Still Life, by Salena Casha
The moment Henri stepped off the train, they were there, waiting for him. The metro was crowded, full of pencil pushers and black briefcases, but still, he saw them. It was not that he recognized them at first glance. Rather, it was the stark, raw beauty of their being that made him pause. Perhaps the reason he noticed them was due to the fact that he was a painter in his free moments and a museum curator in all other time. Their faces floated among grey visages of working men, ethereal. How could the others around him not pause and stare too? His breath caught in his throat and, as he blinked, they did not disappear.
“Pardon moi.” The words were accompanied by a quick blow to his back. The offending passenger passed quickly, leaving a trail of heavy cologne in his wake. Imbecile. Henri grasped the iron railing. And just like that, the four beauties were gone, swallowed by the crowd.
His shoes bit into the backs of his ankles as he stumbled from the platform down the stairs. He could have sworn Ira was among them, one of the faces. Her golden hair like corn silk. But he’d left her, hours ago, asleep on their hotel bed in Paris. His skin itched for sheets heated by their bodies but he hefted his backpack higher on his shoulders. I have to go home. Back to Cecile. Back to my life. He tripped from the final step into the St. Raphael station.
What he would tell his wife when he arrived at the beach house, he was still unsure. He’d spent the entire train ride thinking about it, how he would come out and tell her about Ira and his fake business trips to the city. But the words were gone now, replaced by the four strange faces he had seen. One of whom he’d loved. But maybe, he was just tired. He ran a hand over his unshaved face.
He blinked. Cecile stood before him, her trench coat loose around her plump body. And he hated her in that moment. Her short brown hair, flat from the dry air, her puffy eyes. The way she reached for him and pulled him close. Arms around her, his heart breaking, he looked up and saw them again. The four. Ira smiled and waved. He tried to swallow as they disappeared again.
“How was your trip?” Cecile asked, her French flawless.
And right then and there he would have come out with it, would have told her the whole story, but he couldn’t stop thinking about Ira. Had she followed him here? Known all along about his wife? No, he’d been sure to leave her there, her naked back as white as the pillows she rested again, a note at her bedside table explaining why he couldn’t do this anymore. Telling her that he could not love her. And who were the others? The three additional, most striking people he had ever seen? What were they doing at the metro?
But instead, he turned back to Cecile, a weak smile on his lips. “Tiring,” he whispered.
He’d met Ira years ago, at the Louvre. He’d been by the Mona Lisa, faces swirling around him as the gallery flooded with activity. But he’d turned and there she was in an emerald satin shirt over black dress pants, hair knotted to the side. She’d smiled at him and asked him about the art. He remembered how the case around the painting had flashed in the light, a mirage of sorts. And he’d slipped his wedding band into his pocket and disappeared with her into Paris.
“Pick up any more art for the museum?” Cecile asked. She turned to see if he held any packages but he opened his arms. They were empty.
“No,” he said. “Nothing caught my eye.”
She shrugged and smiled. “Jacques will be happy you’re home.” And he remembered, for the first time since he’d boarded the train, that he had a son.
She led him into their Fiat and before he knew it, they were home. For days, he thought about telling her, sat at his desk as the weekend passed. Instead, he smoked a pack of cigarettes. He drank a bottle of wine. He watched the sun go down and the moon rise. He took Jacques on a bike ride. He observed waves crash onto the rocky beaches of St. Raphael while listening to Edith Piaf. He made love to his wife. He did not paint. But the faces refused to leave him. They followed him in his dreams. Half-tormented, he could not sleep.
“What’s wrong?” Cecile asked him. They sat out on the veranda. She wore a white dress that blew in the breeze, tugged the material away from him. He pulled off his shoe, shaking granules of sand from under the soles, but the crusted particles refused to part.
“Henri,” she said.
“I asked you a question.”
“I’m sorry.” He shook his head as Ira’s name surfaced in his mind. “It’s nothing. Nothing’s wrong,” he said. On the horizon, he could feel a storm gather, waves rise as they threatened to crash on the beach. He looked on, helpless as nature’s torrent continued.
Cecile stared at him with her blue-green eyes that looked grey in the dark lighting and he wanted to just say Ira’s name. He hadn’t seen the faces again, only behind his closed eyes, but Ira still remained with him now even though he was sure she was somewhere in Paris, maybe with another lover. A musician, perhaps.
“Something’s wrong,” Cecile whispered. She moved close enough so he could smell the lavender on her neck.
“I saw something in the metro,” he said instead. She pressed a finger to his lips.
“I know. I saw it too,” she said.
He looked up at her sharply. “What?”
She paused and tucked an errant hair behind her ear. “You.” She tilted her head to the side.
“I don’t understand,” he choked out but again she raised her hand.
“Have you ever felt that way? As if the rest of the world just melted away. Mon cher. I could see only you the other day at the station,” she said. The hair on his arms bristled.
“You’re lying,” he laughed nervously. The wind had picked up now, grit stinging his eyes.
“I’m no liar. I know what I saw,” she said. They sat close but did not touch. The short distance felt like miles. His body went numb and he reached for her, as if what she knew and what he had seen but could not understand were connected.
Perhaps, the four beauties weren’t Ira or strangers at all. Perhaps, what he had seen that day was nothing but heartbreaking, ever-disappointing love.
“It was like that poem.” She mused. He watched her, watched how she could not see the storm around them, how the wind and incoming rain did not seem to bother her. He felt nearly desperate now as he leaned forward.
“What poem?” He asked.
She brought her lips closer to his ear, her voice so light it sent shivers running over his body.
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.”
Tears stung his eyes, mixed with salty wind, as he opened his arms to her, though still empty, and whispered. “Cecile, I’m so sorry.
(References: Pound, Ezra. In a Station of the Metro.
Published in Modern American Poetry. 1919.)
Salena Casha is an aspiring writer who adores drinking coffee (preferably made for her) whilst rewriting the future. Follow her on twitter @salaylay_c.
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Tags: affairs, delusions, relationships, Salena Casha