The sound of my feet on the pavement got faster and faster. My phone rang. I got it out of my big purse and looked at the screen.
I hung up and continued walking, phone in hand. I wanted to throw it far away, to throw away my family and all of my problems.
My eyes were burning from the tears and the cold. My scarf didn’t protect my face from the snow. The wind felt like a whip, like hits to my face.
I turned at a street corner I didn’t know. I didn’t recognize anything around me, it was blurry and cold. I was on the wrong side of the Seine, I crossed the Alexandre III bridge to get as far away as possible from my family.
I sat at a table, in front of a little parisian cafe. A server arrived with a huge smile on his face and a notepad.
-Hello.” I didn’t hear, or listened to his welcoming voice. I spoke french, but I didn’t want to make an effort, I answered in english, my native tongue.
-Would you like a menu, miss?” To my surprise he answered in english with no trace of a parisian, or french, accent.
He handed over a notebook looking object. I opened it to the middle and read out the first thing on the page.
-Chocolat viennois. That’s what I’ll take.”
-All right miss.”
He took the menu and entered the cafe.
No one else was outside, though there were tables all around. Empty. I felt alone.
My phone rang again. I got it out and tried to stop crying. Ashley. I didn’t have the courage to hang up again, maybe on my mom, but not on my older sister.
-Hello? Are you there?”
Her voice was broken, like on the verge of tears. I kept quiet.
-Where are you? We need you right now. Mom needs you. I need you. Please…”
-I don’t want to know, you’ve kept with me gone for… what is it… three years now? You’ll survive. I only cause problems.”
-No, you don’t. And even if that was the case, you can’t keep on running away from your problems and your family. We’re waiting for a conclusion, you need to come, James, Mom and I couldn’t bear it if...”
-I… I don’t know. I need some time.”
-You’re going to regret it if you don’t come. I promise.”
-I have to go.” I lied. I didn’t have to do anything, except being there for my mom and sister. No one else was waiting for me. No one cared.
-Don’t you want to know?”
-No! Don’t tell me. I need time.”
-Ok. We don’t know either anyway. Mom is waiting in her room. She’s more stressed than she’s ever been… Call me later.”
-And lil’ sis, one last thing.”
-We love you. I love you. Mom loves you. You have us and even if I don’t tell you, you need to know, we’re all waiting for...”
I put the phone on the cold metal table and gazed out.
Two girls my âge walked past me, laughing, crying. They were crying because of joy, with happy tears. I wanted to vomit. I heard them talk :
-I can’t believe he proposed! I mean, isn’t it romantic…”
-Yeah! When are you planning to marry him?”
-I don’t know, next year? I want a winter wedding…”
-O.M.G., that’s such a great idea, my cousin had a winter wedding too and…”
The rest of the sentence was lost in the wind.
It felt so cruel. How could some people be happy when I was getting destroyed from the inside.
The server appeared out of nowhere with my hot chocolate on a tray.
To my surprise, after setting down the tray on the table, he didn’t leave. He sat down in front of me.
I got my first real look at him. He was blond, with a warm smile and a pale skin. He wasn’t handsome like a fairytale prince, but he was happy, calm, understanding and kind, more like a big brother or a best friend.
-Excuse me?” I asked, confused at his question.
Not only did I not know this young man, but the cafe had other customers, inside. People drinking out of mugs, eating dinners, desserts, cheese. Families spending the night together. Couples celebrating. Even a man with glasses and a green scarf, alone, reading a book by the window, who I made eye contact with. He was happy to be alone on such a night.
-I want to know why you’re sad tonight.”
-Well, that’s very kind of you but…”
-I know it’s none of my business, but when a beautiful young lady is crying on the phone outside a cafe under the snow, I want to help her. Don’t you agree?”
-Come inside.” It wasn’t an order, more like a request, or a friendly advice. Inside, it sounded good, like a protection from bad news. Or a blanket you put over yourself after watching a horror movie : you know it won’t help, but it feels safer.
Inside felt good.
The server took my mug and the tray. I got my bag which I had put on the back of the chair. We walked in.
The cafe was huge. It had a big staircase that led to a second floor. There were bookshelves with treasure : old books, snow globes, framed pictures of people and places, plants, vials of potions, a very old hat, souvenirs...
The smell of winter and happiness made me smile, even though I swore never to smile again minutes ago. There were bowls of candy canes and peppermints everywhere.
-You’ve never been here before?” The server asked, with a knowing glance.
-No, never, but… This place is amazing! How is it not a famous parisian cafe or something?”
-Well, it’s a family business, it’s small and we like the community. I know everyone.” As he said it, a little boy, maybee five or six, stood up from a nearby table where the rest of his family was seated. He ran towards the blond server and handed him a present, wrapped in a messy way with duct tape and glue.
-I have a present.” He said proudly, in french. “Open it!”
The server put the tray on a table where a couple was talking about writing poems. He opened the package, it was a plastic water bottle, covered in star shaped stickers, filled with multicolored sprinkles.
-Wahou! It’s great! Thank you, Gaspard! I love it!” The server said, still in french, while putting the bottle on one of the shelves.
The little boy went back to sit with his cousins and siblings, a huge smile on his face.
-He looks so happy to be giving you a present.”
-Every one here is nice, at least inside. Kids are so honest and innocent, their presents are the best.”
-Do you have kids.” He put my drink on a table, in front of the fireplace.
-Me? No!” It felt weird to think that he thought I could have kids… “I have a niece. She just turned three, two month ago.”
I sat down on a big old and soft armchair.
-That’s great! Do you spend a lot of time with her?” he asked, truly happy for me.
-Actually… I… I…” I thought about Faith, Asley’s daughter. “I’ve never seen her.”
-I’m so sorry…”
-It’s ok… I just don’t get along with my family.”
-No, it’s not ok. I’m very sorry.”
I didn’t answer.
Next to me, a girl, about thirteen years old, was wearing a cafe shirt, like the server. She looked a lot like him, with the white skin and dark eyes, but she wore her blond hair in two long braids that seemed to have minds of their own.
-Hey,” she said, looking up from the notebook she was writing in when she noticed the tension between the server and I. “Are you new here?”
I didn’t really know what to answer.
-Yes, she is.” said the boy.
-Then welcome to the Safe Place Cafe, where we offer safety blankets and teddy bears with your dinner.”
I laughed. Not because of the teddy bear and safety blankets, but because of the irony : I was looking for a safe place, a protection. The server brought me inside the safe place I wanted. Literally.
-What a cute name for a restaurant.”
-I know, right!” said the girl happily. “Our grandparents were immigrants. They found a safe home, a safe place, here. That’s why it’s called that. I find it beautiful and touching at the same time.”
-What’s your name, miss?” The blond boy asked after a few seconds after my remark. I realized we hadn’t even introduced ourselves yet.
-My name is Joy. And you, guys?”
-He’s Bjørn,” the girl said “I’m Charlotte.”
I couldn't help it, I smiled.
-Well that’s an unusual name, Bjørn…” I wasn’t really making fun of it, just finding something funny on a terrible winter night.
-Yes. It means bear.” Bjørn said, sitting in the last armchair in front of the fireplace.
-My name means free man or petite.” Smiled Charlotte.
-My name, well, it’s pretty obvious. It means joy.”
My phone rang again. I looked at it. James.
-I have to take this.” I said, worried. I took my stuff and walked outside.
-Joy.” My brother’s voice was cold, he called out my name like an executioner calls out a name, like a pig raised for slaughter.
-James, what’s up?”
-Why are you not there?”
-What do you mean?”
-I just got home, I was with… someone, when I arrived, you weren’t there. Last year you said you would come.”
-Mom asked you to come tonight when… it happened. Why did you refuse?”
-I’m 24 in a month, James, I can do whatever I want.”
-No, you can’t. You’re waiting, like me, like Mom… We’re all waiting, but when the answer comes, you will be there. Promise me.”
-James, no. I have a life too.”
-Stop it! You’re lying to yourself. You should definitely not be alone, outside, in the snow. Not tonight. Not ever.”
-Don’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t be doing. I’m your older sister, you’re just a jealous teenager.”
-Why would I be jealous? You mess up everything. Don’t you want a second chance? You could still come. We’re all waiting, not only for… you know…”
-But we are also waiting for you. We’re your family. Ashley called you already, she is our sister, listen to her. You don’t want her second daughter, Jeanne, your niece, to spend the night without you. This should be a happy family reunion. And instead, look at what's happening to us.”
-It’s all my fault. Just hate me, it will be easier for the both of us.”
-No, it won’t be.”
-All right, tell me you all love me no matter my choices and you wish I would come home so I can hang up on you and leave you destroyed.”
-This isn’t a cheesy family reunion movie, Joy. But we do love you. Come back home.” And he ended the call.
“I can’t believe it!” I thought, “My own brother hung up on me.”
I walked back in the cafe and grabbed my scarf.
-I have to go, Bjørn. Thank’s a lot for everything. How much is the hot chocolate.” We walked out the building together and I stepped onto the snow.
-It’s on the house.” He was halfway in the cafe. “Don’t worry about it. Go spend time with your family.”
-How did you…”
-And a merry christmas!” The door slammed behind him.
“That was odd…” I thought. “Maybe I told him where I was going and just forgot… I’m such a knucklehead sometimes.” I held on to my messenger-bag-purse with my thin wool gloves. My glasses were covered in fogging. There was snow all around.
I walked towards the Alexandre III bridge. Its golden statue guarded the entrance to it like soldiers at the ready. Like a protection, one for a safe place. I was definitely going crazy : before I stepped on the bridge, I looked at the statue and said,
-May I pass on the bridge, please?”
Maybe it was just the wind and my brain, but I thought I heard a faint whisper. An agreement, a “yes” in my sister’s voice. So I walked onto it.
I turned left before going onto the Invalides. I let my feet guide me on the Quai d’Orsay until I found myself face to face with a familiar building. Home sweet home.
I entered the code and stepped in the big haussmannian hall. I climbed the stairs on the red carpet to the sixth floor. And I rang the doorbell.
James opened the door.
-Merry christmas, lil’ brother.” I said, opening my arms for a hug.
He reached in and lifted me off my feet.
-You didn’t change one bit…” He said with a huge smile on his face.
-You changed a lot, though… You’re taller than me now, you’re bigger, you look older…”
-I know.” I stood in front of him and examined his appearance.
He was sixteen now. And it had been three years since I didn’t see him.
He was wearing a white sweater from a famous brand, a pair of jeans, sporty looking shoes and an expensive looking watch. His caramel hair was short and ruffled.
A little girl appeared in the doorway.
-Who ‘dat, Rames?” She said in broken english. She looked like my older sister.
James said something in french and the girl walked towards me.
-Welcome, aunt Joy. I’m Faith.”
-Hello Faith.” I squatted, I was small but I tried to get to her level. “You look so much like your Mom.”
-I know.” She took my hand and brought me in. “That’s my house.”
I didn’t tell her that it used to also be my house.
-James? Faith?” My older sister’s voice came from the living room. “Who is it?”
I entered the room and she let go of the plate she was holding in her hands.
-Joy… You came home.”
-I did. Hello Ashley…”
My sister approached me and hugged me. Her daughter asked, in french, why her mom was crying.
-I’m happy, Faith, I’m so happy. Sometimes crying is good.”
-Mom!” said James. “Come, please!”
Mom came in, wearing a fancy dress, a baby in her arms, probably Ashley’s second daughter : Jeanne.
-Joy…” She smiled. “I’m so happy you are here… This can be a happy Christmas even with the…”
-Don’t think about it Mom,” said James, taking her in his arms “We’re here with you.”
She handed the baby to Ashley and asked me about my boyfriend from three years ago.
-Oh, we broke up, like, two years ago.”
-Good, I never liked him.” said James.
I looked at my brother with a look on my face to say “Excuse me, who asked you, my dear little brother?”
Mom’s phone rang. She looked at the screen.
-Oh, I have to take this.”
-Is it…” asked my brother.
She nodded gravely.
We were finally going to get an answer.
Faith started talking. I grabbed an appetizer on one of the trays on the table. My sister went into the kitchen to clean up the plastic plate she had dropped.
-So,” Ashley asked “what did you do tonight?”
-I… Well, first, I slept a lot, then, for no reason I went outside and went into a cafe. I ordered a hot chocolate. I didn’t finish it because I was in a hurry, but it was the best thing ever.”
-What was the name of the place?” asked James.
-The Safe Place Cafe.”
James took out his phone and looked it up.
-Where did you say your apartment is, again?”
-I didn’t. It’s on the other side of the Seine.”
-Is it nice?”
-Yeah, I live with two of my best friends. One of them is getting married this summer so she’s moving out soon. The other is going to live at her parent’s starting in march, they live in Nantes so…”
-Joy,” said James “There is no such thing as the Safe Place Cafe, are you sure that was the name?”
-Yeah, I… I think… It was real, I know, but… That’s very weird… Now that I think about it, the name was in english… And the server looked like a ghost”
Mom entered the room at that moment. She looked sad. I shivered through my thick blue sweater, my scarf, my tights, my jeans and my socks.
There was a pause.
-Kids, please sit down, all three of you.” James obeyed. Ashley and I were already seated. My sister took her daughter on her lap, with the other one.
-What, Mom… Did you… Did you get an answer.” James asked, with a shaken breathing.
-Yes. Like you know, we’ve been waiting for a call from the hospital since Abigail…” She swallowed heavily “Since Joy’s twin's accident. Her boyfriend died in the car crash. She didn’t die on the spot. The doctors did their best to save her, but it was too late. She… She was courageous.” I saw a tear roll down James’s cheek. “She asked the nurse to tell us that… for her last wish, for her christmas present… She wanted Joy to come home.”