When Marianne hears that voice, all air gets knocked out of her lungs. She freezes, completely paralyzed just one step away from the exit of the theatre. She could just walk away, pretend she imagined the voice–maybe she did after all those years–and go on with her life without the agony that comes with clinging on to hope. But she cannot resist, like she couldn’t before. So, Marianne turns around, and when she does, her eyes fill with tears.
She is just as she remembered her, the image she immortalized in her art to always keep her close, hasn’t changed. Maybe it has, but Marianne is too wrapped in taking in the real, tangible version of Héloïse standing in front of her. No longer just an image but a body, a soul, with the same strong presence that had captivated her as soon as Marianne had laid eyes on her all those years ago. Héloïse is staring back at her, her eyes looking almost grey in the theatre light. Marianne feels pierced by them, by that intensity she hadn’t been able to find anywhere else, in nobody else. But all at once, those same eyes soften, much like the rest of Héloïse’s features.
“You still haven’t learned,” she says, and Marianne sees her lips stretch in the ghost of a smile, trembling and fleeting on her face. “Makes sense for an artist to make the poet’s choice.”
Marianne cannot help but smile despite the tears that threaten to fall down her face if only she dared to blink. She shakes her head, letting out a shaky exhale.
“I didn’t,” she whispers, remembering what she had done as if it had happened yesterday. “I just needed to look at you one last time.”
They walk towards each other at the same time, meeting halfway across the hall until they are standing barely inches apart. Neither reaches out to initiate contact, it’s as if an invisible barrier was keeping them separate even while standing so close. They’re in a public place, they’re both aware of it. An awareness that is physically painful for Marianne, because even with all her disbelief, even with how overwhelmed she feels, there is nothing she wants more in the world than to close the distance between them and bury her face in Héloïse’s neck.
“You were going to leave without saying a word,” Héloïse says, and Marianne knows she is talking about the present. She has no comeback, that’s exactly what she was going to do, walk away without looking back.
“I thought you didn’t see me,” she whispers eventually, feeling her chest expand with how glassy Héloïse’s eyes seem to get all at once.
“I thought you knew better by now,” the other girl replies. She is right, Marianne should have known better, she should have known Héloïse was never someone to just be passively observed. She had always looked back, stripping Marianne of any certainty and barrier she thought she had and leaving her completely vulnerable, happy to be so in a way she had never felt again after their separation.
The moment shatters in the span of a second. A gentleman walks past them and greets Héloïse and the two women instinctively take a step back, withdrawing from each other. Marianne becomes invisible all of a sudden, acknowledged only with a nod of courtesy by the man and she knows it’s not just because she is a woman. The luxurious clothes and jewels the man is wearing tell her that he isn’t one to bother with someone like her, not belonging to nobility. He refers to Héloïse with her married name, and suddenly Marianne feels cold.
They talk in Italian, the lack of any French accent to tinge Héloïse’s voice brutally reminds Marianne just how much time has passed, how different their lives are now. She is surprised when she realizes Héloïse is not going to introduce her to the man, and yet glad of it at the same time. She wouldn’t know how to explain their relationship to this stranger, and least of all does she want to lie. “I painted her wedding portrait” wouldn’t be enough, something she isn’t sure she could utter out loud without her voice breaking and her eyes filling with tears.
Marianne exhales deeply through her mouth when the polite conversation ends and the man makes his way to the exit, leaving them alone again. Something has shifted, though, the intrusion has disrupted the moment, and when Héloïse goes back to looking at her, Marianne feels a distance between them that wasn’t there before. It’s written all over Héloïse’s body, her posture rigid, her jaw locked. They’re back to their roles. Even the environment around them seems to tell them so, as more people make the way out of the opera room and starts walking past them, shattering that moment of stolen intimacy for good.
Marianne doesn’t know how to continue their conversation after that interruption, despite the whirlwind of thoughts inside her head. Her mouth is slightly open, but nothing comes out. She wouldn’t even know how to put into words what she is thinking, feeling. Héloïse is right there, she could just extend her arm and do what she dreamed about for years, touch her. But as close as she is, Héloïse feels completely inaccessible. A married woman, in a different country, with a different life.
“A friend of my husband’s,” Héloïse says after a moment, with a coldness in her voice that Marianne doesn’t remember ever hearing from her. Marianne isn’t sure what hurts the most, if that cold tone or the very words pronounced by Héloïse, a reminder of their reality. For a moment, for the time of one concerto, Marianne had forgotten. She feels stupid when she nods, unable to think about a proper way to reply to Héloïse.
“Did you see me inside?”
The sudden question, blunt and unexpected, doesn’t just interrupt whatever Marianne was going to try to say, it leaves her completely speechless. She shouldn’t have been surprised. Héloïse had dazzled her with her frankness, with her unapologetic commitment to honesty, from the very first moment they had uttered a word to each other. Never before, and certainly never afterwards, had Marianne encountered someone as straightforward and real as Héloïse. She had been able to deal with it only by adopting that exact same realness. Sharing with the other girl the vulnerability that came with it had been terrifying and beautiful. After all those years, though, she doesn’t know how to do that anymore.
“Yes,” Marianne hears herself say. Even with the paralyzing need to shelter herself, she is unable to lie to Héloïse, not when a past lie had caused them to waste so much of the little time they had. She doesn’t expand further either, though, and with each second that goes by in silence, Marianne sees Héloïse grow more and more rigid before her eyes, disappearing behind that mask that she remembers so well, one that had stayed impenetrable until Héloïse had chosen, had wanted, for Marianne to see her.
But Héloïse doesn’t want to be seen now, it is evident to Marianne. She understands it, she knows how upset she would be if she found out that someone secretly witnessed her in a moment of such raw fragility, but she doesn’t know how to defend her heart if not with silence. Thinking about what she saw inside the theater is enough to make the back of her eyes prickle with tears. Talking about it would simply leave her shattered and sobbing.
“So what brings you to Milan?” Héloïse asks, clearing her throat and tilting her chin up, everything in her body language screaming formalities. Marianne goes along, blinking back the tears and forcing herself to focus on the present.
“I’ve been commissioned a portrait,” she says, gulping heavily against the sudden dryness in her throat. “Contessa Lucia Arese.”
“I know her.” She pauses for a moment, and suddenly her face softens, her eyes glinting with an imperceptible sparkle of humor. “And her eccentricities. You must be exhausted.”
It’s an unexpected comment, playful in a way that makes Marianne breathe a little more easily. She feels the tightness in her chest loosen, if only barely so, and the corners of her mouth curl up in a small smile.
“Do you know how many times she had me re-do her neck?”
“No wrinkles or folds allowed, I imagine. She won’t be pleased unless you make her look younger than her daughter.”
Marianne’s smile turns into a light laugh at that, one met by Héloïse with a genuine smile that makes Marianne’s heart swell. For a moment, everything feels easy again, so easy it hurts, how naturally they can slip back into the way they used to talk and smile together. It is only for a moment, though. Then, Héloïse’s smile falters, lips twitching and eyelids flickering as she tries to keep whatever emotion is threatening to surface at bay.
“I knew she had hired a French painter for her portrait. I didn’t know it was you.”
Marianne isn’t as good at hiding her emotions as Héloïse. She thought she was, Héloïse always wearing her heart on her sleeve and refusing to compromise her feelings for anything or anyone. But time reveals its power here too, because where Héloïse seems to have learned overtime how to conceal everything she doesn’t want to reveal, Marianne’s control over herself is much more elusive. She feels her features twist in response to Héloïse’s words. Maybe not enough to give away what she is feeling, but definitely enough to reveal just how much she is feeling.
“It wasn’t supposed to be me,” she eventually says, forcing herself to keep her voice steady. “She hired my father, but it clashed with another of his commissions, so—”
“So you took his place,” Héloïse concludes for her and Marianne nods.
“The contessa doesn’t bother to hide how annoyed she is with this replacement,” she says with a soft chuckle, but it holds none of the levity from before, and Héloïse doesn’t smile this time. If anything, her face seems to grow even more serious, to the point that Marianne finds herself looking down and away.
“Lucia will complain about anything,” Héloïse simply says. “It is not personal. I know she will love the end result, you are very talented.”
Somehow, the compliment doesn’t bring any joy or gratification to Marianne. She cannot help but think that it’s because of her talent that they are where they are now.
“Thank you,” she whispers flatly, receiving no response in return. She hates this, this rigidity forced upon them by time and society and everything unspoken between them. Indifference would be easier, but she doesn’t have that luxury, nor is she sure that she wants it.
“She is vexing,” Héloïse continues, “but harmless. Don’t let her behavior upset you.”
“It doesn’t,” Marianne replies absentmindedly, still too wrapped in her own thoughts to truly focus on a conversation about someone she has no interest in. In her distraction, she doesn’t pay enough attention to her own words either, and they slip from her lips before she even realizes it. “My annoyance is far greater than hers anyway.”
It’s only because of Héloïse’s question that Marianne becomes aware of what she just said, and that she said it out loud. Her eyes widen and snap up, meeting Héloïse’s questioning gaze. It is too late to backtrack, to pretend that she didn’t mean it, and Héloïse is far too intelligent to buy into any attempt at a diversion, or worse, any lie. Marianne feels her throat close, and the breath she lets out is released through her mouth as a stuttered exhale. She cannot lie, she doesn’t want to, not after seeing Héloïse’s tears during the concert. Making herself vulnerable in return feels as fair as it feels terrifying.
“I…” She closes her eyes for a moment, then she sighs heavily, forcing herself to say it. “I have been avoiding Milan as much as possible.”
When she opens her eyes again, she finds a frown on Héloïse’s face, the crease in the middle of her forehead much deeper and defined than what she remembered.
“I thought you loved Milan,” Héloïse says after a moment of silence.
“And yet you have been avoiding it.”
Héloïse falls quiet again after Marianne’s reply. She doesn’t ask for an explanation. Her eyes are as piercing as her voice was sharp, tinged with a glint of hurt which tells Marianne that confusion has nothing to do with the hardening of her features. If anything, she has read Marianne’s words far too well.
“I see,” Héloïse eventually says, with a tone so unreadable that Marianne feels the stabbing urge to ask her what she is thinking, to beg her to say it. The look in her eyes stops her, though, her green irises burning with an unspoken emotion so profound and overwhelming in its intensity that Marianne finds herself having to look down again. She closes her eyes and wraps a hand around her neck, her through tight and dry preventing her from breathing properly.
She can feel Héloïse’s gaze on her even like this, and in a moment of cowardice, she regrets telling the truth. Formalities won’t work anymore after what she revealed, this facade they are both holding up feels even more constricting now, suffocating even. She thinks about the pain she would have felt if she had ignored Héloïse’s voice and had walked away without turning back, and she wonders if it would have been better than this, this unbearable pretense of indifference that neither seems ready to break. She doesn’t understand how it is possible to want to be close to someone more than anything in the world, and at the same time to want to run away as far as possible.
Marianne opens her eyes when someone walks past her and brushes against her arm with an apology. They are still in the hall, the buzzing around them slowly dying down as the people who attended the concert make their way out. When Marianne looks up, Héloïse is still looking at her in that same, troubling way. Marianne cannot bear it a second longer.
“I should go home.”
Marianne’s breath catches in her throat. It isn’t the mere interruption that stuns her, it is the abruptness of the shift in the energy between them.
“It’s getting late, and they’re waiting for me.”
Marianne doesn’t know who they are, whether Héloïse’s maids and valets inside a carriage or her family, and she doesn’t want to know. Héloïse herself seems different all of a sudden. Whatever connection had sparked between them as soon as they had reunited, making everything around them disappear, seems to have faded away in the span of a second. All at once, Héloïse doesn’t seem like Héloïse anymore, but just another unknown noblewoman brushing past her.
It is such a jarring transformation that it leaves Marianne speechless, unable to protest even when Héloïse walks past her and starts making her way towards the exit. She doesn’t even move, staring at the now empty space in front of her and wondering if this is all a dream, if she is still in Paris and she is going to wake up with a fever after yet another night imagining someone she cannot have. It is not a dream, though. The ache in her chest would never be that strong if it were.
She turns around when the sound of Héloïse’s steps ceases. She expects to find herself alone, but to her surprise, Héloïse is still there, staring at her by the exit door.
“Will you stay in Milan for long still?” she asks, with a tone that Marianne is still too astonished to try to interpret.
“Yes,” she replies, not bothering to clarifying for how long exactly. Every day in Milan has always felt too long to her, till now.
“Then, if your commitment to the contessa Arese doesn’t keep you, I would like to invite you for breakfast tomorrow.”
Marianne blinks and her lips part in an expression of shock. She knows she must look stupid, funny at least, but no amount of attention to social etiquettes can hide her bafflement this time. She thinks it must be a joke, a cruel joke at her expense for having indulged in thoughts and feelings she should have suppressed years ago. Héloïse keeps looking at her, though, impassive in the face of Marianne’s bewilderment and waiting for an answer.
“I… I have a portrait session in the morning.”
“Then after lunch,” Héloïse replies, too quickly for Marianne to come up with an excuse to reject the invitation. She feels herself nod when Héloïse tells her the name of her residence, her husband’s last name immediately burning itself into Marianne’s brain, alongside made-up images of Héloïse with that man, of their lives together in the house she will now have to visit.
“It’s settled,” Héloïse says, wrapping herself in her expensive cape and opening the door. “I shall see you tomorrow, then. It’s been long, I look forward to our conversation.”
It’s the first time either of them addresses the time gone by since their separation, but just as she mentioned it, Héloïse doesn’t seem keen on discussing it further. She hesitates on the threshold for a moment and looks back at Marianne one last time. Their gazes lock and for one second, even at that distance Marianne recognizes her again, the Héloïse she knew.
“You haven’t changed,” Héloïse whispers. Then she turns around and walks out without looking back.
Marianne doesn’t move, standing in the middle of the hall and staring blankly at the doors that open and close with each person leaving the building. Soon enough, she is the only one left, and even then she cannot move. Instinctively, she reaches inside her pocket and clutches at the small, oval object she carried with her, tight enough to hurt her palm. Her chest tightens even more than before. She cannot scream, though, she cannot even cry. All she can do is remember Héloïse’s burning gaze, and breathe out through her mouth a long, shuddering breath.