by Martin Castro
When she returns, Georgia will sit on her suitcase in the living room and inhale as if testing her memory of the air inside the house, chewing on it, mapping it out. That is how it begins. I will offer to help her unpack but she’ll brush the suggestion aside and, after dinner, she will begin to tell me finally of the week she spent abroad.
In Paris, Georgia glides around the smokers and laments her choice of footwear for the month. The countryside is bright and full of butter but the city is miraculous and busy like her mind. The streets fold into sidewalks littered with parasols and cyclists that she dodges, like a swimmer, between breaths.
She’s been told that the best fondue in France is served in complete exclusion at the back of a restaurant infamous for conjuring dishes so hypnotic, so enticing to the senses, that a surgeon once dictated instructions for a skin graft, over dinner, via telephone, rather than waive his reservation. At the insistence of the chef, fondue is eaten in the absence of all company: patrons may claim the dish only if they forgo all others on the menu, and only if they dine alone. At the far end of the dining room, past the good lighting and desirable tables, there’s a hole two feet across in the wall of brick and mortar: a scar along the cheek of a matron, beautiful precisely because no attempt is made to conceal it, none to highlight.
When Georgia arrives, the maitre’d greets her with a single phrase.
“Suivez-moi,” he says.
They weave through incandescent vapours of onion and parsley that linger like misremembered dreams above each table, move past the diners in a half waltz. The floral earthen scents of wines and sauces mist the air. As they reach the wound in the wall, he explains that she must climb onto the table in front of them, and then step through.
The dim chamber into which she emerges is silent and shares none of the odour or magic of the restaurant proper. It reminds her of the tunnels in the Nemocón salt mines of Colombia that I had taken her to see– cold, and alien– years ago. Gently, the maitre’d takes her hand and leads her through relative darkness, their footsteps echoing on the uneven stone floor, worn smooth by the traffic of ancient forgotten pedestrians. He gestures when they arrive at a booth set into the rock: a half-sphere with a circular table and bench carved out from the stone. As her guide lights the oil lamp at the centre of the table, she sinks into the seat and finds a row of woollen blankets folded beside her.
“Une moment, madame, s’il vous plait,” he says and turns to exit the chamber.
When her waiter returns, he crawls back into the room through the hole in the wall. A second employee, waiting on the other side, hands him a silver tray. It gleams vaguely azure in the far candlelight. Holding it at eye level, he begins to twirl, bending his knees and pirouetting back and forth across the floor. Singing something. Humming. His footfalls on the stone clap out and ping-pong off the walls in a facsimile of applause. When he gets close enough to the table for her to make it out, Georgia picks up “Putting on the Ritz.” His acrobatics come to a stop at the edge of the table, where he cranes forward, a flamingo setting the fondue platter before her, silver and steaming.
She tears out a chunk of baguette, dips into the broth, brings it to her teeth, sinks into the bench. Three thin columns of steam rise simultaneously: from her mouth, her hand holding the morsel, and the cauldron on the table, mingling softly in the air.
Before leaving, her waiter produces from his jacket pocket a baby bottle, transparent, sloshing red liquid within. He places it on the table.
“Malbec,” he says.
Georgia takes the bottle and sinks back into the stone, wraps the blanket around her shoulders. She’s not sure what time it is, how long it’s been, but the caverns no longer seem so damp, imposing. Flickering shadows splash the table and walls. They move subtly and with a secret purpose, as if suddenly affixed to a life of their own. They dance. Sipping, she coaxes wine from the bottle’s mouthpiece, smiles as it unfurls its soft warm wings inside her chest.
As she thanks the waiter, laughter sparks upwards from her and bubbles at the ceiling in an echo that, even after her departure, never seems to fully fade. She knows she needs to walk back tonight, through intertwining rivers of moonlit bodies in transit, holding her breath as she passes the islands of nicotine that float around gangs of smokers gathered outside the clubs. On the street she notices that those who live here glow out and not in, as if they don’t believe in magic, as if they recognize no fundamental difference between a lightbulb and the moon. Georgia glows different. Tonight she glows through. She glows the hum of her waiter. She ripples. She holds her light in her belly.
For weeks after arriving home, Georgia will stop suddenly when walking and close her eyes. I will be forced to wait for her, watch in silence as she chews softly on a memory of broth that I cannot partake in. Although I don’t yet know it, this space between us will grow, engendering in both us a bitterness seemingly without direction. Injured by my own confusion, I will accuse her of being different. She will say that she is. It is around then that we notice it: a sigh like a blanket descending through the apartment for months. She begins to hold her breath around me, moves like a skater round corners without making eye contact. She brings home a mortar and pestle and says that she longs for the trickle of stone underhand.
In these brief instances I will be cast loose, swiftly unmoored within myself and grasping desperately for a foothold in a moment that I will come to know she is incapable of sharing: she lays against the candlelight, drunk on her own carefree voice and the taste of warm air that clings heavy, like velvet, to the lush curving stone of the walls in the caves under Paris.
And then she will leave.
Martin Castro lives on unceded Coast Salish territory in British Columbia, next to one of many, many mountains. His screenwriting has been featured and won awards at various festivals in B.C., and his poetry and short fiction has been published by various publications, most recently Post Ghost Press.
Photo: Angie Pham/Unsplash