EXT. The Palace of Versailles—Night—Present Day
Two people stand facing away from us, toward the palace. A man, British, thirties, an atomic weapon of a heartbreaker. And a girl, American, nine, though wise way—way—beyond her years. Camera circles around from behind them so we see their expressions as they take it all in, and it’s a lot to take. Over the palace, fireworks explode in reds, whites, and blues.
What are you thinking?
It reminds me of home.
As her car sped along the Périphérique, Imogen closed her eyes and wondered what every woman headed to another woman’s wedding always wonders: Is she happy? Sun through the window elevated her nascent hangover to a blitz of pinpricks on her brain while a new, possibly more pressing question forced its way to the front of a very long line. She tried to suppress it. Imogen hated questions. Imogen hated being alone, which was when questions always came. All she wanted to think about this morning was nothing, but her attempts at mindfulness failed spectacularly, they always did. So she thought about last night. About the man on her left who’d talked about the French Revolution. He had been completely fixated on what he called “the exit of the King,” the night Louis XVI had left the palace, taken his Queen and their son, the Dauphin, and—just like that—ended an epoch of excess.
“People are drawn to slaughter,” he’d said, authoritatively carving his lamb. “It’s Darwinian.”
He was tall, American, with the slight social autism unique, in Imogen’s experience, to Silicon Valley success. Americans, she’d found, loved celebrating any revolution that didn’t threaten them.
“Is that really true,” Imogen pushed back, but he wasn’t listening, Americans never listened.
“They carried knives to the palace. And hammers! Probably axes and hatchets, too. Have you been to Versailles?”
Imogen hadn’t, she was twenty-three so hadn’t done or seen or experienced most things, but as the car banked left into the fast lane, away from Paris, her eyes still fiercely closed, she could see the words of that latest pressing question clearly, in all caps, in neon, as if her unconscious was flying a plane with one of those advertorial flags strapped behind it, forcing her attention to its question, demanding a response. The question was not about slaughter. The question was:
HOW DID I GET HERE?
And so, with an instinct toward reflection coupled with a dazzling capacity for casual self-destruction, Imogen counted the ways she’d arrived at this place, in this moment, and why she was about to face something appalling, seductive, and potentially transformational.
Unlike someone who grows up with nothing and then strikes it rich in their twenties by, say, hard work or dumb luck or strategic dating choices, Imogen’s mother had grown up with the illusion of wealth only to finish college and emerge into something more like elegant squalor. On her college graduation day, Imogen’s mother had received, from her grandmother, a gold Patek Phillipe watch engraved with the date and the words THIS IS IT. At the time, the inscription felt like a nod to the day’s commencement, to the occasion, to the idea that this is your time, pun intended, as it always was with her apparently very witty grandmother. There her mother was, the world laid out before her like a long Ivy League lawn. She was an heiress and a beautiful one and, above all that, she had a brain and depth and empathy, too, she was sensitive and wanted to use these gifts for the good, whatever that meant. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Imogen’s mother learned that the meaning was far more pedestrian and obvious. THIS IS IT meant that the watch would be her sole inheritance, the one link to a past of status and privilege and apparent glamour. The watch, ironically, was an object she would never, ever wear. Back then, only Saudi princes or special operators wore those kinds of watches. And her mother had a particular disdain for gold. Gold, Imogen’s mother often said, is good for blonds and Ibiza; less so for brunettes and Northern California, the place her mother had been headed at the time of her graduation. To San Francisco, for a PhD, far from her family’s disrepair and lies, and into the Wild West, the future, risk. That watch, dropped into a small cardboard box as she boarded the plane, was the one thing she would keep, to remind herself of what she didn’t need.
At a dinner party in Berkeley, Imogen’s mother met a boy who had one thing, too, though it was far larger than a watch. He had The Abbey, in Britain, in Gloucestershire, erected in the twelfth century for an order of Cistercians (who made regular monks look lazy, the boy said) then later transformed, around the turn of the nineteenth century, into a private home with extensive gardens, exotic follies reminding guests they were no longer in the presence of asceticism. Neither dashing nor brilliant, he was the sole and undeniable heir to the Abbey, which gave him a unique, quiet confidence, especially with women. For Imogen’s mother, with whom Imogen often tried to empathize, a shot at becoming the lady of the Abbey must have felt like a pretty wise way to answer the specter of THIS IS IT. When, six days into her Californian experiment, Imogen’s mother had boarded another plane, this one direct to London, it wasn’t with any concept of the Abbey. All she knew then was that the boy she’d met could take her even further away from her past, across an ocean. With him, if it all worked out, she would literally become a citizen of another nation, she could shed her past entirely, she could raise children with optimism and have an easy excuse on why never to return. She took a job in a bookshop in Chelsea and fell slowly and deeply in love with the boy. He dropped in almost daily, and often took her for lunch. And then one day, he took her for a drive.
“It’s sort of embarrassing,” is apparently what her father said, on that first visit to the Abbey, whose existence he had doggedly hidden in an era when hiding things was possible. All Imogen’s mother knew about the man who’d taken her around the world, and for all those lunches, was that he, like her, had a love of literature, and that he, like her, had something in his past he was keen to escape. In fact, what soldered their early bond was the sense they both might be running from the same thing, and who doesn’t want to run with a partner? When she first saw the house, Imogen’s mother simply squeezed his hand, a gesture that could have meant holy fuck as easily as it could have meant I’m so sorry.