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The Room on Rue Amélie
Author:Kristin Harmel

The Room on Rue Amélie

Kristin Harmel



To Holly Root, Abby Zidle, and Kristin Dwyer.

All three of you recently made big career decisions and took on new challenges. I’m so proud of you—and so grateful for your professional support and wonderful friendship. I’m so lucky to have you in my life.

And to all of you who have been strong enough to stand up for what you believe in—in the small moments and the large ones. Making the world a better place begins with even the tiniest acts of personal bravery. May you forever hold fast to the courage to follow your heart.





CHAPTER ONE


March 2002


She sleeps beside me, her narrow chest rising and falling, and already I miss her.

The sand in the hourglass is running out, flowing relentlessly toward the end. There’s never enough time, not when a person has become a part of you. We were lucky to survive the war, my wife and I, and not a day passes that I don’t think of those we lost. I know it’s greedy to want just one more week, one more month, one more year with her when we were already given so much time. The last half century has been a gift we never expected, perhaps a gift we never deserved.

Still, I can’t let go. I can’t imagine my world without her, for my life didn’t really begin until the day we met. But I’m as powerless to protect her in this moment as I was all those years ago in Paris, though both then and now I tried to fool myself into believing I had some control.

I rise quietly, careful not to disturb her. When she awakens, the pain will return, so while I yearn for her company, I’m grateful that for now, she’s at peace.

I shuffle into the kitchen, boil water in our electric kettle, steep some Earl Grey tea, and make my way to the front porch. It’s March, so the air is crisp, as crisp as it gets here in Antelope Valley, some sixty miles north of Los Angeles. I stare into the misty morning, and my breath catches in my throat when I see it: the first bloom of the season. In the coming weeks, the fields will turn brilliant shades of yellow, orange, and red. My wife will almost certainly be gone by then, but at least she’ll have this, one last dawn to the poppy season.

“Thank you,” I say, looking upward to where I imagine God must be. “Thank you for this.”

I’ve been talking to God a lot lately, which is strange because during the war I might have argued that He didn’t exist. But in the years since, I’ve surprised myself by slowly wending my way back to faith. It began with our daughter, Nadia, for there’s no denying that she was a miracle. And when she had three healthy children of her own, I believed a little more. When our grandchildren gave us great-grandchildren, and my wife and I were still here, I had no choice but to acknowledge a higher power.

Then again, perhaps I’d known on some level that He was there all along, because what other explanation could there have been for my wife and me finding each other in the midst of such chaos all those years ago?

As I gaze out at the rolling fields, I can see our lives unfolding here, our daughter twirling in the sunlight, our grandchildren chasing each other through the blooms. I sip my tea and blink a few times to clear my vision. It’s embarrassing how emotional I’ve grown lately. Men aren’t supposed to cry, especially men of my generation. But when it comes to the love of my life, I’m powerless against the tide.

I finish my tea and head back into the house to check on her. She should still be sleeping, but I find her in bed with her eyes open, her head tilted toward the door. She’s still beautiful, even in old age, even as she succumbs to the cancer we caught too late. “Good morning, my love,” she says.

“Good morning, my darling girl.” I force a smile.

“Have the poppies bloomed yet?”

I nod, and her eyes fill with tears. I know they’re tears of happiness, and I share her joy. “Just one for now,” I reply. “But the others won’t be far behind.”

“What color, my love? What color is the first one?”

“Red. The first poppy of the season is red.”

“Of course.” She lies back and smiles. “Of course it is.”

When she focuses on me again, we gaze at each other for a long time. Looking into her eyes always washes the decades away and takes me back to the day I first saw her.

“I must ask something of you,” she says softly.

“Yes.” I know what it is before she says the words.

“I want to go to the top of the hill just once more. Please.”

“I will take you.” My strength has waned with time; I had a heart attack last year, and I haven’t felt like myself since. But I knew this would be my darling girl’s last wish, and I will make it come true, whatever it takes. “We can go when you’re ready. But let’s wait a few more days until the poppies are fully in bloom.” Of course, the request is partially a selfish one; I want to give her a reason to hang on a little longer, to stay with me.

She smiles. “Yes, you’re right.” She’s already fading, her eyelids heavy, her gaze growing unfocused. “She should be here, though, not me,” she whispers after a moment. “It always should have been her.” I know exactly who she’s talking about: her best friend, the one who was like a sister to her, the one we lost so senselessly all those years ago.

“God had a plan, my darling.” I can’t say what I really want to, which is that I’m grateful it was my wife who survived. That’s a selfish, terrible thing to think, isn’t it? No one should have died at all. But fate doesn’t always play fair.

“I’ll see her again soon.” Her voice is so faint I can hardly hear her as she adds, “On the other side. Don’t you think I will?”

“Don’t go yet,” I say. “Please.” And as she drifts back to sleep, I sink down into the chair beside her and begin to cry. I don’t know how I’ll live without her. The truth is, since the day I met her, it’s all been for her. My whole life. My whole existence. I don’t know how I’ll say good-bye.





CHAPTER TWO


December 1938

The first time Ruby Henderson saw Marcel Benoit, she knew her life was about to change.

When she wandered into Café Claude on the west side of Central Park on a damp and frigid Thursday afternoon, she’d merely been trying to get warm. It was three days before Christmas, and she still wasn’t accustomed to the Northeast’s icy winters. The penetrating chill wasn’t helping with her homesickness either. She hadn’t been able to afford a ticket back to Southern California for the school break, but perhaps seeing her parents would have made the loneliness worse anyhow. Besides, it had been Ruby herself who had insisted, nearly four years earlier, that leaving her small desert town to study in Manhattan was a good idea. I’m in search of a big life, she had announced with all the confidence she could muster. And I won’t find it in the middle of nowhere.

But now, surrounded by mothers holding the hands of cheerful children in thick coats, and with Christmas carols and the smell of roasting chestnuts in the air, she found herself wishing that she wasn’t so alone. As a few snowflakes began to drift from the graying sky, she looked away from the window, sighed, and turned back to Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned. She could always find comfort in a good book.