Authors: Lauren Groff
You have your own beauty, Genevieve said.
Privilege speaking, yet again, Amanda said, making the circular gesture with her hand.
Leo thought about this through two whole villages. There was a field full of caravans, kids running and a roil of dogs that made him shiver with longing. Why would Amanda want to look like his mom when Amanda was so very, very lovely? But when he started to ask, the women were already talking about other things.
The sun moved. Manfred moved his chair with it. He thought of nothing, time the consistency of water. Energy was being conserved until there was enough to let it blow bright and blow itself out. He couldn't see it coming yet, but could sense the build. He longed for the aftermath. Silence, nothing. The songbirds were holding their songs; all outside was still. The tall man the women had left behind flittered from place to place without settling. Manfred didn't bother to listen when he spoke. At noon the sun was overhead and the last slip of warmth fled. Manfred was left in the cold. Soon he would stand; he thought of the dinner he would make tonight, planned every bite. His energy was finite, after all, and he must
save it. He opened his fingers to find that the pills had dissolved into a paste in his palm, the way they had the day before and the day before.
The women had taken a table in a plaza framed with plane trees. An empty carousel spun. Amanda once saw a mother who had lost her children in a grocery store who had had the same hysterical brightness.
Monoprix? Amanda said. Her first Parisian food and it was from a five-and-dime.
Honey, we only have an hour and the cafÃ©'s not terrible. Also, Leo loves the carousel, Genevieve said.
The backs of Amanda's eyelids felt sanded.
Lunch is on me! Genevieve said.
Well, then: Amanda ordered the lobster salad and a whole bottle of cold white wine. The waitress frowned at her French and answered in English. Genevieve was driving but motioned for a glass for herself.
Leo gazed at the carousel without touching his steak-frites, until Genevieve loosed him with a handful of euros and he ran off. He spoke in each animal's ear until he settled on a flying monkey. The man operating the carousel boosted him up and Leo clung to the monkey's neck and the music began and the monkey moved up and down on its pole. Amanda watched Leo go around three times. He was serious, unsmiling. She ate his fries before they went cold.
I'm sorry this isn't nicer, Genevieve said. You'll have time to eat well before you fly home next week.
I hope so, Amanda said.
Truth is, we're cutting costs a bit, Genevieve said wearily.
Amanda laughed until her eyes were damp. So ludicrous. Where are you cutting costs? she said when she caught her breath. Your fifteen-thousand-square-foot house in Sarasota? The castle in the Alps?
A flicker of irritation over Genevieve's face; but this, too, she quelled. Sarasota is being rented to a rapper for the year, she said. And the castle has been sold.
But. Wait. I thought that was Manfred's family place, Amanda said.
Three centuries, Genevieve said. It couldn't be helped.
Amanda picked up her full glass and drank and drank and put her glass down when it was empty. You really are broke, she said.
No joke, Genevieve said. Bankrupt. Manfred's mania went international this time. The rapper's rent is what's keeping us afloat. What is it they say? It's all about the Benjamins.
That's what they said when we were young. Well, in our twenties. I thought the house where we're staying was yours.
No. Manfred's sister's. The poor one, until about six months ago.
Ha! Amanda said. It was so unexpected, this grief for
her friend. She'd become used to seeing Genevieve as her own dumb daydream. The better her.
Don't cry for me, Genevieve said lightly, squeezing Amanda's arm. We'll be okay.
I'm crying for
, Amanda said. I don't even know who to envy anymore.
Genevieve studied her friend, leaned forward, opened her mouth. But whatever was about to emerge withdrew itself, because Leo was running toward them across the plaza, his head down. The carousel had stopped. The air had stilled and there was a sudden silence, like wool packed in the ears. Darling! Genevieve called out, half standing, upsetting the last of the bottle of wine.
And then the blanket covering the sky ripped open, and Leo, still running, vanished in the downpour. Leo! they both shouted. In a moment, the boy appeared on Amanda's side of the table, and he put his cold face on her bare legs. Then there was the blind run through the rain, holding the little boy by the hand between them. They reached the parking garage, a wall of dryness and light. They laughed with relief and turned to look at the curtain of rain a foot beyond them, at the wet dusk that had descended so swiftly in midday.
But as they watched, shivering, there was a great crack and a bolt of light split the plaza wide open and the lightning doubled itself on the wet ground, the carousel in sudden gray scale and all the animals bulge-eyed and fleeing in terror. The others crowded into Amanda, put
their faces on her shoulder and her hip. She held them and watched the tumult through the sear of red that faded from her vision. Something in her had risen with the rain, was exulting.
They were still wet when they arrived at the airport. Genevieve's dress was soaked at the shoulders and back, her hair frizzed in a great red pouf. Leo looked molded of wax.
Mina, on the other hand, was fresh even off the plane. Stunning. Red lipstick, high heels, miniskirt, one-shoulder shirt. Earbuds in her ears, accompanied by her own soundtrack. Even in Paris, the men melted from her path as she walked. Amanda watched her approach, her throat thick with pride.
One more year of college, and the world would blow up wherever Mina touched it. Smart, strong, gorgeous, everything. Amanda could hardly believe they were related and found herself saying the silent prayer she said whenever she saw her niece. The girl hugged her aunt hard and long then turned to Leo and Genevieve.
Leo was looking up the long stretch of Mina, his mouth open.
Genevieve said, But you can't be Mina.
I can't? Mina laughed. I am.
Genevieve turned to Amanda, distressed. But I was there when she was born, she said. I was in the hospital
with you, I saw the baby before her mother did because Sophie had lost so much blood she was passed out. I left for college when Mina was five. She looked just like your sister. She was fair.
Oh, said Mina, leaning against Amanda. I see. She means I can't be me because I'm black.
Amanda held her laugh until it passed, then said, Her father was apparently African American, Genevieve.
I'm sorry? Genevieve said.
I grew up and everything got darker, Mina said. It happens sometimes. No big deal. Hi, she said, bending to Leo. You must be my very own kiddo. I'm beyond pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Leo.
We're going to be friends, Mina said.
I'm so sorry. It's just that you're so beautiful, Genevieve said. I can't believe you're all grown up and so gorgeous to boot.
Mina said, You're pretty, too.
Oh, God! The condescension in her voice: Amanda wanted to squeeze her.
Let's get a move on, Amanda said. We have to speed home if we're going to get to the shops down in the village and buy some dinner before they close.
Amanda knew that in the car Genevieve would tell too much about herself, confide to Mina about Manfred's electroshock therapy, about Leo's enuresis, about her own gut issues whenever she ate too much bread. Amanda
would sit in the front seat, ostentatiously withholding judgment. In the backseat, Mina and Leo would be playing a silent game of handsies, cementing their alliance. Out in the parking garage, the day felt fresh, newly cold after the rainstorm. As soon as they left the city, the washed fields shone gold and green in the afternoon sun.
It was time. Manfred rose from his chair. Grant nearly choked on his apple. All morning he'd swum in the pool and pretended to work on the website he was designingâthe very last he'd ever design, no more jobs lined upâand all afternoon he'd played solitaire on his computer. He'd come to believe that he'd been left alone in the house. The other man had been so still that he had become furniture. It had been easier when Grant believed himself alone. He had all day in silence to defend himself against the thought of Mina: the kiss he'd taken in the laundry room, the chug of machine and smell of softener, the punch so hard he'd had a contusion on his temple for a week afterward. He could be forgiven. It would all be over soon enough, in any event.
The women will be back soon. We should make our preparations, Manfred said, walking out to the Fiat that Grant and Amanda had rented.
Crazy motherfucker, Grant said to himself, but reached for his keys and wallet. He started the car and almost pulled out onto the road but there was a line of
tractors heading up the hill homeward. They had to wait for the spindly things to pass. Where are we going? Grant said, watching the tractors trail around the bend.
The village, of course, Manfred said, his hands tightly clenching his knees.
Of course, said Grant.
The bakery was out of boules, so Manfred selected baguettes reluctantly. He bought a napoleon for dessert; he bought a pastel assortment of macarons. Leo loves these, he said to Grant, but before they reached the greengrocer's, he'd already eaten the pistachio and the rose.
He bought eggplants, he bought leeks, he bought endives and grapes; he bought butter and cream and crÃ¨me fraÃ®che, he bought six different cheeses all wrapped in brown paper.
At the wine store, he bought a case of a nice Bourgogne. We have enough champagne at the house, I think, he said.
Grant thought of the full crates stacked in the corner of the kitchen. I'm not sure, he said.
Manfred looked at Grant's face for the first time, worry passing over his own, then relaxed. Ah, he said. You are joking.
At the butcher's, lurid flesh under glass. Manfred bought sausages, veal, terrine in its slab of fat; he bought thin ham. Grant, who was carrying nearly all the crates and bags, could barely straighten his arms when they reached the car. Manfred looked to the sky and whistled
through his front teeth at something he saw there, but Grant didn't pay attention.
We shall have a feast tonight, Manfred said once they'd gotten in and closed the doors.
We shall, Grant said. The little car felt overloaded, starting up the hill.
From behind, from the east, there came a whistling noise, and Grant looked in the rearview mirror to see a wall of water climbing the hill much more swiftly than the car could go. He flipped on the wipers and lights just as the hard rain began to pound on the roof. Grant couldn't see to drive. He pulled into the ditch, leaving two wheels in the road. If anybody sped up the hill behind him, the Fiat would be crushed.
Manfred watched the sheets of water dreamily, and Grant let the silence grow between them. It wasn't unpleasant to sit like this with another man. All at once, Manfred said, his voice almost too soft under the percussive rain, I like your wife.
Grant couldn't think, quite, what to say to this. The silence became edged, and Manfred said with a small smile, More than you do, perhaps.
Oh, no, Grant said. Amanda's great.
Manfred waited, and Grant said, feeling as if he should have more enthusiasm, I mean, she's so kind. And so smart, too. She's the best.
But, Manfred said.
No. No, Grant said. No buts. She is. It's just that I got
into law school in Ann Arbor and she doesn't know yet. That I'm going.
He did not say that Amanda would never go with him, couldn't leave her insane battered mother behind in Florida. Or that as soon as he realized he would go up to Michigan alone, leaving behind the incontinent old cat he hated, the shitty linoleum, the scrimping, the buying of bad toilet paper with coupons, Florida and its soul-sucking heat, he felt light. A week ago, when they drove up to the ancient stone house framed in all of those grapevines, he knew that this was what he wanted: history, old linen and crystal, Europe, beauty. Amanda didn't fit. By now, she was so far away from him, he could barely see her.
He felt a pain somewhere around his lungs; dismay. What he did say was so small but still a betrayal of its kind.
I'm waiting for the right time to tell Amanda, so don't say anything, please, he said.
Manfred's hands held each other. His face was blank. He was watching the wall of rain out the windshield.
Grant took a breath and said, I'm sorry. You weren't even listening.
Manfred flicked his eyes in Grant's direction. So leave. What does it matter. Everyone leaves. It is not the big story in the end.
Like that, the stone that had pressed on his shoulders had been lifted. Grant began to smile. Grade-A wisdom there, buddy, he said. Lightning sizzled far off in the sky. They watched.
Except there is one thing you must tell me, Manfred said suddenly. Who is this Ann Arbor woman? And, when Grant looked startled, Manfred gave another small smile and said, That was also a joke, and Grant laughed in relief and said, Seriously, please don't tell Amanda, and Manfred inclined his head.
Grant felt uncomfortably intimate with Manfred so close in the tiny car. There had been something he'd wanted to say since Genevieve's wedding in Sarasota ten years ago, during what was in retrospect clearly a manic swing of Manfred's pendulum. There had been peacocks running around the gardens; the guest favors were silver bowls. Grant had watched, making little comments about the excess that Amanda lobbed back with extra bitter spin. He saw things differently now.
Forgive me for saying this, Grant said. But sometimes you even look like an Austrian count. You have a certain nobility to you.
But I am only a Swiss baron, Manfred said. It means nothing.