Chapter 1 — 1 —
By the time they reached the Louvre, Bertie and Kate were nearly running. It wasn’t unusual for their walks to turn into unplanned races—both were in the habit of strolling a half step in front of people, and when they were together this could become a problem. First Bertie would move in front of Kate, then Kate would pick up her pace to match Bertie’s, and so on and so forth until they looked at each other and broke into a sprint. It had been that way since they were fifteen—that is, some fifteen years ago—and on ordinary days they both embraced it, competing to reach an imaginary finish line, celebrating whoever won. But today, despite wanting to arrive at the museum on time, their mutual fear of looking un-French was helping them to approach moderation.
At the end of the Rue de Rivoli, they slowed down and used each other as mirrors to readjust their outfits. A tug of the shirt when Kate lifted her eyebrow, and a twist of the skirt when Bertie sucked her teeth. The morning was hazy, with a fog that wasn’t quite willing to resolve into rain but was heavy enough to sit on the women’s hair and dampen their jackets. Kate reached into her bag for an actual mirror, which she used to apply a fresh layer of lipstick; they’d come to the museum at the invitation of a man Kate had met the night before in a bar, and she claimed not to have decided yet whether she wanted to impress him.
“What are your priorities, art-wise?” Bertie asked. She had a handkerchief around her neck, meant to look chic but also useful as a breathing filter when they passed through areas still smoky from the last round of bombs. The tracking app they had pored over on the plane attributed responsibility to a terrorist faction from the suburbs, who’d arrived via commuter rail wearing innocuous clothes and backpacks with gunpowder sewn into the lining. Now, Bertie shifted the knot of her handkerchief back to the side, into its more fashionable position. “Do you want to hear something dumb? I kind of want to see the Mona Lisa.”
“That’s not dumb,” said Kate. “Everyone wants to see the Mona Lisa.”
“I mean, that’s why it’s dumb. Usually it’s surrounded by a huge crowd, like, hundreds of tourists all crammed around this tiny painting which is probably only an okay painting, and which they only like because it’s famous.”
“So what, are you going to commune with it? Now that you’re the only one there?”
This had been the man’s offer, as they sipped their drinks and watched him glimmer lasciviously: private entrance into the museum, which today was technically closed. If she was honest with herself, Bertie had, in fact, gotten a shiver of pleasure from the idea. I deserve it, she’d thought. If not me, who? But she wasn’t about to be quite that honest with Kate, who would only make fun of her.
“Never mind,” she said. “We can skip it, I don’t care.”
“No,” said Kate. “We should see it. You’re right.” She snapped her lipstick shut and stowed it away again. “Do you really think people don’t like the Mona Lisa?”
Bertie shrugged. “I just don’t think most people have really thought about it.”
They’d come to Paris because the tickets were cheap. First there’d been a spate of hijackings, and then the bombings, and a period of general unrest. No one would call it a world war, but that was semantics. Now the borders were opening back up, under the auspices of a cease-fire, and though most Americans were still too nervous to travel, a few of the tourist boards were giving it the old college try. Kate and Bertie chose Paris because they felt that the French advertisements did the best job of flirting with the overall sense that the world was ending without ever actually stating outright that this might be your last chance for a vacation.
Also, Kate was moving in a month. So this was kind of a last hurrah. Bertie knew it would’ve been smarter to put her money and energy into finding a place in the city, finally moving out of the dismal Mountain View apartment she’d only rented to be near Kate, but that would’ve meant recognizing that Kate was really going to leave. So she’d suggested a trip instead. Anyway, the commute from San Francisco was hellish, more so now that the 101 was gone and the 280 was the only freeway option between the city and the South Bay. It was like God died, the day they shut the 101 for good. People actually cried in the streets.
In principle Bertie was a cartoonist, but for years now she’d made her money doing illustrations for a large tech company in Silicon Valley—one that liked to appear lighthearted and approachable to the public so they could sell more ads. Which worked surprisingly well. Even cynical people seemed reassured by the company’s palette of bright colors and its dinosaur avatar, which Bertie had now drawn in a thousand absurd situations, including on a rocket ship and driving a school bus, as well as learning “I think, therefore I am” from René Descartes with a book clutched in its tiny hands. The company paid Bertie more than she felt she was worth, so she drew it any way they wanted, as many times as they wanted, along with a rotating multicultural cast of nameless humans who accompanied the dinosaur on its adventures.
Bertie was supposed to be working on a graphic novel, too, on her own time, but these days she rarely had the energy. Not because of her job so much as the malaise that lay over everything. Politics, global war, world hunger, just—everything. Kate had wanted to be an essayist, but that was years ago: she gave it up in favor of directing publicity and fundraising for a nonprofit that lobbied to improve the quality of school lunches. It was theoretically a more selfless career than Bertie’s, but Bertie didn’t see it that way. After all, Kate liked being in charge; she liked the power. Whereas Bertie was indifferent to her job, which sometimes made her feel like she had less self than anyone. At least if she’d hated it, she could’ve quit, but no one wanted to hear you complain about leaving your okay job with good health insurance—not at a time when the U.S. suddenly had honest-to-God refugees streaming towards the coasts from the South and the Midwest, finding not much in the way of aid or sympathy. So she kept going every day, sometimes enjoying herself, sometimes spending whole afternoons reading the comment threads at the end of online advice columns, letting rage and disappointment wash all over her in order to reach the rare and blissful moments of catharsis.
That morning the crowd around the glass pyramid in the Cour Napoléon was sparse, just a few tourists taking photographs of the grounds and some Parisians passing through on their way to work. Near the fountain, a mother and her small daughter threw pieces of croissant to the birds, and a few yards behind them a group of four people was peering at something at the top of a tower, shielding their eyes with their hands. A few days before, when Bertie and Kate had walked by the same courtyard while heading to the Tuileries Garden, the space had been packed, including a line of museum-goers that snaked back half a block, but since the Louvre was closed today, most people had made other plans. The man from the night before had told them he had connections and could get them in for a private viewing if they showed up by eight-forty-five in the morning and gave his name—Javier—at the entrance. It sounded like a delicious secret, almost too good to be true. They’d found Javier at a jazz club somewhere in the Fifth Arrondissement, an old place stuck in a cellar which boasted a surprisingly good band and a crowd of middle-aged Frenchmen who were eager to dance with youths from abroad and buy them red wine for five euros a glass.
The mist finally turned into a drizzle, and Kate took Bertie’s hand.
“Oh, hi,” said Bertie, and in answer Kate gave her hand a squeeze, the same gentle greeting they’d shared for years, but now at a castle, in Paris, in a light Parisian rain. They stood there for a second, admiring the cornices and balustrades, the judgmental statues and the omnipresent pigeons. Bertie thought it was impressive that so many pigeons remained in the city when the songbird species were all in decline, but then again pigeons were willing to eat garbage, so perhaps they were more fit to survive. Later she would remember that the air in the courtyard smelled tinny, and that the crowd had gotten denser while they stood around. But in the moment she only felt happy to be there, slightly damp and still somewhat young, side by side with her best friend.
“Okay, are you ready?” Kate asked.
“What do you—?” Bertie started to reply, but before she could finish, Kate took off running towards the entrance, still holding her hand and almost pulling her arm from the socket.
“Jesus!” Bertie laughed as they whipped through a cluster of suit-and-tie pedestrians, earning several dirty looks. One man snarled as Bertie’s shoulder slammed into his. “Sorry!” she called back to him, but he didn’t seem to accept the apology, and muttered something under his breath as he turned away. On the other end of the courtyard, a different, younger man paused to watch the spectacle of them before turning to the side and wiping a drop of rain away from his forehead. He had no coat, and his hands were stuck in his jeans pockets against the morning chill. A round face. Later, Bertie would remember him, too, but it would take her some time to think why.
Kate stopped outside the pyramid doors and checked the time on her phone; neither woman had bothered to activate international service, so they couldn’t call anyone or do anything outside the warm glow of the hotel Wi-Fi. But neither one owned a watch or a camera, either, so they still carried their phones wherever they went.
Now that she was over whatever momentary ebullience had made her start sprinting, Kate pulled herself together fast. Her face bright without being sweaty, her hair preternaturally smooth. She tugged on the door, but it was locked.
“It’s only eight-thirty,” she said. “What do you think we should do?”
“He’s your loverboy,” Bertie replied. She hadn’t found Javier particularly appealing, with his shiny face and his subpar teeth, but Kate always made friends with everyone. “Didn’t you get his number?”
“Hell no. Anyway, we weren’t supposed to meet him until later. And,” she held up her phone, “no service, remember?”
Around them, people were starting to stare. A few—other tourists, most likely—seemed interested, perhaps hoping that Bertie and Kate’s presence indicated the museum might be opening after all. But the others looked obscurely angry.
Bertie shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. She had the sudden premonition that they wouldn’t get in; that it was all a joke. Why had they believed a total stranger when he said he could do them such an enormous favor? Javier was probably off laughing somewhere, telling his friends the story of the stupid American women he’d met at a bar.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said, pulling on Kate’s sleeve. “We can do something else today. It doesn’t matter.”
But Kate shook her off, and muttered, “Ugh, let me be.” She had never liked being managed. It used to be a problem for her at work, though she’d long since jettisoned the issue into her personal life. Bertie backed away, trying not to be hurt, and turned to meet the eye of the young guy she’d noticed watching them earlier. His eyebrows lifted in surprise.
“Oh, wait,” Kate said. “Now I remember.” Without further explanation, she knocked three times on the glass, then twice, then three times again. From the dim back of a hallway at the bottom of the grand pyramid stairs, someone came into view. She looked like a security guard or a docent, in a dark fitted suit with a walkie-talkie on the front. The woman made a big production of unlocking the doors and then opening them just a sliver, sticking her head outside into the mist. “Qui sont vous?” she asked, and when both Bertie and Kate hesitated before trying to reply, she clicked her tongue in exasperation and switched to English. “You are… who?”
Kate frowned. “We’re with Javier?” she suggested, as if not quite certain herself. But the security guard’s whole demeanor changed.
“Oh. You come, then.” She stepped back, holding the door to allow them inside, and both women slipped past her. A father and his teenage son, appearing from nowhere, tried to follow them in, but the guard waved her hand at them and said, “Shoo!” before closing the glass door and locking it. Bertie felt a quick wave of claustrophobia as the lock clicked into place, but it was soon overwhelmed by the immensity of the museum in front of them, and the grandeur. Sometimes good things happen, she thought, looking over her shoulder at the father and son who were frowning on the other side of the door. By the time she turned, the guard was bustling away down the hall, disappearing around a corner, and leaving Kate and Bertie alone. They looked at each other. “Okay, then,” Bertie said.
When Bertie had to explain Kate to people who didn’t know her, she sometimes called her “my bitchy friend Kate,” even though it made her feel guilty afterwards; Kate was really more particular than bitchy, but that seemed like splitting hairs. The funny thing was, at a bar or a party Kate would be nice to anyone, even creeps like Javier. She built up lines of devoted followers who pointed her out to one another in a fond, “Have you met…?” kind of way, and she was popular at the office, too, as Bertie had seen on afternoons when she came to pick Kate up after work. She made jokes and remembered people’s birthdays; when everyone wanted to go to happy hour, she was often the first to say yes, and therefore the one elected to mother-hen everyone to a single location. But when it came to actual closeness, real affection, she could turn off her internal lights in an instant.
Bertie had experienced this firsthand back in high school, when Kate moved to her school district in the ninth grade—Kate’s third school in as many years, since her stepdad kept getting relocated for work—and they spent a whole year skirting around one another, sticking to their separate social universes. Kate had purple hair back then, and Bertie naturally assumed that Kate was too cool for her, a sentiment Kate evidently shared for a number of months. Bertie hung out in the art room, which Kate did not, and Kate went to underground all-ages punk shows, which Bertie emphatically did not. The one time she’d tried to talk to her in those early days, Bertie had gotten out maybe one sentence about theatre auditions before she noticed Kate’s eyes traveling down her body, taking in her loose curls and the cheap cotton skirt she’d bought at a folk festival, which had until that moment made her feel both international and elegant. Later Kate would explain that she wasn’t being dismissive of Bertie so much as hippies in general, because Seattle had so many that they threatened to absorb you, like water into the spongy ground. But at the time, Bertie saw the look on Kate’s face, and simply shut her mouth and walked away.
“Wait, what?” Kate had called out after her, but Bertie hadn’t bothered to reply.
The change came in tenth grade, when they were seated at adjacent desks for the PSATs. Everyone taking the test had to show up at school on a Saturday morning, and people were full of test-day jitters, which only got worse when the administrators split them up alphabetically and placed them into classrooms with a randomly assigned moderator. Under the circumstances, familiar sights became somewhat surreal: maps and posters curling down at the corners as if left over from a lost civilization. Bertie didn’t put too much stock in the PSATs, since they didn’t count for anything except National Honor Society. But she was still susceptible to a general desire for success and admiration from authority figures, and so showed up with five spare pencils and a small hand sharpener as well as a water bottle and a baggie of snacks. “Brain food,” her father told her. “Can’t think if you’re hungry.” And in fact this statement stressed Bertie out more than anything, wondering if it was literally true.
The first portion of the test, which was multiple-choice reading comprehension, passed without much incident, and the students were given a ten-minute break, during which they milled around in the halls and asked one another how they thought they’d done. Bertie didn’t feel like talking to anyone, so she nibbled on some cheddar crackers and drew a rabbit on the back of her hand with a ballpoint pen she found in her backpack. When the moderator told them to sit down and get ready for the second section, she was already at her desk, and she smiled at Kate in an idle way as the other girl slid into her seat.
“I hate math,” Bertie said, more or less to no one, though Kate happened to be there.
“Me, too,” said Kate with unexpected enthusiasm. “Screw math.” Then she looked at Bertie’s hand. “Hey, nice bunny, though.”
“Oh, thanks,” said Bertie. “I sort of forgot that was there.”
“You’re good at drawing.”
“Am I? I like it.” Privately, Bertie had always considered herself quite good, but not many other people had bothered to tell her so. Her teachers did sometimes, of course, but they pretty much had to. What was an art teacher going to do—look at a student’s sketch and say, Have you considered statistics, maybe?
Kate and Bertie both smiled again, nervously, and then turned with everyone else to their test booklets. They were all trying to tamp down the suspicion that the answers they came up with here today would somehow determine the rest of their lives. Later Bertie would sometimes wonder what the questions had even been about: she thought she’d probably solved for X a lot, and offered the area of various shaded triangles. But as an adult, she couldn’t quite remember if that constituted geometry or algebra or maybe even trig. What she remembered was how, on the day of the test, Kate sat up halfway through the math section and said, “Oh, shit,” because her nose had started bleeding abundantly.
Kate dove for her backpack, but there wasn’t much there to stop the flow; they were barely allowed to bring anything with them, lest they somehow secret in an answer key. Around her, other students were sneaking glances at the spectacle before going back to their tests, some going so far as to hold their hands up like blinders to shield themselves from the distracting view. Bertie fiddled with a bit of math, waiting for the moderator to do something—she was a teacher, after all, and this couldn’t have been a complete surprise in a room full of neurotic teenagers. But Kate had covered her nose with both hands and then bent down, still softly repeating, “Oh shit, oh shit, this always happens.”
Finally, Bertie leaned over. “You need to pinch the bridge of your nose and tilt your head back.” Kate immediately complied, but the blood kept coming. “Okay,” said Bertie. “One sec. Hang on.” She looked with some apprehension at her test booklet, and the watch she’d placed beside it to keep time, before marching to the front of the room and telling the woman sitting there that she needed tissues right away.
“You were instructed to bring your own if you had a head cold,” the moderator said. “We don’t really have any. Budget cuts.”
“You don’t understand,” Bertie said. “She’s bleeding. Like, a lot.”
“What?” The woman paled. “Who’s doing what?”
“I said, she’s bleeding,” Bertie hissed through her teeth. The woman didn’t appear to grasp the severity of the situation. “Can I be excused to get her some toilet paper, maybe?”
“Oh, God.” The moderator stood up. “I can’t actually let you leave the room. Or maybe—for the bathroom—but you could still meet someone—I mean, I’ll go.”
Bertie would’ve been amused at this point, if she weren’t so offended. “You think I’m doing this to cheat on the test?”
“Of course not,” the moderator said, having at least the grace to blush. “It’s just the rules. They’re for your own good.”
“Like, I hit her or something? To cause a distraction?”
“Of course not—”
“Excuse me,” said Kate. She was still sitting at her desk, head reclined, nose pinched. The front of her shirt was, by now, quite drenched in blood, and the sight of her sparked the moderator—who Bertie learned later was a chemistry teacher, and then carefully avoided for the rest of her school years—into action at last. The woman jumped up and ran out of the room, pausing at the door only to say, “Please continue, everyone, no chatting,” before disappearing into the hall. The test takers all stopped to watch the empty doorway where she’d been, listening to her frantic footsteps patter across the linoleum. Then most of the room went back to their booklets, while Kate and Bertie looked at each other in disbelief.
Kate did eventually get a roll of toilet paper, which she unwound around her fingers and stuffed into each nostril. Periodically she would stop working to unplug a sodden mass of pulp and toss it into a trash can that had been placed beside her, but otherwise she continued scratching out her equations and filling in her answer bubbles, same as everyone. She and Bertie were both offered extra time at the end of the test, but neither of them needed it—Kate was mainly eager to get to her locker and change out of her bloody shirt. As they walked out of the room for the break before the evidence-based writing section, they glanced at the moderator, sitting flustered at her desk, and then at each other, rolling their eyes. After that, they got to talking, and had been friends ever since. Kate still called Bertie “Bunny” sometimes, although these days she did it less and less. Bertie wished she knew why.
After reassuring themselves that the security guard was not coming back to tell them this was all a joke and escort them out onto the streets of Paris, Bertie and Kate walked down the white stone steps of the Louvre and past the empty ticket counters, each footstep echoing back at them as light filtered through the glass pyramid above. Raindrops collected on the windowpanes, silently condensing on the cool surface and then sliding away. An unseen machine hummed in the distance somewhere, but otherwise the museum was quiet.
“This is a bit eerie, isn’t it?” Kate asked, as they approached the grand spiral staircase to the bottom floor.
“Well, I don’t know,” said Bertie. But it was. Beautifully so, as if a Victorian ghost might at any moment step out from behind a pillar and beckon them towards their destiny. And uncomfortably, too—the walls both too aware and too inert, without the usual thousand voices echoing off of them and taking up space.
“Actually,” Bertie said, “I did think there would be more—”
“Of a welcoming committee?”
“More curators on hand to ask your opinion on the history of art?” Kate raised her eyebrows. Ah, yes, Bertie thought, lovingly. My best friend the bitch. Even now Kate had a way of articulating Bertie’s least favorite parts of herself, making her observations so lightly it wasn’t clear if she actually meant them as criticism or jokes. Though Bertie found it easier to take them as jokes.
“Aren’t you charming,” she said, slipping her arm through Kate’s elbow. “I just thought it would be clearer which way to go.”
“Hmm,” said Kate. “It is kind of weird to be here like this, isn’t it?” She stopped to examine a marble nymph, matched white-on-white with its plinth; anywhere else, Bertie thought, you’d mistake it for corporate art. Something that could sit next to a cooler full of seltzer and ginger ale, elevating the room without calling too much attention to itself. Though maybe she’d just been spoiled by spending so much time around corporations. “I mean, I wonder if this is how rich people experience the world pretty much all the time.”
“Trying not to touch anything?”
“Well, sort of,” said Kate. “I meant all alone.”
Bertie felt a light ping against her heart.
“You’re not alone,” she said. “Not yet.”
“Oh, well.” Kate shot her a glance from the side of her eye. “Of course. But you know. Privately.”
They moved on, Bertie releasing Kate’s arm and walking half a step ahead. She had perfected a museum-going strategy during her art school years, when she would sometimes drive to the SAM in downtown Seattle after a particularly rough painting critique and wander past the tapestries, thinking about how they looked like early cartoons, and how maybe someday the pages of her own work—sketched, inked, colored by hand—would hang like this, if she ever finished making it. She liked to walk around in a loop, stopping only by impulse or instinct, pretending to be in a friend’s old junk room or the basement at her grandmother’s house, finding everything by surprise.
But she was having trouble drumming up the usual excitement. Even here, in a palace of art, all of it unfamiliar, resplendent. There were three whole floors to explore, and three wings—Denon to the south, Richelieu to the north, and Sully, central, to the east—and all Bertie could think about was how everything was ending much too fast. She got a panicky feeling, ticking items from the future off the checklist in her head. Their flight left Charles du Gaulle the next night at ten p.m. and, due to the magic of time zones and international date lines, would technically arrive back at SFO just two hours after it took off. In a month Kate would be gone, starting her new job in Los Angeles, and Bertie really would be alone. She pinched her arm, so hard it hurt. But when Kate said, “What?” she just shrugged.
“Okay.” Kate stopped in her tracks. “Enough of this moping. Let’s go see her.”
“See who?” asked Bertie. Then she caught herself. “I’m not moping.”
“Of course,” Kate agreed. “You would never.”
“You don’t mope. You sacrifice yourself to a higher purpose.”
“You lie on the train tracks of moral authority and tear your shirt open and ask, ‘Do I not bleed?’?”
“You feel the smallest kernel of misbehavior like the princess and the goddamn pea.”
So you admit that moving constitutes misbehavior, Bertie thought, but what she said was: “For the love of God, see who?”
“You really can’t guess?” Kate asked. “Here’s a hint: Madame Mystery.”
It took a second for this to click, but then Bertie got it, and she felt a stirring of anticipation. “Oh,” she said. “Oh. The Mona Lisa.”
“Aka your best friend, so long as no one else is around to annoy you by liking it too much.”
“To be honest, you annoy me pretty much all the time.”
“Yeah.” Kate smiled. “But just this once, I think you can see past it.”
For the entire trip, Bertie had been congratulating herself on avoiding the thought of Kate’s move, deciding instead to stay “mindful” and “in the moment,” as she was often encouraged to do at work. It turned out to be surprisingly easy when “the moment” consisted not of team meetings and windowless rooms, but instead of perfect baguettes served with fresh butter, or a plate of salty olives at a streetside café in Montmartre, accompanied by a cup of mint tea. On the first night of their vacation, she and Kate had smuggled a bottle of wine to the banks of the Seine, where they threw pebbles into the water and laughed with a group of teenage boys who rode past them on skateboards, spitting raps in a mishmash of English and French.
From a few meters away, one of the boys had shouted, “I love you!” his accent heavy and his voice hilariously earnest. He was smoking an e-cigarette as he rode in figure eights, his motions fluid and fugue-like; you could see on his face that he would never die. From his mouth came little puffs of vapor that smelled like pineapple, at least from a distance. Bertie realized she could be his mother, if she’d gotten started having babies early enough, at fifteen or sixteen, maybe.
“Which one of us?” Kate shouted back. Which sent the boys into hysterics. They fell all over one another, kicking their boards out and letting them slide a few feet away before jumping back on and disappearing around a bend. “Now we’ll never know,” Kate said.
“Maybe it was both of us.”
“The whole pair of us.”
“The wonderful pair.”
The lights on the river were all moon shaped, wobbling. A firecracker went off many blocks away, or maybe it was something else, but for a moment Bertie allowed herself to believe it would always be like this, the two of them and a good sweet wine, and in the distance, fireworks. There was a percussive pop pop pop, and then a period of silence, before a burnt smell drifted over and eclipsed the pineapple scent of the boys. Bertie held a mouthful of wine until she got tears in her eyes and her tongue began to sting. She watched the waves lap at the concrete banks and felt Kate’s head drop onto her shoulder. You could will something to be perfect, she thought. And it almost would be. Not quite, but almost.
They figured out that the Mona Lisa was on the first floor, in the Denon Wing, at the end of a grand salon, but got lost a few times on the way. Things around them seemed a little slippery; at one point they passed a bank of elevators blinking up and down between floors for no apparent reason. Bertie instinctively grabbed her phone from her back pocket and took a picture, thinking, Proof. Though, proof of what? She wasn’t sure. A car opened its doors in front of them, and Kate made a move to get on, but Bertie grabbed her elbow and steered her away. “Maybe later,” she said, watching behind her as the elevator slid smoothly shut again.
“Okay, but are we almost there?”
“We definitely won’t be if we go up to some random floor.” She aimed her phone at Kate and said, “Smile! Vacation smile!” Which made Kate roll her eyes and sigh, putting up a hand like a bedraggled starlet being hounded outside rehab.
Bertie still wasn’t sure the Mona Lisa was such a great painting, but she was excited to see it in person at last. To attach a physical marker to something that had floated alongside her for so much of her life: the Mona Lisa showed up in Looney Tunes; the Mona Lisa was a clue in Sunday crossword puzzles; the Mona Lisa was screen-printed on an old sweatshirt her mom used to exercise in, huffing and puffing on the stair-stepper machine in front of the television. During art school, the work had been used as an example par excellence of the sfumato style of painting da Vinci championed during the Renaissance, where the lines between different structures and types of light were intentionally smoky and indistinct. Bertie didn’t draw that way at all, but it interested her: the idea that everything blurs together, that there is no real distinction between one object and the next. One person and the next.
“Oh, thank God, I’m dying of thirst,” Kate said, spotting a water fountain and leaning over it for a drink. Bertie stood next to Kate and let her weight fall onto the wall behind her. In high school, Kate’s mom was always trying to get them to drink more water in an effort to improve their skin: she saw the girls as projects still under way, with movable pieces and errors that could be easily addressed. As an adult, Kate didn’t talk to her mother very much anymore, but there were obvious points of crossover between them, places her mother’s touch had rubbed off like chalk. She was always exquisitely hydrated, for example. She believed in finding the root of a problem and making swift judgments about how to fix it. Bertie watched her sip from the fountain, mouth turned up into a slight smile. She did have great skin.
“By the way,” Bertie said, “aren’t we supposed to meet up with that Javier guy at some point?”
“I guess so, yeah, but not till later. He said we could have a late lunch at the upstairs café and then see what we felt like doing from there.”
“Won’t it be closed?”
Kate stood up from the fountain and shrugged. “Maybe he has, like, the key to the wine fridge.”
“What a mysterious gentleman. What a gentleman of quality.”
“You’re really giving him too much thought.”
Bertie knew this was true, but she couldn’t help it. She could only remember Javier’s face in a hazy way, his skin glowing gold like he’d swallowed a doubloon, with shaggy pirate teeth to match. Since the bombings, it was no longer considered advisable to endure low-level radiation for things like dental X-rays or airport security, and so good teeth had become an important item on the dating checklist. They spoke to a sort of internal stamina, a genetic predisposition to life. Javier’s were so yellow, arranged in a jumble, as if he’d always been having too much fun to floss. They were good-times teeth, and these were not good times.
At the cellar bar, Javier had slithered up to them as if from nowhere, filling the empty stool beside Kate and talking to her as though he’d known her for years. Childhoods, injuries, favorite foods: all were discussed. Kate even told him how, after her parents’ divorce, her birth father took her to his home in Australia for a month without permission, a technical kidnapping, though she remembered it mostly for the outrageous blue of the ocean. She rarely told anyone this story, but she told it to him. With an arched eyebrow, he invited her to the dance floor, and she accepted, letting him spin her clumsily around and then hold her hand for a little too long on the walk back to their seats. And then he just—stayed. Ignoring Bertie, beaming at Kate. Though it wasn’t his indifference Bertie faulted him for so much as his calculation. He’d actually bought more wine for her, sliding Bertie glass after glass of the cheap house red as if he was trying to cure her of something, while simultaneously praising Kate as naturellement du vin. Naturally drunk? Was that possibly a compliment?
For her part, Bertie had told him about the boy she kissed once at a concert in eleventh grade, how they’d stood at the top of a hill in the rain, mud clinging to their calves, and she’d thrown her arms over his shoulders and looked into his eyes before leaning in so close they became one beating heart, high up in the storm. The moral of the story being, she left with Kate directly after the kiss and never spoke to that boy again. They always left the boys, in the end.
“Hey, look,” said Kate a moment later. “There it is, I think?”
She was pointing around the corner, through a nearby archway. They scooted beneath it and found themselves in an empty, high-ceilinged room with speckled walls and a parquet floor. There was the Mona Lisa, positioned as if at the head of a long table, waiting for her guests. To one side of her, there were angels. To the other, a woman fainting into a pair of gentlemen’s arms. Kate and Bertie each took an audible breath, then laughed at themselves.
Fuck, Bertie thought. I might actually love it.
She felt a twinge deep within herself that she knew could only be relieved by getting her phone out again and taking a picture. Behind a pane of bulletproof glass, the Mona Lisa smiled discreetly, looking for all the world like just another skillful copy of herself. This drove Bertie wild—what if it was a fake? How would she know? The real version could be in a vault somewhere, too valuable for ordinary eyes. Though, didn’t that make this one more real? If it was the one that was seen? She walked the length of the wooden banister that formed a half circle around the glass, taking shots from different angles: high, low, eye-level. A treasure trove of evidence no one would ever want or need. She took a selfie and almost erased it before realizing she looked kind of cute, her hair tumbling down over one eye so she, too, had a mysterious air. From some positions she took three or four variations on the same photo in an attempt to get a perfect version without any glare shimmering off the glass. Each image there, then gone, as Bertie deleted herself with impunity.
Kate pursed her lips. “Why do you do that?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” Bertie crouched down and took a picture that included half of Kate’s face, disapproving in the shadow of the painting.
“I mean.” Kate paused. “Can you try just being in a place?”
Bertie had noticed Kate frowning about the photo of the elevators, and the several pictures she’d taken earlier in the morning when they were getting coffee: street shots, children with umbrellas and galoshes. She’d assumed Kate was just tired and in a mood.
“Oh, please, like I’m the only person who posts vacation photos.”
“But you’re, like, obsessed.”
“Everyone is. It’s the new human condition.”
Admittedly, Bertie spent too much time online. She’d just started at some point, while bored at work, and now it was hard to stop. She would flip through each social media site to see what had happened in the moments she spent on competing platforms, then flip through again, since every second spent in one place was a missed opportunity elsewhere. She took photos of everything she thought people might like, which seemed like a benign public service until she realized how much she depended on the praise. Likes, hearts, stars. Tearing herself away from the internet for this trip had been surprisingly painful, like peeling a suction cup off of her arm. Then peeling off a thousand more.
“Don’t be such a dad. Anyway, I use the pictures to draw from, you know that.”
Kate looked dismayed. “But then why not carry a sketchbook?”
“I like doing it this way. Can you just drop it?” She didn’t need Kate to pester her into keeping a notebook like some goth teenager. She had been to art school. She’d heard all the lectures about drawing from memory versus from life, how geniuses could make a perfect circle every time, and it was just a matter of practice. Even back then, Bertie had preferred working from a static example, though she had hidden it from her teachers and peers, worried that she lacked some vital artistic impulse which showed itself in her shoddy approach. Bertie still worried about that, in fact. More so now that she rarely drew anything for herself at all. Just the dinosaur, which she’d produced so many times it flowed out of her as quickly as air, and as meaninglessly.
She took a deep breath to compose herself.
“Bunny, I’m sorry.” Kate poked her arm. “You know it’s in my nature to worry about you.”
“Well, don’t.” Bertie took a few more pictures, just to be a bitch. Two of the Mona Lisa, and one of a painting of two angry little dogs, cowering. “You’re always trying to fix me, but I’m fine.”
They looked at each other, and Bertie gently reached over and moved a piece of hair off Kate’s shoulder, and Kate smiled. Bertie wondered what it would be like to actually be fine, but could no longer really imagine it.
The thing that made the world’s collapse so hard to parse was the regularity that persisted, in spite of everything. People still had air-conditioning, for example. They paid their bills on their cell phones, and even as various foods were rationed—avocados disappearing when Mexico closed its border with the U.S., coffee and tea in the seasons of storms—motivated citizens were able to use online maps to track where and when truckloads of greenhouse produce were scheduled to arrive, and plan photogenic rituals around them. Tomatoes glistening in a manicured grip. Blackberries staining plump lips. Bertie felt it should be impossible to form such strong new habits and preferences when you might at any time be killed by an IED set up by the freeway, but it was possible. Oh, it was. For the color of polluted sunsets, the necessity of cross-country road trips when all the airlines briefly shut down their commuter routes in the midst of a fuel crisis. Using homegrown squash to make ersatz guacamole, and pretending it was cool instead of necessary. There was a jangling presence of mind that drove everyone forwards, a new ingenuity, which only sometimes curdled into something less photogenic. So that when the cease-fire was announced, and things calmed down enough for air travel to resume and parents to allow their children to apply once more to out-of-state colleges, the calm was almost more unsettling than anything. A silence that could drive you mad. The world waters soothed, as if—as Kate observed to Bertie—some great hand had reached down to turn off the jets in a hot tub. Leaving behind the sensation of water recently boiled, and the shimmering aura of a dial that could, so easily, be turned back up.
They left the Mona Lisa behind and spent a dissolute half hour among the large French and Italian portraits, with imposing men and women sneering down at them, draped in silk. After that, they walked upstairs to the Dutch Old Masters, through a sea of uneaten feasts, a wall of rabbits hung up and partially skinned. Bertie felt her stomach rumble as they passed by paintings depicting peeled lemons, thick slices of ham, grapes with a wet, unsavory sheen.
She took pictures of all of them.
The day Kate told her she was moving to Los Angeles for a promotion, Bertie had been in a good mood. She’d gotten out of work early, so she’d gone to a bar in their neighborhood, and was eating pretzels in the sunshine when Kate showed up.
Bertie still remembered the quirk of a smile on Kate’s lips as she came out onto the patio, the way she’d pulled her sunglasses up over her hair and how pale she’d seemed. They were all pale then, after spending so many nights behind blackout curtains, so many days staying inside and away from the windows, “Just in case,” as the news anchors had put it. But this was different, a lack-of-sleep pale, a loss-of-blood look. When she sat down, Bertie passed her a beer and a handful of pretzels, and Kate dunked her fingertip into the beer, covering it with foam before swirling it around and putting it in her mouth.
And then she broke Bertie’s heart.
The sun had been going down. What? Bertie remembered saying, over and over, genuine in her incomprehension. Kate wouldn’t look at her. Bertie thought: After all we’ve been through? She thought: Don’t we more or less belong to each other, now? Weren’t rats on a sinking ship more identifiable by the ship—that is, the vessel of their togetherness—than by the individual rat? But here was Kate, who may as well have been jumping off the spaceship Earth. There was a real chance that, once she left for L.A., it could all start back up. She’d wave goodbye from the window of a cab, and the next day a bomb would drop. They’d never see each other again. But she was still going. “I want to move forwards,” was all she would say about it.
Bertie now took a picture of a padded museum bench with a moderately interesting textile print, and another picture of a potted plant that looked kind of like a giraffe, in a way she thought she might later find funny. Kate pretended not to see. She rearranged her skirt, so the zipper sat flush with her spine, and shifted her purse from one shoulder to the other, her smile only slightly strained. It had been a long week, in some ways. A long week of them together every minute, always having to agree what to do next, sharing a bathroom. Kate kept taking Bertie’s towel. But still.
“Is a promotion really worth…” she began, just as Kate said, “Listen, do you maybe want to…” But they were both interrupted by a sound that echoed, suddenly, down the hall. Footsteps and light chatter that they couldn’t quite catch, probably because it was in French.
The women exchanged a look. They hadn’t seen anyone else since leaving the guard at the museum steps, hours before. No people or even any signs of people: a crumpled piece of paper, say, or a coffee cup left on a ledge: just hall after hall of high ceilings and rococo frames, with the occasional discreet air-conditioning vent cooling the rooms to a steady chill.
They hurried towards the sound as it receded down the long passageway, catching sight of the back of a man’s head—but only just, as he turned a corner and disappeared once more.
“Javier!” Kate called. Then she turned to Bertie. “I think that was Javier.”
“Really?” Bertie had thought the man looked familiar, too, but in a different way. Then again, she hadn’t seen his teeth. Down, girl, she told herself. “Well if it was, he didn’t hear you. No way Javier would ignore his belle femme radieuse.”
“And heaven forfend.”
Kate looked at her sideways. “I just want to say hi, at least.”
But try as they did, they couldn’t catch up. The faster they went, the more turned around they got, the museum map limp and useless in their hands. A smattering of laughter echoed from the end of a hallway, and they rushed towards it only to find themselves alone in a dark, tomblike room full of female nudes; a room with no exit save for the door they’d just come through, which seemed impossible. They heard someone behind them and turned around to retrace their steps, but none of the rooms they reentered were quite the ones they’d left. The walls were painted different colors, or the light had a new quality, casting longer shadows, or else no shadows at all.
One room was just full of pictures of meat—meat on a hook, meat on the table, meat slabbed so thickly onto the canvas that it seemed ready to drip from the bone.
A few minutes later, Bertie stopped outside a bathroom marked with a lady in a triangle skirt, and found she could no longer continue. She tried picking up her foot and moving it forwards—Just basic walking! she told herself—but it felt like lead.
“Listen,” she said. “I really need to pee. Maybe let’s take a pause here, and then think about leaving for some dinner or something? I’m pretty sure we’ve blown right past the late-lunch idea.”
Kate was surprisingly amenable. “It’s true. Now that you mention it, God, I’m starving. When’s the last time we ate?”
“Breakfast, I think?”
“That’s insane, we’re in France. We should be eating every twenty minutes.”
Bertie paused. “Where do you think they went?”
“I don’t know,” Kate said. “I don’t even know where we are anymore, exactly.”
As it turned out, they were on the second floor, right in front of Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, in which everyone was running but no one looked truly distressed. The bodies were all arranged in attitudes of extremity, but the expressions were calm, even placid. Bertie remembered it from school, where it had been the favorite of one of her first-year professors, who had waxed on for ten whole minutes about the play of color on Romulus’s tunic. There were actually two copies of The Rape of the Sabine Women; the other one was at the Met. Twins, made many years apart, but with the same basic heart.
Her stomach growled, so loud it made her jump.
“Oh, wow,” Kate said.
“There’s no rationing on red meat in Europe right now, is there?” Bertie asked. “I’m kind of in the mood for a steak.” It was their special thing, steak and wine. Not so unusual, but still, theirs. Almost romantic, which was fitting, considering how rarely either of them dated anyone they actually liked.
“No, that’s pork. And you’re right, we should celebrate.” Kate crouched down on the floor and began to thumb through the guidebook they’d been relying on for restaurant advice, in the absence of online reviews.
“You know. New adventures.”
Bertie flinched. “Or old friendships?”
“Oh, come on,” said Kate. “Don’t be lame. We’re about to do all this great new stuff, we’re being brave, we got a secret Louvre tour…” She trailed off, folding down the corner of a page in the guidebook.
“You are,” Bertie said, softly.
Was it really possible Kate didn’t get what it meant, to say a thing like that? Bertie rubbed her face with her hands. Shut up, she told herself. You’ll ruin everything. But she didn’t shut up. “Well, you’re about to do new stuff. I’m going to be stuck in my same job, with my same commute, drawing that dinosaur until I go blind and stab myself in the eye with a stylus.”
“So quit your job.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“It actually is.”
“Maybe, but what difference does it make if you’re just going to ditch me anyway?”
“What’s your problem?” Kate asked. She looked genuinely surprised. “I thought you were happy for me.”
“Where did you ever get that idea?”
“I don’t know. I guess just from the fact that you should be.”
“Fuck,” Bertie said. Then she turned and walked into the bathroom.
Once, on a family trip to Arizona, Bertie had spent all day walking through a river, because she decided it was too hot out to let herself get dry. Her mom and dad, apparently made of sterner stuff, had strolled contentedly on the path above her, but Bertie waded up to her ankles, then to her calves, fighting with every step against the river current. At first it had been gentle enough that she barely noticed it, but the closer they got to their rented camper, the more she felt the water drag her back. Her sandals had no traction, so she kept slipping, twisting her ankle and banging her knee, and fifteen minutes before the end of the hike, she got so frustrated she started to cry. Which her parents declared an entirely teenage response to the situation.
Do you always have to make things so hard for yourself, Roberta? her mother had asked, dredging her onto dry land. Never except in moments of annoyance did anybody call her Roberta. I’m just trying to live my human life, Bertie had replied. And then both her parents had sighed.
In the bathroom, she peed, furiously. Banged open the stall door so it swung on its hinges, and washed her hands, though it took three tries to find a sink that would register her presence with its motion detectors. In the mirror, Bertie saw she looked insane. Like a Munch painting, or a cartoon dog getting hit on the foot by a hammer and going electric in its dismay. Why can’t you grow up, Roberta? she wondered. Why can’t you just. Grow. Up?
“Look,” she said, pushing through the swinging bathroom door. “I’m sorry, I’m only being shitty because my stomach is eating itself. Let’s go…” She stopped. Kate wasn’t sitting where she’d been, and with a quick look to the left and right, Bertie saw that she was nowhere. “What the hell, Kate? Where’d you go?”
There was no reply.
Bertie paused, dumbfounded. Had Kate come into the bathroom while she was inside, somehow slipping past without her noticing? She went back in and looked in all the stalls, but they were empty. The hand dryer was still running from when Bertie had turned it on, but it went silent as she stared. Back out in the hall, she walked up and down, peeking into nearby rooms as they branched off the main line. But Kate wasn’t anywhere.
Bertie remembered her shouting, “Javier!” Her voice so excited, as if he were a dear friend. There had been a twinkle of desire in the sound, which Bertie had ignored at the time. “That motherfucker,” she said quietly, not knowing whether she meant Javier—who must’ve reappeared—or Kate.
She could picture it so easily. Him coming up from behind her and saying, Boo!, then clasping his hand around her wrist. Kate laughing, and letting herself be pulled into a surprise kiss. The two of them running down the hall.
Maybe they’d told themselves they would meet up with Bertie by one of the exits, all three of them walking off into the night for dinner and drinks, as planned. But that wouldn’t work. Even if they tried, there were a hundred ways three people could pass each other by in a place like this. All the hidden alcoves, all the sudden abortive ends to visitor loops. The museum itself colluding to keep them hidden. And for what? Just so Kate and Javier could have sex, which either one of them could have had any time, if not with each other, then with someone else, at least equally attractive.
Bertie’s eyes got hot, the way they always did just before she began to cry. If she let it happen, it would be an ugly cry, not something poetic and brave. She didn’t want to spend the night alone. She didn’t speak great French; neither did Kate, but together they’d muddled through the streets, asking people directions and then mashing up a workable translation from their two imperfect understandings. Kate must’ve known that Bertie would have trouble making it back to the hotel by herself. She didn’t have the guidebook. She didn’t even have a map.
With a shuddering sigh, Bertie shoved the heels of her hands into her eyes to push back the tears, then picked herself up and looked around until she found a sign marked Sortie. She remembered that meant Exit, and she would’ve known anyway from the icon on the sign, a little genderless body rushing through an open door into nothingness.
The first thing to do was get out of the museum. Then she would figure out what to do next. Paris was just a city; the streets were just streets. With a little effort, she could get herself where she needed to go—so she assumed. So she still, then, believed.