Fall/Winter 2003

Colors / Chartreuse

Glimmering vile and beautiful

Lynne Tillman

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

How abrupt she was. She’d handed him the glass of Chartreuse, and her wrist flicked upward. Her hand’s rebelling, he thought. Then she flinched. But she caught herself, she hadn’t told him what actually happened, and she hadn’t lied. She’d left room in their conversation for ambiguity. So this was the conversation he was in, but what about the others he hadn’t been asked to join. His life was cycling into territory where gaps counted more. Mind the gap, but his mind was wandering.

“In La Grande-Chartreuse,” she said, also abruptly but with a laugh, as if to distract him, “the head and celebrated monastery of the Carthusians, near Grenoble, the monks brewed Chartreuse. It’s a liqueur or aperitif—you can have it before or after—made from aromatic herbs and brandy. The recipe is an ancient secret.”

She visited the monastery years ago, crossing the Channel as a teenager, and pronounced the word herb the English way, its “h” heavy and funny as the man’s name.

“Pope Victor III, Bruno of Cologne, founded the order in 1086. Twenty years after the Norman invasion...”

He interrupted her then, he remembered he interrupted her, and she hated that.

“When the English language suffered a loss of prestige, but you still keep that hard ‘h,’ don’t you?”

She drank some more, while he told her the color of Chartreuse looked sick, even feverish, but maybe the weird yellow and green high-voltage potion held an alluring illness, laced with the charge of deception. Her cheeks flared scarlet, the garish liqueur having its way with her. It burned his throat, too. But she kept her tongue, and her ruse, if it was one, wasn’t even bruised. He wasn’t going to force the issue, it would be like rape, and who wants truth or sex that way. He swallowed the yellow/green liqueur, distasteful and medicinal. Then he poured them both another Chartreuse.

Aurora borealis, Little Presque Isle, near Marquette, Michigan, 1–2 June 2003. Photo Adam T. Robarge.

A kind of golden amnesia stilled other monologues inside him. Her shirt, chartreuse for the occasion—their fifth anniversary—winked ambivalently. She liked designing their nights, he thought, color combinations were her thing. He wondered how he fit in sometimes. Yellow elided with the green, never landing on the integrity of one color, and, he reflected sullenly, her blouse managed to be a fabric of lies, too. The silk looked sinister, too shiny, and, under the light, his wife’s facade iridesced. Glimmering vile and then beautiful. Inconstant chartreuse numbed his tongue and his eyes.

“This tastes disgusting,” he said, finally. “I could get used to it.”

“Absinthe,” she explained, or he remembered she did, “was called ‘the green fairy,’ because it made everyone crazy—everyone became addicted, and there was legislation against it, still is, like against heroin, because they thought it would destroy French civilization.”

“Maybe it did.”

“But now you can find it, if you want. At a party I went to, we all drank from the fairy cup.”

She didn’t find his eyes. Maybe it was then, he thought, that it happened.

“The Carthusians were expelled from France in 1903, and they went to Tarragona. Spain.”

“Home of tarragon?”

“But they returned in 1941.”

He remembered thinking about the Pope’s treachery during the war.

Her blouse kept changing, now yellow, now green. It was kind of driving him crazy, but maybe it was the effect of Chartreuse. What she liked best about the Carthusian monks was their vow of absolute silence—it was the most rigorous order. Resolute religiosos, she joked, who, paradoxically, brewed a high-volume alcoholic drink. She figured they didn’t indulge, because it might loosen their tongues.

“In 1960, there were only 537 Carthusians,” she said.

“Your tongue isn’t loose,” he said.

“I’m thinking of going on a retreat—I want to be silent.”

“Leave the conversation?” he asked.

“You’re too ironic for words.”

“You got me.”

Just what he expected of her, to run; but what did he expect of her? He toasted her with the manichean aperitif or liqueur, whatever it was. Her reticence settled over him like a green or yellow cloud. With it, she left. She spent half a year away, in silence, or at least she didn’t talk to him. He had to trust her, he supposed. She stayed with a very small order of Carthusian nuns, who didn’t drink Chartreuse. He condemned himself for not pursuing her there.

While she was away, he spoke of his perplexity to his therapist, who was not silent enough. Loyalty, betrayal, living with the lie, not escaping it, the way some fled from what was supposed to be true—he wrote notes to himself about honest disillusionment. To others, within this mostly quiet time, sometimes he was shameless and blatant. He once declared at a cocktail party, a fragile glass of Chartreuse—his drink now—in his hand, “Fidelity and infidelity, what’s one without the other? You can’t imagine a mountainless valley, can you?” With a secretholder’s thrill at disclosure, he told his therapist: “I love her. I live inside an illusion. A shimmering criminal illusion.”

On weekends, he hit stores and developed the habit of collecting shirts and jackets of chartreuse. The dubious shade represented his obsession with transparency and opacity. Now he thought it was one thing, and he could see right through it and her. Then it was another, and she was denser than a black hole. He wished he were the Hubble telescope.

Chartreuse was popular, the new grey, he liked to say, and his closet was full when she returned. Her need for silence—at least with him—hadn’t completely abated. He never knew if it was because she had once deceived him or because she couldn’t stop. Or because his once having thought she did horrified her, when she hadn’t, and now she wanted to and couldn’t.

He contented himself with the little things, his and her chartreuse towels, how they equitably divided chores—the pleasure of domesticity stayed novel for him—and her occasional marital passion. Like him, she fashioned herself daily, a devotee of Harold Rosenberg’s “tradition of the new.” So eventually they would turn old-fashioned. At least, they were together.

He would always associate the night it happened, when he thought it happened, with fateful chartreuse, whose eternal shiftiness he could spin tales about. Also, about the CIA, the monastery as the first factory, and the beauty of silence. It was really golden. He and his wife celebrated themselves and their differences on their anniversary. They loved and denied each other, simultaneously, and more and more laughed at themselves. There were things he’d never know. Still, nothing competed with their complicity, their chartreuse hours together.

Lynne Tillman’s latest book is the short story collection This Is Not It. Her most recent novel, No Lease on Life, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction in 1998. She is the fiction editor of Fence magazine.

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