Summer 1938

The only person I’d seen naked was my mother the night she died. I’d undressed her, washed her—her pale, dead arms, her old breasts, her belly and legs and lovely feet—and put her in her blue dress. What stood before me now was a living man, all hair and veiny muscles. His penis seemed enormous to me, though in retrospect I doubt it was. I wasn’t afraid. No one had told me it was going to hurt, and it didn’t. I’ve never understood the fuss.

When my mother died, I’d soaped her soft, white arms, rinsed them, dried them, laid my head on her dead heart. I loved her more than anything in the world, the way she made me laugh, and all the nights together in her bed, reading aloud to each other. Hope costs nothing, she used to say, quoting Colette. Remember that, Philomène. I had put her in her best dress, and run away so my uncle wouldn’t take me in.

The man flipped me over on the bed, did his business quick and neat, left two francs on the dresser. I didn’t even bleed. Two francs! I went right out and bought a baguette, butter, and ham and made the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten. This was before the war, when you could buy whatever you wanted. I can still taste it, the sweet, salty ham, the soft bread. I’ve tried a hundred times to replicate that sandwich.

Madame Rosa slapped me when I got back, but I didn’t care. What kind of an idiot was I, she asked. She wasn’t giving me room and board to pocket the money and run out to the market whenever I felt like it. Had I forgotten where she’d found me, asleep on a park bench, a little runaway? If I thought anyone else was going to give me a job, ugly as I was, I was out of my mind. It was just a closet in the back of her apartment. She wasn’t a registered madam, didn’t have any other girls.

I thought of my uncle, with his Persian rugs, his chandeliers, his Chihuahuas. He’d hated my mother, made fun of her and her dreamy ways every time he visited. Philomène! he cried. What kind of name is that to give your daughter? Do you imagine she’s a heroine from one of your novels? He never apologized when his dogs pissed the floor. I chose Madame Rosa, and when the Germans came and she fled south, I took over the apartment.

I might have had a different life, but anyone could say that. My uncle died on D-Day, crushed beneath his house when the Allies bombed Caen. A big, fat man, shattered or smothered; who can say exactly how it went beneath the beams and stones? There’s no certainty in this world except a mother’s love.

Spring 1943

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