NIGHT ON RUE JACOB
Olivia wore her long coat. Leaves had begun to gather on the roofs of cars and the wind at night reminded her of her house on Bar Harbor. She was standing alone on Katrine's terrace staring at the buildings below on rue Jacob. There was a man whistling "Edelweiss" in his yard. Olivia agreed to meet Katrine "for drinks" at 8 o'clock, but she knew what that meant.
Katrine was going to be late because even though she might have managed to slip quietly out of whatever party she and Peter had reluctantly joined earlier that evening, convincing him she would meet him later at home, she was probably going to be feeling "too inspired" to take the train, and would decide to walk the whole three miles from the cafe, "to show off to the stars and shine back at the moon," she would say - but really she just loved walking alone at night, remembering.
She never spoke of Linda's death, only of the days when they were happiest, before the war, before she and all her friends had to leave. She had met Linda in a Left Bank cafe a year and a half after the Germans surrendered. They had lived together for eleven years. Katrine now spends the summers with Olivia Mercedes (named after the playwright who her mother had met in LA when they both were writing scripts for MGM back in the '30s).
Katrine had been married to Peter - an American who moved to Paris to escape the provincial - for twenty-four years, but had never lived with him longer than her travels allowed, and had always kept her own name. They shared a home on rue de Rivoli near the Palais du Louvre, but she slept with friends and rarely came home at night. They had no children. She had her own place on the other side of the Seine, on rue Jacob. This is where she held all her readings and nightly dinner parties for her friends from the studio. They read aloud from Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, or from their own poetry, drank Bellinis and stayed up all night telling sexy stories about their first loves, remembering in long detail everything they did that first night they came to Paris together, thirty-something years ago, and how things are so different now, or the last time they saw Dietrich before the end of the war.
It was getting dark. The terrace was furnished just as lavishly as the living room, and was lit by two large over-hanging yellow lanterns that swung loose above two heavily cushioned, plush red chairs that Katrine had been given by her sister Emmaleigh when she suddenly decided to sell her house and all her furniture before sailing to Barcelona with a countess named Eleonora who she'd met only a week before on an ocean liner while returning to France. Olivia just stared at them - lanterns like the sunsets they had watched all summer, with heads full of champagne and arms strung around waists and voices raised barely loud enough to be heard over the cries of friends lost in times of war, when the fascists had taken Paris, when the nightclubs closed, and when the world was frightening even if you weren't a Jew or a fag, because hatred gets on everyone, and it spreads.
She walked back inside and wandered into Katrine's bedroom, looking at the clock on the wall that hung between the two paintings that Katrine's husband painted years earlier, in her long black cape, when her hair was still as dark as her eyes. Her black hair now has flecks of grey, but her eyes still shine like the reflection of the silver buckles of her shoes that Peter painted so true-to-life. Olivia noticed the time. Katrine had decided to walk.
Olivia had her own key and let herself in. It was less than a twenty-minute walk, past the cafe where they'd met for the second time two months before. The first time they met was outside a train station a year before in some small town in Spain whose name neither of them can remember now. They were both on their way through the southern part of Eastern Europe. Katrine was returning home, having left Paris to forget Linda's death. But Olivia had a few hundred miles more to go before she returned home; back to school, her day job, remembering to pay back Dad, and forgetting birthdays.
They'd exchanged addresses, promising to write, with no real intentions of ever following through. But at 7:30, Olivia was running up to Katrine's apartment on the third floor; the lamp-lit stairs lined with photographs of the Seine taken in the '20s when Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney were still there. Olivia had seen cafes back home that try to duplicate a setting like this one: the paintings are of sunken patios, their frames made to look aged and tarnished, but everyone knows they were bought that way.
Olivia wanted to be early and sit alone in her rooms, looking through the photo albums beside Katrine's bed and scrapbooks filled with photos of her sister and mother, and the many women she'd known and loved and photographed over the years - in elaborate gowns at masquerade parties, or lounging on her terrace where they spent the mornings recovering from hangovers, dressed in the oriental silk they had worn to bed, newspapers over their laps; you could almost hear their laughter and smell coffee and cigars in the air. Some of the women are standing in their gardens on sunny afternoons - always smiling defiantly into the camera, arms draped around each other. They appear almost to be haloed. There is still life behind their eyes; here in these old photographs, brown with age. They have slept in the beds of countesses, they have lived openly and they have suffered, they have known their own minds and they have never given excuses for anything. They were inspired by the Greeks, pursued by distinction, and imitated nothing. They are the Lost Generation.
She's pretty sure Katrine doesn't mind her looking at the photographs. (She never once offered, but Katrine tells their stories so often, she knows it's no secret.) Then she heard the giant mahogany door downstairs slam shut, and that familiar clicking of Katrine's long-toed shoes across the wooden floor, which then fades as she reaches the carpeted stairway of deep reds and browns, and she hears her enter. Katrine is laughing and shouting apologies for being late. Olivia turns to see her standing in the doorway of the bedroom. When Katrine didn't see her in the living room, she had guessed this is where Olivia would be.
Katrine's face shows their age difference - almost twenty-six years - but is still gorgeous and elegant with deep red lips, a jaw that still looks defiant and noble in spite of the past fifty-two years, in spite of aging. Olivia loves her and respects her like a mother. She is leaning against the door frame, smiling; a hand on her hip, her waist still thin. She turns suddenly and goes into the kitchen, looking for another bottle of white wine.
She paces around the apartment, gathering empty glasses and waving her arms wildly as she goes in and out of French as if fighting to settle on one language long enough to tell Olivia that she wants to take her "as quickly as possible" to her new favorite place, "to sit and watch the funny little people, too common for words," and wonder why god made so many of them, "and so few of us." She is tugging on Olivia's sleeve, holding the bottle and two glasses in the other hand, racing out the door and down the stairs, into the street, screaming the words of dead poets.
But then the street singers' songs, which are so mournful and tragic, moved them to walk slowly, speaking quietly of last year's Christmas party when Scott was too jet-lagged and wouldn't come out of the back bedroom, or the night Anna invited everyone to Elaine's salsa party, but no one went. Katrine recited poems in German that Linda had taught her. They met up with friends in dark corners of hotel lobbies, in bars or cafes, but they never gave more than a quick glance around before backing towards the exit in stifled laughter at the snobbish set with their sour faces, clinging to cigarettes, pretending to be so detached.
Katrine remembered the old nightclubs where she and all her friends had spent so many evenings that turned into mornings, dancing with the girls and looking very strident and glamorous in their tuxes, "We really just wanted to have the best time that we could. Everyone thought we were trouble because we were so exclusive and clung to each other with such fierce loyalty, but we were really quite naive. We didn't feel subversive or angry at all - there was just so much love and warmth between everyone in those days. Maybe because we all knew that there was so much hatred waiting for us out there, and that everyone had lost someone because of it."
Olivia remembered the old photographs. They were so familiar. In some other life she had known these women, they were her friends. She could almost make out in her mind what the shore looked like where they had sat, all afternoon, deliriously happy, swimming, taking photographs of each other in their swimsuits and on bicycles, sitting on yellow and white stripe picnic blankets beside the river, glowing. She daydreamed about the stories. They were such real pieces of her life. That they had never existed for her in her own lifetime was sometimes too much for her to bear. She wondered if there hadn't been a mix up - lines crossed somewhere in the vast eternal design of the universe that had sent her to this world, and not to theirs.
Olivia felt so lost sometimes in the generation she'd been so adversely placed into. She regretted this more than anything. She looked at Katrine who now stood so still staring through the front of the cafe in at some other time, when she was in some other place - when this country and this city was a different country, a far different city. Katrine saw her old friends in their monocles and elegant Windsor ties, amethyst colored satin vests and stripe trousers. They sang along to Piaf, the songs that Aznavour wrote, and toasted each other with fervent cheers in cafes of old world charm. The orchestra played just for them. Olivia stared down at the sidewalk and tried to remember the first six lines of a poem Katrine had written down for her once on the back of a menu. Katrine didn't know she'd saved it. Olivia said the words quietly to herself:
World, world, I cannot get thee close enough
Long have I known a glory in it all
But never knew I this
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart, Lord, I do fear
Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year
Olivia leaned forward and dug her hands deep into the pockets of Katrine's long black coat that reminded her of the highwayman's capes she had only ever seen pictures of. The night became a great sea of dreamy voices and lights and music that (for once) didn't seem to draw from anything else. It was real, it was there, and she didn't have to try and remember the details to write down when she got home because they were all going to be there tomorrow and the next day, and for as long as she wanted. She closed her eyes and felt Katrine warm and near. She couldn't even remember what it was like to feel homesick.
about the author
Caroline is an art student at the University of Louisville and may eventually submit some artwork to us. We hope she will.