L’Orangerie

Lynda Kerry is on the plane to Paris when she first sees the ad. It’s all stale air and bumped knees until she turns the page of her magazine and there it is. The page smells like spicy perfume and the words are printed in pale green. The model’s skin is smooth and white, the color of some kind of flower petal—something southern, a magnolia or maybe a camellia, something that would feel cool against your cheek. Her eyes are wide and bluish green, but it’s apparent to Lynda that the model’s skin is what you’re supposed to focus on, what will stick in your mind after you’ve turned the page to the article about lip injections. When Gregg looks over and sees her staring, he asks what the cream is for, if she’s ever heard of it.

She shakes her head. “It’s made out of grapes or something like that. Some kind of French cream, I guess.”

“Well, that’s perfect then. You can get some on our trip.”

“Oh, I don’t need anything like that.” Before she turns the page, Lynda holds the ad up closer to her eyes and the perfect white skin dissolves into millions of tiny dots.

Their hotel is on Rue de Castiglione, a name that sounds Italian instead of French, but the garden—Jardin des Tuileries—which their balcony overlooks, is exactly how she imagined Paris would be: the short iron fence with the swinging gate; the rows of trees all the same height; the proud statues rising up between them.

After they’ve unpacked, they take a short walk through the garden before dinner. It’s drizzling a light gray rain, and the sand on the ground is starting to stick together. Some people they pass have pulled their jackets over their stooped heads and others carry umbrellas, mostly black, but Lynda spots an orange one, and in the distance, a tilting white. Gregg shakes out the black umbrella they brought with them and holds it over her head. “Come in closer,” he says. “Otherwise you’ll get wet.”

“I don’t want to take up too much room.” Lynda keeps walking, only partially under the umbrella. “You’re carrying it after all.”

Gregg stops and touches her arm with his free hand. “Please just get under the umbrella, Lynda. Come on.” He looks at her without blinking. She pats his chest and speeds up until no part of her is covered and the rain can reach her. Her hair gets wet first and then her back and shoulders. But she keeps going through the garden, all the way to the imposing bulk of The Louvre. The whole time, the jagged edge of what she’s done hovers underneath, the way it’s been ever since that awful day.

After dinner, they walk back to the hotel. It’s still early—not dark yet, and the evening traffic is heavier than when they set out. Cars, taxis mostly and some Mercedes and Audis, weave around each other. When they hear brakes screech, Lynda winces like she’s been stung.

“It’s nothing, look.” Gregg points at the gold sedan waiting at the light and the group of tourists laughing as they cross the intersection. “At least the rain’s stopped.”

She nods and compliments him again on the dinner, the research he did to find the restaurant. Back home, he had printed out reviews and maps and paper-clipped them in folders.

“I think a trip like this is exactly what you need,” their son, Oliver, had said. “And you’ve always wanted to see Paris.”

“Not like this. Not when I don’t deserve—not now,” Lynda had told him, pacing around with the phone to her ear.

“Mom, it’s been what—six months? Close to seven? And you’ve done everything you can do. More than you even needed to.” He sighed. “You’ve got to forgive yourself eventually. And at this point it is what it is, you know?” Three years in college and this was what he was like, so much older than the way she usually thought of him. Despite everything else, she smiled to picture him on the phone, nodding and so sure about things. Right before they hung up, he blew her a tiny kiss through the phone and she knew exactly the shape his mouth made.

She’d been on the phone that awful day too, her cell phone. She was leaving a message for her assistant about a board package going out the next morning. Even though she knew her assistant was already gone for the day, she sometimes left messages like that so nothing fell through the cracks. The phone hadn’t been the problem though. She was still paying attention and sitting up straight with her eyes on the road. The little boy had come out of nowhere.

“They look very French, don’t they?” Gregg steps over a metal grate in the street and Lynda follows his eyes to the couple walking in front of them. The man’s raincoat flaps behind him, an expensive-looking mushroom color, and the woman leans into him, her tall, black boots stabbing at the pavement.

“I don’t see how that suede doesn’t get ruined. Everything’s still wet,” Lynda says and Gregg shrugs. When the woman up front stretches to kiss the man, Lynda looks down at her fingernails.

When she saw the boy, she wrenched her foot on the brake, as quickly and as hard as she could. Later she found out that he’d been chasing after his dog, a miniature toy poodle. Although she never saw the dog, she imagined it as a flash of white, so fast it almost seemed to be flying. His parents told her the boy’s name was Alex. The dog was Penny.

They’re almost back to their hotel when Lynda sees another ad for the face cream. This one is on the glass window of a store. Inside, two women wait in line by the counter where an employee rings up purchases on an impossibly thin laptop. Lynda slows down to get a better look at the poster. It’s the same model, the same eyes and skin, but it’s much larger than the magazine ad. She could reach up and fit her entire hand over one of the model’s eyes. The jar of cream shimmers in the bottom right corner: pillowy waves of white and the lid discarded to the side.

“Do you want to keep walking for a little bit? Or just turn in?” Gregg holds out his arm like he’s showing her the shop windows and the ornate streetlights, like he would give it all to her if he could.

“It’s up to you. It doesn’t matter to me either way.”

“But what do you want?” He sighs. “Would you just tell me?”       

“Let’s get some rest,” Lynda says. She starts to add that they have a busy day tomorrow, but Gregg is already crossing the street ahead of her.

It’s cloudy the next morning, and on their way through the garden to the Musee de L’Orangerie, Gregg shows Lynda a print-out from the website.

“Did you want to read about it? It was originally a shelter for the orange trees in the garden. But once he decided to donate the water lily murals, Monet helped re-design the building. 1922, I think it was. They’ve glued the paintings directly to the walls. Did you know that?”

Lynda nods. “You know I’ve always wanted to see them.” He smiles and she smiles back before she can catch herself.

In the museum, it’s chilly and a slightly metallic smell puffs through the vents in the walls, which are painted a soft white, scuffed in only a few places. The sun filters in through the high skylights. Their feet crunch tiny pieces of sand tracked in on visitors’ shoes. The paintings themselves, the water lilies, seem two or three times as wide as Lynda and Gregg’s living room. An older woman sits on one of the benches, drinking in the paintings stretched around her in the oval-shaped room. When Gregg asks Lynda if she wants to sit down, she shakes her head.

 She tries to absorb the color, all the blues and purples and greens, the little surprises of white and pink. But she’s waiting the whole time for something to happen: thunder outside; the fire alarm to go off; a little boy to walk in, glaring at her.

The little boy from that awful day can walk, but just barely. He’ll always have a limp. That’s what all the doctors have said, the doctors that Lynda and Gregg paid for. Maybe he’ll need another surgery down the road—it’s too early to say for sure—and Lynda has promised they’ll pay for that too.

The boy’s parents told her how Penny was waiting when they got home from the hospital, sniffing around the front door. Lynda asked the hospital administration to let them bring in his dog for a visit. But it was against regulations and the hospital wouldn’t allow it. “We appreciate you trying,” the boy’s parents said. “You really didn’t have to.”

“I don’t understand how they can be so nice, not after what I’ve done to their son,” Lynda kept telling Gregg. “It’s not right. Something about it isn’t natural.”

“Well, of course they know you didn’t do it on purpose. People can forgive mistakes. They know accidents happen.”

“Not like this they don’t,” she had said, looking at their front door and waiting for the police to take her away. She kept watch for weeks, thinking every day the police would show up, until the boy’s parents told her they had declined to press any sort of charges.

“It’s beautiful, huh? Can you believe we’re really here getting to see this?” Gregg tilts his head toward one of the paintings.

“It’s amazing. I’m so happy,” Lynda lies, turning away from the doubt on his face. She tries to hold her breath until they leave, and when they emerge on the other side of the doors, there’s a new, hot sun biting their faces.

That night at dinner, Gregg talks about what they’ve seen: the gold-trimmed bridges over the Seine; the tiny gold frame around the water lilies. I’m missing it, she tells herself. I don’t deserve it. But we’re here.

On the street in front of their hotel, she tells Gregg that she’ll be up to their room in a few minutes. “I just want to take a quick walk by myself. Soak it all in, you know?” She gestures at the flower stand, the macaroon shop, the row of houses with their tall doors, one painted peacock blue and the next a shiny varnished wood. “Maybe a little shopping.”

“Sure, that sounds good. I might get a decaf. Since it’s only afternoon back home, I can catch up on emails.” He kisses her on the cheek. “Take your time.” She watches him pull open the heavy glass door of their hotel before she starts walking again.

Later, once Gregg is asleep, Lynda stands in front of the bathroom mirror and opens the shopping bag. On the package insert, she reads about how vineyards used to throw away the grape seeds after they’d squeezed out the juice from the grapes. “But the grape seed,” she reads, “contains polyphenols, now believed to be some of the most powerful antioxidants found in nature.” “Every year,” the paper says, “the vine comes back to life after a long winter. And every time you apply the cream, it stimulates production of collagen at the cellular level.” She unfolds the paper to read more—about healing power and the skin’s ability to regenerate. After she’s finished, she folds up the paper and leaves it on the marble counter.

When she opens the glass jar, the first thing she does is breathe in the scent of the cream. It’s exactly as light and clean as she’s imagined. If smells had color, it would be the palest green. The directions are printed in silver ink on the inside of the white box. “Apply with fingertips, starting at the neck and moving upward with a gentle, soothing motion, finishing with the forehead.” She does exactly what she’s supposed to do and she feels it beginning to work its magic already, even before she eases her fingers away. There’s enough left in the jar and she takes off her clothes and smoothes the cream all over her shoulders and chest, her legs and arms, and the parts of her back that she can reach.

The next morning, Gregg points to the map he’s printed out, reminding her of their plan for the day: Notre Dame; the bookstore where Hemingway borrowed books; Napoleon’s tomb in the afternoon. “Or is there something else, something you’d rather do?” He bends down closer and touches the back of her neck. “You can tell me.”

“L’Orangerie,” she says. “I know we were just there yesterday, but I didn’t see it, not really. And I want to.”

He nods, folding up the map, and they remember which way to turn. Lynda knows what she’ll do when she’s standing in front of the paintings this time. She will imagine stepping into the dark blue water. She’ll lift up one of the water lilies and brush its white coolness against her cheek.

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Competition Information

Former PWG Competition winners




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