All heads turned as she walked into the room, an instant impression of radiance, fashion, and beauty. The red hair, closely cropped in a fashionable Pixie of sorts, complementing the rouge on those high cheekbones, the impeccably tailored and pressed beige London Fog overcoat standing alone in a room of wrinkled jackets and faded sweatshirts, and her red plaid skirt adding a touch of whimsy and school girl charm to the overall picture of elegance – these were among the visible attributes. She was beautiful, as attractive a creature as I had seen, and I had to know more about her.
The foreign students, primarily from North Africa with others hailing from all corners of the globe, had never seen anything quite like her. Yes, they had met Americans before, but this one was jaw-dropping, somebody out of a fashion shoot from a Greenwich, CT, a Kenilworth, IL, or some other well-heeled area. As she walked closer to my table and then drifted by, the wake of her fragrant scent infused the air and teased the olfactory glands. I briefly closed my eyes to freeze the moment forever and realized that I, too, had never before seen or smelled anyone like her.
Her name matched her perfectly. Lisamarie Charlesworth. Li-sa-ma-rie Char-les-worth. Two first names sandwiched as one and a total of seven sweet syllables that flowed from the tongue like Tupelo honey. Sweet and rhythmic aural intercourse.
“She has on waaaay too much rouge,” my friend snarled, her fingers stroking her cheeks in an overly dramatic upward motion. “Why is she wearing a skirt to a cafeteria, anyway” my denim-clad friend continued to whine, surely noticing that I could not keep my eyes off this vision of splendor when I was not closing them in a moment of private rapture.
She sat alone. The most beautiful woman in the world sat alone. After selecting her repast, Lisamarie carried the plastic food tray (a study in contrasts, surely) to a small wooden table, opened Le Monde, and ate. Surprisingly, she seemed comfortable. I added new adjectives to the growing mental checklist – smart, confident, gutsy, and (potentially) lonely.
I pushed aside the cow brains I had been nibbling on, signaling an end to the meal and knowing that I could only handle a finite amount of stimuli. At this point I was on sensory overload – a twenty year old testosterone laden college lad, newly arrived in France for a year of school, eating brains among a veritable United Nations of students, listening to the din of French, Arabic and other languages penetrate the thick Gauloise smoke-filled air, and practically drooling over Lisamarie. Life was good.
I leaned back in the chair, lit a Merit, and contemplated the good fortune that lie ahead. I exhaled and closed my eyes.
I lifted up my head and was startled to see the winter sun peeking into the room. I reached for the clock and knocked over an empty Kronenpils bottle, not a good sign of the prior night’s activities or the fate of the morning ahead. “Merde,” I muttered as the clock stated it was 8:02 am, not nearly enough time to dress, catch the bus, scale the walk up the Citadel, and be on time for the 8:30 am class. This was a brand new semester and I had been determined to start out on a positive note, until last night’s social activities interfered and precluded a good night’s sleep. “Blame it on others,” I laughed, as the words of Sartre and Camus reminded me that I was full of crap.
I put on yesterday’s jeans and sweatshirt and ran to the bus stop. I was a mess. My head hurt, my tousled hair was blowing in the Besancon wind, and my stomach was gurgling. Still, I walked into the classroom at 8:36 am, congratulating myself that I had arrived before the French professor, which was not a difficult accomplishment.
I surveyed the room to find an open seat around the horseshoe shaped table, finding one close to the door. As I sat down and put the textbooks on the table, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Directly across from me sat the most beautiful woman in the world. Our eyes made brief contact, and then I self-consciously averted my glance and ran fingers through my unkempt hair in a lame attempt to straighten and beautify.
Years later I would read about chaos theory, and how seemingly insignificant and random events shape our lives. This was chaos theory backwards -- an opportunity gone awry. Disheveled, unshaven, unshowered, shabbily attired in wrinkled day-old jeans and sweatshirt, hungover and glassy-eyed. Lisamarie, sitting within perfect eye contact, fresh, stylish, and starry eyed, looking beautiful as always. This was our first encounter since the cafeteria euphoria three months earlier, and I blew it.
I was never late for that class again. Or disheveled. The highlight of the week was sitting across from Lisamarie, and stealing a furtive glance now and then. Toward the end of the semester, I even gathered the courage to see if Lisamarie wanted to stop for tea or coffee on the route home. She accepted, although she vigorously refused to speak English, determined to hone her French speaking skills.
Then, what should have happened long before, eventually happened. I began to know Lisamarie as a real person, with all the dreams, aspirations, unanswered questions, and challenges that we all encounter. Near the end of the school year, we shared a quiet picnic on the banks of the Doubs River, basking in the May sun, quaffing good French wine, eating a selection of fruit, cheeses and bread, and swapping stories of our lives – in English, even. Lisamarie became a friend, and not this imaginary vision I had built in my mind.
We kept in touch for a few months after we returned to the States, but then our lives inevitably took their respective turns and, not surprisingly, we eventually lost contact.
Until this month. Thirty-two years after the “Picnic on the Doubs”, Lisamarie and I exchanged a series of e-mails. It was really nice to connect with her and travel down Memory Lane. She is doing well and is leading a fulfilling artistic life.
Even though our lives have been separated by time, place, and lack of communication for thirty-two years, and will continue to travel divergent paths, the more important common denominator continues to bind -- namely, the sharing of a noteworthy period in our existence.
Thank you, Lisamarie, for the memories.