Firsts and Lasts
I waited for her on a cold night in 2006. I was hunched over on the bench with my hands in my coat pockets. It was quite dark and the street lamp that stood right next to me was the only source of light until the next street lamp that I could spot from what seemed like miles away. The once black, crumbly pathway was now perfectly paved in the lightest grey cement and the green trees that separated it from the lawn were equally spaced out, their bushes in a neatly carved oval. I had been to this serene, little park that resembled a canvas many times before– during both the dawn and the dusk of my days– but this time was going to be different.
My life was almost over but I felt more alive than ever. I was inclined to venture into the night, find the fantasy girl from long ago, and finally live to the fullest. I remembered the way her open-mouthed laugh made her elegantly throw her head back so vividly. That was my motivation.
When I found her in the phonebook, the image of her wavy honey blonde bob and her deep red lips popped into my mind. And of course, that precious laugh that lit up her face. I couldn’t believe she was still alive and in America because by then, most of my European friends were long gone.
Just picture this for a second: Paris, 1926. Bright lights were shining on a beautiful courtyard at midnight. We had just left the carnival and had only known each other for a few hours. I was eighteen and she was sixteen. I was wearing my charcoal newsboy hat and she had on a classic pearly pink headpiece. She was beautiful and so was I– if you ask me. We talked. She intrigued me.
Even though I had already travelled all over Europe without money or ambitions, I had never seen anything like her. I grew up in Brooklyn in a typical family. They were decent people, just not to me. I liked art and psychology, but my father thought I should play baseball like most boys my age. So at seventeen, I hopped onto a random ship and never looked back. I became a wanderer at heart because the people that gave me stability did not give me love or happiness. Adventure was safer for my soul.
I tried to be a writer, but that flopped. Then I dabbled in acting. In August of 1926 with Miss Marie Robilliard, I was in my painter phase. When I was with her in that courtyard, I wanted to toss her onto a delicate page, call it art, and hang it in Le Louvre.
Thanks to a faded blue bottle of mediocre whisky, I forgot much of what we said to each other that night, but I’ll try to remember as I go along. Marie was different. She was the first French girl I met who spoke English. She was educated and sophisticated and advanced, and I was none of the above. At the carnival, I told her about my background, my family. And she told me about hers.
Marie Robilliard was born in Paris and raised by two clever people who orchestrated a life for their daughter that would ensure her success. She was sent off to London for a top-notch boarding school education. Dying to break free from Brooklyn, I always wanted a top-notch boarding school education. She knew her plan was to go to Oxford after she graduated secondary school. I never knew my plans. When I was living in New York, I had no plans and could only dream of attending a university like Oxford. Although her life seemed so full of purpose and potential, she claimed her existence was manufacturedand directed without desire.
I didn’t understand. She lived in the city of lights and studied alongside British royalty. Unlike me– a wild-eyed Brooklyn boy–, Marie grew up in an abundance of culture and was exposed to every inch of it from a young age. She knew where she was going, and I thought all of those places would lead to big things. How could her life be dull? Marie said she lacked the passion and spontaneity that I had for life. She yearned for exploration and “going off track.”
We were discussing this on the ferris wheel when she made the perfect analogy.
She asked me, “You like ferris wheel, right?”
“I guess it’s a nice view of the carnival, an okay ride.” I wasn’t sure where she was going with it but gave my honest opinion.
“But do you love the ferris wheel?”
“I don’t love the ferris wheel.”
“Wouldn’t you get bored if you took ten rides in a row?”
“Exactly. My life is a ferris wheel. As you said, a nice view and an okay ride, but clearly nothing special.”
“How can you make that comparison?”
She shrugged, “There’s no variety, nothing memorable. It’s the life that every privileged European girl leads.”
“You’re complaining about being a privileged European girl?” I laughed.
“Believe me, I would rather be a nomad like you than live according to a procedure. I like your untraveled road better than my predetermined path.”
Marie let out a deep sigh. She knew that I still didn’t get it. I figured that if I were dealt her cards, then I wouldn’t need to be so adventurous. I would be completely fulfilled with what she was given.
She loved the idea of America, the land of opportunity. Marie wanted to know what Brooklyn was like. She was surprised to hear that my neighborhood was just a bunch of working class Italian kids pranking each other in the streets, unenthused by anything deeper than a dollhouse or porn magazine.
Marie understood why I left everything I knew as if we were kindred spirits. I told her about the quarrel with my parents the night I left Brooklyn. I wasn’t a troublemaker but didn’t like to listen to them either. So when my father stood up and demanded to know why I was three hours late, I casually replied, “I was walking.”
“Walking? That whole time?” He spat when he said the word “time.”
“Yes,” I replied calmly.
“Bentley, what were you doing?”
“Thinking. I was walking in circles around the park, thinking about organized sports. Why do we need them? They bring out the animal in us. Our values shift the second we hit the field.”
“Psychology. It’s fascinating.”
“Where did we go wrong with you?” My concerned mother put her head in her hands. “What happened to my perfectly ordinary boy who went off to Kindergarten in suspenders, with his New York Highlander’s lunchbox?”
My father became agitated. “Son, I would rather think that you were making mischief all over town than know that you were the psycho walking in circles at the park. You should have been doing something. With people. Anything.”
“How does this anger you?” I squinted.
“Don’t talk back to me, young man.” My father pointed his finger at me.
That’s when I gently put his finger back down at his side and slid out the door, maintaining as much composure as I could. My father didn’t chase after me like I thought he might, and I made a successful getaway.
I felt suppressed and confused. My parents had lost it because I had spent a few extra hours thinking. Thinking. Deep thoughts. Deep thoughts made them fearful. They were the friendly neighbors who had the biggest Christmas decorations in their front yard and cheerfully hosted the annual block party. Their biggest concern was that their freakish son would ruin their reputation as an ordinary decent family.
Marie was the opposite of all the shallow and thoughtless people that I ran away from. She was appalled by my parents’ reaction and comforted me without trying.
Even though Marie fascinated me, I began to get fidgety when we were talking in the courtyard after the carnival. I did that whenever I was in one place for too long. I suddenly got up from my seat and announced, “I should probably head home. I have an art show tomorrow.”
There was no art show. Marie was terrific. Why did I get up? She smiled, not doubting my story for a second. I didn’t understand myself sometimes. My tiny apartment was only a few blocks away, so we walked together.
I had never made a friend abroad. I was an independent young man and loved it. Things were easier that way. Then I met Marie Robilliard and I had a friend for a night. It was nice but I still preferred to be a “nomad.”
When we arrived at my building, I said, “Well, I guess that’s it.”
She nodded, “Tonight was fun.”
“Yeah.” I put my hands in my pants pockets and took a step back.
She took a step forward, “Maybe I’ll see you at an art gallery or something. My dad owns one in the eighth arrondissement. It’s pretty nice.”
“That does sound nice.”
“It is. If you ever want to stop by and show him some of your work, feel free.”
“I’ll certainly think about it.”
“Okay. Nice to meet you, Bentley.” She turned and walked down la rue, disappearing into le noir.
“You too,” I watched her quietly. “Very nice.”
I thought about stopping by the art gallery but never did. Partly because I dropped the whole art obsession only a year later, but also because I somehow found ways to never get around to it. It would take eighty years for us to reconnect– in America, the place she always wanted to be.
In 2006 I fell in love with Marie’s memory. At ninety-eight, my life had slowed down. I moved back to Brooklyn because there was nothing left for me where I was. My acquaintances had died. Europe had moved on since I was in my prime. I didn’t want to watch what used to be mine leave me. I decided to settle rather than try to chase something that my old chicken legs could never catch up with.
I finally grasped the concept of the “procedure” Marie was referring to back then. Not that I ever had a procedure to live like she did, but I felt that my old age was like a procedure to wait until you die. I feared that I would have no more adventure– my purpose, what I loved, the reason I bounced out of bed at six in the morning. Even if there was anything left for me somewhere out there, my health wasn’t the way it used to be. I had high blood pressure, arthritis that gnawed away at my long, bony fingers, and vision that was even more blurred than my memory. I couldn’t travel to faraway lands anymore because I lacked physical strength and endurance. As much as my mind was in the right condition, my body wasn’t and I was having trouble coming to terms with that. I began to empathize with Marie. Although I travelled around Europe until Europe could no longer cater to me, my new daily routine was as predictable as her “procedure.”
That’s when I got the idea to call her. More like a revelation. Why was I sitting around? Because I was old? My younger self would scream his head off at me if he heard that. I wasn’t dead yet. I resolved to bring back the fire that used to live inside my eyes.
So in 2006, when I saw Marie in the picturesque park on that cold night, I hoped that it was a beginning. Her appearance had drastically changed. Her skin was pale and wrinkly, like mine. Her bob was a shade of grey that matched the pathway. Clear glasses covered her blue eyes. She was still pretty stunning for ninety-something.
The one thing that didn’t change was that laugh. When she recognized me, Marie let out a wonderful laugh, complete with its familiar motion. The joy sputtered out from her gut as she opened her mouth and swiftly threw her head back. Just as good as I remembered. She walked toward me with open arms.
I gave my old friend a warm hug, “How are you doing, Marie?”
“Good, good. How are you, Bentley?” She put her hand on my shoulder as we sat down on the bench. “I thought you must have forgotten me by now. ”
“How could I forget?” I smiled.
“Probably because we’re practically strangers?” She joked with her spot-on sense of humor.
Although we spent only one night together decades ago, Marie and I reunited like old friends. We resumed talking as if no time had gone by and neither of us had aged.
“Why did you telephone me after all this time?” She put her arm through mine and rested her head on my shoulder. “Nobody’s called me in ages. It was a pleasant surprise.”
“Let’s face it, we’re both so old now. And lonely, I assume. Are you lonely?”
“Yes, if I’m being frank.”
“I feel like our paths crossed when we were so young and we never stopped at the intersection, you know?”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
“I feel like I missed out. I want to get to know you better now.”
“I might have shut you out all those years ago.”
“Shut me out? Not at all. I enjoyed your company. I remember we chatted very nicely.”
“Were you expecting something though?”
“What do you mean?”
“No. I mean, there was obviously some attraction, but I was sixteen and staying out late. Having fun was all that I was after.” She looked up at me. “What were your intentions?”
“I just coincidentally stumbled upon you, to be honest,” I chuckled.
She placed her head back in the crook of my neck, “That’s what I thought.”
“I was sort of a loner back then. Not the type to go after girls. I just kept to myself.”
“I could tell. That’s what I liked about you.”
“Really. Your charm was your unpredictability, your mystery.”
“Thanks, but I realize I may have been too mysterious. That’s when I thought of you.”
“I’m happy you did. Honest, I appreciate it.” Marie was so gracious and kind.
In all of my crazy journeys, I forgot to do one thing. The thing that might have instilled in me a permanent rush. That thing that could have given me purpose without ever going on a single expedition: Love. Even though I found her that night, it should have happened earlier.
I looked around the park, soaking in the setting. Feeling that it was very much 2006 instead of 1926, I admitted, “Marie, I have regrets.”
“How come?” She asked.
“Well,” it pained me to utter the words, “maybe my parents were more right than I thought.”
“You might have to remind me what happened with your parents.”
“I left because they were empty and stuck in their ways.”
“Oh, that’s right.”
“But they were right about one thing. I shouldn’t have spent so much time alone.” I looked down shamefully. “Maybe I should’ve given baseball a fair shot.”
She snickered, “Baseball?”
“They wanted me to play baseball.”
“Baseball wouldn’t have changed who you are, Bentley. That’s ridiculous.”
“You know what I’m trying to say. I should’ve opened up a little more.”
“Throw your regrets out the window. You’re making progress now, right? You called me after eighty years.”
After a long pause, Marie asked me, “Bentley, have you ever been in love?”
This was awkward for me to admit. When you’re young it doesn’t matter because you have time. I had a few physical experiences in Europe, but my closest emotional encounter was with Marie. We had chemistry, but it was just one night– not even a date– and we didn’t even share a kiss. Yes, I was ninety-eight and I had never been in love.
“No. Not really. Never got married.” I gulped. “How about you?”
“I was married but, of course, my parents set me up with my father’s business partner’s son when I graduated Oxford. Henri was a lovely man but, no, we weren’t truly in love.”
It was a sensitive subject for both of us. I cringed. That moment of silence was rough because ninety-eight isn’t the best time to realize that you missed what life is all about. But I wasn’t stuffed in a casket yet, so I still had time to throw my loneliness into the grave before I went.
I decided to gracefully change the subject. “So when did you move to America?”
“Four years ago,” her voice dropped. “After Henri died.”
“It’s all right. I’m here with you now.” She tapped my hand with a nurturing reassurance that no one had ever given me before that night.
“You know, my apartment is just across the street. Do you want to head back with me?” I extended the offer.
“It would be a delight.” She took my hand and used it to propel herself to a standing position before helping me off the bench and onto my feet.
We looked at each other and smiled. Both of us knew that we were going to spend the end of our lives together. Marie was embarking upon her first adventure and I was settling down after many. We locked arms and strolled down the path. We were there for each other, and that felt nice. We felt nice. Even if this was our first and last love. And so we walked down la rue, disappearing into le noir.