Nico walks next to her, in proximity as if they were holding hands, but both know this is not acceptable so they keep a cushion of air between themselves. Every day after school he brings her around Saint Kell, but every trip takes a different path. Yesterday, they’d visited the goats that live upstream on an island in the middle of the Argent River. The day before, they’d thrown old chunks of baguette to the ducks and swans. But her favorite walk with her student had been when he took her over a bridge, across the river, to a sparkling lake, la gravière, in the middle of the Ostwald forest. They’d momentarily gotten lost in the woods, which now seems to have been orchestrated by Nico. The forest is quite small.
Today he is bringing her to a tunnel that connects two pieces of path and runs under a railroad line.
“I painted this tunnel when I was in collège” he says.
“You weren’t in college, Nico. It’s called middle school or junior high.” They enjoy correcting each other’s false cognates, what Nico calls faux amis or “false friends,” itself an example of the group of words that sound similar in French and English, but have different meanings entirely. It had started when Laney first came to dinner at Nico’s and told his grandmother that French apricot jam had far fewer condoms in it than the American version. And when asked about the Swandish family, she’d mentioned her mom, Marka, her sister, Vicky and of course, her cat, Minnie. Marianne and Valéry had giggled as Nico tried to explain Laney’s error. Apparently, she’d just informed the family that she had an orange pussy. Despite her embarrassment, she’d added, “her name is Minnie,” which had made Mamama laugh so hard, her gold teeth had almost fallen out.
Their dialogue is a constant dance between French and English, each borrowing words from the other in a seamless banter that doesn’t make sense to most people around them. Laney cannot tell anymore whether she is speaking Nico’s language or he is speaking hers, only that they are communicating like no one she’s met before. It’s dizzying and worrisome, but she needs to get more.
“So you painted this tunnel? A giant mouth, Nico?” She takes in the toothy façade at the entry to the tunnel, wanting to take apart its symbolism, but coming up blank.
“Well, Mo designed it, actually. He said he was inspired by my mouth though. When I was a kid, I had too many teeth and they had to pull some out.” A kid, like he wasn’t still one now. Laney pictures the artist Mo, another boy in her English class. At 17, they’re both almost adults, but also her students, and the thought makes her feel sick as Nico continues. “But see, if you walk through, you can see the other side. That’s the side I wanted to paint. Our whole class worked on it at Hans Arp, but Mo and I did most of the heavy lifting. We wanted it to be perfect.”
“What’s Hans Arp?”
“That was our collège…sorry…our middle school. It was named after an artist who was trying to figure out the universe.”
Laney smiles as she looks at the naïveté of Nico, knowing that all artists are trying to figure out the universe, that he was probably doing the same as he painted the tunnel. That every street in this part of St. Kell was named for dead men who had wandered around their worlds with paintbrushes, trying to make some sense of it. She is giddy to see Nico’s brushstrokes, impatient to see the other side. But he stops her in the middle of the tunnel. The sun must be directly overhead because the light shines in from both sides, but leaves a patch of dark in the center for the teacher and student. He’s looking at her intently, but not speaking. All she wants in this moment is to feel his wild thoughts swirl around in hers.
“I’m trying to figure out you, Nico. Tell me something I don’t know about you.”
“There are a million things you don’t know about me, Laney. You’d have to live a million lives to know me well.”
“Then you’re a complex kid. Well, if you tell me one thing, it’s a start. In other worlds, I’ll learn something different about you. Maybe I’ll put it all together and know a million details. My mom taught me that there are countless universes that we can’t see. Membranes slapping together to create life and experience.”
“I’d like to slap my membranes on yours, Laney.”
“That’s the worst line anyone has ever used to flirt with me, young man.”
“That’s not flirting. Flirt in French is something else.”
“What do you mean, Nico? Another of your faux amis?”
“Not really, it’s almost the same, but more like this.” He covers her mouth with his and transfers an inordinate amount of passion for a schoolboy. Laney can’t stop herself from kissing him back, not realizing her hand has reached the back of his neck, pushing him even closer. She holds him there in the dark too long. She’s falling too fast and a wave of dread works its way through her body as she pulls back and looks at the boy’s face.
“No, Nico. Not like this. In another life, I promise.”
Nico takes a step back and is suddenly nonchalant, something adolescents pull off so well. “So are you coming for dinner tonight? Mamama’s cooking.” Laney’s dread turns to anxious guilt as she realizes she’s come too close, that she’s to blame for this unsuitable relationship, and that she’s come to dinner at the Arbogasts too many times.
“I can’t, Nico. I can’t…but I will.” She grabs his hand in hers for a few brief seconds, still hidden by the shadows, then squeezes and lets go. “Come on, show me the other side.”
They step into the sun and turn around to view the other entrance to the tunnel, and everything has changed again. Nico is just her tour guide, and they’re on a platonic visit of the neighborhood. The tunnel is decorated like a rainbow. It looks freshly painted and pristine, almost new, like the pillowcases Marka Swandish gave the twins as welcome home presents after the adoption. Redorangeyellowgreenbluepurple. “I love it,” she says to Nico, but she means it as another love, one she can’t speak. The rainbow is so simplified, so delineated and two-dimensional. So easy to understand.
Nico’s eyes are shining. They’re beautiful eyes, dark but warm. Had she noticed them before? She can feel his will to keep the tears from spilling over. “Thanks,” he says. “I thought you would. So, tell me about your mom. What’s this membrane slapping all about?” She still doesn’t know what language they’re speaking.
“She studies brane cosmology; it’s a way to try to understand what we’re in, what we’re part of. Like your old school’s artist, I guess. When she’d bring us to Nigeria to see the family, they all thought she was a bit nuts. My grandparents in Lagos are super Christian and they say her work is dangerous. I think that’s why she came to the States. That way she could do her work without everyone looking over her shoulder.”
“Nigeria, Laney? I don’t get it. You don’t look like you eat bush meat.”
“That should offend me, Nico. Not everyone in Nigeria eats bush meat. I do, by the way, and it’s delicious. But that’s besides the point. Anyway, I’m adopted. My dad died when I was four, from a brain infection. My family is my mom and my sister. And our extended family is in Nigeria. What about you, Nico? What’s your story? I’ve met Mamama, but why aren’t your parents ever around? You never even talk about them.”
“Well maybe love skips a generation for them, I don’t know. They didn’t have any problem moving to New York and having Mamama raise us. They left France to grow grapes. They left the best white wine region in the world to go grow grapes in New York, go figure. They come back three times a year with lots of presents, but it’s kind of bullshit. They’ve been there for a few years now, since we lost the house and moved to the apartment.”
“Wow. I can’t imagine my mom doing that. But then again, she left her family behind, in a way. And I guess coming here, I’ve left her behind too, although it’s only for a school year. But my mom would never leave me or my sister. She gave up her whole life for us.”
“What do you mean? She must have been so happy to raise you. To be your mom. She’s lucky, Laney. She didn’t give anything up.”
“She was happy. She is happy. She tells us all the time. But she was really getting ahead in her field back when the accident happened with my dad. He was nuts and got this infection after drilling a hole in his skull. It was his own fault, but my mom still feels like it was hers, like she led him on in some way. Well, they had worked on all these way-out-there type of projects on light and color. She said they even tested some of their theories on Vicky and me because we had special eyes. They’d have us ride around in a fake hot air balloon and measure all this crazy stuff. I don’t recall most of it, but she showed me some of the pictures.”
“What’s with the special eyes, Laney?”
“My sister and I are tetrachromats. It’s not very interesting, really. Even goldfish have four cones and they’re not revolutionizing the universe, but I guess it made us different from most people. I can’t tell that I’m any different, but I guess I can see more colors than you can because of the extra cones in our eyes. That’s not why I love your rainbow, by the way, just because it looks different to me. I’d love it even if were all grey, Nico.” She pauses to see his reaction. She’s said too much again and has to keep talking to erase the awkwardness.
“How does it look to you though? Does it look different?”
“I don’t know Nico, I can’t see it like you do. But, no, I think because it’s painted I can see it as you intended it. A real rainbow though, that’s hard for me to look at. There aren’t wide arcs like you drew, like you painted. There are thousands of pinstripes, so many that they almost aren’t there. Like I said, it’s hard to look at. Even harder to describe.
“When my dad died, my mom didn’t want to experiment on us and my mom knew she wouldn’t be able to help herself, so she changed fields. She lost her funding. Had to start all over. She did that for us. She’s always been concerned about being equal with us, with my sister and me. The first time I knew she was my mom was only two days after my dad died. We had a vacation bible school concert and she insisted we go, even though she said we didn’t ‘match,’ that our hair was black, but different textures and people would look at us in funny ways. She said we had to get back on a routine, back to normal life. After the concert, she lifted us both up in a hug us and said, ‘I could pick both of your pretty voices out of that whole choir, my little goldfish. Your wavelengths each entered a separate ear.’ We were so happy to have her there, clapping her hands along to our ten variations of ‘Jesus Loves Me.’ I don’t think our first mother ever came to those things, at least I don’t remember if she did. I don’t really remember her, I can’t see her face. Just the sight of her walking out of the pizza place and never coming back. I don’t think she planned on me seeing her leave. Our dad even had a social worker come over and tell us she was dead, that she drowned or something. But I saw her leave. I never told anyone that, so consider yourself lucky.”
“I consider myself lucky just to talk to you,” says Nico as his shoulder brushes up against hers. She feels a shiver that she shouldn’t feel.
“It’s nice to have someone to talk to here, Nico, but you know this could seem inappropriate to most people. I’m supposed to be a mentor, an employee, not a friend.”
“How about a little friend? Une petite amie?” he said, grinning.
“I know what that means, Nico. In English, they call that a girlfriend and it’s out of the question. You’re a child.”
“I”m not a child. I’ve had lots of petites amies already, Laney. It’s not a big deal.” This statement has the unfortunate effect of making Laney feel both jealous and perturbed that her heart thumps for a near juvenile. She is twenty-six after all, and had never contemplated falling for a student when she took this job. She fears and craves the things she imagines happening in the shadows of the rainbow tunnel. If only they had met later.
“I need some space, Nico. I think I need to cancel for dinner tonight. Tell Mamama bonjour and that I will actually try her rabbit sometime.
“You know she was just joking, Laney. She hasn’t cooked rabbit since the move. She’d only cooked the ones she raised and there’s no room in an apartment for bunnies. But I will tell her you said hi. She likes you. Moi, je t’aime bien aussi.” Laney is stuck with the sticky task of deciphering the French “I love you so much too,” knowing that the bien actually weakens the statement to a casual “like.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Nico, after school. Where are we going, anyway?”
“Do you want to go to the lake in the woods?”
“But we’ve already been there Nico, I thought you were the tour guide. Always something new.”
“Yes, but I know you liked it there. If you really like a place, if you feel good there, what’s wrong with going back to it?” His words carry more weight than usual, like he’s speaking across dimensions.
“Okay, then, see you tomorrow. Meet at the school and then we’ll cross the bridge together.”
They’ve walked up the incline over the rainbow bridge to the train tracks and are having another tell-all discussion. “Nature or nurture, we’re all carrying a burden of the past. My mom knows just about everything. Or at least a little about everything. She’s a jack of all scientific disciplines. She told me that epigenetics marks people, that it’s possible to feel our ancestors’ pain. That generations of men and women who worked in Austrian salt mines are written on my DNA from my birth mother’s side. She says my mitochondria know what it feels like to be buried in salt. I don’t know if I believe her, by the way.”
“I don’t feel a burden, I never have. I don’t know how some people carry so much weight with them. Look here, where the train goes. My brother, Val, is working for the SNCF. He’s going to be a conductor for the Paris-Strasbourg route. It pays well, but they say statistically every conductor will come across a suicide at least once during their career. Someone so burdened to just lay down on the tracks.”
“Are you kidding? There are that many?”
“Yes, and the worst part is that the conductors can see them from really far away. Sometimes they’re even standing up, but the train has too much momentum. They can’t stop something as heavy as a train in its tracks. Not in time anyway. So they’re told to just blow the horn and close their eyes.”
“Nico, if I hadn’t left the US, I would have married someone who wears baggy khaki pants and prepares corporate tax returns. I guess that’s my train.”
“So you found a way to avoid the disaster. You had to derail.”
“Maybe I saved the guy on the tracks, but killed everyone on board by changing course. Maybe, no matter what I do, it’s wrong. Because what I want is you, and you’re all wrong, Nico.” She’s said it. I want you. And saying it only makes it seem more wrong than before.
He takes her with a grip that means things will happen and there’s burning, blood pumping into every capillary, every spot left neglected too long. Pulsing that makes her face pink as Nico starts to pull so many parts of her down.
His kisses are not refined by age and he’s too wet, too eager. But she pulls him closer still, like she’s pulling life itself into her. He meets no resistance as he slides in and out, nestled in sharp weeds by the train tracks.
They both know the sound of the evening train, a sound that means they’ve walked too long, that it’s either dinner or scandal and they must move on. But both lie nearly motionless, just a fraction of Nico shrinking, but still inside Laney in the bushes as they breathe each other in. A tear that seems too hot is rolling down Laney’s cheek. She cannot keep this moment. He kisses her again, almost like a man this time, with a long, slow, even pressure normally taught by time.
“Je t’aime,” he says, so simply that it could be comedy, without adding a bien or a beaucoup. A full-scale I love you from what amounts to a teenage boy. Before she can protest or threaten a move back over the Atlantic, his mouth is secured around her left nipple and pulling it up in a ‘pop’ that shivers her core. His fingers have worked their way down and inside her, replacing his sticky appendage with powerful fingers. Laney is picturing the dirt of his hands riding up inside her and it only makes her glow warmer. Rough and rhythmic, it can’t be lasting but a minute, but she begs for more time and looks at his face. His beautiful face, marked with experience by a long scar, but more handsome than anything she’s seen. His eyes are on her, in her through his fingertips as she sees what she thinks must be some form of understanding.
Then, before she can tell him he’s changed her, that he’s shaken her to the core, he’s re-pantsing and hopping on one foot, trying to get dressed before going to the evening meal in his tower block. He is so clearly seventeen. Laney stands and brushes grass off herself, feeling the textured imprint of broad weeds on her derrière. It takes her a moment to realize she’s fully naked in the late summer sunlight at dinnertime.
Nico has applied one shoe and is looking for the other before the train crosses and blocks their path for four minutes or more. “Here it is,” he says proudly as Laney’s insides still pulse with longing for the boy who is already on his way home. They can see the train now and the time has more than come for Laney to clothe herself. Nico stumbles, inebriated onto the tracks as his nature-clad lover looks on with melancholy.
The train is too close now. Shouldn’t he be moving? Why is he still standing there? Then she sees. Sees the bright white laces of his shoes, stuck on something in the tracks. He’s tugging, working at the knot. Why doesn’t he just take off the shoe? But the more he pulls, the tighter it gets and he’s still tugging as the horn starts blowing, a sound so heavy it pushes Laney back.
She’s standing there, half hidden in the bushes, naked and panicked with nipples that could not be more erect as she looks to the conductor. He has placed his arms in an X in front of his face so that he cannot see what transpires before him.