By Valerie Miner
It’s a sunny April day at Le Marché d’Apt, the oldest continuous market in Europe, held chaque samedi for over 900 years, a market that has seen many young people grow into old people. Today, it’s crowded with local shoppers, as well as villagers from nearby towns and perhaps a score of foreign visitors.
Ah, yes, there he is—Thierry.
Thierry has driven over from Ménerbes, out of habit, even though Mireille has been gone nine months. He begins shopping, as she always did, at the Arab stalls, because the excellent produce is better priced and because so many French people spurn these women in hijabs and men in djellabas. He already has most of what he needs for the week, but it’s never a genuine Saturday if he doesn’t chat with Fazad at his Halal poulet stall. He also looks forward to the weekly lecture from Hortense about her olives. Since the fromage stand is adjacent to Hortense’s, who can blame him for selecting some tome de montagne and his favorite, sinful epoises, for Sunday lunch? Just as he advises patients to go lightly on the fromage, he requests modest portions.
A doctor in a small Luberon village for forty years, generous and attentive, Thierry is cherished by his patients. Work is fulfilling. But le weekends are hard. Empty after Mireille’s death, as would be expected. Thierry enjoys the exchanges with the garrulous vendors and sometimes with the occasional neighbor.
Nearby, two young women, Jessica and Hailey, are grinning, elated to arrive at the height of morning commerce and conviviality. Hailey insists that they also visit the vielle ville nestled behind the walled buildings. She wants to visit the 11th-century Cathedral, 18th-century Bouquerie, and 16th-century Tour de l’Horloge. She is hungry for the legendary fruits confits but worried about her splitting-at-the-seams suitcase. Jessica, grateful for her friend’s travel acumen, follows any itinerary as long as Hailey agrees to stop at least twice a day for café et croissants ou pains et confitures.
It’s right here, by the cheeses, that they notice one another. Or don’t, depending on your point of view, your degree of candor.
Jessica, tired of Hailey’s dithering over the fruits confits, glances at the attractive silver-haired man in the tweed jacket and red muffler, pricked by recognition, no, rather by a vague intuition. Shouldn’t someone his age wear a hat in chilly weather? Monsieur is studying the cheeses intently. Before he looks up, Jessica turns back to Hailey and advises against the candied fruits.
American voices carry, and her accent startles him. This lovely young Asian woman reminds him of a long ago friend. There’s something familiar about both these jeunes femmes, both wearing jeans and sneakers; the short-haired one in the pink parka and the other with long red locks shimmering over the shiny pillows of her black down jacket. He observes their closeness, the teasing and laughter, sensing he’s known them longer than they’ve known each other. He has to restrain himself from welcoming them to France. Ridiculous. Always a reserved man, he’s startled by this oddly sociable impulse and immediately turns down toward the linen stall. He promised his daughter in Sydney an embroidered table cloth.
“Of course, you’re right,” sighs Hailey. “But aren’t the glittery colors—those brilliant reds, oranges, yellows—tantalizing?”
“Yes.” Jessica nods, distracted by the old man threading his way through the crowd. “Maybe they’ll sell them at Duty Free when we leave in May. Fresher that way.”
Hailey points to the next stall—“Yum, look at that soap—which we also won’t buy today—lavender, rose, lemon verbena. Oh, smell them!”
Thierry carries his shopping bag into the new café recommended by Fazad. La Fourmi Faim. So many places are named for La Cigale, he feels an odd, underdoggish sympathy for the small bistro. He chooses a place at the back corner of the patio, ideal for watching the Saturday crowds.
“Regardez!” Jessica exclaims. “La Fourmi Faim. Remember La Fontaine’s fable?” She remembers Grandma reading one fable each night—in French and English—all of them before kindergarten. Sometimes she thinks this is why she studies folklore.
Hailey reviews the agenda: the Tower, cathedral, shops. She checks her watch.
Jessica frowns. “You promised—a croissant et du café—at the market.” She takes Hailey’s hand, then notices the old man chatting to a waiter. “Come,” she tugs her friend. “This table looks perfect.”
Thierry, recognizing the voice, looks up and can’t help smiling.
“Bonjour!” Jessica tries to sing the greeting the way French women do, fluting the last syllable.
“Bonjour à vous!” He pauses, about to say Mesdemoiselles, then remembers his daughter’s lectures about sexisme. “Bonjour, Mesdames.”
As the waiter takes their orders, Thierry regrets his lost solitude. But these two do take him back.
Nordic Lena—oh, those stunning blonde de fraise locks, served him in a tavern on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. Lena loved his “exotic accent.” She explained that the street was named after that 17th-century Père Hennepin. A few years older than Thierry, Lena had her own apartment and quite modern ideas about free love.
The girl in Seattle had a delightful name. “Ping.” Ideal for her petit frame and bright almond eyes.
She explained, “In Chinese, ‘Ping’ means ‘peaceful’ or ‘fair’ or ‘apple’ depending on which of my aunts you consult.” She spoke fluent French, as well as Mandarin and English. Ping showed him the Pike Street Market, Green Lake, the Space Needle. He often suggested stopping for a chat over tea or coffee.
Ping promised something more enticing than free love: a rendezvous in Paris the next year, when she would study abroad. It was a long twelve months of letters; hers in his language and his in hers. Thierry’s English improved immeasurably, as did his optimism about the future.
His reverie is broken by a voice, “Pardonnez moi, mais nous avons besoins de direction à la gare routière convenable.”
He can’t help himself. He knows it’s rude, that he should allow her to continue in French, but he feels the strain in her voice. And it’s been two or three years since he’s had a proper conversation in English.
“Yes, I’d be happy to direct you. By the way, my name is Thierry Boucher.”
“Jessica Miyasaki,” she says.
Miyasaki, he knows, is a Japanese name, and he wonders why this girl brought back Ping so palpably. He covers his disappointment with a gallant, “Enchanté.”
“I’m Hailey Gulbrandsen. We’re grad school roommates in Minneapolis, but Jessica is from Seattle.”
Jessica grins, “I’ve trained her to say that. Seattleites are super-chauvinistic.”
“Ah, Seattle—Mount Rainier. And Minneapolis—Père Hennepin.”
“Oh, my,” Jessica laughs. “He was a Franciscan Recollect there. How did you know?”
“As a student, I was inspired by the strikes in Paris, then headed to your country to explore la contre-culture. I took a Greyhound from New York to Chicago, just in time for the crazy Democratic Convention. Then to Madison. Minneapolis. Missoula. Finally Seattle. Everywhere people were so hospitable.”
“Ah, the reverse of our trip,” Hailey declares.
“Yes, forty-five years ago.” He looks wistful.
Forty-five years, thinks Jessica. He doesn’t look that elderly.
Soon, somehow, they are at the same table, ordering plus de croissants and chatting about international travel.
Thierry, wary of being intrusive, distances himself with the safe, intergenerational question, “What do you study at university?”
“I’m in the social work program,” says Hailey. “Jessica’s doing her Ph.D. in literature.”
Thierry nods, then smiles at their bright, open faces. “Poetry or novels?”
“Je ne sais pas.” Jessica feels tongue-tied. Explaining “folklorist” to people is complicated.
The waiter brings fragrant croissants with fresh coffees.
“Who are your favorite writers?” He persists gallantly.
“I love Seamus Heaney, Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami.” Struggling to come up with a French writer, she remembers slogging through La Peste. “And naturally, Albert Camus.”
“Camus! Excellent taste.” He’s delighted. “Did you know Camus lived not far from here in the village of Lourmarin?”
“Really,” Jessica blushes at her fib.
Hailey watches, braiding the tassels of her shawl. She remembers Jessica’s tormented week reading La Peste.
Thierry can’t believe he is saying this. “If you’d care to see Lourmarin and make un petit tour du Luberon, I would be happy to drive you about and bring you back to the Apt station.”
Hailey drops the end of her shawl. “Oh, thanks so much. But we can’t intrude on your day.” She tries to catch Jessica’s eye. “I’m sure you have better things to do—with your family or your work.”
“I’m a doctor and no longer schedule Saturday hours. My children are continents away. And my lovely wife died nine months ago.”
“So sorry for your loss,” Hailey murmurs.
“Yes,” Jessica adds. “How very hard. I can’t imagine.”
Of course, she can’t imagine. The early years struggling to be accepted in Ménerbes, the joy and terror of raising two children, the sadness when they left for university and opposite ends of the earth. The relief of having the house to themselves. Decades of mostly happy days, of passionate and cozy nights. Dreams of the trips they would take in retirement. Dreams. He still sees her at night, feels she’s holding tight, and then he wakes.
He realizes they expect a reply. “Thank you” is all he can manage, holding back surprising tears. Grief assails him at such odd moments.
“A doctor,” Jessica nods to Hailey, as if to reassure them both that he is a safe, responsible man. “What is your specialty?”
“Family practice, as you say. Not the most lucrative, but for me the most interesting.”
“William Carlos Williams, an American poet and fiction writer, had a family practice.” Hailey reports neutrally, kicking Jessica under the table.
Jessica ignores her.
“Thanks so much for the invitation, but we do need to get back to the hostel this afternoon.”
Jessica studies her friend. “We’ll be fine, Hailey. We have our cell phones. I’ll call the hostel and tell them we’ll be a little later than we thought. This tour sounds awesome. Please, let’s join le docteur for a couple of hours.”
Thierry is troubled. “Discord between friends! What calamity have I caused? Perhaps you would like to discuss this privately? I must collect something at the shop. Why don’t I do that and return for your decision?”
“Sure,” Jessica says. “And why don’t you leave your groceries here. No sense in lugging them around.”
Mireille always told him he was an innocent. Of course, Hailey might be worried for her safety. He’s a complete stranger to them, despite the curious affinity he feels.
They watch him thread through the market crowd, waving to vendors and shoppers.
Jessica pleads, “He’s a harmless old man. A doctor. Someone who reads literature.”
“Hitler had a huge library.”
“Oh, come on.” Jessica sips the last of her café, craving another cup.
Hailey sighs heavily. “I don’t mean to be unfriendly, but I was looking forward to exploring together with you today. The Tour, the Cathedral. I love talking about our discoveries over dinner. Now you want to add a stranger. I don’t know. Aren’t I enough?”
Jessica winks and squeezes Hailey’s hand, “You know you’re my BFF.”
Hailey pretends to search her wallet for something.
Jessica feathers her blue black bangs. “He’s lonely. His wife just died. His kids are far away.”
“But Jess, he looks at you in this intense, I don’t know, weirdly intimate way.”
“I’m sure he’s fine. Besides, we have the kazoos.”
The kazoos were Hailey’s inspiration. Whenever they hitched with a driver who tried to make a move in the front seat, the girl in the back would pull out her kazoo and start to play. The sound was so ridiculously irritating that the driver would recover his manners. On the downside, they were usually dumped at the next exit.
“OK,” Hailey relents. “Let’s be careful, though. One of us should be following along with GPS.”
“Oh, Hailey, you are so careful.”
Of course, I’m careful with the love of my life, she wants to say, doesn’t say, may never say. It’s enough that they have this month together. That they’re returning to their sweet apartment in Uptown. Enough for now, anyway.
Strolling back from the hat shop, Thierry shakes his head at his forwardness. What’s got into him? An exquisite young woman in Seattle almost half a century ago. What are sentimental memories compared to his fortunate, loving, long marriage with Mireille?
At home, he aches with grief in their empty bedroom, kitchen, and garden. How can he live the rest of his life without her? These sorrowful days, he cringes at condoling nostrums he has offered patients over the years: grief groups, travel, time.
Time! This is the most painful. The first weeks and even months were numbness. Now, each day he feels as if his flayed skin is exposed to caustic rains. Sleep is almost impossible. And waking is a bitterness—especially after those nights when Mireille visits him: they are sharing breakfast or walking on a Sunday or shopping in Apt. When he awakens, he drops into a deep cold well. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot materialize her sweet self. So, lately, he bounds from bed at dawn, goes to the café, and arrives at the cabinet an hour early, much to the distress of his nurse, who has begun offering motherly advice about self-care.
Thierry runs his fingers over the fine reweaving in his grey Harris Tweed cap, a gift from Mireille for his twenty-fifth birthday.
“Oh, no, I will look like an old man,” he burst out laughing, then watched her face fall. From then on, he wore it every day—autumn, winter, and spring—even as he became, if not an old man, an older one.
He shall be convincing when he lies to the young ladies, saying he’s absentmindedly forgotten an afternoon engagement.
Jessica waves as he approaches the café.
He tips his hat.
Before he can beg their pardon with his fabricated commitment, Jessica is chattering, “We absolutely insist on contributing to the gas.”
Momentarily baffled, he finally declares, “Ah, l’essence. Mais non. Lourmarin, ce n’est pas loin d’ici.”
“Still, we insist,” Jessica continues.
“It’s what friends do at home when they travel together.” Hailey resolutely supports Jessica. Possessiveness can kill a relationship.
Friends, he’s nonplussed. Until now, the girls have been more like apparitions.
Soon the three are ambling along the cobbled streets of Lourmarin. The golden buildings gleam after yesterday’s storm. In every direction, they enjoy views of greening hills and manicured farms.
The sun is full; they shed their jackets.
Thierry wishes he had worn a newer shirt, the blue one Mireille gave him for his birthday.
Hailey thinks Jessica looks super in her purple turtleneck.
Thierry points across the valley toward the rival village and recounts long ago battles between the Catholics of Bonnieux and the Protestants of Lacoste.
“Like the North of Ireland.” Hailey frowns. “Crazy. When did hostilities end?”
He admires the passionate curiosity of both girls. So wise and secure, just as when he was on that Greyhound.
Ping boarded the bus on the last leg of his All-American Tour. He willed her to sit next to him and she did. Of course she loved his French accent. And when she responded in his own language, he was just mildly surprised. Such is the entitlement of the young.
“Tell us more about your American odyssey,” Jessica says. “What were your favorite places?”
Not missing a beat, he declares, “Minneapolis and Seattle.”
“Ah, the Norwegian Corridor.” Hailey giggles.
He looks confused.
“You picked our cities to please us,” scolds Jessica.
“Mais non.” He blushes, remembering warm, sweet kisses from Lena and Ping. “Not at all.”
“Ah,” Hailey jokes, “but you had a girl in each port, eh?”
“Would you care for a coffee?” he stalls.
Once the steaming cappuccinos have arrived, he realizes he hasn’t talked this much in ages.
“So?” Jessica says, teasing. “What about your romantic conquests?”
Thierry blinks. Why not tell them? Mireille understood he’d been with others before her. Maybe she didn’t know his deep and guilty ache for Ping, but she understood his early flings; they’d both enjoyed aventures in their youths.
“Lena in Minneapolis.” He smiles, suddenly recalling her generous breasts.
“Lena?!” Hailey says. “Are you sure that was her real name? Minnesota is rife with jokes about Lena—with Sven and Ole, our archetype bumpkins.”
He shrugs. “And Ping in Seattle. We were to meet in Paris the next year, but she got engaged. I stopped writing out of what I imagined to be chivalry but now know to be pride.”
“How sad,” Jessica murmurs, finishing her café.
“That was a long time ago. Another world. I had a fortunate life with Mireille and our daughters and my practice and…” he pauses, sweeping his hand across the pastures flecked with pinking fruit trees and beyond to the dramatic mountain ridges, “the beautiful Luberon.”
By the time they are driving to Ménerbes, Hailey has relinquished her suspicions. This kind, lonely man seems genuinely interested in each of them. He clearly loves sharing his stunning countryside.
First, a stroll around the top of the village to admire the dramatic spectacle of still snowcapped Mont Ventoux, the graceful vineyards with their bare, dark gnarled wood. And, of course, the grand estates peeking from behind wrought iron gates, as well as bizarre houses built into the old caves of Beaumettres.
They wind up sitting al fresco at La Veranda—6pm, still light and warm.
Thierry stretches his arms wide around the early evening. Time for an aperitif, he thinks. But the girls are young. How young, he’s lost the ability to tell, especially with foreigners. He orders a chamomile. Hailey does the same. Jessica asks for a farigoule.
“Yum, I taste thyme, orange, lemon, and something, something else?”
“Anise,” says Thierry, regretting more than a little that he did not take his favorite drink, a pleasure he has forgone since Mireille’s death. Still, he must remain sober to drive them to Apt. Surprisingly, he is no longer tired. He could go on and on, as if he were a young man.
The guest room, indeed the whole house, has been creaking forlornly these months. They might enjoy a few nights in a real home. He wants to invite them but knows better.
Hailey is delighted with the charming town. “Jess, we should have stayed here instead of the other side of Apt. Ménerbes is the prettiest village we’ve seen.”
“Ménerbes doesn’t have a hostel, remember?”
Thierry leans back, listening. Perhaps they are waiting for an invitation. What harm in asking? He’s spent his life being too cautious. He could have flown to Seattle and proposed to Ping. He finishes the tea in one gulp, as if it will sustain him, and ventures, “Mireille and I have/had a comfortable guest room. You’re welcome to share it for a few nights…if you like.”
“Oh, no, we couldn’t.” Hailey’s flushed face belies her protest.
Jessica looks pensive.
A beat later, Hailey turns to her best friend. “Hey, why not? If Thierry is sure we’re not imposing.”
He shakes his head graciously, astonished by how fast his heart is beating. “No imposition at all. You are free to come and go as you please,” he says, completely refreshed. How wonderful to have the house occupied by more than memories. He hasn’t felt this lighthearted in a year.
Hailey grins. “What a treat. To stay in a real French home.” She wonders if their room will have a double bed.
Jessica clears her throat.
His spirits plummet.
She ignores Hailey’s disappointed sigh. “Thank you, Thierry. But our bags are at the hostel. It’s OK to return late in the day, but to miss a night would be taking beds from people who want them. Merci encore, vous êtes très gentil.”
“Oh, Jess, come on. We’ll pay them for the night. We can get our bags tomorrow and….”
He has stopped listening. Studying the dusky sky, he sees that suddenly the day is gone. “Jessica is right. I am being impractical. Of course, you have your plans.”
Sensing her companion’s disappointment, Jessica adds. “Maybe next year? Hailey and I are coming back. We never got to see the Bouquerie and the Tour de L’Horloge. Do you have Internet? Are you on email?”
Certainly, he’s on email. Does she think he’s a dinosaure? Unreasonably, he feels annoyed, abandoned. Yawning, he manages, “As you like.”
So, it’s definite. Hailey’s heart lifts. Next summer again. And who knows what will happen in the seasons in between.
Thierry notices that the blond girl is glowing despite her disappointment.
Traveling back to Apt, through the shadowy evening, the three chat in Français and English and Franglish about the next stops on the young women’s journey—Montpellier, Barcelona, Madrid.
Although he yearns for more of their company, Thierry feels invigorated, having shared the lively afternoon.
In Apt, from the train platform, they wave exuberantly—Lena and Ping—across forty-five years.
Thierry sits in his study bent over two creased black and white photos from the 60s. He switches to the bright faces on his cell phone. The young are getting younger. And he? He’s slipped into the wrong story. How can he be this age? He’s the same as always, with some small improvements. Of course, for his new friends, the idea of mortality is even less credible. Everything is possible and the future is a long road ahead.
Beep. He’s startled by an email alert. Then another. Facebook “friend requests” from Hailey and Jessica. How absurd! How sweet. How interesting.
He pours another farigoule. Bad to indulge, but it’s been an eventful day.
He presses a few more buttons and the Facebook page emerges—a blue and white site busy with pictures and words and cartoons. A search function emerges.
Tentatively he spells out her name.
But she is not any of the Ping Lees or Lee Pings in Seattle. Perhaps she’s too old for Facebook, too sophisticated. He doesn’t dwell on the other possibilities.
Instead, he opens the Greyhound ad—even though he knows this is called clickbait. Does he use the Internet, indeed.
Apparently, the American coach now is a luxurious vehicle—with wifi, individual electrical sockets, and contoured seats. They’ve removed a row to provide extra leg room. That’s something an old man can appreciate. His eye is caught by a photo of Bison grazing in a lush green field. “Wyoming.” A stunning, exotic world with gigantic mountains and wild rivers and antelope. He’s never seen an antelope.
Valerie Miner is the award-winning author of fourteen books, including novels, story collections, and a memoir. Her latest novel is Traveling with Spirits. Her work has appeared in The Village Voice, Salmagundi, Ploughshares, Triquarterly, The Georgia Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, Gettysburg Review, Southwest Review, and many other journals. She has won awards and fellowships from The Rockefeller Foundation, the Fulbright Commission, the Jerome Foundation, Fundación Valparaiso, Bogliasco Foundation, the Australia Council Literary Arts Board, Brush Creek, MacDowell, Yaddo, and various other sources. Her work has been translated into eight languages and has been broadcast a number of times on BBC Radio 4. She is a professor and artist in residence at Stanford University. Her website is www.valerieminer.com. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.