by Joanna Milstein
“It has to be breakfast,” I told Laila, although this was categorical and unfair, since it was Sunday and it was nine pm, and we were on the Upper West Side, generally understood to be a culinary wasteland. The navy-black December air chomped away at any exposed patches of our skin not shrouded by nylon feather-filled coats. My orange jacket kept my core warm, but the extra layers of downy lumps made me feel like a bloated, artificial bird.
“My mom also recommended this great Italian.” Laila said. “We should try it. I read the review and it sounded—”
“Breakfast. I want pancakes with maple syrup and American coffee and a glass of orange juice. With pulp,” I said.
We settled for a tiny French bistro. Laila and I had studied in France together, a happy time in both of our lives, so it made sense. I ordered coq au vin and Laila had branzino en papillot. Because sometimes you had to make compromises. I ordered a glass of the cheapest red wine on the menu.
“Do you remember that restaurant in Paris where I had the branzino?” Laila asked when our food arrived. “The restaurant was a tiny box, and there were murals on the walls? That was the best branzino I ever ate.” I didn’t remember, and anyway branzino wasn’t a French dish, but it didn’t seem like the right time to mention that.
“Don’t remember,” I said, looking down at my chicken thigh swimming in thick red-wine reduction with glassy onions and fat, round mushrooms.
“What would your father say, if he were here? I wonder what he would say.” Laila’s father was dead. I had loved him. I still blamed myself for not calling enough. It had been two years but Laila and I were always only three seconds from tears at any given moment.
“Can I have a sip of your wine?”
“You know you shouldn’t,” I said. Laila was three months pregnant. A few months ago she’d had a miscarriage.
Laila took a deep breath and held it as long as she could. It wasn’t easy for her. She’d gone to a New York private school and then a fancy college and graduate school where she’d won prizes. She’d been an acclaimed photographer, whose photographs had been exhibited in prestigious art galleries. Now she was pregnant and uninterested in taking pictures. She reminded me of an injured angel, ethereal, out of place in our modern, terrible world. Recently she had moved to LA with her husband, although she missed New York. Even the winters. Earlier that night she had told me, “I miss hibernating. I miss overhearing casual conversations about politics and literature. In LA, all the conversations I overhear are some variation of ‘Where did I park my car?’” I disagreed with Laila, although I didn’t tell her. I thought if I could only move somewhere warm I would buy a couple of sundresses and spend the weekends sitting by some anonymous, plastic pool and never miss winter again.
I had helped Laila get dressed on her wedding day, on a bright and sunny summer afternoon, over a year ago. Her mother had been shouting at her all day and her older sister, Fran, was upset that Laila was getting married. Every time Fran started to speak, she would start crying. “I’m just so happy for La-a-a-ila,” she would sob. So it was up to me, matron of honor, to tuck Laila into her white ballgown dress, covered in cupcakes of tulle and lace. Once the dress was on, she asked me to rub this water-soluble concealer cream all over her back to cover up her acne. (“It’s backne,” said Laila. “Get it?”) I was in a hurry and did a messy job and then tried to blot the flesh color off of the white gown, but that only made things worse. I hoped the stains could be photoshopped away.
Laila had chattered on. “The concealer hides everything. It’s the stuff they use on porn stars,” she’d said to me. “Little known fact.” I had zipped then buttoned up the back of the dress. All of this had transpired in a small room near Laila’s mother’s bedroom that had been Laila’s father’s study in their house on a small stretch of beach that overlooked the Long Island Sound. Laila had pointed to a velvet pouch sitting on a ledge in the corner across from us. “Dad’s ashes, in an urn in there,” she said. “We’re burying, or perhaps I should say we’re dispersing him, later tonight, or maybe tomorrow. On the beach. Next to his favorite view. He’ll have it forever.” The wedding was beautiful. Laila kissed the groom before the ceremony even started, and she cried the whole time, when she said her vows and after that. Later that evening I gave a soppy speech about the first time I had met Laila (we were 9, we knew at first sight that we were destined to be best friends, we didn’t see each other for eight years after that, but as soon as we saw each other again it was the same as before, as it had always been, not unlike true love). I drank a bottle of tequila, I danced until my feet hurt with the tall best man, who had a Ph.D. in psychology. We talked academia through dinner.
“Are you okay?” he asked me, when he saw me swallowing another shot of Patrón. I thought I was being discreet.
“Fine. Just fine,” I said.
“It’s worse to watch your friends get married,” Laila told me, as the evening pulled to a close, around 3 am. I was dancing with her Uncle Fred at that point, because he reminded me of her dad. “More traumatic, I mean. Why do you think I scaled that lighthouse on my own the night before yours?” She asked. I frowned. I still hadn’t forgiven her for that.
“My dad? My dad would be horrified. I’m glad he’s not here,” Laila said, soaking up the last drop of the red branzino sauce with a hardening piece of sourdough. “To see it, I mean. To see that man. Our president. To think.”
“I don’t want to think. I prefer not to think,” I said.
“Let’s talk about Paris,” she said.
“Do you remember when you gave the tour of the Cathedral of Saint Denis to those French tourists? When they thought you were their tour guide?”
“But they never paid me. I can’t remember why.”
“Maybe they paid online beforehand? Anyway, no one describes medieval tombs quite like you do. Remember our afternoon at the Musée D’Orsay? I finally saw the Luncheon on the Grass. And all those heavenly Monets. And Van Gogh’s Self Portrait. There must have been so much promise in 1900 when it was built, before the First World War. Before the world fell apart. Then they put it back together, so—”
“That’s not how it was. I only agreed to go because you begged me on your hands and knees. You claimed the D’Orsay was your favorite historical site in Paris and then had that panic attack and we had to leave after twenty minutes. And the museum, for your information, opened in 1986. It was a train station to before that.”
“There were so many people I couldn’t breathe. I never told you the D’Orsay was my favorite. I said Sainte Chapelle was my favorite place in Paris. I knew the original function of the building for the D’Orsay had been a train station. You never came to Sainte Chapelle with me, the royal chapel. Those high vaulted ceilings and the kaleidoscope of stained glass. Did you know there are over a thousand stained-glass windows? Did you, with all your knowledge, know that? I don’t understand why you never visited Sainte Chapelle with me.”
I did, of course, know about the stained-glass windows. I could have given a lecture about Sainte Chapelle in my sleep. And I remembered seeing the pictures Laila had taken of both the exterior and the interior, majestic images that had featured prominently in her 2012 solo exhibition at an art gallery. But as to why we had never gone together, I couldn’t recall.
Some years earlier, I had gone to Paris for the summer to conduct research in architectural history. Laila, who’d had a few free months before she had to start art school, accompanied me. She had planned to take French classes at the Alliance Française while I worked in the archives but most days she slept in. Anyway, her French professor was obsessed with moral philosophy and the criminal justice system. The fifth day of class, she had asked the students: If they were in a sinking boat and had to save only one of their classmates, which one it would be? This hadn’t helped class camaraderie. The seventh day of class, the professor took the group on a field trip to a local courthouse and they watched a multi-hour murder trial. Laila described making eye contact with one of the defendants, his expression of crystallized fear. She dropped out shortly afterwards. Laila didn’t feel like the class was helping her French, but I disagreed. She had acquired an unusual vocabulary. One day she asked me who, out of our mutual friends, I would save from a sinking boat.
I said I didn’t know. “You? Of course you. What do you want me to say? Being trapped on a boat on the open sea is one of my only true fears. Especially at night. Absolute nightmare material.” It didn’t make sense to Laila. She had gone sailing every summer since she was five.
Without a class to go to, Laila walked around the city taking photographs infused with her habitual sensitivity and elegance, while I spent my time shut up in several Parisian archives and libraries, those magnificent gilded cage-temples of higher learning with lifetimes worth of unpublished and unlimited primary sources. Intense intellectual work increased my lust for life, which occasionally spilled over into lust for people. The more arduous the labor, the worse it got. While waiting to see documents or books, I sometimes fantasized about dragging someone, possibly one of the librarians, with me into one of the deserted carrels.
A musician I knew was teaching in Paris over the summer. We had dated a few months earlier when we had both been in New York, but had just as quickly given up. Our temperaments were similar. Selfish. Stubborn. But as we were both in Paris, fooling around seemed obvious and convenient. The musician had rented a fifth-floor walk-up similar to mine, and only a fast metro ride away. I liked to show up and ring his buzzer, unannounced, after the libraries closed, and then after we had finished I would have the rest of the evening free. It was July so unless he left the windows open, the apartment turned into a sauna. I was loud, partly for the release and partly for the performance-aspect. He said I had a voice like a soprano but I’m pretty sure that was just a line. I still cringe when I imagine him telling all this to his friends, and what the neighbors must have thought.
“When you came home at night your hair and makeup were always a mess, but you looked happy and relaxed.” Laila said.
One weekend Laila and I took a trip to the countryside and I gave her detailed and exceedingly enthusiastic tours of the castles in the Loire Valley. She filmed the tours and asked me a lot of questions, acting as the narrator. As we stood on a balcony at the Castle of Chenonceau overlooking the arches, which extended out into the picturesque River Cher below, I explained that French courts in the early modern period had been peripatetic because the court routinely tossed their refuse in the moats, and therefore they had to move often, especially in warm weather. At the Château de Blois, I showed Laila the Queen Mother Catherine de’ Medici’s bedroom.
“Catherine was a skilled stateswoman, but her great passion in life was architecture,” I said on camera. “In a different era she might have been an architect. The construction of the Pont Neuf, the oldest, and in my opinion most beautiful, bridge in Paris across the river Seine began during her lifetime, and it is said she supervised its creation.”
“I remember the Pont Neuf—I crossed it on my way to the Île de la Cité, on the day I went to see Sainte Chapelle for the first time. Gorgeous bridge. I took more than a few pictures there. I had no idea a queen was involved in building it.”
“In addition to her architectural endeavors, Catherine was a wife and widow, and mother to 10 children, all of whom tragically predeceased her, save one, who was assassinated 7 months after she died. She died in this very room,” I said.
“Getting goosebumps,” said Laila. “Sorry. I meant to say, can you please tell our viewers at home the story of Catherine de’ Medici’s final hours?”
“It was strange.” I said, taking a step back. “The Queen Mother had heard years before from an astrologer that she would die beside Saint-Germain, so for years she avoided her castle of Saint-Germain-En-Laye and the parish of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, any place with the name Saint-Germain. In 1589, as she lay ill her confessor walked into this bedroom. It wasn’t, however, her usual confessor. It was a much younger man whom she had never seen before.
‘What is your name, son?’ the Queen Mother had asked.
‘Saint-Germain, Madame. My name is Julien de Saint-Germain,’ he had answered.”
Laila filmed all of this, but has since lost the footage, and it’s a shame, because I’ve forgotten so much of what I used to know.
On Bastille Day, July 14, the anniversary of the French Revolution, the archives and libraries in France are closed. Laila and I had interrupted our shooting and studying and gone out to dinner in an outdoor garden in Pigalle where rats scurried back and forth between courses. We ignored them. After dinner we’d met up with an old French friend of mine, Charles, whom I hadn’t seen in years before I had randomly bumped into him on the escalator of the Centre Pompidou a few days earlier and we had made Bastille Day plans. He brought another friend, Étienne, with him. Open air parties were held all over the city and there were fireworks. The four of us went to one of the parties, which featured semi-undressed firefighters for no apparent reason, and spent the night dancing and drinking cheap champagne. I never admitted it to anyone, least of all myself, but I had been hot for Charles those years ago, although we were never friends like that.
We’d watched the fireworks and Charles had suggested we play truth or dare, also known as action ou vérité in French. When it came to the truth question, Charles and Étienne had wanted to know what Laila and I had done together, sexually speaking, and when the answer turned out to be ‘nothing,’ they had dared us to kiss. It all felt fun and familiar. Then we’d made the guys make out with each other, then we had made out with each of the guys. Charles had reached his hand under Laila’s shirt and I noticed.
Charles had invited us back to their apartment but we had declined. We haven’t spoken to those two guys since. All four of us are married, now, and married people try not to remember these kinds of things. Charles and his wife just had a baby, or so I’ve seen on Facebook.
The night before we left Paris, Laila and I treated ourselves to overpriced ice cream sundaes at the famous Café de Flore, where the round, green café tables, the white awning with the green letters, the grumpy waiters with white aprons, were the same as they’d been since Hemingway used to drink there in 1921. We sat outside. An older woman with bleached hair and thick black circles traced around her feline eyes appeared wearing a black cocktail dress, slightly shrugged off her shoulders. “Just wait. She’s going to do her Edith Piaf impression,” I whispered to Laila. And within a minute the woman took a small gray stereo and speakers out of her bag and put it on the floor in front of her. She began to croon La Vie en Rose.
“Wow,” said Laila.
“Told you,” I said.
“Our Parisian swan song,” Laila said. And so it was. Her father first became ill while we were away that summer, and he never fully recovered. But he loved to hear our stories. The ones we told him. His own father had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and Laila used to go there, sometimes, when she was feeling low, in an effort to reach out a hand to the past. On his deathbed, her father had asked Laila to tell him, once again, about our summer in Paris, so she had told him a few last anecdotes. Les autres sont reléguées au passée.
“Let’s write a script,” said Laila, “and perform it out one night at dinner in a crowded restaurant. And then people will hear us. It’ll be an experiment. An artistic experiment.”
“But Lai.” I said.
“We’d be performing without an audience. No one else cares.”
“So what?” she asked. “It’ll be for us anyway. It’s always is.”
“Lai,” I said, moving my fork to the edge of the plate. “It’s no use.”
“We’ve been adults for a long time now.”
I finished my wine and Laila finished her water, staring into our phones, the void, other patrons but we didn’t look at each other, not for a few minutes. I looked at the cracked wall, patched up with band-aid posters of Nouvelle Vague films. I used to collect such posters to decorate my college dorm room. I liked to think of myself as being worldly and avant-garde back then, when I’d only been to Paris once.
“I should take you home, L. Your mom will start to worry. We can split a cab.”
In the cab Laila clutched her stomach. “Look how fat I am. I can’t fit into those Paris clothes anymore, and I can’t afford to buy new ones.”
“You’re not fat, L.”
“You’re not pregnant. Lucky you,” she said, and clutched a roll on her swollen stomach.
When we got home Laila’s mother was waiting at the door. She threw her arms around me.
“I gotta pack,” said Laila. “Leaving tomorrow at 7.”
Laila’s mother, Randy took my coat and draped it on the couch. “Let me give you a tour,” she said. She had moved to a smaller apartment at the tip of the Island of Manhattan, Battery Park. Laila had taken photographs of the neighborhood after 9-11, one of her earliest projects. “There’s my old building,” she said, pointing out one of the windows. It was dark, but I could see the lights over the Hudson, the Statue of Liberty, and Randy and Laila’s old apartment building. She brought me into her bedroom, where I saw the pictures of Laila’s dad, Thomas.
Laila came in and interrupted us. She was wearing only a bra. Her stomach wasn’t so swollen.
“Look at me, I’m a triple D!” she said, cupping her breasts with her hands. I remembered how she used to stare at herself in the mirror in Paris, how she used to say “Aren’t I pretty? I feel pretty.”
“Your boobs are enormous,” I said.
“You would know, you saw them every day in Paris.”
In her bedroom Laila told me that Randy had started dating again. “Look after my mom, will you, when I’m back in LA,” she said. I said I would.
We stayed up all night waiting for the sunrise, to see the Hudson and the
buildings that surrounded it on all sides. Randy and I walked Laila down to the lobby and Randy gave her money for a cab. Randy asked if I wanted to come back up for a drink.
We sat upstairs looking out at the glowing city, and Randy poured us each a glass of wine. “There was a time when Laila asked me if she should marry some rich guy and have babies, and I said no. She had won awards in grad school, and her show of Paris photographs had just premiered. Laila was, is, such a gifted artist. She could’ve been a big name in New York right now. If she’d stayed. Now she’s pregnant and her husband wants her to stay at home, and definitely not lug all that heavy equipment around town in the heat. Maybe I was wrong, Randy. Was I wrong?”
“All I can say is I’ve never seen her as happy as she is now. She’s going to be a wonderful mother. It’s what she’s always wanted, in her heart. Did she tell you what’s she’s been doing out in LA? She’s a social worker. An unpaid social worker. She could’ve been a saint in another life, she has this talent for dealing with sick and needy people. A talent I don’t have.”
“I don’t have it either,” I said.
“You have other talents. I just hope you’re as fulfilled as Laila is, or that you will be, someday,” Randy said, and although she meant it nicely, I think, it made me feel wistful. In a way she was right, I was still searching for something Laila had found. She was grounded, satisfied, but I hadn’t changed. She was the artist, so why was I still the restless, rootless one?
“Laila’s got such a big heart,” I said, simply. “How are you doing? Are you holding up okay?”
Randy looked out towards the Statue of Liberty and I did, too. If we had made eye contact we would’ve both started crying. “The hardest thing might be the finality of death. You know, I haven’t given up on the idea that he’s going to walk through the door one day. I keep waiting,” she said.
I had no reply. We shared memories for the next hour, and then I said goodbye, promising I would call her soon, but I knew that I probably wouldn’t.
“Thanks for being such a good friend to Laila,” she said. “Paris changed her life, you know. She’ll never forget the time she spent there together with you. That solo exhibition, it was one of our proudest moments as parents, and I’m so glad Thomas was alive to see it. He was very grateful, he told me. He wanted you to know.”
“Laila’s my best friend,” I said. It was cold and windy, but I walked home. I undressed and got into bed.
Lying down with the curtains drawn, I thought of Laila standing in front of Sainte Chapelle, the only place we hadn’t gone together in Paris, even though it had been her favorite.
Laila, alone, staring up at that regal façade, her black hair illuminated under a halo of a thousand glass rainbows.
Joanna Milstein is a New York-based writer and historian. In 2019, she received her MFA in Fiction from NYU, and was awarded a scholarship to the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She holds a PhD in History from the University of St Andrews. Her thesis, “The Gondi: Family Strategy and Survival in Early Modern France,” was published by Ashgate in 2014. She is currently working on her first novel.