Just One Day (Just One Day #1)(8) by Gayle Forman

“No,” I reply. “I’ve never been in love.”

Just then the waitress arrives with our crêpes. Mine is golden brown, wafting with the sweet tartness of lemon and sugar. I concentrate on that, cutting off a slice and popping it in my mouth. It melts on the tip of my tongue like a warm, sweet snowdrop.

“That’s not what I asked,” Willem says. “I asked if you’ve ever fallen in love.”

The playfulness is his voice is like an itch I just can’t scratch. I look at him, wondering if he always parses semantics like this.

Willem puts down his fork and knife. “This is falling in love.” With his finger, he swipes a bit of the Nutella from inside his crêpe and puts a dollop on the inside of my wrist. It is hot and oozy and starts to melt against my sticky skin, but before it has a chance to slither away, Willem licks his thumb and wipes the smear of Nutella off and pops it into his mouth. It all happens fast, like a lizard zapping a fly. “This is being in love.” And here he takes my other wrist, the one with my watch on it, and moves the watchband around until he sees what he’s looking for. Once again, he licks his thumb. Only this time, he rubs it against my birthmark, hard, as if trying to scrub it off.

“Being in love is a birthmark?” I joke as I retract my arm. But my voice has a tremble in it, and the place where his wet thumbprint is drying against my skin burns somehow.

“It’s something that never comes off, no matter how much you might want it to.”

“You’re comparing love to a . . . stain?”

He leans so far back in his seat that the front legs of his chair scrape off the floor. He looks very satisfied, with the crêpe or with himself, I’m not sure. “Exactly.”

I think of the coffee stain on his jeans. I think of Lady Macbeth and her “Out, damned spot,” stain, another speech I had to memorize for English. “Stain seems like an ugly word to describe love,” I tell him.

Willem just shrugs. “Maybe just in English. In Dutch, it’s vlek. In French, it’s tache.” He shakes his head, laughs. “No, still ugly.”

“How many languages have you been stained in?”

He licks his thumb again and reaches across the table for my wrist, where he missed the tiniest smudge of Nutella. This time he wipes it—me—clean. “None. It always comes off.” He scoops the rest of the crêpe into his mouth, taking the dull edge of his knife to scrape the Nutella off the plate. Then he runs his finger around the rim, smearing the last of it away.

“Right,” I say. “And why get stained when getting dirty is so much more fun?” I taste lemons in my mouth again, and I wonder where all the sweetness went.

Willem doesn’t say anything. Just sips his coffee.

Three women wander into the café. They are all impossibly tall, almost as tall as Willem, and thin, with legs that seem to end at their boobs. They are like some strange race of human-giraffes. Models. I’ve never seen one in the wild before, but it is obvious what they are. One of them is wearing a tiny pair of shorts and platform sandals; she checks Willem out, and he gives her his little half smile, but then it’s like he catches himself and looks back at me.

“You know what it sounds like to me?” I ask. “It sounds like you just like to screw around. Which is fine. But at least own that about yourself. Don’t make up some bogus distinctions about falling in love versus being in love.”

I hear my voice. I sound like Little Miss Muffet, all goody-two-shoes and sanctimonious. So not like Lulu. And I don’t know why I’m upset. What is it to me if he believes in falling in love versus being in love, or if he believes that love is something the tooth fairy shoves under your pillow?

When I look up, Willem’s eyes are half lidded and smiling, like I’m his court jester here to amuse him. It makes me feel covetous, a toddler about to tantrum for being refused something outrageous—a pony—she knows she can’t have.

“You probably don’t even believe in love.” My voice is petulant.

“I do.” His voice is quiet.

“Really? Define love. What would ‘being stained’”—I make air quotes and roll my eyes—“look like?”

He doesn’t even pause to think about it. “Like Yael and Bram.”

“Who’s that? Some Dutch Brangelina? That doesn’t count, because who knows what it’s really like for them?” I watch the herd of models disappear inside the café, where they will no doubt feast on coffee and air. I imagine them one day fat and ordinary. Because nothing that beautiful lasts forever.

“Who’s Brangelina?” Willem asks absently. He reaches into his pocket for a coin and balances it between two knuckles, then flips it from knuckle to knuckle.

I watch the coin, watch his hands. They are big, but his fingers are delicate. “Never mind.”

“Yael and Bram are my parents,” he says quietly.

“Your parents?”

He completes a revolution with the coin and then tosses it into the air. “Stained. I like how you put it. Yael and Bram: Stained for twenty-five years.”

He says it with both affection and sadness, and something in my stomach twists.

“Are your parents like that?” he asks quietly.

“They’re still married after nearly twenty-five years, but stained?” I can’t help but laugh. “I don’t know if they ever were. They were set up on a blind date in college. And they’ve always seemed less like lovebirds than like amiable business partners, for whom I’m the sole product.”

“Sole. So you are alone?”

Alone? I think he must mean only. And I’m never alone, not with Mom and her color-coded calendar on the fridge, making sure every spare moment of my time is accounted for, making sure every aspect of my life is happily well managed. Except when I pause for a second and think about how I feel, at home, at the dinner table with Mom and Dad talking at me, not to me, at school with a bunch of people who never really became my friends, I understand that even if he didn’t mean to, he got it right.

“Yes,” I say.

“Me too.”

“Our parents quit while they were ahead,” I say, repeating the line Mom and Dad always use when people ask if I’m an only child. We quit while we were ahead.

“I never understand some English sayings,” Willem replies. “If you’re ahead, why would you quit?”

“I think it’s a gambling term.”

But Willem is shaking his head. “I think it’s human nature to keep going when you’re ahead, no matter what. You quit while you’re behind.” Then he looks at me again, and as if realizing that he has maybe insulted me, he hastily adds, “I’m sure with you it was different.”

When I was little, my parents had tried to have more children. First they went the natural route, then they went the fertility route, Mom going through a bunch of horrible procedures that never worked. Then they looked into adoption and were in the process of filling out all the paperwork when Mom got pregnant. She was so happy. I was in first grade at the time, and she’d worked since I was a baby, but when the baby came, she was going to go on an extended leave from her job at a pharmaceutical company, then maybe only go back half time. But then in her fifth month, she lost the baby. That’s when she and Dad decided to quit while they were ahead. That’s what they told me. Except even back then, I think I’d recognized it as a lie. They’d wanted more, but they’d had to settle with just me, and I had to be good enough so that we could all pretend that we weren’t actually settling.

“Maybe you’re right,” I tell Willem now. “Maybe nobody quits while they’re really ahead. My parents always say that, but the truth is, they only stopped with me because they couldn’t have any more. Not because I was enough.”

“I’m sure you were enough.”

“Were you?” I ask.

“Maybe more than enough,” he says cryptically. It almost sounds like he’s bragging, except it doesn’t look like he’s bragging.

He starts doing the thing with the coin again. As we sit silently, I watch the coin, feeling something like suspense build in my stomach, wondering if he’ll let it fall. But he doesn’t. He just keeps spinning it. When he finishes, he flips it in the air and tosses it to me, just like he did last night.

“Can I ask you something?” I say after a minute.

“Yes.”

“Was it part of the show?”

He cocks his head.

“I mean, do you throw a coin to a girl at every performance, or was I special?”

Last night after I got back to the hotel, I spent a long time examining the coin he’d tossed me. It was a Czech koruna, worth about a nickel. But still, I’d put it in a separate corner of my wallet, away from all the other foreign coins. I pull it out now. It glints in the bright afternoon sun.

Willem looks at it too. I’m not sure if his answer is true or just maddeningly ambiguous, or maybe both. Because that’s exactly what he says: “Maybe both.”

Seven

When we leave the restaurant, Willem asks me the time. I twist the watch around my wrist. It feels heavier than ever, the skin underneath itchy and pale from being stuck under the piece of chunky metal for the past three weeks. I haven’t taken it off once.

It was a present, from my parents, though it was Mom who’d given it to me on graduation night, after the party at the Italian restaurant with Melanie’s family, where they told us about the tour.

“What’s this?” I’d asked. We were sitting at the kitchen table, decompressing from the day. “You already gave me a graduation present.”

She’d smiled. “I got you another.”

I’d opened the box, seen the watch, fingered the heavy gold links. Read the engraving.

“It’s too much.” And it was. In every way.

“Time stops for no one,” Mom had said, smiling a little sadly. “You deserve a good watch to keep up.” Then she’d snapped the watch on my wrist, shown me how she had an extra safety clasp installed, pointed out that it was waterproof too. “It’ll never fall off. So you can take it to Europe with you.”

“Oh, no. It’s way too valuable.”

“It’s fine. It’s insured. Besides, I threw away your Swatch.”

“You did?” I’d worn my zebra-striped Swatch all through high school.

“You’re a grown-up now. You need a grown-up watch.”

I look at my watch now. It’s almost four. Back on the tour, I’d be breathing a sigh of relief, because the busy part of the day would be winding down. Usually we had a rest around five, and most nights, by eight o’clock, I could be back in my hotel room watching some movie.

“We should probably start seeing some of the sights,” Willem says. “Do you know what you want to do?”

I shrug. “We could start with the Seine. Isn’t that it?” I point to a concrete embankment, underneath which is a river of sorts.

Willem laughs. “No, that’s a canal.”

We walk down the cobblestoned pathway, and Willem pulls out a thick Rough Guide to Europe. He opens to a small map of Paris, points out, more or less, where we are, an area called Villette.

“The Seine is here,” he says, tracing a line down the map.

“Oh.” I look out at the boat, which is stuck now between two big metal gates; the area is filling up with water. Willem explains that this is a lock, basically an elevator that lifts and drops the boats down differing depths of the canals.

“How do you know so much about everything?”

He laughs. “I’m Dutch.”

“So that means you’re a genius?”

“Only about canals. They say ‘God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland.’” And then he goes on to tell me about how so much of the country was reclaimed from the sea, about riding your bike along the low embankments that keep the water out of Holland. How it’s an act of faith to ride your bike around, with the dikes above you, knowing somehow, even though you’re below sea level, you’re not under water. When he talks about it, he seems so young that I can almost see him as a towheaded little kid, eyes wide, staring out at the endless waterways and wondering where they all led to.

“Maybe we can go on one of those boats?” I ask, pointing to the barge we just watched go through the lock.

Willem’s eyes light up, and for a second, I see that boy again. “I don’t know.” He looks inside the guidebook. “It doesn’t really cover this neighborhood.”

“Can we ask?”

Willem asks someone in French and is given a very complicated answer full of hand gestures. He turns to me, clearly excited. “You’re right. He says that they have boat rides leaving from the basin.”

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