Libby sat at the back of the small parish church mourning the man she had loved for twelve years. In a congregation of nearly eighty people, not one offered her a warm touch or a sad smile. They didn’t even know who she was. Or if they did, they didn’t show it.
It was a relief in some ways: at least there were no sidelong glances, no murmurs passed from lips to ears behind hands, no cool shoulders on either side of her in the pew. But in other ways it was a sad acknowledgment of the grubby truth. Nobody knew that the man they had come here today to bid farewell forever—the man whose strong body and brilliant life force somehow fit in that narrow box at the front of the church—was the most important man in her world. Mark Winterbourne, dead at fifty-eight from a ruptured aneurysm. He was mourned by family: his wife Emily and their two adult daughters.
Libby wasn’t sure about the rule for secret lovers of the deceased, but she assumed it involved sitting in the back pew with one’s heart aching as though it might crack into pieces while reining in the impulse to stand up and shout, “But none of you loved him as much as I did!”
On her birthday. Her fortieth birthday.
Libby discreetly touched her handkerchief to her leaking eyes again. The church was chill. February snow still lay on the ground outside. She shivered in her long-sleeved jacket. Mark wouldn’t have approved of what she was wearing. He had never liked her in tailored clothes: he said he spent enough time with people in suits. He liked her in jeans, loose dresses, or nothing. When she had pulled on the jacket this morning, an attempt not to stand out in a crowd that she knew would be immaculately dressed, she had remembered the last time she’d worn it. Mark had said, “Where’s that lacy shirt I like? Wear that instead.” The thought that Mark would never again complain about the jacket had hit her hard. Never again in the whole, long future of the universe would Mark say anything to her. Never again would his eyes crinkle with his quiet laughter. Never again would his hands clasp hers, would his lips claim hers, would his body press against hers . . .
Libby’s scalp pinched from trying to hold the sobs inside. It wouldn’t do for this unknown woman in the back pew to break down and let loose a secret held tightly for so long. Mark had always been adamant: his wife and children must never be hurt. They were innocent, they deserved no pain. Mark and Libby had to carry the entire burden. And what a terrible burden it had been, what an exhausting dance of soaring hope and blinding guilt the last twelve years had been.
The first of the tributes started, and Libby listened for a while, then decided these descriptions of Mark were not her Mark. So she closed her eyes and thought about what she would say, if she were free to say it.
Mark Winterbourne died at fifty-eight, but don’t make the mistake of thinking him a typical middle-aged man. He was tall and well kept, with a full head of hair and a flat stomach and hard thighs
that were a testament to his healthy lifestyle and love of long-distance running. He was smart and funny and determined. He let nothing slow him down. He overcame childhood illnesses, dyslexia, the death of his father when he was only fifteen. We had so many good times, hidden and stolen though they were. Even after twelve years together, he took my breath away. He was generous, sweet and kind. So kind. The kindest man I have ever known. Hot tears squeezed from under Libby’s eyelids and ran down her cheeks. She opened her eyes, and saw that Mark’s wife had bent her head and was sobbing into her hands in the front pew. The vicar had come down the stairs to put his arm around her. Libby’s ribs squeezed tight with guilt. She should never have come.
The train back down through the Channel tunnel to Paris was largely empty, and Libby put her bag on the seat next to her and laid her head on it. Now the great hollowness could start in earnest. Mark was buried; the line between her old life and her new one had been marked in six feet of soil. She tried not to think of the things that she and Mark had never done, the things he had wanted to do but she had refused. Things that she needed to do herself, now that she was alone. Now that she was so keenly aware of how tenuously life was held. The train bumped and swayed and Libby breathed deeply. In, out, aware of her breath, so temporarily housed in her warm body.
“Claudette wants to see you.”
Libby looked up. She was just unwinding her scarf and hanging her bag on the back of her chair. Here at Pierre-Louis Design the cubicles were as bland as the reception area was bright. Libby
worked all day on her large-screen Mac designing glossy brochures for jewelry and fashion houses while surrounded by gray furniture and beige room dividers. Gradually the entire building was being refurbished, but somehow the refurbishers never made it to her quarter of the workplace.
“Why does Claudette want to see me?”
Monique, Claudette’s secretary, blinked back as though surprised. “I don’t know. But she said to seize you the moment you came in.”
Libby sighed. It had been hard enough to get up in her little flat in Levallois. The weight of her limbs had astonished her. She had managed to take off the last five days, since Mark died, by claiming illness, and it was a kind of illness. An ache from toes to scalp. But it would never go away. She would never be fit for work. “All right,” she said. “I’m coming.”
Libby’s French had been of the awkward, high-school variety when she’d first arrived in Paris twenty years ago. Now she was fluent, could think in French, but she missed speaking English. She missed the nuance available in so many synonyms, she missed being able to string adjectives one after the other like pearls, and she still had to hesitate if she was trying to express herself in French while upset. Claudette, her boss, had a reputation for upsetting her staff, so Libby was on her guard.
Claudette’s office featured floor-to-ceiling windows through which, if she desired, she could watch the Seine all day. But Claudette had purposely placed her desk so her back was turned away from the view. It had been the only change she’d made on her arrival eight months ago, but it had been a telling one. In Claudette’s opinion, there was no time for looking out windows, and the relaxed atmosphere that Libby had once treasured about her work had gradually withered and died.
“Ah, Libby,” Claudette said, indicating the chair at the side of the desk. “Do sit down. We need a little chat.”
Libby sat down, realized her heart was speeding and tried to take a deep breath without Claudette noticing. She crossed her legs and waited while Claudette fixed her with icy blue eyes. The window was open, and she could hear the traffic on the two bridges that bracketed the tip of the Ile Saint-Louis.
“Happy birthday,” Claudette said at last.
Libby was taken aback. “Thank you,” she said.
A pause. Claudette still hadn’t smiled.
“Is that all?” Libby asked.
“I am suspicious,” Claudette said. “You took five days off over your fortieth birthday.”
“I was unwell.”
“And yet you look well this morning.”
She did? “Because I’ve had five days off.”
Claudette narrowed her eyes, then leaned back in her chair, turning a lead pencil over and over in her fingers. “I must believe you, I suppose. I simply do not like being made a fool of, Libby. Five days’ leave costs me a lot of money. I would hate to think you were taking advantage of your employer, simply because you had a milestone birthday to celebrate.”
Claudette was famed for these little offenses, so Libby didn’t bite. “I assure you I was incapable of coming to work.”
“And yet Henri saw you on the platform at Gare du Nord yesterday afternoon.”
“I was coming back from London, from seeing my specialist.”
Libby held her ground. “It’s private.”
Claudette frowned. Libby fought back guilt. It wasn’t in her nature to lie, even after twelve years with Mark.
“I can do nothing but accept you are telling the truth,” Claudette said with a little shrug.
“It is the truth,” Libby lied.
Claudette glanced at her notebook. “While I have you here . . . I heard this morning that Mark Winterbourne died. You handled his account, yes?”
Libby’s heart screeched, but she tried not to give any outward sign. “Yes.”
“Can you call his office today and see who is taking his position? We’ve had his account for twelve years and I don’t want to lose it. The Winterbourne catalog is one of our signature productions.”
“Call them today? We don’t normally sign the contract until mid-year.”
“They’ll be distracted. Everything still up in the air. We can’t risk another studio getting the contract.” Claudette shook her head. “He died of an aneurysm, you know,” she said. “I heard it was genetic. He’s not the first Winterbourne to go that way, apparently.”
Libby winced. She hadn’t known that. Of all the intimacies they’d shared, he’d never mentioned a predisposition to drop dead suddenly. Had he not told her because he wanted to protect her from worry? Or had he not told her because she was only his lover?
Claudette shrugged. “Life is short. Let’s get the contract. Call them today.”
Libby returned to her desk with her stomach churning. How could she dial that familiar number now, knowing that he wouldn’t be there to take her call? How could she go on working on the catalog without Mark to plan it with her? Her job, once the sweet refuge where contact with Mark was sanctioned, had emptied out. There was nothing except the beige room dividers and cranky boss. She stared for a long time at her blank computer screen—she
hadn’t even switched it on—wondering if anyone ever recovered from such a loss. Then she stood and picked up her handbag, scarf and coat and, without a word, left the office.
She wasn’t going to call Winterbourne Jewelers. She was going to call her sister.
Libby perched on the edge of her rented couch in her rented flat on Villa Rémond and tapped out her childhood phone number; familiar yet half-forgotten, stretched out of shape by international dialing codes. As it rang, she noticed she was holding her breath. She forced her shoulders to relax.
“Hello?” a voice croaked, and Libby realized she had made the error of not checking international time zones properly. She had woken Juliet.
Voiceless with embarrassment and self-blame, she allowed the silence to go on a little too long.
“Hello?” Juliet said again, this time with a tinge of fear.
Libby hung up. She didn’t know what else to do. Who was she kidding? Juliet wouldn’t welcome her coming home. If she knew that was what Libby planned, she might actively discourage her. Don’t come back. Ever. That’s what Juliet had said to her. And Libby had replied, I never will. Ever. For twenty years, Libby had made good on that promise.
But things teenagers say to each other shouldn’t be plans for life, and there were good reasons for going home. Mark’s voice started up in her imagination. You’ll paint. We’ll look at the sea together. Maybe get to the bottom of the Winterbourne family mystery. How could I not buy the cottage? Our annual retreat. Then he’d handed her keys that she’d swore she’d never use, and a title deed that she swore she’d never read. Once in a while he’d mention it, always
before an opal-buying trip to Australia. Checking if she was sure she didn’t want to go. But she’d held firm. If Juliet had seen her with Mark . . . God, if Juliet had told Mark . . .
Libby glanced around her flat. It had always been too expensive, but she’d stayed because Mark wanted her to live somewhere central. She focused on the door to the bedroom, holding her breath, certain that at any second Mark would walk out, tall and strong, dressed only in his boxer shorts and his blue silk robe, his dark hair curling over his ears. And he would smile at her and touch her hair and he would be flesh and blood and breath. But he didn’t walk out. He never would again.
And one of the only other people who knew what that loss felt like was Juliet.
Libby and Mark’s favorite café had been on Boulevard Saint-Germain, a café whose art-deco interior had barely been touched since the 1930s. They always sat just outside the entrance, at the table to the left of the door. Mark became irrationally irritated if they arrrived and somebody else was at their table. He always had a copy of The Guardian with him, usually bought from the international newsagent, but sometimes it was the copy he’d brought with him from London.
Today Libby arrived at the café alone, placed the folded copy of The Guardian where Mark would have sat and ordered their usual: a café au lait for her, an espresso for him. Then she waited for the drinks to arrive, taking in the familiar view of the pale cream and white neoclassical buildings on Rue Saint-Benoît, the traffic, the pedestrians in their dark coats, the unfurling leaves on the elms overhead. She breathed in the scents of Paris—exhaust fumes, cut lilies, rain on pavement—and wondered how it would
be possible to leave. The farewell party at work had seemed as though it were happening to someone else; some happy, unconflicted woman with no dark past and a bright future.
“You are expecting your friend?” the waiter said to her as he placed Mark’s espresso next to the newspaper.
Libby forced a smile, but her heart pinched. No, he’s never coming again. She sipped her coffee while Mark’s cooled in the morning air. She closed her eyes and imagined a conversation with him, drawn from so many of their conversations.
“How was the journey down?” she asked.
“Good,” he replied. “I got a lot of work done on the train.”
“Have you been busy?”
“Always.” A slight smile, a tap of his knuckles on his newspaper that said, Let me read.
Libby opened her eyes. Gray clouds had gathered overhead and a damp chill was in the air. Her flight was leaving in three hours. Behind her ribs, her stinging heart pulsed coldly. Everything ached. Slowly, she drank her coffee. The last time. She gathered her bag and keys and stood. The last time. A light shower started as she walked away. She turned to look behind her. Mark’s coffee sat untouched on the table, his newspaper flapping in the breeze.
“Good-bye,” she said, leaving Paris and Mark behind her.
The last time.