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Dear pretty girl at Gare du Lyon:

On a cold April afternoon in 1995, you traveled from Gare du Lyon to Gare du Nord with a man so handsome and well-dressed, he was surely made in a lab and answered to something like… Montague.

Even if we weren’t in Paris, I would have thought, they’re French.

Your caramel trench coat was the perfect backdrop for your speckled scarf and sultry grin. You seemed smitten and so did he. It was hard to not stare at you, walking in unison up the peach-tiled corridor, arms tangled. You won’t remember me, the disheveled girl slouching on her brother’s U.S. Army duffel bag a few feet from the ticket machine. I averted my gaze when you approached.

Montague fumbled his way through buying tickets. I understood only a little French but could decipher his repeated, “un, deux, trois” amid your giggles. Our eyes locked for a moment, and I offered a quick smile to convince you—and myself—Im okay. Im sitting here like this on purpose. In my scuffed Doc Martens, ripped jeans, dirty hair, and cracked glasses. I’m not paralyzed with uncertainty.

You did not smile back.

A wave of shame doused me when you looked away and muttered to Monty. I could make out another French word: “sans.”

Yes, I was without—sans money, a plan, food, or clean laundry. I was sans hope, sans direction. I’m so very sans, I wanted to yell. On the verge of flunking out of college, nursing a broken heart, and reeling from my parents’ recent divorce, I’d spent that semester in London escaping; I traveled more than I attended classes.

I had yet to heed my father’s directive to “get my shit together.”

I’d slept in bus stations, lost and recovered my passport at a border, danced with strangers, and filled a notebook with bad poetry. And then I made a wrong turn with Steve, an American grad student living in Geneva. After putting me up for a few nights and underwriting my pizza consumption, his hand moving up my thigh during I Love Lucy in dubbed French was a sign that his largess indeed had a price. I snuck out of his apartment in the middle of the night and walked two kilometers to catch a morning train to Paris. I planned to use my Chunnel Pass—a parting gift from my parents—to return to London.

But unable to speak French or read a map, I’d used all my remaining money to go to the wrong station. I was stuck at Gare du Lyon, watching you and Montague, and feeling so very… sans.

Monty finally succeeded. You clapped as the machine spat out blue paper tickets. Then you walked away, hand in hand. You made it about 20 yards before you stopped and said something to Montague. He stood there, hands in pockets, while you marched back towards me. You walked with such purpose, your heels clacking precisely on the tile, the ends of your dark hair bouncing just a bit with each step.

I rummaged through my backpack to give the illusion that I hadn’t been staring at your every move.

Suddenly, you were beside me. I looked up to find you smiling, your arm outstretched, hand in a fist. After a third unsuccessful attempt to explain yourself in French, you emptied the contents of your fist onto my duffel bag and walked away. By the time I’d marshaled my wits enough to thank you for the money, you’d disappeared around the corner. I bought a ticket to the Chunnel station and a Snickers bar.

It occurred to me during my three-hour journey to London that I may have misheard you. Perusing my French translation book, I learned that sans is a homonym for sens. Without sounds a lot like I feel. Perhaps you weren’t even talking about me. Perhaps you felt—hungry, or tired, or in love. Perhaps you felt like being generous to the American girl sitting on a duffel bag. How did you know I needed help?

Either way, merci.

Natalie Brandt

Natalie is a lawyer and mom trapped in Texas. Wildly outspoken about the separation of church and state, she can quickly kill a dinner party but always brings good wine.

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