Disclaimer: All characters belong to Aaron Spelling, E. Duke Vincent, Gary Tomlin, NBC, et al and are used here strictly for non-profit entertainment purposes.
Genre: Angst, Love and Humor
Summary: We'll always have Paris.
*Author's Note:* In this story, the outcome of Cole's kidnapping has been changed. Also, no one besides Bette knows about Olivia's involvement.
Man of Steel
September 16, 1998
I am trying so very hard to return his love.
I can't deny that falling under AJ's blue eyes poses a drowning risk. They have such power. I see in him the same enchanted look he gave me when I was seventeen, and time has only nurtured it into a promise of eternity.
I want to look at him that way, too, but it only feels like I'm widening my eyes-the way a person does to make a contact lens float back into place.
AJ runs his thumbs over my fingers, here at our table behind the sweetheart partition at Grenadine's. "Ce soir, je vais embrasser tes épaules nues jusqu'à ce que vous en prie pour moi," he says. It's something about kissing my bare shoulders and me begging for him. I'll admit, the throaty sound feels pleasingly rough in my ear.
"Darling, why are you speaking French?" I ask.
"Ah, but the question should be: why not everyday? Why not for a whole...delirious...week?" he says, in between wrist kisses.
He unsheathes an envelope quite dramatically and places it in my hands as if it contains his beating heart. I already know it's tickets to Paris-this is the last chivalrous man earth, after all.
"...Oh, Armand, Paris? You spoil me rotten, dear...wait-four tickets? I'm sure you're just dying to bring Gregory and Annie along, but they can be crated," I smile.
"There are four tickets for what I hope will one day be the Deschanel family. You, me, Leonard and Cole." My sip of San Pellegrino goes down the wrong way, and I sputter for a dry breath while he surrounds me. "Land sakes! Are you alright, mon chou d'âme?"
"I'm fine, really, I..." (Did he just call me the cabbage of his soul?) "Oh, check that-like hell I am! Here you are, showering me with affection, acting like you want to carry me upstairs and have me right now, and you ask your sons to accompany us on a romantic holiday?"
He laughs. "Oh, Olivia. Believe me, we will have plennnty of alone time. Besides, I haven't even asked Cole yet. I wanted you to do the honors-he holds you in such high regard. I want my boys to get to know each other. I've had banter with the waiter that would rival the kind of idle chit-chat they've partaken in."
"Well, you can't expect the week to end with them riding a tandem bicyle down the bloody Champs-Elysees, either. And Cole-need I remind you-is probably a fugitive in France!"
"Dearest, it can be taken care of. I have connections at the Prefecture."
Ah, there he goes again with these exaggerated "connections." "Yes, I'm sure. Still, going to Europe could be a trigger for him to steal again, and what will that mean for Caitlin and Trey?"
I go on like this, coming up with excuses about concern for Cole's redemption, concern for his marriage, concern for his terrible French that sounds like Pepe le Peu being fed through a woodchipper. You name it. In reality, I'm picturing the hotel room bed, estimating the size of the bathtub. We've tried so hard to stop our affair, but I'll never be able to resist giving in to Cole in the city of lights.
"And you agreed to this?" Cole shouts, dropping the skimmer into Bette's pool. He is in a tank top and shorts, doing one of the various odd jobs we make him do around our house.
"I didn't sign you up for anathing. I simply said I would ask, knowing full well what your reaction would be. Well, voila. Premonition realized."
"Try to see it from my side, Olivia. He put on a pretty good show that he was giving me some space, but he couldn't stand it. He has to go all Clark Griswold on me with some family vacation from hell. He can never leave well enough alone-he always has to force it!"
"Cole, try to see it in a different light. Maybe-just maybe-someday you will grow to love the man. Just humor him. Spare his feelings. He's a kind, decent soul!"
"That's funny...taken out of context, I'd think that was the mantra you play over and over in your head about AJ," he chuckles.
"Oh, stop it. If you won't do it for your father, do it for Leo. Make an effort to get to know him-he's your little brother. Doesn't that make you feel some innate sense of responsibility?"
"How 'bout I just start with grinding my knuckles into his head, and go from there?" (I roll my eyes into the stratosphere.) "C'mon, Olivia! All this is new to me."
"Hardly! Paula was an adjustment for you, but you took to her straight away. Leo is a guy, so it's an instant competition! Game on, Cole. I know you."
"OK. Fine. I care about Paula, and guess what? She left. You see why I'm a little gun-shy?" He bends down to retrieve the pool skimmer. There are times I study his youth to torture myself. His taut skin, a flare of acne along his jawline today that looks downright adolescent. He is too damn young. "Then again, I'm not exactly getting vibes that Leo wants to hang out with me either. He's totally pretentious and we don't have anything in common."
"Well, you'll have something in common if you take this trip with us."
His silence has a way of pulsating sometimes. "...Yeah. That's another thing. I really don't want to be in the next room listening to you and AJ do...whatever it is you do."
My mouth drops. "Oh! I get it. So this is really about me."
"I said 'another thing'. It's manyfold."
"Alright. But at least admit I'm in the top three folds. You don't want to leave Trey, or put your heart on the line, OR be in close quarters with AJ and me!"
"Olivia, it's Paris," he says, a different look clouding those onyx eyes. "If I start touching you in Paris...I won't be able to stop."
That visual pulls me under the pool's surface for a moment. "I...I have the same concerns, but believe me, we won't have the chance to slip up. AJ will be on me like white on rice."
"Nope. Not in Paris." He purses his mouth and does a preposterous Julia Child voice. "He'll be on you like Hollandaise on asparagus!"
I snicker. He fishes a few bugs out of the pool as I watch. "Why don't you talk to Caitlin that way?"
His eyes narrow. "What, like a poor man's Robin Williams?"
"Quite frankly, yes! I've never once heard her describe you as a 'goofball,' Cole. Can't let anathing detract from that tough image of yours, I guess. That's so...Gregory. You're more like him sometimes than you care to admit."
"Excuse me, I think I'm gonna go throw up behind the bushes."
"Not yet. You missed a palm frond," I say, pointing to the pool. "I want that water spanking clean, is that understood?"
"Yes, m'lady," he groans, skimming it away.
"We're talking about Paris here. Oui, Madame," I correct. "Just consider it, alright? I have to go. I have to get to the radio station."
"Oh. Well, don't let me keep you. Now that the pool's clean, I just might make use of it."
He takes off his shirt, sunlight making a golden lunge for his pectoral muscles. I blink, feet planted firmly into the concrete of the pool deck. He sits on the edge and hops in. "Ohhh, yeah. Seventy-eight degrees and perfect." He disappears under the water with grace and I know full well he's playing merman on purpose. He wants me to watch him. He knows I'm already picturing his ascent to the surface-his chest panting, his hands in his hair-a majestic splash like some kind of cologne commercial. He doesn't disappoint. "Didn't you just say you had to leave?"
"I do," I say, turning away. I realize I'm fiddling with the V of my shirt. When I turn around again, he's leaning back on the pool wall, his trunks lying on the deck beside him.
A wicked, dimpled smile creeps across his mouth. "Something wrong? Stop staring at the water, Olivia. You're not gonna find anything in here. It's crystal clear."
"Not quite crystal enough," I say in a low voice.
He holds up a mask, shaking it in the air. "Care to put your face in?"
"Perhaps another time," I say, walking away. Central European Time, to be exact.
March 26, 1975. Del placed a payphone call to Juliana's lackey with this news: "The screamin' eagle has landed."
The rendez-vous happened at a gas station at night. Mr. Siegel exchanged the briefcase of Deschanel jewels for the sleeping baby.
"Thank God he's not screaming now," Mr. Siegel said.
"Dipped the pacifier in whiskey," Del grinned.
Mr. Douglas was already gone by the time Mr. Siegel went into the store. The lackey bought cigarettes. When he came out, his black, inconspicuous Ford-with a silent angel in the backseat-was gone. Not even a single tire mark on the ground. Gone.
Mr. Siegel was beside himself, in tears. Desperate. He locked himself in the telephone booth until he reached Del, and poured everything out to him. Del reacted with what else...a belly laugh.
"And you want my counsel on the matter? Well shucky-ducky, let's see...it'll be tough for the authorities to swallow that this child was stolen from you. How you gonna describe him? Freshly delivered from the stork? Hah-hah! And what do y'know, he doesn't have a name, either! How 'bout you call him Clark Kent? 'Cause no matter how this turns out, he's gonna grow up real far from home, ain't he?" Del cackled. "If I were you, I'd start worryin' about what to tell Old Battle-Axe Julie. I hope you bought the full-flavor cigarettes...they're probably gonna be your last."
This is where Del's account ends and my imagination takes over.
I actually feel sorry for the car thief. All he wanted was to escape, as if he were a future version of Cole himself. In fact, that's the face I always assign to him. I feel his horror when he heard the waking newborn. He had compassion; he left the baby in a place where he'd be found. The car radio probably played something horribly appropriate as he drove away, like "Do You Know Where You're Going To?" as Cole became a ward of the state instead of Juliana's porcelain doll.
Every ounce of pain that Baby Boy Stevens has ever felt is my fault, because I helped Del steal him from the nursery. It doesn't matter if I knew what he was going to do or not. I turned my back and it happened.
Every time Cole's stomach wept with hunger was my fault. The time a jealous foster sister shoved a dog's squeak toy so far down his little throat, he couldn't breathe and passed out. When he missed the prom because he was locked up in juvenile hall. When he used his looks to get things, then stared in the mirror and saw someone repulsive. Every time he slept on a beach or slept with an annoying rich woman with a dreadful laugh so he could steal from her.
Not to be crass, but I might as well add the fact that he's uncircumcised to the lot. The hospital didn't have a chance to do it before he was kidnapped. I'm sure it's a burden to care for, although...I, personally...find it makes him comparable to Michaelangelo's statue of David-
Oh please, get me away from this tangent!
My fault, my fault. Evrathing.
Sometimes I wonder...when I throw my head back and call out to God when Cole sates me, is it only a prayer for forgiveness?
We have a list of rules, as most secret affairs do. The usual: no overnights, no gifts. No holding each other afterwards. If we break a rule, we put money in a jar. The time we tried to put a moratorium on kissing, it was overflowing. We cracked it open and bought sweets.
Cole bought Pez and sat there on the side of the bed, loading the tablets into the head on a stick. "I forgot how much I always wanted one of these things," he said.
"You never had one?"
"Most of the places I lived in had two concerns: their subsidy check, and if I was alive when the social worker was coming. I could never wear them down until they bought me candy, like kids do with their real parents."
"I think the dispensers are kind of absurd. It looks like someone slit Superman's throat."
"True. But look on the bright side-slit throats never have candy coming out of them. Want one?" he asked, crunching a little red pill between his teeth.
I kissed his mouth instead, wanting to know what candy tasted like inside him, and it was just what I expected: sweeter.
I am floating in the pool and Caitilin is at the umbrella table, feeding her (my) son. He is absolutely ravenous for a jar of sweet potatoes, making little grunts and gurgles.
"Easy, kiddo, whoa!" she laughs. "Mom, did Sean eat like this?"
"Oh, so you think only boys act like Pumbaa? You ate like this, dear," I chuckle.
We laugh together. She buries her face in the crook of her arm on the table. "Oh, God! Just when I think you finally ran out of embarrassing stories about me..."
"They're a mother's unlimited resource, Cait. You'll see."
Yes...she will. My love for her eases the pain of letting her keep my baby in silence. This is my penance for what I did to her unborn child...what I did to her husband...what I'm doing with her husband.
At least Annie's scheme went as planned, without any nicotine-hankering Mr. Siegel. Cole was supposed to be placed with his real family. At least Trey was. At least he'll never feel unwanted.
"Mom? About the trip to France...I honestly think it's a great idea. Cole doesn't know it yet, but he needs to be closer to AJ and Leo-that's right, he does!" she chirps for Trey-an all-too familiar Mommy Tic. "Well, not that I didn't start panicking about his...history...but I didn't want to dredge up any bad memories for him. I'm going to just let it go and let him be a Deschanel in Paris. And speaking of which...Mom, you and AJ are so cute together. I love seeing you happy."
"I love seeing you happy too, sweetheart." God knows I do...and still, I want Cole to rise out of the water and drag me off this raft. I want him to take me in this chlorine, as if it will bleach away all the ugliness.
In his office, I tell Gregory about the trip. He says nothing, but keeps rubbing his temple with his pointer finger and trying to stifle a smirk.
"Anaway, Tuesday afternoon Caitlin has class and Rose is unavailable, so if you could mind Trey...what. What is so damn funny?" I frown.
"Nothing, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to seem distracted while you were yammering on, I was just trying to remember the French word for 'boredom.' Oh wait-ennui, that's it. When your head slumps forward after AJ's been talking for a while, try not to drown in your soup."
"Oh, stuff it! You just can't comprehend the idea of someone wanting to treat me like-"
"An expensive call-girl? Oh, I can. You know, since this whirlwind romance began, the ratings during your time slot have declined. You wouldn't want to go halfway across the world, come back and find you've been permanently replaced by Wacky Dan, would you? Everybody loves his 'First Time Caller' bit with the bike horn and cow sound effects."
"Please. You can't threaten me, I'm going and that's final!"
"I'm not threatening anything. I encourage you to go. In fact, I can't believe you'd go to such lengths to dispose of Cole."
"...dispose of him?"
"Come on, Olivia. The minute you land at Charles-de-Gaulle, he'll say he has to use the men's room, climb out the window and be off to terrorize the wealthy."
"Oh, believe me...he won't. I reached out and convinced him to go, so he could bond with his father. I tried to help him, which is much more than I can say for you. You wouldn't dream of using your powers for good!"
"Je ne regrette rien," he smiles. "You can see yourself out. Enjoy the Catacombs."
There was one time Cole and I burst into a hotel room and ravished each other without saying a single word. Every sensation was heightened by the silence, like it was as necessary for pleasure as the pads of our fingers. We muzzled each other's involuntary sounds with our hands, sank our teeth into the pillows as we came.
I had learned quite a bit of sign language in college, so after I dressed, I signed something with wild, conducting sweeps of my hands. He sat there in awe and shrugged, his expression begging for translation. I just closed the door behind me and left him there-deaf, but certainly not blind.
I must say...AJ has been so wonderful. His worshipping gazes runneth over. We sing "La Vie en Rose" on the plane and hold hands on the armrest. Leo and Cole are in the aisle directly across from us, looking positively miserable. Cole keeps massaging his ears with desperation-they give him such hell on a plane, bursting and churning and turning his Eustachian tubes into giant, inflamed sausages. Poor thing. One time, Cole glances at me, then throws his eyes in the direction of the tiny bathroom. I shake my head with a vile look. Leave me alone-I am trying to know what it's like to be giddy in love with your father.
Cue the accordion music: we've arrived at L' Hotel de Sers. AJ throws down his luggage and sweeps in first. "Lafayette, we are here indeed! Marvelous, simply marvelous. Feast your eyes!" Our sprawling suite is brilliant. The master area has a gorgeous four-post bed that doesn't go unnoticed by Cole and me. Same for the baby grand piano. I glance at him in pain, imagining a dissonant chord being made by one of our bare arses.
AJ thrashes open the curtains to a spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower. "Ah. The perfect backdrop for this," he growls, dipping me into a kiss as I shriek with laughter.
Cole's arms are folded, eyes down. Leo hasn't removed his headphones since LAX. "I want a picture of the three of you," AJ smiles, positioning me between Cole and Leo. "This is my new, state-of-the-art digital camera. No film required! I can store up to twenty photos on a single microchip." I tousle my hair as AJ composes us in his viewfinder. "Yes, yes! That's it. A radiant mother and her sons."
Cole erupts in a little laugh.
"Good idea, Cole! Thinking of a funny anecdote is a great way to show a natural smile. Perfect!" AJ says.
Leo offers his hundredth eye roll of the journey so far. "Wow, Dad. Were you this excited the day I was born, or does that rank a close second to this trip?"
"O, so flip and caustic, aren't we?" he frowns.
"Whatever. I just wanna get to the Latin Quarter, stat."
"Fine. You can take Cole to some of your favorite haunts, like the bookstores."
"Doesn't sound like anything he'd be interested in. But I bet he'll be stoked that they serve brewskis at McDonald's."
"Hi," Cole says. "I'm in the room?"
"Leonard Julian Deschanel," AJ grumbles. "Out in the hallway, now."
I fold my arms once they're gone and turn to Cole. "Oh, did he just ram his foot in his mouth! You are a far cry from a single-celled tourist, and you devour books."
"Olivia, let's face it. I've decked half of Sunset Beach. People don't look at that and say, 'Oh, he must be an avid reader!'"
"Don't defend him, he's got a cheek!" I say, swatting his arm. "Ugh. I hope AJ gives him hell."
"Oh, he's giving him hell alright. They're outside the door and I can't even hear anything." He begins to pace, hands to hips. "You know what I find hilarious? That kid resents me? Here he is, chillin' at the Hotel de Sers without a care in the world. When I was his age, I was on the run from a mob boss who killed someone with a frozen ham...God, it's really hard to be alone with you and that piano."
"Agreed," I say quickly, but before we can scatter to separate rooms, the other two Deschanels return.
"Leonard?" AJ prompts.
Leo looks down. When his eyes rise to Cole again, I don't expect to see glistening tears. "I'm sorry. You haven't done anything to me, I'm just...having issues with all this. Ever since Mom died, it's been Dad and me. I almost lost him in the earthquake, and it feels like it's happening all over again." A sob escapes him and he covers his face. "Oh, God. This is so frickin' embarrassing!"
"No, no," AJ says, taking him in his arms. "It's alright. Let it out. Your courage astonishes me, do you know that?"
Cole looks at his brother blubbering against AJ with wonder. He doesn't know what to say, but he tries. "Hey, c'mon...don't worry about it, Leo. I understand. No harm, no foul, okay?"
"Leo, come here, darling," I say, and embrace his shuddering form. It feels so much like holding Sean. "There, now. You are not losing your father to Cole, or me, or anyone. I know it's hard to share him. You will adapt to these changes, I promise. We all underestimate what we can handle."
I look to Cole and his dimples deepen to punctuate a quiet smile. I can be a mother to anyone at the drop of a hat, but never to you.
Once everything dies down, the four of us roam the streets. Perhaps the men are actually bonding. I feel-I know that what happened at the hotel was a catalyst for Cole. I mean, when you witness someone having a public breakdown, it doesn't seem quite so bad to open your own heart just a little.
AJ always has his camera ready, and captures Leo and Cole picking up the same pair of Chuck Taylor sneakers at the Saint-Ouen flea market. It's a cute little moment, and Leo is actually smiling.
At one point I feel like I've stepped into a fraternity house. There's all this testosterone-charged laughing. Cole and Leo laugh at AJ trying to talk cooler ("I know of a place that's off the hook!"). AJ and Cole laugh at Leo for rubbernecking at a beautiful girl. Cole eats a madeleine cake and has a mustache of lemon zest, which makes the three of them howl from their bellies. I almost want to disappear into the cobblestone and let them be. Is this what I was meant to do? To give this to Cole-his place with the Deschanels, his happiness at last?
As the sun begins to sink on our pleasant day, AJ says, "And now...drumroll please? It's just you and me, mon coeur. We'll leave the boys to their own devices and I'm all yours. All night."
"Oh...that sounds wonderful," I say quietly, thinking of Cole's brilliant laugh that sounds like a rare, endangered hyena.
Suddenly, AJ's cell phone comes to life-the ringstone a cheery electronic French national anthem. "Oh, no...I'd better take this. *Hello? Yes. What kind of emergency?...What? Oh my God. But-upwards of how much? I can't believe this. We need to have a shareholders meeting ASAP-yes-it figures, I'm also overseas. What about a conference chat online? Perfect. I'll call you when I find a cafe with web access.*"
He cages his hand over his features, smooshing them. "Dear God in heaven. That was Ben. It looks like a hacker broke into the Liberty Corporation's server. Embezzled a quarter of a million dollars within days!"
"Oh my God? Well, what are we waiting for? Let's find that cafe yesterday, we both need to be at this meeting!"
"No, please, darling. I don't want this evening to be ruined for both of us-I'll print out a chat transcript for you to review in the morning. Cole, Leo?" he summons, and fills them in on the story.
"What a jacked up day this has been," Leo says. "Dad, if you don't mind, I'm gonna go back to the hotel. So beat. I've like, run the gamut of emotions today. Like, totally schizo."
"Nothing a short rest until noon won't fix," AJ sighs. "It's fine by me. Cole, I guess I'm going to have to enlist you to be Olivia's escort tonight."
His eyes go wide. "I'm sorry, what?"
"I insist," he says, handing him cash. "Take your mother-in-law out for the finest dining in town and rub this terrible phone call from her mind."
My whole face hurts as I swallow. "AJ, why must you coddle me like this?"
"You deserve it," he says. The kiss he leaves on my mouth is so firm and sweet, tears pinch my eyes from it. "C'mon, Leo." AJ blows me another kiss as they head for a taxi rank.
Cole and I begin to walk down the street. For as long as I can stand it, at least. I drag him into an alley and shove him against the brick wall, our lips meeting in a frenzy. I blaze a path of kisses down his neck. "Oh, Cole...seeing you in these streets drives me mad. Paris suits you, oh does it suit you. You're glowing, breathtaking."
"Olivia..." I can feel protest in the way he says my name, as much as he groans it. "I...I can't. Can't do this."
I pull back. "Oh. Well. This is sudden, considering your eyes were pleading to join the Mile High Club on the plane!"
"I'm sorry about that. I was doubled over in altitude pain. Wasn't thinking straight."
"Right, right. Compared to the...rational, lucid thoughts you have here at sea level."
"Alright. So I'm a little impulsive."
"And you're not? You dragged me on this trip so I could get closer to AJ, and you didn't even consider what that could mean for you and me." His face softens as he is silent. "Today, things with him were...look, I know I'm not the type to change my mind about someone too quickly. Usually it takes-"
"A frozen ham to your skull?"
"Hey. Werewolf of London. You gonna let me finish?"
I look down and nod.
"I thought he was out of his mind. I thought: there's no way I'm half of this guy. But today, I...didn't feel that way at all. It was like I belonged with this family. I saw the loss he felt over missing my life, that it ran so much deeper than guilt. I understood the ownership Leo felt, like...that's my dad. And...I realized I never would've felt so comfortable around him if you weren't here, Olivia. Sometimes you just...steady me."
"Yes...and I see the way he looks at you, like you're his reason for living, and...I can't do this, Olivia. Just be with AJ. It's so peaceful and easy. When have you ever known peaceful and easy?"
My eyes are pricked by tears, and I turn away. "When the Eagles sang about it, I suppose."
"Then please try."
"Why can't Caitlin be the reason you're pulling away from me?"
"Would that really make you feel any better?" he asks sadly.
"I don't know. I don't know anathing anymore. But as far as AJ goes, what you and I have started long before I knew the man was bloody alive!"
"Well, he was. The whole time. Dreaming of you, and loving you...and someday you'll grow to love him too," he says. I realize he's quoting me and my heart thrashes. "Let me just do what he asked, and eat you out. Take! You out! To eat...oh, God." He turns away, his hand plastered over his eyes.
My lips curl into a cruel grin. "Well. It seems Sigmund Freud is alive and well in Paris tonight. Thank you, but I'm not hungry. I want you to take me to the Louvre, so I can look at people looking at art."
"Look at people looking at art," he repeats, with sunken brows.
"It's fascinated me ever since I was a girl. The way they turn their heads this way and that. The things you overhear them saying. Fascinating. You'll love it. It's sociology at its finest."
"Alright," he groans. "You've got me curious."
On the way to the Metro, Cole is mistaken for Dean Cain by a ten-year old girl. ("Maman! C'est Superman! Superman!") "The one and only," he says. He's always up for a charade. He introduces me as his agent. Poses for a picture. Signs an autograph.
"I'm going straight to hell, aren't I?" he sighs after Odette and her mother are gone, and we continue on.
"Oh, I suppose not, Mr. Cain. You just gave that little darling the thrill of her life. I know you didn't have the heart to let her down."
"True, but...it wasn't exactly selfless. It felt pretty nice to be famous instead of infamous."
After the museum, we walk. "I want to show you something," he says. We go to a little patch of cement and rocks under Pont des Invalides. "Wow. Smaller than I remember it."
We sit, arms around our knees, staring into the black Seine. "An old thinking spot?" I ask.
"I lived under this bridge for about a week once, when I was down and out. It's not fun being down and out in Paris. Pick-pocketing sucks. All the brushing and touching with complete strangers. At least when you seduce a mark, you get to know them a little."
I don't want to think about that, so I rush for the lighter side of things. "Did you have a scruffy little beard?" I ask. He shoots me a look. "What!" I laugh. "Did you? I've always pictured what you'd look like with facial hair."
"Not a fan. Looks shady, feels itchy. But hey. If you really want to see, I'm French, so I can grow a full goatee by morning," he smiles. "I guess someone has to stand in solidarity with Bette."
"I'm not following."
He chuckles. "One time, I went in the house, and she had this white cream stuff all under her nose. She scrambled to wipe it off. She finally admitted it was her mustache bleach."
We die with laughter for a bit. "Oh, if we were to turn the tables on the gossip columnist! What fun that would be. I love living with her. We're so free. A big difference from the containment of the Richards house. That eerie, grating silence. Well, that's Annie's legacy now. Good for her."
"Amen to that...but even as tough as it must've been sometimes, I'd trade anything for Caitlin and Sean's childhood."
"Cole...I swear I'd give my right hand if you could've lived just one of their summer days at Knotts Berry Farm. Just one roller coaster ride for this right hand. I'm serious. Fit me with a hook. I'd do it. Just to see your young face light up for one day."
"...I know you would," he whispers, then is silent for a long while. "...Olivia...the things we say to each other sometimes...they're very rare."
"For what. People having affairs?"
"People in general. You know me better than anyone."
"Because I can't stop asking things. I try to. It hurts to know what you've lived through...and still, I have this insatiable desire to know evrathing. Maybe it's an addiction."
"Is that all it is?" His hand eclipses the curve of my knee, caressing it. My next intake of breath is sharp and immediate.
"I thought you said we weren't going to do this anamore," I say, a bit woozy.
"...I know...but right now the thought of it just feels...unnatural."
"Especially in Paris..."
Those words are the starting pistol for the quick reunion of our tongues. "Who are we kidding?" he breaks away long enough to say, but not for a second more. His moans are molten in my throat, and my fingers sink into his hair.
"Cole," I begin, but the look in his eyes makes me unable to finish.
"The way you say my name drives me crazy," he whispers. "You make it go on forever."
I am unable to move, and his hand slips under my shirt. "But-" His thumb flicks over my nipple and his eyebrows rise in delight at the slow arch of my back.
"I'm sorry, Olivia, were you saying something?"
I find my voice-located somewhere in my pelvis at the moment-because I really must point something out. "Darling, in case you haven't noticed, boats are passing by...periodically," I shudder, slipping in and out of the world from his ministrations.
"You think they've never seen two people doing this on the banks of the Seine?" he asks, his voice so low and dark. "Let 'em watch."
We stretch out along the ground, writhing in horizontal kisses...hands completely skipping the tease and diving beneath each other's waistbands.
And somehow...my mind goes to a place I don't expect. Armando. The delicate mystery I am to him. The negligees I never take off so he won't see the softness of my belly after a third child. The way we'd never, ever do this on rocks.
Cole feels the tenseness in my body and looks to my eyes. "...I'd rather die than have you stop," I say, "but I keep thinking of AJ."
He sits up slowly, with different dimples framing his mouth. He isn't angry, but he sighs for a long while, until his lungs are empty. "I wonder if there's a Guinness record for the fastest loss of an erection," he says quietly, staring into the river.
"No...don't be. I'm so messed up. I can't blame you for thinking about him-I'm the one who told you to."
"We're both messed up, alright?...Can we just...talk, like we were before? At least it'll distract you from any...you know. Testicular discomfort."
"What?" he laughs. "You're a piece of work, you know that? Don't worry. That subject isn't nearly as bad as guys exaggerate it to be. I've felt worse."
I realize we are holding hands. We keep looking down at their entwinement and blushing like kids, like we're not two people who've had sex until we got bleeding rugburns.
"About your name..." I start. "I'm surprised you like the way I say anathing. You always make fun of my accent."
"Oi do nothing of the sawt, govna."
I sigh a little smile. "Ugh. You certainly are a poor man's Robin Williams." I grasp his hand a little harder. "You know what? I just realized something that I don't even know. Who named you 'Cole,' anahow? Do you remember?"
"Of course. It was the first name I ever really answered to. My name as far as family court was concerned was Alex."
I make a sour face. "The only way you'd ever look like an 'Alex' to me is if you were a short, blond woman with a camera 'round your neck."
"Yeah. It just didn't fit. I was about five...and the dog toy incident with Psycho Sister happened. The only reason I coughed it up and started breathing again was because a 50-pound doberman jumped on me. He broke a few ribs. I owe that dog big time...but I like to think it was the nurse at the hospital who really saved my life. She was so nice, so gentle. Her name was Claire. She gave me a nickname because my hair and eyes were as dark as *coal.* So that's what I started telling everybody my name was. I actually spelled it like that, too-C-O-A-L-until some case worker corrected it."
My eyes ache, overcome with water. "How unnecessary."
"I always used to say that someday, if I ever got my hands on some money, I'd find Nurse Claire and buy her a mansion. Well, there was a time I had a million dollars worth of jewels stashed in a fake can of shaving cream, but did I do it? Never. That's my greatest shame of all."
"You didn't have to buy her a mansion. All you needed to do was tell her that she shaped the man you are with a simple act of kindness. That's what makes a person richer than they could ever imagine. I mean, just look at her handiwork here...and I'm not talking about the fact that you're quite a sight to behold. On the inside, you're absolutely stunning."
He swallows hard. "That's what you think about me?"
"Yes...and I'll spell your name C-O-A-L from now on, darling. That's who you are. I'll cherish that story always."
He holds my face. "Sometimes I look at you, and...it just saps every bit of strength I have. And then I keep looking at you, and it flows right through me again. Right or wrong, this is the only thing that's ever really been mine, isn't it..."
"I love you, Olivia. Pure and simple."
I freeze. "Cole, don't. You can't. I-I don't think this is even covered in the rules, but it's most definitely a code red violation!"
"Who cares about the damn rules? Here, I've got some money, where's the jar? How 'bout I just use the Seine!" He rips out his wallet. "I love you," he says, flinging a bill in the river, never diverting his eyes from mine. "I love you." He flings another. "I can go all night."
"Oh, stop making a fool of yourself-that's AJ's money!"
"AJ's money hasn't left my jacket. This was our date...and this time alone with you, in the real world, means everything to me."
"Don't tell me you don't feel this too. Please. It's all I need to know, all I'll ever ask of you."
"This has been the most ludicrous day of my life! One minute we're the Partridge Family, the next we're mauling each other, then you back off, then I back off, and now you're telling me you love me? And dear God, why are we hanging around a place where you were homeless? I don't want to think about that, I can't bear it! Just leave me alone!"
And I run. "Olivia! Olivia! Wait!" he calls after me, but I vanish into Paris.
I wake up in the hotel's four post bed, my arms braced around a pillow so tightly it hurts. I think I dreamed I was hugging the doberman who saved Cole's life.
The nightstand clock turns to 7 a.m. with a painful click. I feel weight beside me in the bed and what sounds like a groaning zombie.
"AJ, what in the name of...?" He's lying on top of the covers, fully dressed, shoes still on. "What time did you get in from that meeting?"
"About ten minutes ago," he manages to say. "I'm absolutely exhausted. Do you remember that...chat transcript I was going to print out for you? Here. Your briefing, Madame." He hands it to me and I can barely lift it.
"This? It looks like War and Peace!"
"Just war, I assure you. Let's just say things with Gregory got very heated and difficult."
"Oh my...?" I read aloud from it. "'The whole thing reeks of an inside job-a DESCHANEL inside job. Will bet my house AJ's working with that Russian I.T. guy-probably selling him nuclear secrets too' ? Oh, come off it, Gregory! This is an absolute disaster. AJ? AJ, are you even awake?"
"You poor thing. This is a shame. I want to make love to you," I whisper, in all honesty. I need to forget.
"...m'afraid I won't be of much use in that department, dear...at least not until abou...five in the afternoon..."
Leo walks in wearing flannel pants and a black T-shirt of Jim Morrison. "Dad? I couldn't sleep, and I just knocked on Cole's door, and I don't think he's in there."
AJ sits up groggily but immediately. "Not there?"
"I'm sure it's nothing. Does he ever go jogging early in the morning or something?"
I bite down hard on the inside of my lip. "No, he'd rather have his legs amputated than run for recreation," I shiver, tightening my robe, springing out of bed and to his door. "Cole? Cole, are you there?"
I open the door to the empty room. AJ is behind me in a flash. "Oh, no...the bed is too immaculate," he says. "He never came home last night? Didn't he come home with you? When did you last see him?" he says, his hands firm on my shoulders.
"...he brought me home and said he'd be right back," I lie.
"Do you think I said something wrong?" The wild guilt and pain in his eyes kills me. I want to shake him and tell him it's my fault, it's always been my fault, ever since they cut Cole's umbilical cord I've been the one to blame! AJ goes on, "I know I did-I-I made an indelicate remark yesterday about Elaine leaving him for San Diego. Do you think it upset him?"
"No, darling, no. He had a wonderful time yesterday. He told me so. He felt something for you, he wanted to see you as his father," I sniff.
"He did?" AJ smiles through his murky eyes-I want to die. "I don't believe it! It's just what I've been hoping for and...Olivia, wait. Maybe you were right the other day. He was triggered somehow, tempted to return to his old ways. To gamble, steal, philander, God knows what!"
"Uh, Dad? Why don't we just call his cell phone?" Leo says, eating an Alpine mountain of cereal with complete nonchalance.
AJ slaps his own forehead. "God! How ridiculous I am, jumping to all these conclusions before we even-"
"I'll call him," I say, grabbing the phone off the nightstand. It goes straight to voicemail. *Hi, this is Cole, and the longer your message is, the fatter the chance I'm gonna call you back. Catch you later-maybe.* He sounds like a twenty-something kid, for once-not the oldest soul in the world.
"...cole?" I offer into the white noise after the beep. "This is Olivia," I say, as if it's a snowy day in hell and he won't recognize my voice. "I don't-we don't know where you are and we're concerned. Please call us back when you get this."
"Oh, sweetheart," AJ says, holding me close. "You are such a mother to him and I love you for it."
I shut my eyes, boiling over inside. Where are you, Cole?
The call doesn't come. I convince AJ that we should split up and scour Paris for Cole. My arms are folded around me tightly as I walk. What a horrendous idea! This is Paris-swarthy, dark-haired men are the proverbial haystack needle. I want to cup my hands around my mouth and call his name out, over and over, but for God's sake. He isn't Spike!
Eventually it will be that sickening twenty-four hours. We'll have to go to the Prefet to file a missing persons report, and my handwriting will look like a cavewoman's.
I love you, Olivia. Pure and simple. It loops in my head, carves itself into my flesh.
On this street, there is a Haitian woman in a headwrap and flowing robes at a small wooden table. The sign beside her says, "Fortunes by Madame Moreau. Price Negotiable."
I've never even entertained the idea of visiting Carmen Torres back home. I think this is rubbish, personally. But I am not being ruled by my brain right now. I am desperate.
"Accepterez-vous d'une centaine de francs?" I ask.
She nods. I give her the money and she counts it. "You're English, girl. So speak it."
I sit down slowly. "Impressive."
"That wasn't a psychic intuition. Your French sounds like Margaret Thatcher got her tongue stuck in a mousetrap. I don't wish to be subjected to it."
I bite my lip. She has a valid point. "Madame, I need help."
"I do not offer help," the Haitian says. "I tell you what is and what is to be, and you can heed it or not. That is what I do. Give me your hands."
Her hands are terribly cold. She closes her eyes. "...You came to this country with one man."
"A-Actually, I came with three, but I just might murder one or more of them before the week is over, so that's not entirely-"
"QUIET, girl. There is only one. I see him. He is cloaked in darkness and covered in diamonds...and you are the work of art he wants to steal the most. The Venus de Milo. His timeless beauty with missing arms. You would sink into the Seine for this man, but you do not hold him."
I look down. "I can't. It's an affair."
"It is no such thing. You want all of him. You bore him a son."
My hand flies to my mouth. "No! Trey is Gregory's, I know he is!"
"A dead, rotting marriage cannot create life. The heart that grew in your womb was your lover's. You came alive when he touched you and the child is undeniable, living proof of words you cannot say."
Oh, Trey! His padded cheeks, his insatiable hunger, his grunting war to to escape any confines he's placed in! I stifle a sob. When he was conceived, I was wearing a crown.
"You must go. Something terrible is about to happen. Time will be stolen from your thief." She tosses my money back at me. "Keep your francs. I have not told you anything you don't already know."
"Madame, something has happened-I don't know where he is. He's gone missing. I don't know what to do!"
She rolls her eyes. "Did you ever think to check the last place you saw him, girl?"
"Oh my God..." I have to get to that spot under Pont des Invalides. I shoot up from the table and leave her. "Thank you, thank you!"
I return to the dark alcove under the bridge, and there is Cole. Lying on his side, all curled up like a fetus. Of evrathing I know of him, there's a lot I don't. I've never seen him with snowflakes in his hair, or in the produce section of the grocery store. I have never watched him sleeping peacefully like this.
"Oh, darling, thank God, I was so worried. Why did you sleep here last night, why? You're not a criminal...don't you understand?" I say, crouching beside him.
Then I see the empty champagne bottle. The empty bag that says "Pharmacie Monge."
The empty bottle of pills.
Something I said the night we met seizes me by the throat: "I wonder what's worse...the loneliness of being alone...or the loneliness of being with people who don't care?"
"No, oh, no! Cole!"
I hold his face, slapping it as fast as a hummingbird's wing. "Ripping a page from MY book? How could you?" I can barely see through my tears. "Look at me, look at me darling. Come on!" I lay my ear to his chest-his heart is scarcely beating, but he's alive. "Speak to me, please!" I cry.
I fill my hands with water from the Seine and dump it in his face-a baptism he never had. He coughs. His fingers begins to quiver. "Oh Cole! Come on, that's it, you're too strong-you're fighting it, aren't you? You don't want this, you don't really want this!" I try to grasp my cell phone, my hand afflicted with palsy. I can't even remember the emergency number in France. "1-1-2! 1-1-2," I finally chant.
..."Aidez-moi, Pont des Invalides, vite! Un homme a pris une overdose!"...
I lose my bearings, my breath, my mind in the hour-long minutes that follow. I talk to him as if he's simply sitting in a chair, tying his boots after an afternoon tryst. "Margaret Thatcher with her tongue caught in a mouse trap, that's what my French sounds like, right? And I have the nerve to make fun of yours?" I caress his face with no sensation left in my palms. "Look at that. You're sporting quite a shadow already, you scruffy Frenchman." I kiss one stubbled cheek, then the other. "I've wanted to do that since we got here."
My sobs begin to soak his shirt.
This is what my ten thousand dollars from Del has begotten! What a laughable sum of money today. This is my legacy: a beautiful man surrounded by people and still infected with loneliness, his world growing dark in the city of lights and love.
I sob into his chest again, feeling the small flutters of his lungs, my hand clenched around his hand...and then, I know what I was meant to do all along to right my terrible wrong. I feel it in every particle of my being. I understand the look in AJ's eyes, because it's in mine.
"...I love you so."
That's precisely when his unconscious hand squeezes mine, tighter than the steel grip on Lois Lane.
The questions at the French hospital are to be expected. "Was he given these drugs at a discotheque?" "Are you his wife, or his mistress?"
When a doctor finally accosts my shriveled form in the waiting room, she tells me that he is stable and I nearly knock her down with an embrace. "May I see him? May I please see him?" I simply can't speak anymore French-the language has started to give me a migraine.
When I enter the doorway, he doesn't notice at first. He is staring out the window at the Eiffel Tower. His face is more ashen than I've ever seen, but warm color is fighting its way through.
"Cole," is all I can offer him.
He turns to me, so sad, his eyes broken chocolates ground into the sole of a boot. I run to his side and we kiss as if he's returned from D-Day Normandy...and cling to one another like never before.
"...thank you," he finally says, his voice hoarse and small. "They told me what you did. I didn't deserve it...but thank you."
"You did the same for me in the grotto. Twice. Consider us terribly uneven."
"No. I was the problem then and the problem now. I wanted to stop ruining your life. I didn't know any other way."
I nestle closer. "You are not ruining my life."
"...what am I to you, Olivia...?"
"A part of me. Do you remember when we met...and I felt as if I knew you? It had a lot to do with AJ, of course...but it was more than that. Perhaps I've always known you."
"I'm so sorry..." he whispers, his arms gathering me tighter. "I hate myself for doing this to you. You shouldn't be in a hospital in Paris."
"Enough about bloody Paris! I'd rather be listening to these glorious machines. It's better than Chopin. It would be more perfect if Nurse Claire was here, though. I'd hug her like an old huckleberry friend, and talk to her about you for hours."
He sighs hard. "You know...everything started with you talking, Olivia. Every time you open your mouth, something comes out that makes me want to kiss you."
"Likewise," I say, "in a way that makes me feel more like a human being than I've ever known."
"I'm so sorry I hurt you like this."
"I'm sorry too...and I understand. I know the place you were in, more than I can say. Wanting oblivion. An end to the pain. I'll only ask one thing of you. I need to hear that you hesitated for Trey," I say, my eyes drowning.
He squeezes his eyes shut. He sniffs hard and kneads his brow with white knuckles. "Yes. Until the moment I closed my eyes...but I just kept repeating to myself that he'd be better off. He deserves a better father than this. One who hasn't seen the things I've seen, or done the things I've done. One who knows how to control himself."
His face fits perfectly in my hands, not a single curve of my palms unfilled. "We love each other. If you find a way to control that, I hope you win the Nobel Prize."
For once, he is speechless. His tears streak my face as he claims my mouth. It's brand new for us to kiss so slowly, savoring every second. Then we just hold each other again, lying in the afterglow of only a kiss, stroking each other's hair. I unconsciously rest his hand on my stomach. "Do you know what I'm going to tell Trey," I ask, "when he's older and able to understand?"
He places his fingers on his cheek and twists his hand forward-sign language for "I don't know." My eyebrows rise. The rascal's been learning on the sly.
"I'll tell him the story of a lost soul who discovered he was really a prince. He rose out of the darkness and found a beautiful life...but there was a woman who reminded him of what it was like to be lonely. He risked his beautiful life for her...and caught her whenever she fell. But it wasn't because he lost his way. It was because he was a hero and didn't know how to be anathing else."
We breathe a kiss into each other that abandons all the ones before it. "I'll always catch you, Olivia. Always."
"Not now, love. You're so tired. You get some rest."
He closes his eyes, but not for long. "Where are AJ and Leo?"
"On their way. I told your father you'd been stricken with food poisoning."
"Thank you. He'd be devastated if he knew. He'd blame himself."
"What the hell are we gonna do now?..." he asks, my head on his chest.
I wish there were an answer to that question. Absolutely nothing has changed. So many would still be hurt. He doesn't even know that Trey is ours.
But he knows now that I love him, and that is all that matters.
Deep down, I know that the status quo will remain. A passionate affair.
Perhaps that's okay. Perhaps we are too much for the world to handle.
Besides...it is an ugly, but undeniable fact that Frenchmen have mistresses.
He was born my secret, and I will die as his.
We will go on being us. We will meet in darkness. I will wrap my legs around his waist like the basest whore, but afterwards I will tell him evrathing-every dream of my youth, every dark wish of my soul-the way I always have. We will meet at the bottom of the pool, cradled against the curve of the deep end. I will write letters and burn them, then dictate them to him from memory in our bed. I will line the hotel room dresser with Superman Pez heads as a prank. I'll relish in Cole's laughter at how we finally have witnesses, how it feels just like Paris.