Anna and the french kiss, p.26
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       Anna and the French Kiss, p.26
 

         Part #1 of Anna and the French Kiss series by Stephanie Perkins
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  I decide to pull out my homework. I’m flipping through my papers when I discover the assignment for English. Our last unit, poetry.The Neruda book. It sits on the shelf above my desk in the same place it’s been since Thanksgiving. Because it was a schoolbook, right? Just another gift?

  Wrong. So very, very wrong.

  I mean, it is a schoolbook, but it’s also love poetry. Really sexy love poetry. Why would he have given this to me if it didn’t mean anything? He could have given me the Banana Yoshimoto book. Or one of our translation textbooks.

  But he bought me love poetry.

  I flip back to the front, and the stamp stares at me. SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY, KILOMETER ZERO PARIS. And I’m back on the star, that first night. Falling in love with him. And I’m back on the star, over Thanksgiving break. Falling in love with him. And I’m back in my room, staring at this ill-timed book—Why didn’t he just tell me? Why didn’t I open this when he asked me about it last Christmas?—when I’m struck by a need to return to Point Zéro.

  I only have a few weeks left in Paris, and I still haven’t been inside of Notre-Dame. What am I doing in the dormitory on a Saturday afternoon? I yank on my shoes, run out of the building, and race down the boulevards at the speed of sound. I can’t get there fast enough. I have to be there. Now. I can’t explain it.

  The eyes of the city are fastened to me as I shoot across the Seine and onto the Île de la Cité, but this time, I don’t care. The cathedral is as breathtaking as ever. A crowd of tourists is gathered around Point Zéro, and I admire the star as I fly by, but I don’t wait for a turn, I just keep pushing pushing pushing forward until I’m inside.

  Once again, Paris leaves me awed.

  The high-vaulted ceiling, the intricate stained glass, the gold-and-marble statuary, the delicately carved woodwork . . . Notre-Dame is mesmerizing. Organ music and the murmurs of many languages surround me. The warm scent of burning candles fills the air. And I’ve never seen anything lovelier than the jewel-colored light shining through the rose windows.

  An enthusiastic tour guide passes behind me, waving his hands about. “Just imagine! In the early nineteenth century, this cathedral was in such a state of disrepair that the city considered tearing it down. Luckily for us, Victor Hugo heard about the plans to destroy it and wrote The Hunchback of Notre-Dame to raise awareness of its glorious history. And, by golly, did it work! Parisians campaigned to save it, and the building was repaired and polished to the pristine state you find today.”

  I smile as I leave them, wondering what building my dad would try to save with his writing. Probably a baseball stadium. Or a Burger King. I examine the high altar and the statues of the Virgin Mary. It’s peaceful, but I’m restless. I examine my visitor’s guide and my attention is snagged by the words Galerie des Chimères.

  The chimera. The gargoyles. Of course!

  I need to go up, I need to see the city while I still can. The entrance to the towers—to the top of Notre-Dame—is to the left of the main doors. While I’m paying to get in, I swear I hear someone call my name. I scan the courtyard but don’t see anyone familiar.

  So I climb the stairs.

  The first landing leads to a gift shop, so I keep going up. And up. And up. Oof. There sure are a lot of stairs. Holy crap, will these things ever end?

  Seriously?

  MORE STAIRS?

  This is ridiculous. I’m never buying a house with stairs. I won’t even have steps to my front door, just a gradual incline. With each step, I loathe the gargoyles more and more, until I reach the exit and—

  I’m really high up. I follow the tight walkway that leads from the NorthTower to the South.There’s my neighborhood! And the Panthéon! Its massive dome is impressive, even from here, but the tourists around me are snapping pictures of the gargoyles.

  No. Not gargoyles. Chimera.

  St. Clair once told me that what most people think of when they hear the word “gargoyle” is really a chimera. And gargoyles are these skinny things that stick straight out and are used as rain gutters. I don’t remember the purpose of the chimeras. Were they protecting the cathedral? A warning to demons? If he were here, he’d tell me the story again. I consider calling him, but he’s probably still busy with his father. He doesn’t need me bothering him with vocabulary questions.

  The Galerie des Chimères is pretty cool. The statues are half man and half beast, grotesque, fantastic creatures with beaks and wings and tails. My favorite holds his head in his hands and sticks out his tongue, contemplating the city. Or maybe he’s just frustrated. Or sad. I check out the belfry. And it’s . . . a big bell.

  What am I doing here?

  A guard waits beside another set of stairs. I take a deep breath. “Bonne soirée,” I say. He smiles and lets me pass. I squeeze inside. It’s a tight corkscrew, and the staircase grows narrower and narrower as I climb. The stone walls are cold. For the first time here, I’m paranoid about falling. I’m glad I’m alone. If someone came down, someone even a little bigger than me, I don’t know how we’d pass each other. My heart beats faster, my ears prick for footsteps, and I’m worried this was a mistake when—

  I’m there. I’m on top of Paris.

  Like the chimera gallery, there’s a protective wire structure to keep people from falling or jumping. And I’m so high up, that I’m grateful for it. I’m the only one here, so I sit on one of the quiet stone corners and watch the city.

  I’m leaving soon. I wonder what Dad would say if he could see me, melancholy about saying goodbye when I fought so hard to stay in Atlanta. He meant well. Observing the steady boats gliding down the Seine and the proud Eiffel Tower stretched above the Champ de Mars, I know this now. A noise on the stairwell startles me—a screech, followed by pounding feet. Someone is running up the stairs. And I’m alone.

  Relax, Anna. I’m sure it’s just a tourist.

  A running tourist?

  I prepare for the onslaught, and it doesn’t take long. A man bursts onto the viewing platform. He’s wearing teeny tiny running shorts and athletic sneakers. Did he just climb those stairs for fun? He doesn’t acknowledge me, just stretches, jogs in place for thirty seconds, and then bursts back down the stairs.

  That was weird.

  I’m settling back down when I hear another yell. I bolt up. Why would the running man be screaming? There’s someone else there, terrified by the runner, afraid of falling. I listen for more footsteps but don’t hear anything. Whoever it is has stopped. I think about St. Clair, about how frightened he is of heights. This person may be trapped. With growing dread, I realize perhaps someone did fall.

  I peek down the stairs. “Hello? Bonsoir? Ça va?” No response. I climb down a few spirals, wondering why it’s me doing this, not the guard. “Is someone there? Do you need help?”

  There’s a strange shifting, and I continue down cautiously. “Hello?” They must not speak English. I hear them panting. They’re just below me, just around this corner—

  I scream. He screams.

  chapter forty-six

  What the hell are you doing here? jeez, St. Clair! You scared the crap out of me.”

  He’s crouched down, gripping the stairs, and looking more freaked out than I’ve ever seen him before. “Then why did you come down?” he snaps.

  “I was trying to help. I heard a scream. I thought maybe someone was hurt.”

  His pale skin is beet red. “No. I’m not hurt.”

  “What are you doing here?” I ask again, but he’s silent. “At least let me help you.”

  He stands, and his legs wobble like a baby goat. “I’m fine.”

  “You’re not fine. You are clearly not fine. Give me your hand.”

  St. Clair resists, but I grab it and start herding him down. “Wait.” He glances up and swallows. “I want to see the top.”

  I give him a look that I hope is incredulous. “Sure you do.”

  “No,” he says with a new determination. “I want to see the top.”

  “Fine
, go.” I release his hand.

  He just stands there. I take his hand again. “Oh, come on.” Our climb is painful and slow. I’m thankful no one is behind us. We don’t speak, but his grip is crushing my fingers. “Almost there.You’re doing good, so good.”

  “Piss. Off.”

  I should push him back down.

  At last we reach the top. I let go of his hand, and he collapses to the ground. I give him a few minutes. “You okay?”

  “Yes,” he says miserably.

  And I’m not sure what to do. I’m stuck on a tiny roof in the center of Paris with my best friend, who is scared of heights and also apparently angry with me. And I have no idea why he’s even here in the first place. I take a seat, lock my eyes on the riverboats, and ask a third time. “What are you doing here?”

  He takes a deep breath. “I came for you.”

  “And how on EARTH did you know I was up here?”

  “I saw you.” He pauses. “I came to make another wish, and I was standing on Point Zéro when I saw you enter the tower. I called your name, and you looked around, but you didn’t see me.”

  “So you decided to just . . . come up?” I’m doubtful, despite the evidence in front of me. It must have taken superhuman strength for him to make it past the first flight of stairs alone.

  “I had to. I couldn’t wait for you to come down, I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to see you now. I have to know—”

  He breaks off, and my pulse races. What what what?

  “Why did you lie to me?”

  The question startles me. Not what I was expecting. Nor hoping. He’s still on the ground, but he stares up at me. His brown eyes are huge and heartbroken. I’m confused. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what—”

  “November. At the crêperie. I asked you if we’d talked about anything strange that night I was drunk in your room. If I had said anything about our relationship, or my relationship with Ellie. And you said no.”

  Oh my God. “How did you know?”

  “Josh told me.”

  “When?”

  “November.”

  I’m stunned. “I . . . I ...” My throat is dry. “If you’d seen the look on your face that day. In the restaurant. How could I possibly tell you? With your mother—”

  “But if you had, I wouldn’t have wasted all of these months. I thought you were turning me down. I thought you weren’t interested.”

  “But you were drunk! You had a girlfriend! What was I supposed to do? God, St. Clair, I didn’t even know if you meant it.”

  “Of course I meant it.” He stands, and his legs falter.

  “Careful!”

  Step. Step. Step. He toddles toward me, and I reach for his hand to guide him.We’re so close to the edge. He sits next to me and grips my hand harder. “I meant it, Anna. I mean it.”

  “I don’t under—”

  He’s exasperated. “I’m saying I’m in love with you! I’ve been in love with you this whole bleeding year!”

  My mind spins. “But Ellie—”

  “I cheated on her every day. In my mind, I thought of you in ways I shouldn’t have, again and again. She was nothing compared to you. I’ve never felt this way about anybody before—”

  “But—”

  “The first day of school.” He scoots closer. “We weren’t physics partners by accident. I saw Professeur Wakefield assigning lab partners based on where people were sitting, so I leaned forward to borrow a pencil from you at just the right moment so he’d think we were next to each other. Anna, I wanted to be your partner the first day.”

  “But ...” I can’t think straight.

  “I bought you love poetry! ‘I love you as certain dark things are loved, secretly, between the shadow and the soul.’”

  I blink at him.

  “Neruda. I starred the passage. God,” he moans. “Why didn’t you open it?”

  “Because you said it was for school.”

  “I said you were beautiful. I slept in your bed!”

  “You never made a move!You had a girlfriend!”

  “No matter what a terrible boyfriend I was, I wouldn’t actually cheat on her. But I thought you’d know. With me being there, I thought you’d know.”

  We’re going in circles. “How could I know if you never said anything?”

  “How could I know if you never said anything?”

  “You had Ellie!”

  “You had Toph! And Dave!”

  I’m speechless. I blink at the rooftops of Paris.

  He touches my cheek, pulling my gaze back to him. I suck in my breath.

  “Anna. I’m sorry for what happened in Luxembourg Gardens. Not because of the kiss—I’ve never had a kiss like that in my life—but because I didn’t tell you why I was running away. I chased after Meredith because of you.”

  Touch me again. Please, touch me again.

  “All I could think about was what that bastard did to you last Christmas. Toph never tried to explain or apologize. How could I do that to Mer? And I ought to have called you before I went to Ellie’s, but I was so anxious to just end it, once and for all, that I wasn’t thinking straight.”

  I reach for him. “St. Clair—”

  He pulls back. “And that. Why don’t you call me Étienne anymore?”

  “But . . . no one else calls you that. It was weird. Right?”

  “No. It wasn’t.” His expression saddens. “And every time you say ‘St. Clair,’ it’s like you’re rejecting me again.”

  “I have never rejected you.”

  “But you have. And for Dave.” His tone is venomous.

  “And you rejected me for Ellie on my birthday. I don’t understand. If you liked me so much, why didn’t you break up with her?”

  He gazes at the river. “I’ve been confused. I’ve been so stupid.”

  “Yes.You have.”

  “I deserve that.”

  “Yes. You do.” I pause. “But I’ve been stupid, too. You were right. About . . . the alone thing.”

  We sit in silence. “I’ve been thinking lately,” he says after a while. “About me mum and dad. How she gives in to him. How she won’t leave him. And as much as I love her, I hate her for it. I don’t understand why she won’t stand up for herself, why she won’t go for what she wants. But I’ve been doing the same thing. I’m just like her.”

  I shake my head. “You aren’t like your mom.”

  “I am. But I don’t want to be like that anymore, I want what I want.” He turns to me again, his face anxious. “I told my father’s friends that I’m studying at Berkeley next year. It worked. He’s really, really angry with me, but it worked.You told me to go for his pride.You were right.”

  “So.” I’m cautious, hardly daring to believe. “You’re moving to California?”

  “I have to.”

  “Right.” I swallow hard. “Because of your mom.”

  “Because of you. I’ll only be a twenty-minute train ride from your school, and I’ll make the commute to see you every night. I’d take a commute ten times that just to be with you every night.”

  His words are too perfect. It must be a misunderstanding, surely I’m misunderstanding—

  “You’re the most incredible girl I’ve ever known. You’re gorgeous and smart, and you make me laugh like no one else can. And I can talk to you. And I know after all this I don’t deserve you, but what I’m trying to say is that I love you, Anna. Very much.”

  I’m holding my breath. I can’t talk, but my eyes are filling with tears.

  He takes it the wrong way. “Oh God. And I’ve mucked things up again, haven’t I? I didn’t mean to attack you like this. I mean I did but . . . all right.” His voice cracks. “I’ll leave. Or you can go down first, and then I’ll come down, and I promise I’ll never bother you again—”

  He starts to stand, but I grab his arm. “No!”

  His body freezes. “I’m so sorry,” he says. “I never meant to hurt you.”

  I trail my fingers across
his cheek. He stays perfectly still for me. “Please stop apologizing, Étienne.”

  “Say my name again,” he whispers.

  I close my eyes and lean forward. “Étienne.”

  He takes my hands into his.Those perfect hands, that fit mine just so. “Anna?”

  Our foreheads touch. “Yes?”

  “Will you please tell me you love me? I’m dying here.”

  And then we’re laughing. And then I’m in his arms, and we’re kissing, at first quickly—to make up for lost time—and then slowly, because we have all the time in the world. And his lips are soft and honey sweet, and the careful, passionate way he moves them against my own says that he savors the way I taste, too.

  And in between kisses, I tell him I love him.

  Again and again and again.

  chapter forty-seven

  Rashmi clears her throat and glares at us.

  “Seriously,” Josh says. “We were never like that, were we?”

  Mer groans and chucks her pen at him. Josh and Rashmi have broken up. In a way, it’s strange they waited this long. It seemed inevitable, but then again, so did other things. And those things took a while, too.

  They’ve split as amicably as possible. It didn’t make sense for them to keep this up long distance.They both seem relieved. Rashmi’s excited about Brown, and Josh . . . well, he still has to come to terms with the fact that we’re leaving and he’s staying. And he is staying. He squeaked by again, barely. He’s losing himself in his drawings, and his hands are in a constant state of cramps.Truthfully, I’m worried. I know how it feels to be alone. But Josh is an attractive, funny guy. He’ll make new friends.

  We’re studying for exams in my room. It’s dusk, and a warm breeze blows my curtains. Summer is almost here. I’ll see Bridge again soon. I received a new email from her. Things are shaky, but we’re trying. I’ll take that.

 
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