LETTER TO A STRANGER: ROCAMADOUR, FRANCE
BY COLLEEN KINDER
Of course we'd say hello: nobody else was awake in Rocamadour. Rocamadour! How tired and cheap the town had felt, just the day before, soon as my bus rolled in, so late in the afternoon, when everyone cramming the main medieval lane was waxy with sunburns. Parents looked ready to lance their kids. Kids looked ready to beg for Slurpees. So I gave right up on the place, went to bed at a geriatric hour. If there was anything to find in Rocamadour, I’d find it at sunrise.
You must have had the same idea: climb the town at dawn. I had just the slightest head start; I’d gotten up in a creamier darkness, a bracing crispness that injected me with more energy than any shot of any coffee. Outside: a cold silence. This was another town entirely. Bats sliced through the thinning night, gone before I could be sure they weren’t birds. A sphinx of a cat ran off, as soon as my footsteps broke the quiet. I felt like a trespasser, stealing through the town’s older self, long before the Disney castle looked pried right off the Rocamadour cliff.
But at dawn, you can forget about cartoon princesses and instead you sense the ghosts of friars, of monks climbing as many marble steps as it takes to scale a cliff. Because that’s what Rocamadour is: a beautiful staircase of masochistic proportions, a ravine where pale stone chapels and steepled chateaus cling like stalagmites to the white rock. You climb until the turrets shrink to bulbs at your back, until the spires whittle to needles, until the spread of furry green trees reveals how much more to this valley there is. Quad burn. Lung rasp. Awe. How could there be more? There is more. The path sends you into a merciless switchback, each vertex marked with a Station of the Cross, as if to point out, while you suffer: the Lord Jesus did, too.
The sun beat me by seconds, cresting its bald pink forehead over the distant ridge. I stood there, gasping, and watched what I’d just told my students to never bother capturing on camera: sunrise.
It amazed me: the speed of the sun’s helium lift. Sky just kept spreading between the sun’s belly and the fur of that distant tree line. A student of mine had just written about early dawn—“the silver hour,” she called it—those rare minutes after darkness dissolves, while the only light is a borrowed glow from whatever lies east. The sun’s out—somewhere—but hasn’t had the chance to warm the stones beneath your feet.
And along you came: an ascending blotch of tomato red. Your T-shirt was red. Your shorts were red. I know your shoelaces were red because in just a few moments I would mention them, desperate for a thing to say, to sprinkle into our stillness, our up-closeness, like a schoolgirl, about to blush. Your shoelaces are red.
You were cute from far away, and then up close: a silver fox who didn’t reek of dad. Mind you, I’d been shepherding college students around southern France for two weeks straight, urging them to write, to squeeze the place for all the juice it lent. I’d pointed to the things people love to call indescribable, and said, “Describe that. Your grades will be based on the ferocity with which you describe that: lavender breeze, fig seeds, the sag of those sunflowers’ necks. Rip up the postcard, and write what you see.
My bonjour must have startled you: I bellowed it. I had way too much exuberance to keep to myself. What is it about the early morning? Why does it change all the rules? I’ve wondered this on so many mornings in so many places, but you, dear Frenchman—so willing to give away your day’s first smile—are the face of my theory now: The dawn erasure of everyone else is bound to pull two strangers together. They become a pair, a secret minority, an us.
You spoke English, so we touched on all the basics, standing there on the slope, Rocamadour so tapered at our backs. Bordeaux was your home; Brooklyn mine. My students were fast asleep down below; you mentioned no one. Driving through on a work trip, you’d paused here on a whim. Somehow, I smelled aloneness on you. You felt like a man alone in a loveless time.
Skittish, I said something goodbye-ish. Well, enjoy the day... And when you did not move, when you held there like a statue, I knew our imaginations were in lockstep. You wanted to kiss me, too.
Sometimes on dates with men I’ve just met, when the possibility of a kiss abides, the longer it abides—the deeper we retreat behind the curtain of that live moment into the closets of our minds where scenarios of possible first kisses play on loop—the more impossible it feels: that we’d just do it. Find some way to broadcast permission or complicity, send the word yes to the fronts of our eyes.
With you, it was the reverse. With you, it felt like a why-not, a how-could-we-not? Because Rocamadour was a fiction so far below, because everyone who might see us was tucked under the terracotta shingles of those miniatured roofs, because my students had been making me feel so old, and to kiss you would feel like a love song to maturity, a celebration of the gumption I never had at their age.
I bought us some time, blathering. I told you it was my Jesus Year. I can’t believe I told you it was my Jesus Year. I’d just turned 33, a year that found me wanting to place myself in the scheme of my own life. When a friend pointed out that 33 was the year Jesus was crucified, I latched onto it like a milestone as well-known as the Sweet Sixteen: The Jesus Year.
Teaching only deepened my obsession with age 33. I felt recast as a mother hen, ever aware of my age in the company of students. My kids didn’t think twice about coffee at midnight or a fourth glass of wine. I watched in envy of youth but all the while cringing at what a fledgling adult would put herself through. That summer, I felt like a revised and improved human being, my core sinewy with things a person can only learn by living her own life out.
Which brings me to you. Because to meet you, I had to spring out of bed at like 5 a.m., and before that, go to bed at like 9 p.m., and prior to, become a person who prefers a mint-fresh morning to a wine-drenched night.
Now, I just had to look up. I just had to look up and not immediately down. I had to lift my eyes from your feet, shut up about red shoelaces, shut up. And because a younger me would scampered off fast and regretted it faster, I felt dared. It was 7 a.m. I was in France. I was 33. The sun was up. Bells had rung. I looked up at you, and did not take my gaze back.
It was good, fast. Not great, but ardent. The relief that we were just doing this, both so surrendered, pressing into each other’s lips and palms, finding the rhythm of tease and press, slow then breathe. The thrill of just doing this! Traveling fingers across each other’s necks, reaching back for the railing when feet couldn’t hold our press. I could feel you love every new thing I did, every next province of your skin I touched. Breath to the neck. Soft bite to the ear. The bottom ridge of your hair was easy to grip, satisfying. I went up into the sleeves of your T-shirt and appraised my favorite part of every man: the breadth of a bare back.
Hickey, I worried, because I had students to teach. A steep mile below, I was a teacher. You kept slowing our kiss and trying to tease out my tongue, snake-charming. Was there something about France to read from your kiss? French kiss, I thought—a style I’ve never been certain about. I know just one thing about kissing: that I kiss best when I believe I’m driving a man wild. You helped, finding the clip of my bra, pressing it free, realizing I was going to let you go anywhere, so long as clothes stayed on. At some point—I remember this well: one of your legs trembled.
“I have to go,” I said: a sultry whine with no resolve whatsoever. “I have to meet my students.” You nodded and went right back at it, tucking fingers inside the lip of my jeans, finding the small of my back.
And then there were footsteps. The patter of feet. Someone was coming and he was a priest. Please don’t forget this: there was a priest—a full-on, Franciscan-frocked, rosary-bead-belted, man of the cloth. He bonjour-ed and we bonjour-ed and as soon as he disappeared down the path, our cheeks let out all their laughter. This was all happening. Thank you, Father.
“I have to go,” I tried again, invoking students like that word could break the spell. Every time I opened my eyes you looked older. Still not like a dad, but a person in their next era, the one ahead of mine, one I couldn’t possibly know until I reached it myself. You could look at me, into me, and know what I didn’t yet know, like I could glimpse things my sleeping students had ahead of them still.
It took a while to walk away, to re-estrange. Our bodies fell into a kind of slow dance, pushing apart and coming back. You lifted my arms over my head, with my palms clasped together under yours. No one has ever done this to me. I felt like a figurine, the spindly ballerina in my girlhood jewelry box. We stretched the moment as far as we believed ours could stretch. The mesmerizing thing about sunrises isn’t their palette or hue, but their speed. As soon as one begins, it looks so adamantly about to end.
“Thank you,” was the last thing I said to you, meaning it. There was no way to know what this silver hour meant to you, so I spoke for myself, thanked you for conspiring to go ahead and kiss. I’m guessing it was about even, what each of us gave and what each of us got, and I’ve traveled enough to know just how rare that is.
Down in the town, I walked into the clangor of hotel breakfast. Spoon clicks, bowl scrapes, juice pouring. My students sat a table littered with croissant flakes and honey packets, their eyes puffed with reluctance to the new day.
I could still smell you, when my fingers got close to my face. I sensed the scary ease people having affairs must feel when they slip back into family meals, among innocent people who have no idea. Anyone looking for clues would have found them. I felt a looseness around my chest suddenly: My bra was hanging free. In the hotel mirror, I’d note a missing earring: the glass slipper of our Rocamadour tryst.
But no one was looking for clues, and I admit some disappointment. My students were talking literature—the rare works of fiction that had taught them something real and applicable to life. I brought up a short story I’d read when I was exactly their age. The author’s name was foggy; the plot was not.
A man's headed home from a business trip, on a plane that starts to fail. People scream. People pray. As the man sits there, realizing his life’s about to end, he swells with love for his wife and children. The plane crashes, but—to our and his surprise—the man lives. He can just go home. So he does, ready to embrace his family with newfound force.
But our hero opens the door to a wife who’s pissed he’s late. She thrusts a kid into his arms and chases after another one. He’s stunned, muted by the avalanche of the mundane. So soon. He never tells his wife—or at least he doesn’t by the story’s end. Only when I retell this tale in Rocamadour as a teacher do I realize what an allegory it is for anyone who travels.
You can’t bring the crackle or the soul-swell or the revelation of the journey home. No one has the time; no one really cares; the ordinary won’t expand to let the extraordinary through the door. This reality used to sting me, but, many journeys later, I know it as something the traveler has to get over.
I look across the table at my students—young writers to whom I want to give so much—and realize there’s a caveat. The traveler has to get over this, I tell them, but the writer does not. The writer is the one who does not. She can’t bear the journey ending without a telling. She sees the futility, but again picks up her pen. She writes to a man who will never read, but says it anyway:
Where we met, on that switchback, ten steps down from the peak of Rocamadour, was the silver hour of the rest of my life. Thank you for helping me mark it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colleen Kinder is a travel writer, sometimes-Yale professor, and the co-founder of Off Assignment. Her essays have been anthologized in The Best American Travel Writing 2013, Readings For Writers, The Best Women's Travel Writing, 20-Something Essays by 20-Something Writers, and The Innocent Abroad. She really enjoyed her Jesus year.
Image adapted from Tourisme en Occitanie.