The van in the driveway is full and the movers are standing in the hall, waiting for my approval to leave. I eye the lone box in the middle of the expanse of carpet. “Just throw that on and you’re set,” I say, anxious to be done with this place I’d kept for six long years alone, waiting for the children to grow up.”
“Just don’t,” my friend says and walks out to the truck with the two men in muscle shirts and back braces.
“Why did you do that?” I ask when he returns. I know he will have his reasons.
“You said you want to travel lighter. You’ve been throwing things out for weeks. But this,” he taps the battered and taped old-fashioned hatbox with the toe of his boot, “it’s still sealed from the last time you moved.”
“It’s not something I want to think about. Besides, it makes me itch.”
“Yet you won’t throw it away.” He takes out a pocket knife, and I feel sick below my belly button as I hear the tape slashed open. I squeeze shut my eyes and turn away.
There is a shop at the end of a tiny alley off a narrow stone street where the buildings seem almost to arch like protection over the storefronts below. We are in front of a large plate-glass window, shaded by a tattered green and blue awning, the old fashioned kind, with a crank. The intermittent noon sun through the water-colored stripes casts an undersea glow inside. Not jewels, like Tiffany’s, but rows of bottles, stacked from sill to the top of the pane; dusty and many-hued—aqua, teal, sea-foam old coke bottles, an occasional brown, murky pearlescent white. We become small and hidden inside, behind the towers of glass. They muffle the sound of faint music, a melancholy accordion, and I strain to listen, to learn where I am. Floor-to-ceiling shelves hold myriad boxes, crammed, stacked, sideways, filling every inch of space, exuding a musty odor. Wordlessly, my friend hands me a tissue. An ancient oriental apothecary cabinet stands behind the counter, dragon designs on each of the dozens of drawers. Tiny atomizers, like tear drops, like jewels, scatter across the counter, awaiting some purpose. One wall holds an assortment, in rainbow order, of buttons. And there are rows of fabric: satin, brocades, and lace, on low tables, the bolts standing elbow to elbow like soldiers wedged together for balance, cut edges pulled forward, turned at an angle to expose their design.
There is a tinkle of bells as the door opens and someone comes in. He studies the window, casting its bottle-glow into the shop, does not see us, but my shoulders tense anyway. He unfolds a piece of paper in his hand and reads, “675 Rue Saint Jacques.” I’ve known the tweed coat and the brown gloves and deep voice all of my life, and realize it’s February, years ago, and this is France.
“Bon-jour?” His accent shouts American. “Je suis looking for le material.”
“Pardonne?” comes a raspy voice from behind a curtain that covers an opening beside the counter with its bottle project in progress. A tiny, stooped man with round, thick glasses pushed to the tip of his nose, sticks his head through, and the rustling of the curtain sends thousands of tiny specks into the sunbeam that comes from over my shoulder and into the store. Tiny worlds that hang and float on the path to the heavens.
“Je need to buy le lace.”
The apothecary, druggist, shop owner, magician’s apprentice, whomever he is, just stares.
We watch, enchanted, as the shopper begins a monologue in English, hand motions and ‘le’ and ‘la’, which seem to be his only French. He holds out his left hand and twirls his wedding band.
Then he signals from his head down to a height a head shorter and in that space, with both hands, shapes a womanly figure. “My daughter,” he points to the shape in the air. Then to his ring, and again to her.
The shopkeeper shakes his head.
The shopper then puts his hands to his own head and makes draping motions. “La girl needs le veil.”
The old man pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose, looking intently at his customer with still no understanding.
The foreigner repeats the whole sequence, a little louder, a little more slowly, pulling his ring from his finger, giving it to the girl made-of-air, when suddenly he has the idea to mime her taking his elbow, processing down an aisle. He is still pointing to where her head might be, and he raises an imaginary veil on the bride.
“Ah, oui, monsieur!” shouts the old store owner, with glee, and he shepherds his mime to the bolts of fabric and unrolls several, displaying intricate patterns, heavy designs.
They point to different rolls, lay lace across open palms to view color and weave; finally selecting a silver-white with a floral design throughout and a border two inches deep.
“How much?” The shop keeper motions for a measurement.
His customer is stumped this time, but the store owner makes a guess, cuts off a long length of lace, folds and wraps it in blue tissue and then in sturdy brown paper.
The father watches each movement, nodding with pleasure at his selection, at this surprise he has squeezed in between meetings on a grueling business trip, knowing that when this adventure is told, they will all laugh many times about the challenge of his inept French, while he, each time, will swallow with painful respect the thought that his daughter might have picked the wrong man.
Gently my companion turns me by the elbow back toward him. His gaze is steady. “Instead of keeping it boxed up, think about your life in a different way. No mistakes, no irredeemable wrong turns. Delays and detours, maybe, but so what? Nothing can ever diminish all the good in that scene.” He squats to pull from the box the old lace, still silvery and dense with the detail of flowers I thought I’d forgotten, and shaking free the dust particles of a finally obsolete hurt, makes it billow and float over my shoulders the way morning sun raises a mist.
Genevieve Fitzgerald was born in Queens, New York, read English for a year at Oxford University, is the mother of three children and currently lives in Raleigh, NC, where she is the facilitator of a writers’ group and a writing workshop for children. She has poetry and prose published in several journals, and is the 2nd prize winner in the 2011 North Carolina Poetry Society’s Poetry of Courage competition.