Anna and the french kiss, p.25
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       Anna and the French Kiss, p.25
 

         Part #1 of Anna and the French Kiss series by Stephanie Perkins
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  He stares me directly in the eyes. “You say that I’m afraid of being alone, and it’s true. I am. And I’m not proud of it. But you need to take a good look at yourself, Anna, because I am not the only one in this room who suffers this problem.”

  He’s standing so close that I feel his chest rising and falling, quick and angry. My heart pounds against his. He swallows. I swallow. He leans in, hesitantly, and my body betrays me and mimics his in response. He closes his eyes. I close mine.

  The door flies open, and we startle apart.

  Josh enters detention and shrugs. “I ditched pre-calc.”

  chapter forty-three

  I can’t look at him for the rest of detention. How can I be afraid of being alone, if it’s the only thing I’ve been lately? It’s not like I’ve had a boyfriend all year, like he’s had a girlfriend. Though I did cling to the idea of Toph. Kept him as—the thought makes me wince—a reserve. And Dave.Well. He was there, and I was there, and he was willing, so I was, too. I’ve been worried that I was only with Dave because I was mad at St. Clair, but perhaps . . . perhaps I was tired of being alone.

  But is that so wrong?

  Does that mean it’s not wrong that St. Clair didn’t want to be alone either? He’s afraid of change, afraid to make big decisions, but so am I. Matt said that if I’d just talked with Toph, I could have saved myself months of anguish. But I was too scared to mess with the relationship we might have, to deal with what we really did have. And if I’d bothered to listen to what Matt was trying to tell me, maybe St. Clair and I would have had this conversation ages ago.

  But St. Clair should have said something! I’m not the only one at fault.

  Wait. Isn’t that what he was just saying? That we’re both at fault? Rashmi said I was the one who walked away from her. And she was right. She and Josh actually helped me that day at the park, and I ditched them. And Mer.

  Oh my God, Meredith.

  What’s wrong with me? Why haven’t I tried apologizing again? Am I incapable of keeping a friend? I have to talk to her. Today. Now. Immediately. When Professeur Hansen releases us from detention, I tear for the door. But something stops me when I hit the hall. I pause beneath the frescoed nymphs and satyrs. I turn around.

  St. Clair is waiting in the doorway, staring at me.

  “I have to talk to Meredith.” I bite my lip.

  St. Clair nods slowly.

  Josh appears behind him. He addresses me with a peculiar confidence. “She misses you. You’ll be fine.” He glances at St. Clair. “You’ll both be fine.”

  He’s said that to me before. “Yeah?” I ask.

  Josh lifts an eyebrow and smiles. “Yeah.”

  It’s not until I’m walking away that I wonder if “both” means Meredith and me, or St. Clair and me. I hope both means both. I return to Résidence Lambert, and I knock on her door after a quick trip to my own room. “Mer? Can we talk?”

  She cracks open her door. “Hey.” Her voice is gentle enough.

  We stare at each other. I hold up two mugs. “Chocolat chaud?”

  And she looks like she could cry at the sight. She lets me in, and I set down a cup on her desk. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Meredith.”

  “No, I’m sorry. I’ve been a jerk. I had no right to be angry with you.”

  “That’s not true, I knew how you felt about him, and I kissed him anyway. It wasn’t right. I should have told you that I liked him, too.”

  We sit on her bed. She twists a glittery star-shaped ring around her finger. “I knew how you felt about each other. Everyone knew how you felt about each other.”

  “But—”

  “I didn’t want to believe it. After so long, I still had this . . . stupid hope. I knew he and Ellie were having problems, so I thought maybe—” Meredith chokes up, and it takes a minute before she can continue.

  I stir my hot chocolate. It’s so thick it’s nearly a sauce. She taught me well.

  “We used to hang out all the time. St. Clair and me. But after you arrived, I hardly saw him. He’d sit next to you in class, at lunch, at the movies. Everywhere. And even though I was suspicious, I knew the first time I heard you call him Étienne—I knew you loved him. And I knew by his response—the way his eyes lit up every time you said it—I knew he loved you, too. And I ignored it, because I didn’t want to believe it.”

  The struggle rises inside me again. “I don’t know if he loves me. I don’t know if he does, or if he ever did. It’s all so messed up.”

  “It’s obvious he wants more than friendship.” Mer takes my shaking mug. “Haven’t you seen him? He suffers every time he looks at you. I’ve never seen anyone so miserable in my life.”

  “That’s not true.” I’m remembering he said the situation with his father is really terrible right now. “He has other things on his mind, more important things.”

  “Why aren’t the two of you together?”

  The directness of her question throws me. “I don’t know. Sometimes I think there are only so many opportunities . . . to get together with someone. And we’ve both screwed up so many times”—my voice grows quiet—“that we’ve missed our chance.”

  “Anna.” Mer pauses. “That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

  “But—”

  “But what? You love him, and he loves you, and you live in the most romantic city in the world.”

  I shake my head. “It’s not that simple.”

  “Then let me put it another way. A gorgeous boy is in love with you, and you’re not even gonna try to make it work?”

  I’ve missed Meredith. I return to my room feeling both solaced and saddened. If St. Clair and I hadn’t fought in detention today, would I have tried to apologize again? Probably not. School would have ended, we’d have gone our separate ways, and our friendship would have been severed forever.

  Oh, no. The horrible truth knocks me over.

  How could I have missed it? It’s the same thing. The exact. Same. Thing.

  Bridge couldn’t help it.The attraction was there, and I wasn’t there, and they got together, and she couldn’t help it. And I’ve blamed her this entire time. Made her feel guilty for something beyond her control. I haven’t even tried to listen to her; I haven’t answered a single phone call or replied to a single email. And she kept trying anyway. I remember what Matt and Rashmi said again. I really do abandon my friends.

  I yank out my luggage and unzip the front pocket. It’s still there. A little beat-up, but a small package wrapped in red-and-white-striped paper. The toy bridge. And then I compose the most difficult letter I’ve ever written. I hope she forgives me.

  chapter forty-four

  The rest of the week is quiet. I mail Bridge’s package, I rejoin my friends at our table, and I finish my detention. St. Clair and I still haven’t talked. Well, we’ve spoken a bit, but not about anything important. Mostly we sit beside each other and fidget, which is ridiculous, because isn’t that what this is all about? That we won’t talk?

  But breaking old habits isn’t easy.

  We sit a row apart in detention. I feel him watching me the entire hour, the entire week. I watch him, too. But we don’t walk together to the dorm; he packs his things slowly to allow me time to leave first. I think we’ve arrived at the same conclusion. Even if we managed to begin something, there’s still no hope for us. School is almost over. Next year, I’ll attend San Francisco State University for film theory and criticism, but he still won’t tell me where he’s going. I flat-out asked him after detention on Friday, and he stammered something about not wanting to talk about it.

  At least I’m not the only one who finds change difficult.

  On Saturday, the Mom and Pop Basset Hound Theater screens my favorite Sofia Coppola movie, Lost in Translation. I greet the dignified man and Pouce, and slide into my usual seat. It’s the first time I’ve watched this film since moving here. The similarities between the story and my life are not lost on me.

  It’s about two Americ
ans, a middle-aged man and a young woman, who are alone in Tokyo. They’re struggling to understand their foreign surroundings, but they’re also struggling to understand their romantic relationships, which appear to be falling apart. And then they meet, and they have a new struggle—their growing attraction to each other, when they both know that such a relationship is impossible.

  It’s about isolation and loneliness, but it’s also about friendship. Being exactly what the other person needs. At one point, the girl asks the man, “Does it get easier?” His first reply is “no,” and then “yes,” and then “it gets easier.” And then he tells her, “The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less you let things upset you.”

  And I realize ... it’s okay. It’s okay if St. Clair and I never become more than friends. His friendship alone has strengthened me in a way that no one else’s ever has. He swept me from my room and showed me independence. In other words, he was exactly what I needed. I won’t forget it. And I certainly don’t want to lose it.

  When the film ends, I catch my reflection in the theater’s bathroom. My stripe hasn’t been retouched since my mother bleached it at Christmas. Another thing I need to learn how to do myself. Another thing I want to learn how to do myself. I pop into the Monoprix next door—which is kind of like a mini SuperTarget—to buy hair bleach, and I’m walking back out when I notice someone familiar across the boulevard.

  I don’t believe it. St. Clair.

  His hands are in his pockets, and he’s looking around as if waiting for someone. My heart swells. He knows Sofia is my favorite director. He knew I’d come here, and he’s waiting for me to appear. It’s finally time to talk. I soar over the crosswalk to his side of the street. I feel happier than I have in ages. And I’m just about to call his name, when I realize he’s no longer alone.

  He’s been joined by an older gentleman.The man is handsome and stands in a way that’s strangely familiar. St. Clair is speaking in French. I can’t hear him, but his mouth moves differently in French. His gestures and his body language change, they become more fluid. A group of businessmen passes by and temporarily bars him from view, because St. Clair is shorter than them.

  Wait a second. The man is short, too.

  I startle as I realize I’m staring at St. Clair’s father. I look closer. He’s immaculately dressed, very Parisian. Their hair is the same color, although his father’s is streaked with silver and is shorter, tidier. And they have that same air of confidence, although St. Clair looks unsettled right now.

  I feel shamed. I did it again. Everything is not always about me. I duck behind a métro sign, but I’ve unwittingly positioned myself in hearing distance. The guilty feeling creeps back in. I should walk away, but . . . it’s St. Clair’s biggest mystery. Right here.

  “Why haven’t you registered?” his father says. “It was due three weeks ago. You’re making it difficult for me to convince them to take you.”

  “I don’t want to stay here,” St. Clair says. “I want to go back to California.”

  “You hate California.”

  “I want to go to Berkeley!”

  “You don’t know what you want! You’re just like her. Lazy and self-centered. You don’t know how to make decisions. You need someone to make them for you, and I say you stay in France.”

  “I’m not staying in bloody France, all right?” St. Clair bursts out in English. “I’m not staying here with you! Breathing down my neck all the time!”

  And that’s when it hits me. I’ve been following their entire conversation. In French.

  Oh. Holy. Crap.

  “How dare you talk to me like this?” His father is enraged. “And in public!You need a smack in the head—”

  St. Clair switches back to French. “I’d like to see you try. Here, in front of everyone.” He points at his cheek. “Why don’t you, Father?”

  “Why, you—”

  “Monsieur St. Clair!” A friendly woman in a low-cut dress calls from across the boulevard, and St. Clair and his father both turn in surprise.

  Monsieur St. Clair. She’s talking to his dad. That’s so weird.

  She strolls over and kisses his father on both cheeks. His father returns les bises, smiling graciously. His whole manner is transformed as he introduces her to his son. She looks surprised at the mention of a son, and St. Clair—Étienne—scowls. His father and the woman chat, and St. Clair is forgotten. He crosses his arms. Uncrosses them. Kicks his boots. Puts his hands in his pockets, takes them out.

  A lump rises in my throat.

  His father keeps flirting with the woman. She touches his shoulder and leans into him. He flashes a brilliant grin, a dazzling grin—St. Clair’s grin—and it’s odd to see it on another person’s face. And that’s when I realize what Mer and Josh said is true. His father is charming. He has that natural charisma, just like his son. The woman continues to flirt, and St. Clair trudges away. They don’t notice. Is he crying? I lean forward for a better look and find him staring right at me.

  Oh, no. Oh no oh no oh NO.

  He stops. “Anna?”

  “Um. Hi.” My face is on fire. I want to rewind this reel, shut it off, destroy it.

  His expression runs from confusion to anger. “Were you listening to that?”

  “I’m sorry—”

  “I can’t believe you were eavesdropping!”

  “It was an accident. I was passing by, and . . . you were there. And I’ve heard so much about your father, and I was curious. I’m sorry.”

  “Well,” he says, “I hope what you saw met your grandest expectations.” He stalks past me, but I grab his arm.

  “Wait! I don’t even speak French, remember?”

  “Do you promise,” he says slowly, “that you didn’t understand a single word of our conversation?”

  I let go of him. “No. I heard you. I heard the whole thing.”

  St. Clair doesn’t move. He glares at the sidewalk, but he’s not mad. He’s embarrassed.

  “Hey.” I touch his hand. “It’s okay.”

  “Anna, there’s nothing ‘okay’ about that.” He jerks his head toward his father, who is still flirting with the woman. Who still hasn’t noticed his son has disappeared.

  “No,” I say, thinking quickly. “But you once told me no one chooses their family. It’s true for you too, you know.”

  He stares at me so hard that I’m afraid I’ll stop breathing. I gather my courage and lace my arm through his. I lead him away. We walk for a block, and I ease him onto a bench beside a café with pale green shutters. A young boy, sitting inside, tugs at the curtains and watches us. “Tell me about your father.”

  He stiffens.

  “Tell me about your father,” I repeat.

  “I hate him.” His voice is quiet. “I hate him with every fiber of my being. I hate what he’s done to my mother and what he’s done to me. I hate that every time we meet, he’s with a different woman, and I hate that they all think he’s this wonderful, charming bloke, when really he’s a vicious bastard who’d sooner humiliate me than discuss my education rationally.”

  “He’s chosen your college for you. And that’s why you didn’t want to talk about it.”

  “He doesn’t want me to be near her. He wants to keep us apart, because when we’re together we’re stronger than he is.”

  I reach over and squeeze his hand. “St. Clair, you’re stronger than him now.”

  “You don’t understand.” He pulls his hand away from mine. “My mum and I depend on him. For everything! He has all of the money, and if we upset him, Mum is on the street.”

  I’m confused. “But what about her art?”

  He snorts. “There’s no money in that. And what money there was, my father has control over.”

  I’m silent for a moment. I’ve blamed so many of our problems on his unwillingness to talk, but that wasn’t fair. Not when the truth is so awful. Not when his father has been bullying him his whole life. “You have to stand up to him,” I say.

/>   “It’s easy for you to say—”

  “No, it’s not easy for me to say! It’s not easy for me to see you like this. But you can’t let him win.You have to be smarter than him, you have to beat him at his own game.”

  “His own game?” He gives a disgusted laugh. “No, thank you. I’d rather not play by his rules.”

  My mind is working in overdrive. “Listen to me, the second that woman showed up, his personality completely changed—”

  “Oh, you noticed, did you?”

  “Shut up and listen, St. Clair. This is what you’re gonna do. You’re going back there right now, and if she’s still there, you’re telling her how happy you are that he’s sending you to Berkeley.”

  He tries to interrupt, but I push forward. “And then you’re going to his art gallery, and you’re telling everyone who works there how happy you are that he’s sending you to Berkeley. Then you’re calling your grandparents, and you’re telling them how happy you are that he’s sending you to Berkeley. And then you’re telling his neighbors, his grocer, the man who sells him cigarettes, EVERYONE in his life how happy you are that he’s sending you to Berkeley.”

  He’s biting his thumbnail.

  “And he’ll be pissed as hell,” I say, “and I wouldn’t trade places with you for a second. But he’s clearly a man who believes in keeping up appearances. So what’s he gonna do? He’ll send you to Berkeley to save face.”

  St. Clair pauses. “It’s mad, but . . . it’s so mad it might work.”

  “You don’t always have to solve your problems alone, you know.This is why people talk to their friends.” I smile and widen my eyes for emphasis.

  He shakes his head, trying to speak.

  “GO,” I say. “Quick, while she’s still there!”

  St. Clair hesitates again, and I push him up. “Go. Go go go!”

  He rubs the back of his neck. “Thank you.”

  “Go.”

  He does.

  chapter forty-five

  Ireturn to Résidence Lambert. I’m anxious to know what’s happening, but St. Clair has to deal with his father on his own. He has to stand up for himself. The glass banana bead on my dresser snags my attention, and I cradle it in my hand. He’s given me so many gifts this year—the bead, the left-handed notebook, the Canadian flag. It feels good to have finally given him something back. I hope my idea works.

 
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