Monday, September 30, 2019

The Blue Lady Jenean McBrearty

In the chaos of World War II, Gabby and Francois are each trying to hold on to the person they love; by Jenean McBrearty.

We were on our way to see Agnes' new baby. I said, "Let's walk down the alley, Ciebel," but he said no. He wanted to walk by the water and see the sailing ship that had tied up at the pier. "Okay, I'll meet you at Agnes'."

He gently grabbed my wrist. "No, Gabby. Come with me. You want to see a baby; I want to see a Blue Lady. If you want me to see a baby with you, why would I not want you to see a tall ship with me? Babies are born here every day, but the ship may never come again."

I did want him to see the baby. I wanted him to think how wonderful it would be for us to marry and have one of our own. Did he want me to see the ship because he wanted me to think of us sailing around the world? To see Athens, perhaps? Or Alexandria? "We'll walk the alley there and by the pier on the way home. How's that?"

He looked down the alley. "The women are hanging their laundry. Do you want dodge sheets and duck under undies?"

I counted five women, with their baskets and clothes pins, hanging their art. Blue sheets, white towels. One pink slip and a pair of men's white boxers with red hearts painted on them. That would be Tina's load.

"They'll scold us if we weave through their clean clothes. It will be a desecration, strangers brushing against their household accouterments, like touching their bodies."

"Ciebel, you are so foolish."

"I am an artist."

He was right. "Alright, we'll walk by the bay."

He put his arm around my shoulders, and steered me across the street that had trolley tracks down the middle. We turned right. I could see two tall masts above the buildings, folded sails tied to the rigging like a peacock who keeps his tailfeathers trailing behind him until, suddenly, they array around him, billowing in full sail. Proud. Regal.

As we walked past the floating antique, Ciebel slowed his pace. He cast his eyes on the figure on the bow, a blue woman wearing a white gown that clung to her body, like a man feasting on the beauty of a real damsel with no thought of the woman at his side. I saw a desire on his face I hadn't seen since the first night we made love.

He stopped. "They're letting people go aboard Sunday afternoon. I read it in the paper," he said, as he sat on the wooden bench with black iron arms. "I wonder what the Surrealists will do, now that the Da-da world has come and gone. Will they be bored, do you think? Will they be blue? Will they marry and send their children to the university to study classical art?"

"The Nazis have left the world a fractured place. It's as if the Da-da dream came true and now the Surrealists will hash it all out for us, piece by piece, and make it orderly insanity." I said. How could he forget the uniforms and helmets so quickly?

"Insanity was the reason for the war. It's here now, too, only it's disguised. You don't recognize it because your eyes are clouded with love and hope. Ah, yes, and gratitude." He was looking down on me though we sat side by side.

Did he think the wooden blue lady beautiful, I wondered, as he kept staring at it as one stares at something astounding, because I thought her grotesque. She had neither smile nor frown, but a grimace that screamed fortitude. Like the carved dragons on Viking prows, she was designed to frighten the enemy. Ciebel used to laugh that the British had their lion, the Soviets their bear, and the Americans their eagle. What did France have? The lily. Elegant taste, but no grit.

"Andre Breton looks a lot like Oscar Wilde, I think. It's a shame he doesn't have Wilde's emotional detachment and humor," he said.

"Well, he did slap Ehrenburg a few times for suggesting he was a child molester," I said. "That's funny, when you think about it. What was supposed to happen, A duel? Breton escaped the war by hawking his politics and his art movement to the new World."

"I did think he was a coward of sorts, but now I'm not so sure. Maybe saving surrealism was a service of greater bravery than saving the world from the Nazis. Maybe it's better to leave than to fight; maybe the arts were the only things worth saving if all we have to look forward to is an American empire. At least the Germans had beautiful uniforms, like the warships adorned with monstrous women are beautiful."

I didn't know what to say. Was he asking my permission, inviting me to go aboard with him, or warning me he was leaving? I couldn't tell. "It would be interesting to tour the ship," I said, as I took his hand and pulled him up. We walked on. I could feel hesitation in every step as his arm seemed to hold me back. "You don't want to see Agnes," I said when the truth was, he didn't want to see the baby. He liked Agnes. He thought her witty and they both loved Paris and talked often about its grand place in history.

"She may be tired. I've heard new mothers wear out easily. I've also heard they disappear when the child arrives. I think we should wait until she'll leave the baby with Francois, and take her to the Brutal Bistro for lunch."

"Of course, she'd like that," I said. "but why don't we all go to Paris for the day?"

"That's not a bad suggestion. She hasn't been there since the Nazis left. You're fortunate, Gabby. You have a father who supports you. Agnes has nothing but Francois, and he earns next to nothing."

"Maybe the baby's father will come back for them."

"He's probably dead. It's not like he was an officer. Agnes seems to prefer poor men. She treats them like stray cats. Francois should be grateful Agnes is willing to share her bed with a flower vendor."

He was comparing Francois to Gerhard. It made me remember our meeting Agnes and Herr Schaffer at the Bistro, and how Francois watched us from his seat at the bar, glaring and smoking clove cigarettes. Gerhard Schaffer was so blond, it was difficult to see his eyebrows. His eyes were magnificently lake-blue. Sitting next to him, Agnes, pretty as she is, looked like a drab sparrow. He spoke French too, which made him all the more attractive to me and to the Nazis. He was a translator for Captain Von Somebody-or-other.

"What do you translate?" I asked him.

"Intercepted communications between De Gaulle and the Free French. Meaningless messages, considering the army is going home soon."

Agnes had quickly glanced at Francois. So quickly, I doubt Gerhard noticed.

"Do you think Germany will lose the war?" Ciebel said.

"We lost it the day of the Barbarossa invasion. We haven't the resources to fight a two-front war. Geography has always been our downfall."

Agnes' face clouded with worry. I expected to see hurt, and I knew then she was in love. When we went to the women's lounge, she confessed she was pregnant. "I can help you get rid of your problem," I volunteered. "I know someone in Paris."

"I don't want to get rid of it. Francois says he'll look after us. I believe him."

"But it's a German child! How can you expect Francois to live with that?"

"He knows only what I tell him. I make Schaffer happy, and I protect Francois from danger." She blew on the mirror and traced the cross of the Free French with her finger.

"You're a spy?"

"I'm a distraction. There are worse things people do in the resistance. Maybe, when this is all over, I'll go to Marburg with Schaffer."

"And maybe, he'll come back," I said. It didn't seem too optimistic, but as the days passed and she had no word from Schaffer, I was sure Agnes would never see him again.

I shoved the memory back into its closet. "Let's go home, then, if you don't want to go to Agnes'," I said to Ceibel. "I'll ring her and say we'll take her out as soon as she's rested."

I wanted to ask Ceibel if he still loved me as we lay in bed that afternoon, but I was afraid of the answer. "Have you ever wanted to go to sea?" I asked instead.

"I'd like to sail a day on the Blue Lady now that the Wolfpacks are gone. I wonder if explorers like Columbus would have been so brave if there'd been U-boats to contend with."

"They had other things to deal with. Scurvy. Thirst. Rats."

He rolled over on me. "No women for months at a time."

At least he still wanted my body. I imagined myself a light shade of blue, posing before his easel. A Hindu goddess. A heron diving towards a lake. Shiny as a seal coat. Blue as Gerhard's eyes. And we fell asleep, never settling the question of a sailor's worst hardship.



Francois came banging on the door about midnight. Ciebel let him in and I struggled to awake and climb into clothes. I followed voices to the kitchen. Ciebel had made coffee and a bottle of brandy on the counter told me it was serious.

"Imagine Gerhard thinking he cold come back nine months after defeat and come into Agnes' bed with me laying beside her! Filthy kraut! Not an ounce of decency." Francois grabbed the brandy bottle and took a healthy swig.

"Maybe they're really in love," Ciebel said "He had to obey evacuation orders, but it didn't mean he was never coming back. You must have known that."

Francois shot him a writer's murderous stare. "In my script, he doesn't return. He dies at the Remagen Bridge and I take care of baby Suzette like she was my own."

"Oh, the stories we tell ourselves. In my script, I put to sea on the Blue Lady and sleep with a Turkish belly-dancer. Yours is equally as fanciful as the one I've written, but mine is happier."

Ciebel glanced at me sheepishly. I was standing in the doorway, wearing a pink print cotton dress. Francois looked at me too, with his large black eyes. They lingered on mine, and then he said to Ciebel, "I shouldn't have come. If Agnes asks if you've seen me, tell her I'm at my mother's house. Good night."

He came towards me, and hesitated, waiting for me to step aside, and whispered, "I'll be at my mother's."

As one back-up to another, his message was clear. Until the people we love get what they really want, we'll do. We're the Plan "B" of wartime strategies. I wish he hadn't recognized me as his reflection, but he did. Looking back, I suppose it was a gift. If the Blue Lady didn't claim Ciebel, another dream would, in time.

Before Agnes left with Gerhard, she brought Suzette with her to say good-bye to me. She never mentioned Francois. The Blue Lady sailed without Ciebel. He is as afraid of the sea, I learned, as he is of all adventures and anchors. "I saw Ciebel in Paris," Francois told me as we sat at the Brutal Bistro bar. "He's painting now. Helene supports his art."

Francois returned the favor. I never told him Agnes didn't ask about him the day she said good-bye, and he never told me Ciebel didn't ask about me. In my script, Agnes and Ciebel forget our names. Oh, the stories we tell ourselves. Francois' tale was as sad as mine.

2 comments:

  1. Post war romantic fallout. Everyone wants peace but there are still battles on other fronts.

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  2. Nice atmosphere in this one. I really felt transported to that place and time.

    ReplyDelete