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A smile came to her lips as the brisk New England air slapped her cheeks, making them turn almost as rosy as they had looked in her latest Cosmo cover shoot. She paused at the top of her private jet’s stairs and brushed her hair back into a high ponytail so it wouldn’t obstruct the view she was seeing once again, after so many years. The New York City skyline stretched out past JFK International for miles in the distance, its lights winking in and out like stars on a cloudy night.
It had been so long.
In her profession (mainly actress, but singer, model, socialite, and whatever else the public demanded she be), it was unheard of to revoke the fast-paced lifestyle of modern New York. The camera, the press, the venues and the connections were all based there. But she had made a vow to herself when she was, and she had stuck to it. She was going to make a name for herself, but she wasn’t going to do it in America, where she would be dragging her small-town upbringing behind like oversized luggage.
Instead she would go to Paris, the birthplace of cinema, to start her new life. After seeing La Vie En Rose, the movie chronicling Édith Piaf’s rise from street child to famed and beloved performer, her mind had been made up about this plan at the tender age of ten. She spent hours researching the most famous French actresses through the decades – starting with Sarah Bernhardt, continuing on to Brigitte Bardot, and eventually working her way down to Marion Cotillard. By her fifteenth birthday, she was already an expert at curling her short bleached hair in the style of ‘40s and ‘50s bombshells, and habitually snuck out of class to touch up her blood red Chanel lipstick. At eighteen years old, she had studied enough French to make her high school language teacher jealous, and by nineteen, she had booked her one-way flight. She vowed not to step foot in America again until she was an internationally renowned household name. And now, in 2016, after ten years of hard work, she was finally returning to her rural Connecticut roots. As her stiletto heels carried her triumphantly through the airport and out to her limo, she had to laugh as she watched people around her. They saw her, gasped, turned to one of her latest film’s promotional posters along the wall, and snapped their heads back toward her again, only to realize with disappointment that she had disappeared into the throng of travelers. They were left to wonder if she had ever really been there at all.
As her driver merged onto I-95 toward New Haven, excitement started to bubble in her stomach – and a bit of anxiety, too. She hadn’t talked to her family in a decade! At first they had fought against her decision to cut off all contact, but using adamant persuasion she had made them realize that it was for the best. She wondered how her mom was doing with work. And was her kid brother in grad school now, or had he stopped his education after college? Had he even gone to a university at all? She fidgeted with a loose thread on the seam of her pea coat, feeling a pang of regret for not knowing the answers to these simple questions. She held her breath for the last part of the journey – the slow crawl up twisting Plains Road, bordered on each side by huge, bare oaks. She could almost remember how it looked in the summertime, when she had played childhood games of “Indians” with her friends in those woods, feeling the warm green glow that filtered through the leafy canopy and caressed her bare shoulders welcomingly.
She was startled out of her nostalgia by the sight of it. Number ten. The modest grey house, with its overgrown garden out front and the old Fisher-Price play set skewed to the side, looked like it had been preserved exactly as it had looked the day she departed ten years ago. She was out of the door almost before the limo rolled to a stop in the driveway.
“Devrais-je attendre ici, mademoiselle?” the driver asked through the window.
“Oui, oui,” she called over her shoulder. He put the car in park, and settled back to wait. She stumbled up the stairs leading to the door, unable to hold herself back any longer. She gave the door three hard knocks and waited. After about a minute with no answer, she started to have her doubts. The family car was in the driveway; why was no one answering? Maybe they finally got the doorbell fixed? She jabbed at it impatiently, one, two, three times, but she couldn’t hear any ringing inside. Disappointment flooded into her, and she was just about to turn away when the inside door opened.
There was her mom standing behind the glass storm door, her smile so bright it almost reflected off the clear panes. Her hair had greyed, and she had maybe gained a couple of inches around the waist, but she was still the same old mom. The old cat was still there too; it was sitting at her mom’s feet, eager to go outside and explore. It had to be almost twenty years old by now. As her mother cracked the storm door open, her daughter opened her arms wide for a hug and stepped forward. “Maman! Er – Mom! It’s so good to see you!” she exclaimed, ignoring how the cat shot past her into the yard. Just as quickly as her hopes had risen, they were dashed when the door slammed in her face. She was, once again, seeing her mom only through the storm door. Her confusion left her speechless. Was her own mother going to completely ignore her return?
“Jaden!” her mother called into the house behind her.
“Yeah?” a handsome young man answered as he strolled into the living room. Unlike his mom, he had lost a significant amount of weight. He’d grown tall and built muscle in the past decade.
“Jaden!” she called expectantly from outside.
Their mother continued to speak to Jaden as if she hadn’t heard her daughter at all. “I just let the cat out. Make sure you let him back in in a couple of minutes. I’m going to take a nap.”
“Sure thing,” Jaden answered, his eyes sliding right over the flushed cheeks and angry expression of his sister outside. He grabbed the door knob and shut the inside door gently, almost regretfully.
The worst part about all this wasn’t that her mother was ignoring her, but that she had also implicated Jaden, her own little brother, into the scheme as well. She stomped down the steps, through the gravel driveway, and into the backseat of the limo.
“Que se passe-t-il, mademoiselle?” the driver asked with concern.
“Rien. Allez, simplement á cette adresse,” she answered, handing him a sheet of paper. The address on it was that of her best friend from high school, Carolyn. Surely if anyone would be happy to see her return, it would be Carolyn.
She spent the fifteen minute drive in a fuming silence. Yes, her family hadn’t been enthusiastic about her skipping college to go to France, but actually acting like she didn’t exist was more than just an overreaction. If anything, they should be happier to see her than she was to see them. She scrolled through the contacts on her Blackberry, debating which lawyer she could call to force them to talk to her. After a moment of vengeful thought, she sighed and set her phone down. Better not to make any rash decisions. Instead, she rested her forehead on the tinted window and gazed at the snowflakes tossed down to earth by the cloudy sky.
She was really excited to see Carolyn, but after the disaster at her own house, she had lost some of the spring in her step. She exited the limo and walked to the door carefully, her pointed toes brushing the fine, sugary dusting of white flakes beginning to stick to the ground. She stood on her friend’s stoop and peered into the window in the middle of the door. There she was! Carolyn was lounging on the couch, reading a thick novel in her pajamas. How much time had passed since they’d done that together on one of their many sleepovers as kids?
“Carolyn!” she called with an overenthusiastic knock. Carolyn glanced up through the window briefly and stared into her childhood friend’s eyes. Casually, she rearranged her position on the couch and lowered her eyes back to the page. Several more loud bangs on the front door elicited no response. What was going on? She kicked the door with all her might, but all that did was scuff the toe of her designer heels.
“S***!” was all she managed to whisper as she stood motionless, tears dripping mascara down her cheeks. She took one last long look at how peaceful and comfy Carolyn looked languishing on her couch. No paparazzi following her, no stream of constant interviews in a language that wasn’t even her own. What had she missed out on all these years?
She jammed her hands in the pockets of her coat and turned toward the limo. But instead of getting inside the door her driver was holding open for her, she pushed past him into the street. She ignored his calls to her in French, and instead answered him with a brisk, “I’m going for a walk.”
She was really mad now. Well, not exactly. Mad didn’t do justice to what she was feeling. She was angry, sad, regretful, and frustrated all at the same time. And she wasn’t even sure where to target these feelings. They were mostly directed at the people who were ignoring her, but also at herself. She watched the cars passing her by, and found herself following them to the center of her small hometown, where all the shops were. The snow was coming down harder now, tangling in her blonde curls and melting on her clothes as she trudged on. She wiped her runny nose on her expensive pea coat. If only the cameras could see her now.
When she hit the road with all the shops, she stopped looking at the ground and lifted her eyes to the sky. She had forgotten how beautiful Connecticut was in the winter. As much as she disliked admitting it, she missed the quaint atmosphere of New England, the delicate snowflakes dripping from the clouds, and the local kids who made snow angels in it. There was almost no one outside that evening, probably because of the weather. But those who were out were taking their time, unlike the perpetual rush habitual of Paris. They were probably preparing for Christmas, buying presents, and thinking of feasts with their families and friends, two groups of people she realized she didn’t have anymore. She had come home expecting to feel welcomed, but she had never felt more foreign in her life.
She passed the music store, a couple gas stations, the deli, the hair salon, the gym, and finally came to stop at the dress shop where she and her friends had bought their dresses for the senior prom. She sighed nostalgically as she took in the beautiful sequins, pastels, and full skirts. But this wasn’t going to be a pity party any more. She had made her choice years ago, and she was going to stick with it. She turned to the reflective glass window of the dress shop, with the intention of fixing her hair and makeup, a nervous habit granted her by years in the business. Instead of seeing her smeary eyes and windblown layers, her gaze penetrated through the glass, into the display of fancy dresses. She stooped closer to the panes in an effort to view her reflection. When that didn’t work, she even backed up a couple feet to get a different angle. But to her immense shock, it simply wasn’t there no matter what she did. It was almost as if she didn’t exist. For the third time that day, she began to question her sanity. She turned to look behind her, hoping she would see the footprints her spiky heels had inevitably made in the shallow snow – but there was nothing there. Just a pure, smooth blanket of thick snowflakes.
“Can anybody hear me?” she cried desperately, her voice carried away by the wind. The three people she could see outside ignored her, just like her family and Carolyn had. They couldn’t hear her; they couldn’t see her. She had desperately searched all her life to be someone and somewhere else, but now that she really wanted to be home, she was unable to access it. A childhood memory from an autumn long past flashed through her mind. She had cried, distraught, when she found she couldn’t reattach the falling leaves to the tree in her front yard. She had tried repeatedly, but became even more upset each time the crinkly orange leaf fluttered from her chubby fingers and came to rest on the ground.
“I’m nothing more than a ghost of myself,” she whispered, shivering. She sank down, just like that leaf, into the snow to wait. For what, she didn’t know.