1 | Reason #3
There are three reasons
(more or less) why you might want to avoid being punched in the face.
Yes, there is the usual discomfort. Bruising around
the ocular socket. Swelling, and possible splitting of the flesh. That quick,
stomach-clenching whiplash snap of
the head that turns your neck into so much strained and sore spaghetti, which makes
you feel like your brain just ricocheted off of at least two sides of your skull.
We’ll lump these under “Reason #1.”
The second reason has to do with pride. Humility,
actually. Do you take the punch, shrug it off like you might have deserved it?
Maybe. That’s a cool way to handle
being punched in the face, no doubt. Or do you become outraged in a classic
‘50s “How DARE you!?!” mode—face red (and bruising), fists clenched, shaking all
over with righteous rage? This is a tricky decision. It will influence
everything that happens after. It should be carefully weighed. It is “Reason #2.”
But the third reason is maybe the one that matters
most. It’s a simple fact. It’s all about causes. At the root of this punch, at
its origin, at the Big Bang preceding this big bang, there is a series of
events that brought you to this point in time—that connects you to this
connection. At its heart, it’s the core question of existence. The “What
brought us here?” question.
It boils down to this: “Reason #3” means you’re in
I would very much have liked paying heed to Reason #3
before this all began. The punch to the face I could handle. Hurt? Yes. Pride
bruised? Sure. I hadn’t quite decided yet whether I was going to shrug it off
or shake with rage, but either way I felt like a heel. Trouble? I was in it.
Loads of it. Loads and loads.
It started three days ago.
“Charlie? Charlie Dustin?”
I hadn’t made up my mind yet whether that was really
my name I’d just heard or whether it might be a coincidence. I’d been
traveling, see. It felt like centuries. But really, I’d been out and about,
away from home and country, for about three years now. I was here now, in
Strasbourg, France, in the middle of a freak storm that had brought the first
snow in maybe 15 years. And it was a good one. Crisp and wet. Solid. I could
feel it in my boxer shorts. I’d only brought a couple of sweaters and a coat on
this impromptu jaunt near the French-German border, and it never occurred to me
that I might need thermal underwear. I really did.
“Is that really you?” the girl asked, leaning in a
“Umm … Michelle?” It was the name that came to mind.
And now we wait. Will I be right? Have I offended her? I’ve always been bad
with names, ‘So sorry about that! Really, I do remember you now … honest! I
“Yeah! Well, Elle.
I go by Elle these days.”
“E-L-L-E. As in Michelle. I know, kind of dumb. It’s something my friends started
calling me in college. There was another Michelle. She won the name.”
Elle was smiling, which is the universal sign for
being OK with things. I smiled too. “Elle,” I said. Smiling. “Hi. I think we
haven’t seen each other since … high school, right?”
“Right! That’s been, what, six years?”
Six years, five months, eighteen days, thirty-seven
No, not really. I couldn’t possibly have kept track of
the exact last time I saw someone, down to the minute. I’m just kidding.
“Something like that, I think.” Smiling. “What are you
doing in Strasbourg?”
She beamed then. “Isn’t it beautiful here? I’m on
vacation. My folks paid for the trip. Sort of a graduation present. I just left
“Grad school! Nice. Medicine?”
She shook her head, sipping from a paper cup of coffee
I had only just noticed she was carrying. Starbucks. The world was infested
with them. The good kind of infestation. Is that possible? I feel like there
should be a good kind of infestation.
“Chemical Engineering. A little boring, I know.”
“No!” I said. And I meant it. I was interested in
chemistry. At least in that nerdy, geeky, “I love science” kind of way. In a “I read books about chemistry for fun”
kind of way. In a “I’m that guy” kind
of way. “LNG?”
“How’d you guess?”
“Houston,” I said, pointing at her UH sweatshirt. The
Cougar was growling, fierce and ready to attack. Charlie beware.
She looked down, then smiled. “Yeah. Undergrad at UH,
then grad school at the Colorado School of Mines.”
“That’s quite a commute,” I said.
She laughed. “Yeah. It’s where my dad went. I felt
obligated. Plus, it’s a great school.” This last she said with an “I dare you
to disagree” tone, and a little sideways look that I found intriguing.
“Of course,” I smiled. “One of the best.”
“What about you?”
“Me? Oh, I didn’t go to college.” This was usually a showstopper.
“No? Invented something that made you rich, I take
I blinked. “Uh, something like that. How did you …”
“Pretty expensive coat. And you’re sitting in a café
in Strasbourg in the middle of a workday, alone. Plus, you don’t have that
weary look of a tourist. No sweatshirt.” She said this as she gestured at the
Cougar on her chest with her coffee cup.
I finally realized she’d been standing this whole
time. “Sit down! Sorry. I forget that other people are people,” I said,
smiling, covering, hoping I hadn’t just made an ass-hat of myself.
“Thanks!” she said, and plopped down. “I hung up my
coat nearby, just in case I’d be able to convince you to let me have a seat.”
“So this was all part of a nefarious plot to find a
chair in a crowded café?”
She rubbed her hands together. “Mwa-ha-ha.”
I smiled and lifted my cup of espresso. “Very good,
Ms. Elle. You have bested me despite my immense training.”
“Which is in what, exactly?” Elle said.
The waiter, who must have been hovering nearby waiting
for just this circumstance to occur, interrupted to take Elle’s order. She
asked for soup. And water.
“Please add her to my tab, and could you bring some Carpaccio?”
The waiter nodded and moved away.
isn’t that raw beef?”
“Er … yeah. Sorry. I figured …”
“I ordered soup and water, so I must be broke? And
your idea was to order me a plate of raw beef?”
“It’s kind of a delicacy,” I said, sheepishly.
She gave me a stern look for a second, then smiled so
wide it nearly made the wool cap fall off of her head. It was a strangely
familiar-looking cap, actually. “So I’ve heard,” she said. “Can’t wait to try
it. So … what’s a small town boy like you doing in a foreign country like
Hours. Maybe four. Maybe
just a couple. Honestly,
I lost track. But it was good. Elle moved seamlessly from soup to Carpaccio (in small samples) to a more-her-speed
sandwich to a real espresso served in a proper mug, allowing the waiter to
carry away the paper Starbucks cup, holding it like it was a stool sample. I
had a bit of Carpaccio myself, and
another espresso. We got the customary disapproving look from our French
waiter, reserved for Americans who order Italian coffees in the middle of the
day. I get it a lot.
“So you still haven’t told me.”
“I know,” I said.
“I’ve asked like five subtle times.”
“I know,” I said.
“And it’s porn, isn’t it?”
I laughed—loud and sharp—earning us a few looks from
around the café, which had gone strangely quiet at just the right moment. As
cafés do. “Not quite. I mean no, not at all. I mean, yes, I suppose it could
have something to do with porn.”
She arched an eyebrow.
“I created a piece of software. It’s for backing up
servers. I sold it, and kept a percentage of ownership, and the company that
bought it went public. So now I get a royalty. It’s pretty expensive software,
with the contracts and service agreements and such.”
I shrugged. “They own more servers than anyone. They
have more data to back up.”
She laughed at this, and I smiled, feeling strangely
“Well, that answer took long enough. Why?”
I shrugged again. “It’s boring. I don’t like boring.”
“Says the man sitting in a café, by himself, in a
foreign city a thousand miles from home.”
“Nothing boring about that. If you’re me.”
“You do something,
though,” she said. It was a statement. Fact. She knew.
Or sort of knew. “Yes. I do something. Everybody has
to have something to keep them busy.”
“And what’s your something?”
I hesitated, and she noticed. “Come on! It can’t be
worse than porn!”
I laughed. “OK. Yeah, OK. I … well, I have a little
pet project. It’s kind of geeky.”
I looked around, as if someone might pop up to rescue
me. Then I gave up. Because how often do you run into a cute girl you went to
high school with and sit with for four hours-ish drinking espressos in a café
in Strasbourg, France? Once. If you’re me.
Elle leaned back. “Wait, what now?”
“Well, not just churches. Old buildings. With really
interesting features. It just happens that churches tend to be among the oldest
and most interesting.”
“So … what do you actually do in the churches? You just tour them?”
“To start. But I also take pictures of them.”
“So you’re a photographer?”
“Amateur only. I just use a little point-and-shoot.
She blinked, sort of half-smiling.
“And I collect pamphlets, if they have them.”
I took one out of my pocket. It was for the Cathedral de Notre-Dame. A big attraction
She took the pamphlet and looked through it. “I saw
this yesterday,” she said. “It’s beautiful. But …”
“But boring,” I said.
She laughed. “OK. Yeah, if all you’re doing to pass
your time is looking at old buildings and collecting pamphlets, that’s kind of
I smiled. “Yeah, I guess it is. I just …” And there it
was. I’d managed to kind of forget it. Or ignore it. But it was there. Right
there. A punch in the face. The metaphorical kind, not the real kind. Just a
moment, an instant, and I was right
back … there.
“What? What is it?” Elle asked.
I waved to the waiter, who had apparently been eager
to close us out and rush us out the door because he was on us before I’d even
managed to get my wallet out of my coat pocket. I paid him in cash, about twice
what the meal cost. “Hey, I’m glad we ran into each other,” I said. I stood.
“Charlie, what’s up? What happened?”
I took my coat from where it was hanging, a hook on a
pole next to our table. It felt heavy. It always felt heavy.
“Places to see,” I said. Smiling. No, not really. Yes,
it was technically a smile. Probably
looked pretty bad.
“Have a great vacation!”
And then I was out in the street, in the snow, in the
Damn, why hadn’t I brought long underwear?
That’s how far I made it before she caught up with me.
She was bundled up in a red wool coat, and a striped scarf was tied around her
neck. Her wool cap was pulled a little lower. None of it matched.
She was pissed.
“What the hell,
“Elle, look, I just have somewhere to be.”
“Right. So do I.”
“You can’t go where I’m going.”
“Because I don’t know where I’m going.”
Now I was starting to get a little mad myself. Which
is always a bad sign. Because anger is the mind killer. I know, it’s supposed
to be fear, and maybe that’s the mind killer, too. But when I get mad I get
stupid. It’s just a fact of Charlie Dustin. So I’ve learned to take a breath
and CALM THE HELL DOWN before I speak. It’s a survival tactic.
“Something bad happened to you,” Elle said. “I get
that. And you know, it’s none of my business. I get that, too. But … well … I
So now I stopped. Flakes of snow were drifting down on
us, clinging to the fibers of our clothes. I had a hat, didn’t I? Used to. Must
have left it somewhere. I do that. I own a lot of hats. They’re decorating
various churches and old buildings and cafés all over the world.
Must remember long underwear.
“What did you lie about?”
“I didn’t finish grad school,” she said.
I blinked. “OK. And …”
“I mean, I wasn’t totally lying. I said I left grad
school, and I was going to let you just believe I’d graduated. And my parents
didn’t really send me here. I sort of … cashed their tuition check and bought a
ticket. I flew here on my own. I’m staying in the cheapest hotel I can find.
Was. Was staying in the cheapest
hotel I could find. Right now I’m actually sort of … between hotels.”
“And a little chilly. Can we go into another café,
maybe? Or anywhere?”
We were standing in front of a music store that seemed
to double as a comic book store, and possibly a post office as well. I couldn’t
really tell from the signs. I never learned French. I was stuck on English.
Kind of a shame, I know, but I’m lazy sometimes. Also, I’m American. We have a
“Here,” I said, opening the door to the shop and
letting her go in front of me.
Inside we warmed up quick. Too quick. It was a furnace
in there, and all I wanted was to go back out into the snow. Instead, I bought
a hat and a couple of hot chocolates. The cool kind, where they give you
steamed milk and you swish around a stick covered in chocolate until it melts
into deliciousness. Apparently this place also doubled as a hot chocolate shop.
“What happened to you, Charlie? What was so bad that
you started running from it?”
“Don’t you think we should talk about you being a
thousand miles from home with no place to sleep?”
She half smiled. “I’m a cute American girl. I won’t
have trouble finding a place to sleep.”
Charlie. To be honest, I thought the money would hold out longer. And I thought
my credit card limit was higher. So, yeah, I’m a little worried about that.”
“I’ll pay for a room for you,” I said.
She smiled. “I kind of hoped you would,” she said.
“You knew I
would.” And surprisingly, I wasn’t bitter about it. I kind of thought I might
be bitter about someone taking advantage of me.
“No, I didn’t actually. I kind of thought you might
get pissed and leave me sitting in a café to fend for myself.”
“I did,” I said.
“You left because you remembered something you’ve been
trying to forget. And I followed you because I want to know what it is, and see
if I can help.”
“And you needed a place to sleep.”
I looked at her. Cougar’s sweatshirt. Wool cap that
looked a little too worn in. Coat that looked …
“You stole that coat,” I said.
She arched an eyebrow. “I … may have borrowed this coat.”
“From someone at the café?”
I thought about this for a while. I looked around the
record/comic book/hot chocolate shop/post office. “Well then,” I said. “Let’s
get out of here. You’re going to need some clothes, and I think X-men T-shirts may not be your style.”