The velvet hours, p.23
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       The Velvet Hours, p.23

           Alyson Richman
Solomon, clearly uncomfortable with my presence, did not take my hand. He only nodded politely. I let my hand fall to my side.

  “We have been discussing the need to close the store,” Alex said.

  “At this point, most of our former clients have no interest in buying anything for their collections. If anything, they want to sell what they already have.” Monsieur Armel’s eyes fell to the ground as Alex spoke on his behalf.

  “And Solomon here is telling Papa that we should just sell everything we have and try to get visas to the United States before it’s too late.”

  I remained quiet.

  “But as you know, leaving is impossible for me unless I’m first released from my military service.” Alex looked exhausted. “And I don’t see that being possible.”

  “There’s no point in me still working without my son at my side.” Monsieur Armel’s voice sounded shattered. “I built this business to be able to provide for him, with the hope that one day he would take it over,” he sighed.

  Solomon muttered something in German to Alex, and I saw both he and his father shake their heads no, as if saying whatever he was suggesting was hopeless.

  “What does Solomon think?” I sounded desperate.

  “He says Papa should do something harmful to my eyes, so I’ll fail my medical exam.”

  “What?” I was incredulous. “What could he possibly do to your eyes?”

  Alex shook his head. “He said in Poland, teenage thugs threw acid on the most beautiful Jewish girls’ faces, and it not only scarred them, it blinded them, too.”

  I shuddered at his words, and my fingers instinctively floated to touch my own face. The image of the young girls was horrible and hard to put out of my mind.

  * * *

  We left Alex’s father and Solomon. Monsieur Armel had insisted that Alex leave the remainder of the packing to him, as he had only a few more days of freedom left.

  “Where will you store everything?” I asked as our hands reached for each other’s.

  “We’ll move the boxes to our apartment. It will be crowded, even with me gone, but the books will be safe there . . .” He seemed confident that his father would be able to manage.

  The day was warm and the sky was delft blue. “Let’s go somewhere we’ve never been together before . . . If I have only a few more days with you, I want to see you next to as many different landscapes as I can . . .” He leaned over and kissed me.

  This time his kiss was firmer, more passionate. When our lips parted, I could see he was savoring every moment between us.

  Although I loathed how time was slipping away so quickly, Alex’s kiss felt like a magical box opening inside of me. I now felt beautiful and desirable. And it was as intoxicating as perfume.

  * * *

  We ventured toward the Luxembourg Gardens. We would save our money by forsaking the Métro, and instead walk hand in hand toward the park. On the streets, people clutched their belongings to their chests. Packages wrapped in brown paper. Newspapers that bore the latest Nazi advancements. The looming threat of a German invasion felt like hovering storm clouds, even though all around us were the first signs of spring.

  Like the rest of the Parisians, we distracted ourselves with what simple pleasures we could find. On the street, we found a man selling crêpes. Alex reached into his pocket and bought one for us to share.

  Our fingers touched as we traded the crêpe between us.

  The taste awakened our senses, warm and sweet against our tongues, and inspired us to forsake our shyness.

  “Tell me,” he said. “Do you write every night?”

  I smiled. I felt my eyes dancing as he asked me about the thing I loved to do most in the world.

  “I have written every night since I was twelve. My mother was the one who gave me my first leather journal. And I’ve filled the pages of a dozen others ever since.”

  “I’ve always loved to read,” he said, sneaking another glance at me. “Not just the classic novels, but the French philosophers, too.

  “Voltaire, Montaigne, Rousseau . . . I grew up believing the French valued the rights of the individual. I’m not sure I have that same confidence now. Solomon tells us that, in the end, we will be considered Jewish before French.”

  I lowered my eyes.

  “I suppose I should read some Dumas now. It would provide a well-needed diversion.”

  “The Count of Monte Cristo would be perfect . . . just in case we need to escape from prison,” I replied, trying to match his ability to use comic relief. I knew he was trying to return our conversation back to less gloomy waters. Alex could shift between darkness and light. It was a pattern with him. He could be grave one minute talking about the war and flirtatious the next. I enjoyed the undulations in our conversation. He always kept me on my toes.

  * * *

  We were now at the entrance to the gardens. The grass was green, the palace in the center cut majestically against the sky.

  Around us, apple blossoms lifted off of their branches floated in the wind like snow. Pigeons landed on the pebbled pavement and then took flight again as our shoes crunched on the sandy taupe-colored gravel. The walk from the Marais had been lengthy, and now we looked for a place to sit.

  I pointed to a park bench under one of the many elm trees that lined the grounds. With his hands now free, Alex reached for my fingers and pulled me to where we could finally sit down.

  He kissed me again. “Will you write in your journals about my kisses?” he said as he reached now to touch my hair.

  “I will write about everything,” I said, closing my eyes. I lifted my lips toward his once again.

  What I didn’t tell him was that when I sat down to write, it wouldn’t be only his kisses I would remember, but also the ache in my heart that he was leaving. It is a terrible thing to feel so powerless. I wanted to rewrite our destiny in my journal. I wanted to believe that I wouldn’t lose yet another person I loved.



  March 1940

  My dear Antoine, Marthe wrote as she pulled out her stationery. Over the years, she had written countless letters of correspondence on the paper with the gold embossed butterfly, but now she paused as to what to write next. She ran her hand over the heavy bonded paper. She pressed her finger to the butterfly. This one needed to be drafted with particular care.

  I am not sure if you will remember me, as so many years have passed since we last saw each other. Then, you were a young major, and I have since learned you are now a general. I write not because of our mutual love of art and painting, but because of something even more personal. I do not like to ask for favors. It is also not my nature to interfere with the government or matters that concern men of power. But if you remember that evening we spent in front of my Boldini portrait, our discussions of your mother’s art and talent, and that one night we shared thereafter, you will recall that what fueled me both then and now as an old lady, are the things in life that keep our hearts aflutter and our blood warm. And so you must realize, I am writing about love . . .

  She continued crafting the letter, her pen rolling over the paper as smoothly as a skate on ice. Her words were well chosen, and her emotions pressed deeply into every sentence. She remembered how powerless she had been to save Charles. But her heart was now flooded with a different type of emotion. It wasn’t the physical, amorous love that besotted the young. She instead saw herself on the outside, a voyeur to both her granddaughter’s burgeoning happiness and the potential for it to be destroyed.

  She did not know if the letter would reach the officer, or if what she wrote would ultimately have any effect on what she was attempting. But she wrote anyway. For even when he had been a young major, Antoine d’Angelis had surprised her with his sensitivity, and she knew she had to try. She had to believe that even if their connection was brief, it had been unique. She had even sent
him a wedding gift when she read in the newspaper that he was engaged.

  That afternoon, Marthe did not ask Giselle to post the letter. She vowed to do it herself. As her fingers let go of the envelope in the mailbox, she turned to hear some rustling in the linden trees behind her. There on the branch were two stock doves, their beaks pecking at each other playfully. She took it as an auspicious sign. All her life, something in the constellations changed for the better whenever she was in the company of birds.



  March 1940

  Time became a form of currency. We counted days, hours, even minutes together as though they were precious coins.

  He told me he had written a letter to his father and one to me should he not return.

  “Don’t think like that,” I told him. “You will come back.”

  “I am hardly a soldier,” he said. His eyes were bloodshot. “And even if I were, the Germans have the superior army.”

  “You haven’t slept. You’re not thinking clearly,” I insisted.

  “I am not worried about myself. It’s my fear for you and my father that keep me up at night.”

  “We will be fine. Perhaps my grandmother will let your father come live with us, too,” I said, hoping to soften his angst with humor, a trick I had learned from him.

  I succeeded in making him smile.

  “Now that would be worthy of a novel.” He laughed, and I realized at that moment, the sound of his happiness restored me.

  We reached for each other’s hands again. The touch of his skin. The warmth of his blood. Our fingers searched for each other, the roots of two trees entwined.

  “Let’s get lost again today,” he urged, looking at his watch.

  I thought of my grandmother. First, her life in the shadows with Charles, and now still ensconced in an apartment where time stood still. How I wanted to shut its doors and retreat there from the world with Alex by my side.

  “Yes, let’s . . . ,” I whispered to him. I yearned for the security of the shadows. I didn’t want either of us to ever be found.

  * * *

  In those five days, we had become experts in finding the most secluded wooded areas in Paris. In every garden that had once belonged to a courtier, we found the hidden canopies and discovered each other with our hands and lips.

  I now knew the language of caresses, the music of escalated breath. I understood that kisses could leave their own imprint. That skin retained the memory of a lover’s touch, like a fossil pressed into stone.

  When he left, I felt his fingers still around me. His palms that had mapped my thighs. His warm mouth on my neck. I discovered his fragrance in the perfume of freshly cut grass. His voice was always in my ear, even after he had departed. It was like a song I carried inside my head.

  * * *

  When I returned to my grandmother’s apartment, my face betrayed my anguish. Two days remained, and then Alex would be gone.

  I went straight to my room. I had brought Marthe’s radio to my bedside so I could listen to the news reports at night. And now I wanted to smash it to the floor. I hated the war. I hated how little control we had over our lives. I flung myself on the bed and began to cry.

  * * *

  “Please invite Alex and his father for dinner tomorrow night.” I sat at the long dining room table with Marthe. She was wrapped in her dressing gown, her face without makeup. She looked almost translucent, as her weight loss had made the angles of her face more pronounced. Her eyes were hard upon me.

  “I don’t think it will be possible, Grand-maman. It will be his last night before he has to report to his military training. I think he’ll want to spend the evening alone with his father.”

  “Nonetheless, you will need to find a way to get them both here.” She took a deep breath, and the sound alarmed me. Her breathing sounded raspy, her chest as hollow as a drum.

  “Have you seen your doctor about that cough?” I asked, changing the subject. “I’m concerned.” In front of her was a plate of poached chicken and julienned vegetables that Giselle had prepared. Since we sat down, Marthe had hardly taken a forkful.

  “Don’t avoid what I just asked of you, Solange.” A cough escaped her. She quickly tried to muffle it with her hand, but it intensified. Her face became a painful shade of red.

  “Let me get you some water.” I reached over for the pitcher and refilled her glass.

  She shook her head. “All I want is for you to find a way to get them here for dinner tomorrow night. You must, Solange. I insist.”

  * * *

  I had no idea how I would manage to get both the Armels to come, but the next morning I put on a dress the color of marigolds and tied my hair back with a white satin ribbon I had found in Giselle’s clipping basket.

  Only a few days before when I walked into their shop, there were still a few volumes on the bookshelves. Now, every shelf was empty.

  The bell on the door that announced my arrival left a chill in the air. Without anything to sell, the store seemed like an empty tomb.

  “Alex?” My voice sounded nervous. The door had been open. I knew someone had to be in the store.

  “Alex?” I repeated.

  I waited for several seconds, although it felt like several minutes.

  Suddenly I heard a rustle. It was Monsieur Armel.

  “Solange.” He said my name softly. “You’re a sight for weary eyes.”

  I stepped closer. He looked so tired. His pale eyes were dim and watery. His hair was out of place. Fatigue and sadness had aged him in a matter of days.

  “You must be looking for Alex . . . not me.” He forced himself to smile.

  “It’s always a pleasure to see you, Monsieur Armel.”

  He reached for my hand and pressed it between his two cupped palms. I was used to the sensation of Alex’s skin against mine: warm and soft. The cool papery sensation of Monsieur Armel’s saddened me, while Alex’s touch had always made me feel alive.

  “He will be back shortly. He needed to do an errand for me.” He let go of my hand and motioned for me to sit down.

  * * *

  In the same chairs where I had discovered the story of my grandfather and his rare books, I now sat with Monsieur Armel, with hardly a word between us. The glimmer in his eyes that had once ignited when he saw my rare Haggadah was now replaced with a sense of defeat.

  If my heart was heavy because of Alex’s imminent departure, his father’s heart was drowning.

  “I am sorry,” he apologized, lifting his chin. “I don’t even have tea to offer you. Everything is already packed. Today is the last day left on our lease here.”

  “It’s quite all right,” I said, forcing a smile. “I already had some this morning.”

  He nodded and I noticed he was wringing his hands.

  “So many of us are losing our sons just before Passover. The irony has not been lost on any of us.”

  “I am so sorry . . .” It was hard to find any other words.

  “The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported this week that over sixty thousand Jewish boys are in the French legion. And now the army is taking boys like my son.”

  He took a deep breath and raised his head in my direction.

  “I have lived my whole life coveting beautiful treasures from centuries past. I’ve held books in my hands that have withstood flooding, fires, and raids. But nothing is more precious than a child. I would do anything in the world to save my son and yet, I am completely powerless to help him.”

  Monsieur Armel’s voice broke off.

  I walked over to place my hand on his back. I felt his bones beneath the tweed and was struck by how fragile he had become.

  “I, too, wish I could do something.” The words broke in my throat. I swallowed them, painful as bits of glass.

  “He should be here any moment.” I felt
Monsieur Armel’s back straighten beneath my palm. “We will do him no favors if he sees we are already mourning him.

  “So please, no tears, Solange.”

  I nodded.

  Just then we both heard the jangle of the bell and Alex’s voice fill the air.

  “Papa?” The sound of his voice made my heart flutter.

  I could hear his approaching footsteps.

  When he reached the back of the store, his face brightened at the sight of me.

  “Solange?” A smile formed across his face. “What a wonderful surprise.”

  “I knew today would be hectic for you.” I stumbled out an apology. “It’s almost unfathomable to imagine that tomorrow you’ll be getting your uniform.”

  I struggled to continue. “I have no idea if you’ve even begun to pack . . .”

  Alex’s eyes softened. “I packed this morning. I probably have too many socks.” He tried to make a joke, but neither Monsieur Armel nor I could bring ourselves to laugh.

  “I must confess the reason that I’m here. In addition to wanting to see you before you leave, my grandmother has put me up to some unexpected business.”

  Alex pulled off his jacket and placed it on the chair. “And what sort of business might that be?”

  “It’s a social request on her part.” I blushed.

  Alex’s face suddenly turned curious.

  “I know my timing must seem callous considering how precious every last moment with Alex is for you . . .”

  I took a deep breath. “But my grandmother would like to extend an invitation for both of you to come to dinner tonight.”

  I was so confident that Monsieur Armel would politely decline, that I had already imagined his voice conveying their regrets. It took me by complete surprise when I heard him say: “I think we will all be grateful for the distraction, dear Solange. So please tell your grandmother we are very appreciative of her request.”

  * * *

  They arrived at half past seven. Monsieur Armel and Alex both in dark suits. One could see their resemblance now that they were both dressed in their best clothes. Monsieur’s white hair was smoothed back in pomade, his glacial blue eyes piercing. It appeared he had undertaken great lengths to camouflage his mental anguish.

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