The Anniversary Trip

Victoria Lancelotta

They are sitting in a café on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, not far from the Odéon metro stop, three of them sitting, the wife with her husband, the husband with his mother, not inside the café but at one of the tables on the sidewalk where the prices are exorbitant but the view of the passing crowd is almost enough to counter this. It is November, and Paris should be cold, damp, the sky a low gray sheet, but instead it has been sunny and too warm for the cashmere and corduroy they packed. Their collapsible umbrellas have been useless. The wife—Monica—is damp with an unpleasant sweat most of the time, wet skin cooling at the small of her back and between her breasts every time she stops moving.
    It is close to four in the afternoon, and they are drinking: red wine (vin rouge, Monica thinks, corrects herself) for Elizabeth, the mother; un express for her son, Martin. She herself is sipping an Evian, though what she really wants is a bourbon and soda, Jack Daniels, please, but she is in no way brave enough to order such a thing, such a crass American drink, at one of these cafés, in the presence of her husband’s mother, of Elizabeth.
    The older woman finishes her wine and lights a cigarette, gestures to the waiter. “Encore,” she says, smiling, lifting her empty glass for him. He takes it and rushes off.
    Elizabeth is angular, her cheekbones jutting, her mouth wide, lips glossy red and thin. She wears her silver hair in a neat bob, pulls it up and off her face—her cheekbones—with enameled combs. She is more beautiful now, in her sixties, than her son’s wife has ever been, or will be. Monica recognizes this and accepts it. Her husband does not notice or, noticing, does not comment. Or at least has not commented, not in the five years they’ve been married or the five of on-again, off-again dating before that.
    Monica has never quite been able to think of Elizabeth as a mother-in-law, as someone for whom birthday greeting cards are designed with stamped gilded roses and unctuous sentiments in pastel script.
    “I should’ve ordered a half carafe instead,” Elizabeth says as the waiter returns with another small glass and a new ticket he slides under her ashtray. “You would’ve had a glass, Martin?”
    He shrugs, eyes his wife’s bottle of Evian. “Are you sure you don’t want anything else?” he says, and she shakes her head. “Maybe I’ll stop on the way back to the hotel for some wine to keep in the room,” he says to his mother.
    “Darling,” she says, “do whatever you like. If you’d rather drink in the room than go down to the lounge that’s perfectly fine with me.” She pulls at the cigarette—How is her skin still so lovely? Monica wonders—and tilts her head back to exhale against the awning above them. “You can drink from those awful bathroom glasses and Monica and I will go down for aperitifs and pâté.” She reaches for her daughter-in-law’s hand and squeezes, her grip firm and cool. “Don’t you think, my dear?”
    They are on this trip to celebrate an anniversary of sorts: it has been just over a year since Martin’s father died of pancreatic cancer, sixth months from diagnosis to death. The perfect length of time, Elizabeth pointed out at the reception after the funeral, long enough for the two of them to say their good-byes but short enough that there was no protracted decline, no months or even years of false hopes and setbacks, no extended physical humiliation or dementia. He was an efficient man, and he was efficient in his dying. He had been a professor of acoustics, retired but for the occasional dissertation advice for a particularly promising doctoral student. His son, Martin, has a beautiful singing voice, an ease and grace with stringed instruments. Monica herself is tone deaf, as unmusical as it is possible to be. When she confessed this at one of her first dinners with Martin’s family, his mother had laughed in delight. “Finally, someone like me,” she said, and raised her glass to Monica. “My dear, you have no idea how happy I am to hear that.” Even now it is hard for Monica to imagine how two women could be less similar than she and Elizabeth.
    So they are in Paris for two weeks on a trip that Elizabeth planned and booked and paid for, a trip that Martin and Monica would not quite have been able to afford on their own. Their hotel is small but elegant, close to the Seine and Musée d’Orsay. On their own they might have afforded five nights there, seven if they ate from markets. To manage two weeks they would have had to stay in one of the outer arrondissements, by the périphérique, in a hotel with toilets in the rooms and communal showers down the halls. Their budget is not unforgiving, but it does not have room for extended or luxurious travel.
    “I don’t want an argument about this,” Elizabeth said after a dinner of grilled shrimp and salad one hot night in August, when she handed them their tickets and itineraries. “This is something I promised your father I would do,” she told Martin, her voice free of unsteadiness or sentiment. “We had planned to go to Paris for our fortieth anniversary,” she explained to Monica, “which was obviously impossible under the circumstances. So I told him I would go anyway but I don’t relish the idea of traveling alone at this point.”
    “I don’t know what to say,” Monica said, and looked at Martin, whose face was impassive, his eyes focused out beyond the hedges in his mother’s backyard.
    “I think I’ll be having aperitifs with you,” she says to Elizabeth now. They have all finished their drinks, and Elizabeth tucks bills under the ashtray, stows her cigarettes in her bag, and arranges her shawl over her shoulders. It is a lovely piece of fabric, purple and brown paisley shot through with gold, rich and exotic. No one guesses she is American until she speaks, and even then her imperfect French charms waiters and taxi drivers. “Dinner is at nine tonight,” she says. “I have a few shops I want to browse in the meantime but you two go along. Take some time alone.” She smiles at her son, a smile Monica recognizes, distant, chill. “Find something spectacular for your wife, Martin.” She slips through the narrow space between tables, the fabric of her slim black trousers whispering. “À bientôt,” she calls to the waiter, who salutes as he rushes past. À bientôt. Monica will remember this.
    “I wouldn’t mind just heading back to the hotel for a nap,” Martin says, watching his mother as she crosses the street. “You don’t have to come with me,” he says. “You can do whatever.”
    Monica waits for him to finish his sentence—whatever you want, whatever you feel like—but he does not. To find the right words would fatigue him, as many such efforts have since his father died, since long before that. As many efforts always have. They both stand and sidle along the neat narrow row of chairs, each one turned to face the street. She looks for their waiter but cannot find him; she imagines him pouring wine and uncapping bottles of Stella Artois somewhere in the dark interior of the café. Martin kisses her cheek and moves off in the direction of their hotel, his head down. She stands on the corner, out of the way of the waves of people moving past, and tries to decide what to do. The sun is dipping behind rooftops, and she finds herself in sudden shadow, though the light ahead of her is still gold and long. She will walk to the river, stroll back to their hotel along the quay. She wants to be sure, these two weeks, of seeing the Seine at every time of day, in every available light. She’d known before she came that Paris was beautiful, but she had not been prepared for how merciless that beauty was, how overwhelming. She had been struck by the lack of what she understood as charm: it was not a charming city because it did not need to be.
    She chooses a street she has not walked before and starts toward the river and falls into a peaceful near absence of thought, a calm she associates with childhood. She does not know when, exactly, she became unable to love her husband. She knows only that she woke one night and looked at him, at his face, lovely as his mother’s but grave even in sleep, and thought, I am finished. I am empty. I have nothing left for you.
    She reaches the quay and draws her coat more tightly around her. At this time of day, she cannot tell which looks deeper, the Seine or the sky.

Monica’s own mother is not beautiful. The most Monica can say honestly about her, looking through old photo albums and clumsily framed snapshots, is that at one time she was pretty enough. She lives alone in a ranch house with a finished basement that she paid for outright with her settlement from the divorce. Monica sees her once a year, or once every other. She has been in Elizabeth’s presence only a handful of times, and each time Monica is tense, alert, watching for the signs that her mother has had one beer too many: the incessant brushing of imaginary crumbs from her lap, the damp-sounding exhale of breath, somewhere between a sob and a sigh. On these occasions Elizabeth has smiled and sipped at her wine and smoked many more cigarettes than is usual while Monica’s mother has eaten peanuts from a glazed ceramic bowl, a wedding gift from one of Elizabeth’s friends. “These are really good peanuts,” Monica’s mother has said, or “Aren’t peanuts just so good with a nice cold beer?”
    She pauses at the window of a narrow shop along the quay. Crowded in the doorway are spinning wire racks of postcards and flimsy chiffon scarves, magnets on easels and tote bags stamped on their sides with disproportionately squat images of the Eiffel Tower. All of these items are helpfully priced in both euros and dollars. She can hear nothing but American accents coming from the shop and is moving away from the door, embarrassed, when she sees that some of the magnets are in the shape of pretty little baguettes, webbed saucisson, and surprisingly realistic cheeses, and she smiles in spite of herself. She loves her mother, and her mother would love one of these magnets, probably more than she would love to actually be here, eating food that Monica is certain she will never have the opportunity to eat. She waits until the group of Americans has left before slipping inside the shop. She will be sure to say à bientôt when she leaves. Martin dresses for dinner in neat gray trousers and a jewel blue shirt. “You look very handsome,” Monica says. It has become easier to compliment him with every day that passes, with every day closer to her leaving. 
    “I bought a few little souvenirs for my mother today,” she says. She sees that he did buy wine; there are four bottles lined up neatly on the desk she has been using as a vanity. Her leaving: to where? She has not allowed herself to think of this yet.
    “Have you bought anything for yourself yet? You should pick something out—you know better what you like than I do.”
    She has not. But she has, wrapped in fragile tissue and tied with black silk cord, a package tucked into the corner of her suitcase, a pair of jade and sterling cufflinks she bought for him the day they arrived. They struck her as exactly the sort of gift Elizabeth would have chosen for her own husband, striking in their anachronism. What Monica’s mother would call a conversation piece. The elderly shop owner had complimented Monica on her taste as he wrapped them, his English as archaic as his merchandise, and for a moment she was proud of herself: of finding the shop, going in alone, of counting out euros. She has no idea when she will give them to Martin, and only after she had got them back to the hotel and hidden them away did she become convinced that he would be disgusted with her, that he would think she meant them as some sort of awful consolation prize.
    “Are you coming down for drinks with us?” she says. She has dressed carefully, in a simple black dress and red shoes, the shoes bought as a surprise by Elizabeth earlier in the week. “No woman should have to go through life without a spectacular pair of red shoes,” she said, handing the bag across the table where they’d met for lunch. “If they don’t fit we can exchange them,” she said, but when Monica tried them on in the hotel later, the fit was perfect.
    “In a bit. I might have a glass here first,” Martin says, and gestures toward a pile of academic journals on the night stand. “There’s an article I’ve been wanting to finish.”
    Monica nods and takes up her satin purse. “Then we’ll just be down in the lounge. We should get our cab by around quarter till.” She knows better than to try to coax him out. She knows enough to leave him to whatever abstract imperative he has decided upon.
    In the hallway by the elevator is a narrow mirror. Monica stands in front of it and waits. She is thirty-four years old; since high school she has always looked her age, or older. Her mother is fifty-two. When Monica was in her twenties, they were often mistaken for sisters. Her mother was delighted by this; after her divorce she went out every Friday night, and every Friday night she asked Monica to join her. “Why don’t you put your party clothes on?” she liked to say. “Let’s have a girls’ night out on the town.”
    The elevator arrives, and she tucks herself into the tiny space. Her mother was divorced at forty; “Free as a bird,” she liked to say. Monica imagines she herself will be able to say the same by thirty-five.

“My son won’t be gracing us with his presence?” Elizabeth asks. A cigarette is burning in the crystal ashtray, and she lifts it to her lips, inhales once, and stubs it out.
    “He wanted to get some reading done.” Monica settles on the sofa—chaise lounge?—next to her and crosses her legs so that one pretty shoe is visible. Elizabeth lays a warm hand on the ankle.
    “Lovely,” she says. “Really. They suit you—you shouldn’t be shy about wearing beautiful things, my dear,” she says. She fishes in her purse and draws out a tiny vial of perfume, presses it into Monica’s hand. “And this I think will suit you as well—a sample from a little parfumerie I found today. If you like it we’ll go back and buy some tomorrow.” She finishes the drink in front of her, and the waiter appears immediately. “I think we’re ready for that Champagne now,” she says, and the waiter bows, collects her glass and ashtray, and turns on his heel. “Reading,” she says, and shakes her head. Her hair is loose tonight, spun silver. Amethyst drops sparkle at her neck. “Why would a man want to read when he could be sipping Champagne with his wife?”
    “I’m leaving him,” Monica says, and once she speaks she is amazed, ashamed by how delicious the words taste to her, exotic and heady like the truffle shavings on her galette at dinner last night. “I’m leaving him. As soon as I can—he doesn’t know yet,” she says. She is racing to get the words out before Martin appears; she feels as though she is running for a train she cannot afford to miss.
    The waiter returns and sets the Champagne flutes down with a flourish, and Elizabeth says, “Merci bien, Monsieur,” and picks up the glasses and hands one to Monica. She does not speak, not yet. Her face is still, open and waiting. Monica takes the glass. “I need you to help me,” she says to her husband’s mother, though she has no idea what kind of help there could possibly be.

Monica was twenty-five when she met Martin.
    A serious student, a quiet man, educated, intelligent, everything about him exotic to her, seductive. So dedicated, not yet thirty and a doctoral student in the philosophy department where she worked as a receptionist. He smiled infrequently, and she thought him intense, reflective; she had been smiled at all her life by friendly neighbors in the small town where she’d grown up, by schoolteachers and shopkeepers, by her reckless father and barely grown mother; she had had her fill of smiles.
    She was the one to initiate. She was the one to stay at her desk until his Thursday seminar broke at 5:15, to pretend to sort through phone messages and interdepartmental mail until he zipped his coat and shouldered his bag and nodded at her on his way past the desk.
    “Martin,” she said, and he turned, surprised.
    So then: drinks late that Friday afternoon, informal, noncommittal. He was reticent; he talked with comfort about only his research. But he reciprocated the invitation, and she was surprised: a foreign film matinee the following Sunday, then drinks again, then lunch, weeks of quiet meetings—dates? she was never quite sure—for an hour or three and then, then, finally, a Friday night that bled into Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon, his apartment dark, shades drawn throughout; his bedroom small and kempt and severe, his body also small and kempt and severe. His mouth unyielding, his skin so too, somehow. He was nothing like the boys and men she’d known growing up, affable in their baseball caps and worn jeans, their coolers of beer and soda on the porch or in the truck bed, ready for anyone who might happen along. They were expansive; they were as undemanding as a soft May sky.
    When Martin kissed her she felt a weight of gravity she had not felt before. When he touched her she felt, somehow, solemnified.
     The question she finally asked herself was not Do you love him? but Can you love him? Will you love him? Yes. I will be able to do that.
    So then.

“There are some promises,” Elizabeth says, still holding her glass aloft, “that will ruin you. If you keep them past the point of—” she stops, searching, and Monica can see the echo of her son in the upward glance of an eye, the slight tension of the jaw as she thinks. “I don’t know,” she finally says, laughing. “If you keep them past their own point, I suppose. Past their point of usefulness.”
    “I tried,” Monica says, desperate, close to tears. “I can’t even tell you how long—” but Elizabeth shakes her head, silver hair and amethyst earrings swinging, and holds up a hand to stop her.
    “A toast,” she says, “to my son, who was your husband for longer than I expected him to be.” She touches her glass to Monica’s and sips, sets the glass down and leans forward to rest her hands on Monica’s knees. “I know Martin,” she says, “and I believe you did the best you could. Drink, my dear,” and Monica does. The lounge is filling, couples dressed for an evening out and a few single men in narrow dark suits, but Martin is not among them, not yet.
    “It’s difficult to imagine now,” Elizabeth says, “but this is not a tragedy. Not for you, certainly, but not for Martin either.” She smiles. “And I think you know this, don’t you?”
    Monica nods. She is still watching the staircase for Martin, for the lovely peacock blue of his shirt. She will give the cufflinks to Elizabeth to give to him as her own gift; they are beautiful enough that Martin will not doubt his mother chose them, and she allows herself another moment of pride in this.
    “Then I want to ask you something,” Elizabeth says. “A favor,” and although Monica cannot imagine what she could possibly do for a woman like Elizabeth, she does not hesitate before saying, “Of course I will.”
    “I want you to wait, if you can,” Elizabeth says. She touches Monica’s cheek with a soft fragrant hand, and Monica imagines for one moment that the two of them are in this city alone; that they found each other independently of Martin, of anyone; that there is all the time in the world for Elizabeth to teach her how to be someone completely different from who she is. “ait until we get home to tell him—think of the rest of this week as a gift to me. Can you do that, my dear?” and Monica nods, lays her hand over Elizabeth’s, closes her eyes, and thinks, I would wait as long as you asked me to so please ask for longer, and when she opens her eyes, she sees Martin on the staircase, sees her husband, his face pale and solemn above that lovely shirt as he walks toward them.
    He never pretended to be anything he wasn’t. I did. I am guilty of that.
    Elizabeth stands to greet her son, and Monica does as well. He kisses both of them on the cheek and accepts a glass of Champagne from the waiter before they all sit again and touch glasses—“To happiness,” Elizabeth says—and they drink, and Elizabeth speaks easily, casually, of an exhibit she is interested in seeing. The room is warm and candlelit and filled with the bright ring of crystal on glass and the low rush of laughter, and Monica sips her Champagne, and though it is not something she has been in the habit of doing recently, it seems right to take her husband’s hand, slip her fingers through his. He neither resists nor responds. She remembers that first night with him, how cool the tips of his fingers were against her collarbone, how light their touch, as though he was somehow surprised to have found her there, naked and breathing in front of him.

The last man Monica dated before Martin was an old acquaintance, someone she’d known vaguely in high school and met again much later, after graduating from the small college she’d driven ninety minutes each way to attend but before taking the job at Martin’s university. She was working in a stationery store when he came in to buy a birthday card for his current girlfriend.
    “I remember you,” he said as she took his money. “Weren’t you a few years behind me in school?” He did not have to specify which school. There was one high school in that town and no university.
    His name was James—“But call me Jimmy,” he’d said—and in addition to the girlfriend, he had a three-year-old daughter by a woman he no longer dated but whom he still counted as a friend. The daughter’s name was Polly, and that day he bought her a tiny stuffed rabbit, pink and yellow. This was James: a man who remembered birthdays and marked them with cards, a man who bought his daughter gifts for no reason, who found excuses—rapping paper, masking tape, felt-tip pens—to come to the store during Monica’s shifts. A man who made sure to tell her, one day a few weeks after that first meeting, that he’d stopped seeing his girlfriend, that he wanted to ask her out properly. She said yes. And at the end of that first date, after a steak dinner and a stop for ice cream, when he asked her out again before he’d even got her back to the house she still shared with her mother, that was also James: a man who understood exactly what was possible for him and was happy with that, a man who had no need of exceeding his reach. Monica was within his reach. And later that year when she told him she’d found another job and would be moving, he was genuinely puzzled: “But why would you leave? You belong here,” he said, gesturing as if to take in the entirety of that town where he lived, where everyone he knew lived, smiling, happy, and Monica could not disagree. That is the reason why, exactly.

When, eventually, Monica talks to her mother about Paris, she will not even realize how completely it has slipped away from her, has become again what it was before she saw it herself, the images hazy and lucid all at once in the way of any vivid dream. She will sit in her mother’s kitchen drinking coffee and describing the soft facades of buildings, white and gray and taupe, the faded red awnings of cafés, the boulevards and gardens and cathedrals, everything warm and inviting and unreal. She will mention Martin only offhandedly and Elizabeth not at all, and when her mother finally tires of feigning interest, she will be secretly glad, relieved that time is passing, that Paris is again becoming nothing more than a word she might see on the cover of a glossy magazine or hear on a cable travel channel, certainly not a place where she once spent a few breaths of her life, and she will hardly remember the way the Seine sliced the city in half, a radiant curving knife, merciless and perfect.

Victoria Lancelotta is the author of a short-story collection, Here in the World: 13 Stories, and a novel, Far, both from Counterpoint Press. Her new novel is forthcoming in 2008 from Editions Phebus in Paris, France. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, she currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

“The Anniversary Trip” was selected for reprint in the 2009 edition of The Best American Short Stories.

“The Anniversary Trip” appears in our Spring 2008 issue.