In this short story, I wanted to create a character different from her family (conflict) who comes to terms with who she is and why by having her face certain situations. This story was published in Whiskey Island Magazine Spring 1999.
From age eight Anne-Marie sought refuge from her parents' loft in the calm of Sacre Coeur. The odor of incense and candles smelled better than oil paint. The choir sang sweetly unlike the raucous debates at home.
"She's the white sheep of the family," Anne-Marie's mother said.
"Must be your side." Her father referred to his wife's brother, a priest.
Anne-Marie watched from her mattress as her mother gave a face shrug; pursing her lips, lifting her eyebrows and pushing her chin forward. The child touched the triptych of the Blessed Mother.
"We'll hide it from your father in this box," her mother had said when it arrived and had rearranged the screen providing limited privacy in the room that served as home and studio.
Despite her begging, Anne-Marie's parents refused to send her to convent school. They did pay for a secretarial course after she passed her bac. By then they'd given up trying to interest her in painting or poetry.
For her first job at France Telecom, Anne-Marie bought a blue suit, and several scarves. The clothes didn't make her half as happy as the chance to fill pristine paper with neat words and numbers. She lined up pencils like a marching band and arranged paper clips on the square magnetic holder she'd bought on sale at Mono Prix. Sliding open the drawer by her knee she stuffed the divisions with letterhead, second sheets, forms and envelopes.
Intrigued by her computer she asked Jean-Claude from data processing to borrow manuals. She studied them page by page. After that, anyone needing help was told, "Ask Anne-Marie." Although she knew which buttons to press, she wondered why they worked. After praying for courage, she asked Jean-Claude.
"Take a programming course," he said. Three days later he brought her a sheet announcing an evening course. She enrolled. When there was an opening in data processing she applied and was hired. No problem was too complicated for her.
She and Jean-Claude ate together often. "I wanted to be a nun," she said.
"Why don't you?" he asked.
She noticed he'd lost weight. One night while working late, he started crying.
When he told her, she made a decision.
After Anne-Marie's parents met their future son-in-law, her mother said, "He's translucent."
"He looks just plain sick," her father said.
Anne-Marie said nothing.
"We never thought you'd marry," her father said.
"Unless you became a bride of Christ," her mother said.
Anne-Marie still said nothing.
They didn't share a marriage bed. Jean-Claude slept in a hospital bed decorated with intravenous bottles and an oxygen tent. The paraphernalia rested in the center of his living room, making a detour necessary to turn on the television.
France Telecom allowed Anne-Marie to work at home. She changed sheets, washed sores and sent her latest program through her modem. The only reasons she left his apartment were to run errands or to go to church.
He rallied so often the pattern of crisis and recovery no longer aroused hope. During the good times the couple drank tea from bowls, listened to music or talked. Although she wasn't that interested in politics, she repeated comments she'd heard from her childhood. Jean-Claude would nod in agreement.
The night his former lover died of the same disease, Anne-Marie held her husband while he cried. As she felt his almost naked bones under his skin, she wondered how much longer he could go on. He fell asleep across her lap. It took him six months to follow his lover.
She kept his apartment. Each night when she returned from work, she walked around the hospital bed that was no longer there. The shelf that held medicines now had laundry detergent, bleach, Monsieur Propre, furniture wax and lipstick She couldn't bring herself to touch anything, so she bought new cleaning products and stopped wearing makeup.
Her parents invited her to dinner on the first month anniversary of Jean-Claude's death. When she arrived, they were so caught up in work they'd forgotten to cook. Her mother threw a stew together. The three of them dipped spoons into the pot. Her father had used the last soup bowl for his palette.
"Want to sleep over?" her mother asked.
Anne-Marie glanced at her old mattress piled with her father's canvases and paint supplies. The screen had disappeared long ago.
"No, but thank you."
"You're alone too much," her father said.
"I'm getting a pet," she said. Until that second the idea hadn't entered her head. She'd written to an abbey in Limoux, but wanted to give herself time to adjust to Jean-Claude's passing before making any major life decisions. "Maybe a bird that sings."
Walking through a pet store to buy a bird, a flash of gold caught her eye. A fish, one of fifty or so, pressed his nose to the glass. He was slightly different than the rest with black on his fins. "Fish don't need much care," the salesgirl said. She tried scooping another out, but Anne-Marie insisted on the one that had caught her attention.
She put his bowl on the divider separating the living and dining areas. Two floor-to-ceiling windows on each side of the divider looked out on a small park.
"What shall I name you?" A photo of Jean-Claude when he was healthy stood on her desk next to a geode. As Anne-Marie looked through the bowl the reflection of the light and movement of the water made it look as if her late husband was walking out of an amethyst cave. "Jean-Claude Junior," she said. She shortened his name to Junior and figured by the time the fish died, she'd be ready to enter the abbey.
Ten years passed. Junior needed three replacement bowls each larger than before. The last dominated the divider.
Her routine pleased her. She went to Mass mornings before work. Her neighbors, an elderly couple, invited her to dinner Wednesdays. She watered their plants when they went to England to visit their daughter. They offered to feed Junior if she wanted to take a holiday.
Most nights she arrived home by eight. Junior watched her set the table. She never ate from a pan but used china and cloth napkins. When she finished, she'd reach into the cabinet to get Junior's flakes.
One night as she dawdled over her herb tea, she heard a tapping. Junior batted his head against his bowl. It must be my imagination, she thought but got up. He hit his head against the bowl again. Then when she gave two shakes of food into the bowl, he swam in two circles before eating.
The next night Anne-Marie waited to feed Junior to see what would happen. He tapped. She responded. He's trained me, she thought, and said, "Your welcome," when he did his circles. She started chatting with him regularly.
"I'll be back around seven. Be a good boy."
"Today is Saturday, I'll be home all day."
"I'll iron in here to keep you company."
"There's a Depardieu movie on France 2 or we can watch Thé où Café."
When Anne-Marie added a plant to his tank, he started playing peek-a-boo with her. She always felt he thought he'd won, but she wasn't sure of the rules. Maybe he cheated.
"You need to get out more," her mother said on one visit. At work, Anne-Marie's female colleagues complained that their mothers would come and straighten things up. Anne-Marie's mother always left a mess.
"It's not healthy only working and living with a fish. "There's a new artist your father met..." her mother said.
"Mother!" Anne-Marie's tone said the last thing she needed was another artist in her life.
"My mother actually tried to play matchmaker," she complained at work to Elisabeth, another programmer. "I can't believe it."
"Mothers are like that," Elisabeth said.
Anne-Marie invited Elisabeth to dinner. On the metro, Anne-Marie explained about Junior.
After coffee, Anne-Marie waited for Junior to tap. Nothing happened. Just as Elisabeth was about to leave, she said, "I'll feed him anyway. You'll see how he does a double circle." After the flick-flick of her wrist, Junior went right to the flakes. As soon as Elisabeth shut the door, Junior tapped and circled his tank.
"Brat." Anne-Marie turned out the light and went to bed.
Anne-Marie's parents came to dinner the third Thursday of each month. In November eleven years after Jean-Claude died, she served rabbit in wine sauce and potatoes seasoned with sage. Her parents had long ago given up complaining about her flowers, matched Limoges dishes and Finnish crystal wine glasses.
Before they ate, Anne-Marie moved the yellow roses, which she'd bought in the metro station, from the center of the table to the mantle. The reflection in the mirror doubled the bouquet.
"C'est bon." Her father kissed the tips of his fingers then wiped the last bit of sauce from his plate with bread. "You're an angel of a cook." Anne-Marie blushed.
Her parents were dressed in their usual jeans and sweaters. Her mother's hair, salt and pepper wild curls springing out of her head, hid most of her back. Her father was egg-shell bald.
As he raged against Sarkozy's election, her mother arranged the cheeses: brebis, Roquefort, chevre and a gouda with cumin while her father uncorked a burgundy. Each person broke off a portion of bread which less than four hours before had been in the baker's oven. A sampling of cheese, a bit of bread, a sip of wine fuelled a communion cleansing.
"I'll never understand you," her father said. Junior paced up and down the side of his tank.
"You don't have to, Papa," Anne-Marie said. "Think of me as a black and white linear minimalist." For the first time she felt at ease with her parents.
Her mother looked at her daughter. "That is almost poetic."
Junior tapped twice.
When her parents left, Anne-Marie fed Junior, put a Bach sonata on the CD and turned on her computer. She worked long after midnight.
Before she went to bed, she said her rosary. In the middle of the night she woke and decided to go to the abbey at Limoux for a retreat. Maybe her sense of peace meant that she was ready to become a bride of Christ. Junior would just have to do his antics for the couple upstairs.
The abbey was next to a field of flowers with a separate chapel. Inside the abbey she was given a cot with the crucifix on the opposite wall, the rough dress and scarf holding back her hair, the sisters walking without speaking, the silence broken only by birds and footsteps were all as Anne-Marie had imagined over the years. The quiet left her mind careening between childhood memories and programming problems rather than the prayers she was suppose to concentrate on.
After lunch on the seventh day of her planned two-week stay she slipped into the grey stone chapel. It was narrow and buttressed in a style she knew was medieval. Despite the heat outside, the stones felt cold against her knees.
She began her rosary. Half way through the third Ave Maria she looked up. Two plastic round lights hung from the ceiling. It was the first time Anne-Marie had noticed how out of place they looked. Anne-Marie finished her rosary.
The next night she left the convent, bought a bottle of white wine for her parents and another for the couple taking care of Junior.
As she came out of the Metro and could see her apartment building, she knew she was home.
As she came out of the Metro and could see her apartment building, she knew she was home.