The Memory of Wine
Amy M. Swenson
The wine is cheap, a Friday night ritual. We buy it in the shop down the Rue Universitaire from an old man who always asks us to drink champagne with him. "You are beautiful," he says in accented English. "Stay and celebrate."
"Celebrate what?" Kat asks.
"You are American? That is enough."
We laugh and carry our wine in a paper bag. Beaujolais for tonight, just released for the season. Paris rains, a light gray drizzle that could easily turn to snow. I pull my coat tighter, hugging the bag to my chest, bottles clinking together like sad, distant music.
"It feels almost like Christmas, doesn't it?" Kat asks, turning her face towards me as we pass under the streetlamp. She glows and I smile. Yes, it does. Something in the chill of the coming winter and the warmth of the windows above the street reminds me of home.
"This is perfect," she says, smiling to herself. "It's raining and I don't care. I think I'm in love with everything." She takes a giant step forward, then dances in place, twirling her arms and hair straight out in the rain. If only my camera weren't back in the apartment, this image of Kat would be worth keeping. "Annie, tell me you're not going back on Monday. Four months can never be enough here. Call your dad and tell him to give the job to someone else."
She sings the last few words like a Gershwin tune, drawing out the "someone else" as if just two words could mean everything. On another day, I might laugh, but it's raining and I'm cold, and the wine keeps slipping from my grasp.
She dances up to me and links my arm in hers, skipping and pulling us both forward. "Annie, you have to stay. I just got to know you. And who will help me keep the old wine sellers away? Who will dance with me?"
With her arm pulling mine, it's hard to keep the bag from slipping. Besides, with Kat this close, I'm afraid I might kiss her.
"Kat," I say, my voice as flat as my hair, "You never need me to dance." I pull my arm away and walk ahead, rain dripping off my forehead and into my eyes.
Saint Sulpice is almost empty in the early morning hours of Saturday. As soon as I enter, I'm floating. I think it's the height of the ceiling that makes me dizzy, but it could be last night's wine. Beaujolais has a way of staying in the blood.
Kat calls it "life-juice", any red wine that slides slowly down the glass, leaving a stain behind. "Annie," she said last night, "This is heaven, right? Why can't you stay?" Although I told her the grant money was practically gone, I could maybe make it stretch for a few weeks more. But my father said my "snapshots" would make a lovely hobby once I learned to support myself by taking the job at his firm. Lucky for me, I could work my way up. Lucky for me.
If I told any of this to Kat, she'd just say, "Fuck him" and raise her glass to a month more in the City of Light. She didn't understand that if I stayed, I would just have more time to see all the sides to her face, to photograph her when she didn't know I was watching, to keep myself from telling her everything. Even if I stayed, in a a month or maybe less, she'd just go back to LA, and I would have to go home.
I said again that I didn't have any reason to stay. It was a lie. I could think of a half-dozen reasons, from my art, to the sad corporate job at home, to Kat. She just looked at me like she could find the answer on my face, then raised her glass to her lips and held it there, swaying slowly. She made such a beautiful drunk. I took a picture then, even though she wrinkled her nose and rolled her eyes.
When the first picture rolled out of the Polaroid, we both laughed. Then she forgot I was there and just stared at the wall. I could tell she was seeing more than peeling paint or water stains, but Kat said nothing. She rarely explains herself. I took another picture and let it slip into my hand. This one was great.
The slight blur, the slightly-off coloring only intensified her gaze, captured Kat for a single instant. I slid the second photo into the shoebox under my bed, where I keep all the other instances of Kat.
But my real photographs are of cathedrals, a series of Gothic religious architecture. On my grant proposal, I described the project as a juxtaposition of heaven and hell, but I really only chose it because I like the silence illustrated in old churches, in the bend of an arch, the crack of stone. And because I couldn't think of anything better.
Today, like always, I brought both cameras; my 35mm hanging around my neck, my Polaroid strung over one shoulder. I use the Polaroid first, snapping quickly to capture my first drafts. Four or five shots, and then I wait for the images to develop, ghostly marble and flames appearing out of the black. The Polaroid blurs everything, saturates the wrong colors, but it gives me a place to start.
I circle the nave with my 35mm raised, adjusting the aperture to let in enough light, catching little histories on film. I try to capture the stained-glass light spilling through the twisted iron chapel gates; the sculpted monsters glowing orange-gray in candlelight; a wrinkled hand reaching across the rows and rows of votives, pyramids of quiet devotion.
Today, the photos are good. They usually aren't. Paris has a thousand hidden faces she chooses when and when not to show. The best photos are when I catch her off-guard, when I'm allowed to see something in the curve of marble or the bend of a face or the wordless gaze of another traveler; when I'm allowed to hold onto Paris for a brief, fleeting moment.
From across the room, I watch Kat working. She kneels on the floor with four feet of newsprint stretched out before her, hands and arms smudged black and gray. She bites her lip and sucks on the inside of her cheek, trying to get the shading just right before the sun finishes setting. The face takes form before her, a woman staring calmly, like a Gothic Madonna with small eyes and hollow cheeks, the prelude to a painting I'll never see finished..
My bed is littered with color prints and Polaroids, and I try to fit them into a loose narrative, telling the dark story of half a dozen Catholic churches. I lift my favorites out of the jumble one at a time and place them aside, imagining how they will look as 8x10s in my portfolio. Will they be good enough?
Joni Mitchell sings on Kat's tiny cd player, and the music is almost lost against the rain humming outside. Our room is small and warm, the music lonely and haunting. I reach for my Polaroid and point it towards Kat. Her hair is swept up on her head, and each time she leans forward, more of it slips down in long waves.
I take the picture as she bends forward, bracing herself with her left arm, sweeping her right arm violently across the paper. Click-whirr, and the photo slides out with a metallic perfume. Kat looks up and smiles.
"I hate it when you do that," she teases.
"Sorry." I wave the photo in the air.
"Let me see," she says, and crawls over to the edge of the bed, trying not to touch her blackened elbows to my blankets. I don't want her to see, it feels too private, but I have no choice. I hold the small square in front of us, and together we watch her shoulders and face take form. The flash has caught her face in a yellow-green glow, her eyes burn red, her mouth twists in concentration.
"It's terrible!" she laughs, and snatches the Polaroid away, tossing it onto her bed. She picks up her charcoal and starts back to work, a smile dancing on her face.
I feel the empty space in my hands where the photo was. It wasn't such a bad picture.
I walk over to the window and watch the rain spatter against the pane, drumming an odd percussion over the music. The picture is lost. I could never ask for it back.
"I don't buy that you need your father's job," she says. I don't turn around, but watch the reflection of Kat in the glass. She keeps on working and talking. "You can always get another one later, if you have to. So what's the real reason you're so set on leaving?"
I turn, expecting to meet her eyes, but she's still working, shading an intense background. If I told her, what would she say? There was that time, a few weeks back, where she put her hand on my back when we entered the Metro, guiding me through the crowds, like she didn't want to lose me. And the night before, when she linked arms and tried to make me dance. But then there was the waiter she seemed to flirt with. And the ex-boyfriend she sometimes mentioned. And on and on.
"That is the real reason, Kat. I need the rest of the money to pay for my portfolio so I have a chance of getting into grad school. I'll have to work for Dad for awhile, but hopefully not forever." I shrug and hope she won't keep pressing me. I can't tell Kat that if I leave, I'll only have to deal with missing her, with probably never seeing her again. And if I stay? I'll have to try to stop taking secret pictures and to quit torturing myself with 'What if?' and 'If only'... I've already learned it's impossible.
The rain is coming down harder. A woman crosses the street in impossibly high stilettos, clutching her umbrella. For a moment, I wish I were out in the storm.
"You know what I think?" she asks. In the window I can see she is still working. "I think you're playing it safe with Daddy's job, like you've done all fall. Have you been this way your whole life?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" I turn, slowly. She couldn't know my feelings, could she?
"Take your work, for example. It's so safe. What are you risking with pretty pictures of dark cathedrals? And why are you going back to this stupid job? If you have to leave, at least go someplace, do something. Take a risk for once, Annie." Kat stands and crosses her arms on her chest, staring me down.
"Well," I say, "What about you?" Kat never mentioned what she was leaving behind, what she would be going home to.
"Me? What am I risking?" She sweeps her hand around the room, pausing on her canvases, her notebooks. "I'm a fucking artist. It's just what I do. I don't know what's next, but I couldn't give this up, and I'm not going back. Why is it so easy for you? Don't you care at all?" "So why not stay?"
I can't look at her. "Of course I care." She has no idea how much.
"So why not stay?"
"I already told you. I already told you everything."
She turns on one heel and strides out into the hall, closing the door hard behind her.
I sit back on the bed and pick up the photos, placing them back into their envelopes. She's left the snapshot on her bed and I go pick it up, holding it lightly in my palm. It really isn't a bad picture. It's not pretty, but it's interesting. Different. I kneel and pull the shoebox out from under the bed and drop the photo in on top of the thirty others I've collected over the past four months.
It's dark now. The sun sets so quickly in November.
Saint Suplice is almost empty again, and I can't get Kat's words out of my head. Playing it safe, she said. And she's right. These churches, they're beautiful. But what am I trying to say? It's not the bullshit I wrote in my grant proposal. I'm not even sure how I got the grant. Some of the pictures may be good, but as art, they're too safe. They're the sorts of prints right-wing middle-class families buy at craft fairs, congratulating themselves for being so avant-garde.
The only real art I've done these past few months are the portraits of Kat, but maybe those are only good because I know no one will ever see. Or maybe those aren't good at all.
In the cathedral, the mass is starting, unfamiliar words in an unfamiliar language. The small congregation makes one wave of faith; sitting, standing, and kneeling as one. I pick up my bag and walk into the side aisle, not wanting to be mistaken for one of them. This isn't my world.
Kat sits at her desk with a glass of Beaujolais pressed to her lips. She tilts it back and takes a long sip. She doesn't seem mad at me anymore. I lift my Polaroid and point it at Kat and watch through the lens as she keeps the glass suspended close to her lips. Her eyes are unfocused. She listens to the hush of the music, the slow voice passing over words like honey, drawing each one out, falling slightly behind the music.
Kat's lips barely move with the words. She knows them all and sings to herself. I take the picture just as the song ends, just as her lips close around the final breath. She hears the click and slide of the film and turns to me, staring wordless over her glass. Letting the first picture fall to the bed, I press the shutter again and her face is caught, flushed with wine and lack of sleep.
Before the photo can drop to the bed, Kat moves over to the floor at my feet. She sways as she drops to her knees and reaches her arms under the bed, pulling out the shoebox. I had forgotten to pack it.
I fall down on my back and stare up at the ceiling. In the dark, I can't see all the cracks.
"Annie, you forgot this." She hands me the box without opening it. I reach to take it just as she says, "What's in here? I've never seen it before."
What's in it? I can't think. Letters from home? No, my family never writes. Negatives? No, she knows they're all packed. Shoes? Hardly, I only have the one pair.
"Just pictures, Kat." She can open it if she wants. I'm going home in a few hours. I have a good, safe job waiting for me. I will make good, safe art. Nothing else matters.
She looks at me for a moment, then lifts the lid off. When she turns over the first picture, and sees herself sleeping, she looks back at me, her face wide and silent.
"Why?" she asks, as she lifts out picture after picture, laying them next to each other on the bed by my side.
"It's just what I do." I say. I want to ask her why she paints what she does, but instead, I reach over the row of photographs and pick up my wine.
"No," she says, "I meant, why didn't you say anything, or show me, before?"
I tilt back the glass and the wine slips down until the glass is empty. It burns my tongue and throat, but feels good. I sit up and look at Kat looking at herself. Her eyes stop on the one of her working a week ago. She's painting so fast her brush is blurred. It looks like a feather. And the one I took from the window as she walked down to the store. And the one of her dreaming.
"These are good, Annie," she says quietly. "These are real good." When she looks up, I take a deep breath and lean towards her until our wine-stained lips just touch. Soft, like a brush-stroke.
For one long quiet moment, I kiss Kat. She kisses me. For just a few seconds. For almost no time at all.
When she pulls back, I keep my eyes closed, hoping to hold onto that feeling, hoping I'll be able to remember it tomorrow, and the day after. With my eyes closed, I can still taste her lips, spicy and sweet, like the wine.
"I'm sorry, Annie, but I can't. These pictures, they're good. But you? Tomorrow you won't even be here" Her words are a little slurred and in the spaces between them I can hear all the things she isn't saying. I kissed her and now she's stopped asking me to stay. "Tomorrow you won't even be here," she said, the first time she's ever spoken of me in the past tense.
"I have to go, Kat. You don't want me here." Of course she doesn't like me like that, and now I've ruined everything.
"Are you blind?" she says, tilting her head into my line of vision. "Haven't you seen me, the way I look at you, this whole time?"
I don't know what she's talking about. I shake my head, no. She digs her hands into the shoebox and pulls out handfulls of herself.
"I gave you so much time," she shouts, waving the pictures around. "So much time, and you never did anything except take these damn pictures. Didn't you know? Didn't you know I liked you?" She opens her fist and the photos fall to the bed, to the floor, to her feet.
Liked me? As she says this, I remember Kat, just the night before, asking me to dance. And a month ago, in the theater, her hand brushing against mine, and before that, even, the way she used to say goodnight, as if it were really a beginning. How did I ever miss all this?
I can't do anything but look at her and shake my head. "No," I say. "I never saw anything."
"Well," she says. "It's too late now." She comes over to me, sits down and takes my hand. "Let's just sit here -- like this -- until tomorrow."
I could stay, I want to say. I could stay, for a few more weeks. But then what? And how would tomorrow be, after the wine wears thin?
"Yes," I say. "All night, just like this."
Standing at the window, I can see Monday morning rising over the city. The sun colors the sky pale pink and gray, muted with winter. Kat is asleep, curled on the floor. The photos of her are still strewn across my bed and around the room.
I lift my Polaroid and aim, cropping her at the outstretched arm, the bent leg. In the photo, Kat's face is blurred, as if I again captured her stirring in a dream. Her hair spreads out like sunlight against the dark tiles. I lift my 35mm now, turning off the flash and adjusting to let the growing light white-wash Kat's sleeping form. Over-exposing on purpose, I know she will glow as if under a streetlight. Click, and then silence.
I cover the lens and strap the camera into its case, tucking it into my backpack. My Polaroid follows, and I zip the pack shut, securing the tiny lock. My bags sit in the open doorway and my backpack hangs on my shoulders. For a long silent minute, I watch Kat sleeping and again remember her lips on mine. Or my lips on hers. It doesn't matter.
I lean down, kiss Kat lightly on her cheek, whisper goodbye. She moves a little, but doesn't wake. It's better that way. We already said everything.
Just before falling asleep, Kat whispered, "I'm proud of you."
"For what?" I said, even though I knew her answer.
"For not playing it safe, this time everything."
"Maybe after tomorrow," I started. I didn't know what words to use, how to ask. "Maybe we'll see each other again?"
Kat didn't say anything for a long time.
"Maybe we will," she said. "Maybe someday."
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