Six minutes outside of Chartres, a family is renting their home to college students taking what they call une année de fossé. The mother of the family, who studied English during her own bright college years, translates to her husband – une année sabbatique is what they mean to say.
Only one of the students, Emily, has learned the correct terminology. She presses the words against the soft insides of her cheek. Already she does not like her living mates, whose half-empty luggage suggests they’ll be shopping for new clothes on the first cold day of September.
In the afternoon, the homeowners drive into the city airport, leaving the children alone. The other girl is flirting with the boy, who Emily does not find handsome at all. The girl is called Aster. She presents the boy with a soap, one of those citrus bars that Occitane en Provence likes to market towards men.
For Emily, she’s found a soap scented like cherry blossoms. A corner of the wrapper is water stained.
Come night, the boy presents his roommates with a plastic bag of shit. Haschich, but they call it shit in French, he explains. A mix of henna, grass, sometimes literal goat shit.
Aster grimaces. “You couldn’t get weed?”
“It’s what the French kids smoke,” says the boy, “and I made my guy promise there’s no real shit in this one.”
His guy was the homeowners’ son, an underweight middle schooler with a time-defying carcinoma that demanded the family fly to the States for surgery. In exchange for the cancer patient’s shit, the boy traded a thirty-ounce carton of Goldfish.
He offers the pipe to Astrid, who takes a sizable hit and then passes it to Emily, who grabs for the hot end and almost drops the whole thing on the carpet. The boy reseizes his bounty, and Emily, cheeks flushed, asks why he brought thirty ounces of Goldfish to Chartres in the first place.
He explains without looking at Emily, “French kids pay bucketloads for American snacks, so I stocked up. It’s all part of the business venture I mentioned over the summer.”
Turns out the boy’s suitcases were holding pounds of Goldfish to deal among the local youth. He had left behind most other material possessions and would be driving out for toothpaste within the next couple days if anyone was interested in joining him.
Emily wakes at seven in the morning to her sister’s pixelated face on the phone. To confirm that she made it overseas alive, Emily opens her eyes. Clears her throat. In response, her sister proclaims herself to be in love with a classmate whose name sounds very Russian.
Emily is lying on her stomach in a bed that belongs to the homeowners’ daughter, rose-petal sheets on a mattress not so distant from the ground. Around her sit two yellow lamps and eggshell wallpaper peeling off in strips.
“Your room looks worse than the pictures,” the sister pauses her story to remark. It’s late where she is.
Emily ignores her and asks, “How would you know that you’re in love?”
The sister tallies evenings spent in the back of the school parking lot, making out in each other’s cars or against the turf of the field hockey pitch. Her Russian lover plays defense on the junior varsity team. Mom and dad know nothing.
“That’s all?” says Emily.
Back home in Sparta, Illinois, Emily’s parents own an obscure chain of Americanized Chinese restaurants called The Jade Dragon. The chain has been passed down from so many parents to children that its current managers speak minimal Chinese and wholeheartedly enjoy crab rangoon.
It was Emily’s first prom date, a kid from Singapore with untidy eyebrows, who was kind enough to point out the mistake. In faded red neon lights beneath its English name, the Sparta location had spelled out 鱼龙. These characters did not read yùlóng, 玉龙, the translation for jade dragon. Yú lóng, rather, meant ichthyosaur, or fish dragon.
Emily’s sister had made a joke about replacing the statue at the front of the restaurant – a human-sized dragon coated in patina – with the fossils of the ugly dinosaur, a hybrid someplace between dolphin and swordfish. Months later, her parents replaced the sign.
The boy has agreed to transport Astrid on his way to Monoprix. Astrid’s agenda for the day features gleaning potatoes for the Parisian homeless, the last activity in her weekly rotation of fishing, harvesting wheat, and running many miles.
Yesterday over lunch, Astrid mentioned that she was a swimsuit model as a child. Nowadays her social media are congested with pictures in bikinis that you could remove in one motion. Emily is certain that the boy has seen these pictures because he keeps offering Astrid rides to bothersome places, despite her crooked teeth and virtue signaling.
One of Astrid’s photos, from when her breasts were small and she tended to arch her back like a broken cat, is captioned last girl on the planet.
The sun hangs heavy outside the kitchen window. Alone in the house, Emily briefly regrets her distance from the others. She could have tagged along, wandered a neighboring field.
Instead, Emily exits the kitchen through its narrow frame. The open door across from hers is the boy’s, once the father’s, now an entrepot of plastic wrap. She walks to the end of the hall.
Chartres is plain. Emily has been to the cathedral, and it looks like any other. She takes more interest in the pile of clothes on Astrid’s floor. On her desk, there are white mugs filled halfway with shadow. Emily steps closer to trace her finger along a stiff, brown ring left by chamomile tea. It feels more ancient than any shape made of colored glass.
“Aren’t you supposed to be busier than me?” asks Emily’s sister. This time, it’s Emily who rings her in the French evening. The sister’s hours of sleep are dwindling around four after a night of stargazing with her Russian lover on the outdoor track.
Emily props her phone against a jar of cane sugar, using both hands to boil a pot of sink water for pasta. “I’m very busy, just multitasking.” She takes several tries to illuminate the gas stove, careful not to fill the house with noxious fumes. Finally, the flame ignites.
“I mean this whole year.” The sister rolls her eyes. “Your année de fossé.”
Année sabbatique. Why couldn’t anyone get it right? They learn fossé de générations or sauter le fossé, and then they assume that the gap between high school and college is the same as the gap between parents and children, between a risky decision that works out and one that doesn’t.
Emily doesn’t bother to correct her sister, whose French accent borders on Canadian anyway. “The other kids think they’re changing the world. It’s so pretentious.”
At least Emily is honest. She can reach down and touch the earth with her fingertips.
Headlights beam through the windows at two in the morning, signaling Astrid and the boy’s return. Emily’s hair is wet against her pillow. She considers touching herself for the kick of melatonin but decides she doesn’t want to walk to the toilet afterwards.
Then she hears laughter, a crash. Footsteps fumbling into the room across from her. The low hum of easy conversation.
She starts to fall asleep but can’t stop hearing noises from behind the wall, which begin as rustling, then crest into cosmic moans, and culminate with one final howl from the boy – whose name, Emily discovers, is John! John! John!
An important thing to know about a person is how many fish they have killed. A person who has killed zero fish can be trusted to care for your children in the case that you are murdered or die in a car accident. One or two fish indicate normal personality flaws.
Emily’s total is eight dead fish, which puts her carelessness around the level of a Greek deity.
The first fish, she accidentally knocked to the living room floor, glass shards of its tank nicking blood from her shins and feet. The second she sold for twenty dollars to a classmate who wanted to fry it on the tar of the tetherball courts. Whether or not that plan was ever executed, she isn’t sure.
Emily killed the last six fish in one fell swoop when her parents traveled to China for a business deal that fell through the next month. They had placed the restaurant’s indoor koi pond in her care, and after she filled the water too close to the surrounding rocks, the fish jumped out onto the sticky, checkered tile.
But by no means is Emily the world’s worst sinner. She remembers reading an article in National Geographic about ecological hypoxia, accompanied by an image of thousands of fish floating in a Louisiana marsh, their silver bellies so close that you could hardly see water between them. That was the worst. If you squint your eyes, the fish begin to look like pebbles.
Astrid opens the fridge, removes a jar of blackcurrant jam, spreads it across a thick slice of pain de campagne. Slipping behind her, the boy – John – John, oh, ohhh, yes – snakes a hand across the small of her back, then further down. Astrid lifts the bread to her twisted lips.
Moments ago, when they saw Emily alone at the kitchen table, they offered her a slice of leftover pizza. Emily shook her head. That was when the three of their phones buzzed at the same time, or Emily’s buzzed a touch later, bearing the news that the homeowners’ son had lost his battle against the carcinoma.
Astrid scrunched her nose. “The shit-dealer? He’s dead?” And John nodded, rubbing his thumb to his brow.
The homeowners would be returning to Chartres within the next week. As their agreement was purely verbal, they were now revoking their hospitality, and the three students would have to find another house to rent.
Illogically, Emily is thinking about the cherry blossom soap that Astrid gave her on the first day here, still sitting in its puckered wrapper in the bathroom that the girls shared, where Astrid could track its lack of use.
The pizza box in front of Emily smells like goat cheese. She wants to move but imagines that if she leaves the room, John will lift Astrid onto the kitchen counter and spread her legs at some familiar angle. Maybe they’ll celebrate how their ill-advised decisions have become more marketable in the face of tragedy.
The next time Emily’s sister calls, she is sobbing. Their parents drove her car to the restaurant and found her Russian lover’s sports bra on the floor of the passenger seat. This alone was not incriminating, but when her parents pressed her on the issue, the sister confessed her love, roughly the same spiel that she had delivered to Emily.
“And then they said you can’t see her anymore,” Emily guesses.
The sister wails louder. “No, worse! They laughed at me.”
John and Astrid are slipping on sandals at the front door when Emily asks to tag along. They blink at her, their silhouettes wolfish. No one can figure out how to say no.
The homeowners’ tiny car speeds down cobblestone streets, then into the long, narrow stretches of the French countryside. Every now and then, John leaves one hand on the wheel and lifts the other to Astrid’s neck. They trade tongues. In the backseat, Emily watches the sky around her, a motionless array of stars pulling downwards at the edges, like the inside of a parachute.
She isn’t sure where they’re going. To smoke, probably, since John stuck a bag of haschich in the cup holder right before they left. Emily wants to ask what he’ll do with his life once he runs out of Goldfish.
John slows the car to a stop in a field of wheat, one that Astrid has noted as ideal sanctuary due to the tough, black tube that winds through it for irrigation. When the tube isn’t blasting water, you can sit on top of it.
While John crumbles the shit between his fingers, Emily steels herself to smoke with the others. The ridges of the tube are digging into her tailbone. If she starts seeing things, she’ll remind herself that she’s only imagining – an ichthyosaur, the 鱼龙, nudging its snout through a hole in the irrigation tube. Meteors plummeting to the dirt, or spinning backwards into the sky.
The burning pipe travels from John to Astrid. Then Astrid, holding one end of it, invites Emily to place her lips on the other. She inhales too slowly at first, and too quickly when it reaches her again. Twice is enough, John warns. Emily shudders and leans back on her arms, waiting to feel the ground slide out beneath her, to spill with rocks and foam into the sea.