Hugh McCarthy had just turned fifty-five when his crippled mother died, leaving him alone in the world. News of her death spread quickly throughout the stately condominium complex, where residents had watched him wheel her about in her wheelchair for almost half a century, and among his customers at the local pharmacy, where he had counted pills and dispensed advice since graduating from pharmacy school thirty years earlier. Suddenly, several matronly divorcees and widows stopped to look him over, their eyebrows arched inquisitively as they offered their condolences in the lobby or waited for their medicine at the other side of the prescriptions counter.
“What a terrible loss,” they would say, staring at him intently. They found him a comely man, somewhat distinguished, with thinning gray hair, a slight stoop, and warm blue eyes that had a natural smiling quality to them. Soon, however, the shy hesitation in his manner became a nervous turning away. To him, the women seemed so old, so determined. They frightened him.
He assumed they were wondering about his inheritance. No one suspected that his mother’s money had run out long ago. Hugh was certain that money alone, his lack of it, would discourage many women, and he wanted to discourage them. But he couldn’t bear being known as poor. So he took a job with a large drugstore that offered him a substantial raise, part of a chain that had opened a new outlet on Connecticut Avenue. He sold off the condo, paid overdue bills, and moved into a modest two-room apartment at the edge of Dupont Circle. He felt more anonymous there. Safer.
Hugh couldn’t say exactly what his problem was. He knew only that he often felt a tightness in his chest and a frightful uneasiness that made him want to get away from people, especially women. He wanted to lock the heavy door to his apartment. To be alone. To eat.
He had developed an inexplicable craving for sweets. His favorite was a thick, rich crème brûlée, the kind his mother used to make. But no matter how much he ate, he often craved more. This shocked him.
One night he bought a nine-inch chocolate fudge cake that said “Happy Birthday, Baby!” in bright pink frosted letters. “My nephew will love this,” he said to the cashier. “He’s going to be four.”
As soon as he got home, he cut himself a huge slice, big enough for three people. He began to eat ravenously, not even bothering to sit at his mother’s worn canasta table, which he was using in the kitchen. Just halfway through, he could eat no more. He began to cry. Before going to bed, he threw the rest in the trash.
That night he had a dream. He was going to be seven years old. His mother had promised him a surprise after school. When he got home, the maid told him his mother was waiting for him in the kitchen. Hugh threw his school bag and plaid tie in a chair and swung the door open to find his mother sprawled on the floor, the side of her face covered in chocolate frosting, a yellow candle dangling from the collar of her dress, the wheelchair flung to the far side of the room where it had rolled out from under her. It was the look on her face that haunted him, a baffled, frantic look. And there on the floor, the smashed birthday cake. He wanted to taste the frosting.
After he had settled into his new apartment, Hugh saw an ad for a meeting of Overeaters Anonymous on the bulletin board of a nearby bookstore. He had heard of the group but never paid much attention. Maybe that was his affliction, he now thought. He decided to go.
The group gathered at Grace Episcopal Church, a large Gothic structure with flying buttresses that to Hugh, reflected a certain optimism. The church was near his apartment, and the meetings were held Saturday afternoons in a basement room.
For the next year, Hugh attended the meetings faithfully. Members shared their stories with him, and he listened and nodded in recognition and sympathy. There was the woman with the perpetual tan who talked about a fight she’d had with her husband during their vacation in Bavaria. She had almost been killed speeding on the Autobahn in her rented BMW while stuffing candy bars in her mouth. And there was the man in a red toupeé who wept for his beloved sheepdog that had died after eating a pan of fudge brownies left to cool on the floor by a screen door.
Hugh dabbed at his eyes as the stories unfolded. The members of the group grew to like him, and one day they elected him as treasurer. He felt proud of their confidence and performed his duties conscientiously, passing a hat around at every meeting, collecting whatever donations people wanted to make, paying the church each month for the use of the room, and sending a portion of the monthly proceeds to the group’s main office in the Washington, D.C. area. Then he would announce to the group in a businesslike manner what remained in the treasury. Usually, there were a few dollars left each month, and he kept these in the top drawer of his bureau beside a pile of neatly folded handkerchiefs. As time went on, Hugh’s eating habits improved, he lost six pounds, and he started to believe that the group had helped him get what he now called his addiction under control.
Hugh’s life had settled into a routine when the Washington Post ran a splashy story about food addictions on the front page of its health section. A sidebar listed the times and locations of Overeaters Anonymous meetings in the area, including Hugh’s group. At the next gathering, a half dozen new people showed up, and several of the regulars had to go into another room to get extra folding chairs. Everybody was packed tightly into the circle.
They went around the room introducing themselves, a ritual they performed at the beginning of every meeting. When it was the turn of the young woman next to Hugh, a diminutive brunette, she said, “All O, I am Celeste from France, and I am a food . . . how you say it? Adeect?”
People nodded and smiled encouragingly, and one young woman even leaned up out of her seat and clapped. Celeste smiled a bright, wide smile, revealing a gap between her front teeth. Hugh had noticed her when she first came into the room. She was slim, as were many food addicts. Though she was quite young, Hugh decided that she was a professional woman because he had seen her tuck a leather briefcase under her chair. He thought she looked smart in her tweed pantsuit and silk scarf, unlike the American women, most of whom came to meetings in jeans and sneakers.
The others in the circle continued introducing themselves, and Hugh turned his attention to them. He was thus absorbed when he felt something brush against his arm.
“Oh, pardon me,” Celeste whispered without looking at him. “I am so sorry.” A few minutes later, however, he felt the same thing again. Startled, he turned to look at her, but she ignored him.
He had begun to forget all this when something hard rubbed against his calf. He looked down and saw that it was the toe of Celeste’s brown pump. He noticed how her ivory-colored stockings gave her ankle a girlish look. For a moment, he imagined her in a plaid jumper, the kind the girls at the Blessed Sacrament School used to wear. He remembered how they would tease him on the walk home from school, swinging their green school bags at him as he hurried past to get home to his mother. With an eye on Celeste’s shoe, he shifted his weight on the metal chair and moved his legs ever so casually away from her to his other side.
After that, Hugh found himself looking at Celeste out of the corner of his eye and yet struggling not to. At first, she didn’t pay any attention to his glances, but then finally she turned and smiled at him. She had eyes as deep and rich as tigerite, with thick, velvety dark lashes.
He felt completely unsettled. “I was at the zoo,” he blurted out at one meeting, surprising the others in the group, “and I couldn’t help myself. I bought two chocolate Dove bars and ate them on the spot.”
“Oh, non, non!” Celeste cried. She put her hand on the sleeve of his cardigan and looked up at him with her big brown eyes.
Hugh was thrilled. Indeed, he couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so happy. Did it matter, he wondered, that he hadn’t been near a zoo in years, and he never ate Dove bars?
Celeste was beautiful. He could think of no other way to describe her, especially her eyes. There were times after a meeting when he’d be standing on the sidewalk talking with her and he’d see the sparkling of a strange universe there. Her aquiline nose fascinated him. He had a strong urge to run his tongue across the small bump that held her glasses in place. But he knew he would never do that. And he knew that she could not possibly care about him.
For one, he reminded himself, Celeste was a professional woman. She was a legal researcher for a big French manufacturing company. Her job was to learn U.S. trade law and schmooze with politicians on Capitol Hill. Barely thirty, she had traveled all over the world. She often entertained the group with stories of her adventures. Hugh’s favorite was about a business meeting in Riyadh she’d had with one of the Saudi princes. His assistant made her cover her face with a veil before entering the room, but once inside she threw the dark cloth at the prince’s feet and said, “I’ve had enough of this foolishness.” Two armed guards dragged her off to a hotel room, where they kept her until her company put up a ransom.
“All the time, I sit alone in the hotel, and I think of nothing but how I long to eat the crêpes,” she told the group. “I just think ‘crêpes,’ ‘crêpes.’ I am crazy, non?”
Hugh was impressed. The adventures she’d had! And she was such a young thing, too. He had never known anyone like her in his life.
She was divorced and “looking for Mr. Next,” she would say with a laugh. “I visualize him the way they say you are supposed to. I close my eyes, and I see that he is tall and mysterious. He is a traveler for adventure, comme moi, and a good talker and a good dancer, too. He has a great future, very very great success is coming to him. The world . . . How you say . . . it is his oyster?”
She told everybody she had been born Celeste Dusser du Bouton and was distantly related to the Comte de Salignac-Fenelon-de-Clermont-Tonnerre, which meant she had belonged to the French aristocracy before she married a man named Henri, a commoner whose last name she translated into English as “the little thing.” Henri had been the kind of mistake she would never make twice.
“C’est un zero, he is nothing,” she’d say, dismissing even his memory with a wave of her slender fingers.
Hugh figured he was pretty common himself. He already had one bad knee and a lower bridge. He worked at a dull, exacting job, filling one prescription after another, pouring little green and red and white pills into amber plastic containers and slapping labels on. He washed his hands countless times a day. At closing, he bleached and wiped the counters until they were nearly pristine. He went home to a spare apartment, where he showered, put on a pair of clean pajamas, which had been washed and ironed at the local laundry, and flopped into bed with something sweet and soothing to nibble on. He watched television until he fell asleep.
Besides his shortcomings, he knew that Celeste had her way with the opposite sex. All the men in the group were in love with her, and he assumed that was exactly how she wanted it. Oh, he had seen her making her rounds in the circle, brushing this one’s arm, that one’s leg. It was a routine, and she performed it well. He forgave her for that and for anything else that might ever come up between them, he was sure. So no, he had never let himself hope for her favors, not even when she would look at him and say, “Ah, mon chéri!” as she did at least once during every meeting.
They’d be sitting in the circle sharing their struggles, and he’d say something like, “I took more amphetamines from the pharmacy,” and she’d look at him and say, “Non, non, mon chéri! Whatever will become of you?” And he would think that maybe he’d taken the Dexedrine just to hear her say those words.
But he took Dexedrine for other reasons, too. After Celeste joined the group, he began to eat wildly again. When he worked late at night, which he did to make extra money, he started sneaking handfuls of the tablets. He’d be getting ready to close, and he would send off his assistant, a young man whose girlfriend eagerly awaited him.
“It’s all right, Joe,” Hugh would say. “I’ll be right behind you.” Then he would slip the round pink tablets into his shirt pocket and pop one in his mouth before heading out the door. By the time he got home, he was in a state of bliss. He loved the way the drug rolled over him like a cresting wave, subduing his other desires as it tingled through his limbs, right down to his fingertips and toes. And so even the craving for Rocky Road ice cream, which he had now been eating by the gallon at least once a week, would disappear, and he could rest.
One Saturday after the OA meeting had ended, the members wandered out from the basement room and into the night, leaving Hugh still counting the money from the hat. Celeste waited beside him because it was her maroon beret they had passed around. Hugh removed the last dollar bill, pausing to cradle the soft cashmere cloth that kept her precious head warm. He looked at her sheepishly and said, “Going my way, young lady?”
She took the hat from him and placed it on her head, where it sat at an angle, with a fold leaning toward one eye. “Mon chéri,” she said with a smile. “I am so very glad you ask. I am afraid to walk my street now. A man has followed me there. Truly, just the other night. I saw him and I am afraid. Mon Dieu. You will walk with me, non? You are such a gentleman. I know with you I will be . . . how you say it? Snug like a bug?”
She laughed, and he saw that she was amused with herself, as she always was, and expected everyone else to be, too. He didn’t let her down. He smiled and threw his head back like a jocular good fellow, his soft belly giving a couple of authenticating shakes. Apparently satisfied, she looped her arm through his, and he let her steer him out of the church basement and into the street.
As they walked, she leaned her angular body against his, sending a pain-like thrill across his pelvis. After a couple of blocks, she stopped in front of a coffeehouse and pressed her forehead to the glass.
“Ah, smell, Huey. That is what we need, un café.” She tugged at his arm, and he followed along, his body shifting and flowing in synch with her lead, as if he had been trained in another life to do just that and had been waiting only for the opportunity.
Inside, it was dim and crowded, the chairs bumping against each other. As soon as they were seated, Celeste patted his hand. They looked over the menu, and Celeste said she was not sure she had brought any cash. Hugh protested, saying surely, she would let him handle the tab. But she pulled a red billfold from her pocketbook, then slung the purse on the back of her chair.
“Yes, yes. I am okay,” she said after looking inside the wallet. “Order me un café, s’il vous plait. I will excuse myself for a moment,” and she headed for the Ladies’ Room.
Hugh noticed she had left her red wallet on the table. He felt uncomfortable seeing it sitting there. He could put it in her purse, which she had left on the back of the chair, but he would have to get up to do that, and it might look strange. Instead, he put the wallet in the breast pocket of his sports jacket. He would give it to her when she came back.
However, just as she sat down, a waiter arrived to take their order. She wanted to get something sweet and made the waiter recite the pastries twice. He brought over a tray to show her the deserts. She and Hugh decided to share one very large slice of German Forest cake, a chocolate cake with layers of raspberry sauce and whipped cream.
By the time they ordered, Hugh had forgotten about the wallet.
“Tell me about your family,” he said. He knew nothing about the aristocracy in France or any other country, except what he had seen on TV about the British royals, lately about Prince Harry and his American wife. It had never occurred to him that there might still be an aristocracy in France, too.
“Ah, that is so difficult,” she replied with a sigh. “Maman, she is not nice to me. She goes all the time to parties and balls. She stays up all night and sleeps until late into the afternoon. She does not wish to be disturbed. She does not like children. Truly, my wet nurse and governesses raised me.”
“Oh,” Hugh said, thinking how terrible such neglect must have been for a sweet childlike Celeste. What a heartless woman the mother must be!
“Yes, when I return home, it is my wet nurse I want most to see. She greets me as if I were her own child. She lives in the country now, in a tiny village.”
They had been sipping their coffee. Celeste had taken only one bite of the cake, which she had nibbled at endlessly on the end of her fork, then put the fork back on the plate without even licking off the cream. Hugh was gobbling the last of the cake when a young man walked past, then stopped and turned.
“Ah, you are French, I see, Mademoiselle,” the man said making a slight bow toward Celeste. He was handsome, his black hair slicked back with a thick curl at the forehead. A bushy mustache nearly concealed his lips. He wore an expensive leather jacket, and Hugh noted that he had a dapper air about him. Celeste gave the man a coy look that Hugh had seen many times before. The two exchanged a few words in French, which Hugh could not understand, and then, in parting, the man leaned over and kissed Celeste’s hand.
“But you must give me a proper French kiss,” she said loudly in English.
Hugh blanched. Could she possibly be saying something so vulgar to a stranger, he wondered. Could she be inviting this man to stick his tongue in her mouth? He wanted to jump to his feet, grab the fellow by the seat of his pants, and throw him out the door. But he sat in shock, immobilized, feeling speechless and helpless.
Celeste smiled at Hugh and even more invitingly at the stranger. Then she pointed with a finger at her cheek. The young man obediently pecked her there. Then she turned her head and pointed at the other cheek.
Hugh was thoroughly undone. A French kiss. He waved to the waiter for the check. While he paid the bill, Celeste reached to the back of her chair for her purse.
“Ah, mon Dieu!” she cried. “My purse! It’s gone!”
Hugh grabbed at his chest to see if the red wallet was still there. Sure enough, a solid rectangular lump sat firmly against his breast. But what was he to do? Now her purse was gone. He was in a fine pickle.
The waiter helped Celeste look for her pocketbook under the table and under the chair behind her. There was no purse to be found.
“I’ll call the police,” the waiter said.
Hugh was beside himself thinking about the wallet in his breast pocket. What if someone had seen him put it there? What if Celeste discovered it? Or worse, the police. Surely he looked guilty. But he couldn’t say why he felt so guilty or exactly what he might be guilty of. He wanted to leave the coffee shop and get away from Celeste.
“Do you have your keys?” he asked. “You must go home right now. You can call the police from there.”
She stuck her hand in her coat pocket to make sure her keys were still there. And so they walked straight to Celeste’s apartment. On her street, she rested her cheek against his arm.
“I am so grateful. You are so very kind,” she murmured as they stopped in front of her building.
He reached over and caressed the crown of her head, knocking her cashmere beret to the ground. He stooped and fumbled for the hat at her feet, muttering an apology, then slowly placed it back on her head, all askew, and looked into her eyes. His heart was pounding. He would have wrapped his arms around her and held her to his chest, he was certain, but he hesitated because of the leather wallet that was pressing so heavily against his ribs.
Celeste backed quickly away. “À bientôt!” she called out.
He watched her skip up the stairs and disappear behind tall shrubs along the path that led to her door. He heard the tat, tat, tat of her delicate feet, the scrape of the door opening, and the final dull thud as it closed, leaving him alone on the empty sidewalk, under a sulfurous streetlight.
On Monday, when he arrived for work at the pharmacy, the head pharmacist said, “Give me your keys, Hugh.” Hugh reached into the pocket of his white smock and handed over the keys without saying a word, then left. On the way home, he didn’t think about the fact that he had just lost his job, nor that he might lose his license. He could think only that he was almost out of those dreamy pink pills.
He stopped at the grocery store and bought two quarts of Rocky Road ice cream and a six-pack of beer. Then he went to the liquor store and bought a pint of vodka.
He was at home sitting at the canasta table, dipping into the ice cream, when he remembered Celeste’s wallet. He had rushed home Saturday and stuffed the billfold inside his zippered mattress cover. He had hoped, even should he suddenly be struck dead by a bus, no one would ever find it there. Now it occurred to him to look inside.
He took the wallet gingerly from its hiding place and laid it on the table in front of him. He was sure he had become a shameful thief. Still, he opened the wallet and examined its contents. There was an international driver’s license, with a picture of Celeste that made her look much older. There were the usual credit cards, a wad of money, membership cards for local museums, for the library, and other such items. And there was a small, faded black and white photograph, wrinkled at the corners and yellowing.
It showed a woman and child in front of a small stone house, with a donkey off to one side. The woman squinted, looking drawn and somber, her apron tied over a skirt, the hem wildly uneven. Beside her stood a skinny, barefoot girl in a dress several sizes too large for her, the fabric a spray of faded blossoms. There was a small gap between the girl’s front teeth. There was no mistaking that the child was Celeste. And, Hugh knew, the woman was her mother.
Hugh screwed open the vodka bottle and took a long gulp.
The next day, Hugh felt idle and unhinged without a job to go to, not knowing what to do about the wallet, the photograph, waiting for night to come so he could call Celeste. OA members were encouraged to call each other between meetings for moral support; he called her once a week on Tuesday night. But when evening came, he discovered he was afraid to make the call. What would he say to her? Instead, he took a walk in the rain. Several hours later, soggy and cold, he stood by the landline in his socks, water still dripping from his hair onto his shirt. He pulled the chair back as if to sit down, hesitated, and went to the refrigerator. He opened a beer and drank half of it from the bottle in one long gulp. Then he wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve and stuck the bottle back in the near-empty refrigerator without bothering to put the cap on.
He always let the phone ring six times before hanging up. His mother had said that was the best thing to do. “You don’t want someone getting mad at you before you say hello,” she used to say. So six rings were the polite limit.
At the fourth ring, he began to hope that Celeste had gone to a movie. Or maybe she was in the shower. It was a quarter to ten, and if she didn’t answer soon, he’d have to wait until the following night to call again, as he never called anyone after ten p.m.
At the sixth ring, he pressed the “Off” button before anyone could answer. He sat in the foyer on the hard wooden chair under a bare bulb. He had meant to furnish the apartment better, to make it homier, but he had put most of his mother’s worn-out things in storage and had never gotten around to decorating. He was thinking about what to do when it occurred to him that he’d heard Celeste’s voice just before he ended the call.
Good God, what should he do? He went to the refrigerator for another swig of beer, followed by a slug of vodka. He rushed back to the phone. He paced around the tiny hall. He assumed she had to rise early the next morning to get over to Capitol Hill or the Commerce Department. She’d probably been expecting his call, and he hadn’t given her a chance to answer. He stared at the brown age spots on the backs of his hands. It seemed like only a short time ago that his hands had been small and girlish and covered in freckles. Suddenly, they looked like they belonged to someone else.
The phone rang, startling him. Cautiously, he lifted the receiver from the table.
“All O? All O?” he heard on the other end. Celeste always sounded foreign and somewhat surprised.
He cleared his throat.
“Huey, is that you?”
“Hello,” he said.
“Hugh, where have you been? I have waited all the night for you to call.”
“The movies,” he said.
“Oh.” She sounded disappointed. “Why didn’t you call me?”
He wasn’t sure how to answer. He knew she would have seen his number on her telephone and the time he had called.
“Somebody call me so many times. I am afraid. That man who followed me, I think, or the one who took my purse, and he hung up.”
She was prone to exaggeration.
“I thought you might be in bed,” he said. “How’s your week going?”
“Not so good,” she said.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Mine neither.”
“No?” she said. “Well, I am sorry, too.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“Thank you for the help you give me Saturday. I feel very, very grateful.”
“Did you get your purse back?”
“No, I hear nothing.”
Hugh didn’t say anything.
“You are okay, non?” she asked.
“Not really,” he said.
“Me neither,” she said. “I go to a party at the embassy, and the chef, he stands in the room and makes the crêpes, with chocolate sauce and raspberries. The consul general, he talks with me, and I cannot even hear what he says because all the time I think, ‘crêpes,’ ‘crêpes.’ ”
“Did you eat any?” Hugh asked.
“Mais non!” she replied in disgust.
She was an addict in the abstract, Hugh reflected, the kind who always thought about food but never let herself eat anything.
“I must go soon,” she said.
“Yes, it’s getting late.’
“No, no, to China.”
“China?” he asked, perplexed. Good God, he thought, China is on the other side of the planet. He would never see her again.
“My company, they want to open a plant there. They need me to find out some details.”
Hugh felt stunned by the news of her leaving. Was it true? It occurred to him that maybe lying was an addiction, too.
“Tell me about Paris,” he said, affecting a casual attitude. He had never been to Paris, nor to any other place in Europe or the world, for that matter, though he had gone to Canada once for a pharmacy convention, and the bus had passed through a small corner of Quebec.
“Ah, mon ami. I am so glad you ask me. How they say, Paris in the spring? Gay Paree? Yes, she is like that, I tell you. Life, it goes whiz whiz in Paris. And the young ones, it is true, they romance, but the old ones, too. Everybody does the romance.”
“Really?” was all he could say.
“You never go to Paris, Hugh? Why not?”
“I was busy taking care of my mother.”
“Why not go now?” Celeste urged.
“What?” he said.
“Yes, go to Paris.”
That was the craziest thing he had heard. Paris! He felt his legs twinge at the thought. Why hadn’t he gone there? It seemed a fair enough question. Other people went. They bought plane tickets, took a taxi to the airport, got on a plane and watched a movie. The next thing they knew, they were in Paris. That’s how it’s done, he supposed.
Did he have enough money to go? There were the monthly dues from the OA group in his top drawer — seventy-seven dollars and thirteen cents. The two hundred forty-two dollars in Celeste’s wallet. He had managed to save a little from his salary. And he could use the money he’d put aside for rent.
“You deserve a vacation,” said Celeste. “You’re a good man, Hugh. Go to Paris.”
Hugh cleared his throat. “Really?” he asked. His voice was high and thin from the strain of trying to control his feelings. “Really, you think I’m a good man? Am I good enough for you, Celeste?”
She laughed her lovely laugh. He imagined her next to him as he cradled the phone to his cheek. He knew she simply hadn’t taken his question seriously. She didn’t think an answer was necessary.
He wanted to tell her that her leaving scared him more than anything. He wanted to beg her — Please, don’t go! But he couldn’t. And he couldn’t say anything about the girl in the photograph. What would he do? If he couldn’t tell the truth, what was left to say?
Photo by Наташ Сергеева/Adobe Stock