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Lilac Girls(5)
Martha Hall Kelly

“It’s 1939.”

“Manhattan society is like a solar system with its own order. A single woman dining with a married man is enough to throw planets out of alignment.”

“No one will see us here,” Paul said, pointing out a champagne on the list to M. Bernard.

“Tell that to Miss Evelyn Shimmerhorn over there in the back booth.”

“Are you ruined?” he said with a certain type of kindness seldom found in achingly beautiful men. Maybe the black shirt was a good choice for him after all.

“Evelyn won’t talk. She’s having a child, poorly timed, dear thing.”

“Children. They complicate everything, don’t they? No place for that in an actor’s life.”

Another selfish actor.

“How does your father earn your place in this solar system?”

Paul was asking a lot of questions for a new acquaintance.

“Earned, actually. He was in dry goods.”

“Where?”

M. Bernard slid a silver bucket with handles like gypsy’s earrings onto the table, the emerald-green throat of the champagne bottle lounging against one side.

“Partnered with James Harper Poor.”

“Of Poor Brothers? Been to his house in East Hampton. He’s not exactly poor. Do you visit France often?”

“Paris every year. Mother inherited an apartment…on rue Chauveau Lagarde.”

M. Bernard eased the cork from the champagne with a satisfying sound, more thud than pop. He tipped the golden liquid into my glass, and the bubbles rose to the rim, almost overflowed, then settled at the perfect level. An expert pour.

“My wife, Rena, has a little shop near there called Les Jolies Choses. Have you seen it?”

I sipped my champagne, the bubbles teasing my lips.

Paul slid her picture from his wallet. Rena was younger than I had imagined and wore her dark hair in a china doll haircut. She was smiling, eyes open wide, as if sharing some delicious little secret. Rena was precious and perhaps my complete opposite. I imagined Rena’s to be the type of chic little place that helped women put themselves together in that famous French way—nothing too coordinated, with just the right amount of wrong.

“No, I don’t know it,” I said. I handed the picture back. “She’s lovely, though.”

I finished the champagne in my glass.

Paul shrugged. “Too young for me, of course, but—” He looked at the photo a few moments as if seeing it for the first time, head tilted to one side, before slipping it back into his wallet. “We don’t see much of each other.”

I fluttered at the thought and then settled, weighted by the realization that even if Paul were available my forceful nature would root out and extinguish any spark of romance.

The radio in the kitchen blared scratchy Edith Piaf.

Paul lifted the bottle from the bucket and tipped more champagne into my glass. It effervesced, riotous bubbles tumbling over the glass’s edge. I glanced at him. We both knew what that meant, of course. The tradition. Anyone who’s spent any time at all in France knows it. Had he overpoured on purpose?

Without hesitation, Paul tapped his finger to the spilled champagne along the base of my glass, reached across to me, and dabbed the cool liquid behind my left ear. I almost jumped at his touch, then waited as he brushed my hair aside and touched behind my right ear, his finger lingering there a moment. He then anointed himself behind each ear, smiling.

Why did I suddenly feel warm all over?

“Does Rena ever visit?” I asked. I tried to rub a tea stain off my hand only to find it was an age spot. Delightful.

“Not yet. She has no interest in theater. Hasn’t even come over here to see The Streets of Paris yet, but I don’t know if I can stay. Hitler has everyone on edge back home.”

Somewhere in the kitchen, two men argued. Where was our escargot? Had they sent to Perpignan for the snails?

“At least France has the Maginot Line,” I said.

“The Maginot Line? Please. A concrete wall and some observation posts? That’s only a gauntlet slap to Hitler.”

“It’s fifteen miles wide.”

“Nothing will deter Hitler if he wants something,” Paul said.

There was a full-blown ruckus in the kitchen. No wonder our entrée had not arrived. The cook, mercurial artiste no doubt, was having a fit about something.

M. Bernard emerged from the kitchen. The portholed kitchen door swung closed behind him, flapped open and shut a few times, and then stood still. He walked to the center of the dining room. Had he been crying?

“Excusez-moi, ladies and gentlemen.”

Someone tapped a glass with a spoon, and the room quieted.

“I have just heard from a reliable source…” M. Bernard took a breath, his chest expanding like leather fireplace bellows. “We have it on good authority that…”

He paused, overcome for a moment, then went on.

“Adolf Hitler has invaded Poland.”

“My God,” Paul said.

We stared at each other as the room erupted with excited exchanges, a racket of speculation and dread. The reporter from the gala stood, tossed some crumpled dollars on the table, grabbed his fedora, and bounded out.

In the hubbub that followed his announcement, M. Bernard’s final words were almost lost.

“May God help us all.”

1939

It really was Pietrik Bakoski’s idea to go up to the bluff at Deer Meadow to see the refugees. Just want to set straight the record. Matka never did believe me about that.

Hitler had declared war on Poland on September 1, but his soldiers took their time getting to Lublin. I was glad, for I didn’t want anything to change. Lublin was perfect as it was. We heard radio addresses from Berlin about new rules, and some bombs fell on the outskirts of town, but nothing else. The Germans concentrated on Warsaw, and as troops closed in there, refugees by the thousands fled down to us in Lublin. Families came in droves, traveling southeast one hundred miles, and slept in the potato fields below town.

Before the war, nothing exciting ever happened in Lublin, so we appreciated a good sunrise, sometimes more than a picture at the cinema. We’d reached the summit overlooking the meadow on the morning of September 8 just before dawn and could make out thousands of people below us in the fields, dreaming in the dark. I lay between my two best friends, Nadia Watroba and Pietrik Bakoski, watching it all from a flattened bowl of straw, still warm where a mother deer had slept with her fawns. The deer were gone by then—early risers. This they had in common with Hitler.

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