The European Movie

The snow began on Christmas night. John Palmer, his mother, Isabel Maria, and his wife, Laura, sat snugly in the warm master bedroom. To ease some of the boredom that always set in between Christmas morning and the reopening of the malls, John had bought a European movie on DVD, and the three of them were watching it in the dark.

John and Laura were propped up on pillows against the sleigh-back headboard of their bed. They were dressed alike, in plaid flannel pajamas and thick, Rockford Red Heel monkey socks that Isabel Maria had given them for Christmas. A large green US Army surplus blanket covered them up to their chests. Laura hated this blanket, warm though it was; it had such a drab color, and the fire retardant that coated it smelled of gasoline. But John loved it; it reminded him of his scouting days and cozy nights in a womblike tent during snowstorms. Every now and then Laura would take a sip of cabernet sauvignon from a glass on her night table and would rub, as she did so, her left leg against her flannelled husband. He would rub back. Give her that much, he thought. Give her that much.

John Palmer was forty-nine. The once shiny black hair that he had inherited from his Cuban mother was graying and falling out. He’d developed a paunch, not so much from overeating, he insisted, as from a nervousness that he could trace back to his parents’ divorce when he was thirteen. His small hands sometimes shook. He had a thick neck with distinct rings burned into it by the tight collars and ties he had worn for the last twenty years. He was a lawyer of middling success and had spent his career working for the public defender offices of various counties in New Jersey.

Laura was forty-six, neither thin nor fat, with straw-colored hair cut in a pageboy style. She had a wide, big-toothed smile that was perfect for her work with preschoolers, before whom she must always look happy and positive. Laura’s face was pale with a cluster of freckles over the bridge of her nose. Just above her right hip a lipoma, or fat tumor, had developed, almost the size of a golf ball. It was harmless and she would have had it removed for cosmetic reasons, but why spend the money? John had not seen her naked or touched her body in the last three years. She had confessed this to her gynecologist, a young Pakistani American woman, who’d seemed shocked: “And you’re okay with that?” Laura had only shrugged.

John’s mother, Isabel Maria, was in her middle seventies. She was still tall and strong and independent. She lived an active retirement in Miami, a member of all kinds of Cuban exile clubs, like the one that devoted itself to preserving ephemera from the legendary Havana department store El Encanto, and another that trained for the invasion of Cuba. The men in that club, not one younger than sixty, jogged with toy rifles on the first Saturday of every month for about thirty minutes, returning winded and famished to sumptuous lunches that Isabel Maria and the other women had prepared for them. She hated the cold and, though she loved her son and tolerated her daughter-in-law, she was impatient to return south. Now she was wearing a loud, pink satin nightgown. Her socks were leopard-spotted with rubber treads on the soles. She sat in a worn, red velvet reading chair with her legs tucked up beneath her and a striped, Canadian trapper blanket pulled up to her square, determined chin. Beneath the cover of the blanket, she continued to indulge in her nervous habit of scraping away the skin around her thumbs and cuticles with the long, sharp nails of her index fingers. Her thumbs were always red and raw because of this, and her cuticles bled. She left flakes of epidermis wherever she sat. It drove her son crazy. As they watched the movie, John could hear her picking and scraping. He told her to stop.

Déjame,” she barked back. “Leave me alone, Juanito. I do what I want.”

Isabel Maria was still upset by the prank that John had played on her last October, as the presidential elections were nearing the end. She’d been a staunch McCain supporter and considered Obama a communist. After Castro the communists were not going to hurt her again, not if she could help it. She thought her son naïve not to see how communism was poised to take power in the United States. Had he and Laura considered moving their assets to Europe? Many Cubans in Miami had begun to do so—she herself was looking into it. All of her club mates and all the exile blogs said to prepare for another diaspora. But John had dismissed her, as he dismissed all of her political opinions. He thought he was so smart, but without her quick thinking and courage, he would have been born on the island to a life of misery. Why was he so resentful? He had done everything to disappoint her. Despite the expensive education she had given him, he had become a mere public defender, working for a mediocre salary to protect the rights of shameless criminals and illegal immigrants . . . it made her blood boil. Then, one morning, John had called her up and asked her, in an alarmed voice, if she had heard the news.

Te enteraste? Did you hear what happened? You won’t believe it. You’d better sit down. No lo vas a creer.

He sounded so convincing. She became frightened. Her heart rose to her throat.

Qué pasó? What happened, Juanito? What?”

John swallowed hard and said: “They’ve killed Joe the Plumber. The Black Panthers. They shot him. For criticizing Obama. For messin’ with a brother.”

“I knew this would happen!” she shrieked. “Lo sabia! Negros indecentes! Poor man—he was a hero! A hero!” She began to cry hysterically.

John burst out laughing. “Mammita, it was just a joke . . . ”

So far the European movie was going well. When John had bought it at the Barnes & Noble, it had seemed safe enough, based on the description on the back of the plastic jewel case. Yet he’d felt rushed that day by the throngs of desperate, last-minute holiday shoppers, and had read it only cursorily. Ostensibly the movie was about a young, female opera singer living in Paris. His mother loved Italian opera and would be sure to enjoy it. The movie had indeed started out harmlessly enough, with atmospheric nighttime shots of the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Elysées. The beautiful actress had a soaring voice, but warm and golden and not piercing.

John had no reason to feel apprehensive. Here they were, all together, after a wonderful Christmas dinner of turkey, frijoles negros, and turrón. Yes, the people he most loved in the world, the only people he had, were safe and snug in one room. He had even scored a recent and rare success in his career, winning the case of the Honduran woman accused of burning her seventeen-year-old daughter alive. She had found her daughter in bed with her husband, the girl’s stepfather. John’s story of the woman’s childhood abuse at the hands of an uncle and of her horrific journey on foot across Mexico and into the United States, surviving rapist policemen, extortionist smugglers, and sewage tunnels full of rats, had swayed the jury. Although the death penalty had been repealed in New Jersey, the woman could have received life imprisonment. Instead she was committed for ten years to Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. The victory had restored his credibility somewhat in the eyes of his boss, the chief public defender of Essex County, an exacting and skeptical woman his own age who tended to regard men as nothing but lazy and ineffective little boys.

Everything was fine, yet John shifted uneasily in the bed. He was finding it difficult to focus on the movie. His gaze wandered away from the bright screen into the shadows. He could make out the antique bachelor armoire against the left wall. His mother had given it to him years ago. He kept his suits and ties in it. In the middle was a smaller compartment, behind a mirrored door, where he had created a veritable male treasure trove, a secret nook stocked with binoculars in leather cases, pocket knives, his favorite scotch, a cigar box full of his old army men, a bottle of bay rum aftershave, a broken Soviet diver wristwatch that had a military frogman etched on its face—someday he had to get that repaired. . . .

He turned and peered at his wife, who seemed absorbed by the movie. He loved and respected her. They never spoke about the unspeakable. That she continued to love him made him feel both grateful and guiltier. He had denied her the children she had so wanted. He had seen too much suffering in his work to have children, and his own childhood had come to such a bad end. And then, the last time they had made love, he, an only child, had had the sudden and disgusting feeling that she was his sister. The thought made him sick and flaccid, though there was nothing he found repulsive or unappealing about her body. It kept him from her like a wall. Having ruined Laura’s life—for that, he knew, was what he had done—he was now bound to her irrevocably, caring for her every minor need solicitously, finding every substitution and palliative he could to keep her in her state of resigned contentedness. Above all, he prayed she would never leave him. He was terrified of being left alone.

John had never felt tempted by adultery. The closest he came was one rainy night at the local diner. The tall, young blond serving him seemed so depressed by the rain and by her job. It broke his heart to see her looking out the window so emptily, propped over the counter on her elbows, knuckles under her chin. He thought he’d cheer her up somehow. After he finished his coffee, he rushed through the blinding downpour to a flower shop and had a bouquet of roses delivered to her at the diner with an anonymous note that read: “May these roses brighten up a rainy evening.” Pleased with himself, he thought of the unexpected joy this would bring into her life. Instead the waitress forced the flower shop to reveal his name, and she called him up. She accused him of being a stalker. She threatened to call the police and said that if he ever bothered her, she would chop him up into little pieces or hire someone who would. John tried to explain, but her ferocity made him stutter, as sometimes happened to him in court before an intimidating judge. He had left the note anonymous so that she would not feel compelled to thank him or follow up; he had meant no harm at all, and he kept trying to apologize. He saw his whole career, his marriage, falling apart for this one absurd and, to him, impulsively generous act. He thought it best to confess to his wife.

“She’s crazy. A psycho!”

“Maybe not, John. Maybe she’s been stalked in the past or even raped. You, as a lawyer, should understand.”

Laura was angry, but agreed to go with him to the diner and help him dispel the waitress’s fears. The waitress calmed down and told him never to do such a thing again and not to pity her—she had a college education and worked in a diner by choice. He sat there, humiliated, stupid, staring down into a dirty Buffalo China coffee cup. “Good luck, honey,” the waitress said to his wife.

The movie was taking a strange turn. A puppeteer had begun to pursue the beautiful opera singer. A puppeteer, of course! That’s what John disliked about European movies, especially the French ones—there were always mimes, magicians, or other unlikely characters hijacking the plot. But surely such a successful and lovely girl would never fall for a puppeteer, a man who lived in a shabby rented room with suitcases full of plastic body parts for his dolls. She would go for a statesman or perhaps for a lawyer like himself. Yet John had to admit, grudgingly, that the puppeteer, though somewhat older than the singer, was handsome in a dark, melancholy way, with a body that was fit and trim. The singer, John could tell, was mesmerized by the puppeteer’s hands, how his long, delicate fingers manipulated the strings to make the lifeless puppets mimic the most subtle shades of human feeling—it was uncanny. Fortunately the singer seemed to be rejecting the puppeteer now. She had come to her senses. Good. John relaxed.

The girl was running away from the puppeteer through the streets of Paris. Why did she keep glancing back as she ran, with that look that was not wholly fear, but mixed with desire? After all, John thought, why didn’t she just scream for a policeman? It was the middle of the day, for God’s sake, in the middle of Paris, and the streets were crowded. Help was in plain sight. The singer made it, out of breath, to her luxurious hotel room and threw herself facedown on the large, round bed, which had leopard-spotted covers and huge pillows. But what was this? She’d left the door of her room open. Soon enough the puppeteer was standing in the doorframe.

John’s whole body tensed again. Laura had stopped rubbing her leg against her husband. She was leaning forward in bed, staring intently at the screen.

It was happening. To John’s horror, it was happening. The puppeteer put one of his masterful hands up the singer’s skirt and with the other stroked her long, black hair. She leaned back into him, her head raised. She stared ecstatically at the ceiling. The puppeteer buried his dark face in her hair, pressing his lips to her warm nape. He worked the young woman slowly. Her breathing quickened until she was open mouthed, sucking in air, gulping it desperately, hungrily. Her body quaked. She began to emit high-pitched squeaks, each one shriller, building up to a long, piercing shriek. Then she began to sob, falling from her heights like a dying bird spiraling out of the sky. Tears streamed down her face. The puppeteer held her and whispered soothing words into her ear.

The room was very quiet. John wanted to be engulfed by night. He wanted to disappear. Laura kept staring at the movie, open mouthed, spellbound. His mother, Isabel Maria, threw off her trapper blanket suddenly.

“Well, good night. I’ve seen enough. I’m going to bed.” In the morning she would probably reschedule her flight for an earlier departure date.

Mammita,” John said with difficulty. His mouth was dry and sticky. “Por favor—I didn’t know . . . ”

But his mother ignored him and left the room, closing the door with bleeding fingers.

Laura switched off the television set abruptly with the remote. The room was plunged into complete darkness. She turned on her side, away from her husband. The snow tapped against the window. Soon John heard a faint whimpering. Laura was crying into her pillow. He reached under the smelly blanket and massaged her shoulder.  end