This story features a female protagonist from Corsica (La Corse), a French island off Italy’s west coast. As background, Corsica has been under the rule of numerous Mediterranean powers over the centuries, and many Corsicans are ambivalent, at best, towards mainland France. I mention this not because I have an opinion one way or the other about Corsican independence, but because much of the story includes references to France, Corsica, and their complicated relationship. So . . . Vive la France, Vive la Corse, and I hope you enjoy the story.
Juliette looked up from her dough. The sound had been faint; maybe she had imagined it?
She closed her eyes, but heard only the tick of the wind-up timer on the kitchen table.
She groaned aloud and buried her head in her hands, resting her elbows on her chilled marble pastry slab. Maybe her visitor would go away if she didn’t answer?
Then again, maybe the knocks had wafted up the staircase from a door to either the first- or second-floor apartment. Her building was one of the city’s ubiquitous triple-deckers, built with one apartment per floor in the 1800s to house the thousands of immigrants flooding the city; the building’s thin floors and walls were testament to the fact that it had been built both quickly and cheaply. Noise always travelled up to her third-floor apartment.
She cracked an eye open and breathed a sigh of relief. She was in the clear.
“Jules? Hey, Jules. It’s me.”
Juliette snapped her head up. The apartment’s door to the main staircase had muffled the voice, but she knew it.
She brushed her flour-covered hands on her apron as she turned away from the counter, but stopped halfway across the kitchen. Her brain, bruised from a long day, must be playing tricks on her. He was in India, not here in Cambridge. It wasn’t him. It couldn’t be him.
“What’s up, Jules. Didn’t you hear me knock?”
Juliette looked up to see a man with a goofy grin and unruly, curly brown hair standing on the threshold to the kitchen.
“Ephraim? But how? Aren’t you . . . weren’t you . . . what are you doing here?”
His grin widened. “It’s good to see you, too, Jules.”
She tensed as Ephraim approached. She’d grown up in a culture where embraces were reserved for lovers and close family; friends said hello with cheek kisses, not with hugs.
While most of her American friends had stopped hugging her long ago, Ephraim Cohen never had. She wasn’t sure if his continued insistence on greeting her with a hug was due to his perpetually upbeat personality or because he liked to tease her; if she had to guess she’d say it was some combination of the two, but all she knew was that for as long as they’d known each other, he’d said hello by winking and pulling her in a giant bear hug.
Maybe this isn’t so bad after all, she thought as he wrapped his arms around her.
She pressed her nose against his shoulder and inhaled a long breath, relaxing as familiar scents of spearmint and aftershave filled her nostrils. His hugs, she decided with a smile, were like aromatherapy.
His t-shirt was nice, too, and featured a squishy-soft cotton, the kind that was the result of dozens of washings. She usually left her arms hanging by her sides in protest when he hugged her, but this time she couldn’t help but fist her hands in his shirt and play with the material; the fabric felt comforting beneath her fingertips.
She stumbled when his support disappeared; she hadn’t expected him to let go so soon.
“The front door was open?” she asked as she tried to regain her composure.
“Yup.” He flopped into one of the cramped kitchen’s mismatched 1950s vinyl chairs and propped his feet up on the chrome-and-teal Formica table. “Some things never change, do they?” He raised a beer he’d brought with him, toasted her, and took a sip. “Me walking right in because you forgot to lock the front door, you not loving hugs, me sitting at your kitchen table, you making pastries—”
“How do you know I’m making pastries?”
Ephraim raised an eyebrow. “Your hands are covered in flour and you have that ridiculously frilly green apron on over your skirt.” He squinted. “And I think you have some sort of paste or dough on your forehead.”
“Oh.” Juliette grimaced as she rubbed the back of her hand against her face.
“Plus I ran into your roommates a few minutes ago when I arrived. They told me you were up here, baking.”
“They’re still downstairs in the second-floor apartment?”
“I think it’s safe to say your roommates will remain downstairs until well past midnight,” Ephraim said with a laugh.
She furrowed her brows. “Why?”
“Come on, Jules. You live in the third-floor apartment of an old and barely-insulated triple-decker, you have no air conditioning, it was over one-hundred degrees today, and you have the oven on.”
“Oh.” She bit her lip; had she really driven her roommates out? “If it’s too hot for you—”
“Luckily for you, Ms. Arrighi, I just spent months without air conditioning in India. I can take your heat.”
Juliette jumped as the wind-up timer she’d placed on the table buzzed; it was time to remove one batch of pastries and start baking another.
She smiled in satisfaction as she pulled her piping hot results from the oven. The dough was a crackly golden-brown, and she’d made the almond filling earlier in the evening. The pastries would be delicious after a light sprinkling of powdered sugar.
“So how’s life, Jules? What’ve I missed since your last letter? How was your day?”
His cheerful tone reminded her that her day had been anything but golden-brown and delicious.
“Why are you here, Eph?”
“Ah, there’s my blunt little Frenchie. I’ve missed that, you know; politeness is overrated.”
“Sorry.” She took a deep breath to compose herself. “It’s nice to see you, but I’m confused. I thought you were supposed to be in India through October.” She swallowed her rebuttal to the “Frenchie” dig as penance for her rudeness.
“Ah, that.” He picked at the bottle’s label, which was damp with condensation. “The funny thing about spending time in jungles is that you tend to get jungle diseases.”
“You were sick? With what?”
“Dengue fever. That’s why I didn’t answer your last couple of letters. Sorry about that, by the way.”
“You got Dengue fever again?“
“Not again,” he said with a chuckle. “It was malaria in Ghana. Remember? You made fun of me because I got it even though I’d had the vaccine.”
She passed a critical eye across his tanned face, chest, and outstretched legs.
“You don’t look sick, Eph.” She blushed at his raised eyebrow.
“Well, I had to wait to get better before I could leave India, and then I spent a couple weeks with my sister in California; my parents would have freaked if they’d seen what I looked like when I landed.”
Juliette shook her head. “I swear, you have the worst immune system of anyone I’ve ever met.”
Ephraim laughed. “Ah, but you have a great immune system, don’t you, Juliette? Or should I say . . . Marianne? Good thing, too; all that running around battlefields and hoisting the Tricolore while leading your troops to war with shouts of liberté, égalité, fraternité!”
“Marianne?” She snorted. “Please. I would never strut around dressed as the female embodiment of the French Republic, nor would I ever hoist the French flag or shout that stupid phrase. I’m Corsican, not French.”
“And unless I missed France’s borders being redrawn while I was in India—a distinct possibility, given the abysmal internet access I had most days—that makes you French.”
Her lips twitched as she turned back to the counter. They’d played this game more times than she could count over the years. She didn’t argue with him any further, though, since he was right; she was a French citizen and carried a French passport. She was only in the United States thanks to a work visa.
“You OK, Jules?”
“I’m fine. It was the bowl I used for the almond paste; I must have knocked it over with my elbow. It’s Pyrex, so it didn’t break.”
Her work visa. Oh God, how could she have forgotten about her work visa?
She’d spent six years in the United States in school, first to get her Bachelor’s degree and then to get a Masters of Library and Information Science. She’d gone back to Corsica after graduation for a year, but had returned to the United States on a three-year work visa.
Panic set in as she tried to remember all the rules she’d read when she’d received the document, but it was no use. Why hadn’t she re-read the fine print a few months ago when she’d submitted the paperwork for a second three-year visa?
“You going to tell me what’s wrong, Jules?”
“I’m fine.” She let out a shaky breath as she shaped a pastry with equally shaky fingers. “Why do you think something’s wrong?”
“Your roommates said they went downstairs hours ago. You’re a frequent baker, but I’ve known you long enough to know you only have these marathon sessions when you’re upset or preparing for a holiday. Today isn’t, to my knowledge, a major holiday, so that leaves the bad day option.”
“Oh.” Damn his logic. “This is, um, an exception.”
“Your first-ever exception? Have you forgotten who you’re talking to? I’ve known you for close to ten years, Jules. We met on the first day of college, remember?”
“How could I forget?” she said, exaggerating her French accent and chuckling in spite of her work visa stress. “You made fun of my English.”
“Yes, well, in my defense, it was so strong then you were nearly impossible to understand. The point,” he said, raising his voice in what she suspected was an effort to head off her protest, “is that, with the exception of my research gigs and your one year in France, I’ve been privy to your baking habits ever since our junior year in college. That was the year we became housemates, right here in this building, with you in the third-floor apartment and me in the second. Do you really think you can fool me?”
“You haven’t told me why you’re here.”
She held her breath, praying he’d go along with her blatant attempt to change the subject.
“Fine. I’ll go first.” He sighed. “I had to leave India. Permanently. The fever wasn’t the first thing I got; every virus, every parasite, every infection . . . if it passed within a mile of our village, I got it. I was slowing my team down, and I wasn’t pulling my research weight.”
Juliette turned away from the counter to look at him. “But your dissertation? All those courses you took, your exams, the research you did before you left . . . can you write on what you have?”
“Nope. I have enough for a co-authored paper, but that’s about it. And this year was preliminary research; the plan was to go back in another year or so to collect more interviews. But there was no point in staying, or in going back. As you so nicely pointed out, my immune system—which works perfectly fine here in the States—collapses as soon as I step foot in a developing country.”
“Oh Ephraim, I’m sorry. I know how hard it is when things take unexpected turns like that.”
A flicker of comprehension passed across his eyes.
“You know? Did something unexpected happen today, Jules?”
His joking tone had been replaced by one that was soft and comforting, the type that invited confidences.
“I meant to say, I imagine that could be hard.” Biting her lip, Juliette turned back to the counter and fiddled with her pastry brush. She wanted to tell him, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it aloud. Not yet, anyway. She still couldn’t believe it herself; how could she explain it to someone else? “So, you just need a new place to study . . . society movements?”
“Social movements, Jules. I study social movements.” He barked out a laugh. “I forgot how you always make that mistake. Society movements . . . I don’t even know what those would be. Tuxedo-clad people rising up against themselves? Fodder for TMZ photographers?”
She chuckled. “Yes, well, I doubt either group gets Dengue fever or parasites. Have you considered a career change?”
“Why, because stalking B-list celebrities would be so fulfilling?”
“I only meant maybe you could study something else. I’ve never understood why you’re so interested in these movements.”
“Maybe because ninety percent of all major changes in the world start out as social movements? How can you not want to see which will lead to change and which won’t, which will live up to their ideals if they succeed and which won’t, which will continue as true grassroots efforts and which will be orchestrated from above, which—”
“All right, all right, I get it.” She hoped she’d cut him off in time to avert an onset of full-fledged professor-in-training mode. “It’s just that studying social movements seems to make you sick.”
“Yeah, well, I just need to find a nice, understudied aspect of a social movement in a part of the world where tropical diseases can’t get at me.” He huffed out a long breath. “OK, Jules. I’ve given my sob story. It’s your turn now.”
Her skin prickled; he was staring at her back.
“Well if you’re having a marathon baking session and nothing went wrong today, then you must be celebrating something. Shall I guess the special occasion?”
Juliette heard a clank and a rustle, and smiled as she imagined him placing the beer bottle on the table, interlacing his fingers behind his head, and tipping his chair back on two legs.
Like he’d said, some things never change.
“Let’s see. You wanted to do your best Marianne impersonation and charge through the streets to celebrate setting a new record high temperature today, but you thought carrying a platter of pastries would look better than hoisting the Tricolore.”
“That makes no sense, Ephraim. Why would I celebrate the heat by being . . . that woman? Besides, if I didn’t want to hoist France’s flag, I could carry Corsica’s.” She flicked her thumb at the white oven mitt on the kitchen table, which featured the black profile of a Moor’s head wearing a white bandana; it was identical to the head on the Corsican flag. “And you already used Marianne. Don’t be so lazy.”
“Tell me what’s wrong, and I’ll stop coming up with absurd celebrations. Incidentally, any chance you’re making those mini apple tart things I love so much?”
“Yes.” Juliette smiled as she turned to see Ephraim in the exact position she’d imagined. “Does that mean you’ll stop teasing me?”
“Excellent, but no, not until you fess up. It’s much too entertaining to tease you. However, you forgot to remind me that you aren’t French; it really ruins the fun when you don’t do that. Let’s try again . . . ah, I know. Given that Napoleon’s birthday is exactly one month from today, you’re doing a dry run for his birthday celebration.”
“Tomorrow,” Juliette said as she arranged her pastries on a baking sheet.
“His birthday. It’s one month from tomorrow. His birthday’s the fifteenth of August, not the fourteenth.”
“My mistake, though I suppose you would remember everything about France’s favorite Corsican-born emperor, wouldn’t you? You’re making petit fours, I hope? I’m not sure he can handle anything bigger.”
She groaned, but couldn’t stop herself from laughing.
Of course he’d mentioned Napoleon. Why had she corrected him? He’d probably known Napoleon’s birthday was the fifteenth and had purposely misspoken, just to hear her correct him.
“Hmmm. You’re making this difficult, aren’t you, Jules?”
Juliette whipped her head around, looking for the source of the noise. It was the chair; Ephraim had slammed it down onto all four legs.
She felt a momentary flicker of panic in her chest—was something wrong?—but no, he was grinning.
“Oh. Oh, this is good, Jules. So, so good.”
“What’s so good?” The buzzer went off, and she reached out to re-set it for the next batch. “Could you open the oven door for me, Eph?”
He stood and walked to the oven as she picked up the tray of pastries she’d prepared.
“Well? Are you going to tell me your new theory?” she asked as she placed the hot tray of pastries on a cooling rack and slid the other tray into the oven.
“Not yet. I’m savoring this one.”
Juliette crossed her arms before her and glared. “Say it fast so I can make your beloved apple tarts.”
She’d expected Ephraim to sit down at the table once more, but he didn’t. Instead, he placed his right hand on her arm and pasted an aggrieved expression on his face.
She stared down at the hand. Why was he touching her?
“Juliette, I know how hard this must be for you.” His tone was full of sympathy, as if he were consoling someone. “You can admit it to me; I won’t tell, I promise. You’re cooking to celebrate Bastille Day, aren’t you?”
Her eyes widened in shock as they met his. How could she have forgotten? Why had it not occurred to her when she’d corrected him about Napoleon’s birthday that today, the fourteenth of July, was Bastille Day? The day that marked the storming of that infamous prison during the French Revolution, and acted as the modern republic’s national holiday?
“Oh no, oh no.” Juliette laughed in spite of her annoyance at the look of sheer joy on Ephraim’s face. “As I’m sure I’ve told you dozens of times—”
“My family is Corsican. We don’t celebrate Bastille Day. No one in Corsica celebrates Bastille Day, unless they’re on holiday from France.” She grimaced, trying to push the awful thought of celebrating Bastille Day from her mind. “How do you know today’s Bastille Day, anyway?”
“Everyone knows the fourteenth of July is Bastille Day.” He gave her arm one final squeeze before turning back to his chair. “Just like everyone knows the Fourth of July is Independence Day, the first of July is Canada Day, November fifth is Guy Fawkes Night . . . what?”
“No one outside Canada knows about Canada Day. And Guy . . . I don’t even know what that last one is.”
“Guy Fawkes Day. Also known as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night. As best I can tell, it’s a day when Brits celebrate a foiled plot to overthrow their government way back when. I think they light bonfires and burn effigies, or something like that.”
“I see.” She turned back to the apple tarts. “Do you know every country’s national holiday?”
“No, not every country’s, but quite a few. They can be handy to know. There are practical concerns, like business closures and alternate train schedules. And it’s always nice to know where the party is.”
“But you can just look that up when you travel, yes? Why memorize them?”
“My time in developing countries has taught me that it can be an asset to know your days. Missionaries in those places tell kids stories about the day’s saints. When kids see a westerner, they often expect a story.”
“So you tell them about Bastille Day?”
“How the hell am I supposed to tell them about saints? In case you’ve forgotten, I come from a long line of fairly secular Jews; I know as much about saints as I do about knitting.”
She chuckled. “No, I didn’t forget. But surely there’s something in between saints and Bastille Day?”
“True, but I’ve spent time in parts of the world where telling fantastical stories is not only looked down upon but can cause major headaches if some local official gets pissed and decides to label you a witch. So I downloaded a calendar that lists secular and whimsical holidays for each day, and I make up stories to go along with each holiday. Looking at the list each morning is fun, too; there are some weird ones out there.”
Juliette placed the last slice of apple on a miniature tart just as the wind-up timer went off. Once again, she and Ephraim worked together, rotating pastries in and out of the oven. She was pleased to see him lick his lips at the sight of the apple tarts as they disappeared into the oven.
“Here, let me help with that.” Ephraim took the bowl that had held the apple slices from her. She’d made seven different pastries, but now there was nothing left but the cleanup. “Same system as always? I wash, you dry?”
She smiled. “Thanks. And in case I didn’t say it, I missed you, too, Ephraim. It wasn’t the same around here without you.”
As they cleaned the kitchen, Juliette filled Ephraim in on the gossip he’d missed from the house since her last letter. They chatted about his family, too. In college, Ephraim’s mother had invited Juliette to spend her first Thanksgiving break at their nearby home, and had invited her for every holiday since, even those they didn’t share. For all intents and purposes, his family had become her second family.
After they’d removed the final batch of pastries from the oven and put away the last clean dish, she hung up her apron and grabbed a platter full of pastries.
They headed out to the balcony, which was really a glorified landing to an old-fashioned, wooden fire escape. They eschewed the ancient, splintery picnic table and sat instead on the faded cushions of the wicker loveseat, giving them both a view across the tiny backyard.
“Want to tell me about your day?”
She swirled the bottle of beer Ephraim had brought out for her and watched as the liquid swashed against the sides. He’d used that nice, soft tone again.
“I lost my job.”
“Lost my job. Fired. Laid off. Use whatever term you’d like.”
He shook his head back and forth in small, slow movements, as if he couldn’t believe what she’d said.
“It’s true.” She flashed a wan smile. “They even had security escort me from the building.”
“But . . . I don’t understand. Didn’t they promote you last year? Haven’t you always had stellar performance reviews, even when you worked there as an intern in grad school? Everything was fine when I left.”
The disbelief on his face and in his words was comforting. All evening, some small part of her had wondered if she’d done something wrong. His shock was reassurance that the situation had been beyond her control.
“Times change. Old Mr. Bergeron hired me as an intern in grad school. He gave me a job and promoted me, but died soon afterwards. His family sold Bergeron Investments to a rival last summer.”
“But the new company kept you on. What happened?”
“My manager put me in charge of developing a new, more efficient document organization system. The project involved creating a logical folder system to streamline document collection and storage, and working with the tech guys to come up with a simple user interface for the research analysts and portfolio managers. We rolled out a beta version on May thirteenth, and released a finalized version on July first.”
“I don’t understand. Does it not work?”
“It works too well.” Juliette’s lips twisted into a wry smile at the confused look on Ephraim’s face. “You don’t need an army of well-paid, highly-skilled research librarians when you have a fancy computer program.”
“So it wasn’t just you?”
“I don’t know, but I suspect not; I wasn’t the only one who’d been getting weird vibes from management for the last six months or so. My boss called me into a windowless conference room this afternoon. She told me that the economy was bad, that they’d done all these . . . buzzwordy things, and that they didn’t need me anymore.” Juliette cleared her throat; her earlier nonchalance had fled as she relived being told her skills were no longer needed. “Security packed up my desk and handed me a box. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to anyone.”
Ephraim reached out and squeezed her knee. She swallowed hard, determined not to cry.
“You’ll just get a new job, Jules. You never know; this could all be for the best. You’re smart, and you’re a hard worker. I’m sure they’ll give you a great reference.” Ephraim sounded as if he were a coach giving a pep talk, and she turned to find his eyes bright with optimism. “And now that I’m back, I can help you look—”
“It’s not that simple, Eph.” Part of her wanted to let him continue his speech, to let him think that everything would be fine and that nothing would change, but she couldn’t lie. “I’m here on a company-sponsored H-1B visa. Do you know how few of those are issued each year? Or how hard it is to find a company willing to jump through hoops to sponsor you? That’s why I worked in Corsica for a year after I graduated; Mr. Bergeron couldn’t get a visa for me that first year out of graduate school.” She shook her head. “I won’t be able to get a job fast enough, not in this economy.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying I don’t have a visa. I have to go home, to Corsica.”
His hand spasmed on her knee before he pulled it away.
She nodded in the heavy silence that followed his question.
“How long do you have?” His voice was still quiet, but it was raspy; the comforting tone had gone.
“I don’t know. I think I have a week to change my immigration status; as of today, my H-1B is no longer valid. I’m pretty sure I can switch to tourist status and stay for a few months, but that’s a long time to live here without an income.”
“So you’ll go back to Corsica as soon as you can?”
“Looks that way. Oh, don’t look so grim, Ephraim.” Despite her inner turmoil, she laughed and smacked him on the arm. “Corsica’s a bunch of mountains sticking up from the Mediterranean, filled with good food and surrounded by warm, gorgeous beaches; it’s not like I’m being sent to Siberia. Besides, you’re always going away. Now it’s just, I don’t know, my turn.”
“But I always come back. You won’t.”
“No, I won’t.”
She’d known he would be sad, but she hadn’t expected him to be this upset. His roommates had nicknamed him Pollyanna when they’d first moved into the house, and his personality seldom deviated from the definition she’d looked up years ago: perpetually cheerful and optimistic, even when—especially when, she corrected herself—there was no cause for such a happy outlook. This was one of those rare moments when even he couldn’t be cheerful.
He’d called her Marianne, but it looked like she’d have to be their Pollyanna tonight.
“I think it’s time to change the motivation for my marathon baking session.” She leaned forward, grabbed an apple tart off the tray, broke it down the middle, and handed half to Ephraim. They’d snacked on all of the other treats she’d made, but the apple tarts had been too hot to eat until now. “I think we’ve both had enough with bad days. Let’s celebrate a holiday.”
He cracked a smile and raised his hand. “To Bastille Day?”
“No.” She reached a hand out to block Ephraim from eating his tart. “I may be down, but I haven’t sunk that low. No Bastille Day. Or Napoleon’s almost birthday. Or whatever the hell you had Marianne celebrating. There has to be something else.”
“Well, it’s Pandemonium Day, the day when you’re supposed to calmly embrace the chaos of your life.”
Juliette rolled her eyes. “I don’t feel like embracing my chaos; I want to forget about being fired, pretend it didn’t happen.” She lowered her half of the tart to her lap. “What else did that little website of yours include for today?”
“Are there any other holidays today?”
Ephraim looked away, apparently interested in a piece of unraveled wicker on the loveseat.
Juliette narrowed her eyes. “You know something. I can see it in the way the tips of your ears are turning pink.”
“They are not.” He yanked his hand away from the wicker and turned to look at her.
“Yes they are. You’re a terrible liar, Ephraim. Out with it.”
“Fine.” He raised an eyebrow and flashed a teasing smile. “It’s Nude Day.”
“What?” She laughed; surely she’d misheard.
“Nude Day. As in, the day we celebrate the natural beauty of the human body.”
“I see.” She searched his face. “Are you teasing me again? There can’t possibly be a Nude Day.”
“I guess it’s kind of silly.” He turned his attention back to the wicker. “It’s not exactly the Hallmark variety of holidays, and we can’t really celebrate it, can we? Let me think; I’ll come up with something.”
Juliette stared as he chewed his lip, her mind whirling. Discussing nudity with one’s closest male friend wasn’t the best idea, especially after a beer and a bad day. She couldn’t stop thinking that he was kind of cute.
Scratch that. He was hot.
When had that happened? He’d been skinny, sallow, and pimply when they’d met in college. After graduation he’d gone through a terrible phase of wearing gym clothing at all times, and then another when he’d purposely worn ill-fitting thrift-shop finds. When had he filled out and learned to dress like an adult?
Black stubble stood out against his tanned skin, accentuating both his strong jaw line and the dimple on his left cheek she always teased him about. His hair was nice, too. He’d had a crew cut when they’d first met and had grown it out to his shoulders during his thrift-store phase, but it was in a pleasant, in-between stage now; his curls, which looked soft and shiny, just touched the top of his ears.
She felt a sudden urge to reach out and discover what the contours of that dimple felt like beneath his day-old beard, to suck on the lip he’d pulled between his teeth, and to run her hands through those curls. No, that wasn’t quite right; she wanted to grab those curls between her fingers as he ground that stubble into her inner thighs.
She gave herself a mental slap. Why was she thinking about him like this? Was it the beer and emotions of the day? She hoped so; in all likelihood she’d be gone in a month’s time, and she didn’t want to add heartache to her unemployment.
But with a jolt, she realized her line of thinking was more than her mind’s subconscious way of improving a bad day, and that she couldn’t blame it on the meager amount of alcohol she’d consumed.
She’d had a hard time saying goodbye to him last January, far harder than usual. Her letters to him had been longer than usual, too, and she’d found herself re-reading his letters multiple times. Hadn’t they just sent each other short postcards before this last trip? And hadn’t she just tossed them in the trash after skimming them?
She averted her eyes as Ephraim shifted in his seat to look across the rooflines of the surrounding triple-deckers.
The sky had turned inky and starless above the orange glow of the city. The only light on the porch came from strings of tiny white lights around the balcony’s pillars, banister, and spindles; she and her roommates had put them up years ago at Christmas, but had never bothered to take them down. The black kitchens at the backs of the surrounding three-story apartment buildings let her know she’d been the only one crazy enough to cook in today’s heat, and as best she could tell, no one else had ventured onto their fire escapes, either.
They were surrounded by thousands of people in the city, but they were utterly alone.
“Jules, please,” Ephraim said as she put her half of the apple tart back on the platter and stood. “I didn’t mean to offend you or anything with the entire Nude Day thing. I’m sorry. Just sit back down and we’ll—”
He stopped talking the moment she grabbed the hem of her shirt and yanked it over her head. He didn’t seem to know where to look at first, but decided she was more interesting than the wicker seat after her bra joined her shirt on the floor.
“Jules?” He licked his lips as she unsnapped the button of her skirt. “What are you doing?”
“Celebrating the . . . what was it again?” She giggled.
“The natural beauty—” He cleared his throat. “The natural beauty of our bodies.”
She stood directly in front of him, nude and smiling. He sat on the cushion, jaw open, brows high, eyes wide. His eyes were on her face, though they occasionally flicked down for the briefest of moments to her body.
He hadn’t said anything. Not that she blamed him; she hadn’t given him any warning before stripping. Besides, given that he was sitting and she was standing about a foot away from him, his face was directly in front of her—
Oh God, what the hell had she just done?
“Um, let’s say we don’t mention this tomorrow, OK?” She reached for her shirt, feeling sick to her stomach. How could she have felt so carefree just moments ago?
“Wait.” Ephraim grabbed her wrist and glanced towards the door to the kitchen. He stood and released her arm, and she watched as a slow smile spread across his face.
Some part of her had known what he was going to do as soon as he’d spoken, but she was still surprised when he took his shirt off. She’d seen him shirtless on a number of occasions, but the knowledge that he wasn’t stopping at the shirt made this view of his chest feel different. This was just the appetizer.
He kicked off his shoes and fiddled with his button and zipper, and after the briefest of pauses, yanked his shorts and boxers down in one motion.
They stared into each other’s eyes, neither of them blinking or looking down; she felt as if they were playing a perverted game of chicken.
“Well,” Ephraim said with a nervous laugh. “This is interesting.”
“Yup.” Her face felt like it was on fire, and his was turning pinker by the second, too. “So . . . wanna look?”
“I thought you’d never ask. Count of three?”
They snapped their heads down in unison.
He’d certainly filled out since college, Juliette thought as her eyes lingered on his shoulders and arms. She looked lower, skimming her eyes across his fit chest and trim waist, and then lower still, following his line of black hair.
She bit her lip and stared. He looked delicious.
She had to remind herself that this—celebrating their bodies, or whatever the hell he’d said—was not about touching. No, this was supposed to be about being nude and being normal about it, about being comfortable with one’s self, about looking at another naked body and treating the situation as if the other person was a beautiful, breathing classical statue.
Or something like that.
She glanced up to find his eyes doing circuits of her body, and then looked down at her own body.
She didn’t know what he found so interesting; unlike him, she didn’t look like a classical statue. True, she had Roman coloring; her long brown hair, brown eyes, and olive skin made her a cookie-cutter southern Mediterranean. But she was short by American standards, and while she was curvier than she’d been when she’d first moved here, no one would ever confuse her with a pin-up bombshell.
“Well then.” Ephraim cleared his throat, and she looked up to find his face redder than it had been earlier. “I think this is the point where we’re supposed to pretend this is all completely normal, and resume our evening as planned.”
“Right.” She laughed, and was relieved when he joined in. “Shall we eat some apple tarts?”
The next fifteen minutes flew by as they reminisced and devoured the few apple tarts she’d carried out. The awkwardness she’d felt when they’d been standing had largely disappeared, though she thought that might have been because they were both purposely paying so much attention to eating and joking.
“You don’t seem weirded out by this, Jules,” Ephraim said when the conversation hit a lull. “I gotta say, I’m kind of surprised. No offense of anything, but you’re usually pretty . . . well . . . .”
“I was going to say serious, but uptight works, too.” He turned to her and grinned.
She shrugged. “I guess. You can go topless on all the beaches in Corsica, so being without a top isn’t that weird—”
“You’ve sunbathed topless?”
“Of course. Who wants tan lines?”
“I suppose. But this is a bit beyond topless, you know?”
She shrugged again, hoping he’d find her nonchalance convincing.
She didn’t feel like telling him she’d been to a couple of Corsica’s nude beaches. She’d first gone with an older boyfriend, a chef who’d been the first to teach her about pastries, among other things. As a naïve teenager, she’d spent the day indulging in romantic dreams about their fairytale future together.
She’d gone back on a whim with some friends soon after their breakup. She’d lain on the sand sunbathing under the bright summer sun, and while she’d appreciated the eye candy of a few of the other sunbathers, they’d been bodies, not people. If anything, the experience had reinforced how alone she’d been. She hadn’t felt the type of desire now coursing through her body on either of those trips.
She shifted in her seat, desperate to get away from the subject of her fantasies, but there was nowhere to go. The loveseat seemed smaller than it had an hour earlier; why hadn’t she noticed how close they’d been when they were clothed? True, their bare arms and knees had brushed up against each other throughout the evening, but it felt different now, knowing the bareness didn’t stop at a t-shirt or shorts.
She felt self-conscious about how she should sit, too. She didn’t want to cross her legs or slouch forward like a prude, but she didn’t want to recline and let her legs splay open, either.
How had she felt comfortable just a few minutes ago? It wasn’t normal to be naked with someone who wasn’t a lover, especially when visions of that person becoming a lover kept flashing through her mind. How the hell had she thought they’d be able to be nude together without it being erotic?
“Juliette, you are the most amazing pastry chef I’ve ever met.”
She burst into laughter; she’d been picturing him naked and reflecting on the nature of their relationship, and he’d been thinking about food.
“I bet I’m the only pastry chef you’ve ever met, and I’m not even an official chef.”
“Maybe so. But even if I were to meet another, I bet you’d still be better.” She raised an eyebrow. “Well, you’d certainly be cuter. Besides, not only do you have that French pastry stuff down, but you’ve added some American classics to the mix. Those mini Boston cream pie things you make? I love the apple tarts, but those are a close second. What are you doing?”
Juliette jumped up and hurried into the kitchen, emerging a few minutes later balancing various bowls, plates, and utensils.
“I knew I forgot something! The custard had to chill in the refrigerator and we were so busy chatting I forgot and left it there. We’ll have to assemble the pies now. Here.” She handed him a knife and pointed to a bowl of chocolate.
Ephraim sat back. “I don’t think I can eat another bite. The custard filling . . . the chocolate on top . . . unbelievable.”
“Mmmm.” Juliette licked the spoon they’d used for the chocolate, making sure to get every last bit off the metal. “The custard should be thick and heavy, and just a touch too sweet. The chocolate provides a balance to the custard, so it should be strong, almost bitter.”
“I’ll take your word for it. I think I’ll stick with ‘society’ movements and leave the master baking to you.” He laughed, only to stop abruptly and squint at her.
Her self-consciousness, which had diminished somewhat when they’d propped their feet up on the wicker table and munched on the mini pies, came roaring back as Ephraim chuckled.
“I don’t know how you managed, but you have cake crumbs by your eye.” He brushed the pad of his thumb against her cheek.
“Oh.” She bit her lip. “All gone?”
“Yup.” He reached his hand out and brushed his palm along her hairline. “But you’ve had flour in your hair ever since I walked into the kitchen.”
“All gone?” Her voice wasn’t as strong as it had been earlier.
He nodded as he lifted his palm away from her hair. Instead of dropping his hand to his lap, however, he repeated the motion. Shivers sped down her spine as he smoothed her hair away from her face over and over again, his thumb skittering along her temple with each stroke.