SHORT STORY | DOMINQUE'S MOTHER
Published in Hot Metal Press - http://www.hotmetalpress.net
Won honorable mention in Gator Springs Gazette literary magazine annual short story contest and was published by them in their print and online editions.
REVIEW: "Dominique's Mother by (Steven Marshall Newton) is another of the standouts. A man meets his ex-wife at a Paris dancehall. He's not even sure she recognizes him, but he's propelled back into the past, recalling their relationship and its break up. The different past and present threads weave together just right. The characters are sympathetic and well drawn.”
Kara Kellar Bell, "The New Review", 2005.
Won Honorable Mention (re-titled as Monique's Mother), and published, in The Lakeview Review Short Story Collection
She's not all that pretty really but for some reason I can't take my eyes off of her. Nobody can. All the men in the place are gawking at her like race car fans at the Indianapolis 500, half expecting her to spin out of control, smash into a wall, and explode into a fiery red, molten ball of bloody glass and shattered steel at any second now. We can't help it. That's how combustible, and how dangerously fragile, she looks. And always has.
It's those wild black Norman eyes of hers I suppose; smoky green, Amazon jungle eyes rimmed with slivers of golden light exploding in a sea of shimmering amber sparks. You could lose yourself in eyes like those and never find your way home. And I was lost. As lost as I've ever been. I know she saw me come in but, even after all we once meant to each other, and after everything we've been through together, I could be anybody. A murderer, a movie star, a rapist, it wouldn't matter; she'd still ignore me. And just when I think I've lost sight of her, I catch her watching me seductively from across the gauzy darkness, daring me to ask her to dance.
It's always been like that. Even when we were kids in Iowa, she'd shimmy up the ladder barefoot to the top of the haymow roof and then dare me to jump. But I never did. I'd just stand there two stories above the ground petrified and watch as she floated down to the muddy pile of corn cobs in the feed lot below in a billowing swirl of crinoline and cotton that sailed up behind her like a snow white parachute in the sweltering, summer sun. Just like she's doing now. Daring me to dance, and knowing I won't. And never quite forgiving me for it.
The only thing I ever dared her to do was sleep with me, which of course she did, and nine months later we had a daughter, Dominique. But when Dominique turned three her mother suddenly woke me up one morning and told me that she wanted us all to pack up and move to Paris. Just like that.
As an Army brat during the sixties she'd spent several years living just outside of Paris on Pont de Saint Cloud in Boulogne where her father had been stationed, and she wanted to go back there to live. It would have been nice if she'd told me that before we settled down and had Dominique but, like the whipped, love sick puppy I'd become, I quit the best job I ever had and followed her to France. Just like she knew I would.
Looking back, I always knew how much Dominique loved her mother, and I guess that's all that matters. Or should. I don't believe in that kind of love anymore, but that doesn't change anything. She does. And I love her even more for that. The same way I loved her mother for at least trying to love me back. And even now, walking the streets of Montmartre in the rain, I can't help but wonder what ever made me leave everything I'd loved so much behind and follow her to Paris. But, unfortunately, she didn't stay around long enough for me to find out.
The day after Dominique's fifth birthday, I found a note taped to my bathroom mirror. "I still love you," it read, "but I can't live with you anymore. I desperately need to try something new and I know how much you hate change. We raised a remarkable daughter together but it's time I took a chance and risked it all. I need to test myself, to find out if I can make it on my own, and to find out what happens if I let go. So I'm letting go. Keep me in your heart. Dominique will be fine. And I promise to write."
But she never did. No cards, no letters, nothing. Just like in that haymow back in Iowa, once she made her mind up, she just hitched up her dress and jumped. And one morning while I was at work, she packed up Dominique, moved into a tiny apartment in Montparnasse, and evaporated into a world I knew absolutely nothing about.
I suppose, in her way, she tried her best to be my wife, but I think that was just something she wasn't really very good at. She did her best but she just couldn't do it. If you really think about it though, except for having Dominique, her leaving me was really the best thing she ever did for me.
I stayed in touch with Dominique but her mother never stayed in one apartment long enough for me to establish any kind of dependable father/daughter relationship, although I did all I could to be a good father. And, in spite of everything, I believe I did a pretty good job at it, considering.
Dominique's a beautiful young girl now and she comes to stay with me in my apartment in Montmartre near the Sacré-Coeur every other week. Every second I spend with her is precious but I have no answers when she asks me about her mother and me, or why she'd left. I fill in the empty spaces as best I can without lying and she seems to accept it, letting me get away with saying next to nothing and not going after me about it, and not pushing me for clichés or easy answers. She was always good about that, even when she was a little girl. We've always had a simple bond, Dominique and I. I don't hurt her, and she doesn't hurt me. That's the pact we made. And it seems to work for both of us.
But right now, it's just me and Dominique's mother at Le Dépanneur on the rue Fontaine in Paris, staring at each other across a crowded dance floor. I have no idea why I keep coming to this place but after she'd left me I started going out again. I can't dance worth a damn but I like the music here. Or at least I did. But tonight, staring into the eyes of a woman who is no more than a rank stranger to me now, I don't know what I feel about much of anything anymore.
She looks exactly the same, even after all these years. Maybe even younger in some oddly disturbing way. She's thinner and somewhat pale, but as alluring as she's ever been. She always did have the look of an exotic bird about her, vulnerable and nearly extinct. A throw back to the thirties really, she always reminded me of a black and white movie siren, enigmatic and dark, but still as desirable as any women in the place. And in spite of everything, it is good to see her again, which is somewhat paradoxical I know, but she always could pull it off somehow; playing the innocent, damsel in distress even as she makes plans to sink her teeth into my heart and suck my blood dry.
There was a time when I had no clue as to why none of us who'd been seduced and abandoned by her had ever seen through her treacherous ruse. I suppose in our testosterone- driven stupors we never really wanted to see the truth, preferring instead to let ourselves be perversely consumed by her only to be spat out and left behind like bones no self respecting dog would even bother to bury.
She's watching me now, coiled, ready to strike, thinking of me most likely as carrion, a meal, the taste of my blood still on her tongue, the same blood that once quenched her thirst, but now, like a vampire in love, she hesitates, unable to take the last deadly bite. It's too late to leave without her seeing me. I know I should run but I can't seem to move. I can only stand here mesmerized as her ghostly green eyes size me up for the kill. Petrified again, just like when we were kids, I wait, hating her. And loving her too.
Without a sound she slinks up out of nowhere and takes my hand and we stumble recklessly across the floor like exhausted contestants in a dance-till-you-drop contest, too afraid to stop long enough to say anything. I'm spending more time stepping on her toes than I am dancing but she doesn't seem to mind. She never did. I've always thought dancing was just another way for her to get me to do something I didn't want to do.
The DJ takes a break and we linger awkwardly in the middle of the dance floor, anxiously exchanging the usual mundane chatter and catching up as best we can, neither one of us wanting to expose a raw nerve, or say something we'd soon regret. I surprise myself for thinking it, but I'm not nearly as uncomfortable as I had imagined I would be wrapped up in her arms again.
There were times I thought I could kill her if I ever got the chance. But where would that leave Dominique? Another fantasy crushed. My love for my daughter was unimaginable and living apart from her tore a hole in my heart that still refuses to heal. I never did forgive her mother for that, and have no plans to. But dancing, if you can call what I've been doing dancing, makes me wonder how powerful a hold someone like her can have on a person, in spite of the pain she'd inflicted on me. It makes no sense but there it is.
She looks stunning in a daringly low cut, black, Valentino dress. And when the music starts again, she moves against me, her spine straight, her perfect legs swishing, silk against silk, urging me on, her head thrown back, laughing like the enchanting, small town Iowa girl she had once been. Her scent is indefinable but sweet. Short of breath, I pull her over to the side of the floor and wait until a Charles Aznavour clone begins singing a heartbreakingly sad love song before she eases me back onto the floor and we dance achingly close. The soundtrack of our lives. Hot sticky nights along the Seine, Gauloises cigarettes, and jazz. Lots of jazz.
On another rainy night just like this one, not long after we'd moved to Paris, we'd gone out to "Le Latitudes Jazz Club" on the rue Saint-Benoit to celebrate my new job as a columnist with Paris Match. I'd never seen her look so happy but suddenly, right out of the blue, she pulls my face down an inch from hers and she says, "I dare you to marry me."
So of course I did, just to prove to her that I wasn't the indecisive wimp she'd always accused me of being. It all happened so fast that neither that one of us could even remember the name of the church where we'd gotten married. She'd always been impulsive like that, but I shocked even myself when I'd said "yes". I guess, looking back, I should have realized just how restless she'd become, but it wasn't until week later that I realized just how far gone she really was.
A few weeks later, after stuffing ourselves on sole meunière and steak au poivre, and finishing off two bottles of the house Bordeaux at Le Square Trousseau, we were strolling along Rue Charles Baudelaire when, in another manic rush of excitement, she told me that she had decided to give up teaching voice and piano lessons, and become a jazz singer. And damned if she didn't turn out to be a remarkably good one. Good enough to get booked at the Sunset on the Rue des Lombards three months later.
We'd settled into a little house on Rue de Verneuil in Saint Germain des Près by then and she'd begun to experiment with modern jazz and fusion, and her career had begun to really take off. I'd temporarily cut back on my hours at Paris Match to spend more time with our daughter and things were good with us for awhile. But art had always been her first love and, with no explanation six months later, she woke me up out of a dead sleep at four in the morning and told me that she'd decided to quit singing and become an artist. And true to form, in a matter of months, she became a damned good one.
Everyone in the music industry was flabbergasted by her decision and begged her to reconsider, but she wouldn't. She'd already gathered a small but loyal following in Paris and had just released a surprisingly popular jazz record but, when I finally worked up the nerve to ask my mercurial and unpredictably temperamental wife why she wanted to walk away from all the money and fame that she'd achieved so quickly as a singer, she just looked at me with a bemused, quizzical look on her face and said, "I'm bored and I want to try painting for awhile. It's time for a change. Why get stuck in a rut? Life is too short to let yourself get trapped. You of all people should understand that? You write the same reviews over and over, it never changes. This guy played here, that guy played there. This singer's great, that singer couldn't hit a diminished fifth with a hammer. It's always the same. Don't you ever get bored?"
"Not when I'm doing what I love," I replied a bit defensively, "which is exactly what I'm doing."
"Well so am I. Everything gets old after awhile if you stay at it too long. Don't you just want to spread your wings and fly off to some wildly romantic place and experience something NEW?"
"I thought that's what I did when I followed you to Paris," was all there was left for me to say.
I still see her name in the papers sometimes whenever some hip, avant garde, Left Bank gallery puts on a show of her newest work. It's not as if she ever denied that she had the attention span of a gnat with ADHD or had developed a chronic intolerance for repetition of any kind or couldn't concentrate long enough to finish buttering a piece of toast. She'd even stuck a Dylan quote on the refrigerator one morning to prove her point. "And here I sit so patiently waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice."
Those lyrics obviously seemed profound to her at the time but, coming from someone as ethereal as she was, the music critic in me found them a bit sophomoric and pretentiously pedantic. I'd spent my whole life getting good at what I did and I'd finally established myself as a well respected jazz columnist, and it never bored me. I loved writing about music and simply couldn't understand what drove such an insecure person to such infantile distraction.
There were times when I was tempted to at least try to talk her into seeing someone, a doctor or some kind of professional to find out if maybe she was depressed or had some kind of chemical imbalance or something. But after I'd drunk a Grand Cru bottle of St. Emillion all by myself one night in order to work up the courage to actually bring up the subject, she stopped me dead in my tracks, furious at me for even suggesting such a thing. "And tamper with my art? My talent? You're the one who's crazy, not me!" And off she stomped into the bitter face of a cold, early spring downpour, fuming, only to reluctantly return precisely at dinner time, drenched and hungry, just like the spoiled little brat she'd always been.
When I left for work the next morning I left her a tit-for-tat Dylan quote on her bedside table. "Ah, you fake just like a woman, yes, you do, you make love just like a woman, yes, you do, then you ache just like a woman, but you break just like a little girl."
The minute I got home from work I noticed that the veins in her face were nearly popping out of her skin and she had turned a dull shade of purple and, refusing to let it die, she barked at me, "You only see one side of everything! There's more verses to that song you know!" And then she stalked out the door and didn't come home all night.
The next morning I found another Dylan quote from the same song stuck under a magnet on the frig for me to ponder. "It was raining from the first and I was dying of thirst so I came in here. And your long-time curse hurts but what's worse is this pain in here, I can't stay in here, ain't it clear that I just can't fit?"
Our dueling lyrics fiasco ended badly as usual and she wouldn't speak to me for days. But in the early fall, after Dominique turned five, for some reason all of that stopped. At least for awhile. But there was still a frightening chill in the air that I could never quite identify. Maybe it was my fear, I don't know. Fear of her leaving me or fear of my not being able to change enough to make her stay. But why should I change? I had a sweet, gorgeous daughter who went to a day care she loved, a wife I cherished with all my heart, a beautiful house near the Musée d'Orsay, a job that paid obscenely well… change into what? I cherished my life in Paris. Why would I want to change?
After thinking about it for a long time, I now think that it had never been in my nature to become whatever it was she wanted me to be, and I guess it didn't help any that I saw no reason to. I did hate change. Oh, I tried doing new things; new cuisine, new wine. I went with her and her artsy friends to Exhibition Park on weekends, gazed at vacuous, half dressed, brain dead starlets at the annual Film Festival in Cannes, and wandered the halls of the Louvre with her for hours staring at ugly paintings by dead guys. I tried as hard as I could to change and to do things I thought she'd like. Anything to please her. But down inside, I guess I stayed basically the same, and I think she knew it. I'd always believed that being who your are and staying true to yourself was a noble thing. But apparently it was never quite noble enough for Dominique's mother.
The dance floor at Le Dépanneur is nearly empty now and we're sitting in the shadows at a table in the corner. She's smoking non-filter Gitanes, apparently her new brand. A wisp of coal black hair that had escaped from her French version of the old Gibson girl hairstyle flits across her face but it can't hide the nearly invisible lines that worry seems to have etched beneath her eyes. I hadn't noticed them at first. But then, I'd missed a lot of things over the years.
Her hands are trembling just slightly and there's a vague trace if uneasiness working itself across her mysteriously placid face. She seems mildly amused, but distracted, as if she's searching for something she'd lost. A compact, or a comb. Or perhaps a coherent thought.
Somehow this sad little scene reminds me of something that happened during the last year she and I were together. Dominique had called me at three in the morning, her voice trembling. I'd been sound asleep and I wasn't sure I'd heard her correctly. "Daddy, you've got to come quick. Mommy's gone!"
I grabbed a taxi and made Montparnasse in minutes. The apartment was silent except for the soft cries of my very frightened little girl coming out from under the covers of her bed where she'd buried herself. "I woke up scared and Mommy wasn't in her room," she sobbed, "and I didn't know what to do? I can't find her anywhere. Where is she, Daddy? Why did she leave me?"
I picked her up in my arms and held her as long as I could, forever if she'd have let me. "I don't know, honey," I said, incensed, trying my best to hide my anger, "but don't worry. She loved you very much, and she'll be back. Can you stay here by yourself while I go look for her?" She said yes and I immediately called the mother of a school friend of hers who lived across the hall to look after her while I was gone, and then I grabbed a cab.
I ducked in out of the misty, early morning haze and slipped under the dripping red awning of a Jazz club called "Le Bilboquet" on rue Saint-Benoit. I knew that's where she'd be. It's where she always went when her brain went haywire and her sanity sputtered. "Le Bilboquet" was a classy little jazz club, more traditional than the hipper spots in town, but she loved it there. "It's like a trip back in time," she always said. "Red carpets, torch singers, jazzy little trios, my little home away from home."
She was sitting alone, sipping champagne, smoking some new brand of Turkish cigarettes that I didn't recognize, and wearing a knock off, haute couture dress that she wouldn't have been caught dead in a year ago. But nothing she did surprised me anymore. Predictable is not a word I'd use to describe anything she'd ever done.
She could have been Greta Garbo the way she sucked on her fag and stared vapidly into space, a 40's vamp with poor eyesight and a bad nicotine habit. I half expected her to say "I vant to be alone, dahling," but when she saw me, she didn't say anything, she just stared at me as if she'd never seen me before in her life. This was definitely something new, but then, that's what I'd come to expect from her. "You've come for me," was all she said, "I knew you would." As if that explained everything.
And now…here we are again, six months later, sitting together at Le Dépanneur, sipping champagne like we'd done so many time before. But this time she's dragging smoke after smoke out of her box of Gitanes and tapping her foot to a sad, Nina Simone song that drifts like a dreamy fog across the empty dance floor.
It had never really occurred to me while we were married, that she really did have some kind of emotional problem, but I could never accept it, until it was too late. I'd always written it off as a quirky, spirited personality, believing her sudden detours from reality to be nothing more than temporary, depressive flights of fancy and that she'd come in for a landing soon. But she never did. Even now she keeps circling like a thirsty hummingbird searching for something red to land on.
For some irrational reason, I could never quite allow myself to believe it was even possible that she was really sick. Dominique needed a mother and damned if I was going to allow anything to keep them apart, and for years I'd stubbornly refused to accept the truth about her state of mind or the possibility of her actually not being able to take care of our daughter. And Dominique needed her mother, desperately, like every child does, but hers was slipping away from both of us and we both knew it. Even then I knew how bad things were, but I just couldn't, or wouldn't, admit it to myself. More likely, I didn't want to believe it. But I knew that it wouldn't be long before she couldn't take care of Dominique, or herself, any longer.
Maybe I'd always known but had been trying to put it off as long as I could; for Dominique's sake. I couldn't imagine her without her mother. Dominique worshipped her and I knew her mother adored her. And even though it nearly ripped my guts out watching her drift slowly away from Dominique and me like she did, I was willing to accept it and to work around it any way I could. Even if it meant losing them both, they belonged together. They needed each other that much. But I finally realized, after the second time she left Dominique in the apartment alone all night, that it was time I finally did something about it.
Dominique moved back in with me last October. It had been a gorgeous Indian Summer day, and we had been playing in the yard for hours, rolling around lazily in our colorful castle of leaves. Keeping our minds off things. I bought her a cat and a dog, the usual things that make people feel more like a family.
I don't know if Dominique's mother will ever get well. We've been told that most likely she never will, but you never know. Miracles happen. I found a brilliant doctor for her and he's doing everything he can to keep her out of an institution. But I'm afraid time may be running out. The doctor says it's a cruel mystery just what it is exactly that's wrong with her, but apparently it's some kind of progressive disease or genetic aberration, like Alzheimer's, only more subtle. And more insidious.
But we survived, Dominique and I. We live like two gypsies these days. I gave up my full time job as a music critic at Paris Match and I freelance mostly, selling travel pieces and commentary on the contemporary jazz and pop scene all over Europe. We travel a lot. Dominique picked out new clothes for me, and I stopped smoking. Everything changed after her mother got sick. But we don't talk about it much anymore. We just wake up and start over every day. Looking for new adventures. Trying out new things. Sailing off to new places on the spur of the moment. Making life up as we go along. Just like her mother had always wanted me to do. It's the least I can do for her now. She'd love it if she knew. And for the first time in seven years, I'm finally able to say her name out loud. Claire.