By: Rachel Smith
The party was on a Thursday night. The guests came flushed with cold, carrying six-packs of Stella Artois. They unwound their scarves and lay their coats on Cici’s bed. As with all New York buildings in winter, the sixth-floor walk-up was overheated. Still, some guests kept their coats on. As each person arrived, Cici’s panic mounted. She’d invited women. Where were they? The work friends who had said they’d come? At half past seven, fifteen men stood in the tiny living room drinking. They threw glances her way as they talked to each other—about what? What could they have to say? None of them knew the others. She’d slept with them all.
Cici felt that they understood this. In the low, flickering candlelight, Brandon leaned toward Momar to speak. Steven drifted toward the window, tapping a pack of American Spirits on his palm. Frank and Hervé followed, reaching into their pockets. She glimpsed them from the open kitchen, where she was frantically browning meatballs. She saw awkward politeness in the way they moved across the room. But why be nervous? she asked herself, as she piled mounds of spaghetti on each triple-stacked paper plate. What could they say that would make it worse?
She delivered the food and moved among them, dipping into conversations, offering more beer. The apartment was deeply hot now and the last coats had been shed and tossed on the couch. She began to almost enjoy herself. The act of eating seemed to simmer them down. Then Luke came close and whispered, Sweetheart, I can’t compete, and dumped his plate in the trash. As he let himself out, he waved at her with his leather-palmed gloves. A sense of permission rippled through the room. Frank went to the bedroom for his coat. Hervé took his scarf from a hook on the wall. Soon the apartment was empty, candles burning down, a scattering of garbage. They were gone and she looked at the clock. It was nine.
How had it happened? she wondered again, three nights later, in the hotel room with Jean. He was a bulge breathing loudly beside her. She moved her legs and felt the milky soft sheets. To some of the men she’d barely mentioned the party, not even invited them. But mentioning a party was an invitation, she realized now. And she’d known that. Possibly she’d mentioned it out of fear no one would come. Or only two or three people would come. Some humiliatingly small number of people who would regret taking the train all the way up to 111th Street.
A clicking sound came from the gas fireplace in the corner. It was off now. Earlier she had lain on the thick carpet, bathing in its little heat. Jean always rented the Royal Suite when he came to the city—an indulgence she associated with his age—and the luxury made her feel spacious. It made her wonder if it was the squalidness of her apartment that had set her party up to fail. Whether a Chesterfield and a coat of Farrow & Ball would have changed the composition of the guests, made everyone drink more, and given the party that natural feeling good parties have. But this wasn’t about her apartment, she thought, turning over, pushing a pillow aside. It was about something more difficult. She had become one of those women who didn’t have friends.
Well. There were worse things. She was young. She probably had time. Light leaked around the cracks of the door to the bathroom and Jean’s shape was seal-like under the covers. She reached under and touched his arm.
Nn, he grunted. Cold.
Jean, she said, rolling onto her side.
Asleep, he said.
Why are you interested in me?
I was asleep, he said, opening his eyes.
That’s good, she said. You can go there again. But what made you interested in me? She was propped up on her elbows now.
He turned on his side to face her and said, Why are you asking?
I think I’m realizing something, Jean.
Well—he breathed and seemed to come more awake—I like being around you.
She fell back onto the pillows and thought about that for a moment. Or didn’t think about it, but felt it. The feeling was something like satisfaction.
I’m realizing—she said, and looked down at him. His eyes were closed. Jean? She nudged him with her fist. In the dim light, she studied the round outline of his face.
She half-woke when he left, before seven. Her alarm sounded at eight. The morning dark had given way to grey. Not light, exactly, but visibility. The room seemed to have been uncloaked. She stretched, cold under the sheets. The covers were heaped on the floor.
I used to go to the palace to meet with the son, he’d said at dinner the night before. He meant Baby Doc, Haiti’s president-for-life who’d fled to France in ’86. Half a decade, almost, before Cici was born. On a U.S. Airforce flight, by the way, Jean had said. They were in the hotel restaurant with its white tablecloths and dark damask walls. Jean had his fingers pressed on the base of his wine glass, his face lit with good humor. When I used to go meet with him, he said, twisting the glass a half turn, he would sit at the desk like a walrus in his beautiful suit. But he would never stand to greet you. You see, it was hot there, even in the palace. If he stood, you would see he was sitting there in bare legs and shorts.
Cici thought of this as she looked down the bed at her own thin legs. She’d lost weight when she visited Haiti, where she’d met Jean four months ago. She’d lost her period. The trip had left a spiritual mark on her, like a thin, white stripe on a plain beach rock. But whatever the mark was, she couldn’t talk about it. She couldn’t really say what it was.
She reached for her phone to text Jean and opened an unread message. In meetings until late my bird but done TODAY if things go well. There were three fingers-crossed emojis. Idea: would you like to go to Maine?
Reading this raised a vague tenderness within her. She thought of Maine as a place that had kept its wildness, a place artists liked to go to paint little boats against a sea that bled into the sky. It must have been three months ago that she’d explained her wish to go there. They were at a hotel in Washington, where Jean lobbied for his textiles. I know I have a romantic idea of Maine, she’d started out, in her matter-of-fact way. It was one of the first nights they’d spent together. He folded his newspaper and looked at her blankly. As she went on talking and got more into the thrall of her own thoughts, she’d said, But that’s the point of travel, isn’t it? Romanticizing? Isn’t that what gives you pleasure?
The memory embarrassed her now. It made her feel exposed. It showed something unguarded that she would have rather him not have seen. When they were together, she was aware of the outer life she presented. She tried to allow no opening, to control his impression of her. She thought that this made him like her more. But thinking of him now, when they were apart, she felt that her inner self was exposed—was always open to him—in some elemental way.
She texted: Maine! Yes.
When she got out of the shower there was a reply: But can u take off work?
She dried her hands on a bath towel and typed back: Of course.
Light and fine as salt, snow drifted over the park. She jammed her fists in her pockets and snugged her coat tighter. Horses and carriages lined up on 59th Street and the drivers huddled together smoking. Cici turned out of the park onto the sidewalk. She walked close to a dun horse and touched its neck.
Ride for you? a driver called out. He moved toward her, dropping his cigarette in a puddle.
She shook her head. The horse flared its nostrils and she felt its wet breath.
Beautiful day, he said. Snowy day—though the snow had nearly stopped—Today half price.
I’ve read about your horses, she said, moving her fingers over the mane. They don’t get to go to pasture. Their stables are too small.
Your titties are too small, he said, smiling.
You can’t even see my titties, she thought, walking on. When she got to the corner she wished she had said that. And as she turned down Fifth Avenue and pushed the heavy doors open to the lobby and took the elevator to the 32nd floor, she was dogged by an indistinct sense of regret.
She went to the boss’s office and asked for the rest of the week off.
No, he said. His desk was polished and bare, nothing on it but a MacBook and a package of Red Vines. You’ve already taken more time off than we allow, he said, fixing her with a perplexed gaze. He pushed the Red Vines toward her, as though offering consolation.
She went to her cubicle and turned on the computer. But as she thought about it, she felt that it was unfair. She had worked there the six years since college, taking no extra time off until this year. Her trip to Haiti shouldn’t count, since one of the organization’s pillars was “service.” She’d gone there after the hurricane to volunteer. They’d written her up in the company newsletter. She looked down the hall and saw the other copywriters staring into their computers, wearing earbuds. She stood and took her coat off the back of her chair.
She had met Jean at the Oloffson, the hotel from The Comedians, with its grand, weathered approach: a cement path with tall palms at each side. White balconies with rows of thin, ornate balusters. Flat patches of grass shored up by cracked, pale walls. The hotel had a kind of weary elegance that had slipped into being something else, something more like fluky endurance.
She was supposed to be in the south, where the hurricane had blown roofs off—in Les Cayes—but hadn’t figured out how to get there. So she was here, in Port-au-Prince, blowing a hundred bucks a night on what amounted to an oddly thrilling vacation. In the day she wandered the streets downtown. She bought bottles of Coke out of ice-filled coolers. The vendor handed her a tall glass bottle and wouldn’t let her leave until it was empty and she gave it back. People climbed on their roofs to repair leaks from the storm, and in the narrow alleys power lines were clumped haphazardly along cement block walls. Children bathed in plastic tubs and sold Chiclets and called out, Give me one dollar! Women sold fruit and men sold cell phone chargers and batteries. Blan, they yelled at her. Hey, Blan.
She drank rhum punch at the hotel bar. She swam in the pool, the one where the dead man had been found in the Graham Greene novel. On the porch, at breakfast, she listened to conversations. The third morning, a man near her spoke rapidly in English and French. She heard the words compliance assessment and you knew they were Koreans. The man wore short sleeves. He picked up his water glass and set it down again, as though his speech were so important he couldn’t pause to drink. Across from him, a woman sat hunched over a flat omelet. When she got up to use the bathroom, she dropped her napkin on the ground.
The man rocked back on the rear legs of his chair and addressed Cici. I usually go to the Hotel Montana, he said. But there are some people you must always meet here.
Why? Cici asked.
He waved a hand toward the empty chair. She hates it here, he said. So I have the advantage.
The woman returned and took out her pocketbook. Non, ma chére, he said. He turned his cheek for her to kiss. As she walked off, the sound of her heels made the waiter, in his billowing white shirt, glance up.
Jean turned to Cici then and asked what she was doing there. She explained that she didn’t know how to get to where she was meant to go. That evening she was in a private car, with a hired driver, on her way to Les Cayes.
Cici walked up Fifth Avenue, weaving back through the stream of commuters. It wasn’t yet ten. She went to the bookstore. She was standing, staring blankly down the aisle before she knew what she wanted. The Comedians had given her her first idea of Haiti: a country doomed and fertile, with dusty streets and paintings in bright colors. The image wasn’t so far off what she had experienced when she went there. She wanted to revisit that now.
When I think of all the grey memorials erected in London to equestrian generals… Something like comfort spread within her at the formal, rhapsodic sound of the words. And there, near the bottom of the first page, was a line she remembered underlining ages ago: There is a point of no return unremarked at the time in most lives. The words had thrilled her. She’d been in college, in her tiny dorm bed, curled with her back to her roommate. She’d wondered if that was true—the point of no return—and if it was, when it would arrive for her, or if it already had, and those questions had made her life seem to unfurl into the future, full of mystery and consequence.
There is a point of no return unremarked at the time in most lives.
The words seemed more like a trick now. They seemed meant to coax her into a false sense of things mattering more than they did. They seemed cheap. The comfort she’d gotten from reading the first lines turned over on itself and darkened.
But why cheap? she wondered, as she closed the book gently and tucked it under her coat, under her arm.
And here her thoughts became confused, because the truth was that she felt both things at once: the sense of mystery the words had given her before, and also this new suspicion of cheapness. And there was something else, something swimming below the surface of her thoughts that she couldn’t get at. She walked in the direction of the door.
Excuse me, a man said, as she passed the sale table. He put his hand on her arm.
She stopped. She felt her face outwardly compose itself and she smiled at him.
Sorry to bother you, he said, in a cautious way. But I bet you’re my daughter’s age. I’m looking for a gift.
She waited for him to go on. A violin concerto played softly, coming from the cafe. She thought he must be well past sixty, the same age as Jean.
What books do you like? There was helplessness in his voice, as though he’d already been there, scanning the shelves for a long time. I want to get her the right one.
Don’t get a book, Cici said, clutching the zippered edge of her coat. She watched his face crumple. Get her anything else.
The snow had stopped. The air was cold through her coat. She felt the hard brick of the book against her ribs as she walked toward the train. Only when the doors had closed did she move it to her bag. No one saw. There weren’t many people going uptown.
She opened the door to her apartment, everything in order but dingy, and felt for a moment that no one lived there. It smelled like the natural, bergamot-scented spray she bought online. She crossed the living room to the window, the one the men had used to smoke at her party, and worked it open. In the pocket of her coat, her phone sounded, and she took it out and saw it was a call from her job. She turned the phone off. She left the window open as she packed a suitcase, even as it got cold. For a moment she stood in the doorway with her coat and luggage and the inexplicable sense that she wouldn’t come back here. She turned the lights off. Then, as though to guard against that odd feeling of finality, she switched the one in the kitchen on.
In the hotel room, Cici slept on the pale, striped couch until Jean came. She felt him moving around the room, heard drawers opening. Then he was in the bathroom clipping his nails. He was on the phone, ordering room service, when she opened her eyes. She stretched, arching her back, and when he saw her, his face changed. It gave him pleasure to see her wake up.
Did you have a good nap? he asked, coming close to kiss her hair.
Yes, she said.
He went to the mirror and undid his shirt buttons with the usual attitude of vigor and purpose. As she watched him now she wondered if this quality was something he’d cultivated against the fact of getting old. It made her feel sympathy, and admiration. She pushed the feelings aside. They weren’t the ones she wanted to have.
I accomplished my goals today, he said.
Good. She swung her feet to the floor. Her legs were bare. She stood and walked around the couch and lifted her shirt to see her midriff when she passed the mirror.
You’re thin, he said.
So? she said, dropping her shirt again.
He turned his body to profile, showing his beach-ball stomach. I didn’t used to be so fat, he said, and smiled. He took off his undershirt and looked at it. These are good shirts, he said. He opened his suitcase and took out a plastic-wrapped package. Want one?
She stayed where she was, leaning against the wall, and put her hands out.
He tossed it in her direction. This is what we’re making in my factory now.
What are you paying these days?
That’s why I like you, he said. You have a conscience.
She pulled off the plastic wrapping and let it fall to the floor. She held the shirt by its two shoulders and shook out its folds.
Five dollars a day. Twenty-five percent over the minimum wage and five times what people are making all over the country. He said this in a salesman voice that irritated her.
Mm, she said.
Mm, he said, with a finality that made her feel she should not say more. He walked into the bathroom. She heard the shower turn on.
She picked up the plastic from the floor and took out the cardboard insert that clung to the inside of the shirt. The cotton had a new, slippery feel, and it smelled like chemicals. She ran the fabric over her arm. Presently there was a knock, and she pulled her jeans on and opened the door. While the girl set up their trays on the folding stands, Cici took cash from her purse. It was money Jean had left that morning for her to take a cab.
Thank you, the girl said, and Cici nodded. The girl asked if they needed anything else.
Cici shook her head and softly closed the door.
She looked at the trays. The plates were covered, and—she put her fingers to them—hot. She lifted the napkin from the bread basket and took out a piece of baguette. She spread it with butter, and stood there, next to the table, eating slowly.
She says she’s hungry, the driver Jean had hired told her, as they moved through the slow traffic on the way to Les Cayes. They were watching a woman walk alongside the cars with her hand out and pleading eyes.
Many people here have need, the driver said. But we also have fakers.
You think she’s a faker? Cici said.
The driver shrugged.
A man in the car in front of them rolled down the window and yelled something.
The driver laughed.
What did he say? Cici asked. The woman had fixed her eyes on their car now and was thrusting her open palm at Cici.
Nothing, the driver said. He says nothing.
Cici handed the woman a coin.
Put up the window, the driver said, and she did. The car in front of them moved and he drove on, gathering speed.
What did that man say? Cici asked again, after they’d traveled a few bumpy miles. The driver smiled and turned his clear eyes to her. You want to know?
The lady says mwen grangou. I’m hungry. That man puts his window down and says, Go have a fuck. It will make you forget about it.
He turned the radio up and drove on.
Cici was eating another piece of bread when Jean came out of the bathroom. My factory got two contracts today, he said. He had recovered his jolly mood. One is a big label. We have not been working at full capacity since we opened. Now we will, almost. Oh, good, he said. The food is here.
Jean produced a candle from a small paper bag and lit it. He moved behind her and pressed his mouth to her neck. He pulled out her chair. Before he lifted the lids off the plates, he took her hand between his and rubbed it. The portions were small but he had ordered lavishly. French onion soup, mussels, filet, green beans.
You know, he said. Since the factory opened after the earthquake, we’ve created almost two hundred jobs.
Cici thought of her own job with a swell of resentment. You don’t mind spending money, she said, surveying the food. You could pay them more.
You liberals, he said soberly, you always use the same lines.
What are you, she asked, a conservative?
I’m an industrialist. I’m a business man. And—he picked up a steak knife—a champion of my country. Mwen grangou, he said, as he cut the filet in half. He spoke Creole, she understood, to show that he knew more than she did about his own people.
He began talking again after they had eaten for a while in silence. I went to a good private school, he said. We spoke French at home. We were raised to be—he waved a hand—cosmopolitan. By the way, they teach French in the schools all over Haiti. Only they don’t teach it well enough for anyone to come out understanding. He took a bite of bread and Cici waited as he chewed.
Our class went to an assembly in an outdoor arena, he said. This was with Papa Doc there, running the country—he pointed in the direction of the coffee table—like in your book. Terrible times. Though if you were not political, and not unlucky, you were not so desperate then as the people are now. I mean in terms of money. He cut the last green beans on his plate, picked up his water glass, and set it back down. When he spoke again it was with hesitation, as though she’d asked a difficult question. We sat in a row on bleachers. In front of us a man was blindfolded. The Macoute came out wearing their sunglasses, holding guns. Ten of them, maybe. They line up. There is no speech about the man, nothing. No sentence. Nobody coughs. This man is there, of course, for a political reason. But we don’t understand. We’re eight years old. I was wearing my navy uniform with shorts. He paused, then made his fingers into the shape of a gun. He looked toward the window, as though looking away from the image that had come into his mind. Can you imagine? he said. This was what we watched at school.
In bed, Cici pressed her body to his, touching the hair on his arms, the band of his cotton underwear. She couldn’t sleep. She had napped too long. She thought of the tent city in Les Cayes, where she had helped a mission group hand out water bottles and plastic toys. The local people had left her with varied impressions—resignation, friendliness, shock, dignity. They had warned her not to wear her flip-flops in the mud because of worms. The day before she left, she had wandered through the corridors, among the tents and tarps, snapping photos with her phone. As she reached a small clearing, away from the foreign workers, a man in a loose, sleeveless shirt had come up to her, slapping his chest and yelling in Creole. He took a rake that stood against the fence and waved it at Cici, heckling. He came close and backed away, dragging the rake over the ground. The only word she understood was white person, blan, but she saw what was underneath the words. It was pure—almost appealing—anger. And there was something sexual in it that confused her, something to do with power.
A woman in a Médecins Sans Frontières jacket stopped and stood beside Cici. He says, Look at me, she translated. Go ahead. Take my picture. Isn’t that what you want? Take it home with you. Take my picture when I’m—the woman searched for the word—in squalor? In her lovely French accent, the woman remarked, Next time you might want to ask.
Later, Cici stood with the same woman near a small garbage fire, and she said, You know what the problem is with this country?
Cici shook her head.
The corruption, the woman said. The elites. There’s money here. But it goes—she held her fingers up as though she’d taken a pinch of salt—to this many people. They rob their own country blind.
Cici thought of this now, in the bed, as she touched Jean. She had a rush of feeling that she tried to untangle. It had risen from his story of the execution. He had seemed sincere. But in that sincerity, she sensed something else—as though his feelings about it were rooted in something more personal than watching a man be shot. But who was she to doubt the depth of his feeling? It had made her suspicious. But why? She knew nothing about Haiti. Or business. Jean had only been kind. Yet she couldn’t dismiss the sense that he should not have money, being from a country that was so poor. She fell asleep wondering if there was logic in this, or if it was naive, or whether it mattered at all.
In the morning, he brought her coffee in bed. It’s a beautiful day for a drive, he said.
She looked to the window. The patch of sky between buildings was gray and there was a steady drumming of rain. Why are you so happy? she said.
Did you ever go to Cité Soleil? he asked.
She shook her head.
He shrugged. I thought maybe you had, because all the do-gooders like to go there. I used to have a factory there. But when the government changed, we started to have gangs. I kept operating, losing money every day, my workers being shot at, bullets coming in through the walls. Everyone lost their jobs. I had to close the factory down.
With the new factory, I’m useful again. And what happened yesterday, the contracts—people can rely on me. It will be the first time we’re on steady ground. He touched his hands together, then drew them apart. I feel a weight is gone.
Cici allowed herself to be swept up in Jean’s sincerity. She gathered the covers around herself and said, I like you.
Why, my bird?
I like the way you talk about what you do, she said. But—she felt herself speaking from someplace else, saying things that were possibly not true, yet at the same time were pleasing to say aloud—There’s a part of me that might say I like you because of your money. I like the hotels. The plates with the silver covers. The fireplace and the good sheets. It doesn’t take much, she said, for me to feel happy.
A wounded look passed over his face, but he quickly recovered.
He came close and put a hand on the side of her neck and said, We have our own reasons for enjoying each other. At my age, the enjoyment is what matters. The details matter less.
He turned his back to her and she felt as though something had fallen within her, as though he had won.
She put on the clean, chemical-smelling t-shirt he’d given her, and felt her own uneasiness as they hauled their suitcases down in the elevator and loaded them into the rental car. She knew better than to romanticize having nothing. And yet, she was cutting the pieces of her life down to nothing. No friends. No job. No money. She would go on the trip, she thought, and after that she would not see Jean. As they drove north in silence, with the windshield wipers flying back and forth, she understood the difference between them, and for a moment it eased her suffering. He had passed the point of no return, and she still had all the time in the world.
Rachel Smith’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Seattle Times, The Rumpus, and Brevity. She has been a recipient of the Wallace Stegner Fellowship and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She lives with her husband and dog in a cabin in the wilds of the North Cascades.