Anna and the french kiss, p.12
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       Anna and the French Kiss, p.12
 

         Part #1 of Anna and the French Kiss series by Stephanie Perkins
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  I moan as I sink into the first bite. Warm and gooey and chocolaty and perfect.

  “You have Nutella on your chin,” Rashmi says, pointing with her fork.

  “Mmm,” I reply.

  “It’s a good look,” Josh says. “Like a little soul patch.”

  I dip my finger in the chocolate and paint on a mustache. “Better?”

  “Maybe if you didn’t just give yourself a Hitler,” Rashmi says.

  To my surprise, St. Clair gives a snort. I’m encouraged. I redip and paint one side up in a swirl.

  “You’re getting it wrong,” Josh says. “Come here.” He dabs his finger in the edge of my sauce and adds the other half carefully, with his steady artist’s hand, and then touches up my half. I look at my reflection in the restaurant’s glass and find myself with a massive, curly mustache. They laugh and clap, and Mer snaps a picture.

  The men in elaborately tied scarves sitting at the table beside us look disgusted, so I pretend to twirl the ends of my Nutella mustache.The others are cracking up, and finally, finally St. Clair gives the teeniest of teeny smiles.

  It’s a wonderful sight.

  I wipe the chocolate from my face and smile back. He shakes his head. The others launch into a discussion of weird facial hair—Rashmi has an uncle who once shaved off all of his hair except what grew around the edge his face—and St. Clair leans over to speak with me. His face is close to mine, and his eyes are hollow. His voice is scratchy. “About the other night—”

  “Forget about it, it wasn’t a big deal,” I say. “It cleaned right up.”

  “What cleaned right up?”

  Whoops. “Nothing.”

  “Did I break something?” He looks confused.

  “No! You didn’t break anything. You just, kind of, you know ...” I mime it.

  St. Clair hangs his head and groans. “I’m sorry, Anna. I know how clean you keep your room.”

  I look away, embarrassed to be called out on this. “It’s okay. Really.”

  “Did I at least hit the sink?Your shower?”

  “It was on the floor. And my legs. Just a little bit!” I add, seeing the horrified expression on his face.

  “I vomited on your legs?”

  “It’s okay! I’d totally have done the same if I were in your situation.” The words are out before I have a chance to stop them. And I was trying so hard not to mention it. His face is pained, but he passes by this subject to one equally excruciating.

  “Did I ...” St. Clair glances at the others, ensuring they’re still distracted by facial hair. They are. He scoots his chair even closer and lowers his voice. “Did I say anything peculiar to you? That night?”

  Uh-oh. “Peculiar?”

  “It’s just ... I only vaguely remember being in your room. But I could have sworn we had a conversation about . . . something.”

  My heart beats faster, and it’s hard to breathe. He remembers. Sort of. What does that mean? What should I say? As anxious as I am for answers, I’m not prepared for this conversation. I bide for more time. “About what?”

  He’s uncomfortable. “Did I say anything odd about . . . our friendship?”

  And there it is.

  “Or my girlfriend?”

  And there that is. I take a long look at him. Dark undereye circles. Unwashed hair. Defeated shoulders. He’s so unhappy, so unlike himself. I won’t be the one to add to his misery, no matter how badly I want the truth. I can’t ask him. Because if he likes me, he’s not in any state to begin a relationship. Or deal with the breakup of an old one. And if he doesn’t like me, then I’d probably lose his friendship. Things would be too weird.

  And right now St. Clair needs friendship.

  I keep my face blank but sincere. “No. We talked about your mom. That’s all.”

  It’s the right answer. He looks relieved.

  chapter seventeen

  The pâtisserie has thick planks of creaky hardwood and a chandelier draped with tinkly strings of topaz crystals. They glow like drops of honey. The women behind the counter lay extravagant cakes into brown-and-white-striped boxes and tie each package with turquoise ribbon and a silver bell.There’s a long line, but everyone here is patiently basking in the ambience.

  Mer and I wait between tiered displays as tall as we are. One is a tree made from macarons, round sandwich cookies with crusts as fragile as eggshells and fillings so moist and flavorful that I swoon on sight. The other is an arrangement of miniature cakes, gâteaux, glazed with almond frosting and pressed with sugared pansies.

  Our conversation is back on St. Clair. He’s all we talk about anymore. “I’m just afraid they’ll kick him out,” I say, on tiptoe. I’m trying to peek inside the glass case at the front of the line, but a man in pinstripes carrying a wiggling puppy blocks my view. There are several dogs inside the shop today, which isn’t unusual for Paris.

  Mer shakes her head, and her curls bounce from underneath her knitted hat. Unlike St. Clair’s, hers is robin’s egg blue and very respectable.

  I like St. Clair’s better.

  “He won’t be kicked out,” she says. “Josh hasn’t been expelled, and he’s been skipping classes for a lot longer. And the head would never expel someone whose mother is . . . you know.”

  She’s not doing well. Cervical cancer. Stage 2B. An advanced stage.

  Words I never want to hear associated with someone I love—external radiation therapy, chemotherapy—are now a daily part of St. Clair’s life. Susan, his mother, started treatments one week after Halloween. His father is in California, driving her five days a week to radiation therapy and once a week to chemo.

  St. Clair is here.

  I want to kill his father. His parents have lived separately for years, but his father won’t let his mother get a divorce. And he keeps mistresses in Paris and in London, while Susan lives alone in San Francisco. Every few months, his father will visit her. Stay for a few nights. Reestablish dominance or whatever it is he holds over her. And then he leaves again.

  But now he’s the one watching her, while St. Clair suffers six thousand miles away. The whole situation makes me so sick I can hardly bear to think about it. Obviously, St. Clair hasn’t been himself these last few weeks. He’s ditching school, and his grades are dropping. He doesn’t come to breakfast anymore, and he eats every dinner with Ellie. Apart from class and lunch, where he sits cold and stonelike beside me, the only times I see him are the mornings I wake him up for school.

  Meredith and I take turns. If we don’t pound on his door, he won’t show up at all.

  The pâtisserie door opens and a chilly wind whips through the shop. The chandelier sways like gelatin. “I feel so helpless,” I say. “I wish there was something I could do.”

  Mer shivers and rubs her arms. Her rings are made of fine glass today.They look like spun sugar. “I know. Me too. And I still can’t believe his dad isn’t letting him visit her for Thanksgiving.”

  “He’s not?” I’m shocked. “When did this happen?” And why did Mer know about it and not me?

  “Since his dad heard about his dropping grades. Josh told me the head called his father—because she was concerned about him—and instead of letting him go home, he said St. Clair couldn’t fly out there until he started ‘acting responsibly’ again.”

  “But there’s no way he’ll be able to focus on anything until he sees her! And she needs him there; she needs his support. They should be together!”

  “This is so typical of his dad to use a situation like this against him.”

  Gnawing curiosity gets the best of me again. “Have you ever met him? His father?” I know he lives near SOAP, but I’ve never seen him. And St. Clair certainly doesn’t own a framed portrait.

  “Yeah,” she says cautiously. “I have.”

  “And?”

  “He was . . . nice.”

  “NICE? How can he be nice? The man is a monster!”

  “I know, I know, but he has these . . . impeccable manners in person. Smil
es a lot. Very handsome.” She changes the subject suddenly. “Do you think Josh is a bad influence on St. Clair?”

  “Josh? No. I mean, maybe. I don’t know. No.” I shake my head, and the line inches forward.We’re almost in viewing range of the display case. I see a hint of golden apple tarte tatins. The edge of a glossy chocolate-and-raspberry gâteau.

  At first everything seemed too sophisticated for my tastes, but three months into this, and I understand why the French are famous for their cuisine. Meals here are savored. Restaurant dinners are measured in hours, not minutes. It’s so different from America. Parisians swing by the markets every day for the ripest fruit and vegetables, and they frequent specialty shops for cheese, fish, meat, poultry, and wine. And cake.

  I like the cake shops the best.

  “It just seems like Josh is telling him it’s okay to stop caring,” Mer presses. “I feel like I’m always the bad guy. ‘Get up. Go to school. Do your homework.’ You know? While Josh is like, ‘Screw it, man. Just leave.’ ”

  “Yeah, but I don’t think he’s telling St. Clair not to care. He just knows St. Clair can’t deal with things right now.” But I squirm a bit. I do wish Josh would be supportive in a more encouraging way.

  She opens her mouth to argue when I interrupt. “How’s soccer?”

  “Football,” she says, and her face lights up. Meredith joined a local girls’ league last month, and she practices most afternoons. She updates me on her latest adventures in soccer drills until we reach the front case. It shimmers with neat rows of square-shaped tarte citrons, spongy cakes swelling with molten chocolate, caramel éclairs like ballet slippers, and red fruity cakes with wild strawberries dusted in powdery sugar.

  And more macarons.

  Bin after bin of macarons in every flavor and color imaginable. Grass greens and pinky reds and sunshine yellows. While Mer debates over cakes, I select six.

  Rose. Black currant. Orange. Fig. Pistachio. Violet.

  And then I notice cinnamon and hazelnut praline, and I just want to die right there. Crawl over the counter and crunch my fingers through their delicate crusts and lick out the fragrant fillings until I can no longer breathe. I am so distracted it takes a moment to realize the man behind me is speaking to me.

  “Huh?” I turn to see a dignified gentleman with a basset hound. He’s smiling at me and pointing at my striped box. The man looks familiar. I swear I’ve seen him before. He talks in friendly, rapid French.

  “Uhh.” I gesture around feebly and shrug my shoulders. “Je ne parle pas ...”

  I don’t speak . . .

  He slows down, but I’m still clueless. “Mer? Help? Mer?”

  She comes to the rescue.They chat for a minute, and his eyes are shining until she says something that makes him gasp. “Ce n’est pas possible!” I don’t need to speak the language to recognize an “Oh, no!” when I hear it. He considers me sadly, and then they say goodbye. I add in my own shaky farewell. Mer and I pay for our treats—she’s selected un millefeuille, a puff pastry with custard—and she steers me from the shop.

  “Who was that? What did he want? What were you talking about?”

  “You don’t recognize him?” She’s surprised. “It’s the man who runs that theater on rue des Écoles, the little one with the red-and-white lights. He walks Pouce in front of our dorm all the time.”

  We pick our way through a flock of pigeons, who don’t care we’re about to step on them. They rumble with coos and beat their wings and jostle the air. “Pouce?”

  “The basset hound.”

  A lightbulb goes off. Of course I’ve seen them around. “But what did he want?”

  “He was wondering why he hasn’t seen your boyfriend in a while. St. Clair,” she adds, at my confused expression. Her voice is bitter. “I guess you guys have seen a few films there together?”

  “We watched a spaghetti-western retrospective there last month.” I’m baffled. He thought St. Clair and I were dating?

  She’s quiet. Jealous. But Meredith has no reason for envy. There’s nothing—nothing—going on between St. Clair and me. And I’m okay with it, I swear. I’m too worried about St. Clair to think about him in that other way. He needs the familiar right now, and Ellie is familiar.

  I’ve been thinking about the familiar, too. I miss Toph again. I miss his green eyes, and I miss those late nights at the theater when he’d make me laugh so hard I’d cry. Bridge says he asks about me, but I haven’t talked to him lately, because their band is so busy.Things are good for the Penny Dreadfuls.They’ve finally scheduled their first gig. It’s just before Christmas, and I, Anna Oliphant, will be in attendance.

  One month. I can hardly wait.

  I should be seeing them next week, but Dad doesn’t think it’s worth the money to fly me home for such a short holiday, and Mom can’t afford it. So I’m spending Thanksgiving here alone. Except . . . I’m not anymore.

  I recall the news Mer dropped only minutes ago. St. Clair isn’t going home for Thanksgiving either. And everyone else, his girlfriend included, is traveling back to the States. Which means the two of us will be here for the four-day weekend. Alone.

  The thought distracts me all the way back to the dorm.

  chapter eighteen

  Happy Thanksgiving to you! Happy Thanksgiving to yoouuu! Happy Thanks-giv-ing, St. Cla-airrr—”

  His door jerks open, and he glares at me with heavy eyes. He’s wearing a plain white T-shirt and white pajama bottoms with blue stripes. “Stop. Singing.”

  “St. Clair! Fancy meeting you here!” I give him my biggest gap-toothed smile. “Did you know today is a holiday?”

  He shuffles back into bed but leaves his door open. “I heard,” he says grumpily. I let myself in. His room is . . . messier than the first time I saw it. Dirty clothes and towels in heaps across the floor. Half-empty water bottles. The contents of his schoolbag spill from underneath his bed, crinkled papers and blank worksheets. I take a hesitant sniff. Dank. It smells dank.

  “Love what you’ve done with the place. Very college-chic.”

  “If you’re here to criticize, you can leave the way you came in,” he mumbles through his pillow.

  “Nah.You know how I feel about messes. They’re ripe with such possibility.”

  He sighs, a long-suffering noise.

  I move a stack of textbooks off his desk chair and several sketches fall from between the pages. They’re all charcoal drawings of anatomical hearts. I’ve only seen his doodles before, nothing serious. And while it’s true Josh is the better technical artist, these are beautiful. Violent. Passionate.

  I pick them off the floor. “These are amazing. When did you make them?”

  Silence.

  Delicately, I place the hearts back inside his government book, careful not to smudge them any more than they already are. “So. We’re celebrating today.You’re the only person I know left in Paris.”

  A grunt. “Not many restaurants are serving stuffed turkey.”

  “I don’t need turkey, just an acknowledgment that today is important. No one out there”—I point out his window, even though he’s not looking—“has a clue.”

  He tugs his covers tight. “I’m from London. I don’t celebrate it either.”

  “Please. You said on my first day you were an American. Remember? You can’t switch nationalities as suits your needs. And today our country is gorging itself on pie and casseroles, and we need to be a part of that.”

  “Hmph.”

  This isn’t going as planned. Time to switch tactics. I sit on the edge of his bed and wiggle his foot. “Please? Pretty please?”

  Silence.

  “Come on. I need to do something fun, and you need to get out of this room.”

  Silence.

  My frustration rises. “You know, today sucks for both of us. You aren’t the only one stuck here. I’d give anything to be at home right now.”

  Silence.

  I take a slow, deep breath. “Fine.You wanna know the deal?
I’m worried about you. We’re all worried about you. Heck, this is the most we’ve talked in weeks, and I’m the only one moving my mouth! It sucks what happened, and it sucks even harder that there’s nothing any of us can say or do to change it. I mean there’s nothing I can do, and that pisses me off, because I hate seeing you like this. But you know what?” I stand back up. “I don’t think your mom would want you beating yourself up over something you can’t control. She wouldn’t want you to stop trying. And I think she’ll want to hear as many good things as possible when you go home next month—”

  “IF I go home next month—”

  “WHEN you go home, she’ll want to see you happy.”

  “Happy?” Now he’s mad. “How can I—”

  “Okay, not happy,” I say quickly. “But she won’t want to see you like this either. She won’t want to hear you’ve stopped attending class, stopped trying. She wants to see you graduate, remember? You’re so close, St. Clair. Don’t mess this up.”

  Silence.

  “Fine.” It’s not fair, not rational, for me to be this angry with him, but I can’t help it. “Be a lump. Drop out. Enjoy your miserable day in bed.” I head for the door. “Maybe you aren’t the person I thought you were.”

  “And who is that?” comes the acid reply.

  “The kind of guy who gets out of bed, even when things are crap. The kind of guy who calls his mother to say ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ instead of avoiding talking to her because he’s afraid of what she might say. The kind of guy who doesn’t let his asshole father win. But I guess I’m wrong. This”—I gesture around his room, even though his back is to me; he’s very still—“must be working for you. Good luck with that. Happy holidays. I’m going out.”

  The door is clicking shut when I hear it. “Wait—”

  St. Clair cracks it back open. His eyes are blurry, his arms limp. “I don’t know what to say,” he finally says.

  “So don’t say anything. Take a shower, put on some warm clothes, and come find me. I’ll be in my room.”

  I let him in twenty minutes later, relieved to find his hair is wet. He’s bathed.

 
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