Second place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2017.
"Nice" by Joanne Wright
It was August and hotter than usual. People and traffic advanced by sheer force of will. I was in Nice and today, like most other days, I was lying on my back on the pebbled beach below the Faculté des Lettres where I was taking an intensive French course. Every day I got up around 6:00, walked on the expansive walkway by the sea, had breakfast in my apartment, read, then climbed the hill to the Fac for morning classes. Afternoon lectures were optional, like most of the things in my life, and by this point I’d tired of them. So I’d have lunch, take a nap, and be on the pebbles by 4:00, ready for a swim. I swam haphazardly, once even swimming to the Hotel Negresco. Then I swam back to my spot and lay on my mat on the stones. The noise of a plane would catch my attention and I’d return to sifting through the emotions that sound evoked; this was my job now, to live with the planes, to hear their roars every day. I hadn’t known that the Fac was so close to the airport but it seemed fitting. I’d been running since the accident and, ironically, I’d run here to this beautiful water with the planes overhead.
A little over four years ago, my husband and son died in a freak plane accident. They were flying to Michigan for a fishing tournament. We were all going to fly there and spend two weeks with Jim’s parents as we did every summer. But there had been too many snow days and the high school where I taught had to tack on extra days to make them up. I told Jim to take Andrew as scheduled so he wouldn’t miss the first day of the tournament with Pops. I remember the headlines that I read weeks later. The pilot had managed to save over a hundred and fifty lives by executing a near-impossible landing after a piece of the landing gear fell off and ‘Heroic’ and ‘Miraculous’ were in big print on the page. Underneath, in smaller print: ‘Ten dead, twenty-five injured.’ The pilot was proclaimed as valiant as he did the morning talk show circuit, the families of the ten dead quietly sued, and I live off the settlement money.
As I lay there following my 4:00 swim I heard the roar of a plane. I didn’t want to think of Jim and Andrew’s last flight so I forced my mind elsewhere. I wondered if Baby Doc Duvalier was still ensconced in the Nice countryside, courtesy of the French government. I considered the evolution of Chagall’s painting as we had discussed in a morning seminar and decided to sign up for the optional field trip to the Chagall Museum next week. I considered activities for the evening; I could meet Guenther, the kind, but boring, French teacher from Munich who always seemed to pop up in my line of vision when I least expected it and then latch onto me for French conversation. Sometimes I ran into him during my wanderings around Nice or in the nearby villages and we would end up sight-seeing together until I’d remember something I needed to do. His hair was always disheveled, a bit of it plastered to his forehead by what appeared to be perpetual sweat. His wife died of cancer six months ago and he thought that made us comrades, two forty-somethings buffeted by the forces of the world, on our own and coping as best we could. I looked at our exchanges as an opportunity to polish my French vocabulary on widowhood, cancer, and sometimes, if Guenther permitted, Germany’s position in Europe. I learned from him that I was a veuve, whereas he was a veuf. We were both en deuil he said, although my mourning period should be over by now. I tried to talk to him about Dachau but he seemed uncomfortable with that part of Germany’s history.
Thoughts about Guenther’s vocabulary lessons were interrupted by the call of “Orangina, Coca, Bière” and I turned my head to see Eric approaching. Eric was a graduate student, making a summer living by selling drinks on the beach. I noticed him my first day here. He had a tight, compact body, an effervescent and cocky smile that made him popular with the young foreign women who were my classmates, bleached blond hair accentuating his dark skin, and an insouciance that I wanted to own. I bought an Orangina from him one day just to talk to him. Soon, he began to stop by my spot each afternoon although I had stopped buying Orangina. Our relationship had progressed to the point where I admitted that I’d only bought to talk to him, “to practice my French,” I said, “with a real French student.” I wasn’t ready for him to think that he was anything more to me than a teaching tool.
Eric was warm, open, funny, and very confident. He was a pied-noir, rather his parents were; he’d never lived in Algeria. He was doing his graduate work in English literature and at times he spoke English with an accent that mesmerized me. I didn’t care what he said.
He was getting closer and I smiled. “Salut,” he said, as he plopped his cooler down. His breathing was heavy and sweat dripped down his face. I wanted to wipe the sweat down onto his neck, over his shoulders, and onto his chest. He sat down, within arm’s reach. In fact, he was closer than that—I would barely have to move my arm at all to reach up and stroke his smooth back. The sun was melting me into the pebbles through my mat, and I figured it was the heat that made me feel so intoxicated. My God, he was beautiful. The heat was so intense and thick that I could feel the vapors in the air, too heavy to rise, falling down on me. I wanted to squirm out from under them but feared I would arouse suspicion from the people around me.
Eric announced that he was going for a swim, he was dying from the heat, and got up and stripped down from his shorts to his bikini. I propped myself up on my arms, dizzy as he walked towards the water. Qu’il est beau, I thought realizing in that split second that I was thinking in French. The water lapped up his legs as he walked into it. I imagined getting up and following him. I wanted to swim him down to the Negresco and lock us into a luxury suite for the weekend. But I couldn’t move from my spot. Out of the corner of my eye…could it be? Pale-skinned Guenther, just a short distance away, was walking towards the water. I saw him look in my direction. I feared he would try to enter my reverie and turn it into a twisted ménage à trois. As I watched Eric swim away from shore, I heard the vague sound of a plane taking off somewhere in the distance and I sank back down onto the pebbles.
Joanne Wright, a proud graduate of UCSC, grew up on the east coast (south Jersey) and recently returned to Santa Cruz after nearly thirty years away. She has worked as a farm hand, waitress, artist’s model, secretary, study abroad administrator, painter, English tutor, French tutor, medical credentialing manager, actor, law clerk, and attorney. Her greatest achievements are her son and three daughters.