You never know where or when or how a little insight might find its way into your consciousness. And sometimes it comes in the least likely places. I had just such an experience recently, while I was traveling in France. This is a true story of human nature, of love and regret, of life and experience, and of hope and comfort. It was such a touching encounter, I was moved to write about it as it unfolded. Thus it is written in the present tense. I want to share it with you.
I am on the train from Cannes to Paris, and while the countryside is captivating, the story going on in the seat “en devant” (in front of me) is even more so. This is an all day train ride, the story has much time to develop, and now I understand it fully.
It is a love story–between an old man and an old woman, who are having an affair that cannot possibly have a happy ending. But it has a happy present. He is weathered and leather skinned, wiry and bespectacled, with a white beard, well trimmed. He must be in his seventies, but seems quite strong of mind and muscle.
She is darkly tanned, how is that even possible at her age? For two hours I listen to her voice, the most charming and delicate accent, speaking in English although she is clearly French. The first time I see her I am surprised, both at her age and her appearance–certainly pleasant, but beyond middle aged and well into late age, soft and spreading around the middle.
The man is American. She is married, to a man she no longer loves. But these two once knew each other, a long time ago. When he was young he knew her somehow, met her family, knew her mother. They were elegant in a way he knew nothing about. French, with a housekeeper! And a dining room! He knew nothing of these things. He never had a dining room. He came from nothing in the way of class or refinement.
They met again, and fell in love. But he lives in New York. She lives in Paris. Oh, and her husband, that too. So they have been away in the south of France, stealing two weeks of love together.
They had written by email for months, and then she said she wanted to go away with him.
“I didn’t believe you would really do this” he says. “I did not plan enough, because I did not think you would really do it.”
Now they face the return to their other realities. He cannot keep coming to her, he says he can not live like this. And she cannot be happy if she leaves France.
He says to her, “I can’t get you out of my head, but I cannot live like this.” He loves her like a young man, but he has the weariness of age, and cannot change who he is now, cannot leave his comfort of place and start over somewhere else.
They embrace, and whisper, and kiss and touch and share sweet intimacies just as you see the young do in public.
He says he cannot live in the shadow of the man she is married to. She says she does not feel anything for her husband. He says he cannot live this way.
They kiss some more—always initiated with a burst of affection from the man.
He will come back to Paris in three weeks to see her one more time. Then he is going to Burma. Things will settle.
She seems unwilling to leave her husband. Each time he talks about their situation she will only say that she does not love her husband. He says “You are a snob. But that is okay.”
So this goes, all afternoon.
“I know our time is precious” he says, “That is why I came.”
“These are our choices. I thought about all of these things before I came. This is our life.”
And so this drama continues.
“Do you sleep with him?” he asks. Again she is evasive. “Does he know when you are coming back?”
“Not exactly” she says.
“I will give you a third option,” he says. “If you leave him, you do not need to choose me, but I will make sure you are taken care of. I realize that if you leave him you are not financially prepared. I don’t want to see you suffer financially if you want to leave him.”
What is most engaging about all of this to me is that these two are still living life.
He continues: “I don’t care about money any more. I don’t care about things. I care about beauty. About being in beautiful places. About this. About your garden. About understanding.”
Then he paused, and added:
“Life is not about having. It is about experiencing. It is about being.”
“I am happy,” she whispers.
“This made you young,” he said.