Josie paused a few steps before the intersection and scanned the surrounding buildings, looking for a royal blue-tiled plaque with white lettering to tell her what street she was on. She found one.
Rue de la Chaise.
Josie’s brow furrowed. Was that the street she was looking for?
Sighing, she slid out of the stream of pedestrians and fished her map out of her bag. She unfolded it, accordion-like, and the streets of Paris appeared. Or rather, a jumble of little gray lines appeared, only the biggest of which were labeled. The Major Museums map she’d ripped out of the back of her France travel guidebook was far from exhaustive.
She put her finger on the black square that was her destination today. Musée D’Orsay. And the street that ran alongside it, the street she was looking for … Rue de Bellechase.
Josie’s stomach looped. Where was Rue de la Chaise then?
She grit her teeth. You’re okay. Just keep walking. She’d run across a major intersection eventually.
Which way, though? Josie looked left, right, searching for some clue to point her in the direction of the museum. But all she could see was block after block of the same impassive white-gray stone buildings dotted with lacy black balconies which Paris seemed to have in endless supply. She wasn’t even sure which direction she’d just come from.
If only Ryan were here.
She swallowed the lump that swelled in her throat, turned left, and started walking. She kept her map out this time.
After crossing two more streets that were not on her map, she came to a small green garden that sat at the crossroads of several large-looking streets. Her eyes jumped from building to building, looking for street names. The blue plaque above her read Boulevard Rapsail. Across from her, she spotted Rue de Babylon. She ran her finger over the map, searching. After a few gut-churning moments, she found both streets and figured out where she was.
Her elation deflated quickly. She’d walked in the wrong direction. Musée D’Orsay was far behind her now.
Her chest constricted. The anger-spiked fear she knew so well gripped her shoulders and her vision started to spin like an out-of-control kaleidoscope, light and colors fracturing. The berating thoughts began. Why did you think you could do this on your own?
Of course she’d get lost. She always did.
Josie shook her head. “I’m never going to be able to find this again.”
“Of course you will.” Ryan flashed her his sideways smile as he put the car in park.
“The streets are all twisty back here. It’s like a maze. I’ll get lost, never find the parking lot, and miss my class.” Panic edged into her voice, and her chest constricted.
“I can’t.” Josie gasped for air.
Ryan reached across and took her hand, his baritone voice warm soothing. “This is just a panic attack. You start them, you finish them. Breath through it.”
Josie gripped his hand. “I can’t do this.”
“Yes, you can,” said Ryan.
Josie struggled to get words out. “I can’t.” She gasped as the kaleidoscopic anger-fear spun faster. “I can’t face them.” She sucked in more air. “They’re going to be sitting there, expecting me to teach them. Who am I to teach them anything?”
Ryan put his arm around her knotted shoulders and pulled her closer. The sight of his brown curly hair, always windblown even when there was no wind, calmed her a bit.
“Who are you?” he said. “You’re the one whose last show opened to rave reviews.” He slipped into a formal voice. “‘Turner’s Blue Études series is immersive, evoking both water and sky simultaneously, capturing the depth and dimension of each in a way that hints at the eternal currents and eddies of life.’” He laughed, deep and rich, like mahogany. “If you can charm a bunch of art critics, you can charm a bunch of freshmen Studio Art majors. Who are they?”
Josie leaned against Ryan’s shoulder. The spinning slowed.
“Okay, Professor Josephine Turner. This is what you’re going to do. You’re going to walk around this fancy college building once with me. Then you’re going to walk though these big double doors. You’re going to climb the stairs to classroom 332. You’re going to open the door, stand tall behind that lectern, and tell those kids how to tell a Monet from a Manet …”
This is just a panic attack. You start them, you finish them.
Josie forced herself to straighten up and pulled air into her chest until the anger-fear let go of her body. No more anxious thoughts, she instructed herself. They just led to the downward spiral.
She took one more deep breath, cringing as a blast of diesel fumes hit her in the face, and flattened out her crumpled map. Okay. All she needed to do was turn around and follow Boulevard Rapsail to where it ended, at Boulevard St. Germain, turn right, and she’d be back on track. Easy.
The wide boulevard was busier than the side street, and Josie found some relief amidst the thronging crowd. If this many people were walking down this street, it must lead somewhere.
After a couple of blocks, the tension in her shoulders and neck lessened and her pinched eyes widened. Angular shafts of sunlight glinting off the white-gray stone of the buildings caught at the edges of her vision. Her mind’s eye began tracing the contours, sketching the contrasts, between illuminated whites and shadowed grays.
She tried layering the burgundy and beige patterns of nearby café chairs into the palette of grays. The carmine red of a passing woman’s scarf, the navy of a man’s blazer. The varied shades of pink petals and green stems poking out of a bucket at a flower stand. She tried to assemble it all into a vision, a swirl of life against impassive gray, tried to see herself mixing colors, feel the flick of short, rapid brushstrokes in her fingers, her wrist.
But she couldn’t.
Anger-fear churned. She trained her eyes on the ground again. No anxious thoughts.
She reached the end of the boulevard. Now what? Most of the crowd flowed left, up Boulevard St. Germain. But according to her map, Rue Bellechase should be to her right.
So she turned right, and found herself back on empty side streets nowhere to be found on her map. Within a few blocks, she was all turned around again. Her stomach looped, her chest and throat tightened. She clenched her teeth against the rising panic.
In desperation, she pulled out her phone.
“It’s so confusing. One minute it’s telling me to go left, in that calm, stupid voice. Then it’s telling me to go right.” Josie growled at her phone.
Ryan’s voice filtered through her phone’s speaker. “Well, it’s navigating for you. Telling you when and where to turn.”
Josie banged the steering wheel. “All it does is get me more lost. I’ve been driving around for an hour.”
“If the spoken directions are confusing, just follow the map.”
Josie groaned. “You know cardinal directions mean nothing to me. North, left, east, right. I have zero sense of direction. What if I make a wrong turn?”
“Don’t panic. You’ll figure it out eventually.”
“That’s easy for you to say.” Josie could hear the tears building up in her voice. “You always know where you are. When I get lost, I can’t fix it. I don’t know where I am. I can’t get myself unlost.” She wanted nothing more than to put her head on Ryan’s shoulder. Because that would mean she was home.
“Okay, okay. Next time you need to go somewhere new, I’ll write out the directions for you. Deal?”
Josie took a deep breath. “Deal.”
“Now, pull over at the next intersection, tell me where you are, and I’ll talk you home …”
Josie tapped on her phone’s navigation without much hope. So far, it had utterly failed her here. And it wasn’t all her fault this time. The American logic that built the program broke down in a city where streets bent and twisted and changed names three times. It couldn’t zero in on a single path. It kept recalculating, changing course. And that’s when she had a signal. In these tunnel-like streets of medieval stone, the signal often disappeared all together.
Like right now.
She thrust the phone back into her bag.
Half a block up, a woman stepped out of one of the stone buildings. Josie grit her teeth and walked up to her.
“Excuse me. English?”
“No, madame,” frowned the woman as she turned away.
“Musée D’Orsay?” Josie called after her, grimacing at the edge in her voice.
The woman half turned and uttered a string of French words that probably included directions—she gestured as she spoke—but Josie’s ears could make no sense of it. The woman walked away.
If only she spoke French. If only her phone had a signal so she could order an Uber. If only she’d figured out the Metro. But the idea of being lost under the city was even more terrifying. Should she try to hail a taxi? There was no traffic on this street.
Her chest tightened, her vision began to rotate. Josie forced herself to focus.
What would Ryan do?
Keep moving forward.
Easy for you to say. I can’t get myself unlost.
As her thoughts spiraled down, panic wrapped up around Josie’s stomach, squeezing the air out of her. How am I supposed to do this without Ryan? He’s the one with the unerring compass. He’s supposed to be here, navigating while she lost herself in the architecture, the colors, the light.
He’s supposed to be here.
“Do you know if Ryan had a life insurance policy?”
Josie glared at her father from across the vintage dining room table she’d carefully restored to its original honey-gold lustre as a birthday surprise for Ryan. “Look, it glows when the sun hits it,” he’d said, sideways smiling as he ran his hands over the wood. He loved light as much as she did.
“These are the things you need to figure out now,” said her father, quietly.
Josie turned away from her father and stared out the window.
“What do you know about his retirement accounts?” he pressed “Did he name you as beneficiary?”
Beneficiary. Accounts. Investments. Car loans, house loans. Josie did not speak that language.
She dropped her head between her arms. But she didn’t close her eyes. Because if she did, she’d see his yellow waxen face against the cream satin of the coffin. His eyes closed, his hands stiffly folded against his chest. His hair flat. All wrong.
“I’m sure he had all of that in order,” Josie’s father said into her silence. “Ryan was always good about taking care of everything.”
Ryan always took care of everything. That was their deal. Ryan charted their course. Josie colored it.
“And your anniversary trip, to Paris. You might be able to get a refund for the tickets, in this situation …”
“I’m going to Paris.”
They had a deal.
A wave of fury rocked Josie. She walked faster, turning right, left. Getting more lost, she knew, but she needed to stay ahead of the downward spiral.
Just relax, Ryan’s voice echoed. Talk yourself down. But her mind couldn’t find words, only images. Ryan’s windblown brown hair, his green eyes that shimmered gold in the right light. The last smile he’d given her, before a Chevy Suburban slammed into their Honda Civic.
No more images. She just wanted pure black. She slumped against a cold, stone building, chest heaving.
“Madame, ça va? Qu’est qui se passe?”
Josie jumped. A gray-haired man stood before her, his forehead furrowed. He repeated his unfamiliar words.
She shook her head and shrugged. “English?”
“No, no anglais.”
Josie dropped her hands to her knees.
The man stepped closer, alarm on his face. “Êtes-vous blessé, madame?”
Josie’s eyes stung. “I don’t speak the language,” she sputtered.
The man’s furrows deepened. “Ahh … hurt? You hurt?”
At least you didn’t get hurt in the crash. That’s what everyone kept telling her. Josie couldn’t understand their words. Every inch of her throbbed with a hurt she had no idea how to endure. A hurt that had erased the color from her life.
The man held out his hand, stopping short of touching her. “Doctor?”
Josie clenched her fists as she tried to get control of herself. She shook her head. “Lost. Just … lost.”
The man pointed to the map clutched in Josie’s hands. “Oú allez-vous?” He pointed again to the map.
Between gasps, Josie managed to say, “Musée D’Orsay.”
“Musée D’Orsay?” repeated the man. He brightened and gestured to his right, wanting Josie to follow him.
At the end of the narrow street, the man pointed left. “Musée D’Orsay.”
Josie looked left. Two blocks up, she saw a break in the tall gray buildings. Sunlight flooded the street there, glinting off the glass and metal edges of the old Beaux-Arts train station, now the Musée D’Orsay. She looked up at the blue-tiled plaque across from her. Rue de Bellechase.
She dragged her hand across her burning cheeks, embarrassed. All this stumbling around, and she was so close.
The man pointed again. “Le musée. This way. Ça va.”
Josie forced the words out of her mouth. “Merci, sir.”
The man waved and hurried off in the opposite direction.
Heart banging in her chest, Josie turned left onto Rue de Bellechase and put one tentative foot in front of the other. The sunlit glass and metal of the museum she’d yearned to wander for as long as she could remember drew closer. It houses the largest Impressionist collection in the world, she told her students, semester after semester. “All those serene landscapes look tame to us now, but at the time, the Impressionists were radicals. They turned away from the black canvases and dark colors of the Italian and French masters to find the light.”
Josie put a foot on the first concrete step that led up to the museum’s entrance, and froze. Inside hung the paintings of artists who reveled in the color and motion and beauty of everyday life. Monet’s landscapes, Renoir’s dancers, Pissarro’s clouds. The painters who had inspired Josie to find serenity in life’s light, long ago.
Her chest constricted.
What if I never find that light again?
Josie closed her eyes.
This is what you’re going to do, Josephine Turner.
She put her foot on the second concrete step.
You’re going to climb all these steps.
Third step. Fourth step.
You’re going to open that door.
Fifth. Sixth. Seventh.
You’re going to walk through those galleries.
You’re going to see the brushstrokes, the color, the light …
She reached the plaza and kept going. She walked up to the main entrance and, taking a deep breath, opened the door.
Well written and poignant. We can all related to being lost, and not just physically. Great job with the tension in this piece.
Erin Halden says
Thank you so much for reading, Cindy!
Virginia Reynolds aka Dorothy Justin says
Josie invoked a lot of feelings of frustration . I agree with Cindy, very well written.
I wanted to say ‘come on girl move your self’. Mind who am I to talk I don’t go any where.
I would love to go to France. How would I be like on my own and not speaking the language.
You never know.
Keep up the good writing Erin.
Erin Halden says
Thank you so much for reading, Virginia!
Beautiful! Poignant and close to home… sometimes anxiety does rule!!
Erin Halden says
Thank you so much for reading, Margaret!
Ohita Afeisume says
Reminds me about my first day out alone on the streets of Luanda, Angola where everyone spoke Portugue se
Erin Halden says
Thank you so much for reading, Ohita! Sounds like you have a good “Lost” story too! If you ever write about it, I’d love to read it!
Beautifully written on many levels! Vivid descriptions of surroundings and her emotional state is artfully described through Josie’s inner dialogue. The revelation of Ryan’s death was an unexpected surprise, which added yet another layer to her journey and anxiety. Great job on tension and building of plot! I could feel her frustration and fear! Love this story!
Erin Halden says
Thank you so much for reading, Cheryl! I’m glad you enjoyed the story…
Diane Saed says
Erin, This story is wonderful. It describes a panic attack perfectly and I loved the repetition of “You start them, you finish it. Breathe through it.” Perfectly paced. Anyone who has found themselves in a foreign country or with a panic attack can relate to this. The obvious connection between the two characters is portrayed as balanced and true. Such precision and economy of words! Love it! I can’t wait until your collection is published!
Erin Halden says
Thank you so much for reading, Diane!
Loved this story! It seemed a simple story on the surface, but it soon proved to have many layers that made it a great story. Didn’t see Ryan’s death coming. I loved the repitition of the panic attack and Ryan’s voice in her head coaching her through. Amazing job!
Erin Halden says
Thank you so much for reading, Hannah!
This brought me back to my first solo trip to Hong Kong – holding street maps open, searching for landmarks and getting lost over and over. Great imagery and emotion!
Erin Halden says
Thank you so much for reading, Stephanie!
Great short story! Really well written!! It is precisely the sort of story that captures “the color and motion and beauty of everyday life”. Keep on the amusing writing. (Have you ever thought that “Searching for the light” could be an appropriated title as well?)
P.S: Forgive any given grammar mistake. English is just my second language. I’m a Spanish speaking guy who happens to love fiction.
Jim Swindle says
This story is very well-written. I’m male, but have almost no sense of direction. When buying a house, we had a choice between an area with lots of curving streets and one with straighter streets. I chose the one with straighter streets, knowing that if I moved to the other one, I’d always (or almost always) be lost.
Sofia Emory says
It’s a beautiful story and deep. She is lost on two levels. I can connect with Josie, because I too have no sense of direction. Ryan’s death is an unexpected twist. Who did Josie talk to on the phone then? Did she just imagine it?
Wonderful, multilayered and very well written story.
Reminded me of my arrival to Canada.