How could I forgive him? How could I ever forgive him...
"Forgiveness is a gift," a therapist I saw for a few sessions had said, "both to the receiver and to yourself. But no one can give a gift when she's not ready to."
I close my eyes for a moment, then open them, resolute. I am not ready now, and I doubt that I will ever be. I pedal on, faster, determined. The pain of the past suddenly comes into sharp and bitter focus. It stings, like a slice of lemon pressed to a wound.
I wipe away another tear as a truck barrels toward me out of nowhere. Adrenaline surges in the way it does when you're zoning out while driving and then narrowly miss swerving into an oncoming car, or a light post, or a man walking his dog. I veer my bicycle to the right, careful to avoid a mother and her young daughter walking toward me on my left. The little girl looks no older than two. My heart swells. The sun is bright, blindingly so, and it filters through her sandy blond hair.
I squint, attempting to navigate the narrow road ahead, my heart beating faster by the second. The driver of the truck doesn't seem to see me. "Stop!" I cry. '"Arrêtez!"'
I clench the handlebars, engaging the brakes, but somehow they give out. The street is steep and narrow, too narrow, and I am now barreling down a hillside with increasing speed. The driver of the truck is fiddling with a cigarette, turning it this way and that, simultaneously swerving the truck across the cobblestone streets. I scream again, but he doesn't seem to hear. Panic washes over me, thick and overpowering. I have two choices: turn left and crash my bike straight into the mother and her little girl, or turn right and collide directly into the truck.
I turn right.
SEPTEMBER 4, 1943
"Autumn's coming," Papa says, casting his gaze out the window of our little flower shop on the rue Cler. Despite the blue sky overhead, there are storm clouds in his eyes.
"Oh, Papa," I say through the open door, straightening my apron before sweeping a few stray rose petals off the cobblestones in front of the shop. I always feel bad for fallen petals, as silly as that sounds. They're like little lost ducklings separated from their mama. "It's only the beginning of September, my oh-so-very-pessimistic papa." I smile facetiously. "It's been the most beautiful summer; can't we just enjoy it while it lasts?"
"Beautiful?" Papa throws his arms in the air in the dramatic fashion that all Frenchmen over the age of sixty do so well. I've often thought that there's probably an old French law stating that if you're an older male, you have the irrevocable right to be grumpy, cantankerous, and otherwise disagreeable at the time and place of your choosing. Papa certainly exercises this right, and yet I love him all the more for it. Grumpy or not, he still has the biggest heart of any Frenchman I've ever known. "Our city is occupied by Nazi soldiers and you call this summer...beautiful?" He shakes his head, returning to an elaborate arrangement he's been fussing over all day for Madame Jeanty, one of our more exacting clients. A local tastemaker, and owner of one of the most fashionable restaurants in town, Bistro Jeanty, she funnels many clients to us, namely, new admissions into the high-society circle who want their dining room tables to look as grand as hers. As such, Papa and I know we can't risk losing her business, and her demands must always be heeded, no matter how ridiculous, or how late (or early) the hour. Never too much greenery, but then never too little, either. Only roses that have been snipped that morning. Never peonies, only ranunculus. And for the love of all that is holy, no ferns. Not even a hint of them. I made that mistake in an arrangement three years ago, and let's just say it will never happen again.
It's funny how different a child can be from a parent. Her son, Luc, for instance, is nothing like her. We've known each other since secondary school, and I've always thought the world of him. We have dinner together each week at Bistro Jeanty, and I've valued our friendship, especially during this godforsaken occupation. Luc and I might have been sweethearts under different circumstances. If the world weren't at war, if our lives had taken different paths. I've thought about it many times, of course, and I know he has too. The Book of Us remains a complicated story, and neither of us, it seems, knows the ending.