Just One Day 02: Just One Year, Page 3Gayle Forman
* * *
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 manager, 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.
• • •
The watermark from where the vase smashed into the wall is still there. So are the piles of books, magazines, CDs, and precarious towers of vinyl records. The picture windows, which she never bothers to cover, even at night, are wide open, letting in the endless, endless daytime.
Céline gives me a glass of water, and at last I take the painkillers Dr. Robinet gave me before I left the hospital. He advised me to take them before the pain came on, and to keep taking them until it subsided. But I was afraid taking them earlier would dull whatever wits I had left about me.
The instructions on the bottle say one pill every six hours. I take three.
“Lift up your hands,” Céline instructs. And it’s like yesterday, when she was making me change my clothes and Lulu walked in on us, and I’d thought it cute that she tried to hide her jealousy. And then Modou had kissed her and I’d had to hide mine.
I can’t lift my arms over my head, so Céline helps me off with the hospital scrubs. She stares at my chest a long time. She shakes her head.
She clucks her tongue. “She should not have left you like this.”
I start to explain that she didn’t leave me like this, not knowingly. Céline dismisses me with a wave of her hands. “No matter. You are here now. Go into the bathroom and clean yourself up. I will cook something.”
“Do not laugh. I can make eggs. Or soup.”
“Don’t trouble yourself. I have no appetite.”
“Then I will make you a bath.”
She draws me a bath. I hear it running and think of rain, which has stopped. I feel the drugs starting to work, the soft tentacles of sleep slowly tugging me under. Céline’s bed is like a throne and I collapse onto it, thinking of my airplane dream earlier today and how it felt slightly different from the usual nightmare. Right before I fall asleep, one of my lines—Sebastian’s lines—from Twelfth Night pops into my head: “If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep!”
• • •
At first, I think I’m dreaming again. Not the airplane dream, a different one, a good one. A hand trailing up and down my back, slipping lower, lower. She kept her hand on my heart. All morning as we slept on that hard floor. This hand tickles toward my waist and then goes lower. Bruised, not broken, the doctor said. In my sleep, I feel my strength returning.
My own hand finds her warm body, so soft, so inviting. I slip my hand between her legs. She groans.
“Je savais que tu reviendrais.”
And then it’s the nightmare all over again. Wrong place. Wrong person. Wrong plane. I jolt up in bed, push her away so hard she tumbles to the floor.
“What are you doing?” I shout at Céline.
She stands up, unapologetically naked in glow of the streetlight. “You are in my bed,” she points out.
“You’re supposed to be taking care of me,” I say. This sounds all the more pathetic because we both know I don’t want her to.
“I thought I was,” she says, attempting a smile. She sits down on the edge of the bed, pats the sheet next to her. “You don’t have to do anything but lie back and relax.”
I am wearing nothing but my boxers. When did I take off my jeans? I see them folded neatly on the floor, along with the shirt from the hospital. I reach for the shirt. My muscles protest. I stand up. They howl.
“What are you doing?” Céline asks.
“Leaving,” I say, panting with the exertion. I’m not entirely sure I can get out of here, but I know I cannot stay.
“Now? It is late.” She looks incredulous. Until I step in my jeans. It is a painstakingly slow process, and it gives her time to digest the fact that I am, in fact, going. I can see what will happen: the reprise of the last time I was here. A stream of cursing, in French. I am a prick. I have humiliated her.
“I offered you my bed, me, and you push me out. Literally.” She is laughing, not because it’s funny but because it’s inconceivable.
“I’m sorry about that.”
“But you came to me. Yesterday. Again today. You always come back to me.”
“It was only for a place to leave the suitcase,” I explain. “It was for Lulu.”
The look on her face is different from what it was last time, when she threw the vase at me, after I told her it was time for me to go. That was fury. This is fury before it’s had time to set, raw and bloody. How foolish it was to visit Céline. We could’ve found another place for that suitcase.
“Her?” Céline yells. “Her? She was just some girl. Nothing special! And look at you now! She left you like this. I am always the one you come running to, Willem. That means something.”
I hadn’t taken Céline for one of the ones who wait. “I shouldn’t have come here. I won’t do it again,” I promise. I gather the rest of my things and hobble out of her flat, down the stairs to the street.
/> A police car flies by, its lights flashing through the finally dark streets, its siren whining: nyeah-nyeah, nyeah-nyeah.
I need to get home.
* * *
* * *
Marjolein’s office is in a narrow canal house off of the Brouwersgracht, the inside of it all white and modern. Bram designed it, calling it one of his “vanity projects.” But there was nothing vain about Bram; that was just his code for not getting paid.
Bram’s day job was designing temporary crisis shelters for refugees, something he believed in but that didn’t challenge his creative side. So he was always on the lookout for ways to exercise his modern sensibilities—like transforming a tired transport barge into a three-story glass, wood, and steel floating palace that was once described as “Bauhaus on the Gracht” in a design journal.
Sara, Marjolein’s assistant, sits behind a clear Lucite table, a vase of white roses on the desk. When I come in, she gives me a nervous smile and slowly rises to take my coat. I lean in to kiss her hello. “Sorry I’m late,” I apologize.
“You’re three weeks late, Willem,” she says, as she ushers me in, accepting a kiss but not eye contact.
I give my best rogue’s grin, even though it pulls at the now-itchy wound on my cheek. “But worth waiting for?”
She doesn’t answer. It was more than two years ago that Sara and I had our moment. I was spending a lot of time in this office then, and she was there, our family attorney’s assistant. When it had first happened, I’d been besotted, Sara the older woman with the doleful eyes and the blue-painted bed. But it didn’t last. It never does.
“Technically, I was only a few days late,” I tell her now. “Marjolein’s the one who delayed us by two weeks.”
“Because she went on holiday,” Sara says, strangely huffy. “Which she had purposely booked for after the closing.”
“Willem.” Marjolein towers in the doorway, naturally tall, and taller yet in the stiletto heels she always wears. She beckons me into her office where Bram’s modern sensibility is everywhere. The messy papers and folders in precarious piles are Marjolein’s contributions.
“So you threw me over for a girl,” Marjolein says, shutting the door behind her.
I wonder how it is that Marjolein can possibly know this. She stares at me, clearly amused by something. “I called back, you know?”
On the train from London to Paris, I’d tried to text Marjolein about my delay, but my phone wouldn’t get a signal and was about to die anyway, and for some reason, I didn’t want to tell Lulu about any of it. So when I’d seen one of the Belgian backpacker girls in the café, I’d borrowed her phone. I’d had to fumble in my backpack for Marjolein’s number in my address book and had wound up spilling coffee all over me and the Belgian girl.
“She sounded pretty,” Marjolein says, with a grin that is both mischievous and scolding at the same time.
“She was,” I say.
“They always are,” Marjolein says. “Well, come give us a kiss.” I step forward to be kissed but before I do, she stops me. “What happened to your face?”
One upside to our meeting being postponed is that it’s given the bruises time to fade. The sutures have dissolved, too. All that’s left now of that day is a thick raised welt that I’d hoped would go unnoticed.
When I don’t answer, Marjolein does. “Tangled with the wrong girl, eh? One with an angry boyfriend?” She gestures to the reception area. “Speaking of, Sara has a nice Italian bloke, so lay off. She moped for months after you left last time. I almost had to fire her.”
I hold up my hands and feign innocence.
Marjolein rolls her eyes. “Was that really because of a girl?” She points to my cheek.
Put that way, the story skirts a little close to the truth. “Bicycle. Beer. Dangerous combination.” I cheerfully mime falling off a bike.
“My God. Have you been gone so long you’ve forgotten how to drink and ride a bike?” she asks. “How can you even call yourself Dutch anymore? We got you back just in time.”
“So it appears.”
“Come. Let me get you a coffee. And I have some excellent chocolate hiding around here somewhere. And then we’ll sign the papers.”
She calls to Sara, who brings in two demitasses of coffee. Marjolein rifles around in her drawers until she pulls out a box of hard, chewy chocolates. I take one and let it melt on my tongue.
She starts explaining what I’m signing, though it doesn’t matter because my signature is only required due to some bureaucratic formality. Yael never took Dutch citizenship, and Bram, who used to say, “God is in the details,” when it came to the meticulousness of his designs, apparently held the opposite view when it came to his personal affairs.
All of which means my presence is necessary to finalize the sale and set up the various trusts. Marjolein prattles on as I sign and sign and sign again. Apparently Yael’s not being Dutch, and no longer residing here or in Israel either, but floating around like some stateless refugee, is actually a big tax boon for her. She sold the boat for seven hundred and seventeen thousand euros, Marjolein explains. A chunk goes to the government, but a much larger sum goes to us. By the end of business day tomorrow, one hundred thousand euros will be deposited into my bank account.
As I sign, Marjolein keeps looking at me.
“What?” I ask.
“It’s just I forgot how much you look like him.”
I pause, the pen poised over another line of legalese. Bram always used to say that though Yael was the strongest woman in the world, somehow his mild mannered genes clobbered her dark Israeli stock.
“Sorry,” Marjolein says, back to business. “Where have you been staying since you got back? With Daniel?”
Uncle Daniel? I haven’t seen him since the funeral, and before that only a handful of times. He lives overseas and rents out his flat. Why would I stay there?
No, since I’ve been back it’s almost been like I am still on the traveler circuit. I’ve stuck to the tight radius around the train station, near the budget youth hostels and the disappearing red-light district. Partly this was a matter of necessity. I wasn’t sure I’d have enough money to last the few weeks, but somehow, my bank account hasn’t hit zero. I could’ve gone to stay with old family friends, but I don’t want anyone to know I’m back; I don’t want to revisit any of those places. I certainly haven’t gone anywhere near Nieuwe Prinsengracht.
“With a friend,” I say vaguely.
Marjolein misreads it. “Oh, with a friend. I see.”
I give a half-guilty smile. Leaving people to jumped conclusions is sometimes simpler than explaining a complicated truth.
“Be sure this friend doesn’t have an angry boyfriend.”
“I’ll do my best,” I say.
I finish signing the papers. “That’s that then,” she says. She opens her desk and pulls out a manila folder. “Here’s some mail. I’ve arranged for anything that goes to the boat to be forwarded here until you give me a new address.”
“It might be a while.”
“That’s okay. I’m not going anywhere.” Marjolein opens a cabinet and pulls out a bottle of Scotch and two shot glasses. “You just became a man of means. This deserves a drink.”
Bram used to joke that as far as Marjolein was concerned, every time the minute hand of the clock passed twelve, it was cause for a drink. But I accept the shot glass.
“What shall we toast?” she asks. “To new ventures? A new future.”
I shake my head. “Let’s drink to the accidents.”
I see the shock in her face, and I realize belatedly that this sounds like I’m talking about what happened to Bram, though that wasn’t so much an accident as a freak occurrence.
sp; But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about our accident. The one that created our family. Surely Marjolein must’ve heard the story. Bram loved to tell it. It was like a family origin myth, fairy tale, and lullaby all wrapped together:
Bram and Daniel, driving through Israel in a Fiat that broke down constantly. It was broken down one day outside of the seaside town of Netanya and Bram was trying to fix it, when a soldier, rifle slung over the shoulder, cigarette dangling, ambled over. “Scariest sight you could ever imagine,” Bram would say, smiling at the memory.
Yael. Hitching her way back to her army base in Galilee after a weekend’s leave spent in Netanya, at a friend’s house, or maybe a guy’s, anywhere but at the apartment she’d grown up in with Saba. The brothers were driving to Safed, and after she reconnected their radiator hose, they offered her a ride. Bram gallantly offered her the front seat; after all, she’d fixed the car. But Yael, seeing the cramped backseat said, “Whoever’s shortest should sit in back.” She claimed to have meant herself, and to not have known which brother was taller, because Daniel had been in the passenger seat, rolling a joint with the Lebanese hash he’d bought off a surfer in Netanya.
But Bram had misunderstood, and so after a needless measuring decided Bram was taller by about three centimeters, Daniel took the back.
They drove the soldier back to her base. Before they parted ways, Bram gave her his address in Amsterdam.
A year and a half later, Yael finished her military service and, determined to put as much distance as she could between herself and everything she grew up with, took what little money she’d saved and began hitching her way north. She lasted four months and got all the way to Amsterdam before she ran out of money. So she knocked on a door. Bram opened it, and even though he hadn’t seen her in all that time, and even though he didn’t know why she was there, and even though it wasn’t really his way, he surprised himself and he kissed her. “Like I’d been expecting her all that time,” he’d say in a voice full of wonder.