Paris was not as romantic as I thought it would be.
That was my first thought when I walked out of Charles de Gaulle Airport. Granted, I had just gotten off an eleven hour flight from San Francisco, it was freezing, and the wheels of my luggage had fallen off, but still. I had always wanted to come to Paris. This was a bit of a disheartening start to studying abroad in my dream city.
I wish I had not packed so much, I thought as I dragged my large suitcase behind me towards the taxi line. It was incredibly heavy.
It was pouring, and I must have looked fairly silly, grunting and tugging at my luggage. I was pretty sure my toes were numbing from the cold and the rain. They were getting that odd tingling feeling and I imagined a warm shower once I got to the Université Panthéon-Assas. I cringed a bit. Even in my head, I couldn't pronounce that properly.
Suddenly the rain stopped.
I looked up. No, it hadn't stopped. Someone was holding an umbrella above my head. It was plain and navy with a slightly bent spoke, but despite that, it was shielding me pretty well from the downpour.
I turned my head to see a tall, blond guy holding it out for me and giving me a smile.
"Going towards the taxi line? Need any help with that?" he asked, gesturing towards my suitcase.
"Oh please," I said, almost melting in gratitude. He had a British accent, but it was still nice to hear someone speak English.
"I'm heading there too," he said, reaching over and easily picking up my suitcase. "If you drag mine over, I'll carry yours."
I nodded gratefully. His suitcase still had wheels on it.
It didn't seem too difficult for him to carry my suitcase. But then again, he was a lot taller and looked a lot stronger than I did. I had always been a bit on the short and small side.
Once we both got in the taxi line, the guy set down my suitcase, turned to me with a smile again, and offered his hand.
"I'm Peter, by the way," he said.
"Lexie," I shook his hand.
"So where are you headed?" he asked.
Perhaps it was because he had just helped me lug a fifty pound suitcase that I didn't feel as cautious as I probably should have been in a foreign country. Or as cautious as my mother thought I ought to be. She had literally sat me down and made me watch the movie Taken with Liam Neeson the day before I left for my flight.
"The Pantheon-Assas University," I said. "I'm studying abroad there for the semester."
Peter's eyes widened.
"Oh really?" he said, his voice excited. "Me too! We should share a cab."
I looked at him warily. That was exactly what that kidnapper from Taken had said. Peter was certainly handsome enough too, now that I really looked at him. He had an impeccable jawline and the perfect face for swindling twenty year old girls, remembering their addresses, and coming with a group of kidnappers later.
"Um..." I said, hesitating.
"I'll help you with your luggage," Peter offered.
"Sure," I said almost instantly. I was sold on that offer. Looking back in hindsight, that was probably not the most thought out of decisions, but I doubted he would have gone to kidnap me from my university dorm.
It was hard not to warm up to Peter on the cab ride over to the school. We chatted and laughed about everything from the cities we were from to what we studied.
I was right about him being British. He was born in Scotland but grew up in London, and like me, he was studying economics.
"So?" Peter asked as our cab got on the highway. "Are you excited for the semester?"
I twisted my mouth.
"To be honest," I told him, "Paris isn't exactly what I thought it would be."
Peter tilted his head. "What do you mean?"
I shrugged, feeling a bit foolish, but said it anyways. "I had expected something more romantic, you know. More like cobblestone streets and outdoor cafes and people wearing berets."
He laughed. "You know we're not in the heart of Paris, right? Trust me, it's probably better than you think."
Turns out, he was right. Within a week of being there, I realized that Paris was so much more than my first impression, so much more than what I had even imagined in my head before I got here.
Peter didn't turn out to be a kidnapper. He was actually a student from Cambridge who had a year and a half left before graduating. He was also fluent in French.
"My grandmother's French," he explained with a smile as I stared at him in awe after he effortlessly chatted with our cab driver as he dropped us off.
At orientation I met Rosie and Caleb from New York, Magdalena from Germany, Winston and Darrel from Australia, and Nicole from Canada. The seven of us, along with Peter, soon formed an inseparable group.
The eight of us spent that first couple of weeks traveling around Paris in a whirlwind of eating and laughing and getting lost. We went up the Eiffel Tower, saw the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, and ate baguettes on the cobblestone streets. It was everything I had hoped Paris would be, and more.
I loved everyone in that group, but perhaps I was closest to Peter. Something about our personalities just clicked. We joked and laughed and teased each other mercilessly. Plus, how could I ever forget that he helped drag my suitcase to the cab line and to my dorm?
A few weeks into the semester, on a random Thursday night, the two of us found that we alone, out of our group of friends, had absolutely no work that night. On a whim, we decided to walk along the Seine.
It was unusually warm for a February night. The weather must have been so rare for that time of the year that there were quite a lot of people along the Seine, families with children gabbing away in French, couples arm in arm, and groups of young people chatting and laughing.
I hugged my scarf closer to my body as I wandered along the river with Peter telling jokes by my side. It was a beautiful night. I could see the lights with their warm, orange glows reflected in the Seine.
"Don't get us lost," I warned Peter in a mock serious tone.
He rolled his eyes. "We won't get lost as long as you're not leading," he grinned.
I crossed my arms but laughed nonetheless.
We must have been close to the Notre Dame Cathedral when we saw a group of street musicians set up. Curious, we walked closer.
It was surprisingly elegant for what I had learned to expect from a street performance. They were pulling out violins.
Because they were just starting, there weren't really that many other people around. As the street musicians started playing, I gasped a little in surprised delight.
Peter nudged me. "You know this song?" He asked, grinning.
I nodded. "La Vie en rose," I whispered. It was perhaps the only French song I knew, and I loved it.
For a while, the two of us just stood side by side, listening to the violins. It was lovely.
Then, Peter nudged me again. I looked at him.
"Dance with me," he said with a smile.
I raised my eyebrows and laughed, thinking that he was joking.
"No, come on," he said, his smile widening as he pulled his hands out of his pockets and reached towards me. "Dance with me."
"I don't know how to dance," I said, looking about me uncertainly. There were still not too many people around, and the people who were there were really into the performance to pay us much heed.
"Me neither," Peter shrugged. He caught my hand and pulled me towards him.
I laughed but complied. The instant his left arm slid around my waist, however, I could feel a blush creeping up my face. I was glad for the darkness of the night so that Peter couldn't see it.
He really couldn't dance.
Peter, who knew French and understood economics and bested everyone at swimming, was probably a worse dancer than I was.
I laughed and rolled my eyes as he twirled me around and stepped on my toes. As the song ended, he twirled me one last time and caught my hand as I stopped spinning.
Somehow, that last twirl had landed me really close to him when I finished. I looked up and found that our faces were mere inches apart. I was so close to him that I could hear him breathe.
For a moment, the two of us just stared at one another, he seemed to be as in shock at the moment as I was, but no one drew apart.
Then, the music ended. As if a spell was broken, the two of us cleared our throats and both took a step back. We gave the musicians a few euros and headed back towards the school, pretending the whole way back that nothing had happened.
By the time we got back, it was already past midnight. Rosie, who was my roommate, was already asleep.
I tried to be as quiet as possible when I got in the room. Despite that, Rosie still sat up when I opened the door.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Rosie, I didn't mean to...
"Ha!" Rosie said, half accusatory and half triumphant. "It's one am. You were out with Peter weren't you?"
At the mention of his name, another blush crept up my face, but I turned away so she wouldn't see.
"We were just walking around because you guys were all too busy doing homework," I said, shrugging and trying to pass that off as nonchalantly as possible.
Rosie wouldn't have any of that, however. She scooted forward until she was peering at me from the edge of her bed.
"So..." she said slyly. "What is going on between you two?"
I turned my head sharply to look at her. "Nothing," I said. "I don't know what you're talking about."
She rolled her eyes. "Oh, don't be so difficult, Lexie," she grinned. "Everyone sees it. We all have bets on when you two are going to get together."
"What?" my mouth dropped. I was half amused, half indignant.
Rosie wasn't deterred. "Winston thinks it's going to be Valentine's Day," she continued. "I mean, it's obvious that Peter likes you. You like him too, don't you?"
"You guys are ridiculous!" I said. "We've only known each other for three weeks."
Rosie shrugged. "Better get a move on it then," she said. "We've only got five months."
As I tugged my covers over my head, I thought about her words. I never answered Rosie's question, but I already knew the answer myself. Of course I liked Peter. It had only been three weeks but it was impossible to deny. I had never clicked with anyone the way I did with him.
I didn't know how Peter felt, but what was the point? Rosie was right about one thing. We only had five months. That was even more of a reason not to do anything. At the end of five months, I would be back in San Francisco, and Peter would be back in London. We'd carry on with our lives and that was that.
Towards the end of February, the seven of us took a trip down to Italy for the weekend. When we got to Florence, Peter and I were the only ones who wanted to climb the Duomo, the old church in the city.
"It's supposed to have great views," I said, pleading with Magdalena.
"And a lot of stairs," Winston said. "I think we'll just go eat gelato instead."
The cajoling was to no avail, so finally, it was just Peter and me who lined up to go to the top of the Duomo.
There were a lot of stairs, but I really wanted to see that view. When we finally got to the top, it didn't disappoint.
The sun had come out, and it was classic Tuscany. Red roofs, green hills, blue sky.
"It's gorgeous," I breathed out, leaning on the railings and looking out on the horizon.
Peter came to lean on the railings next to me. Our arms touched, but neither of us moved. He turned his head to look at me.
"Yes," he agreed softly. "It really is."
I froze. This time, there was no night to hide my blushing. There wasn't anyone around us. Not a lot of people had made the climb that morning, and the people who were at the top with us must have been next to the railings on the other side.
Peter looked a little uncertain. There was something in his eyes that I couldn't quite explain.
"Lexie," he said, his voice barely audible. He looked like he was on the verge of trying to explain something, but couldn't quite find the words.
I didn't say anything. My mouth had gone dry. I couldn't have said anything even if I wanted to.
Instead of saying anything else though, Peter leaned forward, towards me.
He moved torturously slow, as cognitively trying to give me the chance to draw away if I wanted to.
I knew I should have. That whole five months, never going to see each other after this study abroad thing? Yeah, I was usually way too practical minded for something like this.
But in that moment, I just couldn't help it. As his lips touched mine, I knew that it was over.
The kiss was soft and too too short, but it had been a long time coming. As we drew back, Peter was smiling, although he still hadn't lost that uncertain look in his eyes.
For a moment, we just stood smiling at one another. I sucked in my cheeks, trying not to smile like an idiot out of giddyness and the absurdity of it all. We were on top of an old cathedral in Florence with the whole expanse of Tuscany ahead of us, for goodness sakes.
And I wouldn't have had it any other way.
"You can't not know how I feel," Peter said finally. "Rosie, Winston, Darrell...they all know. I've made a fool out of myself making it so obvious to you."
He looked at me. I knew what he was trying to ask and answered it reluctantly.
"I thought I've made it pretty obvious too," I said, with a light smile.
Peter's face split into a wide grin, and he leaned forward and kissed me again. This one was quick and just a peck on the lips, but it made both of us smile and turn red again as we drew back.
"Go out with me," he said, still smiling.
I frowned and shook my head. "Let's not put a label on it, and see where things go..." I said, trailing off.
Peter frowned, but didn't pursue the matter.
The truth was, I was too scared and too afraid to be stupid enough to go for the moment only to wound up hurt later on. What was the point? What was the point when in three more months, we would be at Charles de Gaulle once again, saying goodbye for good?
But even though we didn't put a label on it, we were no longer just friends. From stolen kisses in the university hallways to exploring Paris hand in hand to lying on the grass next to the Eiffel Tower discussing our favorite books, things were never the same again.
Several times during the semester, Peter would ask me the same question. Go out with me, Lexie. But I would always shake my head.
I could see how hurt he was by the look in his eyes every time I said that, but I told myself that it was the right thing to do. That this was the best thing for both of us. That after everything was through, and after the semester was over, it would make both of us avoid the heartbreak.
But I should have known it would do no such thing.
When the end of study abroad had come, when we had packed our suitcases and cried and laughed and hugged all our friends goodbyes, Peter and I sat in the same cab to Charles de Gaulle International Airport. I had a flight to SFO, and he had one to Heathrow half an hour after me.
We were mostly silent the entire way there. Throughout the whole semester, I had persisted in my resistance to put a label on whatever it was that was going on between us, but now I realized that it did no good.
I should have realized, that after all the kisses and all the laughter, after the conversations and the teasing, after Florence and Nice, after Venice and Prague and Barcelona, that I had genuinely truly fallen for Peter more than I had for any other guy before him.
Our boarding gates were at different terminals. As I gave him one last hug, I could see that he was about to say something.
I knew that he was about to ask me out again, but I just couldn't bear it. Not now. Not here. Not when we were about to say goodbye for good.
"So this is it then," I said with a forced smile on my face, cutting off whatever words were on the tip of his tongue. "Let me know if you ever come to California, and I'll let you know if I ever go to London."
Peter frowned a bit. "Lexie..." he said.
I shook my head furiously. "No," I said, chewing the inside of my cheeks to prevent myself from bursting in tears. "Bye, Peter."
But he wouldn't go.
"Why won't you give me a shot?" He asked, that hurt back in his eyes again.
I bit my lip. "We're on different continents, Peter," I said adamantly.
"So?" he asked. "Who knows where we'll be after we both graduate next year? What if we're in the same place?"
"And what if we're not?" I folded my arms.
"We should still try," he said, looking at me intently. There was a slight pause, and then he went on. "I've never believed I would want to do a long distance relationship until I met you."
At that moment, I could not refuse. I don't know why. I couldn't even explain it. But on that last hour before we were to say goodbye, I agreed to his crazy suggestion.
My friends back home at Berkeley were split on my decision. Half of them thought it was admirable, the other half thought it was insane. Even the half who thought it was admirable probably also thought it was insane.
We were on different continents, eight hours apart, and going to different schools. But I would Skype Peter late at night when he had just woken up where he was. He still made me laugh more than anyone else could, and I would fall asleep every night wishing we were together.
In November, Peter got a lucrative offer to work for Barclay's in London. It was an amazing opportunity, and I knew that it had been his dream job because he had told me about it within the first week of Paris.
I was happy for him, but I think part of me was also horrified. I had just accepted a consulting position for a firm in San Francisco.
We kept Skyping for the rest of the year and even for part of the summer when we both started working, but in August, I knew that it needed to end.
I was crazy about him, but it just didn't make sense. I think we both always held out for the idea that we would eventually end up in the same place, but that didn't happen. Now that he was settled in London permanently and I had signed a year's lease for an apartment in San Francisco, I could see no end to the long distance. My friends' skepticism started making more and more sense to me. It just wasn't practical.
Peter argued with me when I broke it off and explained the reasons, and I hung up on him halfway through the conversation, sobbing to myself. I couldn't bear to hear him list out all the reasons why we should still be together. I knew that if I listened to him talk, I would just lose all my rationality again.
For months and months afterwards, the two of us didn't talk except for the occasional polite "How are you doing?" I missed him tremendously, but was self restrained enough to refrain from talking to him as much as I wanted to. I knew I had to move on.
Still, there was a dull ache whenever I looked back at our old Paris photos. The two of us eating crepes and Peter with Nutella all over his face. Him giving me a piggyback ride on the campus lawn on a sunny day in May. The two of us holding hands by the Seine.
After a while, I tried not to look at the pictures too much. It just made me incredibly sad.
It was late February one night as I was coming back from Portland on a consulting trip that the handles to my suitcase jammed. Frustrated, I pulled up and down on it to no avail.
"Argh," I grunted, wishing it wasn't raining. Maybe I would just have to push the suitcase to the taxi line.
I was still tugging at the handles when the rain above me suddenly ceased. Looking up, I saw that someone was holding an umbrella above my head.
A navy umbrella with a bent spoke.
My hands went numb as I turned around.
Peter, with his grin and his blonde hair, was standing behind me. I had not seen him in person for a year and a half.
He smiled at my shock and gestured towards my suitcase. "Need any help with that?"
I clasped my hands over my mouth and immediately burst out into tears. I couldn't help it, I just couldn't.
"Lexie..." I could hear the worry in Peter's voice.
When I finally stopped crying and found my voice, I asked him, "What are you doing here?"
Peter smiled softly. "I found a job here."
I looked at him, not comprehending. "You found a job here?"
"Yes," he said. "In San Francisco."
I still didn't get it. "But what about Barclay's?"
He shrugged. "I quit. I'm working in the finance department for a tech company here."
I tilted my head. "You quit Barclay's? But it was such a great opportunity. The finance department of some tech company can't compare."
Peter shrugged again and looked at me. "So?"
I finally understood. A fresh wave of tears came to my eyes again. "Geez Peter," I said shaking my head in disbelief and amazement and happiness. "What are you doing here?"
He chuckled, reached out an arm, and pulled me close again.
"I didn't want you to get rained on," he said.