I CAN’T BELIEVE you’re leaving Manhattan. How am I supposed to handle our friendship becoming a long-distance relationship?”
I collapse back onto my couch with a long sigh and stare out the window. The air has that thinness today as if it might snow. “You’re being dramatic. And if you think you’re the first person to make a joke about upstate being ‘long distance,’ you’re sadly mistaken. The house is only thirty minutes on Metro-North—it takes longer to get to the Upper West Side.”
I decide I want it to snow. Chalk it up to the overabundance of cozy feelings of home and hearth that I’m currently experiencing. I’m dreaming of the working fireplace in our new two-bedroom Victorian house in Riverdale and of living there with a man whose father taught him how to build a fire. It’s not a large house, but it dwarfs this apartment, and the idea of living in a space where I might occasionally be alone with my thoughts is incredibly novel; it’s been years since I’ve been able to hear myself think.
Kate lets out an exasperated click. “First of all, since when do I go to the Upper West Side? Secondly, I don’t do Penn Station. You can’t make me!”
“Ha! Grand Central. You can’t even complain about that. There’s a Cipriani near there!”
“How can you do this to me? First the engagement and then the suburbs? And don’t think I don’t know what’s coming next.”
“Don’t you dare. Are you trying to make me break out in hives?”
“I’m just saying”—Kate gives a triumphant little laugh—“I know what happens to people when they leave Manhattan.”
“Babies don’t just happen to people. At least not people who paid attention in health class.”
“I’m from Alabama. Abstinence-only education, remember?”
“We’ve strayed so far from the point I don’t even know what it was.”
“The point is you are coming to my party tomorrow. No excuses. You owe me that.”
“I just have so much packing to do,” I say weakly, knowing I’m not unwilling to be cajoled into going. James and I have a lovely life together, but I can’t say I don’t miss my single days now and then, the best of which I spent with Kate, who is easily my most glamorous friend. Kate and I have known each other for seven years, since she was an assistant at Vogue the year I was a junior copy editor there. She always looks professionally styled in that way that’s engineered to look incidental, with scarves and expensive T-shirts and perfectly done smoky eye makeup. She’s forever going to restaurants where she is on a first-name basis with the owners and runs into at least ten people she knows; new places with no sign by the door and no reviews online. Ever since I’ve known her, she’s been the kind of girl who is always on the list.
“I’ll help you pack!” she says.
“No, you won’t,” I say, smiling. “But I’ll come to the party anyway. Just for you.”
“Did you send me the invite?”
“Only like three weeks ago! Whatever, you’re so busy and important. New Museum at seven o’clock tomorrow. Gotta run to meet Alejandro. Love you!”
Mission accomplished, Kate gets off the line.
I put down my phone and look around, knowing I should do some more packing before bed but feeling too exhausted. Already half of my life is in boxes. I’ll miss our little apartment downtown. I’ve been trying to convince myself that being outside the city won’t matter, giving myself the same argument I just gave Kate: the thirty-minutes-on-the-train case. But it won’t be the same. And I’ve decided that this is okay with me. I’ve already given in and let my head and heart be commandeered by dreams of a different life, one with real furniture and counter space, a little yard, and maybe a dog.
I look at the clock and wonder where James is; it’s past ten already. His boss is fond of dragging him to dinner with clients since no one else in the boutique advertising firm where James works has quite such an affable demeanor and honest face. He puts people at ease. He won’t want to come to this party with me tomorrow, but I’ll ask him anyway if for no other reason than to watch him do his spot-on impression of Kate’s too-young, dimwit boyfriend, Alejandro, a model/DJ from Brazil (“But, uh, we make the party, yes?”). James does like Kate, but not enough to want to come and hang around her fashiony crowd. It’s not his scene and I love him for it. It’s not mine either, but I’m more willing to take an anthropological stance on the beautiful people.
I pour myself a glass of red wine. It has a slight hint of vinegar, but I ignore it and drink it anyway. I haven’t packed my party dresses yet, so I wander over to my closet to thumb through them. How did I ever end up with so many? I cringe when I realize that I’ve worn several of them only once, one of them not at all. I wonder for a moment about the imaginary life I bought these for. Not the life of a freelance copy editor who works from home and spends many of her nights happily eating takeout with her new fiancé. I must have thought I’d end up with Kate’s life.
I go back to the couch where my laptop is open and search my e-mail for the invitation from Bliss & Bliss, the PR firm where Kate’s a senior account manager, run by two terrifying blond sisters in their fifties who’ve been pulled back nearly into their thirties by top-of-the-line plastic surgery. I’ve met them a dozen times but they never remember me. Ah, here it is. I’d completely skimmed over it. The subject line is cut off by my in-box: Bliss & Bliss invites you to spend an evening at the New Museum with . . . I maximize the e-mail to see who it is that Bliss & Bliss is inviting me to spend an evening with . . . photographer Alex de Persaud to celebrate the release of his book GFY: Paris and New York by the Night.
I push back from my desk as though adding the extra bit of distance might change the words on the screen, then laugh out loud; a shrill, manic laugh. Taking a deep breath, I scroll down the screen a bit. I’m greeted with an image of the cover of Alex’s new coffee-table book of party photographs. This I’ve seen before. A couple of weeks ago I had a small fit of post-engagement nostalgia and found myself mentally cataloging all of the various romances that had led me to the man I would marry. So with the usual trepidation in my heart I googled Alex’s name and news of this book came up.
In the beginning, when I first moved to the city, I searched for him regularly, with the vague notion that New York was the sort of place he might have ended up. I looked for information about him if for no other reason than to confirm he still existed somewhere other than in my memory and imagination, in which he loomed so large. That was before everyone was online, before everyone’s entire social and professional life was cataloged there. Now, given how easy it was to look up and contact completely unexceptional people you’d once known, you would think that someone prominent—even a little famous within certain circles—such as Alex would have every last detail about him recorded somewhere.
He wasn’t so famous in the mainstream that someone like me—unconnected to his industry—would necessarily know of his work if I hadn’t gone looking. But living in downtown Manhattan, you tended to hear of such things as the popular photo blog By the Night, to which he’d become a contributor five years ago. The blog covered the posh international party scene: film festivals and music festivals with the right kind of celebrities in attendance, polo matches, and myriad other fêtes for fancy people. Alex covered Paris and the south of France; he photographed soccer players and models, French actresses, and visiting Russian oligarchs. After a couple of years the site was defunct, but Alex’s career seemingly continued on its upward trajectory. He, or someone who worked for him, maintained a website with a sleek catalog of his editorial work, but the only contact information was for press.
Other than a couple of interviews in Paris Match and BlackBook, there was nothing about his personal life anywhere. Every time a new social-networking site became popular—MySpace, Facebook, ASmallWorld—I looked for information about him, to no avail. The closest I ever came was a Facebook fan page devoted to his work with a couple hundred members.
A therapist I went to see years ago told me that I had to focus on accepting that I would most likely never know what happened after I left France. But how do you come to accept something like that? She didn’t seem to know, so I stopped seeing her. But that was all years ago.
If any tenuous connection existed now between Alex and me, it would be through Kate. A cold chill suddenly runs through me. Does Kate know him? Has this connection been there all this time?
I text Kate: Party looks fun! Do you know the photographer?
She texts me back uncharacteristically fast: No. Some French guy. Tracey Bliss is in LOVE with him! So happy you’re coming! Xoxo
I want to pepper Kate with more questions about him, but for some reason I hold back. I’ve never told Kate about France, about Sophie. I haven’t told anyone I’ve met since I’ve been living here. I’ve never known quite what to say about it, so I don’t even begin; how could I tell one part of the story without telling the rest? It was all anyone could talk about during my last year of school, and selfishly it was a relief to get away, to be somewhere where no one knew. It hurt too much to keep rehashing it.
Without being completely aware that I’m doing it, I find myself pacing our six-hundred-square-foot apartment. At least I have a day to mentally prepare. What if I hadn’t looked at the invitation? Does this mean he’s been living here in New York? Could I have stood next to him on a subway platform? Brushed by him on the sidewalk? Had my back to him in a crowded bar? The thoughts make me dizzy.
I hear James’s key turning in the door and my heart races as though I’m about to be caught doing something and it’s too late to hide the evidence. He opens the door and sets his messenger bag down.
“Hi,” he says, and then immediately, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I say a little too quickly.
“You sure? You’re looking a little shell-shocked.”
Putting my wineglass down, I go over and bury my face against his chest, still cold from being outside. I love that he’s so much taller than I am; it gives me an instant sense of security. I wrap my arms around him under his overcoat.
“I just have a lot on my mind,” I say, my voice muffled.
He strokes my hair. “Is that all? Jesus, I don’t know what I thought you were going to tell me with that look.”
I shake my head. “It’s a lot, with the move and everything. I guess I’m just feeling unsettled.”
He pulls back and gives me a searching look. His blue eyes are as arresting close up as they were the first time I saw him. I remember it vividly. We were at a friend’s barbecue out in Brooklyn and he stepped right into a shaft of late-afternoon light. His eyes appeared illuminated and I stared right into them; not until a moment later when he stepped out of the light could he actually see me looking at him, and he smiled. Later it would seem that I knew right then we’d fall in love; that I could see from his eyes and his slightly crooked smile everything that was within him; that he would be funny and kind and even-keeled in the face of my worst moods and most unreasonable requests.
“Good things,” I say. “I feel good about everything, but transition is always stressful.”
“Okay.” He pulls off his overcoat and hangs it on the hook by the door. “And you would tell me if it was something else?”
“Of course,” I say, feeling guilty as soon as the words are out of my mouth. I resolve that I’ll tell him about all of it at some point. I know I should have told him already, but I am not yet accustomed to the sort of full disclosure that an impending marriage warrants. What’s the harm in taking it slow? I’ll tell him later. Soon.
“I know I’m an old man to say this before eleven, but I’m beat!” He leans down to kiss me on the cheek. “I’m gonna head to bed.”
I nod. I wonder if I’ve drunk too much wine to take a sleeping pill. No, I decide, it was only two glasses, counting the one I had with dinner. I know that otherwise a restless night is the only thing waiting for me in the bed; and that at some point I’ll get unreasonably mad at James for sleeping so soundly next to me.
I slip away to the bathroom to brush my teeth and take the pill.
“You don’t have plans tomorrow night, do you?” James asks from the other room.
Immediately I’m awash in anxiety all over again. “I told Kate I would go to her party,” I say cautiously.
“When is that?”
“I think it’s seven to nine.”
“Can you meet me for dinner after? Stan wanted us to come out with him and Maria.” James appears behind me in the bathroom and reaches over me for his toothbrush. Stan is James’s dull, cheerful boss; Maria, his second wife. “I think she needs a friend.”
I give him a look.
“Come on, she’s sweet.”
“She’s a desperate housewife. And I’m a little scared to be living near them soon. I feel like she’s going to want to come over to play bridge.”
“I don’t think Maria plays bridge,” James says, laughing.
“Whatever it is they do in the suburbs, then. I’m sorry, I’m being a bitch. Of course I’ll come to dinner.” Standing on my tiptoes, I kiss his cheek. He smiles at me through the toothpaste foam, then leans over and spits.
“Does it help that dinner is at Babbo?”
“It helps a lot.” I don’t ask him about the party on the off chance that this night of all nights would be the one he decides to come with me.
The next evening I try on most of what’s left in my closet before deciding on the faithful black dress that I’ve worn a hundred times before. Tonight is not the night to wear something I feel even slightly uncomfortable in.
I take a cab down to the New Museum and am faced with a clutch of impossibly young-looking, dressed-up partygoers having one last cigarette before they go inside. It’s so cold tonight, I cringe at the sight of their bare fingers shakily pulling cigarettes to their lips and away again. I haven’t smoked a single cigarette since France, but I suppose I can’t really judge—they all look about the age I was then. There’s always a preponderance of terrifyingly chic teenagers at things like this.
The kids at the check-in desk don’t look any older: one a young, black guy with eyeliner and his hair done in an elaborate asymmetrical swirl, the other a girl positively interchangeable with every other young fashion PR intern I’ve ever seen.
After I give them my name, they smile obsequiously and point me to the coat check; they’re cautiously polite in case I’m someone important.
I go up to the roof-deck bar where the party is being held. Making my way into the room, I have a visceral sense of not belonging. Kate, my only friend here, will be running around all night working. But that’s not what I’m really doing here, I remind myself. The space is beautiful with 180 degrees of windows looking out over downtown. Searching the room for him, I wander over to the edge of the party where I feel a little less conspicuous and pretend to be looking at the spectacular view. During the day the Lower East Side is not much to look at—nothing like the grand, gilt-edged buildings of the Upper East Side—but in the darkness when all that can be seen is the sparkling topography of lit windows, it’s breathtaking in its way.
“Darling!” Kate makes her way through the quickly thickening crowd. She has a glass of champagne in her hand and grabs another from a nearby waiter.
I’m genuinely pleased to see her and the champagne. We exchange cheek kisses.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she says.
“You look stunning.” She does. Kate is a gorgeous redhead with a tiny waist and an unfairly generous bustline. Her hair gets a bit blonder every time I see her, which I can only chalk up to the time she’s been spending in the L.A. office.
“You do too!” she says, perhaps on reflex.
“How’s the event shaping up?”
“Good, good. Alex is really charming. I’m not super familiar with his work, though I used to read By the Night all the time. Remember it? I don’t think it’s around anymore.”
I nod. It’s completely surreal to hear her talk about Alex. My Alex. For a moment I feel as though I must be mistaken, that it can’t possibly be the same man.
Kate’s BlackBerry buzzes. She reads the message. “Fuck, my idiot interns forgot to make two copies of the list and now they’re getting slammed at the door. I’ll be right back.” She’s already turning to walk away. “You okay?”
I nod, holding up my champagne glass as though it’s all I need to get through this night. Hardly, I think, but keep it coming.
Letting my eyes float across the room, a couple of vaguely familiar faces pop out at me, though I don’t know from where. Just this city, I think.
Then I see him. He’s standing in the middle of a group of people only a few feet away, in between Tracey and Megan Bliss. The way that both of them are flipping their assiduously highlighted hair, I would say that Kate has it wrong. Both sisters are in love. I can’t help but stifle a nervous laugh with my free hand; it’s just too absurd that this is how I would come across Alex again. When I look back over, he’s staring right at me. Shifting my weight nervously from one hip to the other, I look down at my hands and take a deep breath, knowing I’m not prepared to face him yet. When I risk another glance in Alex’s direction, he’s still looking at me, smiling now. I watch him make his excuses to the Bliss sisters, or at least that’s what I glean from their matching crestfallen expressions. I stare into my glass, my heart pounding so hard it seems as if I can feel it in my nose and fingertips.
“Excuse me,” he says, and I look up. I’ve decided in the brief moments since I’ve seen him that I’ll pretend at first not to recognize him. Admitting that I remember him right away will put me in a weak position, particularly since I’m alone at his party. It could much too easily look as if I had contrived this meeting. I feel somehow that I unknowingly have contrived this meeting, perhaps only because I knew about it before he did. It suddenly occurs to me that he might also have known, that he might have been sent a guest list with my name on it, seen that I would be here.
“I have to ask. What did you find so funny just now?” My stomach flips. He looks the same. How can that be? Ten years have passed, but he has the same beautiful eyes, same thick, dark hair, only the attractive sprinkling of gray at the temples is new.
“I was just wondering how long it’s going to take those two women to claw each other’s eyes out over you.”
Laughing, he runs his fingers through his hair with a shrug; overt flattery was never lost on him. “They’re throwing me this party. A fight would certainly get them some press coverage. Maybe not the kind they want.”
“What’s that saying? No publicity is bad publicity?”
“Are you in PR?”
I shake my head. “Freelance copy editor.”
“You’re far too beautiful for that kind of job; quel dommage, as we say in Paris.”
I smile and stare at the remaining champagne bubbles in my glass; they’re moving more slowly now.
“What’s your name?”
“Brooke,” I say, watching his eyes. Nothing, not even a flicker of recognition. I feel sick and empty, as though I’ve drunk too much without eating first.
Ten years. Unlike Alex’s, my appearance has changed. The hair that once fell past my shoulders is now cropped just beneath my chin in a serious bob, with blunt-cut bangs that hang low over my eyebrows. One of the editors at Vogue suggested the style—saying it would make me look like a young Anjelica Huston—and I’ve kept it ever since. I’m thinner as well, which I can probably also attribute to my time working at fashion magazines. But is that really enough—different hair, slightly sharper cheekbones, better clothes—to render me unrecognizable to a man I’d once been with?
“Alex de Persaud,” he says, shaking my hand, something he would never have done back in France, something he must have picked up in the States. Plenty of pretentious kissing of cheeks goes on among this crowd, but maybe he has deemed, correctly, that I am not one of these people.
“So this party is for you, then?” I ask helplessly, given no choice but to follow his lead.
He sighs and nods. “Yes. It’s for my new book. My agent won’t let me get away with turning things like this down, I’m afraid. How, may I ask, did you end up here?”
“My friend Kate works for the company. I don’t know where she is now.” I look around, suddenly desperate for Kate to appear and validate my story. “What is your new book about?”
He rolls his eyes as though embarrassed by the whole thing. “It’s a book of photographs I’ve taken. Mostly at parties; it isn’t exactly what I would consider my real work, but it’s what keeps me in champagne and radishes. It’s called GFY: Paris and New York by the Night—catchy, no?”
I note that he maintains that his paying work is not his real work. “Very. And what does GFY stand for?”
“Can I tell you a secret?” He leans in so close to whisper in my ear that I can feel his breath on my neck.
“ ‘Go fuck yourself.’ ”
“That’s what GFY is for.” He grins. “Not what I told my publishers, of course. I told them it stood for a ‘generation of fabulous youth.’ Can you believe I sold them on that bullshit?”
“That’s bold. What do you have against your publisher?” So that much hasn’t changed, I think. He always claimed to be bothered by people like this—the people in his book, the people at this party—and yet here he is.
He turns his shoulder toward me so that we are mostly hidden from the rest of the party by a nearby pole. I know that these moments alone with him cannot possibly last; my mind reels wondering what to say next.
“You see, chérie, everyone wants these photographs to be something more than they are. Everyone talks about how they capture some ineffable moment, some excitement, but in reality they are pictures of pretty, young people, pretty, young, rich people mostly, doing what they do—which is party. They dance, do drugs, and prepare to fuck each other. When I see these pictures, I see the emptiness behind them, the unhappiness, but that’s not what people want to see. In any case, my publisher kept asking me, ‘What is the concept?’—so there you have it.”
“And they can go fuck themselves.”
“I knew you would understand. I can see you’re not one of them. You don’t think this kind of thing is art, do you?”
I shrugged. “I wouldn’t presume to say.” He was a bit cynical when we were young—so adamant about who was real and who was not—I suppose it makes sense that he would be even more so now.
He laughs again, and the uninhibited moment triggers in me some long-lost and yet familiar yearning. Mercifully, a waiter approaches with glasses of champagne, and Alex grabs two and hands me one, taking the empty one from my hand and setting it on a nearby table.
“Can I tell you another secret?”
That you knew me in another life? That you haven’t entirely forgotten those events that were so important to me?
“I want to leave this party with you right now.”
“But it’s your party. You have to stay.” How can it feel the same to stand next to him after all these years?
“This is true. One of those formaldehyde blondes is bound to come and take me away at any moment, aren’t they?”
“I think you mean peroxide.”
“Ah, non. I was referring to what keeps the rest of them intact, not just the hair.”
I laugh and give him a rueful look. His English is much improved to make a joke like that.
“In any case, before this happens, you must give me your phone number. I have to go to Paris next week to promote the book, so you must agree to meet me for a drink before then.”
My mind races. He’s right that someone will swoop him away momentarily; the party’s filling up around me. I can’t blurt out everything I need to say in the next two minutes—what all that might be, I don’t yet know, but I do know I need more time.
“Be brave, chérie”—he pulls a phone out of his pocket and awaits my number—“take a chance with the mad Frenchman.”
I tell him my number.
“Good. I will call you.” Those immortal words.
“I really should go find Kate.” I need to be the one to walk away first this time. “Bisous.” I lean in to kiss him on his cheek. Blushing as I do so.
“Ah, tu parles français?”
“Yes, a little. I studied there when I was in college.”
I wait for something to register. Nothing does. I can see it in his eyes, he doesn’t remember. I know now that this isn’t a game; he has gone on with his life and doesn’t remember my ever having been in it.
“It’s so charming when Americans speak French,” he says.
“À bientôt.” I turn on my heel. Looking back over my shoulder, I see that he’s watching me walk away. I admit that I am somewhat gratified by this.
There’s no way I can stay at the party now. I’ll find Kate and make my apologies. I also feel an urgent need to see James. I tell myself that what I’ve just done is in no way a betrayal. I don’t want Alex, I just want some answers to the questions that have been haunting me all these years. And after tonight’s strange interlude, to some new questions. Does he really not remember me? Remember us? Does he comprehend the impact he had, purposefully or not, on my young life?
More champagne certainly isn’t the answer, but as I pass yet another waiter with a full tray of glasses, I pluck one off to accompany me on my search for Kate.
I try to look purposeful instead of desperate as I navigate the crowd. Then I see them, the prints of Alex’s photographs that have been hung on the back wall. I momentarily forget all about leaving as I’m captivated by the images. They’re tastefully small and depict something aspirational and untouchable: beauty disguised to look ordinary, waifs peeking out from under large hats and wound up in impractical scarves, modern dandies with elaborately manicured beards and full sleeves of tattoos. The people in the photos are posed to look approachable and relaxed, but it’s impossible to imagine any of them at the DMV.
Then, there she is, like a shot between the eyes. I feel as if I’ve stumbled on something illicit and my cheeks burn.
Girl, ocean, reads the caption beneath.
I might not have known it was her if I hadn’t been standing right beside Alex when he took the photo all those years ago. Her lower half is submerged in the water, her bare back to the camera, wet hair snaking across her shoulders, only a whisper of her face visible in profile.
Does he even know that she’s dead?
Losing the Light
"A heady cocktail of nostalgia, a seductive Frenchman, a passionate love triangle, and a mysterious disappearance." —The Seattle Times
A smart, obsessive debut novel about a young woman studying abroad who becomes caught up in a seductive French world—and a complex web of love and lust.
When thirty-year-old Brooke Thompson unexpectedly runs into a man from her past, she’s plunged headlong into memories she’s long tried to forget about the year she spent in France following a disastrous affair with a professor.
As a newly arrived exchange student in the picturesque city of Nantes, young Brooke develops a deep and complicated friendship with Sophie, a fellow American and stunning blonde, whose golden girl façade hides a precarious emotional fragility. Sophie and Brooke soon become inseparable and find themselves intoxicated by their new surroundings—and each other.
But their lives are forever changed when they meet a sly, stylish French student, Veronique, and her impossibly sexy older cousin, Alex. The cousins draw Sophie and Brooke into an irresistible world of art, money, decadence, and ultimately, a disastrous love triangle that consumes them both. And of the two of them, only one will make it home.
- Washington Square Press |
- 336 pages |
- ISBN 9781501109423 |
- February 2016
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “I’m more than willing to take an anthropological stance on the beautiful people.” (Pg. 3-4) Early in the novel, Brooke positions herself as an “anthropologist” among attractive people—a neutral observer. Do you agree with Brooke’s self-description? Why or why not?
2. One of the major themes throughout Losing the Light is the notion of belonging. What does it mean to belong? Using examples from the novel, discuss whether it seems like people naturally “belong” (in a certain crowd, country, lifestyle, etc.) or whether belonging is a matter of confidence or is somehow otherwise fostered. What are some moments in the book when Brooke feels she does or doesn’t belong?
3. Alex has a critical impression of the wealthy, glamorous people who surround him, and yet Brooke notes both in France and in New York that he is, in essence, one of them. Why do you think he regards his peers this way? In what ways do his views parallel or differ from Brooke’s opinions of rich, fashi see more