“Is there anything else I can do for you, Nathalie?”
“Don’t go yet, Eli! I am lonely. I don’t know if I can adapt to this new place.”
She knows she shouldn’t beg for his presence. But she can’t help it. Had she known the extent of her loneliness when stranded in Paris would she have left Prague and her easy and foreseeable existence?
“Sorry, Eli, don’t feel obliged to stay with me. Don’t you know by any chance when Alex comes be back?” She asks after a minute hesitation.
“I can’t tell you, Nathalie. I am sure he will do his impossible to be with you as soon as possible. If you excuse me now, I have things to do. Don’t hesitate to give me a ring any time you feel like it. It’s always a pleasure.”
“Thanks, Eli, I will. Is there a reason that Alex rented this apartment for me? “
“He didn’t rent it, he bought it. Don’t you remember I let you sign the papers? It’s yours. He doesn’t want you to stay with Magda or at his office at Rue Vaneau as he intends to separate his private life from his professional one.”
“He could always move Magda somewhere else and let me stay at la Huchette, couldn’t he?”
“La Huchette is my family heirloom that I am renting to Alex for his new recruits, at the moment Magda and soon also Katia. Now I must really be going. See you, Nathalie!”
She goes to the picture window looking down at the garden. She has never expected to be the owner of a luxury apartment in the 16th arrondissement next to the Bois de Boulogne, one of the most sought after neighborhoods of Paris. The garden is gorgeous, more a park amongst the adjacent greeneries of the surrounding buildings. In Prague she had also a garden view from her room. But these gardens were courtyards in the 19th century where the servants used to beat out the dust from the Persian carpets when vacuum cleaners were yet a futuristic dream.
She would have preferred the Latin Quarter as here the Sorbonne is far away. Alex could have asked her first, couldn’t he? Would she have accepted? Isn’t it absurd to depend on a man she doesn’t really know and maybe doesn’t love?
The trees in the garden are moving in the light iridescent like the interior of a queen conch, the hue which craved the impressionist painters. She should be happy to be in Paris, studying and shaping her life free of clichés and longueurs. She dries a tear running down her cheek with the back of her hand. Giving her life to literature is the most absurd thing she could have done. Strange images are swarming in her brain; are they souvenirs or figments of her imagination? What is the difference? She hates Alex for having left her alone. Can you truly hate only the one you love?
A ray of sun rips the clouds and the garden becomes alive in all its colors chasing the gloom inside her away. Living in a walled garden brings about pleasure and limitation. You can’t have one without the other. To leave Prague was ending a play; the curtain went down, the stage emptied, there was some applause there were some boos. Something new had to happen before the frighteningly hollow silence would make her scream filling out the long empty spaces between her past and her future that she may never be able to fill.
She hesitates to answer the phone. Whoever it may be he is too late. Loneliness has grown over her like weeds over the Sleeping Beauty. Who would be fool enough to put a kiss on the numb lips of a girl who doesn’t wish to be woken up? She doesn’t care any more about Alex’s return or living in an apartment whose every piece is the remains of Alex’s past. The Holy Trinity of Alex, Nathalie and Love have become just another artifact, a graffiti carved on a prison wall.
She answers with a reluctant “Hello”.
“Do you like your new home, Nathalie?” Alex’s voice reverberates with the impatience of a benefactor expecting his dues.
She is aware he will never forgive her for being so shockingly ungrateful to him who puts aside his own interests to make her life comfortable. Yet as much as she tries she is unable to thank him. She resents his interfering with her life which spurns her right to be herself and will turn her dream of love into a nightmare and a friend into a fiend.
“Why has it taken you so long to answer my call?” Alex’s voice is vibrant with deception.
She should react. His patience is at its end and soon she will be with a man whose love and hate are so closely knitted that she won’t be able to separate them.
“All is wonderful, thank you for the trouble you have taken for me, Alex.” She expresses at least some sort of gratitude not suicidal enough to cut off the branch she is sitting on.
“I’ll try my best to be with you tonight and we can do something interesting. Shall I meet you at your place?”
“That will be great, Alex. I can hardly wait.” She says lamely aware that her voice has a tinny sound of a false coin and Alex is not easily fooled about feelings.
“The same here!” Alex hangs up on the sound of a kiss and she tries to turn her life into a routine that will help her to proceed from one day to the next in a sleepwalker’s way preventing her from realizing she hasn’t got what she had asked for. Leaving Prague hasn’t solved her problems. Her novel is deadlocked and her studies at the Sorbonne don’t give her existence a meaning. To top it, Alex seems to be the wrong man and just another item added to her dictionary of errors.
Now she should stop brooding not to be late for her consultation with Professor Sorrel, the adviser of her doctoral thesis which would be not only disrespectful but also highly ill-advised. No need to irritate a man who is in doubt about her scholarly capacities. Her style ruffles his academic mind as, according to his opinion, it stays halfway between the literary and scientific universe- which he doesn’t consider as a compliment.
She searches in her closet for something suited for a person with scientific aspirations giving a thankful thought to Elijah who arranged her move to perfection. She decides for a white T-shirt, black trousers and a black leather jacket; then it occurs to her that her choice is much too much Paris Left Bank. It would bring Sorrel back to his existentialist youth he had to sacrifice for his honorable aspirations of a university professorship indispensable for a married man with a no-nonsense wife and three children, three being not just the number of spirituality but also a necessity for paying less tax and gaining a lot of other social advantages.
She changes into a plain white shirt and a black knee-long skirt, ties her hair into a pony-tail, puts on some lipstick but then, on second thought, wipes it off settling midway between an academic and a Left Bank look.
Walking down towards the Latin Quarter along the Seine embankment she elaborates on her stratagem for dealing with Sorrel. She needs to tame his aversion; otherwise he won’t accept her thesis. She is in a dire need of a degree to find a suitable job liberating her from Alex.
Passing along the cozy house boats rocking on the Seine she tries to imagine her future. This is not that simple as she doesn’t see clearly her present. Why did she choose the literature of the 17th century? Very probably because she wanted to take refuge from her problematic present to the delights of the past, extremely dubious delights as she realized later when she had become more acquainted with the intricate and sometimes overtly gruesome manners of the period. Yet opting for its over-refined style seemed to her an excellent idea how to escape her immediate down-to earth problems.
There has been a continuous heavy rain these last days and the swollen river is thumping angrily its too narrow banks.
“What are you doing here, Nathalie?”
“And you, Nick?”
“I’m looking for you. I can’t believe my luck that I’ve found you! Let’s go and celebrate! They are giving “Gilda” at the Champollion! “
She consults her wristwatch. She can’t possibly accept Nick’s invitation. There is no excuse strong enough to sooth Sorrel’s wrath if she skips her assignment.
“Thanks, Nick; as much as I wish, I can’t. The only thing I can offer you is to run with me so that I am on time. What about it?”
“I’ll run with you anywhere and were it to the end of the world!” He snatches her hand and his heart grows wings.
Out of breath they stop in front of the Sorbonne.
“I won’t let you go until you promise me to meet me here after the consultation. Your professor is a lucky man. I shall follow an academic career to make beautiful girls short of breath.”
“Why not? Men have done stranger things just to impress women and…” Her cell phone starts ringing.
“What is it now, Eli?” She snaps.
“Be fast not to make me late for my consultation!”
“I’m awfully sorry, Nathalie. It’s urgent. Alex had a nasty road accident and was rushed to a clinic. I thought you should know about it.”
An ice cold hand reaches after her heart. The cellular falls down from her rigid hand.
“What happened, Nathalie?”
“Nothing that could interest you, Nick.” She rebuffs him taking the phone he picked up.
She puts it to her ear. It is dead.
“Take mine.” Nick offers.
She tries feverishly to remember Elijah’s number. She succeeds at the fifth try.
“Why have you cut me off, Nathalie? What happened?”
“Nothing happened. That thing just slipped from my hand. Where is Alex?”
She scribbles the address on a piece of paper ripped from her notebook and hails a cab at the embankment.
“See you some other time, Nick!”
She prevents him from getting in with her and tries to concentrate on her encounter with Alex. What will she do if he doesn’t survive? It won’t affect her financially. The money he put on her bank account should last until the end of her studies if handled with care. One thing puzzles her. Why isn’t she heartbroken a normal emotion if her lover has been injured? Is this the proof she doesn’t love him enough; maybe not at all? What is Alex to her exactly? Her relationship to him is like a song of which she still remembers the melody but forgot the lyrics.
Elijah is waiting for her in front of the clinic his face crumpled with apprehension.
“You have taken your time, Nathalie! Alex has woken up and is asking for you!” He grabs her hand and drags her inside.
She shrinks back from the all pervading smell of Dante’s “Inferno”: -Abandon all hope entering here.-
“What are you waiting for, Nathalie? Haven’t you got any feelings for that poor guy? Alex was badly injured and it is not certain if he would ever be able to lead a normal life, that’s in case he survives. He is in desperate need of your support. The first word he pronounced waking up was your name. Even if you don’t care about him, at least feign it. Make him fight for his life!”
The prospect of sacrificing herself for a crippled Alex sends shivers up and down her spine. She feels hot and cold as if starting flu. She shudders at the idea to make love to a cripple simulating passion while her body recoils from his in disgust. Unlike at theater there are no second acts in love.
“Are you feeling faint, Nathalie?” Elijah draws her closer
“Better sit down, put your head on your knees and take deep breaths. You are in a shock.”
“Don’t bother about me, Eli, let’s concentrate on Alex. The faster I see him the better..”
She leans over the mummy wrapped up in pristine bandages and puts her lips over the unresponsive mouth of a marble angel guarding the grave of a man dead in his prime. She sinks onto the chair Elijah brought for her.
“He is under powerful sedatives. It will take him some time to wake up,” explains the nurse.
“Would you like to talk to the surgeon?”
“Oh yes, please!” She feels relieved to have a legal pretext to leave the sick bed. Anything is better than this awkward encounter with the injured Alex, a boulder obstructing her way to the future.
The surgeon, sheltering behind his desk, stands mannerly up when she enters and offers her a seat.
“Thank you for receiving me so promptly.”
“It’s the least I can do, Mrs. Severn. You are fully entitled to be informed about your husband’s condition.” He says with the superiority of a god deciding about Alex’s life and death.
“He is not my husband!” She protests, his Mrs. Severn falling upon her like a life-threatening contraption.
“Sorry, Miss…,” he looks at her challengingly.
“Nathalie Nova”, she says, rectifying the error.
“In this case may I know what your relation to Mr. Severn is?”
’He is secret agent and my boss,’ would be an exact answer. She suppresses the nervous giggle mounting up her throat.
“We are just friends,” she says.
“I see.” He watches her with an awakening interest finding a sexy woman where he has seen until now a spouse in distress he had to inform about the desperate condition of her husband.
“I must inform you that it’s improbable that your friend will completely recover. His spine is badly injured and he is lamed from the waist down which will not allow him to be sexually active. An attractive young woman like you has to reconsider her relationship under this aspect.” He informs her with the impertinence of a priest in a confessional certain of his right on the lesser mortals.
“Thanks for your concern.” She gets up ready to go.
“One other thing, Miss, I’ll be always ready to assist you in any problems you may encounter. Am I clear? In ANY! “
“Thank you, how very kind of you. I’ll think about it when the time comes.”
She returns dutifully to Alex’s bedside. The hard hospital chair feels as uncomfortable as her troubled conscience. Why isn’t she devastated by his accident seeing this once gorgeous man lying before her like a broken toy she enjoyed to play with when it was still in one piece? She should be mad with worry about their uncertain future together! Will she be strong enough to get rid of him in case he will survive? Wouldn’t she prefer him dead to free herself from him in all decency? The outlook of his death frightens her less than the prospect of devoting her life to a sexually impaired lover. Well, she can always have sex on the side. Anyhow she has always been more attracted by Vince. That she finally opted for Alex may be based on her need for financial security.
A moan escaping from Alex’s battered mouth, the pale opening in the white bandages, is daunting. Can Alex read her mind? She leans over him trying to decipher his mind. Hurting him with a cutting truth at this moment is the last thing she wishes on both of them. The foul discharge of his agonizing body makes her shrink. Sick with repulsion yet driven by her moral obligations she silences his moan with a kiss. Like a flash breaking through the leaden clouds his eyes hit her with a wide-opened stare reclaiming to honor her commitment. Clamming up like an oyster she refuses to become his prisoner of love. Fuzzy with shame she gets up and backs away from the sick room.
“How is he?” Elijah, waiting behind the door, takes her hand and brings it to his lips.
“I know, Nathalie, love is never simple.”
“How do you know that I failed him?”
“I know YOU, Nathalie. This is why I’ve never allowed myself to fall in love with you. Was it because I am a coward or a realist?”
“Was it that by a happy chance I am not your kind of girl, Eli? Staying “just friends” allowed us a certain kind of honesty and saved us from heart-ache and trouble. Now let me ask you one thing: are you for Alex or for me?”
“Don’t you know? Let’s go and do something amusing; what do you prefer, cinema or “Jardin de Luxembourg”?
“As it is a perfect day for walking hand in hand with a friend in a flowering garden let’s opt for nature.”
And so they did. They were right. It was great fun!