Just One Day (Just One Day #1)(5) by Gayle Forman

And yet, when I open my mouth to inform Willem that I actually don’t like soda, that the Coke before was for Melanie’s hangover, what comes out is a yelp. And once I hear my own laughter, it sets off fireworks. I’m laughing so hard, I am gasping for air. The panicked tears that were threatening to spill out of my eyes now have a safe excuse to stream down my face.

Willem rolls his eyes and gives his jeans a yeah-yeah look. He grabs some of the napkins from the tray. “I didn’t think it was so bad.” He dabs at his jeans. “Does coffee leave a stain?”

This sends me into further paroxysms of laughter. Willem offers a wry, patient smile. He is big enough to accept the joke at his expense.

“I’m. Sorry.” I gasp. “Not. Laughing. At. Your. Pants.”

Pants! In her tutorial of British English versus American English, Ms. Foley had informed us that the English call underwear pants and pants trousers, and we should be mindful of announcing anything to do with pants to avoid any embarrassing misunderstandings. She went pink as she explained it.

I am doubled over now. When I manage to sit upright, I see one of the French girls coming back down the aisle. As she edges behind Willem, she rests a hand on his arm; it lingers there for a second. Then she says something in French, before slipping into her seat.

Willem doesn’t even look at her. Instead, he turns back to me. His dark eyes dangle question marks.

“I thought you got off the train.” The admission just slips out on the champagne bubbles of my relief.

Oh, my God. Did I actually say that? The giggles shock right out of me. I’m afraid to look at him. Because if he didn’t want to leave me on the train before, I’ve remedied that now.

I feel the give of the seat as Willem sits down, and when I gather up the courage to peer over at him, I’m surprised to find that he doesn’t look shocked or disgusted. He just has that amused private smile on his face.

He begins to unpack the junk food and pulls a bent baguette out of his backpack. After he’s laid everything out over the trays, he looks right at me. “And why would I get off the train?” he asks at last, his voice light and teasing.

I could make up a lie. Because he forgot something. Or because he realized he needed to get back to Holland after all, and there wasn’t time to tell me. Something ridiculous but less incriminating. But I don’t.

“Because you changed your mind.” I await his disgust, his shock, his pity, but he still looks amused, maybe a little intrigued now too. And I feel this unexpected rush, like I just took a hit of some drug, my own personal truth serum. So I tell him the rest. “But then for a brief minute, I thought maybe this was all some sort of scam and you were going to sell me into sex slavery or something.”

I look at him, wondering if I’ve pushed too far. But he is smiling as he strokes his chin. “How would I do that?” he asks.

“I don’t know. You’d have to make me pass out or something. What’s that stuff they use? Chloroform? They put it on a handkerchief and put up against your nose, and you fall asleep.”

“I think that’s just in movies. Probably easier for me to drug your drink like your friend suspected.”

“But you got me three drinks, one of them unopened.” I hold up the can of Coke. “I don’t drink Coke, by the way.”

“My plan is foiled then.” He exaggerates a sigh. “Too bad. I could get good money for you on the black market.”

“How much do you think I’m worth?” I ask, amazed at how quickly fear has become fodder.

He looks me up and looks me down, appraising me. “Well, it would depend on various factors.”

“Like what?”

“Age. How old are you?”

“Eighteen.”

He nods. “Measurements?”

“Five feet four. One hundred and fifteen pounds. I don’t know metric.”

“Any unusual body parts or scars or false limbs?”

“Does that matter?”

“Fetishists. They pay extra.”

“No, no prosthetic limbs or anything.” But then I remember my birthmark, which is ugly, almost like a scar, so I usually keep it hidden under my watch. But there’s something oddly tempting about exposing it, exposing me. So I slide my watch down. “I do have this.”

He takes it in, nodding his head. Then casually asks, “And are you a virgin?”

“Would that make me more or less valuable?”

“It all depends on the market.”

“You seem to know a lot about this.”

“I grew up in Amsterdam,” he says, like this explains it.

“So what am I worth?”

“You didn’t answer all the questions.”‘

I have the strangest sensation then, like I’m holding the belt to a bathrobe and I can tie it tighter—or let it drop. “No, I’m not. A virgin.”

He nods, stares in a way that unsettles me.

“I’m sure Boris will be disappointed,” I add.

“Who’s Boris?”

“The thuggish Ukrainian who’s going to do the dirty work. You were just the bait.”

Now he laughs, tilting his long neck back. When he comes up for air, he says, “I usually work with Bulgarians.”

“You tease all you want, but there was a thing on TV about it. And it’s not like I know you.”

He pauses, looks straight at me, then says: “Twenty. One point nine meters. Seventy-five kilos, last time I checked. This,” he points to a zigzag scar on his foot. Then he looks me dead in the eye. “And no.”

It takes me a minute to realize that he’s answering the same four questions he asked me. When I do, I feel a flush start to creep up my neck.

“Also, we had breakfast together. Usually the people I have breakfast with, I know very well.”

Now the flush tidal-waves into a full-on blush. I try to think of something quippy to say back. But it’s hard to be witty when someone is looking at you like that.

“Did you really believe I would leave you on the train?” he asks.

The question is oddly jarring after all that hilarity about black-market sex slavery. I think about it. Did I really think he’d do that?

“I don’t know,” I answer. “Maybe I was just having a minor panic because doing something impulsive like this, it’s not me.”

“Are you sure about that?” he asks. “You’re here, after all.”

“I’m here,” I repeat. And I am. Here. On my way to Paris. With him. I look at him. He’s got that half smile, as if there’s something about me that’s endlessly amusing. And maybe it’s that, or the rocking of the train, or the fact that I’ll never see him again after the one day, or maybe once you open the trapdoor of honesty, there’s no going back. Or maybe it’s just because I want to. But I let the robe drop to the floor. “I thought you got off the train because I was having a hard time believing you’d be on the train in the first place. With me. Without some ulterior motive.”

And this is the truth. Because I may be only eighteen, but it already seems pretty obvious that the world is divided into two groups: the doers and the watchers. The people things happen to and the rest of us, who just sort of plod on with things. The Lulus and the Allysons.

It never occurred to me that by pretending to be Lulu, I might slip into that other column, even for just a day.

I turn to Willem, to see what he’ll say to this, but before he responds, the train plunges into darkness as we enter the Channel Tunnel. According to the factoids I read, in less than twenty minutes, we will be in Calais and then, an hour later, Paris. But right now, I have a feeling that this train is not just delivering me to Paris, but to someplace entirely new.

Four

Paris

Immediately, there are problems. The luggage storage place in the basement of the train station is shuttered; the workers who run the X-ray machines the bags have to pass through before they go into storage are on strike. As a result, all the automated lockers large enough for my bag are full. Willem says there’s another station that’s not so far from here we might try, but if the baggage handlers are on strike, we might have the same problem there too.

“I can just drag it behind me. Or toss it into the Seine.” I’m joking, though there is something appealing about abandoning all vestiges of Allyson.

“I have a friend who works in a nightclub not so far from here. . . .” He reaches into his backpack and pulls out a battered leather notebook. I’m about to make a joke about it being his little black book, but then I see all the names and numbers and email addresses scrawled in there, and he adds, “She does the books, so she’s usually there in the afternoons,” and I realize that it actually is a little black book.

After finding the number he’s after, he pulls out an ancient cell phone, presses the power key a few times. “No battery. Does yours work?”

I shake my head. “It’s useless in Europe. Except as a camera.”

“We can walk. It’s close to here.”

We head back up the escalators. Before we get to the automatic doors, Willem turns to me and asks, “Are you ready for Paris?”

In all the stress of dealing with my luggage, I’d sort of forgotten that the point of all this was Paris. Suddenly, I’m a little nervous. “I hope so,” I say weakly.

We walk out the front of the train station and step into the shimmering heat. I squint, as if preparing for blinding disappointment. Because the truth of it is, so far on this tour, I’ve been let down by pretty much everywhere we went. Maybe I watch too many movies. In Rome, I really wanted an Audrey Hepburn Roman Holiday experience, but the Trevi Fountain was crowded, there was a McDonald’s at the base of the Spanish Steps, and the ruins smelled like cat pee because of all the strays. The same thing happened in Prague, where I’d been yearning for some of the bohemianism of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But no, there were no fabulous artists, no guys who looked remotely like a young Daniel Day-Lewis. I saw one mysterious-looking guy reading Sartre in a café, but then his cell phone rang and he started talking in a loud Texas twang.

And London. Melanie and I got ourselves completely lost on the Tube just so we could visit Notting Hill, but all we found was a fancy, expensive area full of upscale shops. No quaint bookstores, no groups of lovable friends I’d want to have dinner parties with. It seemed like there was a direct link between number of movies I’d seen about a city and the degree of my disappointment. And I’ve seen a lot of movies about Paris.

The Paris that greets me outside Gare du Nord is not the Paris of the movies. There’s no Eiffel Tower or fancy couture stores here. It’s just a regular street, with a bunch of hotels and exchange bureaus, clogged with taxis and buses.

I look around. There are rows and rows of old grayish-brown buildings. They are uniform, seeming to ripple into one another, their windows and French doors thrown open, flowers spilling out. Right across from the station are two cafés, catty-corner. Neither one is fancy, but both are packed—people clustered at round glass tables, under the awnings and umbrellas. It’s both so normal and so completely foreign.

Willem and I start walking. We cross the street and pass one of cafés. There’s a woman sitting alone at one of the tables, drinking pink wine and smoking a cigarette, a small bulldog panting by her legs. As we walk by, the dog jumps up and starts sniffing under my skirt, tangling me and him in his leash.

The woman must be around my mom’s age, but is wearing a short skirt and high-heeled espadrilles that lace up her shapely legs. She scolds the dog and untangles the leash. I bend over to scratch behind its ears, and the woman says something in French that makes Willem laugh.

“What did she say?” I ask as we walk away.

“She said her dog is like a truffle hog when it comes to beautiful girls.”

“Really?” I feel flush with pleasure. Which is a little silly, because it was a dog, and also I’m not entirely sure what a truffle hog is.

Willem and I walk down a block full of sex shops and travel agencies and turn a corner onto some unpronounceable boulevard, and for the first time, I understand that boulevard is actually a French word, that all the big streets called boulevards at home are actually just busy roads. Because here is a boulevard: a river of life, grand, broad, and flowing, a plaza running down the middle and graceful trees arcing out toward one another overhead.

At a redlight, a cute guy in a skinny suit riding a moped in the bike lane stops to check me out, looking me up and down until the moped behind him beeps its horn for him to move on.

Okay, this is, like, twice in five minutes. Granted, the first one was a dog, but it feels significant. For the past three weeks, it’s been Melanie getting the catcalls—a result of her blond hair and LOOK AT ME wardrobe, I cattily assumed. Once or twice, I huffed about the objectification of women, but Melanie rolled her eyes and said I was missing the point.

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