The friend I was traveling with fell in love with a woman named P before we set off to Europe, and all the time we were away my friend worried P would not return her love. She wasn’t sure P was a lesbian. She wasn’t sure the way we are not sure when we like the elevator feeling of rising and falling. My friend knew people who took us in. In Paris we stayed in the apartment of the journalist who wrote the “Letter from the Street” for the New Guardian. The journalist also wrote books about migrant workers who seeped out of Turkey and the Middle East into service jobs in Western Europe. She was too busy to talk to us. I did not care. She wasn’t my friend. I would hear her on the phone speaking French with an American accent she could not be bothered to smooth. Every day my friend and I walked miles while she pondered her fate with P. I wanted to walk all the time. My friend wanted to sit and read. Thus, there were so many miles of walking for me and so many hours of sitting and reading for my friend. On our strolls we noticed a type of pastry popular in the pâtisseries, a large, chocolate ball covered with rough sprinkles named tête-de-nègre. This was 1981 or 1982, and it got so we would count the têtes-de-nègres we passed each day. I was impatient with my friend’s absorption with P. I wanted her focus more on me. I regret this. If I had been the one in love, I would have asked every stranger I passed, “Do you think it will work out?” One day my friend decided to confront the proprietor of a pâtisserie about the racist cakes. She spoke French with a good accent. She was a woman of the world with famous friends, a person who knew how to position herself, which was something I did not know how to do. She spoke in French to the shop owner, pointing from the pastries to her head. At first she was calm, but when she could not convince the shop owner the cakes were offensive, she said in French, “I am a negro.” The shopkeeper’s jaw parted as her eyes moved from my friend’s fair skin to her dirty blond hair. P was black. When my friend told the shop keeper she was a negro, I loved her so much nothing else mattered. She was wearing a little scarf and a linen shirt. She looked as chic as any Parisian, and I was proud to be seen with her. The owner of the shop kept shaking her red curls and saying, “That is the name of the pastry. It is not our fault.”
It was July, and in June I had learned Gardner had bone marrow cancer and would die. When I imagined him dead, my life seemed treeless and gray. Gardner, my heart.
I was drifting beside a river in Montreal. I was difting like a river when a bicycle slid slowly into view. It was laden like a pack animal with eight knapsacks and a guitar, and a boy was pedaling, lanky and tan with a cap of yellow hair. He paused before a wall of concrete. I said, “What is that?” He said, “A granary.” I said, “No, really.” He said, “It’s true. There’s one just like it in Vancouver, where I live.”
I said, “What’s with the bike?” He said, “I have been traveling around the world for the last two years.” I said, “Tell me more.” He was alone and young. I would soon be alone and was not young. He said, “I set off with four thousand dollars and hopped a freighter to New Zealand. When I ran out of money, I waited tables. On the road, I averaged a hundred kilometers a day. In Yugoslavia my bike broke down and I had to pedal six hundred kilometers in a single gear. I slept alone in parks or on the sides of roads. I was always afraid of getting robbed or attacked.”
I tried to picture myself in a similar situation, and a small hotel room came to mind. It was in Paris or Amsterdam, and I had had a panic attack without knowing what it was. I thought I was made of balsa wood. I was sweaty, and my chest thumped.
I asked the boy his age. He said, “Twenty-two.” At twenty-two, I was married to a boy my age and having an affair with a man who was twenty years older than me. I would look at the little lines around his eyes and wonder what I would look like at that stage. I was there, now, forty-four. Gardner was old enough to be my father, and it made me feel free. It made me feel, “This is not my real life.”
The boy said, “I almost died in India.” He smiled as if it were an accomplishment, and I supposed at his age you could think almost dying was a trick. He said, “I thought I had an amoeba, but it turned out to be hepatitis. My mother was in Rome, and by the time I got there, I was practically dead.” He smiled again, this time with uncertainty. He said his bike had been lost on the plane, and he was using a loaner while awaiting its return. A week had passed. He was giving up hope.
I was in Montreal to laugh at comedians and write about them. Gardner had said, “Go. It’s your job.” I was always waiting for him to say, “Go,” even now. I was staying at a posh hotel the magazine was paying for. The boy was slim, broad-shouldered, six feet tall. His arms and legs were covered with thick, white down. Some kind of pain rose off him. I asked if he wanted to meet me that night to see a show.
He was at the theater when I arrived, propped against a fence, wearing a red t-shirt and shorts printed with flowers. I guided him to a tent behind the theater, where performers, agents, and journalists were watching comedy acts on large TV monitors and helping themselves to food and drink from a buffet. The boy heaped a plate high and carried it to a long table, squeezing in beside a comedian with one, dangling earring and a singer with a Lulu bob. Every summer the comedy world convened in Montreal. It was a giant bar mitzvah: the food, the kibbitzing. Milton Berle was reputed to have the largest cock in show business. One summer he came to the festival, an old man by then, and one of his minders confirmed the rumor. The people at our table watched the acts and talked. The boy slipped in tales of his travels. People listened. He was an operator. I smiled.
After the show a group repaired to a bar and later, as people peeled off, I asked the boy where he was spending the night. His cheeks were flushed, excited by the people and talk. He said, “I’ll pedal up Mount Royal and camp out.” It was late. We were both away from home. At the bar, people had winked and nudged me about the boy. I had said, “Oh, sure, right,” sizing him up because, really, sex can slink in anywhere. I did not want to sleep with him. I wanted Gardner to live, and I offered the boy the extra bed in my room.
On the way to the hotel, as we slipped between crowds and buskers, the air felt soft, and the boy walked stiffly. I thought it was from balancing his bike. He said, “The worst thing about moving around so much is I didn’t get to know anyone well enough to get angry at them.” He shrugged. “It’s my own fault. I take off before people can get sick of me.”
I thought, not quite. His chatter was beginning to grate, and he did not ask questions of me. Some people think it is rude to ask questons, and they wait for you to present yourself. I did not like to present myself. I liked to be opened. Still, I decided, whatever happened was all right for a night. I wondered if I could live my whole life this way.
In the room, he asked to shower. When he came out he reached for his toes, not getting far. He said, “I’m tight.” I said, “From riding?” He said, “No, curvature of the spine. It’s very obvious.” He lowered himself slowly into a chair, suddenly older, suddenly old in his bright shorts and shirt, and I could see it now, the twisted bow shape of his long back. How had I not noticed before?
His hair was damp, and he smelled of soap. His eyes were the startling blue of the Mediterranean, and clouds moved across them. I said, “What does it mean?” He said, “A few years ago I went to a chiropractor, and she said, ‘You’re history.’” He flashed a thin smile and said, “In ten years, it’ll probably bother me a lot.” He meant he might be crippled. He meant he might be crippled at thirty-two. He scribbled something on a pad and looked up. “My parents could have had it treated. I don’t know why they didn’t.”
His father was a professor of English, his mother an artist. They had divorced when he was five. He had lived with his mother until he was thirteen, and then, after biking across country with his father, he had bought himself a plane ticket to Vancouver, and now he lived with his dad, if he lived anywhere.
I saw him now, a figure approaching over a hill. I saw a boy who was sad. A boy who was broken and had learned to be self-reliant. A boy who thought he had to keep moving.
We got into our beds, and I turned off the light, wondering why his parents had neglected his back. They were twenty when he was born. Maybe they had not wanted to see damage. He kept talking, and his words fell across me like a mist, like a net, and in time I heard him breathing, a sweet sound, deep and undisturbed.
The next day he set off for the train station, where he would meet his younger brother. Together they would bike across Canada as he and his father had done. We stood on the street outside the hotel. Suntanned tourists sped by on their way to shops. French phrases flew around. I felt sealed in a bubble of grief. The boy said, “If I come to New York, I’ll look you up. I should get there some time.” I gave him my address, and he leaned over and kissed me on both cheeks, enclosing me in a tight embrace and lifting me off the ground. There was power in his arms, and I could see that in order to convey some things he needed to set aside words. I forgave whatever there was to forgive. I loved him as I watched him wheel his bike away, a calf, a loner, and I knew that whatever else he did, his journey would stand as a rite of passage: something that defines you to yourself and separates you from a self given to you by other people.
We did not communicate again. Now he is the age I was when we met, and I am the age Gardner was when he died. Sometimes it comes into my thoughts that I will die this year, too. There is something we feel we are supposed to give back, like feeding a body to the volcano.
Laurie Stone’s new book of linked stories, My Life as an Animal, will be published by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press in October 2016. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Fence, Open City, Anderbo, NANO Fiction, The Threepenny Review, The Collagist, Creative Nonfiction, Memorious and many other journals.