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Ariana: The Making of a Queen

Sample Chapter
Copyright ©1996 Rachel Ann Nunes.
All rights reserved. No part of this text may
be reproduced, in any form or by any means,
without permission in writing from the author.

Chapter One

Warm rain fell softly in the dark Parisian night, yet strongly enough to mingle with the tears that fell down my face, masking them completely as I stood against the balcony railing in the cheap hotel. Not that there was anyone around to see that I was crying, or to care about my pain. It should have been one of the happiest days in any woman's life—full of wonder, discovery, and love. But on this night, my first since becoming a wife earlier that day, I was alone and crying.

My new husband, Jacques, was out drinking with his friends, celebrating our marriage in the way he knew best, and shattering my dreams—dreams that had already been thin enough to begin with. Still, I guessed I was lucky he had gone through with the wedding in the first place. One thing I did know was that I loved him with a first love's passion, even though he had left me alone on this of all nights.

Noise blared from the next-door window—another American song idolized for its irreverence and suggestiveness, a typical theme of the nineties. Ordinarily, I would appreciate the music; but tonight it only intensified my loneliness.

The rain came down faster now, and I could see figures scurrying to the underground metro where it was dry. The hole seemed to swallow the people as they ran down its stairs, their heads bowed and bodies huddled against the rain. It was summer; the tourist season was upon Paris, and the weekend crowds seemed undiminished even by the late hour and the rain. Along the road I could see the bars, lighted and beckoning. I wondered idly which of them held my new husband, and a fresh batch of not-so-quiet sobs erupted at the thought.

If only Antoine were alive! The thought came suddenly but not so unexpectedly. The rain would always remind me of Antoine and how he had been ripped from my life, my world changed forever. I would never forget how, up until nine months ago, Antoine had been my world. He had always taken care of me.

"Come on, let's go do something!" Antoine would shout at me whenever I was depressed. "There's no use in hanging around feeling sorry for ourselves!" Then he'd grin at me and I couldn't help but smile back. I'd put my hand trustingly in his, willing to go anywhere with the brother I adored, knowing that with him my problems would disappear.

My brother had been loved by everybody who knew him. He had the sort of face even strangers felt attracted to and trusted. He always kept their trust and mine—except that once, when he died and left me all alone. But I really couldn't fault him for that; he would never have left me on purpose.

"Where are you children off to today?" Father beamed down on us that last day we spent together. He laid a proud hand on Antoine's shoulder. "You will take care of Ariana, won't you?" Antoine, seeing my frustration at his words, replied, "She's hardly a baby, Father. But I will look after her, and she after me, as we always have." That made me feel better, since we were the same age—the only difference being that he had been born a boy and I a girl. Of course, with the French double standard, that alone was enough. Though we would soon be entering the twenty-first century, my old-fashioned father believed boys were somehow more competent in all areas of life than their helpless female counterparts.

"What time will you be home?" my mother asked.

"I don't know," Antoine said offhandedly. "Sometime before dark, I assume." He flashed her his smile before she could object, melting her instantly as usual.

Oh, I didn't mind that my parents loved Antoine so. I did, too. In my eyes, as in theirs, he did no wrong. He always included me in everything he chose to do, giving me the freedom I would never have known otherwise. He never made me feel I was just something extra that had happened when my parents had tried to have the baby boy they had longed for, though that was the truth.

Together we spent many days roaming Paris where we lived, using the metro to take our explorations further, until I felt I knew Paris and the surrounding area better than I knew my own bedroom. Yes, I had many good memories of Antoine. I had especially loved walking along the Seine River, where numerous artists and others set up to sell their talents and various pieces of junk they called "souvenirs" to the many tourists. It was fun being near people who were so different from me, yet somehow the same. I adored watching and studying them, particularly when they weren't aware of me.

"It's getting late," Antoine had said to me that last day in September, now nine months past. He glanced at his watch. We had been walking near the river at the end of our adventure-filled day of roaming the catacombs in several of the nearby cathedrals. "We just have time to get home before dinner. Mother will be expecting us." I wanted to protest, but he was right. Mother would be expecting us, and Antoine was a good son to remember that. He was always good to everyone. Seeing my understanding, he smiled, making me glad I had not objected.

We took the metro home that night, and for some reason the train stopped between stations. The lights went off and we were alone in the dark. Worry crept up inside of me; I had never felt comfortable in dark, closed-in spaces. "Don't worry," Antoine said, ever aware of my feelings in the way that close twins were. "They'll come back on soon."

As if to obey him, the lights flickered on. But still the train did not move. I tried to peer out into the dark tunnel, but could see only my worried expression reflected in the glass.

"Look at this!" Antoine shouted. He had hold of two of the bars that were meant to steady standing passengers at rush hour, and he was hanging upside down on them like a monkey.

"Are you crazy, Antoine?" I exclaimed. We were alone in the car, but people from the next car could see him if they glanced though windows in the connecting doors.

"Come on!" he cried, doing a flip and swinging further down the bars.

"We're not ten anymore, Antoine!" I protested, remembering the time when we had perfected our antics on similar bars. But that had been over seven years ago—we were nearly adults now. In six months we would be eighteen.

"Oh, Ari!" Antoine tossed his dark head around to gaze at me, his deep brown eyes dancing. Then he uttered the prophetic words that would echo in my mind forever: "We're only seventeen, we're not dead and buried yet!" At that I had to join him, my fear of the stopped train vanishing completely. Of course, looking back, I know that to comfort me was the only reason he had hung on the bars that night. He had always taken care of me.

Pain ripped through my soul as it always did at this point in the memories, for the train incident had happened the night before he died. Now I clutched tightly at the balcony railing until my hands turned white and began to ache. The light from the hotel room came through the tiny glass door, its feeble rays barely reaching me in the dark. Dressed in my thin, dark-blue nightgown, I felt suddenly cold. But still I lingered at the railing where the rain could reach me, almost wishing it could wash me away—or at least wash away the feelings that tortured my heart.

"Oh, Antoine," I whispered into the night. "If only you hadn't left, then things would not be so mixed up." But he was gone forever, and anything I said to him wouldn't make any difference. Antoine existed no more, except in my memories.

I continued to stare out into the night, but I didn't see the streets or the cobblestone sidewalks—only the frozen expression on my father's face the day Antoine died. It had been raining all morning long, turning from a soft pitter-patter to an earnest downpour. Antoine had already left for his early class at the private school we attended. Unlike me, he never passed up a chance for the early classes. He rode the metro, as we all did; it was the fastest way to get anywhere in Paris because you didn't have to worry about finding a parking place.

My parents and I were finishing up our croissants and coffee at the table when the phone rang shrilly into the silence; there was always a lot of silence when Antoine was absent. My father got up and reached for the phone. "Hello?" he said in his decisive voice. Then, "Yes, this is he."

As the person on the other end of the phone continued, my father's face grew stark white, contrasting sharply with his dark hair and moustache. "No! No! It can't be true!" he exclaimed suddenly and painfully, but his voice sounded defeated. He listened further before asking shakily, "When did it happen?" And then, "What time should I come down? Okay. Thanks for calling."

When he turned to us, he was no longer the man I thought I knew. "Antoine is dead," he said dully. "A car hit him on his way to school."

"Oh, no!" my mother gasped and began to cry. "What happened?"

"He's dead, it's over!" my father spoke harshly. The pain in his eyes was too terrible for me to bear. "What does it matter how?"

The reality that Antoine was never coming back hit me like the weight of an anchor, and my anguished words exploded into the air. "Oh, please, not Antoine! Oh, why did it have to be Antoine?"

My parents turned slowly to face me, seeming almost surprised at my presence. I thought for a minute they would reach out to me, that we could turn to each other in our shared grief. But they didn't. My father turned abruptly on his heel and went into his office, shutting the door firmly behind him. My mother stared after him for a long moment, the hurt evident on her face, then she also turned and ran down the hall to her room, her loud sobs filling the sudden silence.

"Oh, Antoine," I whispered. "We are lost without you!"

I stood in the dining room alone, not knowing what to do. I lifted my eyes to the large mirror on the wall opposite me. There I could see my face, still tan from summer, with my short, dark hair and large brown eyes—each feature a feminine version of Antoine's. No wonder my parents couldn't bear to look at me!

For a very brief instant, I saw my brother's face instead of mine in the mirror. I could almost hear him speak the words he'd said on the train the night before: "Oh, Ari! We're only seventeen, we're not dead and buried yet!" I gasped and ran to the mirror, but he was gone and I was truly alone. My face was now white beneath my tan, but I didn't cry. I bit my lip until the blood came, but I still didn't cry. Not then.

I didn't know it at the time, but my parents' reactions that day were to develop into a more permanent reality. My father spent more time at work, and I often went days without catching so much as a glimpse of him. When I did see him, he was cold and withdrawn, the light gone from his eyes. Mother was worse, sinking into a shell of her own making. She talked to me but seemed to see right through me, her face a bitter mask of pain and loss. I spent less and less time at home, but it seemed my absence went unnoticed. I knew they would never love me as they had Antoine, that I could never replace him in their hearts. And I began to hate them for it.

The day of Antoine's funeral, it had finally stopped raining. The sun shone brightly down on the mourners, but its warmth did not reach our hearts. I stood dutifully by my parents during the short graveside service and while they lowered the coffin into the hole that seemed to ravage the earth. But I fled from the cemetery as they began to throw the dirt on the coffin. I couldn't bear to see them do that to Antoine; it was too final. At that moment I knew my life was over; how could I possible live without my other half?

I ended up at my favorite section of the Seine where we had spent so much time, Antoine and I. Breathless and sweating when I arrived, I lifted my face to gaze out over the water, hoping for a breeze and maybe some kind of comfort. There was neither—only boats, faceless people, and squawking seagulls.

I walked blindly and aimlessly for a while. Suddenly I stopped and stared, surprised to see a group of young men with short hair and suits, singing in the street. Several young woman were among them, holding up a big sign proclaiming "Families Are Forever!"

What a bunch of idiots! I thought. Nothing is forever. I had learned that lesson only too well.

Other young men and women with the singers were stopping people passing nearby and talking with them. One of the men—a boy, really—with a shock of bright red hair approached me with a pamphlet. His accent betrayed that he was a foreigner, probably from America by the sound. "Here," he said, thrusting the little booklet into my hand. "Did you know that families can be together forever?" His voice was sincere, his eyes clear; I knew he believed what he was saying, but in my grief-induced haze, I didn't care.

I stopped in my tracks, whirling on him, my eyes flashing. "You don't know what you're talking about!" I said angrily, looking up into his blue eyes. "Has anyone you loved more than life itself ever died? Someone who was so much a part of you that you'd rather die than live without him?" The tall boy shook his head and opened his mouth to speak, but I continued quickly. "Well, I know how it feels, and anything you can make up won't change the fact that my brother is dead and gone from me forever!"

I crumpled the thin pamphlet in front of his face and threw it to the ground. Then I added cruelly, "Now get out of my way and leave me alone!" The young man stepped back and I glanced up at him. I had expected to find hurt and anger in those clear eyes, but all I saw was pity and, strangely, love. It made me even more furious that the only one who seemed to show me what I so desperately needed was a red-haired stranger from another country.

"I am sorry," the young man said softly and hesitantly in his uncertain French. "I hope you find what you need. I will pray for you."

How dare he! I thought, and was about to say something even more unkind, but he was already gone, leaving me alone as I had requested. I went home and cried as I hadn't been able to since Antoine's death earlier in the week—red-hot tears that seemed to sear my cheeks as they fell. There seemed to be no end to the bitter flood. My throat felt raw and my eyes were swollen, but the ache in my heart was worse. I thought I was going to die, even hoped that I would.

At last the torrent subsided, and through my abating tears I spied my parents' liquor cabinet. I had never been drunk before, but I often had alcohol with dinner. I knew it would give me a euphoria that would make me temporarily forget. I began to drink, and an unnatural warmth flooded through me.

Yet I didn't forget, not even for a moment, and all my drunkenness did was to put another wedge between me and my parents when they came home to find me nearly passed out. They utterly forbade me to drink. I didn't give it up, though; I continued drinking at home or with friends in the months that followed. My parents' anger was better than their indifference.

A loud knocking at the hotel door brought me abruptly back to the present. I came in from the balcony, hardly noticing my wet hair and the thin nightgown clinging to my body. I glanced at the TV which I had left on. The sound was muted, but I could see the latest Disney cartoon movie filling the screen, complete with French subtitles. The movie was playing on one of the special TV channels—the only modern concession the run-down hotel had made for its questionable clientele. I had always enjoyed Disney movies—one more thing I had shared with Antoine—but this time I didn't stop to watch.

The knocking sounded again. Could it be Jacques? And it was only one o'clock in the morning! With a hopeful heart, I hurried to the door and threw it open to reveal not Jacques but Paulette, the girl who had become my best friend after Antoine's death.

I felt the light go out of my eyes. "Oh, hi, Paulette." I stood back and let her enter the room. As she swept past me I could smell the cigarette smoke in her hair and the alcohol on her breath. Involuntarily, I flinched. In the months after Antoine's death, those things had been my constant companions—but no more. I had someone else to think of now.

When I had shut the door, she turned her plain face to me. "Ariana, you're soaking wet! Haven't you got any sense? I—" She broke off when she saw the pain in my face. "Oh, I'm sorry, Ariana, I know you wanted Jacques, but he's not coming. I was just down at the bar and saw him and the gang. That's why I came. I knew that you were alone and thought you could use some company. Come on." She put her arm around my shoulders. "Let's get you out of these wet things." Numbly, I let her lead me to the bathroom.

A short time later we sat together on the large bed. I was now wearing a long t-shirt and my robe instead of the negligee. I drew my feet onto the bed and lay back on a mound I had made of the pillows, my fingers plucking carelessly at the faded green blanket, worn but clean. Paulette drew out a thin, homemade cigarette and lit up, breathing deeply. She offered it to me, but I refused as I hadn't in the weeks and months following Antoine's funeral.

Antoine had never liked Paulette, who lived nearby, though she would have given anything to date him. "I don't think you should hang around with her," he had told me. So I hadn't; I was too busy with school and spending time with him, anyway. Then he died, and suddenly I didn't care about things anymore. I stopped going to school and began to hang out with Paulette, who hadn't been to school for years.

"It's too bad about your brother, Ari," she had said the first day she found me drinking alone in the park. That had been the day after Antoine's funeral.

"Ariana," I said dully. "Don't call me Ari ever again." In my eyes, Ari had died with Antoine.

"He was one good-looking guy. He . . ." Paulette had talked on, but I hadn't really heard her; it was just nice to have someone to sit with. She pulled out some of her thin cigarettes. "Want one?"

For the first time I looked into her clouded eyes. "What is it?"

"Marijuana. It will help you feel better."

I took the cigarette and breathed in, hesitantly at first and then more deeply, coughing some but at last finding some relief for the aching pain in my heart. I didn't realize at the time that drugs would bring much more misery to my life than I could ever imagine.

After that day at the park, Paulette and I became inseparable. We hung out with a group of teenagers like us, brave on the outside, yet each hurting in some way on the inside. We drank all the time, went dancing, and smoked. Sometimes I never even bothered to go home. At times my parents didn't notice, at others they yelled at me, but it made no difference. I was living my own life.

Then I met Jacques. I had just turned eighteen, and we were at our favorite dance club celebrating when I saw a good-looking young man with dark-blond hair come from across the room toward our group. Several of the guys got up to meet him.

"Hey, welcome back, Jacques! How did things go on the Riviera?"

"Good, good," Jacques replied, a sincere smile on his handsome face. "But I missed you all." His eyes suddenly spotted me. "Who's this? Someone new to our little group?"

"I'm Ariana," I said with a smile. "It's my birthday, and we're celebrating."

Jacques came to sit beside me and put a casual arm around the back of my chair. "I'm glad to meet you, Ariana." His brown eyes burned into my own. "Very glad."

"Oh, yeah, I'm sure you are," I joked dryly. "I've heard all about you, Jacques, and your way with women."

He smiled impudently. "Good, then you will let me help you have a great birthday, won't you? I'll make it one you'll never forget!"

And he did. We danced together all night, laughing and joking. He was so handsome and attentive, always saying just the right thing. He knew how to treat a woman, how to flatter her and make her feel loved and cared for.

I didn't go home at all that night, not wanting to be separated from the dashing Jacques. The magic between us was strong, yet I feared it would vanish if we were parted, even for a few hours. The group of us crashed at someone's apartment, and we stayed up all night watching videos, smoking pot, and drinking. At last I went to sleep in the crook of Jacques' arm, feeling more content than I had since Antoine's death.

Jacques and I became a couple. The group seemed amazed that the wild Jacques had finally settled down, and I secretly worried that he would leave me. I didn't understand what he saw in me, a woman who had been rejected by her own parents. But he seemed genuinely fascinated and wanted to be a part of every aspect of my life—including my parents. I took Jacques to meet them a few days later, but they refused to accept him and even forbade me to see him. So less than a week after we met, I moved to Paulette's so that Jacques and I could spend every minute together. How could I have known I was only getting into more trouble? I had still been so innocent, even then. That had been just three months ago.

And now we were married, a thing we had decided to do only two days earlier—or rather, something I had convinced Jacques to do. When he finally agreed, Paulette and I had thrown together whatever kind of a ceremony and party we could. It wasn't much, but our friends pitched in to see that it had a least a semblance of a real wedding. My parents hadn't bothered to show up. They simply sent a substantial check, like some kind of a payoff. I wanted to rip it up into a hundred little pieces and send it back to them, but I had learned the importance of money in the last three months and knew that I would probably need it. I took the check immediately to the bank my father owned and operated, careful to choose a time when he wouldn't be there. I cashed the check, withdrew my own childhood savings, and took the money to another bank, where I opened an account that I kept secret even from Jacques. I wanted to save it for an emergency and couldn't trust him to do so; he seemed to live only for the moment.

"Ariana!" Paulette's voice was insistent. "Are you okay?"

I looked up at her, shaking away the memories. "Yes, I was just thinking."

"About Jacques?"

"Yes." I stared out the open balcony door and into the wet night and added softly, "And about Antoine." It was the first time I had said my brother's name to anyone since the day he died, and Paulette seemed taken aback.

"I'm sorry, Ariana. I know things haven't been easy for you. But now that you and Jacques are married, things will get better; you'll see. He's got a job now, and you can get one." Paulette's homely face was serious for once. The curious light of the room made her brown hair seem dull and lifeless, matching the look in her drugged eyes.

I smiled gently at her. "Yes, it just has to be okay." We hugged each other impulsively. Then I brought my hand to rest on my slightly swollen stomach, where my true hope for the future lay. There the baby I had conceived nearly three months ago, a week after meeting Jacques, was already making its welcome presence felt. For this baby, I had given up drinking and drugs. I was determined to do right by this life inside me, no matter what.

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