|The First Kiss
The next morning I walked down to Gary and Elaine’s house. It was a large barn, one end of which had been converted to a home. It sat halfway down a gentle hill with fruit trees, vegetable and flower gardens, a pond in the backyard, and the fields surrounding it filled with someone else’s grazing cows. Off the living area was Elaine’s bedroom and a bathroom. Half of the upstairs was unfinished attic, used for storage, and the other half was Gary’s bedroom, office and bathroom. It was a five minute drive to the nearest small village and about fifteen minutes from Rochechouart, the nearest town with a grocery store, gas stations and a variety of restaurants.
After Gary came downstairs, he made us both breakfast then went off to work while Elaine and I ran errands and had some lunch. She fascinated me and I loved listening to her talk, she had so many British expressions, I wish I had thought to record her. My favorites were “cheeky bastard”, “sod off”, and “potty” (crazy). She was very intelligent, and reminded me of my Dad in the way she knew a lot about a variety of things, but was always interested in learning more. She was so easy to talk to and seemed much closer to my age than to 75, still walking for an hour every day and gardening when it wasn’t “pissing” rain. She had done a lot of the work on the barn herself, as an assistant to her boyfriend, who was no longer in the picture. She’d done some of the roof tiling, lots of hammering, digging and countless amounts of hauling shit around. She’d created a lovely haven for herself and her beloved animals. Her relationship with Gary was so sweet, they seemed more like brother and sister than mother and son.
When Gary got home, we went for a long walk on dirt roads along the fields and through the woods, getting caught in the rain and ducking for cover in an old downbeaten barn. We talked of our lives and what we wanted from them, where we saw ourselves going next. Gary was ready to move on in the Fall but wasn’t sure where he wanted to end up, while my life had a track to follow once I returned home. The more time I spent with him, the more I liked him. He had an easy way, gentle, kind, and funny, genuinely interested in what I had to say and how I thought about things and I was equally interested in his life’s journey.
Gary was going to feed my WWll addiction and take me to Oradour-sur-Glane, a small French village that was now a memorial. The Nazi’s had massacred the entire town of approximately 640 men, women and children in retaliation for the kidnapping of a German officer. A new village was built next to the old one, which was left untouched, kept as a reminder of what unchecked evil is capable of. I strongly felt the need to pray for those souls, to walk the hallowed ground. Gary had never been there, and it was a very powerful place for both of us. We first spent time in the Museum, which covered the events leading up to the War itself, as well as the events leading up to the massacre, what occurred during the massacre and how the few people remaining worked to preserve this site and re-build the new town next to it.
The Church was the scene of the worst crime. The Nazi’s locked the women and children inside and set fire to it, also throwing grenades into the small space. Anyone trying to escape through the windows were met with machine gun fire. Two women and a child did manage to escape but were shot as the crawled out the window. One of the women and her child were shot and killed, the other wounded woman managed to crawl to the woods and hide and was rescued the next day.
As we wandered slowly through the crumbling ruins and rusted out cars and machinery, it was hard to imagine anything worse than what happened here, but there was a sense of peace over the whole place. With enough time and prayers, I guess even the worst events can heal if people are willing to forgive. Gary and I added our prayers to the countless offered in this place, then walked to the nearby cemetery to view the graves of the victims and add more prayers.
I was leaving the next morning for Belle Ile, so this was our last night. We all had dinner, then Gary created a safe cardboard cover for the painting I’d bought in Eze, so that I could carry it in my backpack. He used to work in a frame shop, so he had the tools, cardboard and know how to make my treasure safe. I really like a handy guy. We watched a movie together on the computer in his office, then I walked back home serenaded by the croaking frogs.
The next morning, I came over one last time for breakfast. They tried to get me to stay for a few days more, and I really wasn’t ready to leave, but I had already made plans for a place to stay in Belle Ile. I hugged Elaine goodbye, petted all the critters, then Gary walked me back to the neighbor’s house and Blacky. We went to hug goodbye, and suddenly, the hug turned to a brief kiss. It was somewhere in between platonic and not a kiss I would have done if Michael were still alive.
“Oh my God, Gary, I just had my first kiss! You just gave me my first kiss.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” he said, looking as surprised by it as I was.
It was one of the many things we had talked about over the last two days. I hadn’t kissed anyone other than my husband since I was eighteen, and I had completely freaked myself out about how it would be when it happened. Would I burst into tears, would I feel guilty, would I hear Michael’s voice in my head going, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Gary, do you think we could try it again?” I asked him. I wanted to make sure I was OK with a real kiss, I knew I could do better than the almost accidental kiss we’d just had.
“Sure, I’d like that,” he said with a sweet smile.
We stood in the driveway next to Blacky and kissed for a long time in the morning sun. I had one arm around his waist and one crept up into his hair, while he just held me close. I felt like I was in a movie, it couldn’t have been more perfect. I didn’t cry, far from it, and all the things that I’d been afraid of just melted away. I felt my heart open up and something heavy let go.
“Wow,” I said as we stepped apart. “I guess I’m not broken.”
“No, doesn’t seem like it. Why didn’t we do this last night?”
“We were too close to your bedroom and I wasn’t ready for that, I wasn’t even sure if I was ready for this, but apparently I am.”
We hugged one more time and said our goodbyes, promising to stay in touch. I waved as I drove away, not able to wipe the ear to ear idiotic grin off my face as his own grinning face got smaller in the rear view. I had zero idea if we would ever see each other again, but I knew we’d always be connected by this moment. I felt exhilarated and free, like a prisoner released from a cage of fear and self-judgement. Of all the scary things I had done this year, including the decision to take the year off, this was by far the scariest to me, and I had conquered it.
“I can do this. I can date, I can fall in love, I can marry someone if I want to. I can be happy. It’s OK to be happy.” I was laughing and crying at the same time. When do you stop feeling married when you’ve been married for so long to someone you love deeply? It’s not a one time thing, just like the rest of grieving; it’s a long, slow letting go of big and little habits, attitudes, feelings, a past life, a life that no longer exists. This was a huge step in releasing myself from my marriage vows, from my life with Michael and my pledges to him. For me, they still felt as true as the day I said them, and the “til death do us part” line, well, I wasn’t dead, so some part of me felt like I should be holding up that end.
“It’s time, it’s time to start over, to start fresh, to look forward, to let go of being married.” It’s one thing to say it mentally, and to hear others say it, but it’s an entirely different thing to know it for yourself, to feel it viscerally in your body and soul. I felt liberated.
I don’t know if moving forward involves marrying again, I’m happier with myself than I’ve been since he died, and I know I can live life fully and be happy alone, but it’s nice knowing that I have options.