James and LulaBell transported me to the bus station so I could hop the bus to the airport. I thanked them and we gave each other huge hugs. I watched their truck pull away and meandered into the station. Between the second and third stops I had a six hour gap between busses so I explored. I found a salon within a few blocks of the station and resolved to get my hair done. The name Justine Holmes demanded class, which I had little of in my present condition. The experience was new and exhilarating. As a child my mom took household scissors when my hair grew out of control. The beautician had deep scarlet lopsided hair; it hung longer on the left side of her face than the right. I wanted something more conservative, so I asked for blond highlights throughout the top, and underneath kept my natural chocolate. She trimmed several inches off the back, shaping it with long layers. She then styled it and handed me a vanity mirror. I no longer looked like homely, abandoned, and poor distraught Cleo, but Justine. To top off my new look I bought both a pedicure and manicure. My feet and hands were in gnarly shape. I sat in a massage chair with my feet in a tub of warm bubbling water. The mechanical fingers of the chair wrenched the kinks in my back giving me both pleasure and pain. When she finished my feet she rushed me to a seat and dipped my fingers in warm water then clipped away my dead skin. I went with the more expensive gel polish, hoping it would last longer, and a French manicure. By the time she finished my toenails and fingernails were so eye-catching they looked as though they belonged to someone else. I looked in the mirror and saw a gorgeous young woman. For the first time in days, since Einstein’s death, joy overcame me. My physical makeover complete, I returned to the bus station and continued my journey to the airport. On the ride, I concluded my style of clothing needed a makeover too. I wore faded jeans, a T-shirt, and a heavy blue hoodie, hardly Justine glamor material. I needed dresses, skirts and fashionable sandals and boots. At the airport I purchased my one way ticket, which consisted of two stops - New York and Moscow, Russia - spending a grand total of thirty three hours in flight. I had nothing but time, so I shopped, buying a couple elegant outfits before boarding. The airport wasn’t any more confusing than the bus or train stations, although the security procedure was ridiculous and demeaning. I checked my bag and carried just my backpack, which I stuffed into a new, classier purse. I hadn’t flown in a plane and my stomach fluttered with anxiety. My mind envisioned an entire scenario: an unforeseen object crashing into us, causing a huge gap of twisted metal beneath our feet to open. It swallowed us and created a mass commotion among the passengers. People screamed and held onto seats or other objects to keep from being sucked into the oblivion and plummeting through the Earth’s thick atmosphere to their deaths. I positioned my purse between my feet after takeoff, with a strap around my ankle in case my scenario rang true. When I plummeted to my death my pack was going with me, which I know, sounds silly, but my entire life, including important memories, were inside it. The airline offered a meal, but it tasted disgusting, nothing like my cooking. For the price of a ticket, they should serve gourmet food. I lost my appetite. They showed a movie, but headphones cost four dollars. I took a headphone set when the man in the seat ahead of me sidetracked the flight attendant. The movie stunk, and I stuffed the headphones into the pocket sewn into the seat in front of me. Tendrils of warm fluid continued to rise and fall behind my eyes as memories of Einstein burned deep inside me. I refocused myself and people watched. The man across from me ordered and drank seven tiny bottles of Chardonnay. A family sat kitty corner to my seat. The two older hellions bounced in their seats and down the aisles while the younger child sat quiet. The parents tried to scold the older two children, and they grew calmer, but then acted up when an opportunity arose. I sat next to a man who slept, snoring louder than the jet engine. His head, followed by his body, continued to slump onto me. I pushed him away from me, within minutes, he slumped back on me. A stocky woman barreled herself through the aisle and disappeared into the restroom just behind my seat. When she reappeared ten minutes later, so did a putrid odor, which nearly caused me to pass out. I forced my shirt over my mouth and nose, curling my face into my knees to suck in the fresh scent of my clothing. Another person a couple rows in front of me kept talking on his phone and fiddling with his computer. Curious, I took a stroll to the restroom in front and attempted to sneak a quick glance. His coal eyes caught my look-see, and he closed the lid of his computer. Another passenger, his eyes shaking and bouncing, kept staring over his shoulder in my direction. I nicknamed him Mr. Dancy Eyes. My instincts or sixth sense kept me away from him. When the plane finally landed in Moscow, I was happy. I got off and stretched my legs even though I still had one more short flight. I walked the entire airport during my layover stretching my cramped legs. My new identity and age made it possible for me to buy alcoholic beverages. A tall, thin man with a distinct case of male pattern baldness creeping across his head sat next to me at the bar, and asked, “Is this seat taken?” “No.” “A beautiful lady like you traveling alone?” My sixth sense told me to lie. “Yes, I’m meeting my fiancé in France.” His lips curled into a thin smile. “What a coincidence. I’m headed to Paris too. We have a couple hours, would you like another?” “Thank you. So what takes you to France?” “We need to properly introduce ourselves. I’m Joe, and you are?” He took my hand and placed a kiss on it. “Justine. Nice to meet you, Joe.” I responded, regaining control of my hand. “Well, Justine, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I have business in Paris.” From the corner of my eye, I spotted Mr. Dancy Eyes from the plane, was it possible he was on his way to Paris too? I ignored his bouncing eyes which glared into my bare, broken hearted soul and continued my conversation with Joe accepting his drink offer. I drank slow and cautious, not wanting to get belligerent before boarding my last flight. It so happened Mr. Dancy Eyes was on my next flight too.
In Paris, I stepped into the fresh air and inhaled filling my lungs. Taxis and busses lined the roadways to carry people to their destinations. Without thought I boarded a bus headed towards a hotel, first checking to see if Mr. Dancy Eyes was around, I didn’t see him. The bus dropped me off in front of a posh hotel, but I snuck off, not wanting a room yet. My legs needed to move after being scrunched in an airplane seat for several hours, and my belly rumbled from hunger. I walked around Paris and took in the sights. The sun disappeared and evening settled upon the city. Paris was different to American cities I’d seen. The buildings and structures alluded they were older than time and added a mystical appeal to the city. Fewer cars littered the roads, many people walked, or rode bikes. The city was compact, opposite of American cities. I walked a few miles and stopped at a deli with outdoor seating. I opted to eat beneath the stars. Unable to read French, the waiter translated for me. My stomach betrayed my mind, I ate half the flatbread melt. Einstein lingered in my thoughts and his caress as we first snuggled in the warehouse together. His arms holding me tight… pushing me out of the way, then his blank stare into my water filled eyes. I stood up, tears in the corners of my eyes, and threw money at the table as if it would catch the bills. I needed a quiet place to gather my thoughts and collect myself. Not a cheap motel or abandoned building, but something grand like the hotel I first napped in after I left the shack. The name Justine commanded luxury beyond my wildest fantasies. Aimlessly, I ran smack into an extravagant, towering fairy tale palace hotel. Inside, glass chandeliers patched across the ceiling, and marble floors smoothed a path in front of me. Spinning in marvel, then floating in a slumber-like state I glided towards the counter. With a thick French accent the front desk man, his nametag read Jean, asked, “May I help you?” “Yes, I need a room.” “Do you have a reservation?” “A what?” I asked. His eyebrows turned inward. “Reservation for a room. You must have one for us to place you.” My mind exploded. How stupid! I didn’t understand reservations existed. I turned on my heels and walked towards the door without saying a word. My ego deflated while bits and pieces of life with Einstein flashed through my head. From behind me a hand reached out and cradled my hand. A young man with light brown hair and deep brown velvety eyes stood opposite me. I met his eyes and peace washed through my soul. He explained a room was available and apologized for any inconvenience from the staff. He took my bags and helped me through the check-in process, then escorted me to a room on the fourth floor. My eyes grew three sizes as I took in the room. The entire city twinkled in front of me through the opened curtains. Creams, gold, and shades of red completed the décor. He pointed towards the mini bar. “Please help yourself free of charge, it’s stocked.” He walked to a cabinet and opened it revealing a TV. “If you need anything ask for me, Didier. I will make sure you are taken care of.” He spoke American well, but the words rolled off his tongue with an alluring French accent. Stunned, I searched to find the words, tears pooling in the corners of my eyes. “Thank you.” I mustered in a near whisper. After he left, I checked out the rest of the room. In the bathroom a basket filled with designer lotions, bubble baths, soaps, shampoos, conditioners, and deodorants sat on the marble counter. Towels wearing the hotel emblem hung in tidy triangles from a golden bar. I squeezed my hand around a towel, its softness and thickness squished between my fingers. The stocked mini bar contained liquors, wines and snacks. Juices, sodas, various foods, and several types of cheese lined the shelves of the refrigerator. I plopped on the bed. My butt sunk into the fluffy mattress and I feared I might disappear into it. I sprawled on the bed, spread my arms and legs like a snow angel and stared at the ceiling. My mind and body focused on my lost love. He would have liked this place. I took out a picture of him and ran my finger across it as if I could touch him. Then I pulled a pillow to my face and cried into its creamy softness. Tears flowed for my lost friend, lover, and family member. I forced myself to get up and bee-lined to the mini bar, grabbed a few of the small bottles of wine, and ran a steaming hot bubble bath. The bubbles came just below my ears, and I sank into their effervescence as I drank and thought. I needed to know more about Einstein; where had he come from? Who was he? Who was Justine Holmes? That decision was mine. I needed to make an identity for her, bring her to life. My new life would be everything my other life hadn’t been, and I would live in the lap of luxury. After drinking the few small bottles of wine I grew happy and excited about my new life. I would put my past behind me. The only exception was finding more about my beloved Einstein. After the bath I wrapped myself in a creamy-soft towel and melted underneath it. I meandered over to the mini bar again and grabbed a bottle of clear liquor with a vanilla scent. I pulled off the top and swallowed the contents of the bottle. Ewww! I chocked and gagged involuntarily. My mouth and throat were on fire, and the heat sank to my stomach, which burned. The room spun around me, and I fell against something soft. I awoke with a pounding headache, reached for the absent covers, pried my eyes open, and attempted to focus. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a wooden table leg staring back at me, a strong hint I was lying on the plush carpet. My body didn’t want to move, so I lay there staring at the ceiling. I remembered where and who I was as my eyes acclimated to my surroundings. Through the curtains, the bright morning sun filled the sky. At the bar sat a small coffee pot, bags of coffee, and a plate of pastries. I had no memory of the pastries from the previous night. What time did I pass out? What time was it now? I reached in my bag, and pulled out Einstein’s wrist watch, it displayed seven fifteen, Friday morning. My plane arrived Wednesday evening, I settled in the room that night, now it was Friday? I remembered synching his watch to Paris time upon my arrival which meant I slept over twenty four hours. Never in my life… I let it go as caused by jet lag. I made a pot of coffee and devoured the delicious pastries while contemplating how best to find information on Einstein. By nine thirty I headed towards the lobby, showered, dressed, and with an idea. I asked the concierge for an international paper, assuming the global news was a good starting place for my research. The concierge, Jean the same man from Wednesday, presented a paper, which I accepted. I caught the elevator back up to my room; the ride was smooth and silent. I read and read but found nothing mentioning a hit and run in small town Alabama, maybe the hotel had guest computers. Einstein the computer whiz taught me how to surf the net. I journeyed back to the lobby and asked Jean. “Does the hotel have guest computers?” “Non.” He grabbed a crude map off a clear display rack and directed me to a café a few blocks from the hotel. In the café I searched the net, looking for recent deaths, hit and runs, murders, and accidental deaths. Nothing! I typed Alabama newspapers in the search bar. Bingo, there it was. Now I had a starting point! I looked through recent articles and found it. Young man hit by car… driver fled scene… mysterious 911 call… thought to be driver… young woman. I continued reading and searching, The young man identified as Burke Childrone… reported missing. His parents, owners of Childrone Publishing, flew into town to take his body… detectives worked around the clock. My mind spun. His name was Burke, and he came from a wealthy family. Why did he leave? Did he leave of his own accord? Why else would he leave? Answers, and new questions. I continued to search for missing persons. An investigation followed his disappearance. His parents hired detectives to find their son. At one point the police suspected his parents’ of foul play. No evidence against them surfaced, so the police took them off the suspect list. Einstein, or Burke, disappeared into thin air. He left for school in the morning and never returned home. The police and his family presumed him dead. I knew the truth. He blended into the streets filled with runaways. A French woman with stern eyes interrupted my research when she walked to my table and pointed towards the clock. My cue the café was closing, and I needed to leave. I gathered my notes and left. Evening settled, and a wave of brilliant lights moved across the city. As I strolled to the hotel an overwhelming sensation that someone was following me flooded my soul, and hunger pains gripped my stomach. I attempted to reason that my new knowledge clouded my judgement, but my sixth sense told me different. A café to my right offered a place to evaluate my surroundings, regroup, and eat. It wasn’t wise to continue my journey to the hotel with a spy following me. I took a seat outside and glanced over the menu, everything looked delicious. I ordered the special, a Parisian meat pie. It turned out to be tasty. As a homeless runaway I learned to live off the land, so to speak, meaning dumpsters, teaching me not to be picky. I scanned the surroundings and spied a man with a bald patch on top his head standing beneath a tree a few yards from me. Mr. Dancy Eyes? Was it the same man, or my imagination going wild? His eyes bounced like a dime machine ball and he refused to look directly at me. Would someone follow me here to arrest me for my crimes? Could they arrest me on foreign soil? I didn’t know the answer to any of my questions and didn’t think it a coincidence he stood within eyeshot of me. Soon as I finished my meal I threw money on the table and left.
I walked and walked ducking through alleys and shops attempting to confuse and lose him. When I no longer felt the sting of his bouncing eyes on my back I headed to the hotel. I spent so much mental energy evading him I’d gotten lost then I remembered the crude map Jean gave me; I unfolded it, checked street signs, and plotted the course. When I reached the hotel I wound my way up to my room, dropped on my bed and thought of my discoveries. Ring! Ring! The phone blasted and my body jumped in an involuntary lurch, falling off the bed. I scrambled to my feet, and picked up the phone, as if it would blow up in my hands. “Hello?” “Miss Holmes, this is Didier. How is your stay?” His French accent melted the words off his tongue, and my anxiety disappeared. “I’m great, and yes, all my needs are met.” “If there is anything more I can do to make your stay unforgettable, don’t hesitate to ask.” Is it customary for hotel owners to call their guests? “Thank you.” I placed the phone on the receiver. Within minutes of hanging up the phone a knock rattled the door. Room service? I hadn’t placed an order. I grabbed a doll sized statue seated on a table, in case Mr. Dancy Eyes stood on the other side, and opened the door. To my thankful surprise it wasn’t Mr. Dancy Eyes, but a bottle of complimentary wine and a bouquet. The delivery boys’ eyes scanned the statue in my hands, and he pushed the gifts toward me as if to block my blow. With a sheepish grin I set the statue back on the table and took the vase and wine. A card on a stick hidden amongst the flowers read Invitation. I opened it and read, Join me at the restaurant downstairs for dinner under the stars tomorrow, Didier with a yes and no box underneath the print. The boy handed me a pen. I marked the yes box and gave it to him. After all, now I was glamorous Justine, and lived an exquisite life. He nodded as he caught it by the corner then scurried to the elevator. I spent the following day shopping for glamorous Justine clothing and date material – sexy and beguiling. Stylish clothing stores littered Paris, which oddly gave me a hidden sense of security while shopping for dresses and designer shoes. My lesson for the day was understanding the difference between designer names and knock-offs. The never-ending assortment of fashions included something for everyone’s taste. I bought an eye-catching green knock-off dress that my budget allowed. The front came down in a V across my chest displaying the round curves of my breasts beneath and the back fell in long, shallow layers. It was alluring and most definitely Justine. I met Didier at the hotel restaurant as the note instructed. We ate dinner while the wine flowed. Charm surged from every word Didier spoke. His dark brown hair fell below his ears with thick waves scattering across his head, green halos surrounded his coffee-colored eyes. I’m sure he had no shortage of women chasing him and wondered what he saw in me. I wanted to be in the present with him but my mind raced to the reason I was in Paris, Einstein. Memories of him swarmed through my mind. By contrast, his straight blond hair hung long with split ends frizzing the bottom from lack of a good haircut, most often he wore it tied back. Deep solid dark chocolate wide eyes sat the perfect distance from his nose, and his build tall and lean. Didier was at least three inches shorter with muscles exploding beneath his shirt sleeves, and a couple years older, my guess early twenties. After dinner we walked around Paris. Romance blossomed from every inch of the city blooming into vibrant flowers of passion. Didier told life stories, and I weaved a lie about growing up in Texas. I made up the life I wished I’d lived because it would be easier to remember such a lie. About Einstein I was honest without giving more details than necessary. “My boyfriend passed away, a car wreck. That’s why I’m here, it’s been difficult, and I needed to get away.” I dammed up the river waiting to gush behind my eyes. The sympathy in his voice gave away his genuine concern. “We’ll work on that. There is much to see here, and if you’ll allow me, I will show it all to you.” The breeze rustled the leaves on the surrounding trees creating music which sang to my ears – freedom and a fresh beginning. Over the next few days we spent a lot of time together sight-seeing. The Didier tour of Paris. He adored art and took me to the Musée Picasso and Musée d’Orsay. I admired the art and the hand that painted it, however, most of it didn’t make sense to me, although I didn’t express that to him. Instead, I encouraged him to teach me lessons about the art. He took me to the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, and we went to Les Catacombs, tunnels and tunnels of dead people, spooky. We went to Parc Floral, one of the most stunning sights I had seen in my entire life, color and sweet aromas exploded from every angle. French people celebrated death and life and admired art and fine wine. The longer I stayed the more in love with Paris I grew. Nothing appeared real leading to the pseudo-perception that Justine was untouchable melting into the atmosphere and mystery that shrouded Paris. After a week of wining and dining, Didier stole my breath away. He took me to a penthouse room in his hotel, blues and creams popped from the décor while silks and velvets covered the windows and furniture. The fluffy carpet squished beneath my feet, and the room was large enough it took up half the space on the top floor. Thin cream sheers held up at the corners with gold pins surrounded the bed. A massive entertainment system with items I didn’t understand what they were or how to work them sat to the right of the bed. In the center of the huge room two blue velvet chaise lounges faced the entertainment center with a small table tucked between them. A two burner stove, full size refrigerator, and breakfast bar completed the kitchenette. Long blue velvet curtains held up with gold rings covered the large picture windows puddling on the floor beneath them. A wrought iron chair was visible between the cracks in the curtains. I padded to the curtains and pushed them aside revealing a twin wrought iron chair and small round table. The terrace extended longer than the length of the room, overlapped the next room, a small gate separated the areas. The entire city twinkled before my eyes while my mouth dropped to my feet in awe. I opened the door and took a seat allowing myself to dissolve into the breathtaking view. A few weeks ago I couldn’t have imagined being in a room this elegant, much less dating it’s owner. From behind, Didier wrapped his arms around me, his mouth caressed my cheek kissing it softly, startling me. He zapped away my loneliness in that single moment, I no longer felt like a paper character in a fictional book. His gentle kisses danced across my neck, leaving a warm patch that sent tingles through my spine. I hoped this wonderful dream would last an eternity. “How do you like the room?” He asked in his silky voice. “It’s more beautiful than any room I’ve ever seen.” His mouth widened into a smile. “Good, this is your room to stay in as long as you are in Paris. You don’t need to worry about anything; it’s all taken care of.” The poetic way he said it played a melody in my ears. The dam now opened wide, and a river of tears streamed from my eyes. Could I live here in this luxury? I was nobody, a girl who came from a small shack with no hot water! I lived on the streets and ate trash! He knew none of this, just the tale I wove - the life of Justine, not Cleo, or my alter ego before Cleo. I stood up, turned towards Didier, wrapped my arms around his neck, perched on my tiptoes, and whispered, “Thank you” in his ear. I refused to turn away such luxurious living accommodations when I had no income, and from such an exhilarating man. He wiped the tears below my eyes. “Why do you cry?” “Your generosity.” He folded me into his arms and kissed my lips, his tongue playing tangle games with mine. Warmth radiated through my body and the word “love” came to mind.