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I tell it all to Lucien. He’s stretched to the max on the furry white couch in his mother’s red apartment, looking like something you’d want to paint. Low-slung jeans and the black-on-black kimono, open and almost falling off, so I see the whole smooth front of him all the way down to his poutylooking outie and the blue tattoo of the Algiz rune. He’s drawing in his sketchbook—scratch, scratch, scratch—but I know that he is listening as he murmurs “Nazi” under his breath in his French so-sexy accent, his nostrils flaring, wide and black.
“Dad’s not that bad,” I’m about to say, but Esme’s back, dangling a pair of shoes. She’s been foraging through Lucien’s mother’s closet again. “I’m going to borrow these,” she says. Silvery snakeskin. Four-inch heels.
Lucien yawns. Asks if she’s put the others back. “My mother noticed them gone, you know.”
“I didn’t take them. Mitra did.”
Not a likely story. Esme lies like others breathe. And Mitra’s more into boots.
“Well, somebody has to put them back. Also, Maman requests that you all stay out of her private realm. She’s going to put on a lock.”
“Blah, blah, blah,” says Esme. Her skirt’s so tight, the V of her thong shows through in back as she bends to put on the shoes. “Your mum just loves that we raid her stuff. It makes her feel very cool.”
Lucien twirls his pencil. “Tessa’s father—dad, I mean—says she can’t see me anymore. What do you think of that?”
Esme jumps like someone’s stuck her with a pin. The bangles clang on her bony wrists.
“I don’t get it. What do you mean?” She’s tall as a tree in the spiky heels.
“Tes . . . sa’s dad . . . does . . . not . . . want . . .” He drags it out as if Esme’s deaf and a hundred years old.
“Can someone really do that? I never heard of such a thing.”
Lucien laughs. “Isn’t she precious, Tess?” he says. “You’d think she was raised by wolves.”
“I don’t see your mummy here too much.” Esme’s English. Says “mummy” a lot. She rolls her eyes at Lucien. “She doesn’t even notice when the clothes in her closet disappear.”
“You take her clothes?” This is news to Lucien, who up till now thought it was only shoes. He goes back to the subject of my dad and tries to explain to Esme that certain parents in the world do, in fact, tell their kids who to see or not. This doesn’t compute in Esme’s brain. She sinks to the white alpaca next to my boyfriend’s feet. “Boyfriend,” I’ve just begun to say.
“Bizarre,” she comments, mystified, and fiddles with his toes. This I hate. Her bony fingers are limp with rings. Peridot and turquoise. Some great big diamond with a crack. Lucien’s toes are beautiful. The bottoms of his feet are smooth. Petal soft, the color of a flower tea. “Why don’t they like poor Lucien? He’s a sweet little boy. Wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“That tickles, Esme. Get the hell off.”
“But why?” she coos. “Just tell me why.” It’s hard to look at Esme. Her beauty messes up my head. Her china-blue eyes don’t match the darkness of her skin. Her “mum’s” Malaysian, so she says. But no one’s ever seen her mum, so the story’s probably bogus too. Her height comes from her father (this part Lucien says is true), a red-faced Brit, thin as a flagpole and just as stiff. Esme’s hair is long and white. Cornsilk strands that fly in her face. I bought some bleach, but Lucien said Don’t touch your hair. He loves my looks, he tells me. So fresh and squeaky American-clean.
“Her father thinks I bring the marijuana.” “Marie Juan,” it sounds like, like the name of an exotic girl.
“So what. Who cares.”
“Well, it isn’t me. I wouldn’t share my stash like that.”
“Don’t put yourself down. You’re very kind.”
“Try to stay focused, Esme sweet.”
“Well, who made it up, this rumor, when everyone knows it’s Wid?”
“They talk on Sunday at the church.”
“What church?” says Esme, wide-eyed.
“All the Americans go to church. And when it’s over they have café—”
“And doughnuts?” says Esme brightly. “I had an American doughnut once—”
“Hopeless,” says Lucien close to my ear.
“You Americans always hate the French. And I know why,” says Esme. “You’re jealous because they speak so nice and they make soufflés and those chilly little aspic things.”
“What chilly little aspic things?”
“Those things with the tomatoes. Lucien knows the things I mean.” Esme stretches out her legs and stares at the snakeskin shoes. Then flashing back to me again:
“Can’t you just tell them it isn’t true? That the little Dutch boy sells the weed?”
“You really want her to rat on Wid?” Lucien intervenes for me. He’s stippling with his pencil now, putting angry eyebrows on my dad. Esme shrugs.
“Will your dad try to have him ganked, you think?”
“Vous êtes tres drôle,” says Lucien, which means “you are very funny,” though Esme is not laughing, not even a smile on her spaced-out face.
“Doesn’t he work for the CIA?”
Lucien whispers, “FBI.” I’d asked him to keep this to himself. My dad doesn’t advertise that fact; people in the Bureau don’t. Not that it’s some big secret. For three months now, since we moved to Argentina, he’s been stationed at the embassy—the “legal attaché,” he’s called—with his weird little dweeb assistant, Jer, formally known as Jerry. We’re supposed to say he works for “Justice” if anyone asks. That’s Department of Justice, by the way, not the whole ideal.
Esme springs up. “Does he have a gun?”
“Go home,” said Lucien, waving her off.
“No, really, does he? I bet he does.” She clomps back and forth across the room, testing out the shoes. “Anyway, I guess I’ll go. I know you really want me to. Plus Gash is taking me out tonight.”
“How can you stand that scary old scag?” Gash is gross, but I’m glad we’ve stopped talking about my dad.
“Gash is an icon. An icon, love. He changed the world of rock.”
“He’s a dirty old man, is what he is.”
“He isn’t dirty. He bathes a lot. Sometimes several times a day and with soap that’s made by monks. Anyway, who cares. Gash and I have fun. We play this game—I call him ‘Daddy’ when we go out. At Christmastime, he’s taking me to Italy.”
“If you live to be twenty, Esme, it will be a miracle. Arrivederci. Blow a kiss.” Esme smiles, teetering slightly in the heels. She opens the door and tosses puffs of air at us.
“Find who has my mother’s clothes!” Lucien hollers after her. Her footsteps clatter in the hall. It sounds like she’s walking back and forth, breaking in the shoes. Seconds pass and we hear the elevator doors and the fading hum as the big brass cage lowers from the penthouse floor.
I turn to look at Lucien to ask him again not to mention my father’s job. But then I don’t, because he’s put down the pad and pencil with the portrait of my Nazi dad. He’s smiling too, thedimples dark at the ends of his mouth. That’s what I fell in love with first—those shady wounds at the corners there. He was standing in front of a painting by Michelangelo—a poster, that is, on the wall of the art room at our school. His full-lipped mouth looked just like the painted angel’s, and I knew I was going to kiss it soon. That was just two weeks ago—well, sixteen days and a couple of hours—yet I feel like I’ve always known that mouth, tilting now in the slow, faint smile that’s only meant for me.
“What are we going to do?” I ask.
“It’s so sexy when you’re serious. Everything dire and ter-ee-bul.”
“My dad isn’t kidding, Lucien. We really have to make a plan.”
“Tessa. Belle. Ma Tessa.” His voice is soft and sibilant. And already I feel the slow, hot dip just hearing the way he says my name with the belle in between, which in French, you know, means beautiful. “We’ll work it out. We’ll sneak around.”
“You don’t know my dad—”
“We’ll make up stories. Little lies. You’ll say that you’re at Esme’s house. Or Mitra’s place. Who cares? Your father can’t come to school with you or follow you around all day.”
“He knows when I’m lying. He has a gift.”
“Don’t worry, Tess. I’ll teach you how to do it. How to lie so good that nobody sees it in your eyes.” He reaches out and takes my hand. I forget about Dad as he draws me down on top of him. The silk kimono slips away, my face falling into the warm, dark slot beside his own. He talks in French against my hair as if what he needs to say to me can only be said in the language that came first to him.
So we make our plan: We’ll lie and fake. We’ll make up stories and sneak around. “It might be fun,” he whispers. Like Esme pretending she’s Gash’s daughter, calling him “Daddy” wherever they go, playing their game in the secret dark of clubs and bars. We could go to Alibi Alice too. She’s a girl at school who, for money, will fix up everything. “She’s an entrepreneur,” says Lucien. Before I leave we drink some port. I don’t really like the taste of it, but I love to hold the tiny cut-glass thimbles he takes from the Chinese cabinet. Solange, Lucien’s mother, is a cultural attaché and has things from all around the world. We sit on the floor on the Turkish rug.
He signs the drawing of my dad. He tears it out and I put it in my sketchbook, in between the pages, the way you’d press a flower.
“Drawings,” whispers Lucien, “are more intense than photographs. They’re the actual lines that the person has made. With the impulse of his nerves and touch.” When I look at this drawing years from now—when I’m old, he says, “an old, old girl in a red wool cap”—I’ll remember this afternoon.
The drawing doesn’t look like Dad. It doesn’t look like anyone. But already I know the other part’s true. The part about remembering.