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A House In Paris
A House in Paris
Lyra Avery was six years old. She lived in Manhattan, New York, with her mother, father, and her grandmother who lived in a little flat above their apartment. She was as thin and spindly as a fresh spring twig, with knobby little knees and sharp little elbows that tended to bang and clip things that she flew past. Pale as a winter postcard and dotted with so many freckles as to make up for her lack of pigment, she defended her red hair vehemently against the teasing of her big brother. Due to strict indoor voice rules in her house, she’d become very good at being quiet for long periods of time, but when outside she compensated by being loud and energetic with her friends and her big brother Alex.
Alexander Avery was six years older than she and spent much of the year away at a boy’s prep school in Pennsylvania. Lyra went to the neighborhood school in New York and missed her brother. When he was home he’d take her to the park to roller-skate or to the zoo, but when he was gone she had to get one of her parents to take her and they never would. She was therefore forced to rely on her friend’s older siblings or she’d never get to go anywhere.
Her favorite thing about their home was that her grandmother was right upstairs. Her grandmother’s name was Eloise, so she called her Grandma Ellie or Granny Red because her hair was as red as Lyra’s. When Lyra’s mother went out and Lyra wasn’t at school she was sent upstairs to her grandma to be looked after. They would bake together, go on little daytrips and errands, and read stories and poems from her grandmother’s collection of books. Since Lyra’s oldest brother Adam died she’d spent more and more time with her grandmother while her father was at work and her mother was out.
Adam had been fifteen and had been hit by a car one day while crossing the street. That’s what her mother said every time Lyra had asked her, those words exactly every single time. Lyra couldn’t remember him very much; she had been too little to know people very well when he died, and only Alex would talk to her about him. Her parents always became very busy whenever she asked them about her dead sibling.
Her father worked at a bank and he had wanted Adam to work there too, only he had died, so now Alex was going to school to become a banker instead. But Alex had told her that he didn’t want to become a banker, or a lawyer, or a doctor, or anything that her parents wanted him to be. He wanted to do something with animals, like be a biologist, and she thought that was a good idea. He was the best person to go to the zoo with because he knew the names of all the animals and resembled a never ending animal encyclopedia because of all the books he read. He could tell her where they came from, and how long they lived, and what they ate, while other people had to read the signs or ask the keepers.
Sometimes Alex was sad because of the things their parents wanted, but Grandma said that things would be better eventually. She said that Lyra’s parents simply needed to learn that just because things don’t turn out as they expect does not mean that they can’t turn out for the better. Lyra wasn’t worried by her parent’s expectations of her, because they didn’t seem to have any that she knew of. They didn’t make her do things like they made Alex do things. She just went to school with her friends, learned French from her grandmother, went roller-skating, and played in her room when her mother told her she needed quiet time. Her mother needed a lot of quiet time when she was home, so Lyra spent a lot of time in her room playing imaginary games.
“You never have to be bored, Lyra,” her Grandma Ellie would tell her sometimes, “just remember that you have a whole world of things to do right in here,” and she would point to Lyra’s forehead. “Not everyone can imagine things you can.”
Her grandmother was from Paris, France, and Lyra would pretend to be going on a trip to France and to the places her grandmother told her about. She wished more than anything that she could go there, and that Alex and her parents would come as well. They would all live in a pretty house like the one in the picture her grandmother showed her. It was of the house that she lived in when she was a girl. Lyra though that they could go on long walks through the city and eat at all the cafés and restaurants that had the best food in the world. Her mother and father would take them to parks, museums, and libraries, like her grandmother used to do with her parents. Alex would be home and would be happy, he’d like Paris too, she felt.
She spent hours drawing pictures of her house in Paris, and had her grandmother tell story after story about her life when she was a girl. She sent Lyra to get the photo album one day and while digging through the boxes in her parent’s closet she found a school journal that had belonged to Adam. She sorted through the pages and pages of writing and drawings he’d made, some of them were class assignments but there were also notes, doodles, and even poems etched into the margins. Like Alex, Adam had liked to draw, so there were full pages devoted to his sketches, but like her it seemed he also liked to read and write.
She found part of a poem by Emily Dickinson he had copied onto the back cover that read:
One need not be a chamber- to be Haunted-
One need not be a House
The Brain has corridors- surpassing
Lyra didn’t know what all the words meant, but she felt it had a great deal of meaning to her. When she left the closet, with both photo album and journal in hand she heard crying coming from the kitchen. She peeked around the corner and saw her mother sitting at the kitchen table with a bottle of wine and a box of tissues. She didn’t totally get the poem, but she gathered that people could get ghosts in their heads, and she felt as though her mother would understand this better than Lyra. Maybe her mother had a ghost in her head and that was why she was sometimes very sad. Maybe her mother should take a break from her shopping trips and go to Paris with her, but she felt too uncomfortable to interrupt her and ask if she would like to go. Sometimes she was a little afraid of asking her mother things like that because she feared that it would make her get that funny look in her eyes.
It was even worse with her father, mostly because she never knew how he would react to things, mostly because she didn’t know him as well as she knew her mother and grandmother. He had to work a lot, her mother said, but when her mother said things like that her grandmother would purse her lips and they would exchange a look that Lyra didn’t understand. Sometimes her grandma and her mother whispered things and argued, but they didn’t know that Lyra knew that. Grown-ups didn’t think that she was listening because she was small, so all she had to do was pretend to be occupied and they talked about all sorts of things she didn’t really understand but was very interested to hear.
The thing she did gather from their quiet talks was that her mother was sad and her father was working, and her mother was shopping and drinking wine, and Alex didn’t like his school, and this was all bad. While they talked she went through Adam’s journal, which she didn’t show to her parents because she thought they might take it away from her. She wanted to keep it because she didn’t know him very well. Lyra thought that if she knew more about Adam she would know more about what was making her family so sad. She wanted to ask her mother about him again, but she got the look in her eyes whenever anybody said his name.
She liked his journal and thought that she might start her own. Alex shared Adam’s love of drawing pictures, and she thought that she might share Adam’s love of writing. Her grandmother liked this idea, so she bought her a pretty blue book with a sketch of Paris on the front with her name written in the front cover. Lyra took it with her everywhere in her backpack, along with Adam’s journal, and she read his for inspiration because she wasn’t sure what people wrote in journals. She showed it to Alex when he came home for Christmas, and he looked over it with great interest and helped her with the big words that she didn’t understand.
On Christmas Eve Lyra and Alex sat in her room reading Adam’s journal, while her mother and father were having a grown-up conversation. She and Alex learned with great surprise that Adam wrote about them in his journal. He wrote about how much fun Alex was, even if he was sometimes annoying, and how he liked having a baby sister, even if she cried at night and woke everyone up. But mostly he wrote about how he wanted to travel when he grew up, how he wanted to go to San Francisco and LA which were both in California. He gave detailed descriptions of the things he wanted to do there such as learn to surf and see a place called The Sierra Nevadas. She didn’t know anything about California, but she understood that people wrote in journals about things they wanted to do, so she thought she should write about her house in Paris.
Their parent’s conversation was so long that they were not sure if it was over or not, so they snuck up to the kitchen door and listened to the voices on the other side to see if they could come in yet. That was Alex’s idea. But what they heard were not happy voices.
“Don’t lie to me Charles; I know the bank doesn’t require you to work twelve hour days all week long, I know you just don’t want to come home-” Her mother said too loudly.
“-You don’t know anything!” Her father interrupted her, even though he said interrupting was rude. “You really think this is about not wanting to be home? Not wanting to be with you? How can you be so completely blind to what is going on with here?”
“What about you?” he mother yelled again, “you don’t even know about your own children, your living children!”
“Oh, and you do? You know all about them and spend time with them, do you? Or do you spend more time with a bottle of red wine and a cigarette?”
“At least I’m here!”
“You might as well not be! Eloise says that you spend all day gone and you shop and spend money like mad.”
Lyra didn’t understand anything they were saying, but she really wanted to keep listening. Alex looked like he was going to start crying, though, and she stroked his hair like her grandmother stroked her hair to make her feel better. She wondered why they were fighting on Christmas. Every story she’d ever been read had said that Christmas time was supposed to be better and everyone was supposed to love each other at that time. She wondered so much about this that she forgot there were presents waiting for her when she woke up the next morning. Alex had to run into her room to remind her and they opened their presents with Granny Red while their parents were still asleep. She got new rollerblades and chocolate and lots of new clothes… but not even presents made her feel right again. She wrote about that in her Paris journal.
When Alex went back to the school full of the boys he didn’t like, she wrote about the place in Paris where she and Alex would live and all the nice friends they’d meet there. When her mother had quiet time and sent her to her room, she wrote about what her room in Paris would look like and how she would have a big bookshelf with all of her grandmother’s story books on it. When her brother was expelled from his school for fighting and getting bad grades, she wrote about the nice schools they would have for him in Paris and about the dog they’d get who would keep her company when everyone was away. She’d be a golden retriever like her friend Charlotte’s dog and Lyra would name her Gabby or something French sounding.
Sometimes the sadness in her house made her sad. She didn’t like it when her mother cried, or that her father was never around, or that her parents yelled at Alex and made him upset. But despite the mandatory quiet time and the tensions in her house, she was able to continue on and be happy. She wrote in her journal, talked to her brother on the phone, went roller-skating with friends, and spent time with her grandmother, and so she was content. Unlike the rest of her family who were sad, worried, and restless, Lyra was at peace because she had something definite to imagine that the rest of her family did not. She had that dream and knew that she would one day get what she truly wanted; she would have her house in Paris.