| WHEN LOVE WAS A STORY WORTH TELLING|
by Mathieu Cailler Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, maybe it’s because I’m a romantic, maybe it’s simply that I’m a sucker for a good story, but I’m envious of older folks’ “how we met” tales. My generation does many things well, but romance isn’t one of them. We don’t possess these epic love stories, nor do we date or, god forbid, court. Rather, we “hang out,” which is exactly what it feels like—clinging to something that’s difficult to grasp. And if we continue down the “right swipe” and “you up?” path, I’m afraid our love stories may soon be slotted on the endangered-species list, sandwiched right between the Amur leopard and the black rhinoceros.
My parents have one of these perfect yarns—one that Pablo Neruda himself might deem muse worthy, one that makes me feel as daunted to take on love as Michael Jordan’s son might be to try his hand at basketball. It’s a story that always regales and lives up to the hype.
In college, my dear friend, Sam, met my folks—my French father, my Midwestern mother—and later, in the car ride home, he asked me how they’d met. I’d heard my mom and dad tell the story at dinner parties my whole life, but I’d never told it, and I was curious to see how it would hold up under my delivery.
I didn’t make a long story short. I indulged in details and filled him in on backstory: it was June of 1976, and both my mother and father were in their early thirties. My mother and her friend and my father and his brother all boarded a cruise ship in Finland and headed for Russia during the height of the Cold War. Like most “meeting stories,” this one began with someone catching someone else’s eye. My curly-haired, Gitane-smoking father spotted my mother in the dining area on the very first night. She didn’t notice, but he says he tried to find her whenever he could. My mother spoke no French, my father no English, but that didn’t stop him. He waited and bided his time, and when the ship finally docked in Leningrad, my father joined her on a tour bus designed for English speakers. He snagged a seat next to her, and when the tour guide pointed out different historical monuments, my father followed the passengers’ stares. When they craned their necks to the right, he followed suit. When they rotated left, he did the same. He and my mother didn’t communicate with anything other than smiles and giggles—the Esperanto of emotion. She said she thought he was kind and handsome, and silly, too, for stepping aboard the wrong bus. For three days, he boarded the wrong bus, remembering some English words he’d learned here and there. “Nice, no?” my father would say. “Yes, very nice,” he would say. And my mother would grin and laugh and agree that things were nice. Very nice.
When the cruise ended, they exchanged more than just soft gazes, swapping addresses and phone numbers, with my father saying that he would write immediately and would learn English in a year’s time, too. Then, each returned to their continent and home, surrounded by different time zones, rivers, and ranges.
Oh, and I forgot to mention, they also returned to their significant others to which they were both engaged for some time.
Each of them immersed themselves into their old worlds and obviously struggling relationships. My dad dove deep into his work as a lawyer (he’d told my mother on the ship that he was an avocat, the French word for lawyer, but she had understood that he was an avocado farmer). My mom did the same, putting in longer hours in her special-education classroom in Boston. But even with all the work and distance, they stayed rooted in each other’s minds, and if thoughts had been phone calls, both of them would have needed to take out small-business loans.
My father did as promised: he wrote her. It took him time to craft a worthy letter, and he asked friends who spoke English for advice and enrolled in a class at a nearby school. My mother waited patiently for his words to arrive, checking her mailbox every day, but nothing. Weeks passed, and she began to think their romance was of the perfume variety: sweet, yet ephemeral.
Some eight weeks later, however, the letter arrived. My father’s dad—a postman, no less—had accidentally sent the letter via boat instead of by plane. The spot-on English was scrawled in loopy, purple ink, and it was imbued with my father’s charm. He drew margin doodles recalling their Russia trip, and he often joked that he was “trying to be like Keats.”
My mother, too, had been honing her language skills, practicing her French with a neighbor who had lived most of her life in Belgium. If my father was Keats, then my mother was attempting to be Baudelaire, and she wrote and wrote whenever she could, and my father did the same.
One night, both my mother and father still engaged, my father called my mother. The English class and his constant listening to Elvis had paid off, as had my mother’s lessons with her neighbor, and two of them communicated with ease. The feelings were as palpable as ever, even through all the miles of wire, and hours later, when they ended the call, my father broke up with his fiancée. My mother did the same after two more phone exchanges.
They spoke via phone weekly, and the relationship strengthened with each question and sweet nothing. About ten months after they’d initially met, my father invited himself out to Boston. “Patricia”—though my father pronounced it Pa-tree-zee-ah—“when can I see you again? I am coming out to Boston. I was thinking I could take all my money out of my savings and stay with you until I run out.”
My mother agreed. And the plan proceeded.
My father arrived at Logan, speaking English, exactly as he’d promised. He wore a Cuba t-shirt and tight pants, and my normally cautious mother found that their relationship picked up right where they’d left it. Every time a “what am I doing?” thought popped up, it was assuaged by their love.
They indulged in a lavish time in Boston, my father spending money like a man who only had a few weeks to live. They shucked briny oysters on the Cape, toured the creaky floorboards of the Old North Church, and took in a thrilling Red Sox game at Fenway. When my father’s money ran out weeks later, my mother said it was her turn now to spend the same amount, and thus the American travels continued with my father driving my mother’s green Pontiac Le Mans all over New England, New York, and even down to New Orleans.
The last night, before my father had to return home, he asked my mother if she would like to come stay in France, and also if she would like to get married. After my mother made sure my father understood exactly what he’d asked, she happily agreed, but only if she could bring her Irish Setter.
After quitting her job and saying hard good-byes to students, family, friends, she arrived in Le Mont-Dore with her dog and stuffed suitcase. She clucked at markets to ensure she was buying chicken, ate her weight in Camembert, and rode shotgun in my father’s Citroën DS.
They were married in Paris. My mother in a red dress, my father in a white suit. It was July 1st, 1977, fifty-three weeks after they’d first met in search of nothing more than a cheap cruise and the midnight sun.
Just as I finished telling this story to Sam, we exited the freeway and pulled up to our college. He didn’t get out of the car, though. Instead, he peppered me with questions—wanting more.
For the next few years at undergrad, Sam often asked me to tell the story to friends and fellow students, some who I barely knew, but the story always seem to deliver. Maybe it’s just pleasant for people to sit at the hearth of one of these tales and feel the flickers of its flames, if for nothing else than to see that love isn’t totally on life-support.
As for me, I try to tell myself that there’s no better time to be alive than in this current present. That it’s just a story, and that it doesn’t matter. If my father were dating today and met my mom online, the results would be the same. Love. Marriage. 42 years. That the real story is what happens next, when love has found its targets and had time to settle into each person. That’s what I tell myself: it’s the second act that’s important, and that while I would love an epic story like my parents’ yarn, I’ll probably have to make do with it just being a part of my DNA. About The Author:Mathieu Cailler’s poetry and prose have been widely featured in numerous national and international publications, including the Los Angeles Times and The Saturday Evening Post. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he is the recipient of a Short Story AmericaPrize for Short Fiction and a Shakespeare Award for Poetry. He is the author of Clotheslines (Red Bird Press), Shhh(ELJ Publications), and Loss Angeles (Short Story America Press), which has been honored by the Hollywood, New York, London, Paris, Best Book, and International Book Awards. His newest book, May I Have This Dance? (About Editions), was recently named poetry winner of the 2017 New England Book Festival.