Face Flowed Into Her Eyes
Location: Miami Metropolitan Area
The phone rings, its tinny shriek rattling out of the open doors of my cottage and spilling out into the warm lavender-scented Provence air where it fades against the constant din of the million cicadas that call the valley home. I know where the noise comes from, a cold place where the air smells of nothing but disinfectant, a place of fluorescent lights and clean white linoleum. I ignore it and let it die off. I don’t have time, I need to finish. I’m almost done.
There’s another sound, this one more mellifluous and organic, feminine with an Occitan lilt. “William, dinner is almost ready,” calls Isabelle from the kitchen.
I’m hunched over my laptop, hammering away at the keys. Slowly pixelated phonemes weave into words and words into sentences, sentences to story. I’m almost at the end of my novel now and the excitement is hard to contain.
I stumble over one line and feel like pulling my hair out.
“Hold on,” I say to Isabelle, just loud enough for her to hear while holding up a stern finger over my shoulder.
Clément felt it inside of him; there could be no more denying the old witch’s words now. It wriggled in his gut and gnawed at his viscera, dug into his spine and poisoned his veins: a black worm that grew like a cancer with each breath.
Would that be anachronistic? It’s filtered from Clément’s perspective and he lives in a pseudo-medieval world--would he describe anything as cancerous? I think about it. It comes from Latin, so I suppose it’s probably fine. Crisis resolved. I continue writing.
“I’m sorry I could never be the man you deserved,” said Clément, taking Sigrún’s hand and squeezing it so tightly that she winced.
“Don’t talk like that, please don’t talk like that,” Sigrún protested, her pale blue eyes hard but brittle, “This isn’t the end, not for you, not for us.”
Euch. I delete the last few sentences. Too maudlin, too direct, too superficial. No one talks like that.
I feel a dainty hand on my shoulder, I almost flinch from it. I look back and up and see Isabella standing over me, she looks tired and worn. She’s wearing a grease-stained t-shirt and a pair of artfully torn jeans. She’s wearing them because the cute red skirt and blouse ensemble she was going to wear to the cherry festival is ill suited to the domestic tasks she fills her idle time with. Her sandy blonde hair is braided and the braids tied in a loop around her forehead, her hazel eyes are set in a dour half-glare. ‘I’m not angry, but I will be soon, Mr. Man.’
“William…dinner is almost ready,” she says.
I frown, look to her for maybe three seconds then turn back to my computer screen. “I know. You said so.” I rest my fingers on the keys. They’re shaking, Isabelle hasn’t noticed, but I have. They’re always shaking.
She sighs. “C’est pas vrai.” That’s French for ‘I’m angry, Mr. Man!’ More or less.
I resume typing. I need to keep typing; I’m almost at the end.
“Do you even know what I’m cooking?” she asks, and though my back is turned I know that she’s just crossed her arms over her breasts and titled her hips to the side.
“Green soup. Easy. The smell gets everywhere,” I say, shrugging my shoulders and tapping my nose. I forget the proper French name. So sue me.
“Yes ‘green soup’,” she says, letting out a deep breath through her nostrils, “Now come, it’s almost ready.”
“I know,” I say, typing three words then promptly highlighting and backspacing them, “You said so.”
For a few seconds there is nothing save the alien wind chime chirping of the cicada chorus. I think I can hear some music, dancing music, from the festival where the locals are celebrating the rich cherry harvest. The Fête they call it.
“Move the labtop, we’ll eat out here,” she says, compromising.
“Lap-top,” I correct her without heat or venom; it’s more of a reflex at this point than a desire to seem erudite. If I want to seem erudite I use words like erudite.
She is silent again. I don’t turn around but I know she’s leaving. There’s a clink of bowls and cutlery from inside of the kitchen and she returns shortly with a pair of enamelware bowls and big silver spoons.
“Move the lap-top,” she says, adding extra emphasis so as not to offend my sensitive American ears.
“I’m not hungry,” I reply quickly and honestly.
Inside of the kitchen the cooker hisses and some of the steam spills out of the open door and into the porch itself where it dissipates in the dry summer air. Isabelle puts her hand on my shoulder again. Again I flinch. She puts her other hand under my bearded chin, her fingers are uncomfortably warm. She leans her body against my chair’s backrest and one of her braids tickles my ear. Slowly, deliberately, furtively her hand creeps from my shoulder toward the monitor of my laptop. I don’t quite slap her hand so much as gently swipe it aside.
“Mon grand, it will still all be there if you close it up to eat dinner,” she says, sounding sagely in the way foreign women always do when they state the obvious. Though I suppose I’m technically the foreigner here.
I mean to type, but something about her statement stops me. I look away from the screen and face her again. My neck and shoulders ache and merely turning my head causes a burn and a tingle. “How do you know that?”
She is silent; her pink lip curls into a frown.
“How do you know that when you close a book the story is still there?” I ask her seriously.
“William, are you feeling alright?” she asks softly.
“How do you know if a story still exists, if characters still breathe when the book is closed?” I gesture vaguely at the screen without looking at it, “When the computer is snapped shut or goes into hibernation?”
She sighs. “You know how I feel when you talk like that; I can barely understand what you’re saying.”
I snort. My face loosens up. “Yeah, one would almost suspect we grew up speaking different languages or something.”
She half smiles. “That’s better. But please, put the computer away, it is time to eat.”
The phone rings again. Isabelle almost curses in French before shifting to English, presumably because the latter wasn’t a language God was familiar with. She goes to answer it but I get up and block her way. I’m not a large man, but big enough to wall off a little French girl.
“Let me deal with it, it’s probably for me,” I say, a little louder than I intend.
She just folds her arms across her breasts and rolls her eyes. I move quickly through the kitchen door, passing by the cooker which is still hissing. Isabelle comes in behind me, turning the stove switch and pushing the cooker to the back burner while I move out to the old Provençal cottage’s spacious main room. It has a big table in the center we never use and a large parlor mirror off to the side. Cobwebs coat the high ceiling and fat spiders dangle from the exposed timber beams. The corpses of discarded post-it notes liter the floor, they crunch and crackle under my shoes. I scoop up one and glance at it.
‘Clément Must Change’
I toss it over my shoulder and keep moving.
The phone is perched on the heavy oak silverware cabinet. Next to it is a short stack of books, their covers bent out of shape and smeared by desperate, greasy fingers. Being and Nothingness sits comfortably atop my first edition copy of the Lord of the Rings. I grasp the smooth plastic phone neck and squeeze it before tearing it from the hook. The final blast of sound is cut short. I hesitate for an instant then put it to my ear. There’s the sound of a man breathing on the other end.
“Mr. Waltham?” the doctor pronounces my name well enough considering his accentual handicap, “Mr. Waltham I need to speak with you.”
I don’t reply.
I look away from the phone and to the mirror, see myself holding the phone, my hands are shaking again. Isabelle is right, I need to eat. But I can’t eat, not while I still need to get to the end. I’m so close now, just a few pages, a few paragraphs maybe. Hell, I could knock it out in a few minutes if I could just get some time to myself. But each moment away from the computer is more distance between me and my words. Was Clément standing or seated? I can’t remember now.
All I can think about now is how damn pale and thin I look, how my clothes cling to my body the way a plastic baggie constricts around a steak when you use one of those vacuum-sealers suck all the air out of it.
“Mr. Waltham, are you there?” the doctor can hear my breathing, he knows I’m there, “William, we need to talk about these results. There isn’t much time.”
The words are sharp, I’d understand them if he were speaking English, French, or Sanskrit. I mean to reply to him, but a burnt-orange sunbeam filters through one of the windows and catches my eye.
Rather than look away I face it directly and squint. Isabelle is sitting in front of my computer now, I can’t see her face but I can see how stiff her shoulders have become, how rigidly she sits. She’s reading it. She can’t read it, damn it. I’m not done. It’s not done.
“William,” the doctor’s professional register is strained though he keeps his voice as low and soft as ever, “We need to talk.”
I mean to say something, only to realize that I have nothing to say.
I don’t slam the telephone against a wall, I don’t start crying, I don’t say anything clever or deep or meaningful. I just put the phone back on the hook, nice and gentle. There’s a click as the call is terminated. Not more than five seconds pass before it rings again, but I’m already on the way out.
“Where the longleaf pines are whispering
to him who loved them so.
Where the faint murmurs now dwindling
echo o’er tide and shore."
-A Grave Epitaph in Santa Rosa County, Florida; I wish I could remember the man's name.