The train weighs lightly on the locomotive and moves like a hurried whisper. The
landscape, to my surprise, looks a lot like the American Midwest: parched grass,
unfettered trees and thread-sized electric cables tied to giant poles. The grazing
cows might have looked healthier, but I couldn’t tell. I assume they did because the
meat tastes better here. It’s a similar scenario too for my Canon device: I sense her
disappointment in the texture of her gaze.
Almost two hours into the journey, we cross a bridge, so quickly
I can barely catch a glimpse of the emerald river
hiding in the shadows of reclining trees as if
it secretly gushed from the magical century of Merlin.
I redirect my gaze backwards and all I see,
over blue and gray seats, is a streak of bright green
snaking through a crooked column of trees.
Toulon makes me think
Tanned middle-aged women in strapless dresses
crossing streets with baskets of baguettes.
Yellow and pink houses along winding cobblestones
overlooking the blue expanse of the Mediterranean.
Lounging towels on the crowded beach
dreading the weight of wet bodies.
The maternal suppleness of the couch
in my friend’s apartment and its ability
to recline into an adequate bed
when the lights begin to dim.
Toulon makes me think
about the rest of my life and what
it must feel like to call a place home and truly mean it.
The heat burns like July but it is not overbearing;
Paris is on her best behavior — she must know it is my last night.
I stand by Villiers Metro and observe the gothic design of an old building
protruding into the main road. It edges so close to traffic, the drivers of those small Renault cars could literally stretch their hands and touch its historic wall. I light a cigarette and try to forget about tomorrow.
I see him at the end of the street: tall, smartly dressed and the same. A little taller maybe but the same. He skips a dent on the pavement without looking; you can tell this is his city.
We walk past most of his life: his high school, his favorite restaurant, his childhood bedroom, his laughing mother on the wall, his work briefcase on the living room table, and the lingering presence of his ex-girlfriend.
The basement path to the wine cellar looks like a World War II tunnel, and I wonder about the number of people who must have hid here when the Nazis came. I suppose the wine collection is not just a collection of wine. His father has been collecting wine in this creaky cellar for over 30 years and every dusty bottle, I’m certain, tells a story, a story, perhaps, of luminous idealism and the reckless audacity of youth, stories of rusted silver on Obrey watches, fissured surfaces of accumulated ambition, cracks in space and time — stories, ultimately, of our uncertain futures.
We talk over the most expensive bottle of wine I’d ever had. We talk about the golden days of 2008 clearly aware we were mythologizing our memories. But they were golden, so luminously bright, we remember very little of everything else, even those bad moments that threatened the stability of the entire group.
We laugh about aging. Young girls calling him “Monsieur” and me being the oldest traveler at hostels. There’s some sadness in our voices, and we make no effort to conceal it.
We talk over whiskey and cigarettes about friends who have changed and those who haven’t, the ones who will get married first and the one who is already pregnant. We talk about the ex-girlfriend who got fat and recall the names we had forgotten.
****Paris smells like a bread oven in the morning****
I hate goodbyes but emotions are easier to manage when you are half-asleep and hung-over. My walk back to Villiers Metro is quick. The gothic building is drenched in the morning glow and the uneven cobblestones anxiously anticipate the full weight of modernization. One final glance before descending the slimy Metro stairs.
I am drunk and losing consciousness. Toulon is falling asleep and the gushing Mediterranean waves begin to sound like a lullaby.
Before this trip, I had only met Souchi once, three years ago, on the sweltering mountains of Northern Thailand. We were part of a larger group, but we did get the chance to talk for a few hours. Backpackers have a tendency to develop intense philosophical connections but nothing really becomes of it when you return to the reality of your rigid life, free of ideology and only driven by the zeal to survive.
I didn’t know what to expect when I dragged my suitcase onto the Gare du Toulon platform but there he was, smiling as if Thailand was yesterday. I remembered the honesty of his arched eyebrows as I leaned to understand his words. I recognized the rhythm of our voices, skipping but steady, confused and unapologetic. I remembered the context lost in translation, the silence of acknowledgement and the meaning implied. Thailand was yesterday.
His friends call it a night and between the long and sloppy goodbyes, my French finally becomes fluid. We are now alone, and he is reclining the couch into my bed. Before fully losing consciousness, I tell myself to remember, really remember, how lucky I am to own a moment like this.
But I will forget you see. I will forget when I board the train and squeeze next to an unfriendly stranger. I will forget when I endure a barrage of questions from the American Immigration officer because the color of my passport is green. I will forget when I return to a job I don’t like and drink at the back of bars with friends I have nothing in common with. I will forget when I am alone in a crowded room trying to remember that I should not forget.