Three stories up from the rue Vielle-du-Temple is a tomb. It was never intended to be so still, so empty, but life has a way of changing in an instant and so, it seems, do apartments. There is no body interred here. Only memories. Only echoes of laughter and whispers from a life once lived. I've returned after two years away, part of me determined to face my future (my present), and part of me too affected to take a step forward. If I go in here, ride the lift up, I will be forced to face what my life has become. Empty. There have been many times I wanted to return since departing Paris, but I think she's up there and I do not believe I'm ready to be confronted by her.
"Pomme!" A happy voice behind me. I recognize it at once as belonging to my friend, Marie. I turn, and she wraps me in a warm embrace, comfortable compared to the biting chill of the December air. Lemons. She always smells of lemons. "Bonjour!"
I smile, taking a step back. "Bonjour, Marie. How are you?"
She laughs. "After so long you ask how I am? Where have you been all this time?"
"America." I'm aware of using my messenger bag as a shield between us. I hope she doesn't notice.
"Amérique!" She tells me she's always wanted to go as if she hasn't told me this before. Then, without missing a beat she asks about my new book and how it's going.
I don't mind talking about my work. Camille always encouraged me to go into detail even when I would try to shy away. "Bien, merci." She glances up at my building and I know she wants me to invite her up. How can I tell her I'm still not convinced I can go up there? Instead, I ask if she would like to stroll down to our favorite café.
I've missed Marie. I realize this as we're walking, and she continues to talk easily about the things I've missed since I went away. She doesn't mention Camille and a part of me is grateful. I think briefly of Helen back in America finally moving on with her life. I remember the words I said to her and try to make them apply to my own life. I'm only managing better than she was. Only just.
We settle in with our lattes. Marie's hair, once bobbed to her chin, is long, chestnut strands curling over her shoulders, falling toward her lap. She looks ten years younger than her forty years. And happy. I ask her how she's been, and she smiles dipping her head to hide, what I think is, a blush.
In love. Her declaration hits me hard, almost knocking the wind out of me. "Wow," I manage.
"With?" I'm trying to smile, but suddenly I can't breathe. Why?
Again, I am stunned. "Phillipa Francois?"
"Oui." She is too happy for me to react as I would like.
She takes a sip of her latte. "She has changed."
"I would hope so." Her unkindness to Camille may have been of benefit to me, but I'm still holding a grudge.
"She told me about Cam..." She covered her mouth. "Desolé."
Though my heart is breaking, I assure her it's okay. No hard feelings for verbalizing the name I haven't been able to easily say since that night two years ago when I screamed for her to awaken. When I begged for her to be alive instead of dead on the cold pavement.
I blink and focus on her. "Desolé."
She looks at her watch and tells me it's getting late, she must go. "May I call you?"
"D'accord.” Of course.
Standing, she leans over and crushes me to her, instructing me to call her if I need anything. I promise to do just that, but I don't intend to. Marie and Phillipa. I wonder how Camille would react. Would she be happy? Would she caution our friend against the romance? Then I think Marie may not have turned to Phillipa if I hadn't run away. Somehow, I think this is my fault. It's all my fault.
After the café, I amble along the rue Vielle-du-Temple, walking farther and farther from home. The city is loud. I'd forgotten that. So many months in the country and then Tomas' house in America, I suppose it's easy to forget. I soak it in, the sounds of this place I'd let slip from my memory. Cars whizzing by, brakes catching, and the high chirp of horns cautioning preoccupied pedestrians. I used to love this, the pace and sound of it. The smell. Now all I can do is seize up every time a motorist comes to a stop.
"Pardon," a voice follows a heavy brush against my shoulder. I wave at them without looking. It's okay to batter me. I'm numb to physical touch. Death cured me of the need of it.
My phone pings, the muffled sound reaching out to me from the confines of my bag. I know it will be Helen. She and Tomas are the only people who know, aside from Marie, that I have returned to Paris. I told Helen she'd inspired me. That by embracing her pain I felt that I could embrace my own. After all, we can't live until we face what has broken us. At least that's what I believed when I was thousands of miles from what shattered me.
“Did you make it?”
My fingers move over the smooth face of my mobile, "In Paris. Not home yet."
Another ping. "I'm here if you need me." She's sweet. Vulnerable. So willing to give now that she feels indebted to me. I don't need her to feel this way.
"Thank you. Goodnight." I don't wait for her response. Instead, I turn the phone off and stick it in my bag, wondering for a fleeting moment if I should let my mother know I have returned. She will want to see me, but I'm not ready for a visit. Not yet.
Deciding the busy street is too much, I cross at the crossing and head to our favorite park. I think I catch a glimpse of Camille running ahead of me, soft brown curls bouncing behind, golden brown arms raised in excitement. She does this when we visit the park, and I am convinced that she will do this even when she has crossed the threshold into the autumn of her years. But she won't, I must remind myself. This isn't Camille running ahead of me to reserve our favorite spot under the large tree with an expansive canopy. This is a memory. Paris will be filled with them.
My heart lurches as she vanishes. I don't know if I will be able to lose her over and over again.
Settling under the ancient tree, I lie back, closing tired eyes against the mid-day light. I can pretend my head is in her lap, that her long fingers are pulling through the heavy mane I've allowed to grow in her absence. She liked my hair short, said it made me look younger. It was a joke between us, though sometimes I felt too plain to be loved by her. "Desolé, mon amour." My voice is a whisper. I wonder if she can hear me. "Je t'aime."
There is a rustling beside me. The softness of it only audible because it is unexpected. I peek from beneath my crooked arm and see a woman seated too close. I don't acknowledge her and make no move that may signal to her she's been detected. Instead, I keep peeking from beneath my arm, surprised to find her eyes keep finding me. Is she here to mug me? I don't think so, though you can never be too sure.
Sitting up, I acknowledge her with a soft smile, and grab my bag. When I stand, she stands.
Her voice is unsteady. "Pomme Fuquet?"
She dips her head, and I notice the book she's holding in her hand. It is mine. "Ah. You are reading my book."
"Oui." She explains that she didn't want to interrupt me, but she was so excited to see her favorite author.
I open my hands to her. "Do you want me to sign it?"
Her face beams. "Please?"
I dig in my bag for a pen and take the book from her. "What is your name?"
I inscribe the book and hand it back to her. "Merci, Sabine."
She insists that she is the one who needs to be grateful. It is endearing. She is the first reader to recognize me in public. Camille would be thrilled.
Fifteen minutes later I'm standing at the front door to my building again. Once more I am looking at the stone facade, my eyes trailing up to the third floor. Our apartment is on the back of the building, looking out over the courtyard, so the window box I see doesn't belong to me. The door opens, and my eyes can't help pulling back down to the double glass doors that lead into the tiled lobby. A man steps out into the afternoon, his lips pulling back when he notices me.
I nod. "Salut."
"Are you waiting for someone?" he asks.
He continues walking and I think it may be time to go inside. The last thing I need is for someone to think I'm planning something nefarious. I pull my card out of the bag, hoping it will still work after all this time, and slide it through the reader. The green light means that I can proceed. I hesitate too long and it blinks red. Entrée refusée. Steeling myself, I slide the card again and open the door to rush inside when the light indicates the lock is disengaged.
Inside, the warmth envelopes me and I suddenly realize how cold the outdoors is. I stop by the mailboxes, bending over slightly to catch my breath, overwhelmed by the heat of the room. But it isn't just that. How can I go up there? How can I face what was once such a happy place now filled with its emptiness? I can't get enough air. Bending, I suck in as much of the hot air as I can, letting it out slowly. Repeat the process. Breathe in, breathe out. How can I get inside the lift like this?
"Mademoiselle." An elderly tenant is beside me. "Are you well?"
I put my hand out to signal I am fine and nod. "Merci."
The lift doors open and I look into the cavern. There's no way I can go inside. I suddenly want my mother. Anyone who might be able to walk me through this. Or at least hold me up until I am steady. But I have no one. Not really. My closest relationship since Camille's death has been with my publisher and his ex-wife.
The woman is staring at me from inside the lift, her eyes conveying the question, “Are you coming?”
Pushing away from the wall, I decide to take the stairs. Our building was built well before the second world war. It escaped with external damage, but not enough to bring her down. I suppose that is the history of France. The stairwell is opulent. Created before the time of electric lifts, it was designed to appeal to visitors and tenants. I often wonder why we stopped putting so much thought into building things. Like relationships, everything seems reduced now.
I'm winded by the time I reach the third-floor landing. It's been a long time since I climbed so many stairs. I turn to make the short journey to my front door, but my feet won't move. Stuck in place, I stare at the flowers placed before the plain white door, their petals browned and withered with age. Everyone brought flowers after the shooting. Fragrant reminders of everything lost filled my flat and the world outside. I couldn't escape my sadness, no matter what I tried. Now it's here, staring at me, daring me to take the steps forward, to disrupt their peaceful slumber. Vous auriez pu remplacer les fleurs. It's just like Camille to remind me of what I could have done. I hate the flowers. I know she can't really hear me but responding to her seems better than not.
Somehow, I'm at the front door, key inserted into the lock, my eyes fixed on the bundles below. Why did they allow them to stay for so long? It is unusual. Camille would say they've had more things to focus on. While this is true, it isn't necessarily so for everyone. There are plenty of daily distractions to keep minds focused elsewhere. Why not focus on old flowers outside a door of sorrow?
Bending, I grab the bundles, then push open the door and toss them on the counter. How can one prepare to meet their past? "I'm home, my love." Is that the way?
Darkness greets me. Air too long trapped inside hangs heavy over thick piles of dust. No one's been inside since my departure. It was my plan to leave it empty.
To leave me alone.
"No. Never alone, my love." Still holding my bag as a shield, I wander through surroundings familiar yet completely foreign. It's a small flat. One open room housing the kitchen and living room, through one door at the other end is our bedroom (my bedroom) and through the other a bathroom. A home in three rooms. We thought so.
Dust engulfs my bag as it lands on the sheet covering our old sofa, a piece picked up on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Wood framed with big cushy pillows. Camille loved that sofa. Walking over to the large city mural by the bookshelf lining the main wall, I slide it down to reveal the wet bar still fully stocked. I've no idea why I'm surprised. No one has been here for two years. Not since the end of our life.
My hands are shaking. I hadn't noticed before now. Before trying to hold a glass of dark liqueur. No ice for obvious reasons. I hate warm liqueur, but this is okay. I need something to calm this unsettling feeling. This notion that I'm not alone.
"Are you here?" My voice is a quiver, almost unrecognizable. "I came back."
Finally. Her voice is soft. A memory?
I throw the sheet back from my favorite chair, the dust rushing into my open nostrils and mouth. A cough and sneeze pushes most of it out. So careless.
Open a window, my love.
Without hesitation I follow the directions. Each wooden frame groaning as they open out into the quickly fading light and the December air rushes in. The courtyard below is quiet. I lean against the casing of the window, eyes roaming the benches and cobblestones still visible below. I wonder what it would be like. Would it hurt to fall? Would I even feel it?
You wouldn't feel a thing.
I close my eyes. "It would be quick?"
I think of Helen. She was close to this. Would she have jumped given the chance? To see her Theo. "I don't believe in heaven, Camille."
You don't have to.
"I want to." My mouth is open to answer, but closes when a small, unsure knock infiltrates our quiet.
A young woman is standing on the other side, her dark hair hanging past her shoulders, her blue eyes dark and concerned. "Hello."
I nod. "Hello.”
She's still concerned. "Do you live here?"
I smile. "Oui. I've been gone for a long time."
"No one came."
She seems nervous.
"Where do you live?" I ask, and she points to the apartment down the hall. "Avril is your mother?" She nods. I smile. "She will know me." I extend my hand. "Pomme."
She accepts my hand with a smile. "Violet."
"I don't remember you."
"I was at university." This explains why I don't know her. Avril moved in early 2014. Given her apparent age, Violet would have been at University already. She looks up at me. "You have been crying."
My cheeks are damp under the pressure of my palms. "Oui. I've been away for a long time."
"I'm sorry about your wife." I look at her, confused as to how she might know about Camille. She seems to sense my question. "My mother."
I nod. Ah. "Merci."
We say our goodbyes with Violet providing me with her number, instructing me to call her if I need anything. Everyone is eager to help the widow. I close the door and lean against it. My skin prickles in the chill of room. December has done its job. The dust has cleared, and I am left with the cold shell of my former life. Crossing the room, I pull them closed and go to the chair collecting my glass from the rug where it fell during my coughing fit.
"Because I need to."
"Want to then." I prepare another and settle into the chair.
You need to turn the heat on.
"I like the cold." My expelled breaths float before me and I think she may be right. I didn't come back to Paris to freeze to death in our apartment. Did I?
"I didn't. I'll turn it on later.” I settle back into my chair. It's getting late and I know I should eat, but it seems selfish to eat here.
You'll be bones.
I giggle. "I'm already bones. You wouldn't want to make love to me now. Not that you did before they riddled you with bullets."
You've had too much.
I look at the glass. "You're right. Always right." Draining the contents of the cup, I toss it over to the sofa. "Do you think it will be different tomorrow, my love?"
I know she's right, tomorrow it will still be empty and cold, and I will still be alone, but as the liqueur pulls me down into sleep I refuse to accept it. "It will be different," I slur. "Just wait and see."
The morning is grey and large snowflakes are exploding on the glass facing the courtyard. I watch them, momentarily lost. I'm not cold anymore. I notice only because the blanket I've somehow acquired has slipped and my arms are exposed to what should be a freezing room. In the soft light of the morning I see what I am left with. Sparse furniture currently covered with sheets and dust. I suppose it is time to get everything in order, but I'm not quite ready. These things are as they were the night we left for La Belle Equipe. If I clean up now I will be erasing everything of us.
We are erased.
"Don't start, Camille." My voice is fractured, croaking through the empty room like an unused hinge screaming from disuse. I won't let her get into my head today. I move to the thermostat, surprised to see that the heat has been turned on. Did I do this in my stupor?
It was me, my love.
Not possible. I won't allow myself to hope that she is here. She is gone. My rational mind knows this.
A knock on the door pulls me to the present, away from the ghosts, and I rush to it. I'd forgotten how hard being alone for too long is. I should have stayed in America. I was surrounded there. It's easy to forget when you're surrounded by people who need you to be the jovial French woman.
I pull the door open, surprised to find Violet on the other side, her dark hair glistening and her cheeks rosy. "Bonjour," she says.
"Bonjour." I don't know what else to say to this girl who's shown up at my door so early.
She holds up a bag. "Eat?"
As if it has been waiting for the sight of food, my stomach begins to howl. I smile. "Very thoughtful. Oui. S'il-vous-plaît."
I allow her entrance and watch as she familiarizes herself with my kitchen. She's brought two café's with her and a bag of what smells like the most divine food ever made. She riffles through my cabinets, opening doors to find the materials she's looking for. I like that she doesn't ask me for help. For anything.
Sitting across from one another we eat quietly, now and then our eyes meeting. She wants to ask me something. At least I think she does, but she doesn't speak. I think she may be waiting for me, but I'm not quite sure what to say. With the Americans I was all knowledge, always knowing what to say and when to say it, but here I feel like a child. Unable to make the slightest conversation. Am I afraid she will know I'm a fraud, someone eager to give advice to grieving widows while I myself am still speaking to my dead wife?
"Merci. For breakfast."
"You're welcome" She looks around. "I like this place. My mother's flat is cluttered. Full of her life before and life now. I don't know how she stands feeling so closed in."
"Surely it is larger than this." Camille often told me this flat is the smallest on the floor.
"Oui. But it seems smaller." She takes a gulp of her coffee. "You're a writer?"
"I didn't know before. But after we met you looked so familiar, so I looked you up."
I'm intrigued. No one has ever been so curious before, that I know of. "Where did you find me?"
"You Googled me?"
She nods with a sheepish smile.
I'm smiling. I have no idea how it happened, but I am smiling at this young woman with her bright eyes and enchanting smile. "How delightful."
"I read your book at University."
"Oh?" I take a sip of my coffee, delighting in warmth. "What did you study?"
"Histoire.” She adds that she took a literature class and this led her to my book. She talks as though she loves the structure of a story, of my story.
I am intrigued. "You want to be a writer?"
She shakes her head. "No. I don't know. Sometimes I think so, but other times I think I would prefer to teach."
"Teaching is noble." She's staring at me again and somehow, I know what she wants me to ask. "What did you think of the book?"
She smiles. "It was sweet and, at times, sad."
"I hated writing the sad parts."
"I liked the weight of the words. Even the sad ones." Her eyes are bright against the dullness of morning, icy blue pearls that seem to understand the depth of everything. I used to think this about Camille. So smart. So beautiful.
Many mornings were spent sitting like this, talking about my book as it was being shaped and born, Camille offering valuable input about my characters or the story. This is why the second book wasn't as good as my first. My muse, my partner, was no longer there to guide me.
"Have you read my newest book?"
She smiles. "Halfway through."
I think she hesitates, but that must be my own insecurity. With my first book I was confident. It was all Camille. "It's better than the first one. The words mean more."
She talks about words as though she knows anything at all. What can a twenty-something know about my words? About the words of a woman who's lost so much. I dip my head in an attempt to hide my truth. Why am I angry with her? "Merci."
Standing, she gathers the remnants of our breakfast and holds them up. I'm suddenly lost. I don't remember where the bin is. I tell her to leave it and I will handle it later, but she shakes her head. "I will take it with me." She smiles and looks around the flat. "You have enough to do."
I sigh. It's not something I do often, but just thinking of getting this place organized makes me want to crawl into bed and sleep. "Oui."
"I can stay, if you would like. To help."
"No." I stand, turning to face the emptiness of it all. "I need to do this on my own."
She nods. "D'accord. May I check on you later?"
"Of course." I lean against the counter. "Why are you being so nice to me?"
It's her eyes that make me feel almost ashamed. Their innocence. I want to slap her for it. Life is no place for such naïveté. She shrugs. "I want to." With that she is gone, and I am left with the lingering scent of her. She's different from Camille. Her youth creates a presence that feels blustery and exciting, like the first kiss of winter.
You always appreciated youth too much.
I roll my eyes. Going to the sofa, I pull the sheet off sending dust into the air. Watching as it settles like snow over the room. "I never appreciated youth as much as you did, Camille. No one could. You were a woman in love with it."
And what of this Violet?
"She's nice. Jolie." Violet is a pretty flower. I want to say this out loud, but I know it will anger Camille, make her show her anger with words that cut more now than they did before bullets ripped through her tender flesh and took away her life.
You want her.
"No." What will people think if they hear me having conversations with myself? Am I mad? I think I am. "I want nothing."
By noon I have finished cleaning the flat. All except the bedroom. I'm not ready for that. In there I will find the photo of Camille and me on our wedding day, when love rouged our cheeks and made our smiles wide. I thought our marriage would be like that, new and happy. I was naïve then, too young to know that love has more than one path and one mood.
Time to face the ghosts.
"Not yet, my love. Not yet." I go to my bag and pull out the notebook that has been my only constant companion. Going to the kitchen counter, I open the computer and begin to type. She won't talk to me here. She's too afraid of the subject matter.
It's after five when Violet knocks on my door. She's lucky to have come now when I'm taking a break from writing. I allow her entrance and she holds up two containers. "Dîner."
I close my computer and push it to the side before collecting two glasses from the wet bar for the wine she's provided. It isn't until she opens the containers to release the smell into the room that I realize I haven't eaten since breakfast. "That smells divine."
She laughs. "It will do."
We're not quiet this time. Violet is animated, gushing about her day with friends and work. "What do you do for work?" I ask. She is a shop girl at a little boutique a few blocks from here. It's only temporary, she assures me, as she makes up her mind whether or not she will further her education or settle into a career. "What do you want to do?"
She thinks a moment, her eyes fixed on the ceiling as if the answer resides there. Then she looks at me, her smile broadening. "Professeur."
My heart clinches. Camille, are you playing a game with me?
No, my love. Her giggle bounces off the walls of my mind. You have a type.
"Pomme?" Violet's voice is far away. "Pomme, are you unwell?"
I shake my head and take a sip of wine. "No." I smile. "I'm fine" Another sip of wine helps steady me. "Je suis desolé." I am fine and I am sorry, but looking at her now, her hopeful face, makes me want to scream. Instead, I smile. "A professor. That's good. Very good."
She's smiling again, though her brow is creased with worry. "Yes. History."
“Like my Camille.”
She takes in too much wine and sputters. “Oh?”
“Oui.” Something flickers in her eyes and I think she is waiting to see if I am okay. “She loved teaching.” I take a sip of wine and we settle into silence. Outside the snow has begun again, blasting against the window as if to remind me the world is a cold place. "I haven't seen snow in so long."
Her eyes are on me. “How sad. I love snow.” Did Camille love snow?
I hated it.
Not always, my love.
I scream at her to go away, but I know she won't. Camille isn't real. She's not a ghost. She's in my head.
"Where did you stay in America?"
"All over. New York for a while, then California―”
"Californie! I want to go there one day." She looks wistful again. "What is it like?"
"In a way." I drain my glass and place it on the counter. Without a moment's hesitation she fills it again. "I didn't stay long. I needed quiet."
"So you went to New York?"
"No. I went there first. I thought the cities were what I needed, but they only served to..." I take an eager sip. "I was too nervous in the city."
She nods as if she needs no explanation. As if she understands everything. Youth is lovely, but it is also ignorant.
Give her a break.
I close my eyes, my best effort in squeezing Camille from where she currently resides. Get out, get out, get out! Let me be!
You want me to stay, Pomme. Why else would I still be here?
Violet is staring at me. She must be convinced that I am mad. "I think you need to get out of here for a while," she says. "My friend is having a party. Would you like to come?"
"No." I shake my head.
She stands, gathering our containers. I drain my glass again. It's going to my head, but I don't care. I need to be released from Camille's talking, from her want. From my want. I stand up, but the wine has been too much. My legs begin to fold and I resign myself to the fact that I am going to fall, but Violet is there, her arm around my waist. She's stronger than she looks.
Her voice is muffled, words pushing through thick cotton inside my head. "It's okay. You're okay."
Am I okay?
I'm awake, but I don't want to open my eyes. I've been dreaming of Camille. Of our last day. The worst day. Sometimes I think it is my fault, that I conjured those men to take her from me. To save me the heartache of watching her walk out of my life, but I know it isn't true. Why would I wish this heartbreak on myself? Losing someone to death is so much harder than losing them to a student.
Forgive me my dalliance, my love.
All is forgiven, Camille.
I stretch, long and hard, flexing my toes and rolling my shoulders back. Sheets, warm from body, swish under my movements. Where am I?
You are where you need to be.
The haze of sleep leaves me, and I am suddenly aware of the pillow under my head. No. I'm not ready to be here. How did I get here? There is a shift beside me and the realization of what has happened hits me like a bus. It was Violet.
Always the young.
I open my eyes, the grey of the morning greeting me through a window with fading remnants of yesterday's snow. I wish it was colder, that the snow could have remained a bit longer. Some of my fondest days were those spent cuddled up with Camille, happy to have the snow as a barrier between our love and the harsh realities of the world outside. That was the beginning of our marriage. We fell apart later on. I guess all things fall apart eventually.
Violet is lying beside me. Her back is bare, the blanket draped just far enough down to expose the soft skin below her shoulder bone. Her hair, loose and splayed across the pillow like a fan, tempts my fingers to reach out and caress the silk strands. She's sleeping on my side of the bed. I like to be close to the door. Camille never cared. As long as she had a place to lay her head she was fine.
One side is just as good as the other.
Violet's shape is obscured by the heavy douvet. I think for a moment that I might reach out to her, shake her awake and demand she leave. How could she be so forward? I wasn't ready for this room. But she doesn't know. How could she know that I have been too terrified to be here? To sleep in here. Afraid that Camille would be too much.
Sliding quietly from beneath the sheets, I grab the photo of us on our wedding day, our big smiles and mooning eyes blissfully unaware of what the future would bring, and go to the bathroom, locking both entry doors before settling on the cold tile. I should have grabbed a robe. My thin leggings do nothing to protect me from the chill.
We were married in the spring, Camille's favorite time of year. The day was still holding to the chill of winter, but trees and flowers were beginning to bud and stretch from their long slumber. The ceremony was small, simple. This was me. I never wanted a large wedding, even when I was a little girl. A small group of friends and the family members who could bring themselves to celebrate such a union. Both families are quite progressive, but my mother (bless her) couldn't quite understand why I would give up a normal life for Camille. Trouver un mari, she'd said. Find a husband. To which I responded, I don't want a husband.
My mother and father were in attendance and Camille's mother was there. Our friends, dear Marie. And us. We. My eyes scan the happy faces of us. Camille's perfect teeth. Why were mine never so perfect? Our hands extended to show our bands. It was a wonderful shot of a beautiful memory.
Our image blurs as my sadness meets the glass. Inside I am deconstructing, each cell is folding in on itself and I am becoming nothing. I am nothing without her.
You are everything.
This is what the Camille from our wedding day would say to me. She would encourage me to get up, shake it off, know that I am important and strong, and capable of making it through life.
I am not important. I am not strong.
The glass of the frame is cold against my chest, like death. Like my marriage. Like my wife.
I don't want to let her go. It doesn't matter that she'd already let me go before she was gone. I don't care that she was lost to me before she was truly lost to me. I don't want to let you go.
Violet is still quiet when I enter the bedroom. Her youthful eyes closed against the harsh realities of this room. I think for a moment that I should sell. Let go of everything. Maybe I will go back to America. Helen would let me stay with her for a while, I'm sure. But I won't go. Not yet.
Placing the framed photo back on my night table, I move to the bureau. Everything is still here. Camille's side is filled and encroaching on my own. It was a point of contention for us, her unending penchant for taking over everything. I thought it was so stifling then. Now it merely shows what a presence she was in my life. What a presence she still is. Pulling my stale shirt off, I discard it on the cool hardwood and remove a large sweater from the cabinet, pulling the soft brown fabric over my head. Camille's favorite. Pressing the collar to my nose I breathe deep, but any trace of her is gone.
I close the bureau quietly, chancing a peek at Violet to make sure I haven't woken her up. I should be angry with her for forcing me into this place, this last unopened part of my past, but I'm not. She's so sweet lying there, her pouty mouth relaxed. Why should I be angry that she couldn't read a mad woman's mind?
Crossing the room, I lean against the frame of the window. Below the courtyard is wet, little puddles of fading white a mere reminiscence of yesterday's beauty, and soon the grey will be gone, pushed away by eager rays of light. Paris is anxious to move forward. Am I?
"Bonjour." Violet's voice is small in the room.
I turn to her and smile. "Bonjour. Did you sleep well?"
She sits up. "Oui. And you?"
I nod. "Are you hungry?"
She nods. "Famished." Her eyes go to the window. "What is the time?"
I shrug. "After seven."
Throwing the duvet back, she jumps up, her chest bared to me. I gasp, but it must be inaudible because she rushes out of the bedroom pulling her sweater over as she goes. I follow, slightly confused. "I'm sorry, I have to go." She is rushing to pull on her boots but stops long enough to look at me. "Will you be okay?"
She's adorably disheveled. "Oui."
"I'll come by later?"
Like a whirlwind she is gone, and I am left standing in the middle of my living room. What am I supposed to do now?
I'm writing again. It's odd how it happens. How the words can be so elusive one moment and flying from the fingertips another. Camille has been strangely quiet since Violet's last visit. Since the young girl shared our bed. I think there's something I'm missing, but there can't be. Not really. Camille is not here. She hasn't been here for a long time.
I've situated my desk in front of the windows overlooking the courtyard. Camille used to love when I would be writing. Sometimes, after a particularly long session, she would wrap her arms around me and bury her head in my neck. “Come to bed, my love,” she would say. But I couldn't. Not then.
I would now.
My cell begins to ping, and I look down to see Helen's name. "Bon soir, ma belle!"
"You sound so happy!"
I smile. "I'm writing."
There is a squeal from the other end of the line. "Are you?" Then, "Oh. I'm sorry! I've interrupted your flow!"
"It is okay. How are you?"
"Fine. Everything is fine." She seems far away. She is far away. I lean back, taking a slow sip of wine as she continues. "Alessandra and I are heading out for lunch. She wants me to meet this boy."
"Yes. I'm so afraid I won't like him."
I laugh. "You're not supposed to like him. Not straight away."
Her laugh is tinged with regret. She's afraid she will lose her daughter so soon after she's gotten her back. "I guess. But I'm going to try."
"Yes. Try hard."
"I will." She pauses. "Are you doing okay?"
I appreciate her concern. "Yes. Now, go. Meet your daughter's love." She's rushing and muffled, but I hear her goodbyes and end the call.
We are very much alike, Helen and I. She lost her Theo and I lost my Camille around the same time, though to very different causes. It still feels surreal that we somehow ended up finding one another. I take another sip of wine and write my next line. My heroine is finding her way back to the light. I can finally see clearly how she will find it, but the words are beginning to slow.
I welcome the knock that pulls me away. Words flowing like water do sometimes dry up. I suppose writing sessions have a finite window. Standing up, I stretch, reaching my hands high toward the ceiling. I know it is Violet. There is no one else who visits me. Not anymore.
The smell of lemons enters the flat before she does. "Marie?"
"Hello!" She wraps her arms around me. "How are you?"
I move to the side, allowing her entrance. "Well. Thank you."
She looks around, her eyes going immediately to my desk and the open notebook glowing in the dimming light. "Are you writing?"
"Yes. I was." I walk over to my desk and close the computer. "I'm finished." Steady yourself. Deep breath, deep breath. "I'm surprised to see you."
She looks around once more. "I wanted to give you time." Her smile is genuine. "How is the book coming along?"
I feel awkward standing in the middle of the room. I motion for us to move to the sitting area. She sits on the sofa and I in my chair. "Not as well as it needs to, but better than it was. My publisher is happy that I'm writing again."
She's quiet as I speak, her hands clasped in her lap, her eyes lifting to me every few seconds.
Never one for being coy, I ask. "What is it?"
"Um." Long fingers tug at the bottom of her coat. "I want to take you out tonight."
Surely not a date. "A date?"
"Kind of. Some friends of ours are having a party. I would like to take you."
She nods. "I know you don't like her, but―"
"No. I'm sorry. Thank you for the invitation, but I can't."
She stands as I do and follows as I cross the room to the door. "Why?"
Inside I am a mess. My stomach is bubbling with rage, my veins are filling with it. "How can you ask why? After..." I take a deep breath.
"You can stay angry with her after what Camille did? You will stay loyal to her when she did not stay loyal to you?"
I jerk the front door open. "Go."
"Pomme..." Her eyes are pleading for me to reconsider, to make sense. I hate her for her honesty.
"Please go." I won't look at her. Can't look at her.
Her voice is small. "Je suis desolé."
I don't close the door until her footsteps fade. She's right. Camille was unfaithful. She was leaving me. Why would I remain loyal to a woman who was no longer loyal to me?
Yes, my love. Love. I loved you and I love you still.
No. You love the memory.
Yes, I love the memory.
I go to the bar and fill a small glass to the brim with amber liquid. I will regret it. But what is life without regret?
Violet is beside me when I open my eyes. How does she keep getting into the flat? She smiles down at me. My skin raises in gooseflesh as she rubs her hand down my arm. My head is in her lap and we are on my bed. Why always here?
I sit up, my hand instinctively going to the corners of my mouth to catch any drool that may have escaped during indelicate sleep. "What time is it?"
"Morning." Her voice is soft. She's wearing a high collared dress and her hair is piled on top of her head, little tendrils cascading down each side of her head.
My movements hit me, and I immediately jump from the bed and rush into the bathroom. How embarrassing to vomit with a beautiful woman in the neighboring room. I hug the porcelain, happy that I thought to clean it yesterday, the coolness of it against my arms bringing my body temperature down. After leeching for what seems like an eternity I am empty. Always empty.
The mirror shows only truth. In the harsh light of the energy efficient bulbs I am haggard. How can I face that beautiful girl looking like Snow White's killer? I jump into the shower, washing off the smell of my exertions, and then brush my teeth. When I enter the bedroom again, she's gone.
I expect to find the flat empty when I emerge from the bedroom. I'm prepared for it. But instead I find Violet seated at my desk, her eyes glued to the screen of my notebook. "What are you doing?" I'm across the room in an instant, closing the screen.
Her eyes are sparkling. Is she about to cry? "I'm sorry."
"It's not ready to be read."
I grab the computer and hold it to my chest. "It's not ready."
She nods, backing away from the desk. "Is it about you? And your wife?"
"No." I need her to leave. She has to go. "You need to go."
"Pomme, I'm sorry. Please."
I'm not listening. Instead I'm heading for the door. Then, I stop and we almost collide. She steps back when I turn on her. My mind is spinning, a million questions sparked by this invasion of privacy. "How do you keep getting inside?"
She's stunned. "What do you mean?"
"The first night I was home you turned the heat on, didn't you? But I locked the door after you left." She takes another visible step back. "And then this morning you're here, but I locked the door after...last night." She doesn't need to know I threw Marie out.
"I―I have to go." She doesn't wait for any response from me. Within seconds the front door is open and she is rushing down the hall. I feel horrible for my reaction to her meddling. She didn't mean to be invasive. I think I know this, but this book is still mine. For now. In six months to a year it can belong to the world. Not now.
The flat is quiet. No muffled voices from neighbors, no footsteps echoing from the hallway. Just silence. I'm still lying in bed after staying up too late staring at a blank screen. I'm back to a faintly dripping faucet and I blame Violet, though I know it isn't her fault. Not really. Her reading the few pages she may have read has no bearing on my finishing the story, nor does the fact that she realized it is about Camille. There is the problem. Always Camille.
I roll over, pulling her pillow into my embrace. "If you were here I would hold you so tight, my love." It dampens under me as my grief pours out in waves. I press it to me. Why can't she come back? Even if it's not for me.
The temperature has climbed significantly since my arrival. Sitting at my desk I have one window partially open so that I can hear the sounds of the city drift over the building to pour into the courtyard. Not much work is being done today. I can't seem to focus on anything other than Violet and her departure three days ago. I go back and forth between the idea of calling her to apologize and just hunkering down in my flat. Perhaps someone will come for me in a few years and they'll find a skeleton at my desk, fingers still poised to complete a novel that just doesn't want to be finished.
Standing, I round the desk and lean against the frame of the window, my eyes fixed on the courtyard below. Why can't I just go outside? Somewhere other than the market. I should go back to our park, the Square Saint-Gilles du Grand Veneur. It's a lovely day save for the rain. I don't mind the rain. Not anymore. I don't need to go to the park.
You need to apologize.
"So you are still here." I'm annoyed. I'm talking to myself.
Crossing the room, I grab my coat and bag from the hook and head out into the hall. Her door is down the corridor from mine. It's quiet, but festive for the season. I wonder if she has a younger sibling she didn't mention. Or maybe she did. I don't quite remember. Going to the door, I knock.
After an eternity it opens and I am standing before Avril. "Bonjour," I say.
She nods. "Bonjour." Her brow is creased with questions. I think she doesn't remember me and is wondering how I got into the building.
I point back toward my door. "I'm your neighbor." I extend my hand. "I'm Pomme."
Her hand is warm in mine, but she withdraws quickly. "Ah. You have been gone a long time."
I nod, my cheeks rouging. "Oui.”
“Did you need something?”
“I'm looking for Violet."
Her confusion returns. "Violet?"
She shakes her head. "No. My daughter is Sara."
I almost stumble backward. "Your daughter, Violet. She is back from University."
Her head is moving back and forth. "You are mistaken."
My chest is burning, my fingers tingling. She lied to me. Violet is not Avril's daughter. Aware that this woman is staring at me as if I have sprouted another head, I smile. "Je suis desolé."
"Are you okay?" she asks me. "You look ill."
I put my hand in the air. I don't think she can see it shaking. "I'm okay. I'm sorry to have disturbed you." Getting away fast enough is not possible, but I do not return to my flat. Instead, I rush down the hall, down the stairs, and out of my building. The rain has picked up, but I'm hardly aware of it as I make my way down the pavement.
Violet is not Avril's daughter. Violet has access to my flat.
I fall against the closest building, my hands sprawled out as if I might be able to encircle the face of this structure with my arms. I must look like a mad woman, but I don't care. I can't care. The realization of everything is hitting me like a monsoon. I'm drowning.
"Madame?" A man is leaning over me. His brows furrowed over deep brown eyes. "Do you need help?”
I shake my head. "No." He asks if I need medical help and I shake my head. "No. Merci." He doesn't want to leave, but I ask him to. I don't need his audience.
Falling back against the wall, I pull my mobile out and find Violet's number. "Meet me at La Belle Equipe,” I type. “One hour." I turn off the phone and shove it into my bag. If she answers back I might lose my nerve.
An hour later I am sitting outside La Belle Equipe. I've ordered drinks for us and asked that the waiter leave us alone for a while. The rain is heavier now, coming down in sheets. I like the sound of it, the way it hits the canopy above my head and the pavement that is unprotected. I feel like the rain just now. Flattened by the inevitable splat. I've been in the atmosphere for two years, doing my best to keep from falling back to earth, but now I'm here. I've fallen. And I'm broken into a million little particles.
Violet rounds the corner, stopping when she meets my gaze. She has an umbrella. Bright yellow. It's like sunshine after a long slumber. I raise my hand and she does the same. Suddenly the world is in slow motion. Violet is walking toward me, but I don't see only her. I see my Camille. Her Camille.
I nod, but my voice is gone. As they sit across from me I stare at Camille. Her eyes are the same. She is the same.
"I would like to explain."
My hand is in the air in an effort to stop her. She nods and falls into silence. Camille is gone. She was never one to stay around for conflict or even the promise of it. I down the contents of my glass and raise it to show the waiter I would like another. He nods and disappears. My voice wobbles as I finally speak. "Do you know where we are?"
Looking at her I know she does. Her heart is breaking too. Eyes sparkling like rain-drenched glass. How could she do this? How could you do this, Camille?
"I loved her."
"I know," she says.
The waiter returns, placing my drink on the table before disappearing again.
"I think you are curious about our life. Is that right? Is that why you came to the flat?"
She shakes her head. "I used to go often. After. I wanted to be near her. To mourn for her. I would stand outside the door for ages, but I couldn't..." her voice catches. "I couldn't go in until that day. When I saw the flowers gone. And you were there. I'm so sorry, Pomme."
"Why are you sorry?"
I believe her. A small part of me does. But I think she is sorrier that she and Camille were unable to see where their lives would go together. "Did you know she was bringing me here to end it?"
"I knew it was coming. That she wanted us to be apart. She'd been so different. So distant." To steel my nerves, I take a gulp of my drink, appreciating the burn of the vodka as it travels the length of my esophagus. "She had the Thai Curry Chicken with rice. Said it was divine.” I pause to swipe at the tears dampening my cheeks. "And then she told me she was in love with someone else. I was still eating my salmon." A putter of laughter spills from me and I realize how absurd this all is. "She didn't even love me enough to let me finish my meal. Not anymore."
"You don't get to talk, Violet." My tone is harsher than I intend, but I'm not quite sure how else I should be. "I wished her dead. Not out loud. In my head and only for a moment, but that's all it took. I was staring at her, seething. I didn't even hear the car or the doors. I didn't hear anything because I was too busy listening to my world falling down around me." I gulp down the remainder of my drink. "When she came across the table at me, I actually thought she was going to kiss me. But then I started to hear the gunfire. I asked her what was going on as we tumbled to the ground. And then she was gone. I lay there as the gunfire continued, staring into her beautiful, dead eyes, begging her to come back to me." I stand. "Is that what you wanted?"
She's crying, streams of tears flowing down her cheeks. "Je suis desolé."
"Why are you sorry for me, sweet girl? It is you who lost out." I turn to leave, but bend down to face her once more, holding out my hand. "Give me my key."
She digs in her bag and pulls out the bright pink key chain I gave to Camille on our honeymoon. She holds onto it for a moment, but after another tug releases it. Maybe she is tired of fighting. I don't care. I have never cared less about anything in my life. "Stay away from me and my home." She nods. I want to tell her to go to hell, but I don't hate her. Not anymore.
Paris is beautiful in the spring. I think I forgot that, but now it is undeniable. My windows are open allowing the pollen to rush inside with every rustle of wind. I don't mind dusting daily, though I won't have to do it anymore. Camille's family is buying the flat from me. I'm happy to let it go. Especially now. For the most part I left her with Violet that day at the La Belle Equipe, though she comes back to me on occasion. I wonder if that will always be the case. Even when I am gone from here will she come to visit me? To let me know she is still okay. That she is thinking of me.
The door opens and Marie steps inside. One would never know she suffered a devastating break up a mere month ago, not with how radiant she looks. "Bonjour!"
I smile. "Bonjour, Marie."
"Ready to go?"
I nod. "Oui. I just need help with my bags." Going to the windows, I pull them closed for the last time. "I will miss this place."
Marie smiles. "There were good times here."
"Oui." Her hand is on my back. "So much love." She picks up my bags. "I will be downstairs."
I nod, but I barely hear her. Standing against the far wall is Camille. Beautiful Camille who is smiling just as she did the day of our marriage. When she loved me. I want to reach out to her, but I don't. Instead I smile. "Be at peace, my love." Then, without a moment's hesitation, I step out into the hall and pull the door closed for the last time.