From "The Stars Are Not Yet Bells"
Hannah Lillith Assadi
This month, we’re really happy to have an excerpt from Hannah Lillith Assadi’s haunting new novel “The Stars Are Not Yet Bells.” In WWII-era New York, two lovers escape the city for a day on Long Island, where they impersonate foreign gentry to get into a glamorous mansion pool party. But only Elle knows how bittersweet the scene really is, because it’s the couple’s last getaway before she is to be married off, for money.
Live large while you can,
We strolled through our city at the blue hour, as the evening lights ascended over the rivers and across the bridges, darkening only upon reaching the sleeping land that was everywhere beyond New York. By then the technology of light was a familiar miracle to my generation, yet I still felt awe at the jewelry that dressed Manhattan at night. I wanted to be a woman just like my city, gleaming.
But there was an invention even more gleaming than light in our day—the cinema. One afternoon, back in time, as I shuffled through the masses gathered on the city’s roasting new asphalt, New York was suffocated by a storm that refused to fall. Gabriel had promised me a ticket to see Gone with the Wind at the Loew’s, where he had gained temporary employment. But when I arrived, he produced something else from his pocket: a pair of train tickets.
“What about the picture?” I asked him. “I’ve been dying to see it all year.”
“Too hot for a picture,” Gabriel replied.
“Did you get fired again?” I asked. His inability to keep a job was so persistent, I wondered whether he’d ever worked at the Loew’s at all.
“I’ve just had a better idea,” Gabriel replied. “We’re going to a pool party.”
“Those stolen?” I asked, as he fanned himself with the tickets.
“Borrowed,” he said.
Half an hour later we were in Pennsylvania Station, running for a train to take us out of the hot city and into the greenness of everywhere else I had never seen. I pressed my face against the half‑open train window, and as the wind blew fresh upon us, smelling of pasture and the sea, I wondered why no one had ever bothered to explain to me how beautiful it was just outside of New York.
“Here!” Gabriel cried suddenly, pulling me out of the compartment and onto the empty platform of a seemingly abandoned town.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“A magical kingdom called Long Island,” Gabriel replied, sipping from his flask of whiskey in broad daylight like a regular lush.
“How is it you know anyone here?” I asked him.
“I don’t,” Gabriel replied.
“Well, how are you taking me to a pool party then, Gabriel?”
“Oh, it’s simple. An old trick I learned when I was a child down in New Orleans. On a hot day like this, you walk around a fancy neighborhood until you see where all the fanciest cars are parked, and you just use your sniffer to find your way to the house where the swimming party is. Then you go right in through the front, like you’re one of them; if they ask who you are, make up an extraordinary name and you say, ever so modestly, you’re just in town to give an interview about a picture you recently starred in. And if one of them wants to act like some kind of expert on Hollywood, you can always say you’re a French actor in town from gay ol’ Paree.”
I threw up my arms in exasperation. “You are absolutely mad! Movie stars dressed like us?”
“Look!” he said, pointing. On the very block we’d wandered onto, a crowd of cars was lining up beside a gaggle of men in white suits.
Gabriel licked his hands and pressed down his hair, then fixed my own curls, tucking a few strays behind my ears. As we approached the valet, Gabriel’s entire gait changed. He stood taller and wider.
“But where is your vehicle, sir?” a young man asked, nervous at being suddenly put in such a position of authority.
“Oh, but don’t you recognize me?” Gabriel faked a British accent. “I live just over yonder.” He pointed vaguely across a field. “Walking is good for the constitution, I daresay.” This was good enough for the boy, who, without further question, granted us entrance.
“What did I tell you, Elle?” Gabriel winked.
The house, if there was one, was shrouded by a forest of trees, too exotic to be indigenous to New York. I looked up toward the sky and saw only a green and glorious arboretum. We made our way down a cobblestone path that wound around fountains and patches of sea‑blue hydrangeas and rosebushes, roses that must have been splendid in another season but now had browned from the heat. Gabriel peered into a smoky‑looking blossom. “See how the spider mites have made a ghost of this rose.”
I had never seen such a thing before, that wraithlike shroud smothering my favorite flower. But I would see it again, later, here in my own garden. And it was then, examining the death of all those roses, that I spotted the house we’d come for at last.
It was not a house at all, really, but a château with vines clambering up its front, and floor upon floor of cloistered rooms behind curtained windows hiding the promise of chandeliers. The lawn was decked with lanterns and candles and waiters passing drinks. And beyond it a pool that still sparkles in my mind, as long as a city block and full of the most gorgeous people I’d ever seen. All the world could marvel at the luster of New York, but this spectacle was reserved for the special few. At that moment, I wanted this life for my own; I never believed it would one day be mine—or that I’d be happier in the wanting than in the having it.
“Elle, can you speak in the good French, like they taught you in school? My Cajun won’t do. And I’ll be the Englishman,” Gabriel said. “We’ll pretend we’re actors from Europe, and we’re here for a . . .” He paused, hunting for the perfect image, then drifted off without finding it.
All that day, we brought the silver screen to Long Island. Gabriel was a British gentleman named George and I his French mistress, Isabelle, and because we were very interesting on account of our backgrounds and his charm, we were given swimming clothes after George explained that in France we bathed exclusively in the nude. As Isabelle, I entered a pool for the very first time. Gabriel guided my body as we moved up and down the length of it. I had no need to swim; I was weightless in his arms. We were movie stars, defying gravity.
We drank drinks of so many colors, I can still taste them distinctly: bright red with Campari, later minty with absinthe, as the host tried to impress us with his collection of liquor from the Old World. We stayed through the evening, eating the cheese and the fruit and the delicious smoked meats, and a young gentleman with a high‑pitched voice gave us a tour of the grounds, the rose garden and the statues and the ponds and the tennis courts. Later, inside, he directed us to a piano that belonged to an apparently very famous man. The shoreline was just there, the young man said, nodding through the trees. “If you listen carefully, you can hear the Sound,” he whispered. We obliged this moment of silence, though whatever waves might have reached us were drowned out by the decadent roar of the party.
And then suddenly, as if some silent alarm had rung, we were the last people there. Gabriel ambled toward me with that broad stride of his, a stride made for riding horses across deserts; he lifted me in his arms and ran us up the drive, out the gate—dropping his accent to howl at the valets for letting a pack of regular gypsies in, that we’d made off with all the jewels and, impossibly, the famous piano. One valet, the oldest among them, chased us until he col‑ lapsed into a fit of coughing, which painfully reminded me of my father. And then we were back at the station, dripping drunk, crawling into our seats, without tickets, without a penny, on the last train for New York.
“George, je t’aime. Je t’aime,” I said as Gabriel collapsed on my shoulder, his mouth lolling wide as if he were ingesting all the stars and planets. “Isabelle,” he said. “I love you, too.” We confessed our love not to each other, but to whom we wished we might become.
And then, for no discernible reason, I desecrated our most romantic hour. “Gabriel, I’m engaged. The ring, the coat . . . I lied. They are all gifts from my, well, fiancé.”
Gabriel looked at me imploringly, scanning my face for some sign of retraction, that what I had said could be unsaid. “You’re not supposed to break my heart tonight, Isabelle,” he said finally. “We’re still starring in the movie.”
“But we aren’t in the movies. And my father lost his job. There isn’t enough money, you see.”
“There’s never enough money,” Gabriel replied.
Then we were silent for a very long time. Our bodies fell away from each other. How painful that is, that pitiful moment when two animals in love feel the emptiness of air between them return. Out the train window, I watched the moon pass below the black line of trees.
Gabriel smoked for the rest of the ride. When one cigarette had finished, he lit another, and so on, as the buildings of New York rose densely around us. When he spoke again at last, his soliloquy was directed less to me than out the window to the city itself. “I’m gonna invent something. Something more splendid than electricity. Better than even the cinema. I’ll dress you in jewels. That’s what every woman wants, right? Just because I wasn’t raised with money doesn’t mean I don’t know how to get it. I’m an American, after all, Elle. It’s in my blood.”
Hannah Lillith Assadi teaches fiction at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Her first novel, Sonora, received the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a finalist for the PEN/ Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. In 2018, she was named a National Book Foundation 5 under 35 honoree. Her second novel The Stars Are Not Yet Bells was recently published by Riverhead Books. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, NY.
From THE STARS ARE NOT YET BELLS: A Novel by Hannah Lillith Assadi, published by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2022 by Hannah Lillith Assadi.
Buy the book here or at your very chill neighborhood bookstore.