Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 5

This is a chapter from my book, The Way Forward. Buy the whole novel now from or

I was up early the next morning to visit where my Let's Go! guide said Jim Morrison was buried and take pictures of his grave for my brother before heading back to Portsmouth. In the cemetery, I had to pee and ducked behind a large grave site to relieve myself. In an attempt to keep God from striking me down on the spot, I apologized profusely to Him and the person buried there for not being able to hold my bladder.

"God, I promise that it's OK if people pee on my grave," I lied.

The French had hardly acknowledged Christmas Day, so, Boxing Day carried no weight at all. I guess that's not surprising; in the United States we call Boxing Day "the day after Christmas." In my family, we call it "the day we all go eat lunch at Applebee's." But I wasn't feeling very pro-French, so I was inclined to hold it against them that they didn't celebrate a British holiday.

At least everything was up and running. At the station, waiting for the train to take me back to Le Havre, I again debated buying a porno magazine but again opted for a pain au chocolat. This decision apparently made me a decent enough fellow to serve as a baby sitter. I was sitting on a bench eating my pastry when a woman walked up to me, pointed at three children, and asked me a question in syrupy French.

"Oh. Uhm. Je ne parle pas Français," I said, using the phrase that Jacques had taught me.
"Oh. English, yes?" she asked.
"You watch, OK?"
"Uhm, OK."
"Good. I come back. Thank you."

I didn't actually mean "OK." I was just doing that thing of repeating it back to her because I was confused and didn't want to stare at her in uncomfortable silence. But it had been good enough for her. She turned to the children, a boy and two girls, pointed at me, said something to them in the instructive tone that mothers use, and then strode away. The children came and sat next to me on the bench. I suppose I should be flattered that I am such a friendly looking person that even with a bandage over one eye I look like I can be trusted with children, but it's a little weird, isn't it? I'll bet that's not anywhere in those parenting books.

"Bonjour," I said to the boy.

He was the oldest of the three; probably 9 years old. The two girls looked to be about 5 years old and looked enough alike I decided they were twins.

"Bonjour," he said.
"You don't speak English, do you?"
"Yes, English," I said, pointing to myself. "England."

By this point I was starting to give up on being truthful about my nationality. Even a 9-year-old's anti-American ridicule was more than I wanted to deal with. All Americans abroad eventually reach this point. The United States just has a bad reputation that you don't really want to carry around on your shoulders all the time. And every other country seems to arm its citizens with random facts they can hold against Americans in conversation: "More British soldiers were shot by American troops than by Iraqi in the Gulf War;" "There are only 15 people in Germany who like baseball;" "The CIA is actively working to prevent Belgian world dominance."

After a while, most Americans get sick of it and say they are from Canada. There are probably as many people around the world claiming to be Canadian as there are actual Canadians. But French people expect Canadians to know French, so I usually told them I was from just across the channel. I still took a good deal of ridicule, but it was more often about sport or perceived lack of culture. The boy sitting next to me had yet to develop any anti-England sentiment and perked up at my mention of one of his school subjects.

"I have sisters. Today there is cold," he said, smiling. "We are at train station."

He was running through all the English phrases he could think of. It was cute. I held out a thumbs-up sign and smiled.

"Your English is good, dude. Très bon," I said.

He laughed and rocked back and forth on the bench as he broke into excited French. He dug into the front pocket of his coat and found a deck of cards. His sisters giggled and clapped their hands in that over-the-top little girl way as he dealt out the cards. After a few seconds, I figured out we were playing a game that was probably called: "Go Completely Insane And Squeal With Laughter Every Time Someone Deals A Four." It was actually a lot of fun and I would later incorporate it into a drinking game.

I usually have fun with kids. But in all my thinking about what life would be like for Allison and me, I never really put kids in that picture. Every time we were together I liked to pretend we were married, and I was able to plot out every part of our lives together -- right down to our retiring to a little cabin on a lake where we would drink mint julep and dance barefoot in the evenings -- but kids were rarely part of that fantasy. Occasionally I would daydream about what it would be like to be a dad, and I guessed that Allison would make a pretty good mom. I imagined us with two or three laughing and playing kids, but they were part of the scenery. In my daydreams about Allison, she and I were the only things I really thought about. The world was trompe l'oeil -- only a backdrop. It was as if we were embraced in front of a blue screen. I didn't want the competition of children. It was hard enough at times to get Allison to pay attention to me without having to win out over a child. I can just imagine my son and me at the swimming pool:

SON: "Mom, watch me do a dive!"
ME: "No, Allison, watch me!"
SON: "Mom! Watch me!"
ME: "No, watch me first!"
SON: "Fine. Go ahead."
ME: "Allison, you're not watching -- you're reading your book. C'mon, honey, watch me! Watch me!"

Plus, children can put a strain I didn't want on a relationship. If Allison and I were to have kids, I wanted them to somehow already be like my little French card-playing friends. Despite having the sort of mother who chose to leave them in the care of a random bloke at the train station, they were very well-behaved. Although, after about 20 minutes I started to worry that I could keep them, as far as their mother was concerned.

"Oh, shit," I thought. "She's not coming back."

I had assumed she had left them with me so that she could run to the toilet, but now I wondered if perhaps I had unwittingly agreed to raise them as my own. Maybe someone had done the same thing to her at some point and these children spent the whole of their lives being passed from one unsuspecting traveler to another in the train station. It certainly sounds like the plot for a French film: The Children of Gare Saint-Lazare.

I decided I would give their mother 10 minutes, until my train left for Le Havre, before I did anything about it. I could take the next train and still catch the ferry back to Portsmouth. I tried to imagine how I was going to explain to a police officer that a woman had walked up to me and put me in charge of three children whose language I did not speak. And what if the kids didn't back me up on what happened? What if the woman who left them with me had told them I had adopted them? I could just imagine the lot of us in the station's gendarme office, with them pleading with me (in subtitles): "The woman said you would be our new daddy. Why do you not love us, Father?"

My imagination was spiraling out of control with worst-case scenarios, most of them involving my getting sent to prison, when I saw the woman hurriedly moving down the platform. She was carrying two large bags -- she had gone shopping. The kids cheered her return and she corralled them onto a train that was waiting on the opposite side of the platform from mine.

"Thank you. So kind," the woman said to me.

She kissed me on the cheek and gave me a bottle of orange juice.

I got onto my train with a minute to spare. It was another cold and lonely nonsmoking car, maybe even the same one I had come up to Paris in. I sat down and opened my orange juice, which was apparently the payment for baby-sitting in France. As my train lurched forward I looked across the platform to the train the children had boarded. I saw them through a window; they had resumed playing their card game. Their mother was laughing along with them.


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