“I never knew what he saw in you.”
For a moment, I wonder if I’ve imagined the woman’s voice. Mon Dieu, but the words are familiar—I’ve said them often enough to myself over the last sixty-something years. But when I turn toward the door of my assisted living apartment— I am in the habit of leaving it open, so friends will know when I’m not indisposed— sure enough, there she stands: my husband’s scorned fiancee.
She is older, of course—the whole world is, is it not?—and yet, I recognize her. She is still tall, at least compared to me, even though her back is now stooped with age. Her skin is still as pale as milk in a porcelain pitcher, although now it has the crepey texture that is the fate of all les femmes d’un age certain. She still had cornflower eyes, a petite nose and a way of holding it high as she looks at me, as if she smells something rancid.
I can’t say that I blame her. If I’d been Jack’s high school sweetheart who had written to him nearly every day while he completed medical school and military service, I, too, would have held a life-long grudge against the woman he’d jilted me for.
Especially if that woman had been a war bride, and if I’d been wearing his engagement ring, waiting for him to come home and marry me and practice medicine with my father, so that I could live the life of a small town doctor’s wife, just like my mother. And especially especially —can you do that in English with that word? The double adverb? I’ve never known—if I were a tall, gorgeous, smooth-haired blonde who must have had men standing ten deep to dance with her, and the war bride was small, dark and French.
“Kat,” I say, self-conscious of the accent I have tried, but never managed, to lose. “What a surprise.”
“I imagine so. Although not as much of one as you gave me.”
I laugh, then realize she isn’t trying to be amusing. “You’re right, of course.”
She nods, her mouth a tight, disapproving line.
So. This is not to be an easy visit. I grip the arms of my chair and rise slowly to my feet. “Come in, Kat. Come in and have a seat.”
She enters slowly, looking around. I can only imagine how the place looks to her. I moved to the Shady Oaks Assisted Living Center with Jack, when we thought he might recover from his stroke. In trying to make it feel like home, I furnished it with perhaps too many of our belongings. But then, my taste is old-school Parisienne— ornate and layered. I like my surroundings to appeal to all the senses. I watch Kat take in the heavily framed paintings, the large plush sofa, the deeply tufted rose-colored chairs, the fringed drapes. Knickknacks and books and magazines cover practically every surface. It’s the kind of room where one can keep discovering things, little treasures like a crystal paperweight shaped like a rose, or the carving of a ship in the corner, or that sketch of a naked woman that she’s staring at now, the one that Jack said looked like me. She looks shocked. I wonder if she thinks I posed for it. It pleases me to think she might believe so.
Most likely, however, she’s thinking, “How on earth did Jack ever live with all this stuff?”
“Please— take this chair.” I gesture to the large, cushioned begere I’ve just vacated, the most comfortable seat in the apartment. “Can I offer you tea? Or a coffee?”
“No.” Ignoring the chair, she settles heavily onto the sofa, the large gold velvet one that used to be in the formal living room at our house.
“So what brings you back to Wedding Tree?” I ask, retaking my seat as gracefully as my arthritic hips allow.
She fingers the double strand of pearls around her neck. “I have a great-granddaughter who recently moved here. She’s with that new computer company in that monstrous building north of town.”
“Oh, yes.” It is a software firm, and the building is all graceful glass curves, with landscaping that always has something in bloom. I think it is lovely. “So you came to visit her?”
“That is my excuse. I actually came to talk to you.” She grips her cane. “I need to know what happened.”
“To Jack?” My chest suddenly feels hot and tight. “He had a stroke two years ago.” I feel the loss, still, like a physical thing—as if I had lost an arm and a leg and half of my key organs.
“I know, I know. I was sorry to hear about it. Deepest condolences, of course. But that isn’t what I meant.” She had the grace to look ill at ease. “I meant about… earlier. About what happened between you and Jack in France. I want to know the details.”
I pull my brows together. “Pardon me, but after all these years, surely it cannot matter?”
Kat’s chin rises to an imperious angle. For a moment she looks like a portrait of Louis XVI, where he’s wearing one those tight-necked blouses. “It has always mattered.”
Oh, dear. I cross, then uncross my legs. “Sometimes, Kat, it’s best to just let bygones be gones.” I realize I didn’t say the phrase quite right. “Sometimes one needs to…” What is the saying in English for passer l’eponge? “To forgive and forget.”
“Oh, I’ve forgiven. At least, I’ve forgiven Jack.”
“I’ve tried to forgive you, as well,” she continued, leaving me unsure if I’d spoken or only thought the question. As my age advances, that happens now and again. “At least as well as is humanly possible, with the little information I have. I forgave Jack right away so I wouldn’t live a bitter life. And I haven’t.” Her chin again tilts up, and her eyes seem to throw down a challenge. “I’ve had a marvelous life.”
“I’m so glad.” I am, actually. I have always carried a burden of guilt about the way my actions affected her. “You married, I heard?”
“Oh, yes. A wonderful wealthy man who adored me. I have four children, nine grandchildren, eighteen great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.”
“Yes.” She brushes an invisible piece of lint from her navy skirt. “I met my husband in Dallas when I left Wedding Tree. I’ve been very blessed. But I have one last item on what my great-grandchildren call my bucket list. You and Jack…. It’s the one thing in my life I have never understood. And…” she pauses. “I don’t have much time left.”
I smile. “At our age, no one does.”
“Yes, but I know exactly how little time I have,” she says. “You see, I had cancer years ago, and it’s…well, it’s back, and this time it’s untreatable. I have no more than six months. Probably less.”
My forehead knits. I resist the urge to cross myself. “I’m so, so sorry.”
She waves her hand dismissively. “It gives me a framework. I’m carefully choosing how to spend my time.”
“And you’re choosing to spend some of it with me?” I’m afraid my tone reveals my incredulity. In her shoes, I’m sure I wouldn’t have sought out my company.
Her head bobs in a single, somber nod. “I have not been able to understand how I could have been so wrong about Jack. I grew up knowing him, and… well, I thought he was an honorable man.”
I looked down at my wedding ring. The band is worn on the palm side of my finger, so thin it hardly holds together. “He was.”
“He went back on his word to me.”
“It really wasn’t his fault.”
“Oh, I know who shoulders most of the blame.” The censor in her tone—well, my skin prickles upward, like the ruff of a wolf. “But, still… I was just so certain that Jack…”
I can’t catch what she says next. I lean forward and touch my ear. “Pardon?”
She closes her eyes, her face drawn as if in pain. When she speaks, her voice cracks in a way that strikes the heart. “I thought he loved me.”
“Oh, he did!” I say quickly.
“Obviously not enough, or he wouldn’t have succumbed to your… charms.”
The pause in her statement would have been funny if it didn’t sting so much. I have always been aware that Kat was a great beauty, whereas I…well, no one would ever have described me that way. “I really gave him no choice,” I say.
“Unless you drugged him and tied him down, seduction is no excuse for infidelity.”
I am startled and amused. I fight to hide both reactions. “No?”
“No. Seduction is only an attempt, a temptation. True love will resist.”
Her notion of true love — so naive, so ridiculously American! —makes me smile.
“I fail to see anything funny.” Her voice is like needles, prickled and sharp.
“No, no—of course not. It’s just that, Kat—it was war time, and things were not so black and white.”
She dismisses my remark with a sweep of her hand. “There are no excuses.”
“Well, then, why are you here?” With that mindset, nothing I say will make any difference.
“To hear the truth. My hospice counselor… he’s been very helpful. He’s Jewish, of all things.” She leans forward a bit. “You know, Amelie, at your age, you might want to look into consulting one, too.”
I think this is a —how do you say it?—a dig, but I can’t be sure. “I don’t think you can get a hospice counselor if you aren’t ill,” I say softly, wondering if Kat has some form of dementia. So many of us do as we age.
She shrugs. “Ill, old— it’s all the same. Anyway, Jacob suggested that I do whatever I need to do to make peace with the past. And I realized that I needed to come see you and hear the truth.”
The truth. Mon Dieu, what a horrifying concept! My heart gave a hard, pointed-toe kick to my ribs. “What did Jack tell you?” I ask, trying to buy some time.
“Very little. Something about you tricking him, but I dismissed it, of course.”
“You should have believed him,” I say.
Her eyes meet mine directly for the first time since she’d sat down. “Just how did you trick him? I need to know what happened. Please. I want to hear the full story so I can die in peace.”
“What makes you think it will bring you peace? It’s more likely to anger you.”
“Just tell me. Please. It is for the good of my eternal soul.”
Oh, my—how does one refuse such a request? My breath hitches.
“I need to know the exact nature of what you did so that I can forgive you fully,” she says. “Not for your sake— quite frankly, I couldn’t care less about you— but for mine. I understand that God only forgives us as we forgive others.” She sits quietly for a moment. “I need to know what you did.”
I had believed that the secrets of my early days with Jack would die with me. The notion of dredging them all up, of shining a light on what I had worked so hard to bury, makes my heart both race and stop, although I know this is biologically impossible. “I do not mean to be rude, but this is a private matter. What was between Jack and me is really not your concern.”
“Not my concern? Not my concern?” She is suddenly a lion— her forehead creased, her mouth large, her voice larger, roaring in a way that is likely to summon an aide. She pounds her cane on the floor to emphasize each word. “You stole my life!”
My upper lip breaks a sweat, while my mouth feels packed with gauze. “You said you had a wonderful life. That you married a wonderful man.”
“I did. He was wealthy, handsome, successful, adoring. But…”
In that heartbeat of a pause, I knew what she was going to say. The words came out barely more than a whisper; the lion is now a wounded lamb. “…He wasn’t Jack.”
No, of course not. No one else in the world was Jack. “I—-” I started to say I was sorry, but what good would that do? An apology would bring back nothing, would give her nothing. And I wouldn’t mean it, anyway; I would not have given up a single moment with that magnificent man.
“Please,” she begs.
I look at her and try to see her objectively. It is what Jack used to do with his patients —to remove assumptions and see clearly. She is an old woman, searching for the truth about her life. Ah, merde.
“The truth is not likely to bring you the peace you want,” I warn again.
In fact, peace is the last thing it’s likely to bring. How can she forgive me once she hears the full extent of my deceptions?
How can I forgive myself? I had hoped to die without digging through the graveyard of my past, picking through and laying out all the skeletons of shame and pain—the shame and pain that I’d suffered myself, but far worse, the shame and pain I’d inflicted on others.
And yet, what excuse do I have to withhold what she wants to know, aside from pure selfishness? Elise is gone, so I no longer need worry about protecting her. I have lived through the true horror of old age, which is outliving a child.
“I don’t even know where you and Jack met,” Kat says.
This, at least, I can give her. “It was at a church.” It was l’Eglise Saint Medard, on the Rue Mouffetard in the Fifth Arrondissement. I can picture it so clearly I might have visited it just yesterday. Jack and I didn’t meet there, exactly; one might call it more of an encounter.
“I was kneeling at the end of the altar, sitting back on my heels, my head against the railing, when Jack entered the confessional. He didn’t see me— and I didn’t look up to see him.”
“Wait!” Kate holds up her hand like a traffic cop. “Jack went into a confessional? But he was Baptist!”
I nod. “He was there on behalf of someone else.”
Kat sits silently for a moment, apparently digesting this. “And you? You were there because you were religious?”
“No. I was there because I was desperate.” Desperate and despairing, with nowhere else to turn.
As I think of it, memories waft in like wisps of fog and cling to each other.“I was… how do you say? …at the end of my rope. Heartbroken and…and.. just broken. I needed a miracle.”
“Why? What had happened?”
“So much. So very, very much.” The fog was thickening, coalescing into something with weight and shape.
“I mean with Jack. You said he went into the confessional.”
She didn’t want information about me—only about Jack. Of course. “Yes. He went in, and I overheard him talking to the priest—he spoke French quite fluently, you know—and what he was saying… Well, I couldn’t help but listen.”
“What did he say?”
“He explained that he had been with an evacuation hospital unit in Normandy that was following the First Army on its march through France.”
“Yes, yes. He wrote me of that.”
“He said he and a young medic were helping a wounded infantryman out of a jeep when a lone German soldier, dazed and disoriented and probably wounded himself, wandered into the hospital zone. He had a machine gun, and he aimed it at them. The medic had a gun; he knew Jack was not armed. He pushed Jack out of the way and shot the soldier.”
I remember how Jack’s voice faltered as he told this to the priest. Even now, the memory makes my own throat thicken.
“The medic saved Jack’s life, but in the process, the machine gun fired into his chest. As he lay dying, he asked Jack for a priest; he wanted to confess. There was not time to find one. Jack said he would hear his confession, and later relay it to a priest. That was why Jack was at the church that day— to confess by proxy for the medic.”
“Catholics can do that?” Kat asked.
What ridiculous details snag this woman’s attention! But then, she wouldn’t know; like Jack, she, too, was raised Baptist. “No, and the priest told Jack as much. ‘Well, I gave my word,’Jack said, ‘so I’m going to tell you his confession anyway.’”
“So he did?”
“Yes. Jack said that the medic had been separated from his unit soon after the American landing— what is now called D-day. A young French woman hid him from the Germans for a couple of weeks and helped him connect with the American hospital unit. He feared he’d gotten her pregnant. He loved her, and he’d intended to return and marry her.
“The priest replied that he would pray for the young man’s soul, and asked his name.
“‘Doug Claiborne from Kalispell, Montana,’ Jack replied.
“The priest asked if Jack knew the name of the girl or where she was from.
“‘No,’ Jack said. ‘The medic was fighting for his last breath as he told me this. He said he had a letter from her in his coat pocket, but when I looked for it, there was just a hole where the pocket should have been.’
“‘Then there is nothing you can do,’ the priest said.”
I close my eyes, seeing the dimly lit church again in my mind’s eye. I can practically smell the wood polish on the altar rail, practically see the flicker of the votive candles.
“It was wrong, but as Jack and the priest talked, their voices grew softer, and I crept closer to better hear. As I neared the confessional, I saw what looked like a doctor’s bag outside the curtain. A metal tag was attached to the top. I flipped it over and read his name: Dr. Jack O’Connor.
“‘And you, my son?’ the priest had asked.‘Do you have something to confess?’”
“‘Only that I do not deserve to be alive,’ Jack said. ‘Another man died when it was meant to be me.’”
“‘Apparently God thinks otherwise. Are you going home soon?’”
“‘Not yet. I’m stationed at the 365th Army station hospital here in Paris—it used to be the American Hospital. I’m here for at least a couple more months, maybe longer.’”
“‘Ahh,’ the priest said. ‘Well, I will pray for you.’”
I open my eyes to see Kat frowning at me. Until this moment, I had not realized I had closed them. “Right then and there, I formulated a plan.”
Kat’s eyebrows rise. “A plan?”
“Yes. But in order to understand, you must know what life was like for me during the war.”
Kat waves her hand in that dismissive gesture again. “I don’t care about your sufferings. Have you cared about mine all these years?”
“Not as I should have.” She does not really want to forgive, I realize. She does not want to let me off the hoof, I think the saying goes. I tamp down my irritation, then force myself to look at her again, as Jack would have done— objectively, without bias or emotion.
Sacre coeur. She is an old woman who is dying. I realize I must grant her wish. But first, I will lay down some rules.
“Some actions only make sense if you know the reasons why. If I am to tell you this story— the whole ugly truth of it all — I insist on telling it at my own pace, in my own way. I will tell it without interruptions or questions, or I won’t tell it at all.”
She nods, her mouth pinched and tight.
“This might take a while,” I warn.
She lifts her shoulders in that stiff little shrug again. “I have nothing to do but hear this and die.”
And I have nothing to do but to tell it. I sigh, then draw a deep breath and begin.