How could she even think about going to Paris? Going back to the place where her life had been ripped away from her, her heart crushed?
Tess busied herself with a napkin as she waited for her cappuccino. She was dressed for her interview. Bright yellow skirt to her mid-calf, light and flowing, with a royal blue blazer covering a white silk blouse. She felt deeply professional. She was ready. Harley’s silly talk of Paris would not rattle her. She would not allow it. No.
The café was not full yet. It was an in-between moment, when the sun was about to set, sending the daytime customers reluctantly back to their offices or to their commutes, but too early still for the evening customers to glide in, a prelude to the promise of evening. She occupied a table for two, in the center row of tables, but far enough away from the front window as to suggest some privacy. She thought it was an appropriate choice. Maybe Mrs. Kazan would notice the thoughtfulness. Tess believed that people should pay more attention to the detail behind the intentions, the silent messages sent by the small courtesies. She was often disappointed that not too many agreed with her on this. At least Harley appreciated it. That helped brighten up his last call. From Paris.
She could not focus on that right now. She turned her head to the door, glancing every time she heard it scrape against the floorboards as it opened. Still not here. She had arrived early. And maybe Mrs. Kazan would be late. Fashionably late. Did people still do that? Tess preferred to be early.
That’s a question, she thought: what do I call her? Should I be informal, like people are with each other these days, call her Aluma? Mrs. Kazan? What do people do in interviews? What kind of name is Aluma Kazan anyway? She would introduce herself first and say her name, first name. Hello, I am Tess. Pleased to meet you. Make your acquaintance. Then she would have to give herself the name she wanted to be called. Like a chess move.
Tess craned her long slender neck and checked her makeup furtively in the mirror behind the bar. She had not overdone any part of it, earning herself a smug grin. Trying to look serious and not like all these younger girls who tarted themselves up like prostitutes. What happened to traditional values like modesty or dignity? Tess will stand up for them if no one else will. You see if I don’t.
Door opened. Bell jingled. It was a young couple, engrossed in themselves. Their bodies angled forward, their faces were turned beamingly inward toward each other, in very close proximity, so that if they were actually conversing, neither would really be aware of what the other might be saying. It was a moment of subliminal understanding conveyed by eyes and lips and hands and pheromones, but not at all by language or speech. They were having a deeply private moment in this conspicuously public place. A disapprobatory scowl drew down the right corner of Tess’s mouth.
Tess followed the couple with her eyes to a table near the back of the café, partially obscured by the central island. Sitting side by side on the banquette, fully touching her right side to his left, hands on legs (she assumed even if she could not see it from her vantage point) and squeezing lightly. Tess remembered wearing short skirts for Harley, allowing the warmth of his hand against the skin of her thigh. Harley held her eyes unflinchingly, but with a tender passion that left her breathless. They spoke of his work, his hopes, her hopes. Harley wanted to know about her, so much about her. More than anyone had ever wanted before. He listened. And she could talk.
In her experience, men did not understand, not really, the immense importance of listening. Tess has so much to share. She needed to be free to speak and not be interrupted, not be sidetracked, not be stifled and made to listen to his stories. Men wanted to tell their stories because they want to appear interesting and steer you into bed. They don’t really listen; they hear, and they prepare interjections and responses ahead of time. It wasn’t really what Tess wanted at all. Often she herself would not know what truth would come out of her stories, so how could these men predict it?
With Harley, she could share everything. She could talk about how she missed her parents as they were when she was growing up. She talked about her difficulties at school. She wondered how her brother didn’t develop any ambitions more than raising tubers in the suburban countryside. She was free to flex her imagination and memories and voice, and Harley would look into her eyes and listen, nodding and smiling and interjecting appropriately, but essentially just listening.
She looked over again at the young couple. The girl was facing outward, smiling and talking, and the boy was on her far side, near her ear and kissing her. She was happy, Tess thought. I am happy too.
Happy was her default mode.
For Tess, being happy was a choice, something that she chose often and regularly and in spite of many reasons against it. Choosing to be happy, Tess thought, would make a happy person of her. In explaining this position to Harley, she had been obliged to reveal much of the darkness and disappointment that comprised her life until now. She spoke of their losing their home, her father’s retreat and regression into alcohol as a means of recuperating his unimaginable loss. It was literally beyond his capacity to imagine. She talked of her upset and humiliation in Paris with that lawyer. She never spoke his name, as if to extirpate his memory and existence. Harley listened on as her increasingly disturbing history unfolded for his benefit, all along reminding himself that this horrifying catalog was only to demonstrate why she chooses happiness.
Because by choosing happiness, none of all that can reach me, silly. She smiled and kissed him so as to seal the truth inside.
Maybe that couple there was not choosing to be happy and in love. Maybe they were just allowing it to wash over them like a warm summer shower. She was still smiling, and he was still kissing her ear. That would soon be over, Tess sighed ruefully. No one had warned Tess what destruction life would wreak upon her. No one had taught her anything. She had had to learn it all by experience and heartache; rise, recover and reset. No one lifted her burden by applying the wisdom that she had to acquire through adversity. The blind lust and abandon of the oblivious young couple almost began to make her angry. She shifted in her chair, peripherally aware of a figure behind her shoulder.
“…I hope you haven’t been waiting too long,” Mrs. Aluma Kazan smiled, gesturing to the chair across from Tess. Tess turned quickly, snapped unblinkingly out of her mission to enlighten those young lovers and engaged the woman in front of her, deploying the ready smile that may have been slightly too wide, and tremulous. And then she realized that she missed the introduction part.
“Mrs. Kazan! Thank you for meeting me. I’m Tess Scalzin.”
The woman usurped her greeting strategy. And it was with a mixed metaphor. Lack of parallelism. This did not auger well.
She decided to walk a little before heading home. The sun had nearly set, and it was a pleasant fall evening. Cold winds would begin to whip around the buildings and along the streets soon enough, changing the way people walked, causing them to lean slightly forward, altering the way they dressed, the expressions on their faces. But for now, winter’s lease hadn’t come into force yet.
Mrs. Kazan, on the other hand, was a cold winter’s slap on Tess’s unsuspecting but well-mannered cheek. She arrived full of politeness and smiles, but as soon as she ordered her decaffeinated mocha coffee with skimmed milk and no whip, her eyes narrowed and her fangs appeared.
Tess arranged the meeting in the café, hoping it would be a lighter and breezier atmosphere, a little more relaxed than the recruiter’s depersonalized office. Mrs. Kazan worked for the Star Employment Agency, specialized in finding temps and interim staff for companies across the country. Tess had sent her resume with a recommendation from a connection on LinkedIn that Tess never met personally but they had a nice correspondence leading her to think that she would give a favorable impression on Mrs. Kazan. She had, it turns out, and they set the meeting for today. But the atmosphere did not affect her disposition. Mrs. Kazan was there to eliminate candidates, not accumulate them.
Tess’s smile calcified into a kind of shield as Mrs. Kazan took issue with each of her life choices, questioning everything she had done, judging her at every turn.
You studied the law?
Commercial, but also international. And criminal.
So no specialization.
And it took you more than ten years to complete your degree?
Mrs. Kazan tsked solemnly into her notes.
Trying to defuse this harsh appraisal of her life up to now, Tess intoned the story of a poor abandoned mother left to raise a daughter alone. She bemoaned the time lost in having to earn a meager income to pay for their life expenses. Mrs. Kazan was a stony-faced Dolmen.
“I am sure that we all have reasons for what we do, Miss Scalzone.”
Aluma Kazan had heard every version of every story in every possible permutation. Tess’s lament was not even out of the ordinary. Single mothers were a large constituency of Star Employment’s workforce. These were women who needed to work, who needed a little flexibility, who had the full-time jobs of raising children as well as earning a living. Mrs. Kazan felt for them, how could she not, but she could not take this into consideration. She had positions to fill, and she would fill them with people who would not spend any time spinning tales of woe, concocting excuses, reasons, rationalizations, justifications, or mitigating circumstances for not doing the thing they had been hired to do. Paid to do. Mrs. Kazan looked at Tess and saw someone who had made some very bad decisions, but she had opted for as much hardship as the universe had dealt her. She went to law school. She lived with her parents. Not everyone had that much.
“I am sure we will be in touch.” Lips pursed. Brow furrowed.
It was not Tess’s habit, but she cursed this foul woman liberally and imaginatively under her breath as she clacked along the sidewalks, nearly colliding with more than one of her fellow pedestrians in her fevered pace. The clacking helped her. Tess found fast-walking quite cathartic, allowing the negative energy she felt flow out of her and into the concrete below her heels, out of her system.
She has no idea what my life has been. Clack, clack. She is so smug. People are not interchangeable parts, one being as good as the next. Clack, clack, clack. We have stories. We come from someplace. Clack, clack, clack, clack. And it took me a lot of effort to get where I am, thank you Mrs. Kazan, and I will thank you to respect it and acknowledge it and –
Tess had to stop to see where she was. Her undirected march had carried her on auto-pilot to within a few steps of her old law school building. Instead of comforting her, the worn façade did not offer welcome. It bore down on her with the same censorious glower as that of Mrs. Aluma Kazan. She stood in front of the closed and locked doors, fists clenched and trembling. Hot tears slowly brimming her eyelids, but hers was NOT a look of surrender, NOT of desperation, even if Tess felt both gripping her and gaining dominance over her. Defiance shook her hands and arms. Determination pressed outward from her temples, welling up within her. Tess would not cry. The cold institutions of law and Kazan would not prevail. Tess stepped forward toward the doors.
The world did not give rewards and punishments to anyone. The same world that had left her forsaken with her baby had given her this precious life. The world, Tess knew, was indifferent to her struggles and anguish. Only she could interpret the signs and make a difference in her life. Her effort had prevented the tyranny of circumstances to determine her fate, to marginalize her as just another unwed mother from a family of refugees, fallen from grace and position. None of that was her right or her due – generations before had earned her family’s status, and stronger hands had taken it all away.
Adjusting her feet in a steady stance, Tess looked up beyond the doors and façade and into the dusky autumn sky. She released her fists. This was going to be her moment. No one would take it from her, and the affirmation burst to the fore of her mind.
(To heck with them all.)
Of course she didn’t actually say the words. She would live them. The discomfiture of her prematurely fumbled career was only temporary. It was only true today, and tomorrow she could turn it around. She could choose optimism in the face of the hurtful reversal dealt her by the cold-blooded Kazan. Kazan is no one and doomed to be miserable in her fault-finding vanity. Damn her, Tess seethed; the woman has already damned herself.
Tess turned her back to the old law school, confronting the faceless traffic in its usual blur. She righted her blazer, adjusted her grip on the file of documents she had brought to Kazan’s inquisition, and set herself in the direction from which she had come. Head held slightly higher. Resolute smile returning.
She called Harley again before getting out of the car, pulling into a free parking space in front of the government-provided duplex where she and Emma had made their home for these many years. The state allowed her the use of these officers’ quarters because of her father’s military rank, even if he was no longer active and lived elsewhere. Having the state as a landlord has a lot of disadvantages, though, when it came to doing any kind of repairs, dealing with utilities, or anything that was outside the scope. In fact, everything that implicated the state’s responsibility was outside the scope. They gave them one side of the duplex. The rest was up to them. It had become a further opportunity for Tess to prove her resilience.
She needed to hear Harley. His steadiness. His even-keeled response to crises. His calm before her storm. Harley was many things to Tess, even now while the pox of Paris was still festering, but now more than ever she needed to be reassured that there was still love in the world. Her resilience and defiance and self-reliance were supreme, of course! What she needed now was Harley to agree with her, to tell her that the bad woman would die a horrible death involving a faulty piece of office equipment. A stapler maybe. The phone rang. And rang. He could be at dinner. In a meeting. It rang and rang and rang. Tess’s hand began to tremble.
And then, “Hâlo?”
“Can’t you see it’s I, silly?” The sound of his voice, pretending to answer in a Frenchie kind of way, acted as a catalyst and transformed her burgeoning panic into joy. “Why do you answer like that when you know that it’s I who is calling?”
“And before you start: don’t start! I have had a perfectly horrible day today and a perfectly horrible meeting with the employment people and I would like to not talk about Paris at all right now. If you don’t mind.”
“It’s fine. What happened today?”
Just like that, everything was all right, or at least everything was improving rapidly. He knew how to talk to her and to listen to her. Tess spilled the entirety of the interview and its foreseeable outcome. Harley was so easy, so comforting and comfortable. In that moment, she wished she were there with him. Or no, that he were back home with her. Much better not to imagine being over there. Not on a day like today.
Harley only interjected with follow on questions, not starting any of his news until he could feel that she had emptied herself into the phone and across the RF waves. After reminding Harley at length about the need to decide about happiness (she was never sure if Harley actually internalized this important truth) and how she was not going to let the Kakakazan (giggle) get her down, she paused and drew a long breath. Released, liberated, free. And feeling a great deal more like herself.
Harley told her a few things about the project. They would be spending a lot more time than he had wanted to on research, especially because there was some sort of chronological discrepancy with different versions of the history. He did not elaborate, sensing that Tess had already achieved her aim and was pretty much done with this exchange. Harley asked if they could talk again tomorrow.
“When we are both more relaxed. I want to tell you my idea about you coming here. I think we could make it a good experience for you. Maybe even helpful,” Harley was winging it and taking a risk with this speech. He had no idea what he meant by that. Tess sensed that he was reaching.
“We’ll talk tomorrow my heart,” she said, with a kind of finality. “Ok?”
Another good thing about Harley is that it is never very hard to win him over to my side about anything, she thought. Once she had laid bare her wounded soul to him, his role could be shown off the stage. She felt better and happier, he had done exactly what he needed to do. He knows instinctually, she was sure, as though he had been created to solace her. But the Paris talk…
Let’s not open that door now. Let’s not ruin my good mood. I believe I need chocolate cake. After she had the chocolate cake, wiping the crumbs daintily from her lips, she would send him the message she had already decided to send.
Copyright © 2022, Chris Farmer
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