August 1984, Montpellier
On the second floor of the Une Journee apartment building, in Room 46, Mignon the cat dozes softly where he is sprawled in a slanted stripe of afternoon sunlight filtering in from the living room window. His owner, Jean-Pierre Delacroix, sits huddled over a computer screen, cursing the glare of the intruding light. Across the way, four-year-old Colette Valentin turns from her ballet class to stare at the veined petals of the pink flowers in the window box. Her teacher, Madame Lacontesse, eyes the time with a longing sigh while her fingers itch for a cigarette. On the street below, Monsieur and Madame Racine share the same walk of the same route of the past fifty years, fingers tightly intertwined lest one of them should stumble. Set to interrupt their journey is Alain Courtois, the businessman who stands glued to the spot as he desperately tries to keep his cool while talking to the beautiful Antoinette Dubois. Huddled against the building stand a group of impatient tourists, waiting to climb onto the mirrored-surface tram that creaks when it’s boarded and clicks and bumps as it travels through the provincial town, but still hasn’t stopped a day since its inception in 1948.
And not too far away, yet also miles away, stand a young couple in love’s first embrace.
April 2013, Manhattan
“Do you remember the day we fell in love?” she whispers, her words made loud by the darkness.
A moment passes in which he considers feigning sleep but he quickly dismisses the thought. She knows he’s awake else she wouldn’t have spoken.
“Of course I do,” he sighs. “How could I forget?”
Another silent moment fills the air, the only sound their soft breathing and the idle movement of limbs under the duvet.
“Would you…” She hesitates, the barest hitch in her voice. She tries again. “Would you tell me about it? Please?”
At once he is angry and sad, uncomfortable and heartbroken. This is not a memory he would willingly visit. But, where normally he would decline her request, he finds that in the anonymous embrace of night there is a certain courage that brings him to open his mouth and start his story.
“It was August and we were in France. You’d just finished your thesis and were set to graduate that Fall, so we decided to treat ourselves to a tour of Europe. That year was unseasonably warm but we loved every moment of it, purely because we were together. I remember the day you got the call from your supervisor, saying you would be graduating cum laude. It was afternoon and the tall buildings around us had made an artificial twilight in the narrow street except for a sheet of golden sunlight halfway down the road. There were people all around us. An old couple were helping each other to climb the broad stairs of the walkway. A businessman stood talking to a young associate in rapid French, no doubt about matters of the utmost importance, even if only to them. A motley crowd of tourists were grouped around a gleaming silver tram, ready to board its creaking carriages and rattle away to more local tourist traps. And yet, we may as well have been anywhere, or nowhere, the moment that overjoyed smile came over your face and you lunged to hug me like you never have before. The sounds of the busy street filtered away till all I heard was your voice whispering over and over in my ear of how happy you were. Where before the street had been filled with the scent of flowers and food and people, suddenly I was aware only of your skin and your hair. I held you as tightly as you did me, and still I felt I would hold you tighter if it were only possible. And when finally we parted enough only to meet each other’s eyes, I knew suddenly that I had fallen in love with you. Somewhere I had left the known path of friendship and forged new avenues in love. And as I stood staring into your eyes, I knew that somehow you, too, had fallen in love with me. And I knew, at last, the truth of happiness.”
The night seems even darker, and quiter still, when at last he finishes speaking. His fleeting courage is gone and instead he feels only the emptiness of his recollection. Beside him, she moves to wipe at tears she could not keep from falling. He leaves his tears to trail down his cheeks, unnoticed and irrelevant.
“We were so young back then,” she whispers once more. “The world was brighter, more beautiful.”
“Yes, it was,” he replies, more tired than he has felt in years. “But no more. Never again.”
He turns his back to her and, thankfully, she leaves him to sleep’s sweet escape.