CIRCUMFLEX

Lisa Maguire

 

Fred Petaque was boiling an egg in his Paris apartment when he received a call from a sixteen-year old nephew he had never met. It was nine o’clock in the morning, early for Fred, which meant it was three am in the States. Fred presumed the boy was drunk or high. But Dane sounded sober. He introduced himself, pronouncing his name carefully. Fred recalled the last time he’d heard it. On the day Dane was born, Fred told his sister that “dane” was an identifier for a native of Denmark, not a name for an Irish-Jewish kid from Long Island, and Marisa slammed down the phone in a post-partal tantrum. He had already been living in Paris for a while by then.

The boy told Fred that he had been given a birthday present of five hundred dollars, and he wanted to take a trip. He’d got a passport already, for a class trip to Toronto the previous fall; could he come visit his uncle in Paris for spring break?

Fred did not answer immediately, instead pausing to pull the tin pot off the stove top and take it to the sink, phone tucked between ear and chin. He opened the tap to run water to cool the egg. He knew it was too late, and that the egg was overcooked. He imagined the crumbly grey yolk awaiting him when he hung up the phone. “Uh, sure, I guess. Does your mother know about this? Is she okay with you visiting me?”

“She said I could visit anyone.”

“She said anyone?”

“Well, like, in the family. That’s what she said, when I asked.”

“Put her on, please.”

“I can’t. She’s asleep,” said Dane.

“Why do you want to visit me?”

“You live in Paris.” The boy paused a moment as he realized his misstep. “And I want to meet you.”

“Hey, do you like your name?” asked Fred.

“Sure. Do you like yours?”

When he had arrived in France years before, Fred had changed the spelling of his name from Petak to Petaque to sound less obviously foreign and ethnic. Now he regretted doing so. “Petaque” looked quaint and old fashioned. “Petak” was graphic and modern. Fred was a photographer, and, more recently, a website designer. He was aware of the subtle semiosis in the shapes of names.

“Give me your number. I’d like to call you back.” Dane gave him his phone number, and it was not the old 516 area code. Fred wondered where Marisa had moved. He also wondered how the kid had tracked him down.

When he hung up the phone, Fred lit a cigarette, immediately unlatching the tall windows and leaning on the iron railing, surveying the street. Kimmy, his girlfriend, did not like the smell of smoke. She was a frequent visitor to the apartment, although less and less these days. His street, the Rue de la Tombe Issoire, was like every other Parisian street, lined with low-rise apartment buildings terminating in a five-corner intersection, where there was a bakery, a café-tabac, a post office, a restaurant, and a bank. Small automobiles and mobylettes buzzed around the traffic circle.

Fred caught sight of an oversized yellow golf umbrella floating down the street and thought that his whole Parisian life had been bookended by this neighborhood. When he first came to Paris twenty seven years ago he had been a pensionnaire just around the corner on the Rue de l’Aude. He remembered mornings of cold water and milky coffee, followed by the thrill of stepping out his front door into the city of Paris. Back then, none of these streets had yet yielded their secrets. Fred’s current apartment, where he had lived for eleven years, would probably be his last address in France, since he’d bought the place and could not imagine moving ever again. Fred stubbed out his cigarette on the railing, watching the yellow umbrella bob around the corner onto the Rue d’Alésia and out of view.

Kiki and La Berma jumped on the desk as he closed the window. Enough time had passed for Fred to think about Marisa with a dispassionate, almost zoological, interest. What did she look like now? How did she live? Fred was above all curious about this nephew. As he rubbed La Berma’s little skull with an absentminded thumb he decided to call Dane back.

Fred then remembered it was three in the morning in America, so he postponed his call and headed to Le Rallye, where Cooperman was always having his breakfast around this time. Cooperman was his only American friend in Paris. At one time, Cooperman had been his best friend.

The day was mild and dry. Cooperman was sitting outside in a wicker chair, squinting at L’Equipe. His graduated lenses were on the tip of his nose, and his prescription shades perched on the broad expanse of scalp. Cooperman himself was a bookend of sorts. He and Fred started this Parisian adventure together as college students, except that Cooperman had gone home to finish school when the school year was over, while Fred had found a way, as the French say, to encrust himself. All these years later, after a few corporate downsizings and a bitter divorce, Cooperman was back in Paris, idling in cafés and living off the remains of his liquidated 401(k).

Salut,” said Fred. “What’s the score?”

Cooperman shook out the paper and tucked it in his chair. “I know you hate this shit, so I won’t tell you.”

Fred sat down. If he drank a coffee outside his apartment, it was at Le Rallye, but it was usually standing at the bar, which was a few bucks cheaper than having a waiter serve it to you on the terrasse, and, anyway, it gave him the chance to chat with the barman and a few of the guys he knew. After so many years in France, people had to look and listen hard to tell he was American. He was foreign; this any Frenchman could intuit, but it was difficult to determine from where.

Cooperman had been in Paris three months. He had arrived with little warning, renting a studio apartment on Rue du Père Corentin, mere minutes on foot from Fred’s place. They had been the only boys who’d stayed all three years in French class, before Fred went to art school and Cooperman became a varsity baseball player at Rutgers. They came to Paris together just as the door to their high school friendship was swinging shut. Cooperman signed up to a Junior Year Abroad Program, and Fred got a job as an assistant to an American photographer. When Fred’s parents objected to his plan, Fred raised the cash by taking a second job cutting grass in addition to his regular summer job at Swanky Frank’s. That summer, his last in America, had been a blur of pushing a mower under the blistering sun and broiling hot dogs. Cooperman had been a lifeguard.

“Why you up so early?” Cooperman replaced his reading glasses with his sunglasses. “Un crème,” he said to a waiter, pointing at Fred.

Fred thought: I have to get him to stop pointing at what he wants. It’s as if Paris is the Bethpage Town House diner.

“I was getting breakfast this morning and I got a call from my nephew.”

“Marisa’s kid?”

“Yes, he wants to visit.”

“Great. He’ll have a great time.”

“What will I do with a sixteen year old?”

“What do you need to do? Give him some money and send him out to have fun. How much trouble can he get into? It’s Paris for Christ’s sake. He can drink but he can’t drive.”

Fred remembered that Cooperman’s middle child was almost the same age as Dane. “Would you let Noah go out by himself here?”

“Ach. No problem.” Cooperman drained his cup. Whenever they met nowadays Fred was reminded how the clock had been running fast for his friend. Cooperman had lost a great quantity of hair, and the fine angles of his face had filled out with flesh.

“You know what I remember about your sister?” asked Cooperman.

Fred knew what he would say. It was the same thing he said whenever the topic of Marisa came up.

“I remember the last time I saw her. She was on the back of a motorcycle. Her hair was gorgeous… These long, black corkscrew curls, whipping around in the wind,” here Cooperman languidly rotated his hand in the air. “I called out to her, and she turned around behind her and waved back, and her hair was blowing like a flag.”

It must have been the summer after Marisa graduated from high school, when he and Cooperman were not yet sophomores. He did not have that particular memory of Marisa, but rather he remembered a stream of days that summer when she would peel out of the driveway, to which he attached the feeling of being left behind.

Cooperman had repeated this story so many times over the years such that, even though many of Fred’s real memories of Marisa had dissolved over the decades, he too could see Marisa on the motorcycle, tossing her hair around. Fred was just about Dane’s age that summer. It was true he had been left behind, but also strangely liberated: His parents had by this time expended all their disapproval on his sister, who had taken up with a biker, and he knew that there was nothing he could do to disappoint them further.

Fred wished he could remember seeing Marisa that day. He could see her. As if the image in negative had burnt into the insides of his eyelids, and was now indelible: Her fingers flicking casually at the boys, but in Fred’s mind, her face was looking forward, not backward, and smiling into the wind. He wanted to go back in time and tell Marisa he had felt the same way, but she would not have been able to hear over the roar of the bike. His younger self still longed to know if they all asked: Where’s Fred? Oh, he’s in Paris. The answer coming with a sigh perhaps, contemplating the Fred-sized hole left behind in Manhasset.

“Never met this kid.”

Cooperman propped his sunglasses on his forehead and looked squarely at Fred. “If you don’t want him here, don’t invite him.”

“He invited himself.”

“So? Say no.”

“I kind of want to see him.”

“So say yes.” Cooperman fished the newspaper out from under his thigh. “Christ, you’re such a bore.” He looked at the rugby page for a few minutes while Fred drank his coffee. Finally Cooperman said: “So. How’s business?”

Fred shrugged. “Doing okay with the dogs.”

“How do the dogs sit for you? Do you feed them or let them hump your leg?”

“Some of them are terrified of the lights. Sometimes I need to put together a low light situation.”

“Do they come to you?”
“Usually I go to them.”

“Huh.” Cooperman pulled on his ear. “How much you make off this, you said?”

“A thousand euros a sitting, before developing and printing.”

“No shit.”

“And at the gallery, well, Sylvie is thrilled. They think that the Guiberts might be interested. She’s the curator at the Maison européene. They have a schnauzer.”

Cooperman shook his head. “I can’t make fun of the dogs. Man, look at you. In your leather pants. And Kimmy.”

Fred knew that at one time Cooperman had pitied his poor and disorderly life. From three thousand miles away, it was easy to be envious of Fred in Paris, but Cooperman had been to see him a few times over the years, visiting as a tourist with his family. Fred had not owned a car or had central heating since he left America. But now Cooperman’s own life had not unfolded as planned.

Fred looked at the row of buttons straining on the frayed remains of one of Cooperman’s cuffed dress shirts. Fred had kept himself in good nick, that’s what the English girl Gillian had always said, although it made him uncomfortable, since Gillian was thirty and he always thought she was expressing wonder. Gillian was before Kimmy and after Véronique.

“So what do I do with this kid?”

Cooperman saw Fred was frowning, uncertain.

“Enjoy him.”

 

Two weeks later, Fred was standing behind the barricades in the arrivals hall at Roissy. He did not have a luggage cart or a hand-lettered sign. He assumed Dane would be travelling light, and thought the sign would make him look like a dork. He was worried about this, and he did not know why. Dane could well be a dork himself. Fred tended to doubt this. He was, after all, Marisa’s child.

Fred had thought too late of carrying some object or wearing an item of clothing that would easily identify him to his nephew, as if they were on a blind date. He had described himself to Dane over the phone: tall and thin, shaggy black hair and smooth black beard, both flecked with silver. Glasses with severe frames. Leather trousers.

The flight was coming from Miami. Mee-ah-mee, the French called it. In his second and final conversation with Dane, Fred discovered that Marisa had moved to a town outside of Boca Raton. The boy would stand out in the crowd, because the flight was filled with French families coming back from Disney World, and they carried with them all the signifiers of French en Floride: Red, sunburnt faces, new, unfaded Levi’s purchased on vacation, plastic bags of duty-free cigarettes, and expressions of harassment for being prohibited from lighting up said cigarettes virtually anywhere in America in the prior ten days.

A skinny boy carrying a puffy jacket and a knapsack came last. He had a long-sleeved thermal shirt with a short-sleeved t-shirt over it. Fred saw an intricate design encircling his wrist in ink, but could not be sure it was a real tattoo; it could have been a few bored hours in the plane with a marker. His jeans were falling off his flat young body. He hitched up the jeans and pushed limp black hair out of his face with an open palm and looked around. His eyes alighted on Fred.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

Dane shifted his bag to the opposite shoulder. He kept the nylon jacket from sliding away from his grasp with a jerk of his knee. He pushed his hair out of his eyes again and stood there, saying nothing.

“How was your flight?”

“It was okay.”

“Do you have anything else?”

“No.”

“Let’s get a taxi.”

They walked in silence down the length of the terminal to the taxi stand. It occurred to Fred that if this boy were another adult, he could make any number of light remarks about the progress of the airport construction, the French tourists on the flight, his own lack of transportation. But the boy would not hear the adult cues for irony and would not understand Fred’s own gentle mockery of himself, or his surroundings. It was not the way to introduce himself, so he said nothing.

In the taxi, Fred saw Dane looking around at the sodden strips of land, warehouses and rail yards, then apartment blocks and rows of sad houses, on streets punctuated with even sadder bars whose generic names (“Café des Sports”) were emblazoned across dirty awnings. They were passing through the poor suburbs near the Boulevard Périphérique. Soon sound barriers lining the road blocked out any landscape, but Dane still stared. He stared at the cars, the people in the cars, the French billboards, the dull grey northern European sky.

“Wow,” he said at last.

 

Upon Dane’s arrival at Fred’s apartment, Kiki and La Berma ran immediately under the sofa, and so Dane spared himself the awkwardness of making conversation with Fred by getting down on the floor, head wedged under the furniture, trying to coax them out. Fred drank a coffee while Dane phoned his mother to say he had arrived safely. Dane then spent part of the afternoon trying to text his girlfriend from Fred’s phone with no luck. They went to a cell phone store to buy a French phone that might be able to send messages to the US. Later, Fred took him to a Moroccan restaurant in the Quartier Latin where they ate couscous with cheap sweet house rosé. Dane marveled that he was served alcohol, although he was dismayed he could not order a Mountain Dew.

“So,” said Fred, lighting a Rothman. “Do you like your school?”

“It’s all right. Kind of boring.”

“What’s your favorite subject?”

“I don’t really have one.”

“How’s your mother?”

“She’s fine.”

Fred recalled the children of people he knew. The American ones, the teenagers, were similarly difficult to talk to. They were all such hard nuts. At the same age, he and Cooperman seemed so open; simply waiting for an adult to take notice and talk to them so that they could explain what was so offensive and trivial about suburban life. This boy did not have answers to any questions. None of them did anymore.

“How come I never met you before?” asked Dane.

Fred shrugged.

“Like, I didn’t see you at Grandma’s shiva. You didn’t come.”

The year his mother died had been a time of particular penury for Fred. He’d just started the web design business, and had purchased all new computer equipment and so could not afford the plane ticket. He made a three-dimensional collage of family photographs featuring his mother, putting her face in a pastel rococo heaven, and sent it to Marisa. She did not acknowledge receipt of it.

Page 2