Chantal takes me in a taxi to the station. I decided on the mid-morning TGV to Milan, and we get to the Gare de Lyon with enough time for me to buy my ticket – it’s the first time in my life I’m buying a ticket somewhere with my own money – and say our teary good-byes and get settled on the train.
The moment feels as momentous to me as it did when I first decided to run away and hitch to New York City. Even more, and even more momentous than the Thanksgiving night when Sid picked me up near my home and spirited me away from my parents and my old life, the night that led me to where I find myself today. And let me tell you, those times were pretty damned momentous.
I have seven hours to think about the weeks leading up to this point, and still enough time left over to contemplate what might lie ahead. I need the time, the break in time and place, to change my mental gears, and the gears in my heart, since I don’t have Chantal’s ability to change gears in an instant.
“Live your life well, chérie,” Chantal tells me standing on the platform by the train, the depth of her green eyes locked on mine. “You may forget me, in time, but know in your heart you will always have a place with me, should you ever need it.”
“I can never forget you, Chantal. Never in a million times a million years. How can I forget my own sister?”
We both laugh at that, nervously, even sadly, if a laugh can be sad, knowing without saying it that, even as sisters, we might never see one another again. But our memories and our feelings will be there, in our hearts, always. I know, I’m sure we both do, those will never go away.
Our parting kiss is every bit as sweet, if it’s now bittersweet, as our first kiss, that kiss standing inside Chantal’s door, inside the door Chantal opened for me that night of the Perforation Mexicans and that I chose to go through. And now the door I’m choosing to go back through, back through to another lover, other lips, other kisses, other pleasures and, almost certainly, other sorrows.
As the French countryside flashes by outside the train window, the window that lets the light through in ways both different from and yet reminiscent of the light that comes through the windows of our favorite cafe, Chantal’s and my favorite Sunday morning meeting spot, my mind traverses the events of the past weeks since I resolved to go to Mario. And unlike the train in Thailand, there’s no clackety-clack on this train. It’s just all speed, all a rush, forward.
After that conversation with Mario, and the one that followed with Sid, I knew it was time to tell Chantal. As proud of me as she’d be for what I’d done with Sid, I knew she’d have misgivings about what I contemplated with Mario. I had to keep reminding myself that both these things were my business, my decision, my choice, and Chantal would just have to accept them.
“You’re a big girl, Rosie. You can do this.”
That’s what I kept repeating in my head, like a mantra, all the way back to Chantal’s apartment that day, all the time I spent at the piano that afternoon and evening, all the way up until the moment I found myself naked in her bed with my lover, my friend, my mother, and now my sister, Chantal.
It would have been easy, mantra or not, to let it slide. Boy, would it ever. But to what end? It would only put off, however briefly, the inevitable, like putting off an operation you know you have to have, and it wouldn’t change a thing. Unless I went back on my decision, but I knew I’d come too far to do that. Besides, Chantal is way too much of an eagle to not sense I was keeping something from her, and that’s the last thing I wanted.
Before she could even kiss me, knowing so well the power of those lips of hers, I began.
“Chantal, I’ve got something to tell you. Part of it you’ll like, and part of it you might not. You probably won’t.”
“Oh, mon oisillon. This must be important. You say this even before we kiss. Alors, s’il te plaît, what is it? Do tell me.”
She laid back a bit away from me, her delicious body open to my view, but she never took her eyes from mine. If I had any doubts before, I knew now this wasn’t going to be easy.
“Okay. Let me tell you the part you’ll like first. I told Sid to shove it. We spoke on the phone today, and I told him I wanted a break and he didn’t have a choice about it. He wasn’t happy about it, to put it mildly, but he knew I meant it. The prisoner took the keys and let herself out of the cell.”
“That is very good news, chérie. It sounds like you finally decided. I can barely believe it.”
“Thanks, Chantal. I thought you’d be happy to hear that. I told him if he ever threatened or hurt anyone I cared about, if he so much as went near them, I’d fuck him like he’s never been fucked before. And that includes you, Chantal, my aunt, even my parents. Anyone. Are you proud of me, Chantal? Are you?”
“Mais oui. Bien sûr, I am proud of you. Et bravo, mille fois bravo, my brave little bird. I knew you could do it. I just wasn’t sure you would, but you have. I am so happy for you.”
She reaches across the bed and embraces me. I let her, and hug her back, until she’s ready to ask for the other part.
“Now what is this other news, this news I may not like? I’m afraid to even guess, so do tell me that, too.”
“Okay. First, I want you to know that this isn’t a rejection of you. I know, in effect, it seems to be, but that’s not why I’m doing it. You’re so special to me, Chantal, and I could never reject you. I’m just so sorry this might cause you pain.”
“This does sound serious, ma chère. Go on.”
“Well, all right. I haven’t told you since I didn’t know what would come of it, I really didn’t, but I’ve been speaking with him every day on the phone, on a pay phone, not Sid’s cell, and Mario has asked me to come be with him. Not just for a visit. To live with him. In Italy. And I think he really means it, Chantal. I really do.”
Chantal’s look, that look meant only for me, got more intense, and again I saw that sadness in her eyes. I was half-expecting her to hate me, to be angry, but all that was there in her eyes was sadness. And maybe disappointment.
“Go on, chérie.”
“Well, Mario didn’t pressure me, but he just made it sound, he made a life with him sound, so much like something I could only dream about. And, yeah, I know all about how if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But something tells me this is good, and true. Maybe I’m wrong, and I’ll admit it if I am. I’m so sorry if this hurts you, Chantal. But as you’ve said, I have to make my own decision.”
“And that decision is?”
“I’m going to Mario, Chantal. To be with him. Maybe it will work out, maybe not, but if I don’t go I’ll never know. And I can’t live with that feeling of ’what if?’. I just can’t.”
First there was the inevitable silence. And than a deep sigh. And then the words I knew had to follow.
“I see. And what of the ‘what if?’ with me? Or with Bernard? There are other ’what if?’s, are there not?”
Now it was my turn to be silent. Chantal had a point, and I couldn’t just dismiss it. She also confirmed to me what I already suspected, that she had dreams for me, not just with her, but with Bernard, too. And now in a few sentences, lying naked with her in her own bed, I was shattering them.
“You’re right, Chantal. I’d be a fool and a liar – well, I guess I’m already those things – to deny the truth of what you’re saying. I wish I could have all the ’what if’s of my life. Believe me, I didn’t jump to this conclusion. I considered it very carefully. But as much as you mean to me, and you do, Chantal, I just can’t see myself staying here with you. Not permanently. I can’t see myself as one of your girls, and I can’t see myself as your secret lover, and I won’t be a burden to you. I need to find some sort of permanence, and I’m hoping maybe I can find it with Mario. At least I have to find out. I hope you can understand what I’m saying.”
“I admit, chérie, this doesn’t come as a total surprise to me. I knew you had other thoughts in mind.”
“You did, Chantal? You seem to know what I’m thinking even before I do. But please, Chantal, you must understand that as much as I’ve tried not to, and I have, even I know sometimes you just have to choose. Hard as it is, and it is, perhaps harder than anything I’ve ever done, that’s what I’m doing.”
Without expecting it, my mind flashed back to that Sunday, that Fourth of July Sunday, which seemed so far away now, after we had made love for the first time, and Chantal’s words to me.
“Chantal, do you remember what you told me once? Back at the beginning? How life is but a series of trade-offs, how we make one decision and, with it, we close off another? It was you who told me that. I guess that’s what this is.”
More silence. And then Chantal spoke again, the deep sadness of her eyes relenting just a bit.
“D’accord, ma choupette. It is hard for me to hear this. I, too, would be a liar not to admit this. But yes, I did say that, and it is true. I do understand. And you are right. Sometimes it is necessary to choose between two paths that both may be good. One cannot take both, so one must choose or forever be stuck at the junction. I don’t want you stuck, my sweet little brave bird. I told you the cage door was open. So I give you my blessing. Not that you need it. But I don’t want you looking back and fearing you took the wrong path.”
“Really, Chantal? Really? I don’t know what to say. I really don’t. I’m just so relieved. I was sure you’d tell me I was an idiot and I’d learn my lesson the hard way.”
“Oh, you might yet, of course. I’m not saying you won’t, not that I wish it on you. But of all the clients you could have chosen, I think Mario is the best choice. He is a sweet man, and a kind man, at least as far as I’ve known him, and if he says he has feelings for you, I would believe him more than most of my clients. I also know he is single. And it is good you’ll leave Paris since the break will be cleaner. It will be harder for Sid to find you, and easier for me and perhaps you, too.”
“You’ll lose your naked piano player, though, Chantal. Don’t think I haven’t thought about that.”
“Don’t even concern yourself with that. I didn’t have one before you and I can always find another after you go. I am sure there are many girls in Paris who play the piano who would be happy to take off their clothes to be paid what I pay you.”
“Always the businesswoman, aren’t you, Chantal?”
“One must be practical, n’est-ce pas, even at times of adversity? Especially at such times, yes?”
“A lesson Simon taught you, right?”
“But I bet you can’t find one as special as me.”
“Ah, about that, you might be right. But let’s not confuse business with pleasure. Now may I kiss you, mon petit oiseau?”
And so I had Chantal’s blessing, which meant so much to me. And her delicious lips on mine, to seal the deal.
Along with the other clients I saw in those last weeks, I saw Bernard twice more. Chantal was giving back so much of the money she was making on me and I knew, along with building my freedom fund, she wanted me to grow fond of Bernard, more than fond of just his prodigious cock, which was beyond doubt, and he fond of me. I had little doubt that she was presenting me with another of those hopeless choices, the freedom to flee and the desire not to. And if I was to be with a man, what better man than her own angel, her own brother? If I was with Bernard, she could have her cake with me and eat it, too.
As the harvested fields of France rush by at amazing speed, I think back on those times with Bernard, those times after I learned he was Chantal’s brother and, in effect, according to her theory, I was fucking my own brother. And how wonderful they were. These are times I surely will miss, and sadly I doubt Mario will be able to, as it were, fill-in for Bernard.
“Bernard, before we start, I need to ask you something. I understand you’re Chantal’s brother. Her real brother. Yes?”
That’s what I said to him when we got to the room the next time I saw him after I learned of the relationship, before either of us was naked, before we engaged in what he came for. I just had to ask him and hear it from him, too. His English isn’t as good as Chantal’s, but I knew he understood me.
“She told you?”
“Yes, she did. I have to admit, I was shocked at first. But now I understand why she would do this for you.”
“She is a very good sister.”
“She certainly is. I bet most guys wish they had a sister like Chantal.”
“Bien sûr. Does this bother you, Rosie?”
“No, not any more. Now that I understand it. Do you know what she told me? She told me that, since you deposited your DNA in me, we’re all like brothers and sisters now. So you’re like my brother, and she like my sister, and me like sister to both of you. Does that bother you?”
“Non, pas du tout. She sees things that way. I think it just makes it more special, extraordinaire, non?”
“You do? I’m happy for that. And yes, I think it does. Make it special. I’ve never had a brother or sister before, and so that is very special to me. Important, even.”
“Oui, of course.”
“And you know, you must know, Bernard, that Chantal and I are lovers, too, yes?”
“Yes, she told me.”
“So, you know, the three of us, we’re all kind of joined together, yes? God, it’s all so freaky, but I love it. It means so much to me.”
“Yes, you are right. It is, as you say, freaky, but I don’t object. We are very close, Chantal and I, so why should we hold this back? I am pleased to give my seed to you, Rosie, my new sister, and my lover. Shall we begin?”
And we did. Wow, did we ever. That time, and the other time. And Bernard filled me with that magnificent queue, that giant tail of his that erupted from his groin, and with the rivers of seed that flowed from it. And how I loved it. And I think now how hard it is, more than even I anticipated, to leave it behind. I will miss Bernard, and Chantal, and they will always be special to me, my brother and sister, as I go on to my new man, the man that holds such promise for me. And if things don’t work out with Mario, if my plan falters, a girl could do worse than go back to lovers like Chantal and Bernard.
After some time and a few brief stops, the train slows down as we get close to the mountains, and then we enter a long tunnel. I didn’t even know tunnels like this existed, and for the next seven minutes we’re in the dark as we pass through the Fréjus Rail Tunnel, as the conductor tells me it is, right under the Alps. The frigging Alps! Can you believe it? And when we emerge on the other side, we’re in Italy. In Italy. And I can’t believe that. I’ve never been in Italy before, and I’m so excited I’ve finally made it this far. Not that the trip is over.
I go find something to eat, and then it’s almost 6 when the train finally pulls into the Milan station. The weather has turned gray, not rainy, but not bright and sunny as I expected Italy to be and as it was for much of the trip before the tunnel. And as much as I’m glad when long journeys are over, it would be easier for me for this one to just go on and on, and the TGV never to get to Milan. But here I am, and it’s time to get off the bloody train and go see if Mario actually shows up.
I schlep my bags off the train and onto the platform, and damn, if I don’t recognize Mario standing there, about thirty steps away, a bouquet of flowers of every color in his hands and a sign, an actual sign, with my name on it in big bright red letters. And a big shit-eating grin on his pretty face. You could have knocked me over right then and there, and all it would have taken was a feather.
People rush by me as I pull my bags, that overnight bag and another bigger suitcase with my other stuff, behind me, my ever-present backpack on my shoulder. I’ve got all my belongings with me now, all except that slinky dark dress that I decided to leave in Chantal’s closet as a reminder to her of me, and to me, that I always have a place and a lover and a dress to go back to in Paris. I can see her taking it out of her closet every now and then to breathe in my scent and think of me.
Mario doesn’t rush to me to help me with my bags, and I’m actually happy he doesn’t. I don’t want him to be a puppy dog, and I want to feel that it’s me coming to him. But there he is, in the flesh as it were, as I come up to him. I hate to admit it, but I’m smiling, too. Maybe not the big shit-eating grin kind of smile, but a real smile, and I’m honestly at least as happy as relieved to see him there on the platform.
“Benvenuti in Italia, mia cara Rosie.”
Those are his first words to me. And, man, do I feel welcome. Do I ever. Even before either of us has the urge to kiss, before we feel familiar enough to do that. Welcome, and relieved. So relieved. I’m not alone in a train station in a strange city. At least that.
“Grazie, molte grazie, Mario. Sono felice di essere qui.”
I’ve been practicing my Italian, and this about represents the total sum of what I learned so far, not counting words for foods and the Italian words everyone just kinda knows.
“Molto bene. These are for you, my traveling friend. To welcome you and show you but a little of my feeling for you.”
Mario hands me the bouquet, and I take the flowers in my hands, now free of the baggage, and give them a deep sniff. My first smell of Italy. And I’m touched that Mario called me his friend. Not his lover or his baby or his darling, all of which I hope to be and assume I am, too. But his friend. That means so much to me. I have not left a friend to come to a stranger, but have gone from one friend to another. At least that is my hope.
“They’re lovely, Mario. I’m touched. I wasn’t expecting flowers. I don’t think anyone has ever given me any before. Well, one time, after a school play, when I was Juliet, my dad came on stage and gave me roses. That’s the only other time. It was the last nice thing my dad did for me.”
I can’t believe I said this. Definitely TMI, but I’m truly touched and kind of babbly at this point.
“No? Well, they should have. You deserve flowers.”
At that Mario reaches out and pulls me to him and he gives me a big hug, an embrace that I return, let linger, feeling safe and wanted in his arms. It’s our first hug since at Chantal’s the look-but-don’t-touch rule applied. We linger like that, longer than two strangers meeting on a train platform. When we break the hug I’m nearly breathless. Mario smiles as he stands back and looks at me, his eyes glinting in the artificial light.
“Did you have a good trip?”
“It was, as is said, uneventful. So yes, it was a good trip. And wow, that tunnel! I had no idea there were tunnels like that. It was like going through the center of the earth.”
“Yes, it is remarkable. A very old tunnel for a very new train. And you already have gotten to see some of Italy.”
“I have. It got kind of cloudy on this side of the Alps, which I wasn’t expecting. Isn’t Italy supposed to be sunny?”
“Ah, yes. We do have our sun. You will see. But we have all kinds of weather, as you also will see. Are you ready to come see the place where you will be living? And how bella it is?”
“Yup, Mario. I’m ready. I can hardly wait. You painted such a beautiful picture of it on the phone.”
“I hope you are not disappointed.”
He takes my bigger suitcase in hand, pulling it behind him as we make our way through a much more modern station than I left from, and I pull the carry-on with one hand and hold the flowers, which I periodically draw sniffs from, in the other. It feels like a joint effort more than Mario just carrying me along, and I like that, letting my independent streak come out.
Traffic is heavy and crazy as we drive out of Milan. Mario has a big Lancia, a kind of turquoise color, as it turns out – he says it reminds him of the lake he lives beside – and he drives it with more precision than many of the other drivers drive their cars. Especially the taxi cabs, which career all around us near the station and on the city streets beyond it. We make our way to the outskirts of the city, and then get on an autostrada which speeds us north through the countryside.
Milan seems to be a big city, not terribly graceful, and I’m glad Mario doesn’t live in it. I’m done with cities for awhile.
It’s funny, but our conversation in person is a little more strained than it was on the phone all those days. I guess we’re both nervous, I know I am, and meeting someone in person is always different than talking to them long distance. Of course, I remember Mario from when he was at my side on the piano bench at Chantal’s, and I have to giggle when I think this is the first time he’s seeing me with clothes on.
“Something is amusing you, Rosie? Would you like to tell me what it is?”
I tell him, and he laughs, too.
“Yes, that is true. Of course, you are just as beautiful with clothes on as without them. Though personally, I prefer you without them.”
“I can take them off here in the car for you, if you like.”
“You would do that? You are a crazy girl, cara Rosie.”
“Is that a problem?”
“No, no, not at all. I do enjoy that part of you. But I think for now you should keep your clothes on. Not everyone is so understanding as I am, nor can they appreciate the beauty of a naked young girl in a car on the highway. There will be time enough when we get to my house and we are behind closed doors.”
It’s part of what I like about Mario. He can appreciate craziness, but he doesn’t insist on it and he knows there are times when it’s best to keep it hidden away. I think we might make a good team. Now where have I heard that before?
By the time we get to the lake it’s dark. In the light of a half moon I see the form of the mountains that overlook the lake, just as Mario described them. It’s still more than half an hour to Mario’s house, following the road that skirts along the shore, and I’m again breathless as we pass small villages and houses that cling to the hillside between the road and the water, and higher up, above the road and away from the lake.
Something tells me I’m going to like it here.