(Below is May Spangler's Avenue des Ternes, an incredibly well-written coming-of-age story in a wonderful setting.)
(More fiction from Ricardo Palma, translated by T. Feeny, in the print version of The White Crow, available for $2.00 ppd from Osric Publishing.)
Avenue des Ternesby May Spangler
The blonde taps the asphalt with the heel of her boot. She's probably cold, early spring in Paris can be pretty chilly. She's chatting with the brunette, who's standing beneath a balcony supported by the grimacing heads of stone. I know the blonde e specially well...she's been waiting here for her husband every day for years, the same hour and the same corner of the Avenue des Ternes. She has short hair and glasses, and always carries an umbrella. She looks pretty good in her little red suit, but n ot as good as Mom.
I look up at my mom. "Their husbands aren't very nice. They're always late."
Mom smiles. "Why don't we start with the Italian?"
It looks like a cave at the Italian's; with salamis, sausages, and hams hanging from the ceiling. Sawdust is sprinkled over the floor, and there are large clay jugs with wooden spoons hanging from their sides. I dig into the jugs with the spoon, like I always do, and black olives appear, while the dark liquid strains through the holes of the spoon.
The Italian tells my mom, rolling his r's, "Of course we deliver, Madame."
"So, Saturday at eleven will work?"
"Ha, Saturday...I'll need to check. As for tonight, we have some cannelloni coming from the oven...and it is superb." He kisses the tips of his fingers, eyes closed in ecstasy.
Mom hesitates. "I don't know...I was thinking more of a salad, or maybe a pizza...."
"Oh, Madame, that would be a pity. We only make cannelloni once a week...and children love it," he says, looking at me, his eyebrows coming together to form a single furry line. He adds, "Your little girl is growing into a lady...how old are you sweetheart?"
I look at my mom and then back at him. "I'm going to be twelve on Saturday."
"Twelve! Now I see, that big lunch on Saturday is for your birthday...we must celebrate! Here, take any cookie you want."
He holds out the jar to me. The cookies are dry and filled with almonds. Mom protests, saying, "No, thank you, you're too kind. But she won't be hungry for dinner."
"One cookie will be okay, madame."
"Then a fruit. They don't cut the appetite, they sharpen it. Here, young lady, it's for you," he says, holding out an apple to me. I know I shouldn't take it, that I shouldn't accept presents. Especially not from a man. But he keeps insisting:
"Are you going to take it, sweetheart? It won't bite you...I promise."
I look at my mom, and she raises her eyebrows in resignation. I take the fruit.
The Italian won't stop talking. I pull on Mom's hand, and she's more than happy to have an excuse to leave. He winks at her when we walk out of the store:
"Your husband won't complain about dinner tonight, I can assure you! And as for Saturday, don't worry....I'll deliver it myself. Truly a pleasure for such a lovely lady...." A roar of laughter escorts us to the door. It is a sunny day, and we sigh in relief, and then break into a giggle. I take my mom's arm.
"He sure doesn't mind talking," she says with a big smile.
I love to hold my mom's hand. She bends her arm, and I rest my hand in the corner. When I was younger, she'd pull me home like that after long errands. Even though I'm almost her size now I still hold her arm, because it's cozy. It's a pact of frie ndship. There's no jealousy, or any strings attached. We just share a happy moment together, a time away from my father's demands for perfection, my sister's mood swings, and my brother's struggle with becoming a man.
We stroll by the banker and the locksmith. A drunk holding a bottle of cheap wine tries to get the attention of someone walking by, but no one acknowledges him. It's like he's an unwitting part of the scenery, and can't get out of it. We cross Avenu e des Ternes and head toward the "Magasins Reunis".
"Let's stop here," says Mom.
The make-up department is right next to the entrance, and we make our way through the displays of lipstick, powders, nail polish, and other colorful items to touch and smell. It's always crowded in the store, a huge hall lit up by the glass roof three stories up. Mom stops at the perfume counter. Dad likes Chanel Number Five, but she tries a few others to see if they're better. A saleswoman sprays her hand carefully, so that the different perfumes don't mix. She also sprays some on the back of my hand, and I rub it in, like Mom does. Perfume doesn't smell the same on everyone. Mom pays, and puts the Chanel in the shopping bag, next to the cannelloni. We take the narrow escalators, and we walk by the "young ladies" department. Mom slows down, a nd points to the bra display.
"Do you want to try one?"
My voice squeaks. "I...don't know. I think I'm too young."
"Of course you aren't. Look at this one, it's so cute."
She's looking at a white bra that has a little rose in the middle, and the cups are nearly flat. Mom's are black and lacy.
Mom asks a saleswoman, "Could she try one on?"
The saleswoman smiles at me. "Growing up, aren't we?"
"She's going to be twelve."
I have trouble closing the fitting room door. The lock holds with only one screw. Usually Mom comes with me in the little room, but she found a dress that she'd like me to try. I take off my navy blue sweater and my checkered shirt.
I feel naked, even though I only have two small bumps for breasts. Last summer they weren't there at all, but Mom bought my first two-piece bathing suit anyway. We had to hide them, and now we have to cage them in a bra.
I can't close it. Mom asks through the door, "Is everything all right?"
I'm almost crying. "I can't close it." It's all so incredibly stupid.
"Close it in front, and then turn it to the back."
After a moment she asks again, "Is everything all right?"
"It's too big."
"You'll fill it in no time, don't worry."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure. Once they start growing, they grow fast. Try on this dress too."
The bra's not holding anything, but it's good to have it done. Almost all the girls at school have one, and many even fill theirs, and with pride. Mom hands a dress over the door to me. I put it on and open the door. The saleswoman comes back.
"Do you ladies need anything else?"
No. I'm already hot, and wrapped up in this red violet dress. It must be made of some sort of synthetic material, that'll grow little balls after a while. The saleswoman lies, saying, "It fits perfectly! It may need to be tucked in at the hips a li ttle...a size smaller would be too tight around the waist...." Mom nods and the saleswoman attacks the dress, armed with pins, pinching the material.
My stomach is round and I don't have any hips. It wasn't too long ago that I was a tomboy, and proud of it. I start to wonder if I can still dress without frills, get a good job and be respected without being a man. Do I really have to be as pretty as Mom? Then it's hopeless, because I'll never be as pretty as Mom.
Mom is the prettiest woman in the world. When I was little I loved hugging her tightly around her round hips. In the summer, when we'd go to our country house, she'd rake the hay that was in the big yard. She'd put her hair up, wear a bikini and old tennis shoes, and would get the whole yard done in no time. She loved doing it because she could work out and get a tan at the same time. I found her flat, muscular tummy fascinating. But I did have a problem with the bikini; she couldn't hold anything . I thought that she needed a pocket to hold things in, somewhere.
So I imagined that she had a pocket on her stomach, made from a fold of skin, kind of like a kangaroo. I liked the idea, but it also scared me, because a button would be needed to close the pocket, and then my mom's stomach would have to be sewn up. I could visualize a big needle piercing her skin...and that would hurt me as if it were done to me. Mom belonged to me even more than to herself. I was the one who lived in her. She didn't.
Mom tells me, "So much better than blue jeans, and you could wear it on Saturday. What do you think?"
The mirror says that this dress, with its low cut and three flounces, was made for a spicy personality, and my bland face looks even younger compared to its flashy colors. The red brings out the pimple on my chin. And Mom doesn't understand my distre ss. Buying clothes is fun for her: she's mastered the mix and match science, and she knows exactly what works for her.
I notice that a little button is missing. A little violet one. The saleswoman panics, because there are no other dresses in this size. Mom says that maybe, maybe, we could take one off another dress. I cry out, close the door, remove the disgusting dress, put on my jeans and shirt that are so soft and old that I'm scared they're going to join the rags basket soon. My clothes feel so good, and all I want to do is get out of this store and breathe.
We walk on the rue Saint-Ferdinand. The church bells rings at six and clouds have gathered. Even though there may be some rain we stop at the toy store, the "Rayon de Soleil".
"Want to go in and have look?" Mom asks me.
The Barbie corner is to the right of the entrance. I already have a huge family of Barbies, but there's a new Barbie out that has real eyelashes and small round breasts, not like her sisters, who have hard and pointed ones.
"We can get it for your birthday," Mom tells me.
"But, there's no room for her."
"Well...we could add on...."
We have solved my Barbies' lodging problem in the past by making apartments, made from wooden boxes that we got from the grocery store. The boxes are piled up in my bedroom...wallpapered, carpeted, and tiled up. There's only one bathroom for them to share, but they all have their own bed.
"I don't know. I think that maybe I'm too big for Barbies...." My throat tightens. I love my barbies, but I don't play with them anymore. Some haven't left their beds for months.
Mom nods, and says, "Twelve, indeed! You'll be as big as me before you know it!"
The rain has almost stopped. It was a short little shower, just enough water to clean the streets. The concrete shines from all the colored lights from the stores reflecting off of it. The ladies are under their umbrellas, still waiting for their hu sbands at the street corner. I tear off another piece of warm baguette, and tell my mom, "I don't get it. Unless both of their husbands work at the same place, it's still a little weird, don't you think?"
"Honey, those ladies aren't waiting for their husbands."
I pause for a moment. "Then, what are they doing?"
"They're waiting for a man to take them out."
"Well, if he's lonely, he may want to have some company. It would be nice to have a pretty lady to talk with, or go out to eat with."
"But why would the ladies want to do that?"
"They get paid to do it. It's their job."
Weird...I can imagine a lonely old man taking the blonde lady to a restaurant.... Actually, it makes sense. Not everyone is lucky enough to be married to Mom. I hold her arm a little tighter. I wonder what Marina will think of the bra at school tom orrow.
Crowright 2000 Osric Publishing. Last updated 09.24.2000