Les lumieres sur la Seine


Jean-Philippe took off his tie. The bedroom was clean. The red duvet was stretched tight over the bed and there were vacuum stripes in the carpet. In the meager light of the bedside lamp, the room was faraway and still. The room was a bed and a clock and the glinting brass of the dresser knobs in the dimness.

He hung his tie in the closet and thought about undressing. He stretched his socked toes and dug them into the soft carpet. He was too tired to undress and shower, which he must inevitably do. He wanted to collapse into the sofa and quiet himself. His head was buzzing with the din of voices and the clanks, bangs, and crashes that were the thousand collisions of a dinner service. If he did not decompress himself, it would go on into his dreams. He would wake in the middle of the night, wide-eyed, his heart beating fiercely. She would ask what was wrong and Jean-Philippe would say, ridiculously, that table twelve had not received their soup.

When he came into the living room, she was on the sofa, her legs curled under her, her big belly strange under her breasts, long neck, and ponytail. She was nearly the same, except for the belly and the swollen breasts. He’d never had occasion to study the pregnant form and now he was struck by the disproportionate oddness of the growth. She was slim but for the doubled girth of her waist. Her familiar body changed. Something grew large inside her, displacing her organs and stretching her skin. It was implausible and unsettling, another of the animal encounters that are the humbling hallmarks of romantic love.

In the middle of the room, on the coffee table, was a large glass bowl filled with water. On the surface floated white candles and the heads of flowers. It was a favorite of his and he made sure to change the water nearly everyday. The flowers were from the restaurant. He turned on the tall stone fountain near the television and lit the candles and fell into the sofa near his wife.

The candles ceased their drift and floated motionless. The flames were reflected in the clear water and their light bled through the bowl onto the table and through the translucent petals of the flowers. The water cascaded down the rough stone of the fountain and fell into the basin with a steady slap. His wife did not say anything, would not until he’d spoken. He sat for several minutes without moving or speaking.

Finally, he said, “Oh, what a night.”

His wife, Juliet, had been a waitress up until a few weeks ago, and would probably be a waitress again. She did not work at Jean-Philippe’s restaurant, though she wanted to. She knew it would do more harm than good, and he knew it, so she never brought it up anymore, even in jest. But she knew what a night it had been for him. It always was. Jean-Philippe liked that he could tell her and she would know.

“What happened?” she asked.

Jean-Philippe looked at her, and she had that light. That stupid light that he did not want to see but it was really there. There was an obscure halo all around her, like in the paintings of the Virgin, where she glows from some unnatural light. It made her beautiful, as beautiful as she’d ever been, but all the time now. Every time he looked at her, she shined like dull gold. Her eyes were deep and bright. He thought it might come from some high self-satisfaction, some outrageous confidence in herself. Arrogant people are physically attractive, he thought. Other times, he wondered if it weren’t some chemistry, some new pheromonal mix inside her that was affecting the way he saw her. Why should she be so beautiful now? To prevent him from leaving her?

“You’re too beautiful,” he said. He smiled. “It was the same tonight. I’m exhausted.”
“Do you want some tea?” she asked.
“Oh, no,” he said. “Just don’t let me fall asleep.”
She was a waitress and now she was his wife. The mother of his child.
“What did you do today?” he asked her.
“I went to Huntington’s to see if they had that buggy. They didn’t. Then I stopped in the park and read about breastfeeding. I came home and had supper, then I took a nap.”

One of the waiters had quit tonight in the middle of the shift. He had lost it, and Serge trounced him. All night, every time he’d gone into the kitchen, Serge dug into him with that whiny pissant voice, all the time asking the same questions, and asking Jean-Philippe, too. Jean-Philippe, why did he do that? What was he thinking? What is he doing? Finally, the boy said he’d just go home. Serge sacked him. Jean-Philippe did not try to save him. There were sacrifices. Serge needed sacrifices. And Jean-Philippe would clean up the mess. He’d hire and train a new waiter, and push all the others harder.

“Any famous people tonight?” Juliet asked.
“Yes, the MP again. And that woman, Julie Christie.”
“Oh, she’s lovely. What was she like?”
“Yes, a lovely woman. Very quiet. She had a nice smile.”
“She was in Doctor Zhivago.”
“That’s what Brian said. Did you see it?”
“No,” Juliet said. “I’ve seen parts of it. It’s kind of long.”

The MP had been difficult. He’d returned the appetizer, said it had too much vinegar. Serge threw a short fit, and Jean-Philippe apologized to the MP for the mistake. Would he like another one, he asked. No, Jean-Philippe, said the MP, and he said the name like it was a big joke between them that this was not a real name. The English are always so pleased with themselves when they say his name. It makes him feel inhuman, like he is some dog named Jelly-Bean. They always say Jean-Philippe. They do not know anyone else’s name, and they expect him to come running at the haughty call of his.

“We should go to a movie,” Juliet said.
“Yes,” Jean-Philippe replied.

Years earlier, before they were married, they had gone to Paris together. Juliet could not speak French. She had tried to learn, but it didn’t take. Even now, her French was rudimentary. She had promised to enroll in a school, but then she’d gotten pregnant. In Paris, they had visited the English language bookstore, and they saw an American film subtitled in French. There was a famous production of The Misanthrope playing, but Juliet resisted going, in spite of Jean-Philippe’s enthusiasm. They did not go.

“Oh, I thought of a new name. I still like Carson and Quinn best, but what about Samuel? I like the idea of a little boy named Sam. He’d be charming like his old man.”
“And you like Samuel more than the names I said?”
“Well, I guess so. I mean, it kind of jumps at me. The French names I have to get used to. And, you know, this child will be English. It’s just a little strange for an Englishman to be named Pierre or Jacques.”
“I said Charles.”
“I know, sweetheart, but when you say it it’s one name and when I say it it’s another.”
“Okay, we’ll talk about it later,” Jean-Philippe said.

There was never any discussion about living in France. He’d been in London for six years and showed no signs of leaving. The work was too good, too great an opportunity, too high-paying to consider it. Serge, Jean-Philippe thought, was the best chef in London. There would be nothing like it for him in Lyon or Paris. He had been with Serge from nearly the beginning, and he could not start at the beginning again.
Still, it was remarkable that they had never made any plans. He had never thought that he would live in England all his life, and now he had an English child. Would the child speak French? Of course; he would learn both languages, as early as possible. He would know his father’s language, know how to speak with his grandparents. There would be regular trips to France. The money was there, even if it meant living in a smaller home for a time. Serge would build a larger restaurant and there would be more money. Juliet would work again. The child would be English, but he would love France.

“Jean, what’s wrong? Are you mad at me?”
“No. I’m just tired.”
“If you want to say something…”
“It was a long night.”
“Okay,” Juliet said.
“I’m going to take a shower.”

Jean-Philippe pushed himself from the deep seat of the couch. He walked toward the hallway that led to the bathroom. He turned to Juliet on the couch and began to unbutton his shirt. She watched him undress and offered a halfhearted smile.

She was bright and beautiful when he met her, that night Serge and he ate oysters and celebrated the third Michelin star. She looked then as she did now, except for the child that grew and pushed everything away. He was jubilant that night, and this handsome English girl smiled and flirted at him and his irresistible triumph. He had a future; he had made a significantly greater life than the one he had been given. That she was there, and pretty, was their story. Her lovely English smile was all that he lacked, and she became tied up in the new promise.

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