Just One Year jod-2, Page 2Gayle Forman
I can give them Broodje’s address in Utrecht. “One moment,” I say.
“Take your time, mon chéri.”
I lean on the counter and rifle through my address book, flipping through the last year of accumulated acquaintances. There are countless names of people I don’t remember, names I didn’t remember even before I got this nasty bump on my head. There’s a message to Remember the caves in Matala. I do remember the caves, and the girl who wrote the message, but not why I’m supposed to remember them.
I find Robert-Jan’s address right at the front. I read it to the clerk, and as I close the book it falls open to one of the last pages. There’s all this unfamiliar writing, and at first I think my eyesight must really be messed up, but then I realize it’s just that the words are not English or Dutch but Chinese.
And for a second, I’m not here in this hospital, but I’m on a boat, with her, and she’s writing in my notebook. I remember. She spoke Chinese. She showed it to me. I turn the page, and there’s this.
There’s no translation next to it, but I somehow know what that character means.
I see the character here in the book. And I see it larger, on a sign. Double happiness. Is that where she is?
“Is there maybe a Chinese restaurant or store nearby?” I ask the clerk.
She scratches her hair with a pencil and consults a colleague. They start to argue about the best place to eat.
“No,” I explain. “Not to eat. I’m looking for this.” I show them the character in my book.
They look at each other and shrug.
“A Chinatown?” I ask.
“In the thirteenth arrondissement,” one replies.
“Would an ambulance have brought me here from there?” I ask.
“No, of course not,” she answers.
“There’s a smaller one in Belleville,” the other clerk offers.
“It is a few kilometers from here, not far,” the first clerk explains and tells me how to get to the Métro.
I put on my rucksack, and leave.
I don’t get far. My rucksack feels like it’s full of wet cement. When I left Holland two years ago, I carried a big pack with many more things. But then it got stolen and I never replaced it, instead making do with a smaller bag. Over time, the rucksacks kept getting smaller and smaller, because there’s so little a person actually needs. These days, all I keep is a few changes of clothes, some books, some toiletries, but now even that feels like too much. When I go down the stairs into the Métro, the bag bounces with each step, and pain knifes deep into me.
“Bruised, not broken,” Dr. Robinet told me before I left. I thought he was talking about my spirit, but he’d been referring to my ribs.
On the Métro platform, I pull everything out of the rucksack except for my passport, wallet, address book, and toothbrush. When the train comes, I leave the rest on the platform. I’m lighter now, but it’s not any easier.
The Belleville Chinatown begins right after the Métro stop. I try to match the signs from her character in my book, but there are so many signs and the neon lettering looks nothing like those soft ink lines she wrote. I ask around for double happiness. I have no idea if I’m asking for a place, a person, a food, a state of mind. The Chinese people look frightened of me and no one answers, and I begin to wonder if maybe I’m not really speaking French, only imagining I do. Finally one of them, an old man with grizzled hands clutching an ornate cane, stares at me and then says, “You are a long way from double happiness.”
I am about to ask what he means, where it is, but then I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a shop window, my eye swelling purple, the bandage on my face seeping blood. I understand he isn’t talking about a place.
But then I do glimpse familiar letters. Not the double happiness character, but the SOS letters from the mysterious T-shirt I was wearing earlier at the hospital. I see it now on another T-shirt, worn by a guy my age with jagged hair and an armful of metal cuffs. Maybe he’s connected to double happiness somehow.
It winds me to catch up with him, a half block away. When I tap him on the shoulder, he turns around and steps back. I point to his shirt. I’m about to ask him what it means when he asks me in French, “What happened to you?”
“Skinheads,” I reply in English. It’s the same word all over. I explain in French that I was wearing a T-shirt like his before.
“Ahh,” he says, nodding. “The racists hate Sous ou Sur. They are very anti-fascist.”
I nod, though I remember now why they beat me up, and I’m pretty certain it had little to do with my T-shirt.
“Can you help me?” I ask.
“I think you need a doctor, my friend.”
I shake my head. That’s not what I need.
“What do you want?” the guy asks me.
“I’m looking for a place around here with a sign like this.”
“What is it?”
“I’m not sure.”
“What is it you’re looking for?”
“Maybe a store. Restaurant. Club. I don’t know, really.”
“You don’t know shit, do you?”
“I know that I don’t know shit. That counts for something.” I point to the egg on my head. “Things got scrambled.”
He peers at my head. “You should have that looked at.”
“I already did.” I point to the bandage covering the stitches on my cheek.
“Shouldn’t you be resting or something?”
“Later. After I find it. The double happiness.”
“What’s so important about this double happiness?”
I see her then, not just see her, but feel her, soft breath against my cheek as she whispered something to me just as I was falling asleep last night. I didn’t hear what she said. I only remember I was happy. To be in that white room. “Lulu,” I say.
“Oh. A girl. I’m on my way to see my girl.” He pulls out his phone and texts something. “But she can wait; they always do!” He grins at me, showing off a set of defiantly crooked teeth.
He’s right. They do. Even when I didn’t know they would, even when I’d been gone a long time, the girls, they waited. I never cared one way or another.
We take off, walking up and down the narrow blocks, the air thick with the smell of stewed organs. I feel like I’m running to keep up with him, and the exertion sets my stomach churning again.
“You don’t look so pretty, friend,” he tells me right as I retch bile into the gutter. He looks vaguely alarmed. “Are you sure you don’t want a doctor?”
I shake my head, wipe my mouth, my eyes.
“Okay. I think maybe I should take you to meet my girl, Toshi. She works in this area, so she might know this double happiness place.”
I follow him a few blocks. I’m still trying to find the double happiness sign, but it’s even harder now because I got some sick on my address book and the ink’s smeared. Also, there are black spots dancing before my eyes making it hard to see where the pavement really is.
When we finally stop, I almost cry in relief. Because we’ve found it, the double happiness place. Everything is familiar. The steel door, the red scaffolding, the distorted portraits, even the faded name on the facade, Ganterie, after the glove factory it must have once been. This is the place.
Toshi comes to the door, a tiny black girl with tight dreadlocks, and I want to hug her for delivering me to the white room. I want to march straight to the white room and lie down next to Lulu, to have everything feel right again.
I try to say this, but I can’t. I can’t even really get my legs to move because the ground beneath me has turned liquid and wavy. Toshi and my samaritan, whose name is Pierre, are arguing in French. She wants to call the police and Pierre says they have to help me find double happiness.
It’s okay, I want to tell him. I�
��ve found it. This is the place. But I can’t quite make the words come out straight. “Lulu,” I manage to say. “Is she here?”
A few more people crowd around the door. “Lulu,” I say again. “I left Lulu here.”
“Here?” Pierre asks. He turns to Toshi and points to his head and then to my head.
I keep repeating her name: Lulu, Lulu. And then I stop but her name continues, like in an echo chamber, like my pleas are traveling deep into the building and will bring her back from wherever it is she’s gone.
When the crowd parts, I think it really has worked. That my words dredged her up, returned her to me. That the one time I wanted one to wait, one did.
A girl steps out from the crowd. “Oui, Lulu, c’est moi,” she says delicately.
But that’s not Lulu. Lulu was willowy with black hair and eyes as dark. This girl is a petite china doll, and blonde. She is not Lulu. Only then do I remember that Lulu is not Lulu either. Lulu was the name I gave her. I don’t know her real name.
The crowd stares at me. I hear myself babbling about needing to find Lulu. The other Lulu. I left her in the white room.
They look at me with odd expressions on their faces and then Toshi pulls out her mobile phone. I hear her talking; she is requesting an ambulance. It takes me a minute to realize it’s for me.
“No,” I tell her. “I already have been to the hospital.”
“I would hate to see you before,” Wrong Lulu says. “Were you in an accident?”
“He got beaten up by skinheads,” Pierre tells her.
But Wrong Lulu is right. Accident—how I found her. Accident—how I lost her. You have to give the universe credit, the way it evens things out like that.
I take a taxi to Céline’s club. The fare eats into the last of my money but it doesn’t matter. I just need enough to get back to Amsterdam, and I already have a train ticket. On the short ride over, I nod off in the backseat and it’s only when we pull up outside La Ruelle that I remember we left Lulu’s suitcase here.
The bar is dark and empty, but the door is unlocked. I hobble down to Céline’s office. It’s dark inside there, too, only the grayish glow of her computer monitor lighting her face. At first, when she looks up and sees me, she smiles that smile of hers, like a lion waking from a nap, refreshed but hungry. Then I click on the light.
“Mon dieu!” she exclaims. “What did she do to you?”
“Was she here? Lulu?”
Céline rolls her eyes. “Yes. Yesterday. With you.”
“What happened to your face?”
“Where is the suitcase?”
“In the storage room, where we left it. What happened to you?”
“Give me the keys.”
Céline narrows her eyes with one of her looks, but she opens a desk drawer and tosses me the keys. I unlock the door, and there’s the suitcase. She hasn’t come back for it, and for a moment I feel happy because it means she must still be here. Still be in Paris, looking for me.
But then I think about what the woman from Ganterie said, the one who came downstairs after my vision went all black and Toshi threatened again to call an ambulance and I begged for a taxi instead. This woman said that she saw a girl race out of the doors when she unlocked them this morning. “I called after her to come back, but she just ran away,” she told me, in French.
Lulu didn’t speak French. And she didn’t know her way around Paris. She didn’t know how to get to the train station last night. She didn’t know how to get to the club, either. She wouldn’t know where her suitcase is. She wouldn’t know where I was—even if she wanted to find me.
I take the suitcase, search for a luggage tag, and find nothing: not a name tag or an airplane baggage claim. I try to open it, but it’s locked. I pause for all of a second before yanking off the flimsy padlock. As soon as I open the bag, I’m hit with the familiar. Not the contents—clothes and souvenirs I’ve never seen before—but the smell. I pick up a neatly folded T-shirt, put it to my face, and inhale.
“What are you doing?” Céline asks, suddenly appearing in the doorway.
I slam the door shut in her face and continue going through Lulu’s things. There are souvenirs, including one of those wind-up clocks like one we looked at together at one of the stalls on the Seine, some plug adapters, chargers, toiletries, but nothing that tracks back to her. There is a sheet of paper in a plastic bag, and I pick that up, hopeful, but it only contains an inventory of sorts.
Tucked underneath a sweater is a travel journal. I finger the cover. I was on a train to Warsaw more than a year ago when my rucksack got nicked. I had my passport, money, and address book on me, so all the thieves got was a half-broken backpack with a bunch of dirty clothes, an old camera, and a diary inside of it. They had probably just thrown everything away once they’d realized there was nothing to sell. Maybe they got twenty euros for the camera, though it was worth a lot more to me. As for the diary, worthless; I prayed they tossed it. I couldn’t bear the idea of anyone reading it. It was the only time in the last two years I’d considered going home. I didn’t. But when I bought new things, I didn’t replace the diary.
I wonder what Lulu would think of me reading her journal. I try to imagine how I’d have felt had she read all my raw rantings about Bram and Yael from my stolen journal. When I do, it’s not the usual embarrassment or shame or the disgust that washes over me. Instead, it’s something quiet, familiar. Something like relief.
I open her journal, flipping through the pages, knowing I shouldn’t. But I’m looking for a way to contact to her, though maybe, I’m just looking for more of her. A different way to breathe her in.
But I find no scent of her. Not a single name or address: not hers, not anyone’s she met. There are only a few vague entries, nothing telling, nothing Lulu.
I flip to the end of the journal. The spine is stiff and cracks. Behind the back cover is a deck of postcards. I search them for addresses, but they’re blank.
I reach for a pen on one of the shelves and start writing my name, phone number, email address, and Broodje’s address for good measure, on each of the postcards. I write myself into Rome, Vienna, Prague, Edinburgh. London. All the while, I’m wondering why. Keep in touch. It’s like a mantra on the road. This act you do. But it rarely happens. You meet people, you part ways, sometimes you cross paths again. Mostly, you don’t.
The last postcard is of William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon. I’d told her to skip Hamlet and come see us instead. I’d told her the night was too nice for tragedy. I should have known better than to say a thing like that.
I flip Shakespeare over. “Please,” I begin. I’m about to write something else: Please get in touch. Please let me explain. Please tell me who you are. But my cheek is throbbing and my vision has gone all soft-focus again and I’m exhausted and weighted with regret. So I bookend the “please” with that regret. “I’m sorry,” I write.
I tuck all the postcards back in the bag and then back in the journal. I zip up the suitcase and put it back in the corner. I shut the door.
The last time I was in Céline’s flat, more than a year ago, she hurled a vase of dead flowers at my head. I’d been staying with her about a month, and I told her it was time for me to move on. It had been unseasonably warm and I’d stayed unusually long. But then the weather had turned cold and I felt the claustrophobia return. Céline accused me of being a fair-weather boyfriend, and she wasn’t entirely wrong about the weather, but I’d never actually been her boyfriend, never promised to stay. There was screaming, curses, then the vase sailing through the air, missing my head but smashing into the faded blue wall. I tried to help with the mess before I left, but she refused to let me.
I don’t think either of us expected me ever to set foot in here again. I don’t think we ever thought we’d see each other again. But then I bumped into her at La Ruelle a few months later. She had recently been made booking mana
ger, and she seemed happy enough to see me. She gave me free drinks all night and invited me down to her office to show me the roster of bands she had scheduled in the coming months. I went with her, even though I was pretty certain that the calendar was not what she wanted to show me, and sure enough, as soon as we got to the office, she locked the door, and never turned on her computer.
There was an unspoken agreement that I’d never go back to her flat. I had a place to stay, anyway, and I was leaving the next morning. After that, I saw her whenever I came through Paris. Always at the club, in the office, with the door locked.
So I think we are both surprised when I ask if I can stay at her place.
“Really? You want to?”
“If you don’t mind. You can give me the keys and meet me later. I know you have to work. I’ll leave tomorrow.”
“Stay as long as you like. Let me come with you. I can help you.”
My fingers absently touch the watch, still on my wrist. “You don’t have to. I just need to rest.”
Céline sees the watch. “Is that hers?” she asks.
I run my finger along the cracked crystal.
“Are you going to keep it?” she asks, her tone gone sour.
I nod. Céline starts to protest, but I hold up my hand to stop her. I barely have the energy to stand. But I am keeping this watch.
Céline rolls her eyes, but she also shuts down her computer and helps me up the stairs. She calls out to Modou, who is now digging around behind the bar, that she is taking me home for the night.
“What happened to your friend?” Modou asks, popping back up.
I turn back toward him. The lights are dim and Céline’s arm is around me for support. I can hardly see him. “Tell her I’m sorry. Her suitcase is in the closet. If she comes back. Tell her that.” I want to tell him to make sure she looks at the postcards, but Céline is yanking me out the door. Outside, I was expecting darkness, but, no, it’s still daytime. Days like these go on for years. It’s the ones you want to last that slip away—one, two, three—in seconds.