This is part one of a two-part story. The concluding part will be posted tomorrow. Copyright is held by the author.
JULIE WAS in a room with no doors or windows. All four walls were white with two rows of neon bulbs on the ceiling. The reflected light hurt her eyes. Something shimmered at the far end of the room. At first it seemed like an illusion, but as Julie inched closer, her eyes could make out two translucent shapes. She realized that one of them was Alex; the other was too hazy to make out details but you could tell it was female. Julie’s stomach clenched inwards. What was going on? She felt her legs give way and slumped against the wall behind her. She closed her eyes, hugging her body and rocking backwards and forwards, until the world around her slowly dissolved.
When Julie opened her eyes, she was soaking wet, clutching an equally soggy trench coat and dripping water on a Garfield welcome mat. Her heart thudded in her chest. How could she be back there? She closed her eyes and counted to 10. When she opened them, she was still there and the water had started to pool on the mat. It had been one of the first things she’d bought with Alex when he’d asked her to move in together. The sound of the television drifted in through the living room door.
Julie breathed deeply; it was hard to move when she knew how this ended. At least how it had originally ended. The next moment she was somehow in a loose t-shirt and pajama bottoms and sitting on the sofa inches away from Alex, but he didn’t seem to notice her. Not even when she walked over to the window passing between him and the television. The street overlooking their apartment was strangely quiet for the time of evening. Julie frowned. As she turned away from the window, the door of the living room opened and she saw herself walk in. The scream died away at her lips; she clutched the window sill for support.
The other Julie walked over to the sofa. Her lips moved but no words reached Julie at the window. She didn’t need subtitles; she’d gone through that conversation too many times since that day.
“Company’s downsizing, I’ve got a month to find another job.”
Alex’s body tensed for a split second before he hugged the Julie on the sofa. For the longest time after she could remember how he smelled like — now it was like a distant memory.
“What about Paris, Alex?”
“What about it?”
“I mean I was thinking, I finally have some time off and you have all this saved up leave that you haven’t asked for. It’s perfect!”
“What, now? I’m in the middle of possibly the most important campaign of my life and you’re asking me if I want to go to Paris with you?”
“I meant after you’re done with the campaign. You probably have more leave saved up than the entire team. We’ve hardly seen each other these last few months.”
Since the engagement. Julie added. She felt like a ghost, like she could pass through the close glass window behind her if only she tried. Alex was still talking to the Julie on the sofa.
“I just . . . I really don’t know, Julie.”
“Really don’t know what?”
“This isn’t working for me.”
“It was only a suggestion. We don’t have to go now if you don’t want to. I mean, come on, it’s no big deal. We can go anytime. We don’t have to go right away.”
“It’s not that Julie, it’s just . . . I mean, we.”
Even from the other end of the room, Julie couldn’t miss the genuine concern in his grey eyes. Or could she sense it because she already knew it had been there? His spiky hair was standing up in the way she absolutely hated. Even in this absurd situation Julie felt like laughing for wanting to walk across the room and straighten it out.
“I didn’t mean to just blurt it out like that, I’m really sorry. I’ve been thinking about it for a while and . . .”
Alex’s voice trailed off and Julie, her back digging in to the window-sill, wished she could escape with it. She mouthed the words along with the Julie on the sofa.
“Is there anyone else?”
There was silence for a few seconds.
This time, Julie sensed a sharper regret in Alex’s voice as he walked out of the door a minute later. The Julie on the sofa had waited only a minute after the door closed to break down. Julie couldn’t forget the pain, only now it was a dull sort of twinge. No less painful, just different. She turned away towards the window again, closing her eyes against the bright streetlights below.
When she opened her eyes, Julie nearly fell off the couch in her living room. Her arms were still hugging her body. It was dark except for the low murmur of the television. She pulled herself up and squinted at the sudden light from the television screen. Her mouth felt dry, her head was throbbing and her throat a bit sore. A closer look at the TV told her that it was 2 AM. She coughed. What time had Marie, René and the rest dropped her off? They had wanted to go to another house party, but she was too tired. Most of the night was a blur of colour, lots of post-midnight birthday shots and loud music. Yet she hadn’t been able to sleep until she turned the TV on to a rather boring documentary about bottled water. But even that hadn’t stopped the dreams, which were fast becoming more elaborate and persistent.
Her hand scrambled next to her on the sofa until it touched the remote control. The buttons felt cool as she turned the television off. A beam of pale white opaque light glinted off the glass of unfinished wine on the table next to the couch. She could make out the silhouette of a half-empty bottle next to it. Julie reached for the glass and finished the contents in one long gulp. It was very warm and she felt every drop of the tangy, fruity liquid go down her throat. Julie walked over to her bedroom and the door slammed behind her in the silence and darkness.
The soft strains of Fields of Gold were her first memory of the morning. You’ll remember me when the west wind moves among the fields of barley . . . Julie hated shrieky alarms that made her want to silence them even before they went off. But a hangover made something even Sting sang sound intense. She was still not used to the Parisian nightlife. Julie quickly checked her messages. There were two from Marie. The first one was sometime around 4 AM and made no sense in either English or French. The only words Julie could try and understand were “Hspoy Nirthsay Jukir!!!” which she realized meant “Happy Birthday, Julie.” The second one said that Marie was too hungover for their breakfast date, but could she treat Julie to some birthday lunch? There were no messages from Alex. He hadn’t wished her last year and she didn’t expect anything today. But there was a small part of her that still hoped he would.
There was nothing from Katie either. Julie had thought that at least today of all days, she would get in touch. Last year, she’d called Julie quite late, but her card and gift had arrived on time. She had believed Katie when she’d said her new job at Palmer & Sons was really busy. It was the way things had slowly but surely unwound since then that concerned her more. Katie had been the first person to send Julie good wishes on every single birthday for 20 years. The one who she had spent more time with than anyone else she could remember — playing house, dressing up dolls, making tents from tablecloths, chairs and old curtain poles, creating elaborate stories to act out with their other friends, catching snowflakes on their tongues and later being each other’s security blankets and second families throughout high school, university and work. Katie was the one Julie had called two years ago, just a day before Julie’s 24th birthday — soon after Alex had slammed the door behind him. She chewed her bottom lip.
“When am I actually going to see a photo of this guy, Kat?”
“It’s just . . . things are going unusually well and I . . .”
“You think you might jinx things. But this is me, Katie and you’ve been going out for what . . . seven months now? Enough time for things to go wrong if they were supposed to.”
Katie had laughed, but Julie could sense a lingering nervous reluctance, a feeling that was present during every conversation about this guy. A feeling that slowly crept into the background of every word they spoke over the next months.
“You’re right. I’ll send you a photo as soon as I reach home tonight.”
That had been their last proper phone conversation. Julie never did get a photo. She had exhausted her search of Katie’s Facebook and Twitter. There was no trace of contact from any guy she didn’t know of. Katie kept postponing their Skype dates, and their phone conversations lasted all of three to four minutes, awkward sentences between strangers. Until there was a noticeable lack of contact, virtual or otherwise, and Julie’s messages and calls went unanswered. She did receive a short text message — Jules, I’m really busy and caught up with something, I promise I’ll call you very soon. Hope you’re well, miss you xxx. It had been two months and three days since then.
What if that guy had turned out to be a psycho? Julie had thought of taking a few days off and flying back to London, but something stopped her. It wasn’t a warning, more like an unfinished, vague sensation in her stomach. She furiously blinked to shake the tears before hauling herself out of bed and into the bathroom. The sunlight made her eyes water even more. She squinted as she ran her fingers through her long brown hair. It was still remarkably untangled. Her hazel-green eyes looked bleary and sore in contrast. A splash of cold water on her face felt really good. But the minty taste of the toothpaste didn’t seem to do much against the lingering aftertaste of last night’s Rosé.
Julie felt the throbbing in her temples recede a little as she popped some paracetamol with a glass of orange juice. She was glad that Café Marchal opened early. Henri always saved her some of his own special coffee blend. She adjusted her headphones as she stepped outside. Ado 97.8 FM Paris was a perfect early morning distraction. There was something comforting about the way the French sounds vibrated against her ear-drums. It felt like she’d always lived in Paris, working at Galerie Delvaux.
Maybe it was all the stories that she had grown up listening to. Even as a child, Julie couldn’t miss the special glow that surrounded her parents whenever they reminisced. Magical stories about lazy summers in Lyon’s Parc de la Tête d’Or, of going to Les Rendez-vous de l’Erdre in Nantes for their one-year anniversary, of soaking in the life at Paris’ Quartier Latin where they had first met each other all those years ago, both strangers and outsiders far away from home.
Now settled in Le Marais, Julie had already grown accustomed to the smell of fresh bread, baguettes and strong French coffee that wafted from the bakeries and patisseries on her morning walk. The off-key singing of Julian who owned the best vintage shop in Le Marais, the way the trees and the sun played a constant game of light and shadow, the increasing chatter of people as they opened their shops, studios, restaurants and cafés, made her feel like she was part of something simply by association. Even on weekends, it was so full of life and hope and possibility that Julie couldn’t help but absorb it, little by little, every single day until one day she woke up feeling the freedom even before stepping outside her front door.
But her past followed her around like a shadow, invisible even in the sunlight that increasingly appeared in the narrow streets that she walked on the way to work. Any unexpected messages on her mobile or in her email inbox awoke the tiny part of her that was still holding on to Alex. She had left the ring at his sister’s before leaving London but he was with her all the time. She saw him in the fine, minimal strokes of the sketch he’d drawn of her, one that was hanging in her bedroom, despite her better judgement. He was there every single time she made lasagne from scratch. Whenever he was stuck for ideas during a storyboard draft, he would sing Bohemian Rhapsody, purposely making his voice go as high as it could because he knew it annoyed her. The memory always made her smile. But it quickly vanished when followed by the thought that he had waited until she was in Paris before collecting his stuff from the storage unit.
Andre, the host of Ado 97.8’s breakfast show had paused in his rapid-fire French to put on a song. Julie turned up the volume on her iPod. She breathed in the smell of spring, imagining the coffee, fresh croissants and homemade blackcurrant jam that was waiting for her at Café Marchal. Henri always had a silly joke or two and funny stories about his grandchildren, guaranteed to make her laugh.
“You should have come to Adrian’s with us, Julie, it was such a blast!”
Marie’s tanned face showed no traces of a hangover, lingering or otherwise. Minimal makeup, just a hint of eye-liner and shiny pink gloss, but she had one of those effortlessly striking faces that you would never forget. She also had a habit of having top words of the week, mostly British or American slang. “Blast” was the current favourite, though she said it with more than a hint of a Parisian accent.
“Yeah, but I still have a headache, I doubt I’d have been able to manage a few more hours.”
Julie’s eyes traced Café Charlot’s menu card, even though she knew that she would order what she always did. The “Hot Sandwich Charlot,’” a mouth-watering combination of beef and grilled onions on a freshly baked French roll with just the perfect amount of melted cheese, and a small house salad with balsamic vinegar dressing.
“Pfft. You do know your birthday week is supposed to be seven days of going crazy and doing things you’ve been meaning to do, right? The Seine Champagne Cruise through Paris, cheeky cocktails at Laperouse, a picnic at the Place des Vosges Park, salsa dancing at Balajo. There’s so much to do!”
She couldn’t have sounded more French than she did at that very moment.
“As heavenly as that sounds, you do realize I still have something called work? Agnes is understanding, not insane. And have you forgotten it needs a little thing called money?”
“Well, I do have another thing you can do. How about attending an art show at the Latin Quarter next weekend? I’ve heard the artist is pretty good. If I remember correctly, you called her a refreshing, honest and ethereal addition to Galerie Delvaux’s showcases.”
The mischievous look in Marie’s eyes made a lot more sense as she completed the sentence. They had become friends soon after Julie moved to Paris; she and Agnes had selected Marie’s new collection for the gallery in Julie’s first month.
“Jean finally got back to you? That’s absolutely amazing, Marie! I wouldn’t miss it.”
Jean Gates had one of the most sought after galleries for up and coming artists. Julie was genuinely happy for Marie. But she couldn’t help a quick sideways glance at her phone. Marie didn’t miss the smallest of movements. She sighed.
“Why don’t you just call her parents again, or one of your friends in London? Anything is better than you constantly worrying about her.”
“I told you, I’ve tried everything. Her parents haven’t replied to my voicemail, her brother seems to have changed his phone number and all the friends I’ve talked to swear she’s fine and they don’t know anything about it. It almost feels like I’m being ganged up on. Or maybe I’m just overreacting, I dunno. We’ve never been out of touch for so long.”
Marie looked like she was going to lean over the table and hug her, but instead she gave their orders to the waitress who’d just popped up. She turned back to Julie.
“I’m sure she’s fine. Maybe she’s just been caught up with something at work over the past month. There could be a really simple explanation, Jules. I’m sure she won’t forget.”
To be continued tomorrow.