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The first person to call it the House of Stars was Séraphine’s husband, Théophile, a drunk who often passed out in the entrance court before making it to the front door. He’d say that, from his cheek-to-the-cobblestone view, all he saw were faint lights, like stars, in the bedroom windows, and no matter the hour there were always stars out on our stretch of rue du Bac, which is also how Séraphine’s place got a reputation among others for being a house that never sleeps.
I’d just met her when she told me Théo carried on an affair with her sister Charlotte the whole time they were married but he’d chosen Séraphine for his wife because she was the one who inherited the de la Roque fortune. Everyone knew about Théo and Charlotte’s romance but back then people were more strategic in their marrying.
“It was the fashion,” Séraphine said, and believe me, a lot of things you’d never expect were the fashion. Soon after my arrival, I asked what happened to Théophile because I hadn’t yet met him but always saw his hat resting on the chest in the front foyer as if he were lost somewhere in the house. Séraphine rearranged herself among her bed pillows and lit a cigarette before sighing, “My Théo suicided himself seventeen years ago. The writer who lived across the way had done the same a month before. It was the fashion.”
Séraphine was a countess. Around the house, and even around Paris, people still kept track of that stuff even though titles went out with the revolution. I was told by the guy who recommended me as a tenant that I should address her as Madame la Comtesse or just plain Countess if I planned on sticking to English, but I couldn’t utter either without feeling I was part of a performance. So, within hours of my arrival I asked if I could call her by her first name instead. Her kohl-lined eyes expanded to reveal their inner pink membranes and she took a while to respond. I was thinking this sort of friendliness might have been a grave mistake and wondered if there was a way to reverse it when Séraphine finally cleared her throat and smiled with what, using her frown lines as evidence, I took to be her first in years.
“Very well, Leticia. You may call me Séraphine. If you insist.”
Soon all the girls started calling her Séraphine too, even those who’d been residents for years already and had always addressed her formally. Her grandson Loic tried to rectify my disgrace, saying it was rude of us to be so familiar and we should at least address her as Madame since we were all guests in Séraphine’s house, which wasn’t really true given that we paid good money to live there, in American dollars no lessa year’s rent in full, up front. But it was too late; the order of the house had already shifted.
Princess Diana had died while I was on the night flight from Newark to Paris. The taxi driver tossed Le Figaro with the headline and picture of the tunnel crash across my lap and drove me from Charles de Gaulle over to the Seventh. I remembered watching her wedding on television with my mother when I was a kid and that didn’t feel like so long ago, but now that was just a story people would tell and instead of happily ever after it would be And the Princess and her lover died together in Paris. The End. The news of her death made me feel old and brought on a sharp longing for my mother who’d turned her back from me at the airport so I wouldn’t see the shine of her tears. The taxi driver let me keep the newspaper. He’d bought multiple copies, he said, figuring they’d be worth something because it’s not everyday a princess dies. I tucked it into the back of my jeans and dragged my two suitcases off the sidewalk, across the courtyard to the Countess’s house, and into the foyer. Nobody turned up when I rang the bell.
Like Séraphine, the House of Stars must have been very beautiful once. You could see the allure and majesty under the costume of Persian rugs, marble floors, molded ceilings, enormous chandeliers, and gilded mirrors. But if you looked closer you’d see the rugs were darkened with age, spotted with cigarette stains, worn with high heel holes. The marble floor, chipped and decades overdue for a polishing. The moldings, cracked with cherubs missing heads or wings, the mirrors fogged over, their frames tarnished, and the chandeliers were missing bulbs or crystals. Then there were the decorative details; wooden furniture with mother-of-pearl and enamel inlays that were Louis something or other, chests and tiny tables holding figurines, and miniature silver boxesthe sort of stuff you’d see at any garage sale back home. And that bouquet of old tobacco, lingering despite all those little glass bowls of lavender potpourri.
A voice called and I followed it down the short hall off the foyer.
And then I saw her: Séraphine, propped up by a mound of white cushions in a large mahogany sleigh bed floating at the center of the room over a floor layered with carpets. Lace curtains shrouded glass doors that opened onto the back garden. She was dressed in a white bed gown, her legs covered by an airy duvet, looking porcelain with what was left of her long colorless hair swiped into a tight bun. Pearls drooped off her ears, her thin lips were covered in a runny red pigment, and her light eyes were lined with a dark gunk that was her trademark and probably the reason for her cataracts. Even in bed, fat like a panda, she was an elegant sort of lady, just like the younger Séraphine staring back at her from the framed photographs lining the yellowed walls, and I often wondered what her husband didn’t see in her.
By then, Séraphine was almost ninety and hadn’t left her room in three years; a vestige that came with the house. The maids called her the Maharani because doctors, friends, and the bits of the world that mattered to Séraphine came to her when summoned. They said she would have to be bulldozed out if any of her descendants were to have their way and try to sell the house, as I soon learned her own daughter was hoping to do.
When I asked Séraphine why she decided to rent out rooms in her house, she explained that before it was the House of Stars it was the House of Felines. Théo, who was the obsessive type, had collected his way up to fifty or so of some rare brand of Siamese and each room, which now boarded a girl, once housed five or six cats, plus a few favorites who had free reign of the estate. Théo treated the cats like curios and spent his days visiting each of them, brushing them and clipping their nails, whispering in Russian because Théo was Russian in his former life, rumored to be Jewish, though it was never mentioned because the de la Roque family wanted people to think they were thoroughly French and Catholic, throwing around that old proverb that a good name is worth more than a golden belt. The maids said that’s also the reason Séraphine never took Théo’s giveaway of a last name, and why he was so taken with the writer across the street who was also Russian and Jewish in some capacity.
One day Séraphine got fed up with the cats. She said she couldn’t do anything about Théophile sleeping with her sister like it was his God-given right but she could evict the cats because it was her house, inherited from her father who favored her as his firstborn. She’d wanted to pack up the cats and send them to live with the prostitutes and bums in the Bois de Bologne but those cats were each worth a small bundle so she found herself a cat broker and sold him the lot for a lump sum. He came to collect them with a van full of cages one evening while Théo was out drinking. When he sobered up the next day and saw the cats were gone, Théo had a breakdown and Séraphine was certain he never really forgave her. It was Théophile’s idea to fill the rooms with girls now that the cats were gone. They started out with two, then three, and worked their way up to eight. She said Théo found keeping young girls was just as amusing as keeping cats. The maids murmured that for all their blue blood and this property, one of the few remaining hôtel particuliers on the Left Bank, the de la Roque family was broke. The Countess discovered an easy income in housing allegedly well-bred debutante borders, and plenty of parents eager to pay a onetime-noblewoman to supervise their daughters en séjour.
I was the only new girl that season. There was a long waiting list to live in the house and a girl was considered only if personally recommended as I was by a former Nouveau Roman professor who was tenuously related to Théophile. Each girl was given her own private room on the second and third floors while Séraphine lived downstairs and her grandsons, Loic and Gaspard, the sons of her only daughter, Nicole, had an apartment in the smaller west wing of the house accessed through a separate entrance or through a narrow hideaway passage under the stairs leftover from the war. Séraphine assigned me to the bedroom above hers at the top of the staircase on the second level, a tunnel-like space with a set of double doors opening onto the corridor and a pair of glass panels on the opposite wall leading to a small balcony overlooking the terrace and back garden. Within it, a single bed with a limp mattress pushed into a corner, a small desk, a folding chair, a black lacquer dresser missing a few glass knobs, and a red velvet love seat with sunken cushions and splitting wooden legs.
Even though there were three maids, Violeta, Flora, and Mara, Portuguese sisters whose mother was the rarely seen concierge living in a little apartment just inside the entrance court, and Loic and Gaspard were supposed to be the house managers, I’d arrived when everybody was taking their lunch and thus, no one came along to help drag my bags upstairs or to show me where things were like the kitchen, the common phone that only received incoming calls, or to tell me the toilet was on one end of the hall while the tiled washroom with a curtainless bath, handheld shower, and sink were down the other end.
I’d opened the balcony doors to clear out the stale air and was kneeling on my bedroom floor, pulling clothes from a suitcase, when I noticed two pairs of sandals in the doorway belonging to two girls staring down at me as if I were a raccoon rummaging through a trash pile. I don’t have sisters, just two brothersone older and one youngerI hadn’t had many girl friends at school and felt like I knew my way around books better than people. I was twenty years old, graduated from a top university with honors, two years ahead of schedule in life, but still a social novice. And these girls, Tarentina and Giada, as they introduced themselves, came off as a fearsome twosome, their dirty blond hair in tangled bobs, black bras peeking from the tops of their nearly identical knee-grazing floral dresses and similar firm round breasts that Loic later told me they’d purchased together during last year’s Easter holiday in Tarentina’s hometown of Rioit was the fashion.
Giada, slightly shorter, leaned on the doorframe, her lips in a permanent pout, while her friend asked who I was and where I came from with a quasi-British twang I’d learn was standard among the Swiss boarding school set. I told them my name was Leticia but I went by Lita and I was American. By their faces I could tell they did not believe me.
“What are your last names?” Tarentina asked.
“Del Cielo. It’s the only one I’ve got.”
She smiled, though not warmly.
“That sounds like a stage name. What’s your blood?”
“Your lineage,” she sighed, already bored with me. “Your country. You know, what are you made of?”
“Indian, I presume,” she turned to Giada, “That explains the jungle face.”
In fact I was named for a jungle city in the Amazon on the shared frontiers of Colombia, Brazil, and Peru. I didn’t come out of the jungle, my mother did, found abandoned on a road and turned over to some nuns who took her back to the capital. Back then, indigenous babies were nearly unadoptable and instead of turning her over to an orphanage, the nuns raised my mother in the convent. I didn’t feel like explaining any of that so all I said was, “I guess it does.”
“Well, Loic asked me to tell you he’s on his way. He usually does the welcoming. We’ll chat more once you settle in.”
They departed with a Ciao Ciao, their sandals flapping down the stairs over their soft laughter, until they were out the front door. Dread spread over me. I’d hoped to live on my own in Paris, scouring classifieds in a second-hand FUSAC, circling affordable studio apartment listings, but my father insisted he’d only let me live abroad if I had company, a witness to my existence. The House of Stars was the compromise I now began to regret.
A short while later, Loic, gangly in his gingham shirt, pressed trousers and prematurely wrinkled face, tapped on my door and introduced himself.
“So sorry not to have been here when you arrived. I had an emergency of sorts. Well, a friend had an emergency.”
I stood up to greet him, shaking his bony hand.
“Have you had a look around the house yet?”
“Yes. It’s . . . nice. I met your grandmother and some of the other girls. Giada and”
He stared at me, his eyes a watery blue.
“The first day is always the hardest.
I forced a smile.
“I’m just tired. From the travel. The time change.”
“Why don’t you take a break from your unpacking and join me outside for some fresh air,” he held out his hand as if trying to lure me off a ledge.