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Monday, November 28, 2011

Last Train To Tarragona

I’ve always loved rom coms. I don’t know why--they’re formulaic (couple gets together, something happens to break them up, they get back together, the end), they’re unoriginal (how many Odd Couple Bromances and Quirky Girl Can’t Figure Out What She Wants movies can we make, anyway?), and they’re unrealistic (name one person you know that married a vampire).

Still…I love ‘em. I think I love them in part because they’re unrealistic. I mean, I know I probably won’t meet the love of my life while crashing her sister’s wedding, or on the morning train to Montauk. I probably won’t proclaim my love at exactly midnight on New Years Eve, telling her ‘when you know who you want to spend the rest of your life with, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible!’ And I probably won’t die, my hand in hers, mere moments after she passes away. That stuff probably won’t happen.

But I’d like to believe it could

I think, if you’re really lucky, the universe offers glimpses of fairy tale romance from time to time. And if you happen to be in the right place when the all the pieces come together, you can experience something life affirming and, to be trite, truly magical.  

I had one of these moments around a decade ago. I was having a hard time getting over an ex-girlfriend and, in a bout of youthful melodrama, impetuously ran away to Europe hoping to get over her. 

Oddly enough, it worked.

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LAST TRAIN TO TARRAGONA
As the sun rose on the last day of our travels, I was sitting on the balcony of my uncle’s flat in Paris’s Latin Quarter, smoking a cigarette and watching the grocers put out fresh produce across the street. Will had passed out on the couch hours ago, a half-empty bottle of champagne still in his hand.  I needed rest too, but not yet…I liked Paris best in the early morning. Watching people do ordinary things like preparing their shops for the day, getting children off to school, or even watering plants--these were the things I knew I’d miss. 

My thoughts began to wander. 30 days ago, we’d landed at De Gaulle airport, half drunk and bleary eyed from a 10 hour flight. Two American college kids with a Eurrail pass and time to kill…the world was ours to discover. We slept most of the first day, but it seemed like we hadn’t slept since.

How many times over the past month had I seen the sun rise? In how many cities? During our first stay in Paris, I’d watched it from a bench in Montmarte, accompanied by Will, our driver, Gorge, and a French socialite Gorge had managed to convince that I invented Google. 

I saw it from a hostel in Munich, eating french fries with a Dutch girl named Katja. She was the only graffiti artist I ever slept with. 

In Florence, I was riding a bus with a dreadlocked hippy girl by the name of Rose. Or Sunshine. Or Rainbow. Or something stupid like that. 

All those dawns, all those women, and more…had I learned anything?

Inevitably, my thoughts turned back to her. A thousand miles, several countries, and a drunken blur of a month later, and I still couldn’t go more than a few minutes without thinking of her. It was almost 1 a.m. in the states…she was probably sleeping.  But what if she was out with another guy? Worse, what if she was in bed with another guy? The hypocrisy of caring who she slept with while I was fornicating my way through an entire continent was clear to me…but it changed nothing.

I put out my cigarette and lit another. A thin layer of clouds crept across the sky, and a light rain began to fall. The shop owners below scurried about, rolling out awnings and covering their merchandise. About that time Will joined me on the balcony.

“Been to sleep?” he asked.

“Not yet,” I replied. “Didn’t wanna miss the last sunrise.”

“I’m sure the rises in Spain, too.”

“You know what I mean.”

We sat in silence for a few minutes, me taking long drags from my cigarette and Will alternately stretching and scratching his crotch. Finally, he broke the silence.

“What time did Gorge leave?”

“Not too long after you passed out. Maybe half an hour.”

“And Marit?”

“Gorge took her home.”

“Really? I would’ve thought you’d want to get laid one more time.”

“Eh, wasn’t in the mood.”

“Dana?”

“Yeah.”

He considered for a moment, then replied “no worries…I’m sure things will be better once we get settled in Tarragona.”

“I hope so.”

We were quiet again. The rain was falling harder now, so Will got up and went inside. I stamped out my cigarette and followed him in. Gorge would be back later to take us to the train station, and I still needed to sleep. I walked into my room and fell face first on the bed. As I drifted off, I found myself praying for the first time in a long while. 
Dear God, I know I don’t deserve your help. But I’m hurting pretty bad right now. If you could just give me a sign--some reason to keep believing--I’d really appreciate it.

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By the time I awoke, it was dark out. I took a shower, got packed, and met Will in the living room.

“Did you hear from Gorge?” I asked.

“Yeah, he’ll be here shortly,” he answered, adding “I guess his wife is pretty pissed at him.”

“Did he say that? Why?”

“Apparently she has a problem with him repeatedly staying out all night with two college kids.”

“But…that’s his job. He’s a driver.”

“His job is to drive. Not go to clubs with us, drink with us, and help you convince girls you invented the internet.”

“It was Google, and that was his idea.”

“Whatever.”

“Hmmm…well damn, now I feel bad.”

“Ha, like you’re capable of feeling bad.”

Will’s comment stung. The truth was I felt bad all the time. Every girl I’d slept with and didn’t call, every person I’d been rude to…I didn’t like the person I’d turned into since the breakup. But I didn’t know how to get back to the old me. 

A while later, the buzzer rang; it was Gorge. We grabbed our bags, shut out the lights and locked the door one last time. In a couple of hours we would be on a train bound for the port city of Tarragona, Spain, where we would live and study for the next several months. It was the start of a new chapter. I hoped it would be a good one.

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We arrived at the train station with an hour to spare. Fortunately, it was late in the day and there weren’t many people at the station, so we were able to get our tickets and find our platform about fifteen minutes ahead of our scheduled departure time. 

There was just one problem…even though there was a train waiting there, the monitor overhead said it was the train scheduled to leave before ours. At that time, it wasn’t unusual for the trains in Europe to be running behind, so we assumed there was just some sort of delay and sat down on a nearby bench.

Soon enough, the train departed. We sat expectantly, waiting for our train to appear behind it, but it never came. After twenty minutes or so I walked over to the ticketing booth.

“Excuse me,” I said, “we’re waiting on the train to Tarragona. Is it running late?”

The employee stared at me with a confused expression. I thought maybe he didn’t understand me, so I began to repeat myself.

“We’re waiting on the train to Tarr--”

“I know what you said,” he interrupted, “but this train…it just left. You were sitting right there, didn’t you see it?”

“Wait, that train was going to Tarragona? The monitor said it was going to Germany!”

“Ah…I’m sorry, this was a, how you say, mistake?”

I was furious…I could feel my face turning bright red.

“OK,” I began, “let me get this straight. A little while ago I picked up a ticket from you TO TARRAGONA, yes?”

“Yes.”

“And then I sat down on that bench over there, right? Where you could clearly see me?”

“Yes.”

“And that train…even though the monitor said Germany, you knew it was going to Spain, right?”

“Yes.”

“THEN WHY THE HELL DID YOU LET ME WATCH IT LEAVE?”

He didn’t answer. Suddenly, something else dawned on me.

“That was the last train of the day, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

And there it was…we were stuck in Paris for another night. It wouldn’t have been a big deal, except our Eurrail passes expired that day, meaning we would most likely have to buy another ticket if we ever wanted to reach our final destination.  Defeated, I turned around and walked back over to Will. I relayed the story to him, and asked him to take care of securing our tickets for the next day, saying “if I have to hear that bastard say yes one more time I swear to God I’ll wring his neck.” 

Fortunately, Will has always been a very calm, reasonable person, and he was able to get our tickets for free.  My spirits somewhat uplifted, we decided to get a taxi back to my uncle’s flat, and started the trek back out of the vast wasteland that was the Gare du Nord train station at night...

…but we went the wrong way.

By the time we realized our mistake, we’d gone a half mile in the wrong direction, and were at the completely wrong end of the terminal. It was so late, there wasn’t a soul around that we could see…no taxis either, since they parked in the main entrance. I was overcome with the uncontrollable urge to laugh, and started cackling like a madman. I was officially losing my mind.

Suddenly, there was a tap on my shoulder. I winced at my surprise.

“Parlez-vous France?”

Her eyes were puffy from crying, her cheeks stained with mascara…but she was beautiful all the same, long blonde hair flowing past her shoulders, blue eyes and thick, supple lips. Then I noticed what she was wearing…an Arkansas Razorbacks hoodie. She was an American, and a southern one at that.

Still, I was pissed off and in no mood to waste any more time, so I got straight to the point.

“In ENGLISH, please.”

If she was offended by my rudeness, it didn’t show. A look of relief washed over her expression, and her frown turned quickly into a brilliant smile.

“You’re…American?” she asked.

“Well, aren’t you?” I replied.

"Yes, but….oh, nevermind. You have no idea how happy I am to see you."

"Why’s that?" Will asked.

"Because we’ve been stuck all alone in this dreadful place. Of course, we don’t speak French so even if there had been people it wouldn’t have mattered much."

"We?"

She turned around to point out a small girl almost hiding in a distant corner. "That’s Anna. She’s kind of shy so she wouldn’t come, but at this point, I was willing to try anything."

"What do you mean?"

"We’ve been stuck here for three hours. We’re on our way to Rome, and we were only supposed to have a stopover in Paris to change trains but there’s some sort of labor strike and they won’t be running any more until sometime tomorrow."

"So why didn’t you get a taxi to a hotel and rent a room for the night?" I asked.

"Well, we don’t really have any money, and like I said we don’t speak French. Look, I’m sorry to bother you; its obvious you’re in a bad mood. I was just wondering if you could tell us where we might go, a coffee shop that stays open all night, something like that…that’s all."

She looked hurt, like she was let down by someone who was supposed to understand. "They will surely help us," she must have said to her friend when she saw us coming closer. I wondered what she would say if I sent her back empty-handed.

"No, I’m sorry. We missed our train too, so I know how you feel. I’m just a little upset because I’m pretty sure it was our own fault. But that doesn’t give me any right to take it out on you. What’s your name?"

"Amanda," she smiled, "and yours?"

“West.”
  
I invited them to go back and stay the night at my uncle’s place with us. We all agreed that it would be easiest for us to make it back to the station if we were together, so they came. She went on tell us that she was a Sophomore at the University of Arkansas studying in Reading, England for the semester. Will commented on how good it was to be around southern girls again, and that he was getting tired of being surrounded by such shallow people all the time. I gave him a wry smile, knowing he was referring to me. 

As the night wore on, we talked about love, and football, music and movies. We shared stories, and passed around champagne, all of us drinking straight from the bottle. Eventually Anna and Will settled in to watch Casablanca, leaving Amanda and I on the balcony where I’d started the day. 

She was telling me about how, after college, she wanted to move to Nashville and be a country music singer. After a considerable amount of goading and a few more sips of champagne, I convinced her to sing for me. I can’t remember the name of the song, but it was something by the Corrs, and it was so hauntingly beautiful that I couldn’t speak for several moments after she was done. 

We talked carelessly through those midnight hours, the conversation never growing stale. Eventually the sun began to rise, and I couldn’t help but laugh. 
“What’s so funny?” she asked. 

“I sat out here this morning, sad because it was going to be my last sunrise in Paris. But I guess you never know, do you?”

“Nope.” She smiled.

I walked inside to get one last bottle of champagne. Will and Anna had been dozing on the couch, but he woke up as I passed him, uttering a groggy “So…are you in love?””

"Not in love Will, just thankful."

"Thankful for what?"

Behind us a song came on--I Won’t Dance, Sinatra. I looked over my shoulder and saw Amanda, closing the top of the record player. I turned back to  Will and smiled, then jumped back to my course, dancingly vibrantly towards the kitchen.

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Not too long after that, we found ourselves waiting for another car to take us back to the station where it all began.

Amanda leaned her head on my shoulder and whispered, "You’re an angel, do you know that? Last night we prayed that someone would come along and rescue us. Anyone would have been okay, but it was you. You didn’t have to miss your train, it happened for a reason."

I was blushing.

"You’re an angel,” she repeated. “God sent you to answer our prayers."

I thought for a moment before answering her. "Well, I’m the least likely candidate for that job." I looked at the ground, and then back to her. "But thanks."

And with that, she kissed me.

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Post-Script:

I don’t know where I stand on religion, or God, or anything like that. At this point, all I know is that I don’t know. But I know this: I was going through a difficult time in my life, and prayed for a reason to keep believing. She was in a tough spot, and prayed for help. Then, through a series of freak occurrences involving a malfunctioning computer screen, a lazy train station employee, and my own terrible sense of direction, we were brought together on a cold night in a train station in Paris. If that’s not reason to believe in something, be it God, fate, the universe, whatever, I don’t know what is.

Amanda and I dated for about three months after that. It was my first, and only, intercontinental relationship. We told the tale of our meeting countless times, and everyone agreed that it was a great story, just like something you might see in a romantic comedy. 

But life isn’t a rom com, and we eventually broke up. Not for any particular reason, we just weren’t meant to be. And that’s when I learned that not all great stories end well…some of them just end. It’s hard to accept, and that’s probably why it very rarely happens in the movies, but it’s a fact of life nonetheless. I guess at the end of the day, you just have to appreciate those fairy tale moments for what they are…a fleeting glimpse of something truly beautiful. You cherish the experiences  they give you, learn from the lessons they teach, and keep searching for your happily ever after.

4 comments:

  1. This is strange but I almost needed to hear this West. Especially the end where you write, "...I learned not all great stories end well...some of them just end." Read my blog from this past weekend and you'll see why this was soothing to the soul. Thank you!:)

    http://mindofelizabeth.blogspot.com/2011/11/first-comes-love-then-comes-marriage.html

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  2. Beautifully written. I loved this. Thank you so much for a wonderful story, even though the ending is not ideal.

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  3. You're a great writer! I look forward to your "book" coming out in 2012 - One of your 2012 goals right? Maybe you should pray about that too for encouragement on the days where writers block may cause you to put down the pen...Let's hope you never do. In the meantime from one writer to another, here's some inspiration: http://blog.ted.com/2009/02/09/elizabeth_gilbe/

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  4. This was so beautifully written and the story itself reminds me of many aspects of my own study abroad experience. Thank you for your reminder that (although sad), it's normal for great stories to come to an end. :)

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