SHORTS: Madame T.

Madame T.
Photo: Joanna Miller
A short story by Tzveta Sofronieva

The sky was misleadingly blue and the air tenderly biting on this bright and sunny winter's morning, strange weather for this city, which, at the close of winter could never usually boast of anything other than a slouched horizon and gray streets, slouched faces and gray coats, seldom reminiscent of the great and elegant metropolis that it in fact is. On this day, however, the city was true to its real identity, for which the chilly, sunny weather was perhaps responsible; a day where the light does not fall solely on faded squares and faces, but uncovers the true beauty of a big city. On a late morning of a day like this and in this particular city, a metropolis which is paradoxically at ill ease with itself, I could allow myself to think of Madame T.

Somewhere in a southern, provincial town my thoughts would probably have meandered slowly and lazily and would not have been able to follow Madame T.'s infatuation for work, her reserved warmth, tenderness, grace and radiance. In the middle of a lively inner city, that is self-assured and has certain predictability, my mind would have rattled on too speedily, too practicably and routine for me to have summoned the subtle elegance, innate nobleness and refined intelligence of this pure lady, her open face and sparkling eyes of a young child.

In this city, which was a very much of the moment, happening place, and precisely on this sunny, winter's day, was a perfect setting for Madame T.'s reappearance.

It is not as though she had been present in that certain city, on that particular day, but the situation and the circumstances made it possible for me to think of her, which has not happened to me in a long time. I like to think about her. I recall her lively gestures which appear protracted even in their alacrity, her haircut of oft-changing colors and shades, her purposeful, considered and optimized movements, her almost clinical sterile home, her modest meals, which bear testimony to her enthusiastic culinary experiments. I recall her contradictory way of enjoying art only after visiting a vegetarian restaurant or a swimming-pool with a sauna. Initially, all that she did seemed so cold and without emotion, but somehow knew I was mistaken. Her eyes revealed so much passion and curiosity, and when she laughed she embraced the world with a most tender gaze as if for her child or beloved, that I constantly tried to figure out what lay hidden behind Madame T.'s facade. Only years later did I find out that her fastidious lifestyle merely served as necessary protection and she herself had thorough knowledge of how to accomplish this. Her being was fragile; she was of a sickly physical disposition, a difficult body, which loved life too much to have easily given in. Nowadays, ever since I learned from Madame T. about the selfishness of the genes, viruses and similar such bugs, and being no less sensitive to pain and sorrow myself, I catch myself leading a more clinical and calculated lifestyle.

I have always marveled at Madame T.'s ability to enjoy life without succumbing to any particular excesses. She did not smoke, and during the few years of our acquaintance when I frequently saw her, she lived in a monogamous relationship; she slept a lot rising not too early and retiring none too late. She worked a great deal, devoted herself to her patients and her students, she read and wrote, she set experiments on sunny afternoons and on the darker days, depicted her feelings in paintings: huge canvasses preserving her state on the threshold of nothingness.

I sat in a café in one of the main shopping streets and felt I would suffocate on account of the bad ventilation. But as soon as my hot cappuccino sprinkled with cocoa was brought to me, I instantly reconciled myself with the café's air and looked beyond the big window for a woman who could resemble Madame T. This task was certainly not an easy one, but after some practice I was able to discover tiny resemblances in women passing in front of me, mostly mothers escorting their children, and upon gathering these, I was once again able to devote my thoughts solely to her. I've no idea if she ever had a child. I always used to call on her late in the morning either at the laboratory, her studio, or the spacious living room of her home in the old house, at which times no decisive sign seemed to indicate that she had a child, nor that she did not. We had never happened to raise this issue, not because Madame T. avoided topics of a personal nature, but rather since she did not like to monopolize the conversation with her own affairs. If she did not have a child, it is quite certain that this had nothing to do with emancipation, of which she had her own opinion, nor a fear of impending doomsday, and least of all selfish laziness or excessive love of comfort. Her childlessness was more likely to sheer coincidence. If on the other hand she did have a child then she regarded its presence as the most unquestionable and most natural thing in the life of a woman and did not comment on that. I don't even know whether she used her maiden or her husband's name, and whether her name had anything to do with the gentleman in the famous painting. It is also possible that she had a pseudonym, which she herself had chosen precisely on account of the kinship felt with that certain gentleman. In reality, this name did not suit her, was too short, referencing the persistence and consistency with which Madame T. attained her goals. I don't even know if she had any traits more poignantly characteristic of her than this.

This steady searching for her in my memory sculptured her to perfection before my eyes and as I gazed above my cappuccino, I saw her reading a newspaper two tables away.

She had probably just arrived since her table was still empty, the wooden-framed cafeteria paper open at one of the first pages, her cheeks still glowing from the crisp, sunny air outside. Not only had I not expected to see Madame T. in the café at that moment, but I would not have thought at all that she was present in that city on that particular day, and my surprise was even greater than my curiosity, and for a while I sat beside the empty cappuccino cup, with the remains of the frothy milk and cocoa. I was neither capable of beckoning the waiter to pay up and leave, nor was I able to go up to her table at least to say hello or to nod in her direction while she turned a page. My astonishment was in a process of ceding its place to different sentiments and eventual activity, when the waiter placed in front of the woman a huge glass of translucent wheat beer, which she must have ordered just before I had noticed her. The fact that Madame T. could drink such a thing, in such a significant quantity and first thing in the morning, was so striking, that I momentarily froze in my present seated position. The waiter was also surprised by the incompatibility of woman and drink, but not only that the customer in question was a woman, nor on account of the time of the day or season, but the café chosen for this particular whim. He tried to explain to the lady that should she find the beer excessively cold on this chilly day, or perhaps too heavy or anything of this kind, he could also serve normal beer instead, all the more so, as the wheat beer is neither typical of the region, nor the city, nor this particular café. In fact, it would actually be best if he would bring out another drink all together. Madame T. thanked him for the information, and to quell her thirst she downed nearly a third of the glass's content, with which she managed to be rid of the waiter once and for all.

Full of doubts if this was Madame T. at all, I tried once again to immerse myself in my thoughts and to compare this woman with images in my memory. This was not easy. I pondered whether she had perhaps come for a conference, to visit friends, simply hide herself from her everyday life, on the other hand it could not be ruled out that she was staging an exhibition or had possibly moved to this city. Then, as nothing happened, I did not dare stand up and leave, nor to go and greet her. Nobody sat by her table and her eyes were fixated on the newspaper, and thus the memory of a morning spent together sometime a very long time ago crept into my thoughts. She was reading a paper, just like now, when I interrupted her with my arrival, and after offering me a cup of not-very-strong tea she smiled and pointed to the pages lying spread open on the table. She talked at length and constantly poured the not-overly-strong black tea from the pink piggy-shaped pot, which served more to bring cheer rather than bring luck, while she herself always added orange juice to the hot liquid. Correlations between doppelgangers, cloning, twins born several years apart, through freezing embryos, the ozone hole, chemical works, meteorological forecasting, cosmetic creams, the melting of arctic ice, painter's astigmatism, immunology laboratories, law suits against experimenting doctors, animal rights' advocates, university research funds, pneumonia, the HIV virus, kindergartens, political elections and regimes, presidential morals, the war, other wars, money transfers and other such revolutions and love affairs were on her mind at that time. This apparently incongruous array of topics would be brought into perfect relativity with the mention of exotically named scholars from all over the globe, (one of them sounding like a name of a chateau in France and its wine) who observed how the nets of these worlds correlate. Madame T. was like an overexcited girl at her first dance. Again, she made a pot of not-very-strong tea, and every now and again a tiny spider crept forth from the newspaper and made its way across the marble table. It was probably going from one flower pot to the other.

Madame T. had many flowers; to be precise she had plants with huge leaves of a lively green color, which she watered with a copper can with a long beak. Their pots were tall, rounded and snow-white. They inhabited the places between white, glass cupboards and bookshelves, fans and air purifiers. Their stems had grown quite thick out of gratitude for the sunshine pouring on them from every direction. They cast a multitude of shadows on the floor, different at all hours of the day, as light flooded in from curtainless windows. Sometimes tiny crab-like spiders wove their webs on the rays, sinking into the plants' shadow, perhaps even climbing onto them. Newspapers from the previous days were carefully stacked between the plant pots, and sometimes the spiders would read them as they spun their webs, or perhaps venture to today's newspaper, which lay scattered on the table, thus linking up with the nets of hybrids, cyborgs and intermediary states discussed in the paper. Although she had not kept any other animals at home and had devoted most of her time to cancer research, or perhaps owing precisely to both these reasons, Madame T. did not disrupt the idyll between the tiny crab-like creatures and the daily news. They somehow belonged to each other: the correlation between the web of the one and the network of the other seemed obvious.

This prompted me to check whether such a spider had crept out from the newspaper I saw in front of me. It reminded me that I had so many questions to ask, and that I simply needed to approach her table and do it. I mustered my courage and stood up. I saw no one. The huge empty beer glass was not on the table, not even a trace of it. Madame T. was nowhere to be found. Although there was nothing very astonishing in this fact, (after all, what would she have been doing here in the first place?) I would have been delighted to have seen her there, and though I was actually relieved that she was probably a figment of my imagination, I needed to order myself a brandy. The waiter brought it out with surprising speed and as he put the glass down he elaborated on how sensible it is when one warms up a bit before going out into the bright cold, unlike certain customers who mix up the seasons and order huge glasses of ice cold wheat beer, gulling it down on an empty stomach. I really don't like talkative waiters who probably tuck into a hearty breakfast even before sunrise. I drank up my brandy, paid in haste, mumbling something about the beneficial effect of drink against the stuffiness of their café, and went outside to breathe in the clear, cold sky.

It was almost noon and more and more people filled the streets.


(c) Tzveta Sofronieva, 2006

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