Monday, January 7, 2013

Be brave said the little voice. A short story by Seema Punwani

It came as a surprise and not a pleasant one. It came down hard. It stung. It was the first time someone had slapped her. Meg nearly fell back, her eyes wide in horror. Pierre just stared back at her, daring her to defy him. When he saw her eyes had tears and she was shrinking away, only then he turned and walked away.

Meg was not sure what she should do. A part of her wanted to run behind him, turn him around and punch him. Another part just wanted to stay still and pray the feeling would pass. She did neither. She stood up, and went into the kitchen to clean up. The barbecue chicken skewers were strewn all over the floor. The burnt part up, facing her, like they were taunting her. "Serves you right to burn us and have the audacity to serve us to your husband", they seemed to be saying to her.

Meg slowly picked them up off the floor and threw them into the garbage bin. She then meticulously scrubbed the floor, the oven and cleaned the dishes. She took much longer than usual, so she could delay going to their bedroom.

She need not have worried, as by the time she was done, Pierre had locked the bedroom door. Meg would once again have to sleep on the couch in the living room. She hated the couch. It had the ability to accentuated her fears. 

It amazed her many times that she was in Paris. Meg Adams, small town suburban American girl, in Paris-- the city of love. Many things about her life amazed her. Pierre was a foreign exchange student from France. Their school did not see many such overseas students. He was the archetypical French guy-- handsome, charming, blue-grey eyes and gorgeous hair. He had a cleft on his chin-- a 'chin dimple' the girls called it.

The same girls who were stark mad with envy when Pierre asked Meg to the prom. Meg was taken aback too. She was shy, sweet and reasonably pretty. However nothing close to her other glamorous classmates. 

Prom night was a dream. The year after that, a dream come true. Pierrre proposed to her on their graduation day. She accepted with utmost joy, and immense gratitude. She was forever grateful, our dear Meg. Grateful that she had Pierre. Grateful that he married her. Grateful that they moved to Paris together.

The first month in Paris was everything Meg could have hoped for. The beautiful boulevards, the stunning sights, the smell of the freshly baked croissants every morning. It was simply picture perfect! Meg loved to walk around the city and take in the sights. She discovered quaint cafes, picked up a bit of French, strutted down Champs-Elysees. All the must-dos of Paris were ticked off the list. However the 'tourist existence' had to end, and real life awaited.

The real Paris was rather different from the Paris of Meg's imagination. In real Paris, they lived in a small 'chambre-de-bonne' which loosely translates into maid's chamber. The landlord- a cranky old man who spoke no word of English- had rented out his top floor to Pierre and Meg. 'Floor' is a probably an exaggeration, as it had a tiny bedroom, a tinier living room with one couch and a television set and a bathroom, at the end of the dingy corridor. 

Pierre worked in a logistics company and it soon was apparent to Meg that this was not exactly the 'exciting prospect' that Pierre was raving about in America. Meg's parents had been rather uncomfortable with the move. Pierre was not very open about his life in Paris, his work or even his family. However all Meg could think of was 'It's Paris! It has to be fabulous!'. So she did not ask for more information, and none was volunteered. Though she was surprised that Pierre's parents did not come for the wedding. His excuse was that they were too old for the trans-Atlantic flight. 

She only discovered after moving to Paris that Pierre was estranged from his parents. They did not bother making contact with Pierre and Meg. Meg tried to broach the topic with Pierre on a few occasions, but it was met with resistance at first, and anger later.

Meg soon starting seeing sides to Pierre's personality that she not seen before. In her hometown, he was a novelty. Of course his handsome looks and charming demeanour helped too. People there wanted to know him, befriend him, and most importantly they liked to include him.

Here he was simply one of the many. People had their cliques and their circles and were not very inclusive. Pierre friends were still single. Pierre explained that he could not have Meg tagging along with them all the time. She was allowed to make polite appearances but when the drinking got further, volumes turned up higher and evening changed to night, it was her turn to say her goodbyes.

So Meg started spending these evenings alone. Pierre was also not a very generous person. He blamed it on the bad economy and pay-cuts at work. Hence Meg usually ended up watching TV at home, in a language she still could not fully comprehend.

Meg soon started observing Pierre's mood swings and his temper. Worse of all his dark brooding nature came to light. He was unhappy at work, he did not like the apartment, and he always had someone else to blame for all his problems.

Meg tried to be the supportive wife, but it was met with resistance. Pierre's arguments had the same theme. 'If we move to America now, your family will think I am failure'. Or 'You always put me down by suggesting how I should run my life'. 

The financial situation was tough and Meg was getting rather lonely. So she decided to take up a job. Upon seeing 'help wanted' sign, she applied for 'serveuse' (waitress) position at her favourite cafe near the Tuileries. 

The day it all began was  clear as day in Meg's mind. Meg and Pierre's friend Adam was visiting from USA. He was here on work and staying at the Ritz. Adam invited them for a dinner and drinks at the hotel. Meg was over the moon! This was the first time anyone was visiting her in Paris. She could not wait to meet Adam, chat about all their friends and tell him about her experiences in Paris. She admitted to herself that she may have to stretch the truth to make sure her life seems glamorous enough. 

She could not stop talking about Adam's visit, what she would wear at evening, what Pierre should wear. All to Pierre's utmost annoyance. Meg should have probably noticed that Pierre did not seem happy about the evening from the onset. "Does Adam think he is too fancy inviting us to the Ritz?" Pierre bellowed. "It would be convenient for him and it would give us a chance to visit the Ritz!" I foolishly replied. Pierre just glared back at me. It was obviously not the response he expected. 

The evening was a sheer delight. For Meg and Adam that is. Conversation and wine both flowed freely. Pierre was uptight and defensive throughout. He was curt about his replies to Pierre, especially about his job or 'career in booming logistics industry' as Pierre liked to refer to it.

Meg on the other hand felt like her old self. Gregarious, witty and funny. She was relishing the fine food, indulging in the exquisite wine and enjoying the walk down memory lane with Adam.

As the evening drew close to an end, Adam suggested a walk by the Seine. Meg always wanted to do that! Like Owen Wilson in 'Midnight in Paris'. Pierre seemed less than enthused about the idea. With the lingering effect of the wine in her head, Meg was way past caring. She did not get Pierre's hint that they should be heading home before the last train. Instead she took up on Adam's offer to drop her home later. Pierre had no choice but to accept Adam's offer. He mumbled something about early work and excused himself.

Meg was thrilled to have some alone time with Adam, but immediately felt guilty about thinking so. She pushed the thoughts away and decided to enjoy the little time she had with an old friend. They strolled, stopped for delicious 'gelatos' and sat by the river bank to catch up on old times. Meg could not help comparing this with her evenings with Pierre. Recently they were on the same lines that involved her painstakingly cooking every evening, and him complaining how Americans just don't 'get' French food. At other times they wordlessly watched French TV. 

However Meg kept all this out of her Paris stories for Adam. She instead told him joyfully about her new job. She would never call waitressing a career, despite Pierre's insistence that she should tell people she had a 'career in the restaurant business'. 

As all good things do, that evening had to end too. Adam kept his promise of dropping Meg home, but as it was the wee hours of the morning, declined to come up. Meg kissed him on the cheek and they planned to meet for lunch the next day as Meg was working the evening shift.

Upon opening the door to the room, Meg was surprised to see Pierre still up. "Oh Pierre you should have come with us!" she said gleefully."It was a lovely evening and Adam was in his element! He kept me in splits reciting anecdotes from our school days." Meg was a little tipsy, and way too wrapped up in herself to notice that Pierre was not smiling. In fact his face was impassive and expressionless. She did not see when he clenched his fist tightly. Or when he slowly got up from bed. Or when he walked towards her, silently, glaring. 

She only noticed when he had his hands around her throat and was pushing her against the wardrobe. It completely caught her unawares! He looked straight at her, while continuing to choke her, and let out a string of expletives. "So you think your Adam is better than me?!" he yelled, "With his expensive suit and fancy dinners?!". Meg was struggling for breath and begged him to let her go. He finally did, but continued his rant. "How could you stay with him instead of coming back home with me!?" he angrily questioned. Meg had never seen Pierre like this, so she did not know that its best to not answer. Instead she tried to rationalise her decision with him, which met with his shoving her roughly. She lost her balance and knocked forehead against the bed post. Reeling with pain, she sat on the bed, only to have Pierre kick her off it. "Sleep on the floor, you b^%$&." he screamed. Too scared to move, Meg just lay there all night. She could not sleep, lest he hurt her again. Finally fatigue caught up, and she drifted off to a dreamless slumber.

When she woke up next morning, her head hurt. As if the hangover was not bad enough, the bruise on her head made it worse. She looked in the mirror to find her face stained with tear-soaked mascara, a big black-blue bump on her right forehead and something she had never seen before...fear in her eyes.

She ignored Adam's call, replying instead via SMS saying that her shift had changed and she would not be able to meet him for lunch. She lay listlessly in bed all day and finally convinced herself to get ready for work. The sight of the cafe and her co-worker and best friend Marie cheered Meg slightly. Marie asked her about the bruise, but Meg brushed it off saying she was clumsy and walked into the bathroom door. Marie did not probe but something told Meg that Marie had not bought her story.

As time went by Meg's stories and excuses had to get more imaginative. How do you explain bruise marks on your wrist after you have come back from a holiday? Or the need to avoid introducing Pierre to her friends at work? 

That night, lying alone on the uncomfortable couch and not for the first time in the last twelve months, Meg wondered if things would be different had she met Adam that day and told him what Pierre did to her? Or if she confided in Marie, the true reason for the badly bruised forehead? 

Grateful old Meg wondered what did she really have to be grateful about in life? An abusive husband? A tiny apartment in the most derelict part of Paris? A life far away from her family and friends who believed she was living the fairy tale?

She could not help but wonder about her life without Pierre. She knew it would be tough, but it surely could not be tougher than what she was going through now? It would be lonely, but is it not better to be by yourself, rather than be alone even when you have a companion? 

The next day Meg woke up earlier than usual and got dressed for work. She took the train to Tuileries and when she stepped out of the underground station, she was greeted with sunshine. The Tuileries garden was blooming with pretty flowers. There was a slight nip in the air which made her pull her coat tighter. 

She entered the cafe. "Bonjour!" greeted Marie. If Marie wondered about the redness of her cheek or the dark circles under her eyes, she did not allude to it. 

Her boss and cafe owner, Henri, asked them to start preparing for breakfast. As Marie and Meg worked together, setting the tables, making the coffee and displaying the croissants, Meg found herself smiling, happy even.

She looked up and saw the daily customers had arrived. She got busy attending to them. Her daily desire was to make sure her customers had a uplifting start to their day. They loved Meg for that. Meg felt like she belonged here with her friends, her customers and her job. A job that may even have an opportunity to become a career, she thought to herself smilingly. 

When the crowds thinned around 11 am, she went outside for her break. She looked up at the clouds in the sky, and then back at the ,cafe. She remembered something her mum used to tell her all time time when she was a little girl, 'As long as you have the sky smiling down at you and earth holding you up, you can find everything else in between'. All at once, it was all crystal clear. That's when she made her decision. "Be brave", said the little angel voice in her head.

She requested Henri for the rest of the day off.  She then rushed home, knowing that Pierre would be at work. She hastily packed her few belongings, and she walked out of the house. She did not look back. Not once. 

There was a life waiting for her, and she owed it to herself to find it. Meg was a shy, sweet girl, but that day she felt rather brave too.