mary Carroll moore
“Anne’s coming in two weeks, Gare Montparnasse,” Jesse tells Renny that morning. He smears on his white face for the day’s rehearsals, stretches his lips in front of their tiny bathroom mirror, shrugs at her reflection. An exaggerated grimace, but his eyes are bright. “She’s an old friend, I have to help her get settled. I’ll look for a nice hotel. Introduce her around.” He rinses his hands, meets her eyes.
Renny has river-bottom brown eyes. Jesse’s are bottle-glass green, that intense southern hemisphere light to her grey Paris days. She’s here for her new play, living on a grant, opening in two months. Casting is over; Jesse’s playing the mime role. After the evening audition in the smoky Montmartre theater, Renny sticks around to talk with the cast, go over rehearsal dates. She is used to the normal disappointment of seeing them as real people, not her actors: alluring makeup sponged off, and eyes or lips pale and ordinary.
But Jesse does not remove his white face, his exaggerated black lines of eyebrows, the scarlet bow of a mouth. Renny finds this fascinating. And beautiful, a beauty that holds an enormous personal risk, like a thief who will steal what you don’t even know you own.
At rehearsals, she is narrow-eyed, challenging the actors, not an easy director. But she giggles easily when Jesse climbs down an invisible ladder from an unseen roof. She follows him with her eyes as he practices the silent parts, admiring the tight French stripe on his boat-neck top, how well he fits the character that lived in the back of her mind for years.
Write a good script, cast the right actors, and the play is 90 percent done, her colleagues tell her. Renny’s play is her fourth. It sums up her problems—a woman who encounters imperfect leading men, over and over. After the last divorce, she lost twenty pounds. She felt smarter until a next-door neighbor, Rob, flirted with her. Within a month, Rob’s fire died. “It was different when you were married,” he said, as if it was her fault.
Renny knows about Anne. The first night Jesse stays late, follows her back to her fifth-floor flat for dessert and wine, he tells her about this girlfriend back in Toowoomba. No one important, past history. The divorce is a whole year behind Renny, the casual affair with Rob months past. Jesse’s so different: the same with or without whiteface.
His role in the play is small but important: he steals jewels from the leading actress. She’s in her thirties, a good match for Jesse, almost beautiful in some lights, as if her face hasn’t accepted her real age yet. In the first scene, she wanders the Saint Michel sidewalks, staring at people on street corners. Eventually she finds a man with the right color eyes and invites him to a late dinner—ten o’clock, Deux Magots, a table in front. Renny dresses her in red Givenchy and good silk underwear.
The actress arrives early, sits with a view to the door, has a glass of wine as she waits, her fingers becoming slippery against the hollow stem.
Two months pass. Rehearsals are going well. In Renny’s flat near the Odeon metro, Jesse’s notebooks, poetry, a few clothes are scattered around the two rooms. They make plans, talk about cast parties after the play opens successfully. Renny wants to try certain recipes from her Saturday Cordon Bleu classes: seared beef, cloudlike meringues.
Jesse busks for extra cash, miming on street corners. Most evenings, the flat is empty when Renny returns at midnight. She stacks her script on the red wooden table, pours herself some wine. From the fifth-floor balcony, she sees the acres of red tile rooftops, the geraniums in shiny sea-blue pots, the Eiffel tower in the distance, but her search is along the narrow streets leading to the metro. Jesse’s luring the evening strollers, a black top hat set on the pavement to collect one-franc pieces. He works until two in the morning, waking Renny with a pink crepe paper rose found in a dumpster—and an apology. He strokes her back and reads her poems from Rimbaud, kisses her until she reels.
Occasionally, a mate of Jesse’s from Australia will visit. Renny hears the low conversations: is Anne really coming at the end of the summer, like she has planned, and what will Jesse do with sleeping arrangements?
By thirty-five you know all the plot twists, the all-too-predictable endings. A playwright studies them like laboratory specimens, dissects them for their best lines. When she wakes before dawn, the bed empty, she hears Jesse on the hall phone. “Anne, it’ll be grand,” he says. It is time, Renny tells herself. Leave before you lose your sense of humor. As soon as the play closes, she will let him go.
Two weeks before opening night, she returns tired from shopping. The afternoon is hot, humid, the five flights unbearable with her market basket. She squeezes against the wall on the circular stairs to let a North African couple pass, and when the woman’s gypsy skirts brushes Renny’s arm like butterflies, she wants to cry. An antiques dealer who shares the fifth floor has left a gigantic portrait frame against the wall across from their flat door. Renny drops the basket and string bag, bends to get her keys, her face wet and weary. Behind her she hears breathing.
In the news, a series of burglaries have plagued the Odeon district. She picks up the heavy basket again, prepares to swing it into the thief’s face. But instead, she sees Jesse, in white face and costume, posed in the empty antique picture frame like an eighteenth-century marquis having his portrait done.
She starts to scream then dissolves into laughter that wells up from her stomach like air bubbles through rich French pastry.
Her favorite television show when she was fifteen: “It Takes a Thief,” with Robert Wagner. A seventies show she found online, watched secretly in her bedroom. All night she was lulled to sleep with images of something being stolen and never returned. In her dreams, she waited in moonlight on a silvery lawn, in a long red dress, watching a thief climb down from the upper stories of a large house. Danger and cunning crept into her scripts, lessons from those years, the moral being there is no safe way to get out of life without damage.
But these are theater. Real life, real faces, are not the same.
It’s a week before opening night. Anne’s train arrives. Jesse apologizes, meets Anne at Gare Montparnasse, and takes her to a posh hotel in the sixteenth arrondissement. Jesse’s understudy takes over. They rehearse every evening now. Often, a cast member brings Renny messages backstage in flourishing script she has never seen: Jesse says he is going to be late tonight, Jesse tells her he must make sure Anne doesn’t feel too lonely in a strange city. He is moving to the hotel too. He misses Renny—he will call as soon as Anne gets settled.
The show opens. Jesse’s miming is only adequate, as if he’s just playing a part. Nobody notices but Renny: reviews are good, even from the scathing Paris critics. To celebrate, the principal cast takes a daylong barge trip down the Seine, past the monuments to sacred history, past fields of ripe sunflowers. Renny pays for the good wine. They laugh, enjoy the sunset. She will head back to the States that weekend. Her colleagues toast their success, the friendships only found in the theater. “Promise you will never forget us,” they tell Renny.
Jesse’s messages have stopped. The antiques dealer removes the frame from her hallway. On her walk home from the metro, she buys a postcard at one of the booksellers along the Seine. It’s of a woman in a red dress. She is fishing from a wooden boat, an empty basket beside her. Renny holds the card to the light, and the woman’s face is beautiful and ageless, her eyes as serene as the river.
Mary Carroll Moore’s short fiction and poetry has been published by and/or won awards with Fictive Dream, Quay, The Bellingham Review, Pitkin Review, Glimmer Train Press, The Airgonaut, Etched Onyx, Rappahannock Review, Santa Fe Writers, and other publications. Her queer YA novel, Qualities of Light, was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her second novel, A Woman’s Guide to Search & Rescue, will be released in 2023. She was a food writer for the Los Angeles Times syndicate for twelve years