He pulled up as I walked on the side of a busy Lyon road, the type that becomes a highway once it hits the outskirts of town. Ignoring the thick traffic behind him, he stalked me slowly in a compact car, beckoned to me through his open window, across the empty passenger seat.
I had just called home to the States and hadn’t reached anyone. In a square outside a large church, likely Catholic, I stared through the sides of a glass phone booth onto the late-July day. Green hovered somewhere high, probably the leaves of plane trees and their shadows, as well as bright coins of light. I’d just eaten a bag of cherries I’d washed by pouring bottled mineral water into their plastic sack. Wet, red, and sweet, I consumed almost enough of the fruit to make myself sick.
Between Paris and Aix-en-Provence, one of my closest friendships had dissolved. Elle and I knew each other from Cheyenne, though our intimacy only flourished during our college years in Amherst. The alchemy of sharing tea rolls and conversation, of steadily revealing our wounded, ecstatic emotional selves on long car rides around the Pioneer Valley, had quickly deepened an adolescent acquaintance into an early adult friendship. There was something wild and charming about Elle—her bawdy stories and her good table manners. I have the image of her tall, slim frame striking power poses in the kitchen I shared with my older sister and young niece. For two years, Elle’s company was a hand-knit shawl draped around my shoulders. The sudden dissolution of our friendship and its summer travel plans—first stop Paris, then Aix-en-Provence and Dijon—left me feeling my company, my very being, was unwanted. An insecure twenty-three-year-old prude, I made the people around me feel guilty for hunting their pleasure.
Did I like the way the driver looked—his skin tan, gray flecks like mica in his short hair—or was it the loneliness of a shy college student unwisely financing her summer abroad with more federal student loans, desiring anyone who looked at her with warmth in their eyes? I turned long enough for this strange man to ask me a question like, “Where are you going?,” and I answered it for the obvious question it was, only with a slight delay to organize my response in French. I still thought I was going to wander the quays bordering the river Saône. My separation from Elle, the feeling of being a burden, had numbed me to possibility. Even as irritated drivers honked and sped past, the man’s nondescript car rolling beside, I didn’t fathom that he might want something from me.
He stopped the car and offered an invitation—not to go anywhere, as far as I understood, but to get inside. Curious, aware of my lack of hesitation, I accepted. I opened the door to this stranger’s car, a proposition that, all my life, all the people who loved me told me never, ever to entertain. My father was full of cautionary tales about the violent, humiliating acts some men committed against innocent women. Sadly, he had witnessed no shortage of illuminating cases. And hadn’t his own father rescued his future wife, my grandmother, straining to patch herself together after an assault, at the edge of a sharecropper’s field?
I’d been taught to know better.
The driver wore a long-sleeved button-down Egyptian blue shirt with the cuffs rolled up to his elbows. Assured by the blue’s rich, sacred color, by the fabric’s soft weft, I thought, He doesn’t look like a murderer.
Learning his name set me at ease, as did sharing my own. J was named after a saint. His last name sounded like peel. In the cave of his car, my lump of a khaki canvas bag beside my sandaled feet, I buckled my seatbelt out of habit.
J drove us to a city park where stands of tall, bushy pines bordered the entrance. There was a green, vegetal smell with an undercurrent of pink from sun-warmed flowers and stamens coated in pollen. A broad, paved path with benches on either side meandered through deciduous woods. Two decades on, my memory of our walk is filled with dusky figures. Strangers passing on late-afternoon promenades. July weather cooler than I wanted. Moving in arcs without touching, through corridors of plants that occasionally brushed my sides.
Daytime, but newly overcast, we strolled the grounds, establishing details about ourselves. J worked as a delivery man and stocked soda machines. Lately his lower back troubled him. Trying to keep up the conversation, to stay interesting, I may have mentioned Elle, telling the story of her decision to return to Paris rather than staying in Aix-en-Provence, where we’d planned to pass most of the summer, so that J would take my side. I didn’t disclose that something in my friendship had cracked, that I couldn’t determine the fracture’s dimensions or its origins. Was it reparable? I still wanted to be friends with the girl I’d admired as far back as junior high orchestra, noting from the cello section Elle’s adept sight-reading, her studious attention to the V’s and upside-down U’s that marked bowings in her viola sheet music. Throughout high school we were more friendly than friends. She was a year older and studied as an exchange student—adventurous for Central High. Elle returned transfigured, matured, by her year in Southern France. Folio Classique paperbacks. Silk scarves. Fluent conversations with Central’s French teachers marked her as cosmopolitan, brazenly smart. Without fawning, I looked up to her as someone who had seen the promised land. I wanted to replicate her mysterious, smoldering worldliness. Was Elle’s decision to return to Paris a breakup? Breakup was how it felt.
Surely my mind was questioning J during our walk, the situation, but I don’t remember having doubts. Instead, I engaged in calculations. Talking with a real French person would improve my language skills. What would Elle think if she and I ever spoke again? At the end of this afternoon, at the very least, I would have a story. Wasn’t that living? Cultivating experiences that could later be retold, out of context, for the amusement of oneself and others?
Mid-stroll, J took a call from his ex-wife or one of his children on a boxy cell phone at the height of sophistication for 2001. Did I know anyone back home in Wyoming or Massachusetts with a cell? The presence of J’s phone reassured me—he must meet regular monthly payments—as did the fact that his family addressed him in pleasant voices. He spoke to all of them respectfully and raised his index finger and bowed slightly when he did, to say, “Just a minute,” and to let me know that he remembered I was there. I had the impression that he wanted to keep me happy, but without lowering himself. Not as old as my parents in their fifties, but at least ten to fifteen years beyond my twenty-three, his age settled him in an approachable middle ground, a territory more stable than that of the college boys I knew. With most men, I struggled to grasp subtext, which caused me to misread all manner of flirtation. Yet gradually I became aware of myself as fascinating, attractive to this older man. I knew some men saw my brown skin as “exotic”—combined with “interesting” features, outside of embarrassing acne, that were hard to place—but I saw none of that allure about myself. Growing up, I’d been told I was “good-looking” but “intimidating.” Too smart and overeager, too different. Nerdy. Not white. That was my problem. I knew I wasn’t ugly, but a history of romantic nonstarters and anticlimaxes led me to fear that I was undesirable, which was somehow worse. Around adolescence, I began to notice the way girls contorted their personalities and bodies, dumbed down their intelligence and longings, to become desirable to boys, to stay in relationships with men. These self-effacing manipulations sickened me. Shapeshifting was a disgusting game, though I supposed playing along was sometimes necessary for meeting basic needs.
We agreed to meet in a day or two to see Lyon’s Roman ruins, which I had read about but hadn’t planned to visit. In the car, as J drove me to my two-star hotel, he said, “J’ai flashé sur toi.” When I didn’t understand what I read or what someone said to me in French, I tended to laugh. Or nod. In Lyon, I kept seeing “cuisse de dinde” on restaurant menus and had no idea what cuisse de dinde meant, or if it was a regional specialty. Afraid to risk wasting money on food I wouldn’t like, I never ordered this “thigh” of whatever and never asked what it was. I laughed as J repeated that he had seen me walking down the street and had flashé sur moi. Flashé sounded like a lyric from a David Bowie song. “Let’s dance!” What did the phrase suggest? Idioms were tricky. Same with cognates. Flash? Something to do with fire? I said in French, “You can flashé sur moi if you want.” A supple, subtle movement crossed J’s face, becoming the grin I’ve since scouted for in those I’m attracted to—the signal of a shared frisson, followed by my fantasies about the feel of their shoulders through a crisp, clean shirt.
To keep my hotel room cool during the day, I had drawn the windows’ tall shutters before I left. In the room’s dim light, I looked up flashé in my French-to-English dictionary. “Il a flashé sur moi.” Flasher sur quelqu’un. I understood it to mean “turned on.”
I had turned someone on. Throughout my pelvis I sensed the edgy, tingling sensation that accompanies looking down from a great height.
Swinging open the shutters to air out the room and invite in the late-afternoon glow, I heard a sound from the stone courtyard at the building’s center. A woman having either an impossible or an enviable number of orgasms—an irony both disturbing and amusing. Her quick, high-pitched cries echoed across rows of identical windows and cream-colored brick. Among the dozens of rooms and apartments encircling this nineteenth-century courtyard, where was she? Who else eavesdropped on her ecstasy? I began to wonder who this woman was and what she did for work. If I saw her on the street, would I recognize the mark of her passion? The difficulty was that France churned out all sorts of women—from girls working registers at Monoprix to moms wearing small gold crucifixes around their blushing necks—who looked like they were either coming from or heading toward acts of seduction. Earlier that summer I had sat across from Elle in the Marais, at a depressingly expanded L’As du Fallafel. Dyed red hair somehow tamed after a night of lovemaking, feline eyes rimmed in liner, blue veins showing through her white skin, Elle regularly let her gaze float up to meet our waiter’s flirtatious glances. Her expression was both trembling and triumphant. Did the courtyard woman look like that?
On the hotel’s bumpy white coverlet, I lay down in my street clothes, stomach full of cherries, too buzzed to masturbate.
J and I had planned to meet at an intersection. I arrived early and splayed myself out on a nearby patch of grassy earth in order to feel the ground beneath me. J arrived on time. We were both surprised and nervous to see one another, as if we each expected to be stood up.
Part of me acted the dutiful tourist, asking questions and absorbing historical information about this ancient Roman site dating back at least to the time of Hadrian, my apparent namesake. We stepped carefully among stones built into the Fourvière hillside, easing down to the amphitheater beneath a bald sky. I barely saw the ruins; I was trying to figure out what I was feeling, what exactly my body was turning inside out, starting with the space behind my navel and twisting like a rag. When my sister and I were girls, we had a way we liked to eat oranges. Our mother would slice them in half. Using our mouths, we would gnaw out the juice and the pulp until both were almost gone. Then we would turn the oranges inside out to eat the remaining sections, which still had some flavor but much less juice. Finished, turned—convex white pith, concave orange skin, and shaped like a breast—that was the sensation. How could a touch that hadn’t yet materialized make me feel simultaneously empty and full?
J invited me to his apartment in a housing development of multiple buildings. Silent in the partially exposed cement stairwell, we passed over triangles of sunlight and shade. Outside his living room window, I noticed J’s neighbors had also closed their metal shutters to keep out the day’s heat. His apartment struck me as spare and functional, not because of any aesthetic, but because of an unnameable feeling. The sorrow of bachelors, of men with overgrown fingernails who don’t know how to, or don’t care to, groom themselves. Some may be waiting for a woman’s help. When J went to the bathroom, I peeked in the refrigerator. Ham in those strange plastic packets French people have, and a crescent of cantaloupe. Shelf-stable milk, a bottle of Volvic. Nothing else. The aloneness marked by that pristine, empty refrigerator nearly devastated me.
He showed me holiday pictures of his kids, a son and a daughter, as children and as teens. They were handsome, tanned, and younger than I was, but not by much. The Tour de France was on TV, and we watched Lance Armstrong dominate the pack of cyclists teeming behind him. The cyclists navigated a brutal phase of the tour, grinding themselves up a mountain that ground them down. J had done some cycling. Armstrong was cheating, he said. His achievements were impossible without drugs—this assessment a decade before Armstrong’s star fell.
How often have interludes into sex started on a couch, pretending to watch TV as a reason to be near, awkward kissing before we know each other’s mouths well enough to make it good? I feel nostalgic for the days before I had to stop and reveal to future lovers the diseases I had and might give them, and to ask after their diseases and what, if we were to do this, they might give me. That day, I had no diseases, if we don’t count a chronic case of low self-esteem. I had the urge to confess the truth to J: I’d never slept with anyone before, and did he have something we could use?
Until that summer, I had never seen people having sex on anything besides television or movie screens. In Paris, Elle had quickly found a lover—M, a brilliant École Normale Supérieure student unaware that he, while falling in love, was simply my friend’s most recent screw. I felt sorry for kindhearted M but didn’t want to get involved. The only problem: I was staying in M’s apartment, where Elle suddenly wanted to be.
Before we left the States, Elle had arranged our accommodations in Paris. Neither of the apartments she secured through contacts was big enough to house both of us together. Understandable. Paris is expensive, and we were drawing upon the generosity of college and graduate students whose age and modest resources were not unlike our own. There were two apartments. One unoccupied, the other belonged to M and required sharing the space with him. Elle chose the empty flat. She was a lighter sleeper. Or maybe she wanted privacy, space. When she chose, things hadn’t yet started up with M. Once they got together, her apartment was inconvenient, too many metro stops away from this new romance. Wouldn’t I prefer to swap?
I recall a stilted conversation in a swaying Paris subway car, our arms wrapped around the metal poles for balance, neither of us really looking the other in the eye. Over the course of our friendship, Elle and I had daydreamed about traveling together in France. How good it would be. Visits to the gardens surrounding Rodin’s house, the cafés Elle knew in Paris and Aix-en-Provence, her bighearted former host families eager to reunite and to meet me. At the Musée Rodin, the parquet floors creaked as we circled the two right hands gracefully forming The Cathedral, but seeing Rodin’s sculptures didn’t contain any of our daydream’s excitement. On the subway doors there was the image of a rabbit dressed in human clothes, a painful look of shock on its face and an explosion of color around the seam where the doors crushed its cartoonish fingers. As the train knocked through the tunnel, its jostling merged with our muted conversation. Wouldn’t I like the privacy of an empty apartment? After a few days bunked with M, didn’t I crave my solitude? I wanted Elle to ask me directly, to tell me that she wanted to switch apartments, rather than making it seem like she would be doing me a favor when I would be packing my bags to do one for her. Besides, I had bonded with the mirror in M’s bathroom. There, I had developed a system for viewing my face in the glass up close, one-third to one-half at a time, with the lights off—the only way to tolerate my frequently upsetting reflection and the realization, as I lightly touched each day’s new pimples, that despite all my balms and precautions, the purification of chanting and deep breathing, my mutinous skin had erupted overnight.
The night before Elle and I were to leave Paris, she stayed over at M’s, the two of them sleeping on the futon in his minuscule living room. The next day we would take the train to Aix-en-Provence, where we had an open invitation from a family that had hosted Elle during high school. That morning, when I stepped out to examine my face in the bathroom, I saw M’s erect penis—a closed pink tulip—and Elle’s body swooping down.
Elle and I boarded the train to Aix-en-Provence together, though on some level I must have understood that she was already making arrangements to return to Paris and M.
J’s bedroom was as cool and spare as his refrigerator. We took off our clothes and I didn’t hide my body, the wild patterns of stretch marks across my breasts and hips, the scoliosis that pushed my right scapula out of alignment. I didn’t want to begin this part of my life in hiding. That would come later. I was wet, ready, and the sex ended quickly. J told me I was beautiful, and I didn’t believe it then, thinking this was an obligatory compliment, but I believe him now. He slipped off to the bathroom and peed with the door wide open. He washed himself in a quick shower, inviting me to do the same, before coming back to talk and take rest. I didn’t want to get clean. I learned then that I prefer to keep the brine of sex on as long as possible. Maybe I hope that smell will delay the melancholy and keep the sense of an inner cracking at bay.
A few years ago, a much younger friend sent me an article she had recently co-authored and published online. The article, a conversation between her and another woman, concerned their exuberant, twenty-something sex lives. Flipping straight girls over like griddle cakes, arriving at a new lover’s house before Sunday brunch with a bag of strap-ons and sex toys. I read the article admiring their joy and confidence. I have never possessed such bighearted swagger, though, two decades on from my days in Lyon, I have learned to cup pleasure in my hands and drink.
In a few days, I would leave Lyon for Aix-en-Provence, followed by Dijon, and eventually the States, loosely following the itinerary Elle and I had set, not so much out of determination, but because my budget and my appetite for further change were limited, and Elle’s friends in Aix-en-Provence would allow me to stay for free, even without her, and I didn’t know what else to do.
It seems J and I saw each other again, many times, but it must have been one or two nights refracted. We went to a good, affordable Lyonnais restaurant I never would have found on my own. Cuisse de dinde, I learned, was turkey leg. We ate it with lentils. J gifted me his Egyptian blue shirt, which I kept into my late twenties, rarely wearing but conscientiously moving to each new apartment. J thought there was truth to Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Our last night together, I wore an elaborate wirework necklace shaped in a V and studded with cheap stones glued to metal, thinking it would be sexy, though I soon took it off to avoid smacking J’s face. Later that night, we stopped at a café cast in shadow. J ordered a bright green mint sirop and I a beer. He joked that his back felt infinitely better before telling me that I was welcome to stay. The café tables around us squeezed in tight as squares on a checkerboard. Metal clips held tablecloths in place. In the darkened doorway of a nearby building, an easygoing group of young men and women talked and laughed. On peut se débrouiller. We could find a way to work it out, J said. I sipped my beer, not sure what I thought of its bitter taste, wondering if drinking beer with a lover was what I, as a woman in the next phase of her life, was supposed to do. Before that summer, it was the sort of situation I would have processed with Elle. I reminded J that this was my last year of college. I had family responsibilities in the States. I was helping my older sister raise her daughter. He understood. After all, he was a father. Before I left France, I called J several times. During each brief conversation, I felt the pull of his voice but feared that empty refrigerator and all the space he invited me to fill.
After leaving Lyon, I saw Elle twice more. Near the end of the summer, we met in Dijon, where Elle had a bare-bones flat associated with the postgraduate teaching assistantship she had won. I can’t remember whether Elle let me stay in her Dijon flat while she was away in Paris with M or during a brief return to the States—her visa was a mess—but I was grateful for secure, free lodging, even if I saw the offer of her flat as born out of guilt for abandoning our plans. Alone in Dijon, I waited out the days before my flight home, occasionally visiting a music store to listen to CDs and pass the time. One weekend Elle came to Dijon from Paris, perhaps to take care of something administrative, and we went out for dinner.
Despite the nice weather, the neighborhood had the ghostly feel of Sundays in France. Shuttered shops, families eating together at home. Of the few restaurants open, we selected a vacant Chinese bistro where both hostess and kitchen appeared startled to receive any customers. For aperitif they served foggy, grayish-blue cocktails. Our entrées came with crunchy rice either partially cooked or so old it resembled opaque spaghetti beads. I told Elle about J and she brightened, pumped me for details. Was the sex any good? He was my first, after all. I wanted to build him up, to impress Elle and let her know we were on equal footing as sexual beings, but it hurt to make someone a story, to shove them into the past tense. How was M? I asked. Studying for something. He’d do brilliantly, because he always had. As we commiserated over an awful meal, the brief talk of J and M offered the only warmth amid the nice-girl chill that had settled between us.
The second time I saw Elle was three years later, August 2004, in an aisle of our hometown Target. Each of us carried a plastic basket, the products on the shelves around us straight and orderly as a regiment. I had never seen Elle’s hair so short, her curls coiled tight to her scalp. She was with her fiancé, or maybe Elle was already married to this man my mother referred to as her “young swain.”
What was I doing back home in Cheyenne?
“I’m here for my father’s funeral,” I said, and then Elle asked me—her expression weirdly coquettish—about a mutual acquaintance, another of my former lovers from France. Elle didn’t mean J—they had never met—but it was impossible not to think of him for an instant as I waited for Elle to say how sorry she was that my father, the man who had fondly called her “Red” and played dominoes with her, had died. Wasn’t she curious about how he had died, or when? Elle said nothing about my father, and both of us soon moved on, yet for the rest of the week I expected her to call or drop by my parents’ house, as our family’s other friends and acquaintances had, to leave bulk toilet paper from Sam’s Club, sticks of bundled sage, and buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken along with their condolences. I was holding out for affection or apology.
For years I dreamed about Elle, remembering the fuchsia chiffon dress she wore that summer in France and the way, when anxious, she tapped her fingertips on her lips.
My last morning in Lyon, I went to the train station alone. Announcements echoed—Mesdames et Messieurs—across the hall where I checked the departure board for my track. Men eyed me as if I had become visible overnight; I was somehow aware of being studied from behind. Pressurized air escaped the trains in gasps, and there was the acrid, familiar stench of burnt oil. My oversized suitcase weighed me down, but I was strong from lugging it all summer, and I managed my way to the railroad quays, where pigeons dipped their heads spastically in the hunt for scraps.
On the train, I navigated the narrow aisle in search of my seat. Shaved, curious faces glanced up from newspapers, some saying a warm bonjour as if in invitation. Would these men have paid me any mind before? Or could they sniff me through the tight red capris I had purchased in a Lyon boutique, as a symbolic gift to myself after meeting J? Shoals of chattering women had caressed fabric between their fingertips in that busy store, held blouses below their chins to evaluate the effect of a green or an orange, a floral pattern, against their complexions. A woman beside me had asked what I thought of her choice. Replying “Vous êtes très belle” gave me great satisfaction. I loved the way women lit up when I told them they were beautiful, though I never acted on the temptation to ask them what they thought of me. I kept those brief moments of erotic solidarity—my apprenticeship for learning about the bodies and languages of other people—to myself.
Sun drenched my window seat. After avoiding the glass, yet pulled by the possibility of reassessing myself, I dared to look. My broad forehead and high, fleshy cheekbones went back for generations on my father’s side. My father—a man who, after years of rambling, became one of a handful of Black Union Pacific Railroad engineers based in Cheyenne—had also given me my love of trains. He believed in seeing the world, in the education that came from talking with bighearted strangers, and the morning I left Lyon he was still alive. When I saw him later that year, he told me not to worry about Elle. She was alright, but she wasn’t everything. Relationships are made to end and it’s a waste of time to try and make people love you. Shit, they’re lucky if they get the chance.
As the train edged out of the station, I admired Lyon’s patchwork of buildings and neighborhoods as they slowly blurred in the wake of my reflection.
Adrienne G. Perry grew up in Wyoming, earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College, and earned her PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. From 2014 to 2016 she served as the editor of Gulf Coast. A Hedgebrook alumna, she is also a Kimbilio Fellow and a member of the Rabble Collective. Adrienne’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Black Warrior Review, Indiana Review, Meridians, and elsewhere. She teaches at Villanova University.