Home > Just One Day (Just One Day #1)(6)

Just One Day (Just One Day #1)(6)
Gayle Forman

I shake my head. “It’s useless in Europe. Except as a camera.”

“We can walk. It’s close to here.”

We head back up the escalators. Before we get to the automatic doors, Willem turns to me and asks, “Are you ready for Paris?”

In all the stress of dealing with my luggage, I’d sort of forgotten that the point of all this was Paris. Suddenly, I’m a little nervous. “I hope so,” I say weakly.

We walk out the front of the train station and step into the shimmering heat. I squint, as if preparing for blinding disappointment. Because the truth of it is, so far on this tour, I’ve been let down by pretty much everywhere we went. Maybe I watch too many movies. In Rome, I really wanted an Audrey Hepburn Roman Holiday experience, but the Trevi Fountain was crowded, there was a McDonald’s at the base of the Spanish Steps, and the ruins smelled like cat pee because of all the strays. The same thing happened in Prague, where I’d been yearning for some of the bohemianism of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But no, there were no fabulous artists, no guys who looked remotely like a young Daniel Day-Lewis. I saw one mysterious-looking guy reading Sartre in a café, but then his cell phone rang and he started talking in a loud Texas twang.

And London. Melanie and I got ourselves completely lost on the Tube just so we could visit Notting Hill, but all we found was a fancy, expensive area full of upscale shops. No quaint bookstores, no groups of lovable friends I’d want to have dinner parties with. It seemed like there was a direct link between number of movies I’d seen about a city and the degree of my disappointment. And I’ve seen a lot of movies about Paris.

The Paris that greets me outside Gare du Nord is not the Paris of the movies. There’s no Eiffel Tower or fancy couture stores here. It’s just a regular street, with a bunch of hotels and exchange bureaus, clogged with taxis and buses.

I look around. There are rows and rows of old grayish-brown buildings. They are uniform, seeming to ripple into one another, their windows and French doors thrown open, flowers spilling out. Right across from the station are two cafés, catty-corner. Neither one is fancy, but both are packed—people clustered at round glass tables, under the awnings and umbrellas. It’s both so normal and so completely foreign.

Willem and I start walking. We cross the street and pass one of cafés. There’s a woman sitting alone at one of the tables, drinking pink wine and smoking a cigarette, a small bulldog panting by her legs. As we walk by, the dog jumps up and starts sniffing under my skirt, tangling me and him in his leash.

The woman must be around my mom’s age, but is wearing a short skirt and high-heeled espadrilles that lace up her shapely legs. She scolds the dog and untangles the leash. I bend over to scratch behind its ears, and the woman says something in French that makes Willem laugh.

“What did she say?” I ask as we walk away.

“She said her dog is like a truffle hog when it comes to beautiful girls.”

“Really?” I feel flush with pleasure. Which is a little silly, because it was a dog, and also I’m not entirely sure what a truffle hog is.

Willem and I walk down a block full of sex shops and travel agencies and turn a corner onto some unpronounceable boulevard, and for the first time, I understand that boulevard is actually a French word, that all the big streets called boulevards at home are actually just busy roads. Because here is a boulevard: a river of life, grand, broad, and flowing, a plaza running down the middle and graceful trees arcing out toward one another overhead.

At a redlight, a cute guy in a skinny suit riding a moped in the bike lane stops to check me out, looking me up and down until the moped behind him beeps its horn for him to move on.

Okay, this is, like, twice in five minutes. Granted, the first one was a dog, but it feels significant. For the past three weeks, it’s been Melanie getting the catcalls—a result of her blond hair and LOOK AT ME wardrobe, I cattily assumed. Once or twice, I huffed about the objectification of women, but Melanie rolled her eyes and said I was missing the point.

As this lightness buoys me, I wonder if maybe she was right. Maybe it’s not about looking hot for guys, but about feeling like a place acknowledged you, winked at you, accepted you. It’s strange because, of all the people in all the cities, I’d have thought that to Parisians I’d be invisible, but apparently I’m not. Apparently, in Paris, not only can I skate, but I practically qualify for the Olympics!

“It’s official,” I declare. “I love Paris!”

“That was fast.”

“When you know, you know. It’s just become my favorite city in the whole world.”

“It tends to have that effect.”

“I should add that there wasn’t much competition, seeing as I didn’t actually enjoy most of the places on the tour.”

And again, it just slips out. Apparently when you only have one day, you can say anything and live to tell. The trip has been a bust. How good it feels to finally admit this to someone. Because I couldn’t tell my parents, who had paid for what they believed was the Trip of a Lifetime. And I couldn’t tell Melanie, who really was on the Trip of a Lifetime. And not Ms. Foley, whose job it was to ensure I had the Trip of a Lifetime. But it’s true. I’ve spent the last three weeks trying to have fun—and failing.

“I think maybe traveling is a talent, like whistling or dancing,” I continue. “And some people have it—you seem to. I mean, how long have you been traveling?”

“Two years,” he says.

“Two years with breaks?”

He shakes his head. “Two years since I’ve been back to Holland.”

“Really? And you were supposed to go back today? After two years?”

He throws his arms up into the air. “What’s one more day after two years?”

I suppose to him, not a lot. But to me, maybe something else. “That just proves my point. You have the talent for traveling. I’m not sure that I do. I keep hearing everyone go on about how travel broadens your horizons. I’m not even sure what that means, but it hasn’t broadened anything for me, because I’m no good at it.”

He’s mostly silent as we walk over a long bridge spanning dozens of railroad tracks, graffiti everywhere. Then he says, “Traveling’s not something you’re good at. It’s something you do. Like breathing.”

“I don’t think so. I breathe just fine.”

“Are you sure? Have you ever thought about it?”

“Probably more than most people. My father’s a pulmonologist. A lung doctor.”

“What I mean is, have you ever thought about how it is that you do it? Day and night? While you sleep. While you eat. While you talk.”

“Not so much.”

“Think about it now.”

“How do you think about breathing?” But then all of sudden I do. I get tangled up in thoughts about breathing, the mechanics of it, how is it that my body knows to do it even when I’m sleeping, or crying, or hiccupping. What would happen if my body somehow forgot? And sure enough, my breath grows a little labored, as if I’m walking uphill, even though I’m walking down the slope of the bridge.

“Okay, that was weird.”

“See?” Willem asks. “You thought too hard. Same with travel. You can’t work too much at it, or it feels like work. You have to surrender yourself to the chaos. To the accidents.”

“I’m supposed to walk in front of a bus and then I’ll have a good time?”

Willem chuckles. “Not those accidents. The little things that happen. Sometimes they’re insignificant; other times, they change everything.”

“This all sounds very Jedi. Can you be more specific?”

“A guy picks up a girl hitchhiking in a faraway country. A year later, she runs out of money and winds up on his doorstep. Six months after that, they get married. Accidents.”

“Did you marry a hitchhiker or something?”

His smile unfurls like a sail. “I’m giving examples.”

“Tell me a real one.”

“How do you know that’s not real?” he teases. “Okay, this happened to me. Last year when I was in Berlin, I missed my train to Bucharest and caught a ride to Slovakia instead. The people I rode with were in a theater troupe, and one of the guys had just broken his ankle and they needed a replacement. On the six-hour ride to Bratislava, I learned his part. I stayed with the troupe until his ankle got better, and then a while after that, I met some people from Guerrilla Will, and they were in desperate need of someone who could do Shakespeare in French.”

“And you could?”

He nods.

“Are you some kind of language savant?”

“I’m just Dutch. So I joined Guerrilla Will.” He snaps his fingers. “Now I’m an actor.”

This surprises me. “You seemed like you’d been doing it a lot longer.”

“No. It’s just accidental, just temporary. Until the next accident sends me somewhere new. That’s how life works.”

Something quickens in my chest. “Do you really think that’s how it works? That life can change justlikethat?”

“I think everything is happening all the time, but if you don’t put yourself in the path of it, you miss it. When you travel, you put yourself out there. It’s not always great. Sometimes it’s terrible. But other times . . .” He lifts his shoulders and gestures out to Paris, then sneaks me a sidelong glance. “It’s not so bad.”

“So long as you don’t get hit by a bus,” I say.

He laughs. Then gives me the point. “So long as you don’t get hit by a bus,” he says back.

Five

We arrive at the club where Willem’s friend works; it seems completely dead, but when Willem pounds on the door, a tall man with blue-black skin opens up. Willem speaks to him in French, and after a minute, we’re allowed into a huge dank room with a small stage, a narrow bar, and a bunch of tables with chairs stacked on them. Willem and the Giant confer a bit more in French and then Willem turns to me.

“Céline doesn’t like surprises. Maybe it’s better if I go down first.”

“Sure.” In the hushed dim, my voice seems to clang, and I realize I’m nervous again.

Willem heads to a staircase at the back of the club. The Giant resumes his work polishing bottles behind the bar. Obviously, he didn’t get the message that Paris loves me. I take a seat on the barstool. They twirl all the way around, like the barstools at Whipple’s, the ice-cream place I used to go to with my grandparents. The Giant is ignoring me, so I just sort of spin myself this way and that. And then I guess I do it a little fast, because I go spinning and the barstool comes clear off its base.

“Oh, shit! Ow!”

The Giant comes out to where I am sprawled on the floor. His face is a picture of blasé. He picks up the stool and screws it back in, then goes back behind the bar. I stay on the floor for a second, wondering which is more humiliating, remaining down here or getting back on the stool.

“You are American?”

What gives it away? Because I’m clumsy? Aren’t French people ever clumsy? I’m actually pretty graceful. I took ballet for eight years. I should tell him to fix the stool before someone sues. No, if I say that, I’ll definitely sound American.

“How can you tell?” I don’t know why I bother to ask. Since the moment our plane touched down in London, it’s like there’s been a neon sign above my head, blinking: TOURIST, AMERICAN, OUTSIDER. I should be used to it. Except since arriving in Paris, it felt like it had maybe dimmed. Clearly not.

“Your friend tells me,” he says. “My brother lives in Roché Estair.”

“Oh?” Am I supposed to know where this is? “Is that near Paris?”

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