Today's Reading

CHAPTER 1

CAROLINE

SEPTEMBER 4, 2009
Paris, France

How could he? My cheeks burn as I climb onto my bike, pedaling fast down the rue Cler, past the street vendors with their tables lined with shiny purple eggplants and bunches of flowers, pink peonies and golden sunflowers standing at attention in tidy buckets, past Café du Monde, where I sometimes get a coffee when I'm too tired to walk to Bistro Jeanty, past an old woman walking her tiny white poodle. Despite the bright sun overhead, she pessimistically clutches a sheathed umbrella, as if at any moment the skies might open and unleash their fury.

Fury is the emotion I feel. Furious, rather. He was the last person on earth I expected or wanted to see this morning. After everything that's happened, does he not have the decency to respect my wishes? I told him I didn't want to see him, now or...ever. And yet, here he materializes, at Café du Monde of all places, smiling at me as if nothing has happened, as if...

I blink back tears, careful to regain my composure, the way I didn't last night, when I threw down my napkin, shouted at him, and stormed off. A Parisian woman, in contrast, would never lose her cool like that.

While I have a lot to work on in that department, on any given day I might pass for French, at least from a distance. I look the part, more or less. Scarf tied loosely around my neck. On a bike in a dress. Blond hair swept up in a high bun. No helmet—obviously. It has taken three years to semi-master the language (emphasis on the "semi"), but it would easily take a lifetime to become adequately versed in French style.

But what does any of it matter now? Over time, Paris has become my hiding place, my cocoon, my escape from the pain of the past. I blink back tears. And now? Does he really think he can just waltz in and expect me to behave as if nothing happened? That everything should just magically go back to the way it was?

I shudder, glancing over my shoulder to make sure he isn't following me. As far as I can tell, he's not, and I pedal faster around the next corner, where a man in a leather jacket catches my eye and smiles as though we've met before. We haven't. Saying that Frenchmen are notoriously forward is an understatement. The truth is, they believe the world, and every woman in it, should be so lucky to be graced by their special good looks, charm, and intelligence.

I've barely dipped my toe into the pool of French dating, and the experience hasn't been great. There was dinner with the hairstylist, who couldn't stop checking himself out in the mirror behind me; lunch with the artist, who suggested we go back to his apartment and discuss his latest painting, which, by chance, hung over his bed; and then the professor who asked me out last week...and yet I couldn't bring myself to return his calls.

I sigh and pedal on. I am neither American nor Parisian. In fact, these days, I don't feel as if I'm anything. I belong to no country or person. Unattached, I am merely a ghost, floating through life.

I wend past the rue de Seine, zigzagging down a lamppost-lined hill, the grandeur of the city at my back, my pale-blue sundress fluttering in the breeze as more tears well up in my eyes, fogging my view of the narrow street below. I blink hard, wiping away a tear, and the expanse of cobblestones comes into focus again. My eyes fix on an elderly couple walking on the sidewalk ahead. They are like any older French couple, I suppose, characteristically adorable in a way that they will never know. He in a sport coat (despite the humid eighty-five-degree day), and she in a gingham dress, perhaps in her closet since the afternoon she saw it in the window of a sensible boutique along the Champs-Élysées in 1953. She carries a basket filled with farmers'-market finds (I notice the zucchini). He carries a baguette, and nothing else, like a World War II-era rifle held against his shoulder, dutifully, but also with a barely detectable and oddly charming tinge of annoyance.

My mind returns to the exchange at the café, and I am once again furious. I hear his voice in my head, soft, sweet, pleading. Was I too hard on him? No. No. Maybe? No! In another life, we might have spent this evening nestled in a corner table at some café, drinking good Bordeaux, listening to Chet Baker, discussing hypothetical trips to the Greek islands or the construction of a backyard greenhouse where we would consider the merits of growing a lemon (or avocado?) tree in a pot and sit under a bougainvillea vine like the one my mom planted the year I turned eleven, before my dad left. Jazz. Santorini. Lemon trees. Beautiful, loving details, none of which matter anymore. Not in this life, anyhow. That chapter has ended. No, the book has.
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