Under Her Hat
Mme Benhamou never leaves her apartment without her hat. It’s the ladylike thing to do since she was raised in France before people started living only for today, and yesterday’s manners were easily dismissed. At eighty-five, she still insists on such proprieties. She knows the hat will guard her secrets. Even her dreams. She approaches the dressmaker with a skirt that needs to be hemmed. Have you found a lover for me yet? Madame asks while the tailor pretends to pin a seam. But it’s not just any lover that will do for Madame, she would easily admit over a glass of Chablis and a slice of Camembert.
She’s been dreaming of that young man, forty-five or so, in the apartment next to hers — the one who quit his job six months ago. She has carefully chronicled the changes through the peephole in her door. He no longer leaves every morning in his suit, tie knotted tightly under his freshly shaved chin, jacket buttoned across his belly. And he no longer departs at six a.m. clutching his briefcase under his arm or returns at eight, looking as if he once discovered gold and then lost track of his treasure. Lately, he’s grown his hair long and catches it in a tail that hangs down his back.
Madame is sure the changes are for her, to seduce her with wild suggestions of his power like a secret that has been slipped under her door when he leaves each day now to take his coffee at the corner café. She watches from her terrace as he drinks quickly, then studies people for the rest of the morning. When he lifts his head and closes his eyes against the noon sun, she feels his thoughts crossing the street, traveling up to her third floor apartment, in through her open windows to rest gently at her feet. And hasn’t he kicked out the lover of eighteen years, too, all because he secretly desires Madame? At night, she dreams of him — his hands on her skin have miraculously reversed the years like the Mediterranean tides in retreat, until in her dreams, she’s twenty again and lush and so ready for this neighbor, who will approach like the lover in the Song of Solomon. They will sing odes to each other as they drink the pleasures of each others bodies. She can almost hear the melody repeating across her chest.
Each morning, the old face that she powders and rouges appears again. But she has learned to see past every furrow and watch only her eyes, for she knows he has seen their depths, too. Then, one morning, there’s an American woman opening the door to his flat. A new wife, the dressmaker has told her. No matter, Madame promises herself, he’ll soon reject this one like the other. Now, when she sees the neighbor in the hall, and he calls, Bonjour, she remains cool under her hat. Madame is sure he’s anticipating the moment she will linger by her door and open the way to him. Sure he’s waiting to release the passion she knows he has collected over all the years. Madame Benhamou is waiting too.
Phyllis Carol Agins’ fiction includes two novels: Suisan and Never the Same River Twice, as well as numerous short stories, published in Kalliope, Paragraph, and Lilith Magazine (Fall ‘06), among other journals. Her children’s book, Sophie’s Name, has been in print since 1990, and she also co-authored One God, Sixteen Houses, an architectural study. For many years, she served on the board of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference and taught writing at Penn State Abington. Lately, she divides her time between Fairmont Park and the Mediterranean coast. She has completed a comic novel about young widowhood and is polishing a literary mystery centering on the Shakespeare authorship question. Her next book will follow a Jewish family as they leave Algeria to make a new life in France and America.