John Paul knew there were plenty of people who heard his accent and assumed he was stupid. He'd traveled a lot. Got pretty good at spotting them.
Joy, darlin', I do declare, he'd say when he found one, adding three times as many syllables as the words required. Then he spouted nonsense till she laughed. My back teeth are floatin' and I'm just fixin' to burst, so iff'n you might could see your way to pointin' me at the nearest commode, then God willin' and the creek don't rise I reckon...
Sometimes she played along, widening her big brown eyes at him and breathlessly repeating random words like she was about to fall into a swoon, until JP was the one laughing instead. He knew he wasn't stupid, and he didn't give much of a shit what people thought, but still, it made him feel better.
So it wasn't that he felt stupid in Paris. It was something else.
"I think I'm having an existential crisis," he told Joy. It was four in the morning. They were sitting sideways on his tiny bed in their rented flat, backs to the wall, feet dangling off the edge. He was wrapped around his guitar because it seemed like a better idea than the alternative. Joy was clutching an empty bottle of red with a name he couldn't pronounce.
She rolled her head in his direction and looked at him over the top of her glasses, probably trying to figure out if he was serious. He wasn't sure.
"At least I picked a good place for it," he said, staring out the window. His room did have a small balcony, but all he could see was the bulky outline of the building across the street. Joy and Nate's bedroom had a view of the Eiffel Tower, but she was in his room anyway, and she wasn't looking at the Eiffel Tower.
"What's French music sound like?" He eyed his guitar and strummed his way through a few chord progressions. Nope. He lowered the third, put everything in minor. That was better, or at least fit his mood better: a melancholic optimism, a ghost he mostly liked having around. "Like this?"
"Wow," Joy said.
"Too much?" he asked, but was already nodding. "Yeah, too much."
"What is with you?"
He tried to put a name to the feeling of sitting in a cafe listening to words he couldn't understand. The coffee was just how he liked it, only better, and every bite of weird croissant Joy handed him melted in his mouth. And then there was Joy herself, leaning forward, elbows on the table, staring out the window, a rapt and wondrous smile on her face. Sometimes she stole his pastry and her eyes closed as she tasted it, and John Paul had to look away.
He'd crossed himself that morning when they'd walked into Notre Dame and he'd looked up. He'd been awestruck, dumbstruck, just plain struck, and then Joy had slid her arm under his coat and around his waist. "It's good, isn't it?" she said softly, stepping closer, her eyes on his face, her hand on his heart. "Sometimes I forget you're Catholic."
JP had still been staring at the ceiling. The arches went on forever. He'd been in cathedrals before, but all of them had ended. Notre Dame didn't seem to. He couldn't figure out how it worked.
"Hey," she said, her arm tightening around his waist. "Come back to me."
"What do you mean, you forget? You've never seen a movie where a guy goes to confession, and the priest tells him something like, 'three Hail Marys and an Act of Contrition'?"
"I don't think I have seen that movie, no." Her hand skimmed up his chest, across his shoulder, down his arm, and stopped over the Latin prayer tattooed there. "Is that what happened? You went to confession and a priest made you do it?"
He couldn't even remember the last time he went to confession. Maybe he'd go while they were in Paris. It wasn't like he was short on sins. He wondered if it counted if the priest didn't understand a word he said. He wondered about the penance for coveting thy manager's wife. It probably wasn't a tattoo. "Something like that," he said.
"You're never going to tell me, are you?"
That I had it done after I met you? "No."
Her pout didn't last long. "Come on," she'd said, hand wrapping around his wrist. "I want to show you the gargoyles." JP went.
He thought of her on his arm as they walked the rain-slicked cobblestone streets later that gloomy afternoon, of the way her lips moved as she ordered for them both at the late-night crepe stand she'd dragged him to the night before, of her thigh pressed warm against his as they sat on an empty Metro, of the way her whole body lit up at dusk as the Eiffel Tower did the same.
"It's beautiful," she'd breathed, staring at it like she'd never seen it before.
"Yeah," he'd said, staring at her.
They'd been there all of two days, but as far as John Paul could tell, the City of Lights wasn't very bright unless Joy was smiling.
She wasn't, at the moment. Instead, she was looking concerned about his existential crisis. "John Paul? What's wrong?"
"I don't know," he said, trying to make the guitar sound the way he felt. Joy scooted closer and laid her head on his shoulder, eyes closed, humming along under her breath. His melody line got a little brighter.