“People can not only be good or evil, they can be both,” Mémé Aurora used to tell me. “The hangman loves his children, and the deacon has a secret past.”
She would know about secret pasts. She was a spy, once, when she was a young woman. She spent years undertaking dangerous missions in France and Belgium during World War Two. She still lived in Quebec, then, but flew all over. You might not know it to encounter her on the street. She is still, in her eighties, a striking woman. She is kind and smiles at everyone she meets. People don’t realize that, under her outward sweetness, she is shrewdly evaluating them. They do not know that she and my pépère spend much of their time working behind the scenes to investigate and press for thoroughness in the Bergier commission, here in Switzerland. She tells me that, as down-to-earth and trusting as the residents of the villages in the Alps near my school may seem to be, there was widespread racial discrimination, rejection of Jewish refugees, and economic trading and compliance with the Nazis then, and anyone may have secrets.
Here is how my secret began.
It had been a regular day at school. I spent much of it in the lab, working on my biology studies. The boarding school I attended was well-known for its specialized training in the sciences, and having an international baccalaureate from a school where English, German and French were all spoken would help prepare me for not just my future studies, but, I hoped, my future career in science. With my mémé and pépère living outside of Geneva, the situation, I thought, would be ideal. I could see them on some weekends and holidays, which was always a balm for my soul. I had been an awkward child, taller than the rest, gangly, with glasses and braces, and quietly studious. I was disregarded by most of my peers, or, worse, treated with derision.
“You will be like me,” Mémé Aurora would tell me. “One day you will wake up and, without having changed inside, everyone will find you beautiful. It can be useful, but don’t let it go to your head.” It was with her and Pépère I always felt most understood, most loved, despite mon père being a teaching doctor in the the sciences, as I was interested in doing. He was often caught up in his studies, absent-minded, and ma mère was often away on business, so although I had all the intellectual encouragement I might want, the house often seemed cold compared to visits with my grandparents, who paid careful attention to me and loved me fiercely.
My transition from ugly duckling had begun the previous year, and I still felt uncomfortable with it. Suddenly I was invited more often to social gatherings, or pursued for friendship or more by strangers. Inside, however, I was still me, and I followed Mémé Aurora’s advice. I made a few more friends and had a bit more fun on holidays, but I never fully trusted others’ motivations, and at school I still kept largely to my studies and myself. After all, I wasn’t going to get an early doctorate if I didn’t work at it.
As usual, my lab partner and best friend, Aida, was with me. Her parents were also working in Geneva, on legal and humanitarian issues following the Bosnian War. She also had undergone a blossoming, of sorts, growing from a nervous former refugee to a much more social animal, and, as usual, was trying to convince me to sneak off campus.
“Spring holidays aren’t far off. I’d much rather be dragged to some of your parties then than get in trouble for leaving now,” I told her.
“But Klaus has a car now,” she pointed out, and Heather is friends with some of the Americans training at the resort. You know they always have the best parties.”
“Actually, I don’t know that,” I told her, making a note on my sample observations. “I only know what you tell me, which you know mostly by hearsay, yourself.” She gave me a narrowed-eyed look.
“Don’t be so boring, darling,” she said, in that way of hers, and I knew she was going to wear me down. The truth was, I was mostly nervous about the idea, not wanting to jeopardize my good standing at the school and still feeling awkward and suspicious at most gatherings of my “peers.” But there was a little part of me, deep inside, that was excited and curious, that wanted to have some fun, for a change. And Aida was all about fun.
That was how I found myself, a few days later, crammed into a car with several other students, winding up a mountain pass high in the mountains. Almost everyone had already begun drinking and smoking weed, and were singing along at top volume to the music pumping from the speakers.
I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want So tell me what you want, what you really, really want I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ah
My eyes rolled into the back of my head. Three years and still no-one had gotten over this song. Aida swivelled from her place on the lap of the girl beside me and grabbed my shirt, shout/singing the verse about friendship at me dramatically. As much as I tried to keep a straight face, I eventually burst out laughing, which earned me a wide smile and an encouraging shake of my torso via my shirt until she let go of me.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are here,” Klaus announced with pomp and excitement, as we pulled up into the resort. A chorus of cheers went up from around me.
“Thank God, I have to pee like a racehorse,” my best friend said, ever the charmer.
Klaus had gotten us a small cabin that should sleep no more than four, but we all piled in, everyone whooping and freshening up to go to the party. Aida handed me a beer.
“Time to get started, Cormier,” she teased, “I know you need at least two drinks before that armour starts to crack.” She wasn’t wrong. I gave her a smirk and took a pull from the bottle.
Things quickly became a blur.
The party was in the dance club at the resort, and when we arrived, it had already started. Lights flashed and club music blasted, shaking my very heart with the force of the bass.
“Oh, darling,” my friend said with uncontained glee, hooking an arm around my neck, “look at all this. All this… debauchery,” she grinned, then watched as a pack of particularly attractive people walked by in well-fitting jeans and skimpy tops. “So many fine, athletic specimens.
And you like specimens.
C’mon, let’s dance.”
I had to chuckle. “You know I need to work up to dancing,” I reminded her. “I’ll be at the bar, having a drink and getting… acclimated. You go dance, I’ll join you soon.”
With a quick eyeroll, smirk and kiss on my cheek, she ran off into the crowd, followed by most of our friends.
“What do you want to drink,” Klaus asked, and I started a little, not realizing he had stayed behind with me.
“Euhh… wine?” I was a little nonplussed. My friends had been teasing me that he had a crush on me. It was not reciprocated.
“Oh, come on,” he laughed, “it’s Friday night, and we’re out of school at this club, how about something stronger?”
“Okay,” I shrugged. “You pick. But nothing gross like shots of Jägermeister.” He ruffled his brow at this, but walked to the bar. I trailed behind, grabbing a stool just as someone else left it, and watching the people on the dance floor.
The crowd was thicker than I was used to, and I decided that stronger drink would probably be a help to my nerves. The mood was boisterous, and it was true that there seemed to be a lot of fit people there. Not that I was surprised, knowing that members of several ski teams were training there, including the aforementioned Americans. I tried to look at it from my best friend’s point of view, picking out the ones I found attractive, wondering if I would have the nerve to dance near the boys I liked, beginning to understand the effect I had on many men, but not being certain or used to it. My eye was caught by a swirl of light.
Near the center of the dancefloor, a small girl whirled. I wouldn’t have seen her if the crowd hadn’t parted a bit, despite the club not being packed yet, due to her stature. But there she was, and the light was coming from her. She held two glowsticks, and had another glowing tube interwoven in her hair, which was in a long, high ponytail of dreads. She wore hugely baggy pants, but a small, tight, cropped tank top that showed off some impressive abs. I wondered if she was one of the athletes. She seemed to be in her own world, caught up in the music, turning and dipping, her arms constantly moving fluidly, weaving patterns of light. I hadn’t ever seen anyone quite like her. Despite my travels, I was still sheltered, in many ways.
“Delphine, here you go,” Klaus prompted from beside me, and as I turned he handed me a drink. I took a sip. It was deceptively sweet, citrusy, but I could tell hard liquor lurked beneath. At least it wasn’t Jägermeister.
He proceeded to chat me up as I divided my attention between his flirtations, my drink and the dancefloor. He generally seemed like a nice guy, but I could tell the drinking was loosening him up, as well. He leaned closer and began touching my arm as he talked. I didn’t want to be rude, but my monosyllabic responses didn’t seem to dissuade him, and when I finished my drink, I told him, trying for an airy tone, that I was ready to join our friends on the dancefloor.
“Hey,” he said, grabbing my wrist that was on the bar, and I realized from his bleary-eyed gaze than he was probably farther gone than I’d realized. “How about one more drink first? C’mon.” He signalled to the bartender. I was getting uncomfortable. Something told me that his urge to imbibe wasn’t just to have a good time or get over any shyness he had. Perhaps he was hoping to get me drunk so I would be more… sociable.
“Listen, no thank you, Klaus, I…”
“Two Long Island Iced Teas,” he was telling the bartender, and I felt someone brush against me on my other side.
“I have something better,” came an oddly pleasing feminine voice just below and beside me. “How ‘bout some water?”
It was the girl with the glowsticks. She peered at me through her large glasses and gave me a joyful, riveting smile. The fine sheen of sweat on her skin from dancing only seemed to make her glow, as well.
“Huh?” Klaus turned beside me, then saw her and laughed. “Water? Are you kidding?”
“Nope,” she answered, with a small pop of her lips, and held up a large, colourful water bottle. “Best to stay hydrated. I can get you a glass, or a straw to share mine, if you like.” Her accent was lazy, drawn out, clearly American. Her eyebrows raised in the most fetching way.
“Em, yes,” I told her, not even sure when I had decided to speak, “I think I… that would be very good. I am thirsty.”
She gave me one of those smiles a lot like the ones my best friend sometimes gave me. It was kind, but also sly, and perhaps a bit teasing.
“Great,” she patted the bar and the bartender plopped down a tall glass of water, embellished by a wedge of lemon. She tossed a few bills on the counter and handed me the glass, cocking her head.
“C’mon, I wanna show you something,” she said, and barely touched my elbow. Before I knew it, I was on my feet and following her to the other side of the dance club.
“Thank you. What did you want to show me,” I asked her, glancing around, when we reached a small seating area by the opposite wall.
“Nothing,” she said. “I just wanted to get you away from him. It looked like he didn’t want to take no for an answer. Was he harassing you?”
“Hmm,” I took a long drink of my water, suddenly feeling parched. “I wouldn’t say… harassing might be too harsh a word,” I reasoned, “but I did want to get away.”
“I figured,” she nodded. “Anyway, who knows with guys like that once they have a few more drinks, am I right? Or girls, for that matter.” She tipped me a wink.
My brain seemed to have slowed down, and I couldn’t really get what she was saying, or how she wanted me to respond. I crinkled my brow.
“Nevermind. Anyway, hi. I’m Cosima,” she grinned, giving me a small wave.
“Oh. I’m Delphine,” I answered, and I think I surprised her when I grasped her hand to shake it. “Enchantée.”