Standing graveside, Celine cries for her grandmother, and for the fantasies she’s been pretending she wasn’t nurturing for the past months, for the boy with the crooked smile and the awful little soul-patch who’s been making her fingers ache over guitar strings as she tries to find just the right pattern of notes to turn that tentative, wondering feeling from months before into sounds.
Celine looks up and the ceremony seems to be over, she missed it lost in her thoughts, and she thinks that would probably hurt more if her grandmother had ever set any store by religion. She’s talked about the end to Celine before, prompted by the deaths of old friends, the reminders of time passing, enough to make Celine beg her not to, eager not to think about this day coming until she needed to, for all the good it’s done, and the important part, she’d told Celine, is not this day, but the next, and the one after that, when Celine is to live her life as bright and beautiful as she has in her, and to think now and then of her grandmother. Maybe when you’re making your music, she’d said, a little wistful. Celine will be able to do that better than she can make herself care today about dry words by people in dark clothes.
Celine’s mother nudges her shoulder, a gentle reminder to drop the wilting daisy into the hole in the earth with one of the people who means most to her in the world. Celine’s aunt turns into her uncle’s shoulder and he wraps an arm tight around her. Celine could turn to her parents with her tears and be held, loved, as comforted as it’s possible to really be in this moment, but it would be parents looking after a child, not what her aunt is reaching out for, a partner taking her turn to lean, before the next time she’ll be leaned on.
When he finally gives up and heads for home, Jesse keeps thinking he’ll run into her on his way to the airport, she’ll meet him at the gate, she’ll be his seatmate for the flight back, reading that same book she was reading on that first day.
It’s absurd, it’s got no basis in reality, there’s no way she could know what flight he was on, even if she wanted to, but Jesse catches a shock of blonde hair out of the corner of his eye as he steps out of the taxi and feels his breath catch for a second in his chest, tangle into an awkward cough. The girl turns, and she’s not right at all, narrow-eyed and freckled, with a pointier chin. Jesse drags his eyes away from the stranger’s face before it can get weird, the disappointed staring thing he’s doing.
It shouldn’t be different, Celine has been to other countries before, has spent time in them, even lived in a few. ‘Stranger in a strange land’ is actually the way she feels most comfortable these days. The week she spent in Paris with her parents before flying out to the States was by turn comfortable and excruciating, all the loved, familiar sites feeling at once too big and too small for her.
It’s a feeling she doesn’t have a word for, which is a shame, since she’d get a lot of use out of one. Paris is too big and too small to hold her, and so is her skin, so is the airport she is speed-walking through, trying to make her way to the gate.
The ticket agent said the flight out to New York was in the same place it always was, which would, Celine reflects, be a lot more helpful if she’d ever flown to New York from here before. Still, it’s important and awful at the same time, because now she can imagine Jesse making his way to this gate years before, Jesse maybe with his head bowed, defeated, disappointed, or even utterly pissed at her, hating her—Celine doesn’t actually feel guilt about choosing her grandmother’s funeral over meeting Jesse, but she hates that it was a choice, hates worse that she might never get the chance to explain.
She shouldn’t be thinking of him at all, she tells herself—that unfulfilled meeting is two years gone and America is a massive country, she’s certain she’ll never be put in a position to have to explain herself.
And, fourteen, fifteen—there’s gate seventeen, Celine sees it, now is the moment to focus, no time for self-castigating daydreams. Celine moves into place in line to board her flight.
It’s true, Jesse does see her from the taxi as he drives by to his wedding. He sees her pale hair whip across her face as the traffic speeds by, her easy smile as she chats with the small, dark-haired woman she’s walking beside.
She sees him, too, though it doesn’t register, though neither of them will ever know it. She stands at the crosswalk, waiting for the light to change, and his cab flies past her, sending a wave of dirty, puddle-water all across her feet, ankles, shins.
She turns to shout at the cab, and for a fraction of a second, she sees one of the faces in the back seat whip around to peer out the back window, and then it’s gone.
“Come on,” she tells her co-worker, “If we’re late from lunch again, Daniel will be an absolute bastard about it.”
It’s maybe a month after he sits down with himself and decides, at least within his own head, to stop trying to make things work with Angela, that he starts seeing Celine everywhere. He and Angela will stay together, he thinks—they’re both comfortable in their house and their routine, they both adore their son—but they’re more comfortable when Jesse stops trying to force that connection between them that’s been fading for so long to stay. They’re more comfortable just quietly drifting past each other, like roommates who share a child and a bed at night.
So maybe it’s just that thinking of Celine—the ideal vision of her he didn’t know long enough to complicate—is a safe way to have another love affair without damaging the delicate equilibrium of non-confrontation that he and Angela are cultivating.
It doesn’t matter why, though, it just matters that he’s seeing her again, behind his eyelids, more vivid and alive than he’d remembered her since she didn’t show up at the train station—he sees her in the listening booth, eyes cast up to the ceiling, he sees her the next morning, dancing in that little alleyway, hair all askew and bare shoulders shivering in the light after she lost her t-shirt some time during the night. He sees her laughing over the pinball machine, telling him about her gory short story, and the beginning of an idea takes hold.
It’s another year still before he puts their night together down on paper.
The sun streams in the window in stripes between the thinner folds in the curtains, the morning after Jesse definitely, certainly, without even trying to do otherwise, misses that plane. Diagonal lines like bars across Celine’s face, here in this warm room full of the things she’s built her life out of—rag rugs and lopsided pillows, cracked plastic CD cases, books stacked high and horizontal to save space, with long, complicated-looking titles Jesse isn’t sure he’d be able to understand even if he spoke the language.
He knows this whole book tour has made him unusually oversensitive to symbolism, that real life isn’t like that, but there’s a part of him that frets, seeing the bars of light across Celine’s peaceful face, worry-lines smoothed by morning light. Bars. He doesn’t want to feel like he’s trapped her into anything, but what happens next isn’t going to be pleasant.
In an hour, he’ll remember—won’t be able to escape remembering—that he has someone back home who’s probably worrying after he didn’t arrive off his flight. Someone he doesn’t think he’s ever going home to, sure, but he still owes her an explanation.
Hour and twenty minutes, and the certainty of the biggest reason why he owes her that explanation—Hank, little Hank with his big, serious eyes and Jesse’s father’s crooked smile—will loom so large in his mind he’ll draw in a jagged breath through lungs buried thick with doubt about what he’s just done.
Two hours and three cups of strong black coffee later, his fingers will shake as he dials in the country code for the U.S.
He will sit, and he will listen, speak, listen again, he’ll hold the phone to his ear after she hangs up, before slowly lowering it to the table, still off the cradle and beeping at him, because he’s a coward, because if he hangs up the phone, she can call back, and some of the terrible things she’s saying to him are true.
He will stand, walk in from Celine’s balcony, lean against the doorframe and watch her for a moment, as she stands over the sink and savagely scrubs at her dishes, and his heart will ache with tenderness.
“Still think you want to give it a shot?” He’ll ask her, a little bit joking, mostly not.
She’ll turn toward him, wipe sudsy hands on the front of her jeans, and smile at him. A strained smile, yes, but a warm one. “Come back in,” she’ll tell him. “Of course I want to try, you idiot.”
Seconds will become minutes will become hours, but right now, at this moment, Celine sleeps in the sunlight, and Jesse shoves worry and guilt into the back of his mind, snakes an arm around her waist, and settles in beside her.