The Bain à la Grenouillère

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic

This is the second story in a series of twelve short stories I am writing based off of a contextless image. Here is the first thing brought to mind by the picture. Comments and reviews are greatly appreciated!
[I do not own the rights to this beautiful image.]

Their marriage ceremony is intimate, full of buzzed laughter and desperately bad afterparty singing. The candles scattered throughout the little room give the whole thing a hushed, private sense of wonder, a magic kind of quality. From the time they’d first begun to discuss marriage (which had been veritably too early) they had agreed on one thing alone: the candles. Ten guests or a thousand, red velvet cake or buttercream, oceanside hilltop or formal church affair- none of it had mattered so long as the presence of the candles be prioritized above all else. Discovering this- the great, uncannily-shared Childhood-Candle-Fantasy- had been a monumental occasion. It had done nothing but deepen their admittedly unfounded assurance that it was right “because sometimes it’s just right”- that marriage was nothing short of an inevitability for them. The cardinal quality of the candles had been somewhat of a shared joke at the beginning, a reference to something hoped for but entirely imagined. For a year they had tossed the subject about with a theoretical carelessness until suddenly it wasn’t theoretical, until suddenly she had turned to find him kneeling before her in the middle of the museum where they had met, asking her to trust him with her life. Now the aisle is alive with them- tiny brazen flames- proof that once upon a time when they had known each other for hardly a month and had had no business speaking about their wedding day, they had made plans anyway.

I told you I would marry him, you bastards, she thinks quite merrily as she walks down the aisle with her father, past the shapes of happy friends who had once chastised her for jumping into things- for following her heart instead of her head. The night belongs to her and her heart now, and she feels not the slightest sense of guilt for indulging in the sweet sense of biting vindication that accompanies the joy. I told you that I knew. I told you that I knew, I knew from the moment we caught eyes at the Bain à la Grenouillère c. 1869 by Claude Monet that we would end up here, giving our lives to each other right in front of you. It's a mild, lighthearted kind of vengeance, but it's vengeance nonetheless, and when they kiss at the end of the ceremony and the Judases cheer she can't help but feel that gratifying feeling again- so strongly that she pulls him in for another. 

After the wedding they end up in New York, in a little flat they're hardly able to pay for at the end of each month. While the strength of their Hallmark love doesn't entirely make up for the quality of their needy life, it does enough. It's a "starter life"- that's what they call it- and the moniker makes it easier to laugh about the ways in which they struggle as time begins to creep past. 

The cramped apartment and the substandard jobs make up a base, a place from which to propel themselves into a grander future. They hold onto that, and hard. They argue but they make up; they spend back-to-back days missing each other for sleep or graveyard shifts, but they never miss a movie date on Sunday (or Monday when Sunday doesn’t seem to have quite enough hours left). Slowly but surely they deconstruct and rebuild their two paths into one shared life. It doesn’t happen overnight, and the new life is far from polished. The road they travel is rich in adversity- bumps and turns that had been unexpected on the bright, candle-light night when they had foreseen a perfect path for themselves in total, undeniable clarity. Once they have a fight that lasts a week, and the comically diminutive nature of their living space almost forces the apology out of her before she is ready to give it away. More than once that week she dangles on the edge of granting unripe mercy, if only for the sake of ending the defiant refusals to pass the salt across the tiny table and the separate showering despite the dangerously limited supply of hot water. They laugh about them later, these arguments, and it is when they begin to laugh like this that she realizes they have finally begun to make it out of something together. There comes a morning when she’s pouring her second cup of coffee and grinning as they discuss taking a sick day to explore some book shops in Chelsea. The cup is halfway full when it hits her- the financial privilege required to even discuss such a day trip. She knows it then, and there is no looking back- they have escaped. So they take their day off, and they buy ice creams in the park and dance to less than impressive street music and have silly sex when they get home, and they celebrate the blissfully shared sense that they have traded in their starter life for the dawn of a real one.

When their first baby begins to stir unexpectedly in her belly, it is a confusing mess of giddy panic. A life that had just begun to make real sense comes grinding to an alarming halt; expectations of the future dissipate, suddenly belonging to an alternate dimension. Reality shifts in a way neither of them had thought possible; the timeline is shattered, the plan nonexistent. For nine months they feel that they just might be the most entirely unequipped and woefully unprepared adults on God’s green earth, and it is only after their son is born that she realizes they always would have felt that way. In more ways than can be fathomed, there had been no way to prepare for this.

Whatever their relationship had existed as before, whatever peak they may have thought they had reached, it is all blown out of the water by him. Their son brings with him into the world the sense that they had been colorblind for twenty-five years and never realized it, like they might have gone the rest of their lives colorblind and happy in ignorance, and never knowing what a waste it had all been. Their wedding seems like something from ages ago, something that happened to different people entirely. They had been kids, they had been tiny children.

Their daughter two years later is the opposite of their son in every way, and she brings with her the sudden understanding that fulfillment is never used up, that pure joy can extend its arms in unexpected directions, and that no emotion is ever felt at a limit- it turns out that happiness is, in the end, boundless.  

Their lives as a family are full, full of squealing laughter and dress up games, camping trips to the shore and ER trips for broken bones. Their lives are loud and they are chaotic and sometimes there are such moments of anger and sadness, but these moments are pinpricks on the canvas of the story they write together. Time ticks on and they are blissfully imperfect and wholeheartedly happy.

Years now pass twice as fast as the years before, and suddenly the children are gone as quickly as they had come. This is another awakening of sorts, a sudden awareness of how subtly and underhandedly time had slipped by them, disguised as birthday parties and lazy mornings, bedtime stories and misadventures. As they pack their daughter’s college-bound suitcases into the car, straining joints newly touched by the creeping beginnings of arthritis, it seems suddenly that they are so much older than they had ever imagined becoming. Thinking back to when their son had been born brings with it a jolt of disbelief. That moment has replaced the wedding as their distant-memory-milestone, the wedding itself relegated to the category of ancient history.

So they renew their vows. They have a celebration six months later and the kids come back from college to be there, all laughing and smiles, their son with his wife and their daughter with her new lab-science-elective boyfriend. Friends who had been at the wedding all those ages ago clink glasses together now, the original disbelievers standing in witness of thirty happy, defiant years. Friends who had only ever known them together come too, people from all walks of the life they have shared. The fact that they had once lived separately, that there had once been a time before they had known each other’s names- that is the stuff of myth. Their meeting in front of a painting in a museum all those years ago seems like a tall tale, though even in her age she can recall it like it was yesterday.

As they slow dance among friends in their twilit backyard, giddy from champagne, she can still see Monet’s Bain à la Grenouillère c. 1869. When she closes her eyes she can remember the white and red stripes he had been wearing that day in their youth, when his shirt had drawn her eye even before she had cauht sight of his handsome face. 


She breaks out of the reverie like she’s starting awake, catching herself staring sideways at him. She snaps her attention back to the oil canoes at the left side of the painting, gathering her momentarily lost composure a bit breathlessly. Had he noticed? He hasn’t seemed to.

In his apparent admiration of Monet the handsome boy in the striped shirt has dared to stand far closer to her than she herself might have dared to stand beside a total stranger. Granted, it’s not a huge picture. It doesn’t allow for an incredible amount of space from which to observe, but their arms are nearly brushing in a way that seems a bit unnecessary and suspiciously intentional.

The magnitude of silly potential had flashed before her in an instant, ten seconds of daydreaming at most, but it had been full of such detail that she is almost compelled by her own hilariously intricate fantasy to say something. She feels a flushed thrill of embarrassment, as though anyone else had the vaguest idea of what had just blurred past in the deepest part of her mind’s eye. She blushes in a way that is, rationally speaking, absolutely uncalled for, and considers stealing another glance. So what if he notices?

There comes a rush of sudden bravado then, brought on by careful consideration of the situation at hand. He had entered her space, after all. He had elected to walk over and stand so close, so dubiously close, and it is for this reason she finds herself rallied with the deserving sense that his advances warrant her right to stare. She has no sooner turned her head again when, without the slightest presage, it happens: too suddenly to avoid, he turns his head right back. They lock eyes. 

Suddenly, bizarrely, it is starkly clear that in this barest instant he has caught a glimpse of it too- the potential. For a moment the unwritten story shimmers before them; time itself seems to hold its breath, watching, waiting to see if they will speak. It holds for a moment that seems to last more than a moment. Something passes between them, or maybe she imagines that it does. And then it passes away. With the ghost of a smile he turns slowly away, his arm breaking their barest contact, and he begins to resume his meandering down the row of paintings. She looks after the stranger as he continues on to the next exhibit, and so on to the next life.

It begins to all break down as she watches his striped, French-looking shirt disappear around the corner. He returns to a family she will never know, taking with him the last wisps of what might have been, by some silly and ridiculously tiny chance, a lifelong future.

For a brief moment she stands there and mourns their marriage, their children, their messily perfect family life, their silly sex. She mourns their candlelit wedding. And then she lets it all go and moves on to enjoy the next room, which is full of bittersweet Van Goghs and more people with whom she might share a lifetime.


Submitted: April 21, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Sara Jamie Gilbert. All rights reserved.

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