Marianne Choquet

Lucy Prepares to Leave

 


On the plane, Lucy looked into the clouds and thought her oddest fear was that of feeling the same comfort with Julien that she did with Vic. Why did it scare her to feel as comfortable with both men? Because she’d married Vic, in part, for that feeling, and now it appeared she could have married herself instead. Green, smooth mountains appeared in view. Pastel high-rises thrust from the ground, Lucy smiled thinking how they looked like the refrigerator-box houses she and her brothers and sisters had cut out and painted in the driveway. Modern highways split and curved into the ancient landscape. “Welcome to Hong Kong, it is eighty-eight degrees Fahrenheit,” the pilot announced as the plane skimmed over the buildings of Central then North Point.

        Lucy took a taxi to Central, left her passport and necessary papers at the Japanese Consulate, and then walked from their air-conditioned offices out into the wet heat. People moved rapidly around her like busy ants. Street workers crawled in and out of trenches in between sidewalks and bamboo scaffolding. Fruit vendors carried their wares in boxes strung around their necks. Red, blue, and green double and single deck trams clattered down the middle of the street, clanging. Bicycles darted in and out, their bells ringing. Lucy walked, amidst the sound of drills, hammers, and shouting voices, mesmerized by the otherworldliness. She passed wooden barrels filled with fruits and nuts, next to tan rotary telephones sitting on tables, with signs saying they were free for public use. She doubted she could sit down and call Iowa or Chicago or Osaka. She didn’t want to anyway. She walked on. Live chickens hung upside down on strings. A man teased snakes, bit off their heads, spat them into his hand, drained their mouths, and auctioned the liquid as an elixir. People dressed in designer clothes wearing gold sunglasses, gold watches, and gold chains, clipped past this spectacle without looking twice. There were greasy cafes next to two-story fancy restaurants. Markets with rows of tables piled with fabrics of every color and texture imaginable.

****

Come early evening, Lucy stretched her legs on a wooden bench at the back of the Star Ferry, and rode across the harbor from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon, the Mainland. The sea breeze dried the perspiration covering her body. Junks, with their high sterns and four-cornered sails, floated by. Passenger ferries, tankers, small sailboats, immense yachts, cargo ships, and tiny fishing boats steered by a single man sailed about the harbor. Victoria Peak loomed above the congested high rises of the island as the sun dropped behind the haze. Lucy watched an old man, relaxing on his haunches at the back of a small wooden boat, anchored in the middle of the harbor, smoking a cigarette and looking out over the water in thought. She was struck by his flexibility and wondered what it took to maintain that, because she, too, wanted to be able to sit on her haunches at seventy years of age.

        After the ferry docked, she walked into the nearest hotel. It was posh, and too expensive, but she liked the bar: cozy, woody, accented with hanging plants. Foreigners dominated the scene. Lucy watched, trying not to stare, as she leaned back in a leather armchair, sipping from a frosty glass of beer. Many different languages were being spoken, by faces and bodies in so many different colors, shapes, and sizes, yet the same feeling of unwinding permeated the room. Lucy wondered what she would do if she saw Vic, or Julien, walk in, and was relieved when it occurred to her that she preferred neither did. Content to be with herself, she wanted to continue walking and seeing. She considered not sleeping, but her feet were aching. Her thin-soled sandals were melting, eaten up by the hot pavement. She was sweaty, dirty, tired.

        Throughout the day, images of living alone, many relationships, and limitless options had collided with warm memories of the home and life she and Vic had made together. She wondered if she had screwed it all by telling him. What exactly was that it, however? She told herself that if he loved her, he would at least try to understand, yet, then that mind of hers asked the next logical question: how could she be doing this if she loved him? “Me first” is what came, I am doing this for me and it has nothing to do with him but he may benefit from it. It was an outrageous reach for her which felt both right and selfish.

****

She checked into The Empress, the closest hotel she considered affordable in Tsim Sha Tsui. “We will need your passport, please,” the young woman at the reception desk said after Lucy handed her the American Express card.

        “It’s at the Japanese consulate.” Lucy showed the papers they had given her that afternoon.

        Up in her room, after a long cool bath, Lucy sat on the bed, in front of the oblong ornate mirror, looking at herself as someone else she found interesting. She looked leaner, sharper and more mature. Here I am, on the other side of the world, alone, exploring, she mused. Maybe I really don’t need anyone, she thought. She called room service, and loved watching a young man in a tuxedo roll a silver tray into her room, bow, then lift a silver dome and serve her a cheeseburger and fries on china. After her meal, she called Vic again, and then hung up when she heard the answering machine. It was seven in the morning in Chicago. She wondered if he was sleeping elsewhere. She picked up the remote, pressed a button at random. A pretty Chinese woman in a red suit gave the stock report in English, with a perfect English accent. Fascinated, Lucy changed channels to watch other Chinese male and female faces speaking English, with English accents. It jarred her; she wanted to tell them to stop. They looked like puppets on the wrong hands.

 

The receptionist called the next morning. “I am sorry but your American Express was not approved.”

        “That’s very strange. I will be right down.” Lucy hadn’t used it since she left Chicago. Most of her money was at the agency in Osaka. She called Vic who was still not there. This time she left a message with this news. In the shower, she budgeted the nine thousand yen she was carrying: just enough to pay for the room. She had two nights and three days to go before she could pick up her visa and get her plane back to Osaka. As she imagined sneaking out, relief came as she remembered they didn’t have her passport, even if they did know where it was, and that she had told them she would go there to pick it up on Monday.

When the rec         eptionist tried the card again, it bleeped as unapproved again. Lucy fidgeted. “Is there an American Express office nearby?”

        “Yes, there is, right over on Jordan Road. Here is the address.” Lucy walked out without paying, pretending she would come back, but knowing she wouldn’t if she couldn’t get the office to approve the card. She had never done such a thing, but she didn’t know what else to do.

        “This card has been cancelled by the primary holder.”

        “My husband,” Lucy had trouble with the pronunciation of the word. The woman nodded. Lucy thought how ironic it was that telling Vic the truth had led him to distrust her. However, that also took care of the guilt she had been feeling, in one fell swoop. Tina Turner singing “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” came to mind as she walked out onto the street. It was only ten and already hot. The strap of her backpack cut into her sunburned shoulder. Other than the yen, she was carrying a pen, a notebook, clean underwear, and a deck of cards. Her feet were pink, swollen, and bleeding in places. She saw a sign with an arrow pointing in the direction of the Kowloon-Canton Railway, and thought, why not?

****

At Sha Tin, she stepped off the train and followed another sign, pointing toward Ten Thousand Buddhas. She climbed four hundred and sixty stone stairs barefoot, up the side of a mountain, then sat under an ancient eucalyptus tree at a rock table and chair, amongst singing birds and teeming insects, the faint traffic noise three hundred meters below. Sweat drenched her silk tank top. Her feet pulsed. She wondered where she would sleep. She told herself to just keep going, it would become clear. In an outhouse nearby she relieved herself in a hole in the ground, then cleaned herself with a leaf. As she passed under a stone archway, sheets and cotton shirts, a load of whites, hung from a string between trees on the other side, yet no one was in sight. Then she spotted the temple entrance, it was made of gray stone, framed in red, with gold Chinese characters etched upon it.

Lucy passed through it to an open courtyard, where the interior walls were painted cyan. A procession of Buddhas traversed the roof of a shrine at the far end. Underneath it, sitting inside a glass case, was the embalmed body¬, covered in gold leaf, of the monk who established the temple. Lucy walked around and saw that each of the ten thousand buddhas on the grounds was unique. One looked like a woman and wore gold, she was carrying a wand, sitting atop a royal blue half-dragon half-dog. Lucy sat under her, for the next three hours in that courtyard, her head and back pressed against the cool cement walls, leaves rustling in the eucalyptus tree above her, parakeets hopping from branch to branch. Her mind was empty, an open cage.

 

After she descended the mountain, she met an English couple waiting at a bus station in front of the railway station. “Will this one take me back to Tsim Sha Tsui?” The man nodded as the woman told her it would. They asked her where she was from. The woman smiled, “Are you studying here?”

        “I have been working in Japan and came here to renew my visa and travel around for a few days.”

        “Please tell me you are not staying in that awful place, that Chung King Mansions where my children have stayed for six dollars a night.”

        “Where is that?”

        “I believe it’s on Nathan Road, but I’ve heard simply terrible things about the place. Dark. Tiny. Shared showers and baths.”

        “Have you stayed there?”

        “Most definitely not, dear.” As the woman’s husband smiled, Lucy made a mental note of the address. A red double-decked bus appeared then stopped at their feet. “This one will take you back to Kowloon on the scenic route,” the man nodded, and Lucy climbed up the stairs, offered a handful of coins for the driver to choose from, which he did, and then she sat in the back near a window. After they skirted around Golden Hill Country Park, Lucy stepped off, to step on another to ride across Rambler Channel, just because she liked the name. She was the only one on the bus, sitting in the middle back seat, looking out the window. The bus driver watched her throughout the ride. She changed again at the Container Terminal, staring at the barges lined up, imagined their port destinations around the world, then rode along the coast of Kowloon, once again mesmerized by the harbor, by the size of ships riding at anchor, docking, and unloading, the movement among them, the distance they had traveled. It was the Grand Central Station of the South China Sea, not as gilded, ordered and embedded in stone. She stared at the small villages crammed into the sides of mountains and wondered if she could live like that, if she would ever feel at home in anything but open spaces, which also made her wonder how far one can really travel from where one starts. She rode the Star Ferry to Central wishing she could ride all evening, until morning. It made her want to have her grandma Pilgrim at her side. After a tram ride to Victoria Peak, and a stroll along its pine-lined paths at sunset, she walked back down the hill into thicker and thicker civilization.

****

It seemed everywhere she looked she saw jewelry stores and wedding rings. She stopped in Harry’s Bar and ordered a beer, then sat alone at a table for two. She wondered why she was so afraid of Julien, and feared that she would never be enough for him. This was really her greatest fear, the fear of inadequacy. She was not sufficiently in love with herself, perhaps, to understand how he could be. Enough wondering, she decided, left the beer unfinished and walked again until she found the Chung King Mansions and checked into a cell-like room.

        There was a cot against the wall with a small mirror above it. One exposed light bulb, surrounded by cobwebs, hung from the middle of the cement ceiling. Lucy believed the spiders would stay in their web. She was only going to sleep there, anyway. A Filipino man was talking to his young son in the room next door. Luna, the Filipino woman who managed the guest house, told Lucy that this father and son lived there, and were lucky to do so. Many others kept their belongings in locked cages, near the port, by day, and slept in the cages at night. Lucy wondered how they had imagined their freedom when leaving their country. Had they known what hardship lay ahead or had they been fooled? She didn’t think it kind to ask. Nor did she ask Luna that night when she went out with her, and sat with friends of hers drinking beer in an island pub, watching the crowd, and pretending not to understand the men that sat down next to her and offered her drinks, dinners, trips.

****

On Sunday, she woke early to ride a ferry to Lantau Island, and from its prow, watched the massive cluster of Hong Kong diminish and disappear. When they docked at Silver Mine Bay, she boarded a speedy and rickety bus, sat in the back seat dodging branches that caught in the open window, as they wound up and around the mountain to the place Luna told her she must visit. Six hundred meters above sea level, the bus slowed onto a gravel plateau and stopped in front of the gated entrance of the Po Lin Monastery.

        Lucy followed small wooden signs marking a footpath, past stables where Chinese children were riding horses. The air was light there at the top of the world. Lucy imagined herself as a tiny figure on the globe as she arrived at the summit of the fuzzy mountains, and then rested in front of a small stone structure that looked like a shepherd’s cove. Sheer clouds wafted in until the path she had trodden disappeared, totally enveloped in white. The clouds passed on, the shrubby knolls reappeared, and then the veil of white recovered the view of other mountains, sea, and small port villages. It went on like this for hours, Lucy watching. She felt as at peace as she had as a child in the woods, leaning against her favorite oak. Each time she attempted to rise, the ground held her tailbone like a magnet, so she let it. Warmth gathered and welled there. When the sun began to set, she walked back down the path, arriving in time to ride the last bus, to catch the last ferry, from Silver Mine Bay.

****

She eyed security guards at the airport, was relieved when she passed through customs without being asked to pay the hotel bill. The first thing she did back in Osaka was take a long, lathery shower. Then she smoothed milk-and-honey lotion into her skin, dressed in her khaki adventure pants, and turtleneck black sweater. While lacing her boots, the image of Julien waiting for her in Bamboo moved her, and made her smile. Now that she felt desire rising again, she realized how her days in Hong Kong had emptied her of it. She felt new, and dashed out the door, braking to a lively gait instead of a sprint. Barely able to sit still through the five stops on the metro, she picked at the tiny balls of wool on her sweater. The only other passenger in the car, an older Japanese man in a business suit, snapped his fingers then pointed to her mess on the floor. Lucy gathered the lint and shoved it in her pocket.

        In the velvet of Bamboo’s reception area, she flashed her card, and picked up the pen to sign in. A few lines above her signature she read Julien, 007 and smiled at his playful way. She took the stairs two at a time to the VIP lounge. He was sitting alone. When he turned and saw her, the warm welcome and delight in his eyes told her more than he ever had. She dropped into the booth. He nuzzled his nose into her hair, and whispered “I am very happy to see you.”

        Hours later, after her travel stories, they were back in his room, and as they kissed at the edge of his bed, fully clothed, Lucy eased him back onto it. As she lowered herself on top of him, the pounding between her legs moved like a smooth heavy stone into water, echoing deeply, concentrically, reverberating waves of ecstatic warmth, spilling. One of her favorite ways to come, and so quickly. She rolled to the side, and then whispered, “That has never happened to me before. Like that, I mean. Still in my clothes. Just from my desire.”

        Julien lifted her face and looked into her eyes. “It is very important that you know it is not me that makes you feel like that. It is you. It is what you are giving me. It is yours.” What was she giving him? She wondered. Was it her desire for him, her love of him, her excitement? In any case, what amazed Lucy most was the way Julien gave her pleasure back to her, telling her she was the source, not him. She had always felt like a victim of desire, as if it were something outside of her, more powerful than her, that came to rest on her and was out of her control. She had thought it was something the other had that she wanted, that it was more about the other, than her. She could take responsibility for her desire more clearly and joyfully with this understanding that it wasn’t something that happened to her, but was something that came from her. She could use it constructively instead of always thinking of it as something she had to submit to, or conquer. It was becoming clearer and clearer that it was the way she loved, more than was loved, that turned her on.

****

A week later, while waiting for the train to go to work in Kobe, Lucy called her parents to wish them a happy wedding anniversary. Just by the way her father said, “How are you, honey?” she could tell that he sensed a predicament, and she knew, then, it was time to face the rest of her life. As she stood there at the payphone, watching three men slurping udon at a nearby noodle stand, Lucy wanted to tell her dad what was going on. “I’m hangin´ in there,” was all she could say. The next day she talked to Captain, made a reservation, left Vic a message telling him not to bother to come to the airport, she’d take a taxi home.

****

“So you’ve decided.” Julien salted the Macedonian dish, then looked in her eyes and raised his brows for confirmation. She nodded. His movements slowed. “Well I hope you’ll be a good girl for yourself.”

        Lucy cocked her head. “Please explain to me what a good girl is.”

        “Be strong. Go your own way. Drive your own life, do not let the energies and pressures of those around you steer you.” Lucy listened, trying to picture her life without him in it. Julien leaned back and looked at her from a different angle, as if he, too, were sizing up what would soon be gone. “I had a dream yesterday morning. I was driving my car in Paris and was very happy. I was with someone I stayed very well with, but she didn’t have a face in the dream. Her father’s presence was there, telling me to take care of his daughter, that she was really loving me.”

        Lucy closed her eyes. “I can’t stay longer. I feel like I’m hanging in limbo.”

        Julien nodded. She could see his Adam’s apple swell as he swallowed. After the waiter cleared the plates, he slipped his fountain pen out of the inside pocket of her jean jacket, which he was now wearing, then spread a white napkin on the table between them. He drew two stick figures then black arrows from one to the other. “You have this kind of relationship, one giving to the other and then the other giving back, that is, one always waiting to receive before giving to the other.” He drew another stick figure farther away from the two, then an arrow from one that traveled on to the third. “Then you have this type. One giving to the other, and the other giving to another.” Lifting his pen back to the two in the center, he drew arrows from each of them and joined their ends in the middle space above them. Drawing a spiral around that space he said, “This is the best, each giving one hundred percent and fireworks happening where it all meets.”

        Lucy smiled. She loved the way they thought alike though it annoyed her that he seemed to think he was the one who had it all figured out about relationships, and she had yet to learn. She knew both of them had work to do, room to grow. She pointed to the drawing, “Much easier to draw than to put into practice.” Julien wrote theoretical in the top left-hand corner of the napkin then slid it her way. She folded it, slipped it in her pocket.

        That night before sleep, she kissed him. “Why don’t you beg me to stay?”

        He covered his forehead with a hand, looked at the ceiling. “I may as well pee in a violin.”

        Lucy laughed as she traced his eyebrow. “Why a violin?”

        “Exactly.”

        He wrapped his body around hers and the way he held her so closely throughout the night, told Lucy that perhaps he loved her more than either of them knew.

****

        After one last job in Hiroshima, then amassing piles of yen into an envelope at the agency, after dinner at Moti, drinks at Bamboo, and all of the other good-byes had been said, Julien and Lucy and Joy sat in a private room of the elegant bar where Tomy had invited them, drinking whiskey on the rocks and listening to Tomy play the piano. Julien stretched his legs out on the booth then rested the back of his head on Lucy’s shoulder. She slipped her hand inside of his shirt. “Someday, someway,” she whispered, and then looked at him, both believing, and not, what she’d said. He didn’t seem to mind.

        In the hours before she left, she slept astride him, enclosed in his arms. At dawn, perched above him, she caressed his body, traced the lines of his face. Any movement she attempted away from him, wrenched her. Again, she was surprised. She didn’t think it would be this painful to leave him. She’d been telling herself he’d be a tender memory in her life and she’d go on. Now tears covered her face and body. He held her hips and softly spoke. “Go now, and don’t look back.” Lucy couldn’t bear leaving without looking into his eyes. She pried one open with her thumb and forefinger. The intensity of his regard shot her hand down, as if he were saying how dare you peek into my pain, yet, it was his pain that told her their relationship was meaningful to him. She curled into him, and then slipped away from him. She dressed watching him. He never opened his eyes. After opening the door, she paused, raised her finger above her shoulder, and pointed in the direction she was headed. She didn’t look back. He would write that it was sunny with a warm west wind the day he woke up and she was gone.

 

Marianne Choquet, holds a B.A. from the University of Iowa, a M.A. and PhD from the University of Barcelona, and a Certificat de Langue Française from the University of Paris-Sorbonne. She speaks English, French, and Spanish, and translates from Catalan.  She has translated poetry, fiction, and non/fiction. She is published in fiction and non-fiction. She has worked for The Iowa Review, Dino De Laurentiis Films, The Yomiuri Shimbun, Metro magazine in Chicago, The Barcelona Review and A Creativity Workshop in Barcelona and Paris.  A Spanish Ministry International Mobility Scholar, she was also a Visiting Scholar at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and an Erasmus Distinguished Foreign Visitor at the Josef Skvorecky Literary Academyin Prague, Czech Republic. She has lived and worked in Italy, France, Spain, Japan, Hong Kong, Austria, and Switzerland, and traveled extensively throughout the world. She has taught at the University of Barcelona, the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) Barcelona Study Center, the well-renowned Writing School (Escola d’Escriptura) at the Ateneu Barcelonès, and The University of Dubuque. Marianne currently teaches at The University of Wisconsin-Platteville.