by Sjoerd van Wijk
At ten in the morning Mr. D. strolled to the metro. Having read in his tourist guide about the wonders of the Abbesses station, he had booked his hotel in its vicinity. The sun was shining brightly. He adjusted the sunglasses; sweat was trickling out onto his nose.
He wished Layla could be there with him, clutching his hand. Today was her birthday. Mr. D. remembered when she had turned nine last year. How the girls had laughed and cried and danced when he put on a puppet show. Layla loved the Tour Eiffel painted in the backdrop. So he had promised to take her to Paris when she turned ten.
Above the morning bustle of Montmartre, a ball bounced. A girl laughed. Their shadows reflected on the apartments across the street. Mr. D. glanced around but couldn’t find her. A car raced by.
At home, he always complained about the cars passing recklessly through the neighborhood. “I’m just a concerned parent, that’s all,” he used to say. “We’re lucky nothing has happened yet.”
Mrs. D. would kiss him and run her hand through his hair. “Don’t worry so much, your job is stressful enough as is.”
Yet his hands turned clammy now watching this car fly past the girl. “Attention !” he cried.
The car went out of sight and the little girl’s shadow still showed. The ball bounced between the street and her hand. She waved. Mr. D. waved back. Another car raced by. Mr. D.’s hands turned moist again, and the shadow vanished.
At one in the afternoon, Mr. D. sat down for lunch at a quaint brasserie near the Tuileries. He ordered a confit de canard and discovered his French was still up to par after years of neglect.
Next year she would’ve started French class, Mr. D. sighed to himself.
In the corner, a family was having luncheon. Sometimes the two little kids looked in his direction. One of them pointed at him and the table turned silent.
“Maman... monsieur... tout seul ?” was all Mr. D. caught out of the kid’s hushed voice.
The mother whispered something to the kid, and the table returned to animated chatter.
On their own vacations, Layla used to ask such questions too, Mr. D. thought. All kinds of questions really. Mr. and Mrs. D. answered them the best they could. And now he was sitting here alone, unable to answer anything.
He thought back to the speeding cars he had warned everyone about. How he had held hands with Mrs. D., keeping watch over Layla in the hospital. When they knew it was already too late. That Layla was gone. His arguments with Mrs. D. How they couldn’t go on together.
“Vous avez fini, monsieur ?” the waiter inquired.
Mr. D. nodded and ordered a café au lait to go with the check.
With the aftertaste of coffee still lingering, Mr. D. paused underneath the Arc de Triomphe. The arch towering over him made the tombe du Soldat inconnu impressive in its humility. He paid his respects to those who had fallen in the First World War and climbed to the top.
How Layla would’ve loved this view, Mr. D. thought. Standing in the midst of the Place de l’Etoile, cars zipped past in all directions underneath. Their klaxons drowned out the tourist murmur. Somehow this isolation felt empowering. Nothing could touch him.
There was a girlish laugh. The same as this morning. A rolling ball. He looked down and she was standing next to him. Her arms spread out as wings.
“I’m princess of the wooooorld!” she cried.
He looked around. Tourists were going their tourist way, none disturbed by her piercing voice. The shadow girl had vanished and all that remained were the flashes of photographs.
“Tout est bien, monsieur?” a guard asked Mr. D.
“Oui, oui, c’est seulement une petite migraine,” said Mr. D., pointing to his head.
Mr. D. leaned heavily against the vending machine for pressed coins showcasing the wonders of Paris. He rubbed his wet eyes and closed them. He put his fingers against his head, as if to exorcise the headache. Today Layla would have turned ten years old. Mr. D. bought her a coin of the Arc de Triomphe. She would have loved this view for sure.
At ten in the evening, Mr. D. basked in the warmth of the pavement on the quais near Pont Neuf. His eagerness to visit all that Paris has to offer had made him walk too much. The scant remains of his evening meal were next to him, rustling in the occasional gust of wind. At the boulanger artisan he had bought Layla’s favorite: tarte tatin, and had asked for a candle on top. Next to the now half-eaten pie and charred candlestick, an empty bottle of wine lay on its side.
The sun slowly sank, and the shadows grew larger. Around him the quai was littered with couples and groups of friends who were undoubtedly true Parisiennes. Fragments of their conversations reached Mr. D., but he couldn’t piece together the topics. On the Seine, boats drifted by every now and then, slowly enough to allow the people on board to photograph everything that piqued their interest. Some waved at the shore and Mr. D. waved back.
A ball bounced behind him, followed by a girl’s laugh. Mr. D. sprang up at once. His legs strained, but he ignored the pain. Around him the couples and Parisiennes were undisturbed, eating their treats and drinking their wine and having their chitchat. Mr. D. remembered that to find her he should look for the shadows.
He stood on the edge of the quai and looked down at the water. A shadow appeared of a girl clutching a ball. He glanced sideways, hoping to finally catch sight of her, but no one was there. She laughed again and reached out for him in the shadows with her free hand. Mr. D. maneuvered his shadow hand into hers.
His pain was gone. To his ears, all the chatter around him ceased. There were no cars in the street. No boats on the Seine. The sun went down. The quais turned black. The girl and her ball vanished with the light.
The chatter returned. The streetlights turned on. The boats floated past, now illuminated. Mr. D. looked at the families gazing around on deck.
He waved and quietly said, “Happy tenth.”
Copyright © 2017 by Sjoerd van Wijk