A Serial Novel

A literary experiment in judicial philosophy and historical fiction, inter alia.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Chapter 6: "What Do You Like?"

Like most adolescents, Heloise thought of herself more or less like a mirror, if not in so many words. She took care to present herself exactly as she imagined people saw her—or as she imagined she’d like them to—and she took it for granted that—since people love looking in mirrors—no had any pleasure greater than looking at her.

Before the mirror of her self cracked, Heloise never noticed this. Now she noticed little but. She loved the way Jacques and his family looked at her when she spoke her mind. She loved the way she could pierce herself in their eyes.

“Which country do you find is the home of your soul?” Madeline asked her. They were picnicking by one of the leisurely rivers on their stop-by-day-as-well-as-by-night way. “To me, it’s the Orient. There’s something vital and full-blooded there that alone can satisfy the blood in me.”

“That’s like Madeline,” said Louise, “Everything pounding like the last three chords of a symphony and the longer and more clotted with history the better. The Americas for me, and everything new and clean—men and spirit animals in the silence of the wood.”

Greece,” said the Marquis, Jacques’s father, who loved to talk and argue with his children, his daughters especially, who was nothing that fatherless Heloise expected from a father and everything she found most delightful. “But there, I’m old fashioned.”

“And you Heloise?” asked the Marquise.

Still Heloise found something affected in the question. As if she had been waiting all her life for a family to ask her about her soul-home—which everyone had, of course, or at least they did. She replied, “Perhaps with a better education, or at least one more liberal, I would be better able to dispose of my soul so lightly. But I have not been so fortunate to find any home for long, much less one for my soul.”

She wondered at her daring and her rudeness, but the family simply laughed. They loved it when she spoke out like this. Madeline said, “And that’s to teach me to ask questions my —future—sister does not wish to answer.”

Madeline looked at her like there was never a girl so fun to play with, so nice to show off. Louise looked at her kindly, rosily—the Marquis approving, glancing at his wife for her nod. Celi just stared and stared. (She was saving Heloise up in her eyes for Just, who she missed—who at the moment was grinding his teeth with self-pity at how itchy and sticky and feverish he was in his skin.)

Heloise watched Jacques, who mostly stayed quiet. She would have thought this was his nature, if Madeline had not thrown a roll at him and said, “Why so dull now always? Who should I call on to ask for my brother’s tongue back?” (What Heloise did not notice was Louise say, Shh, and Madeline, her lips straight, whisper, And how does how you treat him help? And the Marquis say, Shh.)

What she did notice was that when spoke out, Jacques looked her up and down, with something of his father’s judging glace, but at a further distance—ah, so that’s who you are, you surprise me.

Heloise watched them all watch her and loved each turn of the reflection, and thought she could deal with all of them and altogether liked the thought. Now all she had to worry about was sex.

She had tried to broach Genevieve on the subject but was surprised to find her elusive. The truth was Genevieve preferred romance a little more vague, a little more composed of breath, a little higher, somewhere between the air and the lips.

“What is your favorite dessert, Mlle Beaujeu?” asked Celimene—another picnic. “Mine’s Venus nipples.”


“And if the girl likes Venus nipples is she to be scolded?” said her father. “Mine favorite's lady's fingers—more discrete with age, you see.”

”Mille feuilles.”

Heloise admitted that she liked beignets very much.

”And you, Jacques?” asked the Marquis.

“I don’t know.”

But the Marquis didn’t take that for an answer. He kept on picking at him until Jacquest finally said, “Pain de beurre. I’d like that best, if it’s so important to pick a favorite food.”

“I’d forgotten you’re too old now to speak to us,” said the Marquis.

“And I’m surprised you’re not too old to be constantly looking for society with your children—although, I forget, you love nothing so much as your family, after all you’ve given up everything for it. I can’t stand it, Louise,” said Jacques, “Why must he spend all his time with us. I never asked him to. I never made him.”

The old man is lonely, thought Heloise, and she thought again how she preferred him to Jacques. Except that Jacques was so sad. You could never be bored or useless with someone that sad around.

The next person Heloise would have looked to for advice about sex would have been Cure Fulbert, her spiritual father—she would have put it delicately—but the cure spoke to her first.

The next two things that happen in this story seem very much like dreams. Just would always swear that his was not, and Heloise would have given anything to believe that hers was. Heloise first, then.

It was dark, an inn after everyone snuffed their lamps out and turned to snuffing themselves, heavy-breathed in sleep—that’s important to know because Heloise had trouble hearing in the dark—and the cure shook Heloise and told he needed to speak with her. Heloise started, stumbled obediently out of bed, feeling half as if—looking at the soft, still sleeping Genevieve—she were leaving her own body there.

Closeted together, the cure began by catechizing Heloise.

“How do you like this family your aunt has found for you?” he asked.
”I like them well enough.”

“And how do you like your king?”

“I am a loyal subject—what do you mean?”
”And how do you like God?”

“He is God—how should…” Heloise did not think that she was understanding the cure correctly.

“What do you say to this? This Marquis is nothing more than a dilettante who does not have the guts to be a true intellectual, an atheist too cowardly to take the name, and a coward who hides his traitorous thoughts from himself behind the skirts of his family. How do you like that?”

Heloise blinked, not understanding the attack. (And if, later, she came to accept that this was a kind of truth, she might wish to have said, “And what reason is that not to like him?”)

She said, instead, “I would not like to think that at all.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” said the cure, “but you might in any case. If it were true—Don’t look at me like that, girl! I wouldn’t like it either. Here, read this.”

He handed her a letter, but became impatient with her puzzling out the hand and a moment later snatched it back.

“It’s a warrant,” she said, disturbed.

“From the king—or at least the one who guides his steps,” The cure looked at her expectantly, another school-hour pattern that she must puzzle out. He said, “One of them is a murderer. And we, poor girl, must sniff him out.”

“I don’t understand you,” she said. The cure took her by the arm. It felt like glass, her own arm, his far away on its surface. She wondered she did not break. “I can’t hear what you’re saying.”
”Which one? Dear God, girl, I thought it only just to ask.”

“I don’t understand,” speak up! she wanted to say, “How can I know? What kind of justice is that?” They none of them seemed like murderers to her.

The cure spread his hands and a table of desserts appeared under them. Heloise blinked again. There were gateaux and ices—sharp chocolate smell, melting edges—and mille feuilles (Madeline) and beignet (herself) and pain de beurre (Jacques) and Venus nipples (Celi) and lady’s fingers (their father). “Which one?” the cure asked.

They don’t seem like murderers—they look like pastry. (It was too ridiculous, and she like a parrot repeating I don’t understand, I don’t understand.) Heloise thought she heard laughter; she heard the family questioning her and laughing. “Which one’s your favorite? What do you like?”

She shook her head.

She was awake the next morning before its cold light leaked through, before breakfast, long before the Marquise’s screams woke everyone else. “He is dead. My husband is dead.”
He was dead. His eyes were open and dead, his leaking mouth crusted with spit.

The girls cried. Jacques screamed, “You’ve lost me forever now. You stupid old man. What are you thinking?”

Heloise bent over the Marquis and plucked the lady’s fingers out of his fingers.


Blogger Phoebe said...

I find something very disconcerting about both your last comment and post, Art. Maybe it’s that fever you talked about; maybe it’s cyber-infectious. But I’m sorry you haven’t been feeling well.
It pains me, though, to see you feeling bad. Are we really back there again? I have to say that the story of your seduction is pathetically blasé. You provide yourself with a (true) alibi but you fail to believe it. So you played up one element of yourself with the intent of getting laid. How shocking! Since did we not forgive ourselves our ambiguous desires? As long as you’re telling me the truth about her state of relative sobriety, I fail to see how that makes you an asshole. Sure, it makes you a slut. But we both already knew that, and we’ve been through that before. So here goes again: Te absolvo, fratre, te absolvo. There, all better?

You know how little I like speaking for groups, whether it’s all women are all twins or all Phoebes. So I won’t speculate how “Women” feel about being mirrors (especially since the person who looks the most like me is a man, as you well know --- just look in the mirror). But I have to say, I don’t think a lot of men pay nearly as much attention to women as they think they do. I don’t know if the homme a femmes ever really existed or was always just a literary figure, but I suspect that even if he ever did live he’s died with video games and ESPN, the hip-hop video and easy access to pornography, a victim of the progressive infantalization that we call globalization (I’m sorry to have to sound so old.)

Look at Jacques in this last post. I’m sorely disappointed in him. Here’s a guy who wants to be that kind of man, for better or worse, but he starts having trouble pulling it off. You have to feel for him, he loses a son and a father in rapid succession. But I miss the man who won Ledoux’s heart (even if she didn’t deserve him), and hope that he comes back soon. It’s almost funny when Just accuses him of faithlessness. It’s his faithlessness I admire, the true proof of his love, which he becomes convinced he might have lost. And then he does, and you’re right that he looks for his father to justify faithlessness (the choice the old Marquis could never make) at the very moment Jacques is trying to abandon it. But he has to smile and pretend that he has thrown himself into the role of being a fiancé, just because he happens to be engaged. And here’s someone who can play any role, but suddenly finds himself failing to even manage civility, much less domesticity. Poor Heloise, we’ll be doing her a favor if we break her. Maybe then she can start again.

Back to the subject of mirrors. It’s true that I’ve been reflecting on myself a lot lately. I ignored your earlier interpretation of this novel vis-à-vis “The Big Break-up,” but you and I both know it’s partially true. (Keep it to yourself, though. Why write except to lose yourself? You know that, don’t you?). For one thing, I’ve had a lot more time on my hands. I don’t know many people in my new neighborhood yet, and I haven’t felt too inclined to hang out with any of my friends from the years with Dave, even those who are really more mine. Why do I bring this up on the subject of mirrors?

Say these two pairs: “Dave and Phoebe,” “Art and Phoebe.” Two different kinds of pairs, but what do they both have in common? Phoebe is “The Responsible One.” (“Sunshine, where has your brother run off to now? It’s your job to watch him.” The burden of an extra few minutes of life, or maybe an extra X chromosome in a sexist society. I dunno.) I work a boring day job with a regular paycheck. When I’m there I want to die of boredom; I have nothing in common with my colleagues (my consolation is that they are always rushing to get the next train; I just walk a couple blocks and I’m home, and I’m in my going-out get-up before they’ve even sat down for another boring dinner where they’ll talk about their day as though it were fascinating, which I guess, comparatively, it is. You know that (at least you meet people at your job whom you’d want to fuck. Imagine that at my office. Yecch) And here’s the deal: no matter how hot I look when I’m ready to go out, for all my circle of friends might see, I might as well be wearing no make-up and some loose t-shirt with a god-awful logo (the kind my colleagues wear on the weekends) that says “Here’s the Counter-Culture Chick Who’s Made Sacrifices.” Because that’s what they see. Now, I ask you: Is that me?

First of all, am I really all that counter-culture? No. I have an artistic bent, but as much as the jack-asses of our generation might conflate the two, there’s a difference between art and the counter-cultural. I love culture itself way to much to bother countering it. Who is counter-cultural? Dave. He’s who my friends see when they look at me. How many of the couples of our friends divide their labor like this: one aspiring artist, actor or academic who, if he works at all works some über-shitty job that could barely pay his bar tab. And one person working a responsible job that pays decently and that she’s way overqualified for, who is putting off her artistic or thespian or academic interests until her partner’s ship comes in (until the world catches on to the extreme political importance of brightly colored plastic collaged to resemble a cross between Wiley Coyote and Donald Rumsfeld.) I use the pronouns that I do because you know as well as I do how that division breaks down more often than more-often-than-not: the feminist cred of Generation X.

Secondly, have I really made any sacrifices? A month ago, I would have said yes. I want to write a novel, and instead I’m processing mortgage applications, putting some computer drone somewhere out of work. But is it really that bad? It pays the bills, it occupies about a quarter of my brain, gives me lots of quiet time to think, and it leaves my evenings and weekends totally to me. Was Wallace Stevens a phony, as we’ve both always said, or the most deeply authentic poet of his generation? And everybody thinks that my quietness must conceal depths that they can’t see, which is what they think they’re trying to get at when they chat me up or buy me drinks. The truth? It’s the surface of a mirror, and the illusion of depth that they see. They’re in love with their own depth, which they already know intimately (that’s how they know it’s lovable).

I have to say, I’ve been putting off addressing the part of your last post which disturbs me the most. I’m reticent to say it, because it was your gesture of compromise. The Marquis was starting to become a bone of contention between us and so you got rid of him, right when you were starting to convince me that we was more likable than I’d originally assumed. Here’s the thing: I’m sorry to see him go. Sunday evening I found myself lonely, more lonely than I’ve been since I moved out. I sat down to write this week’s post, but instead I found myself thinking about going to Dirty Frank’s, of all places and, because I couldn’t think of anyone else in Philadelphia I’d want to go with, almost hunted down Cheryl’s number, even though I haven’t gone out with her in years (I doubt she’s gone out in years). Instead, I made myself the most festive margarita I could (I put several umbrellas in it, and rimmed each of them with salt) and sat down to write. That’s when it struck me how much I was going to miss having the Marquis around. Then I realized that it was Father’s Day, and (this’ll make you realize the kind of mood I was in) I almost actually called Dad (don’t worry I sent him a card). I realized that you wouldn’t be off work for several hours still (damn time-zone difference), so I poured my festive margarita into a Thermos, topped it off with a couple more shots of tequila (god bless roomy beverage holders) and went to the movies. That was pretty decent, but I don’t really remember what I saw.
I’ve got to admit that the Marquis’s death was pretty well executed though; I especially liked the dream-like quality of the first real introduction of the cure and the hint of intrigue. The most galling thing is how you put my view of him in the mouth of the detestable cure. I thought I had insured that Jacques would have to die first by referring to the Marquis losing him, but you wiggled your way out of that requirement. So we know that the poison must not have immediately robbed him of consciousness and that in his last moments he was thinking of Jacques and not Just or his wife or his daughters. I’d like to write more about that, as a way of paying my respects to the Marquis.

Damn you for forcing me to write about Just next instead! It was a clever move, I have to say, right when I tell you that I’m not ready to write about him for a while. But I’ve thought of how to get revenge: I’ll make him grow up, at least momentarily. Don’t worry; when I’ve returned him to you, he’ll be a boy again, although he might not realize it.

2:17 PM  

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