Thursday, March 26, 2015

Brief Encounters

I recently finished reading Trains and Lovers by Alexander McCall Smith. The book is the story of four strangers who sit together on a train ride from Edinburgh to London. Over the course of a four-hour journey, they share stories, about themselves or family members, involving love and trains. The stories are personal, intimate, revealing. Then the train arrives at the station, and they go their separate ways. It’s a small book and quite engaging. After I finished reading it, I thought of my own encounters.

We have them every day. You find yourself with a stranger or a group of strangers. You stand in line with them at the grocery store. You ride in an elevator with them. Your sit with them in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. You trudge along with them in a line for the must-do ride at an amusement park, like you’re part of the Bataan death march. Sometimes, for that brief time, camaraderie ensues. You complain to each other about how long you’re having to wait. You discuss the weather. One of you compliments another about an item of clothing or a piece of jewelry. You ask a question. You make a joke. And for a brief moment, you are connected to that person. Then, you pay for your purchase and exit the store. The elevator doors open. You’re called back to the examining room. You reach the head of the line and board the ride. You’ll never see that person again, or if you do, you probably won’t remember that you have before. But perhaps the encounter lives on in your memories. I’ll share with you three encounters of mine: one that is vivid, full of sensory memories; one worthy of a sitcom in all its shocking, horrifying, funny, and gross details; and one that, to me, is profound, especially with the passing of years.

A vivid encounter. Mexico. My honeymoon. We rose at dawn and boarded a tour bus at our resort hotel in Cancun. Leaving the town behind, we traveled for two hours along a paved, two-lane highway which eventually became a dirt road. Every now and then, we passed a shack constructed from assorted, found materials. But every dwelling, no matter how primitive, was connected to lines, electrical or phone or both, snaking down from big lines that paralleled the roadway in a scene worthy of National Geographic. The bus carried us to Chichen Itza, a Mayan ruin deep in the jungle of the Yucatan peninsula. The site was occupied as early as 750 A.D. We followed our guide, on-foot, along a dirt path to the site. On both sides of the path, vendors hawked their wares, arranged on blankets spread on the ground. Their little children clustered around us, hands outstretched, hopeful for anything we might give them. “Don’t give them money,” a man in our group cautioned. “They have plenty; they’re just dressed poor for show.” I seriously doubt that, I thought. I noticed he was dressed in expensive travel gear – just for show, I suppose. “I always carry Chiclets to give them,” one woman declared. “That’s what they most want,” she added, assuredly, pressing the little sticks of gum into their little hands.

Entering the grounds, I was struck by the total lack of formality in running the site. Actually, there was no one running the site at all; no security to keep anyone from removing or defacing artifacts; no barricades to keep people from climbing on any of the ruins. No ticket booth. No signs. Some groups were led by guides as they wandered in clusters from ruin to ruin, but many people explored on their own. We stayed with our group only briefly before drifting off to inspect the site at our own pace, knowing what time we needed to return to our bus.

We had just left the Gran Juego de Pelota, a grassy field where the Mayans played ball games, when rain of the sudden, tropical-downpour variety burst from the heavens. We dashed for the first shelter we could find, a small, stone building with three open arches leading into a small room.
The space quickly filled with people who had been nearby. Moments passed as we all stood, catching our breaths. Everyone faced forward, looking out at the rain, a solid, glassy curtain hung in front of the arches. Then people began to talk. The stingy man was there with his wife, a sour-faced woman who complained that her hairdo was wet. Welcome to the club, I thought as I touched the hairspray that had turned to gooey glue in my hair. The couple continued taking turns complaining to each other in nasally accents about the lack of covered walkways and the absence of a restaurant at the site. A man who had been conversing in German with his wife, paused and listened to Stingy and Sour, and then shook his head. We locked eyes for a moment, and I cringed, knowing what he was thinking, as the couple continued to give Americans a bad name. Chiclet woman and her elderly mother were also there. They discussed what they wanted to buy from the vendors on the path, and I talked with them about the quality of the blankets and baskets on display. A jolly Australian family with their cute Crocodile-Hunter-accents speculated on the rules of a Mayan ball game. I joined the conversation as the topic digressed into a comparison of American football with Australian rules football before detouring into an analysis of rugby.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spied one couple standing in the corner, apart from the rest of us. Apparently they were honeymooners like me. They proceeded to rub on each other’s wet hair, clothes, and skin with their shiny-wedding-ringed hands. Then they progressed to kissing. I tried to avert my eyes, but when the woman let out an audible moan, everyone turned to look. The couple seemed to have forgotten that anyone else was nearby as they attempted to devour each other’s faces and swallow each other’s tongues. The Australian mother moved to stand between her children and the only-suitable-for-cable show.  But before the demonstration could turn pornographic, the rain ended as abruptly as if God had flipped a switch.

We exited the structure, with our wet clothes clinging to our bodies, each of us encircled with a cloud of rising steam like a visible aura. We climbed to the top of the Kukulcan temple pyramid, bending over to hold onto a chain to assist our ascent up the narrow steps. Apparently, handicap accessibility or even safety were not concerns for whoever oversaw the site. We climbed with the Australian family, laughing about our absurd posture as we went. Reaching the top, we looked out over the lush jungle and spied other vine-covered ruins in the distance. I felt like Indiana Jones, discovering a ruin full of mystery, danger, and perhaps treasure. “Surely they know these other ruins are there,” I said, half to myself. Stingy Man appeared at my side and said something about money, or rather the lack of it, to excavate. I nodded at him and smiled and was surprised to find the smile returned. Walking back to our bus, I passed Chiclet woman and her mother purchasing blankets and baskets. I waved to them, and they waved back. The German couple was on our bus, and we parted with them upon reaching the lobby of our hotel. I never saw the honeymoon couple again. Perhaps they wandered off into the jungle to ravage each other and are still there. I’ve never seen any of the others again either. I wonder where else they have traveled and what else have they seen?

A sitcom encounter. The Happiest Place on Earth (that would, of course, be Disney World.) We boarded a shuttle bus, or Disney Transport to be precise. The time was after lunch but still early enough in the day  for a lot more fun. Happy families wearing an assortment of Mickey Mouse ears, Goofy t-shirts, Tinkerbell wings, and Cinderella tiaras sat, talking about their next adventure. They exited at various stops until we and one other family, facing us across the aisle, were the only ones on board. The family consisted of a Daddy, a Mama, and three assorted children. 

Then it happened. My five-year-old son had a nose bleed. I knew I had a partially-used package of tissues. Frantically fishing through the contents of my purse, I found the package. Ripping the plastic fully open, I saw that three tissues remained. Jerking out two, I stuffed one in each of his nostrils before the blood could drip on his clothes, or worse, on me. As I was craning my neck to look ahead and see how much further to our stop, where a restroom with paper towels might be found, my son decided to pull the tissues out of his nostrils. I looked back, just in time to see it happen. Time slowed, the way it does in movies when something horrible is about to happen. All sound ceased. A zoom into a close-up of his squinched face. The realization of what was about to happen. Nooooooo! I don’t think I screamed it out loud, just moaned the word in my brain. The sneeze was spectacular. His whole body flew forward with the force of it. The blood sprayed forth as if unleashed by a special effects crew from a horror movie.

I turned my head to follow the trajectory and looked into stunned faces. Bodies frozen in place. The Daddy sat with his legs apart, hands on his knees. The Mama held her hands crossed in her lap with one arm through the handle of her very-new-looking, light-colored straw, tote bag. The three assorted children were a jumble of gangly arms in t-shirts and legs in shorts on the seat next to their Mama. They were all dressed in light-weight, cotton clothing, which also just happened to be … you guessed it, white. The blood was spattered from the tops of their heads to the tips of their toes, and on Mama's purse, too. And did I mention that they were a black family? The thick, bright-red goo glistened almost prettily, like rubies, against their chocolate skin. I grabbed the blood-soaked tissues clutched in my son’s hands and stuffed them back in his nostrils while simultaneously shouting “I’m so sorry!” at them, loud enough to be heard over the road noise. Like survivors in a disaster movie, they began to move; to turn their heads to assess the damage to each other and to themselves. Do I offer them my last remaining tissue for all five of them to share? Do I empty my wallet of my remaining cash, all $2.38 of it, and give that to them for cleaning costs? Before I could even think further, the bus’s pneumatic breaks huffed and squealed. The doors opened. Mama pushed Daddy off his seat while hurling a dagger at me from her eyes. She jerked the assorted children by the arms, and they exited the bus, falling all over one another, as my son’s face squinched for another sneeze. I’ll always remember them. Do they remember us? (I suspect they do.)

A profound encounter. Paris. A moveable feast, as Hemingway said. A feast of sights, sounds, smells; food, art, architecture, history; all those grand experiences and little moments that make Paris, well … Paris. And in Paris I had an encounter with the past, with the present, and with the future. Souls who have passed from this earth, ones present in a moment, and ones yet to come. I was there with a tour group, my fellow French students from my high school. You know those kinds of trips: four countries in seven days. We were on the Île de la Cité, an island in the middle of the Seine, having toured the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and then the Conciergerie, a medieval prison where Marie Antoinette was held until her beheading. On our way to the Metro station to return to the Left Bank, we stopped at the corner of Quai de l'Horloge and Pont au Change.

L’horloge is the French word for clock and that is what is set into the Palais de Justice building on the corner of this intersection. The clock is the oldest-surviving, public clock in Paris, dating back to 1535.  The Pont au Change is a bridge (“pont” meaning bridge in French). The “Change” part of the name comes from its historical function. Louis VII decreed, in 1141, that money-changers could only operate their businesses in shops built on the bridge. Many bridges have occupied this site, going back to the 9th century when a wooden bridge was built to replace a nearby one destroyed in a Viking siege of the city. This current bridge was completed in 1860 during Napoleon III’s reign when Baron Haussmann cleaned house, or literally cleared houses and buildings, to create the Paris we know. The Pont au Change is built from stone and decorated with medallions bearing an “N” for the Emperor of the Second Empire. Victor Hugo mentioned this bridge in Les Miserables.
Twilight view of the Seine river and the Pont au Change bearing Napoleon III’s medallions. The old clock can be seen set in the alcove of the tower at the left of the photograph. The Conciergerie is the section of the Palais de Justice (Palace of Justice) complex containing the three round towers at the center of the photograph.

I placed my hand on the stone balustrade and looked at the clock while our guide explained its history and the history of the bridge. I looked down at the Seine flowing under the bridge, coursing through the city for a part of its 482 mile journey from northwest of Dijon in northeastern France to the English Channel at Le Havre. The color of the water changed rapidly like a mood ring. The day was overcast with occasional showers leaving everything glistening and ethereal. I watched the black water turn pearly-gray as clouds scuttled overhead. Then, in the next moment, a peep of sun turned the water green, like the deep color of a forest beneath a dense canopy of leaves.

I could still hear our guide speaking, but my mind drifted. How many people have stood on this exact spot in the past: peasants, paupers, priests, prostitutes, princes?  I felt the smooth stone beneath my palms, my fingertips. How many people have touched this stone? Looked at that clock?  I studied the other students gathered with me; there with me in that one specific moment in time. Do they get this? Does my teacher appreciate this? Or even our guide? I stood there only for a moment. And then we moved on. How many people have been there in the days since, encountering the souls of the past while standing among the souls of the present? How many are yet to come to that place, should the bridge continue to stand in the years, decades, perhaps centuries, or even millennia to come? But for one moment I was there. And I encountered all who had been and who were there. Perhaps the bridge will remember me to those who come…

Encounters. Three of my most memorable ones. Encounters are, by definition, brief, but sometimes they lead to more. Every friendship, every love, begins with a first encounter. Whether brief, or temporary, or the beginning of everything wonderful, or all things sad, these moments connect us to the humanity around us in all its flawed and fabulous complexity and gift us with memories, an encounter’s best souvenir.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton