The truth is, I came back to the south of France to find her.
Laura had been my stateside college professor, literary mentor, partner in crime and best friend with major benefits. Our relationship, too, was a rite of passage. I was 19, she was 33. A few weeks into my senior year, Laura, my prof in Advanced French, invited me to dinner at her apartment (we’d been flirting since the start of the term). After a bottle of wine, she kissed me on the lips and pulled me down on top of her. A few hours later, I stumbled home, feeling like a champion.
Our secret affair continued that year. After graduation, Laura invited me on a road through France, where we ended up in Nice. By chance, I got a job working for Josephine Baker’s gay brother at Jazz Festival commissary, serving jambalaya and salad nicoise. His famous friends came by to visit at night — Chuck Berry, high as a kite, and James Baldwin, chain-smoking and drunk, perched on his thuggish boyfriend’s lap like a dishy, giddy teenage girl.
Three years later, Laura moved back to France. We did our best to stay in touch, phoning on birthdays and holidays, faithfully writing romantic letters. As the intervals stretched between our communiqués, I hardly noticed at first because Laura and I were so deeply connected. She felt so close, being such an important part of my life (she was the first to tell me that I was a writer); I couldn’t feel distant from her if I tried. A few years later, when we finally lost touch, I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t notice for the simple reason that I thought about Laura so frequently. I had no doubt that we would meet again.
She was the reason I’d come to Nice. I couldn’t wait to surprise my old friend. Rather than warn her, I decided to show up on her doorstep, along with my boyfriend, David. I had the scene worked out in my mind. I’d be holding a bunch of her sunflowers (her favorite) and a bag of apricots that Laura loved. I imagined how overcome she would be when she saw me, and how glad she would be to meet David (Laura liked the fact that I wasn’t straight). David was being a sport about it, though meeting the exes is never much fun. The plan was to surprise Laura as soon as we’d settled into our summer apartment. But then the oddest thing occurred: I lost my nerve.
Every time I planned to go, I was frozen in place by a terrible dread, a feeling of emptiness laced with fear. What was I so afraid of, I wondered? That Laura would not be happy to see me? Or that she had changed in some radical way? Or was I afraid that an awkward reunion could ruin these memories I so treasured? The people who knew us in our youth are our bridges to keeping that youth alive, the only witnesses to who we were, once upon a time. Maybe that was it: I didn’t want to lose who I was.
At 4:00 the following Tuesday, I found myself in front of her building. Laura’s name was not on the residents list. Returning home, I found nothing about her on Facebook, and Google revealed only the ISBN number of her dissertation and something about a lecturing job at the University of Monaco. When I dialed the school’s number, nobody answered. Leaving a message on the voice mail, I knew that no one would call me back. I was equally disappointed and relieved. Afterward, I remembered a letter Laura wrote me after our trip to Nice. “N’importe ou je suis, je serai ton amie invisible,” she signed off. No matter where I am, I will be your invisible lover.
The following morning, the telephone rang. It was the woman from the University of Monaco. I knew instantly that she was calling to tell me that Laura had died. I don’t think she used the word dead, though she might have. I heard only a handful of words through the freeze descending on my brain. Sudden illness. A couple of years. Her favorite teacher. Une femme unique. I had known that Laura was dead. That was the emptiness I had been feeling. It wasn’t an empirical knowing but an intuition, a felt sense, rather, like the silence of a bell that’s already been rung.
That’s when the self-flagellation began. How could I have been so selfish? Why did I think she would be there, waiting, if and when I decided to pick up the phone? Why did I let so much time go by without so much as letting Laura know where I was? What if she wanted to reach me after she got sick? What if she needed to talk to me? (That thought was too painful to contemplate.) How was it possible, how could it be, that I would never see her again? I’d never get a chance to say goodbye.
Back in New York, when the summer was over, I found Laura’s letters and read them all — twice. They reminded me again of how much I loved her. I framed a beautiful photograph of Laura and hung it by my desk. I stare at it, religiously, and think about her every day. I also call my best friends more. I pick up the phone when they cross my mind. I know that they won’t be here forever. I don’t want to miss another goodbye.