After three days of living in France, Vincenzo decided that he was deathly afraid of Émeline DuPont.
Afraid as one feared wolves or sickness or outstanding goals expected of you. Not only did she have their entire week mapped out—he was to speak with Campo’s men tomorrow evening to open up the potential trade route from Canada to Brooklyn—she also kept cheerful, even after speaking with Mitsuko beneath the willow tree.
She’d shed tears with her fiancée, made a truce only the two of them knew, then fixed herself up and continued on as if nothing had changed. But something had; they were holding hands now, and Mitsuko had stopped sleeping in the hallway of their boarding home.
But what Émeline had said to Vincenzo on the park bench had him rethinking everything he thought he’d once known.
“I’m sorry about this,” he’d said to her, and those four little words broke her down. As she cried into Dominic’s handkerchief, she disclosed the story of how she met Mitsuko, her “Mitsy.”
The way she explained how she clumsily fell in love with her reminded Vincenzo of how he fell for Sylvia. How she grew up with a strong-willed mother and an easy-going father—Mr. DuPont, the man who’d been his chauffeur in Canada. Because of this, she grew up to be this sweet girl who let anything happen to her, someone who always wanted the best for others in spite of her own wellbeing.
She’d stayed with the War for four whole years and had thought about deserting before she met Mitsuko halfway, the light of her life, this headstrong girl who blew her out of the water with decisiveness and power. He found himself falling in love with her as well, or the idea of their haphazard love.
And to accept the proposal of your best friend whom you treasured, during the time when you’re most vulnerable, and to say yes. How happy she looked then, reminiscing about an agreement she was so sure had died off when in reality it hadn’t. It’d been growing, and now the two of them had each other for as long as they wanted.
He feared the strength of their bond. He feared how absolutely in love this woman was with her friend and how they’d decided to take that plunge despite who they were, despite how people thought them sinful for being happy. He applauded her for being strong enough to console Mitsuko at the Eiffel Tower. They’d kissed after that, in public, and held hands in a way that might’ve suggested they were friends when they were so much more.
After she’d said her peace, Vincenzo asked if she remembered where Mitsuko had bought her ring. A simple question, to add to her story. That was the only reason he’d asked.
She’d sniffed and pulled out a necklace from inside of her coat. On the end of it dangled a beautiful ring encrusted with diamonds.
“Le Bijou de Fleur.”
The Flower Jewel.
Surely, he’d imagined marrying Sylvia. It was a fairytale, but a fairytale he often fell asleep thinking about. He’d wake up to her making him breakfast with their child playing in their front yard. He’d go to his office job, Sylvia would be cooking and cleaning for him when he returned, and at night, they’d make love with the hope of bearing a new child.
But it’d never happen. Because of who they were. They could never have what everyone else had.
Yet Émeline, Mitsuko, they had it. They’d been brave enough to join their lives together and were able to be happy now. And he and Sylvia, they could have that, but it wouldn’t happen unless he became as brave as Mitsuko had been and currently was being. And what a better place to buy a ring than France? He knew she was expecting it, and if he had the rings, if this question of marriage wasn’t right for this trip, he’d still have the option in case the right moment happened across them.
When the right moment happened across them. No more if’s. After hearing both of their stories, he knew he wanted more from his relationship. He wanted Sylvia as happy as Émeline sounded on that day.
About him telling Sylvia his past, well, that was put on the back burners for now. Propose to her first. Then ruin it all with the truth about his sex. He hoped Laurence had kept his promise and kept his truth to himself.
He inhaled. Luckily he hadn’t been driving today, otherwise he might’ve crashed the car multiple times.
They were in Émeline’s company cars, being driven around to find a place to eat. He’d foolishly lost the address of that veteran’s bakery, but after a sleepless night of fidgeting, he’d rediscovered the alley on Émeline’s maps.
He’d worked out how he’d go about asking her.
“Sylvia, my love, I love you more than I love myself.”
No, that was too self-deprecating, and ‘love’? He’d never said that before.
“Sylvia, would you be interested in marrying me?”
Again, the self-hatred was too obvious. Had he always been like this?
“I love you, Sylvia. Please, please marry me.”
He wanted to die.
“Vincenzo, hello,” Mitsuko said. “Is this the place or isn’t it?”
“Oh.” He refocused on the street outside. “It is.”
“Finally, it only took ten minutes.” She ordered the driver to park close.
They left their cars in pairs. Ana and Luis had on entire new outfits that cost more than Vincenzo’s coat. Dominic and Laurence were dressed fine, although Dominic’s new cologne smelled exactly like Laurence’s, and Laurence was wearing one of Dominic’s grey coats. No one mentioned it, but Vincenzo smiled at his friend’s newfound confidence. He needed to be more like that.
The bakery didn’t look like a bakery owned by a war veteran. The walls were pearly white with pastel pink swirls painted near the ceiling. The lights gave off a melty gold hue, making it feel warm, and the pastries. The fine breads and cupcakes in the storefront, the cakes sheltered behind the counter glass that looked so beautiful, they looked fake. The chairs were petite and the signs and illustrations were written in curvy French, giving the place an air of sophistication and, dare he say, cuteness.
He immediately turned to Sylvia, who had her hands clasped together in joy, eyes sparkling with her meal possibilities.
His heart skipped. He’d buy this place, he swore to God, if it meant seeing her this in love with life. Since they left America, he hadn’t seen her dip into her darkness. Her Moon hadn’t waned. She was, to his knowledge, genuinely happy.
“Mitsuko! And is that Émeline?”
The man Vincenzo had encountered in the street came out. He was covered in flour yet again. He patted himself off to greet his former friends.
Mitsuko squinted at him. “Lieutenant Jean?”
“I’m no longer a Lieutenant, Nurse Matsuoka, please.” He kissed Émeline on both of her cheeks. “My, it’s been forever. Émeline, you’re still in France?”
“I am, yes,” she said. “My apologies, I have a horrible memory. It’s been so long.”
“Yeah, without your arm bleeding out on my work table, you…” Mitsuko paused, stole a glance at Émeline’s squeamish face, then said, “Anyway, glad to see you again.”
“Thanks to you, my hand’s still in working order. Two hours she worked on me.” He flexed his burned fingers. “Come, now, have a seat. I’ll treat you. Are these your friends? Are they American? How’d you pick them up?”
He seated them at a table that took up the length of the front windows. On the table waited a plate of bread, cut cheese, and dipping oil, to which Vincenzo, Dominic, Luis, and Ana gobbled down without question. They were comfort food for them, but Vincenzo ate more vigorously than they did due to nerves.
“Sylvia, I love you so very much.”
No, not “very.” Maybe “dearly.” No, who was he to say that?
When Jean gave them their menus, everyone looked to Émeline and Mitsuko.
“Hey, I have the literacy of a toddler,” Mitsuko said, and handed their attention to Émeline.
She blushed heavily, but like with all of their meals, she helped them order. Sylvia ordered light, but too accustomed to Vincenzo’s house life, every sandwich, cookie, and bowl of ice cream got mixed into the table’s community pot until everyone was sharing everyone else’s meal.
They split into their own conversations that morphed into others. Luis, Ana, and Dominic caught up on what each other have bought. Sylvia and Laurence spoke about the food and a bit about his new relationship flourishing into something concrete, and Mitsuko and Émeline caught up with their soldier friend.
Vincenzo swirled his olive oil with his serving spoon. He couldn’t focus on any of their conversations, but he couldn’t fall into his head either. All of his thoughts since their ice skating date were now hyperfocused on Sylvia. Should he? Shouldn’t he? Should he have just dropped the subject and waited? He was twenty-four now. He didn’t have much time before society considered him “undesirable” for marriage, as if such a state existed due to age.
He jolted. “Yes?”
“Is everything okay?” Sylvia asked. “You seem distracted.”
“I’m fine. Thinking. Did you need something?”
She split one of her bread loaves. It looked like a cookie but pulled apart like warm dough. “Taste this. It’s divine.”
“Alright.” He held out his hand.
She smiled as she held it back, squishing it between her thumb and forefinger.
His leg hopped as he returned her grin. “Devilish.”
“No, I said it was divine. Didn’t you hear me?”
“I did.” Scooting in his chair, he leaned his head in and let her hand-feed him. She was right. It tasted as nice as she made him feel.
“Get a room,” Mitsuko drawled out.
Vincenzo pulled back as he worked the piece into the corner of his mouth. “Look who’s talking.”
Mitsuko, being the hypocrite that she was, was holding Émeline’s hand, stroking it, even, on top of the table. “And? We’re two friendly girls holding hands as good friends do.”
“Is that what you are now?” Jean asked. “You could’ve fooled me. Word around the barracks was that you and this one were—”
“Just friends,” Mitsuko pressed. “I’m not getting detained and put on probation for kissing her again.”
“N-not too loudly, remember,” Émeline said.
“You’re keeping it quiet,” Jean surmised.
“For her sake, yes.”
“I don’t blame you.” He looked between them. “Let me treat you to a free dessert. It’s the least I can do for you saving my life. You know, it’s not fair, the way you all…” He held back. “It’s not my place, but if I can make your lives easier, I’ll do my best. Girls and boys come here, and I don’t know if it’s because of my demeanor or my establishment, but they enjoy this place. They feel safe.” He motioned to two men sharing a plate of cookies together. “It’s nice, helping those who have it harder than you do.”
“That’s the only reason I saved you,” Mitsuko said, “because you were a decent human being.”
“Is that all? You haven’t changed!” He laughed at her, then left for the kitchens to make their free dessert.
With him gone and everyone returning to their individual conversations, Vincenzo lost himself and daydreamed out the window.
His heart froze. Across the street was a hair salon and a type of general store, neither of which he could name in English, but between the two, adorned by artificial flowers, was an old-fashioned jewelry store with a wooden sign.
It said Le Bijou de Fleur.
His insides went cold while his tight face went warm. Not that he had to copy Mitsuko and buy his rings here, but Émeline’s happiness, he wanted that. He wanted Sylvia to know that, if she were to have him, she’d be protected, taken care of, and happy for the rest of her long, beautiful life.
So, stuffing a whole loaf of bread in his mouth, Vincenzo excused himself to the bathroom, slipped into the kitchen instead, and escaped into the alley.