she could find stuffed into her jacket. She was ready,
but it wasn’t quite time. She would know when it was
time. She had always known things like that, without
ever knowing why she knew them.
It had been a strange life. Asia was a strange
name. Her mother had also been called Asia, and her
grandmother too. No one remembered beyond that.
For some reason she couldn’t fathom, she had called her
little girl Asia as well. What would happen to little Asia
without her Mom to look after her? But she couldn’t
think about that: she was sure she was doing the right
Her mother had killed herself at the age of twenty-
nine, when Asia was just six months old. So she had
never known her mother. And yet, if you asked her what
person had meant the most in her life, she would
unhesitatingly have said, “my mother.” She had never
known her, but she was the person she knew the best.
Much of Asia’s life had been flavored by contradictions
She had grown up alone with her father, in a big
house with lots of land around. There were no real
neighbors: you could walk to the village, and on the way
there were a couple of houses, but there was no one
across the road, or even within shouting distance. Asia
wasn’t shy, but she was self-contained; she learned to
read early, and often would spend the whole day
reading. Sometimes months would pass without her
leaving the property.
She had gone to school, but hadn’t liked it, so her
father kept her at home. She found other children
childish. She liked people, but they had to be big
people. With children, she felt awkward; with adults,
she was herself.
Then, when she was eleven, her father took her to
Paris for the summer. He had been worried about her;
he thought she needed a break from the house and the
solitude it represented. He rented a big, furnished
apartment on Boulevard Raspail in the 6th
arrondissement. And she loved it. It changed her life.
She loved the apartment, on the top floor of a seven-story
building, with its four-meter-high ceilings and its walls
covered with tan-colored cloth. There was a view of the
Pantheon from the living room, and from the kitchen
you could see the Eiffel tower. She loved the
neighborhood: there were half a dozen bakeries within
two minutes of the front door. There was a metro right
across the road, and another just half a block away. She
loved the river, and the fact that you could walk right
beside it, and the bridges, and the churches, and the
Luxembourg Gardens, but most of all she loved sitting
outside and sipping tea, and listening to her father talk
about Paris as the city itself rushed by.
They stayed for June and July, and then left when
everybody leaves, to spend August on the north coast in
a fishing village. It was nothing like Williston–before
Paris, Williston was all she knew; she had never seen a
city, or even a large town–but it reminded her of home.
She had wanted to go back to Paris, to stay there, to live
there. But her father had said he had to make
arrangements. They could return next summer if she
liked and stay as long as she wanted.
She hadn’t understood any of this until much later
on. But her father had to arrange for the house to be
rented–he couldn’t sell it because Asia’s mother had
willed it to her daughter–and had to arrange an
indefinite leave from the university where he taught.
Her father was a medical researcher, and had many
patents; he worked only because he enjoyed company.
They spent the fall in Williston. She had no
memory of those months; she spent them waiting to go
back. And then, right after Thanksgiving, they did go
back, but not to Paris, not right away. It was too late for
school that year, her father said. They would travel
together until May, and then return to Paris to enrol her
in a local lycée. He had rented an apartment on rue
Montparnasse. It was just around the corner from the
Raspail apartment–he knew she loved the neighborhood–
but it looked onto a courtyard and not the street, and so
wasn’t quite so noisy.
Until then he wanted to travel in warmer countries.
In general, France was milder than Vermont, although
France could be icy and Vermont quite temperate; but
now that he was free to choose his winter, he chose to
make it a warm one. They flew to Rome and stayed in a
grand apartment on Piazza Adriana, just behind the
Castel Sant’Angelo, a minute’s walk from the Tiber. She
remembered that winter vividly. She had no hat. She
had no boots. She had no mitts. She wore a jacket
instead of a coat. She was never even remotely cold.
She had never known until then what a burden the
winter was. There were days, it is true, when it went
down to zero–she counted in Celsius now–but those days
were very few. And on those days, the Romans (the rich
ones, anyway) trotted out their furs. But they didn’t
know what cold was. Asia knew what cold was, and this
wasn’t it. She walked along the Tiber every day, and
imagined what it was like to be two thousand years old.
And on most days the temperature climbed to at
least ten (50˚) and sometimes reached twenty (68˚) in the
sun. As winter began to fade into spring, they made day
trips, and sometimes these trips expanded to fill entire
weeks. Venice had taken her by surprise and been her
playground for ten magical days. (She turned twelve in
Venice.) And then finally came May, and they packed
their things, and said goodbye to Rome, and took the
train to Paris.
Her father’s Italian had been limited–that had
presented a few problems, but none that were
insurmountable. His French, on the other hand, was
fluent. He enrolled her in Lycée Montaigne, on the
southern edge of the Luxembourg Gardens, and then set
about teaching her how to speak French. He gave her a
grammar and a dictionary, and then spoke to her only in
French for the next four months. By the time she started
5e, her conversational French was as good as her
English. After one term, she was fluent, and from that
time on, he spoke to her only in English.
It occurred to her once to ask him why he had
learned French. There was no need for French in
Williston. Montreal was a couple of hours away by car,
but they had never been.
“Before you were born, I had a sabbatical and spent
the year in Paris with your mother. It was a good year.
She didn’t want to leave. Unfortunately, in those days I
had no choice but to work. Do you know where our
She shrugged. He walked to the window and
pointed. “It was that one right there, two floors down.
That was fifteen years ago. The pictures in the blue
album are all from Paris. Did I never tell you?”
The albums were how she knew her mother, the
albums and the diary her mother had kept. There were
twelve albums, all color-coded. They kept her mother
alive for her. In Williston, they stood at the back of her
desk, with stone bookends on each side. When she had
first come to Paris, she had bought a special suitcase
that fitted them perfectly, and that was what she took as
hand luggage. No one was allowed to touch her
It was not uncommon for Asia to spend the whole
day with one of the albums. These pictures were what
she knew best. She made up stories about them,
pretending to know what her mother was thinking and
feeling in order to understand what made her look
exactly the way she looked, exactly like that.
Sometimes, she stared at a picture for so long that she
started to believe her own stories. And at night, the last
thing she did before getting into bed was say goodnight
to her mother.
(The diary was different. She had read it often, but
she was not yet emotionally mature enough to make
sense of it. Also, between the entries her mother had
written poems. They were short, written to someone
called Tristan; the tone was very sad, but Asia had never
heard of anyone called Tristan. So while the pictures
tended to include her–she knew everyone in the pictures,
and she was even in some of them herself–the diary
excluded her. Tristan was a man who had never entered
They stayed in Paris for six years, until she had
finished her baccalaureate. And though at her lycée she
was known as l’Américaine, in her heart she felt like a
Parisian. And it didn’t take long for her to feel this. It
definitely happened before her thirteenth birthday,
because when she turned thirteen–her birthday was
March 21, the first day of spring–she remembered
thinking to herself, “I’m thirteen, and I’m finally where
I belong.” It was as though something had been
missing from her life, and now it was there. Of course,
when she lived in Williston, it had never occurred to her
that anything was missing. But something was, and the
something was Paris. But what exactly was Paris?
She had often thought about this, often wondered
what it was that made Paris so special for her. And
there was no real answer. It was just a feeling, a feeling
of being home. But that wasn’t good enough. Even if
there was no explaining emotions, she wanted an
explanation. And so she had eventually come up with
this: in Paris, beauty decides everything. It doesn’t care
about utility; it doesn’t care about cost; it doesn’t care
about profitability; it doesn’t even care about comfort,
really. What is important is whether or not something is
beautiful. That is the imperative.
She herself had become beautiful in Paris. She had
always been thin, and she had always been full of
angles, like a stick man. And she was still like that, but
as she had gotten older, the angles had softened, and she
had become lovely. She looked in the mirror, and she
could see it: there was girl who would be loved by men.
But she didn’t want to be loved by men. She wanted to
be more than just a shape. And she also wanted simply
to be a girl, a girl who was left to her own devices. She
wanted just to be Asia, because that was also who she
saw in the mirror, just an ordinary girl with a funny
name. She thought of herself as a female Peter Pan. Or
to put it better: she felt like a grown-up, but she didn’t
want to do grown-up things.
The boys didn’t like that at all. They wanted to put
their hands all over her. But she said no. Touching was
for later. And the boys had no choice: if they wanted her
as a friend, they accepted her rules. This meant that she
was friends with many boys at her lycée, but also that
she never had a boyfriend.
After her baccalaureate was done, she had a sudden
urge to return to America. She didn’t know why. Her
home was clearly Paris, and it was everything she
wanted. But something was telling her to go back.
Her father hated the idea. He had grown very
comfortable in Paris: he had come to know his
restaurants and neighborhood very well. But she was
restless; she wanted to leave. In the end they found a
compromise, but it was a compromise neither of them
liked: Asia would return to Vermont, live by herself and
apply to an American university, while her father would
continue on in Paris.
So she went back. She opened up the home in
Williston, and realized she hated it. She applied to a
handful of colleges and then flew back to Paris. She
spent a year there doing nothing, and it was such an
enjoyable nothing that she couldn’t understand her
desire to go and study in America. Why not France?
Why not just stay where she was and study at the
Sorbonne? Why not?
But she couldn’t. And so when NYU accepted her,
she flew back to New York, rented an apartment on the
upper East side, and waited for September. She was
nineteen years old, and looking forward to her life. She
was going to study literature, and this excited her
beyond measure. But then, at some point, she ran into a
rock. She just couldn’t do it. Something was paralyzing
her. Eventually, she knew what it was: she missed her
She forced herself through the degree, partly
because she was proud, and always finished what she
started, and partly because she wanted to please her
father, or at least not let him down. But there was no
pleasure in it. She was just spending time in a different
universe, and when she had her degree she once again
fled back to Paris.
What she found was not what she expected. In the
last three years, her father had become an old man. He
had always been a mountain, so much larger than life
that you couldn’t imagine him needing help of any kind.
But now he walked with a cane, and slowly. He looked
as though he had aged twenty years.
“It’s the cancer. It’s back.”
“When did you ever have cancer?”
“That’s right. I never told you. It was right after
you left. I had the treatment; I went into remission.
Now it’s back.”
“So what’s going on? You’re back in chemo?”
“No. It’s too far advanced.”
She felt sick. Nothing in her life had prepared her
He had already booked his plane ticket. He had
also booked himself into a palliative care center, but
Asia quickly brushed that aside. Here, at least, even
though it hardly mattered, she had power. They would
go home and they would hire a live-in nurse. Every
instant she was awake, she would be with him. She
would sleep in his room, at the foot of his bed. That was
how things were going to be.
He didn’t last long; within a month he was dead,
and that was when she fell apart. She stopped eating
and she drank every day. She never went out. And in the
end, she was afraid to go out. She had her groceries and
liquor delivered; she left checks on the door. Sometimes
she didn’t see anyone for months at a time. She never
listened to music. She was entirely enveloped in silence.
After a year of this, odd things began to happen.
First came the visions–that was what she called them.
They came during the night, so they were dreams, but
dreams unlike any she had ever had. The first she called
the withering, and it was always exactly the same. She
could see herself standing in a field. The sky was black,
the moon was full, and there were no stars visible. Then
it looked as though the water was slowly disappearing
from her body. Her skin became papery and began to
flake away. Her body began to shrivel. Then her skin
cracked open and her body imploded, and finally she
became dust and disintegrated, falling onto the ground.
She always woke up screaming when she had the
withering. The other visions were different: they weren’t
scary and they didn’t repeat themselves. They were
visions of her mother. It was as though one of the
photographs she had of her mother suddenly became a
movie, but it was more than that. She could also feel
what her mother was feeling and see what her mother
was seeing, as though she was watching her, and
somehow inside of her at the same time. She found
these visions quite comforting, in a way. They made her
feel closer to her mother than ever. But they were also
odd: she didn’t know how to file them. She didn’t know
why she had them. And they were dreams about
Soon after the visions began, the voices came.
These weren’t scary, but they were disturbing. It was
always a child’s voice, and it sounded like the child was
right there in the room. Most of the time, she was so
startled by the voice that by the time she had settled
down again, the voice had stopped and she didn’t catch
what was said. Once, though, she distinctly heard the
voice say, “Ready or not, here I come!” She was so sure
that children were playing hide-and-seek in her house
that she spent an hour searching for them. She found no
one, of course. She was sure she wouldn’t. But the
voices were so real she could put her hands on them.
She began to feel that she was hovering on the edge
of disaster, that she was minutes away from madness.
She could fall into it, or she could attempt a rescue. She
decided to do a second bachelor's degree at NYU. This
time she would study psychology, because if anyone
could tell her what was wrong–and how to make it right–
it would be a psychologist. That, in any case, was her
Happily, NYU wanted her back. She again decided
to rent on the upper East side, and spent three years
trying to make sense of herself. Just months after she
turned twenty-seven, she received her second BA. She
immediately applied to do a Master’s degree, and was
accepted. And in graduate school, she met Donald.
She should not have married him. She should have
run. She should have flown back to Paris. He was
warm, quiet and kind–in many ways he reminded her of
her father–and he didn’t deserve to have his life run over
by her craziness. But she had hoped. Maybe if she was
in a stable relationship, things would get better. Maybe
if she had a child to care for, she could be a proper
person again. There were a hundred maybes, and
together they forced her hand, because she needed, after
all, to hope.
She had tried, and perhaps she hadn’t tried hard
enough, but whatever the reason was, it hadn’t worked.
She couldn’t be honest with him. She couldn’t tell him
about the visions and the voices. That would just have
pushed him away, and though that was what she should
have wanted, it was not, in fact, the thing she wanted at
all. What she wanted was to be a proper person again.
But she had failed. Things had just gotten worse.
And now it was time to go somewhere else, a place
where the smell of the world would be washed away.
Was it time? How would she know? She looked at the
sky; there were no stars visible. So: it was time. She
stood up and walked into the water.