The Crossing [Fiction]

This is a short fiction story by Linda Jassim.

The deep green landscape turned black as the Eurostar slipped under the English Channel and forty minutes later exploded into a blur of yellow green fields in the Belgian countryside. I closed my eyes and breathed in knowing I could never turn back. I must see this through, throw all the cards on the table.  At 5:45 that morning I’d stood on a train platform in Ascot and said good-bye to my lovely husband. He had driven me to this town to short circuit the trip to St. Pancras so I would be on time. His elderly mother had stuffed two hundred pounds into my coat pocket, encouraging me to take my old school friend, Michelle, out that evening in Brussels. I had never before lied to my husband, so I remained silent. Although I would be staying with my friend that night I would be dining with a man I had lost long ago. 

On this train, the possibilities seemed limitless. No phone service, no husband, no children, no obligations. It was the reverse crossing and the open tracks were leading me there. 

The stone street on rue de Flandre was dark and the pelting rain blurred the view of the sign, resto Henri. Pieter had chosen an intimate restaurant on a brick lined side street for our meeting in the Flemish part of Brussels. My mind was jangled, the euros rattled in my shaking hand. Too nervous to count, I threw them into the front seat of the taxi and ran out into the downpour taking refuge under Henri’s black canvas canopy. Large picture windows framed each side of the doorway and clear wine glasses hovered above the bar. The taxi screeched away on the slippery road. 

It was in 1967, forty years earlier.  I remembered the call to Pieter, the scratchy European connection, that night in April when he left me, the possibilities dying on my bedroom floor: the move to Europe, the approaching marriage, the children we would never have, when I was twenty years old. 

“You haven’t written in three weeks, is something wrong?” I asked.  A silence, a crackling on the line, that tender voice now cold and distant.

“I have met someone,” he said.

For forty years he haunted my dreams. Later I did find love and have children. A reasonably happy life, but underlying it all was a slender ache. As if lying on a crumpled bed at night, never quite able to get comfortable, get it straight and smooth. 

We fell in love when I was 17 and Pieter was 18. He was the Belgian exchange student at my high school in Los Angeles. He was tall, elegant, with a thick mane of dark hair and a dreamy Flemish accent. He spoke four languages; he floored me with his brilliance and effervescence. We had six short weeks before he returned to Belgium, so we dove in. He fractured my insulated life into a dizzying world of ardent Jacques Brel, who’s passionate songs broke my heart open. On Sunset Strip we drank tiny white cups of black espresso, its wafting pungent smell woke my senses. Glasses of luscious red wine threw me off-balance. He showed me a world so enchanting I was dazzled and fell hard. Every week, for four years we wrote impassioned letters, making promises, and met every summer in each other’s countries; first in Paris when I was eighteen. 

In June, 1966, on graduation day, I waited impatiently on the high school bleachers for my name to be called so I could file up and out of there. I was taking a plane to London that night and then to Paris to meet Pieter. My parents had carefully chosen a chaperoned American Girl’s Tour of Europe. The tour guides were an eccentric French sculptor and his wife and once we girls were deposited at the Cité de Universitad dorm on the outskirts of Paris, they disappeared for six weeks and were unreachable. I was thrilled.

This was the appointed hour, the place, Parc Montsouris, mountain of smiles, Pieter and I were to meet at noon. Outside my large dorm window the leaves of a London Plane tree shimmered and its branches bent into a mild collision.

I looked at myself in the mirror, a snapshot, a moment frozen in time. I was eighteen years old with smooth creamy skin and shiny chestnut hair.  I applied dark brown shadow on my lids to offset my green-flecked eyes. I was in Paris. I had never known freedom, having been bound tightly in a tense Jewish family.  Now I could let my hair stream wild along the Seine and run untamed through the streets of Paris with Pieter.

The small stones crunched under my feet on the gravel path. I pressed the thick white cotton brocade of my A-frame dress smooth along my slim body. I’d hemmed it well above my knees. Ha! I thought, no more crouching down on bended knees to show that my hem met the floor, carefully monitored by the austere eyes of Vice Principal Brooks.  Around one more curve. He appeared against the dark Linden trees. In the distance, his smile was a jolt that diffused the summer light. I had forgotten how tall he was, six foot-four. He folded me into his big arms. We stood for a long time warming ourselves in the dappled light. I would have him all to myself for one summer in Paris.

On Rue d’Espérer was the little Parisian apartment he secured with his father’s generous allowance. It was up five flights of stairs. On that first day, the bent crackle-faced concierge, gripping a stiff red broom, glared at us, two teenagers, alors, c’est terrible, she must have thought. Reluctantly she handed Pieter the keys.  He unlocked the rickety door into a one-room flat. The walls were stained and a grimy window stared out at grey bank offices. 

At night, we lay naked in each other’s arms and I pressed my hand slowly down his soft warm stomach to find his hard joint. Months before, my high school friend Eleanor showed me how to play with it as we sat on her cushy bed. She whipped out a long squared off carrot to demonstrate. 

“OK, this is what I do with my boyfriend.” Then she pulled her hand gently up and down the raw, stringy vegetable. “The tip is the most sensitive part, it drives Alan crazy.” Then she rubbed the carrot faster and faster. “Here you have a try.” 

And I did, most nights on Pieter but he never touched me back, too afraid of my body and the passion it might arouse in him, we had no protection.  After he was satisfied we slept in each other’s arms.

In the morning I made our breakfast on a one-burner hotplate.  I washed the dishes in a plastic tub in a sink with no drain and poured the dirty water into the gutter outside the window.

“Après des heures!” the concierge screamed. She did not want the bankers to see the putrid grey water.” 

Though dingy and slightly moldy, the room was ours and we were alone in this lair for six weeks in Paris.

I attended French classes at the Sorbonne and absorbed the language from ads that screamed out from the Metro and boulevards, Orange, C’est si bon! and from billboards and cafes, Cinzano!. I learned the nuances of French culture as we wandered the twisted cobblestone streets. Around every corner were sights so stunning amid unending history. 

  Day and night we drank red wine. In sidewalk cafes Pieter dangled Gauloises like an enticing Jean Paul Belmondo, taking deep drags, his index and thumb holding the smoldering stub, the spent one lit a fresh one. The sensual smoke swirled around the table, the aroma filled my lungs, a time so expanding I was never the same American girl again. He came to Los Angeles the following summer and the next year I was to finish at the University in Brussels.  After his L.A. visit it was to end. My long distance call, my pleading, made no difference. I hung up, drifting into the explosive sixties alone.

A few years later, we tried to reconcile but the crevasse was too wide. 

It was 1969, two years after he’d left me. It was the height of the Viet Nam war, I had just farmed for six weeks in the upper Galilee at Kfar Blum, a rough and raw Israeli kibbutz. We sat in a sweltering, cheap, second story café. We drank harsh house rouge. There were long silences. I tried to speak but I was too inarticulate, too angry, to ask why he had left, afraid of his answers. No light was shed. He finally got up, and hurtled back to Brussels on the train, and the reasons why remained frozen. 

One day I came home from a long session in a dark editing room and there it was, the familiar thin blue envelope. I hadn’t heard from him in three years, since our meeting at the dingy café in Paris. Short, to the point, like a haiku from him to me.

Dear Julia,

I am getting married in 2 weeks. You are the only other girl I have ever loved.

Pieter

I walked onto the grassy hill of my modest courtyard bungalow in Santa Monica, the sea breeze played with my long brown hair. 

He was gone. 

Over the years, finding him had been my secret mission. I scanned for him through the moldering stacks of long forgotten International phone books at the local library. I searched for his name and his country. Belgium, Belgique. Mais, absolument rien…nothing. In my mind, he had become so powerful, so luminous. In the early days of the Internet I would dial in, like a love detective, a beacon, circling around. I tried to locate his signal. Still so faint, search engines were so crude then. More years went by, marriage came, and I found my own architect, not Flemish but British, I created my own family, my own brilliant career, but he was always pulsing in the background, though the beat had receded. Years went by. I searched again, Google, BINGO. 

 I found him. 

One night, before our annual trip to the UK to visit my husband’s family, it dawned on me, this would be the moment. I screwed up my courage and tapped out a message. 

Why am I writing? There is still something in me that is unfinished. Knowing you was a great joy and a great sadness.…wouldn’t it be great to catch up over some wine and find out how it all turned out in both our lives? 

PING, a few days later he answered. 

Do you know when you will be in Brussels? I will try to make myself available, but cannot promise because with the official Government job I’m doing. Appointment dates have been set for months and I cannot skip these meetings. I suggest we meet rather early on the night of the 6th, like around 6.30-7.00 p.m. in a restaurant where I will reserve a table. 

I shook the rain off my coat and entered the darkened restaurant. I imagined the tall, vivacious young man with rich dark hair smiling down at me.  

As I turned the corner, I looked down at his elegant Italian shoes with striped conservative socks, then up to his broad shoulders outlined by an overhead light. A pinpoint of silver glinted off his clean rimless glasses and burnished his snow-white hair.  

An older man. 

Right, of course, I had lived in our youthful fantasy for forty years. What I saw was a heavyset man worn by time. The years had settled down hard.

 “I watched you from the window,” his voice was different, slower, more hesitant than I remembered.  I slipped into the opposite chair. 

 “It has been such a long time,” I said. As I looked into his eyes I felt that potent, youthful connection. I felt giddy and I wanted to pinch myself to see if this was real, that he was actually sitting across from me. This was not a dream; I had made this happen. I had made him appear. 

He had ordered an exceptional wine, a St. Émilion, 1er Grand Cru premier, from the Bordeaux region of France. The room was mostly empty, the only sound, the pouring. The garcon exited and we were alone facing each other. 

He lifted his deep bowled wine glass, “I thought we should celebrate. A reunion of sorts,” he said. 

I nodded yes. “That would be lovely,” I said.  “The last time we met was in that suffocating café in Paris where we drank house plunk.” I raised my ruby red wine glass. “This is a vast improvement.” 

I inhaled the luscious aroma of the French countryside. I was again swept away and it felt so good. We held up our glasses, but did not toast, we just looked at each other and puzzled over the years. I mused that this older version was still so attractive, familiar, yet so far away. 

Yet I knew I must wipe away this veil of illusion. I had to get hold of myself.  This time I must find answers. 

“In my email, I said I needed to see you again. The way you left, it had repercussions, it took a toll.”

He took time to consider. “I was unfair and that is why I have agreed to meet with you. It is something I am sorry for.” 

I exhaled deeply as if I had been holding my breath for forty years. 

“What happened to us?” 

He filled his glass with more Grand Cru and drank slowly. 

“You told me about that Reid fellow.” 

I was caught off guard, the Reid fellow? I reached back in time between nineteen and twenty.

 “You remember his name?” 

“I remember everything. You told me over the summer when I visited you in L.A. that he had been your lover. When I went back to Brussels I couldn’t get that out of my mind.” 

“That Reid fellow was a creepy conman who ‘borrowed’ all my savings and then vanished. I had been lonely – he was a distraction, yet I had told you.” 

“Yes, and as you said earlier, there were repercussions. When I returned, I met a Dutch girl and we fell in love.” 

I looked at his left hand and saw the lackluster gold ring that entombed his finger. I had no memory of those hands, the wrist now encircled by a chic Louis Erard, yet I had to stop myself from grabbing onto them. At the same time the whiteness, the limpid quality was mildly repulsive and unsettling. 

He saw me considering his hands. I slowly withdrew my hands, onto my thighs and twisted the cloth napkin into knots.

 “Are you are still married to her?”

“To Greta, now for 36 years,” he shrugged. “I was only 25, I didn’t see a need to marry but she wanted this…” Pieter continued, “And then the children came, right away, I was so young.” He paused, warming himself with more red wine.  “I wasn’t ready; I wasn’t really there.”

“How many children did you have?”

“Two.”

“So did I.”

I knew so little of his life. I wanted to sit there all night filling in the missing years. 

“A boy and then a girl”

“Yes, mine too, in that order.” 

“They are Maarten and Anna,” he offered.

“Mine are Oliver and Alexandra.”

“Oliver is my grandson’s name.”

The moment sat there; reaching backwards, side by side amid the swinging mirrors of our lives.

I looked down into the deep red liquid of my glass and wondered, had I betrayed him, or had he abandoned me? Was it my doing or something else? Or was it both?

“I want to understand, aside from that Reid fellow, how did we fall apart?” Then with a brutal directness he told me.

“What we had was romantic love. It hadn’t been tested by everyday problems. We were like little children, we never even had sex.”

This hit me hard. My stomach clenched. I had held onto this ‘ideal love’, our youthful effervescence had never died inside me, yet for him it was ‘romantic love.’ Of course it was romantic love, it was delicious, we were young and wonderful and there could have been more.

“Yet we were so connected,” I said.

The years disappeared, we looked at each other longing for a lost time, the possibilities stretched out and then a heaviness descended, like the grey fog of the North Belgian Sea.

 “I am so tired, he said, “I have an official government job, I have a driver, I am on important boards, I teach, but I never did what I wanted.”

 All those years I was searching for him; in my mind he had been so powerful. 

“And you? How has your life turned out?” he asked.

“Yes, very good. I worked in television as a director, for over 20 years. My husband is a remarkable man. He built a very cutting edge design firm, very L.A. Lately I’ve been directing one-act plays at a local theatre. We lead a creative life.” As I spoke I saw him squeeze the stem of this wine glass tighter and tighter. He looked at me with a kind of envy. 

“You haven’t changed,” he said. “You always lived through your imagination. I admired that about you.” He began twisting his dulled wedding ring anxiously around his finger. He did not seem interested or happy for me.  

“I never took risks, I never had the courage,” he confessed.

And there it was before me, his choices, where it had led him and who he had become. 

Two hours had passed.  The wine bottle was drained. The residue of the evening, the bits of  St. Émilion clung to the bottom of our glasses. His long white finger signaled for the check. The conversation was over. My curiosity about his life and what had happened to us was satisfied. He pulled out three hundred euros and laid it on the check. 

At least he’s done well, I mused. He had been a prince, the only son from a wealthy, European family. He had everything: intelligence, good looks, a high-class education. Yet he seemed so unhappy because he didn’t have the pluck. 

He stood up and gave me a warm embrace, holding me for more than a few moments. Then he pulled away and laughed, “If this were a Hollywood movie, we would get together in the end.” 

Then I watched him disappear through the rain soaked window. 

The next morning, I woke up in Michelle’s converted attic. Above my head was a square of light. I spread my arms out letting the sun warm my body.  Stagnant energy began to flow out of my heart, tears streamed down my face as the mirage of Pieter dissipated. I laughed at the years of madness in my folly.

This wasn’t a Hollywood ending.  I knew at that moment and for moments after that, what to hold on to and treasure from my past and what to let go.

The next day I would be on a train to London.  As the Eurostar pulled into St. Pancras I saw my husband standing on the platform. What I had been chasing all those years, was in front of me all the time. 


Linda Jassim has been a TV director for over twenty-five years in the genres of dramas and documentaries, winning three EMMYS. My writing has spanned from scriptwriting for documentaries and television shows to fiction. Recently “The Golden Hour,” a flash fiction piece, appeared in the literary journal, Liquid and my short story “L.A. Story: The New Neighbors” appeared in the Hamlin Lit Link. 

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