The house is pulsing with energy. A flurry of heels clacking and gowns fluttering on the marble floor, the laughs and chatters of the guests mix with the lively tune of the violins that accompanies the party. Agnese observes the scene from the threshold of an empty room. It’s as beautiful as it is overwhelming.
She takes a deep breath, lets go of the fabric of her dress that she had crumpled in her hand and smooths it out. Her back stands straight. Still, her nerves don’t ease up, stopping her from stepping into the scene. She knows maybe half of the people in the room, something she isn’t sure should reassure her or trouble her even more.
Her eyes search the room, looking for the only person she cares about.
“Are you hiding from your own party?”
The sudden voice behind her makes Agnese jump. She turns around and her startled expression becomes an annoyed frown when she sees the grin on Nicola’s face.
“I told you not to sneak up behind me,” she says, marking her words with a push to his chest. Nicola’s smile widens.
“Maybe I’m hiding, too.”
“Right. Your house has fifty-three rooms. You just happened to pick the one I was in.”
“I know, aren’t I a lucky man?”
Agnese rolls her eyes, but she cannot stop the small curling of her lips. She looks at Nicola and the knot of nerves in her stomach loosens up for a moment.
It cramps back up when an eruption of loud laughs resonates from the main hall. It grips Agnese’s attention and makes her turn to look at the party again.
Agnese realizes how tense she is only when Nicola squeezes gently at her shoulder and a light shiver runs through her body. She inhales heavily and meets his stare again. It has softened, his eyes have taken on that calming warmth she is so enamored with.
“Are you okay?” he asks, his voice just as gentle.
“I’m nervous,” she confesses.
“Because of all the people?”
“I’m sorry,” Nicola says, clenching his jaw like he always does whenever something frustrates him. “It’s Ettore’s fault. I told him we wanted a quiet celebration.”
Agnese frowns, itching to let out a snappy remark about Nicola’s godfather and his commanding attitude. She says nothing, though, and just shakes her head, drawing closer to Nicola.
“You don’t have to apologize. I know it’s expected. It’s just…” She pauses, trying to find the right word to describe what’s troubling her so much. “Intimidating,” she eventually settles on. “And this is just the engagement party. At this rate, Ettore is going to invite the whole city to our wedding.”
“You know what he’s like.”
“I’ll make sure of it,” Nicola insists. He cups her cheek, rubbing softly at her skin with his thumb. “It’s our wedding,” he says. “Our wedding.”
Agnese closes her eyes and leans into his hand, instantly soothed by the familiar warmth of his touch. She wishes it could be just this, just the two of them together. No noise, no rules, no expectations.
“Some of them are just here to talk,” she hears herself whisper. The slightest twitch runs through Nicola’s palm at her words. It’s barely there, but she still feels it, and immediately regrets saying anything at all. When she opens her eyes, she finds Nicola staring at her. His eyes are as focused as they are patient, waiting for her to elaborate even when they both know what she is talking about.
“A woman of a higher status wouldn’t hide from her own engagement party,” she says, more bitterly than she meant to. Other people’s opinions never bothered her much, but the brutality of society’s elite is insidious. She never thought that it would be at the highest of her happiness that some people would try to make her feel so small. But aristocracy is unforgiving, even against itself, and a difference in title meant she became no more worthy than a peasant once Nicola asked for her hand.
“I’m sorry to mention this again,” she sighs. “Especially today.”
Nicola shakes his head.
“Don’t apologize.” He fixes one of her dark curls behind her ear before his hand finds its place again on her jaw. “But I don’t want a woman of a higher status.”
“Let them talk. Let them say whatever they want to say, their words have no weight. They’ll be even more insignificant once we are married.”
“It’s easy for you to say that.”
Nicola grows quiet after her comment. His gaze drifts away from her for a moment, and he furrows his brow pensively, a crease appearing at the center of his forehead. She wants to get on her tips and kiss it, she wants to kiss away all the concerns that have nothing to do with them.
“You’re right,” he eventually says, finding her again with his gaze. “It’s easier for me. And I wish it was easy for you, too.”
Agnese feels her heart swell in her chest. In all the years they’ve known each other, not once has he dismissed her thoughts or feelings. She wishes she could make him understand, deeply, viscerally, just how rare that is.
Suddenly, Nicola smiles.
“My offer still stands,” he says. “Just say the words, and we’ll get out of here. We’ll go to the hermitage of Santa Caterina and it will be just us and God.”
He is grinning, a happy, almost childish smile that makes his eyes glimmer. Agnese is entranced by it.
“We don’t need a big ceremony, especially if it bothers you.” He takes her hands in his and brings them to his lips, gently kissing her knuckles. “I just want to be with you. And to make you happy.”
Agnese feels the prickling of tears behind her eyes. She is overwhelmed again, but this time, she welcomes the feeling. She bathes in it and lets it engulf her, because Nicola shows her every day, but she is never going to get used to the honesty and tenderness of his love.
She frees her hands from his delicate hold and cradles his face. His lips are soft when she kisses him, warm and delicate, and she cannot help but close her eyes and linger, addicted to the feeling. Nicola is just as unhurried. He pulls her in, his fingers curl around the back of her neck, and Agnese still quivers like the first time he kissed her.
Her heartbeat ticks up at the thought of their wedding night, and every night afterwards, when their kisses no longer have to be so chaste, their touches no longer hidden and fleeting.
When they break the kiss and he opens his eyes, the green in his irises has darkened and his longing stare makes her want to take off her dress and ruin her reputation right there.
“What was that for?” he asks after a moment, a faint blush rising to his cheeks.
“I don’t need a reason.”
“Right,” he laughs. “Well, you know I’m at your service, my lady. For anything.”
He makes a small bow and she nudges at him again, laughing with him. A fond smile lingers on her face as she looks at him. She pushes his hair out his forehead, messy even on a night like this, and rests her hand on his cheek.
“You’re so good, Nicola,” she whispers, only more certain of her words when she sees the surprised and immediately tender expression that appears on his face. She hesitates, but after a breath she says, “Your father would be proud of you.”
A flash of hurt darkens his eyes, grief and something running deeper, unresolved.
“I’m not so sure about that,” he says with a sad smile. “We stopped seeing eye to eye long before his death.”
“I am,” she insists. “Any father would be proud to have a son like you. And I’m proud of you, too.” She holds his face in her hands, making sure he looks at her and sees in her eyes how truthful she is being. “I’m proud of loving you.”
Nicola holds her gaze, soft and reassuring, and slowly, the sadness fades away from his eyes. A grateful smile tinges his lips, and he covers her hand with his, caressing her down to her wrist.
“Let’s do this together.”
Agnese smiles and nods. She steals one brief, final kiss and takes Nicola’s arm. As they step into the room, her nerves remain, but Nicola steadies her.
The party grows only more lively and vibrant as the hours go by. Nicola and Agnese are greeted by cheers and applauses, and then it’s a swirling of people coming and going to personally pay tribute to them. Nicola is courteous and amiable with all of them, his joviality is infectious and soon Agnese finds herself relaxing.
“Who were they?” she whispers to Nicola once a pompously dressed couple who spent over twenty minutes conversing with them walks away.
“I have no clue,” he shrugs. They glance at each other and it’s a challenge at who does the worst job at holding back giggles. Agnese inches her hand towards his, searching. Their fingers brush and intertwine for a moment. Then, another group joins them and they pull back into the confinements of appropriateness.
They get a break once the dancing starts, the guests too busy enjoying themselves to focus all their attention on the couple. It is Ettore who interrupts their momentary privacy again, drunkenly dragging Nicola away before either can do anything about it. Agnese chuckles at the distinctly desperate look Nicola throws at her before disappearing into the crowd.
Left to herself, she stands by the wall, drinking wine and observing the guests from the comfort of temporary invisibility. The orchestra starts playing a known tune and she closes her eyes, letting the music transport her.
“Do you enjoy the suite?”
Agnese’s eyes fly open again. She turns towards the sudden voice and finds a woman is now standing next to her. She is of advanced age, Agnese cannot imagine her younger than fifty, but her features, though marked by the lines of time, are more striking than those of any young lady in the room.
She is taller than most women, too, Agnese has to tilt her head to be able to meet her stare. Blonde hair made lighter by thin, silver streaks, piercing green eyes veering towards grey. Stunning, in that way that brands itself into one’s mind. Agnese has never seen her before but there is something familiar about her face.
It’s only when one sharp eyebrow quirks up, inquiring, that Agnese remembers she was asked a question.
“Greatly. Do you know it?”
The woman nods.
“I do. Handel’s music speaks to the soul.”
Her Italian is thick with a French accent.
“Nicola adores him, he is the one who introduced me to his music. I fell in love with it right away.”
Something flickers in the woman’s eyes, a glimmer of an unspoken emotion that Agnese can’t get a read on. She says nothing, though, and silence stretches between them until Agnese feels compelled to break it.
“Are you enjoying the party?” she asks. The woman blinks and her expression changes entirely, just as hard to decipher.
“I keep to myself.” She tilts her head, stares intently at Agnese. “A bit like you.”
Agnese stiffens. She feels exposed, having the truth spoken so bluntly to her, caught doing something she shouldn’t have. Her mouth opens, she itches to deny it, but an amused smirk grazes the woman’s lips and it’s enough for Agnese to realize how pointless it would be.
“Is it very noticeable?” she asks instead, turning fully towards her. There is something relieving about not having to pretend.
“The only thing they’re noticing is how beautiful you are. That’s what they care about.”
“Then why do I feel I’m being evaluated?”
“Because you are. Your beauty is out of question so they must judge you for something else.”
Agnese frowns, not used to such frankness. It’s nothing she hasn’t told herself before, but she has never heard her own thoughts spoken back to her so directly.
“It’s a cynical way to look at the someone come to celebrate you.”
“Cynical, yes,” the woman concedes. “But you aren’t opposing it.”
Few times in her life has Agnese found herself speechless, lacking words or thoughts to form a cutting remark. Any thought that fills her mind is too in line with what the other woman just said, whether she wants to admit it or not, it’s what kept her hiding in a room for almost one hour.
She should be worried, about how perceptive this foreign lady is, but she strangely isn’t. She is challenging in a way that doesn’t feel threatening.
“It’s frustrating,” she hears herself confess. She wasn’t wrong in her judgement because the woman’s eyes grow unmistakably understanding.
“I know, but it doesn’t have to be.” She nods towards the guests. “They will study you, the way you move, the way you speak, but they just won’t see you. Free your mind from them because you aren’t in theirs, not really. An image of you is, but it isn’t you anyway.”
It’s the strangest, most perceptive and honest type of reassurance Agnese has received, and the most effective too, she realizes as the woman’s words sink in. She possesses outstanding intelligence, Agnese is sure of it. She has been around enough obtuse people presuming themselves clever to be able to recognize real intelligence.
Tension leaves her and she finds herself smiling.
“Does this wisdom come with age?” she asks. The woman’s eyes glow and she nods.
“And with happiness.”
She smiles, unrestrained. Her sharp features soften all at once, a decade disappears from her face. It’s the smile of someone who touched real happiness, and Agnese wonders if, once she reaches that age, she too will be smiling like that. Nicola’s face fills her mind at the thought, her heart thumps a bit fast.
“My apologies, I should have asked already, but I don’t think I know your name.”
She doesn’t add a last name or a title and Agnese doesn’t care to ask.
“Isabelle. It’s a pleasure to meet you. We haven’t met before, have we?”
Isabelle shakes her head.
“I’m a friend of Julie Cadieux.”
“You know Julie?!”
“We keep a correspondence with each other and she informed about the wedding.”
Agnese’s smile stretches wide across her face.
“Oh, I adore Julie! She made me feel so welcome when my family moved next to Palazzo Colonna.” She puts a hand over her mouth to hide her laugh. “I pestered her so much to teach me French so I could understand what Nicola was saying to me. I thought he was making fun of me at first.”
Her eyes roll at the thought, but then she inhales deeply and her expression softens, a warmth from within awoken by a sudden memory.
“Why don’t you say it in your language?”
“Because it will be louder. Real.”
“Don’t you want it to be real?”
“More than anything. I hope, but I don’t dare speak it.”
Agnese kisses him, tastes his trembling sigh.
“I love you, too.”
She smiles, tracing her bottom lip with the tip of her fingers. She can still feel that kiss.
It takes her a moment to remember she isn’t alone. She blinks away and goes back to looking at Isabelle.
“I never made much progress anyway.”
“Don’t be harsh on yourself. Le français est une langue très compliquée.”
Agnese chuckles with a nod, remembering very similar words spoken by Nicola’s governess.
“That’s true. But Julie was the most patient teacher. She has always been so kind to me. And to Nicola, of course. He loves her dearly.”
Something shifts in Isabelle’s expression. Her eyes are affectionate, but there is something deeper, too. Agnese recognizes it even while unable to put her fingers on it.
“She is a wonderful woman to have in one’s life,” she says, with a tone that Agnese would deem melancholic, if it made any sense.
“Indeed. We were both saddened she couldn’t come. She promised she will be at the wedding, though.”
“She wouldn’t miss it. In her last letter, she expressed her desire to be here for you. But she wants to celebrate you without her heart burdened by concern for her family.”
Agnese nods, suddenly serious with the severity of the matter. She remembers how worried Nicola had been when Julie had told them she would have to go back to her home country.
“How are things in France?” she asks. “Forgive my ignorance, but not many news arrive from across the border.”
“They are…” Isabelle pauses, pondering for a moment. “Uncertain,” she eventually says. “The terror of the past two years seems to have faded, but power corrupts even the most righteous intents, and a lot of innocent people end up paying the price.”
Agnese looks down, awkwardly running her fingers on the rim of her glass. Isabelle’s words leave little doubt in her mind that she is in favor of the Revolution, or at least was. The majority of the people in her caste spoke of it as an atrocity, she never dared do more than entertain alternative thoughts on it.
“Were you in any danger?” she asks timidly.
“I have no title to tempt the radicals. But it’s ‘Liberté, egalité, fraternité.’” She moves her finger between Agnese and herself. “We are always in danger.”
Agnese stares at her, stunned into silence. She is sure she has never met a woman quite like her, and she cannot help but imagine what it would have been like to have her in her life, speaking so bluntly about things others don’t even dare to whisper.
“This is terribly grim for an engagement party,” Isabelle suddenly says, shaking her head and smiling gently. “I wasn’t in any immediate danger, no, but I still made some significant adjustments to my life.”
“I relocated in Switzerland, at least for the time being. I moved my school there, too. It’s been a few years now.”
“You have a school?” Agnese asks, her eyes going wide with excitement.
“For young girls. I run it with a partner. She teaches art, I teach literature.”
“Do you like it?”
With the way Isabelle’s face lights up, Agnese knows the answer before she even speaks.
“It’s immensely fulfilling.”
“Oh, I wish I could visit it. Would you want me to? Maybe Nicola and I could come sometime after the wedding.”
Isabelle’s eyes glimmer. She pulls her bottom lip between her teeth between releasing it with a shaky breath.
“Maybe,” she just says, smiling softly. Agnese smiles back, brimming with happiness at the possibility. She has no doubt Nicola would love it as well.
She turns around at the thought, looking for him in the crowd and frowning when she fails to find him.
“So you came all the way from Switzerland for us?” she asks, resuming her conversation with Isabelle. “I wish I had the pleasure of meeting you sooner, but I’m assuming you know Nicola?”
A long, unexpected pause fills the space between them before Isabelle answers. When she does, there’s a trembling hitch to her voice that wasn’t there before.
“I knew him when he was a boy. I wanted to see his happiness on this day, and I wanted to meet the person he’s going to share his life with.” She inhales a deep breath and takes a step closer, smiling. Her eyes are fixed on Agnese, they observe her face carefully, and the young woman is surprised to realize that they have veiled with a shiny layer of tears. “He could not have chosen a woman of more value.”
The praise takes Agnese aback. There is something about it that starkly separates it from any other compliment she received that night. It feels too honest, too personal to be driven only by courtesy. She knows next to nothing about her, but she can feel the authenticity of her care. She has always been able to distinguish true affection from falsity, especially in regards to Nicola and the people in his life.
The uninterrupted string of meetings with all the guests exhausted her, but now she cannot wait to snatch Nicola away from his godfather and have him talk to Isabelle.
“You must meet Nicola!” she says enthusiastically. Isabelle’s face twists and she opens her mouth to say something but Agnese ignores her, turning again to look for Nicola. She sees him finally, at the other end of the room. Their eyes meet and she waves her hand, gesturing at him to join her.
“He will be so happy to know you’re here. He never forgets a face. I’m sure once he sees you, he’s going to—”
The words die in her mouth, the smile frozen on her face, because as she turns, Isabelle is no longer there.
Agnese frowns, utterly confused by the sudden disappearance of the woman. She searches the room with her eyes and eventually, she spots golden hair and a tall silhouette, one moment before Isabelle vanishes behind the exit.
“I’m so sorry.” Nicola’s voice behind her attracts Agnese’s attention. “Ettore wouldn’t let me go.”
He steps next to her and squeezes gently at her arm. Agnese looks at him, takes in the smile on his face, but her eyes quickly move back to the spot where she last saw Isabelle.
“I’m here now. Who were you talking to?”
It takes Agnese a moment to reply, still troubled by the sudden disappearance of that woman who’d made such an impression on her. She blinks rapidly, resigning to the fact she is not going to come back, and finally turns to Nicola.
“A friend of Julie.”
“Yes. She said she knew you.”
“I’m not sure I know any friends of Julie that you wouldn’t recognize.”
“She was French, like her,” Agnese says, looking at the door again. “Very beautiful. Very smart. She told me she knew you when you were a boy.”
She turns towards Nicola again and a small gasp leaves her mouth. Nicola’s face has dropped. Color has drained from his cheek, his entire body stiff as a block of wood.
“Nicola,” she calls anxiously.
“Did she tell you her name?” he whispers, his voice just as strained.
“What did she look like?”
“Please,” he chokes out. “What did she look like?”
Agnese cannot remember ever seeing him so distressed. She doesn’t know why, but she cannot bear to see him like that.
“She was blonde. Tall. She had green eyes. They were like…”
Tears fill Nicola’s eyes, a crystal veil that makes them turn fully grey, and Agnese recognizes them. She recognizes them and she understands, she understands it all.
Héloïse strides down the street. She walks as fast as she can, rushing to put as much distance between herself and Palazzo Colonna, between herself and Nicola. The agony of being so close to him and not reaching out was so searing she could not prolong it for another moment, another second. And the terror that seized her when the possibility of meeting him became reality was twice as intense.
Tears sting in her eyes at the thought. Looking at him in the eye, touching his skin. She couldn’t do it and keep herself together, she couldn’t without falling apart completely under the weight of grief and guilt and pure, absolute happiness.
She quickens her pace, walking as fast as the skirt of her dress allows. She leaves the main road and makes a short cut through a dark, narrow street. She is alone, the heel of her shoes clack against the cobblestone. The possible danger of such a path doesn’t even cross her mind, she just aches to be home as quickly as possible, before the pain in her chest expands and consumes her completely from within.
Héloïse freezes. The shock petrifies her completely, even her breath is stuck between her lungs and her throat. If she attempted to breathe now, she would only manage a choked hiccup.
The sound of steps she hadn’t even noticed rushes closer to her, until silence surrounds her again. It’s thicker than before, marked by a heavy, quivering breathing that doesn’t belong to her. The most terrified, cowardly part of her tells her to keep walking, to ignore the voice and disappear into the darkness of the night. She cannot do that a second time. Not to herself, not to him.
Turning around is the most difficult thing she has done in twenty years, but she does.
And he is there, standing right in front of her. Real, tangible.
“It’s you,” he whispers in French. “Isn’t it?”
Héloïse’s vision blurs with tears but she blinks hastily and forces them back, desperate to take in as much of her son as she can, in the short time she has.
She dreamed him for years, and her heart clenches painfully in her chest with how much her imagination paled compared to reality. He looks like Giovanni, and nothing like him. His mouth is hers. His eyes are hers. She saw him smiling at the party, and she knows that the tenderness that softens his features comes from her, too.
“You’ve become so handsome, my love.”
She takes a step towards him but Nicola flinches away, staring at her with his eyes red and glassy, his features locked in a harsh frown that calls forth his father’s face. It could very well be her frown, too. It took her years to let go of the pain of her married life, for her face to stop carrying all that tension and hardness that had been her shield.
“After all these years,” Nicola says, “you choose today. Of all days.” The crease between his eyebrows grows deeper and he clenches his teeth. “Have you no shame? No heart?”
Nothing Héloïse could say would make it better, she has lived with that awareness for two decades. Still, she aches to reply, to find a way to tell her son what he is never going to believe, that her heart is there and never stopped pulsing for him.
He doesn’t give her the time.
“Julie told you, didn’t she?” he asks, shaking his head before Héloïse can even reply. “Of course it was her. I always knew she knew something, but she never betrayed you. She was the only one who spoke kindly of you after you ran away.”
Héloïse closes her eyes for a moment, wincing at the spite dripping from his voice as he reminds her what she did.
“Please, don’t take it out on Julie. She has no blame in this.”
“You don’t have to tell me that,” he hisses. “I don’t blame her. I listened to her like a fool, trying to cling to an image of you that loved m—”
He stops abruptly, biting hard on his bottom lip and frowning to keep the tears at bay. Héloïse recognizes that forceful attempt at holding back pain. She has done the same, even the mannerisms are similar.
She wishes he didn’t have to, that she could take his suffering onto herself and make him forget he was ever hurt. It would be the simplest form of atonement. There is nothing simple about their circumstances, and any apology she could try to formulate would only sound empty, or worse, fake.
“I left a letter for you,” Héloïse says, swallowing uncomfortably around the lump in her throat. “Did you—”
“I didn’t. Father tore it to pieces and burned it.” His face twists, an attempt at cruelty that only breaks Héloïse’s heart for how out of place it looks on his face. “I’m glad he did.”
The words cut through her like a blade, not because they are true but because she can tell Nicola wants them to be true. What hurts her even more is that she has nothing she can offer him to make it better, nothing to comfort him or to soothe the pain she caused. She can only be there, no matter how unbearable.
“Do you know he died?” Nicola asks suddenly.
“Did you mourn for him?”
Héloïse looks at him, holding his hard, challenging gaze. What she felt after receiving news of Giovanni’s death is too complex and contorted and nothing Nicola would benefit from hearing. She won’t lie, though.
“No,” she says, ignoring the way Nicola squeezes his eyes and shakes his head. “I mourned for you.”
Nicola’s eyes are bloodshot when he opens them again. They are maybe a meter away but Héloïse feels that distance like a chasm. She wants to close that gap, wrap her arms around him and hold him, feel him, in whatever way he’s going to let her, but she cannot even take a step forward. It’s torture.
“You loved him,” she continues. “And I know he loved you very much.”
“You know nothing,” he cuts her off. “And he loved you, too. How could you leave him, how could you leave your family?”
“Do you want the truth?”
The truth is a maze of clashing emotions. The truth has hooks and claws she doesn’t want to sink into her son’s flesh, because as good of a father as Giovanni was, he made her suffer twice as much as a husband, and those two realities co-exist, connected grotesquely forever.
“Leaving him was easy,” Héloïse says. “Leaving you was excruciating.”
“But you still left.” The accusation is wet with unshed tears. “I told myself that I didn’t want to know, that it didn’t matter why, because nothing would justify what you did. But you’re here now.” His voice trembles. “And I want to know. Why?”
Anger gives way to pain. It’s written everywhere on her son’s face, in the way his chest puffs out with every sharp breath. She’d rather be subjected to his rage, it would be less agonizing.
“You owe me this at least,” he insists, angry. Imploring. “Why couldn’t you stay?”
“Because staying would have killed me.”
A tear falls down Nicola’s face, a single one that pulls fresh ones from Héloïse’s eyes. The last time she saw him cry he was a tiny bundle that fit in her arms, she had kissed his cheeks and held him to her breast until his small, soft body had stopped shaking. He is taller than her now, hard and solid, and she cannot even cup his face and wipe away his tears. She lost that right.
The bobbing of his throat is visible even from that distance. He rubs at his eyes and exhales deeply, but more tears spill out.
“I don’t remember you.”
Héloïse’s chest tightens so painfully she is sure her ribs will crack inwards and pierce her lungs. It’s worse than anger, it’s worse than hatred, and the scar on her heart rips open and starts bleeding anew.
“I don’t,” he repeats, sighing wetly. His eyes are fixed on her. “But I remember your absence. I remember what it felt like to look for you in your empty room. To sleep in your bed hoping you’d be there when I wake up.” His body shakes with a hiccup and for a moment, Héloïse only sees her little boy. “How can a mother do that to her son?”
“If I told you I did it because I love—”
“Don’t you dare.”
His is a low growl, threatening for the first time since they reunited, and Héloïse sees the ghost of Giovanni on him, she sees his clueless rage during one of their last moments together. She could talk and talk and give Nicola all the explanations he’s been looking for for twenty years, until her throat is raw and her eyes have run out of tears. And still, she knows she wouldn’t be able to make Nicola understand. Because some things cannot be explained, only lived.
“I did it out of selfishness,” she says. “And out of selflessness. Because I couldn’t stay but you would have suffered more if I’d taken you with me. I couldn’t rip you away from your life.”
“You talk about it so shamelessly. Like it doesn’t touch you at all, like it was so easy for you to—”
“It does touch me,” she cuts him off. “And it hurt me. It hurt more than you can imagine, but relating that pain is irrelevant.”
“Because you want me to say I made a mistake in leaving, and I cannot say that. I won’t.”
Héloïse sees the shock rise up to Nicola’s face, the confusion in his eyes and how he tries to cling to the comfort of anger. She knows that feeling. Her past is marked by anger, it was her armor, her tool for survival.
“You don’t regret it,” he forcefully chokes out after a deafening silence. She knows he is looking to be soothed, he is begging to hear what he wants to hear. A lie would be comforting, but she won’t wrong him by lying. She shakes her head, truthful even when the truth makes her son’s eyes glisten.
“Not even after seeing me.”
“Especially after seeing you.”
She dares to take a step forward, an inch barely, but it feels like a leap because Nicola doesn’t recoil from her.
“You are happy, I saw it.”
“Do not talk about my happiness when you weren’t there to share it. You don’t know what I’ve been through.”
Neither do you.
Héloïse would never utter the thought out loud. She remains quiet, a target for his anger, if that’s all she can be for him.
“Do you know the humiliation father was subjected to after you left?” Nicola speaks again, every word pushed through gritted teeth. “Did he deserve it?” He scoffs when Héloïse fails to answer. “Do you want to humiliate me, too? Is that why you’re here?”
“I don’t want to humiliate anyone,” Héloïse whispers.
“Then you should have stayed.”
He sounds like an angry little boy in that moment. Héloïse remembers flashes of that stubbornness, even when he was a child. Sorrow spreads in her heart but she cannot fault him for it.
“You don’t know what staying would have done to me.”
“Explain it to me.”
Héloïse closes her eyes and shakes her head.
“You couldn’t understand.”
She grimaces, growing more uncomfortable by the second. Thoughts and feelings she needed years to overcome slither through her, twisting at her insides.
“Because it’s something you will never experience, and I thank God every day that you won’t.”
Her voice echoes in the silent alley, louder and firmer than it’s been since Nicola stopped her. She breathes heavily, her heart pounds in her chest. She can tell from Nicola’s stunned expression that he was not expecting such a burst of emotion from her, not of this kind.
Héloïse blinks rapidly to kill the forming of fresh tears in its inception, looking up and away to collect herself. She is tired, fragile. Fragility has stopped scaring her a long time ago, but this, standing in front of her son and letting him see her with all the wounds and scars she cannot explain to him, is terrifying.
“You’re right. I don’t understand,” Nicola says, and the pounding in Héloïse’s head grows, demanding attention. “You speak as though you were trapped but you were far from that. You had a family, father loved you—”
“Do you love Agnese?” Héloïse abruptly cuts him off.
“What?” Nicola asks. “What does this have to do with—”
He frowns, evidently confused by the unexpected question. He opens his mouth like he is about to protest again, but then stops, keeping his gaze locked with Héloïse. She knows the answer even before he utters it.
“More than anything or anyone in this world.”
Héloïse nods, and a faint smile colors her face, touched by the unwavering honesty of his sentiment.
“You will marry her. You will spend your life with her.” She pauses, struggling to swallow against the sudden dryness in her throat. That brief smile wavers, overcome by a past sorrow. “But imagine that you couldn’t. That she was forced to marry someone else. Someone she doesn’t love, someone she never wanted.”
It was never her intention. She never meant to bring up her past to him, to even let him glimpse at a pain he can’t understand, one he should have never been exposed to. He was a victim of it, too, Héloïse thinks with tears burning behind her eyes, and seeing his face twist into an even deeper frown as he tries to make sense of what she is saying makes the ache in her heart only more searing.
“No, I wouldn’t let that happen,” he says, forcefully shaking his head, with a naivety that makes Héloïse want to kiss his face and protect him from the truth. “I would fight for her, I would—”
“You could do it, my love,” she interrupts him, smiling again, but her lips quiver. “You could. She could not. She would have no way out, she would be…” She falters, her chest tight and full with the ghost of something she never thought she would reveal. Her breath shudders when she says, “Trapped.”
She lays the truth as bare as she can allow herself to, and watches Nicola take it in. She watches the effect it has on him, how his frown distends and his body stiffens, clarity and disorientation mixing together in his eyes, and she is sure that even if he can’t understand what she felt, he at least understood what she meant.
“I don’t expect your forgiveness,” she whispers, as a single tear finally escapes from her left eye and trickles down her cheek.
Nicola is crying, too. His eyes look just like hers in the moonlight. She knows they can carry so much warmth, so much tenderness, even if it’ll never be directed at her.
“You don’t have it,” he says hoarsely, a jagged blade of an answer cutting under Héloïse’s skin even if it was exactly the answer she was expecting. But his voice changes after a moment. It becomes tiny, pleading almost, as he asks, “Will you disappear again?”
A spark of hope lights up inside Héloïse like flame. It’s feeble, unstable, but it’s something Héloïse never even dared to have. Clinging to it felt too selfish, too inconceivable. But now that spark flickers and Héloïse holds her breath until her chest hurts to keep from sobbing.
She reaches inside the pocket of her skirt with a trembling hand and pulls out a small envelope. Her heart on paper is inside it.
“I wasn’t brave enough at the party,” Héloïse murmurs. She toys nervously with the corners of the letter before extending her arm towards Nicola. “You don’t have to read it, especially tonight.”
Nicola looks at the letter in her hand, then back at Héloïse. The rigidity in his body screams wariness, hurt. His resistance don’t surprise her, she did this to him. She wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t take the letter, or if he did and tore it right before her eyes.
Instead, he makes no move. He keeps his eyes on her, studying her. She recognizes that intelligent look, so painfully familiar. It’s the same as when he was a little boy, his face just changed around it.
“Why did you go to Agnese?” he asks, ignoring the letter. “You didn’t come to me but talked to her instead. Why?”
Héloïse withdraws her arm, pinching the paper tighter between her fingers. The answer to his question is as clear in her heart as it is in her mind, but it is one she will never give him. What she was searching for in Agnese is something he will never understand.
“Cherish her,” she says instead of answering.
“You don’t have to tell me.”
“Yes, I do,” Héloïse insists. Héloïse sees the girl’s face in her head, the love in her warm, brown eyes as she spoke Nicola’s name. “You have no idea how rare what you two have is.”
Her words are puzzling for Nicola. They couldn’t be otherwise, for someone who only knew love, but he doesn’t protest.
“Cherish her,” she repeats softly, and after a moment, Nicola gives a small nod that makes Héloïse exhale with a relief she cannot put into words. If this is the last she ever sees of him, her heart is at peace. She doesn’t expect anything else from him.
“Father used to say I was too much like you,” Nicola says, wincing with the pain of a memory Héloïse wasn’t there to witness. “He’d compare me to you, when I couldn’t even remember you. He said I ought to be different. From you.”
Héloïse says nothing. There is nothing she could say, nothing he would want to hear. She says nothing but her eyes prickle because she was made into a thing to hurt him and she knew, when she left, that it could happen. That it would happen.
Nicola’s eyes are glistening anew when he looks at her again.
“Do you know how much easier this would be,” he says, “if I could hate you?”
He takes a hesitant step forward and extends his hand.
Everything inside Héloïse feels alive, so alive it hurts. She wants to sob, and she wants to laugh.
She stretches out her arm again, and Nicola takes the letter. Her finger brushes against his skin.
Marianne sits on the windowsill, perilously stretched out as much as she can without losing her balance and falling over. She is only vaguely aware of the danger of her position, too focused on catching as many details as the dim light allows. Two old women sitting by each other, chatting and laughing about something Marianne cannot hear. They were sitting in front of each other, by the door of their respective house, until one dragged her chair across the street to sit next to other one.
Marianne dips her paintbrush into the pink on her palette and adds forms and details to the silhouettes on the painting board. She squints when one of them pulls out a small book and shows it to the other woman. She leans out even more, trying to read the title on the cover, but she fails and pulls back, squeezing her eyes closed and rubbing at them. Years of looking at the finest, most minute details and reproducing them on canvas in spite of the light conditions have taken a toll on her sight.
Everything is a bit blurrier when she opens her eyes again, and she has to blink several time before her vision goes back to normal. She glances at her half-finished painting, and then back at the women outside. She wants to capture that liveliness, that innocent, almost banal glee that nobody bothers to put on canvas. The night is dark, though, and the candles in the room only provide a soft, warm light, so she makes the sensible choice for her eyes and stops, content with just observing the scene.
The woman with the book reminds her of one of her students’ mother, and Marianne feels a sudden pang of nostalgia. They have been away for only a few days but she already misses home. It always happens, whenever they travel. They leave and come back and she falls in love with their domesticity all over again.
The sound of the door creaking open catches Marianne’s attention and makes her turn around. She smiles when Héloïse walks in. Her heart beats a bit faster, it’s something that hasn’t changed in twenty years.
“How did it go?” she asks fervently. She steps down the windowsill and walks up to Héloïse, eager to receive news. “Did you see him? Did you give him the letter?”
The outcome is equally important to her, simply because of how important she knows it is for Héloïse. She caressed her back and kissed the frown on her face as Héloïse wrote and re-wrote the letter for Nicola, throwing her failed attempts across the room and deeming it all pointless.
“I can’t, Marianne.”
“You can. You’re the only one who can. I am with you whatever you choose.”
She hardly saw her as scared and nervous as the day they arrived back in Milan.
Héloïse doesn’t answer her question. She isn’t even looking at her, Marianne realizes, her eyes fixed on a distant spot on the floor. Marianne tries to give her time, waiting patiently. She had never been a patient person, she was patient only with art, never with people. She learned it with Héloïse.
She waits, but with each second that Héloïse remains quiet, she grows more and more restless, wishing she could pry Héloïse’s mind open and find the answer.
Héloïse isn’t looking at her but her gaze isn’t blank either. A whirlwind of thoughts and emotions glimmers in her green eyes, and whatever it is that happened, Marianne is sure that something happened.
“Héloïse?” she asks gently again, and finally, Héloïse blinks slowly and looks at her.
She has cried. Marianne can tell from how red and puffy her eyes are, from how the lines underneath them are deeper, darker. She instinctively reaches for Héloïse’s hand, feels the faintest tremor running under her skin, and her chest tightens with concern.
Still, she waits. She won’t force in a minute something that was years in the making. And eventually, the answer she was looking for arrives. A nod, almost imperceptibly small.
“Yes,” she whispers. Her voice is scratchy, like it gets whenever she has held tears back for too long. “I did. I…” Her bottom lip quivers hard, she clenches her teeth to stop the involuntary movement. Her voice is even smaller when she manages to continue. “I talked to him.”
“The letter?” Marianne asks, anxious. Héloïse nods again.
A tiny, wet noise gurgles at the back of her throat and Marianne knows what is going to happen before it does. Héloïse’s eyes well up with tears, she frowns so hard her features scrunch up in the attempt to stop it, but it doesn’t work. It almost never works.
When she cracks, it’s loud. And messy, and heartbreaking. The first sob pushes out of her mouth forcefully, as if her body is trying to expel a disease. Tears follow, squeezing free as she clenches her eyes and wetting her face, and then, she is crying so hard that her body heaves.
Marianne’s own eyes sting at the sight. She immediately wraps her arms around Héloïse and holds her. She doesn’t know, and she won’t ask, not yet. She makes her body into a harbor, a safe place for Héloïse to fall apart, whatever the reason may be, and Héloïse’s body responds, crumpling and leaning into her.
Her hands grasp Marianne’s back, fingers dig into her skin through the fabric of her night gown. Marianne can feel all the emotions seeping from Héloïse, how each sob and violent shake of her body seems to carry a different ache, a different relief. She suddenly lets out a laugh, hoarse, choked, and buries her face into the arch of Marianne’s neck.
Marianne squeezes her harder and threads her fingers through her blonde hair, an invitation to take her time, to take refuge against her for as long as she needs.
She isn’t surprised when Héloïse pulls back and kisses her.
Her mouth is wet and insistent, her hands urgent as they tug at the fabric of Marianne’s gown. Her need is clear and Marianne gives herself over completely.
They undress each other and press together again. Their bodies have changed throughout the years, and with every change, they have re-learned one another, the awe of the first times replaced by an intimate devotion to every part of each other.
Sex has dwindled with time but their desire has stayed the same and Héloïse’s hand between her legs still sets her alight after twenty years. Their touch is a language no one but them can speak.
Afterwards, they lie in bed under the covers, spent, sated. It’s always been Marianne’s favorite part, this absolute serenity after the height of passion. Their limbs entwined as one, Héloïse with her head on her chest, small and tender like nobody would imagine her to be from the solemnity with which she walks the world. Marianne has seen her solemn, and confident and silly and delicate. She loves every version of her with equal intensity.
They breathe in unison, it always happens when they lie together for a long period. The rise and fall of Héloïse’s chest against Marianne’s is a steady pressure, warm and comforting. She holds the hand Héloïse has splayed across her stomach, rubbing her thumb over the fine, white line that runs across her palm. Héloïse never told her the story behind that scar.
Héloïse’s breath tickles Marianne’s skin. Marianne instinctively holds her closer to her. She knew it was only a matter of time, that Héloïse needed to feel everything first, before being able to talk about it.
“Truly talked,” Héloïse continues. “Like I didn’t think I would ever be able to. He came after me.”
“You didn’t go to him?”
Héloïse shakes her head.
“I couldn’t. I saw him at the party and I just…” She falters and lets out a shaky exhale, heavy with grief, and love, and Héloïse doesn’t elaborate but Marianne understands. “But he followed me. He didn’t let me be a coward.”
“Reminds me of someone.”
Even in the fragility of the moment, a quiet laugh pulls from Héloïse’s mouth. They are safe together, and levity blooms even through pain.
Héloïse pulls back and looks at Marianne, her lips still tinged with a small smile.
“You should have seen him, Marianne,” she says. “The energy he radiates. He draws everyone’s eyes to him.”
Marianne has never met him but she has no difficulty imagining him. He is his mother’s son, and the way Héloïse is describing him is not far from how Marianne feels about her.
“He is confident, and magnetic, and charming.” Her eyes gleam. The smile is still there but when she blinks, a tear remains trapped in her eyelashes. “He is happy.”
Joy and sorrow mix together on Héloïse’s face. Marianne understands that clashing blend of emotions, the relief of knowing her son happy against the sadness of not having been there to witness it. She says nothing, her comfort cannot come through words, not with this. She gently cups Héloïse’s face and captures with her thumb the tear at the corner of her eye. Héloïse leans into her touch, sighing quietly before resting her head on her chest again.
A comfortable silence engulfs them, there is just the sound of their breathing and the light whoosh of Marianne’s fingers through Héloïse’s hair.
“And she is happy, too.”
Marianne looks down at her.
“Agnese, Nicola’s fiancée,” Héloïse explains. “She loves him, I could tell. She wants him.” She swallows and her voice becomes a hushed whisper. “She wants it.”
Marianne presses closer, stroking her hair and skin with all the tenderness she is capable of. She knows immediately what Héloïse is talking about. Years of imposition and muted pain didn’t disappear in a day, even after running away and being finally free, and Marianne spent countless nights holding Héloïse after she woke up crying from dreams she would not relate.
Even after her wounds healed and she learned to open up more and more, Marianne knows that there are things she didn’t disclose, that she probably never fully will. Marianne will never push. She doesn’t have to ask to know how important it was for Héloïse to see that her son’s future wife wants the life she is going to have.
“I wouldn’t have expected anything different from your son,” Marianne says.
“I would have.”
The reply takes Marianne by surprise. She looks down at Héloïse but her gaze is somewhere else, lost in thoughts Marianne isn’t privy to.
“Not because of him,” Héloïse explains better after a moment of silence. “But because this is how it works.”
Marianne takes in Héloïse’s words, meditating on them as her fingers on Héloïse’s skin become instinctively more delicate. She wanted to reassure her but Héloïse is always uncompromising, always truthful, even when it comes to her flesh and blood. She needs no empty reassurance, and for once, the truth turned out to be more comforting than anything she had imagined.
“They are lucky,” Marianne says, kissing the top of Héloïse’s head, and Héloïse finally looks up. Her gaze is warm.
“They are blessed,” she whispers, and Marianne kisses her, tasting the word on her lips.
They doze off, and when Marianne wakes up the sun has just started tinging the sky with pink and blue and the bed is empty next to her.
She rubs her tired eyes and pulls herself up, squinting against the sleepiness and looking around the room. It takes her only a moment to find Héloïse. She is sitting by the window, half turned away from her and staring outside. A warmth settles deep within Marianne’s chest, as it always has since waking up to Héloïse became her normality.
“Good morning,” Marianne says, her voice still scratchy with sleep. Héloïse turns her head and smiles at her softly, and Marianne is hit with a memory. Two decades in the past, Héloïse sitting by the same window, looking at her after having reunited against any hope.
She has changed, and she is the same, and Marianne loves her even more than she did that day.
“What are you doing there?” she asks.
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“You could have woke me.”
Héloïse smiles and shakes her head.
“For once that it’s you oversleeping.”
“The sun isn’t even fully up. I would hardly call it oversleeping.”
Their quiet laughters ripple through the room, fully waking Marianne in the most serene way possible.
“Do you want to come back to bed?” she asks. “So we can oversleep together?”
Héloïse smiles but doesn’t move from the spot. A sudden look in her eyes catches Marianne’s attention. It was there since she woke up, Marianne realizes, she was just too drowsy to notice.
“Are you okay?” she asks, sitting up on the bed. She believes it when Héloïse nods, but she can tell that something has taken root within her. A thought or a feeling that was enough to pull her away from the warmth of their bed.
“I woke up thinking.”
Héloïse doesn’t answer right away. She looks outside again, breathing deeply.
“Do you think there is a universe,” she asks, “in which we don’t meet again?”
Marianne looks at her, speechless for a moment. After twenty years together, Héloïse still has the ability to leave her at loss for words.
Why? she could ask. Why this question, why now, after a life spent together. But a whole life can be altered by the smallest change. A missed glance, a failed apology. Héloïse’s reunion with Nicola is one of many, the most favorable one, as if the stars decided to give her some respite as compensation for everything she had to endure.
Marianne could ask why, but she has no difficulty imagining it.
Instead, she asks, “How do you think it goes?”
Héloïse keeps staring outside. She doesn’t move, but her gaze is vibrant, filling with the phantoms of the life she didn’t have.
“I don’t see you at the theatre,” she says quietly. “I go back and wait for Giovanni and Nicola to come home. I watch my son grow, I see him become taller than me. I teach him everything I know and learn more, so I have more to teach.”
She speaks the words into open air, lets the faint breeze of the morning carry them away. Marianne listens intently to every single one of them.
“Giovanni dies and I think about you.” The confession wraps itself around Marianne’s heart and squeezes, achingly. “But it’s been too long,” Héloïse continues, turning her head just barely towards Marianne. “I don’t look for you.”
Marianne no longer bears the distance. She gets up and crosses the room to come stand behind Héloïse. She slips her arms around Héloïse’s stomach and presses herself close, her lips against the naked patch of skin of Héloïse’s shoulder.
Héloïse’s body relaxes into the gentle embrace, she rests her hand atop Marianne’s.
“I watch Nicola fall in love. I cry at his wedding and when he lets me hold his newborn baby. I see his joy. His life. It makes me happier than I could have imagined.”
There is a long silence, Héloïse’s breath grows slightly more unsteady.
“I grow old and he’s at my bedside,” she whispers. “And when I die, your name is the last thing on my lips.”
Marianne lets everything she just heard sink in. Héloïse’s words wash over her, like warm waves. They aren’t turbulent, it’s the calmness of that confession that makes it settle so deep inside Marianne.
She wonders for how long Héloïse thought about this. How often she allowed herself to imagine the life she didn’t have, and how much her heart ached.
“It sounds like a rich life,” she says.
“It does.” Héloïse presses herself into Marianne. “But it doesn’t have you.”
Marianne’s heart swells and throbs and she wraps her arms tighter around Héloïse, squeezing her eyes against the prickling of tears. She nuzzles at the back of Héloïse’s neck and breathes her in. She is the most precious thing Marianne ever got to touch.
“I would have been there,” she says into Héloïse’s hair, tickling her ear with her breath. “As a memory. You would have been in mine.”
“That’s what will be left of us eventually. The memory of what we had.”
Héloïse turns in Marianne’s arms to look at her directly. Her expression is peaceful, the lines on her face are lines of a life lived with joy, at its fullest. Marianne traces them delicately with her fingers.
“We had so much,” she whispers with a smile.
“We did,” Héloïse smiles back. “But I’m not done.”
Her eyes beam, alive.
“Building memories with you.”