GARE DU NORD, 1988
by Kim Magowan
The girl escorts her boyfriend to Gare du Nord, where he will take a train to the coast and then a ferry back to England—this is years before the Chunnel will be built. He is her first serious boyfriend, and two nights ago they had sex for the first time. The girl is not religious or old-fashioned, but she had fetishized “going all the way” as a momentous journey, only to take with someone she loved. This is why she is twenty years old and only now, long after nearly all of her friends, has finally had sex. It’s a strange kind of fetishism, at odds with the fact that she has, over the last two and a half years, given blowjobs to seven men, including one whose name she doesn’t remember, though she does clearly recall his cleft chin, which looked like someone had begun and then abandoned cutting a cake: a knife pleat in the frosting of his face.
In a week, the girl will fly back to America, her junior year abroad officially over. England is where she met this young man, her first serious boyfriend, her first lover, and though she hopes otherwise, she knows that their relationship, this tender green shoot, will not survive the 6,000 miles of distance. They are not yet breaking up, because it seems tactless to do so, two days after they first had sex, after all those months of build-up. But she recalls the way, after they had “real” sex for the first time, her boyfriend held her briefly and then rolled away to sleep. She knows in the hollows of herself that their breakup will happen soon. That knowledge has been weighing on her for the past hour, as they left francs for their cafés au lait (this is before the introduction of the euro) and then boarded the metro and transferred at crowded, intricate, terrible Châtelet-Les Halles, with its grimy corridors of peddlers hawking purses and cheap, fringed scarves. That knowledge is fundamentally why she is sad now: not because they are saying goodbye.
It is also why she is a hundred feet away, floating above, holding an imaginary camera that films for posterity herself and her boyfriend. One thing her panning shot attempts to capture is how the other people in the Gare du Nord crowd (the girl thinks of them as “extras”) interact with her and her boyfriend (whom she thinks of as “the stars”). Do they think they are tragic or sweet incarnations of young love? Do they even notice them?
Most of the extras seem indifferent and oblivious. They look at the enormous, oxidized copper clock or their own watches or simply into empty space (this takes place long before cell phones, before everyone had something to attract and compress their gazes).
But there is a middle-aged Frenchwoman nearby who appears to be aware of the girl and her boyfriend, and watches them benevolently, with a smudged-lipstick smile, as if they are indeed sweet/cute/representative of amour jeune. As if they are like the famous black-and-white photograph by Robert Doisneau of the couple kissing outside the Hotel de Ville. It’s the girl’s favorite poster: all year it has been on her dormitory wall in Oxford. Sometimes she would open her eyes and look at it while she and her naked boyfriend fooled around (but did not yet have sex, because she would only have sex with someone she was serious about, and she was waiting for him to say “I love you”). In other words, it is no accident that the girl waited for this final romantic visit to Paris to have sex with her boyfriend. This moment kissing her boyfriend goodbye at the Gare du Nord represents the merger between the girl and her boyfriend, who with his sweeping, dark hair even resembles the man in the Doisneau photograph, and the couple outside the Hotel de Ville.
What the girl requires now is an audience, to confirm that they, like that couple, are romantic, appealing, and worth looking at, like the couples that the girl will seek out in the next few days when she wanders alone in Paris, mourning her boyfriend: the hand-holding couples that the girl will take pictures of and think, we were like that, in love.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf‘s Top 50. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com