Driven Like the Snow
"Montparnasse had, in fact, encountered Eponine as she stood on the watch under the trees of the boulevard, and had led her off, preferring to play Nemorin with the daughter rather than Schinderhannes with the father."
Eponine was cold.
If she walked barefoot in the snow long enough, her feet would stop feeling the cold—would stop feeling anything, in fact—but the rest of her stayed freezing. She couldn't sleep in chill air, not unless she was dead tired from staying up the last two nights shivering and blowing on her hands, and so that's what she associated cold nights with. Staying awake, staring at a ceiling she couldn't see in the dark, everyone else asleep and no one to talk to. On nights like that she'd just keep gazing into the blackness and she'd think, for hours and hours, about everything and nothing and things that might get her thrown in the madhouse if she told anyone about them. She had been smart, once. She'd had an education of sorts and too many nights without sleep these days ensured that she'd never forget any of it, dates and spelling rules and math running through her head helter-skelter at three in the morning. Maybe it was all mixed up now. Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo in eighteen fifteen times fifteen is two hundred twenty-five, and she hadn't learned her multiplication tables past fifteen anyway so she couldn't tell you what eighteen times fifteen was. The lessons had stopped when she was ten, and maybe now that she was sixteen there were more things she should know, but the time of lessons was over and done with. Back in that time, when it was cold at night she could curl up under countless blankets until she could fall asleep, and she'd dream of knights on white horses coming to take her away. From what? There hadn't been any nightmare to take her away from, then.
And now the clocks were striking eleven, and she was walking through the snow and she was shivering. Montparnasse had abandoned her; Papa hadn't been there when she got back; the cops had probably gotten him, and if they had, she couldn't stay home or they'd get her too. She'd probably end up sleeping under a bridge, but it was so cold and she wouldn't be able to actually sleep and she'd just sit there, thinking, and this time her thoughts would probably drive her mad.
Montparnasse had warmed her, for a while. No, he'd done more than that, he'd pressed her against the wall of an alley and held her close to him and lifted her skirt, and she'd had no idea things like that could be warm and pleasant and passionate, could be more than a sweaty, embarrassing sort of business transaction. And then he kissed her. No one had ever bothered to kiss her before.
And in the middle of it, she'd suddenly wished it had been monsieur Marius instead. Montparnasse might be handsomer, just a little, but Marius was such a nice boy, so nice she really couldn't imagine him taking her against the wall of an alley. She couldn't really imagine him doing that to anybody, let alone a grimy street rat like her, but that didn't stop her from wishing it had been him instead. She wondered what it would be like to kiss him—he probably wouldn't bite and suck at her lower lip, or push his tongue halfway down her throat until she couldn't breathe. She wished she could stop thinking about him.
So did this mean Montparnasse fancied her? She could do worse. What of it if his eyes were smaller than Marius's, his cheekbones sharper, his hair too meticulously styled to fall naturally and beautifully in his eyes from time to time—stop thinking about him, Ponine—if his hands were bloodstained instead of inkstained? She could do worse. What of it if she didn't particularly care for Montparnasse? He had been charming to her, which it seemed no one had done since she came to Paris. Maybe, if she closed her eyes and pretended Marius had never existed, she could be a bit enchanted by him.
She trudged on through the streets. It was snowing again, white as the curtains that had framed her bedroom window when she was a girl, white as Maman's wedding dress, which had been kept in the upstairs closet and promised to Eponine when she got married. Eponine had never worn the dress, and now it was gone, sold when they first started to not have money. She kept walking, feet numb. Montparnasse wouldn't marry her, even if he did fancy her. And Marius would probably be gentleman enough not to try anything on a girl until he'd married her, and he'd certainly never marry her. He might marry the young lady, if he ever found her address. If Eponine found it for him and let them meet, would she be invited to the wedding? Probably not. She wouldn't want to watch it anyway, she thought viciously, kicking at a lump of ice.
The snow would be deep tonight. There was already half a foot of it on the ground, churned up into deep muddy piles by the sides of the roads, making wheels slip and drivers curse and the horses' hooves leave prints as they passed, a million lucky horseshoes for the denizens of the streets. Maybe she would bend down to pick one up and get run over by a cart. Maybe if it kept snowing this hard she'd settle down to sleep somewhere and wake up buried in a snowdrift, open her eyes and see only white, white dresses and white curtains and white sheets, white all around and so cold and so much part of the drift that she might as well be snow herself.
Cold and tired and wanting nothing more than a rest and a break from this infernal thinking¸ she sank down onto the snowbank and watched the flakes fall and stick to her eyelashes, to her threadbare blouse, watched the snow already built up on the street. If you crushed two flakes together, she thought, they wouldn't come apart again and they were just stuck, wrapped around each other whether they wanted to be or not. Maybe she and Marius were stuck together just like a couple of snowflakes, two tiny specks in a giant whirl coming together by a chance gust of wind and not being able to separate. But that wasn't it, was it? His thoughts couldn't possibly be as entangled with her as hers were with him, but all the same they had come together so randomly and now she couldn't unstick from him and surely that wasn't too bad a comparison to make? Snowflakes. Snowflakes in a blizzard. She gathered a handful of snow in her chapped, numbed fingers and threw it up in the air and watched it all fall down alongside what was already coming down from the sky.
Or was it she and Montparnasse who were stuck together without really meaning to be? Or would that mean he hadn't meant it, any of it? She didn't fancy him and she didn't care too much about the dirty bits, but she hoped he'd at least meant the kiss. It had been a good kiss, if a little rough. Not that she had anything to compare it to. But it had been a good kiss.
The snowdrift, which had seemed quite cold when she'd first sunk down into it, didn't feel like anything now. That was dangerous, she thought vaguely. She might freeze to death if she stayed here too long; she should start moving. God she was tired though. If she closed her eyes she couldn't make herself sleep, but she could almost imagine she could feel the snowbank moving, like a glacier, slowly but inexorably, moving slowly and gradually sweeping her away and taking along her silly wonderings and cares and maybe sweeping the city along too, Paris rolled downhill by a snowstorm, until all the people and horses and houses were part of one giant snowdrift. But she wouldn't like that, even if it felt like it was going to happen. She didn't want to be only a tiny part of a drift, no matter that she probably was in real life; she'd always thought herself special when she was a little girl and liked to keep thinking she was, even now that she was just another gutter rat lying outside because she didn't have a home anymore. How queerly her thoughts wandered when she sat here and froze and starved and let them go where they would.
She should get up. She should move. With an effort she rolled out of the snowdrift and onto the pavement, and without the numbing and cushioning she began to shiver again. That was good. That meant she could start moving soon. She brought herself to her hands and knees, then to her knees alone, then to her feet, ignoring the dizziness and the way her heart pounded and the darkness around the edges of her vision. When she had got her bearings she began to lurch in a direction she was pretty sure would take her to a major street soon. From there she could find her way to a bridge and try to sleep under there, where she wouldn't be able to actually sleep because of the cold but at least it wouldn't be snowing on her and maybe if there were other people down there she could huddle up with them for a scrap of warmth.
Would the heat of other people's bodies be hideously awkward now, after what she and Montparnasse had done? She had never understood sex. She had never understood, before tonight, that it could be intimate. She felt exposed now in a way that had nothing to do with the shirt that fell halfway down her chest when she didn't pull it up, and she wasn't sure she wanted to share even the small intimacy of her body heat with whatever strangers might be sleeping under the bridges tonight. Maybe it had been a mistake to do something like that with someone she didn't like very much, but what were the chances of her getting to do it with someone she did care about? She wasn't sure she'd ever cared about anyone except maybe Marius, and saving herself for him would be pointless. She could care about Montparnasse if she wanted herself to, but why bother when her only incentive to like him was this bizarre connection that came from giving herself to him tonight? Maybe they could nurture that connection, she thought dubiously, until it grew intense enough to be mistaken for love. Maybe now they had made love she could make herself love him. Because the connection was there, raw and exciting and special, and deeper inside her than anywhere he had physically touched her. She hadn't been a virgin—in fact she'd forgotten exactly when her first time had been—but she felt like he'd just taken her virginity anyway. Wasn't that supposed to happen on your wedding night? Maman had sold the white wedding dress, Papa had sold her virginity, but she could maybe scrap some money together and buy a decent secondhand dress if she married Montparnasse, and she could feel like tonight had been her first time because it had been the first time it mattered. And maybe the dress wouldn't be white as the snow that was still coming down, and it wouldn't be tailored for her specifically as a wedding dress, but it could be a wedding dress this time if she only thought of it as one. It was how you thought about it that counted, right? It didn't have to happen perfectly to mean something.
Maybe that was what getting married was about anyway, taking something little and making it mean something, taking that little connection that sprang up when two people slept together and making a life out of it. Maybe it wasn't all about love and romantic fantasies and being unable to go ten minutes without thinking of the other person and pining and sighing whenever you saw him on the street. Maybe it wasn't about racing hearts and uncontrollable passion. Maybe all that was just youthful silliness once you settled down. Maybe she was all mixed up, because Marius was just the right sensible sort to settle down with, and to anyone else Montparnasse's life would seem dangerously fleeting and romantic—and here she was, in love with Marius but thinking of what would happen if she married Montparnasse. That made her fear for her sanity more than all her wandering thoughts and hunger-induced hallucinations. Marry Montparnasse! and yet, after what they had done, it seemed like it might be the right thing to do.
She was approaching the river, and although she couldn't see yet whether there were people under the bridge, someone was standing on the quay. He was in shadow and she was lost in her thoughts, and so it wasn't until they were mere feet apart that she recognized Montparnasse.
"Good evening," she said quietly, expectant.
"Your father's in prison," he snapped. "Idiot bungled the whole affair and got himself and the others caught, and now I've got no one to help me scout out that job we were planning for next month. And while we were out having fun someone must have squealed and told them we were involved, because every cop in Paris is looking for us now."
"Oh," she said, puzzled by the businesslike tone of his response, "oh, yes, the flat was empty when I went back. I thought then that they must have been caught. But what about... well. What we were doing?" She tried to smile at him, far too aware that her smile with its cracked blue lips and missing teeth was probably hideous, especially to someone who took so much pride in his own appearance. He hadn't minded, though, had he, earlier that night? Marius hadn't seemed to mind that much either. Maybe she wasn't as ugly as she—
He grabbed one of her arms with a grin. "Why, you want to do it again? Insatiable. But I have loose ends to tie up in this mess and I'll be busy. If you want more, you'll have to... convince me." He kissed her briefly.
She wriggled out of his grip and embraced him, clinging to him and savoring the warmth and the way it reminded her of earlier. "I didn't ask because I wanted more right now. I meant what did you think?"
"What did I think?" He tilted her chin up and brushed a lock of tangled, snow-covered hair out of her face. "I thought it was good and we should do it again sometime, that's what I thought. Not now, but at least I had fun on an otherwise disastrous night."
"Oh. That's all you thought."
"Ponine, if you're trying to get me to tell you you're pretty, you're still a long bath and a lot of square meals away. Which isn't to say it was a bad time, it was a good little tumble, but I'm not going to lie to—"
"I know I'm ugly!" she snapped. "All right. I understand. I'm a good whore even though I'm ugly, is that right?"
"If you're going to be touchy about it, I could get you some better clothes, or—"
"Don't bother stealing over me, Parnasse. It... wasn't that important, anyway." She turned to go, wishing he would stop her and knowing he wouldn't.
It was that important though. Here she was wondering if she should marry him, by God, and he was probably just glad he got for free what others had to pay for. Eponine pulled her blouse up even though it hadn't been falling down that far, suddenly feeling very naked and very dirty. To the bridge, then. To share her body heat with strangers as casually as she'd shared her body with Montparnasse. She felt empty now too, and instead of wandering, her thoughts were slowly spinning to a close and she didn't want to think about anything. Not Montparnasse, not Marius, not weddings or wedding dresses or the snowdrifts that crept ever higher over the city. She just wanted to close her eyes and sleep like a normal person, how greedy could that be?
There were three men she didn't know already asleep under the bridge, huddled up in a heap and looking more like a pile of rags than a pile of people. She wrinkled her nose in distaste but lay down beside them and watched the snow on the river as it floated past. Eventually, she closed her eyes, and when the thought of the three men surrounding her and embracing her flashed through her mind, she regarded it with dull horror but did nothing to fight it. Pushing, kissing, stroking—and then the snow would roll them all away into a great white nothing and it wouldn't even matter anymore. Her musings grew ever more vague and uncontrolled, and at some point they must have slipped into nightmares. Dead to the world, she finally dozed off, murmuring discontentedly in her sleep.