‘Amboise’ by Ariel Dorfman, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

Somebody beat me to it, somebody else had killed himself first. That’s the first thing that I thought, God help me, when the loudspeaker at the Gare d’Austerlitz announced that train service had been interrupted indefinitely due to an accident caused by “une personne,” someone, male, female, old, young, no matter, someone of whatever sex and whatever age and who was not me had committed suicide on the tracks somewhere south of Paris.

Not that the announcement specified what sort of accident, not even a mention of suicide or even the location, but I knew right away, seated snuggly with Lucy in our second class compartment waiting for the train to leave the cold, grey station, I knew how it must have been, I saw the scene. I had imagined myself that very afternoon, that very evening, probably late at night when Lucy was asleep and I was all alone, and the oncoming train in Amboise rushing into the station and the last split second of saying you fool, you stupid fool—or maybe, if luck would have it, at last, at last, at last, whispering those goodbye words. Later, as the day progressed, we would learn more about the circumstances of the incident, I didn’t tell my wife that I had guessed the details of that death, I wasn’t going to give her even a hint of my plans or my dark thoughts, I wasn’t going to let her stop me, not this time. Even to say, it must have been a suicide, even that, would have alerted her.

Instead we chatted about the consequences of the delay: if the train was en retard for more than two hours we would miss the connection in Orleans, we would not arrive at Amboise in time to catch the 14:45 bus to Chenonceau.

“Maybe we can go somewhere else today, we’re already packed,” Lucy said brightly. “And then try again tomorrow.”

But tomorrow wouldn’t do. It would be raining—did that matter, rain, shine, does anything like that really matter if you’re going to kill yourself? Yes, it does, it did matter that the sun should be out in all its glory in Chenonceau—and as for somewhere else, it was to that chateau I needed to take her, that one and no other one, today and no other day. Tomorrow I wouldn’t be alive.

“Giverny,” Lucy said. “We’ll take the Metro to Saint-Lazare and go see the Monet gardens. And sleep there—my sister said there’s a cute little bed and breakfast just down the road from the gardens—and then tomorrow we’ll be back here at Austerlitz. By then they’ll have fixed whatever happened and Amboise will still be there and the chateau’s not going to move now, is it, your parents wouldn’t care which day we visit, right?”

I was too depressed to argue with her. It had taken all my strength to plot that day’s trip, all my cunning to keep the latest bad news from her for the last week, all my resilience to just find out each train and each bus and opening hours and closing hours and the right hotel at the right price, as if this were an ordinary outing and not the final one for me, and if we didn’t go today, if one more thing went amiss, just one more, I wouldn’t have the will power to go through with my death, that’s how disheartened I felt.

So I just sat there.

She waited for me to say something, anything, but I just sat there, smiled wanly, in what I hoped was a reassuring way.

She reached across the compartment and took my hand in both of hers and pressed hard and lifted each finger to her lips and gave each tip a kiss. I loved it when she did that. Loved it but couldn’t help thinking that my fingers still had, would always have, the smell of hospital and medicine no matter how hard I scrubbed my nails each morning. Not all the soap in the world …

“It’s going to be alright, Leo,” she said.

But it wasn’t. For the last week I had known it wasn’t going to be alright and the damn train was stopped and I was such a useless piece of dying flesh and had such bad luck that I couldn’t even manage to kill myself on schedule.

“I’m going to find out how long this will take,” she said.

“I can go,” I said, but I let her bustle off and stayed behind, nursed my energy like a fire in winter. Her French was not as good as mine, but she managed to charm strangers and bureaucrats as I could not. They didn’t seem to mind her accent or occasional grammatical lapses. Her smile, her open face, her eyes, her eyes.

For the tenth time that morning I looked at the information I had jotted down about the train and the bus and the chateau itself. Not that I needed to know much about Chenonceau. If there was one place in the world few people had heard of but that was marked in my memory and my heart from the youngest age, it was Chenonceau.

“What’s so special about it?” It was a question I had kept asking Mom, or maybe it was my dad, or at least that’s how I remembered starting each conversation about that chateau. “What could be so special that you decided to have a child there, that you decided that it was worth while bringing me into the world? In that one place of all places?”

“One day,” she answered, or maybe it was Dad, we spoke about it so often that all those conversations mingle in my mind like blood seeping into mud, “one day you’ll marry and then you must take your wife there. Promise me—une promesse solennelle—that before your time is over on this earth—” it must have been my mother’s words I’m remembering because she always spoke like that, operatically, with lyrical and precise French emphasis—“promise me that you will take her there, mon fils, to Chenonceau where both of us said, your father and me, we said it simultaneously, Leo, we told each other in the same breath, let’s have a baby, both of us, while we watched the river flow under the arches of the chateau.”

Chenonceau made you, she said, and not only because of that day when I visited it with your father. Chenonceau started you, that’s what she told me. Both of them seated in the garden—the larger one, designed by Diane de Poitiers, the garden with the fountain in the middle that she would never again see once her lover, king Henri II, died, and Diane was exiled by Catherine de Medicis—that’s where they had turned to each other, my French mother and my American father, with the Cher passing by silently and the cries of children in awe as they saw the Renaissance castle straddling the river and the overgrown forest behind it where salvation lay one moonless night years earlier and the fairy-tale setting, my mother and my father had chosen to fight despair and have me, or someone like me—and call him Leonardo if it was a boy and Leonarda if it was a girl, because they conceived me that night in the town of Amboise, thirteen kilometers from Chenonceau, Amboise by the Loire where Da Vinci had died, where his bones were buried in the castle overlooking the town.

A good place to die.

Except my timetable, the closing of the circle, had been screwed up by someone who had beat me to it, had taken his life—I imagined it to be a man, but younger than me—on the railroad tracks, no poison, no pills, no gunshot wound, no drowning, nothing left to chance, just let the locomotive and the steel do all the work.

“Come on, Leo, let’s go.”

Lucy was back with the news that someone had committed suicide in Choissy-le-Roi and the secours team was on its way. She had managed to wheedle out of the inspector on the quay his calculation that it would be at least three hours before any trains could depart. “I asked him if this is a frequent occurrence, and he shook his head and said more often than you would expect. Souvent, hélas.”

“Did he say anything more about who it was, sex, age, anything?”

“He didn’t say, maybe doesn’t know, maybe he’s just being discrete. But the point, Leo, is we can’t stick around here all day, just waiting. If your information is correct—”

“It’s in the tour book and I called and they confirmed and—”

“Well then, we should get going. Look, the Gare de l’Est is just across the river, fifteen minutes’ walk, I can pull the rollaway if that tires you out. We’ll take a suburban train to Crécy-la-Chapelle. I went there when I was an exchange student. It’s a lovely medieval town, with moats and canals, cobbled streets, great brie cheese made on site, and the Église Saint-Georges, everything untouched by time. Except it has all the modern conveniences. And it’s only an hour or so from Paris.”

“Isn’t that close to Disneyland?”

“Visitors get to Disneyland from the Gare du Nord, so we won’t be bothered by that sort of people.”

It was useless discussing the matter. She had made up her mind and the only way for me to change it was to tell her outright, listen, I’m staying here on this stupid train because I need to kill myself today, tonight, sneak out as soon as you’re asleep, and I can’t do it until I’ve kept my promise, taken you to see the chateau where my mom and my dad shared the imbecilic idea of having a baby, so please just sit here with me and make my last moments less miserable.

Out of the question. Instead, there I was, one of my hands in hers and the other rolling behind me our small black overnight bag, there I was, joining the straggling stream of despondent passengers who had come to the same conclusion, the day was fucked, the train was not leaving, time to make other plans, there I was, bowing to my fate, when Lucy stopped. “Wait, wait. Hand me the tickets. We need to have the inspector stamp them so they can be used again tomorrow.”

Another ten minutes while we waited for the man—he was clean-shaven, with eyes as friendly as they were small and wore his cap with satisfaction, pronouncing each word meticulously, with a slight melody—we waited for him to wrap up his conversation with a gaggle of voyagers who were demanding explanations, hoping that he was wrong and that the delay was temporary. He was very methodical, needed to stamp each ticket people deposited in his care, write something on the margins, consult his watch to verify the exact hour, minute, second, write something else.

“Let’s just go.” I nudged Lucy a bit. “Please. Let’s just get the hell out of here.” Now that everything was going sour, I wanted to escape the station, the site of my defeat—like a general who refuses to stay a minute longer in the building where he has signed his rendition.

“It’s our turn now, Leo.”

I watched her hands as they moved in the air like birds, remembered her hands on my back when I had been able to make love to her, couldn’t keep my eyes off those fingers, didn’t even realize it when the inspector had finished his stamping and signing and verifying, just felt relieved when one of those hands of hers took mine again as if I were a child and we shuffled off in the direction of the Seine and the Jardin des Plantes and the Gare de l’Est.

I needed a café crème, I needed it desperately—Clyde had said I shouldn’t, that coffee was really bad for me, but what did I care what was good or bad for my body, what debt did I owe to a body that had betrayed me with such malicious efficiency?, all doctors, including Clyde, should rot in hell—I could see the colorful awnings of the cafés opposite the Gare d’Austerlitz and Parisians already seated outside in the dapple of sunshine through the elms, we were almost outside the station when an announcement came over the loudspeakers.

Service was being resumed! Dans l’instant. Immediately.

We looked at each other, Lucy and me, we looked at each other just as my parents had done so many decades ago that golden afternoon at Chenonceau, we thought the same thought, we smiled at each other—my first real smile in a week—and wheeled ourselves around and rushed back through the station, hoping the train had not left, that the nice inspector would give us and so many others the time to clamber on board and be on our way.

It was only when we had breathlessly settled in our seats, this time side by side, not across from each other—they were still there, the seats, as if they knew we would return, as if to tell us that they had not given up on this trip!—it was only when the train had shuddered into a start and then a glide and then a heavenly whoosh, only then that I remarked to myself how bizarre that I should feel such exhilaration at the fact that I was managing to board a train that would allow me to kill myself, that I was happy because I was going to die.

“You see, Leo?” Lucy said. “You see how everything is going to be alright?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You see? If we hadn’t taken so long in leaving, if we hadn’t waited for the inspector to stamp our tickets, well, we’d have been on our way to the Gare de l’Est and Crécy-la-Chapelle. It’s like a little Venice and you’d have liked it, but I know you so much want me to see Chenonceau and Amboise and the Loire.”

“Yes,” I said, “I do want to take you there.”

We didn’t talk more during the hour or so it took to get to Orleans, merely basked in each other’s presence, the warmth of her body by my side, almost making me forget why I was going on this trip, what awaited me at the end of it.

Order your copy of Issue No. 106.

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