Winter, 1990. The walk from the hovercraft to the train station was short but left me wet and thoroughly chilled to the bone. The weather, a mix of wind and pelting rain and snow was an affront. On the quay for the train from Boulogne to Paris, Mr. Six/Four bent low and easily hoisted a limp sack of a young man out of a wheel chair and into his huge arms. A porter folded the chair and lead the way. A woman, grey-haired frail, thin, at least sixty-five, follows.
My seat was across the aisle from theirs and they were quick to smile and nod to me as they settled in. He who I had taken for a young man, was not a young man and his story was very clear. Forty, remarkably thick dark hair falling like a wave over his forehead, thin, gray, gleaming skin, Kaposi’s sarcoma, full blown AIDS.
At the first pass of the car snack service Six/Four ordered coffee.
“Teddy,” the woman stage whispered, “Will you look at that?”
It was the standard French train café filtre, a two stage plastic unit, hot water goes in the top, filtered coffee drains into the bottom. Six/Four was so pleased he was beaming but Teddy has seen it all before.
“Wait till you taste it,” he muttered, smiling gamely.
“Well, I never,” said the woman in admiration. “They make such a fuss.”
“Smells heavenly,” Six/Four agreed. “After the English stuff.”
Teddy wasn’t doing so well. Up against the window seat, his head pressed to the glass, he barely seemed able to register the passing countryside but every once in a while he would fuss and either Six/Four or the woman would react.
“What was that, dear?”
Sometimes he would motion with his hand, other times just smile. The woman spoke to me this time.
“We’re taking my son back to Paris.”
“Yes we are,” Six/Four confirmed. “But this time its just for pleasure, right Ted?”
“It was never work, anyway,” Ted managed.
Clearly the confessional doors were wide open and Ted’s mother felt obliged to step right in and bring me up-to-date.
“Ted’s made this trip many, many times before with his grade twelve students.”
“Always over-subscribed,” smiled Six/Four proudly. “It was the highlight of their year.”
“Well, it was,” insisted Six/Four, brandishing his coffee cup.
Mother picked up the thread again.
“It was always his students and a couple of parents and they did run him ragged the last few years.”
“I liked doing it mother,” Ted moaned, shaking his head at me as though to dispel that martyr status his Mother was attempting to bestow. “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t.”
A little silence but the pot had been stirred.
“What part of the states are you from?” asked mother.
“I’m not,” I replied. “I’m Canadian.”
Six/Four perked up.
“Montreal,” I said.
This time it was Ted who perked up, catching Six/Four’s eye with sudden complicity.
“Montreal? We’ve been to Montreal. What a wonderful city. You are really lucky.”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Well, we’re from Sedalia, Missouri.” she replied, ending with the terminal rise.
“That is, I am and Teddy was.”
“Ted and I live in Princeton, New Jersey.”
“I’m still in Sedalia. My husband passed on earlier this year so it’s just me.”
Six/Four leaned in, his forehead wrinkling.
“But you are coming to stay with us, right?”
An odd tension stiffened Mother’s spine.
“Well, we’ll have to see,” she said reaching over to brush Teddy’s hair off his forehead. “We’ll just have to see how things go.”
The snack service came by again. Six/Four got excited.
“Have a tea mom,” Teddy suggested.” You liked the tea in London.”
Mother was scanning the service cart nervously as though looking for the item that was going to jump up and hurt someone.
“I don’t know, they make such a fuss over the coffee, I dread to see what they do with the tea.”
“Avez-vous le thé dans les petits sacs?”
The porter rummaged around and presented Mother with a variety of teas bundled in little gauze bags.
“Well, I never,” she squealed in admiration.
“I told you,” Teddy managed between clenched teeth. “Everything is better in France.”
I did not see what secret sign passed between Teddy and Six/Four but the big man was on his feet in a second picking up Teddy like a doll and pulling him into the aisle.
“Bathroom?” he asked the porter who motioned toward the end of the car.
They had been gone only for a moment when Mother, trailing her tea bag in her cup spoke up again.
“He’s quite sick.”
“Hmm…” I replied.
“They didn’t let him take the kids last year,” she remarked with some tinge of bitterness. “The parents. They didn’t like how it looked. When those spots started to come through.”
“That must have been terrible.”
Mother took a sip of tea and looked straight into my eyes.
“He was shattered. Shattered, absolutely.”
They took turns going to the restaurant car. Teddy had no appetite even though they brought along some excellent morsels. He mostly drank Gatorade and nibbled saltines. I slipped off to eat just as Mother was returning so I was not surprised when Six/Four joined me at my table.
Six/Four had no trouble with his appetite and was a refreshingly polite and fastidious eater. He perused the menu with care.
“I promised myself that I would always order something I never had before.”
He pointed to the menu.
“Do you know what morue is?”
“That’s codfish,” I replied, reading above his massive, well-manicured finger. “A filet with beurre blanc.”
“Perfect,” he said, pointing it out to the waiter. “What wine do you recommend?”
After the small talk and the plates had been cleared Six/Four settled into his chair.
“How many clichés can I run in a row?” he said, smiling as the waiter uncorked a second split and I sipped my port. “Married to my childhood sweetheart, four kids, nice home. I taught American history and coached football in East Orange. Everything was good. Just good.”
I lit up a small cigar and he took the box from me, helping himself to one. His first puff was deep and unpracticed.
“When Teddy showed up to teach English and dramatics, that was in 1983, I can honestly say I did not know what hit me. We both had to leave that high school. The wife took the kids, took the house. We found jobs in a Princeton high school. Very middle class. People knew but no one really seemed to care. We were discreet.”
Another big glass of wine, another puff, this time he looked to me to see that he was doing it right.
“Everything was so perfect, everything was so, like, I told myself, ‘Remember this. Just remember this.’ I knew he was sick almost from the beginning.”
“Really?” I said.
He smiled grimly, nodding his massive head, a rueful smile on his lips.
“The fact that we didn’t have sex was one big clue. He wouldn’t let me. It didn’t matter.”
Six/Four had made it through half the second bottle of wine before winding himself down.
“The past two years he keeps fading and coming back. I knew it was now or never. You won’t believe what I had to do to get Dale to come with us. He needed her to see it.”
“Must be very rough for her.”
Six/Four rose, taking a last long gulp.
“Dale?” he put down his glass. “Here’s a clue; she had to get her very first passport for the trip.”
Back in coach Six/Four leaned his bulk against the window and promptly fell asleep. Dale had wandered off and I could look at Teddy and Six/Four openly as they sat sleeping, opposite each other, moving with the rolling train.
I needed the bathroom and as I walked I spotted Dale standing in the corridor of the next car, gazing out the window. When I emerged from the bathroom she was still there.
She smiled as I approached, bending a little at the knee against the movement of the train. She looked at me for a moment, a sad defeated smile on her tired face. She looked out the window as she spoke and her voice was low but not so low, not afraid.
“In Sedalia it’s all pretty much black and white. There isn’t that much to know so we fool ourselves into thinking we know everything.”
I smiled at her reflection in the window. She smiled back shyly.
“I thought I did,” she said, looking out the window. “I knew about men and women. I knew about having a partner in your life. I knew how love was. But I didn’t know everything.”
Outside the sky gathered gray clouds together threatening rain but so far, holding back.
“It made me angry, to be so certain and then to be so unsure. It’s why I snap at him so, but I don’t mean it.”
“I know. I think he knows it too.”
She turned to me for the first time, her eyes searching.
“Do you think so?”
“Do you see the way Wayne takes care of Teddy? How he looks after him?”
I nodded again. Dale moved closer to me, still keeping her face to the window, lowering her voice.
“When he came out to me, he insisted on telling me everything. And he did.”
Dale looked around making certain there was no one listening.
“I didn’t want to hear it. I told him to stop it but he wouldn’t,” she said shivering, as if the mere memory was still too much to bear. “I understood later that he wanted me to know, in some way, what he had run away for, what he gave it all away for, Sedalia and our family, as though it was, like it was…” she said, searching.
Dale lowered her eyes, wounded still by the notion. Her eyes wrinkled shut, the knuckles of one hand pressed against her mouth as the tears came. She caught herself, drawing a deep breath and faced me, her eyes imploring, her lips white and thin.
“They have a tenderness that I never had in all my life. I never even knew about it.”
Six/Four was still sleeping, snoring rarely, delicately, like a small boy. Dale had changed places with Ted so that she had the benefit of a window to lean against. She was sleeping, exhausted by the truth and shame and by speaking of it to a stranger. Teddy was now on the aisle, easier to get him to the toilet should the need arise.
It was evening and we were standing still. A porter passed by brusquely in the manner of all train porters.
“Pardonnez-moi mais, c’est quoi la problème?“
The Porter sighed coming to a halt in front of me. He smelled strongly of pastis.
“C’est une manifestation, monsieur.”
“Oui, une action industrielle comme on dit. Les fermières contestent les frais de transport. Une longue histoire sans arrêt.”
“On va être ici pour combien de temps?”
The Porter never once looked at me but spoke loudly so that everyone would get the briefing once and for all and we would all stop bothering him.
“Impossible de dire mais, normalement, on ne reste pas très longtemps. C’est l’heure de dîner, pour eux comme pour nous.“
And with that he whirled away in a fog of condescension and Ricard. Ted had watched and listened to the exchange with evident amusement.
“You’ve got guts,” he wheezed with difficulty. “I’ve never been able to get two words out of a French public servant without drowning in their arrogance.”
I smiled in turn doing my best imitation of the Gaelic shrug, my hands spread wide.
“Mais, c’est normale, quoi?”
Ted laughed, turning his head to me. He was close to me and now that the other two could not hear him, and after waiting patiently in line, it was his turn.
“Where do you stay in Paris?”
“I don’t have a regular place. Whatever is the cheapest.”
“The kids and I, we always stayed at the same hotel, near the Place de la Concorde. Views of the Eiffel tower, the whole cliché.”
“How many years did you take this trip?”
“From 1983 to 1988.”
“I don’t know how you could stand it, dragging pubescent kids to the Louvre, Notre Dame.”
Ted took a breath and sighed, as though my description was delicious.
“It wasn’t easy, believe me. They did fuck up a lot, always some scandal somewhere. But for me it was worth it, to see Paris turn on in their dull, glassy eyes.”
“You get the biggest fucking football slob, some son-of-a-blue-collar bum, and he’s mocking everything, sneaking out for beer, getting caught in some big-haired girl’s room…,” he paused as though perversely savouring the memory. “And then suddenly, he’s on a bateau mouche and he can’t take his eyes off the Pont Neuf.”
Ted leaned even closer across the aisle.
“For some, it was opening their curtains and seeing the Eiffel tower so close you could touch it. And for others it was the first sip of a café crème, or the first croissant that didn’t come from Pillsbury.”
He breath was very shallow and he was having trouble opening the cap of his Gatorade so I helped him.
“Or some fresh-mouthed, tough little Jersey chick would get stuck in front of a Monet at the Musée D’Orsay. Or just catch the bend in the Seine near Notre Dame. One by one the little lights would come on and I knew that whatever else they did in their suburban lives, whenever they would look at that single stamp in their passports, they would remember. They would have that.”
We were quiet for a long moment. When he spoke it was with a low voice, mostly breath.
“When I moved east I knew exactly what I was doing. Sedalia was, well, you can’t imagine and I can’t explain so let’s not even go there.”
For the first time Teddy smiled a real smile, his face cracking in mirth.
“I knew where I was headed. I didn’t hold back. Nothing couldhave held me back.”
Teddy paused to see if either Six/Four or Dale were listening.
“I was living in Manhattan in the early eighties,” I said. “I remember.”
“The first article I read was in the Voice. That one about the doctors at St. Vincent’s noticing this disease among the Haitians and drug users.”
“Didn’t mention Air Canada stewards, did it.”
I shook my head.
“When it was clear I had it, I left New York and ended up in East Orange. I had no fucking clue what I was doing but I had this job at a high school and on the first day, there he was.”
Teddy motions Six/Four profoundly asleep squashed against the side of the train car.
“Did he tell you we have never had sex?”
I squinted to see if he was trying to get to me but he was guileless.
“That would be indiscreet.”
Teddy burst out with racking laughter and coughing and I immediately felt guilty but he waved off my concern. He turned his face to me, his eyes suddenly narrowed and deeply black. When he spoke his voice was tinged with some kind of angry regret.
“They think they are doing me a favour, this trip. One last time to see Paris. I have to tell you that every second has been torture. My body just won’t die and there are times I’m begging to die.”
I listened to him holding his eyes in mine, listening and making myself totally open to him and his angry emotion.
“Why don’t you tell them?”
Teddy rolled his head to look once again at his mother and his lover. He looked back to me. A veil was coming down and he could only stay on the surface with great effort.
“I can’t leave them with the guilt.”
I nodded and unscrewed his bottle, holding it to his lips. He drank deeply, paused and cleared his throat.
“Don’t tell them.”
I took back the bottle, capping it and placing it in his lap.
“That would be indiscreet, too.”
Teddy suppressed another bout of laughter and rolled back to gaze on his sleeping loved ones. The train suddenly started to move, almost imperceptibly at first, in the manner of quality French engineering, but then palpably.