A suitcase rolls toward me, the sharp corner hitting the middle of my thigh. I wince and step back onto a man’s foot; he grunts and shoots me a dirty look. Shaking my head apologetically, I shuffle forward and settle against the pole next to the doors as the train lurches forward.
The City of Love, my ass.
Four more stops of pressing my back into the pole and I’m finally lunging out of the train, hurrying up the steps into the street and pulling out my metro map.
Parisians hurry past me, phones pressed to their ears, purses and backpacks clutched tightly to their sides so as not to be an easy target for pickpockets. A car honks its horn as the car in front idles at a green light. The trash can on the corner overflows with enough used napkins and plastic cups to litter several feet of sidewalk. I take a deep breath, my nose filling with the stench of cigarettes.
Whatever. It could be worse, right? That’s what I keep telling myself when I wonder why I chose Paris, of all places, for my graduation trip. It could be worse. I could be that man on the corner, the one shouting French obscenities, his pants around his ankles. Or I could be back home, listening to my parents snap at each other while Gramps turns up the volume of the TV in a vain attempt to drown them out.
“Here,” he said, the day of my graduation, pressing a check into my hand. “Go somewhere. Anywhere.”
I bit my lip as I stared at the number. “Are you sure? I don't know if--if I can--”
“You can do this. You’re strong honey. You just need a...wake up call, to see the strength I see in you.”
I sighed. “This is a lot, Gramps. Like, a lot.”
He waved his hand. “If you don’t take it, I’m going to use it to buy a car and crash it into a tree.”
I grinned. It took about five seconds to make my decision. Four years of French classes, of gazing at pictures of colorful cafes on every street, of perfecting my favorite French dish--the croque monsieur--and I booked my flight before telling my parents.
Mom pursed her lips when I sat them down to break the news, Gramps at my side. “By yourself? Is that safe?”
Dad raised his eyebrows. “You could put the money toward something else, Cass. Like your classes, or a retirement account.” Something that matters.
I shook my head. “It’s already booked. And it’s what Gramps wants.”
Gramps crossed his arms in solidarity and nodded at me to continue.
“I’m going. Solo travel is supposed to be good for you, you know. Supposed to make you more confident.”
I waited for that to sink in, my heartbeat quickening as the words registered on their faces. Yes, what better way to shape up their quiet, introverted daughter? Hadn’t they tried for years to coax out the shyness? Hadn’t they griped about the countless books on shelves where there should be sports trophies?
“Do you even know French?” shot Dad.
“She’s taken it all of high school,” said Gramps, frowning.
“I thought it was Spanish.”
“Maybe if you listened--” started Mom.
They didn’t notice when I slipped out of the room. It was three weeks until my flight, but I spent the rest of the afternoon packing my suitcase.
“Excusez-moi?” says a voice to my right.
I jump and spin around to a woman smiling nervously at me. Gray streaks line her brown, frizzy hair, and a whisper of wrinkles touches her eyes and mouth.
“Désolée.” She points to the map in my hand. “Le plan?” She speaks slowly, loud and hesitant, the way I do when I ask the French cashier to repeat how much I owe for my groceries.
“I can speak English,” I say, holding out the map.
Her face relaxes and she throws up her hands. “Oh, thank God. I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
I give her a small smile. “I know what you mean.”
“Are you here alone?” she asks, taking the map and squinting at the tiny writing.
I shrug. “I needed some time to myself, I guess. Away. Far away.” The words slip out before I wonder if she’s a thief, or a predator, which Mom hissed warnings about every day until my flight. But something about the warmness of her voice and kindness in her eyes makes me soften.
She glances up from the map and looks me up and down. I shuffle uncomfortably.
“Do you want to get a bite to eat?” she asks suddenly.
She smiles. “I have a daughter your age. She’s a risk-taker, like you, but sometimes a girl just looks like she needs a coffee. And I'm lost, anyway.” She waves the map and laughs.
I stare. She used the phrase risk-taker to describe me. That, more than anything, makes me square my shoulders and nod, because suddenly it’s not a stranger in front of me; it’s Gramps, hugging me at the airport, the only one dropping me off because Mom and Dad mumbled something about having to work.
“They can’t understand, sweetheart,” he murmured into my ear. “They never had your courage.”
I smile tentatively. “I’m Cass.”
“Ramona. But everyone calls me Rainy.”
After a minute of walking, we squeeze into a cafe barely big enough to fit the both of us, quickly order our treats (“Deux croissants et deux cafés, oui, deux,” says Rainy, holding up two fingers and waving away my euros), and settle into a tiny circular table outside. A man and a woman chat in rapid French at the table next to ours. They pause as an ambulance roars past and I wince at the screaming sirens; they seem so much louder than the ones back home.
“So.” Rainy stirs her coffee. “Time to yourself, huh?”
I nod, dipping my croissant into my coffee and taking a bite. The butteriness is enough to remind me that Paris has some redeeming qualities.
“Me, too,” says Rainy, looking not at all fazed by my lack of conversation, something Mom and Dad never failed to comment on. “Haven’t had time to myself in twelve years. But the husband went and slept with his college sweetheart and suddenly I have more time to myself than I know what to do with.”
I choke and drop the croissant; it lands in my mug and sends bits of coffee flying everywhere.
“I’m sorry,” I say, my cheeks heating as Rainy laughs and mops up the droplets with a napkin. “Not just for the coffee--I’m sorry about your husband.”
She waves her hand. “Good riddance. Sometimes you need a wake up call to see how strong you are, you know?”
I open my mouth, but nothing comes out. Tears threaten to fall. I blink them away, determined to not scare off the only person in Paris who’s given a shit about me.
“So, what are you running away from?” asks Rainy, either oblivious to my sudden emotion or very good at passing a blind eye.
The words tumble out as if desperate to escape. “Everything. I just graduated high school and my parents want me to go straight to college, but I--I don’t--”
I snap my mouth shut and again feel heat rise in my cheeks.
She furrows her brow. “I had a hard time when my daughter wanted to travel before going to college. But a decade later and I’m the one eating my words as she leads a global nonprofit.” She laughs and shakes her head. “Parents don’t always know what’s best for their kids. We try, and we have good intentions--but we’re human and we fail. You’re already ahead of them, being here. Don’t let them hold you back.”
I stare at her. “I’m really glad you asked me for a map, Rainy.”
She laughs. “I’m really glad you had one.”
A man across the street starts playing a guitar and I smile as the notes drift to our table. Perhaps I'll drop a few coins into his case later.
Three hours later--after two more coffees each, a small feast of pastries and more laughs than I can count--Rainy hugs me goodbye.
“You call me tomorrow, ok?” she whispers in my ear. “We’re doing this again.”
She waves and hurries off into the street, her frizzy, graying hair bouncing behind her, my map in her hand. She pauses by the man with the guitar and drops a few coins into his case. His smile is radiant enough that I can feel it across the street. The man and woman at the table next to mine laugh and hold hands.
It’s not all that bad, really, the City of Love.