CHAPTER THREE (See Chapter 2)
Gemma left the cemetery and headed for the Metro station. She felt proud of herself for navigating the train system alone when she arrived successfully at the Hotel de Ville stop. The mantra she repeated under her breath every time she felt overwhelmed was this: If I can make my way in the New York City subway and bus system, I can make my way anywhere. She heard Frank Sinatra singing New York, New York in her head, with that similar line.
She emerged from the underground system into a breathtaking courtyard of fairy tale castle buildings. She turned slowly in a circle and took it all in, awed. She was in Paris!
She crossed the bridge over the Seine to Ile de La Cite and rolled the delicious French place names in her mouth.
The line of tourists at Notre Dame cathedral was like an endless line at Disney World. Reluctant to waste her time, she instead walked around the perimeter and admired the outside architecture before heading for Sainte-Chapelle where the line was short. Once inside the gothic church, she gawked like everyone else at the magnificent stained-glass windows.
Afterwards, she stumbled upon a café facing Notre Dame that probably no authentic Parisian would be caught dead in. She ordered a croque Monsieur. Basically a grilled ham and cheese sandwich that was too cheesy, greasy, and salty, but she felt a sense of accomplishment for ordering in French, even though the waiter answered her in English.
That night, after a long day of wandering, she dressed for bed, snuggled under the covers, and called her sister in New York.
“Did you meet anyone?” Leora asked.
“I’m not here to meet someone.” Seriously? This was the first question Leora thought to ask her?
“I meant anyone,” Leora said. “French people. Americans. Someone to talk to.”
Gemma knew that Leora was concerned for her, but still, it was a little galling to think she’d already failed in the romantic department in Leora’s eyes. “I spoke to a nice Dutch couple last night,” she said, keeping her meeting with Daniel to herself for now.
There was a long sigh. “No romantic Frenchmen?”
“I had breakfast with…” If she mentioned Daniel, she could placate her sister. But when a connection with Daniel fizzled out, which it was bound to do, she’d have to explain and defend herself.
“Breakfast with whom?”
“He’s not for me,” Gemma said quickly. “I should get off and call Sammy and Ellis before I’m too tired.”
“Wait,” Leora said. “This breakfast guy is not for you how?”
“It’s nothing,” Gemma said, mentally kicking herself for mentioning him. “I’ll tell you about my adventures when I get back.”
“Don’t let your high standards get in the way,” Leora said. “You’ll never have fun if you’re too picky.”
“Aren’t you the one who’s always telling me I’m not picky enough?”
“Not picky enough with Harvey,” Leora said. “But before him, too picky.”
Gemma felt queasy at the sound of the man’s name. “Thanks,” she said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“I’m only teasing. Don’t I always tell you that you don’t need a man to be happy? Your life is perfect just as it is.” Then she added, sounding doubtful, “Isn’t it?”
“Right.” Everyone had an opinion about who Gemma should, or shouldn’t, date. And everyone seemed to know what Gemma had to do to either find a boyfriend, or be happy in a solitary life. “You’ve told me thousands of times that I don’t need a man to be happy. But what do you know?” Gemma snapped. “You’ve been married for twenty years to a good man.”
“I didn’t mean to—”
“That’s okay. Never mind. I’m tired.”
“Hey,” Leora said. “It’s not your fault that all the good men are either married or dead.”
What a useless old cliché. But it set off a tiny spark in her brain and ignited Gemma’s second lie of the day.
“Actually, the guy I met this morning might promise to be not only good, but perfect,” Gemma said, trying to sound triumphant. “His name is Corin Falconer.” It was weird to speak the name on the gravestone to a living person.
“Corin Falconer?” Leora sounded incredulous. “Is he a Shakespearean actor?”
“I’d never date an actor,” Gemma said. “Too unstable a life-style.”
“The name reminds me of that cute actor in The Forsyte Saga. Remember?” Leora asked. “The one who played Old Jolyon Forsyte. Corin Redgrave. You had one of your imaginary crushes on him.”
“I had a real crush on the imaginary character, not the actor,” Gemma said. Leave it to Leora to remind her of her past crushes on imaginary men. It made Gemma sound delusional.
“Whatever,” Leora said. “Is this new flame, this Corin Falconer, elderly, affectionate, and attentive like Old Jolyon? The character, not the actor, of course.”
“He’s not a flame,” Gemma said. “Old or new.” Why had she ever started this conversation? It was too late to recant her lie now. She was caught in her own web of deceit. First with Daniel and now with her sister. Maybe she should just sit back and enjoy the fantasy. It’s all she had anyway.
“We’ve just met,” she said, thinking quickly. “He is English, and better looking than Corin Redgrave. He’s a writer.” Why not a writer? It’s what Gemma wanted to be. And if she couldn’t be one, she’d date one.
She had a feeling this charade wouldn’t end well, but her motive was pure, she tried to convince herself. She only wanted to sound happy so her mother and sister could stop worrying about her.
“He sounds too good to be true,” Leora said. “Cute accent, gorgeous face I’m guessing, and a writer. Are you sure he’s not fictional? Or married? Or dead?”
“Stop,” Gemma said, tempted to confess that Leora had guessed the truth.
“You do have a habit of falling in love with fake men,” Leora said. “Albus Dumbledore. Gandalf.”
“I understand,” Leora said with mock sympathy. “Those fake men treat you a lot better than the so-called real ones.”
One of Gemma’s favorite movies was a forgotten little film called Making Mr. Right. It was about a female public relations specialist hired to make an android celebrity seem lovable. In the process of teaching the android to be sensitive, considerate, and likable, the PR woman falls in love with her own creation, and he with her. And then, he’s as good as alive. It was a take-off on Pygmalion, My Fair Lady, maybe even Pinocchio.
“You guessed right,” Gemma said, knowing that this kind of banter was the only way Leora would let her hang up. “If only one of my fake men would become real, my life would be perfect.”
“Perfect doesn’t exist.”
“Anyway.” Gemma segued into a detailed description of all her meals and all her walks, in the hopes of boring her sister. She didn’t bore her, but she did derail the talk of romance, and managed to steer them to an affectionate goodnight.
Gemma walked to the half-open window of her room and peered through the screen into the courtyard below. It was dimly lit, but she could see the shadows of birds roosting on a nearby tree. She was about to shut the window when she was startled by the flapping of wings.
She jumped back as a crow landed on the window ledge outside. The bird pecked the screen and stared with that sideways gaze that birds had, right into Gemma’s eyes.
She couldn’t shake the feeling that it was the same crow from the cemetery. The one that had led her to Corin Falconer’s grave.
Although Gemma was the sister with imaginary crushes, Leora was the one who lit candles to divine guides, collected crystals, and meditated in the vortex in Sedona. She would probably tell Gemma that Corin’s spirit was reaching out to her. Gemma was a big fan of fantasy, but only in novels. In real life, she was solidly grounded in data and science.
She tapped on the window screen and the crow took flight, gliding over the treetops and disappearing into the night. Like a typical bird.
She lay down on her bed, turned out the light, and pulled her sleep mask over her eyes. It was eleven at night but only five in the evening in New York. Images of Daniel’s toned arms and the fine blond hair on his tan wrists kept her awake. His scent lingered in her mind. A combination of musky cologne, and a fragrant, natural scent like the ocean.
Her pillow grew hot and she flipped it. She turned onto her other side. She squeezed the extra pillow between her knees. Her fingers were cold and she slipped them into the fleece gloves beside her pillow.
Unable to relax, she lifted the eye mask and picked up her cell phone. Eleven forty-five.
She had to forget about Daniel. He wasn’t the cure for that other one. She didn’t even want to think Harvey’s name.
“I’m involved with Corin Falconer,” she said out loud, attempting to lull herself to sleep with a bed-time story. “He’s a novelist. Not too successful. Mid-list. But quality. And not pretentious.” Was a reporter better? Not in these times, with newspapers closing left and right, and social media taking over.
She imagined strolling among the graves in the cemetery, hand-in-hand with Corin.
They’d visit the Musee D’Orsay tomorrow. Corin was a fan of the French impressionists, like Gemma. He was single. Married briefly long ago. Again, like Gemma. No children, though. Too complicated a fantasy. He was British, but lived in New York City. She’d always wanted to split her time between her Long Island home and a city apartment.
Just as she was imagining a stroll through the Metropolitan Museum with her dreamy Corin, she drifted into blackness.
A jarring tune jangled in her ear, setting her heart to pounding. She pulled off her mask and glanced around frantically in the dark. Where was she? What was that noise?
The cell phone.
She lifted it to her ear. “Hello?” she cried. “What’s wrong? Who is it?” A familiar, irritatingly nasal voice said, “It’s me. I miss you.”