Paris on a Whim

Colleen Dempsey serves her first grande non-fat latte of the day at 5:03 a.m. to a woman who is either coming from or going to the gym. After that, the crowd begins to trickle in, until it reaches the first peak at 6:30 a.m., when a man introducing himself as Gary orders a grande mocha frappucino.

He is tall and broad shouldered, but what really captures her attention are his eyes. They are swimming pool blue and perfect.

“Hi,” she says.

“Aren’t you going to give me your name? You’re kind of leaving me hanging out here you know.”

She blushes. “What can I get for you today, sir?”

“Sir?” He turns around to face the line of caffeine-deprived individuals, all waiting for an excuse to turn nasty. “Can you believe that? Here I am, trying to ingratiate myself to this nice young lady, and she can’t do me the honor of using my proper name?”

From the back of the line a woman screams, “Hey pal, I’m not getting a lot of action either, but you don’t see me holding up the line!”

He winks. “I’ll have a grande mocha frappucino and a pecan scone please.”

“That’s $7.48.” She holds out her hand.

He squeezes it. “I’ll kick myself if I don’t ask you this right now.”

The woman at the end of the line throws up her hands and leaves.

“Sweetheart, will you come to Paris with me?”

Colleen Dempsey is an ordinary twenty-four year old woman in every way, except for her belief that one should always be prepared. And on this day she is bursting with pride, because in her purse along with the lipsticks, tampons and keys, is her passport.

Across town, Colleen’s boyfriend of the past three years stands in their bedroom wearing the silk pajama pants she bought him. James wipes the sleep from his eyes and brushes his teeth.

As he waits for the electric toothbrush to finish its cycle, he wanders through their loft apartment. Standing at the window he looks onto the street five floors below and makes a mental note to buy binoculars.

Colleen stares at Gary. Is this a cruel joke? She looks at her surroundings: the foul bathroom with a needle disposal, the angry mob of impatient bad tippers, and the malcontent with the blue dreadlocks working the espresso machine.

Not wanting to appear easy, she cocks her eyebrow and asks, “Are you a serial killer?”

He chuckles. “Of course not.”


He assumes a tone of shock. “I may rescind my offer.”

She smiles. “Are you married?”

He slaps both hands down on the counter. “Do you see a wedding band?”

A man in thick glasses shouts, “If I pour it myself can we make this go any quicker?”

She whips her head around and glares. The man shrinks back behind his glasses. Colleen tears off her green apron and throws it on the counter. “Everyone can help themselves! I’m going to Paris!”

Ducking under the counter she falls into Gary’s embrace.

“There’s just one more thing I have to know. What’s your name darling?” he asks.

She extends her hand. “Colleen Dempsy. Charmed.” She tucks her hair behind her ear. “And I’ll be right with you. Just let me get my purse.”

James grabs his briefcase off the counter and rushes out the door. He looks up and down the street, wondering cab or subway? It’s raining, and there are two women in brightly colored coats standing a few feet away. He runs for the subway.

He takes up two seats intentionally and stares at the expressionless faces of his fellow commuters. The train is crowded and the woman standing in front of him gives him a dirty look. He rolls his eyes and heaves his briefcase on his lap so that she may sit down. She doesn’t thank him.

As Colleen steps out into the street with a complete stranger something like buyer’s remorse sets in. She fiddles with the sash on her raincoat.

Gary hails a cab and opens the door. She slides awkwardly over the vinyl seats and he puts her hand on his thigh, which is firm and warm to the touch. Colleen feels herself blushing.

“How about I take you shopping?” Gary suggests.

Colleen looks confused. “I’m sorry?” she says.

“Shopping. Unless you have a suitcase hidden somewhere in your coat.” He smiles and she thinks he has spent thousands of dollars on his teeth.

Nodding, she wonders how honorable his intentions are. Oh, what the hell, you only live once.

Gary orders the driver to take them to a stretch of fashionable boutiques in the financial district and Colleen feels her heart rate rise. She looks up and strains to see the bank James works in. The red and grey logo of the National Bank looks blurry and fuzzy and oddly adorable through the fog. She counts 34 floors up, wondering if James is looking out right now and if he can see her. Then she remembers his cubicle doesn’t have a window. Her heart rate slows and she winks at Gary.

When the elevator doors open onto the 34th floor of the National Bank, James notices Barbara, the receptionist, sneaking furtive glances toward the kitchen. He knows this means there are donuts up for grabs.

He drapes his coat on the corner of his cement grey cubicle and settles into his chair. While his computer boots up he organizes his desk: casually scanning the new papers he’ll add to his ‘IN’ box, noting which problems he’ll deal with and which ones he’ll pawn off onto a junior coder. He looks at his phone; there are three new messages. He hits F12 and there are five unread messages in his email.

The computer beeps announcing an instant message. Without looking at the sender’s name, he leans over the edge of his cubicle and catches Vince’s eye. James shakes his head as though to say, “Why don’t you just come over here and talk to me like a normal person?” Vince’s reply is to gesture madly at his computer screen. Sighing as he sits back down, James looks at the message. It reads:

Tracey from accounting has a completely shaved pussy!!!

Before he’s even certain he’s read it, James deletes the message. He resists the urge to strangle Vince and wonders how he’s managed to sleep with so many women.

Refocusing his attention, he hits F12 again. There are now seven unopened messages in his IN box, all marked urgent.

His phone rings and he waits for the handset to shake like it does in cartoons. It doesn’t and the caller gets routed to voice mail. The red light blinks aggressively. The clock on his monitor reads10:37 am He spins around in his chair twice and on the third pass he sees Barbara standing there.

She points at his phone. “Is it broken?”

“What?” A wave of nausea sweeps over him.

“I called. They want you in the boardroom.”

The room feels like it’s spinning. “What? Why?”

Barbara rolls her eyes. “How am I supposed to know?” She looks longingly at the kitchen.

James stands up and whispers, “Eat the donuts Barbara.”

He walks slowly to the boardroom and resists looking over his shoulder.

After buying Colleen two thousand dollars worth of shoes and dresses, Gary suggests they grab an early lunch.

“Air France has good food for an airline,” he says in a way that makes Colleen feel safe traveling with him. “But it’s still airplane food.”

She watches his reflection in the window of the cab and decides the thing that truly separates James and Gary is confidence. Gary oozes confidence. She reassures herself that she’s made the best choice.

James stares past Miranda from accounting and out into the dense clouds. His stomach growls and he realizes he hasn’t eaten yet; stifling a yawn he wonders how bad the coffee in the kitchen really is. He decides that no matter how bad, if it’s the right temperature he should be able to guzzle a cup of it. With enough sugar and milk it should keep him from falling into a coma. Who schedules an emergency meeting without first calling catering?

In the kitchen, as he searches for a clean mug, Vince sneaks up behind him and yells, “Boo!” into his ear. James jumps, and as he swings his head around, his fist is not far behind.

Vince blocks the punch easily. “You need to take the edge off.”

Grinding his teeth, James washes a cup.

“And you know what else?” Vince asks, peeking into the hall to make sure they’re alone. “She let me feel her up in the bathroom before we even ordered.”

James dries the cup with a paper towel. “Tracey must have no self-esteem.”

Vince smiles broadly.

  James pours the coffee and wonders if anyone else is paying attention in the meeting.

“Don’t you want to hear more?” Vince asks.

James calls, “No!” over his shoulder and goes back to his desk.

Standing, to give the illusion of being rushed, he hits F12 and receives three more urgent messages from Frank Sablejack. His eyes water and he takes the extra large bottle of acetaminophen from his desk, swallowing three tablets before opening the messages.

Each time he blinks he is ever more conscious of the sandpaper-like quality his contact lenses have. The first email is more than one screen so he prints it, deciding that reading email in an emergency meeting will not make him look rude and uninterested, but that he will seem to be just the opposite. He will appear in high-demand and very important, a man not to be trifled with. The other emails are long too and he hits F6 repeatedly. He sips his coffee. I will look very productive in there.

A woman with red hair waits at the printer when James walks up. He returns her smile and realizes the only thing he knows about her is that she doesn’t wear panties. He doesn’t know her name or her title or where she sits. He flashes her his most winning smile and promises himself that he will kill Vince before the day is over.

“So, you’re doing the coding for the new on-line registration?” she says.

He nods. Why doesn’t she wear panties? Does she not worry about catching a disease? He groans and shakes his head vigorously.

“Is something wrong?” she asks.

“No,” he replies quickly.

“It’s just that you made—”

“I’m sorry, I have to go now,” he says and bolts back to his cubicle.

Colleen and Gary walk away from the Air France counter, and they pass a tall man with dusty blond hair who reminds her of James.

Overwhelmed by guilt she drops Gary’s hand. “I have to make a quick call.”

“Take your time. I’ll be waiting at the bar.” He kisses her forehead.

She sits down and glances at the large family next to her. She wishes there were somewhere with a little more privacy in which to have this conversation. She hopes at least that they don’t speak English.

She opens her phone and says, “James,” and listens to the familiar beeps as the auto-dialer calls his work number. The phone rings five times before the voice mail picks up.

A woman’s voice intones politely, “This is the voice mail for James Ingersol and this is the week of April 7. James is in the office all week. Please leave a message and he will return your call as soon as possible. If this is of an urgent nature, press one to reach reception.” Colleen wonders if the woman’s voice is the receptionist and what she would do, exactly, if Colleen were to ask her to please explain to her boyfriend that she is running away to Paris with a man she just met.

In the pit of her stomach she feels nervous excitement that registers as nausea. She blinks back the beginning of tears.

“Hi baby, it’s me. I don’t know how to say this.” She takes a deep breath and collects her thoughts. “The craziest thing happened to me this morning. A man walked into the coffee shop and asked me if I wanted to go to Paris with him!” She knows she should be more judicious in her selection of adjectives. That she should be very kind and delicate, but she can’t. “He’s gorgeous! His eyes are the most amazing shade of blue and his voice is incredible! It’s very low and sexy! Very commanding, you know? Anyhow, there I was, just trying taking people’s orders and stuff, and he walked up to the counter and I could tell right away he was different. He had this glow to him. Like I could see his aura! He started flirting with me, and you’ll be relieved to know that I did not flirt back. But then, when he’s paying, he took my hand and asked me point blank to go to Paris with him!” Now she hears her own voice reach new heights in pitch and she knows she’s squealing with delight and that this sort of talk should be reserved for girlfriends but Colleen Dempsey has no real friends, girl or otherwise.

“He used those exact words. I mean, I thought he was just going to give me a tip, at the most ask me out, to which I would have said no because we’re living together and that’s just not right. But then he said ‘Let me take you to Paris’ and frankly James, no woman can resist that.”

Still avoiding the meeting, James sinks down in his chair and checks his voice mail.

“Hi James, Frank Sablejack here, just wanted to add a note to the addendum.”

He erases it.

“Hi James, Frank Sablejack here again—”

Does this guy ever give up? James massages his forehead. He takes two more painkillers. He presses one and waits for the next message to play, promising God that he will throw the phone across the room if Frank Sablejack leaves another message.

“Hey baby, it’s me. I don’t know how to say this but—”

He listens to Colleen and stares at the wall calendar she gave him for Christmas. She made it at the copy shop. The picture for April was taken at a photo booth in the subway. He doesn’t remember where they were going or what they were doing, only the taking of the picture. That and she had on the most ridiculous pair of bright green clogs.

“But then he said, ‘Let me take you to Paris,’ and frankly James no woman can resist that.” There is a pause during which time James hopes for another but. “I always hoped it would be you who surprised me one day and swept me off my feet. It needn’t have been Paris, even if you had surprised me at work and demanded that I leave right away, I’d have gone with you. James, a girl needs passion, she needs to feel like she keeps you up at night. You know what I mean? And Gary, well—”

She wants passion? He drops the receiver and grabs his coat. As he runs past Barbara he hollers, “I’m taking a sick day!” He jumps into a crowded elevator just as the doors are closing and thinks that the hero in a romantic comedy would have done the exact same thing and this comforts him. The hero always gets the girl.

He flags down a cab. “Get me to the airport as fast as humanly possible. Please. It’s an emergency.”

James rests his head against the cool glass of the window. His breathing fogs up the same spot and he wipes it clean with the heel of his palm. He focuses on the airport and what he will do when he gets there.

She’s probably left now. She’s probably long gone. He checks his watch. “Do you know when flights to Paris leave?”

The cabbie looks in the rear view mirror and meets James’ gaze. “Evening time usually.”

James relaxes into the seat. He smiles and thanks God for evening flights. Okay. This can work. I can do this. I love her. I can win her back. He loosens his tie and looks anxiously out the window.

When they approach the on-ramp to the expressway, his heart sinks. There are cars lined up for two lights just to get on the road. He puts his hand on the cabbie’s shoulder.

“My girlfriend is about to get on a plane bound for Paris with another man.”

“Bad luck,” the driver replies, gesturing at the traffic. “But what can be done?”

James crumples into the worn vinyl seat. The romantic images he had of chasing after her as she boards the plane, of sweeping her up into his arms, are met with the crushing reality of rush hour traffic. These are all just fantasies now. He tries to convince himself otherwise as the car inches forward but it’s no use. The time for romance has ended. She wanted to leave.

Colleen sits in the first class bar across from Gary and tries to look sophisticated. She feels small and childish, and there is a part of her that can’t believe this is happening. She expects someone to tap her on the shoulder and announce that she’s on a new reality TV show. She thinks about James, about the smell of his neck and the way he smiled each time she gave him something to eat. She grips her wine glass firmly and tells herself that this is what she wants. This is what she has always wanted.

Gary puts his hand on her knee in a way that suggests a familiarity that they do not yet have and Colleen is both irritated and charmed by the gesture.

When the taxi passes the cause of the traffic jam, the only thing left is shattered red plastic and skid marks. James turns away from the median and watches as a child in a minivan repeatedly slams his head into the window.

The stewardess announces the first boarding call for those flying first class and Colleen downs her second glass of Chardonnay quickly. Gary holds out his hand and leads her onto the airplane. She looks over her shoulder, hoping briefly to see James running toward her shouting her name. When no such thing happens she takes it as a sign. She kisses Gary on the cheek.

“What a lucky day I’m having,” she says nervously.

Two hours after sitting down in the taxi James steps into the airport and looks half-heartedly around for the Air France counter. He holds his jacket in one hand and shoves the other in his pocket. He walks the length of the terminal and finds the Air France counter closed.

The terminal is bright and has the feeling of unrelenting optimism. James sits down facing the closed ticket counter. He folds his jacket over his knee and stares at the counter. He is overwhelmed by an image of he and Colleen in the grocery store two weeks ago. This is the last time he is able to pinpoint happiness between them. He pushed the cart through the cereal isle. She walked ahead and took a box of Sugar Pops off the shelf.

“I haven’t had these since I was a little girl!” she said.

James walked up beside her and they looked at the box together. She laughed and put it back on the shelf. “Too much sugar. Did you see the Bran Flakes?” she asked.

James put the Sugar Pops in the cart. “Let’s have these for a change.” He smiled at her then and she smiled back. 

They had had a moment. There was a connection there, James thinks as he stares through tears at the Air France counter, willing it to open. We had a connection. People with a connection don’t go to Paris with random strangers.

The plane taxis down the runway and Colleen is excited; she feels like the envy of every other woman in first class. The force of takeoff makes her head feel heavy and she rests it against the headrest, looking out the window.

Goodbye old life, she thinks.

The airplane leaves the ground, climbing steadily, and the little bit of nervous energy she had in the pit of her stomach dissipates. They climb further and then the plane starts leveling out. As the pilot reduces power Colleen has the fleeting feeling that the plane is in trouble. Momentarily she panics, and wishes the man sitting next to her were James so he would reach over and hold her hand.