The Kiss, a short story by StevenHunley. Date added: 2011-07-04. Times viewed: 2409.
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- Intro: a young man and woman fall in love and break up in Paris in 1905
The coffee shop on the Rue Martinique was where we usually met in the morning. It was a tradition. Monsieur Beaucard was already at his table. I took my seat beside him and ordered my usual.
“Coffee and croissant, si vous plait.”
He looked up, acknowledged my presence, and returned to reading his letter. You know how it is with old friends, manners become unnecessary. I took no offense. A smile passed over his face like a shadow as he folded it up and placed in his pocket.
“Delightful news,” he answered. “Have I ever mentioned my nephew Philippe?”
“The news is from him, and concerns an adventure he’s having.”
“An adventure? Is he an explorer?”
“Of sorts. It’s an adventure he’s having with a beautiful woman. The territory he’s exploring, if he manages to map it, may provide the route to her heart.”
I always like to hear Beaucard’s stories, especially about women. Their hearts being the last unexplored territory on the face of the globe, are completely unknown to man. I find it a fascinating subject, unfathomable yet unresistable.
“Lead on Beaucard, as they say in cheap novels, I’m all ears.”
He broke off a piece of croissant and took a sip of coffee, then looked out the window. Outside was cold, and late autumn mist hung still in the air like an acrobat. Strong black horses drawing carriages puffed white steam from wide flaring nostrils. Wavy droplets of rain collected and ran down the windows. He looked as if he saw something beyond, yet his eyes remained unfocused.
“It started innocently as an exchange of letters,” he began. “But you know, it often happens that exciting adventures sometimes start off in the most mundane fashion.”
I looked out the window to see what he perceived. I saw nothing. I’d been trying to see what he could see for years. It wasn’t his wire-rimmed glasses I needed. It was his insight that escaped my poor eyes. Somehow the old fellow had more insight than the ordinary man. He didn’t see things just for themselves; he saw the nature of things and their essence.
‘It was simple enough,” he continued, “Philippe was stationed in Algeria. His mother wanted a picture and placed one he sent in the parlor on the mantel. The girl was an art student and staying with them at the time. They had a room to let, and lived only two blocks from the Louvre. It was the perfect place for her, in the student quarter, not far from the Ecole nationale superiere des Beaux-Arts”
“I know just where that is. Just on the left bank of the Seine, across from Notre Dame, isn’t it?”
“Of course, you know the place. That’s the setting exactly.”
I asked for a second coffee and Baucard continued.
“She doted on the picture for hours. Finally, she asked for permission to correspond with him, and my sister gave in. The boy was shy and sensitive and she decided it was time he got out in the world. Algeria was not enough and filled only with men of his unit. After all, she reasoned, what could a few letters from a harmless girl hurt?”
“Indeed, what harm?”
“An avalanche of harm in the end, my friend, that’s what. It started a storm of letters between the two. Both were thirsting for affection. Not from their families you understand, but for the affection only a lover can provide.”
“Ah yes, I am familiar with the particular thirst that lack of that beverage can bring.”
“Just so. Let me explain why each of them was so good at quenching the thirst of the other. Not only did they provide the beverage, but circumstances added sparkle, like aging adds bubbles to Champagne.”
“Champagne with its intoxicating sparkle. I understand, like the tiniest bubbles that glitter Chateaux Lafitte Rothschild.”
“Like Chateaux Lafitte Rothschild seventy-two!
It was due to factors on each side. His family was broken apart by divorce. Due to his original father’s conceit, and his pull with the courts, he was shuttled every two weeks between his mother’s house and the father’s house with his new bride. It was too much for him. Philippe’s sensitivity could not stand it. One family knew him and the other didn’t. His father’s new wife was a foreigner and gave preference to her only child, a daughter, who he was forced to call sister. He was never comfortable in their home. This continued back and forth until he was eighteen.
As for Michelle, she was raised in a large family of eight children. She’d been marked by angels since birth. A spiritual child, she grew up surrounded by people who had little concern with matters of the spirit. Her father was often gone and would disappear for weeks at a time. When he returned he was cruel and abusive to her mother. When he was there she was his favorite. It tore her to pieces. She married early to escape her situation, but things didn’t work out.”
“That’s common among those who marry too early.”
“Then there were the coincidences.”
“Perhaps that’s not the word. Cases of synchronicity would be more accurate. For instance, as they revealed secrets to each other in letters, certain strange facts were noticed. His name, it turned out, was not Magritte, my sister’s married name. She adopted him because she couldn’t bear children. His natural parents were named Renault the same name as Michelle’s. There were more examples of synchronicity even stranger, but I’ll return to them later.
“How long were they writing letters?”
“Almost a year and there’s one other thing I might mention. Michelle sent him a photograph. I’ll tell you right now she’s a beautiful girl. An artist, she stands next to her painting of a woman, a partial nude. Michelle has talent with oils and brush. It’s a wonderful likeness of a beauty, turned away from the viewer. The point I’m making is that although the subject of her painting is lovely, very lovely, it’s the artist in the photograph you notice. Her smile is bright and her hair flows over her shoulders and arms like a dim waterfall. Her sure but delicate hand is holding the brush just so. And though she’s dressed in informal clothes, just what you’d expect from an artist, you have the impression you’ve seen a goddess dressed in purest white linen, standing on Mount Olympus. That’s the power her figure conveys. She drips femininity from every pore, just as a fat woman drips sweat in summer, but with half the effort.”
“I’ve seen few such pictures of beautiful women, they’re rare.”
“Yes, he went mad over the photograph. Then he added some sparks of his own to their fire. You see the boy writes. He read that new upstart, what’s his name? Maupassant?”
“The one that studied under Flaubert?”
“That’s the one! He has stories in La Gaulois.”
“I’ve read them, they’re good.”
“I like them too, and the man has a certain style, but I am of the opinion he won’t last.”
“I agree, he’s a tiny flash in the pan. He’s not so bright. No one will know him in twenty years.”
“Yet Philippe adores him, and his style encouraged him to write. And so, stimulated by the writings of Maupassant and her marvelous photograph he decided to win her with words. She responded in kind. They shared the same humor and the same sensitivity to life. They felt they were two of a pair. Their bond grew exponentially as hundreds of letters were exchanged. She bound packets of his letters in pink silk ribbons and hid them in her closet. He put stacks of hers under his bunk in the Legionnaires’ barracks.
One day she left one out and my sister discovered what she’d been writing. It was unfolded as yet, and lay on the dressing table face up. Curiosity got the best of her and she read it. Mon Dieu, what an incredible letter! It described in great detail how she longed for him, how her body felt when she read his love-notes, and what effects his words elicited from various parts of her exquisite anatomy. The girl’s words were bold and dramatic. My sister grew faint. How it made her heart race! She suddenly felt intrusive. These two were keeping no secrets from each other I assure you. Intimacy mirrored their very souls.”
“My goodness is it getting hot in here? We should have a brandy and cool off!”
“Capital idea, make mine Martell.”
“ I’ll have one too. You know what Napoleon said. “Wine is for women, brandy for men and Cognac is for heroes.”
“This is a story of heroic proportions, so make it Martell by all means.”
The waiter removed our coffees and saucers and brought Cognac instead. Outside it was still raining but inside it was getting warm and comfortable by the minute. The gutters filled with puddles and passers-by held umbrellas like English tourists prepared for any occasion. Like an athlete, a shop girl held her skirt and jumped over a puddle to save her shoes.
Beaucard took off his glasses and breathed on the lenses, then wiped them clean with his handkerchief. He cleared his throat and continued.
“Although he had a year left in Algeria he had leave coming and returned home for their first meeting. To say they were excited with the prospect of meeting each other face to face would be pure understatement. In addition, my sister and family were leaving for Brussels and the young lovers had the house to themselves.”
“Please continue. How did it go?”
“Like pure Heaven. They met at the station. Each thought the other was much more alluring in person that in their photographs. From their first embrace they knew what would happen when they got back. All weekend it was impossible to leave each other alone. They ate together and slept together and bathed together. They basked in each other’s radiance. He thought her voice was the sweetest he’d ever heard, though she thought she had the voice of a child. She was of the opinion his love-making was like nothing she’d ever experienced, when he thought he’d been clumsy. The two of them couldn’t have been more pleased.”
“That’s simply wonderful. I’m so happy to know that things worked out well.”
“It seemed so at the time. They made plans to marry when he was released from duty.
Her letters were much the same after that for a period, but in time he noticed a change in her writing.”
“Really, in what way?”
Somehow her letters were less intimate. Finally he put the question to her, and since they were so close and shared nothing but the truth, she came out with it. It was over.”
“What was her reason?”
“She didn’t explain herself exactly, but clothed her reasons in vague terms. She said they were as she termed it, ‘on two separate paths’. She’d arrived at this conclusion after days of fasting and meditation. There was nothing he could do. By questioning her reasons, he would be questioning her faith. He wasn’t prepared to do such a thing. As I said, she possessed an intense spiritual life. He understood and would do nothing to question it. It would have been questioning the validity of her very essence.”
The effect she had on him was disastrous. He lost his innocence. Funny, they were children once, playing with toys. Now they were all grown up and just as cruel. Innocence is one of those rare kind of things you only lose once.
“How terrible! What a disaster! The problem goes straight to my heart.”
“Mine too. He became despondent, lost focus, and grew withdrawn. She wanted to remain friends.”
“Naturally, Why not? She had no hard feelings towards him.”
“That’s so. At this point he was willing to do just that. Their relationship changed. They continued to correspond. As time went by he continued to crash downward in a never-ending spiral. He started drinking absinthe, and what’s worse, began frequenting the native quarter and smoking hashish. Opium would be next, anything to deaden the pain. He stopped telling her how he felt. He refused to admit despair, even to himself. Though they both vowed love, it was obvious the word didn’t mean the same thing to each of them.”
I had finished my Cognac but knew Beaucard was not through. I ordered another. The shop had grown empty and quiet. Only the fire crackled in the corner. Just the sound of falling rain and wind came in from the street. Beaucard’s voice grew softer, now almost a whisper.
“And now for the most curious part. As I mentioned before, the bond between them was strong. It was if they had been lovers in past lives. The synchronicity of events took an even stranger form. It had been happening all along, but had remained unnoticed by both of them. It was this.
She injured her knee while riding as a child. The bone set improperly and in bad weather it bothered her at night. Also, when she was under stress, her chest grew tight and gave pain, making it impossible to sleep. He, on the other hand, usually slept through the night undisturbed. Returning to barracks from a night of debauchery he drug out her packets of letters and went over them, trying to relive how it used to be, using them for a pathetic chance at reverie.
It came to him that until he knew her he slept soundly. He noticed, after reading her letters again, that the nights he couldn’t sleep were the same nights she had pains in her leg, or tightness in her chest. When he remembered in detail, he realized his symptoms were the same as hers, just not as severe. Her pains were waking him up! It was as if they had a psychic link.”
“I‘ve heard of such things, between twins for instance.”
“So have I, and I believe in this case that Philippe and Michelle are star-crossed lovers. That a love such as theirs is carved out of passion, and fashioned by fate. Fate, having a hand in such matters, will never allow such a thing to escape her grip.”
“I’d like to think such a love exists. But what about her decision? What will become of them?”
“That’s where we get to the interesting part, Mon Ami. What has been happening is revealed in the contents of his latest letter to me. That’s why I failed to acknowledge your presence when you walked in. The news is so fantastic it has my head reeling. You must pardon me, but when you hear what I’ve just read you’ll understand.”
“I took no offence. No pardon is necessary, old friend. But go on. What was his news?”
He was thinking back over the course of their entire affair wondering where he’d gone wrong. He imagined how things may have been different. Looking back, he considered that one meeting had not been enough and he imagined another in its place. This new encounter would not be so brutal. When he visited her, they were so worked up it was pathetic. Fire coursed through their veins. They’d vowed before they met to hold off touching for twenty-four hours, but the end of the first night found them wrapped around one another in bed. Oh, how they danced. Later, she sat on the edge of her purple-soaked sheets, her creamy legs protruding in space, pondering where his fingers had learned such tricks. Propped up on a pillow, he gazed at her longingly, wondering how her porcelain skin remained so smooth. Jabbing him in the ribs with her elbow, she complained he needed to shave closer, since her inner thighs were starting to blush like ripe peaches. She felt they were sensuously raw, due to the nature of her skin.
He was her kind of lover, and she...his.
Their first encounter was enjoyable, but harsh. They’d exercised no finesse. They had no time to get used to each other, yet it was magic.”
“That’s natural, I agree. I can see how it happened.”
“Then he imagined how he might kiss her now, with tenderness and feeling. He pictured her lips touching his and remembered how warm they were, how they tasted like syrup. He gave this image his whole concentration. He thought at the time how much of a mystery she was. It seemed odd to him that such a sensitive girl was almost violent in her love-making. But at the time, wrapped in the heat of her passion, he dismissed it. Perhaps, he concluded, it was just her way.”
“Women can be as differently shaped as yams in their passions.”
“Quite so. Then days later he received her latest letter. She revealed even more. As I mentioned they still shared secrets. The family was away and she had the house to herself. It was late and she was in bed reading. The events of the day had been merciless on her and her body was filled with nervous tension. She began rubbing her neck then her shoulders. Her hand drifted to her breasts, then lower to the parts never mentioned. Like a song, she experienced a much needed climax. She was astounded that it had been so easy for her. Before that it took quite an effort. But not that night.”
“The same night he was thinking of her?”
“Exactly the same night!”
“Mon Dieu, what a thing to happen!”
“He was staggered by the thought of it. It wasn’t a case of her pain being transferred to him, but his quiet energy going in the other direction. That had never occurred. Because of the psychic link, he transmitted a new gentle kind of passion to her. That’s why she’d discovered the softer way of touching herself and bringing herself to climax. He now knew something he’d felt all along, that she, due to her insensitive lovers, has just now finally grown closer to her own body, in an intimate moment of self-discovery. It may be a clue to what happened. She thinks he’s a brute! A ruffian wearing gentlemen’s clothing. The way he made love to her! She thinks they will never match, so she decides to let him off easy. She’s convinced they can never be a couple and is steadfast in her decision.
He’s amazed. He comes to the conclusion that love-making is comparable to a duel, not with sabers that cut and tear, leaving the lovers like butchered meat, but like fencing, with thrusts, withdrawals, parries and disengagements. An act fought with style and grace between ladies and gentlemen.
Then he realizes with certainty the power of a single kiss.
He imagines a perfect kiss, one that transmits every degree of passion. At the end, when their mouths draw apart, it conveys regret at the parting, like the kiss lovers give at the end of their love making when a man has to leave, or when they are falling asleep. It’s a squeeze of the hand and a press of the body, just as his lips leave hers, extending the finality of the act. He designs a kiss that conveys everything he wants to say, a kiss that shows the degree of tenderness he feels, the depth of his passion, the breadth of his limitless soul as it reaches out. Not clawing, like their first encounter, but with an open palm, allowing her to alight softly, gently, and fold her wings in perfect safety, providing her a secure place to rest.
“No, I disagree, it is very credible.”
“But this kiss of his. How will he deliver it if she won’t see him?”
“Now my friend, don’t worry about that,” he laughed. “That part is up to me!”
At this point I ordered on more round of Cognac. There was nothing heroic about it. The rain stopped and rays of sunlight broke through the heavens and glittered off the cobblestones, silvering the puddles like mirror. The afternoon looked like it had straightened its tie and wanted to get down to business.
“Indeed, you are involved in this?”
“Just a touch. I’m planning a ‘chance encounter’. Phillipe will return in a week.”
“Where will you have them meet?”
“I’m considering somewhere lovely, bright and fragrant. Somewhere that heightens the senses. Perhaps the flower garden in the Tuileries. Remember, Michelle lives with my sister. It should be easy enough to arrange. You should come, but we have to be discreet. Have you a pair of opera glasses or ones you use at the races?”
“I do, and I’d like nothing better than to accompany you.”
“Make it next Sunday then. It is agreed. I’ll meet you at the Place de la Concorde at two.”
On the next Sunday Beaucard was right on time. He had a pair of glasses in a brown leather case. We looked at the garden and sure enough, at two Michelle was there with his sister and a little boy playing with a hoop and a stick. They were quite distant, but we could see every move. Michelle was lovely, much as Beaucard described her, but even more brilliant. She walked with a lilting grace uncommon to most. Her dark hair was up in a white velvet ribbon. She was wearing white gloves and a fashionable dress. Then we saw Philippe appear the end of the hedges.
It was like watching a play with no sound.
He feigned surprise at seeing her. She smiled, but not much. Still, they walked together down one path and then another, past flowers and fountains and nurse maids hauling toe-headed children in wagons. They walked for some time.
“When is he ever going to kiss her?”
“I suspect when the time is right and not before.”
Time seemed to stand still. They stood far apart. A stranger looking would have never taken them for lovers, even ex-lovers. There was no obvious attraction. The chance that Fate would intervene was a ridiculous assumption on my part. They stood together by a fountain spurting water high in the air.
“My God, look at that, she’s starting to leave! He’s going one way and she’s going another! Beaucard, why doesn’t he do something?”
“I don’t know. Something isn’t right. Perhaps he’s missed his chance.”
It looked like it. She was walking one way around the fountain while he walked in the opposite direction. She stopped for a second and looked back and waved a last farewell.
Just then a breeze whipped through the park and blew off my hat. Leaves were falling and twisting, red, yellow, and brown. A vendor selling pink and blue cotton candy had it ripped from his hand and ran chasing it down a path nearby. Women were forced to hang on to their hats and gather their dresses.
The fountain water blew sideways and drifted through the air, drenching Michelle head to foot. Philippe ran to her and took out his handkerchief.
Beaucard missed what happened, busy wiping bits of cotton candy from his glasses.
But I saw it all. Philippe dabbed her face with a gentle motion, first one cheek, then the other. She beamed in response. Then the kiss, the precious kiss. Her hands were at her sides, then her shoulders dropped and relaxed. A subtle change took place as his arms enfolded her. It didn’t look like much to me. They walked off together. I couldn’t begin to speculate what really happened. I heard nothing for two days.
Later I met Beaucard as usual and took my place at his side. On the marble top table sat an envelope.
“That? Why it’s a wedding invitation,” he said with a smile. “And waiter,” he shouted across the room with gusto, “Forget the two coffees, and make it Champagne.”
© Steven Hunley June, 2011
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