The Little French Bistro

By: Nina George

For Jens

It was the first decision she had ever made on her own, the very first time she was able to determine the course of her life.

Marianne decided to die. Here and now, down below in the waters of the Seine, late on this gray day. On her trip to Paris. There was not a star in the sky, and the Eiffel Tower was but a dim silhouette in the hazy smog. Paris emitted a roar, with a constant rumble of scooters and cars and the murmur of Métro trains moving deep in the guts of the city.

The water was cool, black and silky. The Seine would carry her on a quiet bed of freedom to the sea. Tears ran down her cheeks; strings of salty tears. Marianne was smiling and weeping at the same time. Never before had she felt so light, so free, so happy. “It’s up to me,” she whispered. “This is up to me.”

She took off the shoes she had bought fifteen years ago—the shoes she had needed to resole so many times. She had purchased them in secret and at full price. Lothar had told her off when he first found out, then gave her a dress to go with them. The dress was bought directly from a factory, and was reduced due to a weaving fault; a gray dress with gray flowers on it. She was wearing that too today.

Her final today. Time had seemed infinite when she still had many years and decades ahead of her. A book waiting to be written: as a girl, that was how she had seen her future life. Now she was sixty, and the pages were blank. Infinity had passed like one long continuous day.

She lined up the shoes neatly on the bench beside her, before having second thoughts and placing them on the ground. She didn’t want to dirty the bench—a pretty woman might get a stain on her skirt and suffer embarrassment as a result. She tried to ease off her wedding ring but didn’t succeed, so she stuck her finger in her mouth and eventually the ring came off. There was a band of white skin where it had been.

A homeless man was sleeping on a bench on the other side of the street that ran across the Pont Neuf. He was wearing a striped top, and Marianne was grateful that his back was turned.

She laid the ring beside her shoes. Someone was bound to find it and live for a few days from the proceeds of pawning it. They could buy a baguette, a bottle of pastis, some salami; something fresh, not food from the bin for once. Maybe a newspaper to keep themselves warm.

“No more food past its sell-by date,” she said. Lothar used to put crosses next to the special offers in the weekly newspaper inserts, the way other people ticked the TV programs they wanted to watch. Saturday—Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Sunday—True Detective. For Lothar it was: Monday—Angel Delight past its best-before date. They ate the items he marked.

Marianne closed her eyes. Lothar Messmann, “Lotto” to his friends, was an artillery sergeant major who looked after his men. He and Marianne lived in a house in a cul-de-sac in Celle, Germany, with a lattice fence that ran along the side of the turning bay.

Lothar looked good for his age. He loved his job, loved his car and loved television. He would sit on the sofa with his dinner tray on the wooden coffee table in front of him, the remote control in his left hand, a fork in his right, and the volume turned up high, as an artillery officer needed it to be.

“No more, Lothar,” whispered Marianne. She clapped her hands to her mouth. Might someone have overheard her?

She unbuttoned her coat. Maybe it would keep someone else warm, even if she had mended the lining so often that it had become a crazy multicolored patchwork. Lothar always brought home little hotel shampoo bottles and sewing kits from his business trips to Bonn and Berlin. The sewing kits contained black, white and red thread.

Who needs red thread? thought Marianne as she began to fold up the light-brown coat, edge to edge, the way she used to fold Lothar’s handkerchiefs and the towels she ironed. Not once in her adult life had she worn red. “The color of whores,” her mother had hissed. She had slapped Marianne when she was eleven for coming home in a red scarf she had picked up somewhere. It had smelled of floral perfume.

Earlier that evening, up in Montmartre, Marianne had seen a woman crouching down over the gutter. Her skirt had ridden up her legs, and she was wearing red shoes. When the woman stood up, Marianne saw that the makeup around her bloodshot eyes was badly smeared. “Just a drunken whore,” someone in the tour party had remarked. Lothar had restrained Marianne when she made to go over to the woman. “Don’t make a laughingstock of yourself, Annie.”

Lothar had stopped her from helping the woman and tugged her into the restaurant where the coach tour organizers had booked them a table. Marianne had glanced back over her shoulder until the French tour guide said, with a shake of her head, “Je connais la chanson—the same old story, but she can only blame herself.” Lothar had nodded, and Marianne had imagined herself crouching there in the gutter. A need for escape had been building in her for some time, but that was the last straw—and now she was standing here.

She had left even before the starter had arrived, because she could no longer bear to sit there and say nothing. Lothar hadn’t noticed; he was caught up in the same conversation he had been having for the past twelve hours with a cheerful widow from Burgdorf. The woman kept squeaking, “That’s amazing!” to whatever Lothar said. Her red bra was showing through her white blouse.