One Hundred Million Stars
“Goodnight mon ami,” Yvette whispered at her phone. On the other side, thousands of miles away, her girlfriend blinked her eyes slowly and stifled a yawn. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Love you,” Stephanie murmured, yawning again. Even through the weak speakers of FaceTime, Yvette was able to hear Steph’s jaw crack. She returned the sentiment and hung up, throwing her phone onto the nightstand. It was true, she did love Stephanie; things were just… different at the moment. It wasn’t anything Stephanie did or anything Yvette did. There was a line of the private and the personal in any relationship, and they had been tiptoeing over it for some time.
Stephanie knew Yvette’s parents were away more than not. She knew Yvette called to them as Armand and Geneviève instead of mom and dad. She knew about nounou, the nanny Yvette lovingly referred to as the woman who raised her. Stephanie even knew that Yvette’s little brother, Eli, was a misguided attempt to reclaim their marriage. Yvette had never told Stephanie the whole story, nor did she ever plan to. There were some things you shared with people and some you didn’t. Stephanie wasn’t stupid, and Yvette knew Stephanie suspected she was keeping secrets.
December in Paris was an unparalleled cold, unlike anything Long Island had to offer. She knew it, she’d grown up in it, but in the years since she moved to America, she found herself wearing more layers during the “Obligatory Familial” annual Christmas trip to Paris. She wanted to be home, but she didn’t exactly know where home was anymore. When she first moved to the States, she longed for Paris—from the tourist-ridden Eiffel Tower to the chocolate. France was her home country, where she spoke the language and knew the culture.
As time passed in America, though, she noticed her accent fading. Earlier that day, she’d met up with her best friend from childhood. Yvette stumbled over words in her native language, her sentences grammatically flawed.
Nowhere. She supposed that’s where she belonged. Not in her home city, not in her new country. She was too French for America and too American for France.
She threw open the window of her designated room at her mémé’s house. It was the room she’d grown up in; her parents had gifted her grandmother the house when they, along with Yvette, moved to the States. A gust of icy cold swept through the window and she felt her body tense against it. Against her better judgment, she stood at the open window and lit a cigarette. The light pollution of the city stained the sky, a blanket of orange-gray smog where stars should twinkle.
The bitter cold burned her lungs as she inhaled. Her hand shook around the cigarette. It was too cold for this. She should call time of death—stub out the cigarette and go to sleep. The sun was already starting to rise. Her family would be up soon—if she was too, they might make her interact.
She didn’t close the window; she didn’t stub out the cigarette. She finished it, then lit another. The sun came over the houses of the little village her grandmother lived in. Another cigarette finished; another lit. They tasted much better here.
She stared out the window, numb inside and out, until she heard her parents stirring. After taking one final drag, she closed the window and went to wake and dress Eli for breakfast.
When her parents sat her down and told her that she was going to be a big sister, she was enraged. The first twelve years of her life were spent as an only child—that’s the way she knew how to live her life. Then Eli was born, and her world changed. Everyone in the room was so happy, passing her new brother around and cooing. This is what it was like when I was born, Yvette mused. She came into the world and, at least for a few moments, her family was a family.
That family didn’t last long at all. When Eli was five months old their parents took a vacation alone. They’d left Yvette a list of emergency numbers, but assured her it was just for two nights and that they would be fine on their own. After that it was no more babysitters and a lot more vacations for Armand and Geneviève. At thirteen, Yvette was the primary diaper changer and bottle maker.
She was the new nounou.
“Arms up!” Yvette instructed, giddy. Eli complied, and she slipped his pajama shirt off and pulled his day shirt down. While his arms were still in the air, she tickled his stomach and he curled around her.
“No fair!” he squealed and kicked his legs.
“Yes fair.” After a few moments she stopped wiggling her fingers and he sat up. “Alright, now pants. How did we do last night? Any accidents?”
Eli looked down at his lap, his hands now crossed there. Yvette frowned. Eli had been doing better with the potty-training but it wasn’t going as smoothly as she’d hoped.
“Hey, bud. It’s okay,” she soothed. She put her finger under his chin and tipped his head up so they were looking eye to eye. “Accidents happen. You’ve been doing really good during the day.” He nodded, his bottom lip wobbling. “How about today you wear your big boy underwear? The ones with Spiderman on them?”
Eli hesitantly smiled. She knew that smile. It was the one he gave when he wanted something but wasn’t sure he could have it. That smile broke her heart. It wasn’t fair that he had to question his own simple desires when he was so young.
Once Eli was dressed and his teeth brushed, they linked hands and started towards the stairs. Eli halted, pulling back on her hand.
“Vette.” Eli had been working on what it meant to whisper but he wasn’t very good at it yet. The word came out as a worried hiss. “Your breath smells naughty.” Oh, she hadn’t brushed before waking Eli. She always felt terrible when she forgot; she knew how much he hated it when she smelled like cigarettes.
“I’ll go brush my teeth now, you head downstairs for breakfast.”
“I ‘fink I’ll wait for you,” Eli said, his head jerking in a single nod.
“Something smells good. I think mémé is making crepes.” Honestly, she wanted to back into her room and have another cigarette before dealing with her family. With no sleep, homesickness for a home she didn’t know existed, and an uncomfortable tension with her girlfriend, Yvette had been smoking more and more since coming to France last week. She’d calm down and cut back once she got back to America and talked to Stephanie and wasn’t required to spend time with her family.
“I like pancakes. With blueberries. I dun like craps.”
“Well, breakfast today is crepes,” she corrected, even though she knew full well that Eli was just trying to be clever. “I promise I’ll make you pancakes when we get home. And what did we talk about? Crap is a naughty word.”
“Justin at daycare says it all the time.”
“Justin is not my little brother. My little brother is named Eli and he doesn’t use naughty words. Now please head down to breakfast. I’ll be down in five minutes. Promise.”
“The pancakes you promised to make when we get home. Blueberries.”
After a painfully awkward breakfast and a short trip to the park with Eli, Yvette decided to take a nap. Their mémé was in the sitting room knitting yet another sweater for her six cats, so Yvette left him plopped in front of the TV with her watching him. Eli had a current obsession with the Powerpuff Girls, so she queued it up on Netflix to play for the next several hours. In case of boredom, she also brought him crayons and paper.
“You’re going to be good for mémé?”
"Yes, ‘Vette.” He held out his pinky to show his seriousness, and Yvette linked it with her own. “I love you. Sleep good.” He smacked a wet kiss on her cheek and she ruffled his hair.
When she got to her room, she pleated her hair into a long braid that fell halfway down her back and crawled into bed. A yawn ripped through her and she stretched her arms above her head. Her spine popped and she relaxed into the feeling.
She wasn’t even aware she’d fallen asleep until she was awoken by a tiny scream.
She bolted upright in bed and ran towards the noises of distress. She recognized Eli’s ‘trying not to cry’ whimper all too well. The sound led her to the sitting room where she’d left him, only now Armand and Geneviève were there instead of mémé. Her eyes were immediately drawn to a plastic cup on the floor and the tiny puddle pooling around it.
“Do you have any idea how much that rug cost?” Armand demanded.
“So, sir,” Eli whimpered.
“More than we’ve spent on you in your lifetime.”
“I’m sorry.” Eli’s voice was barely over a whisper. “It was a accident.”
“An accident, you fool.”
Geneviève tried to intervene, putting her hand on Armand’s chest. “Calm down, dear. He didn’t mean to spill the juice. Did you Eli?”
“No. I promise I didn’t.”
Armand shook Geneviève’s hand off and crouched down. For a split second, Yvette had the foolish thought that their father was going to apologize to Eli. Maybe he’d pat his head and tell him it was okay. Instead, he poked at the juice stain, the wet squish audible even to Yvette across the room.
Armand grabbed the front of Eli’s shirt and Geneviève gasped and clutched her chest. “You’re a pathetic little boy. I didn’t raise you to be like this.” He pulled his hand back and Yvette sprang into action. She got between Eli and Armand and only a split second passed before she felt the sharp sting of her father’s slap on her arm.
“Do not hit him, father,” she pleaded. “Hit me.”
“You’re too old to learn your lesson. I can still fix him up with a good smack.”
“You will not lay a hand on my brother.” Her confidence was up; the adrenaline coursing through her veins brought her a swell of courage. “Eli, honey. Please go up to my room. I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”
Eli scurried out of the room. Moments later, when they heard the door click shut, she turned on Armand, her nostrils flaring.
“You are my child,” Armand said in a syrupy voice. Sweet but thick—the intention there, but the intonation wrong. “Your mother and I are not always able to care for Eli. That responsibility falls to you.”
“L’intégralité de la vie est pour toi!!” Yvette shouted. My whole life has been about you! “Quand j’étais petite, c’était costumer et jouait comme ta petite princesse.. Maintenant, je nettoie tes messages et dissimule tes secrets.” When I was little it was about dressing up and acting like your little princess. Now it’s about cleaning up your messes and keeping your secrets. Even if Eli could hear their shouts through the door, he wouldn’t be able to understand; he never needed to learn speak French in America.
“Darling,” Geneviève soothed, her voice wavering as she tried to remain calm.
“Non, il n’est pas ‘Darling’. Je ne suis pas un petit chéri. Je me développe. Je ne suis aujourd’hui pas un pantin. Tu ne peux pas manier mes cordes et me forces sauter!” No, not ‘darling.’ I’m not a little darling. I’m growing up. I’m not a puppet anymore. You can’t pull my strings and make me jump!
“Yvette,” Armand warned. On a normal day, she would stop. Back off. Stay down. But today she couldn’t do it. The rage had been growing under the surface for ages—like a grotesque pimple building up oil, bacteria, and pus—that had finally come to an unsightly head, ready to blow.
“Vous consciemment avez apporté un être humain à ce monde essayer sauvez un mariage—un mariage mourissait avant vous avez dit ‘Je fais’” Yvette screeched, hot tears now streaming down her face. You consciously brought a human being into this world to try and save a marriage that was dead before you even said ‘I do.’
“Nous aimons beaucoup ton frère,” Geneviève chided. Yvette didn’t doubt that, but she also knew it was not the kind of love a parent should have for a child.
“Pourquoi est-ce que tu n’est pas celui que lui baigne tout les soirs?” Then why aren’t you the one who gives him baths every night? “Pourquoi est-ce que tu ne poses pas tes vêtements pour l’école?” Why don’t you lay out his clothes for school? “Pourquoi est-ce que je suis celle que lui réveille, et fais ton petit-déjeuner, et fais ton déjeuner?” Why am I the one that wakes him up and makes his breakfast and packs his lunch?
“Yvette Angelique–” Armand began, but Yvette cut him off.
“N’utilise pas mon nom comme ça.” Yvette protested the use of her full name. “Ce n’est pas à propos de moi.” This isn’t even about me. “C’est à propos de voir tu augmentes la main à mon frère—ton fils—car il a renversé le jus dans la moquette.” This is about seeing you raising your hand towards my brother—your son—because he spilled juice on the carpet.
“Il a besoin d’apprendre se conduire!” Armand shouted. He needs to learn to behave!
“Il a quatre ans!” Yvette screeched, reminding her father that Eli was only four-years-old.
“Exactement! Il devrait la difference contre le bon et le mauvais!” Exactly! He should know right from wrong!
“Qui est’ce qui l’a enseigner ça?” Yvette snarled. Who is going to teach him that? That had done it. Armand’s face was practically purple with rage. There was a vein throbbing in his forehead. Spittle was dribbling from the corner of his mouth.
“Tu as l’audace parler à ton père comme ça?” he asked, a strange calm coating the words. You dare speak to your father like that? “You dare disobey me?” The last sentence spoken viciously in English.
“Yes,” she spat. The line of no return had been crossed. It was going to happen any second now—a blow across her face. A black eye she’d have to explain away when they got back to America in two days. It was worth it, she decided, she’d rather it be her than Eli. Armand raised his hand and Yvette braced herself for the slap, but it never came. Instead, he tangled his hand in the hair on top of her scalp and yanked.
Yvette yelped in pain, her legs giving out. Armand pulled harder, the force enough to drag her along the ground. She screamed and pleaded, the nos falling from her mouth in a babbling slur. Armand continued to pull until they were outside of the hall closet.
In her youth, Yvette had spent many hours in this closet, locked away to learn her lesson, often being forced to miss meals. Sometimes nounou would come and unlock the door quietly and usher her off to bed. More times than not, however, she’d curl up and cry, waiting for Armand to deem her properly punished and set her free.
It had been years since she was in that closet, but the terror of the dark, hollow room flooded back from the dark cabinet she’d hid the memory in. She barely even registered the door swinging open and being thrown in, only being brought back to reality when she heard the heavy lock being turned, trapping her.
Yvette had texted Stephanie almost as soon as the plane had landed in JFK, desperate to see her. They hadn’t messaged much while Yvette was away. Aside from a few FaceTime calls, they’d barely communicated. Part of it was because Stephanie couldn’t figure out the time difference, but a large part of if was Yvette wanting Steph to think everything about the vacation was grand. A trip to Paris, the roads dusted with powdered snow, flakes dancing through the breeze—a postcard version of a horrible truth.
Now she was waiting for the perpetually tardy Stephanie, sitting on a stool in her en-suite bathroom, and fiddling with her hair. The scissors she’d swiped from Armand’s office were sitting on the counter, ready to go. The only thing stopping her from doing it right now was that it would be more exciting and less painful to do it when her girlfriend arrived.
Stephanie didn’t know the plan—she didn’t know that Yvette was going to hand her a pair of scissors and tell her to go for it. Maybe she was overthinking this. Maybe they should just have sex and forget about this crisis of identity. Sex sounded highly preferable to explaining to Stephanie why she wanted her hair gone.
“Hey Vette?” Eli asked, peeking his head into the slightly open door.
Eli didn’t come further into the bathroom, but he did open the door a little more. Yvette took in his hunched shoulders, the way he was shuffling one foot, his hands clasped behind his back.
“Mama and papa are arguing,” he whispered.
“Aw, sprout.” She went to the door and picked him up, placing him on the counter. She shot of a text to Stephanie, telling her not to come over. Eli would now, and always, be her first priority. “It’s okay. Wanna make a blanket fort?”
They went into his room and built a massive fort. Once inside she told him a story about a daring knight named Elius. Elius was brave and strong, but he never hurt anyone. The only dragons he slayed were the bad ones, but he would always ask if they were good or bad before.
The time difference and the hours spent on the plane took their toll on him; he was asleep before she even finished the story. She made sure to remember how she was going to end it in case he asked tomorrow: Elius took over the kingdom and ruled beside his sister Vetty, and the pair were the nicest and most fair to all the villagers.
“Just do it, Steph,” Yvette insisted. After story time, Yvette let Eli sleep in the fort and called Stephanie.
“If you’re not going to do it, then give me the scissors.” She looked at Stephanie through their reflections in the mirror. In horror she watched Stephanie close her eyes just before the scissors closed around her hair with a deafening snick. “Oh my god you can’t close your eyes! You could have slit my throat!”
“I would never slit your throat. It’s too pretty.” Stephanie bent her head and pressed a lingering kiss to Yvette’s throat, just below her jaw.
“You only like me for my body,” Yvette joked as Stephanie clipped off another ridiculously long strand of hair. A few minutes passed in a tense silence, the only sound in the room was the clipping of the scissors. Yvette could swear she heard her hair falling to the floor.
“How’s this?” Stephanie asked when Yvette’s hair resembled a choppy chin length bob-like style.
“Shorter.” As short as you can go, she silently added. Too short for Armand to drag me by.
Stephanie frowned. “What am I going to grab onto now when you go down on me?”
Yvette giggled at the much-needed levity. “We won’t know until we try. And I am willing to try as soon as we’re done.” Stephanie, standing behind Yvette, put her chin on Yvette’s shoulder. She placed a kiss to her throat again and made a soft mewling sound.
“We could try now and finish playing beauty salon later.”
Yvette shrugged her off with a good-natured laugh. “Then we wouldn’t be testing what we’re trying to test, now would we?”
“Do you always have to be so reasonable?” Stephanie whined but resumed her role as hair stylist.
After Stephanie left, Yvette swept up the piles of her hair. So many piles. Her head felt light. The broom felt heavy. She’d spent so many years of her life growing out this hair, only to have it end up on her bathroom floor. The panic was burning beneath her skin. What if this was enough to cause another upset? What if next time he grabbed her by her clothes? Her arm? Her neck?
Her hands shook. She needed a cigarette. It was too windy to go outside. On shaky legs she hobbled to the window seat, threw it open. The quick snick of the lighter was almost indistinguishable from the whooshing of the wind through the trees. She inhaled. Exhaled. A long plume of smoke bellowed out from between her lips and disappeared into the cold night sky. Tomorrow she’d wake up and make Eli blueberry pancakes for breakfast. Far enough away from the light pollution of her city, alone on their private estate, hundreds of millions of stars were visible.