France Comes Back

 

He told me to take a picture with my eyes. Look at the building of stones in front of us, awash in white twinkle upon French onyx sky and let the sight sink in. Absorb it, he said. Don’t look away like most people do, just allow the lines and the edges and the brick and the light to etch itself into your brain. Then close your eyes like a camera’s shutter, and you’d be surprised how clearly you remember that image forever.

 

He was right of course. I recall the endless steps leading to the intricate wooden doors, the iron handles, the dark windows, the glow of a million tiny lights casting stained glass shadows. I follow the vision outward; walk the narrow cobbled street, pass the glass apartment buildings so silly against the more sturdy history all around us, and hop the curb to where we sat, drunk and breathless. Not daring to touch hands we purposely kept too close.

 

We were in Toulouse and he was not mine. We both had others, but I was on hiatus, cheated on and scabby; and he was in the middle of a years-long relationship with someone he’d known as a boy. We’d come to France with two other friends, and he wasn’t for me. His sleeping bag was too neatly folded, his mind too softened by pot, his mouth too sarcastic and sharp. So we came to it slowly somewhere in Paris, not resisting the kindred as it grew unnoticed, seeking each other in crowded dirty bars, across the street from Notre Dame, behind the Sacré Cœur. I’m not given to think that on Fullerton streets we’d feel the same quickening and solace in each other, but the enchanted light of France bewitched us into thinking we were far away from everything sensible.

 

And so we were. It took some time before we kissed. A week and some days; it was the night of the picture I snapped with my eyes. I still wonder if he did it on purpose. Made me forever remember a night so seemingly inconsequential now that I’m 42, married, and mothering. The truth is it was nothing. A brief kiss he abandoned soap-opera-style midway through because he was betrothed. So old-fashioned: betrothed. But he was, really and truly, and the course was set; I know now that he followed it.

 

I don’t need to tell you there were more moments, plucked from late nights and chance meetings. New Year’s Eve in a country cottage beset with toile and crepes, stairwells behind thin walls, smoky tables set with wine spills and crumbs. Mornings after, in a rental car full of Peter Gabriel and backpacks, we’d sit as if our hands hadn’t touched just hours before. Try denying secret romance amidst the twisting rocks of the Pyrenees and the crumbling ruins dotting Bordeaux’s Valley. Magic vapor enveloped us at every turn, especially when we crossed into Costa Brava’s blue expanse.

 

 

The four of us made spaghetti that night in our rented white-washed apartment. A meal so decidedly unexotic, we made up for it by traipsing through Catalonian streets courting adventure. He stayed behind seeped in guilt. We’d be going home soon and the magic would lift to expose what we’d really done. It wasn’t twinkling lights and the Mediterranean, it was cheating pure and simple. So I came back early that night. There were only days left.

 

Days, months, years, entire lives.

 

We returned to Los Angeles holding hands.

 

My philandering sometimes boyfriend found pictures I couldn’t deny, and didn’t. His now-wife never found out.

 

I promise I don’t look back, or yearn, or wish differently. I’m only glad he taught me how to take pictures with my eyes.