A Shadow In The Field of Lavender

My left hand rested on the mouse pad. I sat staring at my laptop’s screen contemplating the action that I was about to take. I had already discussed this with her. I tried to give very logical, thought out reasons for this decision. It helped that her mother was in agreement with me. I couldn’t go to France. Not now, not with her in this condition. My left hand clicked the mouse, canceling the itinerary to Marseille. It was done.

It had happened over two weeks before, the phone call, the crying. She had just been with me in California. But when she returned to France to her empty house and her responsibilities as a doctor, it was too much for her. We were only three weeks from being together again – my trip to southern France to plot the course of our future, to give living in Europe a real chance. There was desperation in her voice as she spoke between sobs. “I can come to live in California. I’ll be a waitress, I need to be with you.” “No,” I said, trying to maintain a sense of calm. “I know this is difficult, but you have to be strong for now. We will be together again so soon.”

When we first met, I sensed a sadness in her eyes. As she cried on the phone to me that day, I flashed back to that moment. Part of me wanted her on a plane as soon as possible, but I felt that would be irrational. After all, we were two strong, and capable people- or so I thought. When I didn’t hear from her the next day, my body began to tell me that something was wrong. I had a deep ache in my stomach, tingling in my fingers, and tightness in my chest as I waited for her to answer my call. When I finally heard her voice on the other end of the line, the tightness in me slightly lifted, but somehow I already knew what she was about to tell me.

“I was very bad,” was how she first put it. “It was the potassium chloride from the emergency room. I took some home with me. I didn’t want to live.” Hearing this, the physical discomfort I felt gave way to an all-encompassing numbness. I don’t remember what I said next, or how it came out, but as I listened to her, trying to assimilate what she was saying, part of me checked out. Over a year later, it is that part of myself that I am still trying to recover.

I remember perfect fields of lavender, the Mediterranean Sea, and embracing her night after night in her small flat. During the day while she worked in the hospital, I would write, visit the street vendors in the market, and clean her apartment on Avenue du Prado, waiting for her return. On those hot July days, we would make love on top of her pink sheets, and then lay naked together in the afternoon heat.

In France, she was my chauffeur and guide. As she drove us through Provence in her manual transmission Peugeot, between each gearshift she would find my left hand and interlock her fingers with mine. It was a soft place to land, and we were connected. When she was inevitably forced to shift she would break contact, leaving my left hand empty and wanting. It was during those gaps in our embrace when I realized that I loved her.

One evening in St. Tropez, we walked together quietly talking as the last of the sun’s rays softly lit the pastel colored buildings and alleyways. We had been swimming earlier and the dry salt stuck to our bodies. It was sticky, coarse, and uncomfortable. But like my time with her, the sensation was authentic. It was real. At dinner that night, we sat outside a small restaurant sipping wine and sharing our dreams. That evening there was an unspoken air of impermanence that placed me squarely in the moment. The sweetness of the wine, the breeze on my skin, and her accented words penetrated my senses with an intensity that only comes with a deep and appreciative awareness. She made me feel alive, and in those summer days she helped me to feel love.

It had started a year before on a ski trip to Switzerland. My German friend Max invited me to join his family for a week in St. Moritz. He called me one morning in the late fall. “My sister has to cancel,” he said. “You can join us for the week. All you need is a plane ticket.” For me, it was an easy decision. Max and I became friends during my sophomore year in high school when he came to California to study abroad and to ski. Looking back, it was our meeting twelve years prior, and a shared passion for skiing that created the conditions that brought me to her.

It happened in a flash. One minute I was talking with Max and his father, and the next my eyes were magnetically drawn to her. There was a fluidity and grace to her movements. I was lured by her olive skin, which was accentuated by a delicate and simple white top. Her beauty was natural, almost effortless. I stared in awe at her light brown hair that flowed gently over her shoulders as she walked past me. I remember her eyes -dark, mysterious and somehow forlorn. In that instant, I didn’t know she was French, a doctor, or taking antidepressants. None of that mattered. I did know that I was struck. A thousand women could cross my path, and though I might be interested, attracted, even lustful, it was exceptional to feel something so immediate, so visceral. It was like being punched in the kidneys.

The Swiss Hotel where we were staying hosted an evening buffet dinner. That night, I watched her from my table where I sat with the Germans. As she rose with her two friends to enter the queue for the main course, I quickly got up and placed myself next to her. At the time, I was unaware of the menu du jour, but as I stood there trying to muster the courage to say something- anything, it was the sliced duck meat on her plate that provided my opening. “Do you like duck?“ I asked, trying to hide my nervousness. She turned, laughed, and looked me in the eyes. “Oui, but in France we say canard.”

Almost two years later she was visiting me for the second time in California. I remember waiting for her at the airport in San Francisco. I saw her first. I watched as she looked out into the sea of loving family members, friends, and drivers holding signs with names scribbled on them. Even after twelve hours on a plane, her beauty was astonishing. As she searched for me, I waited not saying a word or signaling to her. She was so alone, vulnerable, lost. At the time, I thought these things were charming. Finally she saw me smiling. “You always see me first,” she said, hurriedly walking towards me.

The truth was, I did always see her first, and after two years, it was as though I could feel her first as well. I could feel the confusion and the pressure she placed on herself. I could feel her insecurity and the way she looked to me as the cure for her anxieties. I could feel these things because they were in me as well. They were emotions and situations that I had long struggled with, but had slowly learned to approach with space and care. It was also because we were so similar. We were both the first- born child, the top of our class, and overall high achievers. We were both very social, but also critical and highly self- conscious. She once wrote to me that while working at the hospital and talking with her patients, and colleagues, “I am always so uncomfortable and anxious. I never know the right thing to say.”

All of the signs were there, but though I saw and even felt the things that were creating her dis-ease, for some reason, I ignored them. It was in the way that she would say certain things, subtle actions, and indecisions. After her first visit to California, for weeks she would call saying that she could not sleep without me. I thought she was being romantic, using the sleeplessness as some sort of figurative attempt to show her love. Later I found out that she was literally unable to rest. Things were lost in translation- not only linguistically, but emotionally as well. I could only hear what she was saying through my own lens, my own experience. For that reason, I never truly knew the extent of her suffering.

             In the days following her suicide attempt my mind raced with thoughts about all the possible scenarios of how things could play out. Could I live in France with her like this? Could she ever live in California? Will this happen again? Did I somehow cause her to try this? Was it my fault? In truth, the acuteness of the event activated my mind, but closed my heart. My experience with her had been like climbing to the top of a mountain and in my celebration, suddenly slipping and falling to the bottom- not dead, but completely numbed out by the severity of the impact. Before, I don’t remember thinking about the consequence of a transatlantic relationship. I was blind. The love was too strong, too genuine to worry about such things. Now, as I was faced with the immense task of balancing what I thought was in her best interest with what I felt in my soul, my mind became rigid. In the end, I reasoned that her health was more important than my heart.

A year later when I had a dream that she had found a new lover, I called her and told her about my intuition. “Yes,” she said. “Your dream is true. I have been with him for the past few weeks.” When I asked her why she had not told me about him earlier, through tears she said, “Now for me, you are like a dream. You are so far away. You don’t know who I really am.”

She was right. Maybe I didn’t know who she really was or fully understand her. Maybe my vision of a French girl and Californian boy setting a course for a life together was justly absurd. Still, our brief time together had taught me what it was like to realize and live through a dream. And though we might not have known each other completely, she had taught me what it felt like to be truly open and vulnerable- to love fully without full understanding.

At times I wonder what would have happened if I had gone ahead with my travel plans; if I had gone to France to be with her at her lowest and darkest point. It hurts me to think about this; the joy that I might have given up because of my fear of traveling into the darkness with her. I often think back to that evening in St. Tropez and to the vividness of life that came through in those beautiful, fleeting moments. I also think about how her suicide attempt forced me again to contemplate the importance of experiencing fully the people we love while we are able.

San Tropez and the south of France are famous for the purple lavender fields that create an image of perfection. Now, I see that even though they appear to be pure, there are often shadows in the fields of lavender. Sometimes I want to believe that we are still driving through those fields together. I want to believe that our course is plotted, shared and true, and that the search for the lost part of myself is only a momentary shifting of gears. My left hand waits for her embrace.

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