We asked for the cheapest tickets available. The train station teller suggested Honfleur, a quiet fishing town nestled in the northern corner of Normandy. Chloe and I booked it immediately. We were 20 years old and on spring break, two friends indulging in the fairy tale of France: Edith Piaf, Josephine Baker, Le Sacré-Coeur, croissants, fromage, l’amour! It seemed fitting to take a trip to Normandy, where the salty English Channel breeze would whip our hair and the curved streets would conjure images of medieval maidens selling sea shells.
The house we rented in Honfleur was beautiful—three stories tall, with a blooming garden and a doorway that opened right onto the narrow, cobbled streets. The Airbnb host was a man, which made Chloe, the more cautious of us, nervous; he still had a key to the house, after all. I calmed her down by putting on an album I found in the living room: Pink Martini, a band that any Francophile would agree is in the “French vibe” canon.
We warbled along to the music, made dinner, lit candles. We climbed up to the top floor and cozied up in bed, reading French comic books that we found on the bookshelves and chatting until well after midnight. What a wonderful, idyllic evening! La vie en rose, finalement!
And then the light bulb flickered out.
Chloe and I glanced at each other. Was there a blackout? No, the rest of the street was illuminated. Chloe began to panic. “It is our host,” she insisted.
“It’s fine, I’m sure,” I said. “He had reviews, didn’t he?” (I wasn’t sure if he had any reviews.) I tried to swallow my worries, but soon we both became convinced that someone had broken into the home.
“Well, Chlo, we have to get out of here.” I finally said. “We have no other choice.”
“What if someone’s down there?”
“Then we fight. Put your shoes on.”
Chloe crumpled as I steeled myself. I was our mama now, and I had to protect our cubs. Which was us. We were the cubs. I lit the candles that we had brought upstairs, took Chloe’s Swiss Army knife, and told her to get behind me.
I cautiously opened the bedroom door, and we walked into the dark. The floors creaked, the doors squeaked. Was there someone here? Est-ce qu’il y a quelqu’un?
As I am sure you, dear reader, have already figured out, there was no one in the house. All we found was a leaking boiler. The water, seeping through the floorboards and trickling down the wall, must have caused the outage. Oh, the perils of travel!
Upon the discovery of this new crisis, Chloe leaped into action, wedging herself into the boiler closet, trying to stop the leak. Suddenly, there was a snap. “Oh no,” Chloe groaned. The trickle became a deluge.
I squeezed into the closet too, trying to keep the candle away from the stream of water as I reached to feel where the break had happened. We fumbled around, cold water drenching us… and then I smelled something burning. “Chloe, do you smell that?”
I called. I stood up, trying to figure out where the smell could be coming from. Then it dawned on me: My head was hot. The flame from the candle had licked my hair.
I threw my free hand to my head to smother whatever was burning. It was no longer on fire, thankfully, but when I looked down at the palm of my hand, it was covered in charcoal-black ash. “My hair!” I wailed. “Chloe, my hair!” I pulled withered chunks of it away and dropped them to the floor. “My hair!”
Chloe stared at me, wide-eyed, and went to call our host. I got down on my hands and knees, sobbing, and did my best to towel up the water that continued to shower the closet. After a few tries, Chloe managed to wake the host, who directed her to the water main, in the basement. At last, she managed to shut the water off.
When she came back upstairs, Chloe found me plopped on the floor, shuddering from my loss. My hair. She held me tightly. The candlelight danced off the pools of cold water. It was only the two of us, in a house we didn’t know, in a town far from home—but we had each other. I was still hiccuping, catching my breath, when she whispered into my ear: “You… burned your hair.” She giggled quietly. I released a desperate sigh.
“How bad is it?”
“Oh, I can’t tell. But it will be OK. It grows back.”
“Yeah.” We sat in silence, listening to the water seep through the cracks in the floorboards. “It grows back.”
And it did. It all grew back. But, oh, next time, I will remember to tie my hair back!
Zazie Beetz stars in the film Nine Days, in theaters now.