My room had a window that looked out onto a cobbled courtyard, where black clouds, like a layer of tar, spread tight over Paris rooftops. It was raining, had been since the Air France jet touched runway. My own room. First time ever.
I’d always been thrown in with Clymene, as long as I could remember. It’s the most amazing thing, having your own room, your own desk, your own little desk lamp you can turn on and off without anybody biting your head off, even in the middle of the night; and nobody IM-ing all night with their toad boyfriend, keyboard clacking, and nobody sobbing under their covers when the toad doesn’t call; or throwing your underwear at you just cause you forgot to pick it up or throwing a book at you cause they’re such a klutz that they tripped over it in the dark, or playing some song over and over again because it reminds them of their toad and how lovely he is, or how mean he is, or both, or neither.
That’s not to say I didn’t miss her. That’s the weird part. I really, really, really missed my stupid, messed-up family, including Clymene. It was like a dull pain in my stomach and shoulders, but I didn’t care. Right after we got here, Aunt Mill said, “Do you want to call your family and tell them you’ve arrived?” I said no thanks. “Are you sure? It’s okay,” she said, “I have unlimited international minutes.” I said no thanks again. Aunt Mill cocked her head, then sort of smile-smirked and said, “Okay, well, I’ll just call real quickly so Madge won’t worry.”
Knock yourself out, lady, I wanted to say. And I could tell that she could tell that’s what I wanted to say. She seemed pretty sharp, Aunt Mill. She seemed like a mean old math teacher in a lot of ways, which makes sense, cause that’s what she was. But no way I was ever talking to any of my family ever again. They could just get whatever updates they wanted from Aunt Mill, with all her international minutes. Pretty soon they’d lose interest and wouldn’t even pretend to care. Ten years from now I’d meet Baby-X and they’d say, this is your sister, Daisy, and he’d go, “who? I have a sister? Really?”
But let me go back and tell about when we first got to my aunt’s place, because that’s how I met Sief. It was raining, of course. The streets kept getting smaller and smaller when we turned up from the river and the buildings got more and more crooked and pretty soon we turned down one last street that was only wide enough for the taxi, with like an inch on either side.
He pulled up in front of these huge old doors. Aunt Mill said they were carriage doors: in the old days the rich people who lived in this neighborhood would drive right in with their carriage and horses. But cut inside the big door was a little door that we went in, leaving the taxi behind us.
Aunt Mill said the French name for this neighborhood, but I was too distracted to remember, though I remember she said that in English it means swamp. She said they drained the swamp four-hundred years ago to build all these big fancy places for all the rich people who then got their heads cut off with a guillotine. That part I remember.
I dragged Big Bertha across this cobblestone courtyard, staring up at the five stories above, as Aunt Mill lead the way. She called out, “Sief,” and like magic, this scrawny, dark-haired, dark-eyed, Raggedy-Andrew of a ten-year-old kid came loping out from the opposite side of the courtyard. “We need help with the suitcase, Sief.” Aunt Mill said.
We went in an archway and then in another door and up the craziest-crooked steps that were so worn out they sagged in the middle. Imagine people walking up and down steps so many times that they wear out the middle of the step. Aunt Mill hobbled up ahead of me, hanging onto the rail, pushing up with her cane one step at a time.
Meanwhile, this Sief came up beside me and tried to grab Big Bertha right out of my hands. He was like a half-head shorter than me and he just tried to elbow me off Big Bertha, but no way I was going to let him. We both started pulling Bertha up, but then he tried to pull her one way, so I pulled the other. “I can do it alone, you twerp. Just buzz off,” I said.
Aunt Mill looked down from the landing above and said something in French which must have meant, “Sief, push from the bottom,” because he promptly let go of the handle and went down and started pushing Bertha up. We clunk-clunked up the stairs for a flight and then he started easing off without appearing to, then pushing again, easing off, pushing, trying get me off balance. I almost fell right on top of him and I could see him smiling so I gave my own little shove back and yanked up quickly. He missed a step and knocked his chin on the bottom of Bertha. I let go all together and he slipped back two steps and I yelled, “hey, cut it out, klutzoid.”
Oddly enough, Sief didn’t get mad, he just smiled and eventually we got to a landing about ten thousand steps up. Aunt Mill had the door to her apartment open, one of those doors with the fancy knob right in the middle, and while I rolled Bertha in, she gave Sief some money. I was appalled. Money, for that little twerp?
When I asked Aunt Mill about him, she said Sief was half Algerian, half Mohican, and half Puritan. When I asked her what that meant she said Sief’s mother died last year and that he and his father lived across the courtyard and that he was a very sweet boy and spoke fairly good English and that if I didn’t insist on trying to kill him with my suitcase we might become friends. That woman must have eyes in the back of her head.
Aunt Millicent’s living room had parquet floors and antique flowers painted on the ceiling and a marble fireplace and creamy walls with loads of carved wood that looked like decorations on a cake. There were two floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the street that, even on cloudy days, which is always, let in big, dusty streaks of light.
There were books everywhere. Books in cases that ran up to the ceiling and books piled in corners around potted plants and books piled on tea tables and books on the big green, ancient couches that just invited you to curl up in them and books on all the chairs and piled on the fireplace and in the fireplace too, old books, new books, French books with white paper covers and huge art books and ancient, crackled leather-bound books and Penguin paperbacks. You could build a fort with all the books.
The living room gave into a dining room with more creamy walls and another fireplace and a round table with a white lace tablecloth ringed with gold chairs. A chandelier that had three globes the color of dusty lemons hung down from a big plaster rosette in the ceiling. Across the hall was a tiny kitchen with hardly anything it in, which was not an accident since Aunt Mill rarely cooked.
Down a hallway were three bedrooms, one for her, one for me and the last for her study. The study had even more books, along with scrolls and charts and a sagging fainting couch and all kinds of wooden geometric models that looked like they belonged in a school two hundred years ago. There was also a blue steel safe, big as a grown pig, that took up a corner of the room. When I saw it I asked, “what’s that for?”
“Oh, it’s just an antique,” said Aunt Mill. “Too heavy to move, so there it sits.”