It’s four in the morning and I’m dirty and I’m nervous and I’m crying. Dear god, please, I don’t want to leave here, I don’t want to go.
Announcements, last calls to board, late arrivals, gate changes. Custodians, clean floors, at least for the start of the day. Gray walls, blue-white speckly floors. Big windows, big steel beams. Smells like soap and metal. My bus is outside, and I hear the gasp and release of the break, but I can’t really see the thing in the cold dark morning, just smoke and red and mist. I don’t want to see it anyway.
And he’s sitting there, outside the door. His skinny shoulders are slumped over, physically used-up and cold without the sun and without the denim shirt he burned in the fire on the beach in Finisterre. He’s sitting on the curb, a lit cigarette in his mouth but it’s just there, he’s not smoking it. Habit more than anything else. He’ll quit when he get’s home and joins a futbol team, he promises.
I waited for the bus to show up before starting my goodbye. Forced brevity. My god, I don’t want to do this. What if I were to miss my bus? And just got on his plane. I’ve anticipated the arrival of this ugly morning for weeks and, the thing is, that doesn’t make it any easier now that it’s here.
I’m thinking about last night. I’m thinking about the way we sat in the dark empty tavern, happy, drinking, laughing. Tired, poor, but together. Together in all we’d seen, and together in pretending this terrible morning was not going to come, ever.
There was a certain ecstasy in having come to a successful end of a most beautiful journey. There was comfort in thoughts of home, and there was a sort of bliss as we danced and as we loved and clung to the untouchableness of the friendship we’d built. But there was the heaviest sadness I’ve ever known, and we tried so hard to push it away and to not let this morning come, ever.
I’ve only known him for a month. Twenty nine days actually. But everything about his freckly shoulders and his eyes that always look up and the piccolo he keeps in his back pocket, everything about his voice and his dirty hands has become my family. And so now I’ll just get on this bus and leave him and not spend the rest of my everything trying to make him feel as happy and as safe as he’s made me feel since July 12th? Please, how do I do this because I don’t think I can. The bus is beginning to board and I’m stuffing my toothpaste and sweatshirt into my backpack and I’m tying my hair up in my scarf and I can’t do any of it.
On July 8th I found myself lost and wholly alone in a creamy, stoney village in southern France. It was ten o’clock at night, dark, silent. So many stars, and the narrow cobbled streets were empty. Just me and my too-heavy pack. One other traveller was there, actually. He walked quietly behind me and we didn’t speak that night. I was tired and I needed to find a bed. In the row or creamy, stoney houses, there was one door over which a lantern still burned. I knocked. A sweet old Dutch man who didn’t wear shoes and had rings on his toes opened the door.
“Up the stairs on the third floor there is a room with pink sheets and an open window. Please, make yourself at home, my young peregrina.”
“Thank you sir.”
“There’s bread and jam in the kitchen. Have some in the morning before you leave.” A soft smile, and he retreated to his room in the back of the house. I saw a photograph of the man wrapped in the embrace of a young woman about my age on a shelf in the stairwell. The stairs were crooked, wrapping around the entire house as they climbed, sometimes hardly even upward-slanted at all.
I found my room. I have never felt such sheer gratitude just to have a bed and to feel safe in a home.
After my bread and jam, I left a note and my blanket I hadn’t the space to carry, and I set off on the dawn-lit road in the pouring rain.
I walked alone for the first four days. The peace is what I remember. I was drenched, and my bones were trembling but I was walking and I was free. I saw wild horses running in the mist on the rocky Pyrenees. I saw campesinas brewing tea for travellers. I saw fields of sunflowers stretching for miles. I sang aloud, and I slept on open fields under open skies and my eyes and my heart were so open. And then I saw him.
Julien and I don’t speak the same language. He’s from a small city in western France. He hates Paris, and he only speaks French. But we don’t struggle to communicate, his English is getting better every day and my French is at least more than nothing now.
He’s still on the curb. I’m using wet bathroom stall toilet paper to dab at the grass stains on my dress and tightening the straps on my pack. A heavy steel glass revolving
door and I’m outside in the orangy, city-street morning with him. He reaches into his breast pocket for another cigarette and watches me walk toward him.
When I first met him, it was after sunrise. I’d already walked for three hours that day, and I had stopped in a roadside cafe for coffee. The walls were of red velvet, and books were stacked on top of each other, no shelf, from floor to ceiling. I pulled the worn and loved copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls from my pack and left it in the pile. I picked up a French-Spanish dictionary. A man was playing Ode to Joy on a guitar. Julien was speaking to another man in French. The first time I heard his low, grainy, make-my-head-turn voice. I read the words for “good morning” in my French dictionary. I already knew how to say it. I asked him how to say it.
I spent the next month of my life walking by his side. I’ll never forget the morning we saw the ocean. The sky was clear, and we walked quietly up hills of pasture. He played his piccolo and I wore his hat and the sun was everywhere, hot and light on all the dust of the trail. We drifted into a small town, sound asleep save the heavy chime of the church bells. The painted mud brick homes clung to the hillside and overlooked the silvery bay. The tide was high and hydrangeas were in bloom along the sea wall. We laughed and laughed. Our tired, dusty bodies laughed and laughed at the sight of the sea.
He’s looking down as I walk toward him. He doesn’t usually do that.
He’s smiling. His eyes are smiling.
I take off my pack. It will take ages to put back on. And the bus. But I don’t care, I take it off. “So, I wrote you a letter. It’s mostly in English. Sorry.”
I gave him the thick folded letter on the cover of which I had written his initials last night by the light of my flashlight on the hard plastic airport chairs where we slept.
“Please, have your sister translate it for you. It’s important that you understand every single word.” I’m crying. I can feel the mascara from last night running down my face, good god, I’m a mess, I’m a mess. He’s crying now too though, he is. The back of his hand brushes my cheek, my neck, the side of my shoulder. The letter goes into his pocket behind the cigarettes.
“I will see you soon though, so we don’t need to cry. We will see Manu Chao together. And we will drive to Barcelona. And I will teach you more French, and you will write me more letters but they will be in French.”
I lunge forward. He smells likes salt water and smoke and handsoap. My arms wrap so tightly around his waist and my face is buried in his dirty white tee shirt. He pulls my scarf off and his hands are in my hair for just a moment, and then they leave.
I hear the gasp and release again, and he tips his hat and lets go of a long drag. It’s five in the morning and I’m dirty and I’m nervous and I’m crying. Grabbing my pack, I turn and run.
Moving down the highway, the sun is coming up. More airports, more buses. More big windows and big metal beams and big empty echoey sounds. The city is waking up and the day is beginning.