Arnaud and me

Precisely this day, a year ago, there was a Halloween party at Arnaud’s house. I was thinking about it this morning because today we had a Halloween party at my house and also because Arnaud is in France right now and could not come. And this party felt like a small victory. Because last year I sat the whole party in a car sobbing desperately. The car was parked next to Arnaud’s house and I could not manage to calm down and go to the party and face all the happy people. I felt miserable because I had no money and no job, because the business was not going anywhere, because I had no support, because I was alone, and because my kids depended on me, and I even forgot to get them Halloween costumes.

So, all I remember is how it was getting darker and darker, and then the moon was up, and the sky was dark; and Arnaud brought me food in to the car, and sat there with me. And it felt priceless that somebody knows how you like your hamburger.

And then I started to think back to when we met and everything I learnt from him. We first met on a school playground, at the Lycée. Three years ago. And from the first time we talked we got engaged in joking, and our sense of humor matched almost perfectly, and this made everything else extremely simple. Our kids became best friends (they both arrived to US and to school on the same day) and a few weeks later I stopped at Arnaud’s place for lunch and he made pasta with cheese (the two things I do not eat). But I ate it then just to make things simple and because he was French (I assumed French people must know what the good food is). And yes, I had stomach ache the rest of the day. Then I also became friends with Lucie, his wife. And I think this became the best friendship I’ve ever had.

None of us had family around and we started to have dinners together two-three times a week. And we still have them. We joked. We laughed. We ate home-cooked food (I do not think we ever went outside to eat during the week). Our conversations revolved around life in outer space (there is none), zombies (I have no opinion here, but Arnaud likes to talk about it), fights (half of our talks are about fighting and martial arts and how to do maximum damage in minimum amount of time), prisons on Mars (possible plan), God (we agreed that it does not exist), how to run a business (here it gets complicated, but basically it takes a lot of hours), education of our children (here we all were clueless, but raising the voice helped at times). But mostly we laughed. We laughed a lot.

There are a few things that happened in that first summer of our friendship

-first, once Arnaud got quite sick and the next day when I asked him how he was doing he did not reply to my messages or my calls. I was worried about him. Instead of going to the gym I drove to his house (I knew that he never closed the door). I was glad I came, he was laying on the sofa in a pose that did not put any strain on his brain. He had a bad food poison. That day we both learnt one important thing, that if he does not reply to my messages I will show up at his door to make sure he is alive.

-second, on one of our dinners at my house we were talking about life and I made a comment that since I got divorced I finally could have the bedroom the way I wanted, the colors, the bed, the sheets. And Arnaud said, “I do not care how my bed looks, I do not care if I sleep on a mattress on the floor, if my sheets are that color or that other, if we have furniture or not, all I care is that when I go to bed Lucie is there with me.” I do not think I have ever respected a guy as much as I respected him then. (There could have been a lot of reasons to respect him, he run a successful business, he provided for his family, he was a black belt in Judo and on the national French Team; he was good at everything he did; but this one sentence inspired so much respect for him that nothing else really mattered.)

-third, he taught me how a friend’s hug and kiss should be. Before that I really do not know why I hugged or kissed friends. It was just the right thing to do, that everybody does at greetings, but since it was not the most intentional thing I tried to wiggle through it quickly, forget about it, and get to the next thing. With Arnaud I realized that he actually meant to hug and kiss me as a friend when he did it. It was not a formality. There was a lot of intent and warmth in it and it made me feel loved. I never noticed before that friend’s hug can mean so much and be so comforting and loving. I learnt it from him. I started hugging people with an intent to hug them, not with the idea of getting fast through it and moving forward. And it made a huge difference in my life.

-forth, Arnaud trained with me in martial arts. I knew so little and I was so new to it, that at the beginning I could not take seriously him training me. But I appreciated every second of it (I say second because when you are 120 Lbs and you are getting hit, gently, but hit, by a 220 Lbs guy your time count is in seconds). He went with me to my first tournament, as my “corner man” and as my coach. And he did not stop talking the whole way to the tournament and I lost that one badly. Here I gave myself a word not to take him to any of my other tournaments because he does not let me focus on the fight. He is still my best friend, he is just not going with me to the tournaments.

I could go on and on telling how much I have learnt from him. From his thoughts on each man’s personality by how they shake your hand to how to make crepes, from what to do in case of zombie attack to how to hit people in the nose with the palm of your hand. But mostly, how to care for people you love. In one of the conversations Arnaud said that once he sells his company and puts enough money on the name of his wife and kids to live a good life, this is when he can rest. And I saw him working till he is green in the face, days, weeks, years, to make this happen.

There are probably two things worth respecting in any man or woman, first is providing for the family they created and second is sleeping every night with the person they love.

Arnaud and I talk a lot. We are very alike, and we became very good friends. Our kids believe that they are cousins or at least twin brothers. We have family dinners a few times per week. Informal home dinners, meat, vegetables, rice.

A few weeks ago we were having coffee in his yard and he said, “I read your blog on dating. I did not know you were such a romantic person.” And I laughed, because I thought it was so obvious. And then he told me about his reckless adulthood. A complete opposite of mine.

Sometimes when we talk about business or sports, and when he is giving me his advice, I hate him. Because he knows so much and he is so much better at it, and I feel like nobody. Of course what he says is right, I just can’t do it that way most of the time. But if I have to hear this from somebody I’d rather it be from him. It is good to be able to chose the person who will give you the advice you will hate.

A few days ago I was having coffee with a close friend. And he asked me how Arnaud’s company was doing, and I said “I do not know, I have not seen him in two weeks. He is in France.” “Well, two weeks is not that much for a company,” he replied. And at that point I realized that not having seen Arnaud for two weeks was quite a lot.

And I also thought that Halloween was coming and that things have changed a lot from the past year. Things were ten times better. And he and Lucie were such a huge support all this time. And I have learnt so much from him through care, conversations, laughs, and friendship. And now I was hosting the Halloween party, and kids had costumes, and even if Arnaud was not here, his kids were coming to my place. And it felt like a tiny victory over this hard year. And it was not just my victory.

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The book

I woke up at 5:30am, made myself a coffee, a few sandwiches for all of us, and then woke up the kids. I seated them in the car with blankets, their neck pillows, and doudous and we were on the road before it was 6. It was dark and warm inside the car. And then there was a heavy smell of smoke as we passed Sonoma and it made us all dizzy for a few minutes. Close to 7 we saw the first rays of sun on our right. The road was smooth and empty.

The book with the red cover and the word “Persepolis” in white letters was on the passenger’s seat, next to my handbag and the black winter jacket. I saw the book with the corner of my eye as we drove north through villages and hills.

That day the fall occurred suddenly as we were on the last stretch of the road before Tahoe. The trees were yellow, red, and green. And there was some snow on the branches. The mix of colors became fall and reminded me of how it was in Moscow in my childhood. The kids were singing on the back seats when we parked at the coffee shop for breakfast at 9. We had arrived to the lake. For an hour I read the book. I did not notice how I left my coffee unfinished and I have no idea how the kids entertained themselves meanwhile. With the book I stepped into some other life, that life was not mine, but nonetheless was very familiar. Almost as the fall in its present colors.

The whole day we hiked and played in the snow. And as I enjoyed the simple things with kids I was also thinking about my uncle that was sick in Moscow and I was worried about him. And then I told myself that there is nothing I can do and I just have to live my life and take care of the kids. In any case, if I would be very sick, this is what I would like others to do. I would not want my family to be worried about me. Life was this way – you have to live through things finding balance between being present to every side of life and not worrying worthlessly.

I opened the red book again when the kids were swimming in the pool. I first read in the hot tub, but then it became too crowded and I sat on a sofa facing the pool. I stretched my body under the last beam of afternoon sun, my legs were still wet and I was getting cold. And then the book got the rest of me.

The moon was beautiful that night. It was the thinnest moon I have ever seen, with the outline of the full round moon as a shadow. It was low, right above the mountains, and I looked at it while the kids ate their candies. I held my son’s hand, it was small, cushiony, and a little bit sweaty. We had an argument before dinner and I had to raise my voice at him quite a bit. And he cried and I felt the pain of having to be angry at him. He looked helpless, as if he never did anything right. And the pain was the shadow of my love for him.

I finished the “Persepolis” book laying in diagonal on the opened sofa bed in our hotel room. The kids were getting ready to sleep in the bedroom as I read the last page and closed the book. I remembered how I was left to live by myself when I was 14. I was in Barcelona and I could not remember if I was scared or not. I just remember how my dad bought me a table set that consisted of a few plates, a cereal bowl, and a tea cup. It was purple and made in Portugal. And when my parents left I looked at this set on my kitchen counter and I felt very hollow. But then I had committed to a new life and there was meaning to it.

I still had two of the purple plates and the tea cup. The cereal bowl broke years ago.

I went to the hotel lobby and as I was going down the stairs there was a couple. They were American, in their fifties probably. He had a kind and simple face and grey hair, and she was making some remarks about fishes in the pond. There was no complexity behind his wrinkles. And I suddenly understood why I could not fall in love with American men. It was not the lack of kindness.

I got an espresso from the bar, went back to my room, filled the bathtub, and kissed the kids goodnight. In the bathroom I took off my clothes, got into the tab, and did not think about anything. Or else I was afraid I would cry. I just sat there peacefully feeling the water on my skin.

Two Gold Elephant Pins

We were staying next to a square window. All I remember was the right lower corner of the window. It stroke me how perfect the straight lines of the window corner were. Through the window I could see the swimming pool. It was a large rectangle. Blue, white, and very still. The corner of the pool did not fit into the corner of the window and it created an intersection of geometrical figures. And I was staring at these figures trying to see some hidden magic behind them. But there was none.

When I looked over the pool there was a straight line of cypress trees. The cypresses were perfect. Tall, elegant, not like on Van Gogh paintings, but unnaturally perfect, like plastic Christmas trees. They created a straight line on the further end of the pool.

I looked at him and I knew that he saw the same lines that I saw. His son went running down to the pool. And we stayed next to the window looking at the blue water below and waiting for his son to appear next to the pool and jump into the water.

*     *     *

There were a lot of dark corridors in that house. Finally I found the room I was looking for. The room had no shape, or I could not see the shape in the darkness. And there it was, the old piano in the corner. I could barely see it. The top of the piano was covered with small boxes and chests. Those chests that you put jewelry in. I opened one box carefully and there was a necklace enrolled in a thin handkerchief. I closed the box. I opened another one, this one was a large black box tied with a ribbon. I took the ribbon away, a purple velvet ribbon, and opened the box. There were some coins, a small statue out of malachite, an old watch, and a few precious stones. My grandmother loved malachite. There should be a small malachite box as well. I looked for it but could not find it. May be it was lost. Then there was a wooden box, and I opened it and then I clearly remembered what I was looking for. Two thin gold elephant pins. Those were extremely old, from thin gold with ruby eyes and some more jewelry decorations on their backs. One elephant pin was bigger than the other. I could not remember the story of these two elephants, but I knew there was a story behind them. My grandmother told me the story many times. Somebody brought those elephants from India as a gift to somebody in our family for saving somebody’s life. I was four then, I used to take both elephant pins in my hands, admire them, touch their ruby eyes, and then pin them on my lapel and run around the house imagining I was a princess from India. And I felt hidden magic power when I wore them. All the jewelry my grandmother had was magical. I felt the ruby ring on my finger and continued opening boxes looking for the two gold elephant pins. They might have lost their polish but I knew they must be in one of the boxes on the piano. It was just very dark around.

*     *     *

We were staying outside. The breeze smelt of sea water and we felt it on our faces and bodies. We stood next to each other on a wide lawn, our feet on the grass. It was very soft and warm. As it is in spring in this part of Europe. In front of us there was the road, the sandy beach, and the sea. And the sky was blue and open. I kneeled with one knee on the grass to pick up something and as I was lifting my head I saw a line of small uneven bumps on his skin above his waistline. “What is it?” I asked. “A scar from an old cancer,” he answered. “It is all past now. Do not worry.” I looked at him and I did not worry. I knew it was all fine.

*     *     *

I woke up at dawn. Cold morning air was entering the room through the blinds. I felt scared of my night dream. Two gold elephant pins. I needed to find these two gold elephant pins. They had the magic. And I remembered every detail of them, as if I saw them yesterday.