March 6, 2020
Revisionist History - Second Place Winner of 2019 First Chapter Contest
By Caroline Mansour
The Jardin d’ Tuileries unfurled in the dusky autumn sunlight as Rachel dashed in from the rue de Rivoli. The leaves that just weeks before had exhibited a brilliant display of fiery orange and red were now spent. Weary trees dropped them carelessly in the lanes just as a sophisticated old gentleman, lost in an idyll of his youth, might thoughtlessly drop his handkerchief or scarf. The stately chestnut and mulberry trees bowed to the oblivious young woman in a dignified manner in spite of their exposed and shivering state. Splashing fountains and ponds with end-of-season boaters rippled in the breeze. Statues and sculptures, frozen in time amongst the acres of meticulously preserved history, looked askance as this young lady, cheeks pinked and eyes bright, fair hair flying and coattails trailing behind, flew past without so much as a glance.
Rachel was very late, and there was nothing that irked her younger sister Isabel more than her sister’s penchant for losing time while in the company of strange men. But, oh my, this one was deliciously strange and well worth her sister’s disapproval. His name escaped her now, but he had a lean, rangy look particular to drummers, long stringy hair and a lopsided grin that revealed teeth just beginning to betray hard living. Rough. The thought sparked a jolt of arousal and she felt her cheeks warm a deeper red.
Perhaps she wouldn’t tell Isabel where she’d been, she mused as she picked up her pace, but then quickly dismissed the notion. She’d have to tell her if she wanted to see him perform tonight. She couldn’t go alone, for God’s sake. That would look desperate, and she certainly wasn’t. She was simply . . . bored.
They had been in Paris for three days, just the two sisters, off for a bit of a lark, their father liked to say, before their parents were to join them on Sunday for the family of four’s tradition of spending Thanksgiving week together in Paris. And today was Friday, which meant only two nights remained for Rachel to kick up her heels. Spiked, patent leather heels in her case, she thought with immense satisfaction. It was Paris, for God’s sake, and there was no better place in which to do so.
She’d spent the last three days tailing Isabel around Paris at a snail’s pace and, really, there were only so many hours of museums and quiet dinners that she could handle before she started feeling restless, irritable even. And once her parents arrived the dynamic would take a dramatic turn. Not for the worse, necessarily, but different.
She gave a quick shake of her head, pushing away the negative turn her thoughts had taken. This annual Paris trip really was her very favorite tradition for as long as she could remember - a brief bubble of respite before the tedious march of holiday parties back home in Connecticut began. One after another, all season long and all of them utterly boring. Teas, dinner parties, cocktails in the city - the endless pull of obligations made her head spin.
It was a lesson she had learned early. The world her parents moved in, and she and Isabel by birthright, held little attraction for either sister, but wealth and success and all of their accoutrements by nature included a great deal of social obligations. Isabel had an almost physical abhorrence of these gatherings while Rachel, on the other hand, loved a party - just not those kinds of parties.
The thought made her even more determined to see the drummer tonight, and then some. She checked her phone, cringing at the time, and dashed up the marble steps. She should have considered that Isabel would be irritated and less inclined to do her a favor. It would be a big favor, too, because if there was anything Isabel liked less than her sister’s tardiness, it was big crowds and loud music. And there would most definitely be both.
* * *
In the Orange, as she affectionately called it, Isabel navigated the room in deliberate movements, turning slowly to the left and then to the right, intent on capturing the nuances of shadow and light on the paintings. It was the first time she was seeing Monet’s Nympheas series in the late afternoon and she intended to savor every moment. The day had started out cloudy, but the sun was managing to push through the gray every now and then, sending glorious bursts of gold and blue, and what a delight it was to see the colors on the canvas respond to the changing light.
She had started with the sunrises, of course, and would end with the sunsets, just as Monet had intended them to be viewed. She sighed in contentment at this opportunity to immerse herself in this world. It was almost like floating on the sea, she thought. The canvas seemed to undulate in this particular slant of dusky sunshine. It was a spectacular show, one she had so badly wanted to share with Rachel.
Isabel glanced at her watch and was surprised to see how much time had passed. Once again, her sister was late. It was nearly four p.m. and Rachel was supposed to have met her by three fifteen. Isabel pushed aside her disappointment, and focused on the art. At least she had been able to lose herself in the moment rather than in wondering what her sister had gotten herself up to. In truth, the solitude had been like a boon, and she felt peaceful and reenergized all at once. As much as she adored her sister, Rachel’s frenetic pace set Isabel’s nerves on edge. Had Rachel been on time, no doubt she would be chattering away rather than absorbing the beauty around her.
The corner of Isabel’s upturned lips lifted in a wry smile and she gave a quick shake of her head before continuing on. Rachel would show up eventually, and if she missed the play of light, well, then it was her loss - not that she’d even notice.
A shuffling sound and pattering footsteps at the far end of the room a few moments later announced Rachel’s arrival. Isabel didn’t need to look to confirm her sister’s presence. She continued to gaze at the deep red of the water lily.
“Iz! Crap, I’m so sorry I’m late!” Rachel was breathless from running.
“Hmmm?” Isabel kept her eyes on the painting.
Rachel, still panting, turned from Isabel to the canvas and feigned sudden interest. “Wow, these are really something, aren’t they? Totally top-notch.”
Isabel couldn’t help but give a sharp laugh in spite of herself at her sister’s word choice.
“You realize that these are far beyond ‘top-notch,’ I hope? Just look at the colors, Rach. It’s like something out of a dream,” she mused, still deep in the moment. She turned to face her sister and her searching eyes reflected the deep blue of the canvas. “I just really wanted you to see them as the light changed.” A wistful note of disappointment crept into her voice.
“I’m sorry. I really am. I just lost track of time. I will fully engage . . . just explain what I’m looking at, will you?”
Rachel took Isabel’s arm. She’d wait until dinner to make her request, she decided. She leaned her head toward her sister’s and together they moved on.
* * *
“Ah, now it makes sense,” said Isabel, chin in her hand, gazing skeptically at her sister across the white clothed table.
They sat near the window at Ciel De Paris, quite an extravagant choice for two women without income. But of course the tab would simply be charged to their father and Rachel was certain that he would be pleased that his daughters were enjoying the city in style. And the view was, indeed, spectacular. The sky had bloomed into a fiery vista as the sun retreated and now a million twinkling lights illuminated the Seine with La Tour Eiffel in the background, a steady flame.
“What? What do you mean?” Rachel responded with practiced innocence.
“This lovely dinner. Your undivided attention. You know . . . all this.” Isabel sat back and waved her hand at the waiters in their carefully pressed uniforms and hushed intonations.
Rachel furrowed her eyebrows and jutted out her lower lip. “You love this place. That’s why I suggested it.”
“But you do not. It’s the view I love, but I would have been just as happy in Montmartre. You’re trying to finesse me, yes? Lull me into going along with your plan?” Isabel gave a rueful smile. “That explains the leather,” she nodded at Rachel’s tight fitting leather pants and spiked patent leather heels.
Rachel furrowed her brow and regarded her sister for a moment, deliberating her next move. Isabel’s blonde hair was pulled back in a tight bun, very French, and her black cashmere sweater and camel hair skirt were understated and sophisticated - hardly the attire for a raucous rock concert.
“Well, I think it will be good for you to get out and do something outside your comfort zone for a change. It’s good to shake things up. And you like music . . .” she trailed off.
“That sounds like your grad school Psychology jargon. I’m really not up for it, Rachel. I loved my day. It was absolutely perfect, and this dinner was so lovely - thank you - but the thought of going to a concert literally makes my head ache. I just want to go back to the hotel and write about everything while it’s fresh. It’s too hard to recapture a moment if you don’t think it through and then write about it. And you should be studying, too. You’ve got exams when we get back—“
“No, no, no! I’m NOT talking about school or exams or anything else like that. Fuck that. I’ll worry about it later. Come on, Iz! I really like this guy and I didn’t have a chance to get his number and I’ll never see him again if I don’t show up. Please come with me. I can’t go alone.” She was begging now and she didn’t care one bit.
“No, I really mean that,” Isabel said, leaning towards her sister again, her forehead wrinkling in concern. “You have to take this seriously, Rachel. This is grad school and you chose it, though I still truly cannot understand why you chose psychology!”
“It’s the stories, Iz! You wouldn’t believe the crap people go through. It’s crazy, but so fucking interesting.” She grinned. “Maybe I’m just nosy.”
Isabel shook her head. “Uh-huh. Well I suggest you be careful that you don’t end up a good story for someone else.” She shifted in her chair and regarded her sister with frank concern. “Why are you so restless? You’re always pushing for more. I just don’t get it – it’s borderline risky behavior. Why can’t you just be still?”
“Tomorrow I will be still. Will you please go?”
“No, but thank you.” Isabel cocked her head to the side and narrowed her eyes. “Is that why you were late today? Chatting it up with a guy in a band?” She signaled for the check.
“Does it make a difference? At least I showed!” Rachel snorted. “Honestly, Isabel. You make traveling incredibly boring, do you know that?”
Isabel blinked hard, hurt. “That’s mean.”
“Well, you’re not being very nice! I’m asking you to come with me just this one night because I can’t go alone, obviously. Can’t you just do this one thing for me?”
Isabel stared at her sister. “You’re acting incredibly spoiled and kind of obnoxious.”
“Well, you’re being kind of selfish.” Rachel was beginning to sound like a petulant child but she couldn’t help herself.
“Let’s just go.” Isabel pulled her heavy cashmere throw around her shoulders and headed for the door.
They walked in silence back towards their hotel, both unhappy in their thoughts. After a while, Rachel let out a deep sigh, her heels hitting the concrete with sharp little slaps of resentment. The sisters had very different personalities and so often chafed at the other’s quirks, and their differences were often solved in just this manner. Rachel would vocalize her displeasure in grunts, sighs and slamming of doors, while Isabel suffered silently until she could bear it no longer.
Isabel stopped abruptly on the street. “One hour. I will go for one hour, and then I’m leaving with or without you.”
“Iz! I love you! You are so good to me! I swear I will literally set a timer! I’m so excited!” she whooped.
Rachel grabbed her sister’s arm and pulled her down the street towards their hotel, her mind skipping ahead. Isabel definitely needed a change of clothes and a little spicing up and then they’d be off. And who knew? Maybe she’d chill out a bit and stay up all night. After all, there was really nothing more beautiful than watching the sun arrive in Paris.
* * *
Back at their hotel, Rachel shimmied her sister into a short, tightfitting dress, much to Isabel’s disgust, and pulled her hair from her bun, raking her fingers through to give it a mussed look. Satisfied, she rushed her out the door and into a taxi. Traffic was a problem, as always, but fortunately they weren’t terribly far from the 11th and didn’t need to cross the Seine.
Less than an hour later, she had Isabel by the arm as they waited to enter the old music hall. She felt her phone buzz in her clutch, but ignored it. Probably her parents checking in, she figured. She’d call them in the morning. She heard sirens in the distance and felt her heart beat faster with the thrill of being a moving piece of the night.
The scene inside was loud and dark, crackling with electricity and overheated bodies pressing in from all sides. The music was a constant crescendo, shifting somewhere between hard rock and heavy metal. From the back of the venue Rachel could just make out the band thrashing on the stage over the bobbing heads. In front of the platform, backlit by the pulsing lights, shadowy forms writhed against one another in time to the heavy bass.
She couldn’t make out the features of the drummer and, grasping Isabel’s hand, she pressed forward for a better vantage point, scanning for any raised areas where they could stand and possibly be seen from the stage.
Glancing back at her sister, she felt a twinge of guilt. Isabel’s mouth was set in a hard line and her eyes were red and watering, either from misery or the heavy smoke in the air. Rachel flashed her a quick smile and mouthed “one hour” before pushing ahead. She felt the buzzing of her phone again in her clutch and fumbled her hand inside to turn it off. Good God, her parents were persistent!
Finally, she wriggled them into a small gap in the center of the room and stopped again to scan the stage, standing on her tiptoes and stretching her neck to catch a glimpse. There he was! Rachel smiled gleefully and turned to catch Isabel’s attention and point him out when her sister abruptly lurched towards her and her beautiful face fractured into a million pieces. Isabel fell silently, and Rachel felt a rough hand shoving her down on top of her sister. The music screeched to a stop and was replaced by screams and ear-shattering reverberations like fireworks. The smell of singed flesh and gunpowder overcame her. Other bodies fell on them, pressing Rachel’s head hard into Isabel’s chest. She held her sister tight, pressing all the broken pieces of her together, calling out her name over and over, until she quite clearly felt her sister’s heart give its last, faltering beat.
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