CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
The French Knew How to Wave
“I want a cigarette.” You must say this with a French accent.
Mise en scène:
Daytime. A woman sleeps in bed. A double bed. A dark-haired woman. Her shoulders are bare; she could be naked. Her skin is almost as white as the sheets. Her hair is blacker than her deepest dreams.
There are newspapers on the floor. There is an empty ashtray on the bedside table, and a small round clock. The walls are bare except for one gray handprint up high. How did it get there? Whose hand is it?
It is quiet in this room. The window is open, the city can be seen outside, but it does not intrude.
The ocean is calm, a silver reflection of the sun. At first everything is beautiful. The sea is always beautiful.
In French, a man says yes and no and perhaps this or that.
In small white letters on the bottom of the screen a translation: Look over there.
A fish lies on the sand gasping for breath. Scales shimmering, mouth opening and closing, gills pulsing. The fish stares at the sky.
The sky is white and cloudless through the woman’s window. Below, a bus drives by and now there is the sound of children, their voices high and happy. One calls to the other, the singsong sound of a game. A door opens and closes. The woman burrows down. Her black hair falls in stripes across her cheek.
A man, small boned and fine, dressed in gray slacks and a black sweater, kneels on the bed. He is a stain on the white bedding. The woman rolls away from him. He puts a hand on her shoulder. He shakes her, not so gently, and speaks. His voice is low and moist, the words come from the back of his throat and from his nose. They slip and slide together without break.
Translation: “Get up. We have to go.”
She pulls her shoulder away. He runs his hand through his hair. He is agitated. His hands need something to do. Her hairbrush is on the bedside table. He picks it up and slaps it against his thigh.
“Arretez!” she says and more besides. She complains and she berates him.
Translation: “Sleep is my excuse.”
He cajoles, he pleads. He looks at the clock. He looks at her. It is important that she get up. It is important that he leave. It doesn’t matter what he says. She will not look at him. She refuses to open her eyes. Her meaning is clear. He should go without her.
Her bangs fall into her enormous, dark eyes. She is beautiful. She is angry.
She is sitting up in bed, the sheets just covering her small naked breasts. He is on the bed beside her, pleading with her.
He is standing at the foot of the bed. He has his leather jacket on. He is overdressed, covered in the skins of dead animals.
She gets out of bed. Her nakedness is a robe made of velvet. More clothed than he will ever be.
A boy plays hide and seek with his friends. A girl hides her face against the tree and counts, “Un, deux, trois, quatre!” The boy is under a bridge. He has a good hiding place. The girl runs across the bridge above him. “Cinq, six, sept!” He kicks a stone with his foot, lets it clatter against the other rocks. The girl does not notice. “Huit, neuf, dix!” He laughs out loud. She does not find him.
The man and woman are in a small convertible sports car. She wears a striped shirt and sunglasses. He is frowning into the glare.
“Why are you so unhappy?” she asks.
“I love a girl with a lovely neck, with lovely breasts and a lovely voice, lovely wrists, lovely brows, and lovely knees.”
“Can’t you be original?”
“Oui, mais je ne veux pas.”
“You are …” but she cannot say anymore. He knows what he is and she knows he knows and she knows too. “Je ne sais pas quel.”
He has a piece of paper in his hand, with an address on it. He cannot find where he is going.
In a French accent you say, “We are all lost.”
In an American accent she says, “C’est vrai.”
A flock of sheep in a field. The sky is cloudless. The day is warm. A farmer stands to one side, searching through his animals. He is old and furrowed like dirt without water. His eyes find one fat young ewe and he ogles her. Lust or hunger, the look is the same. He has found the one he wants. He whistles for his dog. Together they separate the one from the many. He puts a rope around her neck and leads her home. The dog stays with the flock.
The convertible passes. A cigarette butt lies burning on the road. A car is following them. It is a closed sedan with a man and woman inside.
In his rearview mirror:
He sees them. The driver has jowls that fall from his chin, a nose like the end of a champagne cork. His fingers, pudgy as unbaked baguettes, grip the wheel. The woman has dry, badly blonde hair and too much dark lipstick. Closed or open, her mouth is a hole in her face.
He speeds up. He wants to lose them, to lose everything to her, but they stay with him.
“Je veux une cigarette,” he says to his lovely girl.
Translation: “What have you done?”
Abruptly, he pulls in to a roadside tabac. The squeal of the tires masks the clarinet music in the background. He leaves the car running and jumps out. He disappears into the store.
She is alone. She plays with the radio. An announcer talks in French, in Arabic, in Russian. It doesn’t matter. The music continues always. She watches as the sedan that was behind them goes slowly past. The woman with the fake hair stares at her. The man pretends to keep his eyes on the road.
The boy climbs out from under the bridge and runs after the girl. But she has disappeared.
The farmer leads his sheep into the barn.
The lovely woman gets out of the car and begins to walk in the other direction. In no time, she is back in the city. Her kitten heels clatter on the sidewalk. The toes are pointy and her legs are slim and bare under her skirt. She clicks along, hurrying, but not afraid. In her sunglasses we see the reflection of the clouds. It looks like rain.
A cloud billows from the man. He exhales smoke and breathes it back into his nostrils. He has his cigarette. He stops to look at the newspaper. A photo of a body on front and a headline with an exclamation mark.
Translation: “We are watching this movie because someone is dead!”
The man exits the tabac and sees his empty car. He runs his hand through his hair. He looks left and right. For a moment, his face goes slack and his eyes sag. He scratches the knife that is his nose.
The boy runs and runs. Through the woods, out to a country lane. He runs along the fence, a steady jog in his schoolboy clothes, leather shoes and short gray pants. He runs to run, the girl forgotten, the game behind him, his friends forgotten. He is running.
Il est assez.
He sees her down the street. She is crossing to the other side. Her dark hair is the flag of his favorite nation.
He takes off after her. His shoes clatter too, the perfect noise that shoes make in black and white. The heels are hard and high to make him bigger than he is. His hair falls on his forehead. He groans and tosses his cigarette away. There are people,
shoppers with bags,
two women with baby carriages,
a man carrying a plant.
They are in his way. He skips into the center of the street. It is empty. He cannot see her anymore.
“Nicole!” he calls. “Nicole!”
The little girl is tied to a tree. The boy uses a stick to scratch her face. How else can he tell her he loves her? The blood is a black stripe on her white skin.
The bark on the tree is clearer than the boy’s desires.
He whispers in her ear. “Je vous ai trouvé.”
His breath bothers her more than the cut on her cheek. She turns her face away.
“Tu êtes mesquin et je te déteste,” she says proudly.
Translation: “This is what children do. Only children.”
Nicole collapses on a bench. Her head bent, her long neck exposed. Her hair covers her face. Her hand clutches a corner of her skirt, pulls it up and reveals a cut on her leg. The flesh is sliced, the blood in little beads like black jewels. A drop of blood falls to the sidewalk.
He finds her. He is beside her. He pushes her face up to look into her eyes. He takes off her sunglasses. She exhales and he dips his head to breathe in her sigh. She looks up at the sky, at the approaching storm. The first drop of rain falls on her face.
His fingers are doughy on her shoulders.
“Let me go,” she says.
“I cannot live without you.”
“Ne soyez pas ridicule.”
“If your heart is beating anywhere in the world, I will find you.”
She grumbles, she whispers. Her tears mix with the raindrops. She is so beautiful.
Translation: “You are going to be sorry you said that.”
“Une cigarette! Nicole!”
Over his shoulder, she sees the gendarme. They are coming for him. She twists out of his arms. She staggers away from him. Her eyes have never been larger. She has never been more beautiful. He reaches for her, but she backs away and into the street.
The bus, filled with children, is there. The children laugh.
He hides his face.
The boy is at the beach. He stands in the water in his leather shoes. The fish is dead.
The farmer and his abundant wife sit down to a mutton dinner.
The woman is more beautiful broken. Her hair spills from her head like a gush of black oil on the street. Her eyes stare at the sky. In a puddle beside her, he sees the clouds drifting away as if they are her breath, her thoughts, her life. Un agent blows his whistle. He is no longer coming for the man. The hiss of a lit cigarette meeting the puddle. The clatter of heels on the pavement. No time to say À bientôt.
Diana Wagman is the author of three novels. Her second, Spontaneous, won the PEN West Award for Fiction. Her screenplay, Delivering Milo, starred Albert Finney and Bridget Fonda. She’s had stories published in Black Clock, Electric Literature, and elsewhere; and her reviews and essays appear in the Los Angeles Times.