whispered, and she glanced up at the sky and shuddered. Grasping the opportunity, he reached out and lay his hand on hers, closing his fingers gently over the backs of her knuckles. Her flesh felt very cold, and he wondered if she would feel this way all over.

         “Can I walk you home?” he asked, and she hesitated, drained the last of the wine from her glass, then nodded. “I’d like that very much,” she said.

         They walked through the evening streets, she linking his arm, their bodies drawn together against the chill of the late hour. Walking, and perhaps being spared the need to meet her eye, he felt more inclined toward talk than he had all day. Words welled up inside of him and spooled from his mouth in curls of fog, gossamer-hued and delicate. His voice felt choked down to a murmur, but set strangely free, he spoke of things he had never told anyone. Not quite outright, because he wasn’t yet ready for that, but enough to suggest the hidden truths of his life. Firstly, about the war, and how difficult it had been for him, how he had prayed to find some sort of understanding in the whole sorry mess, pleading with God to grant him the strength to carry the weight of all that he had seen and done. He watched the traffic drift by, considered the dark corners and alleyways, and all the shuttered windows that caged in so many other lives. Beside him, he felt his companion tighten her grip and occasionally nod her head in answer to the ebb and flow of his confessions, silently urging him on, wanting to know him inside as well as out. This woman who, just hours ago, had been a stranger, now felt like the person he knew best in the entire world. The stories they swapped were merely background colour; what they had discovered in one another ran to great depths. It was not the exposing of secrets that mattered so much, because the true mercy was in the listening. He talked of the war, not needing to describe the carnage because some things were understood, and then, with even greater care, ventured on to other things.

         When they reached her building, she broke gently from him, found her keys and opened the door. He stood in the cobbled street, patiently considering the silent, crumbling facades of the neighbouring buildings, the splintered plaster, the exposed grey and yellow stonework, the faded flaking paint on the doors and window frames. He waited until she stepped into the dimly lit hallway then obeyed the silent invitation and followed her up the three flights of stairs, climbing slowly to keep pace with her and talking all the way, unable to stop now, as if the silence waiting to fall might ache with too harsh a judgement. Somewhere deep inside of him a dam had broken through, and the muscles of his throat twitched in spasms against the lurching torrents. From the war, he drifted on to other things, following an order often without reason, the subjects suddenly rearing their heads and just as suddenly dissipating.

         She opened the door of her apartment and led him inside, urged him to sit while she made a pot of coffee. The apartment was small and sparsely decorated. Without wanting to be seen to stare, he registered a bed, a worn-out armchair and a little kitchenette consisting of stove, sink, fridge and a single cupboard. One wall was bare brick, powdery yellow, the sort of thing that would have been distinctly fashionable if done intentionally, but all the others were decked out in a pale-coloured paper that had given up its pattern probably generations ago. Paperback novels piled up in leaning stacks from the floor just beneath the window, the obvious explanation for the damp, moulding smell that weighed down and choked the air. While his mouth rambled on, he stared transfixed at all the gaudy covers of those books, noting the rearing horses of throwaway westerns and the butch, bare-chested men and scantily clad damsels in distress of serial romances. Across the room, she filled the kettle and set the water to boiling, but continued to listen to what he had to say, nodding her head in all the right places, urging him on with little humming sounds whenever he began to wane.

         The coffee seemed to staunch the flow of his words. She sat beside him and they sipped in silence. The coffee was a precursor, cleaving the next couple of hours’ schedule in stone, and neither of them felt quite sure how to act or what else to say. They sipped, rabid for the heat and nervous about what would follow. Finally, she set down her cup and, without saying anything, stood, turned ever so slightly away into profile and began to undress. He watched her until she was more or less halfway through, a part of him wanting to smile at the determination that pinched up her face, the rest of him wanting to sweep her up in his arms. Once she was naked to the waist, it began to feel almost unseemly to stare. Trembling inside, he pulled off his tie and slowly undid the buttons of his shirt.

         When he was naked, she took his hand and led him to the bed. The sheets felt cold, and for a while they fumbled with one another, all gasping breath and uncertain grunts. She seemed almost too delicate to touch. Laying there on the bed, her wide pale eyes surveying everything, she could have been a child. Her body was rail thin, disturbing in its seeming fragility, ribs and hip bones jutting up through the vague film of her skin. With a feather touch, he let his hands caress the scant breasts that lay splayed flat against her chest, his fingers plucking at the small hard unripened berries of her nipples.

         “I know you,” she whispered, as he kissed her. “I know who you are.” Her hands stroked his shoulder blades and traced the ripples of his spine down into the small of his back, and her hips pushed at him, calling for some response. But there was some obstacle in the way, some blockage in his mind. He kissed her cheek, trying to buy time or maybe to apologise, then pressed his face down into the pocket of her neck so that he could hide his tears. Feeling the heat of those tears against her skin, she raised her chin, making the fit a snug one. Blood pumped in her veins; he listened to its rush against his ear and tried to imagine the heaving of oceans.

         “Don’t worry,” she sighed, comfortable beneath his weight. “It happens. But the world goes on spinning, and there’s always time to try again.”

         “What did you mean,” he asked, after some time had passed. He had given up, and now lay huddled beneath the flimsy blanket. The wool smelled of her, the sweat of her skin but deeper and even more distinctive scents too, and he drew its edge up to his chin so that he might better savour such an unexpected detail.

         She lay beside him, on the brink of sleep, though her hand raked back and forth beneath the blanket, her fingertips teasing and getting to know the down of hair that smattered his chest and stomach.

         “When you said you knew me, what did you mean?”

         She opened her eyes. Her face lay just inches from his own, and he was again shocked to find a beauty that added up to far more than the mere sum of its flawed parts. “Just that,” she said, her voice all smoke again, a stunning aural texture. “I know you.”

         “How?” He rolled onto his back, and took to studying the ceiling. He realised that he was afraid of what the answer might be.

         “Why, you’re me, of course,” she said, with a little hiccup of laughter, as if the answer were obvious. “I mean, we’re the same, you and I. Looking at you is like looking in a mirror. We carry around the same sort of secret, but there are others like us, too many others. I can always tell them at a glance. Anyone can, if they know how to read the signs. Some are more clearly marked than others. With certain people the evidence might not be much, just a hardness around the mouth, a distance to their stare, the way they hold their shoulders when they walk or how they react to a question asked, but whatever it is, it’s still there, and it’s enough. Today, as soon as I saw you, I knew.”

         “From all the way across the street. Am I that obvious?”

         “Let’s put it this way: You’re not difficult to read.”

         She pressed her mouth against the lobe of his ear and kissed the falling line of his jaw. When she smiled, sadly, he could feel it seeping into the bones of his skull. “What was it for you? An orphanage, a neighbour, a teacher at school? An uncle?”

         He made a sound with his throat and scraped it clear but could still hear it in his mind. “One of those, all of those,” he said, and then she had reached his lips and he closed his eyes and let her in, surrendering to her, the first person in a long, long time that he really wanted to grant some access to his life, the first who seemed to understand what he was all about.

         “If you are serious about surviving, you can’t allow the details to matter,” she said. With his eyes closed he could imagine colours in that voice, tangled brown and grey ribbons of smoke or muddy, burnt-out rainbows, and he shifted and reawakened, trying desperately not to fall in love, not yet ready for something as drastic and overwhelming as that.

         Without noticing, the hour had grown late, verging close to midnight, and a lamp was burning across the room. “Do you always sleep with the light on?” he asked.

         He felt her nod her head.

         “Don’t you?”

         Rather than answer, he let it go. He watched her spindle-thin fingers worry the fringe of the blanket, and felt his heart break more than a little at the sight of her badly chewed fingernails. A moment earlier, he had been planning the easiest possible manner of escape, working up the excuse that would allow him to just slip away. Now, it seemed easier and better to stay. The tiniest details made all the difference. She propped herself up on one elbow, peeled a rope of fringe back off her face and tucked it behind her right ear. It held its forced position for just a beat, then tumbled back down across her eyes again. He reached out and ran a hand from her armpit slowly down to the jagged peak of her hip, and then she was loomed above him again, her mouth smiling, answering some perceived invitation, with every shift of her china doll’s body asking the sort of questions that didn’t need words. He met her smile and returned it, and though their second attempt was nowhere near a triumph it was at least a little more successful than the first had been. What was more, it felt like they had sealed some important deal.

Billy O'Callaghan was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1974. His fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in such publications as Absinthe: New European Writing, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, Pearl, Versal, Yuan Yang, and others. His story, 'In The Darkness' appeared in the July 2008 edition of Underground Voices. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has won the George A. Birmingham Award, the Molly Keane Short Story Award (both in Ireland) and the Lunch Hour Stories Prize (USA). A collection of his short stories, entitled 'In Exile', was published by Mercier Press (Ireland) in the summer of 2008, and a further volume, as yet untitled, will be published late in 2009.

© 2004-2009 Underground Voices