THE TRAIN TO MARSEILLES

February 9, 2015

She kept the large plastic bin of memories in the basement storage closet behind the mattress and boxes that had recently filled the half-empty space where her daughter, taking a break from college, had piled them.

 

It wasn’t that she was hiding it from anyone — she and her husband, over glasses of silky wine, had gone through the items in the bin a few years ago, slowly unpacking the cracked leather hiking boots still carrying the remnants of Italian dust, and dogs she imagined. A cardboard pastilles box disintegrated as she pulled off the top, sprinkling them with crumpled lira notes and tiny pesetas.  A torn label from a box of Corn Flakes that she and Lexie had shared on a sunny morning in Delft with weak plastic spoons dipped in small paper cups.

 

Near the bottom of the bin, she pulled out the photo album and pointed, smiling and shaking her head over the lost years, at people she and Lexie had met randomly— at campsites, in museums, sipping wine in cafes — and remembered the brief moments when they had become the prime players of their summer experience.  

 

They were nineteen that summer and Erica Jong provided the schema that guided them.  They read Fear of Flying together, huddled close on the bus as they rode to school, giggling at the thought of a random night of passion with someone whose name they might not even know and face they would probably never see again.

 

An act only. Devoid of emotion and attachment, Jong advised.  It both excited and terrified them, but the mantra of their European summer was to squeeze every bit of adventure out of this experience before the stresses and tedium of note taking and college exams descended on their barely lived lives.

 

She recalled the tall lanky German who accompanied them around Munich, while she considered his suitability with raised eyebrows and sideways glances to Lexie, and then dismissed him from consideration as the food he proudly ordered for them arrived incorrectly and he bloomed with disproportionate fury. The Englishmen on the ferry to Calais, pale as almonds, flirty and interested, but years beyond eligibility. And the taste of home, Fourth of July hot dogs with the expats in Zurich, enough to remind them that each moment here was a brief treasure caught in bright light, the flash of youth, buoyant.

 

The photos from Paris and then Marseilles. Groups of bikinied, long haired girls, their arms around the shoulders of tanned, swarthy boys sitting cross legged on the beach, cigarettes, or joints, dangling from their grinning lips, wine bottles held upright in the hollow of their legs.  And then, a space on the page, where four tiny dried glue spots had given up their occupant. 

 

“What happened to this one?” asked her husband.

 

“Hmm. Not sure. Must’ve not come out well enough to keep,“ she said, turning the page.

 

On they went through the photographs, laughing over the image of bulky bath towels tied around their heads like babushkas to keep the ticks away while hiking in the dense cool of the Black Forest. 

 

She met him in the dining car of the SCNF local from Paris to Marseilles while attempting to count out the correct change for a petite baguette avec jambon, her high school Spanish useless.

 

“Huit francs trente-cing, s’il vous plait,” said the attendant, with an impatient sneer.     

 

He stepped around her and carefully plucked the francs from her sweaty outstretched palm and deposited them, smiling, into the expectant one opposite.

 

Surprised, she looked up, noticing his bright white teeth first and then his chestnut eyes, still squinting slightly from his smile.  He was lean, with bronzed skin and brown wavy hair that he had tucked behind both ears. He looked to be about her age, but who could tell with Frenchmen?  He could be fourteen.  She’d seen adolescents with moustaches and hairy legs in Paris.

 

But, non, he told her later as the three of them sat in the dining car, tearing at chewy baguettes and sipping mediocre red wine, talking as the countryside flew by and the sky grew soft.  He was twenty-three, a student at the Ecole College et Lycee Prives Saint-Coeur in Beaune and was joining some friends in Marseilles for the weekend to camp by the ocean.  His name was Jules, but he pronounced it Jule, rhyming it with school and mouthing it breathlessly as if he were a secret needing to be whispered.  

 

Were they heading to Marseilles that night? She could not remember, but the train took them there. At the campground, she and Lexie struggled, possibly intentionally, but without success, to pound their plastic tent poles into the hard, rocky beach, while watching Jules and his friends, prepared with pitons and hammers, raise their tents in minutes. Their own tent unfit, her friend eyed a sturdy Dutchman while she was invited to join Jules for the night. Erica Jong, be proud.

 

Though not new at this, her experience was less than his and their lovemaking was both surprising and tender. Sitting next to her husband whom she had loved for decades, her finger circling the hardened glue drops, she remembered the depth of her feelings for this stranger. She summoned the memory of his lips, soft and curious. Her sweaty skin cooled by the breath of her Frenchmen at the rolling edge of the Mediterranean. She ached remembering their parting with promises of future meetings that they both knew would never occur. And she thought of the photograph of her and Jules, arms around each other, eyes locked, safely tucked in the secret fold of her wallet and carried with her always. 

 

 

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