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Anna and the French Kiss, Page 2

Stephanie Perkins

  I’ve never heard of it, but I nod as if I’ve considered going there myself someday.

  “She’s really talented.” The edge in her voice suggests otherwise, but I don’t push it. “Josh and Rashmi are dating, too,” she adds.

  Ah. Meredith must be single.

  Unfortunately, I can relate. Back home I’d dated my friend Matt for five months. He was tall-ish and funny-ish and had decent-ish hair. It was one of those “since no one better is around, do you wanna make out?” situations. All we’d ever done was kiss, and it wasn’t even that great.Too much spit. I always had to wipe off my chin.

  We broke up when I learned about France, but it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t cry or send him weepy emails or key his mom’s station wagon. Now he’s going out with Cherrie Milliken, who is in chorus and has shiny shampoo-commercial hair. It doesn’t even bother me.

  Not really.

  Besides, the breakup freed me to lust after Toph, multiplex coworker babe extraordinaire. Not that I didn’t lust after him when I was with Matt, but still. It did make me feel guilty. And things were starting to happen with Toph—they really were—when summer ended. But Matt’s the only guy I’ve ever gone out with, and he barely counts. I once told him I’d dated this guy named Stuart Thistleback at summer camp. Stuart Thistleback had auburn hair and played the stand-up bass, and we were totally in love, but he lived in Chattanooga and we didn’t have our driver’s licenses yet.

  Matt knew I made it up, but he was too nice to say so.

  I’m about to ask Meredith what classes she’s taking, when her phone chirps the first few bars of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” She rolls her eyes and answers. “Mom, it’s midnight here. Six-hour time difference, remember?”

  I glance at her alarm clock, shaped like a yellow submarine, and I’m surprised to find she’s right. I set my long-empty mug of chocolat chaud on her dresser. “I should get going,” I whisper. “Sorry I stayed so long.”

  “Hold on a sec.” Meredith covers the mouthpiece. “It was nice meeting you. See you at breakfast?”

  “Yeah. See ya.” I try to say this casually, but I’m so thrilled that I skip from her room and promptly slam into a wall.

  Whoops. Not a wall. A boy.

  “Oof.” He staggers backward.

  “Sorry! I’m so sorry, I didn’t know you were there.”

  He shakes his head, a little dazed.The first thing I notice is his hair—it’s the first thing I notice about everyone. It’s dark brown and messy and somehow both long and short at the same time. I think of the Beatles, since I’ve just seen them in Meredith’s room. It’s artist hair. Musician hair. I-pretend-I-don’t-care-but-I-really-do hair.

  Beautiful hair.

  “It’s okay, I didn’t see you either. Are you all right, then?”

  Oh my. He’s English.

  “Er. Does Mer live here?”

  Seriously, I don’t know any American girl who can resist an English accent.

  The boy clears his throat. “Meredith Chevalier? Tall girl? Big, curly hair?” Then he looks at me like I’m crazy or half deaf, like my Nanna Oliphant. Nanna just smiles and shakes her head whenever I ask, “What kind of salad dressing would you like?” or “Where did you put Granddad’s false teeth?”

  “I’m sorry.” He takes the smallest step away from me. “You were going to bed.”

  “Yes! Meredith lives there. I’ve just spent two hours with her.” I announce this proudly like my brother, Seany, whenever he finds something disgusting in the yard. “I’m Anna! I’m new here!” Oh God. What. Is with.The scary enthusiasm? My cheeks catch fire, and it’s all so humiliating.

  The beautiful boy gives an amused grin. His teeth are lovely—straight on top and crooked on the bottom, with a touch of overbite. I’m a sucker for smiles like this, due to my own lack of orthodontia. I have a gap between my front teeth the size of a raisin.

  “Étienne,” he says. “I live one floor up.”

  “I live here.” I point dumbly at my room while my mind whirs: French name, English accent, American school. Anna confused.

  He raps twice on Meredith’s door. “Well. I’ll see you around then, Anna.”

  Eh-t-yen says my name like this: Ah-na.

  My heart thump thump thumps in my chest.

  Meredith opens her door. “St. Clair!” she shrieks. She’s still on the phone. They laugh and hug and talk over each other. “Come in! How was your flight? When’d you get here? Have you seen Josh? Mom, I’ve gotta go.”

  Meredith’s phone and door snap shut simultaneously.

  I fumble with the key on my necklace. Two girls in matching pink bathrobes strut behind me, giggling and gossiping. A crowd of guys across the hall snicker and catcall. Meredith and her friend laugh through the thin walls. My heart sinks, and my stomach tightens back up.

  I’m still the new girl. I’m still alone.

  chapter three

  The next morning, I consider stopping by Meredith’s, but I chicken out and walk to breakfast by myself. At least I know where the cafeteria is (Day Two: Life Skills Seminars). I double-check for my meal card and pop open my Hello Kitty umbrella. It’s drizzling. The weather doesn’t give a crap that it’s my first day of school.

  I cross the road with a group of chattering students.They don’t notice me, but together we dodge the puddles. An automobile, small enough to be one of my brother’s toys, whizzes past and sprays a girl in glasses. She swears, and her friends tease her.

  I drop behind.

  The city is pearl gray.The overcast sky and the stone buildings emit the same cold elegance, but ahead of me, the Panthéon shimmers. Its massive dome and impressive columns rise up to crown the top of the neighborhood. Every time I see it, it’s difficult to pull away. It’s as if it were stolen from ancient Rome or, at the very least, Capitol Hill. Nothing I should be able to view from a classroom window.

  I don’t know its purpose, but I assume someone will tell me soon.

  My new neighborhood is the Latin Quarter, or the fifth arrondissement. According to my pocket dictionary, that means district, and the buildings in my arrondissement blend one into another, curving around corners with the sumptuousness of wedding cakes.The sidewalks are crowded with students and tourists, and they’re lined with identical benches and ornate lampposts, bushy trees ringed in metal grates, Gothic cathedrals and tiny crêperies, postcard racks, and curlicue wrought iron balconies.

  If this were a vacation, I’m sure I’d be charmed. I’d buy an Eiffel Tower key chain, take pictures of the cobblestones, and order a platter of escargot. But I’m not on vacation. I am here to live, and I feel small.

  The School of America’s main building is only a two-minute walk from Résidence Lambert, the junior and senior dormitory. The entrance is through a grand archway, set back in a courtyard with manicured trees. Geraniums and ivy trail down from window boxes on each floor, and majestic lion’s heads are carved into the center of the dark green doors, which are three times my height. On either side of the doors hangs a red, white, and blue flag—one American, the other French.

  It looks like a film set. A Little Princess, if it took place in Paris. How can such a school really exist? And how is it possible that I’m enrolled? My father is insane to believe I belong here. I’m struggling to close my umbrella and nudge open one of the heavy wooden doors with my butt, when a preppy guy with faux-surfer hair barges past. He smacks into my umbrella and then shoots me the stink-eye as if: (1) it’s my fault he has the patience of a toddler and (2) he wasn’t already soaked from the rain.

  Two-point deduction for Paris. Suck on that, Preppy Guy.

  The ceiling on the first floor is impossibly high, dripping with chandeliers and frescoed with flirting nymphs and lusting satyrs. It smells faintly of orange cleaning products and dry-erase markers. I follow the squeak of rubber soles toward the cafeteria. Beneath our feet is a marbled mosaic of interlocking sparrows. Mounted on the wall, at the far end of the hall, is a gilded clock that’s chiming
the hour.

  The whole school is as intimidating as it is impressive. It should be reserved for students with personal bodyguards and Shetland ponies, not someone who buys the majority of her wardrobe at Target.

  Even though I saw it on the school tour, the cafeteria stops me dead. I used to eat lunch in a converted gymnasium that reeked of bleach and jockstraps. It had long tables with preattached benches, and paper cups and plastic straws.The hairnetted ladies who ran the cash registers served frozen pizza and frozen fries and frozen nuggets, and the soda fountains and vending machines provided the rest of my so-called nourishment.

  But this. This could be a restaurant.

  Unlike the historic opulence of the hall, the cafeteria is sleek and modern. It’s packed with round birch tables and plants in hanging baskets. The walls are tangerine and lime, and there’s a dapper Frenchman in a white chef’s hat serving a variety of food that looks suspiciously fresh. There are several cases of bottled drinks, but instead of high-sugar, high-caf colas, they’re filled with juice and a dozen types of mineral water. There’s even a table set up for coffee. Coffee. I know some Starbucks-starved students at Clairemont who’d kill for in-school coffee.

  The chairs are already filled with people gossiping with their friends over the shouting of the chefs and the clattering of the dishes (real china, not plastic). I stall in the doorway. Students brush past me, spiraling out in all directions. My chest squeezes. Should I find a table or should I find breakfast first? And how am I even supposed to order when the menu is in freaking French?

  I’m startled when a voice calls out my name. Oh please oh please oh please . . .

  A scan through the crowd reveals a five-ringed hand waving from across the room. Meredith points to an empty chair beside her, and I weave my way there, grateful and almost painfully relieved.

  “I thought about knocking on your door so we could walk together, but I didn’t know if you were a late sleeper.” Meredith’s eyebrows pinch together with worry. “I’m sorry, I should have knocked.You look so lost.”

  “Thanks for saving me a spot.” I set down my stuff and take a seat.There are two others at the table and, as promised the night before, they’re from the photograph on her mirror. I’m nervous again and readjust my backpack at my feet.

  “This is Anna, the girl I was telling you about,” Meredith says.

  A lanky guy with short hair and a long nose salutes me with his coffee cup. “Josh,” he says. “And Rashmi.” He nods to the girl next to him, who holds his other hand inside the front pocket of his hoodie. Rashmi has blue-framed glasses and thick black hair that hangs all the way down her back. She gives me only the barest of acknowledgments.

  That’s okay. No big deal.

  “Everyone’s here except for St. Clair.” Meredith cranes her neck around the cafeteria. “He’s usually running late.”

  “Always,” Josh corrects. “Always running late.”

  I clear my throat. “I think I met him last night. In the hallway.”

  “Good hair and an English accent?” Meredith asks.

  “Um.Yeah. I guess.” I try to keep my voice casual.

  Josh smirks. “Everyone’s in luuurve with St. Clair.”

  “Oh, shut up,” Meredith says.

  “I’m not.” Rashmi looks at me for the first time, calculating whether or not I might fall in love with her own boyfriend.

  He lets go of her hand and gives an exaggerated sigh. “Well, I am. I’m asking him to prom. This is our year, I just know it.”

  “This school has a prom?” I ask.

  “God no,” Rashmi says. “Yeah, Josh.You and St. Clair would look really cute in matching tuxes.”

  “Tails.” The English accent makes Meredith and me jump in our seats. Hallway boy. Beautiful boy. His hair is damp from the rain. “I insist the tuxes have tails, or I’m giving your corsage to Steve Carver instead.”

  “St. Clair!” Josh springs from his seat, and they give each other the classic two-thumps-on-the-back guy hug.

  “No kiss? I’m crushed, mate.”

  “Thought it might miff the ol’ ball and chain. She doesn’t know about us yet.”

  “Whatever,” Rashmi says, but she’s smiling now. It’s a good look for her. She should utilize the corners of her mouth more often.

  Beautiful Hallway Boy (Am I supposed to call him Étienne or St. Clair?) drops his bag and slides into the remaining seat between Rashmi and me. “Anna.” He’s surprised to see me, and I’m startled, too. He remembers me.

  “Nice umbrella. Could’ve used that this morning.” He shakes a hand through his hair, and a drop lands on my bare arm. Words fail me. Unfortunately, my stomach speaks for itself. His eyes pop at the rumble, and I’m alarmed by how big and brown they are. As if he needed any further weapons against the female race.

  Josh must be right. Every girl in school must be in love with him.

  “Sounds terrible. You ought to feed that thing. Unless ...” He pretends to examine me, then comes in close with a whisper. “Unless you’re one of those girls who never eats. Can’t tolerate that, I’m afraid. Have to give you a lifetime table ban.”

  I’m determined to speak rationally in his presence. “I’m not sure how to order.”

  “Easy,” Josh says. “Stand in line. Tell them what you want. Accept delicious goodies. And then give them your meal card and two pints of blood.”

  “I heard they raised it to three pints this year,” Rashmi says.

  “Bone marrow,” Beautiful Hallway Boy says. “Or your left earlobe.”

  “I meant the menu, thank you very much.” I gesture to the chalkboard above one of the chefs. An exquisite, cursive hand has written out the morning’s menu in pink and yellow and white. In French. “Not exactly my first language.”

  “You don’t speak French?” Meredith asks.

  “I’ve taken Spanish for three years. It’s not like I ever thought I’d be moving to Paris.”

  “It’s okay,” Meredith says quickly. “A lot of people here don’t speak French.”

  “But most of them do,” Josh adds.

  “But most of them not very well.” Rashmi looks pointedly at him.

  “You’ll learn the language of food first. The language of love.” Josh rubs his belly like a skinny Buddha. “Oeuf. Egg. Pomme. Apple. Lapin. Rabbit.”

  “Not funny.” Rashmi punches him in the arm. “No wonder Isis bites you. Jerk.”

  I glance at the chalkboard again. It’s still in French. “And, um, until then?”

  “Right.” Beautiful Hallway Boy pushes back his chair. “Come along, then. I haven’t eaten either.” I can’t help but notice several girls gaping at him as we wind our way through the crowd. A blonde with a beaky nose and a teeny tank top coos as soon as we get in line. “Hey, St. Clair. How was your summer?”

  “Hallo, Amanda. Fine.”

  “Did you stay here, or did you go back to London?” She leans over her friend, a short girl with a severe ponytail, and positions herself for maximum cleavage exposure.

  “I stayed with me mum in San Francisco. Did you have a good holiday?” He asks this politely, but I’m pleased to hear the indifference in his voice.

  Amanda flips her hair, and suddenly she’s Cherrie Milliken. Cherrie loves to swish her hair and shake it out and twirl it around her fingers. Bridgette is convinced she spends her weekends standing before oscillating fans, pretending to be a supermodel, but I think she’s too busy soaking her locks in seaweed papaya mud wraps in that never-ending quest for perfect sheen.

  “It was fabulous.” Flip, goes her hair. “I went to Greece for a month, then spent the rest of my summer in Manhattan. My father has an amazing penthouse that overlooks Central Park.”

  Every sentence she says has a word that’s emphasized. I snort to keep from laughing, and Beautiful Hallway Boy gets a strange coughing fit.

  “But I missed you. Didn’t you get my emails?”

  “Er, no. Must have the wrong address. Hey.” He nudges me
. “It’s almost our turn.”He turns his back onAmanda,and she and her friend exchange frowns. “Time for your first French lesson. Breakfast here is simple and consists primarily of breads—croissants being the most famous, of course.This means no sausage, no scrambled eggs.”

  “Bacon?” I ask hopefully.

  “Definitely not.” He laughs. “Second lesson, the words on the chalkboard. Listen carefully and repeat after me. Granola.” I narrow my eyes as he widens his in mock innocence. “Means ‘granola,’ you see. And this one? Yaourt?”

  “Gee, I dunno.Yogurt?”

  “A natural!You say you’ve never lived in France before?”

  “Har. Bloody. Har.”

  He smiles. “Oh, I see. Known me less than a day and teasing me about my accent.What’s next? Care to discuss the state of my hair? My height? My trousers?”

  Trousers. Honestly.

  The Frenchman behind the counter barks at us. Sorry, Chef Pierre. I’m a little distracted by this English French American Boy Masterpiece. Said boy asks rapidly, “Yogurt with granola and honey, soft-boiled egg, or pears on brioche?”

  I have no idea what brioche is. “Yogurt,” I say.

  He places our orders in perfect French. At least, it sounds impeccable to my virgin ears, and it relaxes Chef Pierre. He loses the glower and stirs the granola and honey into my yogurt. A sprinkling of blueberries is added to the top before he hands it over.

  “Merci, Monsieur Boutin.”

  I grab our tray. “No Pop-Tarts? No Cocoa Puffs? I’m, like, totally offended.”

  “Pop-Tarts are Tuesdays, Eggo waffles are Wednesdays, but they never, ever serve Cocoa Puffs. You shall have to settle for Froot Loops Fridays instead.”

  “You know a lot about American junk food for a British dude.”

  “Orange juice? Grapefruit? Cranberry?” I point to the orange, and he pulls two out of the case. “I’m not British. I’m American.”

  I smile. “Sure you are.”

  “I am.You have to be an American to attend SOAP, remember?”


  “School of America in Paris,” he explains. “SOAP.”

  Nice. My father sent me here to be cleansed.