Alicia climbed the dirty cement steps from the platform to the train station’s street level and walked out into a driving rain. Il pleut des cords, the French would say, it’s raining ropes, and it did look that way, long strands of rain that seemed to hang mid-air before splintering onto the pavement. It was one of a handful of useless phrases she’d memorized to impress her boyfriend Micky as they traveled to Aix-en-Provence.
It had all been for nothing.
Micky was not with her.
She was in France. Alone.
They were supposed to spend their spring semester there, followed by a summer backpacking across Europe. She’d planned every step, Micky nodding cheerfully as she told him what they would do. At the last minute, he changed his semester abroad program to Australia, telling her that he couldn’t miss surfing at Bondi Beach while he was still young. Leaving a week before she did, Micky traveled with a girl from Alicia’s dorm who was doing the same program. Early one morning when she left for her daily run, Alicia had seen Micky talking to this girl on the dorm’s front steps. After she got over the shock of seeing them there, she greeted them nonchalantly. As she ran on the trails behind campus, she calculated how long Micky’s plans had been in the making. She had to stop running because it was hard to breathe. It felt like Micky was taking away something she really liked and giving it to a blonder, prettier, and more cheerful version of herself.
The stinging rain landed on her head and shoulders like flung darts soaking the expensive leather suitcase she’d crammed with clothes she might never need. In her free hand, she held the piece of paper containing the address of her home stay. Walking through the narrow streets, the only prick of color was the peeling paint of the shutters and doors of the huddled stone block buildings. She would be living with a divorced woman, Patrice, and her teenage son, Giles, not far from the university. In comically simple English, Patrice had written to her, welcoming her to France and telling her that Giles was looking forward to practicing his English with an American. Patrice promised to speak to Alicia only in French so that she would receive the full benefit of her stay.
Alicia stopped at the address that matched the one in her hand and rang the bell. She was about to ring a second time when an elderly woman dressed in black opened the door, her expression exasperated as if she recognized a nuisance when she saw one.
“I’m the girl who’s paying to live here with Patrice and Giles.”
Alicia spoke in English although the woman’s searching eyes told her she didn’t understand. She had read that property owners in France often hired these dragon-like creatures to tend their buildings. In exchange for free or reduced rent, the woman occupied the front part of the building serving as a round-the-clock security and surveillance system, monitoring everyone who came and went, and gossiping about them to le patron. The old woman jabbed a crone’s finger in the direction of a second doorbell, letting Alicia know she’d rung the wrong one. When Alicia did not immediately ring it, the old woman came out of her doorway and pressed the second bell herself. Fishing keys from the folds of her black skirt, she opened a door that led to a cobble stone inner courtyard. Muttering and shaking her head, the old woman led Alicia to the back building and used another key to unlock its front door. Making a scooting gesture with her hands, she indicated that Alicia should enter.
As Alicia walked inside, a tall, gangly teenager was waiting in the tiled foyer. He was dressed in a school uniform of sorts, a buttoned-down shirt, starched slacks on bean pole legs, and a navy blazer with a gold crest on it. His dark curly hair accentuated his pale, translucent skin. When he saw Alicia, his eyes lit up, and he kissed her on both cheeks like an old friend. He said his name was Giles and welcomed her to his home, speaking in perfect English with a slight British accent. After she introduced herself, he said her name several times, trying to get it right: Al-lee-see-ah, Al-see-ah, Ally-shah. She laughed at his efforts, telling him that he could call her whatever he liked. Taking her on a tour of the apartment, he showed her rooms that were sparsely furnished but nonetheless elegant with antique furniture polished to a glossy sheen and lamps, rugs, and paintings that appeared to be of the finest quality. Pointing to a hallway that connected the front and the back halves of the building, he told her that the door was left unlocked and she could use it anytime she wanted to pay a visit to the woman who had let her in. In response, Alicia barked with laughter causing Giles’s gray eyes to grow somber as he told her it would be expected which only made her laugh harder.
The bedroom where Alicia would sleep was near the end of Giles’s tour. Small, bare, and spotlessly clean, it looked like a monk’s cell. When Alicia asked to see Giles’s bedroom so that she could gauge the relative size of the one that she’d been given, he acted surprised.
“Yes, and your mother’s too, if you don’t mind.”
Although Giles was clearly taken aback, he showed her both rooms. She was pleased to find they were no bigger than her own and equally spartan. She’d read that the French used their bedrooms only for sleeping and making love, which was a waste of space in her opinion.
After Giles made espresso, they drank it from tiny cups on a balcony that overlooked a small yard bordered by a serpentine river. The wet grass glistened under a sky that was beginning to lighten. Alicia found she liked Giles’s playful sense of humor and the way he said her name as if he were tasting it on his tongue. She, in turn, deployed the infectious giggle she knew that men liked, letting her smile reach her blue eyes as she played with a stray wisp of her hair. In response to her questions, Giles told her that he and his mother had lived in town since his parents’ divorce and that his father, Roman, lived outside the city and saw them often. As he sipped the potent liquid she’d gulped down, he stole glances at her, growing bolder until he was openly flirting with her. After Micky’s betrayal, it felt good, like the sun that was peeking out from behind the clouds.
It was not until Patrice came home that Alicia realized she had spent the entire afternoon speaking to Giles in English. As her hostess swept into the household, everything turned to French, a rapid-fire foreign tongue from which Alicia caught every third word. When she wanted to make a point, Patrice stretched her willowy neck and dipped it like a swan, a gesture unflattering to her otherwise beautiful face.
“D’accord?” Patrice asked, regarding Alicia closely to see if she understood.
Each time, Alicia nodded although most of what her hostess said was lost on her. She was more interested in Patrice’s stylish work attire, the sleek bun of honey brown hair gathered at the nape of her neck, and the claret-colored scarf tied smartly across her shoulders. Unlike her son’s ghost white complexion, Patrice’s skin had a healthy golden tint which Alicia suspected could look sallow in certain lighting. As Patrice continued to explain the household rules, Alicia couldn’t bring herself to care what was expected of her. To some extent, her stay was already ruined. Micky had ruined it for her. Even the thought of his treachery plunged her into a foul mood. She would do as she liked; Patrice would have to learn to accept it.
In the days that followed, Alicia saw her hostess infrequently because, during the work week, Patrice left at dawn for the bank branch she managed and came home only when it was time to prepare the evening meal. While she was gone, Alicia and Giles had the household to themselves. Like an old married couple, the pattern of their days began to revolve around each other so that the Giles was the first person she saw in the morning and the last person she saw at night. In the mornings, he prepared breakfast and served them both. When they were finished, she hand-washed their dishes and left them in a rack to dry as Patrice had instructed.
Each night, Patrice made a delicious meal which they ate while she introduced serious topics for their discussion, speaking with a furrowed brow as if she’d spent all day thinking of them. Although Giles participated enthusiastically, after the first few weeks, Alicia started taking her evening meals at the university’s dining hall in order to forego a lengthy meal in stumbling French. When she returned at night, she watched television with Giles, the mouth-watering smells of Patrice’s cooking lingering in the air making her feel foolish for eating elsewhere.
By the end of the first month, Alicia’s French was little better than when she arrived. She knew it had been a mistake to come to France, to Aix, to the home of Giles and Patrice. As soon as she discovered that Micky had switched his program, she should have switched hers as well. It unnerved her to realize that he may have purposefully not left her enough time.
Everything changed when Alicia met Roman. Arriving one Saturday to pick up Giles for a ride, he looked every part the sophisticated Frenchman, tall like his son, but with a swarthy complexion and dark penetrating eyes. Dressed in tight-fitting camel-colored breeches, tall black boots, and a silk shirt the color of a burnished chestnut, Roman’s eyes flicked over Alicia much like his son’s had but hardened in a way she found flattering. She introduced herself even though Giles had just told his father who she was. Parroting a few rote phrases that a student might learn on the first day of French class, to her own ears, she sounded ridiculous. When she was finished, she blushed and looked down at the floor, straight shingles of blond hair swinging forward like curtains to conceal her face.
“We’re going horseback riding. You must join us.” Roman said, his tone brooking no disagreement.
“I don’t know,” she replied as she looked up. It was the only response she could manage with so little practice.
“It is necessary to wear a shoe with a heel.” Roman pointed to Giles’s riding boots.
Turning to Giles, she saw his face flush.
“Do you ride Alicia?” he asked worriedly in English. “These animals have much spirit.”
“I rode as a child at my grandparents’ farm in Kentucky. I’m quite good at it. I’m sure it will be fine.”
Alicia retreated to her bedroom to change her clothing. When she returned to the living room, father and son abruptly broke off their conversation in French. They smiled at her sheepishly, which made her think they must have been talking about her. Later, when she was seated in the back of Roman’s silver convertible, as lavender fields and olive groves flashed by, she didn’t even try to follow the animated conversation taking place in the front seats. The raised voices of father and son punctuated with extravagant hand gestures seemed charming from her vantage point. She looked forward to spending the day with them both.
When they arrived at Roman’s sprawling manor house, they went straight to the stables. Roman mounted a massive dun-colored stallion while Giles swung himself up on a lively gray mare. A stable hand brought a sleek black Arabian for Alicia which he saddled and bridled before helping her mount. As soon as she was in the saddle, the Arabian let her know that at any moment he might fling her over his head. Riding on dirt roads surrounded by vineyards, they trotted and then galloped as fast as the terrain would allow. Alicia managed to keep up with her more accomplished companions because the Arabian would accept nothing less.
After their ride, they ate lunch on a patio adjoining Roman’s home served by an attractive young woman who pretended not to understand Alicia’s French. Although they all drank wine, only Alicia became drunk. Draining her glass, she imagined Patrice in this setting, playing the lady of the manor. Well, that didn’t work out too well, did it? she thought with a smirk as she reached for the bottle and refilled her glass. When they got up from the table, she steadied herself with a hand on the table rattling the glassware. Catching Roman’s eye, she winked as if she’d done it on purpose.
As Roman drove them home, Alicia sat next to him in the front passenger seat while Giles sat in the back like their child. Leaning forward, Giles tried to talk to his father and Alicia, but the breeze from the speeding vehicle swallowed his words and blew them away. Upon their return to the apartment, they found Patrice sitting at her desk in the living room. Giles told his mother where they’d been while Roman hovered next to Patrice’s chair, silent and frowning, his eyes fixed on her face. If Patrice was surprised by her son’s news, she didn’t show it. She asked Alicia if she enjoyed ride and when Alicia praised its delights, Patrice told her that she and Roman rode together every morning before she went to work. She kept her horse at his stables. She spoke slowly so that Alicia didn’t miss a single word.
The next time Roman came to pick up Giles, Alicia asked if she could join them, glancing at Giles to gauge his reaction, and persisting with her request notwithstanding his crestfallen face and slumped shoulders.
“But of course,” Roman said with a nod as if he expected it.
Their day was spent on a rocky Mediterranean beach that was uncomfortable even with the straw mats Roman spread out for their use. While Giles walked along the shoreline, Alicia sat on the beach with Roman, noticing not for the first time that he offered her everything she needed to make herself feel better. When she and Micky were reunited, she would describe Roman in exquisite detail, letting Micky wonder what they’d done while he was surfing. Trailing her fingers over the back of Roman’s hand, she tried to make it look like an accident as she brushed sand off his mat. Smiling over at her, he covered her hand with his own. She suggested they spend the evening together, without Giles, putting it more bluntly than she intended due to her limited French. Roman offered no response at the time but later drove Giles home and dropped him off while Alicia waited in the convertible. As father and son talked just out of earshot, the old woman in black watched them from a street level window. Giles hung his head as he accepted his fate. When they pulled away from the curb, he entered the old woman’s apartment in response to her beckoning.
On the trip back to Roman’s house, in an effort to amuse him, Alicia told him the story of her arrival and the welcome she received from the woman who had just spied on them as they dropped Giles off. Giggling at her description of the old hag, she spoke in English so that Roman would understand.
“That’s my mother,” Roman said as the convertible took a sharp turn.
Alicia asked Roman to repeat himself to make sure she’d heard him right.
“Your mother? Why does your mother live there? Why doesn’t she live with you?”
Roman lifted his hands in the air before placing them back on the steering wheel.
“I don’t understand.” Alicia shook her head.
“My mother is fond of Patrice and, of course, Giles,” Roman replied with a shrug. “She doesn’t approve of the divorce. She moved out of my home and bought the disaster where they all now live. It’s a catastrophe, but that’s the whole of it.”
Alicia accepted this explanation in silence, putting it down to the French and their inscrutable ways in matters of the heart. When she and Roman ate dinner together later that evening, they were served by the same sullen girl Alicia had met at lunch. While the girl took their dirty dishes to the kitchen, Roman told Alicia that French was best learnt “on the pillow” which she took as an invitation to spend the night.
She slept in Roman’s bed that night, he was rough with her, she didn’t like it. Nonetheless, she was still there the following morning when he rode out with Patrice. After he returned, she mentioned the need for a change of clothing and he brought her home immediately. Once again, his mother’s face appeared in the window as they parked outside the building. After unlocking the door that led to the inner courtyard with his own key, Roman walked Alicia to the back building, telling her that some urgent business awaited him at home. Giles watched their arrival from an upstairs window, ducking inside when his father looked up at him and waved. With a shake of his head, Roman turned on his heel and strode back across the courtyard. Not wanting Giles to witness her disappointment, Alicia paused on the threshold to school her expression. She was closing the door behind her when she thought she heard the squeal of tires and the toot of a horn, the sound of Roman pulling away.
Thereafter, Giles treated Alicia with the same glacial formality that his mother did, avoiding her as much as possible, speaking to her only in French. Alicia, in turn, made sure she was gone from the household as much as possible which made it impossible for her to bump into Roman. They hadn’t exchanged phone numbers; she had no means of contacting him. She did not hear from Micky either. He hadn’t responded to her friendly inquiries asking him how he was doing and how he liked Bondi Beach.
A few days after Roman dropped her off, Alicia was in the midst of a vivid morning dream in which she complained in flawless French to her advisor about her home stay. She heard a knock at her bedroom door but the dream continued, more real now that she was partially awake. Her advisor led her down a long, dark hallway to her new room, promising as they walked that she would find her new hostess more to her liking. When he opened the door to a room bathed in sunlight, she saw a large bed in which a pair of bodies appeared to be having sex under the cover of wrinkled sheets. Her advisor cleared his throat, causing the couple to disentangle. Alicia saw Micky’s sweaty face rise above the covers and turn to her in anger. The woman next to Micky raised herself on her elbows. It was the girl from Alicia’s dorm, the one who was doing a semester abroad with Micky on Bondi Beach. As the girl sat up taller, her large and perfect breasts shamelessly exposed, the sheets grew taut, and she turned into Patrice.
“C’est moi. C’est Patrice.”
Alicia heard the voice from behind her bedroom door accompanied by a knocking that grew increasingly more forceful. Scrambling out of bed, she opened the door to find Patrice in her riding clothes.
“What’s wrong?” Alicia asked her.
“Is Giles,” Patrice replied in English. “He not here.”
“He’s not in his room?”
Patrice shook her head. “He and his fadder,” she said, knocking her fists together.
“They had a fight?”
Patrice nodded again.
“How do you know that? Did Roman tell you or did Giles?”
“I erd it from my usban.”
Alicia closed her eyes so that Patrice couldn’t see what she was thinking. It had all happened so quickly, so innocently. She had encouraged Giles’s flirtation, there was no doubt about that, but the most she had allowed him to do was hold her hand and kiss her goodnight. Only once had she permitted him to touch her breasts over her blouse. It was possible he had misunderstood the liberties she’d allowed him, or taken her stay at his father’s house the wrong way. When she opened her eyes, she found herself staring at Patrice’s bosom which heaved with emotion.
“I’m sure he’ll come back soon,” Alicia said soothingly before announcing that she needed to shower and get ready for class.
Patrice reached out and grasped Alicia’s hand tightly. Leading her to Giles’s bedroom, she opened the armoire and examined the clothes hanging there. She told Alicia that some of them were missing. She explained that every morning before she left to go riding, she checked on Giles first. When she went to his room that morning, he wasn’t there. The first twenty-four hours were when you were most likely to find someone alive. She sounded so overwrought, so grim, that Alicia was tempted to say something about impulsive teenaged boys and their silly stunts but the expression on Patrice’s face stopped her.
“You must come wit me and find em,” Patrice insisted. “Giles will listen to you.”
Alicia hesitated, her mind searching for excuses.
“We must call Roman. Eee will elp. Eee will know wat to do.”
“Yes, let’s do that,” Alicia replied.
When they arrived at Roman’s home, he was in the stables waiting for Patrice, holding with one hand the reins of their horses. Patrice explained Giles’s disappearance while Roman listened intently, placing his free hand on her shoulder as she spoke in shuddering sobs. Alicia was surprised to find him taking it so seriously. A teenager goes missing after a fight with his father over a school-boy crush; it hardly seemed the crisis of the century. As if she were reading Alicia’s mind, Patrice turned to her and explained that when she and Roman divorced, Giles had tried to hang himself, they had found him just in time. It had happened only two years ago. The wounds were fresh and raw.
Patrice covered her face with her hands and moaned, prompting Roman to step from between the horses and fold her into his arms. Turning away from them, Alicia patted the Arabian’s flank. Swinging his head toward her, he quivered his withers and shook her hand off.
Alicia was pretending to be interested in an empty stall when Roman startled her with a question.
“When did you last see Giles?” His tone was cold and clipped.
Alicia told him that when she came home from the university last night, Giles was still awake. He was quiet, but otherwise seemed fine. Alicia went straight to her own room and didn’t see him further. As Roman listened to her, he held his face with both hands, wagging his head from side to side, as if he disbelieved every single word.
Roman conferred with Patrice in French before announcing that he would call the police while Patrice called Giles’s friends and his school. After they made their calls, they would scour the city in the car and on foot, stopping at bus stations and the train station to ask if anyone had seen him. Roman would find a recent photo of Giles which they could take with them. When Patrice suggested they divide up and look for him separately, Roman said he didn’t think it was safe for her to be alone in her emotional state. He told Alicia to take Patrice’s car home and wait by the phone in case Giles called or showed up there. Writing his phone number on a piece of paper brought to him by the stable groom, Roman dropped it into Alicia’s outstretched hand, taking pains to ensure that their flesh did not touch.
They did not find Giles that day. He did not return. Patrice grew gaunt as the days and weeks wore on. Roman seemed to be with her most of the time, sitting with her on the living room couch, holding her hand, talking to her in a low, soft whisper which Alicia couldn’t stand to hear. Alicia was away as often as possible, avoiding not only Giles’s parents, but the vengeful eye of his grandmother who seemed to blame her for his disappearance. The hardest person to face was Patrice, the desperation in her eyes, the knowledge that she had put it there.
At the semester’s end, Alicia went straight home. When she bid her hostess farewell, Patrice embraced her, crying quietly into Alicia’s hair until Alicia, herself, was weeping. The faint smell of almonds she’d come to associate with Patrice, the soft cheek against her own, only served to accentuate her sorrow.
Alicia didn’t get a chance to say good-bye to Roman. Since Giles had gone missing, he had spent no time alone with her, scarcely looking at her if he could help it.
She was home for a month when she received Patrice’s letter telling her that Giles had come home shortly after Alicia had left. He was thin and dirty but very much alive. He wouldn’t say where he’d been or how he’d gotten by. Patrice wished Alicia had been there to celebrate his return. She thanked her for her help and support, telling her she didn’t know what she would have done if she had to face the ordeal alone. Patrice wrote in English, using words she would have to look up. Alicia imagined her seated at her desk, her beauty marred by concentration, pouring over a French-English dictionary.
A few days later, Alicia wrote back to Patrice in painstaking French, composing her message carefully and congratulating her on Giles’s return. She didn’t apologize for meddling in her hostess’s family, for trifling with her husband and child, for intruding in matters she didn’t fully comprehend. The most she could do was to address Patrice in her own tongue, she deserved at least that, but even there Alicia faltered. Je regrette, she wrote before deleting the words. I regret, she wrote in English. I regret everything. She deleted that as well. Surely there was nothing to be gained by trying to explain to Patrice her role in the whole affair. In some ways, this was all Micky’s fault. His betrayal had set everything in motion. Any solace this notion brought her evaporated as she realized every misstep had been her own.
I regret that I was not there to welcome Giles home, she wrote in French before printing out her letter and signing her name to it. Placing it in an envelope, running her tongue along the envelope’s fold, she sealed it tight so that it would not come undone.