(from “The Devil in Paris“)
Have you ever loved someone so much that his very existence, his living breath, was enough to calm your heart?
He paced around the basilica, which reminded him more of a mysterious odalisque than a church. “Well, at least she’s a pristine concubine,” he told himself, “robed in white veils, topped with oriental cupolas that look like sugar meringues. Or maybe they’re milky breasts. In a way it’s just too luxurious for a church, too beautiful, too vain.”
Atop the hills of Montmartre it gazed over the city with a certain tranquil impertinence of someone too sure of her power; invincible, untouchable. Its white stones from Chateau-Landon were always impeccably white, as if looking down on the other ageing monuments, defying sludge and pollution, repelling the sins of the city. Sacré-Coeur was built with travertine stone, which exudes calcite in a constant process of self-cleansing, of self-redemption. “And that is why,” Jacques thought again as he entered the meditation garden untainted by tourists, “I should also feel pure, I should also feel clean—I’ve paid my penitence. But I still feel nothing, just emptiness.”
In fact, nothing felt alive after Armand’s death. Everything merely “existed,” but nothing truly lived. It was as if Armand’s passing had taken all joy with him. To Jacques it seemed like the grieving just didn’t go away. So he prayed and waited, waited and prayed, wondering if the sky would look blue again, if the perfume coming from his garden and invading his kitchen would stop irritating him, and if women would become beautiful once more. He especially questioned whether he would ever wake up without this ache that wasn’t quite physical but still hurt his entire being.
Armand had been his boss, his father-figure, his mentor, and his most reliable friend. It was he who had identified the shy, tall boy from Alsace as a budding law student when the other Sorbonne professors dismissed him as too timid to ever make a mark in the profession. Armand had promptly assigned the young man to his own firm and molded him, polishing his skills, and his character as well, not only to fit the successful corporate lawyer he became, but also to navigate the highest social circles of the city.
There is an Eastern saying which claims that every person has two countries: one, the land he was born to, the other the land he adopts through love and experience and a sense of belonging. Jacques thought the same could apply to family—that there were the parents, the fathers and mothers, we were born to, and then there were the families we ultimately created for ourselves, because our spirits lean towards them and recognize them as kin.
Jacques and Armand spent so much time together that malicious tongues easily gained fodder to spread rumors of a scandalous affair between them. Sometimes the gossips liked to include sordid details about their high-born wives, society ladies who apparently knew and condoned the liaison. It was not the case, though it would not have mattered to either of them if it had been; a physical relationship would only have been the natural extension of a love and friendship beyond definition. But neither man found it necessary, and they both liked women very much; in fact, that was one of the more important lessons passed from teacher to apprentice—the appreciation of women, not as a misogynist “appreciates” women, but as a lover and devotee of the Parisian cult of feminine beauty values them. Armand always advised Jacques to “choose your women as you would your wine; the age is not important—look for character, taste and form.”
He had arrived in Paris as a young péquenaud, a true country bumpkin, obedient and lacking any confidence, literally a former altar boy, though one whose devotion to religion arose less from faith than from fear—a fear of life, of self, of experience. But he’d landed on the winding streets of Montmartre, which were still as beautiful and rebellious as ever—littered by prostitutes, rascals and every shade of scoundrel—perhaps the most bohemian district of the most bohemian city. Heaven knows what would have become of him if he hadn’t found the most formidable of teachers in the form of the short, stout and brilliant Armand—he would probably have become an office clerk, or even a monk! Now that Armand was gone, what was left of the charming cobbled streets? The hills of Montmartre had no meaning, no bohemian poetry; its once lively prostitutes looked like unhappy whores, its once ingenious scoundrels like pitiable drug addicts. So he poured himself into his work, into their work, as freely as Armand would have poured out wine. And he went to church.
Jacques walked towards the altar to light his friend a candle, and to continue the internal conversation he shared with Armand—a one-way conversation he so often started without ever expecting an answer. As he bent over to reach for the lighting stick he noticed a figure, as short and plump as his dear friend, watching him from the front pew. The capuchin monk in a grey robe was barely moving, but his mannerisms—! The way he turned his head as if in indignation, how he blinked several times, the angle of his head bowed in prayer, his kindly yet mischievous smile…those were all exceedingly familiar. Our gaze unexpectedly met, and Jacques immediately felt as if he were in the presence of someone who knew him very well.
I stood up from the pew so Jacques could get a better view of my full, round figure, and further notice how much I reminded him of the deceased Armand. With a fatherly grin, I signed him to come over and sit next to me; and he, as a duly devoted Catholic, as a boy, immediately obeyed. I was to make sure he would be forever locked in the prison of his grief.