I watched the morning light move over the towers of Notre Dame in Paris transforming its cold grey stone to warm umber and listened to the beating of my heart. Was this the day that beating would stop? The seed of fear I carried within had over the months grown like a black pearl, and at night alone in my bed, husband and lover gone, I felt it displacing my heart and compressing my lungs. During the moment before sleep darkness closed around me and became a prelude to death.
During the past two days wandering the streets of Paris I had been so overcome by the beauty of this city, this living work of art, that I had forgotten the fear. Now, transfixed by the transcendent morning light, the ancient cathedral, and feeling the life of the city around me, the fear returned. I wept to think I could have lived my life and missed all of this.
A tour group surrounded me, all snapping photos of the ancient cathedral. In the midst of this crowd I felt alone, as if only I were feeling the morning breeze and smelling the scent of water rising from the Seine. My knees went weak and I trembled all over. For a moment I thought this might be a relapse. Then I realized that it was emotion sweeping through me, from being in this city that I had so long wanted to experience. Why had I waited so long, almost too long, to come here? Whatever the reason for my almost life long delay, I wasn’t going to make a spectacle of myself like one of those people who succumb to the Stendhal Syndrome and faint at the sight of overwhelming beauty.
Pull yourself together Sandra. Yes, you’re having a reaction to this city. It’s almost unbearably beautiful, the light, the narrow streets and graceful architecture and just the essence of this so very alive city. It’s as I imagined it, but more alive, more gorgeous, more real, like a painting come to life and I’m in it.
I took a deep breath to steady myself and realized I was perspiring and that the weakness wasn’t entirely due to emotion. Maybe I was pushing myself too much. Only three weeks since I left the hospital. Could I really do what I had started out to do? Maybe I should just stay here. I could spend the rest of my life, whatever that might amount to, in this city and never get to know all of it. Why hadn’t I come here after college as I could have? Everything would have been different.
I introduced myself as Logan Montana, my work name, stage name, name by which I now lived, and asked if she was all right. Sandra Livingston shook hands weakly, her hand thin and cold in mine.
“Oh yes,” she said. “I’m fine, just fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Logan, really, I’m as fine as I can be.”
After chatting for a few minutes we wandered away from the crowd near the doors of the cathedral to a wrought iron bench. It was early spring, morning sky like the inside of a pearl, scent of damp pavement from street cleaners, buzz of motor scooters, women in bright dresses and high heels tapping along the sidewalk.
Sandra dropped her small backpack on the bench and I noticed a seashell attached to it. We sat in the shade of Napoleon’s plane trees and made small talk. She was from San Rafael California. I also was from California. It was her first visit to France. I had been here many times. Yes, Paris is even more beautiful than could be imagined. She studied my face as we chatted, deciding whether to trust me. Then she told me her story.
Sandra had lost her husband, John, to a stroke two years ago, a shock to everyone. He had been only thirty-six. Randy, her ten year-old-son, had been killed in an auto accident while she was undergoing chemotherapy a few months after John’s death. The chemo had been pronounced successful, but there were doubts. The cancer might return. Nothing was certain.
A friend had given her a book while she was in the hospital and she read about El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, The Road of Saint James that led to his cathedral in the city of Compostela in Spain. Sandra had been intrigued by the idea of a centuries old pilgrim’s path that had fallen into disuse but was now renewed and followed by thousands each year. Many of the pilgrims were not religious but motivated by personal reasons. Surrounded by tubes and monitors, pierced by IVs, she had decided to set out for Compostela when and if she was able.
“In medieval times,” Sandra said, “the pious believed the path of Saint James led to certain salvation. If they completed their pilgrimage they would be forgiven their sins and could start their lives fresh, free of their past.”
“And do you have some great sin that needs forgiving?” I asked, with a smile.
The light that came to her eyes while talking about the Camino faded and she looked down and then up into my eyes, “Don’t we all?”
Sandra seemed to see inside of me and I flushed with shame. Then she looked down again and I realized she was simply answering my question with a universal question, one I chose to ignore.
“So you’re Catholic?” I asked.
“No,” a slight head shake. “When I was a girl. Not now. Not for many years.”
“A return to childhood faith? You’re religious?”
“Not at all. Are you?” Catching my eyes again, a small challenge.
“Hardly. But I’m not walking to Spain.”
“So you just cruise Notre Dame to pick up stray women,” this with a touch of the devil in her smile.
“Actually, I was on my way to work. Maybe I should get going.” I moved as if to get up.
She put her hand on my arm. “Oh stop. I was just poking at you a little.”
“So tell me, why are you doing this?”
“I will not sit and worry and wait for tests. I’ve lost most of the people I love. Losing John, and then Randy… He was so young. My parents are gone, my sister Susan…Well, we never see each other or even talk. After the insurance ran out, our home went for medical bills, along with all of our savings. I have nothing left to lose and no one to take care of except myself. Really, the question is, why not?”
Like many women, Sandra had spent much of her life caring for others. The assumption that this was understood to be a woman’s life was unspoken, but there. She told me there were many roads leading to Compostela and that each person’s path begins at their own doorstep. In a sense Sandra’s pilgrimage had started at her home and brought her here to Notre Dame. Most pilgrims began their walk further south, only a few started here, on the compass rose of kilometer zero – the center of Paris. From this point she intended to walk a thousand miles to the cathedral of Saint James and possibly even further to Cape Finnestere, a point on the coast of Spain the ancients believed to be the end of the world.
Her blue eyes were soft and frighteningly vulnerable, her eyelids almost translucent. Could she possibly make it, walking for months in all kinds of weather, through frozen mountain passes, across sun-hammered plains?
“Why must you walk? Surely there are trains or buses to Compostela.”
Sandra patted her forehead with a white linen handkerchief edged with lace, “It’s not just the destination. It’s the road. It has to be the road. I have to walk it. I know it doesn’t make sense but something is pulling me towards the Camino. I dream about it night after night.”
Her eyes went inward. “I guess it’s become an obsession. After what I’ve been through it would be stupid to talk about magic or miracles. But in my dreams Compostela is a magical city washed in golden light at the end of the world and it can only be reached by traveling the Camino on foot. There’s also something…I don’t know, intriguing I guess, about Cape Finnestere, the notion of it once being the end of the known world, a jumping off point to the unknown. Maybe because I’ve been on the edge of the unknown.”
“But what do you expect to find?”
Sandra ignored my question and told me about the Camino itself. There were refugios along the way, sometimes in monasteries, more often in ordinary buildings. These hostels were manned by volunteers and provided a place to sleep and simple meals for a small fee, some of them for whatever donation the pilgrim could afford. The refugios were a day’s walk from each other so she would not have to camp and carried only her small pack with essentials and a change of clothing.
Even with the hostels this journey would be a challenge for a person in good health, perhaps an unachievable goal for a woman in her condition.
“Are you sure you can make it Sandra?”
She looked down for a long moment, biting her lip, fiddling with her pack straps. Then she closed one hand into a fist and put it in her lap. “I’ll make it or I’ll die along the way. No matter what you want or wish, death comes when it comes. If it comes to me on the road I’ll be with my husband and son.”
“So you do believe.”
She opened her fist, turned her palm upwards and lifted her chin, “I guess I believe in something.”
Her spirit was strong, but Sandra was emotionally drained by her losses, and her body was weak, wracked by disease and scourged by treatment. I raised some practical issues: minor injuries, blisters, weather, adequate water, finding her way – familiar matters to any long distance walker – and again, the more serious matter, her physical stamina.
She shook her head slightly but firmly, putting aside my concerns, “If I’m supposed to complete this pilgrimage it will all work out and the strength will come to me. If not…” she shrugged. “And I won’t get lost. I have this to guide me,” turning her pack to display the seashell. “It’s a scallop shell, the symbol of the Camino. There are signs along the path with the shell pointing the way.”
Stories about miraculous healing are not part of the Saint James legend. But Sandra wasn’t seeking a miracle cure.
“I don’t expect the heavens to open,” she said, “or the cancer I might still be carrying to magically evaporate. It’s just… I need a fresh start.”
Sandra thought that putting one foot in front of the other for months and miles could be a form of meditation that would bring her strength and courage, and at the end of the road she might find a purpose for the rest of her life. If her life were to end along the way, that end would be better than dying in a hospital hooked up to tubes and wires.
We talked for an hour or so with little held back, the way travelers who meet on the road sometimes do. We talked of what ifs, might have beens, family and work, wishes and regrets. She told me about her husband and family and their former comfortable life together, the country club and big house and how it all disappeared in a tsunami of pain and medical bills. She told me childhood stories: her dog named Brownie who slept in her bed, the lemon tree in her yard she climbed to hide from everyone, her red bicycle with a bell on the handlebar that pinched her finger when she rang it. It’s dangerous when a woman’s childhood stories make you smile and you find yourself leaning towards her. You could slip right over the edge.
I told her how I had accidentally stumbled into the world of high fashion and had built an idea and a chance meeting into an international menswear company. And then sold it.
“You regret selling. Don’t you?”
“I’ll be glad to get the money.”
“What has the money cost you?”
He sat silent for a few minutes.
“Look, I’m just a suburban housewife who worked as an illustrator for a few years after college. I don’t know much about the fashion business and even less about international business. But I can see when someone’s unhappy.”
He looked at me, then away to the streets of this magical city, and said, “Isn’t Paris lovely this time of year?”
I laughed at his clumsy attempt to move away from an uncomfortable topic, “Okay, I’ll drop it.”
After a moment he laughed with me.
“Oh look,” I said, pointing at a balustrade of the cathedral. While we had been talking the sky had become overcast and gray. Now sunshine broke through and again transformed turned the cold stone to soft gold, the light and stone seeming to transfuse into one another. The tower bells began to ring. A breeze swept through the open plaza rustling the leaves above us, a wren fluttered to ground at our feet and time seemed suspended. His eyes caught mine and for that narrow slice of time we were joined in perfect communion, the changing light, the wind in the trees, the dust colored bird, the bell’s lingering reverberation, all part of a fragile crystalline moment. Then a horn honked, tires screeched and the world rushed in.
“Don’t say good bye,” she said with that slight head shake and a warm smile. “Say, ultreya.”
“You speak Spanish?” Ultreya in Spanish means onward.
“Only a little. Ultreya is a special word that pilgrims use to encourage each other when the going is hard. When they’re frightened of a mountain pass, or tired, or footsore and thinking about giving up they say to one another, ‘Ultreya.’ Most don’t walk alone you know.”
She tilted her head forward and looked up from under her brows. Her eyes snapped with a trace of mischief and she showed me a little more of the woman she had once been, the woman still inside, “Maybe I’ll meet someone to walk with along the way.” That devilish smile again.
I was struck silent for a moment and imagined myself walking with her through Spanish hills and remembered times past when those hills were home to all that I had loved. I had work to do, but none I wanted to do. They had bought more than I had known that I sold. Drop everything? Go with her? The Paris show and the fashion world could go on without me. But there were other matters that held me back. There was Diane.
I let go of her hand, “I’m sure you will.”
Her smile faded and she looked towards the street. She turned away, took a step, then another. I watched her walk across the plaza. She reached the curb and I called out to her, “Ultreya.”
Looking over her shoulder she gave me a last small smile, waved, and then looking ahead stepped into the street moving carefully between cars and scooters, a little unsteady on her feet but going forward with her head up and the heart of a lion.
My own heart swelled as she walked away and for that moment I loved her a little. I thought of calling out to her, catching up and going with her. But I didn’t. Where did he go, that younger me who would have gone with her, with the moment? A door had opened, and closed. And I returned to my meetings and measured days.
Business kept me in Paris and Sandra remained in my thoughts. During a restless night I dreamed of her and in my dream confused her with another fair haired woman named Sandra, a woman I had loved in my youth as only a young man can love, an older woman who discarded me along with her sandals and sunscreen, as she would any summer toy when the season was over and it was time to return to her husband.
Frantic preparations for the runway show went on around me. My attention drifted. In empty moments I closed my eyes and saw Sandra walking through the deep green heart of France and across the Spanish plain, getting stronger step by step and coming at last to her magical city, Santiago de Compostela.
I hurried around the corner and walked fast for a block, then slowed. I was too shaky to continue at a fast pace but had wanted to get away from Logan before I humiliated myself by asking him to please, please, please come with me. I was not as fearless as I had pretended. My weakened body could fail in a remote place with no one to help. My talk about dying on the road sounded brave, but it could happen and I was scared.
I had talked about walking a thousand miles through France and Spain as if it were nothing more than a summer vacation. But it was more, much more than that. For me it was going to be an epic journey through strange countries, well, strange to me. I didn’t imagine walking across France and Spain was like trekking through Africa or China. But for me it might as well be. Nothing in my life had prepared me for this. Anything could happen on the road. Europe was lovely, what I’ve had seen of it so far, but it wasn’t paradise. Most pilgrims walked with a group.
Logan projected easy confident masculinity and competence. He could handle anything that might happen along the way. He obviously knew Europe well. I would be safer with him. I should have simply asked him to come with me. I had asked as obviously as my pride would allow. He understood what I had meant. For a moment he had wanted to come with her. Something held him back. Did he have a wife? He was attracted to me. You could always tell. How could he be attracted to me in my condition? Maybe I didn’t look so bad? Maybe I was kidding myself.
I had felt it. He had been focused on me, his intensity like the heat from another sun, raising feelings I had not experienced since John’s death. I had thought sex had been burned out of me along with the cancer. Now…and not just that. I sensed that he truly saw me – saw me as a person. He had been genuinely concerned I wouldn’t be able to complete this journey, that something bad might happen to me. So rare. Most men just wanted a quick lay. And that one moment, almost magical, when the bells were ringing and we were somehow…together.
The notion was absurd really. Couldn’t expect anyone to just pick up and walk away from his life, least of all a successful man like Logan. He seemed to be burdened with deep melancholy, but that didn’t mean he was ready to walk off with some half crazy woman one lovely morning in Paris. I was being silly. Best to get on with it. I had to face my fears and learn to deal with solitude. I had rarely ever been alone. It would be easy to join up with a group. But I couldn’t do that. I had to face this journey on my own.
In the hospital I had come face to face with my own death. I had thought that I understood death. My understanding had been that of a grieving and bereft wife and mother. Faced with the horror of nothingness I had been terrified by death’s imminence, and, even if given a temporary reprieve, its eventual inescapability. I was secretly ashamed of my own terror and lack of courage. I was going to walk this path, see where it led and face whatever was to come.
I had spent too much of my life doing what was expected of me. I had been a good girl, got good grades in college, maybe played the field a little too widely, or maybe not. It was art school after all, and I dressed in black, smoked weed, and played the role of the disaffected artist. Later I had played well the roles of wife and mother. Were those just roles? I had been a good wife and mother, an attractive young matron who kept her figure, played tennis, took yoga. I had flirted a little at the club, but didn’t let things get out of hand…until. Best not to dwell on the past. Best to think about the future. Spain. The Camino.
I walked for an hour or so, glancing at my map occasionally but lost in thought and paying little attention to my surroundings. I had crossed the ring road that surrounds Paris and was now in a shabby neighborhood of concrete high rise buildings as gray and cheerless as the lowering sky had become, overflowing trash bins smelling of rotten fruit, littered streets, graffiti covered walls, groups of young men idling on corners. I stubbed my toe on a curb and when I looked up noticed two of the young men staring at me. They were dark skinned and unshaven and wore hooded sweatshirts.
I walked faster. Then realized I had no idea where I was going. Confused, I stopped and checked my map. I was lost. Where were the scallop shell markers, where my previous bravado?
One of the men said something to the other and they left their spot near a lamppost and started walking towards me. A frission of fear ran through me. This was silly. They were just two men. This was Paris, nothing could happen here. Then I remembered reading that crime that was endemic in certain parts of Paris, and about the riots and violence by Algerians. Or was it Moroccans? Why were they coming towards me? For a moment I was tempted to run. That would be useless. I could barely walk fast. They could easily catch me. I certainly wasn’t going to scuttle away or cower in fear.
I remembered my martial arts classes and the teaching of my instructor. The classes had been years ago, but I remembered some things and they were all I had, and commitment. The instructor said that was the most important thing, commitment. I took a deep calming breath, and another one. By the third breath I was…not exactly calm, but focused and determined to defend myself if it came to that.
The men had crossed the street and were coming straight towards me, and now they were close, very close. The tall one with a thin face, an eagle’s nose, and bloodshot eyes smiled and said, “Bonjour Madame J’ai l’impression que vous ete perdue.”
I had enough French to realize he was asking me if I was lost. I stammered something in what I thought might be French, and realized now they were quite young, probably middle to late teens.
The short round faced one switched to English when he saw how little French I had, “You are from America, yes? Not English I think.”
“Yes, from America.”
“And a pilgrim, yes? Your scallop shell tells me.”
Nothing in their body language was threatening. They asked me where I was going, looked at my map and offered to walk with me to show the way to the marked pilgrim’s path. Relief flooded through me. These were two nice young boys offering to help a confused passerby. I had let my fears run away with me for a moment.
Twenty minutes later, after finding the right road, the tall one gave me his cell number and said to call if I got lost again. We parted with waves and smiles, “Bon voyage,” they called out. “Au revoir merci,” I said, and continued on with a quiet glow of pride – mixed with a bit of embarrassment at my slight prejudice. Would I have been afraid if they had not had dark skin? Never the less, I had done well in this encounter, had faced my fear, been ready to fight if things had turned bad, but had not overreacted and so made the acquaintance of my first Frenchmen, well, boys.
The Paris opening was a success, much applause for the runway show, large orders from the major stores. There would be good reviews in the trades. One of the models, a lanky French girl with hair like a raven’s wing and enormous eyes outlined with kohl had been more than flirtatious, making sure I was watching her, turning towards me while she changed. There was something particularly lovely about the line of her thigh… But there had been too many models and too much trouble because of them.
Years ago I had needed comfortable civilian clothing for meetings in a South East Asian country. While in Hong Kong I had a tailor make a couple of outfits to my design with the easy fit, comfort and tropic weight of my old field uniforms. A buyer from a famous American store had approached me in the lobby of the Peninsula, the legendary Hong Kong hotel – a remnant of colonial days – and asked where I got my clothing. “A unique approach,” he said. “A blending of dress and casual clothing, obviously comfortable. A new look.”
An hour later I was in business with a six-figure order and little knowledge of how to fulfill it, only the confidence that I somehow could. I had become weary of who I was and what I had been doing in Asia and was ready for a change. I wrapped up my immediate affairs and jumped into this new world of high fashion without first looking to see where I might land.
Although I made men’s clothing with no concessions to a woman’s fit, half of my customers were women. A ‘revolutionary collection,’ the fashionistias called it. The structure of the so-called collection was modeled on army issue uniforms. There were no brass buttons or epaulets, but the underlying concepts were there for anyone with an eye to see. The look had caught on and I had become moderately well off by international standards, rich by the measure of my hometown. Although I hated having to appear at these shows and be interviewed and play designer, the travel, and the cut and thrust of business had been absorbing, and I had welcomed the independence that came with the money.
The after party required my presence, at minimum a walk through. I had refused to do yet another runway appearance. Bobbie, my road manager had rented a private reception hall at the Pompidou Center. I stopped in the men’s room, splashed cold water on my face and ran my fingers through my hair, long and over the ears, three days of beard, tired eyes, hollow cheeks. A silk evening jacket that looked like I had slept in it, rumpled linen shirt and loose fitting linen slacks, fencer’s shoes – all black, a white rose bud in my lapel. I looked the part, even if I no longer wanted to play the part. I took a deep breath and downed the double espresso the attendant held out to me. Curtain up.
In the reception hall the usual scene: a banner – Logan Montana’s Sempre Primavera – a buffet with Champagne and lobster, a bank of flat screens running a loop of the runway show. I moved slowly through the crowd, fragmentary conversations, buyers touching my sleeve, dropping hints about how little they were paid and how large the orders they had placed with my sales reps. I smiled, waved to strangers across the room.
Jerry, one of my lead salesmen snagged me by the arm. “You look really beat Logan.” He reached into his jacket pocket, came out with a little bottle and offered me a hit of cocaine from the tiny attached spoon.
“You do know that stuff’s illegal?”
“Aw man, everybody does it.”
“Not in a room with half the industry watching. You want to read about Logan Montana doing the White Lady in the trade news?”
Jerry looked around, seemed to wake up, “Oh. Right. Sorry man.”
Roseanne, the buyer for a major department store on Manhattan’s East Side was a few feet away and watching us closely, her greedy eyes on Jerry’s bottle. As I moved away from Jerry she headed straight for him, running on tracks like the Midnight Special.
The jazz combo took a break and the deejay spun an old Roy Orbison song, ‘Only The Lonely.’ In the center of the dance floor three slender young men in Armani white slow danced together, arms around each other’s waists taking turns sipping Mumms from a large goblet. Models, photographers, PR people, sales people, assistants. The Pack – a flock of fashion groupies who slipstreamed designers during the semiannual migration from factory to fashion shows – Hong Kong to Milan, Paris, New York – nudged and jostled each other for favored positions, pigeons after bread crumbs, all in the season’s latest plumage. I smiled, murmured meaningless pleasantries, shook hands, patted shoulders and pretended to be an important person, a celebrity.
A nice woman from the U.S. Department Of Commerce waved and I stopped to chat for a moment. Marcia struggled to get by in Paris on her government expense allowance and I occasionally took her to dinner along with a couple of other friends, a well-read, serious young woman in a sensible suit and large glasses, a wise little owl surrounded by a flock of chattering parrots. I took Marcia’s hand and we went to the floor, dancing slowly, our bodies touching lightly, the first time we had been so close, new awareness awakening. She wore an unfamiliar spicy scent, not what I would have thought a government employee might choose. The song ended and we stepped away from each other, surprise and speculation between us. I had to go. Now. I smiled, said, “See you again soon.” I glanced over my shoulder as I walked away. Marcia was watching me, bemusement in every line of her face.
As I made for the door Cynthia, a journalista for one of the fashion rags, ambushed me, her hair bleached and spiked, blood red lipstick and nails. She put her hand on my arm, nails digging in.
“Oh Logan. Your collection is just so fabulous. I just love the pale voiles and white linen, and everything so free and loose and comfortable. It’s just all… just so…I don’t know… so…something. What’s your underlying theme?”
“You know. What does it all mean?”
“The clothes are for summer. It’s hot in summer.”
I was headed for the exit with a couple bottles of the Mumms when Bobbie intercepted me, a small trim woman with short cropped chestnut hair, sharp featured and unselfconsciously pretty, bright, psychology degree, drifted into music then fashion. She wore a gray silk shirt and slacks from my collection the way they were meant to be worn – casually, no fussiness or posing, get dressed and forget about the clothing. Bobbie was quietly efficient and mothered everyone who needed it, and some who didn’t
“I thought you only drank the private stock Bollinger.”
“Oh Christ, have I become that much of an ass?”
“Two bottles? Are you meeting someone?” Raised eyebrow.
“Now don’t start.”
“Well you can’t drink champagne from the bottle.”
She held out a Baccarat crystal flute engraved with my initials, a gift that had come with a best of show award last year. There had been a pair. The other one had been lost somewhere on the road, maybe broken.
“Here let me hold that,” she said reaching for one of the bottles as I tried to take the glass and shift both bottles to one hand. Somehow I wound up with the glass in one hand and one bottle in the other. She held on to the second bottle, “I think this bottle is too warm. You won’t like it warm. Why don’t you take just the one…”
Bobbie meant well.
Finally I escaped with a single bottle and walked to the Seine, where I sat on the riverbank drinking the wine and watching the life of Paris – the bateau mouches – sightseeing boats – lighting the water, strolling musicians, lovers walking hand in hand, a group of backpackers and the scent of marijuana, a couple embracing in the shadows.
My thoughts drifted to that model, the one with the beckoning eyes, and to Marcia, the memory of her inner thigh against mine, and Sandra, her vulnerability and determination. But no. Couldn’t think about any of them if I wanted Diane to again be my wife in more than name. Did I? Could I change that much, be someone I had never been? Diane had known from the beginning, known who I was, how I am. I had not lied to her. We talked about it, talked it to death. We thought we could manage. And we did, when we were together. We would lose ourselves for days in an envelope of sensual haze, unending days and nights of lovemaking when all the world fell away and there was nothing but us.
I had believed it would work out when we married. And it had – until the second trip. I made it through the first journey of two months, barely. The second trip I lasted for over a month, but then looking at the long weeks ahead… When I returned home Diane knew. She had been silent for a while, until that pain filled evening three months ago when she was blinded by tears and I stood silently while she slapped me hard enough to rock me on my heels and clawed at me, tore my shirt open and ripped my chest bloody, sobbing and crying, “Why, why, why?”
I had no answers for her or for myself. My actions had taken the light from her face and I hated myself for it. We both now grieved, separate in our grief, for what we had together been, something more than either of us alone.
I’m easily seduced by a woman’s scent, by a sideways glance or a bold look, a bare shoulder, a throaty laugh, stray strands of hair that won’t stay pinned in place, the curve of a hip, the delicate line of a lip, a whiskey voice, thick heavy ink black hair, dark eyes, green eyes, chipped fingernail polish, a run in a stocking, those little lines at the corner of the mouth. I am drawn to women’s vulnerability and strength and awed by their courage in the face of all that life inflicts upon them. Anything of beauty will tip me over the edge and all women possess beauty and there’s nothing more beautiful than their courage in the face of overwhelming odds.
Until this uncertain and shaky moment I could no more turn away from a beautiful woman than a broke down alcoholic could refuse a double shot of whiskey and a cold beer back on a bright and blinding Sunday morning.
I had to stop accepting what was so freely offered, what I so desired, so needed. I had to turn away from the world of women if I wanted Diane back, if there was any hope at all. Maybe it was time to change other things too. I had been playing the role of Logan Montana glamorous international designer for so long I had forgotten who Michael Logan was – the boy who had fled the Midwest on a freight train one summer night when he couldn’t take it anymore, the hick town and narrow minds. And one day found himself in a far away place with no friends or family, only allies and enemies.
I left the empty bottle and the crystal glass standing on a stone bollard and wandered night streets, which in Paris is always a pure pleasure no matter how the day has gone. I drifted for a few hours: shop windows with toys and last season’s fashions, wine shops, an art exhibit on the fence around the Luxemburg Gardens, light reflected in small pools of water from street sweepers, cafes with chairs upturned on tables, glowing street lights. A large stone house built around a courtyard, saxophone jazz notes drifting from within – Dexter Gordon? Alleyways and cats, narrow streets, a shaded window concealing a dimly lighted room, a woman’s silhouette on the shade. Parisian secrets.
In late afternoon, the sun now burning through the afternoon’s dreary skies, just past the far urban fringes of Paris, I slumped on a bench by a high stone wall. I was exhausted. My back and shoulder muscles ached from carrying the pack. The long muscles on the front of my thighs ached. My calves ached. My bones ached. My feet hurt and I had blisters on my heels.
What had I been thinking? Walk across half of Europe? Where in my chemo-addled brain had that come from? What made me think I could do this? Maybe I should consider taking a train to Spain then walk from there. Yes, that’s it. I would walk later. Most pilgrims started their walks further south. There was probably a train station nearby. Images of sitting in a comfortable train while the countryside flashed by the window took me into a reverie. Then a tiny spark deep in my fatigue fogged consciousness ignited and flared. What made me think I couldn’t do this? Low blood sugar? A little pain? What was it that Zen guy said? ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering optional.’ Enough whining.
I roused myself to rummage through my bag and find a fragment of Boursin and the corner of a baguette I had bought in Paris. Weary and hurting, I still noticed how simply good the bread was, so much better that the ‘French bread’ at the bakery in Palo Alto. The cheese and bread revived me and made me thirsty. Water bottle in hand I found a fountain splashing into a stone basin next to a wrought iron gate in the wall. While filling my bottle I noticed the sign: Cimetière Saint-Jacques. My mouth turned down in a rueful smile, ‘Not yet,’ I thought. ‘Not just yet.’
The water was cold and tasted of stone and I remembered from the Camino guidebook that there were water fountains at all French cemeteries. Cemeteries with water fountains? Interesting, the French. There was no refugio or hostel nearby and I could not, would not, walk another mile. Well, okay, maybe a mile. I continued on, footsore and near exhaustion I pushed myself onwards, looking for a place, any place, to spend the night. I had not yet reached one of the secluded footpaths of the Camino and so walked on the side of a busy road, cars and trucks speeding by, grit thrown up by their passage, drivers staring at me, no other pedestrians in sight. What was I doing here? This wasn’t at all like I had imagined. Where were the soft paths, the green fields, the sunny days?
When I thought I couldn’t go another step, with night closing in, I found a small Norman style building, timbered white plaster and pitched roof, with a sign: Auberge de Sud. Benzes and Jaguars parked in front, and from an open window came the scent of…what was it, roast duck? This was it, as far as I was going this day. Forget the budget. I could pinch pennies later.
I pushed opened a heavy wooden door, went inside and passed by a high wooden counter with no one in attendance. I stood at the entrance to the dining room waiting for someone to notice me, stomach growling, feeling out of place, the well-dressed diners, the quiet clink of silverware and china.
A trim gray haired women wearing an expensive silk dress, came from a back room and greeted me with a smile, “Bonsoir. Je suis Mme Foucault. Puis-je vous aider?”
Once again I tried my French and asked for a room and dinner. Mme Foucault switched to English. “You look exhausted mon cher. This is your first day as a pilgrim, oui?”
“I’m about to fall on my face. How did you know I was a pilgrim?”
“Few stop here but many pass by. Also, I see by your scallop shell.”
“I’m afraid I’m not dressed for your dining room.”
Mme. Foucault reassured me that I was welcome regardless of my dress, handed me a menu and asked what I would like to eat. My dinner would be ready when I came down from my room. I would like to freshen up first, yes?
After a quick shower and changing into a fresh blouse and slacks, slippers replacing my hiking shoes, I came downstairs and found a table set for me. The dining room’s soft lighting illuminated the rough plaster walls lined with watercolors and oil paintings. Tables were covered with crisp white tablecloths, candles glowing over silver and crystal. The polished plank floor looked at least a hundred years old. The other diners were intent on their food and conversations, all of them well dressed and at their ease. No one raised an eyebrow at my casual clothing.
First came a slice of country pate with warm bread and a glass of burgundy – delicious burgundy – then the duck I had ordered was presented with a flourish by a black jacketed waiter who refilled my wine glass and disappeared as I attacked the food.
The pate had been rich and earthy and the wine was luscious, but this duck… I was a fair cook, actually a good cook, but this duck was the best I had ever eaten, so savory it redefined roast duck. I had no idea how to make duck taste this good. This would be the duck that all other roast ducks would forever be compared with. How did they do this? Subtle flavors, but I couldn’t identity any particular seasonings. Maybe it was the duck itself, how it was raised. And the vegetables. Escarole sautéed in olive oil and garlic, but so fresh, as if it had been picked this afternoon. Turnips? Yes, turnips. But turnips like I had never tasted. I didn’t like turnips, but I loved these turnips. They had been marinated. In what? Who cared? I was going to eat every least morsel.
Oh God, I’m eating like a pig. I’ve never eaten so much. But everything is so good. Could I pick up the duck bone and gnaw it? I glanced around the room. No one was paying any attention to me. But that would be too much. I had to get hold of myself. I had not noticed when the waiter had silently and unobtrusively refilled my glass. Now I realized I had had three glasses of the deep red wine, more than my usual limit. I looked up from my dish to see the waiter pouring the last of the wine from the bottle into my glass. Wine taken and overcome by sheer food lust, I drank the last of the lush burgundy and agreed to a pear tart and cognac. What the hell? I’ll walk it off tomorrow. And if not, so what? I could stand to gain a few pounds. It had been so long since I had enjoyed food, and this was without doubt my best meal ever.
After the pear tart – tasting of fresh pear not overwhelmed with sugar – how could I eat so much? – I relaxed with the cognac and let it fill me with warmth and cast out worries about tomorrow and regrets over the past. I was in the moment, content and happy to be alive.
I stopped to talk to Mme Foucault on her way to the stairs and told her how wonderful her dinner had been.
“I’m pleased you enjoyed your dinner,” a shrug, a smile, “mais c’est normal.”
Swaying a little I made my way to my room at the back of the building and flung open the windows. The room was flooded with the scent of freshly mown grass. I threw off my clothing, crawled under the down duvet and was immediately asleep, sleeping the sleep of the weary and well fed, deep and undisturbed.
First light came pale and thin and washed across my face awakening me. I was comfortably warm but felt as if someone had beaten me with a stick. As I itemized my aches and pains from the previous days walk, my thoughts went to the past.
At the first meeting the marriage counselor had said, “Maybe you need to do more things together.’ After a dozen meetings she had said, “Possibly you’re fundamentally a mismatch.” What did that mean? We had been happy for many good years. Why had I slept with Tom? Was it loneliness? He had not seduced me. Seduction was mostly a male fantasy anyway. Women made their own decisions about those things. No point in kidding myself. Although the sex had been good, it wasn’t lust that drew me to him.
I had been lonely. How could I have been lonely with John and the children, extended family and friends? But I had been, lonely and bored with my life. Was that all it had been, an affair begun and continued out of boredom? Thankfully John had never found out. I had loved John, whether we were a mismatch or not. Nothing was perfect. Enough. I’ve worried over this enough. The past is past. I drifted back to sleep and awakened again with the sun in my eyes.
My window looked out onto fields bordered by thickly leaved trees. It was a new day and time to get moving. After a hot shower I did a few yoga poses to loosen up and ease the aches, then sat on the edge of the bed and plastered moleskin over the blisters on my feet. I dressed quickly, slung my pack over one shoulder and made my way down the narrow stairs. Breakfast was a flaky fresh croissant, rich café au lait and a boiled egg.
I went to the desk to pay my bill. Mme Foucault was waiting with a package wrapped in foil folded to resemble a duck. My lunch. “This food will help to build your strength for the Camino. Find a nice shady tree and eat well.”
A mile down the road I found a Camino sign with the scallop shell and turned away from the busy road onto a smooth footpath bordered by trees and arched over by branches grown together. This was how I had imagined the Camino. I straightened my shoulders settling into the weight of my pack, and with sunlight filtering through the overhanging leafy canopy stepped out, walking though a green tunnel and into the day.