Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 3

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I bought Allison for $37 at a church fundraiser, the white slave trade being a great little money maker for Cleveland Avenue United Methodist.

That's not true at all, but it makes for a better story. What really happened: I bought a blue 3-by-5 card with hand-written self-description of a girl. In the upper right corner of the card, a number corresponded with the card's author. There were about 30 cards in all. The descriptions were read out by a chubby blonde with enormous hair who made a big production of handing each card to its highest bidder.

My $37 went toward restoration of the church's rectory. I still have no idea what a rectory is, or what it is used for, but I can tell you that it is the part of a church that sees the most abuse. Every time you go to a church in Europe, they are asking for money to restore the rectory.

After the auction, the guys were lined up, so the chubby blonde with enormous hair could make a big production of revealing with whom we had bought our dates. I had been dragged to the auction by a friend. As we stood in line, he realized I had managed to purchase the girl with the largest breasts, and gave me $15 to switch cards.

That's how I met Allison. Her number was 17. I still have the card.

Summers belonged to Allison. They gave her a super power. We went to different schools and through most of the year saw each other on a sort of rationed basis, as if we each were chocolate during World War II. Christmas and spring break helped, but it was the power of the summers that kept us together.

There was that first awkward summer, when all I did was stare at her. I couldn't think of what to do or what to say, so I didn't do or say anything. She did her best to draw me into conversation, though, and was very good about smiling at me. Then, at the end of the summer, everything fell together and some part of me couldn't let go.

There is something in every male that is desperate for that ego-boosting joy that comes from having a beautiful woman actually want to be near him. Queen frontman Freddie Mercury noted this fact with the song "Somebody To Love," although, arguably he wasn't singing about a woman.

That something is more consuming for some men than others, obviously. If you have it really bad, you find yourself relating to Queen songs. And it was there for me: the overwhelming desire to make a fool of myself for someone; to want to fall in love and be an idiot about it. Allison was happy to let me.

I spent my summers getting lost in her. I was especially fond of the trips we took to her family's cabin in Montana. I still can't disassociate her from sunflowers; there were endless fields of them in South Dakota, as we drove to the cabin. I made her drive through these stretches so I could just sit and gawk at her from the passenger seat. The car window made an obtuse frame for a moving portrait of her with endless yellow and green and blue in the background. I used up whole rolls of film taking pictures of her like this. Sometimes I would beg her to pull to the side of the road and stand in the fields, so I could take more pictures.

The long drives and days alone in the cabin were like drug binges. Lost weekends of breathing in her smell, feeling her skin, and tasting her kiss. But erratic highs bring erratic lows. We fought. Most of the time it was about stupid stuff. If I were on one of those TV shows where boneheaded people suddenly get in touch with themselves because they're in front of a studio audience, I might claim we were fighting because I was afraid she wasn't as crazy for me as I was for her. But that could very easily be bullshit, and I sure as hell wouldn't have thought of it at the time. All I knew is that we had fought a lot in the summer before going to Europe.


I made my way to Notre Dame Cathedral, where I was to meet Allison. In a demonstration that the French have no more taste than your average Arkansas resident, the walkway along the Seine River, leading to the cathedral, was decorated with happy pictures of Quasimodo, Esmeralda and Captain Phoebus from the Disney version of Hunchback of Notre Dame. In a demonstration that I am a dork, I thought I was being witty as I limped my way to the famous church muttering "sanctuary, sanctuary."

I would later learn that particular December was the coldest in Europe in more than 500 years. I would not have been surprised to hear it at the time. I was miserable. My face was throbbing. My body was twisted in pain from what I had decided was definitely the flu, or possibly Ebola. The cold tore into my joints as if I were being dismantled by a pair of pliers. And did I mention the asthma? Yeah, my asthma was acting up. I was a stinking hideous freak who had not slept properly or bathed in a day and a half, my left eye was swollen shut, my face was bruised and bandaged, I had a fever, my body was racked with pain, and I couldn't breathe. If Claire's motherly sex goddess instinct had been triggered by just some blood and a few stitches, Allison would not be able to keep her hands off the wheezing, pathetic wretch that awaited her.

But she never came.

I sat on an uncomfortable wooden chair in the cathedral, shivering uncontrollably, my teeth chattering, doing some on-and-off praying (not because I felt the need to commune with God, really, just that I was in a church and it seemed foolish to pass up the opportunity to pray). I stared at the old stone floor and listened to the hum of voices all around me. My head bobbed as I rolled back and forth from the edge of consciousness. I worried about Allison, that something might have happened to her on her way to Paris. But the pain and cold and exhaustion numbed my brain, and deep within me I somehow knew she was OK. And somehow I knew she wouldn't show up.

I wanted her to be there, though, to wrap her arms around me and make me warm. So, I just sat there, my blinking eyes slowing down life to a frame-by-frame slide show. I was staring at my shoes in a kind of fever-induced trance. Occasionally I would stare at the lines in my palms. I ran my fingertips lightly over my bandages then across my forehead, over my crooked nose, along my rough and patchy two-day stubble, along my chin and along the softness of my lips. My forehead felt hot; my skin was oily. I stared at my hands; my fingernails were dirty. I looked at my shoes; the tops were scuffed and gray. My shoes and hands looked older than I thought they should be, and I felt so much older than both.

After a few hours, a priest tapped me on the shoulder and was able to communicate through unintelligible rapid-fire French and hand signals that I didn't have to go home, but I couldn't stay there. He may have also asked if I would be willing to donate money to restore the church rectory.

"Yeah, she's fine, isn't she?" I said to the priest, who clearly did not understand a word. "She's just not coming."


Perhaps anticipating that I might be doing a bit of praying, some divine force had guided me to pack my Let's Go! travel guide for the trip, and with it I was able to find a youth hostel nearby -- the Hotel Baudelaire Bastille. I picked it just because it had the word "Bastille." If you're going to be in France, you might as well stay at the most Frenchy-sounding place you can find. For a handful of francs, I got a clean bed and breakfast in the morning -- if you call a croissant and hot chocolate breakfast, which, apparently, the French do.

My roommate was an enormous man who reminded me of a bison. He had a massive, Volkswagen-sized chest and long face. He looked a little old to be staying at a youth hostel -- his hair was starting to gray -- but I suspected no one would be willing to argue with him about age limits. When I entered the room, he grabbed my forearm and pulled me in to give me a kiss on the cheek. He flashed a warm grin filled with utilitarian teeth then whacked my shoulder and spoke to me in 1,000-mph French.

"Oh. I, uhm… I don't speak French," I said, wondering how to say the same thing in French.
"You speak English," the man boomed. "Perfect!"

He seemed genuinely delighted to be rooming with an English-speaking person, despite the fact that it was clearly not his native language. His English was jumpy, stuttering, and excited, like a 4-year-old trying to tell a joke. Except this 4-year-old was built like a military vehicle and had a voice that could be heard from a kilometer away. His name was Jacques. Of course. He was very proudly from Quebec. He wore blue jeans, a worn but neatly pressed red flannel shirt, and heavy leather boots. His appearance made me ask him if he was a lumberjack.

"No. But I like pancakes," he said.

He also liked France -- a lot. Jacques had been saving money to take a trip to France since his 17th birthday. I didn't want to ask how long that meant he had been saving his money, but he had set aside enough to spend eight months simply traveling around the country. He was giddy with plans, his dog-eared guidebook filled with highlighted pages and sections circled in red ink.

It was his first week in the country, and his first time to ever leave Quebec. He would spend more time in Paris in the spring, he said. Right now, though, the plan was to travel north and learn about his family history, an idea that had delighted his mother. He would dig up all the information he could find in Amiens, where his grandmother said the family came from, and send it back to his mother to be sorted out. Once spring came, he would spend a few weeks in Paris, then slowly work his way down to the southern beaches for summer. If he was lucky, he said, perhaps he would meet a nice woman along the way and they would get married and maybe have children and live in the French countryside.

"You've got it worked out pretty good," I said.
"OK. Not all. And some not so good," he said. "The women here try to speak English at me. They are too cold."

Just about everyone in Paris knows a little English. It is a required course in the schools. As a result -- perhaps because they think they are being helpful or perhaps because they are arrogant bastards who don't want you fouling their blessed tongue -- Parisians will insist upon speaking English to anyone who speaks French with a "foreign" accent. Obviously, uncultured American buffoons like me don't mind at all that Parisians speak English. I love it. But I had heard it listed among the major complaints of fluent speakers. Friends had told me stories of playing a strange game in which they spoke French, the Parisian spoke English back, they responded in French, and the two sides carried on like this indefinitely -- both refusing to give in to the other's language of choice.

"Do you speak French with an accent?" I asked Jacques. "I assume your French sounds different than the way it is spoken here?"
"My French? Yes, of course. There are some different words, phrases, too."
"Then when you meet a girl, tell her right away that you are Quebecer, and not English or an American."
"Do you like America?"

He tried not to make eye contact.

"See?" I said.


Jacques had some bottles of wine in his bag. He and I went through two of them, drinking from coffee mugs he found in the breakfast area. We sat in our room for a while and Jacques told me a joke that made me laugh so hard I went into a coughing fit. The wine was smooth and fruity and warmed me, but I got melancholy thinking about Allison. After hearing the story of my woeful journey and being stood up at Notre Dame, Jacques insisted upon hunting down some soup for me and then -- pointing out that he knew considerably more French than my "Je parler à Allison, si vous plais?" and "Je voudrais aller à la gare" -- offered to call down to Nantes, where Allison was attending university, to determine whether something had gone wrong.

"She says something very important is with the university, but she will see you on New Year's Eve," Jacques said, after coming back from the phone.
"Important? It's Christmas, Jacques. Does she know that I'm sick?"
"Yes, I tell her this. I tell her about your face and the coughing and all this snot. And she says it is the best that she does not come here to Paris. She might get sick, too," he said. "If I were a woman, I would not want to be with you. You look like shit."

I showered, put on as many articles of clothing as I could stand, and buried myself under the covers; no sweet, loving, motherly sex goddess by my side -- just a lumberjack, singing to himself as he got ready for a night out. I was exhausted and miserable (did I mention my eye? And the flu? And the asthma? OK, just checking), and I slept one of the deepest sleeps of my life.


The next day was Christmas Eve. I woke up around noon to Jacques' singing. The song was in French and seemed to have the perfect rhythm for cutting down trees.

"Hello. You still look like shit," he boomed. "I bring you a sandwich. Then I have to go. You are right about the girls -- I am not American; they are happy."

I went back to sleep, woke a few hours later, ate the sandwich with some hot chocolate, and went back to sleep.


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