“Luc,” Melanie called to the other room in the suite, but there was only silence beyond. “Please.”
No answer from the man who just hours earlier had kissed her under a shower of rose petals, claiming her in front of all Paris society as the one he loved. How could a marriage bed be so cold? Melanie shivered in her lace gown, feeling tears fill her eyes as she caught sight of her bouquet, white roses and purple lilies, lying where the maid had left it on the bedside table. It was still so fresh and new, and Melanie could remember pressing her face to the full blossoms, breathing them in as the realization that she was now Mrs. Luc Perethel washed over her. Once, the words had seemed magical, like a spell cast in a fairy tale. But now, with the city lit up through her open window, Melanie ached not for her new husband but for another man, in another city. Oh, Brock, she thought. She didn’t dare to say the words aloud for fear that they would be carried away, soaring out of her reach, to find the only one true love she’d ever had.
Uh-oh. I glanced up at my mother, who was still typing away, her brow furrowed, lips moving. Now, I knew that what she wrote was pure fiction. After all, this was a woman who’d been constructing stories about the lives and loves of the rich while we were clipping coupons and having our phone cut off on a regular basis. And it wasn’t like Luc, the cold new husband, had a fondness for Ensures or anything. I hoped.
“Oh, thank you!” My mother, spying her fresh cup of coffee, stretched her fingers and picked it up, taking a sip. She had her hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, no makeup, and was wearing pajamas and the leopard-print bedroom slippers I’d gotten her for her last birthday. She yawned, leaning back in her chair, and said, “I’ve been going all night. What time is it?”
I glanced at the clock in the kitchen, visible through the curtain, which was still swaying slightly. “Eight-fifteen.”
She sighed, putting the cup to her lips again. I glanced over at the sheet in the typewriter, trying to make out what happened next, but all I could see was several lines of dialogue. Apparently, Luc did have something to say after all.
“So it’s going well,” I said, nodding toward the stack next to my elbow.
She flopped her hand at me in a so-so kind of way. “Oh, well, it’s smack in the middle, and you know there’s always a dull spot. But last night I was just about asleep when I had this inspiration. It had to do with swans.”
I waited. But that appeared to be all she would tell me, as now she’d grabbed a nail file from the mug stuffed with pens and pencils and was at work on a pinkie, shaping it deftly.
“Swans,” I said finally.
She chucked the nail file down on the desk and stretched her arms over her head. “You know,” she said, tucking a stray hair behind her ear, “they’re dreadful creatures, really. Beautiful to look at but mean. The Romans used them instead of guard dogs.”
I nodded, drinking my coffee. Across the room, I could hear the cat snoring.
“So,” she went on, “it got me thinking about what cost beauty. Or for that matter, what cost anything? Would you trade love for beauty? Or happiness for beauty? Could a gorgeous person with a mean streak be a worthy trade? And if you did make the trade, decide you’d take that beautiful swan and hope it wouldn’t turn on you, what would you do if it did?”
These were rhetorical questions. I thought.
“I just couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said, shaking her head. “And then I couldn’t sleep, either. I think it’s that ridiculous tapestry Don insisted we hang on the wall. I can’t relax looking at all these carefully stitched depictions of military battles and people being crucified.”
“It is a little much,” I agreed. Every time I went into her room to get anything I found myself somewhat transfixed by it. It was hard to tear your eyes away from the panel that illustrated the beheading of John the Baptist.
“So I came down here,” she said, “thinking I’d just tinker, and now it’s eight in the A.M. and I’m still not sure what the answer is. How can that be?”
The music faded out now, and it was very, very quiet. I was sure I could feel my ulcer stirring, but it might have just been the coffee. My mother was always very dramatic when she was writing. At least once during every novel she’d fling herself into the kitchen, near tears, hysterical that she’d lost any talent she ever possessed, the book was a quagmire, a disaster, the end of her career, and Chris and I would just sit there, silent, until she wailed out again. After a few minutes, or hours, or-in bad times-days, she’d be right back in the study, curtain closed, typing away. And when the books arrived months later, smelling so new with their smooth, not-yet-cracked spines, she always forgot about the breakdowns that played a part in creating them. If I reminded her, she said writing novels was like childbirth: if you truly remembered how awful it got, you’d never do it again.
“You’ll work it out,” I said now. “You always do.”
She bit her lip and glanced down at the page in the typewriter, then out the window. The sunlight was spilling in, and I realized she did look tired, even sad, in a way I hadn’t noticed before. “I know,” she said, as if only agreeing with me to move past this. And then, after a quiet second or two, she switched gears completely and asked, “How’s Dexter?”
“Okay, I guess,” I said.
“I like him very much.” She yawned, then smiled at me apologetically. “He’s not like the other boys you’ve dated.”
“I had a no-musician rule,” I explained.
She sighed. “So did I.”
I laughed, and she did too. Then I said, “Okay, so why’d you break it?”
“Oh, the reason anyone does anything,” she said. “I was in love.”
I heard the front door swing shut as Chris left for work, yelling a good-bye behind him. We watched as he walked down the driveway to his car, a Mountain Dew-his version of coffee-in one hand.
“I think he’s going to buy her a ring, if he hasn’t already,” my mother said thoughtfully. “I just have this feeling.”
Chris started the engine, then pulled out into neighborhood traffic, turning around slowly in the cul-de-sac. He was swigging the Mountain Dew as he drove past.
“Well,” I said, “you would know.”
She finished her coffee, then reached over and brushed her fingers over my cheek, tracing the shape of my face. A dramatic gesture, like most of hers, but it was comforting in that she’d done it for as long as I could remember. Her fingers, as always, were cool.