Last summer I enrolled in the Washington University Summer Writers Institute. It changed my life. It was the moment when I finally took a stand for finding my voice in print and for carving out a writing life. My final project was a very personal story that had taken up residence in my mind for years, and was able to find its way to the page after the two-week intensive class. I worked excruciatingly hard to shape this piece into something I am very proud of, and I am now ready to share it here at 300 rejections.
Now a college senior with my passport in hand, I was heading to France—finally. I had been a Francophile since elementary school. I wanted so much to speak the language fluently. I had peppered sentences with all the French words I knew around the house: “Bonjour ma famille!” I would exclaim. “Hey, Sis, you wanna catch a movie avec moi?
I’d once daydreamed about foreign travel with a particular companion, but now I was in the airport terminal with a group of fellow college acquaintances. It wasn’t quite the same, but I was going to France!
My enormous, hard-shelled Samsonite was loaded down with a surplus of shoes and sweaters. I also had packed my enthusiastic, though limited, amount of conversational French. In the days leading up to our departure, I had decided that a watch was the souvenir I wanted to search for—it was both practical and memory-inducing. I thought the idea of buying a lasting item like a watch in France seemed cool. I didn’t care what it looked like. I would know it when I saw it.
We spent the first few days of our trip in Paris. Then we escaped the numbing cold of the City of Lights for warmer, quaint Avignon in the Sud de France. A Janvier grey with pockets of sunshine cloaked the little city-village. Leafless sycamore trees lined the boulevards as far as the eye could see. It didn’t hurt to walk around outside like it had in Paris, but faire du shopping still helped to warm us up. We headed into Galleries Lafayette—the Dillard’s of France.
One of my travel companions was more fluent than I, but less inclined to speak up. We made a great team: she told me what to say, and I was happy to feel the French form awkwardly in my mouth and leap off my tongue for native speakers to try to decipher.
In my wallet was a 10% discount card for the department store courtesy of the travel company that had booked our trip. With two of my travel companions, I took off my mittens and began to explore the selection of French merchandise. We made our way to the jewelry department. Scanning the watches on display, I quickly found the watch I wanted. It was silver banded with gold connectors. The face was an eye-catching blue not quite as royal as the blue of the French flag but beautiful nonetheless. A small window displayed the date at three o'clock.
I pointed to the timekeeper in the display case, and Madame, the older woman behind the counter, retrieved it for me. I placed it around my wrist and stretched out my arm to see how it looked from various angles. It was just what I had imagined, and it suited my thin, pale arm.
In broken French, I mustered up the courage to present the discount card and asked hesitatingly, "Acceptez-vous?" I hoped that the clerk and I would be able to understand each other. My pulse quickened. The clerk shook her head no, and I asked, "Pourquoi?" Why? I didn't want her to think I was a pushy American. I simply had no other words to make the request. Madame paused, pointed to somewhere beyond the counter and indicated that she was going to inquire about the discount. For a few moments she was out of sight. When she returned she had a new answer.
“Oui, I can give you the discount.” I smiled, nodded my head, and gave her my credit card. The watch was mine! I felt a surge of pride having used the little bit of French I knew to make this purchase on my own—without the help of a more fluent traveler.
I can’t remember if I was still in the store or if it was back at l’hotel when I noticed the watch’s brand name etched above the intersection of the minute and second hands, in gold letters: JUNGHANS. I sighed. Try as I might, I cannot escape him. Two years before, I’d fallen in love with a Young Hans.
Hans had asked a girl in my dorm about me early in the fall semester of my freshman year. He’d told her that I had caught his attention. I was skeptical. From a distance, Hans took my breath away, but I couldn't imagine that a gorgeous guy like him could possibly be interested in plain, skinny me. The semester unfolded without a call from him. I convinced myself that he and I were in different leagues and he'd come to his senses.
Hans was American, but his parents lived in England. They had money. He wore khaki cargo pants, plaid shirts tied around his waist, and Timberland boots. He clomped around campus—aloof and superior. He made loud noises that echoed through the high ceilings of the dining hall. Students seated at other tables would look up, furrow their brows in his direction, and then resume their meals.
Hans had been like the watch in Galleries Lafayette—within moments of meeting him, I knew he was the one I wanted to spend every waking moment with. In the remaining three weeks of the semester, we finally met and started dating immediately. Some of my friends cautioned me about getting involved with him. I was determined to get to know him personally rather than to judge him merely on what I had observed on campus. Much to my surprise, I felt completely at ease in his presence. He was smart, funny. He felt like home. We talked for hours the first afternoon we met. We became inseparable, making up for lost time. I loved Hans deeply and immediately.
His love and attention transformed me. Everything looked and sounded new. Our conversations were expansive. He was well read. He’d seen and lived so much more than I had. I was attracted to the idea of seeing the world through the lens of his experience and walking through life with him by my side. Hans would make a great tour guide. There wasn’t time to know everything about each other yet, but one thing was certain: we were indescribably drawn to one another.
The semester ended. We packed up our dorm rooms. We stood in the parking lot outside the guys' dorms clinging to each other. I remember how tightly we held each other, willing the minutes to slow so that we could be together longer. As we embraced, Hans whispered in my ear, “We're done dating, you know. We've found each other. Our search is over, and we'll begin to build a life together when we return in the fall. We can do this. It's just a few months.” I nodded, sobbing into his shoulder assuring him that I'd heard his words. We summoned the courage to finally go our separate ways. He had a flight to catch back to England. I would make a stop in Omaha with a friend before taking the train home to Michigan.
May, June, and July were filled with our longing and long-distance phone calls as Hans traveled to various locations abroad: a kibbutz in Israel, Sweden, and back to England. The first part of his summer was spent miserably in Israel. He was lonely, and he felt our separation keenly since he didn't know anyone on the kibbutz. My heart broke when I heard how sad and lonely he was. My mood revolved around whether I was home to answer his phone call. Some days I was at work when he would call, and I would mope the rest of the day.
Young Hans’ letters articulated love and affection and outlined a future together. When he talked about our lives, I filled in the details: we'd own a Land Rover, travel to exotic places, and someday have children. I applied for a passport. I wanted to be ready for when we planned a trip to visit his parents in London.
Time passed excruciatingly slow. The end of the summer promised his return with a visit to meet my family and our drive back to school. The countdown gave us something to focus on and made our separation almost bearable. I couldn’t wait to pick up where we’d left off and for our romance to blossom further.
I ran ahead of my family to watch him exit the terminal. I breathed a sigh of relief. We embraced, and held onto each other like we had in the parking lot three months before. I can't remember what we said to each other. I recall he was so anxious to get the “meet the parents” scene behind him that we moved quickly back to where my family was waiting.
We spent the week hanging out, spending time with my sister and her boyfriend. It was easy to imagine future visits with my family. We laughed, watched television, and hung around the house. We were acclimating to being in each others' presence again. Overall the week together was wonderful, but I began to catch glimpses of his mood swings and sharp tongue.
Once we returned to campus, my boyfriend was a stranger. He ignored me much of the time. At one mixer, I saw him talking with his friends, and he never came over to talk to me. I could have approached him, but something had shifted. This wasn’t the future he’d described, promised. When we were together, something was definitely off. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I clung desperately to the conversations we’d had over the summer.
One sunny afternoon my worst fear came true sitting on a bench in the middle of campus. Hans announced that he didn’t want to date anyone. He broke up with me with little explanation. He stood up and walked away. In that moment, I lost my love and my future.
I was devastated and disoriented by the sudden change. I was convinced that the break-up was temporary. I didn’t cause a scene. I didn’t cry or scream at him. I didn’t call his dorm room over and over asking for a better explanation or beg him to change his mind. I knew now that those actions would definitely turn him further away. But I did cry my eyes dry when I was alone. I hoped he would come to his senses, and tiptoed bravely through the semester praying that we would reconcile.
The semester moved forward. Over the summer, our parents had bought airline tickets for us to fly to Michigan together for Thanksgiving. With our break-up, those plans hung heavy in the air. We eventually broke our silence and talked about the tickets. Hans decided to fly to Michigan. He would stay with friends who lived in Detroit.
It was awkward to be with this man I loved so much, but was no longer my beloved. Our seat assignments had been made when we were a couple, so we awkwardly sat shoulder to shoulder. This was my first flight, and Hans knew I was nervous to take off. He held out his hand to offer some comfort at take-off, and I absolutely took it. I spent the holiday with my family, and tried to ignore the dull ache of our changed circumstances.
We flew back to school together and finished another semester. Then Hans left college to become a Marine. His physical presence no longer loomed large on campus. It was both a relief and added heartbreak to not see him every day. He gave me the address for where he was stationed, and I wrote him letters. He wrote back a few times, and in each letter he gave me the impression that a future was still a possibility, so I believed him and waited for that day to come.
But Hans was like the arcade game “Whack-a-mole.” Months would pass with no contact. I would feel my equilibrium returning slowly but surely, and then out of nowhere he would pop up with a phone call, and I’d be jolted once again out of the calm—equal parts heartbroken and hopeful. Another period would pass without a word from him. It seemed this back and forth was my new normal.
All of this history with Young Hans flashed before me as I admired my new watch. It seemed to be taunting me: How are you doing, really? Well, admittedly life feels awkward and unsteady like the French I'm speaking on this trip. Can you cope with wearing me on your wrist while being reminded that Hans isn’t with you? I can and will wear you every day. Can you enjoy this life, you know, the one without him by your side? Life is different than I imagined. I wish he didn't cross my mind, but I am moving on. I'm in France, after all.