When my son told me he was traveling to France, I asked him to look her up. I told him where he could find her – but I doubted she would still be there.
My last glimpse of her was on a subway platform in Paris. She was waving goodbye. The station was big and she was a tiny girl, no larger than a mouse it seemed. She wore a red beret, a short skirt and a silk blouse. As my train pulled away from the station, her long black hair lay against the white blouse and was visible from far down the track.
At the time, she was dead-drunk and it broke my heart to leave her like that. She was so drunk she had to steady herself against the station wall to wave good-bye and that is how I remember her.
From my telling of it, this may seem a sad good-bye but it was not. We were both laughing as hard as people can laugh. It is a good memory to hang onto: a beautiful woman so drunk that everything in the world seemed a comedy.
Like many a boy meets girl story, ours began in a bar. Our story is different though because she was never in that bar, I met her later but our story begins there.
I had gone to Spain, to Pamplona, for The Running of the Bulls and believe me, the best part of the festival of San Fermin is not the bulls – it is in the bars and I found the best in the city.
Walking in, you would think it a small place. The bar ran along one wall and a thin line of tables dominated the rest of the room — but an opening in the back revealed a stone staircase that led to another bar in a cellar. That cellar in turn led to another and like Dante’s vision of hell, each level had a portal to a level below and the lower one descended, the louder and wilder the parties became.
If anything, the Running of the Bulls is about bravado. People come from all over the world to test their bravery with bulls and then brag about it in the bars. I began drinking at level three. I cannot say how deeper the bar went. All I can say is – level six was all the bravado I could muster.
I joined a table of Basques from a town near Pamplona because they were having the most fun. Basques are a people native to northern Spain. They have their own language and culture, and were caught on the wrong side of the Spanish Civil War.
These were big farm kids, the kind who could toss a horse for fun and though I couldn’t understand a word they said, I could tell that they loved to brag and sing, but not about running with bulls. Their songs were a taunt to a much more dangerous creature, the soldiers of dictator Ferdinand Franco.
A year earlier, their rebel songs would have gotten the room sprayed with machine gun fire from Franco’s military police, but he had recently died and the country was ripe for change. Still – songs from the Spanish Civil War were extremely dangerous – which only made these boys – bang their mugs, stomp their boots and sing as loud as they possibly could.
This risky behavior vexed the proprietor.
He was a nervous little man who dodged in and out of the cellar like a ferret. He, like the rural boys, was also a Basque but he, unlike them, had too much to lose. He ordered them to be quiet but that only made them more belligerent.
After he threatened to cut them off, one of the boys, a monster of a fellow, snatched up a crock of yogurt and lifting the proprietor off the ground, poured the yogurt down the old man’s shirt. He then discarded the fellow like tossing garbage into a dumpster.
An hour later, the lights went out.
The proprietor announced that the police had ordered all bars and restaurants in the city closed because fighting had broken out between ETA separatists and the civil guard. One person had been killed and many wounded. The festival was canceled and a curfew declared for 3:00 p.m. It was 2:58 p.m. and the proprietor had pulled a little joke; thanks to a crock of yogurt and his wounded pride.
The Basque Boys asked if I wanted to join them running the police. I politely declined. Instead I joined another group heading for the nearest bus station. It was not a good choice after curfew but it was the only one we had.
Out on the street, every window was closed, every shade drawn, every light dark. There was no traffic. No shops open. No couples strolling on the sidewalks.
Tear gas drifted like ground-fog through the streets and the only sounds heard were the undulating wail of distant sirens, the hollow pop of tear-gas launchers and the periodic crack of rifle fire.
As we hustled toward the station, a frantic group of young men, dressed in the white shirt and red scarf uniform of the festival, rushed across an intersection ahead of us. Close on their heels roared a white ford van topped by a flashing blue light.
The fleeing men and the van vanished around the corner but we could hear the patter of their feet, the roar of the engine and the rup-rup-rup of tires on the cobble-stone street. A moment later, the van skidded to a stop, its sliding door clunked open and cries of anger and pain followed — then nothing.
We ran the two blocks to the bus station and were relieved to find a small crowd waiting there. A couple held their children by the hand, a few waiters still wore their aprons, a Canadian tourist made sure that the red maple leaf on his backpack was clearly visible. A few older women, returning from shopping, made it known that the curfew was none of their concern.
There was no buses running but the stop seemed neutral territory.
Over the next hour, our numbers grew as more and more people caught out after curfew made a dash to the safety of the stop. Over the same time, the rumble of the vans came closer and closer as if a net were being drawn around us.
Then from several directions, at least five vans raced toward the station and skidded to a stop, The sliding doors clunked open and large men in sweat stained uniforms spilled out.
They were thugs who reeked of violence.
Armed with hard rubber clubs they systematically beat everyone in the bus stop. They beat the couple. They beat their children. They beat the Canadian. They beat the old women.
They didn’t just hit people. They worked at it, grunting with every blow and sweating from the effort.
I was set upon three times. One knocked me down then went after someone else. Another thrashed my arms, legs and head then passed me to the third soldier. They worked like this as a team so they would not get winded.
A shrill police whistle ended the beatings. The soldiers leaped back into their vans and roared off.
As we lay on the concrete; children screaming, adults moaning and sobbing, an old man with the whitest of hair, opened the door to his apartment and beckoned us all to safety. After what seemed like an hour, this man, with courage and dignity, led the crowd down the street and out of the main part of town. It was the bravest thing I have ever seen a man do.
I took the first train out of Spain and kept riding. I wanted to put as much distance between that experience and myself as I could. My right arm was so heavily bruised it was useless. An eye had puffed shut and an ear rang incessantly; I walked with a limp. I was a mess.
My ticket read Callas and I had no intention of stopping there – but first I had to get through Paris.
In Paris, there are rail stations at the major points in the compass. To get from one station to another, you have to take local transportation. I had arrived in Paris after midnight and got lost on the subway trying to get to the Gare du Nord station.
So there I was, hurting, limping, bleeding, trying to make sense of subway instructions written in a language that made no sense to me – when the most beautiful girl in the world tripped down the steps and stumbled onto the platform.
She was dead drunk and having a great time of it. I asked her in English how I might get to the Gar de Nord and she went into hysterics – as if my question were the funniest thing in the world.
She stumbled over to a map of the subway system, chanting “Gare du Nord, Gare du Nord” and after several attempts to point at the “You Are Here” symbol, fell flat on her ass. Again she broke into hysterical laughter. Apparently falling down was even funnier than getting lost.
Using the wall to get to her feet, she put a finger on the map and slid forward, tripping along the wall.. At the end of the map she landed on her ass again. She then got up, made another attempt to point and stumbled across the map the other way.
On her fourth fall, she refused to get up. It looked comfortable on the concrete, so I joined her there. She chattered in French while I grumbled in English and then we both broke into laughter.
I have not laughed so hard since.
I laughed away my pain. I laughed away my fear. I laughed away my worries. I wish I could always laugh like that.
After a while, she got to her feet and together we figured out how I would get to the Gare du Nord. As my train jolted out of the station, I caught my final glimpse of her, leaning against the wall, laughing and waving goodbye.
It’s a memory that comes back to me. It comes back when I am in pain, when things go badly and I fall down. When it comes back I cannot help but laugh.
I know she is still there, still laughing, and I hope my son finds her. It will be my legacy to him – a beautiful woman, dead-drunk, laughing away the cares of the world.