No need to debate the significance of the Oxford comma here—there’s no ‘and’ to stir the pot.

One could easily mis-identify the story and add the conjunction. But this is not a story about a set of accessories. It is about a series of another sort. A series of relationships. In this case, marriages.

There are similarities with the final piece in Montreal Stories, which also charts the path of intimacies between a set of husbands and wives with another set of husbands and wives (“The Concert Party”).

Mathilde was married to Theo; when readers meet her, she is married to Alain. Gallant fills us in. The handling of this transition is fascinating.

“Mathilde moved in with Alain six months before the wedding, in order to become acquainted with domestic tedium and annoying habits, should they occur, and so avoid making the same mistake (marriage piled onto infatuation) twice.”

Gallant broadly paints Mathilde’s first marriage, in the same sentence used to describe the different kind of marriage that she hopes to have next.

Not a “marriage piled onto infatuation”.

Another kind.

Readers also glimpse Mathilde’s first and second husbands’ perspectives. These are often layered as well.

So, for instance, whenever we are receiving information about Alain, we are also receiving information about Alain’s perspective on marriage.

“If he weren’t so pressed with other work, he [Alain] might write something along that line: an essay of about a hundred and fifty pages, published between soft white covers and containing almost as many colored illustrations as there are pages of print, something a reader can absorb during a weekend and still attend to the perennial border on Sunday afternoon.”

Our lives are unfolding in the everyday decisions we make, about how we spend our time in a single day, the people with whom we choose to spend a single day. We focus on the things and the people who matter and sometimes we create the reality that we want to inhabit.

But sometimes our attention is divided, and we say that we want one thing, but we choose something altogether different. Alain can either write something meaningful or he can tend to his own perennial garden. Except we’re not really talking about gardening.

The story’s title offers a set of equal and distinct spaces between key words. The kind of space that might, in another writer’s hands, be occupied by a comma (or an ellipsis, or some other punctuation entirely). The title is rooted in a time predating Mathilde’s marriages, in the past, but it also—and-equally—represents the present and (by implication) the future.

But its significance is offered from Mathilde’s perspective, so there is a brief mention of her husband-to-be, but the women with whom Theo was intimate before Mathilde occupy the bulk of this passage:

“When Mathilde was in love with Theo and jealous of women she had never met, she used to go to an Indian shop, in Montparnasse, where first Emma, then Julita had bought their flat sandals and white embroidered shifts and long gauzy skirts, black and pink and indigo.”

The story is not called “Emma, Julita, Mathilde”. But it could have been. And readers are aware that there is a story like this one, which could be told for each of these women, and for each of these men. But we are also aware that it’s the men who remain stationery, rooted near the shopping districts, conveniently located for purchasing.

Shoes, Shifts, Skirts. Without its needing to said, we understand that the series extends beyond Mathilde. That someday, she will be an Emma. Someday, she will be one of Theo’s women that some other woman will never have actually met.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the final story in Paris Stories. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “Let It Pass” in Montreal Stories