Coercion:Curio Vignettes 01

By: Cara McKenna


My thanks to Ruthie and Bobbi, good friends only too eager to return to Paris with me for this series, and to my editor, Kelli, polisher of my rusty cogs.

Chapter One

Inside, my world is small. Safe.

Within the horizon of a curved boundary, everything is brass, steel, nickel. Air and shadows. The busyness of Paris fades, growing as distant as space, reality replaced by the movement of gears, the snap of springs. The rhythm and flow of the Métro, of walk signs and traffic lights—all are gone, and I’m lost in the tick and pivot of cogs.

The only wrongs to confront are those of rust, dust, wear or warp. I solve them with tweezers, oil, a jeweler’s monocle, a can of compressed air. I wander the dark geometry of my watches and music boxes for entire afternoons, entire appearances of the sun, until—

I jump when the alarm goes off, as I always do. And as always, I catch the monocle when it falls from my eye and press the knob of the clock to still the hammer assaulting its bells. The brass polish has left grit under my nails and a headache between my eyes from the fumes I hadn’t noticed until now.

Outside my windows, the sunset is ripening. The pigeons have tucked their heads beneath their wings, seeming ripened themselves, soft and round with sleep.

It’s nearly eight, time to abandon the world of my precious hobbies for the slightly larger realm of my flat. I haven’t left this place for two days, not since Caroly was last here. When she stays the night, she makes me come with her in the morning, just to the café down the street for breakfast. Then she goes to work, and I flee back to my safe little nest.

Before I met her, I hadn’t ventured outside these walls in three years. Now I manage the feat as many as four times a week, for twenty minutes or maybe two hours, for a drink or a meal, or to sit in the park and listen to Caroly molest my language with her thick American accent. Such infrequent, brief excursions may sound pathetic, but to me it’s no less profound than taking one’s first steps following a car crash, having been told you’ll never walk again.

Caroly is coming tonight, and tomorrow she’ll make me leave. In the morning my heart will curl like a fist between my ribs, clenching as she opens the door and leads me to the stairs and down four flights to the street. It will stop entirely as we step outside, but halfway to the café I’ll feel the warmth of the sun or the coolness of the breeze, smell flowers or bread, and forget the crushing hugeness of the sky and buildings for a breath or two.

But for tonight, I’ll stay safe. Tonight we stay in my world, with its familiar walls and scents and sounds. Her body is familiar too, after these three months of acquaintance, and she’ll let me get lost inside her, fascinating as any clock or watch.

I shower, scrubbing myself with a rough cloth in the hot water. Rub shea butter into my skin. Caroly likes my stubble so I forgo shaving, but smooth a measure of the good-smelling balm she bought me over my jaw and neck. I dress in my bedroom, stroll across the flat to select the evening’s music. Something with cello tonight, I think. Dark and sensual. With her eyes and nose and ears catered to, I head to the kitchen to turn my attention to her mouth.

My bell rings just as I turn the heat down under a pot of pasta, and I jog to the intercom panel to unlock the foyer door and twist the deadbolt open. Sometimes, if rarely, I’ll go down to meet her at the building’s front door, to show her it’s been a good day. But tonight I won’t. She’ll hand me my post, perhaps noticing the stack is thicker than usual, and she’ll know that I didn’t make it downstairs yesterday either. She’ll give me a look—frustration, likely, but never pity—then the topic will be dropped.

As I check on dinner I feel her footsteps. My heart speeds to match them, the happy race of anticipation. Then she’s at my threshold, haloed in the light from the hallway, and I couldn’t hide my smile if I tried.

“Good evening.” I say it in English. It’s become our custom. English inside my flat, where she is still a tourist of sorts, French outside.

“Hey.” She pushes off her shoes by the door. A green paper bag hangs from her hand, from the wine shop near the museum where she works.

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