ANSEL WORKS, DOING his best to carve out whatever time for me he can, while I pretend my days with him and this novelty I’ve only just discovered, called “leisure time,” won’t soon be a thing of the past. Denial is my friend.
Whatever was bothering him seems to have righted itself; he’s happier, less anxious, our sex life has become decidedly more hot and less bumbling, and neither Perry nor his late night visit is mentioned again.
One morning he’s up before the sun, crashing around the tiny kitchen. But instead of kissing me goodbye and heading out the door, he pulls me out of bed and shoves an apple in one hand, a tiny cup of espresso in another, and tells me that we have a shared, free day; an entire Sunday stretching clear ahead of us. Thrill warms my blood and jolts me awake faster even than the pungent smell of coffee filling the small flat.
I bite into the fruit, smile as he packs us a picnic, and follow him back into the bedroom to watch him dress. I’m mesmerized by the way he so comfortably handles his own body as he pulls on boxers and then jeans, by the way his fingers slide each button through his shirt. I’m tempted to pull off his clothes just to watch him put them on all over again.
He looks up at me, catches me watching, and instead of owning it the way I want to, I blink away, look out the window, and swallow my espresso in one hot, perfect gulp.
“Why are you ever shy with me?” he asks, coming up behind me. “After what we did last night?”
Last night we had a lot of wine after not enough dinner and I was wild, pretending to be a movie star in town for only one night. He was my security guard, ushering me into his flat to protect . . . and then seduce me. It’s strange how such a simple question can be impossible to answer. I’m shy. It’s not a quality that comes out of me in certain situations, it’s my baseline. The magic isn’t why it appears with him; it’s how it so easily goes away.
But I know what he’s saying; I’m unpredictable in his presence. There are nights like the one earlier this week, where it’s easy to talk for hours—as if even as strangers we’ve known each other for years. And then there are moments like this when it should be easier than anything, and I turn away, letting the energy between us flounder.
I wonder if he thinks he married a girl with two personalities: vixen and wallflower. But before I can let the thoughts consume me, I feel the warm press of his lips to the back of my neck. “Today we pretend we’re on our first date, shy girl. I’m going to try to impress you, and maybe later you’ll let me kiss you good night.”
If he keeps sliding his hands up my sides the way he’s doing, and keeps sucking at the sensitive spot just below my ear, I might let him go all the way before we even get out of the apartment.
But he’s tired of being indoors, steering me to the dresser. He takes his turn watching me get dressed but doesn’t hide his open admiration as I pull on underwear, a bra, a white tank top, and a long, lapis jersey skirt. Once I’m dressed, he whistles softly and stands, moving close and cupping my face in his hands. With two fingertips he sweeps my dark bangs to the side so he can stare more clearly into my eyes. Back and forth, he searches.
“You’re truly the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” Kissing the corner of my mouth, he adds, “It still doesn’t feel real, does it?”
But then he smiles as if this truth—that I have only a few weeks left here—doesn’t bother him at all.
How do you do it? I want to ask him. How does the looming, dangling end of this amuse rather than weigh on you?
I FEEL ADORED and cocooned in the half circle of his arm around me as we drift past his motorcycle parked on the sidewalk and head toward the métro. His free hand carries the bag with our lunch and he swings it as he walks. He hums a song, saying hello to neighbors, bending to pet a dog on a leash. The puppy looks up at him with wide brown eyes, turning as if it wants to follow him home. You and me both, I think. It boggles enough that he chose the profession he did—law—but then didn’t do something wild and free with it like helping old ladies or being the fun law instructor who shouts and jumps on tabletops.
“Where are we going?” I ask, as we get on the train toward Châtillon.
“My favorite place.”
I bump his shoulder with mine, a playful reprimand for not telling me anything, but inside I love it. I love that he’s planned this, even if he only planned it as the sun rose this morning. We change trains at Invalides and the whole process feels so familiar—dodging other bodies through the tunnels, following signs, boarding another train without thinking anymore—that I’m struck with the painful thought that no matter how much it’s starting to feel that way, this place isn’t really my home.
For the first time since I arrived nearly a month ago, I know with absolute certainty that I don’t want to leave.
Ansel’s voice pulls my attention to the door. “Ici,” he murmurs, taking my hand and pulling me through when the double doors part with a blustery whoosh.
We rise out of the métro and walk a couple of blocks until the view appears and I stop without realizing it, my feet planted on the sidewalk.
I’d read of the Jardin des Plantes in the guidebooks Ansel would leave for me, or the tiny maps of Paris I would find tucked into my messenger bag. But in all my days exploring I still haven’t been and he must know that because here we are, standing in front of what must be the most beautiful garden I’ve ever seen.
It seems to stretch for miles, with lawns so green they seem nearly fluorescent, and flowers of colors I don’t think I’ve ever seen in nature before.
We walk along the winding paths, taking in all of it. Every flower that grows on French soil is represented in this garden, he tells me proudly, and in the distance I see the museums housed on the grounds: one each for evolution, mineralogy, paleontology, entomology. Such honest and pure sciences but couched in arches of marble and walls of glass, they remind everyone how noble they are.
Everything in my vision is earth and soil but so colorful my eyes never stop moving. Even as I stare at a thick bed of violet and lavender pansies, my attention is pulled farther down the path to a blinding patch of marigolds and zinnias.
“You should see the . . .” Ansel stops walking and hums, pressing two fingers to his lips as he thinks of the word in English. Although he rarely struggles to translate something, I can’t help lovingly obsessing over it when he does. It could be the little cluck of his tongue, or the way he usually gives up and says the word in soft, purring French anyway. “Coquelicots?” he says. “A delicate flower in the spring. Red, but also sometimes orange or yellow?”
I shake my head, uncertain.
“Before it blooms, the buds look like testicles.”
Laughing, I guess, “Poppy?”
He nods, snapping his finger and looking so pleased with me I may as well have planted all of these flowers here myself. “Poppy. You should see the poppies here in the spring.”
But the idea dissolves in the air between us and without our acknowledging it; he takes my hand again to keep walking.
He points out everything in front of us: flowers, trees, sidewalk, water, building, stone—and gives me the words in French, making me repeat them in a way that seems to grow more urgent, as if by weighing me down with knowledge I won’t be able to simply climb on a plane and lift off in a few weeks.
Inside the canvas bag, Ansel has packed bread and cheese, apples, and tiny chocolate cookies and we find a bench in the shade—we can’t picnic on the grass here—and devour the food as if we haven’t eaten in days. Being near him makes me hungry in so many aching, delicious ways, and when I watch him lift the bread from the bag, tear a bit off, and the muscles in his arm tense and pull with the movement, I wonder how he’ll touch me first when we get back to his apartment.
Will he use his hands? Or his lips and teeth in that teasing, nibbling way he has? Or will he be as impatient as I feel, pushing fabric aside just fast enough for him to be over me, inside me, moving urgently?
I close my eyes, savoring the sunshine and the feel of his fingers sliding across my back, curling around my shoulder. He talks for a while about what he loves about the park—the architecture, the history—and finally he lets words fall away as the birds take over for us, flapping and chattering in the trees overhead. For a perfect minute, I can imagine this endless life: sunny Sundays in the park with Ansel and the promise of his body all over mine when the sun goes down.
IT’S THE FIRST time we’ve been together for an entire day and we’re unable to undress, touch, have sex—which really is all we’ve known. After nearly eleven hours of walking and seeing everything we can fit into daylight, I’ve watched his lips pout his perfect words and his broad, skilled hands point to important buildings and his mischievous green eyes fixate on my lips and my body enough times that all I want now is to feel the weight of him moving on top of me.
I cling to the thought and the easy familiarity we’ve cultivated today as just us—Mia and Ansel—but as soon as we’re back in the apartment, he kisses the top of my head and pours me a glass of wine before powering up his laptop to check his work email, promising to be quick. While he sits at the small desk with his back to me, I tuck my legs beneath me on the couch, sipping my wine as I watch the tension gradually return to his shoulders. He fires off an email that must be heated because his fingers hammer on the keyboard and he clicks send, before leaning back in his chair and running a frustrated hand through his hair.
“Putain,” he curses on a tight exhale.
“Mmm?” He leans forward to rub his hands over his face.
“Come here, okay?”
He takes another deep breath before he stands, then walks over to me, but as soon as I look up at his face—his eyes are flat, his mouth pulled in a straight, exhausted line—I know the spell is broken and I’ll be going to bed alone. We’re back to real life, where his life is his mysterious, grueling job and I’m only temporary.
We’re back to playing house.
“It made more work for you, didn’t it,” I ask, “by taking today off?”
He shrugs, and reaches down to carefully pull my bottom lip between his thumb and index finger. “I don’t care.” He bends down, kisses my mouth, sucking on my lip before he pulls away. “But yes. I’ll need to go into the office quite early tomorrow.”
Tomorrow is Monday, and he’s behind on his week already.
“Why do you do it?” The words feel awkward on my tongue; our conversations about his job have mostly been his apologizing for working so much and me telling him I understand. But I absolutely don’t, and in this moment I’m mortified that I’ve never really asked him about it. Other than knowing he has a dragon-lady boss, and that this job will give him his pick of positions someday, I really have no idea what he does there.
“Because I won’t be able to find another good position if I leave this one so soon. This is very prestigious, you see. I need to see this lawsuit through.” He only needs to tell me a tiny bit about it—vague details about the corporations at war and the matter of intellectual property and sales tactics at the heart of the case—before I pull back to look at him in surprise.
I’ve heard of this lawsuit. I know the names of the two businesses going head-to-head. It’s such a big case it’s constantly on the news, in the papers. No wonder he’s working the hours he is.
“I had no idea,” I tell him. “How did you manage to go to Vegas?”
His fingers dig through his hair and he shrugs. “It was the only three weeks I wasn’t needed. They were gathering depositions, and I finally had a small break. It is much more normal to take a long vacation here in Europe than it is in the States, maybe.”
I pull him down on the couch next to me and he complies, but his posture tells me he’s only here for a minute. He’ll get up and return to his computer instead of following me into bed.
I run my hand down the front of his T-shirt and find myself looking forward to seeing him dressed for work tomorrow, and then immediately feel a tight knot of guilt form in my stomach. “Do you wear a suit and tie in the courtroom?”
Laughing, he bends and says into the skin of my neck, “I don’t go to court, but no, in court they wear a traditional robe. I’m the equivalent of a junior associate here. Corporate law in France is maybe a bit different from the States, though both are different from criminal law. Here, maybe more proceedings happen across a table.”
“If it’s different from the States, and you’re licensed to practice there, too . . . why did you come back here after law school?”
He hums, shaking his head a little as he kisses my jaw, and it’s the first time he hasn’t answered a question. I can’t tell if I’m disappointed or fascinated.
“I hope you’ll be done soon,” I tell him, pressing my hand to his face and, unable to resist, stroking his bottom lip with the pad of my thumb in his signature, soothing move. “I hope it won’t always be like this. I like it when you’re here with me.”
He closes his eyes, exhaling slowly as he smiles. “You sound like a real wife when you say that.”