"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.
If you like the free content you read here, please consider making a donation to help keep it comin'!
3 | Reason #1
The place Elle had in mind was a small club called Rue Ville.
I was never much of a club-scene kind of guy. Not much of a dancer. Never really cared about mashing my body against the bodies of a few hundred of my dearest and closest total strangers. I said all of this to Elle multiple times as she dragged me from the train and around corner after corner until I was fairly sure even the GPS on my phone would be hopelessly lost here.
“It’ll be fine. It’ll be fun.” She insisted.
I remained unconvinced.
But you know, as the beat pounded and the sweat started to stream down my sides and the heady smells of the French crowd started syncing to my rhythm (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me syncing to theirs) it really wasn’t as horrible as I—yes it was. It was horrible. What, in the name of golden goodness, was I doing in this place?
Elle clearly loved to dance, which I remembered as being a universal trait for cute girls. Me, on the other hand—I was in straight up wallflower mode. I tried dancing with her a couple of times, but I was so inept and she was so oblivious that I was able to pull away and just go stand at the bar, nursing what I thought was some kind of mixed drink relying heavily on vodka for substance.
I’ve never been much of a drinker, and I was already starting to feel a nice buzz when Elle noticed I was no longer a part of the throng. She practically marched up to me with fists at her side. The crowd, somehow sensing what was better for it, parted.
“What the hell, Charlie?”
“Sorry,” I said. Then she smiled, and I smiled, and it was alright.
“Not your thing?”
“I may have mentioned that,” I said.
“Yeah, I know. It’s just … “ She looked around.
“Hey, don’t let me bring down the party. I can entertain myself.”
She rolled her eyes. “That’s the point, Charlie. You’re always in your head, off on your own. I thought this might get you loosened up a bit.”
I looked around. The crowd managed to keep up its dancing even without us there, brave souls. It really didn’t look appealing to me at all. I kind of knew what Elle was trying to do, to get me out of my head and away from my “deep, dark secret.” But this was too much. Too far outside. I wasn’t ready.
“Let’s get out of here then,” she said. And again she smiled. And I followed her like a puppy.
“I told you it was a boring life,” I said as we wandered through the streets, trying to find our way back to the train.
“Not boring,” Elle said. “I get it. Not your style. But you know, I just feel like I should do something. I don’t know what happened to you, but I feel like I should do something to help you.” She had wrapped herself around my arm and was leaning on me as we walked. It was kind of awkward, actually. I wouldn’t change it if someone punched me in the head.
And then someone punched me in the head. The face, actually. You were expecting this, right?
I went down and Elle screamed. The man who had hit me waved something at her, probably a knife, then stooped to rifle through my pockets. I was holding a hand to my nose, which was bleeding pretty bad, and had no intention of stopping the guy.
That’s when he ended up sprawled on top of me.
Elle, screaming like a tribal warrior, leapt onto the guy’s back and started wailing on him with her fists, her knees, and some random objects she’d apparently picked up from the street. In the flurry, the guy dropped the knife, and spent a significant amount of time trying to crawl away from her, using me as a sort of runner’s starter block.
Elle didn’t let up, and soon she had the guy on his back, straddling his chest, and … well, “beating the living crap out of him” seems to fit best. I watched, hand on bleeding nose, fascinated and maybe a little aroused. Hey, it was impressive, OK?
After a few minutes, Elle stopped hitting him. She must have sensed that he was out, and so she slowly stood up, kicked his knife further away, and turned back to me. “Are you OK?” she asked. Her voice was shaky, and she was a mess.
“Yeth,” I said, hand still clutching my nose. I just looked at her, not sure what else to say.
“You’re bleeding!” She said, rushing to me.
“Ith my nothe,” I said.
“Let me see,” and she gently took my hand away and dabbed at my nose with the corner of her designer T-shirt. I’d paid $70 for that shirt this that morning. It had rhinestones on it. “You’re OK,” she said. “I don’t think it’s broken.”
We heard a moan from the guy, and we both looked at him, startled. He didn’t move, just lay there, eyes shut, groaning.
“You beat the crap out of him,” I said.
She was quiet for a second, then, “Yeah.”
“He was trying to rob me,” I said.
Another pause. “Yeah.”
“He had a knife,” I said.
Pause. “Yeah.” Another pause, “Let’s search his pockets.”
She stooped down and started rifling through his clothes in a pretty odd parody of what he’d done to me just a few minutes earlier. After a few seconds she pulled away, a large wad of cash in her hand along with a couple of wallets.
“Busy guy,” I said.
Elle looked up at me, then laughed. And then I laughed, which hurt my nose and made me wince. And just like that she was up and on me, kissing me. Which also hurt.
By the time we got back to the hotel we had both laughed so hard we were on the verge of being sick. I nearly threw up twice. It may have been because some of the blood from my nose had run down into my throat. Gross, I know.
Back in our room we showered. Together. Which lasted a lot longer than my solo showers usually do, I’ll be honest. And then one thing led to another thing and, with breaks for drinks of iced water, another thing.
We lay there then, window open and the sounds of Paris echoing into the room. Light moved on the walks, laughter and the sound of loud French spiraled up from the streets below, and the smell of food, unidentifiable by my blurry American palate, curled into every corner of the room, reminding me that we had skipped dinner to go to Rue Ville.
Eventually, spent and in a state of lightly energetic calm and relaxation, we both stood on the balcony, sheet wrapped around us, pressed flesh to flesh as we looked over a grid of Parisian light.
“Charlie, what was it?” Elle asked after several long and quiet minutes.
And I knew I’d tell her this time.
But not yet.
“Not yet,” I said. “First, let’s get something to eat.”
We were sitting in a small café with a view of the Eiffel tower. How cliché is that?
I could live with cliché. I’d lived outside the normal flow of life for so long now, cliché seemed like a pretty good place to be. I ordered food for us, something that involved roasted duck and ravioli drenched in olive oil and basil. We had wine. We ate slowly and said nothing for the first few minutes.
“I was married,” I said. “Up until three years ago. And then …”
You know, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to tell her. It was that I had spent the past three years never so much as uttering a word about it. I hadn’t even changed the status on my Facebook page. I was still married, in the eyes of the Internetz.
“Charlie, look, I’m sorry. You don’t have to …”
“Well, she died. See? She died. It was hard.”
Elle was quiet for a moment, then, “I bet it was very hard.”
“It was very hard,” I said. And I felt it again, dammit. I hadn’t felt it in three years, and I hadn’t wanted to, and I had never wanted to again. Dammit.
“Charlie, you’re crying. I’m sorry! Please …” she reached out and touched my hand.
“And he died, too,” I said.
And she stopped. Her fingers were still there, lightly touching the backs of my hands, but they were lose. “He?”
“Tippet. Isn’t that a funny name? I called him Tip. She didn’t like that.”
“Tippet,” Elle said.
“My son. My little boy. Not even a year old.”
“You had a son? Your wife and son died?”
“Three years, two months, six days, four hours, and 36 minutes ago.” OK, I lied. I may have kept track of at least one time when I last saw someone, to the minute.
“Charlie, that’s … wow.” She pulled back then.
And it was over. That was it. She was gone. She walked out of my life forever, and who could blame her? I’m weird. I tour churches. I make my money from porn, sort of. I bleed all over her new shirt.
“Charlie, are you OK? Are you … are you going to be OK?”
I laughed. “Probably not, but at least I have Paris.”
She was quiet for a long time, and when the waiter came I ordered two cappuccinos. By the time they got there we’d been quite for a very, very long while.
And then Elle said, “She died here, didn’t she?”
I looked at her, then at the Eiffel tower. “Not here. Not in Paris. In France, yes. We were celebrating. The company had gone public, see? And my software made us a lot of money. And we decided to spend a few months traveling Europe. After a couple of weeks we were thinking we loved it. How about we just keep doing it? How fun would that be? We have the money. Tip can be homeschooled. We could get a nanny to travel with us, to teach him, to watch him while we go out. And we did all the touristy stuff, but the thing we loved … the thing she loved … was touring the churches. The old buildings. She loved it. Just loved it. I was always forgetting my hats.”
Elle stared at me for a moment. She sipped her cappuccino then set it down. She looked sad. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “I am too.”
“What do you have to be sorry about?”
I looked away, then looked back, and I smiled. “You snuck up on me. And I think you weren’t really expecting this either, right?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“I definitely wasn’t. But I love it, you know? I love how we met. I mean, how we met the second time. I love that you saw me in that church. I love that you stalked me. I love that you … well, I love that you’re such a good liar.”
She smiled. “Not so good.”
“Yeah, actually. Too good. I know that you didn’t actually intend to have feelings for me. You needed someone to need you.”
She looked me over, then nodded. “OK. Yes.”
“And that’s OK. Because I needed to need you. Cheesy, I know. But it’s true. For three years I’ve kept myself from thinking about this. I never went home. I got emails a couple of years ago to say they foreclosed on my house and sold it. I didn’t care. All that stuff, everything I’d owned and collected, and everything that she and I had bought together. It was all gone and I didn’t care. I had the churches.”
She watched, waited.
“That was enough for three years. And now it’s not. Now I can’t tell that lie anymore. I need new lies.”
“Is that what we are? A new lie?”
I thought about it. “Yes. But not in a bad way. A good lie. The kind of lie I want to live from now on, see? The lie that says I’m OK with what happened. They’re gone. I can’t accept it. But I can tell a story about it. I want to tell it with you.”
“We barely know each other,” she said. But I could tell she was just testing it out. It was another lie, but it wasn’t her best work. She didn’t believe it. She had to believe her lies before I could believe them.
I laughed, and she laughed, and then we kissed.
And the lights stretched on for miles, and the Eiffel Tower pointed to God, and the churches were dressed in shadows in the distance.
The bruising sticks around for a while, even if you can’t see it. Hidden under the flesh, the soreness lingers. It stays tender to the touch.
You really want to avoid getting punched in the face, but sometimes it’s inevitable. Sometimes you don’t get a choice in the matter. Sometimes it just happens, and the rest is you learning to deal with it until you heal. Or don’t heal. Maybe every bruise is with us for life, but we just get so used to it that we don’t notice anymore.
Elle and I got out of Paris, out of France. We went to a few more countries. We were run out of a few churches. We went to a few clubs, and watched the streets on our way home. We ate in cafés and drank in bars. We sang songs with people. We spent a lot of money.
I even updated my Facebook relationship status. That, my friends, is love.