Elaine Barnard’s stories have been published in numerous literary journals. She has been a finalist for Glimmer Train and Best of the Net. She was also nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fiction. Recently her work was featured at the festival of New Short Fiction at the Annenberg Center in Santa Monica, CA. The collection of stories from her travels in Asia, EMPEROR OF NUTS: Intersections across cultures has just been published by New Meridian Arts. She received her BA from the University of Washington, Seattle and her MFA from the University of California, Irvine.
I weigh three hundred pounds. Even when I tip the scales it’s still three hundred. Clinically I’m obese, morbidly obese. “Obese,” I understand, but “morbid” I do not. It sounds ghoulish as if I’m some kind of monster, as if I willed myself to be this way.
I’ve received advice from all my relatives and so-called friends who’ve given me Christmas memberships to the gym, a year’s subscription to Weight Watchers and a brand new digital scale which I never use. Nor have I gone to the gym where I was assured I’d have a personal trainer as if I were a horse that had to be broken-in or a dog that needed appetite control.
What I need is someone no one can give me as that someone is gone, leaving a wound that will never heal. Such an old story, but each time it’s new to the teller.
I was a student in Paris studying French in the renowned halls of the Sorbonne. I was a brilliant student but that brilliance only made me blind. I never saw that Gil didn’t love me. I was there for his amusement.
Gil was handsome in a Gallic way, tall and slender, deep set dark eyes in a smooth olive complexion. He shone like a film star when he entered the classroom, mesmerizing every girl in his group. I was thin then, thin and blonde and very American, from the Midwest with all that implied, a kind of cornhusker beauty, pale freckles and brown eyes, prairie eyes, deep as the land they came from.
He must have seen something in those eyes that he wanted. It turned out it was my money he wanted. A rich American, a stupid American as in the novels of Henry James. I let him empty my bank account. “I’ll pay you back,” I hoped he’d say, but he never even said that much. He didn’t need to. He knew I was beyond that. I adored the scent of sweat on his skin, his clothes, and the oily smell of his long black hair. Why do Americans wash so much, use deodorants that eliminate the sexual scent of a man?
Gil had no trouble persuading me to sleep with him, or maybe it was I who seduced him, who found the cheap little hideaway on La Rue du Coeur, (street of the heart) which we cohabited after school pretending we were there to study, away from the student demonstrations on campus.
Our room was on the first floor of what turned out to be a brothel. (No wonder it was so cheap.) It was decorated appropriately with red striped wallpaper, a flaming red bedspread, crimson pillows, and a dirty linoleum block floor. A cracked bidet leaned against a rusty sink in case the occupants forgot why they were there. We drowsed to the thumping above us, the slamming of doors, the love words that seeped through the leaky windows. Gil repeated those words as if he were a mute just learning to speak, his face impassive, his eyes shut so I couldn’t see the deception behind them.
My parents had been so proud when I was accepted at the Sorbonne. They were certain I’d have a career as a novelist, or translator, or even a French teacher in some college in the States. “Our daughter has gone abroad to study,” they told their cocktail companions, thinking that put them one step up on the Kansas social register. It made them happy with the kind of happiness easily won and easily taken away.
Father was a pilot for Pan Am. He’d meet me in Paris whenever he had a layover. “Do you need anything? I just deposited some money in your account to be sure you’d never go without.”
My “going without” was his big concern when he wasn’t fucking my mother’s friends. Maybe that’s where I got the idea that all that fucking was okay. “It’s sweet,” Gil would say as he came on my face. He insisted I not wash it off, that his semen was good for my complexion. Of course I believed him, letting his cum penetrate until I felt part of him, of Gil.
He would correct my French as we wandered the misty streets to the Louvre after love making. The Seine rippled beside us, dark and forbidding. Nevertheless couples made love on its banks without concern for privacy. We followed their example. “Why not?” Gil whispered, urging me down the muddy banks. “No one cares in Paris. We’re free to do as we like.” He’d find some ground littered with newspapers. “We’ll make it quick while the papers are still dry.”
I felt the dampness sink into my bare flesh as he hovered over me. “It won’t be long now,” he’d murmur as I began to shiver. “I’m almost there.”
I shut my eyes against the light, the curious children staring down from the bridge above us. I only wanted his pleasure. His pleasure was my aphrodisiac.
Afterwards we hunted for pastries, usually deciding on “bricks,“ dense slices of bread pudding, cheap and filling, and almost indigestible. “That’ll hold us for a while,” Gil smiled as I slipped some coins to the surly baker.
Gil kissed me on our walk back to school. “I have exams tomorrow,” I pleaded. “I really need to study.”
“Studying is for stupid people,” he muttered as we crossed the bleak courtyard of the university. “That’s why I never bother. But study if you must. Mamma is expecting me for lunch.”
I watched his lithe body sliver into the gray afternoon. A light drizzle began to fall. I let the rain wash his semen from my cheeks, my lips, and the tender lobes of my ears which still cherished his love words.
“Mamma is expecting.” His mother was always expecting. Gil was in the grip of that woman he called, Mamma. I pictured her, well dressed in black, standing behind a lace curtain, peeking at us from their apartment on the Champs Elysee. I never met Mamma. Gil had never taken me home to meet her. “She wants me to marry a French girl,” he said when I told him I was pregnant. “It’s all arranged. Has been for years.”
“All arranged? How can it be all arranged?”
“It just is.”
“Then it must be unarranged.”
“I could what?”
“I won’t. I’ll never do that. It’s against my religion.”
“Besides, I want the baby. It’s yours, part of you. Maybe that’s all I’ll ever have.”
“Don’t be hysterical.”
“Why shouldn’t I be?”
“It’ll work out. You’ll see.”
“How will it work out?”
“I’ll tell Mamma.”
“At lunch. I’ll let her know she has to take care of you and the baby.”
Take care of me she did. Once the baby was born she locked me in an upstairs bedroom. The baby was locked in a closet at the end of a corridor crammed with photos of their ancestors, upright and dour. No sound in the house except the chiming of the clock sentineled at the bottom of the stairwell. Occasionally, I heard the clink of silverware, Gil and Mamma having lunch. Later she’d bring me a cup of cold onion soup with a stale baguette. “You must have your nourishment to nurse the baby properly.”
She’d bring the baby to me for an hour, and watch me nurse, noting the size of my breasts, if my son was getting enough milk. When he’d finished suckling I wanted to hold him, croon lullabies I remembered from my childhood, but she’d snatch him from me. “That’s enough,” she’d say when the baby cried. “That’s enough for now.” She meant the both of us, me and my infant son. Then she’d lock the door behind her. I heard Gil downstairs calling, “adieu,” to his mother. He was not allowed to see me. He had no interest in seeing his son. It was his mother who wanted the child. Gil was relieved of all responsibility.
How long this went on I can’t remember. The sun rose, the sun set. Rain fell in the night slicking the bars on my window. My hair grew long, my skin puckered, my body so skeletal I could almost slip through the bars. One day I was crazily thinking how I could do just that when I saw two guys and a girl clowning below. No one was home, Gil at school, and Mamma gone shopping.
“Hello,” I called in English. My French deserted me whenever I panicked. “Help,” I hollered again. “Please help me.”
“Come down,” they called. “Join us for a drink.”
“I can’t. I’m locked in.”
“Locked in—locked in. Prisoner.”
“Mamma locked me in. Me and my baby. Please help me,” I sobbed.
They exchanged some slang in French which I didn’t understand. Suddenly, I heard the door
crash below, a clattering on the stairs. My bedroom door burst open.
“Where is your baby?” the girl searched the room as if I might be demented after all.
“The closet at the end of the hallway. It might be locked.”
I packed my few things and shoved them in my suitcase with everything the baby might need. They brought him screaming to me, a wet blanket wrapped around him.
“We don’t have time to change him. Mamma might return at any moment.”
They rushed me outside, the baby screaming all the while with the sudden change in temperature, the hint of sun behind the clouds. He’d never been outside since his birth. My saviors loved him, playing peek-a-boo to make him gurgle as we ran up the street to their rooms in the Latin Quarter.
“You will stay with me?” Therese offered, her black eyes glistening beneath a thick fringe of lashes. Her lips were a valentine, her skin white, almost translucent. She was a fairytale, all shiny with goodness and grace.
I was only too happy to stay with her. Where else could I go with no money and an infant to care for?
“You wish to return home, to the States maybe?” Therese asked as she poured us some red wine from an old green bottle. The sediment colored my teeth black which made the baby laugh. Finally, I laughed too. We had achieved the impossible, made our escape from Mamma.
I wrote my parents, confessed my plight, fearing they’d disown me. Instead, my father sent me a plane ticket on Pan Am. But I couldn’t fly until the baby was four months old.
“You will stay with me until then or longer if you like. I have always wanted a baby,” Therese whirled my son in her arms. She looked so happy then waltzing the baby about her shabby room, the single lamp illuminating her like a Madonna at the Louvre.
“You will have your own one day.”
“You think so?” she smiled, giddy with wine and music, Edith Piaf singing on the radio.
“Those hips do not lie. You are made to be a mother.”
She laughed as we drank more wine and sang the baby to sleep.
Each morning we bundled the baby and shopped for fresh baguettes and coffee. The air was brisk, the streets sparkling from the rain that fell most every night.
“I wish you would stay here with me,” Therese sighed. “We could raise your son together.”
I almost wished so too but my parents insisted I return. They wanted their grandchild.
I flew home to Kansas, Therese waving “adieu—adieu...” as she tried not to cry.
The baby grew as babies do, and I grew too. Each year as the baby put on pounds so did I. I could not stop eating, filling my body to compensate for the emptiness in my heart. I could not stop loving Gil, knew I would run to him if I saw him again, let him take me down the banks of the Seine. His pleasure would still be my aphrodisiac.