The day before their honeymoon she got the flu. Then in the airplane she got an ear infection. In Paris the doctor gave her eardrops which gave her a skin rash because of her penicillin allergy. Then he got her flu and they got in a fight about the hotel because the walls were thin and they could hear the neighbors fucking. “Why not?” he said. “It’s our honeymoon,” he said. “We’re sick,” she said. “You’re puking. Your head is in the toilet.” Other than that it was a nice hotel. There was a toilet and a bidet and marble columns in the room and a receptionist named Laurent who brought them ice for her rash in a silver bucket at three in the morning. Eventually she got better and he got better and they left the hotel to go to museums. They looked at paintings and sculptures, some of which they’d seen before in their college textbooks. They saw some that they’d heard of but hadn’t seen before and others that they’d never even heard of. “I didn’t know Monet painted asparagus,” she said. “It says Manet,” he said, pointing at the nameplate.
There was a subway strike. It rained the entire time. They walked everywhere. They got blisters, got wet, got sick again. They got in another fight back at the hotel room. “You’re not supposed to tip,” he said. “But Laurent’s been so nice,” she said. “You’re not supposed to,” he said. “It’s offensive. It’s against their culture.” They sat on the king bed and watched French dubbed versions of American TV shows. Cop shows mostly but also sitcoms and soap operas. They made up and ordered champagne from Laurent even though their heads were sick and already fuzzy.
Still they did not have sex, no sex, not on their honeymoon. His flu became a sinus infection. Her skin rash continued spreading. They went to churches, the Eiffel Tower, more museums. They got bored, got into another fight about all of the fights they’d been getting into. “I’m not fighting,” she said, “you’re fighting.” “You’re fighting,” he said. “You’re the one who’s fighting.” He sat on the bed and she left the hotel room to go walking. “Walking,” she said when he asked where she was going. “It’s raining,” he said. But maybe she hadn’t heard him because of the hotel room door slamming.
They went to another hotel. This one in the south of France on an island. Used to be a shipbuilder’s house is what the concierge told them. This concierge was also named Laurent but he had gold epaulets on his red jacket. “Wifi?” he asked, our man, the honeymooner. “No wifi,” said Laurent. He said that the shipbuilder’s house had been built during the sixteenth century. And so the hotel had original sixteenth-century details. Four-poster beds, strapwork, authentic wallpaper. No TV, no wifi. But their room had views of the shipyard where the shipbuilder built his ships. Which of course was no longer a shipyard but now instead was a clam café. The island’s best, Laurent said. So they ate clams, did not check their email.
“Sex?” she said after clams. Because the island was sunny and sun is good for moods and rashes. She felt warm and full and better. But no, no sex. He was still upset about the Internet. “Disconnected,” he said. “How will we know?” he said. There were things he wanted to know about. For example: his cat back home. Their cat, technically. But more his than hers since he’d had it since college. How was the cat doing, was it happy? He could not know because he could not email the catsitter. He also wanted to know more about the island. Like where to eat. But with no Internet there was no Yelp and so no recommendations. Were the clams he ate any good? Were they the best clams he could have eaten? He could not know.
“I thought they were good,” she said. But she had steamed clams, he had clam chowder. There was no parity, no ground for comparison. “Let’s go for a walk,” she said. “Clear our heads. Sea air. Sunshine.” He did not like this idea. Walks were her solution for everything. If they were doing her thing, they weren’t doing his thing. It was like she was winning. But he went with her anyway, walking. Because maybe they would walk by something, an Internet café, or something.
They walked through town, over cobblestones, past souvenir shops, tourists, under striped awnings. They did not walk past an Internet café, at least if they did he did not see it. What was French for Internet anyway? They walked out of town, through meadows of sea grass, along a rocky beach, past the salt farms. They watched the salt farmers harvest salt. Sweating and sunburnt, dragging long rakes across evaporation fields.
There was the salty breeze, the sun, hot sun. “I don’t feel good,” he said. “Your flu?” she said. “Your sinus infection?” “My stomach,” he said. He was clutching his stomach. Then she noticed his lips, which were pale and swollen. “Are you okay?” she said. He was dizzy. “Dizzy,” he said. The sound of rakes through salt was making him nauseous. “My eyes,” he said. Because now his eyeballs were itching. “You should sit down,” she said, “sit down.” She was guiding him to the bench on the side of the path, a stone bench that looked out over the sea, deep, deep blue and with seagulls bobbing. But then she wasn’t. Rather she was guiding, pulling him, but he had stopped moving. “Get up,” she said, tugging his arm which was suddenly limp, not arm-like. He was lying on the path, on his back, gasping. She knelt down beside him. His breath on her cheek. Shallow breathing.
The third Laurent was the nurse at the hospital. This Laurent had a broad, puffy face, wide eyes with bags under them, was balding. “Anaphylactic shock,” he said, shaking his head. “Very serious.” It was funny, so funny, the ways that bodies change and surprise you. All of his life he, our man, had been one way. Now on his honeymoon he was suddenly another. Married with a shellfish allergy, deathly allergic.
Also funny were all the Laurents in France. Who knew there were so many? He asked Laurent about this. A common name, Laurent? It was not common or uncommon, Laurent said. Just a name that some people gave their children. He checked the man’s pulse and hooked him into a new bag of saline. Then she came back from the cafeteria with sandwiches. They were simple sandwiches, bread and cheese, cut into rectangles. “Thank you, Laurent,” she said. Laurent grunted. She gave her husband his sandwich. They ate cheese sandwiches, held hands, listened to the machine beeps, the man’s heartbeats, thought about how close they’d come to losing each other. For the first time on their honeymoon, the very first time, it felt, really, like they were married.
So sex, of course, finally. After he was discharged, their marriage finally consummated. Back at the shipbuilder’s house in the four-poster bed. Not the shipbuilder’s actual bed, not likely. But he liked to think so. That they were sleeping in the same bed that the man who built ships five hundred years ago had slept in. “France has such a deep history,” he said, now post-coital and somewhat melancholy. The afternoon sunlight was a white square on their white sheets, moving slowly. “Rich history,” she said. “Rich,” he said, “because marred with tragedy. The Revolution. The First World War. The Second World War.” “Not to mention Joan of Arc,” she said. “Yes,” he said. “Joan of Arc.” He pushed his fingers through her hair. “It’s the tragedy,” he said, “that makes history rich. The sadness that enhances culture.” “It brings people closer together,” she said. They kissed, ordered room service from Laurent, champagne and strawberries. Then they rode bikes to the beach, sat in the sand, watched the sunset.
Later they would tell their friends at home in Cleveland how good it was, their honeymoon. “Good food,” they’d say. “Good art, good beaches. Good memories, good everything. Nothing bad that lasted.”
But something lasted. If not the honeymooners’ bad memories then bad memories of them. Laurent’s, for example. The third Laurent’s, the nurse’s. The man and woman were sticky, gummed to his memory. When smoking a smoke break cigarette in the ambulance bay, the thought would come to him: the man, the one with the clam allergies. Or he would think: that woman and her sandwiches. These thoughts annoyed him. Sudden adult onset clam allergies were serious but not that uncommon, so why were his thoughts stuck on them, this man and that woman? He hadn’t even liked them.
These were his thoughts on the night they’d been discharged. Thinking about them and wishing he wasn’t thinking about them. His shift over and driving home past the salt farms. Salt pond after salt pond looping past his windows. Windows down because he liked to hear the breeze through the beachgrass. The ocean’s reflection of the full moon out the window to his right, rippling. Another thing, he thought, was that his father had been a salt farmer. His brother was still a salt farmer. Not easy work, backbreaking. Skimming salt sludge from seawater, drying it, shoveling it into wheelbarrows. They got paid by weight, which wasn’t much, considering. But sea salt sold in tiny, expensive vials in gift stores to tourists. So somebody made money, at least, the shopkeepers.
It wasn’t that he blamed the honeymooners for his father’s death. Skin cancer, all those years under the sun, his cells cooking. Laurent didn’t draw a straight line between his father’s cancer and their participation in the salt economy. That wouldn’t have been fair. Not fair at all, but easy to do. But he didn’t blame them. Associated them with it, perhaps. Made them accessories after the fact, accomplices. But that was not why he hated them. Not because they bought salt, ate clams, perpetuated everything that made island life so small and oppressive. His dislike was deeper than that, more primal. Something in the smug way they held hands, ate their cheese sandwiches, said “Thank you, Laurent.” As if Laurent was not a proper name but something you called a servant.
They weren’t special, not special or better than anyone else, really. Laurent had been on a honeymoon, too, you know, Los Angeles. He’d photographed the stars of Hollywood Boulevard, went to Disneyland, saw the tar pits, the saber-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths. But not all of life is a honeymoon. Even then he knew that. While on his honeymoon he knew that life wasn’t a honeymoon. He wouldn’t even have said that his honeymoon had been a honeymoon. It was fun, a nice vacation, but it wasn’t perfect. He and his wife weren’t perfect.
It was late when he got home, after midnight. He’d stopped at a beach, put his feet in the water, smoked cigarettes. His wife was sleeping, but when he came into bed he woke her. “You smell like cigarettes,” she said. “I was smoking,” he said. “At least take a shower,” she said. “I put on clean sheets this morning.” He ejected himself from the bed, stripped out of his undershirt, boxers, stood under the water. When did it come to be like this? This. He was sure that they used to like each other, but now it seemed that at best they tolerated each other. More likely it was a mutual and low-grade resentment. Tonight it was his cigarettes. Tomorrow it would be something else that annoyed her, and also his cigarettes. He’d always been a smoker. This wasn’t a surprise that he’d dropped on her suddenly, like SURPRISE. They used to smoke together. When they were younger, they’d go to house parties at beach houses, get a little drunk, and stand outside on the patio sharing a cigarette, house music thumping inside the house. Now she acted as if she were above it and blamed him because he was not. It wasn’t his fault that he was still the same person she’d married. He was still himself. She was the one who was different.
He would have told her this, too, if he’d had the chance. But she’d fallen back asleep by the time he’d finished his shower, and he wasn’t yet the kind of person to wake another person up just to make a point. He would have also liked to have told her about the honeymooners, the man with the clam allergy. She’d have liked that anecdote, found it funny, because she was in the clam business. Bought them from farmers and sold them to restaurants. “A classic middleman,” she’d said all those years ago when they met at the house party, shared a cigarette, and explained their jobs to each other. His favorite kind of small talk because his job was easy, not abstract. A nurse never had to explain to anyone what a nurse was. “Not a middleman,” he’d said, feeling drunk and overfunny. “A middleCLAM.”
Maybe it was better that she was asleep and he couldn’t tell her about the honeymooners. The thought of them holding hands still made his heart beat angrily, and inevitably the conversation would have turned around and back towards their own lives. There was the question he needed to ask her. The question. A question about who she’d eaten lunch with the other day when he’d ridden into town on an ambulance, an emergency call that wasn’t really an emergency, a German tourist with sunstroke. If that was an emergency then it was a common emergency, one that happened a dozen times a day. Still he was happy to get out of the hospital, liked the EMTs because they told dirty jokes, liked the tourist part of town because of the old buildings, a nice change of pace. While the EMTs worked on the German, he stepped away from the ambulance to smoke a cigarette. That’s when he saw her sitting at a table with an umbrella outside the clam café across from the hotel that had been the shipbuilder’s house. Not unusual because she often met there with clam buyers. But unusual because the man she was meeting with was not a clam buyer. A concierge by the looks of it, gold epaulets, red jacket. Obviously not a clam buyer because of the way she was leaning across the table, holding hands, and under the table, the way she was rubbing her foot up and down his leg.
Perhaps he was mistaken. Perhaps it wasn’t his wife he had seen that day but someone who looked extremely like her. It was possible. Anything was possible, even on a small island, an island as small as this one. In the morning he could ask her about it. He could ask her if he really wanted to ask. The only thing that was impossible was un-asking. Once he asked he could not take it back. And let’s say he was mistaken. In marriage, accusing your spouse of cheating on you is one thing you can’t be mistaken about.
Laurent closed his eyes and tried to summon sleep. He was not happy but he was not unhappy. What do you call that medium place between one thing and another thing? It wasn’t nothing. He was pretty sure that what he felt was not a lack of affect. He felt something. He thought about the honeymooners again. Maybe he was stuck on them because what he felt was an uncomfortable kinship. They were also in a transitional state, suspended between one thing and another thing. Nothing had changed but everything was changing.
The first Laurent, the Laurent back in Paris, remembered the honeymooners, too, but more fondly. Sure they did not tip, but he could not help it, he liked them anyway. Ice for your rash? A bucket for your vomit? An umbrella because it’s raining? It wasn’t often that he felt so needed.
He felt melancholy when they left for the island, but it was a good island, and he knew they would be happy. “Goodbye,” he said, “Au revoir,” and loaded their bags into the trunk of the taxi, waving. Then he went back to work. He had a few more hours in his shift. He loaded more bags into taxis, helped a couple who had lost their passports. He didn’t mind. He liked working.
After his shift he changed out of his hotel uniform, into civilian clothes. He walked along the banks of the river and admired the old bridges that crossed over it. The stonework, the rumble of the cars and footsteps above him. The river was turning pink and orange, the sun was setting. He loved his city. He loved his city because everyone loved it. He’d never lived anywhere else, could not imagine it.
After Pont Neuf, he turned away from the river. Stopped at a bar for glass of white wine, listened to the chatter of the other bar patrons, and underneath that strains of Mozart. He looked at his watch. By now the honeymooner’s train would be arriving at the island. He hoped they liked it. He hadn’t been there in many years but he remembered it as a quiet place, old and charming. He remembered bike rides, beachgrass, ice cream cones at sunset. How lucky, he thought. He’d been very lucky.
He finished his wine and walked through the narrow side streets, his head pleasantly buzzing. Yellow lights glowed on in the apartments above him. From the open windows, domestic sounds. TVs, pans clattering. He had never been married. He’d had lovers, sure, men mostly, but women too. He’d always believed in Eros, love as pure expression, not in the strictures of bodies, but he’d never found love that lasted. Inevitably love grew cold, he and his lover became distant, would end amicably.
He did not regret this except for sometimes when he came home from work, poured himself some of the morning’s cold coffee, turned on the TV, and shared his day with no one. Had it been only a month since he and his last lover had drifted? There was still evidence in the apartment that not so long ago his life had been very different. A comb, a toothbrush, a paperback that he himself would never have been caught dead reading. It was lonely. He could not deny that it was lonely. But even then it was not such a bad life. He watched the news people on the TV recount the day’s tragedies: someone died, someone died, somewhere faraway many people were dying. He had his health, at least. He had friends, he had a job he found fulfilling. He thought about the honeymooners, their flu, their rash. They were lucky, they were young and had really never suffered. There was so much real suffering in front of them, so much sadness. You didn’t have to watch it on TV, you only had to live life a little to know that it was full of unexpected sadness. This honeymoon of theirs, this time together, it was a gift, no matter how impermanent.
He cooked an omelette, had another glass of wine, watched the news become a soap opera. His phone rang and he let it ring a few times before answering. It was the hotel, the desk clerk, his nighttime counterpart. There was an emergency, the clerk said, an emergency. Something about a young couple and stolen passports. He said that Laurent was needed. Needed. What a rush. He would be there, Laurent said. He was lacing his shoes. He was on his way already.