Tooling around the French countryside I see them, two cuties with their thumbs out. I pull over without a second thought.
The passenger's window slides down. Across the empty seat between us the tall one leans in and says they're going to Lyon. This she says in pigfrench, to my disappointment. It's late in the day and I'm not willing to buck rush-hour traffic into Lyon and back out. I say I'll take them as far as Limonest.
They huddle, and as they jabber in their own tongue about whether or not to accept my terms I listen closely, trying to figure out where they're from. I hear "Ecully" a couple of times, which I recognize as a town on this side of Lyon, not far from where I'm staying; it's the only word I understand.
Hmmm... a poor choice, girls.
"Actually," I quickly add in French, one hand on the gearshift, "I'm going to Dardilly, not Limonest, which is a little closer to where you're going."
Tall One spins back to her friend. More yak-yak. They look to be in their late teens or early twenties, one golden, the other strawberry, both bundled up in long winter coats, their cheeks bright pink from the cold air.
ZZzzzip, zzzip. An endless chain of compacts motors by my rented Renault on the side of the Nationale Sept. Night's dark curtain drops.
"OK, we take the ride to Dardilly," the tall blonde offers in heavily accented French. Swedish, I'm wondering? Not enough lilt for Swedish.
The blonde with her high cheekbones, rosy flesh a-blush from the nippy late autumn evening air, slides into the front seat and starts to buckle up. I want to help her, guide -- actually, touch -- the hand that's probing for the seat belt anchor. But she finds it and snaps the belt into place.
How circumspect I've been.
The usual comments and questions between driver and hitchhikers roll out, in French, theirs excruciating to hear. "You're not from around here, it seems," I offer before the next round of inanities.
"We're Czech. Traveling around on holiday. We were exchange students here for a year, now we're just back to see some friends and the busses are all stopped now because of the demonstrations. You know, they burned a bus yesterday and now they stop all the bus services at 7 o'clock."
She struggles through her delivery while I struggle through her choppy accent and bumpy grammar. Czech, of course! The Slavic tongue so distinctive if you're not distracted. I glance at the clock on the dashboard. 6:45, a quarter to seven.
"Uh, we can speak English if you like."
Then, "We can?"
"Sure, I'm American anyway."
"I thought you were French, you speak so well."
I scooch a little taller in my seat. "Uh, thanks." I quickly add, "I live in San Francisco."
Jesus, Jack, did you have to put that out so soon?
"San Francisco?! You live in San Francisco?!"
"You've been there?"
"Oh, yes, we have. We travel in the Western States last summer together. We go to Utah, all over Northern California, the Redwoods; we even climb Mount Whitney!"
"Then we go into the beautiful canyons in Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. You know, you walk in, you walk in right in the water in some, right through the tunnels. It's so beautiful. And the Red Rocks. Bryce and Zion, the National Parks. You know them?"
Red rocks! I nod, my eyes filming over, my throat too constricted to answer. I take that deep breath I've needed for so long, amazed and confused and a little pleased how these two words could plunge me into such deep feelings. Or was I there already, waiting for some other words to bring the feelings to the surface? As much as I want to turn to her, to behold her shiny gold locks, her long dark eyelashes, her peachy skin, I can't. I say softly, turning my face a little to my window, to the left, away from her inquiring eyes. "Yes, I know them."
These treasures, these perfect treasures hitchhike all over the planet, having their experiences of a lifetime, drizzling their beauty around like Johnny his apple seeds.
"We have such a good time in California, don't we?" she asks, smiling and turning to her friend in the back seat. "Napa Valley is so beautiful, the wines so delicious."
You're probably too young to drink in California, but what fool would card you?!
"Yes, Californians think their wines are the best in the world, the French think their wines are the best in the world," I say, relieved that the subject has moved along to more practical matters.
"The French! They are so hard to make friends with. We are here for a whole year, I don't make a single French friend in that time. The French all stay together, smoking and speaking French. The rest of us, from all around the world, we hang out together, speaking English. Do you know the French kids laugh at me when I speak French, because of my bad accent?"
"Zay should be talking, zair accent ees not zo pleezing eetzelf, non?"
They giggle, sending a part of me skyward to roam the heavens for a while, splash around the Milky Way, hitch a ride on a shooting star.
How much this one sitting next to me reminds me of the Swedish sex- pot I fell in with when I was 29 and working in Princeton, New Jersey. Having spent a summer in Stockholm a few years earlier I was attuned to that accent and its accompanying liberated notions about sex which put these girls in another category altogether from their American counterparts, who were busy grinding their Puritan brains about whether to go to First Base, perhaps even Second Base, but seldom Third, and never Home Plate. Ulrika had been so open to exploring her appetites, so expressive. She'd been so casual, almost blasé, the first time we'd made love. "Shall we take off our clothes and make love?" she'd asked.
"Actually," I continue with the fine-tuned mirroring skills so hard-won in years of couples therapy, "I know exactly what you mean. I find it so hard to feel connected with the French, to feel ... intimate." I turn to her as "intimate" tumbles from my lips. She meets my eyes, I lower mine. "I've been coming here for almost 15 years and frankly the only friendship I've made is with a woman who's lived here for 35 years. But she's Croatian, born and raised there!"
The kilometers have clicked away and now we're approaching Dardilly. I can feel the loss creeping up on me, the emptiness that will return once they're out of the car. "I'll be happy to take you right where you're going, Ecully isn't far."
"Oh, thank you!"
"So they burned a bus yesterday?"
"Yes, you didn't hear? So now they stop all bus service. What can people do without the bus? How can anyone get anywhere? What do the old people supposed to do?"
"Typical French overreaction, I guess. My God, one bus burns and they... well, they're ... French,you know ... so coincé," I say, using a term I hear used by the young to describe the old. Constricted, shut off, cornered. I search her face for a reaction and find none. "You don't know the word?"
My hands come off the steering wheel and I lightly wrap them around my chest, bowing my head simultaneously. "Coincé."
"Oh, yes, I understand. You are right!"
ECULLY 5 KM, cries a blue sign on the autoroute we've just entered.
Three miles. Four minutes if I stretch it out.
My foot backs off the gas pedal and I glance at the speedometer. Seventy-five kilometers per hour, a new personal record for glacial movement on the road I usually drive at 130 kph. A silence descends inside the car. I inhale deeply, and feel the air tickling the follicles in my nostrils, air that carries their fresh scent, their youth, their beauty.
Ah so, deux demoiselles de la Tchoslovakie, I muse. As I exhale I smack my lips and taste my own breath, man breath.
I wonder if it's good for them? Or do I smell funky, like some of my friends, some of them old enough to be grandfathers to these girls?
SORTIE 300M, warns another sign. Soundlessly, the girls edge up to the front of their seats simultaneously, the strawberry blonde in the back seat now with her head nearly between me and my new blonde friend. "Yes, this is the one."
"Now, the first right at the roundabout," she directs, pointing.
I take the turn. "And...?"
"Two... third left at this next one."
I downshift to second, creeping through the circle so slowly that the Frenchman behind me shakes his fist violently.
"See the white gate down there? Straight ahead and on the right!"
I see the gate, a huge iron gate anchored by a stone wall on either side. It guards the entrance to a venerable estate. It's eight feet high, with thickly painted squared tubing, each topped with a sharply pointed arrowhead.
I pull into a space opposite the gate, and the girls' doors spring open. As she moves to get out, the blonde's long coat opens to reveal blue jeans underneath, cobalt blue jeans, bright and unworn, looking just off the rack. My eyes brush softly across those jeans, across the woven threads. And away they go, sliding across the seat and out the open door.
"Thank you so much," she says. Her friend echoes her words.
"I wish you well. Have fun," I answer, doing the best I can.
I watch them approach the gate. One pushes the illuminated button and speaks. The gate pops open. They stop, and turn, and look at me looking at them. They smile and wave, both at once, with high, puppet-show energy. One side of the gate is open about a foot, but they don't move. I smile and wave at them through the windshield. They still don't move.
What are they saying to me?
I put the car in first gear and swing the car around, aiming it back the way we had come. I stop at the corner, just a few feet away. They remain motionless, outside the gate, watching me through the passenger's window. I look at them and wave again. They return my wave with smiles and more waving; they still don't move. I look at the traffic. There's an opening. I take it. I glance in the rear view mirror as I pull away. The gate is shut, and they have vanished.