She was into him and I got butterflies when he looked at me. But, who did he want to be with? She thought it was her. I thought it was her. But he knew better than both of us, it was me and I would have to choose between the two of them.
And this is how I found out…
When my Irish friend begged me to go to the café with her because she thought it was important to Francis and feared he wanted to stop seeing her, she was right. On two counts: one) he didn’t want to see her; and two) he did want to see me. She was also very wrong on one important point: my going to the café didn’t change either of those things. In fact, it precipitated them.
The horrible thing for the three of us was that my Irish friend was the only way Francis could get in touch with me: he didn’t know who I was or where I lived and he couldn’t have even asked for my phone number if he had wanted to… because I didn’t have a phone. There were no cell phones, home phones where prohibitively expensive in France for a student in those days and there was no internet back then! No texts, no emails… much less Google searches or any sort of social media. It was 1997. The pre-millennial technology dark ages!
The next time I saw Francis, he didn’t tell me that he’d had a chat with her. He didn’t know there was a need to because he didn’t realize that the Irish girl had told everyone that they were in a relationship. As far as he was concerned, they weren’t.
I found out the night before from her. Red nosed and bleary eyed, she told me that after I left the café, Francis had explained to her that he didn’t see their relationship the same way she did. It turns out that when he’d slept over at her place and I let my imagination run wild, he had really done just that: slept at her place. And nothing more.
She was “gutted”.
And then he appeared outside my school waiting for me the next day. I was stunned. And thrilled. And horrified. And exhilarated. …All at the same time.
It was the worst kind of conundrum. It was one of those terrible moments in life when you realize you have to choose between two people because you are definitely going to lose one.
I did some split second calculations in my head: it was the turn of March/April, the school year ended in late May. I was planning to spend the summer traveling around Europe on a Eurailpass and then return to the States in late August. My Irish friend would be returning to Ireland at the end of May. And then what? We would be pen pals? I had known her since January and I didn’t know her that well, was it likely we would really stay in touch?
I made my choice and strode out to greet him. His face lit up when he saw me. I blushed.
The timing was bad. Bad for me and him to start a relationship, that is. Really bad. It couldn’t have been worse.
I was leaving to spend two weeks in the South of France with my host sister.
Francis would be leaving to spend a couple of weeks in Ireland to visit friends right upon my return.
As I reflected on this more than fifteen years later, I realized bad timing might be what made it work. Somehow I think all the longing and yearning that took place between us is what made our relationship stick in the end. But back to the story…
Wow. I remember how urgently he insisted that we set a date to see each other one month later when we’d both returned from our respective trips.
The date was set for Monday, May 5th at 3:00. He walked me to his apartment building to show me where he lived. He didn’t show me inside, just the street view of the windows of the second floor apartment of a 17th century building.
It would be easy to remember, it was in the square where the author of Les Miserables, Victor Hugo had been born and there was also a plaque for some guys who invented moving pictures, the Lumiere brothers. Francis’ apartment building had trompe l’oeils windows that made it appear that his family owned some renowned paintings: one a portrait of Victor Hugo, another a self-portrait by the regional painter Gustave Courbet. I didn’t know the film makers, and I hadn’t read (or even seen) Les Miserables but I would remember Courbet. He was unforgettable! I had learned all about Courbet in my Art History class: he led the 19th century realism movement! I’d taken a daytrip to the neighboring “little Venice” where he’d been born, a charming town where the river is lined with buildings that actually form the banks similar to Venice in Italy if you could imagine Venice as being a tiny mountain town (okay, maybe not exactly like Venice… but that’s what they call it). I’d visited his riverside house-museum. I’d even been to the Orsay Museum in Paris and seen his scandalous painting of a lady’s nether region which I thought was fabulous because of its title was so clever “The Origin of the World” (Of course I later found out that he didn’t come up with the witty title and that knocked the painting down more than a few rungs in my appreciation… but I didn’t know that yet and I still thought the painting was pretty cool. Not least of all because visiting it was like a sociological experience: at the time “The Origin of the World” was displayed hidden behind a small wall-like screen: I spent ten minutes just watching people furtively slip behind the screen because I got such a kick out of the wide variety of reactions on their faces when they slipped back out from behind the screen). Nope, I wouldn’t forget where he lived.
He gave me the address.
He looked worried.
Well, I might forget the address. But, I would remember Courbet.
When we parted he reminded me yet again of the date and looked searchingly into my eyes as if trying to see if I really intended to meet him, to see if I would remember four weeks later. To see if I really intended to come.
If I didn’t’ show up, he’d have no way to get in touch with me again.