By Tom Baragwanath
It was the kind of coincidence that really tested Dom’s agnosticism.
He’d spent the afternoon working on a song about ex-lovers meeting by chance in a foreign city, about the wind blowing leaves across the Seine. Or maybe the Liffey; his neighbour came home with her baby before he could get the syllables sounding right. He was at the window listening to the street when her email appeared. Jennifer Mason. Subject: Still in Paris?? At the sight of her double question marks, his heart gave a twist. By the time he remembered his coffee it was long cold.
Still distracted, he knocked his guitar into a guy hawking books on the way out of his building, stooping to offer a cigarette by way of apology. In Buttes Chaumont, spring was unfurling, anointing the trees with smudges of cream and purple. Couples dotted the grass, reading next to their dogs; a hip-hop beat pulsed over a grassy rise, sounding far away. Outside the bar at the far edge of the park, people gathered around carafes of icy wine, their voices mixing in a warm press of sound. He asked the barman when he should start his set.
“Whenever you like.” The guy shrugged towards the stage in the corner. He always used English when Dom came in.
Dom kept his eyes on the door as he played. He forgot a few lines here and there, but no one seemed to notice much. After eight or nine songs the barman nodded for him to finish, and the house music came on. A shock of apricot hair came through the door.
“Shit, I’m sorry.” Heidi kissed him. “The meeting went on and on.”
“No worries,” he smiled. “Let me do the rounds and we can head home.”
“You don’t want a beer?”
He shrugged for yes; a drink would probably help. A few hands dropped coins into his hat, and some suits at the back slid him a five. Heidi found them a table, shouldering past a girl in dungarees staring after her with practiced disdain.
“How’d you get on?”
“Tried a couple new ones, seemed to go over okay. How was work?”
“Fine, other than Martin loving the sound of his own voice. Christ, that guy can go on.”
Dom sipped at his beer, feeling words slide around in his mouth.
“So, I had an email this afternoon.” He wiped at his lips. “From Jenny.”
“Your Jenny? The painter?”
He nodded. “She’s taking a trip over this way. Spain first, then she’s coming through here for a couple of nights.”
“That’s cool,” said Heidi. “We can show her around.”
“Actually,” he stared into his hands. “I mentioned we had a spare room.”
“Yeah?” She picked up her beer. “Well, then. I guess it’s settled.”
“So long as you’re cool with it, I mean. That’s what I meant to say.”
Heidi shrugged with her mouth, a local habit. “It’s been years, right?”
“Ages.” The word came a little too quickly. “Still, I could always make an excuse. She might have booked somewhere already, I don’t know.”
“It’s fine, Dom. I’m interested to meet her, actually.”
The barman came by with some peanuts in a dish, his eyes lingering on Heidi. They finished their drinks and got ready to leave.
The move over had been Heidi’s idea; that much was obvious to anyone. Towards the end of a long Wellington winter, an old manager of hers got in touch about a job in clean energy policy in Paris. Her government work was getting to be a bore, and Dom was approaching his third year of working construction after graduating with his music degree. Soon they were boarding the plane, waving to their two sets of family clustered awkwardly behind the glass.
Upon arriving, Dom found some work as a private English tutor, using the rest of his time to work on his music. He had a little over a dozen songs, including a few demos he’d managed to get played on the student stations back home. He splashed some savings on a recording microphone and got to work.
The first few months had been productive; the descent into winter gave him a good reason to hole up in their apartment and work. His tutoring took him out into the city at regular intervals, and with his efforts at learning the language there was more than enough to keep him occupied.
As they came to the end of the winter, though, he noticed his energy falling away. New songs no longer came as easily as before, and when he did hit on something good it mostly turned out to be unconsciously cribbed from elsewhere. He even tried the whole Brian Eno thing, pulling out phrases from a coffee can, but the results had been embarrassing. He thought about looking for serious work, but Heidi encouraged him to stay focused. Her job covered the basics, she said; he just had to stick at it.
On the day of Jenny’s arrival, Heidi had an early meeting at work. Dom put fresh sheets on the spare bed, and even swept behind the couches. He’d sent Jenny detailed directions from Charles de Gaulle; she’d always been useless with navigating. He changed into fresh clothes and sat noodling on his guitar. By eleven-thirty he was starting to wonder whether something had happened. He was about to call her when he heard exploratory footsteps coming up the stairwell. He found her in the hall, squinting at the neighbour’s door.
“Jesus!” She spun around, lifting a hand to her chest. “You scared me!”
Dom took her in. She’d lost weight, and looked lean and rested. She hugged him, her hands settling across his shoulders in their old way.
“You’re looking well, Jen.”
She gave him a playful poke in the belly. “What’s happening here, eh?”
He laughed. It was true; swapping the construction site for daily pastries had done him zero favours.
“You know we’re in croissant country, right?”
“Apparently,” she smiled.
He reached for her suitcase. “Your room’s just through here. It’s a little on the small side, but that’s the norm over here.”
“It’s great, really.” She cast her eyes over the lounge. “You’re so kind to have me. Both of you.” She paused at his guitar; his notebook was still open on the table. “The songs coming along okay?”
“Sort of.” He started on the coffee. “How’d you get on with the trains?”
Jenny slid off her shoes and arched her feet over the rug, coaxing a series of dusty clicks from her toes. Dom felt countless memories of the habit collapse into a single rush of recognition.
“It was amazing,” she said. “Everything is so efficient over here.”
He set a plate of pastries on the table and flicked through his phone for some music, staying away from Bowie and the Stones. He couldn’t risk anything too nostalgic, not this early. She bit into a croissant.
“Man, that is good.”
“You see?” He patted at his belly. “It’s a dilemma.”
She laughed. “I was just giving you shit, Dom.”
Behind him, the coffee boiled, throwing steam against the wall. He gave her plenty of milk, and half a sugar like she liked. “Congrats on the exhibition, by the way.” He handed her the mug. “I saw the photos online, it looked fantastic.”
He meant it: her canvasses were like nothing he had seen before. They seemed less like paintings and more like fissures in the world’s fabric, channeling vibrant washes of colour: woozy yellows and reds, copper greens, deep blues. In the wrong hands it would have looked amateurish, but she had pulled it off: the gallery website listed all of the pieces as sold. He was happy to see her doing so well, and yet, a gnawing jealousy worked at him. Here was a clear endorsement, an unequivocal stamp of her value. All he had to show for himself were a few generous reviews in the magazines back home and wine-soaked applause on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“Thanks.” She took the mug. “It went pretty well, actually. Even put enough in the bank for a trip, so, here I am.”
A motorcycle sped past outside, echoing up into the street; the wind played gently against the curtains. She took another bite of her croissant, her eyes lingering on him in two warm points of light.
“I like the new look,” she said. “Short hair suits you.”
He ran a hand self-consciously over the side of his head. “Yeah?”
She nodded. He reached for something to say.
“How are your mum and dad?”
“They’re good,” she said. “Dad still plays bass with the guys most weeks, and mum is still doing some long hours.”
“Is she still at the hospital in Kāpiti?
A flicker of hesitation moved over Jenny’s face. “Yep, that’s the one.” She pressed her mouth into a smile. “They’re loving being grandparents. Chris’s second came along a few months back.”
“His second kid? Holy shit. So you’re aunt Jenny, huh?”
“Man. In my mind he’s still a teenager.” He drained his coffee.
“Listen, did you want to head out for a bit? I thought I might show you the neighbourhood.”
“For sure.” She set down her mug. “Let me just get changed. It was colder in Barcelona, somehow.”
He carried their plates to the bench. Through a pause in the music he heard the bedsprings take her weight, then clicks of static as she rolled off her stockings. She emerged in a yellow dress, her hair down around her shoulders. He fought the urge to tell her how great she looked.
It was strange to be walking next to her again. He’d forgotten about her fast pace; as soon as they touched the pavement she raced away in enthusiasm, and he had to work hard to keep up. They came past his boulangerie, waving to the aproned guy leaning against the counter. At the top of the hill by the metro, they stopped to look out over the city, the Eiffel Tower framed between buildings in a vibrating slice of daylight. Some road works were underway at a nearby intersection; a pair of guys leaned against their shovels passing a sweat-beaded can of lager. It wasn’t far to the park.
“It’s beautiful.” Jenny looked up into the trees. “You must come here a lot.”
“I work on songs here sometimes, when the baby next door is sleeping. Heidi’s in the office a lot, so she just has the weekends.”
“That’s a shame.”
The metallic clacks of boules lifted through the air from the edge of the park. At a nearby bench, a ponytailed guy was banging at a beaten guitar, mumbling the lyrics to ‘Heart of Gold’.
As soon as he heard the chords, Dom was carried back to his first night staying at Jenny’s, back in high school. Once he was confident her parents were asleep, he’d arranged his duvet in the semblance of a sleeping body and stepped on cat feet down the hall. He found her waiting wide-eyed in the dark, Harvest playing quietly in the background. It was Dom’s first time, and Neil Young’s melancholy voice made a curious soundtrack for their blunted fumbling. By the time Dom held the crinkling silver square, the song ‘A Man Needs a Maid’ was playing, each brooding line about shadows and broken friendships handing his nerves more of an advantage. The song’s crescendo brought the final straw, the quivering squall of strings and church bells all but obliterating his chances. Things progressed more smoothly after Jenny switched to Steely Dan, but not before a great deal of awkward giggling had passed beneath the covers.
Jenny caught him smiling. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. I was just…no, it doesn’t matter.”
She gestured back to the bench. “Old Neil, eh?”
The scraping footfall of a row of joggers sounded behind them. Dom reached a hand to Jenny’s waist to move her out of the way, her body warm under his palm. She looked into his face, her expression caught between places.
It was a beautiful afternoon. They stopped for a beer at one of the pizza places, watching as the military patrols ambled past. Jenny told him about her plans for the next exhibition, and some work she’d picked up teaching art at a high school. It was the first year she’d been able to get by without waiting tables, she said. Dom asked about her living situation, tracing around the edges of the boyfriend question. She gave nothing away.
They walked down to the canal and over the bridges past the migrant tents, watching a barge being lowered in the canal lock. Afterwards, Dom went home to get ready for his usual Thursday set, and Jenny decided to walk to Place de Vosges. He told her to keep an eye on her handbag, drawing an eye roll.
On the way home, thoughts rushed inside him. In his distraction he stepped through a red light at Goncourt, drawing an angry barrage of scooter horns. Back in the apartment, he stood for a time at the guest room door, seeing Jenny in her room back home, her eyes shining through the dark. He ran through his set list while the coffee brewed, trying to bring his nerves under control.
He arrived at the bar early and ordered a pint. Onstage, a guy he hadn’t seen before was playing eighties covers, Simple Minds and Tears for Fears. He leaned into the microphone, starting into ‘Head Over Heels’.
I wanted to be with you alone
And talk about the weather
Dom felt a hand on his shoulder; it was Jenny, lifting her sunglasses to her forehead. He motioned to the barman for another beer, seeing his eyes move between them.
“You all set?” She glanced at his guitar.
Dom nodded. “Heidi should be here in a bit.” Onstage, the guy thanked the crowd and began packing up his gear.
Dom stepped to the stage. On a whim, he decided on some Neil Young to start, strumming into ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’. Jenny’s eyes shone with recognition. The barman leaned in to speak to her, but she ignored him. At the door, Dom saw the bright sweep of Heidi’s hair, catching her eye and jutting his chin in Jenny’s direction. He read the murmurings of introduction on their lips. Heidi leaned in to Jenny’s cheek, throwing her for a moment.
He watched them as he played; his two loves. It was like seeing two halves of himself, a shifting confluence of old and new. His songs came to him in a new way, the combination of chords fitting together more cleanly than before. His voice came clear and strong, and he managed the tricky notes without any trouble. The crowd responded well; he finished the set to more applause than usual, and ended up with close to thirty euros in his hat. Heidi waved to get his attention and pointed outside, leading Jenny through the door. The barman poured his pint with a wry grin.
Dom found them at a table on the terrace. Heidi stood to kiss him.
“I didn’t realised you’d been working so hard!”
He set his guitar down and slid his cigarettes from his pocket. “Managed a few extra coins for my troubles. Guess I must be doing something right.”
“No more third place in the Rock Quest regionals for you, champ.” Jenny raised her beer.
“I take it you two are introduced?”
“Jenny was just telling me about your day.” Heidi leaned preemptively away from his smoke. Jenny nodded to the package, leaning in for a light.
“Dom even showed me the Amelie bridge.”
“It’s a lot grubbier in real life,” said Heidi. “I suppose the whole city is.”
“Come on.” Dom blew smoke away from them. “It’s not so bad.”
Heidi waved a hand in front of her face. “I guess I’m just getting to the end of the honeymoon period, that’s all.”
The daylight was thinning over the street; lights started to come on in the apartments behind them. High above, a plane hung suspended in the dimming blue, trailing vapour in a string of cotton.
“It’s cool, seeing people reading in bars here,” said Jenny. “I’d be too self-conscious to do that back home.”
“It’s the apartments.” Heidi shrugged. “They’re so small, everyone has to go outside.”
“Well, anyway.” Jenny stubbed out her cigarette. “I think it’s cool.”
Heidi swallowed the last of her pint, staring off down the street.
“One more?” asked Dom.
“I’m good. Think I’ll head home, actually.” Dom began gathering his things. “No, no,” said Heidi. “You guys should stay. You’ve got catching up to do, and I don’t want to be a wet blanket.”
He gazed up at her. “You’re sure?”
“Of course.” She bent down to kiss him, turning to Jenny.
“Hopefully I can get off a little earlier tomorrow. Maybe we could get dinner somewhere?”
“I’d love that.” Jenny smiled. With a last squeeze to Dom’s shoulder, Heidi moved off through the crowd.
“You’re lucky, you know.” Jenny watched her leave. “Not everyone would be so relaxed about an ex coming to stay.”
“I guess not.”
She finished her pint, and Dom lifted his hand for another round. “I was seeing someone back home, you know.” She stared into her hands. “One of the teachers at the school. The head of the English department.”
“Oh yeah?” He tried to sound casual. “Meaning, not anymore?”
She shook her head. “He didn’t want me travelling by myself. He asked me to wait until the holidays so he could come, but that didn’t work for me. It turned into this whole thing.” She slid another cigarette from his pack. “I even told him I’d be staying with an old boyfriend. I guess I was trying to start some shit.”
“And did it work?”
Jenny grinned. “A little too well, actually. He kicked the window out of my Honda. Right outside the art block, in full view of my Friday class.”
“Earned himself a month’s unpaid leave for his troubles.” She shook her head. “Anyway, if the next exhibition goes well I might be able to just work on my own stuff rather than have to teach. I’ll miss the kids, though.”
A waitress set down their beers.
“I’m stoked it’s working out for you, Jen.” He leaned closer. “It’s amazing, what you’ve managed. Your folks must be so happy. Remember how your dad used to show off your stuff in high school? He must be beside himself.”
A tremble moved over Jenny’s face. She tried to smile, before her expression cracked.
“What’s wrong?” Dom lifted a hand to her shoulder. “Shit, what did I say?”
A sob escaped her mouth. Dom reached into his pocket for a napkin.
“He’s been in the hospital.” She wiped at her eye. “Dad, I mean.”
“Why?” He edged his chair closer. “What happened?”
She took a long breath. “He’d been losing weight for months, but I guess we only really noticed at Christmas. Usually he’d put away half a roast on his own, remember?” She blew her nose. “It’s cancer, they’re saying. The stomach.”
Dom pictured her dad’s face, his glowing eyes, always ready to laugh.
“He’s got surgery coming up,” she said. “I didn’t want to take the trip until afterwards, but he insisted. He didn’t want to get in the way.”
“Sounds like him.”
She forced a smile and lifted a hand over Dom’s. “I meant to say something. I just didn’t know how to go into it without getting into a state.”
Some guys at the next table were staring. “How about we take a walk around?” Dom rubbed at her shoulder. “It might make you feel better.”
She nodded, and Dom guided them through the tables and onto the street. Conversation spilled out from the bars, raising a lattice of accents and cadences. They crossed the road and headed for the park.
“How’s your mum been holding up?”
“She calls a lot,” said Jenny. “It can be hard to calm her down.”
They came to the bottom of a set of stairs. A seedpod dropped to the pavement from an overhead branch, cracking into a dusty orange globe at their feet. Dom’s hand went out, and his fingers wrapped around hers.
At the edge of the park, the streetlamps cast their thin lemon light up through the trees. They found an empty bench, looking over the city as the sky turned to night. Feeling her shiver, he lifted his arm across her shoulder, drawing her close. After a moment’s stillness, she let herself cry, her breaths rolling out in waves. He whispered to her, and after a time the sobbing passed. She lifted her face, and he kissed her. It was everything he remembered; her lips were soft under his, her breath warm in his mouth. Even her hair smelled the same, as if the intervening years had been erased. He felt he was returning to himself.
After a time she pulled away, setting her head against his chest. He closed his eyes, and a soft breeze rattled through the leaves around them.
He slid his key quietly into the door, and they stepped inside.
“You have everything you need?”
Jenny nodded, wiping under her eye.
“Sleep tight,” he whispered.
“You too.” She closed her door.
He set down his guitar and sat on the couch for a moment to gather his thoughts. In their room, Heidi lay facing the wall, breathing low. He undressed and climbed into bed. She didn’t stir. He lay staring at the ceiling, the passing traffic throwing bars of light into the room. Through the wall, he heard the bedsprings sigh under Jenny’s body. Heidi’s sleeping shoulder stretched down under the sheets, its milk-white shape like the slope of some foreign terrain.
He woke to a hand on his cheek. Heidi’s face appeared above him.
“Coffee’s on the stove.”
“Mmm-hmm.” He dug his head into the pillow.
“I’ll call when I’m done at work. Shouldn’t be too late, so long as I don’t get stuck with Monsieur Vent-Sac.” She squeezed his shoulder. “Are you okay?”
“I’m sleeping, Heidi.”
“Okay, jeez.” She paused at the mirror. “See you later, grump pants.”
He heard the front door close, and stretched out in bed. Everything moved slowly, the moments passing like cold syrup. Jenny’s footsteps sounded in the hall, and the shower hissed to life. He slipped out of bed and pulled on his jeans and a shirt, then went to the stove to heat the coffee. His hands were shaking. A while later, Jenny emerged inside a towel, steam still curling from her skin.
“Morning.” He smiled. “Coffee?”
“Please.” She held her eyes to the floor.
“I could head out for some pastries if you like?”
“Sure. Let me pull some clothes on and I’ll come down.”
She swung her door shut, not quite closing it. Dom saw her face in the bar again, her eyes winding a shining thread around him as he played. His feet carried him to her door, and his hand pushed it open. She was stepping into her underwear, silhouetted against the curtains. Her skin was poured caramel. He moved behind her and brought a hand to her hip.
“What the fuck?” She spun around, bringing an arm over her chest. Her eyes flashed in surprise; her hand came against his cheek with a sharp report. For a moment everything went white. “What are you doing?”
She grabbed the towel from the bed and covered herself. Dom lifted his fingers to his cheek.
“I…I thought we…”
“Get out, Dom.” A hard look came into her face. “Close the fucking door.”
He stood frozen in place. She lifted a hand into his chest, moving him backwards and shutting the door. He went to the couch, staring into his hands. He heard sharp breaths, followed by zippers being pulled shut. She stepped through the door in yesterday’s dress, trailing her suitcase. Her hair was wet at her shoulders.
“I’m sorry, Jen.” His voice sounded small. “I just thought…”
“I should go.” She folded her arms. “It was a mistake, coming here.”
“What?” He stood up. “What do you mean?”
“I’m sorry about last night. I was upset. Still, it’s no excuse.”
“It wasn’t your fault. We were both…look, why don’t you just sit for a second?”
She exhaled and perched on an armchair, elbows against her knees. “It isn’t fair to her.”
Dom shook his head. “You don’t know what it’s been like, Jen. I don’t even know what I’m doing here.” He looked to the floor, his eyes welling up. “Seeing you, talking to you – it’s made me realise how much I miss home. Not just home, but you, Jen. I want to go home. I want us to…”
“You don’t know shit about what you want, Dom. That was always the problem.” She shook her head, and a laugh escaped her mouth. “You see how tragic this is, right? Here you are, living on her dime, and all it takes is for an ex to show up, and you drop everything? Jesus.” She stood and grabbed her suitcase.
“Wait.” He stood and walked to her. “Just, hang on.”
“You need to sort yourself out.” She stepped to the door. “For her sake.”
He took her by the arm. She stared down at his hand; he let go.
“Where will you go?”
“I’ll figure something out.” She stepped to the top of the stairs.
“Hold on.” She paused. “You know the way, right? The metro is…”
“Jesus, Dom.” She looked back over her shoulder. “I know where I am.”
Her footsteps echoed up the stairwell as she descended. The door to the next apartment opened, and the baby appeared in his carrier, bundled up tight, his eyes two calm black dots. Dom ducked inside and shut the door.
In the guest room, he stripped the bed, stuffing the sheets into an angry ball. The room felt hot, his skin scratching at him like old wool. He squeezed his coffee mug inside his palm, half wiling it to shatter and slice into him. He stood at the bench, its steel surface cool under his trembling hands. The wash of city noise lifted through the window: morning greetings and shouted insults, music and horns from passing cars. In time his heart began to slow.
Deep in his mind, he felt words calling out, arranging themselves into lines. He found his notebook and fell into a chair, his mouth already humming a melody. The pen came against the paper, the letters lining up dutifully; tiny drips from a clear wellspring. He spread ink across the pages, feeling pieces of himself lift to the surface in bright shapes, wanting to be seen.