"You have got to meet Paolo," Natalie's improbable new friend burbled into the phone that Thursday. School had just let out, and Natalie was walking toward a shady patch of lawn where she usually killed the half-hour before track practice. She'd been looking forward to settling underneath an elm and cracking a juicy-looking new novel Elena had scored at Books 'n' Beagles.
James went on, "He's in town from Bologna to do a shoot for Italian Vogue, and he has this totally insaniac expense account. We're talking beluga and Veuve Clicquot till the break of dawn! When's the next bus today?"
Natalie smiled wistfully. If only James' offer weren't completely impossible. But she'd barely recovered from her Sunday night trip to the city, and with her recent poor showings at track practice and the dreaded U.S. history exam right around the corner—it just wasn't going to happen.
"Any chance Paolo will still be in town this weekend?" she said.
Natalie could hear James pouting on the other end of the phone. "I'm posing for Paolo on Saturday, and he always jets après shoots. But maybe we could do something after—you, me, and your aunt?"
"OK, great, let's all meet at the Mercer Hotel at 5," James said. "My friend Lily is staying there. She's in town from London. I'll text you the suite number when I have it."
James hung up before Natalie could mention that she still had to run the plan by Maya, whose life did not, alas, revolve around her niece's. And sure enough, when Maya finally deigned to pick up her phone, she informed Natalie that her Saturday was "absolutely chock-a-bloc," with back-to-back Pranayama seminars and her usual AA meeting at 6, to be followed by a million-hour-long "mocktail party" with fellow nondrinkers.
"Can't you skip the mocktails for once?" Natalie pleaded. "James and I wanted you to come hang out with us."
"I suppose I could spare an hour in the afternoon," Maya said crisply, "but only if it's just the two of us." Maya instructed Natalie to show up at the studio at 3. "And no sidekick," she added, as if Natalie hadn't understood the first time.
When Saturday rolled around, Natalie arrived early at the Riya Yoga Center (named for Maya and Izzie's grandmother Rhea, whose participation in her Long Island synagogue's Hadassah chapter was as close as she got to bodhisattva status). The class was still going on, so Natalie settled on a bench outside the changing rooms and returned to the book she'd been working on for the past few days.
The cover of Wounded Sweets had been promising, featuring a super-fancy envelope with blood dripping from its wax seal, but the story was a typical book-clubby snoozefest targeted at middle-aged moms who hadn't thought about sex since the Clinton administration. The plot, quote-unquote, was about a schoolteacher in World War I England and her intense correspondence with a former pupil who's embarrassed to let her see he's lost both legs in the war. Even Fiona St. Claire's lesser novels, written under the pseudonym Loretta St. Marks, were a million times better than this trash.
Natalie stifled a yawn and flipped ahead, searching for the inevitable passage where teacher and student finally get it on, when Maya's double studio doors sprang open, uncorking a powerful sandalwood breeze and a flock of sinewy women in Spandex.
Inside, Maya was standing beneath wall-to-ceiling windows, smiling beatifically at the sweat-slicked middle-aged man who was giving her a complete rundown of his internal organs' recent ups and downs. Natalie felt a burst of smugness: What Maya's devoted other students wouldn't give to have the great guru to themselves for an afternoon.
"Did that guy really thank you for helping him locate his kidneys' liquid property?" Natalie asked her aunt afterward. They were forging their way toward the subway, Maya's gold bangles jingling with every step.
"You mean Bennett?" Maya asked fondly. "He's sweet. He's been going through some very dark processes lately."
"Dark processes" sounded like Dark Passages, the Fiona St. Claire novel that was being postponed until the author had recovered her sanity. Natalie had to give Fiona credit for keeping her Twitter page as cheerfully kooky as ever, or maybe the publishers had hired a ghost-tweeter to help out.
"Don't judge him," Maya—still in the nurturing yoga-teacher zone—was saying. "Everybody's journey is different."
"Sorry," Natalie said, thinking of her journey and how weird it was starting to get. She glanced over at her aunt, who looked calm and in charge of her destiny. Could they really be related?
Half an hour later, Maya and Natalie were approaching the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hundreds of people were using the building's stone steps as a collective stoop on that bright afternoon.
Natalie loved going to the Met with Maya, who always made a point of telling her niece that one day her pictures could end up in the photography collection. (Yeah, right.) Maya visited the museum regularly, but she never looked at entire, or even partial, collections—no, she had a curious ritual of "probing" (her word) only a single painting, sculpture, or antiquity per trip.
Today's selection was a Goya painting of a little boy holding a bird on a leash. Maya moved her head to both sides and was almost instantaneously swept up in a storm of emotion—a reaction Natalie only experienced when she was hooking up with Josh or rereading a particularly good Dark Shadows scene.
A college-aged girl squatted next to Maya and started to sketch the painting. Natalie watched, awestruck, as the girl's rapid pencil strokes brought Goya's image into focus.
The girl's black notebook was similar to the Moleskine James carried, and so Natalie volunteered, "James is really into art, too, you know."
Maya turned from the painting to look at Natalie for a second. "That's always a good thing." She gestured for Natalie to follow her toward the Egyptian wing. "Must be all that time she spent around set designers in her youth."
"Must be," Natalie said a little uncertainly.
"What's she like, anyway, James' mother?" asked Maya.
"Uh, I'm not sure," Natalie said after a pause. She already regretted bringing James up and wished they were discussing Goya's "gift of vision" instead. "I haven't met her yet."
Maya raised an eyebrow. "Why not?"
"Because—there are a lot of people I haven't met," Natalie said, a little confused.
"Does James ever talk about her?" Maya pressed.
"Not that much. It kinda sounds like her mom is all over the place and doesn't do, like, normal family things," she added, more for her own sake than her aunt's. "She's a workaholic and, um, a little unreliable, I think."
Maya coughed. "Funny, you've just described your own father to a T."
Natalie glanced sharply at her aunt. "Where did that come from?"
"Oh, nowhere," Maya said with a shrug. "It's just your dad's been on my mind a lot lately. Maybe it's because of you—watching you grow up so fast. You're starting to look so much like him, but in other ways the two of you are very different."
"Not sure how to take that," Natalie said.
"No, no, it's a compliment—absolutely! I think you'll turn out—saner, shall we say? And that's unquestionably a good thing." Maya reached over and patted her niece on the shoulder. Natalie shrank away, but Maya didn't seem to notice.
"Your father was a complicated man, Natalie," she went on. "He wanted an epic life—no holds barred. Sometimes that meant blasting the Stones and dancing with his exhausted baby Natalie until 2 in the morning. And sometimes that meant going on benders and disappearing for days on end. He could really shut down a bar in his day."
Natalie stared straight in front of her, feeling betrayed by the man Maya was describing, betrayed by Maya for conjuring him. "What did Mom think of that?" She couldn't imagine Teddy entering a bar, much less shutting one down.
"Your mother had quite the selective memory when it came to Izzy—probably a survival tactic." Maya shook her head. "Don't get me wrong, your father was my favorite person on the planet, but he was also—what was that word you used?—unreliable as hell."
Right at the edge of the Temple of Dendur, Maya stopped walking and wrapped her arm around her niece's shoulders. At a loss for words, Natalie simply focused on the darkness between the columns, the rectangles of negative space stretching back into nothingness.
To Natalie's relief, the downtown 6 train was too crowded for any continuation of the conversation inside the museum. Maya had moved on, anyway; conversations about Izzy never lasted long.
Back downtown, Natalie walked with her aunt to the fancy peanut-butter-and-jelly restaurant a few doors down from the church where Maya's AA meetings were held.
"Thanks for hanging out," Natalie said. As she hugged Maya, she furtively watched the exotic-looking men and women bustling toward her aunt's secret club. It was crazy: Even alcoholics were uniformly glamorous in the city.
"No, baby. Thank you," Maya purred just as a familiar figure flitted out of the shadows. Natalie jumped back when she recognized the eyes drilling into her forehead—it was Owen.
But then like an apparition he disappeared, skulking off down the street before Natalie could even point him out to Maya. It was like that moment in Dark Secret when Terra realized the thousands of lights in the forest were actually eyes.
As Natalie said goodbye to her aunt, she felt oddly agitated—the residue of Maya's out-of-nowhere speech about Izzy, or more likely of her not-quite run-in with Owen.
The memory of his coal-black eyes was still blazing in Natalie's brain when, 15 minutes later, she made her way to Room 304 of the Mercer Hotel. Her uneasiness intensified as she stood in the dimly lit hallway, knocking on the door with one hand and texting James yet again with the other.
Her phone vibrated with what had to be yet another urgent summons to room 304. But before Natalie could click it open, the door creaked open to reveal a woman with bleary eyes and a bed sheet wrapped around her curvy figure. "Oh, Christ, Johnny, why always the jailbait?" she muttered into the abyss behind her.
When Natalie's eyes adjusted to the room's darkness, she could just make out a man coming up from deeper inside the room. He was wearing boxer shorts and had a couple of gold chains dangling from his neck. "You must be Nelly," he said in an English accent that sounded nothing like the queen's. Then a smile came to his face, a little out of step, and he scrunched his nose. "I heard you might be coming 'round. Lovely, just lovely. Isn't she yummy?" he asked the woman.
"I suppose so," the woman said, tugging at the sheet. "She's just a little … younger than I expected, isn't she?"
"All the more teachable," the man said, licking his lips.
Natalie felt a trickle of fear. Where was James, what was happening? Could this skeezy guy possibly be Paolo, and if so, why the thick English accent? But wait—wasn't Lily from London? So maybe … "Are you Lily?" she stammered.
"She can be," the man said, wrapping his arm around the woman's tummy. "Is that what you'd like?"
Natalie had a good idea of what living inside a stethoscope would be like; her heart was pounding that hard.
"Well, don't just stand there." The woman, calmer now, reached out for Natalie's arm. "Come join us, love."
"Um, sorry!" Natalie spat out, now certain she was in the wrong room.
The couple's laughter faded as Natalie did her best hundred-meter dash down the hallway. Instead of waiting for the elevator, she yanked the exit door open and collapsed on the concrete of the stairwell. She was still panting when, a minute later, her phone vibrated. It was yet another text from James, but this time the message was slightly different.
OMG Soo sorry! Got it bckwrds. Its room 403 xox