I’m here because I lied. A lot.
I know it was wrong, but I don’t care. I got away.
My world is no longer black and white. It’s alive with color. Blues and greens have melted together into a perfect painting of sea and sky. I smell the sharp sweetness of citrus. It must be coming from the trees that line the street and quiver in the soft Mediterranean breeze. I breathe in the scents of hot sun on sand, salty ocean, and a puff of sugary, vanilla air exhaled from a nearby bakery. A tram whirs by and clangs its bell. A couple passes, so close that the woman’s skirt brushes my bare legs with a whisper of touch. She murmurs in the unfamiliar cadences of a foreign language, leaving behind a cloud of gentle laughter. I start to laugh too. I take in my freedom like a drowning person gulps air. No matter how many more half-truths or total lies I have to tell, I’ll do it.
I won’t go back home.
Gripping the handle of my suitcase, I turn around. The sign above the shop door proclaims Sylvie’s Dream, in English. Something inside me feels like it’s warming, shifting, dissolving. My entire body wants to sag with relief, even though my pulse is now racing. I made it. I’m actually here!
The shop is on Rue Massena, part of Nice’s old town. This part of the city feels old. When I look up from the street, the pink and gold buildings lean into one another and crowd around me like they’re curious to find out who’s invading their space. The paint on the walls is faded and peeling, and laundry hangs from lines that stretch between windows. Towels, jeans, and underwear wave in the breeze.
It’s so different from anything I’ve ever known. I already love it. Now all I need to do is go in. At the thought, my heart flutters inside me like a bird flapping its wings, trying to escape from its cage.
Before I can lose my nerve, I step up to the door. They’re both here. Even before I got out of the cab, I could see them through the speckled shop window. The woman is Sylvie. The man, émile. They are the new family I chose.
Physically, they’re as opposite as any two people can be. Sylvie is tall and thin, all dark hair and eyes, with skin a warm, melted chocolate brown. émile is much shorter, no more than a few inches taller than I am. Nearly everything about him is light-colored. He has papery skin and white hair that make his indigo eyes jump out at you. When he stands beside Sylvie, he looks like a ghost.
I already know them. I already love them. But will they love me? Okay, back up a little. That comes later. For right here and now, what will they say? They didn’t expect me until next Friday, but here I am, thanks to a timing glitch. I misread the dates of the real summer program here in Nice when I was creating my fake art camp to fool my mother. I’m not supposed to be here yet, but I had no choice.
Go, I tell myself, suddenly feeling the need to swallow, hard. It’s time.
My entire body starts to tremble as I push through the strands of tiny brown seashells that form a tinkling curtain in the shop’s doorway. The handle of my case catches onto something and I stumble, but recover quickly and plant a smile on my face.
“Um,” I say, fumbling in my pocket for my carefully crafted note, but then Sylvie sees me and her face lights up like the summer sun.
“Rosemary, oui? C’est toi! It’s you,” she exclaims, before spewing a thousand more French-sounding syllables that I don’t understand, as her brown arms encircle me and squeeze. She smells like lemons and coconut, and in my head I see long stretches of pale sand against a turquoise ocean. A vision of freedom. My freedom.
Sylvie releases me and before I can process anything, émile is before me, his face level with mine. His eyes crinkle as he grins. He takes my hand and squeezes softly.
“Bienvenue,” he murmurs. “Welcome.”
“Merci,” I whisper, and am horrified at how the word sounds as it leaves my lips, but no one seems to notice. émile and Sylvie grin expectantly at me, so I finally take out my note.
Sylvie peers over her husband’s shoulder to read as I set my case down and gaze around me, trying to pretend that I’m not terrified, that I’m not desperate for this to work.
Sylvie’s artwork splashes color across the walls, like a paint factory explosion. There’s a battered cooler in the corner with a hand-written sign offering bottles of water, Orangina, ice cream, and candy bars. Stuff is piled everywhere. Books, necklaces, pottery, a rack of brightly colored skirts. It’s a place that holds the promise of hidden treasures for anyone who wants to look. Messy, but cozy. The tiny space extends soft arms that pull you into a warm hug, a lot like its owners. It’s perfect.
They look up from the note.