She knew she didn’t have long before her husband found out about the debt, how deep the roots of it went, so she pushed for a trip, naming the kids in the twins’ third grade class who’d already been overseas. She knew it was then or never, and appealing to his competitive side always worked.
Her first flight. When the plane tilted and thrust its way into the sky, she thought she’d weep from the wonder of it. Not even her boys were as thrilled as she.
Hours later, the boys slept leaning against each other, faces erased of expression, and her husband sprawled over empty seats in the opposite row. When a flight attendant came down the aisle with her cart, he said, his voice low, but not low enough, I am the last man on Earth.
They landed and deplaned into a narrow, dark, hallway that smelled of long standing water. Gushing through Charles de Gaulle was a river of words she didn’t understand. Before the trip she’d studied French non-stop for five months: in the car driving the twins to games, at home on her days off, and in the back office of the bookstore on lunch breaks. After all that, she could still only mimic.
It could have been anywhere, but she chose Paris. She and her mother would sit on their scratchy tweed sofa, a bag of giant marshmallows between them watching Love in the Afternoon. Her mother would mouth Audrey Hepburn’s lines. After too many marshmallows, the sweet, chemical taste made them thirsty.
In their hotel, her husband walked in last, surveying the tiny room. Did you tell them we were four?
She stretched out on one of the beds.
Water was running in the bathroom. The boys were probably pouring complimentary gels and shampoos down the drain. Years ago, when they were three, and were supposed to be napping, she’d allowed herself to fall asleep on the couch. Their giggling woke her. When she stepped into the kitchen, she saw the dumped cereal, liquid laundry soap, and a jumbo bag’s worth of chips. A chair lay tipped on its side, one of its legs broken off and lying like a femur on the greasy floor. Her husband wanted to spank them, but she told him, no. And when he asked for a good reason why not, she slammed the bedroom door in his face. How could he understand the lengths to which she’d safeguarded their bodies while they were in hers? How could she explain that she’d once moved through each day as if she were carrying glass?
She wasn’t that kind of mother anymore. She was not the mother she wanted to be.
One of the twins poked his head out and asked if they could have a bath.
No bath, her husband said. Get your coats. We’re going for food, then we’re doing the Eiffel Tower.
All that Glitters
Once, her husband discovered one of her stashes in a corner of the attic: jeans for the twins in progressively larger sizes. He shook his head and said, Why?
When the boys were infants, she’d line up bottles in the fridge. A diminishing supply made her palms sweat so she began to stock, rotate and label. Breast milk, then pureed food, and eventually, various other things. The attic floor buckled in places from the weight.
Why? Because life is a gaping maw that can never be full.
She got through her first evening in Paris with the help of French wine, so much so that she seemed to be floating in the long winding line that led to the Tower’s elevators. At the top, the wind beat at all their faces. The twins leaned over the metal rail and her stomach dropped.
The sight of all those lights beneath them amazed her, but not quite enough.
When they returned to the hotel, and she watched the twins get ready for bed without the usual squabbling, she felt the smallest seed of gratitude stretch and unfurl, but then it withered. She slid into bed, still dressed.
Their last day, they walked to the Notre Dame Cathedral and slipped into a line of people disappearing, two by two, through a pair of elaborate doors. The Last Judgment, her husband said, referring to the carving above their heads. See it?
The twins lifted their faces, mouths open. They’d never been in a church before.
She escaped her family, wove through the crowd to the inside. The smell of incense and old wood brought Catechism back. Her parents had sent her though only her father was Catholic. She remembered the hard-faced nuns, the wooden desks, and books with questions illustrated with cartoon angels.
She’d liked her teacher, a young nun with sweeping brows over eyes the color of rain in a metal bucket. But when her teacher announced there were only Catholics in heaven, she raised her hand to argue. It didn’t make sense that God would create some only to turn them away. Her mother was sick, and even though the word dying had not yet been said, she intuited it as only a child can. Her mother wasn’t any religion so that afternoon she did her damnedest to argue her mother out of hell.
Tiers of candles flickered in the near-dark. Light from the morning sun shone through colored glass, illuminating the heads of a few, as if that nun’s god were pointing out his chosen.
She walked over to a statue of Mary. Made from smooth marble, the Virgin gazed down at baby Jesus. The closer she got, the more the Virgin’s face appeared to change, a beneficent smile to an angry smirk.
Notre Dame’s bells poured waves of sound down over her and she leaned against the cool, stone wall. She was a sinner; she felt the truth of it here. A glutton. She thought of her mother, the month before she died, thin and slow moving, taking her shopping, buying things two and three and four sizes too large so that her daughter would have enough. So she would be all set. She thought of her own drawers at home, stuffed full of pants and shirts and sweaters and dresses and scarves.
She’d read once that time was a man-made construct and that life was a still frame within an infinite moving picture. Some believed that the universe and everything in it was only a projection of the human brain. She liked to imagine if she concentrated hard enough, her still frame would begin again, and her mother would be alive, her husband would be someone she loved, and her boys would need her more.
All you all right, Miss?
A frail, wrinkled priest leaned in toward her, his watery eyes concerned.
She looked up at the Virgin whose face had changed once again, this time the smile replaced with bewilderment.
She nodded and laid her hand on the violet sleeve of his robe. Her family was somewhere behind her but her legs wouldn’t move.
Have you ever felt on fire? she asked him.