"The Three Reasons to Avoid Being Punched in the Face" is my newest novella. Here's the Amazon.com description:
A new novella from the author of "Getting Gone."
Sometimes you find yourself in the strangest places. No one knows that better than Charlie Dustin. He's been avoiding his life for three years in every dusty church and old building in Europe. Until the day Elle finds him in a French cafe, bringing along three really good reasons for staying out of trouble.
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2 | Reason #2
Elle had a thing for red.
“It’s bold,” she said. She’d said this more than once, as we perused the wares of the little clothing shop just a block from the record/comic/hot chocolate shop/post office, where I’d decided it would be a good idea to buy a new wardrobe for a near stranger. She had described nearly every item of clothing she’d picked up as some variation of ‘bold.’ The skirt was “pronounced.” The pants were “adventurous.” The gloves were “distinct.”
“What about a coat?”
“I have one,” she said.
“That belongs to someone else.”
“It did, once,” she said. She looked at me, looking at her, and rolled her eyes. “How would we get it back to them?”
“We’ll take it back to the café. We’ll say that you grabbed it by mistake. Didn’t you come in with a different coat?”
“Not a bold red one,” she smiled. “And what if they aren’t in the café anymore?”
I didn’t know. I didn’t have an actual plan. I never did. I had a “the right thing to do” idea (more of a notion, really), but wasn’t entirely sold on that, either. I mostly just thought of some nice lady shivering all the way back to her hotel, cursing Strasbourg for its crime, when it wasn’t Strasbourg’s fault. I just didn’t want to create a bad memory of this place for anyone.
I found a red coat that more or less resembled the one Elle was wearing. Close enough to be mistaken for it, anyway. It could happen. It would be what happened.
“You are a softy,” Elle said.
“Obviously. I’m buying an entire wardrobe for a girl I haven’t seen since high school.”
“You don’t want someone to have a bad vacation.”
I blinked, and my eyebrows went up a bit.
Elle laughed. “Don’t be so surprised. I’m a quick study, and you’re kind of an open book.”
“Great,” I said. “Can I expect more open manipulation in the near future?”
“I promise, I’m only in it for the wardrobe and the warm hotel room.”
“Nice. OK, will this do?”
She looked in the full-length mirror at the new outfit she was wearing. It was a nice combination of clothes. Tinged red all around, but not overdone. Everything worked together. It worked on her. She looked so different from the girl who had dropped out of the blue in the café. I wouldn’t have recognized her, at a casual glance.
“This will do,” she smiled.
I paid. Elle wore the clothes out of the store, and once on the cobbled street we clipped tags and pulled stickers. In her hand was one of the store’s shopping bags, filled with her old clothes, which she had folded nicely, as if they were precious purchases.
“Suitcase?” I asked, nodding to the bag.
“Funny,” she said, but didn’t argue.
There was more going on with Elle than I’d first thought. It was in that moment, shivering on the street, that it had hit me—which I know is ridiculous timing. But for three years I’d wandered around the world, visiting old buildings, posting photos on Facebook, chatting with mostly strangers about mostly unimportant things, if I talked to anyone at all. I wasn’t exactly brushed-up on social skills.
Thank God for Facebook and the pseudo relationships I maintained there, else I’d be a hermit altogether.
We went back to the café, and once inside Elle switched coats. She went straight to the hook where she’d “borrowed” the first one. Another coat was hanging there, but it wasn’t unusual for people to double-hang. She was just hanging the coat back in place when a woman, blonde and tall and accompanied by a man built like an action movie star, stepped up. “That is my coat,” she said.
Elle, who was caught as red handed as that apropos metaphor could allow, didn’t even hesitate. “I was a few blocks away when I realized this wasn’t mine. I’m so sorry!”
“We were just complaining to the manager!” the blonde said.
“I’m sorry,” Elle said again. “It’s very similar to mine, and I mixed it up.”
The blonde and her bodyguard (or maybe her husband or boyfriend … I’m just going to call him “big guy”) looked her up and down. Her new coat did look very similar. Not as expensive, maybe. Different cut. But the color was the same, as was the length. It was close. Close enough.
The blonde took her coat, inspecting it, dusting at it with a gloved hand.
Elle and I backed out of the café and were on our way back down the snowy street before the blonde or the big guy could say anything else.
“That was fun!” Elle said as we safely rounded a corner onto a side street that would lead us to the waterfront. “Better than taking pictures of a dusty old building, right?”
“You’re not going to try tempting me into an international petty crime spree, are you?”
Elle laughed. “Charlie, I hope you know that at this very moment I am scared out of my mind. Shit-balls scared.”
I doubted that. I doubted that Elle was ever scared. There was something about her that said she’d been just fine with stealing someone’s coat in a French café. She was also just fine with getting an old high school friend, someone who looked like he might have money, to pay for a room and some clothes. She was open about it. She was comfortable with it. As if she’d expected it all along.
So how should I react to that?
I wanted to be mad. It was pretty clear, by now, that she had spotted me at some point over the past couple of days. Finding me in that café was just a ruse — she’d known it was me before she’d ever walked up.
And what had she said? She’d been in the church yesterday? When I’d told her about the churches, she had asked me if I just toured them.
She already knew.
And the way she lied to the blonde. She was smooth and quick. No hesitation. No fear. She lied like she expected she would be believed, and she was.
“So what are you really doing in Strasbourg?” I asked as we stopped in front of a vendor stall in the small street market. Tourists were crowding all of the stalls, swathed in coats and scarves and hats to the point of being almost unrecognizable as human figures. Vendors, warming themselves with space heaters, gladly took in the flood of currency, handing over trinkets, clothing, souvenirs, mugs of hot cider and hot chocolate, bags of roasted chestnuts. Business was good.
Elle didn’t even hesitate. “I wasn’t lying about the tuition check. I really did cash that and buy a plane ticket. And I wasn’t lying about the money or credit cards running out.”
“Just the timing,” I said.
She smiled. “OK. Yes. I’ve been here a little longer than I led you to believe.”
“A month or two,” I said.
Now it was her turn to blink in surprise. “Yeah … how …”
“Long enough to run out of money and have to sleep in a couple of churches. You were kicked out of a hotel, right? One of those cheap ones? They kept your stuff?”
“OK, what number am I thinking of right now?” she asked, holding her fingers to her temples.
“I’m not psychic,” I said. “And I’m not stupid. It took me a while, but I remembered.”
She became a lot more guarded then. The happy, free smile faded, and was replaced by a sort of wariness. She tensed. Probably getting ready to make a run for it. If I didn’t say the right thing in the next few seconds, she’d be gone. I’d lose her. She’d be just another running stranger in a French border town.
“The hat,” I said.
I watched the tension fall. She was surprised, then smiled, because she knew that I knew. “I never should have taken it,” she said, laughing lightly. “I was afraid you’d recognize it right off. I couldn’t resist taking it, though. As soon as I saw you …”
“Where was I? Where did you see me?”
She sighed. “Paris. I was sleeping in a church. I don’t remember which one. I was really just sitting in there, trying to keep warm, when you came through. I recognized you. And I followed you.”
“I haven’t been to Paris almost two weeks,” I said.
“Yeah. I’ve more or less tagged along behind you. You go to a lot of churches. Which works out for me, because churches are easy places for me to catch a little sleep and keep from freezing to death.”
“And I left that hat in one of them,” I said.
“Yeah. You do that.”
It was true. I was sure I’d contributed slightly to the warmth of the homeless population all over Europe, one dropped piece of clothing at a time.
“Why?” I asked.
She squared with me on the street, looking me directly in the eye. If she was planning to run, I couldn’t tell. I hoped she wasn’t. I needed her to understand that it didn’t matter to me. There was something about all of this that was working for me, somehow. Something about all of this felt right, even though I was struggling not to be pissed about the whole thing.
“I left school because my dad wants it more than I do. And I flew to Europe because it was more or less the furthest place I thought I could run to and still feel safe. Which is stupid, because I haven’t felt very safe at all. Until I saw you. And maybe it’s because you were familiar, I don’t know. Maybe it was because you were alone, and somehow you seemed like you were a lot like me. More money, of course. But you were out. You stepped out of it all. You were touring churches every day and avoiding something back home.”
I said nothing.
“So I followed you. I grabbed your hat because it was yours. I was going to use it as an excuse to talk to you. I almost did, a couple of times. But instead I just followed. I wanted to see what you were doing. I wanted to … I don’t know, really. I wanted to be a part of it, somehow.”
I thought about it. I thought about her, probably freezing her butt off in drafty churches. Washing herself in public restrooms. Sneaking onto …
“Wait, did you sneak on the trains?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I got caught a couple of times.”
“How did you keep from getting kicked off?”
She smiled a little. “I’m a cute American girl, Charlie. It’s almost universal currency.”
I blinked, then swallowed. “Did you …”
She clocked me in the arm, and even through the coat it still hurt a little. “No! I didn’t sleep with anyone. Well, not all the time. I’m not a nun, Charlie. But for the past couple of weeks, no. I was following you. I stayed close. I wanted to find the right time to come up to you.”
“And what made this the right time?” I asked.
She looked at me for a moment, thinking. Really, you could see the thinking. She was considering, and it was almost like I could see things happening inside her head. She was trying to figure out, for herself, why this was the time. And then she did.
“I wanted to finally stop hiding out and just talk to you. But also, I think I wanted to know what was hurting you so bad.”
“Oh come on, Charlie. Yes, hurting. Nobody lives like you do unless something big happened. Something that changed everything for you.”
I thought about this for a bit. “So how do I know you aren’t just using that as an excuse to take advantage of me? You have me pretty well figured out, I think. You might just be after a place to sleep, some new clothes, some money.”
“Maybe,” she admitted. “And yes, I am, a little. But I think you kind of need someone to be after those things from you right now. I think you need someone who needs you. Right?”
I couldn’t answer that. I didn’t want to. It was the kind of question I’d spent three years avoiding.
Instead I turned back to the street vendors. I found a hat. It was a nice one, actually. Sort of a fedora. Brown wool. Warm. I put it on and it fit perfectly. It cost about $50 American. I wondered where I’d lose it.
I was going to lose it.
Elle had climbed onto the base of the statue, another saint standing in the courtyard of another of Europe’s ancient churches. He was covered in a bright green algae and a bright red Elle. This close to Christmas, some people might assume it was some kind of decorative tribute.
People who were not the French security guard, who was yelling at us to get down right this instant!
At least, I assumed that’s what he was yelling, since it was in very loud and fast French.
“Come on!” I shouted, grabbing Elle’s arm and pulling her from the statue. She’d been doing a particularly lurid-looking dance move, laughing along with me as I watched. It was wrong. I knew it was wrong. It felt wrong on a lot of levels.
I hadn’t done a thing to stop it.
Now, though, with the security guard yelling at us and waving his hands as he ran toward us, I thought I might just lose it. For three years I’d led a pretty unobtrusive, touristy life, traveling among old buildings, respectfully reading plaques on the bases of statues (with the help of guide books and a translation app on my iPhone). I’d more or less kept out of life’s way. Now I was poking life in the eye and making a run for it.
It had been a couple of days since Elle and I had left the café in Strasbourg, and they’d been a fuller couple of days than most of the months I’ve had. I spent an awful lot of time trying to figure out what that meant for me. I was starting to feel some angst.
And then there was the sex.
Elle was, as she’d reminded me more than once, a cute American girl. What can I say? That first night, when I’d offered to get her a room in the same hotel where I was staying, she’d said very logically and matter-of-factly, “You already have a room, right? I’ll just sleep with you.”
I had assumed that would mean me sleeping on the floor, but it definitely hadn’t.
Elle was beautiful. She was energetic and excitable. She was smart and quick and constantly ready to admit when she was lying, if I managed to catch her at it. I stopped trying by our second night together. I think I recognized something in her, something as familiar as a freckle on the back of my hand. Something I barely noticed about myself, and wouldn’t have studied much if I hadn’t seen the same mark on someone else.
I remembered her from high school now. She was smart, but also a little flighty. Or maybe “flighty” wasn’t the right word. She was somehow disconnected from the rest of the school. She seemed to get good grades, and she had plenty of friends. But she was never a part of anything that I could remember. No cheerleader uniform, no band instrument, no volleyball practice. As far as I could tell, she’d never participated in anything in high school.
“Omni,” she said. “The science club.” We’d managed to ditch the security guard and find a bench overlooking an icy river, with couples walking by arm-in-arm. We blended right in.
“Of course,” I said.
“Of course,” she smiled. “Wasn’t my idea. Dad’s,” she shrugged.
“Your dad really wanted you to be a chemical engineer, I see.”
“More than anything,” she smiled, rolling her eyes. “The family business.”
“But you didn’t.”
She looked at me for a moment, biting her lip. “You’re digging,” she said. “We agreed we wouldn’t do that.”
“We lie a lot,” I said.
She laughed, then snuggled in closer.
I was struggling with this new closeness. It had come on fast, and it wasn’t slowing down. I hadn’t had much in the way of relationships over the past three years. Sex had definitely been off the menu. Maybe that was why I’d started checking out churches. Nothing says “abstinence” better than a church. But I wasn’t made of stone, and I wasn’t blind. I might have been just a little bit stupid, though. Two days after finding out that an old high school classmate was stalking me across France in an effort to get me to pay for her trip and I was ready to do whatever she asked. Nothing absurd about that, for sure.
“So since you broke the rules, I get to ask some questions of my own.”
“Is that how this works?” I asked.
“Isn’t it always?”
I thought about that. “One question,” I said.
She pulled back. “One!”
“I’m feeling magnanimous,” I smiled.
Elle pretended to scowl. Or maybe there wasn’t as much pretending as I might have thought. “OK. Why France?”
“That’s what you want to ask me? Of all the things …” I stopped. Maybe this was Elle’s way of respecting our deal, even as she pushed around the edges. Or maybe she knew I wasn’t ready to answer any of the tougher questions anyway.
“You’ve been here for a while,” she said. “I’m not sure how long, but I’m guessing at least six months.”
“That’s about right,” I said.
“So why here? Why not London? Why not Australia or Germany or Japan?”
I shrugged. “I don’t really know, honestly. It’s not like I have a plan. I just came here one day, and I’ve stuck around. Lots of old buildings in France. Plenty to see.”
She thought this over. “OK. So how long have you been here?”
“That would be …”
“Yeah, a second question. Sue me. How long?”
I thought about that, too. Counting back, I couldn’t quite remember the date I’d gotten to France, proper. “Maybe eight months,” I said. “Most of a year, I guess.”
“Most of a year! You’ve been traveling for almost a year?”
“More like three,” I said. “I’ve been to other places.”
She thought about this for a while, then settled back. “We should go out tonight.”
“Go out? Where?”
“I have a place in mind.”
“Will this end in me bailing one or both of us out of jail?”
“If we’re lucky.”