Louisville author Leesa Cross-Smith is releasing her fifth novel, “Half-Blown Rose,” on paperback on April 18. The hardback was released in 2022. Ahead of the release, LEO was lucky enough to get an excerpt of “Half-Blown Rose” to share with our readers.
INT. MODERN ART MUSEUM – LATE AFTERNOON
It is autumn in Paris, City of Light. Vincent’s in her scarf — the one she always wears — wrapped twice like death.
Loup takes his time gathering his things: the pale wooden pencil upon the table, the black sketchpad and well-squeezed paints with bright, flat caps. Vincent watches him, keeps watching him, until he notices her and she looks away. Her friend Baptiste, who teaches modern art history and a course in color down the hall, stands so close she can feel his breath.
“Café?” he asks, and Vincent nods. She wants to know if Loup is still looking at her, but she can’t bring herself to check. What if he isn’t? She’ll die on the spot in the almost-empty classroom. “On y va,” Baptiste says, stepping in front of her, knowing she’ll follow. She wants to turn and look at Loup again. Is that what she’ll do? Only to be crushed? No. The room blurs and she walks straight out, staring at the back of Baptiste’s head.
When he stops, she runs right smack into him. “Sorry. I’m sorry,” she says.
“Loup-dog, you coming?” Baptiste says, turning. Vincent continues staring ahead, at the back of Baptiste’s blazer this time—velvet, the rich shade of the Bolognese she’s simmered all day in the slow cooker in her apartment. Vincent feels Loup behind her, smells his pencils.
“Yes, I’m coming,” Loup says by her ear, and she files it away somewhere hot and dark.
They are both next to her now. She doesn’t look at Loup as they walk down the hallway, out the door, across the busy street to the café. In her periphery, Baptiste is adjusting the bag on his shoulder, laughing easily with his friend. They know each other well, but Vincent always forgets exactly how. She listens to the two of them speak in quick clips of French and English.
“Quiet little mouse,” Baptiste says to her, frowning in his funny way.
When they find a small table out front and put their things down, Vincent watches Loup walk inside, disappearing into the bathroom corridor.
“You know I don’t want him here! Why did you invite him?” she growls, lighting her cigarette as soon as she’s in the chair.
“Oh, pshh, why do you do this? You like Loup.”
“You know I don’t want him here,” Vincent says again. She and Baptiste go to the café together all the time; Loup never comes along. “Bonjour. Deux cafés et un café au lait, s’il vous plaît. Merci,” she orders quickly from the radiant, blushed waitress. Is every woman in Paris so effortlessly beautiful she’ll never die? Only blink, then flicker to haunting? Every time Vincent visits the city, for at least a few days after arriving she has to stop herself from staring at the women she encounters. Young and old, they all somehow look like an entirely different species. She forgets this when she’s in the United States but remembers quickly upon returning.
This time she’s been in Paris for three months.
“Please. You think he’s delicious. You want to eat him up like he’s a cake,” Baptiste says, pulling out his phone and texting. Tippity-tappity quick-quick.
“I’m forty-four,” she says.
Baptiste looks at her, saying nothing. “He’s twenty-four,” she says.
“I’m literally twenty years older than he is,” she says. Baptiste begins texting again, silent.
“He’s a child,” Vincent says. “Un bébé! I could be his mother.” Nothing from Baptiste.
“Va te faire foutre!” She smokes. “Who are you texting?” She mocks his face, his annoying fingers, his precious phone.
“Mina!” he says, smiling slyly. His wife.
“Va te faire foutre,” she says again. Baptiste tsks at her, kisses the air. This is how she and Baptiste always talk to each other. They share a birthday—same date and year—and they were friends from the moment they met three months ago.
Born to Ghanaian French parents, Baptiste grew up in Paris and is fluent in Twi, French, and English. He is six foot three, skinny and strong, royally handsome, fantastically nerdy, and stylish in a casual way. With his velvet blazer, he is wearing a pair of slim black pants that stop right at his ankles, no socks, and a pair of clean white Stan Smiths with navy-blue heel tabs. Sometimes people actually stop him on the street to take his photo for their sartorial Instagram accounts and blogs. What he and Vincent participate in is friend-flirting and nothing more. He loves his wife ferociously and what Vincent feels for him matches up almost exactly with what she feels for her brother—a sugary adoration that smooths out any flaws.
* * *
Loup returns not half a moment before the waitress with their coffees. Vincent goes to snub out her cigarette, but Loup extends his arm for it. She passes it across the table and looks into his twenty-four-year-old eyes. He smiles sweetly, as if she hasn’t been ignoring him at all.
“Voilà! There you are! Hello, Vincent,” he says with her lipstick stain in his mouth. She feels as if she has rocketed into space.
They smoke and drink their coffees, and it isn’t long until Baptiste says he has to go meet Mina and leave the two of them to fend for themselves. But yes! He will finish his coffee first.
“I love their coffee,” Baptiste says, mmm-ing to Loup and Loup only. Vincent drinks hers. The coffee is hot, the wind cool, and she loves her thick, warm scarf—the wasabi-colored one her brother brought with him on the train from Amsterdam last month.
“Thank you for the cigarette,” Loup says to her. “You’re welcome,” she says.
Baptiste leans over and kisses her cheeks; Loup stands as he leaves. “Right, sure. Au revoir, Baptiste,” Vincent says dramatically and
waves as he walks away, like she won’t be seeing him again at the art museum in the morning.
“A woman called Vincent,” Loup says like a sigh once they are alone. Loup, who smells like summer and dark green, reminding her of Kentucky forests back home. But how? Is there some sort of tree oil he’s mixed with lemon water, spritzed and walked through? Do twenty- something-year-old guys spritz? Maybe he rubbed it under his arms, into the bushes of hair he has there; she saw flashes of it—dark and thickish— during the ungodly heat wave. And she doesn’t want to, but she also remembers his white pocket T-shirt and short shorts, the plain gold chain he sometimes wears around his neck. His summer shoes, Nike Killshot 2s with midnight-navy swoops. The cream-colored knots of ankle above them. How she feels like an electric wet rope when Loup leans back in his chair in class and crosses his legs, puts his sketchpad on his knee.
* * *
“I can’t stay long . . . I’m having people over for dinner. I’m making pasta,” Vincent says. So far, ninety percent of the time, Loup only gets this snippy interpretation of who she is. Bah. Nothing to be done.
“Is Baptiste coming? Mina?” “No . . . they have a thing.”
“I don’t have a thing and I love pasta,” Loup says. “It’s not special. Everyone loves pasta.”
“Can I have pasta with you for dinner tonight?” he asks easily, like those words alone will jiggle her doorknob loose. His hair is wild and romantic, hanging past his earlobes; he tucks some curly strands behind one of them. His jacket is unzipped and Vincent glances at the loose collar of his shirt—in the oranged almost-evening sun, his necklace twinkles like it’s electric.
“I still can’t believe Vincent is your real name,” he says.
A clatter from inside the café: the crown of a waitress’s head as she bends and stands, bends and stands. Vincent watches her through the window, digging the fingernails of her right hand into the palm of her left under the table.
“You keep telling me this. Call me Ms. Wilde instead.” “What kind of pasta, Ms. Wilde?”
Vincent finishes her coffee. The waitress asks if she’d like another and she says non, merci. Loup says oui, merci to the refill, even though his cup is half-full.
“I considered puttanesca at first . . . and now well, it’s a bastardized version,” she answers him, the sauce already on her mind. Baptiste’s blazer was Bolognese, her scarf wasabi. She looks at Loup, sharply ravenous.
“Ah, prostitute spaghetti” is his reply. “Who are you having over for dinner?”
“You’re asking a lot of questions,” she says after pausing too long. “That’s a problem, Ms. Wilde?”
“And that’s another question.”
Cigarette and coffee—Vincent lights another; her cup sits empty. “I have to go,” she says, not moving.
“You have a husband? I asked Baptiste and his answer was vague. You don’t wear a wedding ring,” Loup says.
“So not only do you ask me a lot of questions, you ask Baptiste a lot of questions too.”
“I do about you . . . sometimes.”
Vincent looks at him and mouths the word wow. “You like prostitute spaghetti?” she asks.
“I like prostitutes.”
“I like prostitutes too,” Vincent says, defensively.
“Your husband will be at your dinner party tonight? It’s his place also?” “Why do you assume I have a husband, even when I don’t wear a wedding ring?”
“Well, you do wear this ring,” he says, tapping the big cloudy moonstone on her index finger.
“Right. A ring. It’s clearly not a wedding ring.” “But it is a ring.”
“Wow, insightful. Yeah, I really have to go,” Vincent says. “Too rude for me to invite myself along? I’d like to come.” “Loup—”
“J’ai faim! Feed me, please. I’ll help. I’ll earn my keep!” he says from the other side of the table, taking a posture of prayer.
The apartment is her parents’. In the past, she and her siblings have popped in, using it whenever they’re in the city, whenever it isn’t already occupied by renters. Now Vincent is the “renter,” although her parents would never let her pay for it. Her parents don’t need the money; they live on the wind, making their home wherever they find themselves. Right now, it’s Rome.
* * *
Vincent’s guests aren’t expected for another hour. Loup does most of the talking on the walk to her place, and he and his brown Chelsea boots bound up the stairs next to her, like an excited puppy about to pee itself. She imagines telling her sister about him, how much they’d snort when they laughed about this puppy-boy. One of their favorite things to do together? Laugh at men. They love to laugh at Cillian when he is being ridiculous. Vincent is thinking of Cillian as she opens her door—he and Loup have the same damn Chelsea boots. So does Prince Harry. Prince Harry’s and Loup’s are the color of peanut butter; Cillian’s are chocolate. Apparently she’s reached the stage of hunger where she can only think about food.
“I’m only letting you be here because I don’t want you to starve. It’s my duty to feed another human being. It’s in the Bible . . . look it up,” she says, hanging her bag, coat, and scarf on the hook next to the door. The Bolognese is ready and perfect, she can tell from the smell that met them in the hallway.
“You’re a good Christian, Ms. Wilde,” he says. He takes his jacket off and folds it neatly over the arm of the couch.
“Ugh. Drop the Ms. Wilde. Too weird. Go back to Vincent,” she says, walking into the kitchen, feeling like she’s sprung a leak. She will get her period a whole week early, all because of Loup’s rangy, dark tenderness in her apartment, behind her, filling the spaces between.
She takes the lid off the slow cooker and stirs the sauce with a wooden spoon. Tastes it. So good, she thinks angrily, nothing else matters—past, present or future—except this sauce, and blames it on PMS brain.
Loup is in her apartment; they are alone. How did it happen? She seriously considers the idea that she has reeled through time. Zapped from the United States to France over the summer, then zipped to another dimension where she lets twenty-something-year-olds come back to her place in their slouchy striped shirts to hurt her feelings with their violent youth and attractiveness and deeply chaotic sexual energy. Loup has sequences of moments when he’s always moving around everywhere, like a wasp invasion. So much! He never stops. Can he do a backflip? Run a six-minute mile? Ride a horse? Do those complicated dyno rock climbing moves Cillian had been all too eager to show off once he’d mastered them?
Instead of dwelling on Cillian, she imagines Loup’s body doing those things.
Vincent hears the floor creak beneath him in the living room. He seems to be everywhere at once out there until he pops into the kitchen with her scarf around his neck, holding the amber glass skull he’s taken from the window ledge.
“Memento mori,” he says, clinking it softly on the countertop. “Right on. It smells so good in here, Vincent.”
He emphasizes her name, always making a big deal out of it. First day of journaling class in the summer, she’d introduced herself and given her students their assignment.
Make a list of words you love. This can be very simple. For example, I love the word brush. Brush is not a fancy word, but to me, it’s beautiful. Keep writing words for as long as you can, in whatever language you’d like. And if there’s a special reason you love the word . . . if there’s a special memory attached, include that. If the word reminds you of a song or a color or a movie or a specific person or moment, include those things too. We will paint them later.
Remember, it’s a museum class. Stay or leave. Talk or don’t. You’ve paid your money. What you do or don’t want is up to you. We’re all adults here. Enjoy!
When she was finished, Loup had raised his hand. She acknowledged him and he said her name like it was a question.
“Like . . . Van Gogh.”
“Yep. Exactly like Van Gogh.”
“You teach art and your name is Vincent, after Van Gogh.” “Correct.”
“Vincent . . . that’s one word I like,” he said.
“All right. Thank you,” she said, her face warming. “Are your parents artists?”
“Yes. Both of them.”
“They are successful artists?” “Yes. Very, actually.”
“What are their names?” he asked. Several students continued listening; others were already sketching and writing.
“Um, their names are Aurora Thompson and Solomon Court . . . Soloco is what my dad uses for work.”
“I’ve heard of them. Your mum planted herself in a greenhouse for the winter and your dad did all of that graffiti and neon album art for those funkadelic bands . . . I forget some of the names . . . but I recognized your parents’ names easily. Isn’t that funny?” he said.
“It is. It is funny,” Vincent said with an atomic thrill.
Another student mentioned having heard of Soloco as well, saying he was “a lot like Basquiat.”
Not only did her dad do the neon album art for those bands, he was also a songwriter who’d penned a batch of killer spacey funk hits in the midseventies and early eighties. Those songs were still used in commercials, movies, and TV shows, and a huge chunk of her parents’ fortune was owed to that fact.
“Yes. And boom, now I’ve heard of you too . . . their lovely daughter,” he said. His comment was followed by a low ooh from one of his classmates.
“That’s plenty,” she said. “And since we’re doing names, what’s yours?” “Loup. As in wolf.”
“Wolf,” she translated herself.
“Wolf,” he repeated, and shoved his tongue between his teeth. •