This story is part of our Summer Fiction Month 2020. Click here to view the stories featured this Fiction Month, as well as past fiction pieces.
She believed in Sundays. Neither God nor churches nor frozen family dinners, watching a rerun of America’s Funniest Home Videos circled around the television like seagulls to a piece of bread. No, she savored Sundays like a talisman that protected her from the unknowns of the upcoming week. A day of renewal, of shadows dancing on her bedroom walls as the sun made its way over the rusty apartment buildings she could see from her window. There was a disconnect from the rest of the week, a hidden locket of time floating down childhood creeks, right within arm’s reach if only she opened her eyes.
Sunday mornings used to make her cry. She would lie in bed with tears slowly dripping down her cheeks as the smell of her mother’s crepes made their way under the door frame. A saccharine yet lemony scent, one of bittersweetness that made her dream of Paris and early dawns over the Seine. She studied the paintings of Pissarro and Renoir religiously, noting the distinct orange bleakness evaporating into colossal white clouds. She didn’t want to be in bed while the other side of the world was awake, leather satchels sitting on subway trains after a long day at work or books being opened at a bookstand in an unmarked alleyway. She cried because of the unfathomable amount of possibilities while all she could do for the time being was to either sleep in or get up. She could never make a decision without it being full-hearted and thoroughly thought out over a course of weeks, even months, in advance. She thought a deep longing, a passion, was necessary for all her choices–one that tugged on her sleeve and followed her from coffee shop to city pavement to lying awake underneath her glow-in-the-dark stars.
She left college before she graduated, always in a hurry to leave a place before it grew on her, thinking how ivy, when it climbed its way up brick walls, ended up destroying the very foundation of the building. This is the Sunday that would change her perception of the once dreaded day.
Frances, 29 years old.
The ride to Centraal Station was one of silence. Not physical silence but one where her surroundings felt like underwater noise. An existence only found in museums: dimly lit corridors of foreign tourists you will never meet again and children tugging at their mother’s sleeves to move on to something else. They had left their flat in a hurry, despite the dark blue dawn. The sun didn’t have the strength to rise until eight. They were always competing against the natural flow of things.
Jerome did not even look at her once, as if everything would disappear if he didn’t keep a close eye on the shops passing by out the window. Frances stared at her feet. When they reached their stop, he took a moment to look down at the water as if he were saying goodbye. She followed him to the railing despite the navy duffel bags in her hands. Christmas was fading, two days past, but she could still see all the strings of lights, reflected in the murky canal. Erik Satie haunted the air from an accordionist that no one else paid any attention to besides Frances.
They took the earliest train to Paris, still fifteen minutes too early for boarding when they got there. Jerome asked her if she wanted a coffee and Frikandelbroodje from the convenience store. He often forgot she was vegetarian. It was one of the reasons she was still embarrassed about the failed proposal.
Frances caught the glance of a strange girl while sipping her espresso: a vivid contrast of red hair below a bright yellow beret. She lit a Lucky Strike—classic unfiltered—an unusual sight in Europe that revealed raspberry lipstick stains each time she ashed it. The woman was definitely young but held a certain fabricated dead-eyed cigarette stare that she recognized as idle dissatisfaction. The girl ended up in their compartment, her navy high-top Converse directly in front of her black oxfords. They were almost identical in their black turtlenecks, except one was only half-awake as the other read a copy of Vincent’s Van Gogh’s published letters. The darkness outside made it so all you could possibly do was rest your head uncomfortably on your seat. Jerome dozed off by the time the train reached Brussels which is when the girl spoke to Frances.
“It’s my first time on Thalys,” she said, putting down the book. “It’s my first time on a train, in fact.”
“Wait until the sun rises over the open fields,” Frances replied.
She couldn’t wait, the girl continued, before introducing herself as Elliot Young. She had run away to live with her best friend in Amsterdam, leaving behind Bard and the golden coast she once called home.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Elliot,” Frances smiled. “Is this a day trip then?”
“Oh no, I’m tired of this city. The 420 signs and clipper lighters are getting cheesy. I think it’s losing its charm to all the tourists and corruption. I’m going to see if there’s any vacancy at Shakespeare and Company. If it doesn’t work out, I guess I’ll have to resort to crashing on someone’s couch.”
Frances went on to tell Elliot about how she left college to write poetry and organize shelves at the famed bookshop. How Aggie—the resident cat—took naps in the sun and other guests would play the piano while she read Dostoevsky. The memories seemed to float back to her, a reverberation as soft and airy as the musical notes themselves. Frances began to miss the dusty shelves lined with titles hot off the press and the late nights drinking Pinot Noir alongside the very river she had dreamt of as a child.
“Parlez-vous Français?” Frances asked. The sky was starting to lighten into a pale blue, she could see the late December slush covering the wetlands. She thought about how the
windmills used to drain the water back into the rivers in the fourteenth century for vegetation. Now they were on the verge of losing power due to the rise of buildings being built higher and higher.
“No,” Elliot replied. Never had the chance to study it in school, she admitted, she got away without a single word in Dutch anyway. The language barrier actually excited her, she felt disconnected from the world she had once existed in. The world she was now nine hours ahead of, secluded and able to live on her own time.
“Where’s the friend you mentioned earlier?” Frances was curious but wanted to remain polite. “It’s hopeless to travel alone after a while.”
Her friend had gotten a job in LA, Elliot answered, leaving her to find a help wanted sign at Mama Pancake where she served stroopwafels and pancakes with miniature Dutch flags stuck on toothpicks. Their friendship could not extend itself beyond their formative years. It maddened her for days, causing heart palpitations that kept her up at night. No one would answer her calls when she needed them to (“Stop calling at random hours”). So she let them all go.
Frances combed through her own strawberry hair. It felt like a confessional period one has with a classmate when forced to be in a tight room together, laughing about things they normally wouldn’t share. How she used to dread goodbyes and the aftermath of sleepovers. “But you’re still left with the memory. It will be ingrained in us if it is important.”
“I know. I just feel guilty when I don’t keep any mementos. I want to feel light.”
“But if we lost track everything would turn into clumps of clay without any recognizable features, wouldn’t it?” Frances asked.
“You’re right. Honestly, I keep leaving everything I know before it leaves me,” Elliot admitted. Perhaps, it would be better for her to go back? She was feeling landlocked in Europe, the Pacific Ocean was her only friend. “I fear the world moving on without me. Do you know those days when you wake up late afternoon and open the blinds to find the sun already peeking through? You realize that everyone was already finished running errands or doing something, anything at all other than sleeping, while you were making coffee alone. I refuse to be a bystander.”
“Then I realized the world is holding my hand. That we walk side by side.”
“I love that. I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Also, the proposal won’t work out. So don’t waste your time.”
They both looked out the window, mesmerized by the array of bright reds and oranges. They had long crossed the Belgium border and now passed the suburban communes that stretched themselves north of Paris. Elliot agreed that the sight was wonderful, if not uplifting. She would do it. Elliot wanted to return to California if Shakespeare and Company didn’t work out. There were no other options, no other reasons to stay.
Jerome’s eyes were still closed as she remembered how they met one morning over a sunrise. Frances was seated outside, drinking a cappuccino she made herself at the bookshop cafe. He asked her if he could bum a cigarette and she took out a pack of Lucky Strikes. There were only two left; he advised her to make a wish when she smoked the last one. The “Luckies” were usually turned over and saved for last. His accent was British even though he asked her in his best French. She had tried learning the language from early Godard films but was relieved to have met another foreigner. He told her the scenery reminded him of Pissarro which led to their gradual companionship.
This was all before she left her idolized life living on an air mattress with Jerome in a cheap garret as he bartended most nights while she people watched. Before rejection to rejection from literary magazines. Before living in a houseboat in the Netherlands, after seven years together, to eradicate her fear of cities being engulfed in water. And when she had finally proposed to him, he had laughed at the idea of the domestic. He didn’t want a country house, a place he actually had to take care of.
Frances wanted to wish the girl a good journey as the train pulled into Gare du Nord but Elliot had already put her book into her leather satchel and left for the door. The other passengers in their compartment started shuffling around for their luggage as she woke Jerome up. He always slept with his horn-rimmed glasses on. He adjusted the spectacles but didn’t bother to fix his now messy hair.
“How was your nap?” she asked, watching him stretch his arms. He took great caution in making sure his arms and legs were still intact even if his liver and lungs were subpar.
“Splendid. You know I get motion sickness very easily, darling,” Jerome helped her put on her wool coat before leaving the carriage. “Should we take our usual walk up Rue des Martyrs? We could stop by a boulangerie for a croissant.”
“I was hoping to,” she answered. “We’d have to catch a bus.”
As soon as they entered the daylight, they could hear the peal of nearby bells from Saint-Vincent’s. The city moved by despite it being a Sunday; ladies carrying groceries in netted bags, children dragging along wooden trains, and homeless vagrants asking for change. She thought about what the girl on the train had said about dreading goodbyes.
“I think I need to settle down,” she finally said as the 45 came to a halt.
“That’s fine, we could go to the flat,” Jerome began to count the euros he took out from his jacket pocket.
“No, I can’t keep wandering aimlessly forever. I love you, but I’m almost thirty and I would like to make this relationship as official as possible.”
“I don’t believe in marriage, but I want to be with you.”
“I think the only thing stopping me through all of our fights is the idea that we met through coincidence. Then I realized that my memory put a rose filter over the fact that I saw a pack of Camels in your pocket the day we met. You didn’t even need a cigarette from me.”
“How could you leave everything behind this easily?” he asked as a 43 pulled up to the stop, “You spent months flipping through catalogs before we could decide on a bloody lamp for god’s sake.”
“Just as easily as I did to get here,” she smiled.
“I asked you because I wanted an excuse to talk to you.”
“Well I realized, the only thing keeping me here since you said ‘no’ is the fact that I’m too nervous to ever say ‘goodbye’ to you.”
Jerome went in for a final embrace, reminiscent of the times they quoted Rimbaud’s letters back and forth to each other—Je t’aime, et je t’embrasse”—but Frances got on the next 45 without any final salutations. She thought about the record he bought her for Christmas, a single with only “These Days” by Nico on it. How it still laid on the floor of the boat, cracked to pieces after their last quarrel. She proceeded to find the nearest travel agency to book a flight back to the golden state. Her golden state.
She would find herself eating in a Pret a Manger near the Louvre before catching a taxi to Orly Airport. She knew it was an odd meal of her to have in a city bursting with culinary feats. The night she arrived, she watched the fog cross the Golden Gate Bridge as the sun set beyond the horizon. It was a Sunday. January first. The passengers had celebrated with complimentary chocolates and champagne while Frances was fast asleep. Her mother had made a secret itinerary in case she was to ever visit, but hid it in a drawer once she saw how tired Frances was. Her friend had moved back from LA. Jerome never wrote her letters, let alone a postcard. Hardly even a single call.
Ashley Escobar is an exchange student from Bennington College, majoring in Human Connection and Solitude through the lenses of creative writing, philosophy, and art.