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Short Stories

Old City, Nice


For their reunion, he sees immediately that she wears a red dress and the gold fleur de lis necklace he had given her 35 years earlier when she, crying silently, took the train from Nice to Paris to fly home. She was an adventurer back then, one of the few Americans who chose to study abroad.

Not like today, when the hoards of American young, who swell Barcelona and Paris, finally invade Nice to relax on the stony beaches. Over the years he has observed those bright faces with their expressions open and receptive. He has watched the groups marching through the Old City, awed by history that expands more than 400 years. So unlike the European kids, who always ripen too soon. The young Americans prance down cobblestone streets, their feet flat in their plastic flip-flops, their thighs exposed by uncivilized, cut-off jeans, the fringe dancing along bare flesh. Whenever he studies the young Americans, he remembers her all those years ago.

He recalls how she dressed so carefully for her sojourn in France, her mini-dress always topped by a silk scarf around her neck. “Just like the Parisians,” she would laugh. And then the gold fleur de lis. They had loved the way people do when it is new—anxious for the next touch, trying to fill each day with enough of each other to last. Why it had been for a lifetime, he realizes now. The memory makes him sad as he waits at the station for their one day of hello.

“Wouldn’t it be lovely to revisit our youth?” Her voice over the phone trembled with nostalgia, different and familiar at the same time.

He wonders if he would have recognized it if she hadn’t first declared her name.

The train is announced minutes before it appears. Then, so slowly, it arrives in the station, and he swallows over and over the panic accumulating at the back of his throat. How will she see him today? He has styled his hair carefully, teasing the gray over the bald patch, has even held back the flesh of his chin to find his young face for a moment in the mirror. He thinks it would be better not to smile too broadly so that she won’t notice the gold cap on his incisor or the yellow stains branching across his front teeth.

Suddenly, she is before him, her eyes clouded again by tears—this time of reunion. Welcomed against him, she reaches her arms around his neck, and her breath marks his cheek.

“Why has it been so long?” She smiles now, her face crisscrossed with lines—a map marking the accumulated years.

Later that evening, as she disrobes in full light (“Why hide time,” she insists), he witnesses the flattened breasts, the soft belly that carried three, and he is surprised that he can respond as he has not, could not, in seven years. Not to the young girls who tried all their modern tricks on him, their mouths brazenly moving across his flesh as they challenged his old body. And not to the worn pute on his street corner, who coaxed with years of experience and gentle reassurances that he was happy, week after week, to buy.

Now, in that too bright room, she—who has been his only love—climbs fluidly on top of him and begins to move with the grace of the old. In that honest light, he discovers the rhythms of his long ago self. Years of sadness and depletion fall away, as he watches the fleur de lis bounce back and forth between her breasts.

He tries to whisper, “I love you,” wants to demand, “Stay with me,” hopes to promise, “I will follow you anywhere.” But like the squandered years that have come before, the wrong words form in his mouth.

He grasps the fleur de lis and can cry out only, “Vive la France.”

-Limestone, 2009
© by PAG