A Short Story Written A Life Ago.
I loved it when Billie Holliday sang it. I loved it when Ella Fitzgerald sang it. But it was Sinatra’s rendition that made my heart swell, with an ache that beckoned a deep nostalgia, trailed almost immediately by a flustered panic.
What was her name again?
I could never pronounce those French words and suspect I would never come close to understanding what it means to be French. He always poked fun at his own people — one of his kneejerk phrases was Sacré Francaise!, which I would later recall frequently when I think of our time together.
Yes, Marci Deschamps – a jazz chanteuse from Dijon, the city in eastern France famous for its sharp mustard. She carried herself expectedly, with the grace of what you would expect from a jazz singer. Often in a slinky, sequined black dress – classy yet sensual – carrying an understated elegance in the mist of the night. Her voice – husky – added a tinge of sadness to the otherwise spirited classic.
“When the jungle shadows fall…
So a voice within me keeps repeating you, you, you…”
“Hmm. Keeps repeating you. You. You. Night and day, you are the… Oh, hi.”
He was here; those fingers strummed the nape of my neck as if it were the musical accompaniment to my casual humming. It sent a tingle down my spine, as it had every time we met. Seeing him here again, I felt an ambivalence creep into my consciousness. It should not be like this. We both knew what we were going into when we met. Carpe diem.
Let’s live, enjoy love, each other, day by day, that’s what he would say every time I spot a frown. He would then bloom into a wide grin, drawing me into his zeal. In those moments, it was like we were captured in time-locked bliss.
Still, the painful pretense of hiding what I wanted to say and the gripping torment of not knowing whether the day will end with a satisfactory conclusion to my desperate need for an answer was eating the life away from me.
“She’s fantastique, eh? From Dijon, my hometown. Lucky to catch her perform before I leave tomorrow for Paris.”
My world paused.
“Maybe I don’t come back.”
My chest tightened, my heart bruised a little. He’s leaving once again and this time, I may never see him again. How did he expect me to react to such a sudden departure?
“Oh. Well, adieu. Good luck, and all that nonsense.” I closed with a cheeky grin.
Two walls of opposite characters closed in on me. I wanted to release my hidden anger. Instead, I composed a frothy smile to match my mask of nonchalance. Piece by piece, my mask started to disintegrate from within. Nadia, Nadia! Control yourself!
“Dum, dum, dum… think of you. Night and day. Day and night. I always thought Sinatra did a better job than the rest with this song. What do you think: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday or Frank?”
I wondered to myself, about the contradictions in life. Why do we go to great lengths to hide how we feel? Why do we play games, rather than come clean about how we really feel? Am I a coward because I didn’t dare face the possibility that what we shared would degrade into an anecdote and descend into a distant memory? What if I slipped? Would I reveal how desperate I really was for our romance to be given its rightful place in the world?
“Come with me to Paris. The world is so big, and there are so many things for you to experience.”
“Yes!” My heart hollered and tugged at my logical half to agree. But before victory could be secured, he had to shortchange my hopes and cheapen our promise yet again.
“It will be an opportunity for you to meet more people. Get out of Singapore. A beautiful girl like you deserves all the possibilities for love.”
“I don’t want unnecessary complications. Besides, France will never be my choice for settling down. There are things about the French I will never be able to adapt to. I mean, wit…”
“What do you mean?”
I found myself in the same situation I had been again and again. He didn’t understand or perhaps want to acknowledge my apprehension; I couldn’t bring myself to accept his laissez-faire outlook on romantic relationships. No matter how much I want to. He has taught me about the world, his world, and I’m fond of imagining myself as a part of an exotic world where I could be more than myself, more than what I grew up with. I was treading into dangerous ground, because if I become so immersed in his world, would I cease to exist? Would I risk forsaking those same values that have governed my life till now?
“We are not like the French; we don’t marry someone today and think it is okay the next day to leave bits and pieces of love around and then comfortably call it sexual liberation. Marriage is a lifetime commitment, cher.”
“Commitment to what? To be a monk?”
There was a piercing silence between us. I felt hypocritical because of what little faith I had in what I was saying. I wanted to be intensely attracted. I wanted to fight my own impositions. It didn’t make sense to fight an ideological battle. Do I really believe in my own conventions? I did not dare to answer. I had to say it nevertheless. It was only right; it was only right.
“In the roaring traffic’s boom,
in the silence of my lonely room
I think of you…”
“I like Billie Holliday’s version. It is lively, and free – like she isn’t afraid to show her passion. She doesn’t care what others think; she would scream ‘there’s such a hungry yearning burning inside of me’ just to get her man. She’s a free spirit!”
He… was a free spirit. He charmed his way to my heart with Spinoza. Dreams can be a reality if you worked on it; passion can be preserved if you released your mind of meaningless associations. “Get out of Singapore!”, he would always say as serious as he was flippant. He would always amuse me with his little anecdotes – the Frenchman in New York City, the chico in Miami, the French dude in Los Angeles. At times, I wondered if I was in love with him, or his ideals and stories. Or, perhaps I was just taken by the unfamiliar sounds of his wispy accent.
He would sometimes pepper his sentences with the odd foreign phrase or term. Oddly enough, I always thought that brought us together, the whole banality of it. But today, the banality was overcast by the certain knowledge that something was ending. Maybe it was his faraway eyes, or the non-committal grin he wore as a mask.
Something broke my train of thought.
Day. Dawning. Dignity.
A ray of light shone in the cafe casting a spotlight on us amidst the darkness. Suddenly, I felt like I was being screened, for sanity. The atmosphere around us became dreary and the light made us realize how tired we were. He threw a glance at me and I knew. It was time to go – it was time to go back to our own lives.
“Cherie, come with me to Paris. Please.”
“Day and night, night and day.”