LETTER TO A STRANGER: AVIGNON, FRANCE
BY MOLLY LONG
I can’t remember why we stopped by Jean-François’s apartment—your apartment—again after dinner. Did he want us to look at each other, you and me? When we walked in, you were sitting at the table eating from a bowl. Jean-François introduced us. You wore wire-rimmed glasses and were neither beautiful nor ugly. No shock registered in your face or in his, so I decided that you were his roommate. Then he walked me to my door, kissed me for the first time, and left.
For months before I knew he was called Jean-François—a disappointing name because it was so comically French—I saw his face more than any other. He owned a papeterie two doors down from my apartment in Avignon. Through the glare of the glass doors, his dark eyelashes and elegant mouth were more apparent than his receding hairline. Around him were the notebooks and stationery he marbled by hand, plus three dogs: two black, the other white and enormous. I imagined they were his only company.
Most days, I passed the shop on my way to the high school where I taught English. I’d tell French teenagers to draw a monster with four eyes, three noses, and a scar, and say it aloud: “My monster has four eyes, three noses, and a scar.” When I told them they’d said it right, they’d say, “Je suis trop fort”—I am too strong.
In my application to the English teaching program, I had said what you’re supposed to say: that I wanted to immerse myself in French culture. This was a lie. What I wanted was to separate from my previous life, like a yolk from a white, and to reshape myself in a neutral environment. What I learned is that there is no such thing as a neutral environment.
After months of isolation, I was grasping for a new fantasy. And there was Jean-François: ready-made romantic, marbler of paper, master of animals. One day, I walked into his shop on the pretext of petting the dogs, and left my number for him on a scrap of paper.
In those weeks, I often ran the perimeter of the medieval stone wall surrounding Avignon, alongside the traffic, the Rhone, the hedges, the bus stops, the old men playing pétanque, and the parking lots where prostitutes waited at night in the front seats of vans, a lit candle melting onto each dashboard. One day, I saw the dogs. The white one recognized me and nuzzled his wet nose into the palm of my hand. I looked up expecting to find Jean-François, but saw your thin figure in the distance instead. It was so faint the dogs could have been walking themselves around the wall.
Jean-François never told me where you worked, or what you were like, or what the two of you had been fighting about. A few days after I saw you in the apartment, he told me you were moving out. You had been together for years, he said, but for a long time there had been problems. It was over now. I tried to remain as blasé about this revelation as the men I had watched in Godard films, their faces most blank when they were seducing or being murdered. In the morning, after he left, I googled the French term for “homewrecker.”
In the United States, we say “I love you” to signify gravity, to seal a commitment. It means something other than “Je t’aime,” a signal for the initial flush of infatuation. It was Jean-François who taught me this days later, whispering “Je t’aime” through my friends’ ears in a game of telephone at a party, a gesture so public I felt as if you were watching us.
That winter, after you moved out, I thawed frozen fish in your kitchen, I slept in your bed, and when my pipes froze during a cold snap, I showered for four days straight in your shower. Jean-François roasted a duck; we ate it with his friends, who found me novel. He showed me how to drip dye into water to make marbled paper. He told me what he always used to say to his sister: “I may be stupid, but at least I’m handsome.”
I realized slowly that this was true. He showed me a story he had once written about a tree: a mere three puzzling sentences. He said he wanted to buy me lingerie. We drove to a mall on the outskirts of Avignon, next to the IKEA, where he took me to a chain store that sold it. I felt a curdling in my stomach as I looked at myself under the fluorescent lights in the dressing-room mirror. I had fallen from my own fantasy into his. Afterwards, we headed to the adjacent Carrefour to buy bags of bulk dog food.
Not long after, I spent a week in Madrid wandering the streets with a seven-foot-tall Norwegian medical student I met at a hostel. At first I referred to Jean-François as my boyfriend, then as my boyfriend with whom there were problems, and later as the French guy I was about to dump. The Norwegian was studying French in Antibes for the summer. We decided we would meet again. I didn’t call Jean-François until the day after I got back to Avignon. Our conversation was brief. He didn’t seem surprised.
The third time I looked at you, it was summer, and you were walking down the street next to Jean-François. I couldn’t remember your name. I pretended not to see you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Molly Long is a freelance writer. She received her M.A. in Journalism from NYU. She is also occasionally a musician. She lives in Brooklyn, but her favorite place on nobody else's list is Kings River Falls, Arkansas.