Chapter 1 1
Have fun! See you at midnight like we agreed! XXX Mom
Kira Unsworth swiped left, stung the red delete box. Goodbye. She didn’t remember agreeing. She remembered Rebecca saying Midnight, okay?
Not okay. Not even close. Even if Jacques didn’t show… and Jacques was going to show… she wasn’t Cinderella and she wasn’t going to be home at midnight. Not in Barcelona. People came from all over to party here, the ultimate late-night city.
She could say the time difference had confused her, though Mom wouldn’t bite. Did it confuse your phone too? Rebecca could smell fibs from ten feet away. You do remember your dear old mother works for the FBI. Trying to sound like she was joking, though they both knew she wasn’t. The words a challenge: Don’t even try it.
Mostly Kira didn’t. She’d learned the best lies were the ones she didn’t have to tell. Tonight she would play it cool, no excuses. I’m nineteen, I’m not a baby, come on.
Dad would be fine as long as she made it back by one. Maybe even a little later. Good ol’ Bri, part of him still wanted to be nineteen. With his microbrews and Nirvana T-shirts.
Even Becks would lighten up once Kira got back to their Airbnb. She knew midnight was ridiculous.
Reediculous, Kira mouthed at the girl in the mirror behind the bar. The room around her was long and dark and stuffed with torn leather couches and paintings of long-gone Europeans that had been covered in graffiti and sliced up. The net effect was a castle post–zombie apocalypse. But with better music. MGMT shading into Twenty One Pilots shading into Fleet Foxes. Even the occasional band Kira didn’t know, and she knew just about everything. She loved new music. She loved music, period. The bar was called The Mansion—lots of Barcelona bars had English names—and was supposed to be one of the coolest places in the city. Though it was still mostly empty.
Kira should have been intimidated to be here alone. She was, a little. But she felt more confident than she’d expected. Probably because she already knew she was meeting someone.
She was drinking sangria from a battered copper cup. Dark and sweet and it didn’t seem to have much kick, but she felt soft after one drink. She tipped the dregs into her mouth and set the cup down. The bartender slid over. He had wide dark eyes, nice arms poking out from his black T-shirt.
“One more?” Everyone in Europe insisted on talking to her in English. Of course not too many Spaniards had blue eyes. But couldn’t she pass for German? Swedish? They all knew she was American before she opened her mouth.
“Stella, por favor.” She didn’t want to be drunk when Jacques got here.
“Try the Estrella, it’s local. Better.”
She nodded. The bartender turned around, leaned over the mini-fridge. He rummaged around a little longer than he needed to, made sure she had time to check out his cute butt—in his cute black jeans. At last he pulled a brown bottle, popped the top with a flourish.
“First time in Barcelona?”
“First night in Barcelona. Where is everyone?”
“Only ten forty-five. You’ll see. Okay, first night, the cerveza, you don’t pay.” He tapped his chest.
He winked, American girls are good for business. She sipped her beer, washing the sticky sangria from her mouth. Nice to be in a country where she could drink legally, no fake IDs, no frat basements. Civilized.
Her phone buzzed. A text from a number starting with thirty-three. The country code for France, as she’d just learned. Jacques. Though she hadn’t put his name in her phone. He’d have to earn that.
See you soon
Here, she typed, then deleted it. She didn’t want to seem too eager. Though she was.
Jacques was a graduate student at the Sorbonne. Kira had met him the night before, in Paris. She and her brother, Tony, were at this café on the Place de la République, this big square where French students hung out. Tony had dragged her there. Tony was seventeen. Tony was tall and skinny. Tony was… a dork. The classic Tony story: A week into ninth grade a bee flew into a Coke he was drinking, stung his mouth. The next day he came to school with his mouth swollen and grotesque, his lower lip the size of a tire. He looked like a washed-up model who’d cheaped out on plastic surgery. Why did everybody make fun of me, he said that night in Kira’s room, I didn’t want to drink a bee. Kira could only shake her head. She’d never even had acne.
Worse, Tony desperately wanted to escape loser prison. Kira knew the effort would only make matters worse. Despite her advice, he’d even worn his hair in a ponytail for a while in tenth grade. He was still living that one down. Maybe he could start fresh in college.
Poor Tony. Kira looked out for him, truly, but she could only do so much. The worst part, he was funny and smart and nice. She wasn’t saying so because she was his sister. He was. And he was going to be handsome once he grew into his face and gained about twenty pounds. A couple of her friends had said so. Wait until he’s twenty-five, we’ll all be sorry we missed out.
A forecast that hardly helped him now.
Anyway, Tony had wanted to go to this Place de la République. Where the students protest, he told Kira.
Kira had no idea what French students might have to protest. Paris looked pretty good to her. But she was glad Tony made her go. Because afterward they stopped in this café for a bière pression or whatever, and in walked tall, dark, and yummy. In general French dudes were good-looking, but they came off as too stylish for her taste. Even though it was July they hardly sweated. Kira didn’t want to worry that the guy she was with had better hair than she did.
Not this guy. His hair was cut close to his head like he didn’t want to have to think about it. His stubble didn’t look planned. It looked like he’d forgotten to shave that morning. He was big, broad-shouldered. He looked like a Marine. A French Marine. When he caught her looking at him he didn’t play it cool and pretend he hadn’t noticed. He tilted his head, stared back. Then smiled.
Thirty seconds later he was at their table. Her table. Tony might as well have been invisible.
“What’s your name?” In English, of course.
He extended his hand, the gesture oddly endearing. He had big hands, gorgeous long fingers. “Kira. I’m Jacques. What’s your favorite thing in Paris so far?”
The question was blunt enough to flummox her. The Louvre? The Eiffel Tower? She didn’t want to sound like a tourist. Dumb, she was a tourist. “Kind of unfair, don’t you think?”
“Run it on an American girl to throw her, and you’ve got some cool answer ready.”
“Swear I’ve never asked before.”
“Ever been to America, Jacques?”
“If I came up to you on your third day in New York and I said what’s your favorite thing—”
“The subways. Not like our little Métro, with the tickets and the air puffs. Steel submarines that never stop running.”
Not a bad answer. “Well I’m from D.C., and our subway sucks.”
“We’re actually from Maryland,” Tony said.
“This is my brother, Tony.”
“Hi-oh,” Jacques returned. Like Tony was a parrot that had spoken for the first time and needed reassurance.
“Tony was just going outside to see the protests.” She felt guilty for getting rid of him, but only a little. Having him watch her flirt would embarrass him and throw her off her game. Besides, they’d been hanging out nonstop for three straight days.
“Ahh, the protests. I forget what they’re protesting this time.”
“Universal basic income,” Tony said.
As he stood up, he spilled his beer, sending a bubbly river Jacques’s way.
Jacques grabbed a napkin more quickly than Kira thought was possible and mopped the beer before it could soak him.
“It’s okay.” Jacques seemed unflustered, and Kira liked him all the more. “I’ll take care of it.”
They watched him go.
“Your brother,” Jacques said.
“He’s a good kid.”
He nodded. She could feel them deciding as a pair not to mention Tony again.
“That was amazing.”
“Your reflexes. With the beer.”
“Oh.” He didn’t seem to know what to say.
“Have you decided your favorite thing yet?”
Really, her favorite thing so far had been the women here, the way they dressed and walked and held themselves. The way they ate and smoked. They all looked so confident, even if they weren’t pretty, even if they weren’t young. They were stylish without even trying. Unlike her mother. It wasn’t that Rebecca wasn’t successful. But she never made anything look easy.
Kira wasn’t going to explain any of this to Jacques. “Let’s say I like keeping my options open.”
He smiled. One of his top teeth had a tiny crack. “That how it is? French boy, good story for your friends?”
“Dumb American girl? Fresh meat?”
She’d grown used to standing around kegs in dirty basements, yelling over the music. That new Kanye song sucks, or Yeah, I know pre-med is a ton of studying but if I get in doctors have it made. The conversation was juvenile, just something to get out of the way before they fooled around. She felt different with this guy. More grown-up. Like she’d enjoy hanging out with him even if all they did was talk.
“So what brings you to Paris?”
“My parents’ twentieth anniversary. They decided to take us to Europe.”
“My parents got divorced when I was eight.”
“I thought mine might. There was like five years when they hardly spoke…”
He stared steadily at her with his gray-green eyes.
“Don’t know why I’m telling you this, it’s not something I talk about.”
“Because you’ll never see me again and my parents, they stunk too.”
“Don’t be so sure.”
“Don’t be sure my parents stunk? I am quite sure, Kira.”
She liked the sound of her name in his mouth. “That we’ll never see each other again.”
He closed his eyes, opened them again. “Now we have.”
Cheesy but good.
He told her he was twenty-six, studying for a PhD in economics.
“You don’t look like any of the grad students I know.”
“A personal trainer too.”
“Full service for middle-aged Paris ladies?”
“It’s mostly men. And, too bad, some of them think like you.”
“I’ll bet.” She expected him to smile. Instead he frowned.
“My job is to provide motivation for people who want to lose weight, be healthy. Make sure they stretch, do the exercises properly. Why must I deal with being pinched by some husband?”
He looked so serious, so offended, so French, she couldn’t help but laugh. “Poor baby.”
He touched a finger to her lips. “Ferme ta bouche, mademoiselle.” But he was smiling.
Tony proved he wasn’t completely clueless by giving them almost an hour before he came back. “Kira, we promised we’d be back by twelve thirty. The hotel’s way on the other side of town.”
“Paris isn’t that big.”
“It’s pretty big.”
He walked outside again.
She and Jacques stared comfortably at each other across the table. A smile played over his lips.
“Tomorrow I take you to the best place in the whole city.”
“Your apartment, right?”
He shook his head like she’d disappointed him. “Canal Saint-Martin. It’s a beautiful walk. You’ll see.” He reached across the table, squeezed her hand. A flame of pleasure lit her arm.
“Can’t. I’m sorry.”
“You have zee boyfriend at home?” He put on a ridiculous accent. To hide his disappointment, she thought. “You have zee promise ring. For zee chastity.”
“We’re going to Barcelona.”
“Stay. Take a train on Sunday.”
“If you knew my parents—”
“Then I will come to you. Tomorrow night.”
“That’s silly.” Shut up, shut up, she told herself. Don’t blow it.
“Americans, you have no idea what romance is. Romance, it’s seeing a beautiful girl and knowing that if you have to get on a train to see her again, no problem.”
“We know what romance is. We just don’t have time for it.”
“Exactly. Besides, I love Barcelona. All those Catalan girls.” He winked. Not too many guys could pull off a wink, but he could. “Tomorrow then? Unless you don’t want me to.”
She knew what her mom would say: He seems pretty aggressive, K.
“It’s just a drink. Maybe dancing. Give me your number. I’ll text you in the morning.”
So she did. He stood, leaned across the table. Kissed her once, lightly, and ran his fingers down her cheek. Then he was gone. She watched him walk out with what she knew was a silly dazed smile.
He didn’t make her suffer. He texted before breakfast. They arranged to meet here, The Mansion, at 11 p.m. She told Tony but swore him to secrecy. She didn’t want her parents to know. Rebecca would insist on hearing everything about Jacques. And she wouldn’t be happy with what Kira told her. Twenty-six is too old, K. Did you tell him you were nineteen? No, she was keeping this date from Mom.
A lie she didn’t have to tell.
Ten fifty-two, her phone said now. Kira ran early, she was Rebecca’s daughter that way. Build in a few extra minutes, you won’t be stressed. A little edge but every edge matters. Another of Mom’s annoyingly accurate life lessons. She should write a book. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective FBI Agents.
Kira took a pull of the Estrella, felt the room blur a little more. She wasn’t a huge drinker. But she liked the temporary softening in her edge, yes. Her mom had drilled the lesson, Life is tough, especially for a woman, you can never stop paying attention…
Mmph. Rebecca was usually right, but that didn’t make the constant prodding any easier. She might as well be here if they were going to talk in Kira’s head all night. Maybe they should try it. Hang out for a few hours. Would Becks chill, flirt with this bartender? Did she have any game? Kira had never known her mom to flirt, though she’d seen pictures from back in the day that suggested the possibility.
She took another swallow of the beer. She didn’t have to worry about drinking and driving, anyway. This bar was a max twenty-minute walk from the apartment they’d rented. Three bedrooms and two bathrooms in this cool old building up in Eixample, not too far from La Rambla.
She’d made sure to give Tony the bedroom next to her parents. The trip was their twentieth-anniversary present to each other, no doubt they’d be enjoying each other’s company. So to speak. Lucky for Tony, he was a heavy sleeper. Kira looked at herself in the mirror, remembering the only time she’d caught her parents truly going at it.
She was in a strange mood tonight. Maybe drunker than she thought. She rarely let herself have this memory. It shamed her.
She was a sophomore in high school, a month short of sixteen. The middle of the night, and she woke up famished. She was in her not-eating phase. Five nine, almost five ten, Kira was, aiming for one hundred twenty pounds. The target seemed reasonable enough, the numbers drumming in her head. Five nine one two zero, the zip code of the promised land. If she lined them up a whole world would open for her. Beverly Hills, that’s where I want to be…
She never went full anorexic, she and her skinny-ass friends liked to joke, You never go full anorexic, the line stolen, repurposed, from Tropic Thunder. No, you starve yourself just enough so everyone says how good you look. You turn the boys’ heads and the girls’ too. Not so much that you can count your ribs. Not all of them, anyway. Good anorexia, they called it.
But good anorexia was a balancing act. And Kira tipped far enough the whole world treated her differently that fall. Like she was a crystal; Baccarat, shiny, precious, easily shattered. She watched her parents watching her at breakfast and dinner, dancing around the issue. They snuck looks at her plate, asked if she wanted more yogurt or carrots. They never knew what to say. Looking back, Kira had to admit that watching Becks—sure-footed Rebecca—turn wobbly and tongue-tied had been part of the appeal. Cruel and selfish in retrospect. Maybe even at the time.
Lucky her, even if she didn’t think so back then, she liked to eat too much to starve herself. She never went below one-two-two, maybe one-two-one on the digital scale she bought. And she was past all that now. She hadn’t even needed to see someone—a phrase that Mrs. Daye, her kindly physics teacher, tossed out after she nearly fell over one morning—to get her head on straight.
She just decided she was tired of being hungry. She wanted to be strong. She wanted to play soccer without worrying she was going to collapse. She was about one hundred thirty-eight now, one-three-nine, though she tried not to weigh herself too often. When the numbers lined up in her head she swiped them left.
But on that fine December night, morning, whatever 3 a.m. was, her parents and brother asleep, she’d woken up hungry. That month was the worst of it, her lowest point. She’d always liked eating at Thanksgiving and Christmas, not just the turkey but the desserts, all those carbs and gooey fillings.
She snapped awake with one thought, the leftover pumpkin pie, creamy and sweet. She stepped out of bed. Every light in the house was off, her dad liked a completely dark house. She’d learned how to move in the black. She heard Tony snoring in his bedroom on the other side of the wall and behind it a murmur she didn’t recognize.
Until she opened the door and stepped into the hall.
And realized Becks and Bri were most certainly not asleep. What she had stumbled on was not the nonsense all parents got on with from time to time, Go to sleep kids, Mom and Dad need a little time together. No. Rebecca was moaning, low and wordless and involuntary. Like she wanted to catch her breath and couldn’t. Like something inside her was breaking loose and taking her with it.
Kira was a virgin back then. She’d spent the fall playing around with a cute senior named Jared. He was gentle, never pushed her. She was just realizing he might be gay. She didn’t care. One strange part of not eating: though she got more male attention than before, she was less interested. And her friends who’d had sex said things like I’m glad it’s over, It didn’t hurt that much, It was fine fun actually. Though Leigh—the soccer goalie, who had more experience than the others—had refused to say much, just, Oh, you’ll see, her eyes stunned and quiet. Kira hadn’t understood why. Now she did.
Because what she heard in that hallway was not fine fun actually but something she hadn’t known existed, a pleasure she had thought was a fantasy that YouPorn proffered to horny boys.
She stood frozen, feet locked to the hallway carpet. Suddenly her mother groaned, a long low sound. Kira couldn’t imagine what could make Becks make that noise. Couldn’t imagine, though she knew. Whatever her father was doing or saying she couldn’t hear, a minor blessing.
She sidled back to her bedroom, shut the door firmly.
Though now that she knew what was happening she couldn’t help but hear. It went on another fourteen minutes, she clocked it. And who knew how long before? She was almost proud of them; they were both over forty.
By the time she fell asleep, she knew she’d never think about sex the same way again. Not now that she knew what it could be. She dumped Jared that afternoon. Maybe she wasn’t ready to lose her virginity, but she was done hanging out with a guy who was more interested in his fellow baseball players than her. She started eating again too—she remembered a couple months later seeing her parents grin as she insisted her father fire up the grill on a cold February night and barbeque a steak.
In fact, Kira saw now what she never had before. That night had marked the beginning of the end of her anorexic episode. You couldn’t have the pleasures of the flesh if you were a skeleton.
Great talk, Kira.
Kira Unsworth, nineteen, five foot nine inches tall, majoring in who-knows-what at Tufts University. Volunteer at Boston Children’s, and not in a half-assed way: She never missed a week. She made the kids forget themselves for a little while. Secret reader of romance novels, the old Harlequin ones. Bit of a smart-ass.
She wasn’t perfect. She’d spent a month flirting with a pretty lesbian in her Introduction to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies class just to see how it felt. When the girl finally tried to kiss her, Kira had said, Oh, no, I’m straight, like the girl couldn’t possibly have thought otherwise. She’d dumped her last boyfriend by text. He’d deserved it.
She was okay, really. Not the worst.
Right on time Jacques showed up.
With a girl.