On Wednesday mornings, I woke at six and nimbly crept around the trundle of my roommate to descend the steps from our loft. Feeling my way through the dark, I deftly changed out of my pajamas, brushed my teeth and hair, retrieved my tote from the quiet hollow of my closet, and unlatched the barn door of our ground-level studio apartment. I took in the hush of the courtyard, the high stone edifices lining its sides having the grave but not altogether unkind air of the dignified old proprietor of the watch shop (l’horlogerie) around the corner. “Vous cherchez quelque chose en particulier, mademoiselle?” he had asked me appraisingly, politely, as he held his hands behind his back and looked down his aquiline nose. “Mais, non,” I replied, suddenly too shy to admit I was looking for something affordable to give to my boyfriend of several months. I’d lost my nerve and, switching to English, offered: “I’m just looking.”
As I crossed the courtyard, sensing a similar watchfulness from the inanimate stone walls around me, I hastened my pace.
Crossing Pont Gallieni toward my seven a.m. class, I took in the purple-azure expanse opening itself up to dawn. Cars flew by in their characteristic French haste, but infrequently, startlingly; for the most part, the streets, like the sidewalks, were deserted, the moist from the evening’s rain evaporating in splotches across the pavement. On the precipice of reaching the right bank of the Rhone, streaks of orange appeared on the horizon.
That morning in Lyon, like the stretch of weeks prior to it, had the feel of a prelude. It was as if I could hear the mutedly elegant strings at the very beginning of the prelude to Verdi’s La Traviata, an opera I had adored ever since studying it in high school Aesthetics class, when I had transposed the vibrant inner yearnings of my teenage self onto the opera’s stirring arias. It was only living abroad, lovesick, my heart drifting somewhere between Charlottesville, Virginia and Lyon, France, that I felt that I was living in prelude rather than aria — in the anticipation of crescendo.
After Landon had arrived in Lyon to visit me, we explored the city together, re-discovering one another as we climbed up to Mount Fourviere, traipsed along the quais, wandered Jardin Archeologique Saint Jean. I remember those excursions in little flashes, but I can recall in high relief the afternoon he walked me across Pont de l’Universite to take a final exam for one of my classes. There was a large, potbellied, shirtless man who stood in the median of Quai Claude Bernard, turning every few minutes to stare down the traffic as it would approach him from either north or south, seemingly suspended from all time except the imprecise metronome of bursts of traffic pushing down the boulevard as the lights changed. There was a small wine shop en route, and we stopped in to buy a two-Euro bottle of Cote de Rhone for Landon to enjoy in the small garden behind the university while I took my exam. There was a hazy warmth to the spring air. There were clusters of happy French students streaming out of the university buildings, likely having just finished their final examinations, eager to smoke cigarettes and map out their summers. There was a feeling of the dynamic afoot.
He left me at the entrance to the university, and I watched him walk confidently around the corner, as though on a path he took daily, following the instructions I’d given him. I spent the allotted 60 minutes writing a thoughtful essay in response to a question about the theme of le colere in the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire. As I walked to the front of the room to deposit my blue book, I noticed with a gasp that the examination instructions had a second side with an additional question on it, and I’d spent the entire hour only answering the one on the first.
I gulped and approached the formidable French professor to plead my case. He must have seen the panic in my overachieving, all-A-student eyes, as he sighed, jerked his head in the direction of the window as if to gesture me to sit down, and said:
“Allez, allez. Vingt minutes. Allez.”
“Merci, professeur,” I whispered gratefully.
I sped through my response, increasingly concerned about Landon sitting alone in the dusk garden, the light of day dwindling, wondering where the hell I was. I worried he might venture back to my apartment, convinced he’d confused our plans, and that we’d miss one another. After turning in my paper and thanking the professor profusely, I rushed out of the building and around the corner and through the arched doorway into the garden, and —- there he was, settled into a stone archway, leaning comfortably against its arc, a plastic cup of wine in one hand and an unopened book in the other.
I approached with apologies, but he looked back at me with unphased happiness.
“You’ve got to taste this wine,” he said. “Two euros? Can you believe that?”
As I explained my exam mishap, I realized he’d been unbothered by the delay. He’d read bits of his book, but had mainly sat in that garden soaking in the warm May air, the lack of his own exams and responsibilities, the buzz of red wine. He’d been observing the students, the architecture, the French way.
Landon has always had a preternatural ability to live in the moment, to turn off anxieties around plans, to just be. His tagline might well be an abbreviated “Laissez le temps rouler”: in other words, let time go by.
We sat on a stone bench in the middle of the garden and he poured me a plastic tumbler of red wine. My exams were done, my semester had ended, and it felt like we had the whole world in front of us. I don’t know whether it was Landon’s open-armed embrace of the adventure of the present — his unreflecting and happy acquiescence of my twenty-minute delay — or the fact that I suddenly had an acute and assured awareness that we would spend the rest of our lives in a pattern of similar departures and reunions, but I realized with a start that I was out of the prelude and into the main act.
If I could re-cast myself in contemporary clothing in the above recollection, my ideal wardrobe:
I love the sophisticated styling of this striped shirtdress.
There is something tres francaise about this gamine dress.
This, with skinny jeans, for cooler nights.
Anything/everything from Sezane.
Writing this piece — the feeling of anticipation in the first half of it — brought to mind my reflections on the death of one of my best friends from high school.
Read the rest of the M Series — part memoir, part magic — here.