I stroll down the promenade and onto the bridge. This one is closed to automobiles.
Between its dead-gray embankments, the river glows noon-gold. I’ve seen the river at its source: young, leaping motion-mad. Here, near its mouth, matured into inertia, the river drifts. Over the river, past me this balmy June Sunday, people jog, stroll, power-walk, and bicycle. Dog-walkers discipline the curiosity out of their dogs with smart little leash-tugs. Old couples, combining constitutionals with treat-shopping, have finally found all the time in the world.
The breeze river-cooled, body-warmed runs through my hair. The rankness of strange bodies, cologne-masked, teases, faintly repels, my nostrils. So many possibilities.
A flash of fluorescence. A woman, with a beagle, is running towards me in lycra lime-green. No, not lime-green. Citron. (Astrid taught me: she, who saw all the colours.)
Lady Citron nears me, looks at me, and slows. My heart quickens. She looks away and runs on. I gaze after her, my heart reluctantly resettling. I shake her off, brighten my face, and drift onwards, waiting for someone else to find me.
The world is full of women seeking a project. Let other men chest-thump about skirt-chasing conquests. They don’t know the intoxication of being found.
Two years ago today, Astrid picked me out of just such a crowd.
The flame in her eyes drew me, mothlike.
‘I’m chasing my star, Pleo,’ she announced, hours after we met. ‘Want to live with me while you chase your own?’
‘Yes, please.’ Can you refuse someone who offers to pull you up?
Astrid’s ‘star’ was to become cellist for the Concerts Colonne symphony orchestra. ‘I practise,’ she said, ‘Then I rest, to let my fingers callus. Rinse and repeat. And you, Pleo? What star are you chasing?’
She called your dreams ‘stars’ – but only if you were a true dreamer. She was one: so she fancied she could spot another. I was happy to play along. At first, I thought it was just play.
‘My star is to become our generation’s great character-actor.’
I watched her practising, trying to decide what’s more unlovely: a cello’s figure or its voice. ‘Tell me,’ I asked Astrid, a few weeks after moving in, ‘Why cello?’
‘I loved the piano. But my hands stayed narrow. So the master suggested cello.’ She giggled: as if, in reducing her life history to an accidental rhyme, she’d reduced it to nothing that could obstruct her future.
‘Why not just keep trying piano?’
‘I could, Pleo: but I’d only ever be mediocre at it. The master said the cello is, for me, where greatness likeliest lies. So here we are. March-march.’ Again she laughed at herself. A desperate little non-laugh. I realised she was serious.
I’d always wanted to be a great – something. Perhaps Astrid was the partner I’d been waiting for. So I got busy playing character-actor, acting star-chaser.
The flame in Astrid’s eyes was, I discovered, a spirit implacable. Keeping her working, motion-mad. Keeping her living in the castles in her head: where greatness was everything, where merely existing was nothing.
I like music okay. Astrid played one phrase from a Beethoven sonata – forty-three times, I counted one evening, before running out for air. I’d heard nothing wrong with Iteration#1. She joined me outside. Fingers raw, eyes faraway and placid from dreaming all day. ‘Sorry, Pleo. I know the repetition gets on the nerves. But – practice makes perfect!’ Another little laugh.
It wasn’t the repetition that irked me. It was living with her drive, feigning my own. For that’s all my drive had come to: fakery. Perhaps if she wasn’t so ridiculously driven, or if her drive had found success – that might’ve pulled me up.
I sidled up to her on the balcony, searching her eyes, thinking, as I’d begun to, that I should leave her. But I never could decide whether for her sake or my own. Is it a privilege or a curse to be loved by an obsessive? Don’t tell me it’s both. Both is boring.
Astrid straightened my collar, her hot, rough fingertips barely brushing my throat. ‘Shall we hike to our patisserie? A break will help my music.’
It wasn’t just music that possessed her. So did everything. I was born here, and she only moved here for work: but Paris has become my city through the nightlong jaunts on which she led me. She visited her parents every weekend and travelled cross-country to old friends every month. She wept when their pets died, and celebrated their babies and promotions without any bitterness that she, in her star-chasing, had been left behind in earthly achievements. To chase her star had been her choice; now she accepted the consequences – this, I imagined, explained the curious complacency towards other people that coexisted with her desperate ambition. This complacency I grudgingly admired.
Materially, our lives weren’t hard to accept. We’d both inherited, from aunts, enough to live on for a decade: modestly, with occasional treats.
At the patisserie that evening we encountered her former colleague. He’d just made partner: he invited us to the celebration. ‘And in October you must come to our wedding,’ he added. I glanced at his companion: barely twenty, svelte, pregnant. As the couple strode away towards their big shiny car, I watched Astrid’s face. It softened. She was no weeper: but I thought she’d confess, at last, that she did feel left behind.
‘How little it takes to make the earth-dwellers happy!’ she reflected, scraping the coffee-froth from her almost empty cup. ‘God bless’em.’ With a child’s sincerity, licking her lips, she put away her coffee stirrer. So this was the secret of her complacency: she imagined her star-chasing, successful or not, made her already superior.
On our way home, Astrid halted at the top of a street, mesmerised by the sunset. A cloudless, colourless sunset, occluded by concrete buildings slouching shoulder-to-shoulder. Eyes big and wet, she beseeched me: ‘Isn’t life wonderful?’
She really thought it was. That’s why she had to become wonderful, too: to earn life. Great cellist – or nothing. On her way to her star, she enjoyed sightseeing the earth; but for her, there could be no permanent contentment here.
Astrid’s love for life was the heat I tasted between her breasts. We’d been lovers for months; still, every time, I lingered at foreplay, postponing moving lower. For you may dream as high as you please, but reality unfailingly falls away from under your feet.
The total vulnerability of her all-or-nothing attitude made her a splendid lover. But my addiction to her wasn’t sexual. I kept thinking I should leave, but I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to. I’d been playing at acting a while – but, with her there grinding away, I, too, had begun to dream. It was like living with the Olympics motto: I wanted to jeer, and I wanted to become who she thought I was.
So I stayed put.
The Concerts Colonne rejected Astrid the seventh year in a row, and requested her not to apply again: it was unfair to other candidates.
Astrid said Thank you, came home and began planning her suicide. She’d spent her days playing. She spent her days now identifying drugs, pharmacies, and doses.
I could’ve stopped her: got her straitjacketed. But Astrid wasn’t mad. Madness, to her, would’ve been resigning herself to an earthbound existence. She’d failed to catch her star, so now calmly she graduated to the next item on her to-do list.
‘You know,’ I improvised. ‘I’m stuck, too. Haven’t had an audition in months. People don’t appreciate real acting anymore. Theatre is dominated by trend-chasers seeking only spectacle… Astrid, I’ll go with you.’
Astrid’s flaming eyes looked into my soul: seeking profundities, finding what she wanted to, looking blindly past the excuses and pretences that constitute the lives of the undecided. ‘I knew you were one of us. I knew it when I picked you out.’
Her arrogance was vast and sincere. That made it easy for me.
You don’t blame me, do you? Long before I met her, Astrid was ambitious and talentless, resolved that her life was worth living only on certain terms. Who was I to tell her otherwise? She’d failed to pull me up. She’d failed to pull herself up. She’d pulled me along this far.
One year ago today, Astrid found courage.
On her sunshine-yellow linoleum, she made two little pill-piles. One for her and one for me. Mostly opiates. This woman who’d lived in fire chose a death that was a sinking into oblivion. No brief agony of cyanide for Astrid.
I could’ve faked, taking no pills at all. But I enjoy adventures: so I took enough to leave my death up to chance. But when Astrid passed out, I found myself crawling to the kitchen, downing half a jugful of spoiled milk. I threw up. Not enough – so I finished the jug, and finished emptying my insides. Who knew I could be so driven? If only this urgency could invigorate me in everyday life – then I wouldn’t need women to pull me up.
I crawled back to our living room. Astrid had entered her final stupor. I snaked, into her cooling hand, my hand hot from nausea, sweaty with shame.
Her parents demanded a postmortem. One day she’d been living an industrious, consistent, full life. Next day she’d killed herself. Had she been terminally ill? Or had her brain been scrambled? But the postmortem found no abnormalities. Those who think existing is gift enough failed to strip Astrid’s death of its meaning.
I kept to myself my own attempt and my presence at Astrid’s death. She had left a note: ‘Please don’t look for anyone to blame. I just don’t want to be here anymore. So I’m going.’
It’s Astrid who’d drawn me. But it’s Astrid who burned up. She proved both flame and moth. From the flames of my flirtation with death I was carried away, unscorched, in the arms of a new, secret mistress: who Astrid, in her final act of love, bequeathed to me.
All this year, warming my lonely bed, this mistress has curled under my sheets, nudging my knees: distinguishing me with her favours. My flirtation with death is the secret mistress that makes me special. So I thought.
A year on, my mistress me has deserted my bed. Again alone, as the afternoon pales, and the crowd on the promenade thickens, I grow cold.
I expected that almost dying would be a moment of truth to galvanise my life forever. That’s why I agreed to kind of try suicide with Astrid. Awakening now from my yearlong fling, I see that my flirtation with death has changed nothing. Neither do I cling to a creaturely existence, nor can I commit myself to chasing my star. Does almost dying ever reform a man? Perhaps that’s only another tragic myth.
You and I have outgrown tragedy. For us, now, only the farce of kind-of trying.
I couldn’t find the courage to die. Can I find the courage to live? Like the river, here at its mouth, I drift on the stream of maybe later.
I heard the doctors on television say: chemical pollution has broken our dopamine systems. There’s an epidemic of suicide attempts, bone-sapping half-heartedness, and fatal ennui. You know what that means: don’t bother trying to fix yourself. If you’re broken in the same way as everyone else – are you broken?
So, strolling down the promenade bright-faced, I wait for another woman, seeking a project, to draw me. To pull me out of this drifting. A spot of star-chasing will wake me up.
Isn’t there something in between? With a sincerity I inherited from Astrid I envy those to whom the middle path is open.
The runner in the citron lycra, towing the beagle, has circled back around. Down this bridge, down through the south side of the park, up that bridge, up through the north side of the park, and back up this bridge.
Again, as she nears me, the runner slows down. Again our eyes meet. Now she smiles. She looks ordinary; but so did Astrid. You have to study these dreamers to see the tension of ambition stiffening them at odd moments, their clear eyes glazing over with blindness to earth’s pleasures and trials.
The runner’s smile wavers, assesses, and matures into confidence. Women quickly see that I’m no threat. We introduce ourselves. Pleo. Ilya.
‘Coffee?’ offers Ilya.
I shrug. Her eyes glimmer. She likes this. Making up her mind, since I’m undecided. Leading me, since I’m willing. Willing to be pulled up into inspiration. Willing to be pulled along into another adventure.
So, uphill, my new flame marches her beagle and me. I’ve been found again.
Amita Basu is a cognitive scientist by day. Her fiction has appeared/is forthcoming in CommuterLit, Bandit Fiction, Toyon, Bewildering Stories, Flash Fiction Magazine, Gasher, and other magazines and anthologies. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Curious Reader, Deccan Herald, and other venues. She lives in Bangalore, and blogs at http://amitabasu.com/.