Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

A Thousand Words

BY CHRISTINE PIVOVAR

 

 A.

From the steps of Sacré-Cœur Danny could see all of Paris before him, a miniature model city spreading to the horizon like Lake Ontario, and he felt like throwing up. There were several reasons for this, the most immediate being that he’d just drunk a double espresso on an empty stomach before jogging all the way up the “mont” of Montmartre. A faint whiff of diesel fuel tainted the cool, damp morning air. The rising sun glinted off the windows of far-distant skyscrapers and the needle point of the Eiffel Tower, and he wished Emile were here to see it. He’d been so focused on words he hadn’t even thought of bringing his camera. He took a moment to catch his breath, which quelled his nausea a bit, and continued around the basilica into the twisty, gray-bricked lanes of Montmartre. He had to see a man named Khaled about a spelling bee and be back with breakfast before Cécile woke up.

He hadn’t competed in five years, but since yesterday in the airport, when he’d picked up a copy of Le Sport and stumbled on a pair of code words he instantly recognized, he couldn’t stop thinking about it. He was spelling everything—memorizing street signs, translating and transmuting the words on perfume ads, scrambling the letters of graffiti tags and rewriting them in his mind. He tried to dismiss it, in the interest of being a supportive husband and good traveling partner to Cécile, yet here he was.

Kif-Kif was wedged in a narrow alley between a tabac and a bar that both still had their steel garage-door shutters pulled over their eyes, across the way from a souvenir shop. He squeezed into the narrow space between the wall and the counter, placed his order, and, over his pounding heart, sputtered out “Je cherche Khaled. La compétition d’épeler?” The tan, leather-jacketed man handing him his change squinted at Danny, making some kind of judgment.

“Pouvez payer?” Khaled scribbled on the back of the receipt. “For this information, 25 euros. There is a man called Jean-François. He will decide whether to let you in.” Khaled’s accent had the clipped R’s of the Arabic lying beneath the French. He slid the receipt across the counter, kept his long fingers pressed to it. Danny handed over two more bills, and Khaled tucked the receipt into the bag of croissants. “Bonne chance.”

 

B.

Cécile lay sprawled underneath the covers like a re-cocooned butterfly. He saw her open one eye when he came in. He remained in the entry for a moment, muting the closing door, and waited to see what kind of mood she was in. Since her mother had died, there were mornings when she woke up her rosy self and dropped into a gray-hued pinpoint of irritability and despair over breakfast; and yet there were mornings that dawned in gloom where she emerged from her shower with her spirits rising like the steam off her body.

Today she was giving him a puzzled—was it suspicious?—look. He’d never told her he had once been the All-Canada champion of the Thousand Words Spelling Bee, an international society that hosted high-stakes underground tournaments all around the Anglophone and expatriate world. His last bee was five years ago, just before the wedding, when he’d gone all in on a sudden-death final showdown and lost the money they’d set aside for the honeymoon. He told Cécile that he’d lost it gambling on sports. They’d been planning to come here, to Paris.

“I got breakfast.” He handed her a café crème and a paper bag containing two pains au chocolat.

“You didn’t take your camera?” She watched him as he slipped off his running shoes, ran his fingers through his sweaty-at-the-roots hair.

“Didn’t feel like lugging it around while I ran.” He turned the shower on. While he waited for the water to warm up: “Um…” It was important that he worded this carefully. “Have you thought about what you want to do today?”

“Mmm,” she groaned sleepily.

He got in the shower, thought about the spellings of obscure words. When he re-emerged, she was sitting up, watching the French news. “I want to go to Notre Dame tomorrow night, remember,” she said while he burrowed into his suitcase looking for his favorite pair of socks. “So why don’t you pick something for today.”

“All right.” He spread the free city map over the bedspread and tried to plan an itinerary that would allow him to find this Jean-François on Quai Saint-Michel without making it seem like he had an agenda.

“Puis-j’ manger l’autre?”

Danny watched her pull the second pastry from the bag. He hoped it was the television that made her switch into French. There had been these days when she broke down sobbing and seemed to forget she knew how to speak English; he thought she’d been moving past that. The receipt with his directions was stuck to the bottom of the pastry. Cécile peeled it off, and Danny snatched it from her lap and stuck it in his pocket.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing, there was just something on there I wanted to remember.”

She gave him a skeptical look. Then she laughed. A tightness in his chest released. “Let’s go see Paris!” she said.

 

C.

Seven-hundred and four steps to the second level of the Eiffel Tower. Cécile now wished they had taken the elevator, but she’d suggested the stairs knowing Danny would prefer to be more physically active and that the endorphins would be good for her jet-lagged body. She was so focused on not complaining that she hardly noticed his slowing pace and the shaking in his legs getting worse as they climbed. She felt her own shortness of breath, though, and found his pausing on the landing of step 242 gallant. “Don’t hold back on my account,” she said.

A family of four trudged up behind them, a balding French papa followed by two little boys who exclaimed at the green lattice of iron surrounding them in prim British accents, the slight, sarcastic English mum bringing up the rear.

“Mummy, why did they stop?” the littler, more ginger boy asked.

“They’re tired, I reckon.” The woman caught Cécile’s eye, smiled knowingly and mouthed a “Hi” at them.

“I’m not tired!” the older boy shouted from a few steps above them.

“I know, you’re doing wonderfully, boys.”

Cécile smiled back at the woman. Danny leaned against an iron beam, scrolling through his iPhone. She had already caught him a couple of times this trip sneaking a look at pictures of Emile. They’d left him with Danny’s mother in Toronto—Emile’s only grandma now.

She missed her mon petit too. She wondered again if they should have brought him along. It would have given her something to do, distract her from constantly thinking about her mother. It was Alice who’d planned the trip, her final adventure, but she hadn’t made it long enough. So Cécile and Danny were here now, taking the honeymoon they’d never had. But it was like those last few months all over again. Danny would treat her delicately, like someone else’s difficult child. She’d get irritated at his attention and pull away, and they would both go off into their own worlds until one of them finally gave in. Lately, they’d been able to rise above their petty squabbles; Emile’s presence, his growing personhood, had seemed to help. But here it was just them, and all she could think about was Alice, not Danny. Not that she wanted to admit it to him.

The wind on the platform brushed her hair away from her face better than any headband. It was crowded. She held Danny’s hand as he burrowed for a vantage point along the railing. As he focused his lens through the diamonds of wire mesh, she had the abrupt fear that the camera was going to slip from his hands, fall away and shatter on the pavement below, where tiny, perfectly defined people waited. She instinctively felt for the wedding ring snug on her finger and the sunglasses balanced atop her nose and ears.

Together they gazed out at the white, windowed expanse of the city, each building fitted into place like nineteenth-century Lego blocks. She looked east along the river in search of Notre Dame. She’d been looking at it for months on the hospital room bulletin board, where Alice had pinned up a warped postcard her friend had sent from there decades ago. Alice had been devoutly religious, old-school Québecoise Catholic, and had nurtured a lifelong love of Paris with childlike obsession. She’d had stacks of books of the cathedral on her coffee table for as long as Cécile could remember.

“That’s where I was this morning.” Danny pointed out the distant dome of Sacré Cœur. “Do you want to look through the binoculars?” He fished a euro coin out of his pocket. She held out her hand nonchalantly, trying not to audibly sigh.

Everything looked the same, just bigger and more detailed, in the binoculars. This was the sight some people waited their whole lives to see, the sight Alice had withered away, diminished, cancer-ridden and white, without ever seeing. It was somehow exactly as Cécile had always imagined it. She felt disappointed that she wasn’t more awed and guilty for feeling disappointed.

After the funeral, Cécile had received an email from the administration at Notre Dame. Alice had apparently applied for a Mass to be said for her during the trip. Cécile wasn’t very religious, but she had decided it would be right to go. At the time, it hadn’t sounded terribly difficult. Now, though, she had visions of a second funeral, of herself losing it and having to be escorted into the vestibule in Danny’s patient arms.

He bounced around to all the gaps in the perimeter, mumbling to himself as he snapped photographs. The wind cut through her coat.

“I’m ready whenever you are,” she said once she tracked him down.

“Oh. Okay. We can go.” He leaned back away from the railing, squinting appraisingly at his camera screen.

“Don’t rush yourself. Take as many pictures as you want.”

“No, it’s fine. Actually—” He looked at his watch. “Whatever you want to do, I’m yours.”

No, she wanted to say. Stop being so nice. She wanted him to stop being a martyr. Maybe they should skip Notre Dame, do something as a couple instead. “Let’s go to lunch, then.”

 

D.

They bought Emile a French national soccer team scarf, a tiny “J’(heart) Paris” t-shirt in two different sizes (he was growing that fast), a stuffed bear wearing a beret and a small plastic Eiffel Tower that glowed with alternating-colored LEDs. They ate crêpes and walked along the Seine. Danny didn’t know if Cécile’s silence sprung from sadness or just deep thought. The clouds thickened, and the light took on the fuzzy-around-the-edges dim of false dusk. It would be nice to see what kind of shot he could get in this light—Cécile silhouetted in front of a gilded bridge, perhaps, or the pigeons picking through spilled popcorn in a puddle next to the quai—but he’d been gently and unhurriedly directing them toward center of the city, and he had a superstitious fear that if he interrupted their quiet stroll they’d never make it.

After he lost the spelling bee, Cécile would only allow him to sign up for fantasy hockey if he took her on as a managing partner, which had led to several fights due to her stubborn and naïve propensity to draft as many players off the Canadiens roster as she could. He quit spelling completely, concentrated on his photojournalism career, and let everyone believe that his extraordinary skills at Scrabble were simply a charming party quirk. He remembered a bilingual game with Cécile’s family a couple of Christmases ago; he’d been so confident in his ability that he hadn’t noticed until tallying the final turn that Alice had beaten him. He’d looked up in surprise, and she had winked at him—knowingly, he’d thought at the time. He was constantly aware of the fact that it was meant to be her here instead of him, and that more than anything convinced him he couldn’t let this tournament pass by.

Green book stalls lined the quai like a postcard, spilling with threadbare cloth covers from another century, posters and sidewalk paintings hanging rippled and pulpy from the river’s humidity. He half-expected everything to warble into thick, impressionist brushstrokes. Beyond the bouquinistes, across the river, rose the two Gothic towers of Notre Dame. “Look.” He leaned into Cécile.

“Ouais…tomorrow,” she said absently.

He led her to one of the stalls and started poking through the books, peering out the corner of his eye at an old bookseller. He looked down the row; all the bouquinistes were old, white hair tufting out beneath tweed caps. Some wore glasses. “I didn’t know we’d be walking all the way down here today,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

Cécile was paging through a coffee-table book filled with what looked like portraits of dining furniture and eggs prepared in various ways. He drifted away, allowed another camera-laden tourist to get between them and approached the bookseller. “Excusez-moi—eh, je cherche Jean-Francois…?”

E.

Cécile had been caught by a little palm-sized book, dated to a penciled in “P.-M. Marin, 1952” on the flyleaf, a children’s book offering brief biographies and aged pastel illustrations of 100 French saints and patriots, from Charlemagne to Charles de Gaulle, which she felt, with an odd and almost definitely misremembered certainty, her mother must have owned as a child. She felt a strong desire to buy it for her, though there would be no one to present it to. It was a sentimental idea. But what kind of childhood would Emile have if he didn’t grow up learning his Jeanne d’Arc and la petite Thérèse and Victor Hugo? Maybe she could dig up her mother’s old copy somewhere in all those boxes and garage-sale baskets of stuff. She would have to ask Danny. He was the one who’d been in charge of all that sorting and selling. She was grateful for all the work he’d done for her family, but part of her suspected that he’d only volunteered to do those things to get away from her weepy, messy grief.

She tracked him down a couple of stalls further on, coming away with a paperback copy of Finnegans Wake. She didn’t often think of him as exceptionally intellectual or literary, but every once in a while he surprised her with his truly impressive vocabulary or a grad-school level book. He was smiling oddly, as if he’d just shared some inside joke with the bookseller, a smile unconscious that the world around him was watching. The way he looked now, paging through that book, reminded her of the way he used to get when he gambled, back before they were married. At least this time the trip had been paid for months ago.

They needed a chance to get to know each other again. She made a mental note to look up really ritzy restaurants they could splurge at tomorrow night.

 

F.

It was reduced price at the Louvre after 6 p.m., and while Cécile wandered the galleries, he spent the time reading the book Jean-François had given him. Finnegans Wake was both ticket and clue, and he had until midnight to commit the jumble of neologic gibberisms to memory. It was good his French had improved, after five years of being married to Cécile and raising a bilingual son.

You never knew what they would throw at you. The program of competition for the one he’d lost included:

Foreign Etymologies

Alternating Synonyms

Backwards Spelling

Alphabet Chain

Obscure Homophones

Cities of Russia

Phone Book Surnames

Know your Shakespeare

Creative Swearing

 

and the thousand-word, sudden-death spelloff.

He was antsy all evening. She had grown even quieter. They both pretended to ignore it. They went back to the hotel around ten and cuddled on the bed while a Liam Neeson action movie played on TV, dubbed into French. She wrote in her journal, read through this old French children’s book she’d bought earlier, rested her head on his shoulder. She started to fall asleep against him, the fingers she’d entwined with his falling limp.

“Cee-cee,” he whispered, kissing her ear. “Is it okay if I go out for a while? I’m wired, and I don’t want to disturb you.” She hummed and burrowed into the pillows. It seemed like she wouldn’t even notice if he was gone. He had known it would be like this. They might as well be on two separate vacations.

Out on the street, his heart raced with excitement. He felt like sprinting all the way to the Latin Quarter. He’d started doing this as a teenager, when it became clear he was too cool for Chess Club but not nearly cool enough to play hockey. He hadn’t thought he missed it this much, but he felt nineteen again and full of letters. He’d tell Cécile when he got back. If he won, which was unlikely.

 

G.

She woke Saturday with a sense of anticipation, tempered as it was by the familiar sick feeling of loss in her gut. Danny was still asleep. He’d come back close to 4 a.m.—she’d peeked at the clock in her momentary wakefulness. That wasn’t exactly what she had in mind by wanting him to enjoy his vacation.

It was 9:22 now. She would let him sleep a little longer, but not too long. It had been his own decision to stay out that late anyway, and too much inactivity was bound to make her depressed. She went to the window, watched the sun reach the ivory flagstones of the hotel’s courtyard. She dug his camera out from under his pile of clothes—here for 36 hours and already making a mess—and took a photo of him sleeping, his breaths annoyingly loud through a stuffy nose. His cheeks were sandpapery; he must not have shaved yesterday. Had he finally reached his breaking point? It was fine, she wanted to tell him. She didn’t expect him to keep waiting on her hand and foot. But she wished he could admit it. She got dressed and went down to the lobby in search of some coffee.

#

            He had showed up at a ground floor restaurant whose stone walls made it feel like some cozy old dungeon. The usual sort of crowd was there—bespectacled expats toting paperbacks and notebooks, French misfits sporting tees with ironic American sayings on them. He didn’t recognize anybody from the old days, and, judging from the casual conversations they were all engaged in, nobody else had simply wandered in off the street like he did. There was a moment just before the game started when he wanted to leave his cognac at the bar and walk right back home. But as soon as the category was announced (French Street Names) and he recalled the guidebook he’d read cover-to-cover on the plane, his fate was sealed. He won the round.

Next round, his last-minute gamble that “Tryggvason” had two G’s helped him squeeze into the top three in Medieval Kings, and by the time they were on Latin Roots his memory was clicking the way an athlete’s hands remember the proper way to grip a baseball bat years after he’s last played. He felt better than he had in the past several months. He couldn’t say if it was because he was simply having fun or because he was away from Cécile. He didn’t want to think about it too much.

He had a bad draw in Portmanteaux (muzzlenimiissilehims), and his opponent in Human Thesaurus seemed to be an actual human thesaurus, smirking at him behind rimless glasses and downing pints of Guinness. Still, when the referees held up the chalkboard at the end of the night, there his name was, firmly in fifth place, with enough points to compete for the thousand-euro prize the following evening.

The final would be a lightning round, category: Rhyme Time with Joyce. He could stand to find a café and spend the day reading his Finnegans Wake. And that had seemed like a perfectly reasonable plan at four in the morning. But when he woke up, he realized it would be more complicated than that. He had two options. One, tell Cécile. Which would involve explaining the past lies as well as why it was so important he do this here, tonight. And would mean missing the Mass for Alice. Or, he could skip it. But as he looked at the marker dash on the back of his hand that had recorded his admission last night, he got a little choked up. He had a chance to win! He could make good on that money he’d lost years ago. He resolved to tell her sometime today, when the time was right. He would definitely tell her after he won. Or even if he didn’t.

He got dressed in a fitted button-down and brown leather jacket Cécile had given him last Christmas. He shaved and used some of her styling gel in his hair. When he emerged from the bathroom she was seated crosslegged on the bed reading a guidebook she must have purloined from the lobby. “Ben, j’veux aller à Père Lachaise,” she said with an almost childlike air, as if to say, this is my decision, don’t even bother to challenge me.

He was surprised. “A cemetery? Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“Why not?” she said, as if there were no issue here. “Maybe I want to kiss Oscar Wilde’s grave.”

He was pretty sure he knew more Oscar Wilde from one meet’s Edwardian Hedonism specialty round than she’d ever read, but he didn’t say anything. “It’s a big place. Are you sure you’re up for all that walking?”

“Are you sure you are, Mr. 4 a.m.?” She smiled at him, a challenge shining in her hazel eyes.

“Toujours.”

 

H.

They climbed through winding fields of graves—names eroding away letter by letter—and picked their way through a hand-written maze to the scattered bright stars of the map: Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde. Abelard and Héloïse, lovers wrenched apart and reunited only under a stone pavilion. Cécile led him intrepidly through the city of dead, dry-eyed and flush-faced. He kept waiting for her to break down, to reach for his hand, but she never did. On a wide path, they stepped aside for a hearse to glide past with the crunch of gravel, followed by a procession of pea-coat-clad bereaved holding bouquets of wildflowers. Cécile crossed herself as they passed. He raised an eyebrow at her. She shrugged as if to say “What?”

His late night started to catch up with him. He sank onto a bench, took Joyce out of his jacket pocket and commenced to study, only all he could think about, he found, was Emile: singing his ABC’s in English and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in French; at the funeral pushing his Thomas the Tank Engine down the wooden pew; his blue plastic glasses sliding down his nose as he defended their fireplace-turned-hockey-goal.

“Bored?” Cécile took a seat next to him.

“No, just resting my feet.”

“Liar.” She leaned into him, trying to look inside his book.

“What are you doing?”

“Seeing what you’re reading.”

“Why?” He flipped the cover around. “You don’t think I’d be reading Joyce on vacation.”

“No, I really don’t.”

He showed her the pages. “What did you think it was, then?”

“I don’t know, FIFA betting odds or something?”

“You think I’m gambling?” He acted offended.

“You did once.”

He lifted the book out of her hands and put it back inside his jacket. “Go kiss Oscar,” he said, pointing to the lipstick-covered tomb across the way.

She stood up and walked away but turned around on the path. “Are you?”

“Am I what?”

“Gambling?”

“No.” He got up and pulled her into his arms. “I’m here for you.”

 

I.

She felt like the two of them were playing chicken, each waiting for the other to crack first. She had the restaurant all picked out, a little rustic place on Rue Cler with a terrace lit by the glow from the tower, but still she said nothing. He kept poking his nose into that book and mumbling to himself as if unaware she could see and hear him. I dare you to do it, she thought.

“What are you doing, training for a spelling bee?” she joked.

He laughed, then put on a serious expression. “So what time is Mass tonight?”

And then they were in the Latin Quarter, getting an early kabob dinner. He was still acting cagey, glancing at his watch.

“Do you have somewhere to be?” she asked.

At 6:27, he still hadn’t said anything, and neither had she. With reluctance, she led him into the cathedral. Here they were again, reduced to their perpetual roles, a creature of sadness and a shoulder to cry on. Why had he made her do this? As they strolled around the ambulatory, regarding 800-year-old statues and night-muted stained glass windows, Danny held her hand with a twitchy, sweaty agitation.

A little old lady handed them folded programs and ushered them into a row of straw-bottomed chairs. Danny looked around settled into the last seat on the right. Cécile sat with her hands in her lap and peered through the chandelier light at the rows of great stone pillars hemming them in. A pair of blue-robed cantors sang Vespers in Latin. She could picture her mother’s eyes tearing up in the midst of this splendor, the old-world Catholic grandeur you rarely saw in their mid-century Québec suburb. It was beautiful, Cécile couldn’t deny that.

They stood to chant an entrance hymn, and Cécile felt empty space beside her. It seemed, for a second, that she had hallucinated Danny, and that Alice had been here the whole time, shrugging off such insignificant complications as cancer and death. It was like the moment of waking from an unremembered dream when a residual peace hovers in the air like the perfume of a woman who has just left the room, before the mind locks back in and you are left with nothing, a dead mother and a husband who has just disappeared. The priest recited his lines, miked so poorly she could barely distinguish the French from the Latin.

She tried to convince herself that he’d just stepped out and was coming right back. But he hadn’t returned by the second reading. What was so important he had to leave without a single word? She couldn’t let him go like this. Maybe there was still a way to save this vacation. She was too agitated to stay there any longer. When the congregation stood for the gospel, she slipped under a red velvet rope and all but ran out of the cathedral.

 

J.

Tourists all about, street performers and peddlers, but no sign of Danny. If she were smart, she’d remember her Girl Scouts and stay put until he came back. All his stuff was still at the hotel, and she had the key. She could feel the weight of the cathedral towering above her. She put a hand on the cold stone to ground herself. She had just been abandoned in Paris; she couldn’t get a handle on this reality. She felt numb, as if she were gazing at herself from outside, as if she’d just been mugged.

She pushed through the crowds onto the Pont Neuf, looking for him, still not able to believe he’d disappeared instead of just being straight with her. Or was it his fault? Maybe he was gambling, and he’d gotten into trouble. He could’ve been kidnapped by European crime lords for all she knew; she imagined she was Liam Neeson in that movie they’d watched last night and walked more briskly. The wind picked up, and she could hear the slosh of water down below the quai, but the bookstalls they’d visited yesterday were closed, folded into themselves like a row of rectangular turtles.

Who was this man she’d brought to Paris with her? She walked back toward Notre Dame. He had to be somewhere close. She opened the heavy door of every pub she passed, peering into the darkness as if she’d be able to pick him out from a group of strangers.

There was a crowd around the entrance to Shakespeare and Company. The lights were on, and she heard the echo of microphoned voices coming from inside. Speaking English, maybe. She got closer. All she could hear now were the sounds of letters being recited, and cheers erupting periodically. She stepped closer again, until she was peering over the shoulder of a tall, cigar-scented man in a flannel jacket.

“B-R-O—” That voice, that familiar Toronto accent—Danny was inside chanting letters into a microphone. “-C-H-T-H-Y-A-N. Brontoichthyan.” The crowd broke into another cheer.

Cécile tried to push through to the entrance. “Qu’est-c’qui s’passe?” she asked.

“Eh?” The man next to her tugged on his ear.

“What’s going on?”

“Compétition d’épeler,” he said. “Spelling bee.”

To her surprise, she laughed. So her mother was still dead and she and Danny kept missing each other. There was something cathartic in the silliness of it. She laughed more than she had in months, and the man held up his hand as if to shush her. Somebody else was speaking.

“Y-O-N-D-M-I-S-T. Yondmist.” Irish, judging by the accent.

“Why aren’t they spelling real words?” she asked her neighbor during the next lull.

“Special category,” he said. “James Joyce. Finnegans Wake.”

 

K.

Danny left the bookstore drenched in sweat. It was starting to rain outside. There was still a bit of a crowd gathered around the door. He pushed past them, not speaking or making eye contact with anyone. He looked at his watch. The whole thing had taken just over an hour. His nerves were still buzzing with the adrenaline, but he felt more relaxed than he had in months, like he’d just woken up from the world’s most perfect nap. He picked up his pace. Would she still be in the church? In his limited experience, French Masses tended to drag on.  He prayed she’d still be there. He was ready to come clean about all of it.

Before he got into the cathedral yard, he stopped. There she was, not ten meters in front of him, leaning against a concrete stanchion and looking right at him. She rose as he approached her, and linked her arm with his. She gave him an amused—was it accusatory?—look, her eyebrows raised, and said, “So…did you lose again?”