The velvet hours, p.22
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       The Velvet Hours, p.22

           Alyson Richman

  “I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about.” I was trying to see if she’d reveal her hand.

  “Oh, Solange,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m an expert on these things.” She laughed.

  “I could fill an entire notebook of yours on how I am able to read all the signs concerning love.”



  March 1940

  Marthe had read me correctly. I had made a date with Alex to meet him at his father’s store the next day. That morning, I dressed deliberately, inspired by Marthe to make myself look as fetching as possible. I reached for my red dress, instead of my blue one, and fastened a belt around my waist. In the mirror, I pinched my cheeks and applied a little lipstick. Having spent so much time with Marthe, I now understood just how much color could communicate. I gave myself one final glance in the mirror and decided something was still missing. Searching through my drawer, I found a navy scarf edged in white piping. I knotted it around my neck and suddenly felt infinitely more elegant. Only then did I reach for my coat, hat, and gloves.

  On the Métro, every person appeared buried in a different newspaper: Le Monde. Le Figaro. Le Temps. Each man hid his head behind one like a fan.

  Women held the hands of children, their eyes averted, their gaze focused on the ground. When the doors opened up at the Métro stop, I hurried outside, my adrenaline increasing as I knew I was that much closer to seeing Alex again.

  It had been a few weeks since I had visited the Marais, as Alex and I had met the last two times at the café in Place Saint Georges. The same winding alleys that had seemed so exotic for me the first time I went to the Armels’ bookstore now seemed much more familiar. As I approached Rue des Écouffes, two dark-haired children crouched near the doorway playing with marbles.

  I circled around them and pushed through the door.

  The bell chimed, and as I entered, the scent of old parchment permeated my nostrils like a familiar perfume. In the back, I could see Alex engrossed in conversation with his father and a man who appeared to be the book restorer, Solomon.

  Alex turned and saw me as the door closed.

  I saw him motion to excuse himself and he walked toward me, a big smile crossing his lips.

  “You’re the best sight I’ve seen today.”

  “No rare Haggadahs coming into the store this afternoon, then?” I teased.

  He leaned closer to me. “What does it say for my future career that I couldn’t concentrate on work all day? All I could think about was seeing you.”

  I felt my temperature warming at his words. “I think it means you might consider another career option,” I laughed.

  “The shy girl who first came into this store holding her priceless books, has since become emboldened, I see.”

  “Indeed.” My eyes flickered. “Shall we go near the Place des Vosges and have a coffee?”

  He smiled. “There isn’t anything I’d like to do more.”

  * * *

  We left the store and his hand reached for my fingers, his own folding into mine. “Those children are Solomon’s,” he said as he turned back to look at the children still at play. “His wife has been crying all day. A gentile neighbor back in Germany wrote to him in some sort of code they devised, saying that police had rounded up his brother and sister, along with their families.”

  He turned to me, his face illuminated by the winter light. “Papa thinks we may have to leave Paris sooner rather than later.”

  My heart sank.

  “But where would you go?”

  “North America or South America, I suppose. Isn’t that where every European Jew wants to go right now?”

  I bit my lip. I felt the desperation wash over me, fearing I was about to be abandoned by someone I had just come to love.

  I didn’t know how to respond. The mere mention of the word “America” from his lips made it feel as though the floor had been dropped beneath me. Only seconds before, I had felt a light flood through me. Being in Alex’s presence, the proximity of his body near mine, filled me with a warmth that had penetrated my skin. But with the news that his family might be emigrating, I felt as though we were engulfed in a dark shadow. Instead of feeling the heat of young love, I felt terribly cold.

  “But immigration is incredibly difficult. Do you have family there that can sponsor you?” I was trying to mask my despair by sounding practical. “Are passenger boats even leaving now?”

  The papers had already reported about torpedoed ships. I worried it would not even be safe to travel at this point in the war.

  “Yes, the waters are more dangerous than ever, but boats are still being chartered. My father has a second cousin in New York. Also a book dealer. We’ve written to him, asking if he will sponsor us. If we can’t get the entry visas, there’s always South America.”

  I said nothing. All the excitement I had kept inside my heart for the past two days, and the happiness I thought I would feel when my eyes saw Alex again, had vanished.

  “But who knows if he can even sponsor us? And the amount of paperwork needed before anything can actually happen is daunting, to say the least.” Alex sensed my nervousness.

  “And I don’t want to leave you.”

  My heart lifted at his words.

  Before I had a chance to respond, his hand grasped my fingers, and the sensation that I had felt the first time his skin brushed against mine, again flooded through my body.

  He did not speak. He did not even offer any expression on his face for me to interpret. He simply pulled me to his lips. His kiss telling me far more than words ever could.

  * * *

  Alex and I now began to see each other daily. We tried not to speak about the possibility that he might be leaving for the United States. Everyone knew how difficult it was to gain sponsorship and to get a visa, so part of me genuinely believed it was unlikely to happen soon, if ever. We spent the remainder of the month finding ways to see each other.

  I would bring my journal and write at our favorite café on Place Saint Georges until he arrived. And it was in those stolen moments, when our knees touched beneath the table or his hand clasped my fingers, that I felt I understood the words of my grandmother, that the touch of one’s beloved could resurrect you.

  In mid-March, however, Alex received a letter from the French army announcing his conscription.

  It was another moment when words failed us.

  The letter was very similar to the one Papa had received. It gave instructions for him to report for his physical, and provided the address where he needed to go register for his unit.

  “I was surprised it took them this long to call for me,” he said, his voice clearly numb from the news.

  “How is your father taking it?” I could only imagine how upset Monsieur Armel must be.

  “He’s of course blaming himself that he did nothing to prevent it.

  “I think this is the first time in my life I ever wished a doctor would tell me I was in poor health, so I could fail my physical.” He attempted a forced grin.

  My mind raced. Were there things one could take that could help fail a medical exam? If my father were here, I’m sure he would know of drugs that could cause complications.

  “There has to be something we can do,” I said, my voice cracking. If Alex reported to duty, I knew I’d never see him again. It was one thing when Father had to report to a military hospital. I knew he wouldn’t be fighting. But if Alex was right, the French army would treat him as little more than disposable military fodder.

  “We must find a solution to get you out of this.”

  “I told my father he should maim me by dropping his heaviest books on my legs.” Alex reached for a way to make me smile.

  “No. There must be another way,” I said.

  He lifted his hands.

  “When do they say
you report for duty?” I asked him.

  I pulled the paper from his hands and studied the date. March 25, 1940, was written in typed block letters.

  “That gives us five days,” I said, counting on my fingers.

  “There is nothing we can do, Solange. Half the boys in my class were drafted more than a year ago. I should consider myself lucky I’ve had this extra time with you.”

  “Nonsense,” I said. “We’ll devise a means for your escape.” My voice now sounded defiant and full of energy, its strength surprising even myself.

  “I would like to believe you could save me,” he said as he leaned over the table to kiss me again. This time his fingers ran through my hair, and I could sense that his fear of having just been conscripted made him even more desperate to live as fully as possible before he had to go.

  “At least now, I know if anything were to happen to me, Solange, I’ve experienced love.” He paused and lifted his eyes toward mine. “I have you to thank for that.”

  My own eyes were fighting back tears.

  “We have five days, Alex.”

  He placed his hand on my knee and cupped it through the cloth of my skirt.

  “I have the rest of the day just to be with you, Solange. Let’s fill it with light.”

  I placed my hand over his, sealing his invitation with my answer to join him for whatever time we had together.

  We rose and headed straight to the Métro. Without either of us speaking, we both knew where we wanted to go.

  * * *

  In the Bois de Boulogne, where courtesans used to ride their carriages and where lovers for centuries found seclusion off the beaten paths, we found shelter under the budding almond trees.

  I lay down with Alex in the damp grass. I let his hand travel beneath my skirt. His body pressed against mine. I inhaled his breath between kisses. I ran my fingers through his black, wavy hair, and let him touch every curve of my body without protest.

  With my eyes closed, I surrendered under his caresses. I let the young naïve girl melt into the grass, and I allowed my own longing to awaken.

  Mapmakers record every cliff, every plateau, with their drafting pen. But lovers use their hands to mark the topography of flesh and bone.

  Under the canopy of fragrant trees, my hands memorized the strong contours of Alex’s chest through the cotton of his shirt. My thumbs traced the cleaving of his shoulder blades.

  Afterward, we wandered toward the pond. Lilies floated softly, and a family of swans navigated the gentle green water.

  It was dusk when we finally walked back toward the Métro, our hands laced together. I did not look at Alex in profile. My mind was already full, and I saw him more clearly than if I had used my eyes.

  * * *

  That evening, I did not tell Marthe about any of these passionate moments. But I did go to her and ask her if she knew of any way she could help us.

  I was surprised when she eventually asked me for the details of the letters. Alex’s name and his address, where and when he was to report to duty.

  She could sense my despair even though her own cough and health seemed far worse than the week before.

  “This Alex,” she said. “I would like for you to bring him to the apartment so I can meet him.

  “Time is of the essence,” she said. “See if he can come by tomorrow at four o’clock.”



  March 1940

  Knowing Alex would be coming seemed to reinvigorate Marthe. I watched how she acted buoyantly the following morning as she rose and took her bath. I could see she was taking multiple cups of tea and honey to calm her persistent cough.

  In midmorning, she was still in her dressing gown, giving Giselle orders about the menu. Giselle reached into the tin for the extra money she would need to obtain such delicacies in the midst of the war.

  By the time Alex arrived, Marthe had transformed back to the way I had first seen her. The beautiful dress. The rope of pearls. A sparkling comb set into her chignon of thick hair.

  Her face, which had been gaunt for months, was dusted in powder. Her cheeks were rouged and her eyes glimmered. I had given her something to look forward to, and the sight of her appearing somewhat restored made me immensely happy.

  Alex was wearing a suit and tie. He looked older in his elegant clothes. He had smoothed his black curls with pomade and smelled of sandalwood soap and night air.

  “You must be Alex,” Marthe said, extending her hand. With great politeness, Alex kissed the space just above her fingers.

  “Enchanté,” he said. His slow, deliberate pronunciation delighted my grandmother; for a moment, I could imagine her extending her hand to gentlemen such as Charles or Boldini who arrived at her door.

  “My granddaughter has spoken so highly of you.” She smiled. “To the salon, shall we?”

  He followed her as she gestured in the direction of the parlor. She opened the French doors, and I nearly gasped at the sight of how beautifully Giselle had prepared the room. It wasn’t just the array of small tea cakes and petits fours that Giselle had placed on a tiered serving dish. The tall famille rose vase from Marthe’s porcelain collection had also been filled with fresh flowers. Roses and lilies of the valley were bursting forth in great abundance from the vase’s mouth. The room smelled of the most beautiful perfume.

  “Now I know why Solange has said your apartment seems as though time has stood still . . . Why, I would never leave if I lived here.” His eyes glinted first toward Marthe and then me.

  But soon I saw his focus travel toward the mantel then to Marthe’s portrait. I glanced over at her. I now realized this was part of her ritual with every new visitor who walked through the doors of her parlor for the first time. They would meet her first, but the largest impression she would make was when her guests’ eyes fell upon Boldini’s painting of her.

  It was Alex’s turn to discover the painting. He stood in front of it, entranced.

  “Madame de Florian,” he said, prying his eyes away from the sensual portrait. “What an incredibly stunning rendering of you.”

  Her smile was one of a coquette, even in her seventies. “Well,” she uttered, beguiled. “I’m quite flattered you can still discern it is me.”

  ‘There is little doubt,” he replied, his eyes returning to the portrait. “It’s captivating.”

  “Thank you.” I could hear the satisfaction in her voice. Alex had passed her first test, and I was relieved.

  “Let’s take a seat and have some tea,” she said as she gestured for him to sit on one of the bergères.

  She rang a small bell to signal Giselle to bring in the tea.

  We sipped dark, fragrant tea from porcelain cups and saucers decorated with butterflies and birds, the winged creatures that Marthe so loved. We spoke of Alex’s love of rare books, his apprenticeship in his father’s shop, and Marthe’s passion for Asian ceramics.

  It wasn’t until the end that she asked Alex about his conscription.

  “It is wrong to draft such a cultured young man into the army.” She shook her head. “Many men are built for fighting brutes who are natural warriors. And then there are those who have minds suited for wartime strategy. But you are gentle and blessed with an artistic eye.”

  She looked as though she was appraising him as she spoke. “I can see why my granddaughter has taken such a liking to you.”

  I felt myself redden with embarrassment.

  “Grand-maman . . . ,” I protested, but she raised her hand to silence me. She would have the last word.

  “You seem like a delightful young gentleman,” she told him. “And when I look at you, I can imagine you making my granddaughter quite happy. To an old woman like myself, this is a gift.”

  * * *

  That evening, as I went to say good night, I saw her at the dining room table.

  “Good night, Grand-maman,” I said sweetly. I came over to her. “Thank you for today.” In her peignoir set, her face naked and without makeup, she looked more vulnerable than she typically appeared. She seemed to be writing something, but she covered her hand to shield me from seeing what it was. I inhaled the scent of flowers from the cream she used on her skin. And I realized that I didn’t just love Alex. My heart had also made room for this woman who smelled of rose.



  March 1940

  I went to Alex the next day at his father’s store. When I arrived, it looked as if half of the inventory had already either been packed away or sold. The shelves were nearly empty, as less than a third of the number of books remained compared to my previous visit.

  Standing in the back were Alex, his father, and Solomon. I could hear the faint sound of German being whispered. I knew that Alex’s father’s family had originally come to Paris from Alsace and it was probably easier for the German-born Solomon to converse with them in his native tongue.

  I walked closer to them, my eyes traveling again to the sparse shelves. An ominous feeling washed over me. What if Monsieur Armel had decided he had no other choice but to flee Paris, even at the risk of Alex being imprisoned for ignoring his draft notice?

  “Solange.” Alex looked up. I could immediately sense the strain on his face.

  Monsieur Armel, too, looked far wearier than the last time I had seen him.

  “Have you met Solomon Weckstein?” I shook my head. “We’re very lucky to have him. He does amazing work with restoring our most delicate manuscripts and books.” Monsieur Armel gestured with his hand toward the thin man in the ill-fitting black suit. He was taller than both Alex and his father, but he stood with his shoulders sloped and his neck bent forward as if he were afraid to take up too much space.

  “A pleasure to meet you,” I said, extending my hand.

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