Home > Just One Day (Just One Day #1)(16)

Just One Day (Just One Day #1)(16)
Gayle Forman

That’s what I see before my eyes when I think of this day.

It has to do with Paris, but more than that, it has to do with the person who brought me here. And with the person he allowed me to become here. I’m too overcome to explain it all, so instead I say the one word that encapsulates it: “You.”

“And what about this?” He touches the bandage on my neck. I feel a jolt that has nothing to do with the wound.

“I don’t care about that,” I whisper.

“I care,” he whispers back.

What Willem doesn’t know—what he can’t know, because he didn’t know me before today—is that none of that matters. “I wasn’t in danger today,” I tell him in a choked voice. “I escaped danger today.” And I did. Not just getting away from the skinheads, but I feel like the whole day has been an electrical shock, paddles straight to my heart, bringing me out of a lifelong torpor I hadn’t even known I was in. “I escaped,” I repeat.

“You escaped.” He comes closer so he towers over me. My back is pressed into the worktable, and my heart starts to pound because there’s no escaping this. I don’t want to escape this.

As if disconnected from the rest of my body, my hand raises in the air and goes to touch his cheek. But before it arrives, Willem’s hand whips around and grabs my wrist. For one confused second, I think I’ve misread the situation again, am about to be refused.

Willem holds my wrist for a long moment, looking at that birthmark. Then he lifts it to his mouth. And though his lips are soft and his kiss is gentle, it feels like a knife jamming into the electrical socket. It feels like the moment when I go live.

Willem kisses my wrist, then moves upward, along the inside of my arm to the tickly crook of my elbow, to my armpit, to places that never seemed deserving of kisses. My breath grows ragged as his lips graze my shoulder blade now, stopping to drink at the pool of my clavicle before turning their attention to the cords of my neck, to the area around the bandage, then gently to the top of the bandage. Parts of my body I never even realized existed come alive as the circuits click on.

When he finally kisses my mouth, everything goes oddly quiet, like the moment of silence between lightning and thunder. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. Four Mississippi. Five Mississippi.

Bang.

We kiss again. This next kiss is the kind that breaks open the sky. It steals my breath and gives it back. It shows me that every other kiss I’ve had in my life has been wrong.

I tangle my hands into that hair of his and pull him toward me. Willem cups the back of my neck, runs his fingers along the little outcroppings of my vertebrae. Ping. Ping. Ping, go the electric shocks.

His hands encircle my waist as he boosts me onto the table, so we are face-to-face, kissing hard now. My cardigan comes off. Then my T-shirt. Then his. His chest is smooth and cut, and I bury my head in it, kissing down the indentation at his centerline. I’m unbuckling his belt, tugging down his jeans with hunger I don’t recognize.

My legs loop around his waist. His hands are all over me, migrating down to the crease of my hip where they’d rested during our nap. I make a sound that doesn’t seem like it could come from me.

A condom materializes. My underwear is shimmied down over my sandaled feet and my skirt is bunched into a petticoat around my waist. Willem’s boxers fall away. Then he lifts me off the table. And then I realize that I was wrong before. Only now is my surrender complete.

After, we fall to the floor, Willem on his back, me resting next to him. His fingers graze my birthmark, which feels like it is flashing heat, and mine tickle his wrist, the hairs so soft against the heavy links of my watch.

“So this is how you’d take care of me?” he jokes, pointing to a red mark on his neck where I think I bit him.

Like with everything, he’s turned my promise into something funny, something to tease me with. But I don’t feel like laughing, not now, not about this, not after that.

“No,” I say. “That’s not how.” Part of me wants to disavow the whole thing. But I won’t. Because he asked me if I’d take care of him, and even if it was a joke, I made a promise that I would, and that wasn’t a joke. When I said I’d be his mountain girl, I knew I wasn’t going to see him again. That wasn’t the point. I wanted him to know that when felt alone out there in the world . . . I was there too.

But that was yesterday. With a clench of my chest that makes me truly understand why it’s called heartbreak, I wonder if it’s not him being alone that I’m worried about.

Willem fingers the fine film of white clay dust that covers my body. “You’re like a ghost,” he says. “Soon you disappear.” His voice is light, but when I try to catch his eye, he won’t meet my gaze.

“I know.” There’s a lump in my throat. If we keep talking about this, it’ll become a sob.

Willem wipes off a bit of the dust and my darker, tour-tanned skin reemerges. But other things, I now realize, won’t come off so readily. I take Willem’s chin in my hands and turn him to face me. In the wispy glow of the streetlamp, his planes and angles are both shadowed and illuminated. And then he looks at me, really looks at me, and the expression on his face is sad and wistful and tender and yearning, and it tells me everything I need to know.

My hand shakes as I raise it to my mouth. I lick my thumb and rub it against my wrist, against my birthmark. Then I rub again. I look up, look him right in his eyes, which are as dark as this night I don’t want to end.

Willem’s face falters for a moment, then he grows solemn, the way he did after we were chased. Then he reaches over and rubs my birthmark. It’s not coming off, is what he is telling me.

“But you leave tomorrow,” he says.

I can hear the drumbeat of my heart echo in my temples. “I don’t have to.”

For a second, he looks confused.

“I can stay for another day,” I explain.

Another day. That’s all I’m asking. Just one more day. I can’t think beyond that. Beyond that things get complicated. Flights get delayed. Parents go ballistic. But one more day. One more day I can swing with minimal hassle, without upsetting anyone but Melanie. Who will understand. Eventually.

Part of me knows one more day won’t do anything except postpone the heartbreak. But another part of me believes differently. We are born in one day. We die in one day. We can change in one day. And we can fall in love in one day. Anything can happen in just one day.

“What do you think?” I ask Willem. “One more day?”

He doesn’t answer. Instead, he flips me under him. I sink into the cement floor, submitting to the weight of him. Until something sharp jabs into my rib cage.

“Ow!”

Willem reaches under me and pulls out a small metal chisel.

“We should find somewhere else to stay,” I say. “Not with Céline.”

“Shh.” Willem quiets me with his lips.

Later, after we have taken our time, exploring every hidden crease of each other’s bodies, after we have kissed and licked and whispered and laughed until our limbs are heavy and the sky outside has started to purple with predawn light, Willem pulls a tarp over us.

“Goeienacht, Lulu,” he says, his eyes fluttering with exhaustion.

I trace the creases of his face with my fingers. “Goeienacht, Willem,” I reply. I lean into his ear, push the messy bramble of his hair aside and whisper, “Allyson. My name is Allyson.” But by then, he is already asleep. I rest my head in the crook between his arm and shoulder, tracing the letters of my true name onto his forearm, where I imagine their outlines will remain until morning.

Thirteen

After a ten-day heat wave, I’m used to waking up sweaty, but I wake up to a cool breeze gusting through an open window. I reach for a blanket, but instead of getting something warm and feathery, I get something hard and crinkly. A tarp. And in that hazy space between wake and sleep, it all comes back to me. Where I am. Who I’m with. The happiness warms me from the inside.

I reach for Willem, but he’s not there. I open my eyes, squinting against the gray light, bouncing off the bright white of the studio walls.

Instinctively, I check my watch, but my wrist is bare. I pad over to the window, pulling my skirt around my naked chest. The streets are still quiet, the stores and cafés still shut. It’s still early.

I want to call to him, but there’s a church-like hush, and to disrupt it feels wrong. He must be downstairs, maybe in the bathroom. I could sort of use it myself. I pull on my clothes and tiptoe down the stairs. But Willem isn’t in the bathroom, either. I quickly pee and throw water on my face and try to drink away the beginnings of my hangover.

He must be exploring the studios by daylight. Or maybe he went back up the staircase. Calm down, I tell myself. He’s probably back upstairs right now.

“Willem?” I call.

There’s no answer.

I run back upstairs to the studio we slept in. It’s messy. On the floor is my bag, its contents spilling out. But his bag, his stuff, is all gone.

My hearts starts to pound. I run over to my bag and open it up, checking for my wallet and passport, my minimal cash. Immediately I feel stupid. He paid for me to come over here. He isn’t going to rip me off. I remind myself of the tizzy I got myself into yesterday on the train.

I run up and down the stairs, calling his name now. But it just echoes back to me—Willem, Willem!—like the walls are laughing at me.

Panic is coming. I try to push it away with logic. He went out to get us something to eat. To find us somewhere to sleep.

I go stand next to the window and wait.

Paris begins to wake. Store grates go up, sidewalks are swept. Car horns start honking, bicycles chime, the sound of footfalls on the rainy pavement multiply.

If stores are open, it must be nine o’clock? Ten? Soon the artists will arrive, and what will they do when they find me squatting in their squat like Goldilocks?

I decide to wait outside. I put on my shoes and sling my bag over my shoulder and head to the open window. But in the cold light of day, without wine emboldening me or Willem helping me, the distance between the second floor and the ground seems like an awfully long way to fall.

You got up, you can get back down, I chastise myself. But when I hoist myself onto the ledge and reach for the scaffolding, my hand slips and I feel dizzy. I imagine my parents getting the news of me falling to my death from a Paris building. I collapse back into the studio, hyperventilating into the cave of my hands.

Where is he? Where the hell is he? My mind pinballs through rationales for his delay. He went to get more money. He went to fetch my suitcase. What if he fell going out the window? I jump up, full of twisted optimism that I will find him sprawled underneath the drain pipe, hurt but okay, and then I can make good on my promise to take care of him. But there’s nothing under the window except a puddle of dirty water.

I sink back down onto the studio floor, breathless with fear, which is now on an entirely different Richter scale than my little scare on the train.

More time goes by. I hug my knees, shivering in the damp morning. I creep downstairs. I try the front door, but it’s locked, from the outside. I have the sense that I’m going to be trapped here forever, that I’ll grow old and wither and die locked in this squat.

How late can artists sleep? What time is it? But I don’t need a clock to tell me Willem has been gone too long. With each passing minute, the explanations I keep concocting ring increasingly hollow.

Finally, I hear the clank of the chain and keys jangle in the locks, but when the door swings open, it’s a woman with two long braids carrying a bunch of rolled up canvases. She looks at me and starts talking to me in French, but I just spring past her.

Out on the street, I look around for Willem, but he’s not here. It seems like he would never be here, on this ugly stretch of cheap Chinese restaurants and auto garages and apartment blocks, all gray in the gray rain. Why did I ever think this place was beautiful?

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