I woke up that morning with a big pimple on my left jaw. If I grew facial hair, it would have covered it, at least somewhat, but I was clean-shaven. I popped it, and blood came out. It burned. I resented my body, for producing the blemish, as well as myself, for not letting it alone. I felt ashamed.
I caught the two o’clock train to La Rochelle, where I had to wait twenty minutes for another train to La Roche-sur-Yon. I had been to La Rochelle once, three years ago, but I didn’t recognize anything about the train station. I only had enough time to walk up and down the block outside. I smoked a cigarette; it gave me a heavy, tired feeling in my head, and I almost flicked it away halfway through, but decided I would finish it, after all. I sat next to a young man on the train who, when he heard my accent, asked me how to say “chug” (cul-sec) in English. He was pleasant enough, but after I answered his question we were silent for the rest of the hour-long trip. A rather striking English girl was seated across the aisle. I might have talked to her, but I didn’t. I touched my pimple with my left index finger.
Luc, whom I hadn’t seen in nearly a year since I’d left Nashville, was at the train station waiting for me. We spoke in English at first but then he said, let’s do it in French. I appreciated his confidence in me. He filled me in. He was out of touch with everyone else from the states, living at home for the term while he prepared to enter a master’s program. He was quite bored. I told him I intended to buy a winter coat, because soon fall would be over. He offered to take me around La Roche-sur-Yon, before we drove to his house. We walked through a park near the center of the city with a pond divided into rectangular sections by the foot paths. Luc explained that this small city was built after Napoleon’s reign, and the only thing, according to him, it was known for was its grid street layout, more like an American city than a European one. I tried on coats at several shops. None of them suited me. Luc was indulgent, but he didn’t have strong opinions.
We decided to stop at les Sables d’Olonne, a seaside town nearby where boats launch for the Vendée Globe, the famous around-the-world race. We found a café with a view of the ocean. The waves crashed against the sand. Luc offered that we could have waffles from a stand. It took him quite a while to make himself understood, however, because it was difficult to explain what a waffle was, without saying “waffle.” But I knew that, now, I would never forget this word (gouffre). Our conversation was more or less superficial. I might have elaborated the state of my soul, but there wasn’t much to say. The waffle was good. It was all very picturesque, with the port and the boats everywhere. In a sense, I could hardly believe I was there. And if could have put myself in the perspective of one of the French people walking around, I wouldn’t believe I was there, either. It was difficult to believe I was anywhere.
The drive back to Luc’s house took us through long stretches of flat farmland. We made a brief stop at a mall that was truly repugnant, a monstrosity of new architecture. I chose an H&M winter jacket, which in retrospect was the wrong decision, but there’s no going back now. If I had thought about it I might have realized that I needed new sneakers, too, but I didn’t think about it. We also stopped at a supermarket and bought a frozen pizza. Luc described his town, Les Landes-Génusson, as not even a town, but a village, and this was true. There couldn’t have been more than a dozen buildings. He lived right in the center, in an old two-story stone home. A fire burned at the hearth.
With Luc’s father, a short man, reserved but pleasant, we watched The Thing with French subtitles and ate the frozen pizza. Then I went to bed. In the morning the first thing I noticed was my pimple. It had grown. Beside myself, I starting popping it again, but I was able to stop, knowing I was only making it worse. I found some alcohol in the bathroom to disinfect it. It was almost so big, a bandage would have been appropriate. It reminded me of my friend Nick, from middle school, who once came to school with a bandage on his nose. Luc was already sipping coffee downstairs. His mother had prepared a spread of bread, jam, and butter for us. I helped myself to a toasted tartine and a cup of coffee. A young woman, fresh-faced and smiling, came down the stairs. Hello? she said. Her tone was friendly, but surprised. Good morning, I’m Dan, Luc’s friend, I said. Ah, she said. I’m Véronique. Enchanted to meet you, I said. We shook hands. I didn’t know Luc had a sister, I said. Oh, that’s my sister, Luc said. She gave Luc a look. I’m home for a week for vacation, she said. We talked a little bit about her school, and what she studied, English; she said she was too shy to practice English in front of me, a real Anglophone. What about me, do think it’s easy for me to speak French? I said. It wasn’t easy. My hand went to my pimple. I guess not! she laughed. She was reading Wuthering Heights for a class. I told her I had nothing to say about that. Are you going out with me and Luc later? I said. Going out? she said. Where are you going out here? I don’t know, I said. I assumed we were going out. There’s nowhere to go, Luc said. Their parents joined us from the backyard where they had been gardening. Their mother was a kindly, retired elementary school teacher. While she prepared lunch, we talked about the difficulties of teaching English in the French school system. By 11:30 we had all sat down to a full, traditional meal (traditional as far as I knew). Oysters to start, with white wine, followed by a salad, then steak and potatoes accompanied with red wine, followed by some mandarin oranges, and finally, coffee.
Afterward I smoked a cigarette outside with Véronique. So it must get boring here? I said. Yes, I can’t wait to return to school, she said. It’s boring in Poitiers, too, I said. I haven’t heard good things, she said. I live there, I said. I’m sorry, she said. She was a young girl from the country studying in Nantes, France’s fifth largest city, and I was – I don’t know. I hoped that Luc, she and I would do something later, but I didn’t say anything. After dozing and watching TV on the couch with Luc and his father for a while, Luc said he would take me to the next town over for some sightseeing. We drove about 45 minutes through more farmland to a slighter larger village, Clisson, with a river running through it and a waterfall in the center. It had begun to lightly drizzle, but the sun still shone. Perhaps we’ll have a rainbow, I said. I stood for a while watching the water and what looked like an old dungeon next to it, transfixed. This is ancient history, Luc said.
We bought some pastries and brought them to a small café and sat outside. I still felt sluggish from the big meal, so I ordered a double café at Luc’s suggestion. I never thought before to order a double, I said. Luc told me that later that night we could go meet a few of his friends at a cabin about a half hour away, if I wanted. Once again, it took me an inordinate amount of time to understand what he meant by cabin (gîte), because he wouldn’t use the English word. I said of course I wanted to go out. In truth, he seemed indifferent about the whole thing. Although he, too, was bored. I almost asked him if his sister would come. But I stopped myself. Instead I asked if there would be girls. There might be, he said. But it also might be bit of a sausage fest (fête de saucisson), he added.
Once again we made a trip to the supermarket, where we bought frozen pizza and saucisson. The sun had set. By around eight we arrived at what looked more like a big, stone barn than a cabin. But what do I know about cabins and barns? A couple of guys were outside smoking and I introduced myself. An American? one said. I spent most of the evening speaking with Zoé, a third year university student studying English at Angers. I encouraged her to practice her English with me, but like Véronique she was too shy. I talked about the difficulties, and rewards, of language learning. I was boozy, but not too boozy. It was good to hear myself talking, and know that I wasn’t the only one listening. The host, Lucas, let me choose some music, but someone turned off my selections after one song. When I went outside to smoke a cigarette I felt sick, suddenly. I brought my hand to my pimple; it had grown in size. My cheek seemed to quiver. Luc asked if I was ready to go, and I said yes.
I slept fitfully. In the middle of the night I woke up, parched. My shirt was soaked with sweat. I drank several glasses of water and took a shower. By around four I fell asleep again. I dreamed: I was in a classroom in my high school (Liberty High), grading an insufferably pretentious short story by Richard, a writing partner to whom I often sent my new work. I left the classroom to pop a pimple on my face. Just as I was about to have at it, a group of girls came in, so instead I pissed in one of the urinals. Steam filled the room.
I woke late in the morning and resolved not to send Richard any more of my stories. Another heavy lunch was nearly ready. I asked Luc if he would take me to the pharmacy afterward. Although I had been speaking with increasing fluency since I’d been there, now I heard myself fumbling around and making errors. Despite the awful feeling in my head, I smoked a cigarette outside with Véronique after coffee. It burned my throat and made me so dizzy I had to sit down. I was on the decline. Big night last night? she said. Not really, I said.
The pharmacist studied my face carefully. I’d say it’s infected, he said. I think I might have a fever, I said. He touched my forehead, gently, with the back of his hand. Yeah, it’s a fever. You have to see a doctor as soon as possible. Too bad it’s Sunday, and tomorrow’s a holiday. Do I have to go to the ER? I said. Well, that’s up to you. But I would, he said. I looked at Luc. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say: I guess we’re going to the ER. I had to admire his ability to remain unperturbed. It was as if going to the hospital were just something to do, like buying frozen pizza. At least it would punctuate my visit. I was also unperturbed. We had to go back to La Roche-sur-Yon, the nearest town with a hospital. Luc asked someone on the street for directions. He hadn’t been to the hospital since his birth. I told him he could leave me there, if he wanted to, and I would find the train station without him, but he said he had nothing better to do. I felt obliged to make conversation in the waiting room, but I had nothing to say, so I started reading my copy of Madame Bovary. Nobody seemed particularly sick. After a half hour, a little girl, the age of one of my younger students, came in with her mother. She was crying softly and her eyes were red and filled with tears, and occasionally she said, I can’t, mom! I watched her, and wanted to cry, too. I looked at Luc and he shrugged. A while later a man with his arm in a sling walked out of the big doors leading into the examining rooms. Hey! Hey! Pierre! It’s me! someone was calling from behind him. He turned around. Charles? he said. I stood up and walked to the water fountain and quickly glanced down the hallway; Charles called again and several people went up and grabbed him. Pierre had a look on his face like he couldn’t believe his eyes. He went back the way he came to get to Charles. The big doors closed behind him.
It was another half hour before I saw the doctor. I told him I had an infected pimple. Looks like it, he said. I opened my mouth and he shined a small flash light inside it. Why are you doing that? I said. In case the infection came from the inside, or spread, he said. It looks fine, he said. I told him I felt feverish. Could it be related? That’s what the pharmacist said. Doubtful, he said. He did take my temperature to confirm that I had a fever, however. The season is changing and you’re not used to our microbes, he said. It’s probably a mild flu, he added, like that was an afterthought. Was I right to come here? I asked. I’ve seen less serious cases, he said. His expression was inscrutable. Perhaps he was annoyed with me. I decided not to pursue the matter further. He wrote a script for antibiotics. Will I have a scar? I said. Very possibly, he said. From it I will always remember this time, I said. This remark fell flat. It was poorly formed. I had meant to say something like, It will be my souvenir from La Roche-sur-Yon. I suppose, the doctor said, perhaps just to indulge me. When I saw Luc again, he told me that there was no point heading to the train station because there were no more departures to La Rochelle that day. We got back in the car and drove to his house.