“Here it is,” I dead-panned, opening the wide barn-style door to the small cave-like dwelling I had lived in for four months. “My bomb shelter.”
“It’s not so bad,” Landon said, dropping his duffel to the floor, tired from the long trans-Atlantic trip.
“Just wait,” I cautioned him, gesturing to the walls, a small prick of pride straightening my posture. There had been an outbreak of feline AIDS the year prior in Lyon, and, as a result, there were virtually no cats in the city–just an overpopulation of mice. At night, you could hear mice crawling in the walls — a particularly atrocious experience given that my bed was lofted and I slept about a foot beneath their nightly exodus in search of food. The mice had become so fearless in their pursuit of food (I joked that one had given me typical Frenchman sass — “zut alors, no, no,” shaking his French mouse paw dismissively — when I’d attempted to shoo him away), my roommate and I had taken to stowing groceries in the toaster oven and dragging the desk chair to the center of the room so that we could thread baguettes and grocery bag handles through the arms of the chandelier. Yes, the apartment was overrun with mice and had possibly served as a garage in its past life, but, in true French form, it had a chandelier.
Landon seemed to shrug it off, and I swallowed hard. This exchange mattered to me: I had hoped to present myself as a toughened, traveled woman — more sophisticated than the parochial mama’s girl I’d been when we’d first gotten together, and braver, too. I was twenty and had seen some things, I sniffed inwardly. Landon, I knew, was more adventurous than I: he was planning a three-week trip backpacking through South America with a buddy that upcoming summer, and I already knew how coddled my fling in France must have seemed, the mice notwithstanding. Maybe I’d not adequately advertised my practiced insouciance on the topic? I rearranged my emotions and decided to scale back on the eye rolling when it came to the topic of living abroad. This, it would turn out, would be one of the many gifts Landon would bestow upon me: an earnestness about things, a decided disaffection for playing it cool. It was Landon who would unflinchingly share that he respected cartoon artistry, and that he was a drummer in a marching band, and that he in fact found it attractive that academics were my thing in high school — it was Landon, in other words, who would make me realize how fetching it was to advance your own perspective and lean into your own interests, “coolness” be damned.
But on that afternoon of our reunion, I only wanted this: to be seen as the evolved and pioneering lady I’d become, the one who had traveled on her own from Berlin to Lyon, navigating multiple rather complicated transit systems in her non-native tongue; the one who took literature classes in French with native French-speaking students; the one who had been mistaken for a French woman in the local bookstore (“vous cherchez quelque chose en particulier?” the storekeep has asked; “oui, celui-ci,” I nodded, holding up a book of poems by Verlaine; “pour plaisir?” he asked, startled; “mais non — pour l’ecole…alors, jamais pour le plaisir” and he had chuckled! chuckled at my very French attitude, about how passion and school were never one and the same); the one who ordered “une brioche sucree, s’il vous plait” at the corner boulangerie every other morning without batting an eyelash — “comme il faut,” just another part of the day; the one with sophisticated French bangs and trendy Miss Sixty flares; the one who had yelled at an overly aggressive Frenchman who’d made unwanted advances while she’d been sitting in Place Carnot, reading on a park bench, shimmering with self-awareness as she fashioned herself to be the heroine in some Fitzgerald book.
As the sun set that evening, we walked down Rue Auguste Comte toward Place Bellecour, hand in hand. I was proud of Landon: he was tall, and tanned, and blond, and we turned heads. He towered over the native French, and his preppy American duds stood in stark contrast with the then-prevalent athleisure the young gentlemen were wearing. I’d told him about a little bouchon I’d come to like, warning him with a knowing look of how bizarrely quiet these outposts were: I’d learned that the French spoke to one another in whispers when in public. You could spot an American crowd in an instant; you’d just need to turn your head towards the volume.
“A lot of my classmates tell people they’re Canadian,” I explained laughingly. “It goes over better.”
He shook his head. “Nah. I’m American.” I nodded, taking in his easy confidence, realizing I’d absorbed my snarkiness on the topic of Franco-American relations from my classmates without reflection.
We sat down, ordered a pichet of local Cotes du Rhone wine, and basked in the warm spring night air, as the proprietor had opened the shuttered doors onto the street, and tables spilled out into the sidewalk. Landon commented on the large chalkboard sign advertising mussels. It was moules season, and they were everywhere — but, I admitted sheepishly, I’d never tried them. He hadn’t either, and he was adamant about our trying the local specialty. I was picky about food back then — overly concerned with calories and generally squeamish about the unknown. A few weeks earlier, my best friend at the time had visited me and ordered frog’s legs at the corner bistro. “Like chicken,” she said, and my stomach turned.
“I usually get the salade lyonnaise–” I said, glancing at the menu. “And by usually, I mean always.”
“Let’s try something new,” he urged.
I reluctantly agreed — and though the texture took some accommodation, I was bowled over by the richness of the silky garlic-and-butter broth, its extravagance cut by the tang of white wine. I was surprised at how addictive they were, at my instantaneous conversion: I was a mussel-lover after all!
And so we devoured our kettles of moules, dragging crispy golden-brown frites through the broth and lingering over our plates until long after they’d cooled, talking into the warm May night about our plans, our pasts, our promises to one another. I realized, with a start, as I prattled on about my weird literature professor and the fact that his entire seminar was focused singularly on the theme of “anger” in literature — how novel, how French! — that I’d inadvertently revealed that nothing much had changed with me after all, that I was the self-same girl he’d rescued from that bizarre fraternity formal a year prior, the same intellectually hungry, authority-conscious, diligent twenty-year-old I’d always been — and I felt, in a sense, relief. I could just be me.
There I was, rediscovering how our relationship fit, seeing how I fit into it. I’d had an expanse of several months to daydream about our relationship, and I’d come to the precarious decision that I could cultivate myself into the type of woman I thought he wanted: a traveled, self-possessed sophisticate. And Landon had, in a span of a few hours, with his quiet self-assurance, disabused me of that charade. I was me with him.
I think back on that vignette often because I see in it seeds of the relationship we would grow into, and that we continue to grow into — growth being the operative word. In some ways, we are the same: he is stubborn and self-assured and adventurous and can ground me with a single look, and I am sensitive and nurturing and curious and can move him with a single look — and together, we are magic. We know how to argue and make up, how to get our points across, how to build one another up, how to show one another love in small but non-trivial ways — and, perhaps most importantly, how to let one another be our truest selves, even when those selves are in the midst of transformations minor and major. And so we are also different, and our relationship has kept pace — the same, but not the same — and what I mean to say is this: that reunion in Lyon was a significant homecoming abroad in more ways than one, a disembarking from a cultivated vision of our relationship into its realities, a return to who I was, a harboring in the single most important relationship of my life.
+I’m dying over this affordable floral top — it’s on sale for under $60 and looks like something by Zimmermann!
+The most darling placemats. I have been using placemats on our petite dining table since we moved in — it’s too small for a runner! — and I think I need these as a summer update!
+I know the last thing we want to think about right now is sweater weather, but this chunky cardigan would double as a perfectly acceptable summer accessory for cooler evenings. I also like the open weave and sorbet stripes on this affordable find (I’d buy it a size or two larger than I’d normally wear and pair with skinny white jeans).
+This is in my shopping cart RN. (Bonus: it’s currently 20% off, along with these other epic finds.) I love the pearl detail!
+How precious are the illustrations in this book?!
+I like the minimalist styling of these sippy cups. (Who knew I could have an opinion on sippy cups?)