The days were getting shorter. The boy looked up in surprise at the sky that had suddenly grown dark. He pulled his worn sweater tight against the October chill, blew warm breath into his cupped hands and hurried on. The newspaper bag strung across his shoulders was almost empty. He no longer had to put it down at every street corner to massage his sore back. He was almost home.
Alexander Ivanov lived at the end of the world. To the twelve year old, that was exactly what Brooklyn was; the end of the world. Maybe because the one time he had been to the city-that was what he called Manhattan-it had taken forever on the subway.
Alex hated living in Brooklyn, and never more so than when his mother talked about her youth in Leningrad with tears running down her face. She would revert to Russian, which he didn't understand, but the passion in her eyes spoke more volubly of the beauty of her old country than words could convey.
Every day on his way back from school, weighed down by the load of newspapers, he passed the same dusty old stores, their signs barely legible from the peeling paint; the same ratty tenement buildings in which people suffocated in the summer and shivered in the winter; the same old women in their ritual wigs and shapeless dresses, vacant and blank expressions of hopelessness etched on their faces. Hopeless, that was how he sometimes felt; and then he would remember Manhattan and feel better. If there was one thing Alex wished for, it was to live in Manhattan. He yearned for Manhattan the way his mother pined for her old country.
Alex walked along Main Street, where pickles marinated in barrels, salamis swung from hooks, and sausages dried in their cotton bags. He was oblivious to the sights and smells around him. One by one, he took the papers from his bag and with a quick experienced motion, he threw them. His aim was almost perfect.
Tomorrow was collection day. He would stop at each house along his route and wait while his clients went to get their money. After making change, he would thank each one of them politely even though most never bothered to leave him a tip. His work would take him more than twice as long as on normal delivery days. Still, he looked forward to it. Collection day was when he could go home, count out his profits and decide how much of the money he could save. This week, if all went well, he might reach the fifty-dollar mark in his bank account. Fifty dollars! It was a fortune.
He reached into his bag, pulled out the last newspaper and aimed it with unerring precision at the Kodesky's front porch. At that moment the door swung open and old man Kodesky stepped out. The paper flew through the air like a projectile and landed with a thud in the startled man's well-padded stomach.
"Hey, you no good little piece of shit!" He waved his fist. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?" Alex did not hear a word. He was a million miles away, dreaming of the day he would escape the hell of living at the end of the world.
Even now, two years later, he could still remember every detail of his trip to Manhattan. After a long subway ride, he had emerged in the city surrounded by skyscrapers so tall, he could only see the top by looking up high and leaning back. People on the street rushed about in the lightly falling snow, pushing and jostling each other, their arms full of brightly wrapped packages. It was one week before Christmas and there was a dizzying feeling of joy in the air. Alex was almost drunk from the excitement. This must be what Leningrad was like.
Deep in his dreams of unlimited delights, he walked home. Three blocks later, Alex climbed the stairs to the dingy one-bedroom apartment where he and his mother lived.
Before he was born, his mother had tried to make the apartment look warm and inviting. She hung pretty paper on the walls and crisp curtains over the windows. The furniture was inexpensive, but attractive and functional. Whatever nesting instinct had once inspired Marlena Ivanov's efforts had long disappeared. For the last twelve years she had done nothing more to improve her home. Indeed, she had not done even the most basic of repairs. Over time, the wallpaper had become worn and faded. The curtains lost their freshness and the once attractive furniture became old and shabby. The sour stench of poverty clung to the apartment like old dirt.
Alex closed the door behind him and dropped his canvas bag on the floor. He sniffed the air and wrinkled his nose. From the kitchen came the smell of boiled cabbage.
"Is dat you Alexander? Vere vere you? Is nearly six o'clock and dinner is been ready for hour," his mother's heavily accented voice called out from the bathroom. "I getting ready to go out. You vill ave to eat alone."
Through the thin door came the sound of the toilet flushing. A moment later Marlena appeared wearing a tight pink sweater set and a black satin skirt. Her dark hair was freshly coifed, the marks of the bobby pins still imprinted between each wave. Her mouth was painted crimson in the shape Joan Crawford had made popular a decade earlier. From ten feet away the smell of vodka on her breath was overpowering.
"Will you be coming home by yourself?" asked the boy suspiciously.
"Vat you vant me to do?" She picked up her purse abruptly and threw in her lipstick. "You vant to eat. I not do dis for me. A boy need food to grow big, strong. Someday you understand." A moment later, she was gone.
Marlena Ivanov was a bitter woman. She made no secret of the fact that raising a boy by herself was a heavy cross to carry; one she deeply resented. Alex sometimes thought his mother hated him almost as much as she did his father. He had never seen his father. He knew, only because his mother repeatedly told him, that Pavel Ivanov had been a gambler and a womanizer. Whatever wages the man had earned, he just as quickly spent on those two vices. The day Alex was born was the day Pavel Ivanov decided that married life was not for him. He disappeared, leaving his seventeen-year-old wife to deal with the struggles of working and raising a son by herself.
After a dinner of cabbage soup, Alex turned off the lights and climbed under his blankets. In the dark, he could clearly see his mother's empty bed a few feet from his own. He turned his back to it and curled up.
Hours later, the muffled sound of laughter woke him up. The bedroom door swung open and the light turned on.
"Turn dat off. You vake up boy." His mother ordered in a shrill whisper. The light flicked off. "Das better. I like dark." She laughed. "Now, come to Marlena." Clothes rustled. From his cot, in the corner of the room, Alex guessed every gesture, every movement. Old springs creaked. The sounds were loud, magnified by the stillness of the night.
Alex covered his ears. By trying hard, maybe he could keep the noises from reaching him. It was too late. The guilty stirring in his loins had already begun. His mind swirled in a mix of emotions too strong for him to understand. Maybe if he thought of something else. Yes, that's it. Think about something else. Someday, I'll drive in from the city in a brand new Cadillac. I'll show them all...
The next morning, Marlena kissed the man goodbyee and turned triumphantly to Alex. "See dis?" She pulled out a ten-dollar bill from between her breasts. "Dis can buy food for whole week."
Alex looked away, embarrassed and ashamed, and returned to the picture he was drawing on the back of his spelling book.
* * *
By the time he became a teenager, Alex Ivanov believed his ambitions were just dreams. He still felt a raging desire to be rich. Except for the endless stream of buildings he drew, which everyone agreed were beautiful, he had no special talent. Other than the goal of saving up a lot of money, he had no real plan.
Alex kept delivering newspapers and watched his savings grow. At this rate, I'll never have enough money to move out of here.
He decided to look for other opportunities. Soon, he found what he was looking for. He sold his paper route to a younger boy for two dollars, the amount of a normal month's profit, dipped into his bank account for another five dollars and invested in a second-hand bicycle with a large wicker delivery basket. The next day he began to work for Yonah Schimmel's Knishery.
From then on, every day after school he raced down to Schimmel's and loaded up his basket with bags of sweet smelling homemade knishes, jars of savory borscht and fine yogurts with a crust of cream on top and packaged in drinking glasses. With a speed never before seen from any of Schimmel's boys he raced through his deliveries until Yonah came up to him one day. "What are you trying to do, boy? Get yourself killed? Slow down," he told Alex. "No sense in going so fast. Slow but safe, that's the way to go."
Alex nodded politely, but just as soon as Yonah turned away, he jumped on his bike and sped off.
Alex was tall and well built for his age. The years of delivering newspapers had helped develop his once lanky frame into a strong, muscular body. His shirts, which were often a size too small, hugged him in a way that exaggerated the ripples on his chest. His hair was black and his eyes ice blue in a face that could only be described as sensual. The sight of the young and virile teenager, slightly flushed from carrying Schimmel's parcels, did strange things to his female clients.
Often, when Alex rang a doorbell, the woman who answered appeared even more flushed than the delivery boy. Alex smiled and greeted each client politely by name-"Good afternoon Mrs. Zawisny"-and he would walk away with a fresh knish, and more often than not, with a generous tip. Within one month, he had made enough money to cover the expense of the bicycle, plus what he would have normally saved with his paper route. Alex was beginning to feel like a rich man.
The way women reacted was a constant source of amusement for Alex. Since he had started shaving the year before, he knew the effect he had on the opposite sex. Still, he had no interest in any of them, except maybe in Miss Mateus, his homeroom teacher.
Rita Mateus was a big-busted brunette in her mid-thirties, with smoldering brown eyes that made Alex blush when she looked at him. Sometimes he caught himself dreaming about what he would like to do to her, given the opportunity. Never in a million years did he believe the opportunity would come, and that when it did, it would prove to be his ticket out of Brooklyn.
For months, and to his great pleasure, every time he asked Miss Mateus a question, she would leave her desk, come up to him, and as she bent over his books she would rest her ample breasts on his forearm. One day, as he prepared to leave class after school, she asked him to stay. For the next hour, Miss Mateus went over his homework book, studying drawings one after another, while her breasts brushed against his back, his arms and even his cheek. "You're a talented boy. I love this drawing of-what is it?-the Empire State Building? What do you want to be? An architect?" The fourteen-year-old boy blushed and stammered a response, praying the whole while that she would not notice the erection in his pants. Miss Mateus-or Rita as she asked him to call her-noticed. Then she did the most shocking thing. She put her hand right on top of the swelling in his crotch. She looked at him with limpid eyes and said in a melting voice, "Why Alexander Ivanov, you're not a boy any more. You're a grown man."
The next day after school, Rita invited him to her apartment. Alex raced through his deliveries faster than he ever had and arrived at her doorstep in record time. She invited him in and poured him a glass of Chianti. "What sign are you, Alex?"
He looked at her, confused. "Sign?"
"What's your birthday?"
"November fifteenth," he replied still perplexed.
"November, hmm? That makes you a Scorpio." She leaned forward and traced a lazy finger along his upper lip. "Scorpio men are intensely passionate and ambitious. But beware a Scorpio's sting." She smiled, and his heart skipped a beat. "But, you won't sting me, will you, Alex?" Before he could think of an answer, she rose and picked up a deck of cards from the table. "Do you play cards Alex?" He shook his head. "Well, you're going to learn."
That night, Alex learned two things: strip poker and the grown-up game of sex. After that, the routine never varied. Every day after school, Alex would hurry through his deliveries, spend a few hours with Rita, and then rush on home.
It was months before his mother noticed how late he was getting home in the evenings. When she asked him about it, Alex brushed it off easily. "I go to the library and do my homework."
Marlena chose to believe him. "I no cook for you ven you late."
She's happy she doesn't have to worry about fixing my supper. Alex told himself and swallowed the lump in his throat. Then he thought of Rita and his heart filled with joy. I love Rita and she loves me. That's all that really matters.
* * *
Every night, as soon as Alex walked in the door, Rita pulled out the cards. It was her favorite foreplay. In the beginning Alex invariably found himself losing and naked, but in time he began to win occasionally. The promised vision of Miss Mateus pulling off her bra was enough enticement to make him yearn to win. He remembered the first time it had happened.
"You win, Alex." Rita pulled off her bra and stood triumphantly before him-the loser thrilled to be vanquished. "You like my tits, Alex?"
"Oh! Yes!" he answered, not daring to move.
She came closer. "You heard me. Touch them."
Small beads of moisture broke out on his upper lip. He hazarded a hand out to the soft mounds of flesh, and thought he would come right then and there.
He took a nipple in his mouth and felt it harden. Rita moaned. It was too much. His erection, which had been dangerously close to bursting, exploded in his shorts.
"Hey, sweets, the idea is to keep a little for me." Rita motioned him toward her bed. "Lucky you're young. Let's see how long it takes to get you going again." She cupped his balls into her hands and took him in her mouth.
"Oh God, I love you," he cried out. He had never felt anything so delicious in his life. It was so good it hurt. This time, he didn't come until Rita begged him to.
After sex, Rita liked to talk. Surprisingly, she seemed to enjoy their conversations.
"I don't know why that surprises you, Alex, you're a bright boy. With a mind like yours, you can do anything you choose."
I can do anything I choose. It was a staggering thought. Maybe he really could be an architect. It was a dream he'd never dared voice.
The next day, Alex went to the one place in Brooklyn he loved. At Highland Park, he climbed the hill to the old reservoir, where he looked straight out to the skyscrapers of Manhattan. He sat on the cold, damp grass and thought about what Rita had said. He didn't want a job just for the sake of earning a living. What he wanted was a position with prestige. He wanted people to look up to him with admiration and respect. He wanted Rita to be proud of him.
His eyes wandered back to the skyscrapers across the distance. Skyscrapers like those he dreamed of building. From his position they looked like monuments. Monuments to the builder. His heart swelled. That was what he had always wanted to do-build big important buildings like those skyscrapers.
Rita laughed when he told her. "Be serious Alex. Why don't you want to be a plumber or an electrician? An architect! That would take years of studying. I know I told you that you're smart, but not that smart. Besides, sweets, you don't really expect me to wait for you to grow up, do you?"
The words were like a knife in Alex's heart, but they only made him more determined. Rita meant everything to him. He would have to show her.
The relationship endured until his senior year, when he was ready for college. One day, when he rushed over after his deliveries, he found Rita in bed with another man. For a few minutes, he hid behind the door and listened in horror as Rita said to this stranger all the special secret things she had said to him. "That's it baby, don't stop. You're the best, baby. The very best." He heard Rita's familiar moans rise until she screamed. Tears welled in his eyes. He closed the door silently behind him and went home. All night he tossed and turned, shocked that he could feel so much pain. Never again, he vowed. No other woman is ever going to hurt me.
The next day after school, Alex went back to Rita's as usual, and made love to her as though nothing had happened. Afterward he had a talk with her. "Rita, does anybody know about us?"
"Don't be ridiculous," she answered sharply as she straightened the seams of her stockings. She sat on the edge of the disheveled bed and watched him covertly.
"I guess you'd be in real trouble if anyone ever found out. Right?"
Rita adjusted the straps of her brassiere and paused in her dressing, long enough to light a Lucky Strike.
"You might lose your job," he continued.
She took a long drag on her cigarette and exhaled slowly.
"You might even be prosecuted for-what is it-something about a minor?"
She exhaled, blowing the smoke in his direction. "What is it you want Alex?" she asked coldly.
He told her.
At his next report card, Alex Ivanov was at the top of his class. He was accepted at NYU with a full scholarship; he had seven hundred of Rita's dollars in his bank account; and the pain of finding her in bed with another man was just a distant memory.
Halfway around the world, Brigitte Dartois also liked drawing. Rather than buildings, she drew pictures of her family-Papa, Maman, and herself under a bright sun. Sometimes she drew trees and flowers. Her subjects were the same as any other child's her age, but her pictures were different. They were strong, arresting.
"Viens voir, Colette," her father called her mother. He held up a bright drawing of a garden. "Regarde, don't tell me our daughter is not talented."
Colette Dartois looked, but to her, those colorful scribbles were no better than those of any other nine year old.
She shrugged. "You shouldn't compliment her too much. It will go to her head. Brigitte, put that away and go do your homework."
Often, Colette would look at her husband and her daughter with a vague discomfort. He paid so much attention to Brigitte, and so little to her. Every day when Louis Dartois burst through the door after work, it was Brigitte to whom he opened his arms after a perfunctory kiss to Colette. Gradually, Colette's love for her husband and daughter festered into resentment and jealousy.
Then, when Brigitte was thirteen years old, her father died suddenly. Three months later, her mother married Lucien. "Consider yourself lucky. Not many men are willing to be a papa to an already-grown girl like you. You better be nice to him." But the girl was filled with anger, feeling betrayed by her mother's indifference. One night, when Brigitte was alone in the house with her stepfather, she was awakened by a pair of rough hands moving over her body. "This will be our little secret," Lucien told her when she opened her eyes. "If you even think of telling anyone, I'll kill you," he said. Then he raped her.
Her mother worked the evening shift as a barmaid at a club down the street, and for the next three years, it became a nightly ritual for Lucien to stop in for une petite caresse, as he called it. Every night he gave her the same warning. "You tell anyone and you're dead." Sometimes he went into gruesome details of what he would do to her if she ever told. Brigitte believed him. And she kept her mouth shut.
Once the top student in her class, her grades began to slide, until she was close to failing. She slept at her friends' whenever she could. At home, she was silent and withdrawn. Her mother barely noticed. "What's the matter with you?" she asked. "You keep it up and you'll be kicked out of school."
One night, while Lucien was in her bed and forcing himself on her, the bedroom door flew open. Her mother stood in the entrance, an expression of horror on her face. Lucien jumped up and fumbled with his trousers. "It's the girl's fault," he said, his voice coming in halting breaths. "How's a man supposed to resist. She's always coming on to me. As soon as you leave in the evening, she takes off her camisole and lets me see her body. Colette, you've got to stop her, she's trying to break us up."
"Get out!" Colette shouted, and her voice was like ice. The girl sobbed in relief. At last, her ordeal was over. She would never have to see her stepfather again. "You're no daughter of mine. Get out you putain."
In shock, Brigitte realized her mother was speaking to her. She had lost! Lucien had won! She dressed as quickly as she could, threw a few of her things into a pillowcase and slipped silently down the hall to the closet where her mother kept her purse. Sorry, but I'll need this more than you will. She took all the cash she found. Then she left.
Two days later, a help-wanted sign in a store window, caught her eye.
* * *
Even in his late forties, Marcel Latreille was a tall, colorless man. His road to success had been marrying the vapid Hélène Richoux, of the Richoux chain of fashion stores. For twenty-two boring years, he remained faithful to his dull wife, reminding himself regularly of the union's one important benefit. Thanks to his wife's shares in the company, he was in total control of the stores. Without her, he might still be selling ties in the menswear department.
Marcel Latreille was bright and ambitious. Under his tutelage, the chain grew into one of the most successful in France. Over the years, the stock had doubled and quadrupled, until it was worth nearly twenty times what it was worth on his wedding day. It was an enviable record, one that should have made Marcel a very happy man. In reality, it only served to make him feel bitter. Although, as President and Managing Director of the stores he received a generous salary, he owned no company shares. These remained jealously in his wife's hands.
Although dull, Hélène Richoux was not stupid. As willing as she was to lend her husband control of the company, she never gave him the means to leave her side.
The day Brigitte walked into Richoux's main store on the rue du Faubourg St. Honoré, was a particularly distressing one for Marcel. That morning, over breakfast at the George V with his chum Aurèl, he noticed that the server did not smile at him the way she did at most of the other customers in the room. Even when he tried to flirt mildly, the woman simply ignored him. Later, on his way through the store to the office, he walked by a mirror and was jolted when he realized that the drab looking person he saw reflected was himself. My Lord, I have finally turned into a male version of Hélène. It was a depressing thought.
Marcel Latreille was forty-seven, an age when a man should feel in the prime of his life. Instead of taking pleasure in his success, he felt bored and empty. If he didn't do something soon, his life would be over before he ever enjoyed it. If only I wasn't stuck with Hélène. At that moment, he walked by the human resources department and his eyes fell on the pretty young girl filling out an application form. Although she was tall, thin, and curved in all the right places, it was the pain in her eyes and the desperation in her voice that attracted him. When he reached his office, he called the woman in charge of personnel.
"Who is that girl, filling out the questionnaire?" he asked.
"There's nobody here at the moment monsieur Latreille."
"Yes, of course there is. I just saw her. A young woman, red hair, about twenty-she was standing at the counter a minute ago."
"Oh! That one. I didn't keep her application. She's only sixteen and has no experience."
"What did you do with it?" He was surprised to hear himself yelling. That was something he rarely did.
"I threw it in the garbage. Just a moment. I'll fish it out." She picked up the phone a moment later. "Here it is. Her name is Brigitte Dartois. There's no telephone number or address."
"Stop her before she leaves the store. I want to see her in my office, now." He slammed the phone into the cradle.
Brigitte was nearing the main exit when a burly guardien stepped in front of her. "Sorry mademoiselle. You'll have to come with me."
"Why? I haven't done anything wrong." It flashed through her mind that her mother must have pressed theft charges against her.
"Marcel Latreille wants to see you. He's in charge here."
Heart hammering and faint with fear, Brigitte entered the large wood-paneled office.
"Mademoiselle Dartois is here to see you," the officer said.
"Show her in. Have a seat, mademoiselle. Brigitte, isn't it?"
"Yes, thank you." She sat and nervously smoothed down the folds of her skirt. She still could not understand why she had been summoned.
From his seat behind the desk, Marcel Latreille studied the girl with curiosity. With a knowledgeable eye, he noted that she was lovely in spite of her unflattering attire. She has the face of an angel and a body made for pleasure. What a beauty she would be with the right clothes. The thought intrigued him. "You're looking for a job," he said. "What kind of work would you like to do?'
"Anything sir. I have no experience, but I can learn fast."
"How would you like to work in the cosmetics department? With a face like yours, women will be begging to know your beauty secrets."
"Fine. You're hired." He pushed the intercom button. "Jeanne, could you come in here for a minute please? There's a young lady I want you to meet."
Jeanne walked in. With her upswept hair, expertly applied makeup and well-tailored suit, she looked every bit the sophisticated and capable corporate secretary. She glanced at Brigitte with curiosity and looked at her employer.
"Jeanne, meet Brigitte. She and I need your help. Here's the situation." Marcel quickly explained what he wanted and Jeanne jotted down a few notes. Once in a while, she glanced at him in surprise. "So, what do you think?" he asked finally.
Jeanne tapped one perfectly manicured fingernail against her notebook, and inspected Brigitte with a critical eye. "You're right. It's an exciting idea, but you're not giving me much time."
"Two days. No more. What I want is discreet elegance, nothing flashy. And I want her to get to work as soon as possible."
"I'll do my best." Jeanne smiled to Brigitte. "Are you ready?" Jeanne carefully suppressed her feelings of revulsion. It was clear to her that Marcel Latreille had more on his mind than training a new employee.
"Yes Madame," replied Brigitte eagerly.
Jeanne had forty-eight hours to do a total makeover. What the girl needed first was a proper wardrobe. Jeanne took her to the young-designer section on the fourth floor and began rummaging through the sales racks under the girl's expectant eyes.
"So, which one do you like?" asked Jeanne. She pulled out two blouses and held them up for Brigitte to inspect.
The young girl was overwhelmed. "I don't know. They're both so beautiful."
Jeanne glanced down at the blouses. Both of them were silk. One had raglan sleeves and a Peter Pan collar. The other was a more tailored style, almost like a man's shirt. "You're right," she said. "You really need more than one. We'll take both." Why not, she thought. If Marcel Latreille has designs on this child, he can bloody well pay for two silk blouses.
"Oh, but I didn't mean..."
"I never imagined you did," she said. "Now let's not waste time. We have a lot to do." Next, Jeanne selected a classic brown wool skirt. With it, she chose a matching hound's-tooth jacket. "This is perfect."
Brigitte agreed enthusiastically.
"Now you need shoes and accessories." In the shoe department, Brigitte immediately spotted her favorite pair-simple pumps with a small heel. To her joy, Jeanne pointed to that very pair and asked the salesman to bring them in Brigitte's size. A few scarves and silk stockings later, the shopping spree was over.
"I've never owned such beautiful clothes," said Brigitte, so overwhelmed she thought she might burst. Visions of herself dressed in all her new finery danced through her mind. "Is monsieur Latreille so nice to everyone here?"
"He's being very nice to you," replied Jeanne, eyebrows raised and mouth pursed. "Very nice indeed." She hesitated for a moment, and then continued. "Brigitte, if you ever need to talk to someone, don't hesitate to come and see me."
Brigitte looked at her, puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"I only mean that you're very young and that if you ever need the expert advice of an old lady like me..."
"Oh, Jeanne, you are so beautiful. You are probably the most beautiful woman I've ever seen in my life." Brigitte's admiration was sincere.
Jeanne smiled. "Thank you. That's nice of you to say." She sighed deeply and patted Brigitte's hand. "But enough of this chit-chat. We still have a lot to do."
Next, Jeanne took Brigitte to see Olivier. The hairdresser, a tall skinny man with a thin black mustache, took one look at Brigitte, put the fingers of his right hand to his mouth a made a loud kissing noise. "Beautiful," he exclaimed. "And just look at all that hair. It will be a pleasure working on you ma jolie."
"Olivier," said Jeanne. "Monsieur Latreille wants something classic and easy enough for Brigitte to maintain by herself."
"Trust me." Olivier was walking around Brigitte, touching her hair and rubbing the strands between his fingers. "So thick," he said to himself. "So shiny, and with a face like that, anything will look good on her."
"Olivier," repeated Jeanne in a warning tone.
"Oui, oui, j'ai tout compris. Come with me my lovely." He guided Brigitte to the sink and ordered an assistant over. "Louisette, give her a shampoo. Finish with a touch of cream rinse, then bring her over to my chair."
A few minutes later, Brigitte sat in Olivier's chair and watched as he ran his fingers through her hair. He picked up a pair of scissors and began to clip.
When Brigitte emerged from the salon, she looked like a new person. Instead of the gawky teenager of a few hours ago, she was a beautiful and elegant young woman. Her new clothes were simple and well cut, emphasizing her tall and slender silhouette. Her red hair was trimmed to shoulder length and tied off her face by a simple twisted silk scarf, knotted at the base of her neck.
Jeanne stared at her in shock for a moment. Finally she recovered enough to speak. "Mon Dieu, who would have believed it? Monsieur Marcel has a good eye. Every one of our customers will want to look just like you. Come. Our boss wants to see you."
* * *
"So how do you feel?" asked Marcel. The girl stood in front of him, staring at her feet.
"Like Cinderella," she answered. Marcel burst into laughter. Jeanne felt her heart sink.
"Jeanne, you did a tremendous job. She is beautiful." Marcel looked at Brigitte again. It was difficult to believe this was the same girl who stood trembling in his office only two days earlier. "Now, I think she's ready for some training." He nodded his dismissal, and Jeanne and Brigitte turned to leave. Just as they walked out the door, Marcel called out after them. "Brigitte, do you have a place to stay?"
The girl blushed. "I haven't had a chance to start looking," she stammered. She had slept huddled inside a Metro station for the last few nights.
"Do you have money for an apartment?" Before she had a chance to answer, he continued. "Jeanne, see that she has an advance on her salary. As a matter of fact, why don't you take a few hours to help Brigitte find a place to live?"
Brigitte could not believe her luck. If not for Marcel Latreille's generous help, God only knew what would have become of her. She smiled at her benefactor gratefully. "Thank you so much monsieur Latreille. If there is anything I can do for you...anything," she said innocently. "How can I ever pay you back?"
"That's very sweet of you my dear," replied the man vaguely. His eyes ran over her body as she left his office. A body made for pleasure, he thought again.
Although all he had done was cross a bridge, Alex felt like an immigrant arriving in New York for the first time. He walked steadily through the streets in disbelief at the immensity of the city around him. Manhattan! The city of his dreams. With evening coming on fast, he headed back toward the apartment he had noticed on East Forty-Fifth. "One-room apartments, cheap," the sign had said.
Nothing was cheap in Manhattan, not even the broom closet he rented as an apartment. It was far from perfect, but it would do. There was a bed and a small table tucked under a window that looked directly into a neighbor's bedroom. He opened the old refrigerator and the stench nearly knocked him out. He quickly closed it again. Not exactly the Plaza, he told himself, but at least I'm in Manhattan.
Once settled in his apartment, he armed himself with a list of what he needed and went shopping.
For the past three years, Alex had studied Rita's fashion magazines. The time had not been wasted. He considered himself an expert at distinguishing people with money from those without, solely from the way they dressed. He had learned that the upper classes dressed quietly, in well-cut clothes that lasted years. On the other hand, flashy clothes immediately marked a person as being from a less affluent background.
Carefully, he examined and studied every garment he bought. Was the fabric of good quality? Was the cut classic enough to last a long time? He badgered the sales clerks with questions until he felt sure of his selections.
Loaded with parcels, he walked back to his new home and carefully put away his clothes. Then he went out again. A few blocks down the street, he found what he was looking for. He walked into the barbershop and described the cut he wanted-just enough length to smooth back. Later that night, when he looked at himself in the mirror, he was a different person. Now he was ready to start his new life.
Alex woke up the next morning, his body stiff and sore from the lumpy mattress, but his heart was filled with joy. Today was his first day of class. My first step toward success. His stomach growled voraciously and he went in search of food. Visions of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, and ham filled his mind. The small, but freshly scrubbed refrigerator in his apartment was bare, so he grabbed his new wool jacket and headed for the university cafeteria.
As he walked along the street, he became aware that among the students on campus he was anonymous, just another face in the crowd. Nobody knew about his background. Nobody knew about his mother. He would be judged for his talent and achievements alone.
The cafeteria was crowded with students. Alex found himself a table and concentrated on the food before him. As he ate, bits of conversations drifted over to him.
"...Calculus 101 with professor Morrow, then Principles of Design with Anderson, a cinch..."
"...not looking forward to Analytic Geometry. That'll be a real bitch..."
He turned his attention to the boys at the next table. They were tall, medium build, classic Ivy League haircuts, intelligent eyes and dazzling white teeth in well-tanned faces. They were the very picture of young men living the American dream. And that is exactly how I look now. Who would ever have believed I would be here someday? I got this far. I'll make it the rest of the way.
* * *
NYU's Architectural Program was everything that Alex had expected it to be. For the first time in his life, he threw himself into his studies with enthusiasm and energy. Until now, school had been a necessary evil; one he had endured, giving it the bare minimum of effort. Now, his mind was like a sponge, soaking in as much knowledge as it could. The courses included Drafting, Building and Construction, Design, Algebra and Professional Practice. At the end of each day, he could hardly wait until the next morning's classes. He worked harder than he ever had. His dreams were finally within reach. Nothing will stand in my way now.
The campus was full of pretty girls. The first time Alex noticed one who appealed to him, he quickly reminded himself of his goals. I don't have time for such things. A girlfriend will only slow me down. That night, as he settled down to a few hours of study, his mind kept wandering back to her. Much as he tried to concentrate on his books, all he could think about was the girl's blonde hair falling loosely on her shoulders, her trim figure in the crisp white blouse and pleated skirt. Her legs tapering down to slim ankles in rolled white socks and her smile when she looked back at him interfered with his efforts. Try as he might he could not stop imagining the delights hidden under those prim clothes. It had been months since he had last seen Rita and Alex's sexual appetite was screaming to be fed.
The next morning, he hurried over to the library where he had spotted her. He hunted through the rows of bookshelves until he spotted the familiar blonde head. She was standing on her toes in the Psychology section, her back to him, inspecting the titles of the books on the upper shelf. He casually walked over, searching for an excuse to talk to her.
The girl reached for a book, tugged at it, and just as she managed to grasp the edge, it slipped out of her hands and crashed heavily down on one of her feet.
"Ouch!" The cry was heartfelt. She stood on one foot, holding on to the shelf as tears welled up in her eyes.
"Let me help you," offered Alex, solicitously. He picked up the book and put one arm around her narrow waist. "Lean on me." He walked her slowly over to the study section and helped her into one of the chairs. Alex slipped off her shoe and massaged her foot gingerly.
"Ohhh! That feels better," she exclaimed.
"That book weighs a ton." He stopped massaging for a moment and looked down at the lump that was quickly forming. "That's a nasty welt. Maybe you should go to the infirmary."
"No, no. I'm feeling much better already. It was nice of you to stop and help."
"Nice!" exclaimed Alex in mock horror. "I'm not nice. I expect to be paid for this."
She looked up at him, surprised, and noticed the deep blue eyes in the handsome face. "What are you talking about?" she asked, suddenly suspicious.
Alex looked back at her innocently. "I never do anything for nothing. I did something for you, now you have to do something for me." He paused before adding. "Have lunch with me."
With his easy charm and deep blue eyes, he really was irresistible but still the girl hesitated. "I don't know. It's too early for lunch. Besides, I have work to do."
"I'll settle for coffee," he said, beaming.
"Are you always so pushy?" she asked playfully.
"Always." Alex chuckled. "And if you're about to accuse me of purposely making that book fall on your foot, you're right. I took one look at you and said to myself, 'How am I going to get that girl to notice me?' Then I made the book fall and it worked, of course."
She laughed. "Okay. Coffee. But only a quick one. In the cafeteria in an hour?"
Alex nodded. "It's a date."
* * *
Over coffee, Alex learned a lot about Linda. She was nineteen, in her first year of college, and was studying to be a child psychologist. What Linda wanted most in life, however, was to get married and have children. Alex was smitten. He could not take his eyes off her. Linda Hyde was beautiful and sexy. The thought of her beautiful body under his drove him wild. He could not wait.
On their first date, he took her out for a burger. At the end of the meal they shared an ice-cream soda, and he told her about his dreams. He talked about the buildings he wanted to build and the money he wanted to make. "I guess I want what every guy wants." He paused for a moment and put his hand on hers. "I want to be successful, get married, and have a family." It wasn't really a lie, he told himself. He did want to get married-someday.
Linda listened with rapt attention. "You know, you're the first boy I've ever met who doesn't mind talking about his plans."
"Should I stop?"
"Please don't. I like talking. Most boys just try to get me into bed. If I mention that I want to get to know them, they get impatient. I can't be attracted to someone I don't know."
Alex nodded. He leaned forward and kissed her. Linda blushed but did not pull away. For the rest of the evening Alex told her all about himself, changing the details of his childhood until it sounded nothing like his life, and altering his ambitions until she believed that settling down was foremost on his mind.
On the second date, Alex took her to The Starlight Club. This is sure to break my budget, but what the heck. She's worth it. Alex pressed his hard body against hers during the slow dances. With every dance, hers melted closer into his. With every kiss, her breathing became shallower. He could feel her resolve weaken. At the end of the evening, when Alex invited her back to his apartment, she accepted. And when Alex slowly undressed her and covered her with his kisses, she believed she and Alex would spend the rest of their lives together.
Long after Alex had fallen asleep, Linda stayed awake remembering every delicious detail of their lovemaking. Their naked bodies, moving together as in slow motion, Alex's hardness tearing into her until her passion equaled his and she cried out for more. Then she had exploded into waves of sheer ecstasy. At last she knew what love was. She turned and gazed at the face of the man who had awakened such deep emotions. In his sleep Alex looked like a little boy. "I love you," she whispered, then curled up close to him and fell asleep.
* * *
Linda sat across from him in the coffee shop. "I was speaking to my parents last night, and they mentioned they would like to meet you."
Alex looked up from his espresso. "Why would they want to do that?"
Linda giggled. "Don't be silly. You know why. You're my boyfriend. They know that we're in love with each other and they want to meet the man I want to marry."
"What do you mean 'marry'?" Alex was shocked.
"Alex, I'm not talking about getting married now. I'm talking about eventually-next spring, next summer. Maybe we'll even wait until you graduate. But we will get married some day, won't we?"
Alex swallowed hard. Suddenly he wasn't so sure what he felt. "Love? Whoever said anything about love?" How could anybody be sure of being able to love only one person for the rest of their life? He wasn't ready for this. Linda was nice, but he didn't want to be saddled with marriage and babies. Visions of being stuck in a small apartment with a family to feed, flashed through his mind. He saw his dreams of a brilliant future, vanishing. He was near panic. "Sorry sweetheart, I think we got our wires crossed. You're a great girl, but I'm just not ready to get serious." With that, he turned and walked out of the shop, leaving a tearful Linda behind.