I am the second Madame Toussaint. La Deuxième—that is how the house staff referred to me when I arrived at Château Bleue, my new husband’s French family estate on an island of Côte d’Azur. Each time I heard the words, I wondered if they had called Julia—who used to be my best friend—The First?
Not that they did it to my face, they were too proper for that, but I heard them as I drifted through the castle searching for company. We were supposed to stay a week before continuing on our European honeymoon of old cities, pearly beaches, and yachts. That was a month ago. At least there was plenty of Champagne as Victor, my husband, completed ever-pressing business he said was too boring to speak of when he made time for dinners and kisses.
We had met over Julia’s empty casket, comforted each other through grief, cursed the sea for her drowning, and ended in each other’s beds. Should I have known better? Perhaps, but Julia would not have minded sharing her good fortune. We both came from the same trailer park, after all, and when you got dealt an ace you didn’t throw it back no matter where it came from.
The sea below my balcony lived up to its name, but after enough time looking at it even that filled me with frustration. After enough glasses, the bubbly lost its lustre. I had the key to every room at Bleue, had admired the Renaissance paintings and Roman statues, visited the kitchens and tower rooms where you could see all the way to Africa on a clear day. Victor believed in trust above all and had upon our arrival handed me a heavy keychain. I hated how it clinked with every step, like a plague bell telling the staff to get out of the ignorant American trophy wife’s way. It told me I had everything I had ever wanted, the life Julia had gushed over on the phone. Instead of satisfaction, I felt like a ghost despite being the one still alive.
Unable to sit with my dreams and regrets, I put down my glass and hurried inside, down stairs, out through the front door, punched in the gate code, then onto the road to the village, every step accompanied by the clink, clink, clink of the keys. Only the gate had a modern lock, and even to this Victor had made me memorize the codes. Only his business phone did he ask me not to touch, saying there could be legal consequences if I saw things without his investors’ approval. He made me feel silly for wanting to keep something to myself, but these ever more frequent trips to the village store were just that.
On my left stretched the azure Mediterranean that had swallowed Julia. Anchored ships bobbed outside the ancient village harbor and I shivered. Like me, she had never learned to swim.
Inland stood the colorful stone houses of people who had fished these waters for generations, possibly centuries.
The afternoon sun burned against the unpronounceable designer dress and wide-brim sunhat Victor had gifted me after I admired them in Saint Tropez, and sweat ran down the small of my back as I passed pastel houses. The general store’s ever-open weathered doors had pulled me in during my first exploratory stroll; its mishmash of wares the only invasion of the mainland on this forgotten rock. It held nothing Victor would approve of—what I considered trinkets and treasures meant little to him. It was the sort of place Julia and I would have lost hours to as kids.
Behind cramped shelves, Monsieur Travert sat at his usual table, drinking coffee and tinkering with a broken necklace. Sun had turned his hair and bushy eyebrows white, and his skin raisin-like. As he saw me, his mouth split in a smile so bright you hardly noticed the two missing teeth.
“Madame Toussaint,” he said, pushing the necklace aside, and pulled up a worn card deck.
I grabbed the box of seashells for sale and removed my hat.
“Time for a game?”
He answered something in French though I was sure he understood no English. It did not matter, for by chance we had found a common pleasure—poker. He dealt, and I split the shells, each getting five large and twenty small.