The Best Laid Plans

I headed for the sea, as soon as I exited the small French train station at the heart of the small French town. It was a grey cloudy day. There was a heavy mist in the air. It was the sort of day that justified the existence of an off-season in the Mediterranean. The beach, when I found it, was small and grey.

I had brie, bottled water, and bread. I had bought all of it in a supermarket in Nice. The cheese had been on sale. When I opened the package in the American’s rented car, I found a bug squashed into the brie’s white skin. The American, who was taking me to the train station, looked over from his driving, and identified it as a tick. The bottled water also had been on sale. When I tasted it, on that little grey beach next to the small French town, sitting on some rocks with waves breaking at my feet and throwing spray over me and my bug-amputated brie, it made my teeth feel funny. The bread, like cheap French bread everywhere, didn’t taste like much of anything. It shed crumbs effortlessly.

I sat, ate, and stared at the grey churning sea. It flung itself harshly against my rocks, but it caressed the sand, which stretched out to the left of me. Each rush from the sea broke angrily against my rocks, throwing spray over me, my provisions, and my clothes. As the sea retreated, the fine sand slithered and slid. It melted into new symmetries of shape, line, and colour.

The sky was a matte grey. The sea was barely a blue. The sand was a rusty muddle of colour. And yet, somehow, it didn’t feel dark. A kind of light was powered by the residual energy of the sea’s angry caresses. It glowed brightest when the sea flung itself against my rocks. It dimmed as the sea retreated with a slow caress. It flared again with each new rush of the waves.

Here, it wasn't like Nice. In Nice, the thick pebbles and stones were like billiard balls. When the sea rushed them, the balls were racked. When the sea pulled away, the racked balls were broken by an unseen and expert player and they cracked and rattled against each other. With each rush and retreat of the sea, a game of billiards was started over and over again. It was loud and overbearing. That was Nice. Here, there was only the soft sea-fueled glow haloing the sand’s movement. Here, you could think.

You could think of the South African, who had now long gone her own way. You had travelled with her for three weeks. On the day you met, you stole a grocery cart for her in Paris because she couldn’t carry her ridiculously oversized luggage. You could think about her father’s friend and her nervous breakdown, which she told you all about on your second day together because you had shared a bottle of cheap red wine in a nameless and unremarkable Parisian park. You could think about her fair skin, which had never seen freezing temperatures, glowing with the slightest soft radiance of pink in Vienna, when the temperature dropped suddenly and you wanted to keep her warm, but you kept your distance like a brother, and joked, and pretended, and hid it all, because of the long letters she wrote to her fiance.

You could also think of the Brit you met in Florence. She had given you a smile so warm and direct and natural that your heart warmed. It was the first time you had ever felt that from a smile or anything else. You could think about how you turned her down, when she casually suggested you should travel with her to Venice, because you still hurt from the way the South African had left you, leaving only a note, like it was something cheap and not three weeks in Europe when you never touched her or made a move or anything. You could think of the Brit who you might have followed, if the whole story of you leading up to the moment when she smiled had been very different. Instead, you decided to take a free drive with the American to Pisa and then on to Nice because your plan had been to head east to Spain all along.

When the heavy mist turned into a rain over the small grey beach, I tucked my provisions into my backpack. I picked up a shell that had been left on the beach by the sea, while I had been sitting there thinking and not thinking. I often collected hoped-to-be momentos, but rarely kept them for very long. When I finally did throw them away, I often felt guilty -- not because they were important, but because I had hoped they would become important. They never did.

I sidearmed the shell back into the sea, where it belonged, and returned to the station. I boarded the first train I could find that got me closer to Spain. That had been the plan all along. Before the sea, restlessly recumbent beyond the window of the slow moving train, had called once more for me and my reminisces.