In a tale of friendship, self-discovery and love, three women running away from their lives become unlikely friends in a beautiful house in the heart of Paris.
Barnes & Noble.com
Lost in France, a country she mistrusts, among French people she hardly understands, Annie has trouble venturing away from home since the death of her husband. And since home happens to be a small jewel of a house nestled in the heart of Paris, why would she ever want to? But when bankruptcy threatens her beloved house, her one anchor in life, Annie has no choice but to find renters, and quick.
Leave it to someone socially phobic to phrase a want ad in all the wrong ways. With shimmering promises of ‘Starting over in Paris’ –– a concept she has no intention of applying to her own life––Annie attracts tenants with the kind of baggage that doesn’t fit in suitcases. A long-legged, cool-headed ex model (everything Annie is not) on the run from her abusive husband, a frail young woman harboring a possible death wish, a mysterious French artist, and an infuriating blue-blooded French man soon threaten Annie’s way of life in ways she never anticipated.
But when Annie finds herself reluctantly yet actively engaged in the rescue of her tenants, she discovers that she might just save herself in the process.
Ten years ago, back in the land of cheeseburgers and donuts, Annie didn’t give a thought to what she ingested. These days, Food with a capital letter; thinking about it, talking about it, preparing it and ultimately gaining an unacceptable number of kilos on it—at least unacceptable by Parisian standards—was pretty much the obsession. In fact, the day before she must have hit some kind of gustatory bottom when she bought the Bible du Beurre on an empty stomach. This was a cookbook solely devoted to butter, a bible to its ode no less. Last night, after putting the boys to bed, she had mustered the nerve to peer at the croissant recipe. Had she cringed when she discovered that those innocent-looking pastries she had wolfed down without the slightest suspicion over the last ten years were essentially composed of 99% butter? Absolutely. Had this stopped her from jumping straight into the preparation of her own croissant? Apparently not.
So maybe this was her therapy. Butter. She needed the butter, she reasoned, and wads of it. She needed the butter because she was grieving.
That is, of course, if what she felt was indeed grief, and not rage. She preferred that it was grief and not rage that had made her gain thirty pounds and growing since the night of the accident. She preferred that it was grief and not rage that had kept her from remembering to put on lipstick or going to a hair salon in years.
No matter how anxiously she stared out her window, Paris stubbornly refused to wake up. It was six in the morning and there was no sign that daylight would ever break. Today, again, she’d awakened at four, feeling restless and lonely. Lonely enough to seriously contemplate creeping up three sets of stairs and shaking the kids awake for an early breakfast at the crack of dawn.
She was still in her bathrobe, uncombed, unwashed but the shower would have to wait. The water pipes tended to scream like a cat in heat at the slightest provocation and the kids needed their sleep. So she searched the walls and high ceilings of her kitchen for a task, preferably a brutal one, to occupy her for an hour. But the ancient tile floor was already immaculate. Her collection of colorful flea market finds well organized on the open shelves. On another shelf, nuts, grains and legumes arranged by color in glass jars did not need another rearranging. Chicken soup already simmered on the antique stove, and on the Carrera marble countertop were the twelve adorable miniature croissants prepared last night, all virginal and doughy, ready to pop into the oven, and her mouth.
With the gentle bubbling of the soup as soundtrack to her morning, and the smell of yeast, cooked vegetables and fresh brewed coffee wafting through the kitchen she grabbed a cookbook and her well-used French-to-English dictionary from a shelf, sat at the massive farm table in the center of the room, and flipped through the cookbook’s pages impatiently. Finally a photograph of a fish encapsulated in something white caught her interest. Bar de mer dans sa croûte de sel was the name of the recipe. Just to make sure, her fingers hunted the pages for the word croûte in the dictionary.
Crust! Salt Encrusted Sea Bass. The recipe called for one kilo of coarse sea salt from the Guérande region –– the use of lowly table salt apparently a punishable offense in French cookbooks. The recipe looked impossibly difficult to prepare or shop for. Perfect. She grabbed the Pokémon calculator and punched in numbers. Ten years after moving to France, she still converted recipes from French to English, grammes to ounces, and centilitres to cups.
It’s not that she could not learn, it’s that she had her own insubordinate way of doing things. Food residues on the calculator cracked and popped, and she took satisfaction in the revelation that her calculator too was en croûte.
The prospect of the recipe made her feel better suddenly. Perhaps she would end up spending the day planning, shopping, and preparing a baked sea bass that no one would eat, but at least she would be busy enough for her mind to shut up. Especially she would not think about money, or the absence of it, for a little while. And maybe it would muffle the perpetual match of ping-pong playing in her head where the ball never stopped and no points could be scored. Because now that Johnny was dead, it would forever be his responsibility, her responsibility, his fault, her fault, his betrayal, her betrayal, back and forth for all eternity.
The accident had, in a way, been the result of a simple mathematical equation: Alcohol + Speed = Death, and no one in his right mind would say that luck had anything to do with it. But all the irreversible things that were said that night… now that was the unlucky part. Knowing, and pretending not to know, was what gnawed at her heart, rotted her spirit and haunted her nights.
A distant tap came from the front door. Lucas! In the same instant, she remembered she had not locked the front door the night before —again. Oh mon Dieu, and Lucas was going to let himself in and sulk over the contentious topic of her négligence alarmante. Of course he could have simply entered through the back door and into the kitchen like everybody else, but no, he had to check the front door to make a point. Whoever gave him that mission was anyone’s guess. Besides, this was the sixteenth arrondissement of Paris, and a private street mind you.
She heard Lucas struggle with the front door, the wiggling the doorknob just so, then the pushing of the warped door with all his weight, which was how most things worked, or failed to work, in her house. How he liked to point out how run down the house was! Which she took as a criticism of how she ran her life in general.
Annie straightened the powder pink, heart-infested terry bathrobe the boys had given her for Mother’s Day. The robe was a disgrace in every way and made her look like a tub, but what’s a mother to do? They’d pooled their allowances to buy it. She quickly flattened her hair with her hand before Lucas could glimpse what her boys dubbed the “momhawk” and braced herself for her French friend’s righteous indignation, and for the inevitability that he would be wearing cashmere, be clean-shaven, and smell deliciously of Habit Rouge by Guerlain, while she reeked of soup and looked like one of those vagrants who wander the streets of Paris talking to themselves and wearing pink bathrobes with hearts on them.
A gust of January wind entered with Lucas and he wrestled with the door to close it. He blew on his fingers, tucked his hands in the pockets of his black coat, and shuffled toward the stove like a penguin in a very affected show of self-pity.
“Oh give me a break!” Annie said.
Lucas approached the stove, sniffed the boiling soup with suspicion, put his hands over the heat of the pot for a few seconds before removing his coat and folding his lanky body onto a kitchen chair. “Do you have any of that very bad American coffee?” he finally asked. Lucas’s English was good but his accent was thick enough to trip on. Annie rose from her chair and turned her back to him mostly so that he wouldn’t see her smile—she was after all, officially mad at him, and him at her. She grabbed a Mickey Mouse mug from the cabinet, and moved the coffeepot from the countertop to the table, all the while worrying about the size of her ass in that bathrobe. She did not exactly slam the mug on the table, but she wasn’t gentle either, as she poured the coffee for him.
Lucas, she needed to remind herself, had her best interests at heart. He was here because he knew of her insomnia, and of everything else. Almost everything else. He was here to have a cup of coffee before work, and, she suspected, to check on her and make sure she was going to get dressed that day, and maybe comb her hair all the way through. And his plan usually worked: nothing like a terminally elegant French man’s eyebrow raised in disapproval to whip you into shape and send you to the shower.
She often wondered why Lucas still bothered with her, and just as often, and especially today, why she bothered with him. Since Johnny’s death, she had kicked plenty of well-intentioned people out of her life. Better alone than in bad company she told her boys. And yes, it did occur to her that she might be the bad company.
Lucas inspected his cup for food-borne bacteria, or perhaps for the words to his next sentence. “You’re firing the messenger,” he said.
“Killing! We say killing.” Here they were again. She felt anger rise in her like the steam of an old fashioned engine. Lucas was truly gifted at pissing her off. It was not some old anger, oh no. It was fresh and new every time. And no—she was sure of that—it had nothing to do with Lucas escaping the accident when Johnny had not.
Johnny had tried to talk Lucas into going out that night but Lucas had wanted to stay home and watch the Fête de la Musique safely on television. The best way to resist Johnny was to play dead, so Lucas had not picked up the phone. “Steve and I are coming to get you.” Johnny’s recorded message said. “You can’t experience life on the TV, you inbred prick.”
Surely there would have been no accident had they not gone to pick him up, but Lucas could never be blamed for this. The papers had called the ten-car pile-up a blood bath. Too much alcohol in the system had perhaps delayed Johnny’s reflexes. Alcohol, or being preoccupied with the fight he’d just had with her. No, she did not hold Lucas responsible; it would have been misplaced. She only wished she could apply the same logic to her own sense of self-blame.
The reasons she was angry with Lucas --furious in fact-- had nothing to do with the accident and was absolutely, one hundred percent Lucas’s fault for minding what was unequivocally her business and for trying to control her life.
Lucas dropped a sugar cube into his coffee, stirred, brought the cup to his mouth, and looked around as if dismayed at having landed in Annie’s kitchen again. “Ideally, you would put the house on the market in February,” he said, not looking up.
Annie felt that prickly sensation she got in her nose before she cried. She pointed in the direction of the trays on the counter, three neat little rows of two-inch pots under the bio lights. “My tomato seedlings?” she said, not meaning to raise her voice, but there it was: the screech. “What about them? Do the seedlings mean anything to you?”
“There is...” Lucas said before pausing, “no miraculous way to come up with the money it takes to raise three children in a trendy Parisian neighborhood.”
“I’ll get a job,” she said coldly.
Lucas looked at his well-groomed nails. “You may lack marketable skills.”
“Skills, skills,” she mimicked, in her best rendition of Peter Seller’s French accent. “I’m the mother of three boys under nine. I have skills coming out the Ying Yang. And I was the valedictorian at my school! Does that tell you anything?”
“No,” he said with sincerity.
Of course it didn’t, she realized all too well. It meant nothing in France, and ten years after the fact and with no work experience, it didn’t mean much in the States either.
“The house is all we have left since the tragedy.”
“The tragedy’s three years old, Annie.”
Everything that was wrong with Lucas appeared to her, like a newly produced Technicolor, 3-D version of the same old film, starting with his aristocratic posture, his grave face, the hands he waved as he spoke. So annoyingly, snootily, abjectly French! Her eyes lingered on his jugular area. “Two and a half years! The kids are nearly as raw and fragile today as they were when Johnny died.”
Lucas looked at her. “You are. You are, maybe. The boys are doing fine.”
“No one is fine! We are scarred! We are scarred for life! Her voice broke and before she could do a thing to stop it, she was hunched over the table, crying softly. Lucas unfolded from his chair, fetched a tissue, and handed it to her. She ignored the tissue; instead, she grabbed a dubiously clean sheet of paper towel from the table and blew her nose with it. He stood next to her and tapped her back awkwardly. Her tears did not deter him for long, already he was putting his hand on her arm and saying, “Annie, you must sell or the house will be taken away from you and you’ll get nothing. You can’t pay the mortgage. I am sorry, but financially, you don’t have a choice.”
Annie dabbed her eyes with the paper towel and sprung to her feet. “The hell I don’t!” she said. Relieved to see the tears had stopped, Lucas sat back in his chair and watched her as she proceeded to hurry around the kitchen, opening and slamming cabinet doors, gathering flour, butter, and eggs before whacking the ingredients onto the kitchen table one at a time.
Lucas raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing now? You are making what? You are making a cake?”
Her teeth clenched hard enough to break a molar, she measured three cups full of flour and threw them in a heap onto the table, glad to see a small cloud of flour invade Lucas’s space. He waved the cloud away as she dug a hole in the center of her preparation and chuck spoonfuls of soft butter onto the mixture.
“C’est beaucoup de beurre, non?” Lucas offered.
“I have tons of choices, myriads of choices in fact,” she said as she cracked egg after egg and dropped them into the mixture from high up, plop, plop, making a mess with determination.
“Please sit down for a minute. Stop with those eggs,” he pleaded.
“It’s the eggs or your skull, Lucas. And taxes are due! And electricity!” She practically yelled. “And I am keeping the fucking house!”
“Your monthly grocery expenditure alone,” Lucas began, “which, by the way, is quite extravagant.”
Was Lucas still talking? It came to her like a vision, right there, at six thirty in the morning. All of it came together: the perfect little crescents of dough on the countertop, Lucas in his designer suit, moving his mouth, the children still asleep upstairs, the Mickey Mouse mug, the open cookbook, the gooey mess on the wooden table. She raised her dough-coated hands and held them in mid air. She had flour in her hair, a wayward expression on her face.
Lucas looked at her. “What?”
“I’m having an idea, that’s what.” Annie said, wide eyed, and at the same time white as a sheet and looking ill.
Her mind was made up that same instant.