Before Hadley, there was Lausanne. Before Kristina and Jacques and Joel, there was still Lausanne. Their presence in the city was only passing; the lake did not burst its banks, no mountainsides were sent crumbling and no shutters broke from immaculate buildings to go clattering to the ground. Yet between the striding bridges and the turreted apartment blocks, the tree-lined streets and the looping parks, they played out their trysts and tragedies. Through it all, Lausanne remained unaltered, but the same could not be said for the lives of the people who lived there.
It was Hadley’s second year of university, and she was spending it abroad, in Switzerland. La Suisse. Her idea of the place had belonged to cartoons—cuckoo clocks and soupy cheese, triangular chocolate and cool neutrality—but then she’d looked in a guidebook and seen the words Swiss Riviera. She’d read about Lausanne, a city of vertical streets, rising spires and tumbling rooftops. She’d seen a picture of Lac Léman, shining like a polished mirror, with the serrated edges of Les Dents du Midi and Mont Blanc rising behind. There were palm trees and vineyards and palatial hotels with striped awnings that flapped in the breeze. Lausanne seemed possessed of a quiet glamour, discreet but with a rippling under-current, un frisson. Hadley had only been too happy to leave her university back home, with its huddled, squat buildings that were gray as elephant hide, boys who smelled of yesterday’s beer, and girls who twittered like birds on a line. She’d imagined herself in this new Swiss landscape and had been in its grip from the very beginning.
Until the end of her days, she would probably always be able to picture the lakeside bathed in September sun, the clutches of international students sitting on the steps by the marina, laughing at the fountain spray, shielding the light from their eyes. At the start of the academic year Lausanne was always full of such types—slipshod groups who were yet to find their way, united by little more than being aliens, in the same place at the same time. If only someone had taken them each by the hand, said you are in a place of dreams but tread carefully. And look after one another.
She would probably always remember the Hôtel Le Nouveau Monde, its delicate bulk like a glamorous but portly femme d’un certain age. Her heart would flutter, as it forever did, for there would be something about the place that would draw her still. She’d think of the gold-and-primrose dining room, the delicate squares of chocolate resting on the saucers of coffee cups and Hugo Bézier rolling a cigar between nimble fingers, his creased smile glinting through his cognac glass. He’d told her once that it was her very greenness that had attracted him in the beginning. How she’d stood so upright, looking somehow poised for flight. And it was true, for she’d been light as a butterfly as she’d danced into her new life, and she’d shed her old one as easily as a chrysalis. How cocooned, how gray, how very dull it had felt in comparison.
At the time she’d felt quite certain that her future lay in Lausanne, and, despite all the things that happened, she supposed she was still right. For it was just as Joel Wilson hadsaid in his very first lecture, as he’d appropriated the words of Ernest Hemingway in a loose Californian drawl, there is never any end to Lausanne. He had told them that, after their year, each of their memories would be completely different, that was how it was with Lausanne, just as it was with Paris. With hindsight she wondered if perhaps he’d been trying to prepare them, to warn them that Lausanne wasn’t the kind of city to take its place among their memories with obedience and grace. Rather it would permeate everything that came afterward, and all of them, including him, would return to it again and again in their minds. They wouldn’t be able to help themselves. Joel couldn’t have known what lay ahead at that point, but it was almost as if he had. His light eyes clouding as he’d turned his back on the lecture group and stared from the window at the sliver of lake that lay beyond.
Hadley’s year abroad was always going to be a love story. When you long to feel another’s beating heart pushed close to your own, you don’t think about those same hearts one day breaking; nor the splinters that will run beneath your skin, prickling and burning for the longest time. But this is a story about more than heartbreak. It’s about an old man sitting at a typewriter, his fingers darting over the keys as a young girl watches in complicit quiet. It is about a city, a place at once fairy tale and reality-bitten, glorious and imperfect, sun-soaked and winter-whipped. More than anything, it is a story about old lives ending and new lives beginning, and it turns on the sweetest of moments, when two perfect strangers chance upon one another, and instead of letting the day blow them past, they pause. They turn. They speak. The story starts.