Her dreams floated her through so many delicious worlds that night. She tasted her ideal France, dining on decadent wines while frolicking through the meadows she thought the country had. What she hoped to experience was experienced tenfold while she slept, and when she fluttered her eyes open, she wondered why she wasn’t on an ocean liner, waiting to set foot in France.
But then she awoke in the warmest bed that smelled neither like her nor Vincenzo. She tossed and turned for several minutes, savoring in her lingering dreams, before opening her eyes to Vincenzo sleeping next to her in their suite. He was outdoing himself with his bedhead this morning. If he wasn’t a light sleeper, she would’ve slipped underneath the covers and given him a special good-morning kiss.
But she couldn’t disturb such a precious face, so instead of getting up, she picked up the pen and paper she’d left on the desk the night prior and hiked up her legs to write.
Liberation swelled inside her when she started her note with “Dear Nonna” instead of penning Clara’s name. The woman didn’t even know that she was in France, thousands of miles away from her, and she never needed to know. Never again did she have to tell her anything about her life. Even when she were to marry, she, the person who gave birth to her, was not obligated to attend.
Her cheeks went warm. “When she were to marry.” No more what-ifs, huh? She had to be realistic, though. She couldn’t run away with her emotions on this trip. Vincenzo was here on business, how could he possibly ask for her hand in marriage? And with Mitsuko’s and Émeline’s debacle? Completely out of the question.
“Is that something you’d be interested in? In marrying me?”
She paused her pen mid-sentence. He’d sounded so auspicious on the boat, so positive.
She covered her red face with the pad of paper. If he asked her to marry him, she’d likely say no out of sheer panic and then faint.
The bed shifted on Vincenzo’s side.
Sylvia turned to see him looking up at her, smile peeking out from underneath the blankets.
She chuckled nervously and flipped over her writing. “Good morning.”
“Did I wake you?”
“Don’t know. I’ve been watching you for a while.”
He nodded. “What were you thinking about? You were blushing.”
She tried to relax, but now she felt his sleepy eyes on her. He was in a bit of a mood, she could tell, but why? She didn’t let her mind wander too much.
“What do you want to do today?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Don’t you have work to do? I don’t want to step on your toes.”
“Well, we can always hang out together on the side.”
“When?” She went through the days in her head, how long they had here. “By the way, when’s your birthday? It’s early January, isn’t it?”
To answer her, he smiled wider until he showed a bit of teeth, a shy smile she could devour.
“Wait.” She fully put away her writing supplies. “Vincenzo DiFiore.”
“That’s my name.”
“Vincenzo, is today your birthday?”
His smile brightened, and Sylvia squealed and leaned down to kiss him. “Happy birthday! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I don’t celebrate it too grandly.”
“That doesn’t count when you have a sweetheart.” She maneuvered her way on top of him and, with his permission, pinned his wrists down into the plump pillows, straddling him.
He kicked out his legs to give her room.
“I love you,” she said.
“Love you, too.”
She leaned down and kissed him once more, and this one stuck, deepening into quite a sultry kiss that had her tasting his inner mouth. She even got to ruffle up his bed head more to her liking. You had power, being the one on top. She so rarely had this type of dominance in her life, and hearing Vincenzo’s breathing pick up because of her, she didn’t know if she disliked it. She didn’t think Vincenzo did, either.
Then he pulled back, and she gave him his space. He was out of breath. “Now, then. We can’t spend all day in bed.”
“I can think of a few ways we can.”
“No.” He tapped her rear a little harder than she expected. “Up, up. We need breakfast.”
“Oh, what’s there to eat?”
Nothing, apparently. When they finally peeled themselves out of bed and entered the kitchen, they found it stocked with bread, coffee, crackers, eggs and milk in the fridge, and fresh fruit and mints set out on the table. They opened the cabinets to even more food ready to be cooked, then stared at the stove for thirty or so seconds.
“I don’t want to cook,” Vincenzo said flatly.
“Nor do I.”
“Let’s eat out.”
She didn’t know how far she could go dressing as she liked in Paris. She hadn’t been harassed on the steam liner because of Vincenzo, but she’d felt uneasy when she’d run after Mitsuko in the streets. Ultimately, she chose a rather masculine look, wearing pants and sweaters without makeup or jewelry. She did button on her beige trench coat, which went to her ankles and gave her a slim waistline and a somewhat nice bust. It was the most she could do for now.
Vincenzo, who’d given her the bedroom to dress up, was in the living room, admiring his hands or fingernails to kill time.
When he saw her, his lips parted and he dropped his hands.
“This okay?” she asked.
He nodded once, mouth still agape. “I…didn’t know you brought those clothes.”
“Should I change?”
“No.” He put on his own black coat. “Are you comfortable?”
“I prefer my dresses, but, oh, I’m not sure.” She tugged on her dress pants as if they were a dress. “I’m still Sylvia, even in pants.”
“And Mitsuko wears pants, and she’s still a woman.”
“She is.” He covered his eyes with his hat. “You’re very brave.”
“Am I, though?”
“More than you know. I wish…” He cleared his throat. “Well, uh, nevertheless.” He grasped for her hand like a child in need of someone’s help. “Ready to go?”
She took it for him with her self-esteem teetering on the edge of appropriately high and devastatingly low. What did that mean? What did he wish? Did he like when she dressed like this, or should she have changed? It was too early in the day for mind games.
As they left their room, they met Mitsuko, slumped on her side, wrapped in a comforter and blocking her own room door. It looked like she hadn’t slept, with her watery eyes and blue-purple eye bags. Dominic was crouched beside her, petting her through the blanket while holding out a plate of pancakes.
Dominic stood with his pancakes. “Good morning.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Vincenzo asked.
“I came out at around six to buy some breakfast and found her like this. She’s been out here all night. I tried feeding her.”
“You make it sound like I’m some animal hours from starvation,” Mitsuko said through the blanket. “I came out here willingly. She”—she nodded at the door—“was upset last night. She didn’t want to talk because ‘seeing me after all these years was too much’. So I let her keep the bed and came out here.”
“And you slept out here?” Vincenzo asked. “Doesn’t your suite have a couch?”
“It has two. What’s your point?”
He backed off. “Understandable. I suppose.”
“Did you eat?” Dominic then asked them. “Laurence’s inside making breakfast. I told him not to overdo it, but he insisted that he’d be cooking breakfast for everyone today.”
“Neither of us fancied to cook,” Sylvia explained.
“Then…” He unlocked his suite door for them and even bowed like a doorman or fancy waiter inviting them into a restaurant.
Apart from the paintings and wallpaper, their suite mirrored Sylvia’s and Vincenzo’s. They’d kept theirs a little messier, though, with bowls soaking in the sink and articles of clothing resting over their couches and tables, making their living space feel well lived-in.
Luis and Ana were sitting in the kitchen. Luis was on his third plate while Ana grazed on cut fruit. Laurence, wearing a frilly, white apron, was cooking pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage. All the fryers were live as he made sure all of his friends were fed.
“Good morning, good morning,” he said. “Sylvia, I already know your order: fruit oatmeal with a glass of fresh orange juice. We didn’t have everything here, but Dominic was kind enough to pick up what I needed.”
“We also have bagels,” Dominic said, placing two slices in the toaster and readying them with strawberry cream cheese.
“He was very excited about the bagels,” Laurence said. “Vincenzo, what would you like?”
Sylvia was used to Laurence’s hospitality when it came to the kitchen, but Vincenzo wasn’t. With so many choices on the table, he reviewed the food with a hand to his chin. “I’ll…take bacon, and eggs. Please.”
“Done. Sit. Dominic, where’s Mitsuko?”
He sat across from Vincenzo. “I tried doing what you said, but she’s persistent. She wants to stay out there.”
Laurence groaned. “She isn’t persistent, she’s depressed. She probably killed off the idea of Émeline when she left for America, and now she’s right in front of her face and she’s spinning in circles. We need to get her back on her feet so she doesn’t dizzy herself.”
“Why don’t they go on a date?” Luis asked, mouth full of pancake. “That’s what I do with Ana when I mess up. What about here?” Tipping in his chair, he leaned to the window and pulled back the curtains.
Laurence and Dominic had struck the goldmine with their room choice. Right outside their kitchen windows were beautiful houses outlined in gold, then in the corner, that children’s school next to the church.
But then, at the horizon behind winter trees, the Eiffel Tower reached the white Heavens. It was actually smaller than she imagined, but goodness, who cared, to see this romantic sight right outside your window.
“How beautiful,” she said. “Laurence, Dominic, how lucky you are.”
“We’re both more interested in the Loov, the Louvre. However it’s pronounced. That famous art museum across the river.”
“I—” Dominic choked on his bagel. “We don’t have to do that just because I want to go. I can go by myself, you don’t have to come.”
“What else am I gonna do when I want to be with you? We’re on vacation, I’d be happy enough lounging about in bed with you. And you said there was some dinosaur something or other you wanted to see, and I want to see them, too, so there.”
Dominic napkined his closed lips, the decision made for him.
Ana crossed her fork and knife on her finished plate. “I wish to go shopping. There’re shopping strips around the Eiffel Tower that I want to visit. There’s Chanel and Vuitton and…Vionnet, and Lanvin, if I can make it. I want to take a proper tour of their shops.”
“That means I’ll be sticking with her,” Luis said, “but I’ll be sure to buy some swinging shoes for everyone. Gotta stock up on some European designers like Channel.”
“Chanel,” Ana corrected. “Then we can go to this bakery I saw for lunch.”
“What do you want to do?” Laurence asked Sylvia.
She looked outside to the Tower, then gulped at the anticipation of what could be. If he proposed to her at the top of the Eiffel Tower…
No. He wouldn’t. She didn’t even know if you could climb up the Eiffel Tower, and it’d be too cold. Another day, another year. “What we need to do, I believe, is help Mitsuko,” she decided. “We can’t have her like this.”
“I agree, but we shouldn’t dogpile on her right now. We should try to get at her in waves. Why not you and Vincenzo go out and do whatever you’re planning on doing and take her and Émeline with you, because we all know that you’re planning to do something cute today.”
“Says the man who’s planning a day at an art museum,” Sylvia teased.
Laurence stuck out his tongue at her. “Then that’s that. Take them to the Eiffel Tower and make it romantic. Let us commence: Operation: Save Mitsuko’s Marriage.”
“Save Mitsuko’s marriage!” Luis echoed encouragingly.
The front door rattled, startling Dominic to his feet. He’d left it ajar for Mitsuko, but he must’ve thought she wouldn’t have come in.
She had, but not alone. Lost of her blanket, Mitsuko entered in begrudgingly with a frown on her face, and behind her, not one curly hair out of place, her smile faker than yesterday, was Émeline.
She held up a map of Paris. “Are we ready to depart?”
Ana and Luis left first, as one of the first destinations Ana wanted to see was only a street away. Émeline still had her cars and drivers who’d gladly drive them wherever they wanted, so Laurence and Dominic left in their own car with two large maps of the Louvre. Dominic left with stars in his eyes, eager to see his art and dinosaur bones.
The drive from their hotel to the Eiffel Tower was like Sylvia was dreaming once again, dipping in and out of reality. The houses were like the ones in Vincenzo’s neighborhood in terms of richness. You could tell those who lived here lived well, with gold lining bars around their windows, every white house identically perfect. She thought they were some types of apartments and went to ask about their neighbors for that month, but then, as they drove around yet another beautiful building, she was met with an unobstructed face to face view of the tower.
She couldn’t help herself. She awed. The park was relatively crowded, but not enough to make Vincenzo nervous. The pathways in and out of the square were clear to stroll through with couples holding parasols and babies. The trees and statues of men on horses decorating the park were coated with a fresh layer of snow, making everything appear fresh despite the cold. When Sylvia left the car, she took a fresh breath of air and grinned up at the massively tall tower disappearing into the fog. It felt right. It felt perfect.
“I can give everyone a tour of the Eiffel Tower,” Émeline said. “There’re many statues and historic sites in and around the Champ de Mars, this green surrounding the Tower. There’s also the, uh, École Militaire, a military training facility founded in 1750 by King Louis XV.” She cleared her throat. “I-I can give you a tour of that as well, if you wish.”
Mitsuko closed her car door, staring at Émeline with concern.
Émeline caught her eyes. She put on her fake smile and gestured to the tower. “There’s also a few lakes around the Tower. Sometimes there’re ducks, geese. I’m not sure if any of them are still with us. They might’ve, uhm, left us for the season.”
“Can we skate it?” Vincenzo asked.
“Ice skate?” she clarified. “Well, at times. Sometimes, there’re people around from which you can rent skates.”
“Then let’s try that. Sylvia, do you know how to skate? Mitsuko? Émeline?”
“Oh, I couldn’t,” Émeline said. “I’ll just watch.”
“No, try. It’ll be fun. Sylvia?”
“I’ve never tried.”
“I’ll teach you.”
Sylvia tried reading Vincenzo without asking him outright. Teach her? Did he know how to skate? Surely not, and why would he want to go ice skating, anyway? It wasn’t too much like him.
Then she looked at Émeline and Mitsuko pretending the other didn’t exist, and she understood. This was Operation: Save Mitsuko’s Marriage. Save her love life. Save her happiness. Today wasn’t about her vacation or Vincenzo’s birthday. Not right now. With Mitsuko, they only had a week or two to repair her heart, otherwise, they might find her drinking herself rotten in darker, less familiar bars, wanting to die but being unable to do anything about it. She’d been in those situations many times before for the wrong loves, but seeing them, she knew what they had was worth it. She knew they needed to save it.
The frozen lake was right underneath the skirt of the Eiffel Tower, as it were, letting them study the hundreds of metal beams curving to its shape. And the lake itself was more of a pond underneath a large willow tree frozen with icicles. Next to it was a small shack for them to rent their skates from.
Vincenzo paid for everyone’s skates with his new French money. He must’ve exchanged his American dollars for French ones on the boat. Émeline tried to decline her pair and then insisted that she pay for her own, but Vincenzo wouldn’t have it. All four of them received their pairs of skates, and they tied them near on a bench nearby. Mitsuko tied on her pair against the tree, away from them.
“I really shouldn’t be doing this,” Émeline said as she tied on her skates. “I’m supposed to be your guide.”
“You are, you’re going to teach us how to skate.”
“But I’m not very good at it. I’ve only done this a few times.”
Sylvia gasped. So sudden. Didn’t he know how a girl’s heart worked?
Émeline’s ice skates sunk into the snow. The clouds of breath coming from her nose picked up.
“Uh, let’s try to test the ice,” Sylvia said, quickly taking Vincenzo away from Émeline. “Mitsuko—”
Mitsuko stepped onto the ice, hands out to level herself, and slid onto the pond.
“We, uh, should be a bit careful,” Émeline said, eyes glued to Mitsuko’s back. “We don’t want anyone to fall.”
“Sylvia can hold on to me,” Vincenzo said. “Émeline, do you need help?”
“…No. I’m okay.”
“Do you know how to skate?” Sylvia asked him.
“A bit.” He stepped onto the ice backwards.
He glided effortlessly onto the slate of white, his hands fitted casually in his pockets. He even knew how to stop himself by cutting his back skate into the ice behind him, creating a perfect circle.
Sylvia clapped her hands together. “What was that?”
“You never told me you knew how to ice skate, like some champion in the art.”
“My parents took me to a rink in Brooklyn that’s since been shut down. My father bullied my way in so I could have an hour or so on the rink a week.” He gave her a perfect figure eight and settled naturally beside her, hands resting on her hips, guiding her onto the ice.
Gravity brought her closer to him. She held onto him for balance, ankles concaving.
“Not very natural, is it? These skates.”
“If you have a stable foundation, it’s easier to stay up.”
“I’ve never done this before.”
“You’re doing great.” He led her halfway around the rink to where Mitsuko and Émeline were still getting their bearings. Both of them were close, but neither of them were looking at each other.
“We need to help them,” Sylvia whispered.
“I’ll try again in a moment. Let’s just see what happens.”
The four of them skated as professionally or as poorly as was expected of them. Vincenzo bested all of them with his curves and turns, and spins, too, if he was feeling cheeky. Émeline knew how to keep herself up for the most part, and Mitsuko could take turns better than Sylvia could.
Vincenzo held her out as one did for a baby taking its first steps. “You got it.”
“I most certainly do not—” One of her skates skidded out from underneath her and she yelped.
Mitsuko, either prepared for her or just that stable, caught her and helped her upright. The collision separated herself from Vincenzo. “What a natural.”
“That easy to tell?” she asked, panting. “This is so hard. Curse Vincenzo for suggesting this.”
With his arms finally free, Vincenzo fixed himself properly and went for Émeline, who was skating back to the benches, done for the day. “I’ll be right back. Mitsuko, could you watch Sylvia for a moment?”
“Will do,” she said, and watched him plod over the snow to meet with Émeline.
“He’s good, isn’t he?” Sylvia asked. “You are, too. You all are.”
“I’d hardly call myself good. I’ve only done this a handful of times.” She watched Émeline and Vincenzo sit next to one another. “I know what you two are doing. You’re not very good at whispering.”
“We weren’t particularly trying to hide it.” She took her hands. “Mitsuko, darling, can you tell me what’s wrong? Why haven’t you tried to talk to her?”
“I have. She said she didn’t want to talk.”
“You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t,” she said tersely. “I tried talking to her. She started crying. What more can I do?”
“You need to fight for her. You need to be there for her and show that you’re willing to listen and talk to her about whatever happened between you two in the past. What happened, sweetheart? What made you two have a falling out?”
Mitsuko curled her upper lip and turned away, but her gaze brought her to Émeline now speaking secretly with Vincenzo. She now had a handkerchief in her hands, the one Dominic had given her yesterday.
Mitsuko clicked her tongue, then brought Sylvia off the ice behind the willow tree.
“You see, all this secrecy isn’t good,” Sylvia explained. “You must be upfront with your emotions if you plan on being with her again…”
Mitsuko’s back grated the back of the tree, and she slid down again into the dirty snow, giving up before even starting her fight. She dug her hands back into her eyes and blocked out the world. Either she was shivering from the cold or…
Sylvia squatted beside her once more.
“I can’t do this,” Mitsuko cried. “I ruin everything, that’s what I always do.”
“No, you don’t. You love her so much, Mitsuko. I can see it. And she loves you, too.”
“No, she doesn’t. She hates me.”
She pulled her into a hug, which she thankfully accepted. “That’s not true.”
“You weren’t there. You don’t know.”
“What don’t I know?”
She shoved her head into the tree bark. Sylvia wiped off her wet cheeks so they didn’t freeze.
“When we were…together,” she started, “we were so close. We told each other everything, we confided in one another. One night—she was a nurse, Sylvia, who was afraid of blood, couldn’t stand the sight of it—she came into our shared room crying, and I told her what an amazing nurse she was. She was so much more caring than I was, she knew how to talk to people who weren’t going to make it through the night. But it tore her up inside. She thought she was ruining herself by saving others. So that night, I…I kissed her. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to see her cry anymore. And at first, I thought she was going to turn me away.”
“But she didn’t. She loved you back.”
She blew her nose into her scarf. “We went steady. We went out on our days off and played at the beach. We drove all throughout the countryside and had picnics together like lovers. When I was ready, when I thought she was ready, I proposed to her. Now, we knew it wasn’t going to work out. Who would think it would? But we didn’t care. We wanted this for us. We were happy. But then that bastard of a woman, Nurse Clément, came into the picture.”
“What did she do?”
“I think she knew about us. We kept everything under wraps, we were careful. Hell, we didn’t even wear our rings when we worked as nurses. But Nurse Clément must’ve known. She tried making us move rooms, she gave me the shoddiest jobs to work. And then, then she wanted to send Émeline down to the trenches themselves, to be more involved with on-site injuries.” She bared her teeth at the thought. “She wasn’t meant for that. She was supposed to stay at Merchant Hospital with me and all the other nurses stationed there. There were dozens of others ready to go—I demanded to take her place, even though I knew it meant we wouldn’t see each other for a while—but she forced Émeline to go. She knew she was overwhelmed and she still forced her to go.”
Behind them, Sylvia heard someone wearing skates walking up to them.
“I don’t remember what I did to her exactly. I was blinded by anger. I remember going to Nurse Clément’s office. I remember her calling me a harlot and how I was poisoning the women around me, and I just…lost it. I punched her in her stupid, wrinkled face and tossed her desk against the window. I was a wreck, Sylvia. I wasn’t myself, but I wouldn’t let her hurt Émeline like that. It took Ém coming in and putting herself between us for me to finally calm down.
“After that and a rather well-earned punishment from Nurse Clément, Émeline took me aside and said that we shouldn’t be together. She said she thought she was making my life miserable. She said she wanted to stay safe. With my name swimming through the ranks, the rumors spread, and she was getting worried we’d be found out, so to make her feel safer, I…left.”
After getting her peace out of her system, Mitsuko slumped into her knees. “What do I do now, Sylvia? What do I tell her? How do I fix what I ruined?”
“I don’t know.” She peered around the tree, then covered her mouth and got up. “Maybe you should ask her yourself.”
Mitsuko looked up, pausing to make sure that Vincenzo and Émeline were actually this close to her, watching her wipe snot and tears off her face in the middle of the muddy snow. Too afraid to make another move, she covered her lower face with her scarf.
Émeline, almost in tears herself, knelt down and gave her her handkerchief. “You came at her with a knife.”
“You didn’t punch Nurse Clément. You came at her with a knife. It’s why you were suspended for thirty days. It was my way of gauging how long I had to be in the trenches, for when I’d come back, I’d yell at you for getting yourself into so much trouble.”
“Oh.” She blew her nose. “Don’t remember much during that time. Blocked that out from memory.”
“You shouldn’t. You cried in my arms when I came back. It was the first time I ever saw you cry.”
“…Again, blocked most of that out.”
“I wish I could as well. It’s one of the strongest memories I have left of you.”
Sylvia slowly got up and gave Émeline a bow to leave. She didn’t know if she caught it in her peripheral vision; her eyes were now on Mitsuko and Mitsuko only.
Taking Vincenzo’s hand, she left the two of them to talk underneath the willow tree.