As soon as the borders opened up, Elle booked a ticket. She was not going to miss her window to get to Paris from Porto, where she had been trapped for the past few months after expressing no interest in being “repatriated” to the U.S. It wasn’t “safer” there, and it never had been. She supposed she had been lucky that the divorce from her Portuguese husband had been put on hold before the pandemic hit–it gave her license to remain in Europe without being questioned. As for Rodrigo, it didn’t bother him that they were still married; he figured after all that he had put her through, the least he could do was allow her to keep her ironclad citizenship a bit longer (since apparently Elle’s Frenchness was too many generations far-removed to secure sanctuary that way). It’s not like he had any high hopes of meeting another woman he would want to marry. And anyway, what was really so wrong with bigamy?
He helped Elle pack her bag, the luggage tags with his last name slashed out so that hers, Reviens, once again replaced it. He felt a pang of sadness at that–as though the realization of their demise didn’t really hit him until that very instant. He pushed the melancholy aside to help her close the luggage, bursting at the seams with her few possessions. The dog they had adopted together, a stray mutt named Zambino, watched huffily, turning and twisting in repressed anger to find a comfortable position, not wanting to acknowledge her abandonment. But it was time for Elle to move on. And she had already for too long repressed her dream of going to Paris, which was where she had informed Rodrigo she intended to end up when they first met in Lisbon four years ago. She was twenty-three then, all wide-eyed and naive–just grateful to be noticed by someone as “exotic” as him. It didn’t hurt that he was older, therefore had the finesse and charm to keep her around even after he would backhand her across the face in his often unpredictable rages. She was much too jejune to know better then. And now, here it was, le June, four years later.
She wasn’t going to waste another second of her youth on Rodrigo’s “irascibility,” nor his refusal to experience anything outside of Portugal. Paris was the dream, and she was going to start by making a “vacation” of it before she delved into the hard life of being an Edith Piaf-level street urchin. Even if she aspired to one day be as affluent as Lisa Del Giocondo, who she would make her first priority to visit in Paris upon dropping her bag off at an expectedly disgusting hostel in the Montmartre area.
She had hoped, foolishly, that with all of the travel restrictions upon her own kind–Americans–that the Louvre would be relatively empty. And, for all intents and purposes, it was–save for in that room where no matter what the conditions outside in the real world were, it could never stave off the hordes from coming to see her. People were more than willing, it appeared, to contract corona in exchange for a glimpse of that petite painting radiating the most notorious simper known to humankind.
It was the simper that comes naturally with the bravado of wealth, even if only “middle class.” For Signora Del Giocondo was certainly no great beauty, likely even rendered more “beautiful” (and rich) than she actually was by Leonardo for the sake of not angering her or her “master,” Signor Fracesco Del Giocondo. It was no matter, Da Vinci would paint her as his masterpiece regardless (he needed the income at that particular moment). Money made everyone beautiful, and that much was clearer than ever to Elle as she watched all the plebes gather in close proximity, huddled together to view a staid and elegant woman of means despite the incessant warnings about “social distancing”–thinking that wearing their masks (noses exposed, therefore nullifying their “effort”) was enough of a sacrifice without having to, in their minds, dispense with being “creatures of congregation.”
One would posit that humans might relish a chance to wield the reason of the pandemic to scream at anybody that got too close. Never had there been a better time to advocate staunchly and loudly for personal space. Yet here they all were, happy to be rounded up like cattle in a line to the slaughter (which is essentially what they were going to be if they continued to cluster together like that in an almost concentrated endeavor to spread the disease) if it meant a glimpse of La Donna Gherardini. Her maiden name. Elle wondered if she regretted giving it up–along with her entire essence–in order to be taken care of by an older man. Though, at the very least, it meant she wouldn’t have to live with him for too long, inheriting from his trade as a silk merchant an insatiable need to be wrapped in it–her favorite material, and, after a while, the only kind she would wear.
The tradeoff for this security had been birthing five children, gnawing little brats like all the rest, but at least she got two of them to join a convent. Alas, even the nunnery wasn’t safe anymore. Outbreaks at every turn, Elle mused to herself as she stayed away from the jumbled line and tried to gaze at Lisa from afar. She looked more amused than ever, likely in incredulous disbelief that she could still manage to attract this many. That even with all the additional obstacles presented to get to her, they continued to show up in droves. “Will Contract Covid for Mona Lisa,” was basically the sign they were each wearing around their necks as they took their precious photos, which, for the most part, only featured other people taking photos. She was impossible to know not only because of that expression, but because she was so difficult to access. And that made her all the more alluring.
Elle didn’t bother getting into the line. Her grand plans for manufacturing a memorable moment had been dampened, and all she wanted now was to flee to a less crowded portion of the museum… which was literally anywhere else. Finding herself among the forgotten statues that didn’t get as much love or admiration now that there were fewer patrons to go around, Elle could feel something strange brewing within her. A shadow of a sensation. Call it her heightened intuition, but she knew in that moment that she had been infected. And she didn’t even get to see that bitch up close and personal in exchange.