As Jayne made final preparations to leave New York for Paris during the first few days of June, a heat wave turned the sky ashen with trapped pollution and unshed rain. The people she passed on the street seemed more short-tempered than usual, and no one met her gaze other than schoolchildren who glanced up at her with innocent apathy. For a long time she had assumed that poverty or loneliness, or both, would force her to flee the city, but instead she had met an older man who invited her to trade Manhattan for his home in Paris. She said yes with little hesitation.
The air was dry and the sky free of glowering clouds as her plane landed in the gray northern sprawl of Paris’s exurbs at seven thirty in the morning, the highways already pulsing with cars and brightly painted tradesmen’s vans. She had not slept on the flight from JFK because she was thinking of the man who waited for her on the threshold of tomorrow morning, someone who sold other people’s art after finding it impossible, years ago, to sell much of his own. She was leaving her friends, her native language, her family, her doctor and dentist, her library card, the purposeful little dogs, some dressed in sweaters and plaid coats on winter days, that she saw walking with their doting owners on the streets near her apartment.
For six independent but mostly hand-to-mouth years she had lived in Manhattan and had not been to Paris since college, nine years earlier, but she had thought of it every day, as if it were someone important she hoped without reason to become indispensable to. Each quarter had its own manicured parks and public squares, and thousands of Parisians walked or rode bicycles or took the train to work and to the narrow-aisled stores where they often shopped at the end of the day, filling net bags and small wheeled carts. When she first saw them as a student, the stately, weathered buildings with their stone facades seemed to encourage romance. She found Paris more serenely beautiful than the other cities she was familiar with, many with fuming smokestacks and superhighways driven like a stake through their thundering hearts.
One of the first things she intended to do after her arrival was visit Sacré Coeur and the hilly northern quarter it presided over and look upon the miles of rooftops descending like stair steps, its spires and soot-darkened chimneys and riverine belt at the middle. At twenty she had stood on the same hilltop and believed without question in her right to everything she desired: prosperity, love, the admiration of friends and strangers, a long and healthy life. She had been in Paris with a group of four or five other American students, sharing a bottle of red wine, its plastic Monoprix bag poor and slippery camouflage. They were all confident in their glamorous futures as playwrights, painters, concert pianists, and dot-com entrepreneurs, but they remained as unknown now as they had been then— one had become a speech therapist, two had married and started families, a fourth had moved to Peru to work for his aunt’s tourism business.
Liesel, her closest friend, saw her off, pretending on the long cab ride to JFK from Jayne’s apartment on East Second Street that she fully supported Jayne’s move overseas. But as they said good-bye a few feet from where the security line began, Jayne was startled to see that her friend had started to cry.
“Liesel,” she whispered, her own throat threatening to close over. “I’m not leaving forever.” She stared down at the dirty floor, its dull white surface streaked with black slashes from the thousands of rubber soles that had already shuffled over it that afternoon.
“You don’t know that,” her friend said softly. She wiped her eyes, embarrassed. The last time Jayne remembered seeing Liesel in tears was at another friend’s birthday party three summers earlier, when someone had slipped in a DVD of The English Patient, thinking it high comedy to couple the film with the party’s Pogues sound track. The prankster had underestimated the movie’s appeal to some of the drunken guests, Liesel especially, who in high school had seen it in the theater five times. Jayne herself had seen it three.
“Of course I’ll be back,” said Jayne.
“You don’t know when, though.”
“No, but you can come visit me, can’t you? And I’ll be on the other end of the phone anytime you need me.”
“Six hours ahead of me.”
“Yes, but I’ll still be there. We can Skype and e-mail too.” She took one of Liesel’s small hands in her own, noticing that the freckled skin of her friend’s arms had turned to gooseflesh inside the over-air-conditioned airport. “For all I know, I’ll be back next week.”
Liesel shook her head. “You won’t be.”
“So come see me. Or I’ll have to fly back and kidnap you.”
“I’d better go before it gets any later. I have another hour or two of work left at the office,” said Liesel, trying to smile. She hugged Jayne one more time, hard, as if to hurt her a little, and fled. Jayne stood blinking after her friend, bereft. When she turned to look back a moment later from her place at the end of the security line, Liesel had already disappeared, her brown ponytail and yellow blouse no longer visible in the crowd of harried travelers.
Two redheaded children complained to their father about sore feet, neon-green backpacks slung over their narrow shoulders, one of the packs stuffed to sausage-like rigidity, the other limp as an airless balloon. Near them, a woman in pink shorts and a black tank top was snickering at something a man in a Yankees cap had whispered, his mouth hovering at her ear. He had an overgrown blond mustache, and Jayne wondered if the woman sometimes dreaded kissing him—probably not, considering the way she was leaning into him. Jayne heard her phone chime, the sound almost lost in the cacophony of departure. It was a text from another friend, Melissa, who had not been able to find a sitter for her six-month-old son and ride with Jayne and Liesel to JFK. Miss you already. I’m jealous & would do what you’re doing in a second if I could. Melissa had been married for two years to a man she’d met on a backpacking trip in Colorado. She had not intended to have a child so soon, but as she sometimes said, this was nothing to be sorry about. She was nuts about her adorable son, who was healthy and a frequent smiler, and who, to Melissa and her husband’s surprise and relief, had begun sleeping through the night at three months.
The image of Liesel in tears stayed with Jayne as she passed through security and settled at the gate in the Air France concourse. That her friend would miss her terribly—or the opposite—had not been foremost in Jayne’s thoughts as she’d made plans to leave New York. Until they’d said good-bye a few minutes earlier, Liesel had not seemed very upset by Jayne’s move to Paris, only a little wistful that she wasn’t going too. Jayne didn’t believe, in any case, that she would remain in France for the rest of her life. A year, maybe two or three at most. Any duration beyond this was difficult to fathom.
On the plane she had a window seat, the two passengers on her right an older couple, a woman with voluminous iron-colored curls in the middle seat. More than once her elbow grazed Jayne’s arm, her head also drifting down several times to rest on Jayne’s shoulder until she twitched awake and righted herself, mumbling her excuses in accented English. Her husband snored next to her, his gray head nodding forward, chin sinking into his chest. Jayne wondered where they lived, and if, like Laurent, the man who had invited her to live with him in France, they were residents of the eighth arrondissement, which she knew was one of Paris’s toniest quarters. Maybe they were Laurent’s neighbors, or else had purchased paintings from his gallery on rue du Louvre?
No, not likely. He usually flew first or business class. They were in coach. She said nothing about the reasons for her trip, and they didn’t ask. They didn’t try to talk to her at all. Aside from the flight attendants who moved briskly up and down the aisles, smiling as they asked for beverage and dinner preferences and later offered hot towels and bottled water, the plane was hushed, a sealed, speeding vessel, hurtling them at five hundred miles per hour far above the cloud-cloaked earth toward the week or month or years—maybe the rest of their lives—they would spend in France.
With a partner, Laurent owned two galleries, one in New York, the other in Paris, both named Vie Bohème. Jayne had been doing office work since graduating from college, first in Washington, D.C., and later in Manhattan; she was also an artist, but not a successful one, in part because for the last several years she had not been a very productive one either. She knew that some of her friends believed that her relationship with Laurent was one of calculation, of mutual unspoken checks and balances—she the pliable young woman with hopes, he the older man, more than twenty years her senior, with money and different hopes (one being that he not grow old too fast) and a gallery’s walls to offer her if he decided to do so. The fact that she had not asked him to show her work and he had not suggested it did not, as far as she could tell, keep people from speculating.
What had kept them together past the first date were the same things that she assumed kept most new couples together: curiosity and lust, and with luck, shared interests. Laurent listened when she spoke and often remembered more details from their conversations than she did, something that had never happened to her before: it was spaghetti squash that her mother grew in the garden, not zucchini—didn’t she remember telling him this? They agreed about many of the things she had sometimes argued about with other men she’d dated, most recently Colin Fuller, whom she was seeing when she met Laurent. As she did, Laurent thought that a well- made American potboiler was preferable on occasion to a lugubrious documentary at the Film Forum; that trains should be as efficient in the States as the ones in Europe, but he doubted they would be in his lifetime, or in Jayne’s; that the best time of day was the morning, although she liked to sleep in, because with the two jobs she’d had to work to stay clear of an eviction notice, she had only been able to sleep past eight on Sundays.
“Will you miss your life in New York?” he asked the morning before she planned to fly to Paris. He had already been home on rue du Général-Foy for several days, having left a week earlier to prepare his apartment for her arrival.
“Some of it,” she said. “But I won’t miss my neighbors, that’s for sure.” The offending neighbors were two New York University MBA students who lived above her and her roommate Kelsey. Kelsey was also a graduate student at NYU, but her area of study was Clinical Psychology, not Being Assholes, as she and Jayne had renamed the master’s program of the unreformed frat boys upstairs. Kelsey was much quieter than Drew and José too, who once or twice a week could be counted on to clomp drunkenly up the front staircase at three or four in the morning and, after much cursing and muffled laughter as they fumbled with their keys, continue the drunken uproar in their apartment. The ceiling was old and flimsy, and on some bleary mornings Jayne found paint flakes on her desk and in her hair and bedside rug.
“It will be quieter here,” Laurent assured her. “You will almost never see or hear my neighbors.”
“That sounds like heaven.”
“But there is a little noise from the street, Jayne. You should know that.”
“As long as it’s not someone banging around above us, I’ll be fine.”
“No, don’t worry about that,” he said. “You will sleep soundly.”
“I can’t imagine sleeping without earplugs. It’ll probably feel strange for a while.”
“You will get used to it. One less thing to worry about, and one step closer to nirvana, yes?”
It had been Laurent’s suggestion that she move to France to spend more time making art and working in his Parisian gallery, but her first impulse was to refuse. She assumed that he had made the offer solely out of pity.
He laughed at this accusation. “Do you think I am so stupid?”
“No,” she said, taken aback. “But if you’re asking me because the job in D.C. fell through and you’re worried that I’m thinking about jumping off a bridge, you needn’t.”
“Needn’t?” he repeated. “What a strange word.”
“You need not,” she said. “I did want the job, but it’s not the end of the world that I didn’t get it.”
“It was not a good one,” he said firmly. “You would have been doing someone else’s work, and she would have all the credit. Assistant director is not so good.”
“It’s better than what I’m doing now,” she said. For the last several years Jayne had worked full-time as an administrative assistant and office manager for a small accounting firm on West Fourteenth Street that employed three CPAs, one part-time webmaster, a college intern, and herself. A few evenings a week she also worked at a women’s shoe store on Elizabeth Street. The job she had almost been chosen for, the source of what she assumed to be Laurent’s pity for her, was an assistant director position in the international programs office at the Washington, D.C., college where she had minored in studio art and French and majored in international business—more practical by far than her minors! her father had insisted—but post-college, her business major had not helped her find a job for which she needed more than a high school degree. For the international programs job, however, she had hoped to have an advantage over the other candidates because she had been a work-study student in the office for the two years that bookended her junior-year semester in Strasbourg.
And probably she had had an advantage: a week after the initial phone interview, the hiring committee paid for her to take the train down from New York and put her up in a room in the campus hotel. She was told by the smiling director, who claimed to remember Jayne from eight years earlier, that she was one of two finalists. The interview lasted an entire day, and with little ceremony, she was handed off from one group of encouraging or distracted university bureaucrats to the next. It had seemed to go well, despite her embarrassment after she bumped her coffee cup with a gesturing hand while talking to the second wave of interviewers, spilling the flavorless, lukewarm liquid onto the table and her skirt.
She had returned to New York thinking that professionally, at last, things might be aligning: she would soon have the chance to move back to Washington and start over, with optimism and good health insurance. She’d have more time to draw and paint, and to prepare food that hadn’t come from a can or a frost-furred box because she was too tired on the nights she wasn’t with Laurent to make any real effort to feed herself. The cookbooks she had held on to since college, picture-filled hardcovers that she had studied closely before her first uncertain attempts to bake bread, to roast a pork loin to the point of perfect tenderness, and to make a pan of spinach lasagna that didn’t emerge from the oven a watery morass, would be opened more than a couple of times a year. She would have to leave Laurent behind in New York, but he was returning soon to Paris and had not yet asked her to move across the Atlantic with him. They had been dating for a little more than four months when she interviewed for the job in Washington, and although he’d said he admired the work she’d shown him, a series of small oil paintings she’d made of old photographs found at a flea market near Liesel’s apartment on the Upper West Side—some of unoccupied rooms, others of strangers’ unsmiling faces—he had not mentioned anything about putting her work in a show and launching her career as a New York artist, something Liesel thought he should already have offered to do. Jayne dismissed her friend’s complaint. “It doesn’t work that way. Laurent is running a business, not a charity.”
“Your work is as good as just about anything we’ve seen at Vie Bohème,” said Liesel.
Jayne felt the sororal warmth of her friend’s indignation, but she doubted she was as talented as Liesel insisted. Her friend had long been prone to exaggeration: if they were held up in traffic for more than a few minutes, Liesel would later say that the delay had been interminable; or if she’d seen a movie she liked, she’d proclaim that she had just been to the funniest/most brilliant/best movie ever—something that seemed to happen every other month.
“I’m not going to ask him to put me in a show,” said Jayne. “He gets that all the time and doesn’t need it from me too. If he wants to represent me, he’ll suggest it.”
Liesel was undeterred. “You’re dating a guy who owns two galleries. Good galleries too, not some bullshit place that’s hardly better than a poster shop. If you don’t make an effort now, you never will.”
“That’s not true.”
Liesel opened her mouth but closed it again.
“What,” said Jayne.
“I just think you’re cheating yourself. He has to know that you want his help.”
“He probably does, but there’s no rush, is there?”
“I don’t know, is there?” asked Liesel. “How many years have you been saying that to yourself?”
On the night she met Laurent, Jayne had plans with Colin, who she’d been seeing for three and a half months by that time, but earlier in the afternoon he’d had to cancel their dinner date in order to stay late to finish a job for a demanding client. His boss was working overtime too, and Colin knew that he couldn’t leave at six as he’d been planning to do. He offered to take Jayne to a late dinner instead, but she was sure that by nine or ten o’clock she’d be too tired to fix her hair and makeup again and step out into the chilly night to meet him.
While Colin was eating carryout Thai at his desk and staring at his computer screen, she intended to stay in to finish an overdue library book and call her parents. Her mother’s tone in her last message had been more aggressive than usual: “I won’t take up much of your time, Jayne. Ten minutes, maybe twelve. Can you spare that for your mother?” Jayne’s sister, Stephanie, two years younger and her only sibling, had told Jayne that their parents were having trouble—Mrs. Marks was sleeping in the guest room, and she had stopped cooking for their father, saying that he could eat frozen dinners and peanut butter sandwiches until he started doing more of the dishes and picking up after himself. Yet when Jayne had last called home, her attempts to get her mother to talk about any of this had been sidestepped. Mrs. Marks would only say that she and Mr. Marks were fine, tired but fine.
“You and Stephanie don’t need to worry about us,” her mother said. “Everything’s the same, I suppose, except that he wants to get a new dog, and I don’t.”
“Why don’t you want to?” asked Jayne. “It’s been six years since Clemmie died.”
“I know, Jayne. As if I could ever forget. Your father reminds me almost every day.”
Jayne’s sister lived in Los Angeles, down the bottlenecked 110 freeway from their parents in Pasadena, but Stephanie saw them infrequently—only a few times more than the two visits Jayne tried to make each year. Stephanie called home a little more often than Jayne did, and also kept closer track of their parents’ health, schedules, and grievances. The year after Stephanie started college, their mother had left their father, though she only stayed away for five days, and neither Jayne nor her sister heard anything about this rift until a couple of years later, when their father let it slip over the Christmas holiday. It was only the four of them at home, no gossipy relatives to worry about, but her mother had not wanted to discuss her short-lived defection. Jayne and Stephanie looked on with apprehension, feeling wronged to have been told nothing of the situation until their father saw fit to spoil that year’s Christmas, as their mother accused him, fuming.
Before Jayne had returned her mother’s call on the evening of the Vie Bohème opening, Liesel texted and begged Jayne to go with her. She had a crush on one of the three featured artists and was desperate to attend.
Jayne had read about the opening, but there were dozens of artists, playwrights, and musicians debuting their work in New York every week. Within a year after moving north from D.C. she had stopped going to galleries most weekends, feeling herself excluded from Manhattan’s art world in a way that seemed impossible to breach. The desire for recognition, the fear of being ignored, the barely suppressed competitive urges—all these undercurrents in almost every gallery crowd—now enervated her more often than not. Liesel had never been an artist and so did not feel the same way.
The eight or nine group shows Jayne had been a part of before meeting Laurent, most of them taking place while she was still an undergraduate, had attracted few people other than the artists’ parents and roommates and the people the artists were having sex with. At twenty-two, then at twenty-three and twenty-four, her college diploma still in its envelope and buried in a desk drawer, how she spent the bulk of her days had less and less to do with boar’s-hair brushes or charcoal pencils or tubes of acrylic or the more precious, eternal oils. Her bedroom was hardly bigger than a hall closet; there was no space for her easel, and she had to resort to taping unstretched canvases to the wall. Or else she painted on heavy butcher paper, also taping it to the wall next to her room’s one drafty window.
Since college, she had winnowed down the contents of her heavy, paint-encrusted metal chest of art supplies, everything inside once as important and intimate to her as the contents of her wallet. Some of her brushes and cheaper paints, the acrylics and watercolors, she sent to her parents’ house in southern California or sold to former classmates, but she held on to the best brushes, her charcoals and oil paints, and a few of her smaller sketchbooks, keeping them in a tiered red plastic case beneath her desk. During the weeks when she did less work than she expected to, she could still hear the smug voice of a star classmate, a guy nicknamed Pepper who had gotten into Yale’s M.F.A. program in painting on his first try: “If you have time to make excuses, you have time to do your work.”
She had not applied to M.F.A. programs, doubting that she was ready to compete with applicants as good as Pepper, and if she had gotten in, she’d have had to take on more student loans. Instead, she found what turned out to be an exhausting job as a paralegal near the same campus where she had so recently been a student greedy for the pleasures of adulthood. Some of her classmates had to take temping jobs after graduation, but those positions seemed almost enviable after the paralegal position took over her life. She worked overtime nearly every week, and one of the lawyers thought nothing of calling her after hours and bombarding her with requests and complaints.
After two years of sixty-hour weeks, she moved to New York to try to find a job as a gallery assistant and to live with Liesel, who had begun her third year of law school. By then Jayne had trouble imagining her work hanging on the walls of some acquisitive stranger’s home, or in the galleries all over Manhattan where for a year she’d fruitlessly applied for jobs. Imagining her work on someone else’s walls had once been almost as effortless as putting on her shoes. Her one real commitment after college was to getting by, to sending out, even in the leanest months, the payment due on her student loans; this made her feel respectable when other facts of her life did not: the wretched frustration over a lost subway card recently reloaded; the muffins and fresh fruit stolen from hotel conference rooms where she was meeting an out-of-town friend; the neighbor’s Halloween card with ten dollars inside, sent by an Aunt Ginny in Salt Lake City and mistakenly put in Jayne’s mailbox, which she had kept.
An hour after Liesel’s call, Jayne dutifully appeared at Vie Bohème, her friend already there, looking very pretty but anxious in a black-and-white sleeveless dress she had bought especially for the opening. If Liesel’s new crush, Bernard Ferriss, a painter from Boston who had moved to Brooklyn a year earlier, ignored her, Jayne would be surprised, though he might tease her too—the gallery’s binary decor matched her dress exactly, something he couldn’t fail to notice. Jayne could see this ruining the night for Liesel, who was very sensitive, especially around men she was attracted to. The walls were white, the cement floors lacquered to a hard, bright sheen, and black ceramic vases of stark, velvety calla lilies had been arranged on tables stationed throughout the long, narrow space. Light fixtures that wouldn’t have been out of place in an oil-spattered garage dangled from the ceiling. Also on display was the compulsory crop of unfriendly red-lipsticked women and skinny men with nicotine-stained teeth, their laughter erupting every minute or two in jittery gales.
Some of the paintings were so good that Jayne wondered, as she almost never did, whether she would have bought one if she’d had the money. The four paintings she liked most were photorealist oils of handsome college-age boys, each canvas three by three feet. The portraits turned out to be Bernard’s, a new series she hadn’t seen when she’d searched online for his work after Liesel mentioned meeting him through Bernard’s cousin, who was one of her law school friends. But it was Laurent who ended up being the most memorable sight in the gallery. She knew as soon as she saw him that he had to be one of the owners. He looked relaxed and calm among the people who stood near him, a few glancing at the paintings mounted at even intervals before them. His face did not shine; his shoes didn’t pinch; his soft gray suit and loose cotton shirt, its mint green the same color as the ice cream Jayne had liked most as a girl, had likely been tailored precisely to his measurements. It seemed as if he believed he had nothing to prove to anyone, though of course he did—it was his taste, after all, that he was selling, his idea of what good, possibly great, art was.
She kept an eye on him, tracking his movements across the half-filled room; after her third or fourth furtive glance, she found him staring back at her. It was November and rainy, but his skin glowed as if he had recently returned from a beach vacation. He was beautiful to her shy, starved gaze. She glanced behind her to see if he was looking at someone else, but his eyes were still on her when she turned around again.
A week later, after their first night together, he spoke the words coup de foudre, his breath warm against her ear.
She couldn’t meet his eyes. Love at first sight was a fantasy she had tried to stop believing in during college, when the boys she thought might like her too were as likely as not to be more interested in her roommates or each other or their professors. “You’re being silly,” she said softly.
She felt guilty too; she had not yet told Colin that they were through. On the surface, she knew he seemed a better match for her; Colin was only a year older than she, American, a Manhattan resident. He was a CPA and liked his job most of the time, although some of his firm’s wealthy private clients did get on his nerves, and Jayne’s too, when they interfered with her and Colin’s plans to see each other. He played basketball two nights a week and tennis every other Saturday morning with a college friend who lived off a trust fund, which Colin did not appear to envy. Sometimes she admired this; at other times his broadmindedness about his rich friends irritated her, as did his uncritical love for New York, which seemed at times to verge on idolatry. (“The traffic, the noise, all the crowds,” she’d grumble. “Well, it’s New York,” he’d say. “You have to pay to live here. But everything you need is only a block or two away. How could you not love that?”)
Still, his optimism was also one of the things she found most endearing about him, along with his sweet tooth, bigger than her own, which was a first for a boyfriend; also, the fact that he took stand-up classes at a comedy club near his apartment. He was always trying jokes on her, some of them so awful (Did you hear about the blind horticulturalist? She got arrested at a funeral for trying to deadhead all the bouquets!) she found herself laughing harder at the whoppers than at the good ones. She admired too his habit of visiting used bookstores, where he looked for the scruffy old biographies and novels that he kept in a bookcase in the dusty living room of his apartment on East Twelfth Street, which he shared with another friend from college, this one without a trust fund. A first edition of Catch-22 was the book he valued most, one he kept intending to reread, but it was Jayne who did, on the sly at the shoe boutique when her boss wasn’t there.
After they’d been together for three months, Colin gave her two books that she’d had on her to-read list for years, Anna Karenina and Endless Love. (“Endless Love!” cried Melissa when Jayne told her about the gift. “That book broke my heart. Colin must be in love with you. But what’s he trying to say? It didn’t end so well for David and Jade. Or for Anna.”) One thing he hadn’t said was that he loved her. She hadn’t said it yet either, but the week before she met Laurent, Colin had talked about introducing her to his parents when they would be in town over New Year’s.
Melissa and Liesel thought Colin was good-looking and sweet, and if he made her happy, this was what mattered most, but didn’t it bother her that he wasn’t interested in going to art galleries with her? He might tolerate museums, but wasn’t this true of most of the people she knew?
She didn’t mind very much because she didn’t go to galleries as often as she used to. If she hadn’t met Laurent, she would have continued dating Colin, even if she wasn’t sure he was the man she’d been waiting for. That man seemed to be Laurent.
The sky outside Laurent’s bedroom was cloudless, the west-facing window open a few inches, its dark blue curtains parted to let in a breeze tinged with cold humidity from the nearby river. She would be late for work but didn’t care, her heart buoyed by this defiance of a rule she had always observed without question. They were still in bed, the mattress smaller than she’d expected, but Laurent was subletting an acquaintance’s apartment and had explained unprompted that he hadn’t bought a bigger bed for his brief stay in New York because there was no space to store the owner’s. A queen would also have crowded the room more than it already was. That he worried about this at all touched her.
“I’m not being silly,” he said, kissing her bare shoulder. “Only honest. I must be one of many men who have told you they are crazy about you, un vrai coup de foudre, Jayne.”
She shook her head, lacing her fingers with his. “No, no one I’ve gone out with before you spoke French, at least not very well.”
His laughter was subdued. “Whatever language they spoke, some of them must have said the same thing.”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” she said, smiling. His unshaven cheek scratched her as he kissed her shoulder again. In his hair were the commingled scents of a grassy cologne and smoke from the Gitanes he bought expensively at a tobacconist near Grand Central (“They must be fresh, or I cannot smoke them,” he’d told her. “They are not always so good where I buy them in New York. In Paris, they are never stale.”), an addicting masculine perfume. He already occupied a larger place in her life than she wanted him to, but she wouldn’t tell him this, not even in the languorous tones of postcoital flirtation.
“I haven’t had that many boyfriends,” she said. “Not serious ones, anyway.” Maybe it would be smarter to lie, but Laurent would likely sense it if she did.
Men of his pedigree—wealthy, European, sophisticated, quite a bit older but not perversely so, she didn’t think—their paths did not often cross her own, except when they came into the boutique where she and her Florentine boss, a woman close to Laurent’s age, sold Italian shoes marked up by three times their wholesale price. Men like Laurent invariably were accompanied by girlfriends or wives. They might smile and look her over when their wives’ backs were turned, but they did not do more than this. If they had come back later to ask for her number, she would have been suspicious. She did not need a married man in her life with his guilty conscience, or worse, his rich man’s sense of entitlement. She hoped Laurent wasn’t married. He had told her over their first dinner together at a restaurant in Midtown— no prices on the menu and a wine list nearly an inch thick—that he was divorced and had been for years. She’d believed him, but later, riding in a taxi back to her apartment after declining his invitation to go home with him (on their second date a few nights later, she did not refuse), she realized that it would not be difficult for him to lie about his marital status, his wife conveniently in Paris, leaving him free to seduce girls their children’s age in New York.
The night of Vie Bohème’s opening, however, Laurent was not with any woman—wife, mistress, or worshipful, pretty assistant— that she could see, and he eventually made his way over to where she and Liesel stood talking to Bernard, Laurent touching Jayne’s shoulder lightly from behind. She nearly upended her champagne glass when she turned and saw that it was he, the beautiful man from the other side of the gallery, her first flustered thought that he wanted her to make room for him to pass.
“No,” he said, taking her elbow. “Don’t move. I wondered if you would like more champagne.” He nodded toward the half-empty flute in her hand. “Are you enjoying it?”
“It’s so good,” Liesel interrupted. “What kind is it?”
Jayne thought that her friend was already a little drunk. The champagne bottle’s telltale orange label was clearly visible.
“It is Veuve Clicquot,” said Laurent. “I will tell the maître de cave at the vineyard that you like it. We are friends.”
“Really?” said Liesel. “You know him? I hope he gave you a good deal.”
Laurent chuckled. “Oh, no. He doesn’t need to. His champagne sells itself.”
Jayne glanced at Bernard, blond, tall, remote. He did not appear to be listening; he was staring beyond Liesel’s shoulder, a look of studied blankness on his handsome stubbled face.
“I’d better not have any more,” said Jayne to Laurent. “But thank you.” The thought that this man was too old for her arrived and was turned away. “I get a headache if I have more than one glass.”
“Ah, all right,” said Laurent. “We have Perrier if you would like it instead. No one will notice if you switch.”
(The next morning, when Jayne called to rehash the party with Liesel, her friend would say, a little jealous but also genuinely irritated by Laurent’s presumption, “Why should he or anyone else have cared if you didn’t want to drink? It’s not like we’re in high school.” And in the next breath, “Do you really want to go out with that guy instead of Colin? At least Colin was born in the same decade as you.”)
“No, that’s okay,” said Jayne. “I’ll just stick with this one glass.”
“Stick with this?” he said. “American expressions are so funny. Mind your own, what do you say, beehive? That’s the one I like best.”
“Beeswax,” she said, laughing. “I don’t think I’ve heard that one since third grade.”
“I read it somewhere,” he said. “I had to look it up. In France we say ‘Occupe-toi de tes oignons.’”
“Mind your own onions,” she said.
He nodded. “Alors, vous parlez français.”
“Un peu, c’est tout,” she said.
He smiled, his eyes still pinning her. “Only a little? Vous mentez, c’est mon soupçon.”
She didn’t think she was lying, not exactly, but before she could decide how to reply, he took her hand and at last introduced himself as one of the gallery owners, he and his partner both from Paris. He shook Liesel’s hand, bowing slightly over it, and complimented her on her good taste. Liesel looked uncertain. “These paintings,” said Laurent. He pointed at the college boys on the wall. “Aren’t they astonishing? Bernard is very talented, yes?”
“Oh my god, he’s amazing,” cried Liesel.
At her side, Bernard reddened but looked flattered. “Thanks,” he said. “I think I like them too.”
“Good,” said Laurent. “Because they are extraordinary.”
“I agree,” said Jayne. Bernard’s work was very good, but it annoyed her that he kept looking around while she and Liesel tried to talk to him, searching for someone more important to ingratiate himself with. She also sensed that he had no real interest in Liesel. He would sleep with her and let her buy him dinner from time to time, but Jayne doubted that he would offer Liesel the commitment her friend was hoping for. She was being grouchy, Jayne supposed, and Liesel would have said that Jayne was jealous because Bernard was in the show, and she was not. Probably she was jealous, but this didn’t negate the fact that he was about as charming as a stubbed toe.
They were interrupted by a hovering couple that Jayne thought she recognized from another opening a year or so earlier. They were art collectors, not penniless gallery rats there for the free wine and artisan cheese; the woman was a highlighted blonde in a short orange dress; the man, his baldness partially hidden under a golf cap, wore a gray cashmere sweater and black wool pants. Each kissed Laurent on both cheeks before leading him to another corner of the gallery, the whole space now crowded, the air having grown warmer and heavier with laughter and heightened conversation in the last quarter hour.
Laurent circled back to Jayne an hour later when she was on the verge of slinking home to eat cereal alone in the kitchen, her roommate already out for the night with her classmates, as Kelsey often was on Fridays. In their apartment with its mice in the walls and the noisy upstairs neighbors, Jayne would stand with her cereal bowl and stare out the window at the faded brick building across the street, replaying in her head the brief exchange with Laurent.
While Liesel flirted and leaned as close to Bernard as he allowed, Jayne was wondering if she had the courage to return to Vie Bohème to catch another glimpse of its owner, even if he would know what she was up to, and think her foolish or else easy prey. But I suppose I am, she thought.
Now he was at her side, steering her away from the door. “If you’re free,” he said, “I’d like to take you to dinner. This Tuesday? Because I read the other day that this is the night when many restaurants serve the freshest fish. You like fish, I hope.”
It was Friday now. She worked Tuesday evenings until nine, but already she knew that she would call in sick if neither of the other two part-timers could be convinced to take her shift. She might be fired over this man, but the thought was not so terrible. She’d been thinking of looking for a part-time job that did not require her to stand for hours, even when no one was in the store.
“I do like fish,” she said. “I think Tuesday should be okay.”
“Is Monday better?” he asked, smiling, she thought, at her hesitation.
Monday would be better. It was one of her nights off. But if she said yes, she might seem too eager.
Still, did it matter? They were adults, even if she didn’t often feel like one.
“Monday is probably okay too,” she said.
“The fish won’t be as fresh,” he said. “But we will have steak instead. If you like it.”
“I do, but I don’t eat it very often.”
“Good for you. I don’t either. Only four or five times a week.”
She blinked. “Four or five times? I’m not sure that’s a good—”
“I am, how do you say it? I am kidding you,” he said, his eyes crinkling. He had a lot of wrinkles. She had some too, especially when she smiled, which she had been told since childhood by her mother and grandmother to do often because it made every girl a little prettier. Jayne had never heard anyone apply this rule to the boys she knew, and sometimes she had frowned fiercely when ordered to smile.
“Do you remember my name?” she asked. The question exhilarated her. Maybe she was trying to punish him. Why did he think he could tease her?
“Of course I do,” he said. “Julie.”
This was probably another attempt to tease her, but his face gave nothing away. “No, it’s Jayne.”
“Ah, even better.”
A few days after she learned that the job at her alma mater had gone to someone else—the news coming in a cowardly letter, the director’s name probably signed by her secretary—Laurent suggested that Jayne leave New York with him. It was an easy decision, once she understood that his offer was sincere. He had been encouraging her for several months, within days of their first date, to spend more time making art, and even though she hadn’t admitted it to Liesel or Melissa, she had begun to wonder if he was considering putting her in one of Vie Bohème’s shows—and if it were in Paris?—she could hardly stand to complete the thought.
There was also her suspicion that she had fallen in love with him. She didn’t want to be with anyone else, this much she was sure of. She still cared for Colin and regretted that she had hurt him, but her feelings for the assured, worldly Laurent were stronger. And the job rejection had stung: they had hired a recent graduate, purportedly one with more experience in international programs. She had a hunch that her rival was also a man, which she later discovered was true, the smiling face of the turncoat director flashing through her mind. She wondered what she had done wrong in the series of campus interviews—maybe it was the spilled coffee?— but in calmer moments knew this to be ridiculous. “If it is not for the reasons they stated in the letter,” said Laurent, “you will never find out why. Do not waste more time thinking about it.”
“I know you’re right, but it still bugs me,” she said.
“You must learn to live with uncertainty.”
“Or else I will be miserable.” She paused. “Yes, I know.” He sounded like her father, but she didn’t tell him this.
“Six weeks will give you enough time to prepare, I hope,” he said. A moment later he added, “Please understand that I am not proposing marriage. But I do not want you to bring home other men. You are with me, yes?”
“I am,” she said, surprised. “I wouldn’t think of bringing home another man. I’m not like that.”
He held her gaze, trying to suppress a smile. “You say that now, but it isn’t impossible that you will change your mind. Beautiful women often change their minds. I have seen it happen more than once.”
Did it happen to you with someone else? she wondered, but didn’t ask. Did he really think that her desires and allegiances could mutate so quickly? Maybe he thought this of all women. “What about you?” she asked. “Are you going to bring home other women if we’re living together?”
Or men? But she didn’t think he slept with men.
“No,” he said. “No question. But what you do and what I do outside of the apartment, that is not for the other person to worry over. All right?”
“What do you mean?” she asked, staring at him. She felt the first steely hint of a bad headache. “Are you saying that you plan to go out with other women even if you’re not bringing them home?”
He shook his head. “No, that is not what I am saying. Maybe it is my English, the way I am trying to express this.”
“You speak English just fine,” she said. It was dizziness that threatened her, not a headache. She could feel the months they had spent together, she with the warmly embraced belief in their exclusivity, crumbling away. “Tell me what you mean,” she said. She wondered who was waiting for him back in Paris. Because now it seemed as if someone was.
He took his time replying, as though he really did need to find the right words. “You are getting upset over nothing,” he said gently. “I know I did not say this properly. What I mean is that I do not want you to worry when we are not together. I was once close to a woman who always assumed I was seeing someone else if she could not reach me on the phone or if I had an appointment in the evening for the gallery that went longer than I expected. She was very jealous, and it was a shame, because she had no reason to doubt my feelings for her.”
She didn’t reply. If he was telling the truth, and he seemed to be, she felt embarrassed for jumping so quickly to the worst conclusion.
“But I will not be a prison master either, Jayne. You are free to come and go as you like. You do not need always to tell me where you are going or who you are seeing.”
“Why wouldn’t I want to?” she said. “What would I have to hide?
“Nothing, I am assuming, but I am not going to ask for a detailed list of your every move.”
“And you’ll expect the same from me where you’re concerned.”
“Yes, and I do not think that is unreasonable. You must not worry about me, Jayne.”
How confident was she supposed to feel about this arrangement? How badly, she could hear Liesel asking, a cynical but concerned edge in her voice, did she want a show at Vie Bohème? Then she heard herself say okay and saw him nodding in approval.
“This will be something nice for both of us,” he said. “We don’t need more reason than this.”
“But you do understand that it is a big deal for me to move overseas.”
He touched the top of her hand. “Yes, of course.”
“You might want me to leave after a week.”
“I won’t. What you are wondering is, what if you want to leave after a week? You are free to stay for six days or six thousand. As long as you would like to.” He paused. “Barring the unexpected. Chaos, I am speaking of. Other than that, it is up to you.”
Or Eros, she thought. The two forces did not seem so different to her.
“All right,” she said, letting him take her hand and press it to his lips.
“Do not worry that there are other women,” he said. “I have never brought up Colin, have I, even though you have told me that he has called you and sent you e-mails?”
“That’s true,” she said. “But he’s not a threat.”
His gaze did not waver. She wondered for a second if she was telling the truth and didn’t allow herself to blink.
“I know he isn’t,” Laurent finally said. “That is why I do not ask about him.”
She had not intended to for it to happen, but she’d ended up in bed with Colin on the night she broke up with him. She did not tell Laurent, nor did she think he needed to know; it had happened only a few days after their first night together, and they hadn’t made any commitments to each other yet. On the valedictory night with Colin, she was morose and moody; he kept asking what was wrong until she confessed that she wanted to see other people. Hearing this, he sat up suddenly in bed, a stricken look on his face with its dark smear of whiskers. His pale chest rose and fell erratically as he stared at her, and she had the urge to hide her face against his shoulder but knew it was selfish to try to draw comfort from the person she was hurting. She could not meet his eyes and rose from his bed, groping for her clothes, saying lamely that she was sorry and she understood if he would not want to talk to her again, but he shook his head.
“Maybe we should just take a little time off?” he asked. “What if we talk again in a few days?”
“Colin,” she said quietly. “I think I need more than a few days.”
“I know that my work cuts into our time together. And that I probably like sports too much. I used to get in fights with a girl I dated in college about it.” He let out a laugh that sounded like a knife scraping a table. “I could play a little less basketball,” he said hopefully. “Instead of two nights a week, I could just do one if you wanted me to.”
She felt guilt roiling in her chest. Why wouldn’t he simply let her go, or else force her out the door, half clothed and contrite? She would have preferred this to his sweet, futile efforts to make her stay. “I don’t think you need to—I don’t—”
“Let’s not decide anything now. Let’s talk in a week,” he said, his face gray in the dim room; he was trying to smile, but his lips were trembling. She couldn’t look at him.
“All right,” she said softly. “In a week or so.”
What she did not say as she finished dressing in the darkened bedroom with its miniature basketball hoop on the back of the door, her eyes on his moon-white, mournful feet, was that she had already met someone else, and this man was so at ease with himself, so thoroughly charming and in command each time she’d been out with him. Colin often told her to decide what they should do when they went out, and if she insisted that he choose a restaurant, they sometimes spent an hour texting back and forth before they ended up in one of the same three places they always went to because they were both half starved by the time they finally made up their minds. Laurent also knew how to make money and spend it luxuriously; he knew to put his arm around her and pull her close, as if sheltering her from splashing cars or strong winds, as they walked from the cab into the restaurant and later when he summoned another cab after dinner. He reached for her hand across the table while they waited for their server to appear, and again as they waited for dessert, something Colin had never thought to do, or had been too shy to do.
There was also the fact that being in bed with Laurent was like riding a boat through a storm—she wanted alternately to hold on and be tossed into the waves. Afterward, it felt as if she’d been washed ashore, naked and dazed, mutely euphoric.
In the year before Jayne met Laurent and moved to Paris, she experienced a number of more or less commonplace events that, like new neighbors who incrementally grew more intrusive and obnoxious, began to encroach on her peace of mind in a way that she realized might before long become unendurable.
Her anxiety flooded out in a feverish verbal stream one evening in an e-mail to her sister. Jayne had just returned home from seeing a movie with Colin, one with a profane talking bear, a movie so brainless and obvious that she had left after the first hour and walked home alone while Colin stayed in the Union Square cinema to watch the remaining hour. Her sister saw a lot of movies too and worked as the assistant to the owner and CEO of a small record company that seemed always to be wobbling on the edge of bankruptcy, which was due in part to the owner’s habit of signing musicians who made little money but ran up large bills for producers, engineers, and studio time.
What if I died tomorrow? Jayne wrote to her sister. What if you died tomorrow? What do you think people would say about you? What would you want them to say about you? Why am I living in a city I can’t afford and spending large portions of my never-to-be-repeated life on dumb jobs I can barely get out of bed for in the morning? I came to New York to be an artist, and all I’ve done so far is watch other people do it instead.
Instead of answering the e-mail, her sister called and left a longwinded message, which Jayne didn’t listen to until the next morning because she was up late arguing with Colin about why he hadn’t left the stupid bear movie too and had let her go home alone to write furious e-mails to Stephanie. “Existential crisis” was the term her younger sister repeated three times in her rambling voice mail. “Cliché” was another, though Stephanie laughed a little as she said it, apologizing for making light of Jayne’s bad mood.
Some of the events that Jayne connected to her increasing sense of disquiet:
– One Saturday afternoon in late September, she’d gone with Kelsey to a free lecture at the New School titled “The Ideal and the Idealized: Sex and Love in the Age of Instant Celebrity,” which was held in an austere, overwarm auditorium. Dozens of people huddled in chairs with poor lower-back support and peered warily at the speaker, a media critic known for her brilliant, pitiless screeds on contemporary sexuality and societal selfishness, and who spoke with frightening fluency about Facebook, pornography, and personal ads. More people than ever before are spending their lives alone, whether they want to or not. Despite our supposed connectivity, we have never been more miserable and closed off . . . The obscene number of choices, of immediately available pleasures, have made us, paradoxically, restless and dissatisfied! Jayne left feeling as if she’d sustained repeated blows to the back of her head. Though much of what the speaker said was old news, and spoken in a tone of practiced gravity, her words nonetheless burrowed into Jayne’s consciousness like a poisonous tick that could not be dislodged. She went home and sulked in her light-deprived bedroom, her neighbors upstairs pounding around as if practicing for a Stomp audition. At frequent intervals, she heard them shouting with laughter. Feeling murderous, she made herself leave the apartment again for a yoga class. She would be late, but if she didn’t go, she knew that she would march upstairs and scream at her neighbors; both Drew and José were twenty-six, but they resided within what seemed an interminable adolescence. They were probably already drunk and would laugh in her scowling face before suggesting she join them in their sock- and trash-strewn apartment for a threesome. They had done this before, to both her and her roommate, and to the overly talkative, middle-aged widow who lived next door to them.
– A nuclear power plant had melted down, disastrously contaminating the nearby ocean and the land on which it sat. More proof that the world could not possibly be an endlessly renewing and self-mending resource.
– Close friends from high school and college had gotten married or announced their plans to marry suitors who, in a few cases, they had known less than a year. Jayne had other friends who were already married, one of them within eight months going through a rancorous divorce, but the more recent weddings and engagements seemed more serious, more adult and deliberate. Some of these friends had also earned enough money as lawyers, software engineers, or café owners to buy not one but two homes in desirable cities and oceanside resorts. She didn’t think it was envy she felt so much as self-lacerating regret at having neither the kinds of interests nor the ambition to earn for herself what these friends already had.
– Jayne’s father tripped on a rolled-up newspaper in the driveway, fell on his face, and broke one of his front teeth. The newspaper was there every morning, but on this day, Mr. Marks was carrying a big watermelon that he’d grown in his garden, one he planned to share with his coworkers, and did not see the paper because the watermelon was blocking his view of his feet. Up until then, her father had seemed to Jayne all but invincible, even after her mother admitted to deep-rooted feelings of restlessness, which she finally confessed to over the winter, when Jayne was newly in the thrall of her romance with Laurent and more insulated from unhappiness than usual.
“We’re not getting a divorce,” Jayne’s mother had assured her. “But after so many years together, you have to expect that one of us is going to want a change of scenery from time to time.”
“What does that mean?” asked Jayne.
“I don’t know yet,” said her mother. “We’ll see, I guess.”
“That’s not very reassuring,” said Jayne.
Her mother paused. “No, I suppose it’s not.”
Her father’s injury, his clumsiness, his ensuing depression, all seemed to underscore the illusoriness of his life’s permanence, of her mother’s, of Jayne’s and her sister’s lives too. About his wife’s midlife crisis, as he called it, his voice tinged with irony, he would not say very much to Jayne or her sister. “Your mother doesn’t want you girls in the middle. We’re keeping it between her and me,” he said, dogged and embarrassed. “And our therapist. It shouldn’t be a surprise that we’ve hit some potholes on the road.”
Jayne was surprised to hear that they were seeing a therapist. “Mom got you to go?” she asked.
Her father’s laughter was caustic. “No, Mom did not. I got her to go.”
– Most of an island in the South Pacific, inhabited for centuries by a small, peaceable population of fishermen and their families, had been submerged by rising water levels. The islanders were forced to flee to New Zealand, whose officials did not want to offer them asylum because they had troubles of their own—strained public aid and health-care systems, general agrarian woes. Jayne had understood this, but still thought it unkind and unfair. Why was a country as big as New Zealand, at least compared to the beleaguered, submerged neighboring island, being so ungenerous? Surely there had to be some mercy in the world. It was Australia that eventually agreed to help the islanders, but they were vague about how long they would be able to offer these homeless people food and shelter, something that Jayne woke up very early in the morning worrying about more than once, unsure why these strangers were so often in her thoughts when plenty of people were suffering within shouting distance of where she was lying in her bed, with its twisted sheets and coffee-stained comforter.
She could foresee bigger, more populated islands flooding, their bewildered inhabitants fleeing for their lives. No one was mentioning the other living creatures on these islands either. Who knew where they were going, other than to a watery grave?
Other indignities small and medium stepped out from the consoling camouflage of her daily routines and rituals. Strangers dialed her phone and yelled at her when she told them they had the wrong number. People let doors close in her face as she tried to enter stores, restaurants, and post offices on their heels. If she made a disapproving sound, the offender might turn on her and tell her to get a life, furious to be called out on a thoughtless act. If all she had to worry about was someone forgetting to hold the door for her, she was pretty damn lucky!
“You live in New York,” her father said when she complained to him over the phone. “What do you expect? Rose bouquets and parades in your honor?”
“Common decency would be nice,” she said.
“Common decency,” he repeated. “What exactly is that, Jayne?”
It was in the month before she left for Paris, long after the e-mail to her sister and the breakup with Colin, that she received alarming news more personal than the nuclear meltdown or the drowning island. She had known it would come one day, but nonetheless she wasn’t prepared for it.
Pepper, the college classmate who had gone on to Yale’s M.F.A. program, had been hired to teach painting classes full-time at the San Francisco Art Institute. This fact she supposed she could live with, set it aside, and move on mostly unencumbered, but the next line of his updated biography revealed (he had a Wikipedia page already, another blow) that one of his paintings had just been chosen for the Venice Biennale. Who had plucked him from oblivion? One of his Yale instructors? Someone he had met at an artists’ colony? Or possibly, more distressing still, one of their undergraduate instructors?
“But you’re going to Paris,” said Liesel over drinks the day after Jayne had made these discoveries. They were at KGB, where they had once gone every Thursday night for two beers each—three if it had been a difficult week—when Liesel was finishing law school and Jayne had first moved north from D.C. “Fuck Pepper and that Venice show. Does he really still call himself that? It’s such a stupid nickname.”
“I don’t know,” said Jayne. The bar’s red lights made Liesel look both sexy and a little demonic. “His Wikipedia page lists his real name. Gary Lentz.”
“He has a Wikipedia page?” said Liesel, doubtful. “I want a Wikipedia page.”
“I’ll start one for you if you start one for me.”
Liesel shook her head. “You have to be famous. Or sort of famous. Wikipedia has gatekeepers.”
“We’ll get one,” said Jayne. “If he’s got one, I’m getting one.”
Liesel glanced at a black-haired guy with a fussy goatee on the other side of the bar. She had been gazing at him experimentally for the past hour, and he had started to return her looks. “That’s the spirit,” she said to Jayne, her eyes still on the goateed man. “Nothing like a little old-fashioned jealousy to get you off your ass and into the future.”