Home > Just One Day (Just One Day #1)(10)

Just One Day (Just One Day #1)(10)
Gayle Forman

I slip away to the bow of the boat and watch the scenery slip by. It’s cooler down here in the canals, under the narrow arched footbridges. And it smells different too. Older, mustier, like generations of history are stored in the wet walls. If these walls could talk, I wonder what secrets they’d tell.

When we get to the first lock, Willem clambers to the side of the barge to show me how the mechanism works. The ancient-looking metal gates, rusted the same brackish color as the water, close behind us, the water drains out from beneath us, the gates reopen to a lower section.

This part of the canal is so narrow that the barge takes up almost the entire width. Steep embankments lead up to the streets, and above those, poplar and elm trees (per Captain Jack) form an arbor, a gentle respite from the hot afternoon sun.

A gust of wind shakes the trees, sending a scrim of leaves shimmying onto the deck. “Rain is coming,” Captain Jack says, sniffing the air like a rabbit. I look up and then over at Willem and roll my eyes. The sky is cloudless, and there hasn’t been rain in this part of Europe for ten days.

Up above, Paris carries on, doing her thing. Mothers sip coffee, keeping eyes on their kids as they scooter along the sidewalks. Vendors at outdoor stalls hawk fruits and vegetables. Lovers wrap their arms around each other, never mind the heat. A clarinet player stands atop the bridge, serenading it all.

I’ve hardly taken any pictures on this trip. Melanie teased me about it, to which I always said I preferred to experience something rather than obsessively record it. Though, really, the truth of it was, unlike Melanie (who wanted to remember the shoe salesman and the mime and the cute waiter and all the other people on the tour), none of that really mattered to me. At the start of the trip, I took shots of the sights. The Colosseum. Belvedere Palace. Mozart Square. But I stopped. They never came out very well, and you could get postcards of these things.

But there are no postcards of this. Of life.

I snap a picture of a bald man walking four bushy-haired dogs. Of a little girl in the most absurdly frilly skirt, plucking petals off a flower. Of a couple, unabashedly making out on the fake beach along the waterside. Of the Danes, ignoring all of this, but having the time of their lives playing cards.

“Oh, let me take one of the two of you,” Agnethe says, rising, a little wobbly, from the game. “Aren’t you golden?” She turns to the table. “Bert, was I ever that golden?”

“You still are, my love.”

“How long have you been married?” I ask.

“Thirteen years,” she says, and I’m wondering if they’re stained, but then she adds, “Of course, we’ve been divorced for ten.”

She sees the look of confusion on my face. “Our divorce is more successful than most marriages.”

I turn to Willem. “What kind of stain is that?” I whisper, and he laughs just as Agnethe takes the picture.

A church bell rings in the distance. Agnethe hands back the phone, and I take a picture of her and Bert. “You will send me that one? All of the ones?”

“Of course. As soon as I have reception.” I turn to Willem. “I’ll text them to you too, if you give me your number.”

“My phone is so old, it doesn’t work with pictures.”

“When I get home, then, I’ll put the pictures on my computer and email them to you,” I say, though I’ll have to figure out a place to hide the pictures from Mom; it wouldn’t be beyond her to look through my phone—or computer. Though, I realize now, only for another month. And then I’ll be free. Just like today I’m free.

He looks at one of the pictures for a long time. Then he looks at me. “I’ll keep you up here.” He taps his temple. “Where you can’t get lost.”

I bite my lip to hide my smile and pretend to put the phone away, but when Captain Jack calls to Willem to take the wheel while he visits the head, I pull it back out and scroll through the photos, stopping at the one of the two of us that Agnethe took. I’m in profile, my mouth open. He’s laughing. Always laughing. I run my thumb over his face, halfway expecting it to emanate some sort of heat.

I put the phone away and watch Paris drift by, feeling relaxed, almost drunk with a sleepy joy. After a while, Willem returns to me. We sit quietly, listening to the lapping of the water, the babble of the Danes. Willem pulls a coin out and does that thing, flipping it from knuckle to knuckle. I watch, hypnotized by his hand, by the gentle rocking of the water. It’s peaceful until the Danes start bickering, loudly. Willem translates: Apparently they’re hotly debating whether some famous French actress has ever made a  p**n ographic film.

“You speak Danish too?” I ask.

“No, it’s just close to Dutch.”

“How many languages do you speak?”


“Oh, God. I’m sorry I asked.”

“Four fluently. I get by in German and Spanish too.”

I shake my head, amazed.

“Yes, but you said you speak Chinese.”

“I wouldn’t say I speak it so much as murder it. I’m kind of tone deaf, and Mandarin is all about tone.”

“Let me hear.”

I look at him. “Ni zhen shuai.”

“Say something else.”

“Wo xiang wen ni.”

“Now I hear it.” He covers his head. “Stop. I’m bleeding from my ears.”

“Shut up or you will be.” I pretend to shove him.

“What did you say?” he asks.

I give him a look. No way I’m telling.

“You just made it up.”

I shrug. “You’ll never know.”

“What does it mean?”

I grin. “You’ll have to look it up.”

“Can you write it too?” He pulls out his little black book and opens to a blank page near the back. He rifles back into his bag. “Do you have a pen?”

I have one of those fancy roller balls I swiped from my dad, this one emblazoned BREATHE EASY WITH PULMOCLEAR. I write the character for sun, moon, stars. Willem nods admiringly.

“And look, I love this one. It’s double happiness.”

“See how the characters are symmetrical?”

“Double happiness,” Willem repeats, tracing the lines with his index finger.

“It’s a popular phrase. You’ll see it on restaurants and things. I think it has to do with luck. In China, it’s apparently big at weddings. Probably because of the story of its origin.”

“Which is?”

“A young man was traveling to take a very important exam to become a minister. On the way, he gets sick in a mountain village. So this mountain doctor takes care of him, and while he’s recovering, he meets the doctor’s daughter, and they fall in love. Right before he leaves, the girl tells him a line of verse. The boy heads off to the capital to take his exam and does well, and the emperor’s all impressed. So, I guess to test him further, he says a line of verse. Of course, the boy immediately recognizes this mysterious line as the other half of the couplet the girl told him, so he repeats what the girl said. The emperor’s doubly impressed, and the boy gets the job. Then he goes back and marries the girl. So, double happiness, I guess. He gets the job and the girl. You know, the Chinese are very big on luck.”

Willem shakes his head. “I think the double happiness is the two halves finding each other. Like the couplet.”

I’d never thought of it, but of course that’s what it is.

“Do you remember how it goes?” Willem asks.

I nod. “Green trees against the sky in the spring rain while the sky set off the spring trees in the obscuration. Red flowers dot the land in the breeze’s chase while the land colored up in red after the kiss.”

The final section of the canal is underground. The walls are arched, and so low that I can reach up and touch the slick, wet bricks. It’s eerie, hushed but echoey down here. Even the boisterous Danes have shushed. Willem and I sit with our legs dangling over the edge of the boat, kicking the side of the tunnel wall when we can.

He nudges my ankle with his toe. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For arranging this.” He gestures to the boat.

“My pleasure. Thank you for arranging this.” I point above us, to where Paris is no doubt going about its business.

“Any time.” He looks around. “It’s nice, this. The canal.” He looks at me. “You.”

“I’ll bet you say that to all the canals.” But I flush in the musty, rich darkness.

We stay like that for the rest of the ride, swinging our legs against the side of the boat, listening as the odd bit of laughter or music from Paris seeps underground. It feels like the city is telling secrets down here, privy only to those who think to listen.


Arsenal Marina is like a parking lot for boats, tightly packed into cement piers on both sides of the water. Willem helps Captain Jack guide the barge into its narrow mooring, hopping out to tie the lines in complicated knots. We bid farewell to the Danes, who are now truly soused, and I take down Agnethe’s cell phone number, promising to text her the pictures as soon as I can.

As we get off, Captain Jack shakes our hands. “I feel a little bad to take your money,” he says.

“No. Don’t feel bad.” I think of the look on Willem’s face, of being in the tunnel. That alone was worth a hundred bucks.

“And we’ll take it off you soon enough,” Gustav calls.

Jacques shrugs. He kisses my hand before he helps me off the boat, and he practically hugs Willem.

As we walk away, Willem taps my shoulder. “Did you see what the boat is named?”

I didn’t. It’s right on the back, etched in blue lettering, next to the vertical red, white, and blue stripes of the French flag. Viola. Deauville.

“Viola? After Shakespeare’s Viola?”

“No. Jacques meant for it be called Voilà, but his cousin painted it wrong, and he liked the name, so he registered her as Viola.”

“Okaaay—that’s still a little weird,” I say.

As always, Willem smiles.

“Accidents?” Immediately, a strange little tremor goes up my spine.

Willem nods, almost solemnly. “Accidents,” he confirms.

“But what does it mean? Does it mean we were meant to take that boat? Does it mean something better or worse would’ve happened to us if we hadn’t taken that boat? Did taking that boat alter the course of our lives? Is life really that random?”

Willem just shrugs.

“Or does it mean that Jacques’s cousin can’t spell?” I say.

Willem laughs again. The sound is clear and strong as a bell, and it fills me with joy, and it’s like, for the first time in my life, I understand that this is the point of laughter, to spread happiness.

“Sometimes you can’t know until you know,” he says.

“That’s very helpful.”

He laughs and looks at me for a long moment. “You know, I think you might be good at traveling after all.”

“Seriously? I’m not. Today is a total anomaly. I was miserable on the tour. Trust me, I didn’t flag down a single boat. Not even a taxi. Not even a bicycle.”

“What about before the tour?”

“I haven’t traveled much, and the kind I’ve done . . . not a lot of room for accidents.”

Willem raises a questioning eyebrow.

“I’ve been places. Florida. Skiing. And to Mexico, but even that sounds more exotic than it is. Every year, we go to this time-share resort south of Cancún. It’s meant to look like a giant Mayan temple, but I swear the only clue that you’re not in America is the piped-in mariachi Christmas carols along the fake river waterslide thing. We stay in the same unit. We go to the same beach. We eat at the same restaurants. We barely even leave the gates, and when we do, it’s to visit the ruins, but we go to the same ones every single year. It’s like the calendar flips but nothing else changes.”

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