It was too late. Mitsuko ran down the dock faster than any man or woman he’d seen and skidded into oncoming traffic. She was small enough to dart around the carriages and cars, and before any of them could stop her, she was gone.
Sylvia lifted up her dress and chased after her. Laurence followed right behind her. Dominic and Luis went to give chase as well before waiting on Vincenzo’s orders.
Vincenzo’s instincts pulled him in two different directions. One, to follow Mitsuko and Sylvia into uncharted territory, or two, to stay with Émeline, this girl who was now sobbing into her gloves so hard, she was falling over. Dominic caught and consoled her, placing a handkerchief to her face in hopes that she’d use it.
He didn’t know if she was friend or foe, this Émeline. He’d never seen Mitsuko so distraught that she’d run away from her problems instead of face them head-on. The only person to evoke such a fight-or-flight response in him was his father.
He sighed and went with his gut. “You three stay here. I’ll chase after them.”
“Got it, sir,” Luis said. He took off his jacket and draped it over Émeline. Ana touched her shoulder in support. Both did little to help.
Mitsuko had a considerable lead on them. With a knowledge of the streets, she cut corners faster than them, hopped over chairs quicker than they could. Two streets in and Vincenzo lost the tail end of Sylvia’s dress.
He took a turn too slowly, white breath collecting around him. The city reminded him of both New York and someplace abstract. For every traffic cop yelling at passing cars was a vintage bakery beside a pleasant river where couples strolled. And nobody here spoke any English. Almost nothing reached him. He knew Italian and French were Romance languages, but he never thought he’d feel so lost in these streets. He thought he’d be with Sylvia so he didn’t feel so alone, or at least have Mitsuko as his translator.
“Mitsuko, where are you?” He jogged down an open street where, despite the cold, couples were dining outside with tea and hot loaves of bread.
He gulped in a cold breath to yell out her name again when someone next to him asked, “Monsieur?”
He turned. From the bakery came out a portly man who reminded him of Campo. He wore an apron covered in flour and held a rag that he kept cleaning his hands with.
“Excuse me, monsieur, but were you looking for someone named ‘Mitsuko’?”
Vincenzo almost snapped at him for calling him “miss,” then controlled himself. Poor man had a burn on his hand that looked as old as he was, carved in and around his fingers like bark.
He fixed his jacket and hat to look more presentable. “I am.”
He couldn’t remember anything about her surname, so he said, “Do you know her?”
“Yes, yes.” He nodded to himself, searching through his own memories to find her. “She was one of those little Japanese girls that came over. Is she back?”
“I don’t think I follow, sir.”
“Oh, yes, monsieur. Back during the War, the Allied Powers sent us a dozen or so Japanese nurses as extra military aid. They were like superstars here. Everyone knew them by name.”
Vincenzo knew he should’ve been running after Mitsuko, but perhaps this man would give him answers that neither girl would divulge to him. “Did you know her well?”
“Me? Oh, no, monsieur. I was but another foot soldier who tried saving too many of his friends. Got scraped up enough times to be a regular with the nurses at Merchant Hospital. Some of them said I was getting hurt on purpose to see their pretty faces.” He laughed. “There, I met Mitsuko, and her friend.”
“Was this friend named Émeline?”
“Ah, yes, yes!” he said. “What a blast from the past. Yes, she and her were something else back then, a real couple of gals. Mitsuko, she was the bluntest woman I’ve ever met, and rowdy, too. Some said she was a boy dressed up as a girl to evade the trenches, but I never thought that. She was kind to men who she knew didn’t have much time left. And Émeline, oh, what an angel she was. Soft and caring. She was like the mother we all needed.”
“I never knew that.”
“They were also secretive, those girls, always running off after work and doing who knows what with each other. I think they were very close friends.”
“Possibly,” Vincenzo said, lying because he knew better. “Do you know what happened to them after the War?”
“Mitsuko left before the War ended. I thought she got shipped back to Japan along with all the others. One day she and Émeline were together, the next…” He blinked rapidly, the memories fading. “My apologies. Did you say you were looking for her? Do you need help finding her? I’d love to see her again.”
“…No,” Vincenzo said. “She should be up ahead. Thank you, though, for telling me this.” He tipped his hat to him and carried on.
“If you find her, bring her back!” said the baker. “I’ll treat you all to some French pastries.”
Promising the stranger that he’d see what he could do, Vincenzo turned right and kept running. He himself had never fought in the War, and neither had his father nor most of their acquaintances, but he knew of some who had. You saw it in their hardened faces, the way they held themselves. He could only assume how many French people had the War scarred into them like the baker, and how deeply it affected both Mitsuko and Émeline.
Then he heard it: Sylvia’s voice, doting on another.
He dipped down a dark alleyway with a turn at the very end. There was a stairwell that led to someone’s backdoor and a small stone bridge with some garbage underneath it.
Hiding within that garbage, he found Mitsuko, chaperoned by Laurence and Sylvia. She’d fallen to the ground and was tapping her anxious foot into the snow until it turned to mush. Both Sylvia and Laurence were trying to get her to stand.
“Mitsuko, talk to us,” Sylvia begged. “Please.”
“It’ll be okay,” Laurence added. “Just breathe.”
She didn’t do either thing. Holding on to her hands, she blocked out their advice and focused on a patch of dead grass visible beneath the snow.
When he finally let his presence be known, Sylvia turned to him and said, “We can’t get her to move. It’s like she’s turned to stone.”
“And she won’t talk to us. It’s beginning to worry me.”
“Then we shouldn’t move her.” He went to take off his jacket and lend it to her, then figured she’d probably cut herself out of it. He squatted beside her instead.
Her dark eyes were glossy like she was freezing over. Her hands had gone red and shiny from the cold, and her ring, the one she always wore as a wedding ring, was cutting into her hand and causing her to bleed.
He thought back on all the times he’d seen girls swooning over her when she danced, how she dressed as she did to please them and only them. He recalled how animated the baker was when he talked about her and Émeline and admired her wedding ring in a new light.
“She and her were something else back then.”
“That woman,” he asked carefully, “is she someone you knew from the War?”
“Did she hurt you?” Sylvia asked quietly. “Do you want us to distance ourselves from her?”
She curled more inwards into herself. Her hand never left her ring.
“Okay, honestly, none of this is good for her right now,” Laurence decided. “She’s gonna fall apart on us. Let’s take her to this apartment where she won’t catch a death of cold. We’ll heat up some water, fetch her some sweets. We’ll make her forget all about this woman.”
“I don’t think she’d like that right now.” Vincenzo played with his own ringless hand, wondering how such a commitment would weigh on him and if he ever wanted to bear that with Sylvia. “You loved her.”
“You loved her, but then you had to leave, or something unplanned separated the two of you. Now you’re faced with her again and don’t know what to do, and all the emotions you’ve been suppressing are resurfacing.”
“Shut up.” A strained sob broke through her sore throat. She tried covering it with her scarf. “You don’t know anything about us.”
“I know some. I just met a baker in the streets who claimed to know you. He said you two were a notable pair during the War.” He moved up closer. “Did you give her the other ring?”
“Fuck off,” she said. “Suddenly you’re this observant prick who can pick up on the most basic of social cues? When the hell did that happen?”
He bit his cheek at her insult.
“We just want to help you,” Sylvia said softly. “We don’t want to see you like this.”
“It’s not like I can help it right now.” She sniffed hard and wiped her face with her scarf. They all gave her a minute to let the cold air clear her head.
She dropped her shaking hand. It fell into Sylvia’s. “Back when I was young, when I thought I was cut out to be a nurse, I was sent to Paris. I met a whole span of nurses there, but then I met her, a woman leagues past me in humanity and beauty, and I stupidly fell in love with her. Then I had the audacity to propose to her out of wistful desperation to never be alone again, and this bastard of a woman…”
She pressed the palms of her hands into her eye sockets. “Why on Earth did she say yes? Why was she so cruel to me?”
“Because she loved you back,” Vincenzo explained. “What happened after that?”
“What do you think happened?” she snapped. “What happens to all of us when we get too in over our heads? We fuck it up. I ruined everything I’d built up with her. I punched that stupid Nurse Clément in her stupid face, and then Ém—‘ma chérie, s’il te plait’—didn’t want to be with me anymore, even though I was defending her…” She kicked the ground, splattering the snow. “She told me to leave, so I did! I did it for her! So why now, after ten years of wanting to kill myself over this stupid mistake, am I thrust back into her arms, expected to act normal when every word of hers drives a stake through my heart? Why has fate done this to me?”
“C-Campo couldn’t have known,” Vincenzo said. “He said Émeline was his niece.”
At that, Mitsuko scoffed. “Better send a telegram to your boss, then, Vincenzo, because Émeline isn’t Italian. She was born and raised in Paris. Your boss lied to you.”
The train took two hours to get them to the heart of Paris. Good news for Mitsuko: The time she needed to spend in Émeline’s presence was cut in half. Bad news: She still needed to spend two hours trapped in a moving train with her ex-lover.
It seemed. None of them dared to ask for more details. When they boarded, Mitsuko claimed a whole cabin to herself and used her bag as a doorstop in case anyone came in. She shut the blinds, curled up in her lonely seat. That was that for the next two hours.
The rest of them invited Émeline into their cabin, but she politely declined. She still had Dominic’s handkerchief to dab her wet eyes with. They gave her her own cabin as well.
So, with their entourage down two women, Vincenzo and his friends compiled into their snug cabin and discussed.
“Who is this girl?”
“Émeline. Mitsuko said she knew her from the War.”
“So she’s a friend?”
“No, Ana. You saw how they reacted. I think they’re wives.”
“But Mitsuko never spoke about her at the Kitten.”
“It must’ve been too painful to talk about.”
“Wait,” Luis said, “Sir, Campo said they were related. Did Campo lie to you?”
That dug into him like shattered glass. Why would Campo lie? He’d trusted him with private information about mayors and governors, about police officers, about him. No one knew about his worsening knee condition or his tax evasions from 1921 onwards but him. Why lie about something so mundane? What was he trying to hide? Who was Émeline?
And Mitsuko. Two women, marrying each other? There was no way. And to think about marriage like that, it was torture. Nobody would approve such a bond between a Japanese woman and a French woman. They were rules that needed to be followed.
But they’d done it, and now they were back together to either mend the bond or destroy it completely.
“We’ll have to leave them be for the time being,” Laurence said. “It’s no good to corner either of them right now. That little blond thing will cry herself to death and Mitsuko will break and run off to England.”
“Vincenzo, you said this baker person said he knew them,” Sylvia said. “Did he say anything about how their relationship ended?”
“It must have been excruciating,” Ana said.
Everyone looked up.
“What?” she asked, clearly not used to being the center of attention. “I’m not daft when it comes to a woman’s heart. One of my church friends, she was a volunteer nurse during the War. She said it was nightmarish, all those young boys dying in her arms and her not being able to save them. I can’t imagine what those two had to live through. And no girl would react that volatilely to seeing someone she loved,” she added. “They must’ve had a divorce.” She paused, then blushed. “I-if they could do such a thing,” she added. “Two women.”
Vincenzo looked outside to a field of flowers passing by. He’d ask Mitsuko about all of this in private. He had to. He couldn’t let her self-destruct on their vacation. And he needed to know more about Émeline and why Campo had entrusted them with her. To his knowledge, Campo had never made a foolish decision in his life. He hoped that didn’t end with him choosing Émeline as their guide.
A hand touched his knee. “Everything okay?” Sylvia asked.
He nodded. Everyone had broken off into their own separate conversations, giving them a small bubble to talk privately. “Just thinking.”
“I’m scared. For Mitsuko. I always thought she was this indestructible force that could never be swayed by romance. To know that she’s been bottling this up for years without telling any of us, it makes me want to cry.”
“I’ll try to have a word with her later. I think I almost broke through to her in the alley.”
“I’ve just never seen her so reactive. Émeline must mean a great deal to her.” She nestled her head against his. Feeling her hair tickle his cheek, he closed his eyes and tried memorizing the feeling for later.
He wondered if Mitsuko had ever done the same with Émeline.
Three black cars were waiting for them when the train slowed to a stop. They were part of Émeline’s tourism business, paid ahead of time by Campo to escort them to their home.
When Vincenzo opened Mitsuko’s cabin door and found her missing, panic set in. They checked the bathroom, the neighboring cabins, even Émeline’s, though she was waiting for them at the end of the train.
“Did she jump out the window?” Luis asked, checking underneath her seat.
Fearing just that, Vincenzo opened the window and scanned the streets.
Mitsuko, much to the driver’s dismay, was sitting on one of the hoods of the cars, wrapped up in a blanket she most definitely stole from her cabin. It looked like she had red makeup around her eyes. Vincenzo knew it was from her scratching away her tears.
He applauded Émeline for controlling her emotions. Aside from her far-off gazes, she’d cleaned herself up and smiled at them when they were ready to leave.
None of them spoke as they divvied up into the cars, not even Luis. He knew where his jokes were needed and it wasn’t now. Émeline and Mitsuko rode in separate cars.
They drove for fifteen minutes up and down the Parisian streets. At first, Vincenzo couldn’t tell they were in Europe. Then he noticed the buildings. They neither varied in size nor did they reach the heights that New York buildings could. But weren’t they beautiful in their nineteenth-century charm. The streets were compact, too, to fit their small cars and carriages, and some of them were even made of cobblestone, bringing back a nostalgic feeling he had from childhood. He didn’t remember most of Italy, but whenever his Nonna or mother spoke of Europe, he saw cobblestone. He saw these ancient buildings and stone bridges retained from a different era. It truly felt of home and of an entirely new place.
Their “apartment” was actually a boarding house made of brick, with trellises stretching up the sides that might’ve grown flowers in a different season. It was built beside a small school, and beside that, a church with stone so black, it appeared burned. Around these three buildings, school children, both boys and girls, ran about in uniforms, freed from the confines of school.
Émeline showed the doorman their papers as they walked in. “Your rooms will be on the fourth floor. Now, you’ll be living in the suites, so rather than a communal bath, each room will be furnished with a lovely, private bath and kitchen for your convenience. You might find them a little aberrant to the ones you’re used to in America, but you’ll find that they still work all the same.” She flipped through more papers as they waited for the elevator. “Monsieur d’Antonio booked four rooms for this trip, one bed per room. Is that adequate?”
“So that would be Sylvia and myself,” Vincenzo said. “Luis and Ana…” He looked to Dominic. He gave one assured nod. “And Dominic and Laurence.”
“Oh, I did have a question about that arrangement,” Émeline said. “If you’d like, I can ask for two separate rooms for you. It’s no trouble.”
“That won’t be necessary, thank you,” Vincenzo said. “Mitsuko—”
“Émeline and I will be rooming together.”
Outside, a bell chimed for the hour. School children squealed delightfully as their day officially ended.
Émeline’s briefcase knocked into the wall as they entered the elevator. The mask she was trying to keep on was slipping. “That would be…out of place.”
“Would it?” Mitsuko asked. “You’re already here. What if one of us decides she wants to run away to the fifteenth arrondissement without a moment’s notice? Won’t you be there to guide her back home?”
She stuttered on some type of dissuasion, but the quietness of the elevator hushed her up.
“That’s what I thought,” Mitsuko finalized, and they rode up to their rooms in absolute silence.
Vincenzo held his tongue as he eyed the now nervous Émeline. No matter how much he wanted to intervene, this wasn’t his conversation to meddle in. This was and had to be between them, and he was just an unfortunate spectator lost in this jousting match of dismissive comebacks.
The papers promised that all of their rooms were identical, but Luis insisted that he must take the room labeled “403.” Mitsuko gravitated to Room 404, shoulder scraping off the wallpaper, and Laurence chose the room next to Luis. This left Vincenzo and Sylvia with Room 406, the room next to Mitsuko and, consequently, Émeline.
Mitsuko slung her bag over one shoulder and unlocked the door to her new room. Then she held it open and shot a deadly gaze at Émeline, saying everything that needed to be said to her with her eyes.
Flinching as if she’d been yelled at, Émeline followed her wordless order and shuffled into the room.
Mitsuko slammed the door shut and locked it right after.
Vincenzo looked at Sylvia to see if she’d taken offense to the action, but she had a hand over her eyes as she gathered her bags, too ready to avoid the avoidant girls.
Their room welcomed them to a magnificent foyer into a floor-to-ceiling window adorned by heavy curtains. It had a full kitchen, a bath with its own clawfoot tub, a dining room, and a sitting room, and everything smelled of fresh linens straight from the laundry. He’d be sure to send something to Campo for his generosity, for when he thought it was done, he opened two double doors and found an entire second living space complete with sofas and a massive painting of a French landscape.
Sylvia abandoned their bags in the foyer and did a twirl near the windows. “How marvelous.”
“Which part? This boarding house or that scene we just bore witness to?”
“Oh, both, but I’m pretending I didn’t see the latter.”
“Good tactic.” He walked in with her. “She followed her in without a word.”
“Do you think there’s bad blood between them?”
“I don’t see it. I just think it’s complicated.”
“I hope it works out between them. Perhaps we take a trip to the Eiffel Tower. I hear it’s romantic, it’s one of the most romantic places on Earth.”
“Is that a hint for me?”
She smirked and held out her hand for him to take.
Smirking back, he laced his fingers around hers, and she pulled him into a dance, waltzing him around their new space like clumsy kittens too eager to take their first steps.
She nuzzled her head against his as they danced. “Seeing what Mitsuko and Émeline have has me both petrified and incredibly envious.”
“Marriage is such a commitment. To dedicate your life to a person? Forever? This time last year, I couldn’t have dreamt of saying yes to a man. I always thought I’d be alone.” Her hand found its way to his chest, caressing the area around his heart. “That answer changed with you.”
His heart picked up, and he knew she felt it pounding against her soft fingers. With her hands so close to his vulnerable skin, he broke away and patted himself off. He prayed she didn’t think ill of him. ‘It’s not your fault,’ he wanted to say, ‘it’s not your fault.’
“Was that too much just now?” she asked.
“No. Well, yes. A bit.”
“Remember, we’re three thousand miles away from home. The chances of anyone finding out about what we do are slim.”
“It’s still hard, though.”
He nodded and dragged their bags into the bedroom. “Let me get these out of the way.”
“Take your time.”
With her momentarily out of sight, he closed the bedroom door and took deep breaths. He hated how much he cared about how other people viewed him, but he couldn’t help it. Feeling accepted was tied to his very being. His work profession, his ethnicity, where he lived, what he liked. Even in a new country, the thought of anyone finding out that he’d been born a girl made him as miserable as Mitsuko was.
He stared into his pile of clothes. Why, though? Why did he have to be so careful around them? He’d been through so much with these people, and with Sylvia. The love of his life who made him feel safe. Like she’d ever mind that his body was different than most men.
He scratched at his heart, through the corset he always wore to bind his chest. He wouldn’t lose Sylvia to this secret.
On this trip, he’d tell her the truth.