The first I gave you was Farewell, My Only One by Antoine Audouard, a novel written in French, translated into English and shipped across the ocean where I found it on a shelf in the mountains. I lay it in my suitcase and took it back to France where I put it in your hands.
The first you gave me was a leftover jar of olives (a remnant of your ruined vacation) and when you were gone I ate them alone wishing you’d stayed. You offered me the idea that I might not disintegrate, might make it through. It’s the same gift you continue to give, the one I found years ago in a jar you’d bought with someone else, for some other life.
You know the place, the smell, the feel of cheap tile beneath your bare feet. You know the kitchen and what you can see from there. You know all of it so I’ll excuse myself from the burden of trying to describe a thing so far beyond language.
Anyway, you know the things we know and that’s what saves me – our secrets of experience. From Munich I brought you a vase and a pink ghost nightlight. You knitted me a scarf I’ve worn in all the places we’ve been apart. I gave you ginger dipped in chocolate in a blue box on our way across the world the first time. I gave you an empty beach in California and you gave it back to me in the Hérault with boiled eggs, ripe tomatoes, radishes, saltwater, early sunshine and, as always, the feeling I might survive.
I gave you my family.
You gave me yours.
And language. And an open door, a summer kitchen, shade and cicadas. You gave me your grandfather’s hands, your grandmother’s lowered eyes and her face at rest. You gave me your mother’s grave in the cool wind cutting across the valley and through the stone pines. You gave me marrowbones and blood sausage. Oysters and salt air and fog.
We gave each other this city.
I gave you my terror.
All of these gifts, it seems, have been exchanged in motion. We are forever in transit, moving between places, cultures, languages, always on our way somewhere else.
I nearly write “lives,” but we are not between lives; we are living ours.
I gave you a leather case for your passport and took you to the station with your mountains of luggage and we stood clinging to one another shivering in the crushing crowd both of us feeling as if we might topple over. But the train came and I bloodied my knuckles jamming your bags into the compartment. I felt like I was putting you in a jail cell.
But on the platform you gave me a kiss. Just the two of us in the bitter cold, our noses running, the train grunting and hissing. And after I’d begun to walk away you yelled my name loud. And what a gift that was. I know what it is for you to yell like that. Don’t forget, I was there with you on the sand in Barneville-Carteret, trying to make you scream into the wind.
“Alex,” you yelled and I turned. I was the only one there. There was snow covering the platform and it was glowing in the orange station lights. I turned and there you were leaning out of the train waving to me, blowing me kisses just the way you’re supposed to do if you’re lucky enough, and I mean lucky enough ever in a life, to be there like we were with the train and the snow and the light and the terrible cold and all that melancholy wonder.
I walked away alone down the frozen white runway in awe of our luck.
You gave me this too:
Eight-forty on a Sunday morning – the first truly warm day since fall. No clouds. I’m alone on the terrace of a café on a corner of this city. Coffee. The waiters stretching like happy cats in the sun. Bells are ringing morning services to a start. Soon all the terraces of all the cafés will be unwrapped, the parks will be full, the sidewalks crowded and I would never have been here now, so early, to see it all begin, without you far away pushing me forward.
Sitting here I think of the last gift you gave to me. We were inside your palace and I was starting to fall again so you gave me a house.
You took a page from a book and, in green ink, drew it to life. Then you folded it in half and put it in my hands.
It was just the right house. The house I wanted. You didn’t leave out a thing. And once again you saved me with a gift, with the small promise of a life together, where we might stay still for a while, just the two of us holding on to one another, side-by-side, looking out across a wide-open space. You. Me. The world before us. Not going anywhere at all.