THE FIRST TIME I HAD SEEN THE STATUE IN THE fountain, I had no idea what Vincent was. Now, when I looked at the ethereal beauty of the two connected figures—the handsome angel, with his hard, darkened features focused on the woman cradled in his outstretched arms, who was all softness and light—I couldn’t miss the symbolism. The angel’s expression seemed desperate. Obsessed, even. But also tender. As if he was looking to her to save him, and not vice versa. And all of a sudden, Vincent’s name for me popped into my mind: mon ange. My angel. I shivered, but not from the cold.
Jeanne had said that meeting me had transformed Vincent. I had given him “new life.” But was he expecting me to save his soul?
MOST SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLDS I KNOW WOULD DREAM of living in a foreign city. But moving from Brooklyn to Paris after my parents’ death was anything but a dream come true. It was more like a nightmare.
I could have been anywhere, really, and it wouldn’t have mattered—I was blind to my surroundings. I lived in the past, desperately clinging to every scrap of memory from my former life. It was a life I had taken for granted, thinking it would last forever.
My parents had died in a car accident just ten days after I got my driver’s license. A week later, on Christmas Day, my sister, Georgia, decided that the two of us would leave America to live with our father’s parents in France. I was still too shell-shocked to put up a fight.
We moved in January. No one expected us to go back to school right away. So we just passed the days trying to cope in our own desperate ways. My sister frantically blocked her sorrow by going out every night with the friends she had made during our summer visits. I turned into an agoraphobic mess.
Some days I would get as far as walking out of the apartment and down the street. Then I found myself sprinting back to the protection of our home and out of the oppressive outdoors, where it felt like the sky was closing in on me. Other days I would wake up with barely enough energy to walk to the breakfast table and then back to my bed, where I would spend the rest of the day in a stupor of grief.
Finally our grandparents decided we should spend a few months in their country house. “For a change of air,” Mamie said, which made me point out that no difference in air quality could be as dramatic as that between New York and Paris.
But as usual, Mamie was right. Spending the springtime outdoors did us a world of good, and by the end of June we were, if only mere reflections of our previous selves, functional enough to return to Paris and “real life.” That is, if life could ever be called “real” again. At least I was starting over in a place that I love.
There’s nowhere I’d rather be than Paris in June. Even though I’ve spent every summer there since I was a baby, I never fail to get that “Paris buzz” as I walk down its summer streets. The light is different from anywhere else. As if pulled straight out of a fairy tale, the wand-waving brilliance makes you feel like absolutely anything could happen to you at any moment and you wouldn’t even be surprised.
But this time was different. Paris was the same as it had always been, but I had changed. Even the city’s sparkling, glowing air couldn’t penetrate the shroud of darkness that felt superglued to my skin. Paris is called the City of Light. Well, for me it had become the City of Night.
I spent the summer pretty much alone, falling quickly into a solitary routine: eat breakfast in Papy and Mamie’s dark, antique-filled apartment and spend the morning entrenched in one of the small dark Parisian cinemas that project classic films round-the-clock, or haunt one of my favorite museums. Then return home and read the rest of the day, eat dinner, and lie in bed staring at the ceiling, my occasional sleep jam-packed with nightmares. Get up. Repeat.
The only intrusions on my solitude were emails from my friends back home. “How’s life in France?” they all started.
What could I say? Depressing? Empty? I want my parents back? Instead I lied. I told them I was really happy living in Paris. That it was a good thing Georgia’s and my French was fluent because we were meeting so many people. That I couldn’t wait to start my new school.
My lies weren’t meant to impress them. I knew they felt sorry for me, and I only wanted to reassure them that I was okay. But each time I pressed send and then read back over my email, I realized how vast the gulf was between my real life and the fictional one I created for them. And that made me even more depressed.
Finally I realized that I didn’t actually want to talk to anyone. One night I sat for fifteen minutes with my hands poised above the keyboard, searching desperately for something even slightly positive to say to my friend Claudia. I clicked out of the message and, after taking a deep breath, completely deleted my email address from the internet. Gmail asked me if I was sure. “Oh yeah,” I said as I clicked the red button. A huge burden lifted from my shoulders. After that I shoved my laptop into a drawer and didn’t open it again until school started.
Mamie and Georgia encouraged me to get out and meet people. My sister invited me along with her and her group of friends to sunbathe on the artificial beach set up next to the river, or to bars to hear live music, or to the clubs where they danced the weekend nights away. After a while they gave up asking.
“How can you dance, after what happened?” I finally asked Georgia one night as she sat on her bedroom floor, putting on makeup before a gilt rococo mirror she had pulled off her wall and propped up against a bookcase.
My sister was painfully beautiful. Her strawberry blond hair was in a short pixie cut that only a face with her strikingly high cheekbones could carry off. Her peaches-and-cream skin was sprinkled with tiny freckles. And like me, she was tall. Unlike me, she had a knockout figure. I would kill for her curves. She looked twenty-one instead of a few weeks shy of eighteen.
She turned to face me. “It helps me forget,” she said, applying a fresh coat of mascara. “It helps me feel alive. I’m just as sad as you are, Katie-Bean. But this is the only way I know of dealing with it.”
I knew she was being honest. I heard her in her bedroom the nights she stayed in, sobbing like her heart had been shattered to bits.
“It doesn’t do you any good to mope,” she continued softly. “You should spend more time with people. To distract you. Look at you,” she said, putting her mascara down and pulling me toward her. She turned my head to face the mirror next to hers.
To see us together, you would never guess we were sisters. My long brown hair was lifeless; my skin, which thanks to my mother’s genes never tans, was paler than usual.
And my blue-green eyes were so unlike my sister’s sultry, heavy-lidded “bedroom eyes.” “Almond eyes” my mom called mine, much to my chagrin. I would rather have an eye shape that evoked steamy encounters than one described by a nut.
“You’re gorgeous,” Georgia concluded. My sister . . . my only fan.
“Yeah, tell that to the crowd of boys lined up outside the door,” I said with a grimace, pulling away from her.
“Well, you’re not going to find a boyfriend by spending all your time alone. And if you don’t stop hanging out in museums and cinemas, you’re going to start looking like one of those nineteenth-century women in your books who were always dying of consumption or dropsy or whatever.” She turned to me. “Listen. I won’t bug you about going out with me if you will grant me one wish.”
“Just call me Fairy Godmother,” I said, trying to grin.
“Take your frickin’ books and go outside and sit at a café. In the sunlight. Or the moonlight, I don’t care which. Just get outdoors and suck some good pollution-ridden air into those wasted, consumptive, nineteenth-century lungs of yours. Surround yourself with people, for God’s sake.”
“But I do see people,” I began.
“Leonardo da Vinci and Quentin Tarantino don’t count,” she interrupted.
I shut up.
Georgia got up and laced the strap to her tiny, chic handbag over her arm. “It’s not you who is dead,” she said. “Mom and Dad are. And they would want you to live.”
“WHERE ARE YOU GOING?” MAMIE ASKED, STICKING her head out of the kitchen as I unlocked the front door.
“Georgia said my lungs were in need of Paris pollution,” I responded, slinging my bag across my shoulder.
“She’s right,” she said, coming to stand in front of me. Her forehead barely reached my chin, but her perfect posture and regulation three-inch heels made her seem much taller. Only a couple of years from seventy, Mamie’s youthful appearance subtracted at least a decade from her age.
When she was an art student, she had met my grandfather, a successful antiques dealer who fawned over her like she was one of his priceless ancient statues. Now she spent her days restoring old paintings in her glass-roofed studio on the top floor of their apartment building.
“Allez, file!” she said, standing before me in all her compactly packaged glory. “Get going. This town could use a little Katya to brighten it up.”
I gave my grandmother a kiss on her soft, rose-scented cheek and, grabbing my set of keys off the hall table, made my way through the heavy wooden doors and down the spiral marble staircase, to the street below.
Paris is divided into twenty neighborhoods, or arrondissements, and each one is called by its number. Ours, the seventh, is an old, wealthy neighborhood. If you wanted to live in the trendiest part of Paris, you would not move to the seventh. But since my grandparents live within walking distance of the boulevard Saint-Germain, which is packed with cafés and shops, and only a fifteen-minute wander to the river Seine’s edge, I was certainly not complaining.
I stepped out the door into the bright sunlight and skirted past the park in front of my grandparents’ building. It is filled with ancient trees and scattered with green wooden park benches, giving the impression, for the couple of seconds it takes to pass it, that Paris is a small town instead of France’s capital city.
Walking down the rue du Bac, I passed a handful of way-too-expensive clothes, interior decor, and antiques stores. I didn’t even pause as I walked past Papy’s café: the one he had taken us to since we were babies, where we sat and drank mint-flavored water while Papy chatted with anything that moved. Sitting next to a group of his friends, or even across the terrace from Papy himself, was the last thing I wanted. I was forced to find my own café.
I had been weighing the idea of two other local spots. The first was on a corner, with a dark interior and a row of tables wrapped around the outside of the building on the sidewalk. It was probably quieter than my other option. But when I stepped inside I saw a line of old men sitting silently on their stools along the bar counter with glasses of red wine in front of them. Their heads slowly pivoted to check out the newcomer, and when they saw me they looked as shocked as if I were wearing a giant chicken costume. They might as well have an “Old Men Only” sign on the door, I thought, and hurried on to my second option: a bustling café a few blocks farther down the rue.
Because of its glass facade, the Café Sainte-Lucie’s sunlit interior felt spacious. Its sunny outdoor terrace held a good twenty-five tables, which were usually full. As I made my way toward an empty table in the far corner, I knew this was my café. I already felt like I belonged here. I stuck my book bag under the table and sat down with my back to the building, securing a view of the entire terrace as well as the street and sidewalk beyond.
Once seated, I called to the waiter that I wanted a lemonade, and then pulled out a paperback copy of The Age of Innocence, which I had chosen from the summer reading list for the school I’d be starting in September. Enveloped by the smell of strong coffee wafting up from all sides, I drifted off into my book’s distant universe.
“Another lemonade?” The French voice came floating through the streets of nineteenth-century New York in my mind’s eye, jerking me rudely back to the Parisian café. My waiter stood beside me, holding his round tray stiffly above his shoulder and looking every bit like a constipated grasshopper.
“Oh, of course. Um . . . I think I’ll take a tea, actually,” I said, realizing that his intrusion meant I had been reading for about an hour. There is an unspoken rule in French cafés that a person can sit at their table all day if they want, as long as they order one drink per hour. It’s kind of like renting a table.
I halfheartedly glanced around before looking back down at the page, but did a double take when I noticed someone staring at me from across the terrace. And the world around me froze when our eyes met.
I had the strangest feeling that I knew the guy. I’d felt that way with strangers before, where it seemed like I’d spent hours, weeks, even years with the person. But in my experience, it had always been a one-way phenomenon: The other person didn’t even notice me.
This was not the case now. I could swear he felt the same.
From the way his gaze held steady, I knew he had been staring at me for a while. He was breathtaking, with longish black hair waving up and back from a broad forehead. His olive skin made me guess that he either spent a lot of time outside or came from somewhere more southern and sunbaked than Paris. And the eyes that stared back into my own were as blue as the sea, lined with thick black lashes. My heart lurched within my chest, and it felt like someone had squeezed all the air out of my lungs. In spite of myself, I couldn’t break our gaze.
A couple of seconds passed, and then he turned back to his two friends, who were laughing rowdily. The three of them were young and beautiful and glowing with the kind of charisma that justified the fact that every woman in the place was under their spell. If they noticed it, they didn’t let on.