Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 2

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The plan was to meet Allison in Paris. The two of us would spend Christmas together and then, for reasons not entirely clear (something to do with her university work), I was to return to Portsmouth for a few days afterward. Then we would again meet up in Paris for New Year's Eve.

Christmas and New Year's in Paris with the woman I loved; the woman I had convinced myself I was going to marry. It was romantic -- like a film starring Julia Roberts and one of those charming actors with wavy hair whose names I never know. I would be the latter, of course. Allison and I would both wear nice Irish-style wool sweaters and wool coats and long, colorful scarves and Allison would have a charmingly silly hat. Every smiling sexy woman in a film must own at least one charmingly silly hat; perhaps Allison's would have previously served as a woolen multi-colored tea cozy.

"I saw it atop a teapot at a bed and breakfast and decided I should wear it," she would explain, smiling and pulling the hat/cozy down over her eyes in coy embarrassment.

This would endear her to the audience. I and the film-going public would know her thievery was charming and had been the right thing to do.

She would be a brilliant scientist, in Paris to present research for a cure to some disease that affects only cute little children. And I would be an artist type or former Navy SEAL, maybe both -- able to kill with a No. 8 Filbert brush. Allison, her red hair poking from stolen B&B property, would hold tightly to my arm and laugh and smile with her shining white teeth at all the charming and witty things I had to say. The two of us would walk though cobbled Parisian streets, occasionally stopping at quaint coffee shops to stare into each other's eyes and then duck into a corner to make out while the soundtrack swelled and a smoky-voiced woman sang "La Vie En Rose."   

I envisioned my Christmas with Allison as being like this, maybe better. But perhaps in the film version of my life, the charming actor with wavy hair whose name I do not know would not have 11 stitches, bandages, a swollen-shut eye and bruises all over his face. And the film would also gloss over the fact that at the time I only owned two sweaters, neither of them very nice or at all Irishy. I'm not even sure they were 100-percent wool.

Still, it was the kind of thing they had raised us to dream about in the Midwest -- if you could have called me a Midwesterner. Technically, I'm from Clute, Texas, but Clute is not the sort of place you want to admit being from. They have a nice municipal pool and an annual mosquito festival and more chemical plants nearby than can possibly be safe, and not much else. My family moved up to St. Paul, Minnesota, when I was 15 and eventually I found myself fitting in better there than I had back in Clute. I was Midwestern enough, I suppose.

A key element to being a Midwesterner is hating the Midwest. Midwesterners fill their heads with visions from books and songs and films and television programs about leaving for someplace else. "Someplace else" is our Mecca. Usually that someplace is California or New York or Europe (read: Western Europe). These places are appealing, but not so exciting that they will overwhelm one's Midwestern sensibilities. Most Midwesterners settle for regular visits to Las Vegas. Allison had gone to California, and now the both of us were in Europe. I was pretty sure they were writing folk songs about us back home.


The nurse at the trauma unit told me my stitches would need to stay in for at least two weeks.

"But I'm going to Paris in 10 days," I pleaded, as if she could somehow make my face heal faster.
"Hmm, well, you'll definitely not want to deal with a French doctor. They have no idea what they're doing," she said. "The scars might not ever go away, but lads like that sort of thing, don't they? It will probably be alright to get the stitches removed just before you leave for France."

Ten days later, I brought my bag with me to the GP's office. My stitches were snipped, I was handed a pamphlet on how to avoid infection, and I walked directly to the ferry port.

You may need a map for this. It would have been faster to take the train from Portsmouth to London, then another train from London to Paris; or even take the train from Portsmouth to Dover, the ferry from Dover to Calais, then the train from Calais to Paris; but it was dramatically cheaper to take the ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre, then the train from Le Havre to Paris. A return pedestrian ferry ticket cost just £6. Calling it a ferry is misleading; it was actually massive cruise ship.

Still persisting in my cinematic mindset, I stood outside on the ferry's deck and stared back at Portsmouth as the ship slipped out of the harbor and into the darkness of night crossing. It would have made a good scene in that Julia Roberts movie -- Allison and I would have shared a bottle of Champagne and then had sex in a lifeboat. But it was late December, and by the time the colored lights of the Southsea Promenade flickered out of sight I could no longer feel my fingers or toes. I made my way to the ship's bar and warmed myself with half a dozen pints of Tetley's ale. Had I bothered to read my little pamphlet on avoiding infection, I doubt any of this would have been advised.

In exchange for the low pedestrian fares that ferry companies offer, one has to give up certain comforts, like, say, a place to sleep. People with money are able to spend their journeys in cabins, which I have always imagined to be cavernous areas of luxury with servants and a hot tub. But at the very least, they have a place to sit and to sleep. Pedestrian cheapskates such as me are left to wander aimlessly between the gift shop, the café, and the bar. It's a bit like being trapped in a moving small-town airport. They tend to leave that part out in all the films they show Midwesterners -- a tedious nine-hour journey is usually shortened into a musical montage with a lot of staring out of windows.

I am relatively skilled at killing time. Especially if there is a bar. Time wasting is an art form, and a bar is where I am best able to paint a Michelangelo-like mural of low productivity. Night crossings on a ferry, however, see the gift shop, café and bar closed by midnight and cabinless scum must fight it out for the limited couches and comfy chairs available.

The Tetley's not only warmed me, but put me in the sort of state in which I was able to sleep on the only couch I could find -- just outside the bar. Although alcohol was no longer being served, the bar's (completely empty) dance floor remained open until 2 a.m., and I slept fitfully through dreams filled with a bad soundtrack. I'm pretty sure they played the B-52s' "Love Shack" continuously for an hour, followed by two hours of Elton John's "Step into Christmas." Sir Elton's voice swirled in my drunken head and in my erratic sleep a set of false lyrics got stuck on repeat in my brain:

"Banana milk for Christmas
Japanese love Shinto
Gonna ride my bike forever and ever


The morning air was painfully cold and dry. It slapped at my face as I walked from the Le Havre ferry port to the train station, where I relieved my churning stomach of its Tetley's in every way possible into the station's Turkish toilet. I was bruised, bandaged, exhausted, stank of alcohol and had not bathed in 24 hours. And as I settled into my spot on an unheated train car (the only non-smoking car of the lot), I was starting to feel much, much worse.

When the train arrived in Paris, I could tell I was running a fever. I guessed my temperature to be about 176 degrees Fahrenheit. I've been accused of being melodramatic at times, so it was probably only around 118. I had emptied my bag of warm clothes and was wearing two pairs of trousers, a long-sleeved T-shirt, a short-sleeved T-shirt, both my sweaters and an anorak. I was shivering. Every part of my body ached. Add to this my swollen-shut eye and stench, and I was descending into an exciting new world of misery. It was the only time I've been to Paris in which I was not harassed by street people. They thought I was one of them. Some of them actually looked better than me.

As I walked across the open area of Gare Saint-Lazare toward the Metro station, I saw a man wearing neatly pressed trousers and a green jacket; he would walk alongside people and ask for money in a high-pitched squeak. If they refused, he would stop and unleash a torrent of squeaking insult (I assume it was insult, at least -- I don't speak French). We made eye contact as I passed and he simply nodded his head in collegial fashion. That's another thing they leave out of the guidebooks and films about Paris, it's full of crazy people.

On the Metro, a young woman with spiked green hair appeared at a stop wearing a combination of all the silly clothes she had been able to find that day: bright red vinyl shoes, green trousers, a tattered pink tutu, a 1980s muscle T-shirt over a top that appeared to be made from the pelt of a Muppet, and an army jacket. Hanging from her neck, albatross-style, was a record player. Once the train got under way, she dropped the needle on a record and it faintly warbled out a French-language children's song, the record skipping as the train bounced along the track. I waited for her to do something else, but she just stood there, staring blankly, occasionally putting the needle back into its groove. After several painful minutes of this, she produced a cup and began walking down the aisle signaling that she was expecting to be paid.

People dropped coins in her cup and I wondered if perhaps I could pick up some extra cash by doing a little dance for them. I could finally put to good use all the square dancing we had to learn in school. I can do a mean do-si-do, baby. Maybe the woman and I could put together a little performance-art act: Punky No-Fashion-Sense Girl and Two-Steppin' Beat-Up Homeless Guy! Coming soon to a subway train near you!


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