Words Apart

Out there in the strong, urgent night she could not find him.

‘Where are you?’ she asked.

‘Here,’ came his bodiless voice.”

D.H. Lawrence

There was a corner of blue in Bastian’s otherwise brown eyes, a touch from his father, he told me. He was handsome, a young carpenter from Paris spending a summer in Seattle. With dark curls and a broad forehead, he had an eternal five o’clock shadow that felt like sandpaper against my palm, or according to the French, like a piece of toast – rasé avec une biscotte. Toast or sandpaper, I loved watching the creases of his face break into a boyish smile. 

Avec plaisir,” he had replied, when asked if he would like to join me for a walk along the lake. I marveled at the way the response fell with such grace into the air. It was always like that; even when I didn’t understand, the words tumbling and falling softly around me while I rushed awkwardly to pick each one up.

Having found each other through a conversation exchange program, Bastian offered to help me with my French, and I offered to help him with his English, and a few weeks later we were dating.

I first suspected there might be something more to our exchange when Bastian arrived with a picnic of fresh gazpacho and chicken sandwiches for our walk along the lake. Under the pretense of studying language, we circled the water and reclined in the sun and practiced conversation for six hours that day. Our arms and legs were imprinted with crisscross blades of grass when the sunlight began to fade and we finally stood to go.  

Quand on peut se revoir?” Bastian said, glancing toward me. I paused, after a day of switching languages, the simple words would not come together in my mind.  It was always the most important questions I had to ask him to repeat. 

He smiled at my confusion. “When can I see you again?”

“À demain,” I answered.

Despite my better judgement, I stayed up late that night googling “How to Date a French Guy.” I learned of their boundless passion, and their love of the chase. I read that after the first kiss, he would officially consider me his girlfriend, skipping all the usual ambiguities of trying to define a new relationship. So I wasn’t surprised when a few nights later, he placed his hand on my knee and leaning his face close to mine, sighed, “To think I still have all of Paris to show you.” 

And then I was his girlfriend.

The craving to communicate with someone you like, with someone who likes you, exponentially speeds up the language learning process. After having studied French for nearly nine years, I couldn`t seem to get beyond basic vocabulary and conjugation charts, but now there was that glint of blue looking back at me, and there were so many things I wanted to say. Bastian understood English, but I wanted to speak French, to speak and be spoken to in a language always a little beyond me. New sounds, new words for new realities.  A fling, something careless and flying, not to be saved, translated as amourette, something small and precious, a little frivolous perhaps, but not to be wasted.

English fell out carelessly, communication intended or accidental, but it was too familiar to be able to feel the intoxicating connectivity of language. Speaking French was like being able to see the thick brushstrokes of a painting when the point is not realism but contact of color against canvas. I felt the texture of each sound as it formed on my lips.  I opened my mouth and with a few carefully chosen words, Bastian now held the other end of an experience.

Despite my best internet research, I wasn’t altogether prepared for the particularities of our relationship. Having grown up in a strict Christian home, I was a 31-year-old virgin, an oddity in American culture, but for a Frenchman, beyond belief. When I broke the news to Bastian the first morning after he had fallen asleep in my bed, his surprise verged on alarm.

“Jamais?” he asked.  “Jamais, jamais, jamais?”

I shook my head. “Never.” My cheeks burned even as I felt slight annoyance at his doubt, which implied I may have overlooked a time.

“Will you have sex with me one day?” 

I suddenly wanted to hide behind foreign words. 

“Je ne sais pas.”

The places in language where one could reveal were the same places where one could slip through, vierge, untouched. Although much of my religious reasoning for remaining a virgin had fallen away, it was territory that I was both eager and terrified to explore. I moved slowly, each relationship seemingly one step closer to a threshold.

 Despite Bastian’s concern that a lack of sex for so many years might have health consequences, he said he was ready to wait. I was not sure I was ready to be waited for, but I was glad that the worst of the shock seemed to be over.

There was an undeniable charm to the unlikely nature of our bond, a lighthearted Frenchman and an aging American virgin in the throes of what could be love, but however many bridges of words we built, I kept stumbling into the breaches.

Sitting outside a café on a sunny day in Seattle, Bastian held my hand across the table and smiled at me in silence. I leaned forward, lapsing into English.

“How do you feel about having a body?” 

He looked at me blankly.

“How do I feel?”

“Yes, you know, it’s strange to have a body. How do you feel about it?”  

As I waited for his disclosure, my fingers rested in the dry warmth of his coarse hand calloused from working with wood. Perhaps due to my prolonged virginity, the body remained a mystery to me. It was still a novelty to feel the heat of skin. 

“I have a body,” he said. “I feel nothing about that.”

I had often watched the way Bastian moved effortlessly across the surface of things. It was an ease of existence that I envied, and sometimes admired, but could not relate to. I was always searching for the underside of an experience, lifting it up to see what was growing in the dark, but Bastian felt less compelled to dig too deeply.

I made him promise to think about my question; I was sure there was a piece of self-knowledge waiting to be unveiled, but when I asked him again a week later, he shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. I could not pry loose a revelation.

Bastian had six weeks left of his summer Seattle. Then four, then two. His pending departure pressed against every moment. It seemed that the less time we had, the more certain he became of the relationship. Le coup de foudre, a love strike of lightning.

“Je t’aime,” he said.

I held my breath at this enigmatic phrase. It could mean I like you or I love you, but Bastian clarified that he meant the latter. His head on the pillow beside me, I traced the outline of his cheekbone with my fingertip.

“I’m still figuring it out,” I whispered.

A little over a month after Bastian had returned to Paris, I broke up with him over Skype. French was reluctantly discarded for the cold practicality of English as I tried to explain my persistent ambivalence to the blurry pixelating image of his face on my computer screen. A laptop propped on his knees, he listened quietly to the words that now gave way to the growing gulf between us.

I did not doubt the decision, but I loathed the necessity of it. It was not the first time I had ended a relationship after a few short months. I was sick of my reasons for leaving.  I wanted a reason to stay. I wanted to slough off the walls of my incompatible self that was always demanding a deeper connection, but my core remained unmoved, seemingly indestructibly – me. 

I began studying French as if it were a map out of a prison.  

As I felt Bastian fading back into a world I did not know, I released my craving for closeness onto every word. For months after the relationship was over, I threw myself into grammar textbooks and French novels and newspapers. Stacks of vocabulary notecards began to compile about my room. I watched French soap operas, straining my ears to understand every impassioned phrase. I translated pop songs that weren’t worth translating. The longer I studied, the lonelier I became. 

What is it that we seek from language? Isn’t it always contact? Touch? An unknown answer on the other side of a question? How did I feel about having a body? I wanted to speak it like a word I did not know, to feel its otherness in relation to another. I had reached a threshold, but I could not cross. It was a virginity I could not cast away.

I traveled to Europe that fall and took the first chance I had to visit Bastian in Paris. He lived on the top floor of an apartment building in the smallest room I had ever seen.  His couch unfolded into a bed that took up the entire room. We slept untouching, side by side. Bastian had taken me at my word.

I wondered to myself what I was doing there, what I still wanted as I lay beneath the red sheets, a hot water bottle tucked beneath my arm. Bastian had taken a sleeping pill as soon as we got home and the room was filled with the heavy silence of his sleep. I stared at the wall of his back, so familiar but faraway, like the unshrinking distance of mountains that you walk toward but never reach. The space between us became a void that I could not crawl out of until morning when Paris awaited me. Metal and marble and sculptures with muscles of cool stone. 

Photo Credit: Ally Laws from Pixabay

About the author

Renée Thorne is a freelance writer based in Basel, Switzerland. Her work has appeared in The Colorado Review, Parabola, and Bluestockings, among others. Her first book is also soon to be released with Art&Fiction.

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