Margarete plans to drink the water at nightfall. She looks down and envisions the grave she will carve. She will lie unconfined. A sibilant breeze ruffles her hair. It caresses her skin like the tongue of a lover; she imagines the water as a velvet embrace. Margarete stands on the precipice, her fall a foregone conclusion. She has no fears, no qualms, no hopes. Her face is a mask of resignation, her eyes opaque. Her hair is golden, a gilt frame for sunken cheeks. Even now, she is almost beautiful. A little life, and she would be beautiful. Margarete used to be beautiful.
There was a time when life was as open for her as a savannah at sunrise. She made the most of every opportunity, exceeded every expectation. Success was a fruit waiting to be plucked. Something got in the way, however. Things changed in her third year of college.
Weekday mornings were the only times it was possible to enjoy the outdoor seating at Maverick’s. Between the hours of seven and nine, dew remained trembling on the landscaped ferns and flowers, the sky slumbered in soft gray as the clouds phosphoresced, and most other regulars were in bed or class. The early air had a waning chill, the sleight of an October day that would end in a sludge of heat. Margarete and Sylvia, two girls in their early twenties, sat across from one another at a small table in a secluded corner of the garden, beneath an oak tree. A pair of coffee-cups and freshly lit cigarettes shared the space between them. A song played softly over the PA:
Praise the dawning
It’s just a restless feeling
By my side
Margarete took her cigarette and tapped it twice on the rim of the ashtray before raising it to her lips. Her hands were thin, and the skin on her palms was as soft as tissue. Delicate and expressive, they fluttered when she spoke.
“I’ve been thinking about studying abroad next semester.” She inhaled strongly, then tipped her head back and emitted a thin, sharp stream of smoke.
Sylvia watched her friend and said nothing. Her warm caramel eyes were besotted with amusement, and the beginnings of a smile tugged at the corners of her glossed, pink lips. Margarete blinked a few times, then said impatiently:
“Well, aren’t you interested in where?”
Sylvia placed one dainty hand over her mouth and cleared her throat. “There ain’t no mystery to it, hon.”
Margarete’s eyes slivered. “Well, I think Paris would do me a world of good.”
“Hm . . . yeah,” Sylvia mumbled. Her eyes drifted away to follow the movements of a slim, young waiter who maneuvered between tables nearby, carrying a tray of dirty dishes. Margarete crossed her legs beneath the table and ashed her cigarette several times in quick succession.
“Did you hear what I said?”
“I’m sorry hon, I got distracted.”
“Well, what I said was that I think Paris would do me a world of good.”
A few more patrons had drifted into the garden. A young man with auburn hair wandered among the tables and stopped at one not far from Margarete and Sylvia. He placed his book and coffee down and sat. When his casual gaze panned over Margarete, his eyes widened slightly. He picked up his book and opened it to a dog-eared page; while reading he would, every few minutes or so, glance up at her. Margarete, staring intently at her friend, was oblivious.
“Do you even care that I’m leaving?” she asked in a low tone,.
“Sure I do, Marge,” said Sylvia. She took her cigarette from between her lips and looked at it perplexedly. “Goddamn thing went out. Let me borrow your lighter.”
Margarete sighed, pulled a lighter from her purse, and placed it firmly in front of Sylvia.
“Thanks hon,” Sylvia said, lighting the cigarette and taking a long, leisurely drag. “So, you’re going to Paris?”
“Yes,” said Margarete. She put out her cigarette and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Well, it’s about time, I suppose.”
Margarete waited for her to say more, and after a few moments of silence turned an empty gaze to the greater area of the garden. The café was filled mostly with people between the ages of sixteen and thirty, some hunched over books or laptops, or leaned towards a companion. A soft hum of conversation filled the air, mouths opened and closed while lips curved, hands gestured, fingers drummed on tables, all under a rapidly clearing sky and sunlight that bled into everything, blurring outlines and drenching the garden in color. A man in a rocker appeared to melt into the bush behind him, then reappeared whole as the chair rolled forward. The slim waiter wiped down a vacant table, bent at the waist, his greasy blonde hair falling over his face, torso translucent in a moistened wife-beater. A dark brown, ragged bird hopped towards Margarete’s foot, picking up crumbs with a decrepit grace. It emitted a shrill call, and Margarete kicked at it lazily.
“I need experience, you see,” she began again, turning towards Sylvia.
“And you certainly can’t find that here,” Sylvia replied, her lips curved in a wry expression.
“No . . . no, I can’t. Not the ones I want, at least.”
Both paused and took sips of their coffee. Margarete was the prettier of the two, though her shyness and apparent naivety often drove boys in Sylvia’s direction. She was slight and petite, with bobbed golden hair and moss green eyes. For clothing she preferred things that were loose and billowy, skirts, sarongs, and linen blouses. She kept her eyes on the ground when she walked, and carried her books against her chest. Sylvia was conventional in a counterculture sense. Her hair was also short, but dyed black, which accentuated her large, dark eyes and sensual mouth. She wore small, vintage t-shirts that drew attention to her flat stomach and narrow waist. When speaking, her eyes would drift away from her audience; when listening, she often wore a thin, ironic smile. Margarete hated when she adopted that look. She knew she wasn’t being taken seriously.
“It’s the heat, I think. It’s impossible for culture to exist in this humidity,” Margarete said, looking away.
Sylvia rolled her eyes and tapped her cigarette. “The weather is perfect here seventy-five percent of the time. More bands play here than any place ever. The people are the same wherever you go, and . . . “
She took a long drag and paused for emphasis.
“The one thing you’ll never leave behind is yourself.”
Margarete smiled and smoothed down her hair. “Where did you hear that, Psych. 301?”
“Yes, actually, it’s called acclimation. You should look it up.”
“I know what acclimation means,” Margarete said tersely.
“Well then,” Sylvia began, clasping her hands and leaning forward with a big grin, “you should know exactly how silly it is for you to think that a change of scenery will make you a better person.”
The sun had finished its ascent and sat complacent in the sky. In such heat it becomes easy to do nothing. Summertime in Texas, everything moves in slow motion. Even the flies wobble about drunkenly. Margarete and Sylvia drank iced coffee and sweated in the shade. Sylvia was small and brown and appeared more at home in the weather. Margarete was too pale to be a friend of the sun.
Margarete sat in silence and ruminated on what Sylvia had said. She brushed at a spot on the front of her blouse, and then placed her hands on the edge of the table. Sylvia watched her with an uneasy expression, worried she may have spoken too frankly. Suddenly, a smile broke onto Margarete’s face, and she looked at Sylvia with sparkling eyes.
“But what about the boulevards, the Seine, cafes, and museums? The cheap wine and artists’ markets?”
A soft smile swam onto Sylvia’s face as she settled back into her chair, elbow propped and cigarette poised. Margarete leaned forward, gripping the edge of the table.
“What of charismatic beggars and worldly prostitutes, lovers arm in arm and day-long strolls? What of Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and Breton? What about them, Sylvia? Where are they in Austin, Texas?”
“Where are they in Paris, France?” retorted Sylvia. “Dead and in the ground. You’re wrapped up in a fantasy, Marge. That place doesn’t exist anymore.”
Sylvia ground out her spent cigarette and pulled a fresh one from their shared pack. Margarete, her face flushed, sat back and looked away to one side. The auburn haired young man was looking at her. She met his gaze absentmindedly, without recognition. A few moments passed.
“Well, it doesn’t matter. It’s what it represents to me that’s important. Even if it is a washed out fantasy land, it has to be better than this.”
Margarete reached for her cup, saw that it was empty, then placed it down again. Sylvia smoked in silence, her smile gone. A grackle hopped on the ground a few feet away. Feeling annoyed and exposed, Margarete glared at the bird. It cocked its head and emitted a squawk.
Margarete strolled around the gallery with a measured, insouciant air. She was surrounded by people – couples holding hands, students with notebooks, elderly men and women wearing headsets, many smiles and much whispered commentary. Tourists mixed about evenly with locals, and their facile eagerness met with occasional expressions of annoyance. A balding American, his short-sleeve button-up tucked neatly into his jeans, stepped in close to a painting. His position blocked the view of a spectacled Parisian, who gestured with both hands and shook his head in frustration. A young couple, leaning into one another with dreamy expressions, started violently at the sudden cry of an infant.
Margarete stopped before a Cezanne landscape and examined it with a frown. Next to her stood a white-haired lady in a sedate, blue dress, wistful expression on her face. Clean daylight fell down on them from windows set in the ceiling. Margarete, who had forgotten to check her bright red raincoat, bent slightly at the waist to focus on a small detail in the corner of the painting. The old woman stood erect, her watery eyes roving slowly back and forth over the entirety of the picture. Margarete, with an air of satisfaction, straightened and turned away.
To tell the truth, she had never much cared for Cezanne, but was almost converted after what she had seen the past couple of weeks. She loved how he bathed his landscapes in light, and yet maintained the firmness of his lines. The way the sun shone in the last painting reminded her of her first morning in Paris, when she woke early to stroll through the Jardin du Luxembourg. She would pass through there later on her way to class at the Sorbonne. Margarete smiled as she thought about the class. The most challenging aspect of it thus far had been finding the classroom. It seemed to her that the university anticipated the reason American students chose to study in Paris, and elected not to interfere with sightseeing by assigning homework or marking attendance. This suited Margarete just fine; she could spend more time soaking in the atmosphere, getting the most out of her experience. The more time she spent in Paris, reading Gallimard editions, smoking Gitanes, and drinking café au laits, the more she felt like a bonafide expatriate. She even began to carry a moleskine, in which she jotted her musings and the odd snatch of poetry.
Margarete stopped momentarily to admire a small Picasso. A man passing behind her noticed her raincoat and elbowed his companion with a snicker.
She passed into the next gallery, her mind wandering into plans for the evening. The waning of the Parisian day always filled her with excitement. She had first fallen in love with the city itself from looking at Brassai’s nightlife photographs. The air of mystery and depravity that pervaded the images of bars and fog-shrouded avenues had entranced her. Before she arrived, a part of her imagined it was always nighttime in Paris. While charming by day, the city became intoxicating at night, and when she walked the streets under lamplight, Margarete felt like a character in a novel. Nothing was impossible for her, no matter how outlandish it would have appeared to her back home.
She had just made up her mind to leave when she noticed a man staring at her from across the gallery. He was fortyish, handsome and well dressed. Intrigued and a bit self-conscious, Margarete pretended not to notice and turned to face the nearest painting. As she sensed his approach, the back of her neck grew hot. He stopped a few steps away and looked at the same painting, then nodded his head and made sounds of approval.
She glanced over at him. He said something without looking away from the painting. She laughed quietly and placed a hand over her mouth. He turned toward her, held out his hand, and said something else. She responded and placed her hand in his. He raised it to his lips. She blushed and looked around. The man leaned forward, still holding her hand, and whispered in her ear. Her blush deepened, and she looked down with a smile. The man pulled away for a moment, looked over his shoulder, and leaned quickly in again. She listened attentively to what he said, and an expression of alarm passed over her face. He took her other hand and said something else. She leaned back and laughed loudly, her eyes closed. He motioned with his head. She hesitated for a moment, then nodded quickly. They walked out of the gallery arm in arm.
Margarete had never understood ordinariness. The appeal of security, the lure of a steady job, steady life, steady love, all seemed pale and moribund to her, phenomena of a purgatorial existence. As her admirer led her into the museum men’s room, she caught a glimpse of herself in a large mirror that covered one wall: lightened blonde hair cut in a short, chic style; designer dress bought in a Parisian boutique and paid for by student loans. Her flaming cheeks added a touch of ebullience and vivacity to her features, and even the circles beneath her eyes added something like depth.
The man she followed was confident in his stride and impeccably well groomed. His peppered hair was freshly cut, and the hand that gripped Margarete’s was manicured and soft. They had introduced themselves on the way out of the gallery. His name was Claude, and he said he was an art critic.
Claude pushed open the door to an available stall and waved Margarete in with an extravagant gesture. She giggled and entered, then glanced over her shoulder for one final look into the mirror. She would later remember with a sweep of nausea the radiant, confident gleam in her eyes. Once inside, Claude shut the door and took her into his arms. He smelled of tobacco and aftershave, and his full lips glistened with spittle. Margarete noticed a small scar that descended from the corner of his left eye. He spoke with a heavy accent:
“You have never done something like this?”
Her heart skipped a beat. The sound of his voice so close, sonorous in her ear, filled her with desire. Claude grinned and revealed a row of large, white teeth. His hands slide down her back and squeezed her ass.
“Relax, ma chere,” he whispered heavily, “and let me show you pleasure.”
Margarete, breathing rapidly, felt the bulge of his cock against her stomach. Blood rushed to her head, and her legs began to quake. Without a thought, almost like a release, she feel to her knees and began to fumble with his belt.
Margarete sat alone at the kitchen table in her small flat and stared at an empty wine bottle. Her phone and a small piece of paper were before her. When she realized the number was fake, she had gotten violently sick. Then she had gone out and bought a bottle of wine. The alcohol failed to soothe her mind; neither did it dull the persistent ache that gnawed in her chest. For the first time since arriving in Paris, Margarete felt completely alone, abandoned even by her illusions.
A single lamp placed in a far corner did not reach her with its light. Margarete, cast in shadow, appeared ashen. Her left hand trembled where it lay on the table. She stared at nothing, her eyes dull stones. Beyond her window, like a starry sky reflected in a dark, still lake, the City of Light twinkled.
Henry sat alone in his study. It was a beautiful day outside, but his shades were drawn, a lamp turned on. He stared ahead, mute and unresponsive to the sounds of children playing in the street. His face would be handsome if there were any life in it, if it wasn’t slack, waxen, the color of old linen. There was a bottle half full of amber liquid on the desk before him, with a half empty glass next to it. Drinking had made dulled the pain somewhat, and his guilt for this almost overwhelmed his feeling of loss. It was a sunny day outside, children were laughing, yet he sat alone in near darkness.
What were his thoughts?
Of another sunny day, over a year before. She had surprised hm for his birthday with a vacation. He had felt like the most important person in the world to warrant such effort, such expense. When she registered his shock, his joy at the surprise, her face lit up like a thousand candles, and as he kissed her he made a wish that if anything ever went wrong, and a day came when he no longer saw her smile, that he would remember her exactly as she was in that moment.
And so he did, because that morning she had surprised him again. He had woken up to find her gone.
It was a beautiful day, and outside there was laughter. Inside there was a man, and a note that explained nothing.
Henry and Karl sat on the patio at the Longbranch Inn, two beers and an overflowing ashtray between them. It was late afternoon, and the reclining sun blazed orange in the October sky. Henry lifted his drink, took a long swig, and placed it down again. His eyes turned away from Karl to the deserted street that the patio faced. Most people were still at work. Karl lit a cigarette and watched Henry.
“What’s on your mind, cap’n?” he asked, the cigarette jumping with each word.
Henry, still looking into the distance, took another drink, then cleared his throat.
“I’m wondering why this bar opens so early.” His voice, deepened by cigarettes, had slight rumble to it.
Karl grinned. “Well, it’s so losers like us can have a place to hang out. What else are we supposed to do when we play hooky?”
“We’re not playing hooky. We’re adults. We just chose not to go to class.”
“Well, call it what you want. If anyone asks, though, I was sick.”
Henry lifted his burning cigarette from the ashtray and took a drag. He and Karl had known each other vaguely back in high school. When they both moved to Austin after graduation, they gradually became close friends, spending time together first out of necessity, then habit. Henry was tall and thin, with auburn hair and delicate features. His dark green eyes were often cast down, giving him a guarded, wary appearance. Karl was short, with broad shoulders and a stocky build. He kept his hair cut extremely short, and was never clean-shaven. While Henry paid a lot of attention to his appearance, Karl often appeared unkempt and slovenly, though his easygoing nature and boisterous laugh easily made him the more popular of the two. They were both in their fourth year at the University of Texas, and while they often hypothesized about what they might do after graduation, neither had any definite plans. They had not seen each very much the past semester, and when they were together, the space between them seemed shaded with sadness, as if they were in premature mourning for the imminent demise of their college selves.
“So,” Karl began, “met any girls lately?”
Henry smiled and turned to regard his friend. “Always with the girls. I don’t see how you get anything done.”
“Well, I don’t. But it’s because of the drinking, not the girls.” He tipped his beer and winked.
Henry chuckled and took a drag from his cigarette. “Actually, I did finally talk to that girl in my short story class.”
Karl drained his beer and tossed the empty into a nearby trashcan. “Really? Tell me about it.”
Henry ground his cigarette out slowly. “Well, you know how I saw her the other day at Maverick’s?”
“Yeah. She didn’t recognize you.”
“Right. And I thought to myself, ‘How is it that a person wouldn’t recognize someone with whom they had shared classes for three consecutive semesters?’”
“And it occurred to me, because people only see what they want to see.”
Henry paused and finished his beer, looking at Karl steadily in the eyes. Karl raised one eyebrow.
“Rrright. I’m gonna get more beers. Hold down the fort.”
Karl slid out of his chair and went inside the bar. Henry lit another cigarette and turned again to face the street. The sun sat heavy on the horizon, orange bursting vibrate in the sluggish air. Live oak and pecan trees, silhouetted against a flaming backdrop, hunched and brooded over the empty sidewalks. Often, at this time of day, Henry felt as if life was a sad charade, humanity a cast of two-bit actors with poorly memorized lines, marooned on a beautiful set-piece with no director or script. After all, for whom did the sun set with all the colors of flame and magisterial glory? Certainly not for him.
Karl returned with a pair of Lone Stars. He placed one before Henry.
“Here you go, bud.”
Henry turned to his friend and lifted the bottle in a gesture of comradery.
“Cheers,” said Karl. “So, what do you mean, she only see what she wants to see?”
Henry puffed out his cheeks from a long drink and swallowed twice. “Not just her. Everyone. Me. You.”
“Well, her specifically, then.”
“I mean that she’s convinced herself that there are no people worth her time. In Austin, at least. So when one pops up, she refuses to see him.”
Karl smirked and pulled a cigarette from his breast pocket. “Sounds like she’s a fucking bitch.”
“She is. But I’m the same to a certain extent. We’re just picky.”
“But you’re not stuck up acting, man. You’re just awkward.”
Henry smiled and took another drink. “Thanks.”
Karl nodded and drew on his cigarette. When he spoke, a cloud of smoke erupted around his words. “Anyway, so what did you do?”
“Nothing. Until the next day in class. Then I talked to her. I figured it was time for her to see me.”
Karl’s face broke into a grin and he reached over to slap Henry’s shoulder. “Atta boy! You finally got some balls. How did it go?”
Henry reached over, pulled a cigarette from Karl’s pocket and lit it as he spoke. “It went well,” he mumbled, “I got her number.”
Karl’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Oh yeah? Are you gonna call her?”
“I think so. I want to give it a few days, you know. So I won’t look desperate.”
“Right. Good idea.” Karl took a long drink, then burped loudly. A thirtysomething couple exited the bar onto the patio and occupied a nearby table. Henry’s eyes casually wandered over to them.
“So, how did it happen?”
The question hung in the air for a moment as Henry watched the couple without responding. Karl had gotten used to Henry’s lapses in attention, and knew he would simply have to wait for his friend to return to reality. Henry stared, his gaze hollow and distant, and Karl knew that he was no longer looking at the couple, but at his own image of them, the story he was writing about them in his head.
Henry saw them, the thin man with a mixed drink, the woman with a beer, seated across from one another and speaking relaxedly. They wore wedding bands, and could have been twins for their similarity of build and complexion. They about the same size, a face which lent the female an air of greater authority and vigour. Her mahogany hair fell in glossy waves about her shoulders, while on her face there existed a mixed expression of contentment and dreamy amusement. Her eyes were liquid pools of caramel complexity, from which radiated a healthful concern and bounteous love directed at the man who sat across from her. He had his back to Henry, though his posture and expression upon appearing were all that was needed to form a hypothesis of his character. There was a general frailty about him, the mark of a man who lives by his intellect rather than his hands. The lines on his face were worn as a burden, rather than a wound or mark of distinction. His hands were large, his long fingers moving slowly and constantly, as if engaged on the keys of a piano. His furrowed eyebrows and marked crows feet were the hallmark of an intense inward focus; his eyes, however, were a great joy to behold. They were not the cold, reptilian organs of a professional cynic or man of letters; they were the twins of his companion’s, warm, soft, wholly intent upon and reflective of her. Henry imagined that, in the privacy of their shared evenings, each was just as likely to be held as the other.
Henry turned back to Karl, smoothly disengaged from his reverie. “She read a story in class. I thought it was really great, so I approached her afterwards.”
“And then? Was she into you?”
“I think she was more flattered than anything. But she gave me her number.”
Karl clinked Henry’s bottle with his own. “Awesome. It’s about time, man. How long has it been for you, anyway?”
“Long enough,” replied Henry. He took a swig of beer and looked again at the couple a few tables away.
The Cloakroom Bar is set below street level, with a stairway leading down from the sidewalk and small, unlit sign. Inside, the only light came from the small lamps placed on each table, and an orange flicker teased the room like firelight on the walls of a cave. The place was almost always empty. Henry Morgan and Sophia Russell shared a small table against the wall. The only other person was the middle-aged bartender, a surly woman with dirty blonde hair who served people drinks like she was doing them a favor. She had performed many favors for Henry and Sophie that night. They sat across from one another, leaned forward, clasping hands, red-faced, shining eyed. They took turns talking in breathless voices.
“You just need to understand one thing, okay?” said Sophia.
Sophia paused and sighed through her nose, her big, wet eyes staring searchingly into Henry’s.
“That if we do this, it’s for keeps. I’m tired of messing around.”
“It’s what I want,” said Henry, squeezing her hands. “You’re what I want.”
The moment wavered in the half light, beautiful and bursting with sentiment, like the smiling face of a loved one seen through a veil of tears. Big wet drops slid down Sophia’s face, curving around the edges of her closed lip smile. Henry wore the frown he always wore when moved by something. He had met Sophia just a couple of weeks earlier. They had connected immediately. They were waiting for each other, it seemed. Henry had tired of playing the supplicant in his relationships. There had been Sharese, who refused to commit; Becky, who refused to give up drugs; Anna, who refused to invest emotionally. There had been the one night stands, Alyssa, Kate, Rebecca, who he couldn’t stand the sight of in the morning of ever after; the girls who led him on but never panned out, never called back, Carmen, Liza, Margarete. All the missed chances and might have beens. Now there was Sophia. She was pretty and smart. She said she loved him with tears in her eyes. That was all he needed.
“You’re what I want,” Henry repeated. He raised Sophia’s hands to his lips. She nodded her still smiling, wet face, and leaned across the table for a kiss.
Henry woke with a start, his eyes fluttering open to darkness. The digital clock on the nightstand read 4am. He was alone. It was the third night in a week she had not come home. A mixture of worry and anger began to sicken in his stomach, and he turned away from the clock to face the empty spot next to him. He knew he would not get back to sleep. That he even fell asleep was testament to his naivety. Ever since Sophia had met Claire, she had spent less and less time at home. Henry chalked it up to nerves about their looming wedding day. Cold feet. All the same, he felt something; a leaden anxiety weighed upon his heart and darkened his thoughts. That was silly, though. Claire and Sophia were just friends. Henry stared into the darkness, alone and unable to sleep. Soon the sun would rise. He would get out of bed, make coffee, and pace the floor. Somewhere across town, Sophia would open her bleary eyes, naked and hung over, already formulating a lie.