by Clotilde Dusoulier
She opens the package of pain de mie and sets four slices on the counter. Standing on the tip of her slipper-clad toes, she reaches into the cabinet above the sink and grabs the jar of apricot jam. It is difficult to open as some of the jam has gelled around the rim, but her mother has shown her how to use the pink rubber gloves for a tighter grip, and after a brief struggle the lid surrenders.
She takes a spoon from the flatware drawer, and spreads jam on the bread. She lays the slices on a plate and, on second thought, assembles them into sandwiches, making a smooching sound with her lips. She would like to cut the sandwiches into triangles, but she is not allowed to use the bread knife unsupervised and she knows that a simple knife will make a mess, so she leaves it at that.
In a juice glass, she pours a short gurgle of grenadine. She opens the fridge, retrieves the bottle of milk, and tops off the drink, watching the white swirl into the red until the glass is all pink-filled and pretty.
Opening the fridge again, she plucks a round of cheese from the plastic net that holds it and its siblings, removes the plastic wrapper, and peels off the bright red wax. She sets the pallid cheese on a saucer, and squeezes the wax into a ball. Warming it up between her palms, she kneads it, and shapes it into five claws that she presses on her left fingernails. She flexes her hand in a menacing way and smiles, enjoying the weighty waxy feel on the tips of her fingers.
Using her left hand sparingly so as not to damage her new accessories, she sets the plate, glass, and saucer on a small tray. She lifts it cautiously, wishing the glass wasn't so full, and walks down the corridor to the closed door. She puts the tray on the carpet, turns the handle as slowly as she can but it creaks anyway, and enters the room.
In the dim light that seeps in through the shutters, she clears the pile of comic books from the nightstand, goes back to collect the tray, and sets it down but five inches from her brother's sleeping face. He stirs, she freezes, but he just mumbles something that seems to involve a backpack and a missing notebook, and rolls over to the other side. She watches him for a minute and returns to her room, where she plays witch, flying on the miniature broom from the kitchen.
She walks down the staircase and steps into the kitchen, where she is greeted by the eldest daughter of the house. Her throat feels sore -- she is not used to sleeping in an air-conditioned room -- and she welcomes the glass of orange juice that is poured from the family-size carton.
The other girl is tall, slender-limbed, and blonder than anyone she's ever met in person. Although they are roughly the same age, she herself looks like the kid sister, a fact all too well illustrated by their respective choice of nightwear -- lace vs. bunnies. She should have brought something more sensible.
Both parents are out -- she has been offered to call them Mom and Dad for the duration of her stay, but has for now formulated her sentences so as not to call them anything -- and the girl is eating cold pizza straight from the cardboard boxes that they picked up on their way home from the airport the night before, the whole family piled up in the minivan, sharing the space with a cooler filled with unknown brands of soda.
She hides her distaste at this choice of breakfast. Thankfully, the girl shows her through a swinging door into a storage room, opens an enormous freezer chest that would put her local supermarket to shame, and announces the alternative options like so many plats du jour. In the dizzying array of offerings, the waffles win the ticket.
Two frosty rounds are retrieved from the package and slipped into the silver toaster, from which they pop up with a metallic clang a minute later, golden and crisp. The girl produces a plate, a fork, and more importantly, a brown squeeze bottle from the door of the fridge. They sit side by side so they both face the miniature television set on the kitchen counter. One resumes her cheesy dough chewing, as the other drizzles chocolate syrup liberally on her waffles, marveling privately at this extraordinary country where both dinner and dessert can find their place at the breakfast table.
She opens her eyes to find that her legs are entwined in sheets that she does not recognize, and do not match the pillowcases either. The bed is empty, but she hears the sound of a shower running. She gets up and puts on the boy's shirt. She has seen this done in movies and always thought it looked sexy, but now she realizes that the camera fails to translate the rank smell of yesterday's smokes. She combs her fingers through her hair and steps out bravely.
She walks into the kitchen, cringes when she senses some grainy substance (bread crumbs? cat litter?) under her feet, and sets out to make coffee. She opens the cabinet above the coffee maker and, after a bit of rummaging, finds filters and a tin of supermarket-brand coffee.
The boy emerges from the bathroom, as fresh and groomed as she feels untidy and tousled. He thanks her for the coffee, but does not kiss or touch her. He sets two bowls on the Formica table, picks up a box of kiddie cereal from a shelf, and a carton of milk from the fridge. There isn't quite enough milk for two, the cereal feels brittle in her mouth, and suddenly a pang of homesickness tightens her throat. She tries to turn her mind away from her own pretty kitchen or the goldfish that must be getting hungry.
She will finish the bowl and the mug, and wait just long enough not to seem like she's fleeing. She will change back into her clothes and, after a polite exchange of phone numbers, she will walk out into the clear morning and look for a decent boulangerie.
She left the apartment so early to catch the train that there was no time for breakfast, and the symptoms of low blood sugar haven't taken long to appear. Her fingers are trembling, her stomach feels like it's either going to sink or fly away, and she keeps having fantasies of broken ankles and minor train wrecks -- anything that will bail her out of the day ahead.
Uncomfortable in her seat by the window and worried about the possibility of creases in her suit, she apologizes to the man sitting next to her, and motions her hand to signify that she would like to get up. The man removes his earplugs, closes his laptop, claps the tray table upright with rather more force than necessary, and steps aside into the aisle so she can extract herself.
She bumps her head on the luggage shelf and wobbles her way across the train in search of the buffet car, holding on to the back of the seats for balance. All is quiet save for the rumble of the wheels; the passengers are either sleeping in unflattering positions, or intent on finishing up their slideshow presentations.
By the time she reaches the buffet, a line has formed in front of the counter, where a handsome attendant greets each one of his customers in the same singsong voice. When it is her turn she tries to match his buoyancy, and orders a black coffee -- no milk no sugar thank you -- and an overpriced croissant.
She finds a stool in a corner, takes a sip and a bite, bending carefully over the narrow table so no harm will befall her shirt, and already things are looking up. The croissant is nothing extraordinary -- she suspects it is a croissant ordinaire, made with margarine instead of butter -- but it certainly hits the spot. She digs into her purse for her pocket mirror, checks her teeth quickly for any stray flake of pastry, and returns to her seat, bracing herself for the irritation of her appointed traveling companion.
If she keeps her head still and her spine straight, she can just about contain the inner wave. She tries to think of something odorless and motionless to concentrate on, but unwelcome images of grilled steaks and rocking chairs keep presenting themselves behind her closed eyelids.
Her husband steps in and sits by her side, handing her a small plate with a freshly peeled hard-boiled egg sliced in two. She pulls herself up and wills herself to eat the egg. She has always hated the deadness of hard-boiled eggs and consistently picked them out of every sandwich she has ever eaten in her life, but this seems to be the only thing that can vanquish these morning episodes -- a tip shared by her sister, who has been through this twice before.
After a minute she feels better, at least well enough that she can get up, get dressed, and get ready for work. She hasn't told anyone at her office but, although she feels sure it doesn't show yet, two of her female coworkers have already dropped subtle remarks, not unkindly she might add. But she has only recently started this job, so the timing could be better.
She wraps up the second egg that her husband has peeled -- he is getting quite dexterous -- and slips it into her handbag for safety, should a new spell seize her during her metro ride.
A breeze is picking up and she closes her eyes, offering her face to the faint sunlight and filling her lungs with the cleansing, salt-loaded air. She chose this table on her first morning here because it is isolated and clearly offers the best view, and since she is an early bird, she has been able to sit here at every subsequent breakfast, long before the other vacationers could come down and claim what she has now come to think of as her table.
This getaway is costing her a small fortune -- although it is still early in the season, the rates are much higher than she would normally spend on herself -- but she really needed this. The calm, the embroidered pillow cases, the china, and the miniature jars of jam that come with the brioche.
She sips on her tea, winces at its strength, and surveys the long strip of beach. In a few weeks it will be filled with posh crowds, shrieking children, and sunbathers who have shed the tops of their designer swimsuits the better to damage the skin of their breasts, but for now it is almost empty, and will remain so throughout the day.
Later she will walk down to the pier with her journal and her book, and sit on the bench that faces the waves.
Before that, she will debate with herself whether or not to call home, but she will remember the conversation and lack the courage. She picks up the cartoonishly large key, leaves the remnants of her breakfast for others to clear, and walks back inside, her sandals clap-clapping on the terrace.
The whole grandmother thing does not come naturally to her. Her resources of patience and imagination have dwindled, and she often finds herself searching desperately through her mind for memories of how she kept her children entertained.
Both boys are sweet, she won't let anyone say otherwise, but they appeared in her life when they were already past the toddler age, flown in from a country where their life conditions were too miserable to dwell on. And somehow this missing chunk of their childhood makes her feel intimidated, and guilty for having had such an easy life yet still found creative reasons to complain about it.
More to the point is this: although she respects her daughter's choice not to have children from her own womb but rather to adopt them -- everybody seems to agree that this is a noble thing to do -- she can't help but take it personally, a thinly veiled dismissal of the job she did as a mother.
But she is determined not to let this taint her relationship with the children. So she tries really hard, welcomes the kids into her house whenever it is convenient for her daughter, and dutifully cooks grandmotherly dishes for them, such as the pain perdu she is preparing now.
The split slices of yesterday's baguette are soaking in the egg batter and she has set the skillet and a dab of butter on the unlit stove. All is ready for her to brown the bread when the kids come down, their eyes crusted with sleep and their matching pajamas ruffled.