Picture This

“I don’t know, I just can’t picture you in Paris,” she noted with her usual tinge of passive aggressiveness. That hint of derision so well-masked by just enough euphoniousness to make it seem like a “genuine” statement with no ulterior motive designed to get completely inside Juliette’s head–make her question the already extremely questionable life choice she had just made. Which was to move to France, specifically and predictably, to Paris. Émilie, who was obviously the more Frenchly named between the two of them, might have been harboring resentment toward Juliette for her fearlessness in actually going to the country where their mother, Lucrèce, had originated from.

“Maybe it’s because I’ve never been there, it’s difficult for me to envision much of anything. I guess other than the Eiffel Tower,” Émilie added half-heartedly, as though realizing how her initial comment could offend fragile Juliette. Yet they were both feeling fragile of late, for it was only just under a year since Lucrèce had died. It wasn’t as though it was a brutal or unexpected death–just your garden variety skin cancer. Lucrèce blamed it on having come to the U.S. at all, and all for the sake of a man she ended up divorcing anyway. She said if she had retired in the South of France just as all her other siblings had, she’d be living to at least ninety. Alas, her jig was up at sixty-three. Juliette, who had always been closer with their mother than Émilie, thought that she would be fine, at first. That she had already made peace with the news once Lucrèce confessed her terrible news. But it felt, all at once, as though the loss of the person she could most honestly confide in hit her only months after the burial and that, essentially, the only thing to do to feel closer to her was to go to the place that she herself spent most of her twenties before encountering their father, Mark, an investment banker working at a U.S. firm based in Paris. The term of his contract was for a year. He didn’t inform Lucrèce of this until a month before his intended departure. Crushed by the news, she threw caution to the wind and asked him to marry her, that she would happily give him citizenship so that he could stay longer, without the need for his business to sanction a longer stay. Touched and overwhelmed by her offer, Mark was forced to be further honest and tell her that he could never live in France, was far too American to deal with its snootiness and its strange rules of etiquette despite the fact that everyone somehow still reeked of body odor. “Where’s the fucking politesse in that?” he demanded. It was right after that he accepted her offer of marriage with the caveat that she come back with him to New York. For some reason, nothing in her hesitated, despite knowing full well that she was and forever would be a Frenchwoman. With no love for the customs or capitalist pig rantings of America. Even so, she followed, gave up her own loose dreams of being a sculptor and gave birth instead.

It only took ten years for them to divorce. Juliette was six, Émilie was four. Quel bordel. And though Lucrèce tried her best to stick it out for longer, the toll it was taking on her psyche–therefore her body–was too great. She had to get out of the marriage or risk near total atrophy. And it wasn’t even just that Mark had his affairs, or that he verbally abused her. It was that she knew she would be setting a bad example for her daughters, would be a hypocrite to stay even if she thought it would be better for their childhood. Juliette took it the hardest, as she was the more sentient of the daughters, agewise. As the divorce became a reality in the form of separation, she began acting out in school, yelling at her teachers, creating chaos in the order of the classroom. She demanded that she live with Mark, and Mark alone, blaming Lucrèce for the dismantling of the relationship. Mark, wanting to live his bachelor life, had Lucrèce take further blame for “not allowing” Juliette’s request. When Juliette found this out in her adolescence, she cried, apologizing profusely to Lucrèce for treating her so badly. For having blamed her as society had conditioned all sexes to blame women for the wrongdoing in a relationship. As though Lucrèce had somehow not fulfilled her duty to be a culinarily adept blow-up doll.

Émilie, meanwhile, had not come around, in terms of forgiving their mother. She spent as much time at Mark’s as she could, even traitorously forging a bond with his new girlfriend, who was only eleven years older than she was–that is to say, twenty-five. She would go so far as to cruelly wax about how beautiful Stephanie was in front of Lucrèce, who took the assessment with a grain of salt as anyone with a twenty-five year old body is considered beautiful by older men. With the separation legally complete, Lucrèce took the opportunity to get back into her long buried dream of sculpting, pursuing classes at the community center, as that was what was within her budget–alimony pays the bills, sure, but not for much beyond that for the purposes of self-actualization.

As Émilie grew closer to Stephanie, Juliette found herself evermore allegiant to Lucrèce, feeling responsible for her. As though she was too delicate and too isolated (as Lucrèce predicted, she had hated American culture and Americans themselves, making it difficult for her to befriend anyone) to be left alone more than absolutely necessary. And Juliette sacrificed quite a bit to make herself so available to her mother. Mainly, a social life–at a period in one’s life when such interactions, no matter how banal, are of the utmost important to not developing into a serial killer or accruing some other such type of mental malady. But no, to Lucrèce she was beholden, and would not budge, no matter how much the girls and boys of her high school pleaded. For Juliette was an attractive and likable enough person. Had she played her cards to their utmost value, she might have been the most popular girl in school. But that role, instead was left to Émilie, who took all her coaching on how to be a ho from Stephanie. Juliette never told her mother all the rumors that circulated about Émilie on a daily basis, partially knowing that at least ninety percent of them were true. On some level, she imagined Lucrèce was aware, that she must have gotten calls from the school about it. But she never asked, didn’t dare broach the subject. She talked to her father less and less, in turn resenting Émilie for how effortlessly she could choose to favor the diabolical behavior of their selfish and sadistic patriarch. It was almost as though Émilie has been crafted solely of his DNA and Juliette solely of Lucrèce’s. There could be no other explanation.

As the years passed, Juliette could see that the distance Émilie had created between herself and Lucrèce was causing her great internal strife, which, as usual, must have manifested in the physical. Juliette maintained that the cancer was the fault of Émilie, who had bred it in her mother’s body with her cold ignorings. For there was no history of cancer whatsoever in Lucrèce’s lineage. It didn’t make sense. And though this was all she could think–it’s Émilie’s fault, it’s Émilie fault–upon hearing of Lucrèce’s diagnosis, she kept it to herself, put on a brave face when she herself was tasked with informing Émilie of the news, for she didn’t interact often enough with Lucrèce to hear it from the horse’s mouth. It was only upon processing this news that Émilie at last felt as though she should act the part of dutiful daughter. This, to Juliette, was even more sickening to bear witness to than how she acted before, prompting her to recoil from her once daily visits to Lucrèce. When Lucrèce demanded to know why Juliette stopped coming by so frequently, she made the excuse of distancing herself in order to better get used to the idea that Lucrèce soon wouldn’t be around. This was more hurtful for Juliette to lie about than for Lucrèce to hear, but she did it anyway, too enraged by Émilie’s faux obsequious behavior to be around it, yet, at the same time, not wanting to ruin her mother’s newfound enjoyment of the daughter that had abandoned her.

And, thinking about all this, in a flash of all-enveloping rage, Juliette snapped, “Maybe you can’t picture me here because you’re a mother hater. And it disgusts you to think of anyone being in a city that she called her home.”

Émilie was silent for what felt like eons, the physical gulf between them now currently outweighed by the emotional one, but still, Juliette did not regret saying it, going so far as to add. “And you know what? If you ever want to see me again, you’ll have to picture me here, because as far as I’m concerned, I only exist in your mind now. I don’t want to see you in the flesh again.” And with that, she hung up, continuing her stroll down Boulevard Saint-Germain as an ambulance slowly drove past her with its siren urgently wailing, unable to pass in the midst of the traffic flooding its path.

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