The night train rattles and whirs its way out of Paris and down through France. I squat on the floor in the narrow hallway outside the closet sized room of bunk beds that I’m sharing with five strangers. I suppose that at some distant point in the future this day will be a story I will proudly tell to someday. Or perhaps I will write the story as a funny travel anecdote in my graduate nonfiction writing class this fall. But for now, while I am in the story, I rather wish I wasn’t.
This morning I woke up early in Salzburg in the hotel room I was sharing with my best friend, Andrea. Together we took a train to Munich and together we stood in Terminal 1, facing each other and forcing sad smiles and saying goodbye.
“I’ll come visit you in New York,” Andrea reassured me as a final parting sentiment.
I just smiled and nodded. She had visited me in Chicago twice in the four years I’d been living there. And I had seen her on a mere handful of occasions on the ten or so trips I’d made to my family’s home in Platteville in the past four years.
Andrea and I had both been studying abroad in Europe this semester we had spent spring break traveling together. This week with Andrea is the longest amount of time I’ve spent with a family member or friend (who doesn’t live in Chicago) since I left Platteville for college almost four years ago.
I remember the last time I saw Andrea before I left for college. She, her boyfriend Ben, and our friend David had come to my house early the morning of my departure. The fog that hangs in the humid air of an early Southwestern Wisconsin August morning had yet to lift and the grass still sparkled with dew. I had hugged them each goodbye. I had hugged Andrea twice. I had thanked them for being there to see me off. They were my real family. They had come together and taken care of me over that past year. When my mother scared me and hurt me, they comforted and healed me. When I searched for light in my darkness and a reason for the harshness of the world, they gave me compassion and understanding and they read my writing. But we were young and what they could not give me was a safe place to stay so I left them for Chicago and an idealized idea of the safety of freedom – of being alone.
When I am not living abroad, I have been living in Chicago ever since that morning. I am currently living and studying in Cannes, France. Cannes is the final destination of my night train from Paris and will be the end of my long journey from Salzburg to Munich to Zurich to Paris and then – at long last – to Cannes. I left Cannes alone over a week ago and spent a weekend alone looking at castles and cathedrals in the Loire Valley. I also arrived, two months ago, alone in Cannes after a similarly long journey from Chicago to Paris to Cannes. In Chicago I had gone alone to the airport, seen myself to the gate and wondered if there was something wrong with the way my life was turning out if – as it happened – I had no one there to bid me farewell as I left the country for four months.
And today I wondered it again when I found myself alone in Paris, my wallet back in Munich. I had no money, no phone, and no idea of who in my life might be willing to help me. I felt terribly alone. I was terribly alone. This loneliness – this terrifying alone-ness – is the real price of my freedom, not degrading jobs or student loans. This is the cost of having a safe place to stay: never staying anywhere for very long, having no one stay in my life, being a transient in apartments and countries and beds and bars and train cars. Being a connoisseur of last looks.
My last night in Chicago I had stood on the corner of Balbo and Wabash outside a dingy 3am bar, watching my friend walk away. Though I had promised to be back June fifth and made her promise to have a drink with me when I returned, I still found myself memorizing her black silhouette-like stature as she made her way from the South Loop bar off to the red line “L” station. Her black leather jacket and her black leather rhinestone and spiked boots. Her long black hair. The wonderful feeling that I had when she was around – the feeling that nothing truly bad could ever hurt me. She had helped me find an inner strength that I had almost forgotten to look for. She had told me that I had helped her to be a better person. And we had promised to not forget each other. Whether I go back to Chicago or not, I will keep that promise.
When I finally disembark from this train I will be met at the station by a man who – I fear – two months from I will be looking at for the last time. As an inevitable transient and thus a connoisseur of last looks I’ve recently found myself nostalgic for the present because I know how easily it becomes the past. I know the frustration of waking up one day to find my most loved moments gone and myself alone with no way to ever get them back. So I play the scene that I know will come in time. I picture myself months from now, silently reminiscing over the slide show memories of this man who held my hand as heart-shaped fireworks fell into the Mediterranean and kissed me in front of the Eiffel Tower and with whom I shared a fear of being average -- this man who picked me because I had subtext
The boy I left in Chicago had promised to see me once more before I left but even as he said the words my eyes had taken him in, burned his image into the black-coal bed of my heart. His short brown curly hair. His red leather jacket. His thin pink lips. And the way his eyes looked at me as if they would love to keep that promise.
“I’ll see you again before you leave. I promise,” he had said. And my eyes had searched his and found no answer to the question that my heart begged me to ask. I didn’t see him again.
And so it happened that our first kisses were also our last kisses. My fingertip’s first timid touch of the silky fine stubble on his cheeks would also be my last feel of him.
He called me right before my plane took off for Paris. I told him I thought I could love him. He said he thought he could love me too but that he didn’t know. I said “okay” and I thanked him for calling and twenty hours later I was in Cannes. We never spoke of love again.
In our hotel room in Salzburg I told Andrea that I hadn’t meant to leave for college that morning and never come back. I told her that I was sorry for never really coming back, for leaving her behind, for – if not quite losing touch – misplacing it from time to time. She told me that she had never expected me to come back. Perhaps the boy who promised to see me again before I left Chicago and then didn’t keep his promise – the boy who said he thought he could love me but that he didn’t know – perhaps he never expected me to come back either. Perhaps I never expected to come back. Perhaps that’s why I wanted him to know that I thought I could love him – because I knew I could, but I didn’t expect to ever have the opportunity.
The night train pushes on towards morning and as my knees grow sore from squatting on the floor in the narrow hallway so I can write while the five strangers I’m sharing a closet sized room with sleep, I think of a W.B. Yeats poem, “When You Are Old.” I think of the part I know by heart; the part that says:
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
From time to time I wonder if I might someday find a man who will love me for my pilgrim soul. And I wonder too what it is that I’m making these pilgrimages for, why I am so inclined to go from city to city, country to country. I’m not looking for love – that’s not something you’ll ever see by looking. Nor am I looking for myself. The only answer that ever comes to me is that I am looking for a place to stay.
Almost a month has passed since my night train pulled into morning and I disembarked in Cannes, to the smiling face of the man who had made the effort to read my subtext. This Wednesday we made a trip to Antibes to find the twin of his favorite statue from his hometown in Des Moines, Iowa. This was now our third trip to Antibes and our second trip in search of this statue. Finding the statue was of great importance to the man, after all it was the mirror image of his favorite statue from home.
We found the statue on the coast of the town, overlooking the sea and the port. The statue was an almost two stories high shell of a person, made entirely out of white, steel letters. The statue’s alphabet knees were drawn up to its chest as it faced the sea, seeming to ponder what to make of itself – what to write with the many letters that comprised its being. I loved the statue instantly.
As the man photographed the statue I read the plaque on the ground beside it. The statue was called The Nomad. I stared up at The Nomad. This was the man’s favorite statue. This tall, pensive, larger than life, person. This nomad constructed entirely of steel letters.
The man finished taking pictures and came to stand beside me. He put his arms around me and, cheek to cheek, we both turned to stare up at The Nomad.
“You’re like the statue,” he told me. “A nomad, taking nothing with you but your words.”
“I’m like your favorite statue?” I inquired, hoping to coax out a more specific sentiment.
There, in that moment, my heart smiled and hurt at the very same time. Though I was in the moment, I was already mourning the inevitable loss of it, for I knew that this moment was the kind that I would hold as both hope and proof of something presque perfect, later when my pilgrim soul had brought me somewhere new and lonely and far from that port and the language of the day.
So I memorized the way rays of evening sunlight shot between the letters of the statue before we walked away. But it won’t be the last look that I miss, it will be the feeling of the day. That’s the thing with last looks: they’re really just a poor attempt to capture a feeling inside an image.