Copyright is held by the author. This is the second and concluding part of a two-part story. Read the first part.
TWO YEARS ago, Katie had cancelled the birthday party she’d planned with all of Julie’s friends. Instead she had driven the two of them down to Dover and bought two return tickets on the ferry to France. It was on the journey there that Julie made the decision. Agnes Delvaux was an old friend of her parents from Paris who had always expressed the desire to work with her, even before her photography stint at InkHouse.
Julie had wished that Alex had at least attempted to get in touch, to say that he still missed her and maybe wanted to give it another shot. Maybe she should’ve taken fewer overseas assignments. Maybe he should have should have tried harder to find time for them. Maybe this was none of their faults and a marriage was not in either of their futures. Marie was right, she needed to go and enjoy this birthday week instead of wallowing in things she couldn’t control. She wished it was winter and she could go up to the mountains. She’d always gone with her parents, content with catching snowflakes and making snow angels before her father had taught her how to ski. She missed them. Suddenly all she wanted was to go home and spend a quiet night celebrating turning 26. Marie had to go back to her studio and work on the exhibit for next week, but promised to come over with “wine, chocolate, candy and lots of ice-cream” as long as Julie had “any movie with Hugh Grant in it, preferably Notting Hill.”
On the way home, Julie stopped by the take-away down the street. Le Marais had excellent Chinese takeaways. Pepper chicken and fried rice with black-bean sauce. As she turned the key in the lock, juggling all the bags on her arms, and pushed the door open with her shoulder, she saw that the light on the side of her answering machine was blinking in a furious rhythm. A red laser point flash that stung her eyes if she looked at it too closely. Julie dumped her bags on the kitchen table, went over to the machine, and hesitated.
It was two days later that Julie noticed the pale ivory envelope among the bills and promotion flyers on the kitchen table. Before she knew what she was doing, her hands reached for the letter opener and slit open the top of the envelope. She had no control over her eyes as they quickly scanned the matching rectangular invitation. It had tiny engravings at the sides, miniature daffodils twined around a creeping trellis that bordered the page. They had always been Katie’s favourite flowers. Katie Barnes weds Alex Hamilton. Julie gripped the edge of the table. She could almost taste the metallic edge of the recorded message she later finally heard.
If you’ve got any mail from me, please call me before you open it.
A few nights later, Julie woke up in front of the TV again. One of the Rocky movies was on. She didn’t even remember when she’d switched to that channel. The dreams hadn’t stopped. Only now Katie had been a part of them. This last one was like a movie played in super-speed. You only got a tiny glimpse and hint of things but they were long gone before you could process them. Her neck was sore and she couldn’t turn it without feeling considerable pain. The top corner of the flat screen told her that it was 2.30 AM. Julie’s shoulders sagged and she fell back against the couch, before pulling herself up and going into her bedroom. This time she caught the door before it slammed. It made a sharp click that echoed in the silence.
Julie’s 28th birthday was just a week away and she was sure David and Marie were planning some sort of party. Both of them were terrible at hiding any sort of secret, but she’d decided to act surprised when the day came. Her stomach gave an involuntary clench. It was hard to imagine that it had been two years since she had thrown Katie and Alex’s wedding invite into the trash.
Picking up the pieces of the past was harder than letting it go and Julie wished she didn’t miss Katie so much. At least once a day she would find something that she would instinctively store away to tell her. But she could hardly call and start talking about Lily’s delight on feeling the first snowflake settle gently on her nose, how cute she looked dressed up for Halloween as a mime with her tiny beret, how she’d met David a week after the sleepless nights that had followed her 26th birthday and how they had found a cozy place just two buildings away from her old apartment. She wanted to tell Katie about the off-key singing of Julian who owned the best vintage shop in Le Marais, the way the increasing chatter of people as they opened their shops, studios, restaurants and cafés had helped her when she first moved to Paris, had made her feel like she was part of something good simply by association.
Julie walked in from her lunch break to find Agnes deep in conversation with someone it took her a while to recognize. His dark hair was still short and spiky but it didn’t stand up in the way she had hated. She wondered how Katie had got it to settle. The thought was followed by a hollow ache. Was she there too? What if she suddenly walked in or was waiting for them back at their hotel? For the first time in their friendship, Julie had no idea about what she would say to Katie, no idea on whether their bond was still reparable after all it had been through. But it was only Alex. Deep breaths didn’t loosen the tenseness. He seemed more diffident than she remembered. There was a very awkward moment when they couldn’t decide how to greet each other. In the end, Alex settled for patting Julie’s arm in a very non-committal way. It was only after he’d left a quarter of an hour later that Agnes realized it was the same Alex she’d heard about from Julie when she first joined the gallery.
Now as she walked through Le Marais on the way to work, Julie couldn’t get Alex’s voice out of her mind. Those soft, grey, concerned eyes that still hurt to look at. “She needs her best friend, Jules. Just call her. Talk to her at least. Please, Jules.”
She thought about calling Marie who was in Provence for an art show, then decided against it. Alex’s visit had forced her to accept that she was just afraid of facing Katie. And now that she knew, she felt guilty about being happier than she had been in a long time in spite of everything. She needed to talk to someone who would just listen to her without judgment, someone who would let her find her own way to the decision. Julie needed her best friend.
Julie shivered in spite of the coat she tugged closer, her hands trying to find warmth in the snug felt-lined pockets. Agnes had tried very hard to give her a day off but Julie had assured her that work was the perfect way to keep her mind off the impending decision. After closing up the gallery, she had ended up walking all the way to the banks of the Seine. It had been a cloudy day and the grey shapes looked dark purple in this light of the setting sun. Deep orange and light pink tints slipped through ever so often as Julie made her way across the cobbled path, politely acknowledging the couples and tourists who had braved the cold to catch a romantic sunset. A kind of sunset she should have been sharing with David. Julie had left him a message saying she would be late but would bring some dinner. It was his day to pick up Lily from his mother’s anyway.
Lily had been the name of Katie’s favourite doll when they were kids and Julie had always been fairly neutral towards that name. So she couldn’t explain why she had chosen it when her daughter was born. David had loved it in that frank open way of his, no questions asked. That was probably the moment Julie had come closest to telling him what had happened. And now she was ashamed it had taken something like this to force her to admit what she should have a year ago.
Julie couldn’t imagine losing Lily, didn’t even want to imagine the possibility. Her stomach clenched at the thought of her best friend lying in the hospital they’d both decided to register at when they got pregnant. She slid her hand into her bag, fumbling with the glove until she came across what she was looking for. It was an old photo with firm creases that had started to become white. Julie never went anywhere without it, but today was the first time in more than three years that she’d properly looked at it. Two young girls on Halloween, one dressed up as a ladybug and the other as a snowflake. It had taken the two of them six painstaking hours on the previous Sunday to put together Katie’s perfectly-formed, three-dimensional structure. She’d been adamant about the snowflake needing to be just so. It was only a few years later that Julie understood that it was simply a young girl’s attempt to hold on to that one perfect moment that said everything would be fine, that she would see her mother again one day. Julie turned her face towards the water, away from the world, into the sharp, numbing wind. The first of the drizzle mingled with her tears, tears she’d been holding back for the past 18 months, feelings she’d pushed deep within some dark corner of her memory.
It was dark when Julie put her keys in the lock, juggling the bags from their favourite take-away. David was going to tease her for ordering salt and pepper chicken again. She removed her boots as soon as she walked in through the door, chilled to the bone with a throbbing headache. But her mind was clearer than it had been in a long time. David was sprawled across the sofa, one arm still caught behind his head, the other clutching a baby monitor that periodically crackled. His glasses were slowly sliding down his nose; that pale skin standing out against the olive green covers. Julie smiled. She’d wake him up after setting the table.
Julie reached out over the back of the sofa and disentangled the baby monitor from his hand without disturbing him. Short bursts of static alternated with Lily’s breathing. Julie tiptoed into the bedroom on the right, being careful not to wake her when she opened the door and walked in. Lily was lying on her back all bundled up in her soft woollen jammies, one baby fist tightly curled around Mr. Wiggles, the stuffed bunny David’s mother had bought her. Julie had a sudden urge to pick her up and hold her tightly, but she settled for leaning over the edge of the crib and lightly kissing the upturned cheek. Soft skin mingled with talcum powder and baby shampoo. In a few years she’d show Lily how to make the perfect snowflake. Maybe Katie could be convinced to fly to Paris for her birthday next week? Julie gently pushed some hair off Lily’s forehead and said a silent prayer. She swallowed the constricting lump in her throat and stood there for what seemed like an eternity watching the tiny chest rise and fall.
It is a testament to the quality of the story that I really got upset with Alex and Katie for taking the cowardly way out and not telling Julie the truth from the get go. I briefly considered that Julie should have told Alex off when he came looking for her at the gallery. But, though that story line would satisfy my over-keen sense of justice, it would be messing with the story and the point of the story (as I see it) — how difficult, but necessary it is to forgive and how friendship endures. I have struggled with forgiveness in my personal life and so thank you Anushree for giving me much food for thought.
Reading what wasn’t written, I cannot help but think that Alex and Julie as a pair would not work out. Relationships require compromise and accommodation, something it seemed that Alex was unlikely to reach with Julie. I felt that it would be Julie who would be the giver in their relationship, and Alex the taker. Sometimes second best is a chance to make the best of life. That was the message I took from this story. Well told, this story will stick in my memory for a long time to come. Well done, Anushree.
Georgia and Michael – thank you so much for your kind words, and the individual feedback to the story. I’m glad you could both engage and relate to this story on some personal level; you’re both correct in your analysis of what I wanted the story to convey at its core 🙂
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