Julie sat at the bar in the Café La Palette on the Rue de Seine with her glass of white wine, wondering if the man behind the bar with the frizzy hair was looking at her while he wiped down beer glasses. She kept glancing toward the door, willing Richard to come in any second now. She perked up every time someone walked through the door, peering at them all. What did he even look like anyhow? It had been dark when she met him at Kitty O’Shea’s last night. She knew he was cute, though, and very funny. He even had a British accent, which might have been the cutest thing about him. She remembered his light brown eyes and long eyelashes.
Was this Richard, coming in now? No, it was an older man in a suit. He sat at a table just inside the entrance and opened up his newspaper. She leaned back again to wait.
She ran her hand along the smooth wooden counter of the bar. It had been a tiring day and she didn’t really want to be out now. Wednesdays were the longest days for au pairs, since the kids got out of school before lunch and had to be kept occupied all afternoon. She had taken the boys to the park near the Eiffel Tower that afternoon, and sat on a bench for two hours while they roller-skated on the concrete paths, a chilly wind coming off the river. When she brought them home, Monsieur Contier kept her late and had her supervise bath time while he talked on his phone in the study off the living room.
Taped to the inside of the bar window was a colorful poster of a scribbly painting, advertising an exhibition of Karel Appel paintings at the Centre Pompidou. She felt a twinge of guilt that she had never been to the Pompidou. She had meant to go to cool museums during her time here, things to mention casually back home in Valdosta at Christmas. Maybe her friends would be jealous. She hoped so. She hoped they were thinking of her now, picturing her glamorous life in Paris. That would be better than their feeling sorry for her.
Ever since hearing from Stephanie that her ex-fiancé, Brad, had been out with a new girl back home, she had wanted to do something equivalent. Actually, what she wished was that she was already in a new relationship when she heard this but, failing that, she wanted to get moving and go out on a date now. Then she wanted to call Stephanie at home and tell her to tell everyone at home that Brad wasn’t the only one out dating.
She scooted back on her creaky barstool so she wouldn’t slide off, and thought happily of the conversation she would have later, when she’d tell Stephanie how her new boyfriend Richard was twenty-seven, not just a college kid. He was six years older than she was, a real adult. Actually, he was possibly seven years older than she was since she wasn’t even twenty-one and a half yet. He had gone to Harvard and then Cambridge. She wanted Stephanie to make sure she told everyone that as well. Not just to old UGA, like Brad. That jerk. UGA was huge back home, but now that she was in Paris and meeting other nannies from Ireland and Sweden, she realized UGA wasn’t exactly a big deal. Cambridge in England—now that was impressive.
Last night, her friends made a big thing about his having gone to Harvard. She had been brave herself, asking him where he had gotten his English accent (that came and went) and if he’d grown up in the States. He said he had probably picked it up at Cambridge when he was at university there. He said it in a way that showed he really didn’t care where he had picked it up, if he had. Just offered that up as a likely scenario.
She would make sure to kiss him by the end of the night so she could be totally even with Brad. And maybe someday she would marry Richard and bring him home to Valdosta and Brad could see he had done her a favor by dumping her six months before their wedding.
She spun her stool a little, out of anticipation. Now Richard was twenty minutes late, in addition to the five minutes she’d purposely been late. She had never dated anyone but Brad, but surely this was very late? Perhaps she had gotten it wrong, somehow. At least she had euros with her to pay for her drink.
But she couldn’t leave the bar because she had already told the bartender she was meeting someone when she first walked in. She’d made a show of looking up and down the bar and around the corner in the back, and then asked him if anyone who had come in was perhaps in the bathroom? “Non,” the man had told her, wiping the counter with a white dishtowel.
So she was stuck. If she left, he would know she’d been stood up or worse, think that she had been lying about meeting someone. Julie felt conspicuous in her short skirt. Did women go to bars by themselves here in France or was she making a huge faux pas? She should have sat at one of the little tables outside but sometimes they were reserved for people ordering food, or maybe that depended on the time of day. She hadn’t wanted to risk it because a waiter had yelled at her and her friends once for sitting in the wrong area.
It wasn’t as if she was a college student anymore, protected from disapproval by being part of a big group. She wished she had been brave and looked in the bar quickly and then walked back outside to watch for him. She could have stood in front of the window of the artisanal chocolate store at the corner. Too bad she didn’t bring her phone, even though it didn’t work here. She made a show of looking at her watch and then gazing at the door. She would hate for the bartender to think she was lying. She thought he had looked at her in a disapproving way when she ordered her wine. Back home in Valdosta, women did not go to bars on their own. Ever. If you did, it would mean that—well, Julie wasn’t sure what it would mean. It just didn’t happen.
She remembered being told by her grandfather that the French were very old fashioned in their attitudes and that they had distinct ideas on what women should and should not do, but she had gone along with what Richard said on the phone and agreed to meet him at this bar. She was supposed to come in after he had arrived. If he didn’t walk through that door in the next five minutes—but what would the bartender think if she left?
If someone else came in and sat at the bar, perhaps she could put her euros on the counter and leave while the bartender was busy. She had a vague idea that a glass of wine cost about seven euros. She didn’t have change. Well, if she left a twenty euro bill on the counter, he could just keep the rest for a tip. She would walk out of here and back home and take off these tights and never see the bartender again. Even though she normally took this street to get to the Contier’s place on Rue de Buci, she didn’t have to; she could go the long way on the Rue Bonaparte to the Rue des Beaux Arts. Thus if the bartender was ever looking out of his place, he would not see her.
Just then, Richard came rushing through the door with apologies about being late.
“It’s these French girls, they get up in my head! I’ve got two sisters and their mother up in my apartment, one is suicidal…it’s crazy!”
“French girls?” Julie said.
Before answering her, he looked at her glass and ordered her a second glass of wine along with a bourbon for himself.
“Oh, it’s too much,” he said, looking at his watch. “I’ll tell you about it at dinner. I made reservations at a new restaurant I found on the Île Saint-Louis—I think you’ll love it. But we have to leave now if we’re going to make it.” The bartender set the drinks in front of them, looking pointedly at Julie’s half-finished glass. Richard gulped his down, grimaced, and took out his wallet.
Julie looked with panic at her two glasses of wine. Drink it all now? Should she? They needed to leave, but he had just paid for it. She ignored the first glass and took a big gulp from the second. Now the bartender really did eye her disapprovingly.
Richard closed his wallet and looked up. “Don’t mean to rush you, but…”
“Not at all,” Julie said, and hopped down from the barstool. She looked at him in confusion—she was taller than he was. By at least four inches. They stared at each other. Her heels were only one inch—they weren’t high. What was he, five feet? How could she not have noticed last night? Except they had all been sitting on those weird chairs with the raised seats.
She stood up, and he pushed her stool back in for her, while she stared at the top of his head. She felt as if she were back at her job, babysitting the two boys after she picked them up from école maternelle, reminding them to always push the chair back under the table after getting up from dinner.
She forced herself to look away before he could catch her staring. He rushed past her and made a show of opening the door for her, bowing his head as she walked through. “Milady.” He bowed so I couldn’t compare heights, she thought as she walked through the door, her face arranged in a tight smile that she was sure must look so fake.
They walked along the Rue de Seine, Julie feeling like a giraffe beside him. She didn’t want to catch anyone’s eye as she wondered what people on the street made of them. Back home this would never come up because Brad was so much taller than she was. Except that he would never be here in Paris, walking beside her. He wouldn’t even agree to come here on their honeymoon, she recalled with fresh anger. He would be a clown here. The things he liked about himself—his status as a college football player, his collection of baseball caps—were not popular here in Paris. Eat your heart out, Brad. Except that she knew what he would say about such a short guy.
When they reached the restaurant, it was a relief to sit down at their table, where they could once again pretend to be equals. Then things were fine again, because he really was smart and interesting. That, she had not gotten wrong. He had charmed all of them last night: Julie and her two college friends, Gillian and Peyton, who were visiting Julie in Paris for a couple of days, traveling on a Eurail pass. Since it was their last night in Paris, they’d gone to the Irish bar Gillian had read about in Travel and Leisure. Richard had been genuinely funny, making fun of the French, even making fun of her friends, calling them Cliché Un and Cliché Deux for doing the typical American thing, just out of college and traveling through Europe.
As the waiter placed the appetizer before them, Richard pointed at a couple of teenage girls on the sidewalk looking in the window of the postcard store across the street. “See there, see those two? They’re what’s called ‘pret-a-porter,’ ready-to-wear. Now these ready-to-wear girls, what that means is that they buy clothes off the rack, you see, and—” he broke off, looking at her. “You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?”
“Yes, well, not really. Do you mean, off the rack as opposed to making their own clothes?” Julie tugged uncomfortably at her skirt, which was definitely off the rack.
“No, as opposed to ‘haute couture’—but forget it, I’m boring you.”
“No, but, so I know haute couture means designer wear—” Julie tried to explain.
“No, I’m being a pompous bore. Forgive me,” he said. “Now, what do you think of these mussels—moules, as they call them here. The French have a way of eating them by pulling the meat out of the shell by using an empty shell.” He reached across the table with a mussel shell and pinched one off her plate. “Now you try it.”
When they ordered dessert, Richard leaned forward. “Can we switch apartments for the night? You sleep in mine and I’ll stay in yours?”
“Um. What?” Julie almost laughed. He had to be kidding.
“It’s these French girls! They’re driving me crazy. Let me tell you, there’s one thing they want—the minute they find out you have money, they want to marry you. All of these girls want to marry me!”
Julie wondered what to say. “How did they find out you were rich?” Or, “What are the girls doing in your apartment?” occurred to her to say, but she didn’t. She just laughed.
After the waitress set down their dessert, crème brûlée for her, mousse au chocolat for him, Richard leaned forward. “I’m such a cliché, ordering chocolate mousse,” he confided. “It’s the typical American thing to do, but it’s the best dessert they have!”
Julie looked down at her crème brûlée. Was she being a cliché as well? She had not thought to worry about that before.
“Try some of mine,” he said, holding out a spoon for her to taste. “You won’t believe this, but the first time I ever tried chocolate mousse was when we had it at my graduation dinner back in prep school.” He leaned back in his chair and looked at her. “You think I’m kidding, and here I am living in Paris. But that’s the first I tasted it. I was eighteen.”
“No, I believe you,” Julie said, unclear as to what he might be kidding about. She took the spoon and tasted his dessert. “Where did you go to high school?”
“Do you know all the high schools in America?”
“Well, then, why are you asking?”
She blushed. “No, I guess I was just wondering where you’re from, sort of. And then I wasn’t sure if you told us last night, so….”
“Oh, the typical CYA question,” he said, nodding.
“Cover your ass. That way you’ll be able to figure out where I’m from. Well, if you want to know so badly, it was St. Xavier’s School. Do you know where that is?”
“Um. No,” she admitted. Julie found this conversation to be exhausting. Everything he asked her seemed to be a test.
“It’s in Princeton. An all-boys school.” He took on a serious tone. “Listen to me, Julie. Never send your child to an all-boys school. Boys are horrible.”
“Were they mean?”
“Mean isn’t the word for it. Graduation is the last time I saw any of them. Ten years, it’s been. They threw me in a fountain.”
“Wow, that is mean. Or did they all go in the fountain?” Her class had done something kind of similar after their graduation, when they all went out to the quarry and took turns diving in. The moon had been full, and they swam until three in the morning.
“No, not the other guys, just me,” he said. “They threw me in as a joke.”
“Yeah, and they acted like they were playing, like it was just a spur-of-the-moment thing, but I knew beforehand that they were up to something.”
“You think they did it on purpose?”
“I know they did,” he said, looking down at his plate. “Can you imagine? Here I thought these guys were my friends, and they threw me in, wearing my blazer and tie, my nice shoes, everything. And I know why. Because I’m short.”
They looked at each other across the table. Julie could think of nothing to say. She held out her spoon and offered him some of her crème brûlée.
As they left the restaurant, Julie felt huge again. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. His head was normal-sized when he was sitting down, but seemed large for his body when he was standing up. Or maybe just when she was standing next to him. That was it. He’d been attractive when she met him last night; she knew he had. Her other friends had thought he was cute. Or were they just taken in by his accent?
They crossed the Seine at the Pont Neuf, looking back up at the old Samaritaine department store. He pointed to the top floor with the café, where he and his mother often ate when she visited. “Nothing special served there,” he said, “but she loved the inside of the store, and from that railing you can see where Monet painted the Pont Neuf.”
Julie turned and looked back at the bridge.
“Incredible, really,” Richard said. “He must have been standing right on that spot when he painted it. When you stand in front of the painting it’s like you can crawl inside the picture and pretend you were there a hundred years ago, the rain coming down, the crowded streets.”
Once they were on the Left Bank, he veered toward the seventh arrondissement. “Come on, let’s go see if I’m safe tonight. I may need you to rescue me from these French women.” He pretended to cling to her arm as a joke, but it wasn’t really that funny. It reminded her of how the boys hung on her arms in the grocery store when she shopped for Madame Contier, when they joined forces to talk her into buying candy. She tried not to think about the boys right now.
She wasn’t sure why they were going in the direction of his apartment, except that they weren’t that far from her apartment right now. Had she told him where she lived last night? Was there a chance he thought he was walking her home? But surely she didn’t give her exact address. So where were they going?
They reached the Rue des Saints Peres. They were now a block past her apartment. Good. So she hadn’t told him. She felt her stomach unclench. They kept walking along the Boulevard St. Germain, in the direction of Assemblée Nationale by the river. He talked about his job, how it had taken him from Philadelphia to New York, then London, and now Paris. Julie listened, unable to think of a single question, since she was unsure of what a futures broker actually did.
“Do you prefer Paris to London?” she said, then relaxed and listened to him talk.
They had been walking twenty minutes when he stopped in front of a modern glass building.
“Let’s see if it’s safe,” Richard said, getting his keys out and looking up at the windows toward the top of the building. “You wait here while I go up to see what’s going on.” He stepped forward to the keypad next to the door, typed in a code and went inside. The glass doors shut behind him with a click.
Julie stood on the wide sidewalk, bewildered. Was he checking to see if they could go up to his apartment together? She didn’t want to do that. What she really wanted was to go back to her apartment, take a hot shower, then climb into bed and finish reading The Glass Castle. Up and down the empty street was a stately row of chestnut trees and empty benches. If a taxi came by right now, she’d hop in it and get away. But the street was deserted.
She thought about the kind of night she could have had, if she had stayed home. The Algerian woman who lived on her hall had invited her in for mint tea in her cozy apartment, where the walls were covered with beautiful rugs in soft shades of sand and teal and rose: the authentic patterns of the Berbers. Julie had been slightly relieved to have the excuse to decline, since the woman spoke French with such a strong Arabic accent that Julie had to guess at a lot of what she said. It was tiring. But at least when she tried to speak with the Algerian woman it was clear that the intentions on both sides were kind. How she wished she were drinking mint tea in her warm apartment right now!
With Richard, the evening had been draining from the beginning. Waiting for him in the bar when he was late, concentrating on the conversation when half the time she didn’t know what he was talking about (“ready-to-wear” girls?). She didn’t want to date anyone, after all. Let Brad go out with other people; she wasn’t into it herself.
The wind whipped around her legs and she pulled her coat tighter. Why had he left her standing outside? Shivering, she peered through the glass doors. There was a modern elevator right in front of her and to the right of that, a lobby. He could have invited her into the lobby to wait when he went upstairs.
This is too weird, she thought suddenly, and had the urge to bolt. She looked at the apartments above her. He had been up there maybe three minutes. She was at a part of the boulevard that was wide and empty, with no little side streets to duck into. She would need to hurry if she wanted to get away in time. If she left right now, she would—what would she do? She would cross the boulevard and go down the half-street—all still in sight of his building entrance—then turn right on the Rue de l’Université, which eventually turned into the Rue Jacob. But the long street had no places to hide.
If she ran across the boulevard and around the corner to get to the river, she could walk along the cobblestone bank by the Seine. She was wearing heels, not that she would mind walking all the way home in them on the cobblestones along the Seine. She had often done long walks in heels with Brad where she pretended not to mind at all. Just being her easygoing self, going along with everything. But everything was so quiet here, he would hear her heels clattering on the pavement as she crossed the street. Would he see her from his window? He might. She didn’t even know which floor his apartment was on.
She could go barefoot—who cared about her tights? But what if he happened to come out of his apartment and see her running along with her shoes in her hand? That would be mortifying. She would look silly, escaping from him as if he were a bad guy or a gangster.
She could avoid crossing the street if she went along the sidewalk next to his building until she reached the end of the boulevard, where she could turn left at the first street. She would not be heading in the direction of her apartment; to get to her apartment she would need to cross the boulevard, but she could cross it farther down the street, or maybe—yes, maybe she could walk on a side street parallel to the Boulevard St. Germain until she got to the St.-Germain-des-Pres metro station eight blocks away and went down into the metro tunnel to cross underneath the street, up the stairs again on her side of the Boulevard St. Germain, slip down the Rue Bonaparte to the Rue Jacob, and home to her apartment.
She glanced back at the elevator doors. They could open any minute. If she was going to stand there and wait for him that was one thing, but if she decided to leave, she wanted to be gone immediately.
A panicky feeling rose in her as the minutes ticked away, but she fought her instincts on the grounds that the whole thing would be too embarrassing and then what would she say? She was always getting things wrong. So she just stood there on the sidewalk in her stupid heels and useless thin jacket, the one she had chosen so as not to look bulky, and fretted.
After a few more minutes of staring at the elevator, she saw the doors finally open. He came back out the door, shaking his head.
“Too much drama up there. We’ll have to go back to your apartment.”
“But…” Julie looked up at the windows of the building.
“No, it’s no good,” he said. “Even I can’t go up there. They’re all up there, we’ll have to go to your place.” He took her arm and guided her down the boulevard.
Julie let herself be led away, watching as the shops glided by past her. The newspaper kiosk. Roche Bobois, the modern furniture store. The toy store, L’Oiseau de Paradis.
To buy time, she pretended to be enchanted by something in the window of the toy store. She pointed out one Tintin figurine, then another. She wondered out loud where the name of the store had come from and what it meant. Richard seemed to grow impatient with her as she peered in the window. She wished she could go inside the store, climb in the window display, and look at the toys. She wanted to stay there, play with the kids who came to the store to buy something, and talk to their mothers. Anything rather than be here with Richard and have no excuse not to take him to her apartment. It was too late. She should have protested earlier.
Richard pulled her away and steered her back down the sidewalk. Julie dragged her feet and tried to think of a way to get rid of him.
Richard spoke, cutting across her thoughts. “Now, where did you say your apartment was, exactly?”
I didn’t, she thought.
“It’s not far,” she heard herself saying, as they walked along the boulevard, Richard still holding her elbow.
He talked about French buildings as they walked. She tried to feign interest in some law he was describing, about nothing being built higher than six stories, but she couldn’t concentrate. Before long, they reached the tall wooden exterior doors on the corner of the Rue Jacob. To get inside she had to type in a code on the keypad next to the entrance, just as Richard had done. He hovered behind her, watching. She had an urge to cover her hand as she typed. The doors clicked, unlocked. She started to push them open even as he shoved his way in before her.
“I just…do you want to come into this part? The foyer?” She hated letting him into the building, but there was no standing on the doorstep. The doors were too heavy; they swung shut with a clang. He walked past the concierge’s door into the courtyard, off of which eight doors led to different staircases. He faced the doors, then wheeled around. “Which one?”
“Oh, you don’t want to go up. It’s six flights of stairs. And my apartment’s a mess.”
“Of course I will see milady to her chambers,” he said in that same stupid voice he had used earlier.
She crossed the courtyard and opened the second door with her key. She turned to him. “This is fine, really. I can see myself inside. Thank you so much for dinner. It was lovely.”
“Not at all,” he said, and went up the stairs in front of her, counting the flights as he climbed. She followed slowly, wondering where all of this would go. She didn’t want him inside her apartment, which was the size of a small walk-in closet, and the outfits she had tried on while getting ready were spread out on the bed.
Richard turned back to look at her when he got to the top floor. “You were right, six flights!” He beamed at her like a proud parent, as if surprised she was right.
Julie walked past him without saying anything and turned the key in the door of her apartment. The door swung open, brushing the back of her chair, which was pushed in under the desk up against the wall. Above the desk she had pinned some postcards of Paris that she bought on her first day here, along with some of her photos that she had brought from home. On her bed, which took up half the room, were all of the outfits she’d decided against. She wished she’d put them away. She wasn’t necessarily ashamed of her apartment—it was charming, with a fireplace and a mantle, and a mirror over the fireplace—but it was tiny.
As she stood in her door blocking Richard from seeing into the room, she smelled cinnamon. The Algerian woman must have made chicken tagine for dinner tonight.
She turned to say goodnight to him and he kissed her. She took a step back and politely held out her hand.
“Good night. I had a really nice time with you,” she said. “That restaurant was so cool.”
“Oh, it was. That was the one I read about in—hey, this is a cute picture of you.” He stepped into her apartment. “Is that your dog?” he asked, picking up the photo in its little stand. Now he was all the way inside her room, but she was still partway in the hall.
“Yeah. That’s Bongo,” she said, still standing at her door. Maybe he would realize he couldn’t stay and then he would leave. She looked both directions down the hall. No one was out there.
He turned around and put the photo up next to her face. “Yep, looks just like you! You know people say dogs start to look like their humans, right?” He was trying to be funny, she could tell, but it had been a long day and she was ready for him to be gone. She was still cold from standing outside his apartment.
“You know, you really are a beautiful girl, Julie,” he said, touching her cheek. She kept her arms folded tight in front of her. “Oh, you’re cold. I shouldn’t have taken so long with those girls in my apartment.”
He tried to wrap his arms around her, but she took a step back. The date was over, she was chilled all through her body, she was just done.
“I’m fine, I just really want to go to sleep now,” she said, feeling rude but a little brave. She would never in a million years say this to someone back home in Georgia. But it seemed there were different rules here. He wasn’t taking the hint, and what date would try to keep her out so late on a weeknight when she had to work the next day? And who in his right mind would leave her standing out on a windy boulevard while he went upstairs to his apartment to check on some other girls?
As these thoughts swirled in her head, he reached around her and pushed the door shut as he leaned in to kiss her. She heard the lock click into place and jerked her head back, looking at him. He seemed almost sinister now, not short and ridiculous. He leaned in again and she put her hands on his chest, pushing him away. “Stop,” she said, in an assertive voice, the kind she would use with the children.
He snarled at her, forcing her down onto her bed, covering her mouth with his hand. She couldn’t breathe. She struggled to push him off, but he was surprisingly strong. He reached down, trying to unzip his pants. She bit down into the fleshy part of his palm below his thumb.
“Be quiet,” he hissed. She tried to slide out from under him and only succeeded in falling off the bed, hitting her head on the floor. Richard landed on top of her. Her clothes kept sliding down, falling on top of them. She kicked her legs out sideways, knocking the chair over. She kicked out at her desk, banging it against the door, hoping the Algerian woman would somehow hear her through the walls. She had always thought the woman was slightly deaf, but maybe she would feel the vibration and come check on her.
Richard tugged on her skirt, trying to pull it up.
Outside in the hallway, someone was saying “Eh?” It was the Algerian woman. “Mais qu’est-ce qu’il y a?”
She heard keys jangling outside her door. The lock slowly turned. Julie had left her keys in the keyhole.
The door swung open and the Algerian woman stood in the dark hallway wearing a nightgown, her hair pulled back in a low bun, blinking in the light of the apartment. She saw them sprawled on the floor and screamed, “Oh la la, mais qu’est-ce qui ce passe? Tariq, mon fils! Tariq!”
The woman was calling down the hall to her son, but Julie knew that she lived alone. Richard yanked his pants up and took off, out the door and down the stairs. They listened to his footsteps as he ran down the spiral staircase.
Julie covered her face as the woman pushed into the room. Did the Algerian woman think Julie had been wrong to bring a man in her apartment, that she was a slut, or worse? For once, worries would have to wait.