June 15, 2015
There Is No Paris
by Jenessa Abrams
* * * *
When Sylvie was seventeen, a grape-colored bump spread like sticky jam against her chest. She found it after a shower. She was watching small particles of water dance and disappear against the fogged up glass when the dark bump emerged. She stared in that mirror for several moments, unsure of the girl who was staring back at her and of the marking that was slowly deforming her milky breast.
Sylvie’s mother had had a tumor. It was a darker shade of purple. Sylvie had never seen it, but that's what the doctor said when he studied the lump hidden underneath her brassiere. She often wondered in what other ways she and her mother were similar.
* * * *
Sylvie stands in the center of Hermès in the same spot she has each Monday prior. She stares at her silhouette through the glimmer of a glass cupboard. It is meager, not in a particularly lovely manner; her body is rail-like, the pointed arch of her hips making the array of colored scarves look like broken water colors swimming through her.
"Vous avez choisi?" The woman behind the counter asks saccharinely.
Sylvie stares back, a year in this country and she still uses a befuddled gaze as a guise from time to time. Feigning ignorance sometimes leads to simplicity, the good kind.
“Ah, américaine?” the woman pouts at her like she is a child. “How is it I can help you?”
Sylvie fidgets with her blouse then points to the top shelf, "le rouge, s'il vous plaît."
"Bien. Would you like to wear it now?”
As she exits the shop, Sylvie lets the square orange shopping sac rest easily on her shoulder. The parchment smells deliciously familiar.
As the wind blows, strands of hair wisp up across her brow; between them she catches the eyes of a middle-aged man in grey rounding the corner.
She follows him to the metro.
* * * *
Between taking courses on literature, Sylvie spends her days alternating between lovers. Today is her mother’s birthday, a good day for strangers.
The man in grey presses his fingernails into the notches of her hipbones. His touch is brittle, each motion leaving a sandpaper whisper on her skin.
She swallows the air in slowly. They got off at the first stop, Madeleine, so he could bring her to a friend’s showroom. He’s grunting as he snakes his wrist up and down her backside. When he lowers her into the cotton of the display couch cushions, her eyes are vacant. Sylvie pretends not to envision his wife at home preparing dinner, humming as she stirs paprika into broth, glancing briefly from his empty chair up to the clock.
Sylvie looks around the storefront. The only audible sounds are the man in grey’s heavy breathing and the friction between his drooping stubble and her skin. She fixates on the way his key sits neatly atop a stack of papers as he continues to heave in and out of her.
The sweat above his lip drips onto her ear as he hisses, Je tiens à vous détruire: I wish to destroy you.
He bends her over completely. She closes her eyelids.
She is strolling through the huitième, the softness of scarves brushing beautifully against her skin.
He mumbles into her bra strap; she cups her chest and fades into nothingness.
* * * *
Then he disappears.
She's on a street corner. There is no Paris. She's never been to Hermès.
The drugstore in town sells women's sashes at the counter near the gum. He is touching her and it isn't sexual. He's cradling her and she's seventeen and she hasn't had any hands on her except the doctor’s and her own.
* * * *
She walks home through the huitième, past la Maison du Caviar and thinks fondly of funeral homes.
Somewhere someone said there might be sun. A tattered newspaper echoes warmth is to come. She’s stopped following reports that lead to disappointment.
Her clinical paperwork is locked up somewhere or hiding beneath the sticky plastic Chinese boxes à emporter.
When she enters her apartment, she sees the windows have flung themselves open. She’s unable to hide her jealousy at their display of freedom.
As the evening wind hits, she thinks about her mother. There was a time before she died when Sylvie could remember exactly what it was like to hug her. There was no space between them, just snugly wrapping arms and the smell of warm honey. Sometime after her mother’s breasts were removed and before the disease metastasized, she had reconstructive surgery. Sylvie could no longer reach her. There was a mass of artificial flesh in the middle. Sylvie remembered standing on her tiptoes in polka dot pajamas trying to make that space disappear.
After she was buried, Sylvie’s father ceased all talk of her mother. The only times she appeared were the handful of Saturdays when Sylvie’s father had visitors over and Sylvie was instructed to take the big wooden trunk out from the shed so they could scatter her mother’s contents across the mantel.
Sylvie places the Hermès bag next to a stack underneath the dining table. There are twelve bags, all the same hue, all the same size, all the same square. As she moves to set the new one down, she kneels against the packages and lightly presses them like dominos so she can watch the brilliant marmalade light cascade as they tumble down.
In the darkness, she lifts herself atop the radiator and imagines pressing her toes into the warmth and leaping out into the air.
* * * *
The next morning sunlight hits Sylvie’s face with a harsh yellow reminder that the world has continued spinning and that her body hasn’t disappeared.
Her sides twitch, her mouth begins to water. She turns towards the table of l’étoles. The scarves smile towards her. She gives thought to tangerine, reaches up and then decides to embrace yellow. Her thin fingers wrap the egg yolk cloth romantically in circles; its silk slithers against her skin. She thinks, it’s perfect.
Later after carefully placing on her custom brassiere she will fasten the buttons of her blouse, hesitate momentarily in the mirror, and then depart.
This is comme d’habitude: life as usual. Sylvie dresses each morning, powders on some make up, then selects which scarf to wear. She has violet silks, deep burgundies, the occasional tangerine and, of course, creamy yellow.
It’s a shame her neck is always bare.
* * * *
The boulangerie near Hermès never ceases to have a line. Sylvie stops in once each day during an off-hour to get something sweet to help pass the time.
She eats a meringue in one long breathless bite. Her tongue crumbles the flakey layer separating her mouth from the freshly whipped center.
She eats and she eats until her stomach becomes sick.
* * * *
In between reading Derrida and spending her father’s exorbitant stipend, Sylvie makes time for regulars, like the boy with the apron in le troisième.
Boulangerie-Boy’s tongue is sticky against the base of her neck. He’s salivating and moving his apron gloriously with his body. The veins of his curving muscles threaten to leap forth from his arms and trickle down her hair. He is young, perhaps not yet twenty, but there is a pulsation in him that she does not wish to suppress. A French doctor once called this vivre par procuration: living through the blood of another. Sylvie only saw him for one session. It ended with her bent over against a table.
Sylvie devours the way Boulangerie-Boy pins her down in the back of the kitchen and makes her quiver. It’s the only anticipation comparable with the way her knees shook when her body, fully awake, met with the touch of surgical blades.
His hands are still firm when she orients herself back into the room. They’ve become coated with what must be flour dust. It’s sprinkled across their bodies and becomes solidified in white clumps when it mixes with their sweat. The room smells like Sundays and something she recalls as a semblance of comfort.
“Do you mind a question?” he fiddles with an apron string when they have finished and doesn’t look up.
Sylvie’s eyes flick towards him. She is surprised again by the forcefulness of his tongue.
“Désolé, I’m just curious, that is all.”
“S'il vous plait, ask.”
“Is it only for me you leave the brassiere on?”
Sylvie looks down at the empty space that is her chest. The scar responds silently.
“Parce que…the scarf.”
Sylvie buttons her blouse clumsily and rushes out of the boulangerie.
She scurries down an alleyway and continues running until it becomes difficult for her lungs to process air. When she is leaning against the cool brick of an abandoned sweets shop, she rips the blood-colored scarf out from her brassiere.
* * * *
When it was time for the doctor to go forward with the knife, a small nurse with wild red curls held down Sylvie’s wrists. Sylvie thought about her mother’s deformed hugs and desperately wished that she would die.
* * * *
Back at the apartment, Sylvie stands naked in front of the mirror. The curvature of her reflection begins to remind her of her mother’s outline. She reaches for the straps on her brassiere and sorts through the pile of scarves in line on the counter. They are neatly arranged by texture, length and size.
The colors look like a befuddled Sunday school pattern.
Sylvie smiles and begins to cry. She sweeps her hands against the delicate silks and watches as one by one they dance and descend gracefully onto the floor.
* * * *
Sylvie peels off her dressing gown and melts into bed. She is alone. For the first time, in what feels like a long time, she closes her eyes and feels safe. There are no foreign hands exploring her body’s outline. She sighs. Remembering the doctor’s sharp knife and how it all felt the very first time.
Her fingers start to dance across the place where scarves once erupted from her chest. Finding the silk gone, her hands feel nothing but the smoothness of what was once a breast.
Jenessa Abrams is an MFA candidate at Columbia University pursuing Fiction and a joint concentration in Literary Translation. Her short fiction has been published in the Gallatin Review and an online literary portal, Confluence. A short film, which she wrote and produced, was selected for the Cannes Short Film Corner in 2013. She currently serves as Project Manager at literary nonprofit Narrative 4.