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It all began with us moving to 11 Rue Merlin. Our apartment's on the fourth floor, left-hand side. It was September, I was twelve, and I didn't know anybody. But I promised myself something: I was going to get to know all my neighbors. I even had a plan of action. I'd work my way from the ground floor to the top, and pin up flags in my bedroom for the different countries everyone came from. There were lots of foreign-sounding names on the mailboxes, so I was hoping for a big catch. My theme for the year was going to be global encounters. Until I met Matthew, that is. When he popped up in my life, he turned all my plans upside down and inside out.
It was the first Saturday evening since the start of Year 8. Our neighbors in the upstairs apartment were making a lot of noise, so with a face like thunder, Dad put on his bathrobe and headed up to see what was going on. He was so annoyed he didn't bother with the elevator, but charged up the stairs instead. So, even though I was curious to find out what was going on too, I waited on the doormat.
Marie opened the door. I'd seen her before in the downstairs lobby and I recognized her gentle voice. Marie is Matthew's mother. I was listening out for a neighbor's spat I could tell everyone about at school...but I didn't hear a thing. No raised voices. No cross words, either. Dad came back down a few minutes later looking like everything was fine and sorted. He and Mom spoke in hushed whispers, and then he changed the subject. But what got me was there was still lots of banging coming from upstairs. So the next day, on my way out to buy our baguette for breakfast, I decided to go up.
There was a funny drawing of a child, with hands as huge as wings and big ears, too, pinned to the front door of the fifth-floor apartment. I didn't have a clue what I was going to say, but I rang anyway. A woman I'd never seen before opened the door. She was old enough to be Marie's mother, but she didn't look like her. I said, "Hello." (Mom claims I'm never one to hold back.) The woman smiled and stepped aside to let me through. She gave me a warm welcome but didn't say anything, which felt weird for someone chatty like me. The front door opened onto a corridor with a long Persian rug. I was about to introduce myself when Matthew appeared.
"He was handsome...he was blond...he smelled of delicious warm sand...." The moment I saw him at the end of the corridor, those lyrics came into my head. Actually, Matthew's got brown curly hair, he's short and pale, and he doesn't look anything like "My Legionnaire" in the Serge Gainsbourg song Mom's always singing. But he's so handsome there should be a song about him.
Matthew bolted out of nowhere like a mad dog and jumped on top of me, nearly knocking me over, before ending up on tiptoes with both hands in my hair. He skillfully ran his fingers all over my head, squealing and making occasional fshhttt! noises. Matthew was on cloud nine, sending my hair flying in every direction and choking with laughter. He got so worked up he started chanting, "You're playing with hair. You're playing with hair..." That's when the woman stepped in.
Still smiling and without saying a word, she pulled Matthew toward her, offering him her head instead, and Matthew changed heads. I mean, he let go of my hair and plunged his hands into the woman's. He took off her hair band and rumpled her loose hair. She's got straight blond hair, but he didn't seem to notice the difference. Matthew dived right in with his hands, and his fingers rose to the surface. He laughed and ran off. Then came the calm after the storm. The woman picked up her hair band, smoothed her hair, and tied it back up. Even the Persian rug became royal again. I was the only one who was lost, and when the woman looked at me to find out what I wanted I was dumbstruck, which was a first for me. In the end, I stammered something about coming back later and rushed off. The way the woman closed the door peacefully behind me, you'd think nothing had happened. So it was almost a relief to see my messed-up hair in the elevator mirror.
Back out on the pavement, my legs ran in the direction of the bakery but my head was still up on the fifth floor. I bought the baguette. As luck would have it, Marie was also hurrying home. She saw me and held the door. I ran over and said "Hello!" and then "Mrs.... ?" in the hope we'd keep on talking.
She held out her hand. "Hello there," she introduced herself. "I'm Marie. And you must be my new neighbor in the apartment below."
I nodded and gave her a big smile. Even though there was a big age gap, she was treating me as an equal. She seemed very kind. "My name's Lucy," I said after a pause. "Don't worry about the noise last night, by the way. I managed to get to sleep in the end."
When I realized how I must have sounded, I wished I could swallow my words back. Why do I always open my mouth too soon? I was worried she'd think I was trying to criticize her, which wasn't what I'd meant at all. But luckily, Marie understood perfectly. "Pleased to meet you, Lucy," she said when the elevator got to my floor. "Sometimes Matthew gets a bit out of hand. Matthew's my son. He's autistic, but we're making progress. It just takes time."
I could tell from her answer how warm and loving and full of hope she was. But that's all I got, because I didn't know the meaning of the key word in her sentence.
Mom just thought I'd taken my time buying the baguette.
Text copyright © 2002 by Kochka