Canceling April Fools’ Day sounded better by the minute to Laurianne. She stared out of her 6th floor apartment window, tuning out the heavy traffic and the screech of train brakes on metal. She had just called in sick at all three of her jobs, but now, she regretted it as she tried to shake off the memories that plagued her each year on the first of April. She now found herself with an empty day ahead, on one of the toughest days of each year…
As a college student at the Université de Bourgogne, in Dijon, France, she had met a young man from California who was spending two years teaching abroad. Over the two years of interaction and museum visits, they had become best buddies, sharing many childhood memories and dreaming about their hopes for the future. He wanted to take over his father’s business once he went back to his home in Contra Costa County. He was going buy a house where he and his fiancée Sally could raise a family. As for Laurianne, she wanted to move to Paris and find an apprenticeship in one of the many arts museums as a painting restorer.
About nine months after Kristopher left France, Laurianne had finished her final exam of her final year of studies. She had decided to take time off studying and to go visit her friend and his family. Confused by the jetlag a week into her visit, she had played a silly April Fools’ prank on Kristopher. She had tied a rubber band around his kitchen sink’s sprayer handle to keep it squeezed in the open position, and she had aimed it so that anyone turning the faucet on would get caught in the resulting spray. How she had laughed at his sputtering, and yelled, “April Fools!” And how silly she had felt when he had pointed out that it was only March 31st in the USA, and not 9 hours ahead to April 1st yet. He had chased her around the back yard, a pitcher of water in hand to get her soaked, yelling, amidst the laughter, that he would get her back the next day, on the actual April Fools’ Day.
Laurianne leaned her forehead against the apartment window, the drips of rain on the outside mirroring the furrow of tears on her cheeks. April Fools’ Day had come those four long years before. Back then, Laurianne had slept in, still a bit jetlagged from her travel to California. She had woken up disoriented at the sound of English on the clock radio. She had smiled as the DJ had mentioned the best pranks he had ever played on his sibling. Laurianne had smiled, remembering where she was and already planning more pranks to play on Kristopher and his family member that day. The house had been silent when she had come out of the spare bedroom. Oh, yes…Kristopher’s dad had taken the youngest two boys camping, and that his mom had planned a trip to Costco with his sister to pick up school supplies for her next semester of school. “Where was Kristopher? Was he lying in wait behind a corner to jump out and scare her?” she had wondered.
Grabbing a box of Froot Loops out of the cupboard, she had poured some into a bowl with some milk, grabbed her spoon, and gone outside to the gazebo to eat breakfast. The sight of Nadya, Kristopher’s sister, coming in at a full run into the backyard, tears streaming down her face had startled her. Her agitation and her explanation that Kris had had a cerebral hemorrhage and was in the ER was not believable. Laurianne had actually laughed and called Nadya a consummate actress trying to pull a prank for April Fools. And then, Genoveve, Kristopher’s mom, had walked into the yard as well, completely undone by grief. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! It was true?
Trying to shake the memories of the two weeks that followed Kristopher’s passing was like trying to bail water with a teaspoon out of a tsunami-engulfed rowboat… hopeless. After she had returned to France, a hole in her heart that would never close, Laurianne’s life had unraveled. Nothing had made sense. She forgot deadlines for applications, failed her entrance exam at her museum internship of choice, and was so often spaced-out that even her own parents felt powerless to reach in and pull her out of her well of misery.
Four years already, and what had she accomplished? She was still living in her student apartment with a by-the-month lease. She was working three jobs just to make ends meet, one as an early morning janitor in an office building, one as a Nanny during the day, and one as an English tutor for struggling students in the evening. Every day blended into the next. It did not help that she hardly slept anymore. Even with Xanax in her system, she often could not control the spinning into catastrophic thinking and irrational fears, all a side effect of the intensity of that grief that had blindsided her.
She seriously considered putting earplugs in her ears against the incessant railway station loudspeaker announcements, taking a sleeping pill and curling back into a cocoon of blankets for the rest of the day. She shook that thought off. If she slept the entire day, she would be up all night, and night was when the monsters came out: fear, anxiety, panic! They all rose bigger and more threatening when traffic died down on her street, and the trains were more spaced out and the announcements at the station at a lower volume.
The rain had stopped. A pale sun was peeking shyly through the ebbing clouds. She decided to shower and get dressed and go take a walk at the nearby Jardin Botanique de l’Arquebuse. She would still be alone with her thoughts, but alone was better on April Fools’s day than out in a crowd where people would randomly throw eggs and flour onto people just because of a date on a calendar. She also could not bear to see the children at the elementary school and hear their laughter as they chased each other with paper fish to try and tape them to someone’s back, and their yells of “Poisson d’Avril!” Why did the grief seem endless? Why did this still feel so tender a whole four years since her California trip? Why did she still dread those anniversaries?
Locking her door, Laurianne pushed the timed light switch in the hallway and made her way to the elevator. It was a mild first of April, with unusually warm weather and no rain! Spring in Dijon had made her wonder over the years she had lived there if Father Noah and his family had lived there when they built the ark. She chuckled at the memory of Kristopher asking her, on his 37th consecutive day of Spring rains his first year in town, if they should start building an Ark as the city drowned.
The short walk from the Vendôme Tower at 15B, Rue Albert Premier to the entrance to the botanical garden was a noisy but short one. A few feet into the green vaulted space, the noise seemed muffled. The garden had been built in the 17th century on the ancient training grounds of the Knights of the Arquebuse, first as an English garden, and then, transformed into a spectacular botanical collection of thousands of plant species from all over the world. Laurianne made her way to her favorite study spot, a bench from where she could see the stone gazebo across the duck pond. The garden was a riot of spring flowers, yellow and white jonquils and daffodils, blue grape hyacinths, their bigger cousins filling the air with their intoxicating fragrance.
The sound of crying shook Laurianne out of her reverie. A small boy had pushed his boat just out of his reach and it had gotten stranded in a stand of cattails. His mother was sitting nearby, but too engaged in adult conversation with her girlfriend to pay any need to his crying. When his mother finally turned around, an exasperated look on her face, she snapped, “That’s the third boat you’ve lost this year! I am done buying you replacements!” She noticed Laurianne and blushed, having been caught in her moment of impatience by a stranger. Laurianne waved and asked if it was OK for her to attempt a boat rescue. The boy looked at her, hope back in his eyes. She lay down on her tummy at the edge of the water, a long stick in her hand. With care, she nudged the boat out of the reeds and with one final flick, managed to get it sailing again towards the boy. His obvious joy at retrieving his treasure brough a smile to Laurianne’s lips. Her shirt was damp and had brownish-green grass stains, but she did not care all that much. She simply zipped her raincoat up to hide the stains.
On a whim, after a long meander on the various paths at the garden, Laurianne decided to take the long articulated bus to her old Alma Mater and to go grab a croissant and hot chocolate at the Shell Gas Station Coffee Shop where she and her girl friends used to hang out for hours, doing homework, and getting teased by the Algerian owner that he would start charging them rent if they only bought one drink per homework session. He was a dear old man who had emigrated to France in 1960 from his native Algiers, four years before Laurianne’s birth. He was a political refugee, having feared for his life after he had sided with the French instead of with his compatriots during the Algerian War of Independence. Remarks such as “You wanted your independence, so… Go back to your own country!” had plagued him ever since his arrival. He “looked” foreign, and in those days when Muammar Qadhafi was headline news as a terrorist, anyone who looked remotely like him could not be trustworthy, could they? Laurianne alighted from the bus at the gas station. There were police vehicles in the parking lot.
Walking to the door, she noticed hateful messages tagged on the gas station windows. Abdul was sitting at one of the round tables, a police officer taking notes about the latest hate crime against the store. Abdul looked up and beamed. “Laurianne! My young friend! It has been so many moons since I have last seen you!” Once the officer was done and had left, pacifying Abdul with another empty promise of increased patrols, Laurianne rolled up her sleeves and announced, “Looks like we’ve got some cleaning up to do!” She asked for an apron, a brush and cleaning supplies. She cleaned to egg and flour off the glass door while Abdul tacked the hate-filled graffiti words on the windows. During a croissant and hot chocolate break – on the house – she listened to Abdul. Excusing herself for a potty break, she used the pay phone in the hall and called her two best girl friend from college days and explained what had just taken place at their friend’s business.
Ten minutes into their second scrubbing session, Annie arrived. She had been tutoring across the street at one of the University Libraries, and had come as soon as her student was done. Dom arrived half an hour later. It was a reunion of sorts, just like the old days, minus Abdul’s mock gripes about rent being due. Only when they were certain that their old friend was emotionally rebuilt did the three friend leave his store. Dom had to go back to work, having helped during her lunch break. Annie was going back to the University for her lunch at the cafeteria and another tutoring session. “Mind if I join you? I could use the company today!” Laurianne suggested. Annie replied, “So long as you don’t mind the fact that it is Thursday menu at the Cafeteria!” Laurianne’s eyes bugged out. “Tripes! Ugggghhhhhh!” Annie laughed, wrapped her arm around Laurianne’s shoulder to drag her forward. Laurianne only mock fought back, though the idea of eating the regular offering of offal in runny tomato sauce was making her stomach turn in revulsion. To think Dijon was a big capital of Burgundian gastronomy! The lunch ladies must not have interned at Maison Loiseau!
While watching Annie eat the offending meal, stating that she was still too full of Abdul’s croissants and hot chocolate to have much appetite for lunch, Laurianne listened to Annie state that this next student in her tutoring rotation was her “problem child”. She dreaded that session each week. Instead of lending a sympathetic ear, then bailing out, Laurianne offered to come along: “Strength in numbers and all that!” Annie did not need to be asked twice! The two friends made their way to one of the smaller conference rooms in the Law and Literature library. The student was just as much of a punk as Annie had described, but somehow, they got through. Annie hugged her friend and explained that her boyfriend was due to pick her up for a visit to his parents. She asked Laurianne if they could drop her off anywhere, but Laurianne said she would take the bus back.
As the bus neared Place Darcy, Laurianne noticed an older woman struggling to keep her balance as she got off the bus, carrying heavy bags of groceries. In a very uncharacteristic impulse, Laurianne shot out of her seat and jumped to the rescue, following the old woman and offering her help. The old lady handed over two of the bags, an instinctive look of assessment and caution in her eyes. Having apparently gauged Laurianne as genuine and trustworthy, she walked in the direction of her townhome, her permanent-curled purplish-white hair bobbing with each step. She reminded Laurianne of her great-aunt Simone, which made her smile. At the door, the old lady offered to pay Laurianne for her help. Laurianne shook her head, telling the old lady it had been her pleasure.
She stopped at the post office and helped an American tourist who was trying to mail a package by boat instead of by plane, to save on postage, but did not know how to say that in French to the postmistress. She decided that rather than take the bus the rest of the way home, she would walk. It was only 4:00 p.m. and already dusk was nearly upon the city. Laurianne reviewed her day. She had not set out to be a “good deed doer” that morning but had been more aware than usual of the opportunities for service she had encountered along the way. She assisted a toddler who had tripped and skinned his knee, offering a Bandaid from her purse’s mini first aid kit to his mom. As she reached the door to the apartment building and picked up her mail from the locked box on the street floor, a young man was speaking animatedly on the pay phone near the elevators. She heard the familiar clicking noise that indicated his phone call would soon be interrupted, and he fumbled to try and find a coin in his jeans pocket, Laurianne reached into her own and plopped the coin in the phone’s slot. The young man mouthed a silent “Merci!” and she gave him a thumbs-up.
Laurianne pulled one of her mom’s one-serving homemade frozen casserole from the freezer and popped it in the oven. Her mom had been so worried about her grief-induced weight loss that whenever she dropped by, she also refilled her freezer with her favorite childhood dishes: incentives not to forget to eat! As she stood at the window in her studio apartment, looking at the bustle of people driving, walking or bussing home from work, and waiting for her tea kettle to boil so she could have an herbal tea to warm up, Laurianne could not help but smile. She curled up with a good book in her favorite reading chair. Sipping on her hot tea, she got lost in her book in the same focused way she used to be able to muster before her loss. Her heart still ached, but not with the fiery flame and dread of that same morning. She suspected that her heart would always ache on that anniversary date, but April First could come again next year. She was ready for it! A new tradition had emerged that day: By losing herself in the service of others, she had found her lost self again. And maybe, by the end of the school year, she would apply for that internship at the museum in Paris, and this time, be focused enough not to miss that submission deadline!