Fiction from NER 41.1 (2020)
Her mother had been sober for seven months when Nora moved to Paris with her employer, a man from Queens who had changed his name from Jim Schwartz to Swami Buchu Trungpa twenty years earlier. Around the same time, he’d quit his job as a mechanic at a Saab dealership on Long Island and reinvented himself as a spiritual adviser and yoga instructor. His father owned the dealership, and although the swami had never admitted it to Nora, she had a feeling his father wasn’t unhappy to see him go.
Whatever his previous disappointments might have been, he’d done well as a spiritual adviser, having steadily acquired supporters and acolytes over the last two decades. With Nora’s assistance, he was now preparing to open a juice bar and yoga studio in Paris’s eleventh arrondissement on the Boulevard Voltaire with money he’d inherited from one of his longtime followers—an undertaking he’d told Nora had first occurred to him during a week-long retreat in the Berkshires that she remembered chiefly for its bad weather and the raccoons nightly ransacking the trash.
She had lived for a year in Paris during college and for two more years in her late twenties. Buchu was relying on her to obtain the necessary commercial permissions in France and to handle the legal protocols, which were intentionally onerous. Before they’d left New York, her job with Buchu International was part-time assistant and full-time girlfriend. Now she was full-time at both, and she knew others wondered how long she would last in either role after they settled in Paris. She didn’t really care what other people were saying, however—she was moving back to France, something she’d wanted to do for several years but hadn’t known how to orchestrate without a partner or an employer, and now she had both.
Regina, Nora’s mother, did not like the swami, who reminded her of Nora’s father, both in looks and temperament. Nora didn’t see the resemblance, but Regina accused her of not wanting to see it. Her mother was also upset that Nora was now a long plane ride away. Regina was busy in Portsmouth with her friends and hobbies and AA meetings, living off money inherited from two dead husbands, but it didn’t matter—she wanted Nora closer.
“You can come visit me anytime,” said Nora. “And stay as long as you’d like to.”
“But not with you and the swami botulism,” said Regina. “He’d have a fit if I showed up on your doorstep with my big wheelie bag.”
“Don’t call him that, Mom,” said Nora. “He wouldn’t mind you staying with us for part of your visit.”
Her mother snorted. “A day or two is about all I can imagine him allowing.”
“You could stay with us for a week. That’d be fine.” But she knew her mother was right—Buchu wanted privacy and his living quarters were his most sacrosanct space. Three days would probably be his limit, and Regina could be trying company with her strident opinions and her aversion to crowds and unfamiliar food. She was also more snappish than usual as she clung to her recent sobriety.
“There are a lot of former drunks in Paris, I was happy to discover,” said Regina. “I can find English-language meetings in the city every day of the week.”
“Give us a couple of months to get situated,” said Nora. “It’s only been four weeks since we got here, and the amount of paperwork I have to do to open the studio is mind-boggling.”
“I thought you were opening a fast food place.”
“It’s a juice bar. It’ll be downstairs from the yoga studio. I told you that.”
“I’m not sure who you think is going to buy your overpriced potions,” said Regina. “I wouldn’t.”
“You don’t have to. It’d be a very long trip for you for a spirulina smoothie.” Nora was standing in one of the two west-facing rooms of her and Buchu’s apartment, phone to her ear, the sun striking the windows of the building across the street. Three stories below on the rue de la Folie, a woman in a short red dress and matching heels was walking a terrier toward the park a block and a half away. Buchu was in his meditation room down the hall with the door closed and had been in there for the last two hours. Nora had a feeling he’d fallen asleep.
“I have to go, Mom. I need to make a couple of other calls before it gets any later.”
“I haven’t had a drink in seven months and twenty-six days.”
“I’m very happy to hear that,” said Nora. “Keep it up.”
“I want to,” she said.
There were two kinds of replies her mother was expecting, and Nora chose the kinder one. “You will,” she said. “You can do it.”
“We’ll see,” said Regina.
When Nora first met Buchu four years earlier, her mother was a year into her third marriage and had been alternating between sobriety and active alcoholism for more than twenty-five years. Her first husband, Nora’s father, was alive and prospering in Anaheim where he owned a chain of cafés that served bad coffee, Bill’s Beans & Things (her mother hated the name and made fun of it relentlessly: “‘Things’? Couldn’t he have chosen something a little more specific?”). Her second husband, Howie, had died of cancer eight years earlier. Of him she had a much more sentimental view—along with his ashes, she still kept his pool cue in the hall coat closet.
Her third husband, Vance, was a recovering alcoholic who fell off the wagon during the second year of their marriage and dragged Regina back down with him. Several months after they were both drinking again to the point of nightly oblivion, he was killed in a car wreck but managed not to kill anyone else. Regina was at home when it happened, passed out on the sofa, and didn’t wake up until the next morning when a sheriff’s deputy arrived and pounded on her front door, all attempts to phone her having failed.
About her mother, Buchu had said, “She is like a great gaping cave into which sunlight disappears forever.”
Nora did not share this assessment with Regina, which, although cruel, was not wholly inaccurate. In Paris with Buchu, she hoped to find a way to detach herself more fully from her fear of her mother’s self-destructive proclivities, which caused Nora to be erratic in her own relationships. It was this same desire that had first led her to Buchu’s temple in the East Village where he held meditation sessions for neophytes on Tuesday and Friday evenings. Following the sessions were Trungpa Talks, some of which were ten minutes long, others two or three hours.
“Three hours? Can I leave early if I have to?” Nora asked the ex-boyfriend who recommended she try one of Buchu’s sessions, their relationship one of the losses Nora suffered after having been raised under her mother’s slash-and-burn rule. Trusting anyone was all but impossible.
“I wouldn’t advise it,” he said. “But don’t worry. You’ll like the swami’s talks.” (“They’ll be good for you,” she could hear him thinking, but he knew enough not to say these words aloud.) He likewise assured her there would be no pressure to join anything, no sales pitches, no chanting or group confessionals—nothing but an intelligent man sharing some of the observations he’d made about the human experiment during his fifty-one years on earth.
Now Buchu was fifty-five and she was thirty-four and their lives were elaborately entwined. She loved him but doubted it would last forever, which was one reason why her mother disliked him. Didn’t Nora want more from him, or at least some kind of declaration if she was moving her life across the ocean for this pseudo swami with his large head and bony bare feet? (Buchu did in fact wear shoes, but not in the apartment.)
No, Nora didn’t mind the terms of their relationship, and Buchu appreciated her attitude. He’d sensed when first setting eyes on her that she was a special case, a woman who recognized the ephemeral nature of all human commitments. She’d understood implicitly what he meant: at some point he would want to have sex with other women. But who was to say she wouldn’t be tired of him by then too? No one believed her when she said this though, not even Buchu.
He emerged from his room half an hour after Nora got off the phone with her mother, the scent of lemongrass incense trailing him down the hall. She heard him go into the kitchen where she knew he’d be looking for a snack, but other than apples and an overripe banana, he wouldn’t find much. She needed to go to the Carrefour Express a few blocks away and had intended to do it before noon but between the phone call with her mother and the cyberspace black hole she’d been sucked into before the call, she hadn’t done it. Outside it was a humid, midsummer day and she knew if she left the apartment and picked her way through the narrow Parisian streets with their meandering tourists and harried natives, she’d feel better almost instantly, but she hadn’t yet peeled herself away from her desk, and now it was nearly 2:30.
While Buchu banged around in the kitchen, she stayed in the study, peering at share capital forms from the Banque Nationale de Paris, intermittently looking online for fruit and vegetable growers within a 150-kilometer radius of Paris. There were farms with greenhouses that operated throughout the winter along with the farms of southern France, but orders from the latter would include higher transportation costs. Nora knew before they moved to France that there would be dozens of details to attend to, and they seemed to be multiplying now as they drew closer to the day, still looming ambiguously ahead—five months, seven, seventeen?—when they would be ready to open for business.
“Why don’t you take a break?” said Buchu, his voice startling her from the doorway.
She turned to look at him. He took a large bite of apple, a bright green Granny Smith, and crunched it noisily. He was wearing gray yoga pants and his favorite black T-shirt. His thick hair, brown with silver threaded through it, was tied back in a ponytail. He was tall and filled much of the doorway. Wherever they went, people cast admiring or curious glances his way, but his body, so firm and straight and strong, was beginning to hunch forward, and his knees bothered him, sometimes badly. Nora was sure one or both would need to be replaced in another few years, if not sooner, but he wouldn’t discuss it.
Her stomach growled. She hadn’t yet eaten lunch.
He heard it too and said, “Your body obviously agrees with me.”
“I think my mother wants to come for a visit,” she said.
Buchu blinked, his heavy-lidded eyes briefly fluttering with what she knew was annoyance. “So soon?”
Nora nodded. “I asked her to give us more time to settle in. I want to be closer to finishing the incorporation for the studio before she comes, and that’s probably at least a couple of months away, if we’re lucky. I’m still working on the share capital with Rémy and the bank, and next week we’re planning to order the announcement for the publicity requirement.”
He looked at her as he took another bite of apple, nodding vaguely. She could see he wasn’t really listening. He had only a hazy notion of how much work—how many sheerly bureaucratic, hand-wringing steps she and Rémy, the business formation expert she’d hired on the advice of an old boss she’d worked for in Paris years ago, were trudging through, all in a highly specific, stultifying order, with extreme tact and patience, not to mention an open wallet.
The money was the swami’s—or rather, Buchu International’s—but the time and perseverance were all hers.
“Perhaps you could tell Regina to hold off until the new year,” he said.
“I’ll have to go home for Christmas if she doesn’t come over here at some point before then.”
His sigh was a long, slow gust of aggrievement. “Please insist that she wait until October, at the earliest. You and I haven’t had much of a chance to settle in yet. Hardly more than a month.”
“I told her that,” said Nora.
“She won’t insist on staying here, will she?”
“Buchu,” she said. “You know we have to let her, at least for a few days.”
“We can pay for her hotel.”
“It’s not the money. You know that.”
He was shaking his head in an oddly loose way that meant he was exceptionally annoyed. “You know she’ll drain you,” he said, his grizzled eyebrows arching as he spoke. “After the first day, you’ll say to me you wish she hadn’t come.”
“That might be true, but she is my mother. I do want to see her.”
He took a final, huge bite of the Granny Smith. He always ate the entire apple, only spitting out the seeds. She listened to him crunching and held back a sigh. She needed lunch. She needed to leave the apartment.
“She doesn’t like me,” he finally said.
“She doesn’t like many people,” said Nora.
“But me especially,” he said.
“She doesn’t dislike you,” she lied.
He smiled and shook his head again. “You and I both know she does. You don’t have to pretend.”
She got up from the desk and nudged past him into the hall. She could smell the incense on his clothes and hair. “I have to go out,” she said. “Do you need anything from Carrefour?”
“Almonds,” he said. “And some dark chocolate. But not too dark.”
“I know the kind you like,” she said.
“Yes, I’m sure you do.” He leaned over and kissed her. There were apple seeds in his palm. She heard them ping against the hardwood floor as he put his arms around her. She could tell he was feeling amorous but she wasn’t, not remotely. She pulled away and he looked at her intently, one hand on her arm.
“You look very pretty, Nora,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll be back in about an hour. Will you be here?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll leave a note if I go out.”
“All right, I’ll see you later.” She squeezed his hand. He took her other hand and held onto it. She shook her head. “Tonight, all right?”
“All right,” he said, disappointed, the look on his face briefly revealing the vulnerability he went to great lengths to suppress. She wished she would see it more often, as she had when they were first together. She had never said no to him then. She hadn’t ever wanted to.
The streets were filled with sunbaked, glinting cars and men in summer suits and women in sleeveless dresses walking fast. French people, other than teenagers, seemed perpetually to be in a hurry, everything at the pitch and pace of near emergency—such a different atmosphere from the one in her and Buchu’s hushed apartment where fans, in the absence of air conditioning, drowned out much of the street noise. The day after they moved in, they’d gone out to buy five of them, along with potted plants for every room, new rugs, and a big bed that was the most comfortable bed of Nora’s life. They’d also bought a sofa and an armoire, bookcases, two armchairs, a kitchen table and chairs. In addition to these purchases, there were boxes of books, trinkets, and clothes still on their way from New York.
Buchu had never been interested in asceticism. He liked luxury; he admired prosperity and posh homes but was mostly tight-lipped about these preferences. But he was not a hypocrite—as far as Nora knew, he had never pretended to lead a monkish life.
In Paris, he seemed contented with the change in their environment, although there was no reason for him not to feel at ease—his spacious apartment in Williamsburg awaited him anytime he wished to return. One of the two assistants who’d remained in New York dropped by twice a week to check on it and water the plants. Much of his spiritual practice continued as before, with most of it now conducted online: he held weekly online meditation sessions and still gave Trungpa Talks. He’d also promised his followers that he would return to Manhattan after the yoga studio and juice bar’s launch, but it was likely he would henceforth divide his time between New York and France.
Nora intended to stay in Paris full-time, but she hadn’t yet told him. As she walked to Carrefour, she glanced up at the blond stone apartment buildings and the newer storefronts with their promotional signs fading in the July sun, the sidewalk cafés flanked by cheap pizza parlors and wig shops, some of them blaring music from speakers suspended above their doors. She didn’t know she was smiling until men started smiling back at her, nodding as they passed. Someone was watering potted geraniums on one of the high window ledges, droplets flecking the bare skin of her pale arms and a few bigger droplets landing on her head. Another woman a half step in front of Nora cried out, “Zut!” and hastily patted down her hair. She and Nora looked at each other and laughed.
At Carrefour as she hovered over the lettuces, her cell phone rang. “I bought a ticket,” her mother announced. “It wasn’t expensive! I’ll be there next Wednesday.”
Nora felt her breath catch and hoped her mother hadn’t heard. “Are you serious?” she finally said, already knowing the answer.
“You don’t want me to come. I knew it!” Regina crowed.
“That’s not true, Mom. But airfares are always so expensive in the summer.”
“I’ll just stay in a hotel and you don’t have to see me,” said Regina.
“Don’t be silly. Of course I’ll see you. You can stay with us. How long will you be here?”
“I don’t know yet. I got a one-way ticket.”
Nora stared blindly at the lettuces. She’d have a good time trying to explain this to Buchu. “You did?” she said. “Why did you decide to do that?”
“Why do you think? I wasn’t sure how long I’d want to stay. Five days, maybe five weeks. I didn’t want to limit myself.”
Five weeks! Nora felt her stomach clench. Under the store’s bright lights, the pale green heads of butter lettuce, both her and Buchu’s favorite, looked bleached.
“Hello?” said Regina.
“I’m still here,” said Nora. “Send me your flight information. Are you flying into Orly or Roissy?”
“I don’t remember. Does it matter?”
“Roissy’s a little easier for us because it’s closer to where we live, but I can take a train to either of them.”
“I’ll have my schedule already figured out for the first week. There really are a lot of meetings to choose from.”
“Good, Mom. I’m glad.”
“Maybe I’ll meet someone. Wouldn’t that be exciting? A handsome, sixty-something Frenchman who speaks fluent English would be perfect.”
“You have to wait a year, don’t you?”
“Oh, you know. Not everyone sticks to that rule. Probably less than half of us old drunks do.”
“Please try not to get too carried away, Mom,” she said. “I have to go now. I’m at the store. I’ll check in with you later this week.”
“Okay, dear,” said Regina. “I’m very excited. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
As she put away her phone, she looked down at the butter lettuces again but left them untouched on their shelf beneath the escarole and arugula. The store was busy, full of older men and women pushing handcarts and nannies with strollers. Someone took her place at the cooler the second she went off to look for Buchu’s chocolate.
“A one-way ticket?” he said, his voice rising in alarm. He stared at her in disbelief. “What on earth is she thinking?”
“I don’t know. I doubt she’ll be here for more than two weeks. I’m hoping less, obviously.”
“She can’t stay with us. It’s just not possible. We can find her an Airbnb in the quarter. Let’s do that right now.”
“Buchu, she has to stay here for a few days. We already talked about this.”
He sighed wearily. Nora felt a surge of anger at him and her mother both—why was Regina insisting on a visit now? Why couldn’t she and Buchu both be a little less selfish? “I have to go out for some air,” he said ominously.
Nora said nothing. He looked at her, waiting, but when she didn’t reply, he got up and left the kitchen where they were still eating dinner. She heard him slip quietly down the hall before he opened and closed the heavy oak door that led to the landing and the cramped stairwell with its timed lights that sometimes prematurely clicked off. He’d left his plate on the table, his curried rice and vegetables half eaten. Nora looked down at her own plate and pushed it aside, the evening, like their dinner, a waste.
He didn’t return until after midnight, smelling of cigarettes and wine. He came into the bedroom and stripped off his reeking clothes and climbed in next to her and put his hands on her breasts and she turned to him, surprised by her own desire, despite her residual anger at his earlier petulance. It was over in ten minutes and afterward she fell asleep hard, a stone dropped into a pond. Her dreams were populated by small, furiously barking dogs and buckets of water pouring down on her head.
In the morning she felt only marginally rested. She got up at 7:15, Buchu still sound asleep, naked and gently snoring. Four years ago his arrival in her life had felt messianic. At the time, her mother’s drinking and calamitous third marriage were summoning waves of near paralyzing anxiety. Buchu’s interested gaze upon her, his voice and ease within his body, his large pale hands resting on his knees as he spoke, had alternately soothed and excited her. He taught her how to meditate and to suffer less over what she could not control. She hadn’t been able to stop thinking about him—for almost three years it was like this—before she grew habituated to his beauty, his confidence, his ponderous silences. He was not so different now from who he was then, but it wasn’t until they were preparing to move to Paris that Nora admitted to herself he was as needy as her mother, and with time it was probable he would ask for even more from her.
Regina had in fact booked a flight to Roissy, and Nora took the RER north from the city and stood in the echoing, aging airport with the dozens of other restless daughters and husbands and wives waiting for their families and lovers to be released from customs and the baggage claim, the opaque doors opening and closing every few seconds to disgorge lone weary travelers or small clusters of people dragging suitcases and bleary-eyed children behind them. Her mother, when she finally appeared, was pink-cheeked and fresh looking, her face lit up with the pleasure of a new and glamorous experience. She had only been to Paris once before, more than a decade earlier when Nora was still in college. Regina was drinking then, and the visit had been an arduous, uphill climb of recriminations and tears and apologies, neither Nora nor her mother ever reaching the summit and finding relief.
Regina threw her arms around Nora and held her close for several seconds. Nora felt a sudden premonitory fear that her mother was off the wagon again, and cautiously sniffed her for traces of in-flight wine. All she detected, however, were the scents of Regina’s herbal shampoo and the slightly sour tang of her sweat.
“I’m so happy to be here, sweetie,” said Regina, girlish and grinning. “I watched two movies on the plane. One about two gay boys, and the other about bank robbers who love horses. They were both pretty good. I stayed awake!”
“It’s good to see you. I’m glad you’re here, Mom.”
“Me too. Now let’s get this show on the road. I have to be at a meeting in two hours,” she said, looking around, as if expecting a cab to materialize in front of them. They were still inside the airport, passing a sandwich kiosk and another selling pastries and coffee where a small line of people waited listlessly.
They stepped through another set of sliding doors, out into the humid morning air where Nora flagged a cab and helped the bearded cabbie hoist her mother’s suitcase into the trunk. Within seconds they were settled in the back seat, the cabbie signaling and pulling away from the curb.
Her mother leaned her head against Nora’s shoulder. “I won’t be a bother to you and the swami botulism,” she murmured. “I promise.”
“Mom, stop calling him that,” said Nora, but she laughed. Her mother did too.
The cabbie pressed on the accelerator as he nosed the car onto the autoroute, other taxis and snub-nosed utility trucks driven by tradesmen speeding ahead of them as they merged. Nora felt herself relaxing in tiny increments as they hurtled toward the city and the quiet apartment where Nora knew Buchu awaited their arrival with annoyance and dread.
But he wasn’t there when they arrived, and he hadn’t left a note on the table in the foyer where they kept a key bowl and a small vase with fresh flowers Nora replenished every Saturday morning. This week there were daisies and pink rosebuds in the vase’s slightly murky water. Her mother stopped to touch the petals. “So pretty,” she said, looking at them fondly.
Had she started drinking again? Nora recognized the good humor, the pliability, the sweetness that often heralded Regina’s return to vodka and tonics, to white wine and red and bourbon on the rocks. Maybe she was wrong this time, but she’d only been wrong once before.
Buchu had offered up four days. Her mother would stay in a nearby Airbnb apartment for the next four. After that she would decide if she wanted to extend her stay or fly home. The willingness with which her mother had agreed to this arrangement had startled Nora but she knew enough not to question her motives aloud.
“Where is he?” Regina asked after they’d stashed her luggage in Nora’s study, which was serving double duty as the guest room. Buchu’s meditation room was off-limits to everyone but Nora and himself, she sometimes meditating with him for an hour in the morning. It hadn’t even been discussed that he might offer it to Regina in order for Nora to continue her work on the yoga studio more easily.
“I’m not sure,” Nora admitted.
Her mother rolled her eyes. “Well,” she said. “That’s just fine with me.”
“Do you want to take a shower or rest for a few minutes before I take you to your meeting? Where is it?”
“Near the St. Eustache church.”
“That’s over by Les Halles. It’s not very close. Wasn’t there anything in this neighborhood?”
“Bev recommended this group to me. She said there are lots of Americans in it.” Her mother’s sponsor, Bev was a retired high school history teacher who lived with six finches named after her favorite presidents.
“All right, whatever Bev says, but we’ll need to take another cab. The metro might be pushing it if we have to wait more than a few minutes.”
“Bev said I’d love this group.”
“How is Bev?” said Nora.
“She’s gained some weight, but otherwise she’s fine.”
“It looks like you’ve lost some,” said Nora.
“I have!” said her mother, beaming. “I’ve cut down on sugar.”
“Good. No diabetes for you.”
“Oh, Nora,” she said.
“I’m serious, Mom.”
Regina shook her head. “Don’t be a smarty pants.”
“I’m not being a smarty pants. Last I heard your doctor said you were pre-diabetic, so this is good news.”
“I forgot I told you that.”
“Well, you did.”
Nora dropped her mother off at the meeting, handing her the apartment’s address on a scrap of paper for the cab ride home before she rode the metro back to the eleventh arrondissement. She hoped Buchu would have resurfaced by the time she came through the door, but there was still no sign of him. She tried his cell but he didn’t answer. He was going to pout the entire time Regina was in Paris. He’d promised Nora he wouldn’t, but she knew he would not be able to keep this promise. He was supposed to be skilled at transcending pettiness, but when it actually mattered, his record was at best one in two, especially since he’d inherited the money that had made their move to France possible.
The most powerful lesson Nora had learned from him was that no one, other than the dead, could ever reliably detach from the ego. When his acolytes flocked to him after a session in his practice space in the East Village, gazing up at him with adoring eyes, Nora sometimes was seized with impatience. I know him, she wanted to say. He’s as flawed as you are. But of course she never did. They all loved him, and she did too, most of the time.
She went into the kitchen, snatched a box of chocolate cookies out of the cupboard, and stuffed one into her mouth as she stared out the window that overlooked the street behind their building. Halfway down the block, she spotted a tall man standing in the middle of the sidewalk, a newspaper open in front of him. After a baffled few seconds, she realized it was Buchu. She dialed his cell a second time and watched him take it out of his pocket and glance at the flashing screen before tucking it away again. He reopened his newspaper with no indication the call had caused him even a half second of self-doubt.
Birds were chirping shrilly beyond the window through which she stood gawking at Buchu and wrestling with her anger before it pinned her down. She left the apartment and charged around the corner to confront him. He would hate seeing her so furious—why was she giving in to her anger? He would immediately wonder. Because I want to! Because it’s how I feel!
When he heard her coming, he looked up calmly from his newspaper, as if expecting her. “I need a standing desk,” he said. “We should go look for one. I’m really enjoying myself out here.”
She stopped a few feet in front of him. “What? What are you talking about?”
“I think I should buy a standing desk,” he said reasonably.
She stared at him. “Why didn’t you answer my calls?”
He gazed at her for a moment before folding his newspaper in half and placing it under his arm. “Let’s go inside,” he said, reaching for her hand.
She refused to give it to him. “You could at least have said hello to my mother before you came out here to read the paper in the street like some kind of imbecile.”
“Nora,” he said, pained. “Please.”
“I think she’s started drinking again.”
He said nothing.
“Did you hear me?” she said, her voice booming in her ears.
He sighed heavily. “Yes, I heard you.”
She glared at him. “And?”
He peered down at her and shook his head. Cars were passing and she could sense the people inside looking at her and the swami. “Your mother is a grown woman. You can’t police her like she’s your prisoner or your child,” he said.
“It’s like you’re both my children,” she cried. “How did I let this happen?”
He regarded her solemnly. “Nora, come on now. We haven’t ‘happened’ to you. That’s a horribly facile way of thinking.”
She was so tired. She looked up at him and he met her gaze placidly, his two-day-old beard making him look even more handsome than usual. Neither of them spoke. She didn’t know what she wanted to say. After a moment, she turned and left him where he stood.
He didn’t follow her. She could hear the paper rustling in his hands, and when she was back upstairs and spied him again from the kitchen window, he’d returned to reading as if she had never been there at all.
Later that afternoon, after he came up from the street and apologized to Nora and her mother for missing Regina’s arrival, he took Regina’s hand and bowed over it. Her mother blushed as Nora looked on, startled by her mother’s susceptibility to Buchu’s histrionic charm. Regina even had a small gift for him, a sleek black notebook in which she suggested he record his thoughts. He smiled and thanked her, and Nora was grudgingly impressed that her mother remembered the type of notebook she’d once told her he liked best.
“For his memoirs,” said Regina after he’d retreated to his room, her characteristic tartness having returned. “He’s probably already on volume two hundred and six.”
“Mom,” said Nora, laughing a little. “That was very thoughtful of you.”
“I thought so too,” she said primly.
There were no more tantrums, no more scenes on the sidewalk—she and Buchu both deciding to act as if their public standoff had never happened—and relatively little bickering between Nora and her mother over the next three days, nor did Nora find any proof that Regina was drinking again. Her mother seemed unequivocally sober, but happier and more even-tempered than Nora remembered seeing her in many years. It was Paris, Nora realized, that had drawn her mother out of herself, sloughing away her customary gripes and grievances.
On the fourth day of her visit, Regina repacked her suitcase without complaint, and Nora helped her wheel it over to the small Airbnb apartment they’d found for her on the rue Merlin. Buchu was in his room giving a Trungpa Talk on Skype, his sonorous voice droning through the closed door. Before he’d gotten online, he hadn’t said goodbye to Regina, despite Nora’s request earlier in the day that he do so. Her mother would likely be back at the apartment before she flew home, but whether she would see him again was anyone’s guess, and Nora was too tired to insist a second time that he offer some gesture of farewell, knowing Regina didn’t much care if it happened or not.
“I could live here,” her mother proclaimed, looking around her new lodgings. “Maybe I should.” The walls were painted sunset orange, and cotton batik covered the sofa and two armchairs in the sitting room; the apartment also had restored hardwood floors, southern-exposure sunlight, and bookshelves filled with English and American novels. The owners had clearly taken care.
“It is a great place,” said Nora.
Regina eyed her. “Your swami would hate it if I lived here.”
Nora made a sound of dissent.
“He would. He wants you all to himself,” said Regina.
Nora looked at her before she turned toward the window. “Don’t you think most men are like that?” she asked.
Her mother hesitated. “I suppose they are.”
Nora turned and met her mother’s gaze. “When you got here, I was worried you’d started drinking again.”
“No, no. Over eight months now without a drink.” She gave Nora an appraising look. “I don’t think you’re very happy with Buchu anymore.”
Nora shook her head. “I’m fine. I’ve been so busy working on the permits for the studio that I haven’t had much time to think about anything else.”
“But when you’re done with that, what then?”
“I don’t know,” said Nora. “I’ll have to see.”
“I really think you can do much better than the swami,” said Regina.
“I don’t want to talk about it, Mom. Not today.”
“You never want to talk about it,” she said. “But at some point you’re going to have to.”
Nora didn’t reply.
Her mother sat down on the sofa and leaned her head back, but she kept her eyes on Nora. “I know it’s not really any of my business, but I don’t think you’re very happy.”
“Please stop worrying about me,” said Nora. “Everything’s fine.”
They looked at each other steadily before Regina said, “I need a nap.”
The afternoon light in the room was still bright, dust motes suspended in the air behind the sofa. It looked to Nora like an enchanted picture from a child’s book of fairy tales—so beautiful that she felt a peculiar devastation, duty bearing down on her, the obligation on some future but foreseeable day to disappoint someone she cared about. “I’ll be back for you at seven,” she said. “We’ll go somewhere nice for dinner.”
Her mother gazed at her drowsily. “You’re a good person, Nora. I’ve always thought so.”
“Thank you, Mom,” she said softly, looking down at the floor.
When she looked up again, her mother’s eyes were closed. “I’ll see you later, sweetie,” she said. “Please make sure the door locks on your way out.”
Nora touched her mother’s hand, the skin still supple from years of nightly creams. “I’ll see you at seven.”
Her mother nodded but said nothing more.
At dinner that evening, the glow and goodwill from earlier in the day had faded. Her mother’s salad was overdressed. The waiter was visibly annoyed when they didn’t order wine. Nora found herself saying, “Elle ne boit pas. Vous comprenez?” and staring him down.
Her mother became agitated after he stalked off. “Did you just tell him I’m an alcoholic?”
Nora shook her head. “I said you don’t drink. That’s all.”
“But he must have understood what you meant.”
“I doubt it,” said Nora. “What would you have liked me to say?”
“You didn’t have to say anything. I’m certain we aren’t the first people in the history of this restaurant not to order wine with dinner.”
“He was being rude,” said Nora. Along with making a face over her refusal to order alcohol, he’d insisted on speaking English even though she spoke French to him—fluently, for God’s sake. She wasn’t some pidgin-speaking American tourist who could barely pronounce “bonjour”!
Her mother stared at her. “And you think he’s going to be nicer now?”
“No, but I want him to know we’re not bumpkins.”
“Ah ha,” said Regina. “So you’re trying to save face. But it’s at my expense, Nora.”
“That’s not true. He was condescending. He thinks he knows everything about us, but he doesn’t. I hate men like that.”
“You do?” Her mother took a sip from her water glass, looking at her over the rim. “Could have fooled me.”
“Stop,” said Nora, suddenly furious. “You’re being just as much of a jerk as he is.”
“I want you to understand something,” said Regina coolly. “Every single time I go into a restaurant, I want to drink. I want to drink until I’m so drunk I can’t stand up. My mouth has been watering since the second we came in the door. No, that’s not true—since before we came in the door. The fact we’re even sitting here while other people are drinking is killing me. But here I am anyway, making an effort. Do you have any idea how hard this is? I don’t think you do, Nora. You can say you do and maybe you have an inkling, but I can tell you that it’s much, much easier to be you right now than it is for me to be who I am, someone who used to wake up drunk and half frozen in the backyard more times than you would care to know, or how about this? Someone who used to drive her car into the ditch in the dead of night—but somehow I managed to get it out and creep my way home before the cops spotted me and threw me in jail.”
Her mother took another sip of water and looked at her dispassionately. “Please stop crying, Nora. As you can see, I’ve survived all that foolishness, and I’m not planning to do any of those things again. But I don’t ever want you to tell another waiter I’m an alcoholic. Have you got that?”
Nora nodded, her eyes burning from the effort of holding back another flood of tears. Her mother looked fierce and confident, but above all, relieved, as if she’d been waiting a long time to unburden herself. Nora hadn’t known about the blackouts in the backyard, but she had imagined innumerable catastrophes befalling her mother—how many hours of sleep had she lost over the years? How many phone calls had her mother made or answered while drunk, either she or Nora hanging up—two minutes, ten minutes, an hour later—when one began accusing the other of neglect or selfishness or cruelty?
But here Regina was in spite of the long, clanking chain of one bad choice after another. It was finally over, she was saying, and Nora was trying to believe her.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I won’t do it again.”
Regina nodded. “Thank you. It’s not too much to ask, is it?”
“No. I’m sorry,” Nora repeated, her eyes still watering. She was going to cry again and stared down at her lap, her hands gripping her napkin, twisting it into a rope.
“No more crying, Nora,” said Regina. “I’m okay now, and I’m not going to do any of those things again. I mean it.”
When the check came, Nora discovered that the waiter had overcharged them, and when she asked him in French to remove the charge for an entrée they hadn’t ordered, he took the check away without a word and made them wait twenty minutes for the correction. Her mother remained tranquil during the delay, looking out the windows that faced the street, watching the steady stream of passersby, while Nora fumed and muttered about the waiter’s rudeness.
After they’d at last paid the bill and were sprung loose into the night, her mother put her arms around her and pulled her close. “I hope that supercilious shitbag falls into the Seine on his way home tonight,” she said into Nora’s ear.
“That’s exactly what he is,” said Nora, laughing, her eyes threatening to leak tears again.
“You can thank Vance for that one. The son of a bitch at least managed to leave me with a few good insults before he drove himself into a tree,” she said.
Her mother flew back to New Hampshire the following week, promising Nora she would return at Christmas. At the airport there had been an apology, Regina having trouble meeting Nora’s eyes as she spoke. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you the other night at that restaurant.”
“You didn’t yell.”
“I’m still sorry,” she said, hugging Nora hard, her cheek pressed against her shoulder. “I’ll miss you, sweetheart. I can’t wait to see you in December.”
“I’ll miss you too, Mom.”
“You’d better,” said Regina, her smile tremulous. “You can come visit me too, you know. Anytime you want.”
“I know. Thank you. I’ll see how it goes.”
Regina stepped back and looked at Nora intently. “I really am doing fine. I promise. You don’t have to worry about me anymore.”
Nora took her mother’s hand in both of hers and held it. “I believe you, Mom, and I’m so glad you’re doing so well.”
“Good. No more crying, okay?”
Nora shook her head. “No more. I promise.”
Buchu grew quieter after Regina went home, sensing Nora’s retreat from him. They moved around the apartment politely, almost as strangers, occasionally coming together for meals and sex. “Where have you gone?” he asked over dinner a week and a half after the visit, blinking at her wearily.
“Nowhere,” she said. “But I’m a little tired, I guess. There’s still a lot of work to do for the studio.”
“At least your mother isn’t drinking again,” he said.
“No,” said Nora. “She doesn’t seem to be.”
He said nothing.
He shook his head. “I’m surprised. That’s all. We’ll see if it lasts.”
“I think it might this time,” she said.
“I know you’re angry with me,” he said. “But I can’t help it if I don’t like her, can I?”
“No, I suppose you can’t.”
He sighed and touched her hand across the table. “You still suffer too much on her account.”
A siren blared below them in the street, very loud. Nora felt herself holding her breath, waiting for it to recede. “What I would like is for you to try a little harder to hide your dislike from her, if not from me,” she finally said. She squeezed his hand once before letting go.
He nodded. “Fair enough.”
“You wanted to move here,” she said. “So we did.”
“You wanted to move here too. Don’t pretend this is all for me.”
“I’m not choosing between you and her,” said Nora.
“Haven’t you already?” he said.
“By coming here, you mean?”
“No, that’s ridiculous,” she said.
Of course he didn’t see her point of view. His parents were dead. His mother had died when he was in his thirties, his father ten years later. Buchu had no children of his own, but was briefly married in his twenties. From what Nora could tell, he’d floated along on a tide of healthy self-regard for the past twenty or so years, answering only to his whims.
“I’m not saying you can’t talk to her or see her,” he said, “but there’s a significant part of you linked to her that refuses to open up to me. That’s what I find troubling.”
“If you liked her, even a little bit, I don’t think you’d feel that way.”
“Maybe not,” he said.
She sat at the table for another minute, neither of them speaking. She stood up and went into the hall, taking her keys from the bowl before she went downstairs and outside to the street. She wanted him to come after her but knew he wouldn’t. To his mind, it was the role of great men to keep from bending, to make decisions and stand firmly by them.
A very poor plan, in her view, one formulated for wartime, not for Tuesday nights with no other character than their resemblance to Monday or Wednesday nights.
She walked toward the Marais with its clubs and restaurants that stayed open very late, much later than she was usually awake. She could traverse the city north to south, spend the whole night walking from the Porte de Clignacourt to the Porte d’Orléans and back. What would Buchu think if she didn’t come home? He would worry, but he wouldn’t ask where she’d gone, or why, when she finally returned.
All around her people were walking with their faces lit up in anticipation of happiness. A few moved blank-faced toward the future, open to nothing, or possibly, anything. Cars sped down the boulevard, lining up abruptly at stoplights. Girls in short skirts called to boys who leered at them from across the street. Her mother was doing fine. It was a Tuesday night near the end of the summer. There was a river to the south and hills to the north—everything she looked at was startlingly as it had always been.