Fabienne, Ma Mère
by Tess Scriptunas
Moments after meeting Fabienne, I found myself pressed against her sparrow-like form in the tiniest glass elevator I had ever seen. Deftly using the heel of her boot to keep my duffle bag upright, Fabienne chattered away in crisp, Parisian French.
“So glad you’re here! I hope you like the apartment. The last student truly loved it. I’m so sorry, but I’m going away for the weekend—you don’t mind, do you? In fact, I’m leaving in ten minutes. But have some friends over to cook. Act like it’s your home.”
The elevator doors folded open, and I rolled my duffle into the elegant apartment. The hallway floor shone chestnut: a thin maroon carpet stretched down its middle like a gentleman’s tie. Fabienne’s chatter drifted into the kitchen, and I followed in its wake.
“Have an espresso with me before I go?” Fabienne demanded. I nodded, and while the machine trembled she gave me a full interrogation.
“How old is your mother? Is she pretty like you?” she asked. And with this hybrid maternal compliment and pick-up line, she dropped her coffee cup in the sink and fluttered by me, grabbing the small suitcase that was stationed by the door.
“I will be back Sunday, and then we will eat together!” she called. “My husband’s number is on the fridge if you have any troubles with the apartment.” The elevator doors unfurled before her, and the little box whisked her away.
I went into the airy room that was to be mine. One large window adorned the wall next to the bed, the kind with doors for panes that fall open when you twist the latch. I got out my laptop and played music softly as I unpacked my things. The familiar folk sounds carried the fake wooden surface of the desk in my dorm room, the humid air of the walk to my summer job, my ex-boyfriend’s smile. They expanded into the air, filling the empty home.
“Ahh, you’re drinking? Pour me a glass!” Fabienne cried as she breezed into the dining room one evening. There she stood before my friends in all her compact beauty. Her auburn hair was pulled back tight against her skull into a short ponytail, and her small eyes gleamed as they examined the young people before her. Pushing her scarf back over her shoulder, she placed a cigarette between her lips and leaned towards my stocky artist friend. Clumsily he complied, shifting in his chair to extract a lighter from his jeans.
Fabienne and I had many dinners alone, too. She usually began them with a succinct compliment of her own cooking: “Yes, that’s very good,” she would assert upon taking a bite of cauliflower. Flexing my French muscles, I discussed with Fabienne the baffling nature of U.S. Republicans, our catholic upbringings and the distant fondness we felt towards the religion, and my own possible career path. “I don’t see you as a teacher. I see you as an art critic,” she said. One night the conversation turned to the elusive husband, whose face still rested in a tiny oval frame on the mantle in the living room. Other photos of him and Fabienne hung on the hallway walls. Fabienne and Vincent salt-spattered at the beach. Fabienne and Vincent reclining against the frame of a wooden cabin, in Cambodia where their daughter works for a non-profit. These images were interspersed with photos of her children, photos of Fabienne with friends and cousins, and photos of Fabienne on her own. My preferred picture sat in a mahogany frame and showed Fabienne pushing her hair up with both hands, elbows straight to the side, eyes staring authoritatively into the camera.
“Thirty years together, and then poof!” Fabienne exclaimed, referring to the absent Vincent. “He walks out with a woman twenty years younger. And what’s more, she’s Arab!”
Dinner was an efficient affair. “You don’t mind if I clean while you eat, do you?” she asked, leaning over the dishwasher. She never let me wash one plate. “When I’m here, I will occupy myself with you,” she insisted. Midway through the semester, we took to having a cigarette after the evening meal, flicking our ashes into the little blue plates that had held our dessert of fruit. “Paris lives in the past,” she reflected soberly one night. “There is no creation, no invention.” When the cigarettes became soot, Fabienne and I retreated to our bedrooms. Sitting with my legs on my desk and a novel for class in hand, I could hear the low moan of her TV as it drifted down the stairs. 10pm, 11pm, 12am, and still the static groan continued.
“Is he there, Tess? Is he there?” Fabienne asked between distracted mouthfuls of curried chicken.
“Not yet, Fabienne. You’ll know. If the green check mark shows up, that means he’s there.”
Fabienne had arranged to Skype with her son, Martin, who was also studying abroad, at the University of Southern California. Not having a Skype account herself, Fabienne had commandeered my laptop for this purpose.
“Could you send him a little message for me? Tell him I’m here?”
“I can Fabienne, but it won’t matter. Unless the green checkmark shows up he won’t see it.”
She took a restless bite of potato, and glanced again at the clock. “It’s five past nine, he’s not coming,” she said firmly, her mouth stretched into a thin line.
“He might, Fabienne. Noon is pretty early for a boy in California.”
“No, he’s not,” she affirmed. “That’s alright. That means that everything’s fine. If he was unhappy, he would call.” She smiled across the table at me. Her tan face crinkled.
“What a pretty scarf! Did you get that here?’
“Yes, I bought it in the Marais.”
“Ahh, it’s too pretty. If I give you money, will you buy one for me? The exact same one?”
During our next Sunday meal, and the next, Fabienne’s eyes flitted back and forth between me and the laptop on the counter. On the fourth Sunday Martin appeared, a prophet in a baseball cap. I excused myself to the living room, but from my position on the couch I could hear Fabienne’s voice cooing with questions. When she came back into the sitting room she was giddy, and announced that she would have another cigarette. We smoked together on the balcony. The street lamps cast a warm hay color over the white stone buildings, and to the right the horizon was smattered with red chimneys. Fabienne sat across from me in her short nightgown and jacket, her legs crossed tightly for warmth. Between drags of her Lucky Strike, she related Martin’s daily routine and listed for me once again all of his salient characteristics.
“He’s so beautiful,” she said wistfully. “Just like Jim Morrison. Bon, well I must get to sleep.” And she slipped away to her bed and her television.
Gradually the weather turned gray. The storefronts glittered with lights and merchandise, and the city brought out its holiday Ferris wheel—a relic of the “grande roue” that featured in the 1900 World’s Fair. Riding it at dusk, I could see the sweeping symmetry of the Louvre, and the taillights of the cars on the Champs Elysees formed strings of red fireflies. We Americans also began to imagine the winter that was waiting for us in the States. I was headed to Massachusetts, and was already envisioning the colonial houses decked in snow. How different they would be from the lovely, relentless repetition of stone facades and curved iron balconies. Fabienne, on the other hand, was flying to Cambodia to see her daughter. When I quizzed her about her travel plans, her expression went stiff.
“I don’t like the holidays,” she said. “I shall be happy to spend Christmas on a plane. That way I’ll pass right over it.”
The sky grew grayer, and my departure imminent. On the night of my last dinner with Fabienne, she brought home a bottle of white wine and cooked us a bloody rotî of beef. Our conversation drifted as she refilled our glasses, and when I expressed my anxiety over hurting an earnest, effeminate friend on my program, she began to advise me on the situation.
“You must find a man who pleases you physically, mentally, and spiritually. Do you understand?” She poked her small head forward and examined me intently. We were wrapped in the intimacy of the kitchen, when suddenly this woman who had sautéed innumerable vegetables on my behalf, had pronounced which fluids I should drink when I was sick, and had insisted on sorting my dirty laundry, recounted the story of her long-term ménage à trois. At seventeen she was enamored with a boy named Benoit, but he was young and irresolute and left her after a few months. Several years later, after meeting her husband-to-be through her matchmaking cousin, she bumped into Benoit near the church at Saint-Severin.
“I was living with Benoît while Vincent worked in Nicaragua, but I still visited Vincent,” Fabienne related. “Finally I said to myself, ‘Fabienne, you must choose!’ So I chose Vincent. But Benoît stayed a part of my life.”
Benoît, in fact, became Vincent’s best friend, and even accompanied the family on seaside vacations. “Of course I wasn’t involved with him physically, but he is the father of my children,” Fabienne continued.
I didn’t want to be insensitive, but I did want clarification. “He’s the father of your children?” I asked lightly.
“Well, he’s the father of Martin, and a little bit the father of Lucie.”
So the three of them lived until Vincent grew tense at hearing Fabienne laugh into the phone each evening. “I know why he left; he was tired of sharing,” she said. That same year, Benoit died in a motorboat accident.
“And now I’m all by myself,” she concluded calmly. “I know I’ve made some mistakes, but it is too good to be loved by two good men for thirty years.”
With that thought Fabienne swept up our dinner plates. “Ahh, it’s already ten! Go, I know you’re wanting to meet your friends.” I did have plans, and as I stood up from the table, she twirled around at the sink, took my head in her hands, and kissed the side of my face.
“Thank you for this beautiful encounter,” she said. “Let’s have breakfast tomorrow before you leave.”
When I woke up the next morning, the kitchen radio, which normally played muffled, crackly French news at this hour, was silent. I crept up the stairs to the second floor of the apartment, calling Fabienne’s name softly, then less softly. The air around me sounded still. Reaching the top of the stairs, I noticed that the door to her room was open, and through the dim light I could see that her bed was empty. Presumably a night of drinking in a fashionable suburb had led her to miss the last metro home. After a couple of quiet weekend mornings, I was used to this.
Using a postcard I had intended for a family friend, I sat down at the kitchen table and wrote her a note. Then I hauled my duffle bag into standing position and heaved it through the door into the tiny hallway.
Sitting by the gate at the airport, surrounded by friends and last-minute pastry purchases, I felt my French phone vibrate at the bottom of my tote. Fabienne was calling. After looking at the name for a moment, I pressed the side button that made it go silent and placed the little phone back in my crowded bag.
Tess Scriptunas graduated from Wesleyan University in 2014. She currently teaches middle school English and French in Hartford, Connecticut. Her work has appeared in The Madison Journal of Literary Criticism.