by Eric Freeze
The bench was cold. Red carnations sprouted from a worn stone pot on one end, and I slouched against my pack at the other. It was nine-thirty, about the time my friends the Houdins were supposed to get home from church activities in Montpellier a college town in the south of France. They didn’t know I was coming.
At the front of the house was a wrought-iron gate. I jumped it after a hitch from a guy going directly to Castlenau-le-les. He said that I was the first Mormon he had ever met, though he had often seen them on T.V. And the fact that I was Canadian, not American, added to a general awe which I admittedly enjoyed. He had a round face and bright eyes, and I really felt that picking up strangers wasn’t something he did everyday. At least that’s the only way that it made sense to me.
I had been lying propped against my pack for twenty minutes when the gate opened the first time. I wasn’t expecting the branch president to come walking up. I was half-asleep, and I know he recognized me, I served as a missionary in the Montpellier branch for five months a year before. It was my last area. He couldn’t remember my name, and he covered his hands when he talked. He came to drop off some items left from a camping trip in Ardeche that the youngest of the Houdins, Augustin, had forgotten. I was talking to him when the gate opened the second time. It was the Houdins. I remember they were happy to see me.
As a missionary, I first met the Houdins at church one Sunday in March. I had just been transferred to Montpellier and was introduced to them by my companion—a missionary whom I had known since the MTC. Specifically, I remember meeting Mathilde Houdin, She was light complexioned and had bleached blonde hair and would playfully hit people when she talked. I remember her because she didn’t hit me, just asked me how I was doing. She had four children: Roman, Samuel, Gisèle, and Augustin. Roman was not living at home and was to be married in a month, Samuel was on a mission, Gisèle had just graduated from the “fac” similar to high school, and would eventually go to Utah the following year to learn English—the same time that I would be going to BYU. Augustin, the youngest, was obnoxiously funny and often went tracting with the missionaries.
I don’t know exactly how my companion and I ended up getting to know them better. I know they invited us over to eat every Sunday. She would make soupe de poisson, and we would eat cheese. They had a nice apartment in a small town not far from Montpellier called Carnot-les-plages, where they had moved after their father died. Their father had been a physician, and they had lived comfortably in a large villa in Bordeaux. Their new apartment reflected the furnishings of this larger villa—their lavish meuble a façade of a less austere life when they lived in Bordeaux, had two cars, and didn’t worry about money.
We started teaching Sister Houdin’s parents after the long Sunday dinners we had in their home. While the rest of the children went out to play volleyball on the beach, we lingered to teach them both about the gospel. Sister Houdin was excited to see her parents discussing religion so openly; it had been a source of friction ever since the missionaries frist started coming to their home when she was a teenager. Though her parents were never baptized, we found they enjoyed learning about the Church—to know why their daughter was baptized (wasn’t a Catholic baptism enough?) and why she was happy even after her husband died. We also loved coming over to teach because it gave us more time to be with the Houdins. Often after teaching, we would join the children on the beach and play mock games of soccer or volleyball. Sometimes, those Sunday afternoons would turn into evenings or nights; the Houdins would also invite us over during the week for special occasions: a birthday, holidays, Sometimes just to spend time when they wanted company. By the time I finished my mission, my companion and I considered them our family—or we told ourselves they were. That was the only way we could see things clearly—we had both been away from home for almost two years, and this was the first time either of us felt so readily accepted by a family. Her soup, the cheese, grandparents, gospel, and the beach all became part of a familial collage we had been searching for during our missions. We were close and had already started planning time together for the next year, when we would all return for the summer and Bastille Day—not as missionaries, just as her kids.
The first bise was uncomfortable. Mathilde hadn’t seen me for a year, and we hadn’t really written much; I always assumed that since I was coming back, it didn’t matter I hadn’t written. We could cover the whole year when I got there, and I always felt it was better in person. I called them at Christmas and for birthdays—wasn’t that enough? Her daughter was at school with me—I saw her almost every week, so I didn’t think anything was wrong when Mathilde scolded me for not writing. Everything that had happened over the last year, for me, was everything that had happened with them. I still felt so necessarily connected with their lives, and the memory of the apartment, the meals, and the discussions were a part of me. But it was uncomfortable when she bised me. The way she formed her lips and kissed the air—and her cold cheek when she asked me why I hadn’t shaved in the last few days. “l’ve been travelling,” I said, then told them how I met a nice man in the neighborhood who had given me a ride and knew where avenue de trident was because he lived a couple blocks away, and was going there anyway, how it was blessedly coincidental, and weren’t they glad to see me anyway? She still thought I could’ve shaved.
When the branch president left, closing the wrought-iron gate behind him, Mathilde shooed me inside along with Augustin. They were in a house now. She had found a job and was finally able to pay for something that could accommodate friends and relatives. It was not far from her other house, still near Montpellier, but in a more residential area. Most of what was in the house I still recognized. The meuble was the same-large, dark finished cabinets, and armoirs. They were beautiful, but not perfect. Pock marks from termites a few years ago scarred their surface, but just on the bottom, under the finish. She had bought a new kitchen table, larger than the first, and she had a set of chairs that I thought was new, but they were actually her older chairs, recovered with red cloth and brass studs. I walked on the Turkish throw rug they had had in their living room in Castlenau. I took off my shoes, gripped it through my socks. I spread my feet a shoulder widths apart and started talking to Mathilde.
“Comme tu es mince! You’re thinner now. Haven’t you been eating anything?” she said.
“I just haven’t had anyone stuffing soup de poisson down me every time I turn around,” I said. She gave me a curious glance—looking first at my backpack, then at the frayed cuffs of the coat I had bought when we were in centreville in spring a year ago. She looked at my boots, then my face.
“It’s funny, I still want to call you Elder.”
I stayed with the Houdins for about a week. Two of those days she took off work, and three Augustin skipped school to stay with me. I felt that they felt obligated to spend time with me , and I was never entirely comfortable with that. Mathilde had worked hard to acquire what she could, to provide a place, things, and room for her children. We talked often about the “Celebration of Music” holiday when my companion would show up as well, and we would all leave for Montpellier to watch different groups perform in cramped cobblestone streets, playing music with instruments, hands, and voices. But my stay there wasn’t summed up in anticipatory events—it was the reality of being a stranger in a strange country among people who claimed to be family to me. I realized that even though we both claimed this bond openly, I was still being looked at, questioned, watched.
That weekend, the Houdins invited the missionaries over for dinner. We didn’t have soupe de poisson like when I was on my mission, but an easier hamburger and pasta dish. I asked Sister Houdin why, to which she replied,”Je n’ai plus le temps.” With her job and church responsibilities she didn’t have time to make it anymore, In fact, she hadn’t made soupe de poisson since we left over a year ago. It was also the first time in a year that the Houdins had invited the missionaries over. I knew one of the missionaries fairly well—he was in my zone before I finished my mission and was always a good missionary: hardworking, jovial, and open. While they were there, I felt different than I had during the past week. I was comfortable, relaxed. The house and the family were again a part of me, flowing through me. The summer table on the patio where we sat was white and sturdy, nicked on the edges from being so long folded up in the corner of an apartment. It had been left out the same way the missionaries had—put aside for the right occasion, We talked. One of the elders asked me what it was like to come back and visit people in areas where I had served.
“It’s great,” I replied.
“l’m hoping to do the same thing next summer,” one said.
“It’s worth it,” I said.
I looked at Mathilde. She was smiling. If she had been wearing a hat, it would have been white, broad-brimmed.
“It’s hard to see people leave,” she said.
“That’s why I came back.”
“Sometimes I wonder, though, if it’s really good to get close to people. I mean really close. Because then when they leave you start playing like they’re still there, and then when they’re not . . . well, it’s just confusing.”
“What do you mean?” I said. Getting close to people seemed to me to be exactly what life was about.Wasn’t that why I was here, why I was dipping my straw in my glass of ice water on this white table on the patio? Now, today, with these people?
“l don’t know, I mean, when you two left, it was hard. Too hard. Maybe if we hadn’t got so close, it wouldn’t be so difficult. If I had distanced myself a bit, or if we had distanced ourselves a bit, then maybe none of that anxiety would’ve really had to happen—whether or not I would ever see you again, or if you would come back, whether or not it would be the same.”
She was still smiling, but not coyly or without looking at me. The missionaries were also looking at me. They had heard the story before: how when we left, she was depressed and wanted her “children” back. She always said we were like her children. To me that was endearing, meaningful: belonging to someone else in another country like I had been born there, crawled on their furniture and sat at their table, put my clothes neatly in an armoir on grey wire hangers in my room down the hall. She said that we were like that to her, and I felt it. I had reached a point where I felt our lives were completely in common, where we had become family. Now I couldn’t see how someone would rather it hadn’t happened.
“Do you really think it would’ve been better if . . .”
“Well, if we hadn’t ever met each other, helped your grandparents and everything.”
“No, it just would’ve been easier.”
At this point, one of the missionaries broke in, talking quickly.
“I think that’s why many of the missionary rules are there—so separation is easier. I know in my last area, since the members knew that we couldn’t write after we left, and since we weren’t allowed to call or anything, it made it easier to get to know other missionaries.”
“We didn’t break mission rules, though,” I said.
“Well, I guess separation is always difficult,” he said.
My hands were cold. I had been playing with my glass of ice water, not thinking. The patio was still white with the sun, and we had finished our meal. I wiped my plate clean with a snub of bread, then carried it over to the sink inside where I washed it and my solitary fork and knife, then left them gleaming to dry. That night, I decided that I needed to see some of my other friends.
I left the following afternoon, and promised to return before next week for the “Celebration of Music.” My old companion had not yet called or told anyone anything, but we knew he was still planning on coming. It didn’t take me long to gather my things—most of them stayed deep in my backpack. As a guest, I had tried to be meticulous, not leaving anything out for fear I would infringe on their hospitality. That morning, I cleaned the kitchen and bathroom.
When I left, I didn’t expect the trip to be as long as it was. I took the bus to the train station, then waited for my train, only to find out that the trains were on strike. I was rerouted on a regional train leaving in a couple hours. When I eventually got to Marseille, I was tired, bought a box of french pattiseries at a station bakery, and ate all three of them sitting in a corner between a magazine store and some restrooms.
I saw three good friends in Marseille—one of whom I had helped teach. Every one of them was happy and flattered I would see them.
I called, dropped in, and left feeling good, like I had reminded them of something. But I wasn’t as close to any of them as I had been with the Houdin family.
I returned to see the Houdins the following week. I admit I hadn’t called ahead of time—I mean, I did say when I would be there, but I didn’t give them a day’s notice—just called them before I got on my train. I had used up my phone card the day before trying to figure out how to call home to Canada to let my parents know I was O.K., and I didn’t immediately have any other money. I wasn’t at all prepared for what I heard.
“Well, I’m not really sure we have any room for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Roman and Valerie are coming tonight, and I think they’ll be staying in the room you were in. Plus Augustin might have some friends over. Sorry.”
“O,K.,” I said, “l’ll try to work something else out.”
This initial rejection started a long series of phone calls and curt, very polite conversations—all refusing my company. Mathilde never gave any explanation for her rejections—to her, there just wasn’t any room for me: not on a bed, or the floor, or even outside.
I was on a bench the next day, eating. I bought a baguette and cheese from a small corner store that wrapped everything in brown paper, then found a bench near a fountain and took off my boots. There was a market that day—a weekly event which always generated crowds of interesting people. I watched the yellow stands of fruit, dark nuts, and olives, and the man selling mushrooms who always wore a brown cardigan, even when it was warm enough that most other people were in shorts. All of the scents and scenes reminded me so much of my mission: the way we would go whizzing by on our mountain bikes, having just enough time to catch a whiff of garlic or chestnuts roasted by a street vendor.
Through the surging marketplace, a man walked up to me. He carried a boxy tape recorder with myriads of black, white-lined knobs along the side.
“Could you tell us about the first time you fell in love?” he asked. My green hiking boots were also set up against the bench, and my feet were naked, ready to jump into my open-toed sandals I had retrieved from the depths of my pack.
“The first time I fell in love?”
“Yes,” he said. “What was it like? Where was it? Were you immediately attracted to her?”
The man’s tie dangled near my face, and he held the mike up under my chin. I wondered why his top button was undone. He had hairy arms and his shirt was tucked ruthlessly into his pants, making his tweed slacks seem bigger than they really were, He wore them high, over a modest belly.
“l don’t know what to tell,” I said, “I mean, I have been in love before.”
The man started recording. I suddenly wanted to slam my feet into my sandals, and walk somewhere-just do something. But it was sunny, and in the park there was a fountain, and I had found an unoccupied bench. I was alone under a tree in the sun which sat like a bright Buddha on a cloud. The man nodded at me to keep talking.
“Well, I met her during school in the United States,” I said. “It was a private school, and I met her during a Hula exposition from the Polynesian club. I remember her because she didn’t like pizza. They had pizza at the Hula thing, and she wouldn’t eat any of it,.I didn’t ask her out until the second semester, because I didn’t feel that we knew each other well enough.”
“So it wasn’t love at first sight?”
“Not exactly. I think I was immediately attracted to her, but I don’t remember actually thinking I was in love. No, I suppose it wasn’t.”
“So what did it feel like being in love? Were you instantly filled with passion? Did you do anything drastically romantic for her? Did you ever write her a love poem or sing to her?” He was staring at me now, and he talked fast.
“l don’t know,” I said. “We were really good friends. I felt more of a comfort than any passionate fire sort of feeling. I suppose I did romantic things for her, but I don’t think that they were really outlandish. I wanted to write her a poem once, but she was too much of a friend, and I don’t think I’ve ever sung anything that didn’t scare anyone. It wasn’t very mushy, does that make sense?”
“Yes,” he said, then lowered the microphone and adjusted a knob on the recorder. “Thanks for you time.”
When he left, I was expecting to feel relief, but instead I felt cheated. The man had not wanted a description of platonic love, but something more deeply passionate, drastic. I began to question whether or not I had been in love, or whether or not I even really knew what the concept of real caring, real basic love for a neighbor or for a good friend would entail. My behavior made it apparent that my perception of the whole relationship with the Houdins had been inherently one-sided; I would only care for people as I wanted to be cared for. I didn’t want outlandish displays of affection because they made me feel uncomfortable—probably because I wasn’t willing to do the same for others. I didn’t think I needed to love with everything that I had, regardless of whether or not it was reciprocated, regardless of hatred, scorn, or negative feelings.
The marketplace was now vibrant. People were bright slashes of reds and oranges, surrounding stands of fruit, bending down like they were bowing, praying. They existed to me only as I existed to them—watching them watching me. I had come to the marketplace and found a bench and sat so it was all mine—so no one could sit next to me, bother me. My father told me once that life was an exercise in empathy. What he said now made sense—love people completely, the way they would be loved, a way they understood. I reworked the conversation that I had had with Mathilde and the missionaries. “Would it had been better if . . .” I heard myself saying, “No, it just would’ve been easier.” Mathilde thought it would’ve been easier because I wouldn’t love her and her family back in the same unconditional way she cared about me. She was experiencing sorrow—I was only willing to do as much as I would require from someone who I thought cared about me. It would’ve been easier—not because she didn’t care, or thought that people shouldn’t get to know each other, but because people don’t always love back unconditionally. People leave, forget, stop sending letters because they think those left behind will understand. “Love one another, as I have loved you.” I stuffed my feet in my sandals, strapped on my backpack and headed to a telephone.
The next week was interesting. Mathilde eventually accepted my apologies and invited me over for dinner. I called well in advance to let her know when I was coming, and reevaluated my criticisms, my feelings I had the first time.
When I got there, the table was already set, and it was sunny, reflecting from silverware like wind chimes. We had soupe de poisson— made fresh.
The next day we sat again on the patio, this time near a small fountain in the yard. Augustin and Gisèle had gone shopping and Mathilde had been complaining about the branch, how she wanted to meet someone, remarry, but how it was so hard to find a good member of the Church like her husband.
“l know you’ll find someone,” I teased.
“But when? I’m already fifty, I don’t like being alone.”
“What do your kids feel about you getting remarried?”
“Well, I know it would be hard for some of them. Gisèle—well, she was always attached to her father. She takes more after him than me, you know.”
“Why, what was he like?”
“Oh–he was a good man. Sporty, hardworking, and caring when he wanted to be. But I never really felt that he was the right person for me. I don’t know why, but after I married him, I felt I might’ve made a mistake. Does that bother you?”
“Not really, but I guess it seems strange.You have a wonderful family.”
“I know. Yes, I know.” She paused and looked at the fountain and threw a franc she had kept in hidden in her lap. She tossed one to me. “Don’t ever tell my children, though. It’s not like I didn’t love him. I mean—I really did love him—I still do. Sometimes I wonder if he was right, though, I do love him,”
“Of course you do,” I said, then threw my franc into the fountain. It was hard for me to understand the amount of sorrow this woman was willing to experience, and how she could be the way she was—loving, but wondering always if others shared that love as completely as she was willing to share it. I watched my franc sink like a bright Star of David to the bottom of the fountain. I remember wishing only one thing: that she would be happy.