“The Station” by Elizabeth Gaffney
Elizabeth Gaffney often writes historical fiction, stories that open up past times in new ways. Her first two novels—Metropolis and When the World Was Young—are set in the early and mid-twentieth century. Part of the pleasure that’s derived from her work is the way that she implicitly creates parallels with the world in which we live today. While careful research is evident in her work, it never overshadows her investigation into the human condition.
In “The Station,” we know, right from the first sentence, that Gaffney is not writing a contemporary story: “Louisa twisted herself in the cord of the old black wall phone.” What a marvelous image this is! In addition to alerting us that the time is not contemporary, Gaffney is also introducing us to the character of Louisa. The first sentence, and then the initial paragraph, does so much work for the story as a whole. It gives the reader a roadmap to follow as the story unfolds.
Louisa twisted herself in the cord of the old black wall phone. It went once around her body and five times around her arm. The thing was long enough that you could talk on the phone while rooting through the refrigerator, all the way across the room, in search of a peach. In the thickness of the July afternoon, Louisa thirsted for cold sweetness and began to unwrap.
“Paris,” she said. “Huh.”
Louisa wasn’t sure why she needed to know where her former roommate and ex-friend was going on vacation—Paris for a week, then the Normandy coast. She didn’t even want to be talking to Alice. From Physics for Poets, she remembered what happens when matter and antimatter collide.
Alice wouldn’t be able to conceive of the summer Louisa was having: the red t-shirt and white shorts, the schlepping of trays stacked with spice-crusted, steaming crabs, the sloshing pitchers of Budweiser, the altogether different sort of tourists than the tourist Alice was going to be.
She hated Alice. Why was she talking to her?
“So, do you want to come with me?”
“Go with you?”
As she pulled on the door, Louisa felt the fridge’s light suction, its reluctance to yield up its bounty. The peach was there, right in the brisker, just as ruddy, furry and bursting as she’d dreamt. She let the door go.
“Please? Don’t stay mad about boy stuff. That’s all over with. Come with me. Please.”
Was it an apology? Louisa didn’t even consider accepting.
“There’s an apartment we can stay in for free in Paris the first week, and then a family with a guest cottage in Deauville, the second.”
“Deauville?” repeated Louisa, thinking of the little driftwood sign by the path to the beach at the end of the road her grandmother lived on. Deauville, it read. It had never occurred to Louisa to think of that sign as silly or pretentious before. It had never occurred to her, till just now, that it was a reference to the Deauville, in France. Could any of it make up for what Alice had done? Louisa’s relationship with Søren might have been failing, but Alice had descended before the flesh was cold.
“Who were you going to go with?”
Alice laughed that musical laugh she had. It could be seductive, self-deprecating, confessional—anything she wanted.
Apparently Alice and her mother had been planning the trip since the spring, but now her mother couldn’t go. All Louisa would require was airfare and a passport.
“And some spending money!”
“I don’t think I’m going to be doing much shopping,” said Louisa. “Because I can’t go. I have some prior commitments.”
The money she’d made waitressing so far that summer would cover the airfare, but to quit mid-season was considered an act of treason at all the local restaurants. It would mean she’d never get hired back at the Crab Deck the following year. And she wouldn’t get a reference.
“Don’t worry about that,” said her mother on the phone. She wasn’t much impressed with the lifestyle of the seasonal restaurant worker. “Two weeks in France! It’ll be a great experience!”
Baffled at herself, even as she spoke the words, Louisa gave her two-weeks notice that night, at the end of her shift. She was hoping the manager, Denis, wouldn’t mind too much. He’d always seemed to like her.
“You dishonest bag of shit,” spat Denis. “You agreed to work through Labor Day.”
She’d expected disappointment, but somehow bag of shit took her by surprise. Her eyes got that hot feeling. She bit her tongue as hard as she could bear.
“Sorry,” she said, swallowing. “I got this chance to go to Paris and—”
“Oh, la di da, Paris fucking France,” he said. “Why don’t you get the hell out of Delaware, then, ASAP. And don’t show up here again. We don’t need your fancy ass.”
She turned and walked away, even though the restaurant owed her wages. She didn’t have practice being spoken to that way, especially not by someone who’d flirted with her just the day before. She calculated her losses; four ten-hour days at tipped minimum came out to eighty dollars and change. Not nothing, but not that much. She got on her bike and headed toward the ocean, stopping at the corner of the shore road where the dunes were thinnest to watch the surf pile up white against the jetty. From there, she headed out of town, pedaling hard. The highway ran along a narrow strip of land between ocean and bay. By the time she returned, her humiliation was just a crust of salt around her eyelashes. The sludge the manager had thrown at her was supplanted by a soufflé, the French future conditional for desire: je voudrais.
At Charles de Gaulle, they were groggy and euphoric. Alice had the keys to the apartment of her mother’s friends—the Andreous—dangling from a shoelace. They’d been sent to her mother in a padded envelope by airmail.
The girls found their way easily to the Métro. Louisa, used to tokens, was delighted by the little tickets. As they trod across a yellow and brown carpet of the discarded chits on the other side of the turnstiles, Alice dropped hers amongst the locals’, just as if she’d done it a million times before. Louisa retrieved hers like a treasure when the machine spit it back at her, a perfect bookmark for the novel she’d begun on the plane, a nineteenth-century doorstopper about a man her age going abroad.
Between the Métro and the apartment, they shopped for food on the Boulevard Montparnasse: Nutella, a baguette, Camembert, all the things that seemed most French. At the low coffee table in the apartment, they sat Japanese style and drank Orangina out of M. and Mme. Andreou’s wine glasses, then crashed for a good twelve hours. Later, Louisa would understand more about diurnal rhythms and that you should stay up all day, upon reaching Europe from America, but then she just followed Alice’s every move.
Until the morning.
They had different agendas, it turned out. Being bleary didn’t make Louisa any more interested in the fashion exhibit Alice wanted to see. Louisa’s choices were the Sewer and Technology museums. They compromised on the Louvre, which kept them busy the entire first day—another stretch of hours with minimal exposure to natural sunlight.
The Mona Lisa couldn’t have been more disappointing, behind its bulletproof Plexiglas and velvet rope, but Louisa felt she could have stood for hours before the swirling gravitational fields of the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Its flight, its power, its headlessness—they all seemed so relevant to her.
Yawning, Alice said, “Maybe you should get a postcard of that one or something?”
It was time to go.
They drank red wine at a bistro, all the more delicious because it would have been illegal at home, not that they hadn’t drunk and taken a lot of things, often enough, back at school. They pulled out their Hagstrom maps, pondered where to go the next day and how to get there. Louisa wanted to walk, to get fresh air, see the city and save money; Alice suggested cabbing it.
In the end, they went out separately and rendezvoused for a somewhat weary picnic dinner in the Luxembourg Gardens, which became their pattern for the rest of the week: they operated independently in the daytime, then at night, they convened in a bistro or café to trade the oddities of their separate days, Louisa’s struggles to deploy her schoolroom French in real time and Alice’s outrageous purchases. The last day, they found the café Les Deux Magots and both of them wished they’d done so on the first.
The evening before they left for Deauville, they cleaned the apartment together. Louisa was thinking maybe this next part would be the leg of the trip where she and Alice made friends again and had fun together, sitting on the beach, reading, swimming, laughing over their old quarrels in little sidewalk cafés. Louisa had exactly what she’d started the trip with in her suitcase, unless you counted the postcards she’d bought and the fact that she’d half filled her journal with ticket stubs, sketches and musings on all manner of Parisian sights. Alice now had an extra Louis Vuitton suitcase to hold all the Gaultier, Agnès B and Hermès she’d acquired.
“How are you going to manage your luggage on the train?” Louisa asked. “Maybe you should check a bag at the station till we come back.”
“Um, you don’t check Louis Vuitton at the station?” said Alice. “And, oh yeah. There’s one other thing.” She grinned.
“Who. I met him at the Musée D’Orsay. I invited him to Deauville with us. He has a car.”
“What?” repeated Louisa.
“His name is René. Isn’t that hot?”
“Well, it’s French,” said Louisa, thinking of Descartes and his wig, his ontological argument.
René turned out to be in his twenties, a graduate student in economics and not an entirely unknown quantity.
“He knows the Andreous, which is like two degrees of separation from my mother, so they sent me his number, in case I wanted a tour. See? He’s not a stranger. It’s perfectly safe.”
Louisa felt a twinge of disappointment at not having been invited on the tour with the local friend, but then again she wasn’t surprised. She was familiar with Alice’s penchant for conquest.
“So did he show you the etchings?”
“Louisa. It’s the impressionist museum? They have paintings. We looked at the Manets. And got to talking.”
“And then you just invited him to Deauville with us?”
“Don’t be such a prude. He has a Citroën.”
Louisa thought of Max, whom she’d worked with at the Crab Deck for the first six weeks of the summer, six weeks of not acting on her urges because urges only led to hurt, she’d learned. Max had a banged up Volkswagen Beetle. Usually, whenever he offered her a ride, she’d declined—she had her own two wheels—but the last night before she decided to go to France, she’d left her bike locked up at the rack. He’d put his hand on her thigh, and she leaned into him. Their lips grazed. Then the car behind them honked. The light was green. They’d been on a cusp, that night, but that was it. Max was likely to be angry at her. She’d ditched him, the very possibility of him, and left him in the weeds besides, so she could drive from Paris to Deauville with Alice. Alice and a perfect stranger.
Louisa had been looking forward to the train, to sitting in a compartment rather than a row of seats. It was all going to be so European, somehow. Now there wouldn’t even be a train trip to Deauville. René was picking them up the next morning.
You stupid sack of shit, she thought to herself, thinking of Max.
René drove fast.
In the back seat, Louisa grew queasy in the early miles of the trip. She hadn’t felt that way since the anxiousness of her childhood, in the backseat of her parents’ car, hiding from her father’s aggressive gunning and braking beneath a scratchy black-watch car blanket. She tried to close her eyes, but they popped open repeatedly, whenever the centripetal forces threw her toward the door. On one of the cliff roads, she finally forced herself to fall asleep so she wouldn’t have to see the precipices sliding past. She dozed fitfully through the scenery of France.
When they stopped, they were under the port cochère of a grand hotel. A small squad of foreign gardeners—possibly Filipino, she thought—was silently shearing back foliage.
They were decidedly not at Alice’s parents’ friends’ guest cottage.
“Where are we?” Lousia asked.
“René thought it would be fun to stay here. He used to come here as a child.”
“I can’t afford to stay in this hotel.”
“He’s got it covered, Lou.” Alice smiled.
“Come on, don’t spoil it!”
René did have Louisa covered—for a scullion’s cubicle. There was a single bed with a window onto an airshaft and a battered-looking night table. They invited her to eat room service with them in their brocaded suite with its seaside balcony, but knowing the bill would be on René—and that Alice and René had other things than dinner on their minds—Louisa excused herself.
She wandered down to the street, where she quickly found a hole-in-the-wall crêpe vendor. She ate standing up, like her life depended on it, like nothing else would do, and licked her fingers clean of melted Gruyère, savoring the salty butteriness. Afterward, she went to a nearby open air café and ordered a bottle beer, then a second one, and watched the people.
La di da, her manager had said. We don’t need your fancy ass. It was true: the people here were thinner and more fashionable than the ones in Delaware. The beach was wider, the boardwalk more elegant. There were beautiful people everywhere, people with tans and up-dos, high-heeled espadrilles and designer handbags. Louisa had never felt so alone.
The stars sparked in the dark sky above her as Louisa returned to the hotel. She nodded at the doorman, the bellman and the concierge, then climbed the narrow stairwell that led most directly to her room. She would have liked to leave right then—the trip back to Paris was only two hours—but she wasn’t sure there would be a train at this hour, and she didn’t know where she’d sleep if she got into Paris late. The Andreous were back in their apartment; the keys had been left at the bakery next door. All the hostels would be closed for the night.
Louisa pulled back the crisp hotel sheets and climbed into the bed. There may not have been a view, but the linens were smooth and cool against her skin.
She slept deeply and woke early with the determination to get out of Deauville before she had to talk to Alice again.
Just as she was about to leave, there was a gentle tap on the door.
“Oh, great,” said Alice. “You’re ready.”
“What do you mean? For what?”
“René and I thought we’d drop you at the villa. We’re going to take a little driving trip. We’ll be back in a couple of days.”
“No thanks. I’m going back to Paris.”
“But where will you stay?”
“There are plenty of hotels in Paris,” Louisa answered, not that she could afford any of them. “And hostels.”
“I thought you didn’t have enough … ”
Louisa looked at her.
“Okay, we’ll drop you at the train station. Good?”
Louisa rode silently in the back seat of the Citröen. They said good-bye with two kisses—twice as much fakery—and didn’t make plans for meeting up again in Paris.
At the station, Louisa bought a ticket and sat down to wait at the small restaurant. It was two and a half hours before the next train to Paris, and she became engrossed in the novel she’d been dragging around with her but not reading. Frédéric Moreau was swiftly becoming dissolute, drinking, dining and leering, neglecting his studies.
“En voiture!” called a voice. “Tout le monde en voiture á Paris!”
Louisa jammed the book into her bag and ran for it, reaching the platform as the brakes hissed their release. She ascended the first step of the car and felt the platform lurch away from her.
She had an entire compartment to herself until after the conductor passed through. Tidy farms rolled by with their green fields, hay rolls and cows; towns with their station houses, red tiled roofs and white steeples. After an hour or so, somewhere between two station stops, a large, battered-looking man entered with no luggage, just a newspaper. His face was sunburned and rough, his brown suit shiny and frayed. His swollen, sockless ankles bulged over the rims of his shoes. He shut the compartment door behind him and began to struggle with the privacy curtains. Louisa was about to ask if he might please leave them open when he spoke.
“Excusez moi, Mademoiselle. Puis-je m’asseoir ici?”
She was gratified to find she understood him and nodded, but she wished she had the language to object to the way he was blotting out all the light from the corridor.
He sat down and began to remove his shoes. It took some time, what with the dimness, the knotted laces and the exquisite tightness of the shoes to his feet. Louisa watched his progress from behind the pages of her book, the exploits of young Frédéric Moreau forgotten. Finally, with a rasping sound and a sigh, the first shoe was off.
Louisa coughed. The stench was not foot odor, not foot odor alone. More like decay. Meat left in the sun, to the flies.
“Pardonez moi, Mademoiselle,” said the man, quietly, and began to work on the second shoe. “Je suis très fatigué. Est-ce que vous voulez bien baisser le store s’il vous plait?”
She got that he was tired, but had no idea what he wanted until he gestured toward the window. Grateful at least for his acknowledgement of the stench, she raised the window.
“Non, non! S’il vous plait! Pas la fenêtre!” he cried. ” S’il vous plait! Baisser le store!”
He was alarmed, and so was Louisa as he lunged across, slamming shut the window and pulling down the shade to boot, throwing the room into dimness.
The fug of his rotting feet swirled around her.
Just as she resolved to change compartments, he slid the facing seats closest to the door into their recumbent sleeping positions, blocking off the exit. He proceeded to curl up with his back toward her and cover his head and feet with sheets of his newspaper.
“Monsieur?” she ventured, but he seemed to have instantly fallen asleep.
Who was he? Did he even have a ticket? Had he somehow hidden, in the bathroom while the conductor rounded? Did she care if he had? Not really, but she didn’t want to share a compartment with—his feet. She couldn’t look out the window, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see well enough even to read. The only thing more impossible was asking him to get up.
At last, she laid her book on her lap and fell asleep herself, dreaming of refugees and thieves and pinholes in money.
As the train rattled into Paris, Louisa jolted awake and found the man gone. What about her wallet, her passport? She thought of the story from her childhood in which the boy had pinned his money inside his coat pocket so as not to lose it during a train trip but had it stolen while he slept. She’d been a fool to let herself drift off, she thought, patting herself down to check her pockets. She flushed when she realized everything was exactly where it should have been, intact. He wasn’t a thief. He was a sad man with terrible feet.
She looked for him as the passengers disembarked, but the crowd was so full of men in suits that one shiny brown one could never have been singled out. Instead her gaze was caught by a brightly dressed, haggard woman with frizzled gray hair, coral lipstick, wild eyes.
“Nous sommes tout le monde à la gare!” screamed the woman, and Louisa understood it.
We are all at the station!
She raised her arms like a prophetess. “Nous sommes tout le monde à la gare! A la Gare St-Lazare!”
And they were. A madwoman and Louisa and thousands of others. People in love, people out to buy sex, nuns. Self-righteous students, homeless refugees with rotting feet, party-girls who lived for the moment. All of them, right there.
Louisa was one of them.
She flipped her guidebook to a page she’d dog-eared a few days before, a page with the address of a hostel she could afford, just barely, to stay in till the flight home. She would have to skip museums and lunch to stretch her money till the following Saturday, when she and Alice would sit beside one another on their return flight, but there was more than enough to do.
It was Paris, it was the rest of her life.
And all roads led from the Gare St.-Lazare.
ELIZABETH GAFFNEY is the author of the novels Metropolis and When the World Was Young (both Random House). Her work has also appeared in the Paris Review, the New York Times, A Public Space, Virginia Quarterly Review, Conjunctions, and many other publications. She was an editor for many years at the Paris Review, and is an editor at large at A Public Space. She teaches writing at New York University and the New School and has taught at Columbia University.