Short Story: Janus Face

 

For the past ten days you have been looking at yourself in the mirror and not just to see if your pants match your blouse or if the colour of your scarf suits your complexion. You stand side on to the mirror that leans hazardously against the only bare wall in your small room, running the pink palm of your hand up and down your belly. It has grown; surely everyone has noticed it by now. Your period is two weeks late. Your period is never late. You look at your reflection. That is me, you think to yourself, but it doesn’t feel like you. You can hear him start the car and you have to go. He is sitting there, waiting for you, his thumbs drumming a beat on the rim of the steering wheel. Probably he is singing. You apply a slick of lipstick and take your bag, throw it over your shoulder with all the nonchalance of someone carefree, not that you are conscious of that. This has just become your routine, your performance. That is all.

*****

You’ve been in Paris two months now. Your husband was promoted and moved to the Paris branch of Michelin. You lived inParis before though and, if you are honest with yourself, you can admit it wasn’t a return to this city that excited you but the prospect of old faces being real again, the opening of eyes that had been closed to you for years. For the first month you felt nothing but light headed; a butterfly just before it leaves the diving bell. You were a snake shedding its skin, becoming smooth and glistening once more. You wonder at times if it was just a coincidence that you saw Ikeke that day sitting in the square on a bench eating his lunch or if you had not in fact been looking for him all along. You believe now that you willed it to happen. You remember his eyes, the way they changed as he saw you, not understanding if it was you or just someone who looked like you, his cheek bulging with food he was too shocked to chew and everything was still, the only movement being that of your body returning to his. You sat down next to him and looked him over. His hair was still close shaven, his skin still smooth and stretched over the angles of his face like the membrane of a bat wing, his mouth so pretty it belonged to a woman. For a while, neither of you said anything. He asked you how you were, mentioned that it had been so long since you had seen one another. You told him it would be five years in September. It was only after fifteen minutes that he had asked you why you were in France and you explained and when the words ‘mon mari’ were said his eyes dropped and you knew the smile on his face was complacent, regretful and perhaps disdainful. You had wanted to place your finger under his chin and hold his gaze in line with yours, tell him that it didn’t matter, that he still lived in your heart. Instead you had him tell you what he was doing with himself, where he was working, if he was married, was he still writing poetry. He worked across the road; he wasn’t married; he was still writing poetry. After another fifteen minutes his break was over, he said he had to get back to work and he would like it very much if he could see you again. You gave him your mobile number, told him to call you when he was free, you would like that. Two days later, a Sunday, your phone rang while you and your husband were watching TV. When you saw his name flashing on the small green illuminated screen you pressed ‘reject’ because you hadn’t told your husband that you had seen Ikeke. In fact, your husband didn’t know anything about Ikeke. Two hours later your husband was called unexpectedly to his office. He was so apologetic, so guilty for leaving you alone on the one day you were meant to spend together. He couldn’t have understood how happiness was growing inside you like a weed. When he left, you leant out the window, waved to him as he drove away and by the time he had reached the end of the street and turned in to the sleepy Sunday traffic you had already run to your bag, taken your phone and dialled Ikeke’s number.

*****

You met in Le Marais and ate on the Rue des Barres, close to his apartment. You ordered the same pasta dish that you had always eaten the other times you’d been there together. He laughed at this and said “Rien n’a changé.” He patted your hand and you wondered if you had drunk too much already. You didn’t talk about your husband or your wedding that had taken a year to plan and which cost your parents a hundred thousand dollars. This was not out of guilt but simply because you didn’t think to. By the time you finished your meals it was dark outside andParis, that Sunday, moved thick and smooth, just like velvet. You walked to a club whose blood red facade you had entered a hundred times before but it was quiet inside and the one-woman act did not engage either of you. In the end though it was not the familiar taste of the pasta or the giddiness of the wine or the bad cabaret that led you back to Ikeke’s flat and into a bed that you left crumpled and moist. It was the simple force of him that you had wanted and now it hangs like a prayer inside you.

*****

You are sitting in a train going nowhere in particular. You have met Ikeke four times this week. You are three weeks late. On a wall at the end of the carriage someone has written “Au royaume des aveugles les borgnes sont rois.” You look around at the other people on the train. A woman with her head lulling against a window, her eyes closed. A man reading Libération, the bottom of the paper creasing on top of his stomach which is so gross it makes you think of sacks filled with pig fat. A young couple holding hands seem somehow separated, their heads turned in opposite directions like a Janus face. You turn to look at the man sitting next to you. He is wearing a black felt hat which shadows his face but still you can see the lines running from nose to mouth, the liver shaped sacks at the lower borders of his eyes, eyes which are in fact shrivelled oceans. Everything on his face, on their faces, is so blank it is depressing. Or perhaps you have misread the faces. Perhaps that is what peace looks like on a face. The man looks at you, silently accuses you of intrusion, you turn your eyes down and note the bag he has wedged between his legs. You decide that if in the bag he is carrying a gift for his dying wife, then he is a good person. If he is a disgruntled communist carrying a bomb with plans to blow up the train, then he is pure evil. All depends, you suppose, on one’s own experience of the world. You have never met a communist before. You get off at the next stop, Gare Saint Lazare.

*****

At the doctor’s office you sit and wait for your name to be called. You read one of the Paris Match they have piled in the waiting room, their covers stamped with the name of the surgery. You look at pictures of footballer’s wives standing at an awards ceremony to honour their husband’s ball skills. They are wearing dresses of silk and organza and taffeta and the fabrics writhe like sea weed over their bodies. They all have heads that are big and crowned with sculpted strands of hair as long and as glistening and as smooth as snakes. You toy with the notion that footballer’s wives are in fact the spawn of Medusa; all their husbands so rigid, as if carved from stone. Your name is called and you follow the white coat the length of the corridor until you come to a room on the right. Everything is clean, clean, clean. You are given a cloth gown to wear and left alone in the room to change. Naked except for the gown, you lay on the table. It is cold and you feel the air rush between your legs like a swarm of bees. You press your knees together and then you cross your feet at the ankles. You look at the clock on the wall in front of you. It is 2:53 pm. By 3:30 pm it is finished. You pay the bill and you leave the surgery.

*****

Outside, Paris is busy. The traffic is a steady buzz and the air holds in it a certain fragile calm. You can hear the weather in the fluttering of flags and papers and posters peeling from walls. In Paris there is a lot of stone and a lot of wood and a lot of people. You can imagine the stone crumbling and you can picture the wood rotting. Tourists stand on street corners trying to decide if this city has more to offer on the other side of the road. You walk aimlessly, almost blindly. You walk in to shops and politely exchange bonjours, you finger the hems of silky dresses and leaf through books as old as it is possible for a book to be. You stop at a bar and drink a coffee standing up, overhear the conversation of the two old men in the corner who are playing backgammon and criticising each other in a way that pretends to denounce affection but does little more than flaunt it. One of the men has placed his hat on the end of the table. A feather rests between the pthalo blue felt and the silk band, silently shaking each time the door of the café opens and closes. You visit a small gallery and stand for a long time in front of a painting that shows a small girl sitting at the base of a very old oak tree. Its roots, large and gnarly like veins on the arm of an old man, stretch to the edge of the canvas and beyond. The girl is looking up inside the tree and you follow her gaze and notice a small bird, no bigger than a pea, a raven perhaps. It sits amongst the leaves and branches, obscured and almost invisible, seen only by the girl. The bird, the tree and the girl will be there forever you think. You return to your apartment as Paris begins its descent into night and you throw your keys and your bag on the bureau by the front door. Your husband calls out to you from the kitchen where, home early from his work, he is cooking an omelette that the two of you will sit and eat together from one plate whilst the TV chatters quietly in the other room and rain begins to fall outside.

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