Alone in Paris

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic
Oliver Hoffman is a mysterious and handsome doctor who leads an idyllic life. All is not what it seems, however. For he has a tragic secret. Will this be his undoing or will things change when he meets a beautiful florist?

Submitted: July 15, 2014

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Submitted: July 15, 2014

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To those who knew him, Dr. Oliver Hoffman was an enviable, but mysterious character. Somewhat brooding, the brilliant surgeon was considered a “great catch” by the staff at the University Hospital of Paris. Mesmerized by his magnetic aura, pensive green eyes and mahogany hair coifed in spikes, they felt he resembled a GQ model, rather than a doctor. Polite, but unnervingly reserved, Dr. Hoffman managed a solitary existence despite dating beautiful women. His male colleagues vicariously reveled in his bachelorhood, but neither knew nor cared about his motivation for remaining single. Little did they know that Dr. Hoffman’s lack of attachments stemmed from deep psychological issues.

This was because most of Dr. Hoffman’s past was beyond discovery. His professional credentials were beyond reproach and he maintained a supercilious aura, which kept others from questioning him about personal affairs. In the ten years since graduating Cambridge and taking the surgical post in Paris, Dr. Hoffman had managed to evade any personal entanglements. The other tenants in his flat considered him a reserved and reliable resident. In fact, the only person Dr. Hoffman had necessarily developed a relationship with was the grocer whose store was conveniently located on the ground level of the doctor’s fourth floor flat.

There also happened to be an adjacent florist shop in the ground floor alcove. But, he had little use for frivolous plants and flowers. Living a few blocks away from the Louvre, Dr. Hoffman would take solitary jaunts to the grand museum, where certain paintings, although beautiful, brought him painful memories of past places and people.

From time to time, Hoffman wondered whether he had made a mistake by coming to Paris. Ten years ago, he had desperately desired to escape from England. He had believed Paris would give him a fresh start. Strolling down the Champs Elysees, he felt a palpable energy. Sometimes he even experienced short episodes of happiness, like a sun’s ray bursting through the clouds, but only for a moment. You see, Dr Hoffman suffered from an overwhelming sense of guilt as a result of his belief that he was responsible for his parent’s untimely and tragic deaths.

One day, the good doctor returned home in a torrential rain storm from a busy day at the hospital to find a peculiar note, half-folded over, and crookedly taped to the midpoint of his flat door. It was addressed “Gerant de l’immeuble,” which translates as, “Apartment Manager.” Realizing someone had mistaken his unit for the building manager’s office, he removed the note, intending to locate its proper recipient. However, he inadvertently lost his grasp, and the note floated to the ground and lay there in full view. Hoffman knelt down and gazed at the delicate handwriting, which simply said “Having troubles with the windows sticking. Please help. S.Fousart Boutique de Fleurs.”

Hoffman quickly realized this must have come from the florist on the ground floor. He entered his flat, stepped out of his soppy loafers and peeled off the wet layers of clothing.  Suddenly, there came a sharp rap on the door, followed by a gentle and high-pitched woman’s voice. “Please, won’t you come and help me. I have telephoned you three times, and now I have a left a note to no avail. I need you to fix my window latches or I will be burgled again.”

Caught off guard, Hoffman froze momentarily and then replied with icy civility, “I apologize, but I cannot help you. I am merely a resident.”

For a couple of seconds there was silence, then three more raps on the door. “Monsieur, if you are not the building manager than where is he? Open the door and prove to me that you are in fact, just a resident. Only then will I leave you in peace.” Hoffman carefully calculated his options as if strategizing in a chess game.

“Please monsieur, do not keep me waiting any longer. Open the door!”

Acting against his own better judgment, Hoffman slowly unlatched the dead-bolt and opened the door. Immediately he was captured by the beautiful young nymph standing in front of him. Petite, and with long flowing flaxen locks, she was a beauty who resembled a maiden in a fairytale. With bright aqua eyes and rosy hewed skin, she seemed fantastical.

He was brought back to earth when he heard her mutter in a less than angelic tone, “Can you please move over so I can come in?”

Hoffman stepped back and allowed the young lady to enter his flat.  As she entered, her wraith- like frame was made all the more delicate-looking by the antithetically masculine black combat boots she sported on her feet. She was somewhat less than a mature adult, but older than a teen. She plopped down on his couch in the middle of the living room. “Well, if you are not the manager where is he?  I know he lives here on the fourth floor and there is only your flat and one other. So prove to me you’re not him.”

For once, Hoffman was at a loss for words. He never allowed people to enter his flat, especially a stranger who was so forward. Fearing that he could be emotionally vulnerable, his inner voice told him to get rid of the girl. But, on the other hand, if he did not offer her proof of his identity, she would most definitely cause problems.

Hoffman cleared his throat and began “I uh I uh --- I work at University Hospital down the street.” He walked to the door and pulled out his picture ID from his overcoat. He returned to the sofa and sat down next to her. “Look Mademoiselle Fousart…”

She balked “How do you know my name if you are not the manager?”

Hoffman replied “You wrote it on the note you left on my door.  Now then, you can see from my badge that I am a doctor. I’ve lived here a long time, but cannot recall a manager living on site.”

“Oh I see” she remarked in a dejected tone. “I’ll figure something out. It’s just that I’m a little new at being a manager. My former boss, the owner, had no family. When passed away from cancer rather unexpectedly, she left me the shop in her will. About three weeks ago, the shop was burgled. I realized the windows were not latching properly. Several times I called the number my boss had for the manager, but never got an answer. Out of desperation I asked a resident and he said the manager might live on the fourth floor. I’m sorry for bothering you.” She jumped to her feet as if ready to take flight.

Something came over Hoffman as if he were possessed “No, please don’t leave just yet.  Maybe I can look at the latches myself? You know, as a young boy, I lived in a house that was centuries old, and I was always jimmying the window latches so I could get outside and play.” Then suddenly he had a flashback. He was eight years old and living in Newcastle with his parents and three sisters. It was a wild rainy day, and because of the lightening, his parents had forbidden the children to play outside. As if having an out of body experience, Hoffman was transported right to the drawing room, where he sat on a rich eggplant settee in front of carefully pained windows. He was spasmodically yanking at the latches trying to jar them open so he could pop into the garden and escape to his treehouse. All of a sudden, his father walked in and Hoffman bolted from the settee, out into a long corridor and up a majestic, spiral staircase.

“Monsieur, Monsieur are you alright?” He heard a young woman’s voice and promptly noticed Mademoiselle Fousart staring at him. “You seemed like you were in a trance or something.”

Hoffman realized he had been daydreaming, “I am so sorry. Perhaps, I am coming down with a cold? Anyway, how about we go down and look at those latches?”

“You’re on” she remarked.  “Who knows, maybe you’re as good at fixing latches as you are at fixing people.”

Hoffman quipped “Don’t be so sure. Hey, do you live in the building?”

“Yes, there’s a small cot and kitchenette in the back of the shop” she explained.

Hoffman noted a slight accent in her voice, “You didn’t grow up in Paris did you?”

Sarah replied, “I grew up in the countryside with my seven younger siblings where we have a lavender farm. I came to Paris to work and save money for University. I also send some money home. You should smell the lavender when it blooms. It’s so wonderful, almost heavenly. Now, what do you think about the latches?”

Hoffman became intrigued, “and what will you study at University?”

Fousard happily answered, “World geography and anthropology. I have only been in Paris and the countryside. I love it so the countryside, but I want to know about other cultures. Don’t you think it’s important to have perspective in life, Monsieur?”

Hoffman pondered, “I suppose perspective is important, but if you have other things in life, conditions and circumstances that hold you back, I’m not sure how much perspective can change that.”

“I don’t really understand what you mean Monsieur” she replied. “Being a doctor at such an important hospital, you surely have the means to travel and see the world?”

“I don’t like to travel. I have all I need here in Paris.”

“Paris is an amazing place. The Louvre is right down the street from us. There is one room I am particularly fond of. It has all the impressionist paintings. The colors and images are so romantic. It transports me to another world. Do you ever go?”

Hoffman snapped, “Look, art is not life. It’s fantasy. Real life is misery, pain, death. That’s what you find when you mature.”

Fousart gasped, “But you can’t mean that? What has happened to you in your life that you made you so negative? I may be younger than you, but I know about joy and love. Of course there is misery in the world, but we must remain optimistic.”

Hoffman suddenly stopped. “Madame Fousart, forgive me. I have known lots of misfortune in my life. People have suffered terribly because of my actions and for that I will never feel joy. I am filled with guilt and will carry it with me for the rest of my life.”

“But, even the worst people can redeem themselves. You seem like a kind and good hearted man. You save lives. Maybe you did something bad long ago, but I don’t believe that is who you are.”

They had reached the florist shop, “What do you know about me? Let me see the latches.”  

She was taken aback by his sudden rudeness. “I don’t know why, but the latches seem improperly aligned so I cannot clasp them.” Hoffman had already figured out the solution, but continued to examine the window in order to prolong the conversation.

“I need to look at this more closely to see if there’s anything I can do. Do you have a kettle back there? It’s awful damp and some tea would be welcome.”

“How rude of me, of course. But all I have is Earl Grey. Will that do?”

“Perfect” he replied.

Peeping her head out from behind the back wall, “By the way monsieur, I don’t even know your name.”

“It’s Hoffman”.

She came out carrying two mugs. The scent of Early Gray whiffed through the air. She smiled and handed him a cup, “Well mine’s Sarah.  Nice to know you Mr., I mean Doctor Hoffman.”

He grabbed for the mug, “I think I know how to fix these, but I have to get a few things at the hardware store. Since tomorrow is Saturday and I am off, I can go there first thing in the morning. I can have them working before you open for business.”

The corners of her beautiful, soft lips turned up and he felt her happiness and relief. His demeanor also greatly altered when he realized his help alleviated her anxiety. She touched a place in his heart that previously had been cold since childhood.

As they sipped their steaming tea, Hoffman grew increasingly uncomfortable. He had been with women in the past, but had always managed to remain emotionally detached. This time however, he felt drawn in by a girl much younger than him, who came from a very different station in life. What was it about her that had this effect on him? He wanted to stay at the flat, but the sense of guilt once again came over him. He abruptly started toward the door with his mug in hand, “I have to go now.”

“Are you taking your tea with you?” quipped the puzzled Sarah.

Hoffman awkwardly handed her back the mug, “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.” 

Sarah took back the cup and grinned, “Yes, I’ll see you tomorrow. Then, you’ll tell me why you are such a terrible person.”

Without pausing to say a word, Hoffman shut the door and returned to his flat. Breathless from bolting so quickly up the stairs, he darted into his bathroom and glanced in the mirror. This was the first time in years that he had focused on his physical appearance, and was startled by the gaunt and withered reflection staring back at him. All the extra nights he had volunteered to be on call, and all the early morning rounds he had willingly accepted had taken their toll on him. He knew that if Sarah entered his masochistic world, she too would suffer such consequences. So he vowed to avoid her.

But, that night Hoffman could not stop thinking about his past and the horrible events that had irrevocably altered him. He imagined he was eleven years old, sitting on his bed in the family’s antiquated, dank castle in Newcastle. His father, Count Hoffman, had been a very successful doctor and his mother was an extraordinarily loving and patient woman. Although Hoffman had been a precocious and intelligent child, he was also rebellious and adventurous to the point where he could be a danger to himself. One afternoon, he decided to try hunting like his father. He snuck into the gun room and nearly shot a servant while trying to load a rifle.

Conscious of the family’s position in society and their son’s inability to behave appropriately, Hoffman’s parents resolved to send him to boarding school. That night, his parents broke the news to him.  Hoffman could see it all, as if it were happening once more. His mother’s tears, his father’s crinkled brow and his own shock at hearing the news were almost tangible, even twenty years later. They told him that he needed to act more congenial and reserved, before he could return home.  Soon after, he bid goodbye to his three sisters and shamefully walked out through the giant slab doors gracing the front entrance.

Hoffman snapped out of his trance. The memories were still too painful. He drifted off to sleep in a cold sweat and woke with a start the next morning. It was Saturday, and he knew Sarah would be waiting for him. After the previous night’s events, Hoffman knew he could not see her. He snuck down the back staircase into the alley and stayed out all day. In the evening, he skulked back to his flat only to find Sarah slumped over in front of his door, asleep. Before he could exit, the stale floorboards creaked underneath him, waking Sarah.

“Hoffman, what happened to you today? Did you have an emergency at the hospital? It must be so later. I made you some dinner.”

Surprised by Sarah’s concern, Hoffman lied, “I am so sorry about today. I was on call last night and had to perform an emergency appendectomy. It was a young boy and I wanted to stick around post-op and make sure he was alright.”

“Naturally” remarked Sarah “Because you are such a terrible person.”

Next thing Hoffman knew, he was in Sarah’s shop and she was serving him dinner. She spooned out a fluffy mound of potatoes, “Now that you’re back, you have to tell me how a man that gets up at the crack of dawn to save a person’s life is so bad”

Hoffman was torn. Sarah would not give up until she knew the truth. But he knew the instant she heard he was a murderer, she would never want to see him again. “Look Sarah, you have to know that I am responsible for my parents’ deaths and becoming a doctor was my attempt to atone for what I have done.”

An astonished Sarah leapt back from the table as expected, but after a few more seconds, she unexpectedly came over and sat down next to him. She gazed into his eyes, “Hoffman, I am young and naive, but I am a good judge of character. Evil people do not become doctors. What happened with your parents?”

“Look Sarah, I don’t remember a lot, but I know for sure that I caused their deaths.”

Sarah could not believe it, “How can you be sure?”

“I was 11. We were driving in the car. They were taking me to boarding school and I was arguing the entire way. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital and the doctors telling me my parents are dead and that I’m lucky to be alive. You see, if I had not distracted my father everyone would be fine.” 

“Alright, so you were arguing, but who said that caused the wreck?”

“I just know. After the wreck, my three younger sisters and I went to London to live with my spinster Aunt Clara.  Conscious of the family name, she never allowed us to talk about the accident because it might lead to gossip. I can’t blame her for that. Anyway I am guilty. That is why I choose to remain alone.”

Sarah inched closer to him. She bent down next to his chair and gazed straight in his eyes, “You have to speak to your Aunt Clara. She must know something about what happened that night.”

“The conversation would be pointless. We both know I killed my parents. Also I haven’t spoken to her in over ten years. You are young and idealistic so it is hard for you to believe that some people turn into monsters; but it happens. I am proof.”

Unfazed, Sarah took his hands, “Look at me. I don’t care if you think you’re guilty. You were a child when it happened, and memories can fool us. How do you know there’s not another explanation for the tragedy? You’re so ready to declare yourself a murderer, that you have ignored the effect this would have on those who care about you. Please, please, won’t you stop torturing yourself and find out the truth?”

Hoffman attempted to leave, but Sarah grabbed him by the arm, “You can’t go through your whole life blaming yourself for something you are not even sure happened. It’s one thing to feel pain because of a loss. It’s another to be consumed by guilt over it.”

At that moment, Hoffman’s knees buckled and he sank to the floor in tears, “For years, I have tried to recall what happened that night, but I could never remember anything after the quarrel in the car.”

Sarah was firm, “Well, you have to find out.”

Sarcastically, Hoffman replied, “Yes, maybe you can help me remember that I am a murderer? Enough for tonight.” He went back upstairs to his flat, dropped onto his bed and fell into a deep sleep.

It was the middle of the night when Hoffman was jolted out of his sleep by a dream about the accident.  For the first time in his life he had a clear vision of what transpired that night. He and his parents were driving along the winding, rainy road to the Choate School. He was pleading with his father to take him back home, but his father remained vociferously steadfast. Not long afterwards, his mother cried, “deer! It’s a deer!” and he felt the giant Rolls take a sharp curve to the right to avoid the innocent animal. Hoffman woke up drenched in sweat.

He called Clara. “Hello, Aunt Clara, this is Oliver. Yes, I know I have a lot of nerve calling you now, but I must ask you about the accident. Even though I can’t remember clearly what happened, I always assumed dad had lost control of the wheel while arguing with me. But, tonight, I dreamt that dad swerved to miss a deer in the road. What really happened?”

Hoffman anxiously awaited Clara’s answer. She was in her late eighties and not so quick to respond.  “Oliver, the doctors advised me not to speak about the accident so I never brought it up. It was natural for you to resent me because I took you away from the only home you knew.  I know I am not the most affectionate person and definitely I was not a good enough mother substitute, but I am sorry that I did not understand this. Anyway, dear boy, you should know that your parent’s deaths had nothing to do with you. Your father and mother, God bless their souls, were kind and gentle. If they were here, they would be so proud of you and want you to be happy.”

He could hardly believe what he was hearing. It was a dream come true. After his initial excitement had passed, Hoffman felt the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders. But, he also felt a sense of loss for all the years he had gone through life lonely, the victim of senseless guilt. But, then he pictured Sarah’s face. She had believed in his goodness, even when he had not. By now, it was nearly six in the morning and the sun was starting to slowly rise at the horizon.

Just then, there was a knock on his door, “Doctor Hoffman, God, I don’t even know your first name, please I have to talk to you.”

Hoffman let her in, “We don’t have to talk about anything. Let’s just enjoy the sunrise. You were right Sarah, it was not my fault. My dad swerved to avoid a deer and our car went into a ditch. It was not my fault. And by the way, my name is Oliver.”

Sarah gazed at Oliver and started crying. Bewildered, he took her hand, led her over to the sofa and pulled her down on the cushion beside him.

She looked up, “Oliver, I came to Paris to attend University, but I also wanted to escape from my village. About three years ago, the youngest of my six sisters, Sophie, died. She was only four. That winter, the weather was severe and she contracted a terrible cold. Soon enough we found out it was not just a cold, but a resistant strain of Tuberculosis. After her death, I could not stand to be at home.  Even the smell of lavender made me nauseous. So I can understand how you feel because I know about loss.”

Stunned, Hoffman pulled her closer, “Sarah I understand your pain, but know that you will never be alone again. I no longer feel guilt and I am finally free. It’s because you believed in me when I could not believe in myself.”

From that day forward Dr. Hoffman and Sarah were inseparable. Not only did Sarah attend University, but she helped her siblings attend University as well. She and Oliver traveled and started a family of their own.  In the end, Oliver realized his guilt could have been his undoing in life, but through Sarah’s courageousness, he confronted his demons and the truth set him free.

 


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