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THE VISCOUNT OF MAISONS LAFFITTE
Chastity checked her appearance in the mirror. Only the front of her hair was pulled up loosely, and the rest fell freely in the light-brown curls, which turned red in the sunlight. She was wearing Spanish Cimarron jeans and a kelly green Ralph Lauren polo shirt that a friend had given her, who had been unable to take off her pregnancy weight. She put on mascara and lip gloss, but kept the rest of her look natural. She hated herself for wanting to impress him.
But she knew she couldn’t lie to herself either. She had never been seriously interested in anyone else after him. In some ways, it was understandable. She was busy as a single mom, and any remaining energy she had, was spent in teaching. None of the men who had pursued her in college and grad school – and there had been many – had provoked even the slightest desire in her.
She also knew that there was something wrong with her. It wasn’t merely the fact that she didn’t trust men, which was perfectly understandable given her past history. It was the fact that – in spite of what he had done – rather than slamming the door on any potential for a relationship with him, she wanted him to regret what he had missed out on. She wanted him to look at her and see that she had aged well, like a fine wine, and pine away in misery for having thrown it all away. No. Scratch the wine; she already felt old enough. She wanted him to see her as bubbly and festive, and – as out of reach – as the finest champagne.
But she was too mad at how he had treated her to be even falsely festive. For ten long months, he had made her feel treasured. He made her feel like she was perfection itself; and coming from a family that was rather run of the mill – with parents who expressed their affection in discreet, ordinary gestures – this affirmed the deeply buried conviction that she really was special, and that she was not destined for an ordinary life. He lied to her so well, she never once suspected that he was not madly in love with her.
He smiled so charmingly, and his face was boyish and open; there was no way of guessing that it hid anything sinister – that he could feel anything different from what he expressed. But when she became a despicable creature in her own eyes – and probably his – weeping, and begging him in passionate whispers to reconsider, his parting words were, “I only went out with you because your name provided me with a certain challenge.” He then stalked over to the group of friends, for whose benefit he had rehearsed this line, and punched one of them in the arm, grinning.
Chastity blew out the breath she had been holding and picked up the phone. When it was answered, she said, “Hi Mom,” smiling at the sound of such a familiar voice.
“Hi Chassy,” her mom said – a name she only used in rare affectionate moments. “How’s my grandson?”
“He’s good.” There was an awkward pause as Chastity tried to think of how to bring up the reason she was calling. But there wasn’t much time, so she plunged in headlong. “Mom, we’re meeting Marc Bastien in a half-hour.” She waited, her heart beating quickly, to see how her mother would react.
Her mom seemed to debate about the best way to respond to this, before finally saying, “I suppose it’s good for Tommy to meet his dad. It doesn’t mean he has to be a regular part of his life, does it?”
“No,” Chastity replied, smiling again. Trust her mother to say something calm and practical, and bring her back down to earth. “He said that I am the one to call the shots, and I intend to do just that.” She didn’t feel it necessary to mention the lip gloss. “If I feel that it will do any emotional harm to Thomas, I will tell Marc that he’s not allowed to see him anymore.”
“I wish you weren’t living so far away,” her mother said in uncharacteristic wistfulness.
“I’ll be fine Mom, I promise.” Chastity was sure her anxiety was coming through in her voice. She continued brightly. “We have to leave soon but I just wanted to hear your voice. We can skype tomorrow at our usual time, okay?”
After she hung up the phone, she felt the slightest bit better – slightly less alone. And as she pulled her hair off her neck and turned her face this way and that to check her appearance in the mirror, her thoughts turned back to Marc. Now that most of the bitterness had faded away, and she was left with the person who was more important to her than anyone else in the world – her son – she had trouble remembering anything but his charm, as if his parting words were dealt by someone else entirely.
She couldn’t put it off anymore. It was time to go. She peeked into Thomas’ room, who was determinedly buried in a French book, although he was much more comfortable reading in English. “Are you ready to go, sweetie?”
“Yes mom.” He stood up and tried to zip his sweatshirt, but it was old, and the zipper was not easy to get started at the bottom. She came over and knelt down to secure the bottom of the zipper before tugging it all the way up. She looked him in the eyes and smiled.
His expression was worried. “What if I don’t like him?” he asked.
“Well, you never have to see him again,” she said calmly.
After a pause, he said in a smaller voice. “What if he doesn’t like me?”
Chastity breathed in and pressed her lips to crush the wave of feelings that started to rise. She managed a smile, and answered, “That, my dear, would be impossible.”
She started walking towards the door, indicating for him to follow her out of the apartment. The furniture was mostly from Ikea, with a few old, elegant chairs and side tables that she had recuperated from people in the neighborhood, who had thrown them out. With these antique touches, a few large houseplants next to the window, some abstract paintings that she had done during one of her college courses, the place had a less bare-bones feeling to it than when she had first moved in. She had recently added sheer white curtains and a dark burgundy living room rug. It made her happy to look around at what was now her home.
Once in the hallway, she turned the large skeleton key in the lock. It was a newer apartment building, but the keys were modeled in the older styles, which she thought was cute. Resuming their conversation as they walked to the elevator, she put her arm around his shoulder and, pulling him close, said, “Don’t forget that he asked to see you. We are the ones that decide whether we’re going to let him in our lives or not.”
Her son nodded his head once, and then ran ahead to push the elevator button. She smiled to herself. At times he was so perceptive, and even sharp-tongued, she forgot how young he was. At other times, she was reminded of the fact that she had many years ahead of her before her son would be a grown man, and no longer in need of her.
They were meeting right in the town of Maison Laffitte, and since it was a sunny November day, they decided to walk. She had only recently gotten her first car, though she had had her license since she moved to Boston. She always thought it would be good to have one, and she didn’t want to be a student driver on the streets of Manhattan. In the end, she was lucky, because Massachusetts had a reciprocal license exchange with France, whereas the state of New York did not. As a result, she was able to exchange it for a French license and bypass the time-consuming, expensive, and all-around tiresome hassle of passing the driving test in France. Still, she tried to use the car sparingly to save gas, and her son was used to walking everywhere.
They skirted past the Château of Maison Laffitte on their way to the café where they had planned to meet Marc. Chastity had the fleeting thought that they might meet Camille – or even the Viscount! It annoyed her to realize that she wondered what he was doing, and she brushed it off. She already had one irritating French male to do deal with, and that was enough.
As they walked there, Thomas seemed to be fully preoccupied with talking about horses. They saw two riders on the shady streets, which was not strange. The stables were located right across the street from the school, and Maison Laffitte was a horse town through and through. There were even road signs indicating that certain streets were just one way – unless you were a horse.
She would have liked to get him started on horseback riding lessons because this seemed to be more than just a passing interest, but that would have to wait. The lessons did not come cheap and she was still trying to build some kind of savings in case anything should happen to her job. It was strange. When she was growing up, she never worried about her future. She knew her parents were taking good care of her. But now that they were getting older, they would need all of their savings to pay for their retirement. She was on her own.
They were in the busy town now, and they opened the door to the Café Jerôme. Chastity’s heart was beating fast and she felt like she was still a teenager, instead of a teacher with a Master’s Degree and a good mother. She scanned the tables inside the room darkened by red curtains and mahogany tables, and her eyes fell on Marc. She knew at once it must be him, but she couldn’t believe the changes that the past seven years had wrought.
He still dressed well. He wore a hot pink Ralph Lauren dress shirt that looked nice against his olive colored skin and brown hair. He had jeans and Converse sneakers on to complete his look of youthful casual. But he did not at all look young. His face was etched with premature wrinkles, and there was a tiredness to his eyes, or perhaps a hardness. It was difficult to discern which it was. Even the way he sat looked less jaunty somehow. He slouched, and his fingers drummed the table audibly. He looked up, and when he saw them, he got to his feet. He shoved his hands in his pockets and smiled nervously, but made no move to walk towards them.
Chastity was shocked. It actually seemed like he had changed. She couldn’t believe that it could be true, but maybe prison had humbled him. He looked like he wasn’t confident of his reception and didn’t dare to push it. This softened her heart towards him. She put her arm around Thomas and walked towards him, attempting a smile.
“Marc,” she said simply.
“Hi Chastity,” he said in English. Although they spoke both in equal measure when living in New York, he must have felt more comfortable in the language of the country they had both grown up in. He moved to kiss her on the cheek, but she held out her hand, stopping him short. He looked at her hand, and then clasped it in a gentle handshake.
Thomas was studying his father openly, and Marc turned towards him and took a deep breath. “Thomas, do you know who I am?” he asked.
“Of course,” he answered. “My mother told me. You are my father.”
“That’s right,” Marc answered, smiling, but not looking quite at ease. “Here. I got you something.” He reached over to the table, then handed Thomas a small present. It was wrapped neatly in red paper with a ribbon and gold foil sticker, labeling the toy store it came from. Thomas took it with two hands and carefully pulled off the wrapping paper. It was a train engine, elaborately crafted, with a whistle that made noise when you pulled on it.
“I like it,” Thomas said with dignity, and set it down on the table.
“I asked the woman in the toy boutique what a seven-year old boy would like and, she recommended this.”
“Thomas, thank your father,” his mother reminded him gently.
“Merci,” Thomas replied and turned his face up to be kissed.
“Please sit down,” Marc said, gesturing to the two chairs next to him. Chastity took off her coat, helping Thomas with his, and then placed them on the backs of their chairs before sitting down. The waiter came up and took their orders – a hot chocolate and croissant for Thomas, an espresso for Marc and a café crème for Chastity.
“You never could drink your coffee black,” Marc said smiling, and handed her an extra sugar from the glass square in the center of the table when their coffees had arrived.
“What grade are you in, Thomas?” Marc asked as he stirred a sugar into his espresso.
“I’m in CE1,” Thomas said, taking a bite of his croissant. His train sat untouched next to him, but he was casting furtive glances at it as he spooned hot chocolate into his mouth.
“CE1.” Marc turned to Chastity, “What grade is that?”
“It’s equivalent to the first grade,” she said. “Thomas is an advanced reader. He’s already read Harry Potter.”
“Wow! That’s amazing,” Marc said turning to Thomas. “I was never much of a reader myself, but I did see the first movie.”
Thomas nodded his head silently and continued to chew his croissant. He was kicking his leg out rhythmically underneath the table.
Marc looked at Chastity and said, “What have you been doing all these years?” as he simultaneously placed his hand on hers that was lying on the table. She jerked her hand away as if he had burned it.
“Um,” she began nervously, blushing and looking at her son. “Well you know that I got my degree at Columbia University, and then we moved to Boston so I could get my Masters at Harvard. I got the connection to this position from a former professor, and we’ve been here since August.”
“That’s really great,” he said. She didn’t dare to reciprocate the question so an awkward silence fell.
“So, where are you living and working?” Chastity asked, finding her voice.
“I’m living in Puteaux, near La Défense, and for now I’m working at the FNAC in the photography boutique. I develop the film,” he said.
“And your parents?” she asked. “They’re still in New York?”
“Nah, they came back after . . . afterwards. I think they were tired of living in Manhattan.”
“I understand,” Chastity said. She imagined that his demise caused too much embarrassment in their polite circle for them to remain there.
“So they know you’re here and everything … ?” She was hesitant to pry too much, but at the same time she was curious how he was getting along. She had a hard time imagining him just scraping by without his parents’ help. He had always been their golden boy.
“They know.” Marc shrugged. “I can’t say they’re too thrilled with the idea of having me over to see them and I haven’t pushed. I humiliated them.”
“I see,” Chastity said, as she looked down.
Even when she had disappointed her own parents, they would never think about abandoning her. Thomas started to clink his empty chocolate mug in tune to his kicking feet. “Do you mind if we walk as we talk?” she asked. “It’s hard for a boy his age to sit still for long.” She smiled, as she said this, and Marc signaled for the check.
When they left the café, they turned left and started walking toward a playground she knew of that was a little further along. When they entered the fenced-in area, Marc watched as Thomas ran off towards the jungle gym, his feet flinging sand as he went. Chastity used the opportunity to speak more directly about prison.
“I was thinking. Didn’t you have to serve parole at all? Was there no problem for you to leave the country?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I had served my whole sentence so there was no parole. I was allowed to come back because this is my home country. But I came back with a record. I’m no more free here than I was in America. I will never have a career or anything like that.”
“Don’t say never,” Chastity said, pinching her brows.
He was quiet for a minute, then nodded his head towards his son, and asked, “What did you tell him about me?”
“I told him the truth,” she said. “He deserves to know the truth.”
Marc shook his head. “He must hate me. A father who was in prison.”
Seeing him humiliated pained Chastity, even if she was still wary of his potential for inflicting pain. It caused her to speak with more gentleness than she had yet shown. “I have not made you out to be a villain, Marc. He will judge you from what you are to him – not from anything I tell him.”
Marc looked up and flashed her a quick smile before looking down again.
“But I do have to ask what role you hope to have in his life after seven years,” she continued. “I mean, there hasn’t been a word from you in all this time. And I can’t forget what you said to me when I first told you … or your parting words. ”
Marc cut her off. “Please forget about anything I said before. I mean, forget about it as much as you can. That was before I took a few hard turns. I’m sorry – I know I was a jerk.” His voice was sincere and he was looking down, as if he didn’t dare look at her.
“Okay, fine,” Chastity said, not unkindly. She chewed her lip. “But, so what role . . . ” She trailed off, looking at him.
“Whatever role you permit me,” he answered, shrugging his shoulders and looking at her with a hopeful smile. Their eyes caught for a moment, and then they both looked over to Thomas, who had climbed all the way to the top of the jungle gym and who was shyly looking for approbation. The sun formed a halo around his head as he straddled the top of the net. He gave a small wave, and they both smiled and waved back.
Chastity turned back to Marc. “Let’s just play it by ear, okay?” she said.
For Chapter Six, click here!