Liana Scalettar

Raspail
 

This is what I remember. This is what I have dreamt. This is no longer my story.
 
In 1973, my mother and I moved into a small apartment on the rue Henri Barbusse. Our metro stop was Raspail. We ate oranges and yogurt, sitting at a small deal table; she wore smocked peasant dresses. I , honey-headed, had been given a pink tam. During the day she worked as a secretary at UNESCO; during the day, I played in the Luxembourg gardens, shoveling sand into a plastic pail. We were planning to stay. She would build a life – a new one, one in which my father, who had stopped showing up at home and then simply – as if into air – vanished, would play no part. I would become French. There was the national insurance, available to all. There were the schools and the nurses, there was the boy on the bicycle coming to give me an injection. During the day, my English babysitter washed me in milk soap and read to me. In the evening, when my mother came home, we would sing and cook. Once there was no money for food. Once my mother stuffed letters from her grandmother into a drawer, so that I would not see. Come home, they said. Or: We miss you and our great-granddaughter very much. They had already moved to Central Park West by then and by then wondered, sometimes aloud, where we were.
 
One day we traveled on a bateau mouche down the river. There were the flecked granite walls. There my hand reaching towards them. The walls were sparkling with mica and the river’s surface with sun. My mother, pale-armed, was laughing with a strange man. Anne, my babysitter, had packed egg salad sandwiches with watercress; she and her junkie boyfriend were fruititarians, but we were not. We were regular vegetarians with her. We were given, that year, to La Vache Qui Rit. I did not know that poverty was the cause of our being so given, I would not know for many years.
 
“As I was going to Saint Ives,” said Anne, “I met a man with many knives.”
 
“Salut,” I said. I wished, perhaps, to turn a somersault.
 
“Cats, sacks, wives, knives,” said Anne, “How many were going to Saint Ives?”
 
I knew the answer. I did not wish to divulge it. (She had read the entire poem through while I was not paying attention, or was rummaging in her canvas tote bag for a plum or a handful of almonds.)
 
“How many, love?” Anne said. I heard my mother’s laughter; I stretched my arm towards the wall; I dawdled and squatted down to examine a ladybug that was crawling along the deck.
 
Of the other tourists on the boat I can say nothing at all. Some knew the history of these boats and others did not; some were French and some were not; some, like my mother and me, had been down this part of the Seine and remembered it. Others had not, and would not. The first stop beyond the city limits, or the second. The banks a tangled parsley-green. Up the plank we scrambled. (I was no longer a black-eyed infant – I had already been cast away. And was therefore held the more closely, on those days when she remembered me. I had been known, already, to read too much. I had been known to long for her and to cling.)
 
Away from the city, my mother grew easier: her cares seemed to leave her, and she no longer grew skittish when a car horn sounded too loudly or when unknown voices sounded in the hallway outside our door. I gamboled on these days, running until I could barely hear their voices or until they caught up, giggling, and scooped me into their interlaced arms. Now I wanted to be sedate. Or so I think. I think this day was different.
 
We waded through the tall grasses, my babysitter and my mother and me. My father was said to be in Istanbul or in London, to be ill or to be dead; my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ voices had, before we left New York, enveloped me in a great tight cloak of sound, which, though horrifying in its content, soothed me in its tones, soprano and alto and bass and tenor and countertenor and mezzo-soprano, singing and saying and reaching and reaching out. My mother was well then, she did not then speak in an African pidgin — not hers – or claim that I had been born from another woman, in another year, in another time and place. We were well then. I swung my honey-head in the air. “Here?” said Anne. She missed English oaks but did not dare to say so; we settled ourselves onto a muslin sheet she spread out upon the ground. They had brought alphabet blocks which I loved but did not need; they had brought fruit and nuts and cresses; they had brought drugs which they did not share with me, but whose presence I sensed. Their shame seeped from them. It made my mother, who usually wore Eau de Rochas and smelled like lemon and sandalwood, smell acrid. She looked away. She spoke of the birds.
 
For years I will try to rescue her. At forty, I will stop.
 
Places: Renoir, Picasso, Gluck. Raspail: the great chemist. Barbusse: the great maudit. For years, I gave that city to my parents, to their myths and refusals, the presence of each parent to the other like a vast invisible scratch, or like a twin dead at birth but always present. One cannot say that it had been the happiest of divorces. One cannot say that we were attaining closure. In 2007, I will learn that my father’s memory is like my own, I will be wanting marzipan and tangerines, I will be trudging through the snow on East Seventh Street, under a pink-red sky, saying under my breath, “here are the Wesleys published by my father, with money from my grandfather, kept in a flat file in Westchester, and needing to be filched (though they are mine) by me.” I will be thinking of barring the entry to my uncle’s old room with a cast-iron sculptured jack, worried that one of them will up and decide to flood the market, when suddenly I will remember that I have a job or three or ten, and that I may also ask for a loan. In that year my mother will think that we are in the house on Vaughn Avenue in New Rochelle, and I will learn that nothing ever goes away. In that year I will learn that while my father has been the secret to us, I have been the secret to him. Here we are in the Metropolitan Museum, at the same hour of the same day. Wintry cobalt lowering down. Here we are on West Twelfth Street, he outside an AA meeting – while putatively on Long Island – and I trotting home to East Thirteenth Street. While putatively trotting home to East Thirteenth Street. We, in that year, only recognize one another when we are officially to meet; other sightings, like those of a student seeing a teacher outside the classroom, are impossible to bear. How many times have we passed one another and not known? How many people do we know in common? Who else has been forced to proffer a stiff little smile, reticent to the end, not knowing if we know that they know the other as well as the self?
 
We sat on the muslin sheet spread on the ground. The man – let’s call him Pierre – with whom my mother spoke on the boat approached. His eyes were a piercing blue, and he became for me another man with blue eyes, another man whose face I will see everywhere until I see my father again. Pierre did not otherwise resemble my father.
 
(“You would say that,” my mother said.)
 
May I?” He asked.
 
My mother inclined her head, as if to invite him.
 
“Thank you.” He sank down. Picnicking agreed with him.
 
Anne offered him a greengage plum. He accepted; he made a lot of the French name, reine Claude, and the women flushed with pleasure.

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LIANA SCALETTAR’s fiction and poetry have appeared in American Short Fiction, Arts & Letters, Drunken Boat, Failbetter, Gutcult, LIT, Nidus, Sentence and Washington Square. Awards include a Pushcart Prize nomination, recognition by Drunken Boat’s panliterary awards and Failbetter’s tenth anniversary novella contest, a Glimmer Train prize, and the Amanda Davis scholarship of the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference. She has been a resident at the MacDowell Colony, the Santa Fe Art Institute, and Vermont Studio Center. Educated at Columbia, Brown and Sarah Lawrence, Liana has taught at Boston, Brown, Fordham, Parsons, Queens, the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

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