Something about orange peels sickens me. Perhaps it’s the texture, or maybe it’s the bitterness. I reach into the perfectly arranged pile, gripping one of the round fruits on top and clenching my jaw in disgust. It’s the exact shade of the macaroni and cheese Evelyn’s mom used to make when we were kids. When she was sober, that is. The cheap, boxed kind. I pull my hand away as if I were burned. As if the color and the memories attached are somehow offensive. I step back without thinking, needing to get away from the vivid picture clear as day in my mind—of giggling, cold winters and orange powder spills, Evelyn dancing around with the bowl of macaroni in her hand—
I step back into a person, and when I turn around, a large man with black hair and chocolate brown eyes smiles at me.
Oh, my God.
It’s him—he has his father’s eyes.
“Sorry,” I mutter in English, shuffling back a bit and touching my fingers to my parted mouth.
“It’s okay,” he offers, his smile warm. His French accent is thick. “American?” I nod. He closes the distance between us, reaching behind me and barely brushing my shoulder. “Did you want this?” In his outstretched hand is a plump orange. He doesn’t bother to step away.
Blinking rapidly, I shake my head. “No. I changed my mind.”
He shrugs and throws it up into the air, catching it easily before tossing it into his cart. His eyes wander down my body briefly. “I’m Benedict.”
“Lily,” I reply, holding my hand out. My smile wavers as he grips my hand. My stomach sinks and I can’t think of anything other than the fact that I found him without looking.
I want to scream.
The notion makes me want to scream.
“I like your overalls,” he says, smirking.
Wrinkling my nose, I give him a genuine smile. “I was in a darkroom all day,” I admit, smoothing out the lines in the baggy pants.
“You’re a photographer?” His voice is laced with seduction. He doesn’t give two shits about photography. He’s a guy, and he wants what they all want. I nod, and his smile builds slowly. “What kind of pictures do you take?”
“Dark ones,” I blurt. “Mixed media stuff. Lots of black and swirls and blurred lines.”
I gleefully take in his shocked expression. “Interesting,” he responds. I can tell he’s debating whether or not I’m worth the chase.
Nodding, I feel my ponytail tickle the back of my neck. “Well, I should go. Nice meeting you, Benedict.” Might as well make his decision easy. Besides, as bile creeps up my throat, I realize that it’s probably a blessing in disguise. He dodged a bullet.
I turn to grab my basket, but he reaches out and grips my wrist. “Would you want to grab a bite to eat tonight?”
My eyes wander to where he holds me and then back up to his eyes.
I need to sit down. I shouldn’t be here with him. Someone else—any sane person—wouldn’t be doing this. He caught me off guard. Caught me before I was ready. How do I respond?
“Sure!” I answer, overly enthusiastic. My delayed response only spurs him on. He thinks I’m nervous. Bringing a shaky hand to my forehead, I take a step away from him, away from the close proximity. “There’s this great falafel place called L’As du Falafel in the Marais. Want to say nine-thirty?”
His vaguely familiar, wolfish smile is all the confirmation I need.
I have the right guy.
“I love that place. See you there, Lily.” Sauntering off, he doesn’t bother with formalities and only offers me a wink over his shoulder as he unloads his cart at the register.
I’m doing this, then.
I’m really doing this.
I wait until he’s gone to finish my shopping—spying through the gaps in the white, metal shelving, hiding behind the large pallets of restocking boxes, ignoring the ding of the cash register until I’m positive he’s not here anymore. After paying, I carry the two bags down the broad avenue to my apartment, juggling a cigarette in my lips and trying not to pay attention to the sweat dripping down my back. The familiar melancholy fills me, the aching guilt a close friend.
I loved it here once. Who couldn’t love Paris? It’s impossible. But now, after everything that happened, it is my refuge and my hell, all packaged up in a neatly wrapped box. Everyone’s dream—and yet, it is my undoing.
The Edwardian building is just old enough to be a cliché—too dilapidated to be expensive, too new to be historically beautiful. I nudge the front gate open with my hip and walk up the three flights of stairs, cursing the lack of airflow in this city and dropping ash on the carpet from the dangling cigarette. Our hallways already smell like cigarettes, and they’re littered with old ash anyway.
“This heat feels like the devil’s asshole,” my elderly neighbor, Rosemary, mutters from her folding chair. I smile. She’s holding a portable fan, and the door to her apartment is open.
“That’s an excellent description,” I answer, amused. I set my groceries down and hand her a cigarette, lighting it for her.
“Thanks, doll face.” Rosemary is precisely one-hundred years old, British, and has the filthiest mouth out of anyone I’ve ever met. She also loves to pretend our communal hallway is her private front porch and swears the breeze is better here than in her apartment.
“You got a package,” she adds, nodding her head toward my doorway.
A foil-wrapped package sits in my entryway. “Thanks. Have a good day, Rosemary.” She mumbles something about sweating her fucking tits off. I grab my bags, unlock my door, and push the package into my apartment with my foot, closing and locking the door behind me. Jekyll rubs against my legs, and I bend down to pet him before setting everything on the entry table. I smile and pick up the package.
It’s addressed to someone named Morfran Porthcawl.
I frown and study the gold and red foil. The address is correct, but it must be for the old tenant. Curious, I slide my finger along the seam and bend down to sniff it.
A fruit basket. Definitely a fruit basket. And a rotting one at that. Grimacing, I walk it over to the trash and toss it in.
Jekyll meows as if he, too, is disappointed.
I unload the groceries and walk to my desk, sighing and inhaling a deep puff of smoke as I lean against the wall. Blowing it out, I sit down in front of my laptop and type in ‘Morfran.’ It means ugly demon. Smiling, I scribble the name and its amusing meaning on the obituary section of Le Monde I have laying open.
What a wretched name. Stubbing my cigarette out in one of the many ashtrays scattered about, I loop my old Hasselblad film camera around my neck, grab my keys and a sweatshirt, and head out, suddenly inspired.