Elena Kaufman is a writer, actor, dramaturge, and holds an MA in dramatic literature (U of Toronto), a Certificate in creative writing (Joan Barfoot, Humber College, Toronto) and an MSt in creative writing from Oxford University. As a Canadian who has been living in Europe for
ten years, she is passionate about the idea of cultural identity and belonging. Her short stories are published in SubTerrain, Pharos, Women in Judaism, 1097Mag, The Penmen Review, and New Shoots. Her monologues have appeared in Smith and Kraus and Heinemann Press collections, and she’s had two stage plays produced. She is a current member of the Writer’s Room, Hamburg, the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain, International Centre
for Women Playwrights, and is an associate member of Playwrights Guild of Canada.
Some people swear by their inner child but Juliana has something unique. It’s lying sideways, resting on her leg—an earthworm, pink and new, with one slit eye staring up at her.
When the phone rang, she was still horizontal on the lumpy sofa. She poked her arm out from under the comforter to prod under a bag of chips, an empty box of cookies, and some glossy French Galas strewn over the floor. Paul’s voice came from three thousand miles away.
“Honey, guess what,” she said, her voice cracked with sleep.
“Did I wake you?”
“I grew a penis,” she said.
“A dream penis.”
There was a sharp exhalation of breath and then a burst of laughter. “You’re too far away,” he said.
Juliana pushed the curtain of hair from her eyes. “I haven’t been myself since you left.”
“I’m counting the days,” he said and changed the subject to renovations for their new apartment in Seattle, which he’d purchased without her. He’d seen a minimalist style in Wallpaper magazine and planned for them to strip off the purple and orange wallpaper, paint every room in a particular shade of beige, no, not beige: milky coffee. They’d buy an antique brass bed and seek out treasures from flea markets because that was her thing. “Shabby chic” he called it.
“Abandoning the city of lights for the city of rain doesn’t seem like a fair exchange,” Juliana said and threw the blanket off and rose from the sofa, naked from the waist down. She cradled the phone between ear and shoulder.
“But you said it would be a relief, to come home,” he said.
Juliana held her pajama bottoms up in front of her to thrust her leg in, but got twisted up, fell back onto the sofa bed, and dropped the phone. She picked up the phone again, and he was still speaking: “Don’t get all mopey on me. We’ve gone through this a million times.” Juliana let the phone fall onto the bed, stood up again, and aimed for her pajama leg. She was getting cold.
A week ago, they’d moved out of their Parisian apartment, which was on the fifth floor of a walk-up in the eleventh district right beside an award-winning bakery. What they left behind were sun stains on the walls from the outlines of posters: Depardieu and Deneuve in Le dernier métro and Juliette Binoche in Blue. She’d rolled the posters into tubes and sent them with Paul. When she had swept the living room, she found francs lodged under the fireplace which she washed and polished and packed into her jewelry box. Her herbal tea collection went to friends, and she gave the American Library most of their books which Paul had considered too heavy and also replaceable. But in Seattle she’d never find a second-hand book on Hilaire Belloc, she knew that much.
Paul left Paris to start something new, while Juliana stayed behind in a temporary room to finish off something old: her job as a teacher in a high school in the ninth. In one week she and Paul would reunite in an empty room with tubs of paint and stacks of old English newspapers. Would she find le Figaro?
“My feet are Krazy-Glued to the Pont des Arts,” Juliana said. “I can’t step off.”
“You’re so dramatic.”
“What? After two years that’s news to you?”
“We were lucky to live there at all but we couldn’t stay, you know that.”
“Things change,” she said. “People change.”
“Exactly, which is why you need to come home. To start a new adventure. It’ll be great.”
“Seattle is not my home.” She sunk back down on the sofa, was swaddled in a meringue of sheets. The silence grew.
“You still there?” he asked.
“Yep, I’m still here. In Paris.”
“Tell me more about that penis of yours.” His voice had lightened.
“He’s a bit shy; otherwise, I’d let him speak for himself.”
“And what would he say?”
Juliana thought about it but she was at a loss. “Paul, are you naked?” she whispered. “Like right this minute, are you still in bed, naked?” It would have been six in the morning his time.
“Well, maybe I am,” he said with warmth coming out of him and through the phone line and directly into her sleepy ear.
“If you’ve got nothing on, then yes,” she said, looking down at her rumpled pajama bottoms, not daring to touch. She threw the comforter back over her and curled in.
“Well, now I have a friend too,” she whispered.
“Cute, very cute.”
“Juliana.” His voice was thin now, with a thread of fatigue. “I’ve got work. Call you later?”
She patted the comforter into little feathery mounds. Each time one air bubble sank, another popped up. “The daffodils came out in Luxembourg gardens; it’s gorgeous,” she said. She gathered her hair and pulled it over one shoulder, tugging it down. “And the picnickers along the Seine...yesterday they were sitting on blankets, drinking wine.”
There was a rattling cellophane sound on his side of the line, and she held the phone out. When she put it back, a low drone blared.
“Paul? Paul, can you hear me?”
The dial tone clicked in and she gripped the receiver in both hands as if to strangle it, then threw it down and lit a self-rolled Gitanes and lay back on the pull-out—which she hadn’t bothered to pull out—in the narrow dormitory room. Students of Cardinal Lemoine College had lived here in the sixteenth century; it was what attracted Juliana to the room. On the ceiling a spider lowered himself down. She crawled under the duvet; now in a dark cave, except for the glowing red ember, it could have been the year 1500 rather than 2000. How many apathetic students had lain in this exact spot filled up with the same dread? She patted her hand around her thighs, around the borders of her new body part and, without feeling it, knew it was still there. When she’d smoked herself out of the cave and emerged, the phone rang and she let the vibrations hum through her fingers before answering on the third ring.
“Can you hear me?”
“Sure,” she said.
“Juliana, please,” he said. “We have to move forward.”
“Come back,” she said, and took another drag on the cigarette.
“Are you smoking again?”
“I’ll pay for your flight, Paul.”
“I thought you agreed to stop smoking.”
“Forget the stupid job, Paul. Come back.”
“You mean the stupid job that pays for you to stay there?”
“I didn’t mean...sorry.”
“Look—it’s six in the morning and I’ve got to get to work. I can’t be doing this.”
“It’s Sunday,” she said. “Day of rest?”
“We’ve got a meeting with head office on Monday. The new guy has to prove himself.”
“Then don’t call if you don’t have time to talk about it.”
“It’s too late. I can’t erase everything we set up over here.”
“You set up. You.” She blew the smoke out as a punch into the receiver, then flicked the cherry off the cigarette; it landed on the woven rug near her bed, and she had to use a Gala magazine to bat it out. Her neighbor, the troubled one, was shuffling around in her kitchen, washing dishes and rattling cutlery. Juliana’s neck was cramping from holding the phone between shoulder and ear.
“What about our friends, our walks along the Seine, the Beaujolais Nouveau, lemon tarts from our bakery, Sundays at the Louvre?” She could feel herself clawing, peering over that cliff edge she leaned further and further over these days.
“I’ll come and get you,” he whispered. “Would that help?”
She pulled her hair tightly away from her face with her free hand and imagined taking scissors to it.
“I’ll cut it off,” she said.
“What are you talking about?”
“Listen, I’ll find a cheap flight and take a couple of days off work. I’m on my six months’ probation, but I’ll do it if it helps.”
“No,” she said.
“Are you sure?”
She wiped the comforter over her wet cheeks. “No.”
“What were you doing when I called? It must be three in the afternoon there.”
“At the desk. Studying French,” she lied. Her French books were on the floor, askew with their spines broken.
“Okay then. Can I still expect you next Wednesday?”
She nodded and lay her head on the pillow.
“Yes, yes, yes.”
“I miss you, Juliana.”
After hanging up, she grabbed a pillow and hurled it against the wall, where it bounced off the TV and back onto the sofa beside her. The room was too small for tantrums.
That afternoon, she strolled in the sunshine through a maze of quiet Sunday streets. Passing 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine, where Ernest Hemingway had lived, she blew silent kisses up to his former window. At the top of the hill was Place de la Contrescarpe, with a fountain in the square surrounded by cafés. A homeless man stood fully clothed in the middle of the fountain, splashing water over his head while pigeons cooed around him. His cord pants were torn, and the remnants, tied around his waist with a thick rope, revealed a gaping hole at his crotch, but no matter how Juliana strained to see, she couldn’t make out any sign of his mystery peeking out.
She sipped a syrupy espresso at a café on the square which cost her nearly three euros and then wandered down rue Monge, past market stalls brimming with fruits and vegetables. When she turned into Arènes de Lutèce, the remains of a Roman amphitheater where men and animals had fought fist to hoof, there was a group of men throwing shiny silver pétanque balls along the gravel. Juliana watched how they moved with their birthright between their legs, until one man, who looked to be in his eighties, turned and tipped his hat at her before bowling his turn. When he scored and his friends applauded him, he turned back and bowed to her. All the men looked her way, and she forced a smile. If she’d had the courage, she would have asked them how it felt carrying such sensitive goods around, but instead, she exited the arena and went back down the hill.
At the bottom stood Jussieu University, where Juliana had applied for a job in the English department, but it hadn’t worked out. The entrance gate was covered in the same handwritten banners she’d seen on her first visit, protesting rising tuition fees. A lone student, sitting on the ground beside the locked gate, looked up as she passed. Did he recognize her new walk, her cowboy swagger? Juliana looked back over her shoulder, but his head was bowed down in a book.
In the Jardin des Plantes, she walked around the boundaries of newly planted flowerbeds, kicking up the gray gravel until she tasted dirt in her mouth. When a cloudy curtain passed over the sun, she sought comfort elsewhere.
The Mosque on rue Cardinal Lemoine had a café which served sweet tea with real mint, and the place was brimming—with tourists snapping photos, hookah-smoking teens, French literati, and white-aproned waiters. The elegant men balanced trays filled with decorative glasses of hot tea and plates of honeyed sweets while under their arms they carried water pipes with thin hoses dragging behind them like tails. All this, with the other thing to carry, she thought. No one looked particularly interested in her—not the giggling teenage boys sharing a pipe, exhaling a swirl of smoke as sharp and fresh as Granny Smith apples—nor the woman at the next table, who was immersed in a book on, as far as she could see, literary symbolism.
What if Juliana took off her pants and flung them into the garden? Would the customers look at her then? She could strut around, showing them the secret hermaphrodite she’d become.
Quelle surprise. She’s a sensation, they’d say. If starfish can regenerate arms, then humans can grow missing body parts, she would tell them. The whole day she had been conscious of it resting against her thigh. When she studied how men moved differently in this world from women, she saw them shifting and adjusting, as if they were prize horses readying for the race. She tried to imitate by scratching for balls that didn’t exist. She lit up another cigarette and smoked away the rest of the afternoon.
That evening, her married friends Cecilia and Maurice took her out for dinner at Chez Bleu in the fifth. They all ordered the moules marinière served with bowls of salty golden fries so hot they burned the roof of her mouth. Cecilia, an expat from Boston, wore a purple silk dress, while Maurice, from La Rochelle: a white linen shirt under his motorcycle jacket. She’d never intended to talk about her dream, but after two Kir Royales and four glasses of chardonnay, it slipped out.
“A penis,” Juliana slurred and leaned back in her chair, stretching her legs out. They stared at her: Cecilia with her chin cradled in her hand, Maurice with his head tilted to the side. His eyes jumped to her chest for a quick second, and she winked at him. Cecilia didn’t notice.
“I dreamt I had one. Really, it was wild,” she said, looking directly at him. “Well, anyway, you know what I mean.”
Maurice folded his arms across his chest and looked away. The idea of it, though, flooded her friend.
“Was it erect?” Cecilia asked, her voice languid from their third bottle.
“Cherie, please.” Maurice clapped his hand firmly on his wife’s shoulder.
“I didn’t have that pleasure,” Juliana said. “I didn’t get to give it a whirl—to pee or anything.”
Cecilia shrugged his hand off and sat up straight, folding her hands on the table. “So, Juliana, are you (a) trying to assert your masculine side, (b) questioning your sexuality, or (c) feeling impotent?”
It took Juliana a moment to absorb the question. She slurped the dregs from her glass and set it down a little too hard, which made all of their glasses teeter.
“Are those my only options?”
Maurice twisted in his seat while he waited for Juliana’s answer.
“I mean, couldn’t it just be that I’m a hermaphrodite? Simple,” Juliana said.
“Paul should not have left you here alone,” Maurice said. His foot caught Juliana’s under the table and she bit her lip. “That was a grave error,” he said.
Cecilia nodded. “I agree,” she said.
They exited the restaurant and emerged into the soft evening air tainted with pollution. Traffic sounds filled their ears. Maurice gave her two pecks on the cheeks, and she closed her eyes to smell his woodsy scent. Then he pulled out a pack of cigarettes, handed her one, and walked away. Cecilia linked her arm in Juliana’s and they trailed down the sidewalk behind him.
“He has vagina envy. You should see him at home squeezing into my cocktail dresses. He thinks he’s Kate Moss,” Cecilia said.
Juliana laughed so abruptly that it started a coughing fit. She had to hold on to a shop window for support. When she straightened up, she saw the back of Maurice’s leather jacket disappearing down the street and Cecilia wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. Cecilia’s tiny earrings dangled like little fish hooks, and Juliana reached out and touched one of them. Maurice turned and yelled, “Cherie, come. I must rise early to work.”
“Thanks for dinner,” Juliana said. “And thanks for everything.” Her voice slurred, which made them both giggle again.
“You lush. We’ll have to do this again. I’m counting down your dinners here—only four left.”
“Yeah, let’s do the last supper thing,” Juliana said, leaning against her friend’s shoulder and moving in to kiss her cheek until Cecilia’s eyes became large blue orbs in front of her.
“On Thursday before I take off?” Juliana said. “Come alone.” Cecilia looked surprised but agreed. Then Maurice, who was at the end of the street, called out: “A bientôt, Juliana.”
“Will you be okay getting home?”
Juliana shrugged; it wasn’t the first time she had gotten herself home, drunk; she’d hold on to the stone walls for support. They waved each other off, and Juliana stood with her back against a wall, pressing into it. She watched her friends speed off in their green Citroen, then turned her sight to the fuzzy-looking Metro sign.
The narrow dormitory hall was a long corridor glimmering with shadows from the high windows which threw mottled streetlight onto the uneven stones of the floor. The only human sounds she ever heard in the building came from the woman next door, who had been arguing with someone on the telephone for the past three nights.
In her room, the sofa bed was still folded up and the curtains left open. She kept the lights off but flicked the remote on so the cool blue flicker of the TV shimmied up her walls. She tripped over her French books and stubbed her toe on the coffee table and screamed out Merde. Sitting down on the bed, she stripped off her little black dress and lay under the feathery comforter. It was her third sleep alone. She nudged the phone off its cradle so that the dial tone was a lullaby. Her fingers punched in his memorized number. It rang only once.
“Are you still awake?” she asked.
There was a deep groan. “Quelle heure est-il?” His voice full of what she loved—cigarettes and booze.
Juliana laid her cold hands on her warm breasts. “Maurice, Maurice,” she said. “Are you alone?”
“S’il te plaît. Please, Juliana.”
“Are you crying?” she said. Her own eyes got itchy and blurry at the same time. On TV a muted chef was speed-chopping green onions with a long knife.
“Did I shock you at the restaurant with my story?”
“You had too much to drink again; you were not careful.”
There was a muffled sound on the other line, and she heard a door being closed.
“You, mon amour, are so sexy that I wouldn’t care if you had four eyes. But a penis? Disgusting.”
“I’ll miss you. I mean it.”
“I’m just an old man to you,” he whispered. “It’s all I ever was.”
“No, that’s not it.”
“Au revoir, Juliana.”
The dial tone rang in her ears.
An hour later Juliana was still awake and staring at the shadows on the ceiling. The TV was off and the blankets were kicked onto the carpet. The heavy air in the room smelled of dust and dry wood from the ceiling beams. Juliana imagined Paul sitting at his new desk, doing important things for English-speaking people. The legal firm was on the fourteenth floor in downtown Seattle. She imagined him gliding around the spacious department—his reflection beaming in the shiny surfaces, while in her room she was held captive by dark wooden beams and woven straw mats, an uneven ceiling, and precariously wired light fixtures. Every time the neighbor took a shower, the tap in the kitchen turned from a
flow to a trickle. Here they were all connected, these lives which never intersected in the hallway. Three steps away from the bed was the table where she ate, wrote, and played solitaire. On it, the candle Paul bought at the artisanal market now lopsided, half burnt with its long black wick.
It didn’t take much to pull herself from her nest and to light that candle; she stared at the flame until her eyes were full of dancing stars. With blurry vision and a head swimming with wine, she grabbed her French exercise book and held it up to the small flame; all of those conjugations she’d spent months on became hot and bright. The edges of paper curling at a vous and a tu and then—with a crackle, rush, and blaze, the book fell out of her hand and dropped onto her sofa bed in flames. She leapt back and watched as her pillow melted open and set silent fireworks of floating feathers into the room. Everything sparkled golden.
No sounds but the crackling fire could be heard. Then the slow burn of her T-shirts and socks; everything she fed it made it louder and stronger until Juliana’s remembered friend was pulled upright to attention. Now she put her hand around her phantom appendage and it was there. Now she hopped from one foot to the other to avoid the rising heat from the woven mat, her eyes so full of light it was a wonder to behold.