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Questions of Why
By Scott Bassis
Irina was thinking about Jason only moments before she learned of his death. Of course, she thought about him every day, so it wasn’t such a coincidence. Spookier was the morning after her first night in Henri’s apartment. Henri flipped the channel to an old rerun of Buds. Seymour Splinsky was devastated by his girlfriend’s infidelity.
“Actor Jason Miller, known for his role as Seymour Splinsky on Buds, as well as costarring in films such as Pinstripes and Riff-Raff, was discovered dead in his Malibu apartment.”
“Never heard of him,” Henri said, provoking Irina’s glare. “What?” he laughed. She glanced away, hiding the tears she felt forming.
“Oh him!” Henri said. The news was playing a clip from Buds. Jason was doing the “Seymour shuffle,” a plot point of an early episode which became his trademark. Jason flailed his arms like a drowning man, shook his hips like a salsa dancer. His menacing, though nonetheless silly expression seemed to say, “I’m not really dangerous. It’s an act, but don’t tell.”
“Another Hollywood druggie,” Henri declared. The police stated the cause of death appeared to be an overdose of prescribed medications. Henri didn’t mean to be insensitive. He had no idea what Jason meant to her. She still felt like strangling him. There wasn’t “another” like Jason anywhere, except for herself. They were kindred souls. They had survived a hell Henri couldn’t understand. She went to the bathroom to be alone.
She cried into her towel. She had just been wondering if Jason would ever have a child. Though he was occasionally photographed with an actress or model, his relationships never lasted. He would have been a good father, his finest role. She needed to get a grip. She was with Henri now, she reminded herself. She had the ring to prove it. Gazing at her reflection, she forced herself to smile. Jason wasn’t the only one who could act.
“Are you okay, Cherie?” Henri asked.
“My contact lenses.” She returned to the couch. The news had moved onto something else. She had to do the same. “Did you book the tickets for Christmas?” she asked.
“This afternoon. Have you kept up with your Rosetta Stone?” he laughed.
“You bet,” she said.
“I think we should make the announcement at dinner. Is that okay?” he asked.
“It’s fine,” she smiled.
“I invited Simon and Brigitte,” he mumbled, hoping she would nod distractedly, not really listening, and later in Paris he would be able to say, “But I told you.”
Usually, she would let him get away with it. What could she do? He had raised Simon for four years. Simon was essentially his son. There was no seeing Simon without seeing Brigitte. Despite herself, she couldn’t help brooding about Jason. She was never Jason’s fiancée. She never had the chance to be his anything. Yet, it was impossible to imagine Jason would ever have ruined her Christmas by inviting his ex-wife.
“Nice of you to ask me first!” she snapped.
“I won’t let Simon think I abandoned him,” he said.
She got up again. This time, she went into the second bedroom, her makeshift studio. When she was anxious, she sketched. When she was feeling reflective, she painted with oils. When she was furious, she sculpted. She was grieving, she knew, because she grabbed her watercolors. She painted Jason and herself. A little boy held their hands, forming a bridge between them. Fittingly, they were all as translucent as ghosts. This was the life that was supposed to have been.
Irina didn’t seek Mirella out. In fact, Mirella’s table wasn’t where it once was. She used to be near Times Square, though for a gypsy the move to Union Square wasn’t so far a pilgrimage. As before, it was a series of coincidences which brought Irina to her. A SoHo gallery owner contacted her to meet about a possible show. On the way, a signal malfunction stalled the “6” train at the station. It was an exceptionally warm December day; she decided to walk. Mirella had set up two chairs and a small table outside her neon-lit storefront.
Mirella had grown fat with age. It was by her crooked teeth that Irina recognized her, her two incisors turned inward. When Mirella smiled, she looked as devious as Irina knew her to be. Jason’s death had reopened old wounds. Irina marched up to her. She deserved answers.
“You de artist?” Mirella asked.
“Yes,” Irina said, finding it odd that Mirella would remember her. Mirella must have scammed many over the years.
“De cards told me I would meet one. Sit,” Mirella said, throwing Irina for a loop. She checked her hands and clothes for charcoal smudges, traces of paint. There was nothing. She sat, just like that, a sucker again. She did need answers. She was at a loss where else to find them.
“Twenty for palms, tarot is twenty-five for a question, forty for full-life,” Mirella said.
“I only have one question.” Irina set down the cash on the table. Mirella placed a rose-tinted crystal upon it. Mirella had sold her one just like it for fifty bucks, an awfully expensive paperweight.
“Tink of de question and pick seven cards.” Mirella fanned the deck out face down on the table. Irina did as she was told. Mirella turned the cards over one by one: a few kings, a queen, a bunch of upside-down swords and right-side up cups.
“You will see him again,” Mirella declared. Irina could barely keep from scoffing.
“But he won’t see you. Never again,” Mirella continued. The statement was certainly vague enough to be open to interpretation. Nonetheless, it was true: she would see Jason as long as Buds and his movies ran on TV, but he would never see her watching him.
“Stay wit de uder one. He loves you. Forgive him.” Mirella scooped the cards back up. She unzipped a fanny pack around her waist to add the money.
“That’s it? That didn’t answer anything!” Irina huffed.
Mirella paused. Grinning, she lifted up the rose-tinted crystal. She didn’t remove the cash.
“I do offer more in dep readings. I tink it must be fate dat brought you here today. Questions of why happen to my specialty.” She handed her a flyer from her stack. Indeed, “Questions of Why” was listed right under love and career as Mirella’s areas of expertise.
“How much?” Irina asked.
“Sixty. Is usually a hundred, but I want to help. I see you are very plagued by dis question,” Mirella said in a sympathetic voice.
Irina lay down another sixty bucks. Mirella left it on the table, putting the crystal back on top of it, no doubt intending to add to her tally before they were through.
“Now shuffle and tink of dis man,” Mirella directed. Closing her eyes, Irina envisioned the lanky, twenty-year-old misfit she fell in love with. Mirella took back the deck. Irina laughed out loud at the first card Mirella lay down.
Jason’s Fool had to have been like no other to ever grace a Shakespearean stage. The tallest actor by half a foot, he bent his posture to compensate. Maintaining an ugly expression throughout, snarling his lips, squinting one eye, he gave the impression of an ogre. Yet, his movements were sprightly, ballet-like. During his moments onstage when the spotlight was on another, he let his features relax. Irina might have been the only one in the audience to catch that he was kind of cute.
Irina had gone to the performance with Ashley, her roommate freshman year. Mousy and plain, most mistakenly assumed Ashley was nice. In all the time Irina knew her, Ashley never spoke a nice word about anyone. Jocks were buffoons. Professors were jealous failures. Becky was a slut. Kate was insipid. Anne was two-faced. Even back then, Irina wasn’t delusional enough to think Ashley didn’t talk about her too.
“Irina’s so weird. She never speaks more than two words. I’m embarrassed whenever I introduce her to anyone. She just stares down at her shoes, mumbling into her clavicle. Something’s really wrong in her head. Sometimes she wakes up screaming, not once in a while either, like every other night.” From the snatches of conversation Irina overheard before Ashley caught herself, Irina knew she repeated this sentiment more or less to every acquaintance. Following the performance, as Ashley, Becky, Kate and Anne chatted in the campus café, Ashley similarly ripped into Jason.
“You know the guy who played The Fool? His name’s Jason Miller. You could tell just by looking at him he’s a weirdo. He went to my high school, two years ahead of me, never spoke, gave everyone dirty looks. People said he was planning a massacre. That was just talk, but it was a known fact that he stalked this girl, Lisa. She saw him around too many times to be a coincidence. After she caught him outside staring into her window, she told her parents, who called the police. I guess nothing could be proven, but I still say they should have expelled him,” Ashley said.
They all agreed Jason was a creep, except for Irina.
“You was in terrible pain, your soul,” Mirella said, gazing down a card which made Irina shudder: a man lay face down in a pool of blood, swords sticking up from his back. It was hard to imagine even Death was worse.
Back home in Brooklyn for winter break, Irina decided to end it all. She would have done it sooner, but she couldn’t bear the thought of Ashley discovering her body. She would never stop blathering about it. In her fantasy of what college would be like, she would finally start living, make friends, go to parties and, most importantly, find a boyfriend. During the summer, she went on a crash diet and swapped her glasses for contacts. Suddenly, she was pretty. Yet, the intricacies of social interaction continued to elude her. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t make herself look others in the eye. When a conversation happened around her, the words seemed to go by so quickly; before she thought of something to say, everyone had moved on. As the first semester wrapped up, she was forced to accept that she would spend her whole life crazy and alone.
She stopped after one wrist. It was more blood than she expected. The sight of it awakened some survival instinct. She called her mother at work. Her mother called 911. Her mother told the hospital she cut herself while sculpting. She was stitched up, went home the same day. Her mother only addressed the incident once, the next morning.
“I’m so proud of you. You lost all that weight. You’re so pretty now.” Overweight herself, her mother brought up Irina’s weight loss incessantly. “And you’re going to a top college. You’re going to be something, not like me.” Her mother dropped out of school when she got pregnant. After divorcing Irina’s father, she took up with a series of no less worthless men. “We all go through rough patches…” Her mother let the talk end there.
“Dere was so much confusion.” Mirella glanced at a cluster of wand-suited cards. In the images, Irina saw herself frantically trying to change upon arriving back on campus. She eschewed every outfit in her closet, creating a new wardrobe from the local outlets. She got a chic new hairdo in town. She would force that new life into existence, even if she was still too shy to say “hello” to her neighbors in the dorm.
She scoped out a handsome jock in sociology. After all, she looked like a cheerleader now. She shared coy glances with a grungy clerk at the school run grocery. At heart, she was really more of a non-conformist. She watched her oil painting professor intently during class. An older man would know how to treat her. She stared at her TA in the same class. Older didn’t have to mean old enough to be her father. She gazed at Jason as he ate in the cafeteria, always alone. He seemed startled at first. He must have been thinking, why him out of everyone? He didn’t realize he was one of many.
She lost her nerve with the others. When the boy in sociology switched his seat to be next to her, she stared ahead at the blackboard the whole time. When Professor McCain invited her to meet in his office to discuss graduate schools, despite her being a freshman, she was a no show. He always seemed embarrassed around her after that. Jason wasn’t so easily deterred.
In truth, she had never been that serious about Jason. He wasn’t conventionally attractive. He had a long nose with a Roman bump. His skin was so pale, it was almost blue. When he watched her, shoulders hunched, with his big, sorrowful eyes, he reminded her of a snow owl perched upon a branch. Since he saw her with Ashley and the others, he had to have noticed she never spoke. Evidently, he didn’t mind. At least he seemed to accept her. She cast a wide net. He just made it, briefly.
One day, she decided she was done with him. She set her sights on a new prospect, Kyle. She overheard his friend speak his name. Jason was two tables away from her, by the dessert cart. She managed to grab a bowl of Jello without letting her eyes once rove in his direction.
“I think Jason Miller is stalking Irina,” Ashley whispered, throwing a pointed glance over at Jason. Irina felt mortified. It was Ashley’s fault that Jason always knew when they would be there. Ashley had a touch of OCD. She insisted on eating at seven every evening.
“Looks like you finally have a boyfriend. Isn’t that what you wanted, dressing up like Carrie Bradshaw? Too bad you landed a psycho,” Ashley teased. From the conspiratorial glances around the table, it was obvious they had all been gossiping about Irina’s recent transformation.
Irina shot Jason a rueful glance. He had become an annoyance, if only for providing Ashley with new fodder. After they left, she decided she had to stop being fickle. She would focus on one boy, Kyle. They would fall in love, get married, have children and, God-willing, never divorce. The only way she could think of to show Kyle how serious she was was to stare at him blatantly throughout the whole meal.
“Why do you keep staring over my shoulder? You’re freaking me out. It’s like you have autism.” Ashley put an end to Irina’s plan after only a few minutes. Not only was Irina afraid to look at Kyle, she was afraid to look anywhere, having neglected to take note of Jason’s location.
If Ashley hadn’t asked for a tea, Irina wouldn’t have moved. She had a vocabulary of about ten phrases: “Get it yourself,” wasn’t one of them. She fixed her eyes straight ahead until she made it to the buffet. On her way back, a pale face suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Grinning at her, Jason leaned back in his chair at such an impossible angle, he seemed sure to fall. At once, he snapped himself back to the table. Luckily, no one else caught Jason’s feat.
“What’s so funny?” Ashley asked.
“Nothing,” Irina barely managed to blurt out through her giggles.
“He was a good soul…unbalanced.” Mirella tapped a young, black-haired man called the Knight of Swords. Specifically, she tapped his helmeted, unbalanced mind. Was that Jason? It did seem to capture something of him, a kind of determination. “But so were you.”
She couldn’t wait to see what Jason would do next. It was fun, like a secret game between them. Now it was her move. Before dinner, she put on her best dress. She spent a good half hour on her makeup. Ashley asked if she was running for prom queen. Only Jason would know it was for him. Yet, when he saw her waiting on the buffet line, he didn’t seem impressed. He stared at her with frightening intensity. He clearly expected something from her, though she couldn’t say what. The instant she took her spot beside Ashley, he devoured his meal like an animal. Wiping his mouth, he stood up and stormed out, all in under a minute. Everyone in the cafeteria seemed to turn as he slammed the door behind him.
“Nutcase,” Ashley muttered.
After that, Irina figured out what he wanted. The next day, it took her a few minutes to spot him. He was at the opposite end of the cafeteria, as far away from her as he could get without being outside. At once, she stood. As she walked, she stared at her cup of water sloshing around wildly in her shaking hand. She put all of her concentration on not dropping it. Miraculously, both she and the cup made it. When she raised her eyes, Jason smiled amiably, as if they were old friends.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hi!” she spouted. He pulled over a chair from an adjacent table. She sat.
“My name’s Jason. It’s nice to meet you. What’s your name?” he asked.
“Irina.” She was thrown off by how he pretended he hadn’t been watching her, following her for a month. Momentarily, she panicked that it had all been in her head. She assured herself that wasn’t so. She remembered Ashley had noticed too.
“I know Ashley. She went to your high school,” she said.
“Oh, Ashley.” He gave a wince.
“She said you were kind of weird,” she laughed. She meant it as a joke. She knew how he loved to joke around.
“She did?” he frowned, looking hurt.
“I saw you as The Fool in King Lear. You looked so weird! That was when Ashley said you were weird.” As she tried to explain, her gesticulating hand knocked over her cup, spilling water onto the table and Jason’s lap. Before Jason could stand up, she darted away. If her purse, with her key, hadn’t been back at the table, she would have gone straight to the dorm. Her thoughts were already turning to the X-Acto knife in her art bin.
“Where’d you go?” Ashley asked. Apparently, Ashley hadn’t seen her. The others seemed equally oblivious.
“Nowhere,” Irina said. Ashley shrugged. Everything went back to the way it was. Only, the way it was, life was utter hell. The way it was, it was only a matter of time before she slashed down both wrists, too quickly for the blood to put her off.
As Mirella lay down The Lovers, Irina sighed. She could pinpoint the exact moment when she fell in love with Jason. It was as she stood midway down the buffet line. Of course, she realized it only in retrospect. Otherwise, her whole life might have been different.
After dinner, she seemed to calm down. Suicide could wait, at least for the few weeks until spring break. Still, there was no way she could face Jason again. At five to seven, she told Ashley she wasn’t hungry. From Ashley’s expression, one would think Irina had murdered someone. Forty minutes later, she went down alone.
She was dressing her salad when Jason appeared at the end of the buffet line by the soda fountain. He stared at her with a solemn expression, no cup in his hand. He was letting her know not to be afraid of him, or embarrassed. Perceiving that she saw him, he walked back. As she filled her cup with water, she spotted him seated by the window. Approaching him this time, her hands didn’t shake at all.
“Can I sit here?” she asked. He turned to her. From his pleasantly surprised smile, no one would have guessed he had silently summoned her. She noticed he was finished. Even his ice cream bowl was licked clean.
“Please,” he said.
“I really liked you as The Fool,” she said. After yesterday, she learned it was best to start with a compliment.
“I didn’t look too weird?” he asked. She shook her head adamantly, no.
“You stole all your scenes,” she gushed. His sneer shifted into a grin.
“In those times, jesters could get away with saying anything because people assumed they were daft in the head. So I imagined this guy, a cynical, broken man, whose need to comment on others’ stupidity was so great that it was worth going through life pretending to be mad. That’s how I played it.” The thought he put into the role was impressive. Yet, she also sensed he was describing himself, a comedian who was at his core deeply bitter.
“Weird,” she said.
“What do you like to do, besides call people weird?” he asked. Cringing, she made a mental note to never use that word again.
“I’m an artist.” She wished he could see her pieces. She excelled in every medium. Her art was as magnificent as her words were inept.
“Like drawing?” He seemed to find it quaint.
“I like painting and sculpting too, and printmaking…” she said. He nodded interestedly, but she could tell he wasn’t interested.
“I got into acting to be less shy. I used to be a lot different. Back when Ashley knew me, I was weird,” he explained. Irina sighed. Apparently, he was never going to get over that. She just met him, and already they seemed to have a tumultuous past. She was feeling inclined to move on, start fresh with someone else.
“I acted strange around people. I was angry all the time. I had no friends,” he said. Luckily, she had learned enough not to point out he didn’t seem all that different now. Stalking her around the cafeteria wasn’t exactly normal. His temper was on full display yesterday. He was alone every time she saw him.
“I’m sure you were nice.” Though she saw no future between them, she could tell he had a good heart. No matter how much the rest of him supposedly changed, she doubted that had.
“Maybe,” he shrugged. “You’re not going to eat?” He glanced at her untouched plate.
Apprehensively, she grabbed her fork. She was concentrating so hard on not saying the wrong thing that she wasn’t sure if she could juggle eating too. Oddly, Jason seemed to grasp her dilemma.
“It was great talking to you, but I’ve got to get back and memorize some lines.” He stood.
“Me too,” she said, stabbing her fork into her salad.
“You have lines to memorize too?” he asked. She frowned. She really was hopeless.
“I’m kidding. Good luck with your art,” he said. Leaning forward, he made a goofy face to let her know that, jokes aside, he was proud of her. He leaned back once she started to giggle.
“Keep it up, okay?” Though he might have been referring to her art, she thought he really meant opening her mouth.
“I will,” she promised.
He smiled, but his eyes held only pity. It hurt her. She resolved, starting now she wouldn’t be shy at all. He had shown her the secret: talk about anything, except what you know you shouldn’t. In no time, she would have a boyfriend who never even knew the old, pitiful Irina existed. Before he walked out, he turned around to give her one last wave.
“Dere was a few men over de years. None maddered to you like dis one.” Mirella waved her hand dismissively over a cluster of male figures, each gripping a staff or sword.
Emboldened by her encounter with Jason, that very weekend she went to a frat party alone. She conversed with several people. Not one seemed to think she was crazy. She made it a point of going out every Saturday night. Her social skills improved each time. By May, she had danced with two different boys.
Jason didn’t go to parties, at least not the ones she went to. She passed him occasionally on campus. She always said hi. Sometimes, she remarked on the news or the weather to impress him with her progress. Puzzlingly, it was now Jason who seemed nervous, averting his eyes from her, even stuttering. She could only think he was afraid she would call him weird again.
During finals week, there were parties every night. Since half her classes were art, she was especially free to indulge in the revelry. At some point, usually around the third drink, she grew positively loquacious. Following a boy she met at one house party to another, Kyle stole her away moments after she walked through the door. He had been dying to talk to her for months, he said.
They ended up having sex in a room that wasn’t hers or Kyle’s. As soon as he shut the door, terror seized her. Feeling as if she had no choice, she let him do what he wanted. She felt like clawing, scratching and kicking to get him off her. Instead, she lay mute and still until it was over. As she put her clothes back on, Kyle clarified this was a one-time thing. He had a girlfriend at Brown. Still, it was fun. She hardly heard him. She was just trying not to break down. She knew, her body knew, this wasn’t her first time.
“I see a dark revelation. You turned to someone for help: a woman. She manipulated you. She made promises, but could not keep dem,” Mirella pronounced. Unable to suppress her smirk, Irina coughed into her hand.
As if dislodged from the recesses of her mind, memories of herself and Andrei, her mother’s ex-boyfriend, came to her. Andrei gazed at her in a way that seemed inappropriate. Andrei pulled her by her hand somewhere she didn’t want to go. Andrei lifted her shirt over her head. Andrei lied to her mother about where they had been. A part of her still blocked out the worst of it. For that, she supposed she was grateful.
She took many showers a day, crying as the water ran over her. She barely ate. She felt exhausted, but hardly slept. Back in Brooklyn, it was the same. Her whole life finally made sense. She knew why she was crazy, and that it wasn’t her fault. Still, there was no solace to be found in an answer so heinous.
One day, she decided to force herself to paint. Heading into Manhattan for supplies, she missed two stops on the subway. Her head was in such a daze; she hoped the walk might clear it.
“Come!” Mirella beckoned from the hallway of her Fortieth Street walkup, a table and an empty chair before her.
“Yes, I was deceived by a very shrewd woman,” Irina said. Mirella nodded sympathetically, surely calculating what angle to play.
“She only pretended to care about you,” Mirella said.
“I remembered an evil done to me in my childhood. When I turned to her I was desperate,” Irina said.
“Your mother,” Mirella said. Irina shook her head, no.
“She told me, no matter how dark my past was, my future was bright. I would be a successful artist. I would find true love. In fact, it was right there in front of my eyes,” Irina recounted.
“A wicked lesbian! She wanted you, but you loved dis boy,” Mirella ventured.
“She described him to a tee: tall, dark-haired, a loner. She even knew his initials. She said his past was as horrible as mine, and that we had both been hurt in the same way. Recognizing my pain, he tried to help me. It touched me. My whole life, people just let me suffer, thought I was crazy. ‘He’ll love you,’ she promised. ‘He already does.’” Her tears flowed, not just for Jason, but for that beautiful, broken promise of love.
“Let me bring you a Kleenex from inside.” Mirella stood.
“Don’t you go anywhere!” Irina snapped. Sighing, Mirella sat back down.
“‘Oh, but I see negativity surrounding you. Fate brought you here today, so that you can be with your soulmate like you’re meant to. Do you know about candles? Crystals? Cleansing baths?’ I came back every week, each time shelling out for another piece of junk. I did everything you said. But in the fall, Jason was gone.” Scowling, Irina recalled her anguish at not finding him upon her return to campus. He wasn’t in the cafeteria, eating alone. He wasn’t in the theater productions. She attended the first four hoping to spot him onstage. He was still listed in the school directory. Finally, in a fit of despair, she knocked on the door that was supposed to be his: “Yeah, my roommate never showed up. Got the place to myself ‘til January.”
Jason never gave her his phone number. With such a common name, Google was useless. One night, by chance he was there on her dorm lounge TV, bringing Zach Braff a stiff drink. IMDB confirmed it was him, “Tall Bar-back.” Any resentment she felt was overwhelmed by relief: at least he was alive.
“Now he’s dead!” Standing up, she pointed at Mirella accusingly. Mirella calmly placed the cash on the table into her fanny pack.
“Your career is successful, no?” Mirella asked.
“I do okay!” It was true, her career was on an upswing. She struggled for a while. The Williamsburg opening where she met Henri, an art connoisseur, had been her first solo exhibit. She had three this year alone.
“You loved dis man, dis dead one? Even if he wasn’t dere, no one else was in your heart?” Mirella stated. Irina nodded ruefully. She often wished she could forget him. Who could possibly compare to the boy who saved her?
“I promised you would meet again, and you did.” Mirella glanced down at the cards.
“That summer,” Irina conceded.
“See, I did not lie. I just had four children to feed,” Mirella shrugged. It felt like a grudging plea for forgiveness. It wasn’t good enough.
“You made me think lighting some candle would bring us together! Well, it didn’t! I want my money back! All of it!” she shouted. Mirella shook her head, no. She knew Irina wouldn’t attack her. She knew Irina inside out now.
“I’ll offer you one last piece of advice, free of charge,” Mirella said coldly. Irina turned to leave, but Mirella kept talking. “Stop acting like a little girl. Soon, you’ll have one of your own.”
Irina paused, momentarily stunned. She was only six weeks along, not showing at all. She continued walking. So, it would be a girl. She would have to let that sit. Regardless, eighty-five bucks down and late for her meeting, the question which had lured her here remained unanswered. She had wondered for twelve years. It seemed she would wonder forever.
On Christmas Eve, as soon as Henri’s mother, Claudine, served out the slices of bûche de Noël cake, Henri stood. He cast Irina an anxious glance. Claudine was deeply religious. Henri had been fretting about how she would react to her grandchild being conceived out of wedlock. They planned to have the ceremony in France during the spring. By then, she would be waddling down the aisle.
In French, Henri said he had something to announce. Unanimously, the guests glanced at Irina’s ring. The baby part of Henri’s news surprised everyone. His father got up to hug him. “Félicitations à la future maman!” he said to Irina. Henri’s uncle translated. Irina understood anyway. She had taken her Rosetta Stone lessons seriously. Abruptly, all chatter ceased. Claudine started to sob. Henri put his hand on her shoulder. Through her tears, she said she was so relieved. Henri was over forty. Everyone laughed, except Brigitte. She stood.
Brigitte berated Henri, calling him a weak, selfish liar. When Henri’s sister told her to be civil or get out, Brigitte shouted at her, ask Henri about two years ago, ask him about New Year’s Eve. There were whispers and gasps. Irina and Henri had been together for two years and two months. Two months after they met, Henri went back to France alone.
Aware that all eyes were on her, Irina smiled. Several guests smiled back, not wanting her to wonder what was wrong. Henri slumped down with a crestfallen face. Brigitte was yanked into the kitchen by Henri’s sister. She didn’t protest. Even she seemed to realize she had gone too far.
Irina excused herself in English. Once in the bathroom, she vomited up her lovely French dinner. By New Year’s Eve two years ago, Henri had already told her he loved her. She had opened up to him about her traumatic past. He was the first man she had trusted since Jason. She didn’t know how she could go back out there. She didn’t know how she could ever let Henri touch her again. She heard a knock. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door. Nine-year-old Simon stared up at her.
“You sick from baby?” he asked, startling her. She had no idea he knew English.
“Yes,” she blushed, embarrassed that he had heard her retching. She wondered how much of what his mother said he understood. Whatever happened two years ago, she knew not to blame him, even if he was undoubtedly what kept luring Henri back.
“I hate when Maman et Papa Henri are shout,” he said. Technically, it was Brigitte who had done the shouting. Since Henri hadn’t ever once raised his voice to her, she could assume it had always been the case.
“Do you need the restroom?” She refused to get dragged into it.
“Papa Henri will visit when he has his new family?” His young voice quavered with sorrow. Perhaps it was the maternal hormones being secreted by her body, but she felt compelled to comfort him. Noticing that several guests were watching them from the table, she pulled him into the nearest room to give them privacy. It must have belonged to Henri’s sister. Dolls, trophies and stuffed animals littered the shelves.
“He loves you. He talks about you all the time. You’ll always be a part of his life,” she smiled. Simon looked skeptical. He sat down on the bed morosely.
“Why he leave Maman et I?” he asked.
Irina was not prepared to handle that question. She almost felt like assuring him he could have Henri back. But even if she and Henri never made it to 2017, it was apparent that Henri didn’t love Brigitte anymore.
“I don’t know. C’est la vie,” she said.
“Ouais,” he shrugged. To her relief, that answer seemed good enough for him.
“I like here. I don’t want go back to the table,” he muttered.
“We have to,” she frowned, not happy about it either.
“You want we play game?” He glanced at a box on the bookshelf. The moment she saw it, she gasped. She had played once in college. It was her senior year, at a party at her friend, Dana’s sorority. The piece spelled out the words to a lullaby Dana’s deceased grandmother used to sing to her. The strange part was, Dana was watching from the couch. Irina’s partner was Becky.
“You have those in France?” Irina laughed. Misunderstanding, Simon retrieved the dusty box and sat back down. She removed the lettered board and the plastic, arrow-shaped piece. She felt guilty for using Simon like this. Yet, he was eager to play. And she had waited twelve long years for Jason’s explanation. It wasn’t fair that death should excuse him.
“Put all your fingers down on one side, comme ça,” she instructed Simon. As soon as he complied, the piece moved. It was as if something, or someone, had been lying in wait for this moment.
“H-I-Y-A,” it spelled.
“Ouah! You don’t push?” Simon said. She shook her head, no.
“Will a spirit speak with us today?” She remembered she was supposed to begin with that courtesy. Otherwise, it might get offended.
“Too rapide, no understand,” Simon said. The piece was really zooming. Simon didn’t have the proficiency to grasp the meaning. It was better that way.
“Do you know who I want to talk to?” she asked. It went to “Yes.” That answer alone was enough to flood her eyes with tears.
“Is who?” Simon asked.
Frustrated, Simon let go of the piece. He wanted to stop. She needed to continue. Still, it felt wrong to pressure him. She moved one hand over to his side of the piece. She had no idea if this would work.
“Is it you?” She was certain it had been Jason all along. The answers displayed his off-kilter sense of humor. It felt good to talk to him again. She only wished he didn’t have to die for it to happen.
She sighed. Perhaps, it was a mistake to bring it up, dampen their spirits, as it were. But she might never get another chance.
“How could you just forget me?” Finally, she asked her question. Of course, the answer wouldn’t change anything. She had forgiven him long ago. He had still saved her. She just needed to know.
The door creaked. She jumped.
Henri stood in the hall, looking dejected. She knew he could tell she understood what Brigitte said. He didn’t come to talk to her. He needed her to see, in his face, how terrified he was of losing her. Silently, he begged her to return to the table, pretend nothing happened, forgive him. He shut the door.
“Papa Henri!” Simon saw Henri too. He followed him out. She gazed down at the board.
When Jason stood by the soda fountain, he asked her to make a decision: get over her humiliation and sit beside him, or retreat back into her fantasies, where death was her only future. It wasn’t the same choice now, exactly. Jason wasn’t a fantasy; he was a ghost. But real or not, he was gone. The piece slid down to “Goodbye” at the bottom of the board. That was just like Jason, to guide her.
Abandoning her skepticism, Irina knelt before the flickering candle. She had to believe this wasn’t in vain. Somehow, as impossible as it seemed, Jason was with her right now. He could hear her thoughts.
The day you called, I was so ecstatic, though not surprised at all. Mirella assured me. I bought that candle from her. I lit it for an hour each night, like she said to. You were in New York for an audition. You asked to meet me for coffee. You could be at Brighton Beach in an hour. You didn’t explain how you knew my home number or address. I didn’t care anyway.
Hanging up, a strange sensation came over me. I wouldn’t stop smiling. It was joy, and I couldn’t remember the last time I felt it.
“Where are you going?” Mom asked.
“A date!” I said. Since remembering about Andrei, I barely spoke to her. I felt so angry at her. As usual, she was too consumed by her regrets to notice anything was wrong with me. Suddenly, it didn’t matter. Nothing from my past did. She told me to have fun, clearly happy for me.
You had a goatee when I saw you. I hated it. I’m sorry if it showed on my face. It’s just that I’d been imagining this moment every day for a month, picturing you clean-shaven. You said it was for the role you were auditioning for, an off-Broadway play. You read an open call, thought you’d give it a try. You always wanted to visit New York anyway.
Of course, I realized you were here for me as much as for the audition. I even realized if it hadn’t been this audition, you would have found another in New York. I remembered what Ashley said about you being a stalker. Spiteful as Ashley was, she wasn’t a liar. It might explain why you held yourself aloof from me. You wouldn’t meet my eyes. You kept your chair as far from me as possible without banging into someone. After your struggle to grasp appropriate boundaries, you were overly cautious.
I see now, it would have taken a while for you to trust me, and trust yourself around me. Though Mirella convinced me I was ready, I wasn’t. I still had the scar where I’d taken a razor to my wrist. Yet, I loved you for the same reason love was difficult, our wretched pasts. Your alienation, your defensiveness, and even your desolate stare mirrored my own. As you watched me in the cafeteria, you understood the depths and shades of my suffering. Not only that, you became fixated on ending it. And did.
By the time the waitress brought our coffees, you were more at ease. You ridiculed our school. The students were so snotty, you made a game of counting the minutes before they asked what your parents did. You said no one was getting a real education. The professors were too afraid of parents’ complaints to actually teach. Your drama professor only ever gave compliments. One would think it was a class full of Daniel Day-Lewises and Meryl Streeps.
“Man, if one of these auditions comes through, I’m outta there,” you said. I assumed it was just talk. I was hardly even listening. At that moment, our knees grazed. It wasn’t intentional. You had such long legs, and the café was cramped. Our eyes met. Tacitly, we agreed to linger in that position. It was the only time we ever touched, and it was pure bliss. I get flushed even remembering it.
While it was wondrous and exciting, it was also overwhelming. I didn’t ask for a second cup. As you eyed the pastries, I mentioned I wasn’t hungry. I never imagined this would be the last time we met. I believed this was only the beginning. I wished you luck on your audition. You made me promise to show you my art in the fall.
Maybe you never forgot me. You just didn’t realize what you meant to me. It pains me how you died, trying anything to numb yourself. Fame obviously didn’t make you happy. Could I have? Does it matter? We can’t change the past. I doubt we can even change the future. I don’t need you to answer any questions of why. I do need you to hear me now. I will think about you every day. I will keep you in my heart. I will always remember my life is a gift that you gave me.
Irina opened her eyes. Glancing to her left, she realized Claudine was no longer kneeling beside her. Claudine had returned to the pew with Henri and the others. Irina had joined her completely by whim. She was glad she had. When she stood, the heaviness in her heart seemed to lift.
Henri smirked, no doubt wondering what had gotten into her. As they shuffled to the exit, he offered to buy her a cross from the gift shop, now that she found God. They walked along the gorgeous River Siene to the Louvre, where she and Henri split off from the others. No one else would wait the absurdly long line. Her third time visiting, there were still so many rooms she hadn’t seen. They spent hours there, and still left plenty to discover next time. While strolling through the Jardin des Tuileries, they ordered cappuccinos at a quaint outdoor café.
“So what were you praying for?” Henri finally asked. Clearly, it had been on his mind all afternoon.
“Nothing, I have everything,” she said. Although evasive, it was true. The full story was too unbelievable anyway.
“Your family’s Jewish,” he pointed out. He wouldn’t leave it alone.
“Can’t I just be thankful?” she laughed. Stroking Henri’s knee beneath the table, she could feel Jason’s ghost. He wasn’t following her this time. He had led her here.