The apartment next to mine was rented to a man who designed abattoirs for a living. Because this was France, he explained to me in French about something I can translate only as a killing box. If I understood him correctly, he wanted me to know that Jews and Muslims use the same killing box, at different angles. Jews turn it upside down, while Muslims angle it to Mecca. One box, rotatable. I thought he was implying some profound insight into the various religions of the world (different gods, same killing box?), but actually he wanted to discuss the particulars of his vocation and nothing more.

     I was twenty-six. I was the kind of Jew who didn’t know which way her people turned their killing boxes. I was the kind of meat eater who liked to forget there was a killing box.

     I lived in Paris that year, in a part of town that felt like a mausoleum. I am of the opinion that half of Paris feels like a mausoleum. If you board a bus in that half of the city you will find yourself among the geriatric set, complete with moth-eaten fur and an orchestra of canes. They are a particular kind of old, these old Parisians. I don’t mean to sound cruel when I say that they are something akin to death on legs. And their old courtyards, their churches, their cobblestone laneways are like dead organs in formaldehyde: perfectly preserved, but to what end?

     Parisians suspect it. All year they asked me, But why did you come?

     I came to study opera with a giant and take a lover the way French people take lovers in movies. I wanted all the usual things: to gnaw on a baguette while walking, achieve sophisticated orgasm, suck on hand-rolled cigarettes, and exhale witty rebuttals to existentialism with my scarf tied just so.

     I know.

     By giant, I mean simply that my singing teacher was as well known as a person can be in a dying art. Parisians knew him. People who knew what bel canto was knew him. The lessons went well. He coaxed my soprano into nimble, finicky waters until I excelled at the parts of vivacious tricksters in Mozart operas.

 

Despite the morbidity of his occupation, my neighbour the abattoir designer was really very harmless. He liked to watch soccer in his room and drink whisky. Often when I went for groceries he would call down to me in the street and ask me to fetch two bottles of Glen Campbell. He always paid me back for the Glen Campbell and tended to round up to forty when he didn’t have exact change. As a rule he stayed inside on evenings and weekends, slowly turning up the volume on his television. He may have been harmless, but he was certainly sad. Or rather, I don’t know what he felt: what I know is that he made me sad. In general, people do not like to see other people not leaving their rooms. Why? What business is it of ours? I find it hard to believe the sentiment is altruistic.

     Here is how I could tell when my neighbour was drunk. He had a cat named Jane. In French the name takes the soft j of je t’aime and rhymes with something between fan and faun. Jane. Always, after having drunk a certain amount, he would begin to talk to his cat flirtatiously. His terms of endearment came through the wall from his kitchen into mine. Ma belle Jane, he’d say in the coquettish voice of a lover. Qui est la plus belle du monde? C’est toi, ma petite Jane. Viens ici, ma chère. Viens, viens. If she didn’t come, he’d accuse her of teasing. If she did, he would demand nuzzles, purrs, leg rubs. It was a very thin wall, the one we shared. At least twice an evening I would hear pellets clattering into a bowl, often on the heels of new ice clinking into a tumbler. I suspected him of trying to buy her love in kibbles.

     At first I found comfort in this nightly ritual. My neighbour’s cloying cadences would drift across the table where I laboured over my meal, and I would listen, amused and even charmed by this silly private spectacle. I don’t like to eat dinner on my own. A solitary breakfast is another matter — no one to cool your coffee with inanities — but by the end of the day, when even the sun has given up, I always remember that time is nothing but a great bully, nudging you toward the abyss with each click of the clock. At that point I will take a voice through the wall if I have to.

 

I think we don’t like to see other people not leaving their rooms because it brings to mind a set of associations: the tang of an unwashed body, for one; mouldy food in and out of the fridge, and the attendant pests — ants, flies, mice, even rats; sheets grey with flakes of body; bathtub rings; semen stains. Things on the edge of turning — they unnerve us.

 

Halfway through the year, I met a jazz musician, a Frenchman, who wanted to move to New York and take a lover the way Americans take lovers in movies. (Which way is that? Bombastically, he said.) He was the kind of foreigner who could hold his own in a philosophical debate in English but didn’t know the word for fork, shoe, glasses, rain. I was the kind of foreigner in French who had studied and mastered the myriad cuts of beef. I hated to be in a restaurant without understanding the menu, and there was always, always beef on the menu.

     It didn’t take us long to learn that lovers are lovers no matter what the country, desperately vaulting from the wanted to the got and back again. The orgasms were not so much sophisticated as precise.

     It was around this time that I began to detest my neighbour’s infatuation with his cat. It repulsed me to hear his voice go limp with need as he cajoled and overfed poor Jane. One night my lover was sitting in my kitchen, eating the meal I’d prepared. (Was I happy to have a dinner companion to keep the bully at bay? Yes, if only I could have had my coffee in peace the next morning.) When he complimented (in French) the tenderness of the boeuf bourguignon, I told him (in French), That’s because most people make bourguignon with bavette but I make it with aloyau. To which he replied, You are the something of somethings in the kitchen, and when I didn’t understand half the sentence we switched to English and he said, To taste this meal is to glimpse beyond the shadows of the cave. I told him, That’s because I make it with sirloin.

     The night my lover went Platonic over dinner, he heard my neighbour for the first time, the usual drink loosening his tongue into the usual supplications at the moment I was trying to light an apple tart on fire. The woman at the bakery, who liked to instruct me in the necessities, had told me it was really the only way to eat apple tart: drizzle brandy and set a match to it. But fifteen matches later the tart remained drenched in liqueur, staunchly inflammable, and so we ate it in sodden, bitter slices. When he heard the neighbour’s soft tones through the kitchen wall, my lover looked up from his tart, delighted. He is amoureux?he asked me. He was snobby about all things love. For all that he wanted an American lover, he believed that French was the only language in which to discuss such matters. He is amoureux?

     Sure, I said. Amoureux with his cat.

     It took two languages and some miming to convince him he had understood correctly. In love with his cat? He took the news very badly. Got up from the table, insulted the apple tart, and sputtered (in English) about my neighbour: hideous, outrageous, disgusting. Finally, having scoured his mental dictionary for the proper terms of judgment, he hissed, This man is … he has … he has profaned love. Then he spat into the sink, downed a glass of wine, and, in need of a corrective gesture, ushered me to the bedroom.

     He might have spat because he didn’t like the tart but I don’t think so. The scene dismayed me. It gave me pause to hear a version of my own thoughts in my lover’s mouth. Such revulsion, such vitriol, and for what? I felt suddenly protective of my neighbour, whose joys in life were reduced to the bottle, the screen, and the cat. What harm had he done? Jane would never go hungry. For all we knew she thrived on the attention. What irked me most, however, was that word: profaned. The utter arrogance of the pronouncement, as if he were the expert. As if any of us are.

     Here is what I should have said the night my lover got on love’s high horse: If this is love profaned, then show me love sacred.

 

The other thing that happened around this time was that a soprano and her understudy got mono and the giant offered me up as a replacement. I took my stage debut as a maid in The Marriage of Figaro, whose moment of glory comes in the form of a breakneck aria sung while escaping out a window.

     For the curtain call I had to curtsy in keeping with my role. The applause swelled nicely but nonetheless there is no combination sillier than the curtsy and the clap. Squatting like a frog in an apron while tone-deaf philanthropes try to one-up each other with their bare hands. If you ask me, it is the sound of people trying to convince each other that they are not in fact sitting in a high-end mausoleum. But that is neither here nor there. What really struck me was the fact that Mozart no longer meant something to me. Where once I had heard twists of agony, sweet and fleeting cadences, now there were only pleasantries. How devastating: staged pleasantries.

     The giant knew. He found me in the green room afterwards, kissed me mournfully on each cheek, and said, Perhaps you are more suited to contemporary opera, his tone implying that the term was oxymoronic.

 

The next morning I was making coffee when I heard a cry from the street. True anguish, I detected with my operatic ear as I plunged my French press. When I took my coffee to the balcony to see for myself, there was my neighbour on his balcony with his hair to the heavens and a pyjama shirt over jeans. The cry had been his. Ai ai ai, he was saying now. Ai ai ai. Viens ici, ma chère.

     What happened? I asked.

     She flew, he said, and scuttled his fingers across his palm to show how Jane had done it, scaled the balcony and run along the narrow ledge until she reached a windowsill, where now she lay with her back to us, sunning herself.

     Jane, he called. Jane! His voice teetered like a dreidel nearing the end of its spin.

     With all the dignity of a lioness, Jane lifted her head and slowly swivelled to look at us over her shoulder. I’ve never been one for understanding animals. Most of the time their expressions seemed designed to trigger the food-giving instinct in humans, without any real emotion or thought of their own. Have you ever gazed into a dog’s eyes? Pure eyeball. But the look on Jane’s face was completely identifiable. Reproach. Undeniable, unflinching reproach, and not only toward my neighbour, but to me as well.

     What a cat. She was regally fat, with gleaming caramel fur and a moon face with the features all scrunched in the middle into an accusatory scowl. My neighbour and I stayed there, pinned by her stare, until she looked away, stretched, and stood. He let out a sob. Jane, he implored, but she arched her back imperviously. Then she jumped.

     Two storeys she jumped, legs splayed like a cat in a cartoon, until at the very last minute she tucked them in for an elegant landing. But still. Two storeys. In the noise of the street I couldn’t hear any cat sounds. I didn’t even know what a cat scream would sound like, what cat bones breaking would sound like. These were sounds beyond my sonic reach.

     And if I were to measure my sonic reach? Canes on the cobblestones. Flirtations through the wall. Staged pleasantries.

     By the time we made it to the street, Jane was gone. My neighbour clutched his head and scanned the block. After a moment I glimpsed her in the distance, limping her way between indifferent legs. At first I thought to cry out, but on the heels of this impulse came another: silence.

     My allegiances had shifted from man to cat. I don’t know why it hadn’t happened sooner. It was only in that moment that I understood the extent of Jane’s desperation. To jump and take off running — she had no less than fled. And how long had she been plotting her escape? How long had she waited for the balcony door to open?

     After a moment, my neighbour caught his breath as if to speak, but nothing came, and I wondered if he, too, had seen her; if by holding his tongue he was letting her go.

     I left him in the street, scratching his head and saying, Ai ai ai, ai ai ai, an inebriated baboon in half pyjamas. I could not speak to him, for anger and for pity.

     But back in my apartment, sipping cold coffee, I felt my stomach smoulder with inklings of an ulcer and something else. For the cat had looked at me too.

     I felt the need to take some decisions. That’s how the French say it — to take a decision, as though the decision hangs there waiting like ripe fruit in the ragtag garden of thought. I decided to leave. I wanted to go home.

     It felt wonderful to want something.

filigree

Hannah RahimiHannah Rahimi grew up in Toronto. She earned an MA from Concordia University and is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana. She has published short fiction in Cosmonauts Avenue and Drain Magazine.




The narrator in “With My Scarf Tied Just So” sharpens our vision of the world. A reproachful cat, a neighbour who designs abattoirs, a judgmental lover – this is not the Paris of travel brochures. A gorgeous story designed by a watchful eye, uncovering delicious vulnerabilities and the hidden truths we love.  — Jury Citation (2016 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers)

 


  
 
 

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