Runner-up 2019 Travel Contest
© Copyright 2019 by Desiree Kendrick
I toss the guidebook into my luggage and squeeze my shoes into the corners of my case. Cosmetic bag zipped and unzipped for a final check. My body shivers. I lick my bottom lip, expecting to taste excitement. Apprehension is the flavour I recognize. I’m packed, yet, I’m not ready.
“Sweetie darling, where’s your postcards?” I ask. “I have to go soon.”
I tuck my itinerary into my purse. In eight years, I’ve never left both children for more than a weekend. Now, here I am jet setting to Paris with my sister. A solo trip planned without the kids. Umbilical cords severed.
“Ana?” I call. “Bring me your postcards.”
I won’t miss my flight. Time managed to allow a check-in with an hour to spare. Any concern about my limited French language skills eliminated. Grade twelve French will suffice. Our petite hotel is centrally located, perfect for sight-seeing. Yet, a band of sweat lines my forehead and tendrils curl around my neck. As a stay-at-home mother, leaving my eight-year-old daughter and four-year-old son in the care of their father gives me goosebumps. Will Ana get to school on time? Will he remember to pack her lunch? Trust and confidence isn’t making the trip with me. Self-doubt adds extra weight to my carry-on.
Ana skips into the room and extends her arm, offering a stack of coloured envelopes.
“When’s Nana coming over?” she asks.
“After Daddy drops me off, he’ll pick up Nana. Bring some colouring for the car ride.”
I slip the envelopes inside the suitcase pocket. Grunting, I heave the bag off the bed. I spritz my wrist with perfume then spray the air. Ana twirls, catching the mist on her body. Wheeling my suitcase, I head for the stairs. Thump, bump, thump.
“Now remember, Daddy’s in charge of you at night, and Nana’s the boss during the day. Ana, you keep an eye on Nick, help Nana out.”
We crowd into the foyer, as my husband grabs the bags and loads the car. Ana squeezes my waist tight, burying her nose in my sweater.
Nick darts out from the kitchen, Lego clutched in his hand. He gives me his version of a bear hug and Lego edges cut into my thighs. I kiss Ana’s curly mop and deposit a noisy kiss on Nick’s forehead. Wrapping my arms around both children, I close my eyes.
“Ah-chew woo!” Nick sneezes. “You smell like Mom!” he says, sniffing his sister.
I sigh. For ten days the ocean will separate us. Eleven nights spent under the same moon, without our nighttime routine. I promise to send them postcards.
“And, every day when I write in my journal, I’ll write you a special message.”
The usual wish you were here seems inadequate. I absorb their warmth, every hand touch and loving giggle imprinted on my memory.
“Okay, shoes on,” I say. “Daddy’s waiting.”
I shut the door behind us and double-check my passport and tickets are in my purse.
Dear petite enfants, we’ve arrived in Paris. Our hotel is as old as some of the artifacts I viewed at the Louvre Museum. The hotel elevator only fits one person. When I sit on the toilet I can stretch my legs and tap the door and also use one arm to touch the shower wall. Think phone booth size. Cozy. Outside the skies weep. But even drizzly Paris doesn’t prevent us from finding Angelina’s for a famous cup of hot chocolate. Imagine a chocolate bar melted in a cup. Scrumdelicious! Although that’s not a real word, so you can scold my spelling. I saw Quasimodo’s bell tower today. Notré Dame is beautiful, although the funny looking gargoyles on the building might scare Nick. Remind Daddy to give Nick his bath before bedtime. Sending kisses to you via the Concorde – Love Mom
Our first day in Paris, we weather the jet leg. We weave between open umbrellas and fashion savvy locals. I take note of all the scarves and decide I must buy one as a remembrance of chilly Paris. Raindrop stained shoes doesn’t dampen our enthusiasm. At day’s end my slumped body sinks into the scratchy French linen without argument. Closing my travel journal, I resist opening one of Ana’s envelopes. I’m pacing myself. Tomorrow, over a warm croissant and meat and cheese breakfast, I’ll devour her first postcard.
Dear Mom, I reminded Daddy to defrost the meatballs but he forgot so we had noodle soup for supper. Nick’s room is a disaster. Are you and Aunty Sophie having fun? Love Ana
I smile. My daughter has predicted a plausible scenario. No worries. Everyone likes noodle soup. Turning over her handmade postcard, I marvel at her sketch. She’s drawn herself with a swanlike neck, cascading red curls framing her head and she’s smiling. All is good. My husband may forget about the food items I’ve stored in the freezer but I’m confident he won’t let the kids starve.
Over breakfast, Sophie and I prepare for another day of exploring. The Musée Orsay is our destination. One bronze ballerina statue is lovely. Her lanky arms remind me of Ana. Degas, Monet and Renoir, are all friends here, hanging out together. I can’t believe I’m so close to the works of the great masters. One stretch of my arm and I could touch the paint but then I’d end up in a jail cell, smaller than my hotel room. Children wearing school uniforms sit cross-legged in front of famous paintings, sketching their own masterpieces. I envy their art lessons. French verbs skip through the hallways, the dialect as lively as the animated youngsters. I hope the brush strokes of Paris will colour my memories. I snap photos of landscapes, portraits and Madonna’s with child. Tonight I’ll write Ana and Nick another message in my journal. I must remember to print nicely, so Ana can practice her reading when I return home.
Dear les enfants, Sophie and I strolled by the Seine River, and then caught a boat for a moonlit cruise. One bridge is four-hundred-years old. There are over three-hundred sculpted heads carved into the architecture. Another bridge shows Russian influence, as it was a joint venture to show friendship with Russia. Nick, I hope you aren’t fighting with Ana. Be good. It’s custom to make a wish when you travel beneath another bridge, so I prayed you’re both taking care of Daddy and Nana.
I had a dish of l’canard tonight. The duck was very good. On the subway an accordion player and a violinist played Parisian music. Très bien. Then they asked for money. Our feet hurt from all the walking. But, one doesn’t complain in Paris. Even at night it comes alive. Domes and towers glitter. There’s a glow I can’t explain. I didn’t like taking the tunnel in the dark, especially when something scurried past. Sophie insisted it was a stray cat, although it was probably a fat rat. I miss you both. I’ve purchased a gift for each of you. You’ll have to be patient. Bonsoir mes enfants.
Retrieving the handmade postcard from another envelope, my knees bounce as I sit on the bed.
Dear Mom, I made my bed today but Nick stole my blanket to make his fort. Nana cooked us chicken but forgot to turn the oven off, so the house caught fire. We’re okay. The fireman gave us a ride in his truck to Nana’s house. We had ice cream in bed. Love Ana.
Fire! I laugh out loud, handing the postcard to Sophie.
“Oh, goodness, Sophie. Do you think my nervousness in leaving the kids is contagious? Is it possible our family has a worry gene imbedded in our DNA? She’s writing me about the worst case scenario.”
“At least Ana didn’t suggest Nick played with the stove buttons and is a budding arsonist,” she laughs.
Sophie hands me back the drawing. Orange and red flames sprout from the roof. An original masterpiece, as colourful as Van Gogh’s sunflowers, I muse. Shaking my head, I tuck the postcard into its envelope. Priceless.
“We better get a move on before the line-ups get too long,” suggests Sophie, slipping into her raincoat.
I nod. Two days before I read another postcard from Ana. I’m rationing the sentiments from home. Patience has taken the journey with me. For now, the Eiffel Tower awaits us.
“Check the guidebook,” Sophie instructs. “Let’s find a place within walking distance for lunch.”
Flipping pages, my finger scrolls down, stopping at a highlighted name in my guidebook. By the time we step into the doorway of our lunch spot, my hair is damp from the rain. One glance at my scraggly hair in the gilded mirror sends a chill down my spine. Rat tails. My eyes dart back and forth across the floor. The ornate gold and blue décor screams indulgence. I imagine ladies in Victorian dress and men in top hats gliding across the floor to the corner booth. The maître d’ ushers us to a table sandwiched between two others. There are no secret conversations over lunch. Dining patrons are within ear shot of each other. We devour a three course meal of escargots, lamb swimming in a cognac cream sauce, and a chocolate soufflé so rich I instinctively know my stomach is destined to rebel. We convince ourselves the prix fix meal is worth every euro. We count the steps towards home, having ignored the calorie count.
It takes a few seconds for our movement in the darkened hotel hallway to turn the passageway light on. I shake off my damp raincoat, kick off my shoes and slam the bathroom door. Sophie’s voice remains muffled but I assume she’s asking if I’m okay. Minutes later I stand in the bathroom doorway.
“I can’t believe I just threw up that expensive meal!” I gripe, bracing my hands on the bathroom walls.
Sophie lies on the bed and stares at the ceiling, breathing deeply.
“Let’s take an afternoon nap,” she moans, clutching her belly. “Maybe it won’t be raining this evening.”
I spritz myself with perfume before depositing myself on the bed. I shut my eyes. It’s rare I ever take a nap. Usually when Nick has an afternoon sleep I rush around the house picking up toys or attending to other household tasks. My mind drifts to their time zone. As sleep drags me to dreamland, I imagine what the kids are doing at this time of day. Their high pitched voices play me a lullaby. I sniff my wrist, remembering the last time I hugged Ana.
Dear Mom, Nana let us stay up to watch the news with her. She fell asleep first. I rescued her glasses so they wouldn’t break if Nick rolled over. Oh and Daddy brought us Happy Meals for supper. Nick already broke his toy so I gave him mine. Have you visited Madeline’s school yet? Wish you were here. Love Ana.
I stare at the angled printing. My lashes blink repeatedly. I have not visited a convent school like Ana’s storybook character. Although, when I observed the school kids drawing in the museum it was Ana and Nick’s giddy laughter I heard.
Today we enjoy the carvings of The Arc de Triomphe before heading to The Paris Opera House. Italian murals decorate the ceiling. The building is a work of art. It’s a good thing the architect had fifteen years to complete the intricate design. There is no canal ride beneath the Opera House and yet I imagine the Phantom floating beneath the stage and hiding behind his mask. Playing hide and seek in such a venue would be spectacular. Nick would love it.
Dinner is French cuisine at its very best. Every melt-in-your-mouth forkful is memorable, but not the same memorable as our decadent lunch. When I run my hand over the velvet chair cushion, my mind wanders to caressing Ana’s mop of curls. Returning to the hotel we pass bakery after bakery. The macaroon pastries displayed in shop windows transport me back to the time when Nick snuck downstairs before anyone else woke up.
“I wanted to watch cartoons,” he’d said, denying scaling the counter and wolfing down cookies for breakfast.
Even Inspector Clouseau would find his chocolate smudged lips incriminating.
On the evening before our flight home, I stuff dirty laundry into bags and put the gifts for the kids in my hand luggage. I stash my few souvenirs between soiled clothing. Inside my carry-on are the envelopes from Ana. Keepsakes. When the Customs official asks if I have anything to declare, I shake my head. Paris postcards protected. Loving stories hoarded.
The photo album has yellowed over the years. In the closet, the frayed hem of my Parisian scarf shows its age. At the bottom of the old toy chest, you can find the plastic knight toys I bought Nick. The Madeline puppet I purchased for Ana is long lost. However, the hand-drawn postcards Ana made for me are securely stored between the pages of my travel journal.
No matter where the next destination takes us, the sentiments remain the same – wish you were here.