Foreword : I decline responsibility for the poor grammar. After all, this still is a foreign language to me.
It happens sometimes when you sleep. The brain diggs up memories from a distant past, and mix them up with some recent ones, like what happened during your day, for example. Or distorting time and space. Dreams do that.
The strangest thing happened to me Saturday night. I was attending a talent show at an international exchange student week end. Teens from Taïwan to Thaïland, Northern Europe, Australia, US, Canada, Latin America, the strangest party of guests, spending the evening together, in this small town, middle-of-nowhere street. And yet, the scene seemed oddly familiar. A sort of deja-vu from sometime like five years ago : when I was an exchange student myself, distric seven-o-four-o, Ontario, Canada. I did attend a party just like this one, got dressed up, performed a small act, sang my anthem, just like these kids did.
But I wasn’t dreaming. I wasn’t even asleep. I sat there wide awake, blinking furiously, trying to get some focus on the picture, trying to re-order time and space : this was a memory. MY memory. They weren’t there, we weren’t in France. But the harder I stared at their faces, the clearer it became : I was actually staring at my international friends, the ones I made when I stayed in Canada. I recognized delicate Mikie from Japan, showing the girls some ballet steps, under the features of this Taïwanese girl. It was indeed dear Paulina from Brazil, wearing her traditional outfit, chanting around with a bunch of Latino Girls. Gaby, Kata, all of them were here again tonight. Even Bill, the cute Rotex back from Japan, being the equally cute Tim, also Rotex from Japan. It was the same story , featuring the same characters, being told over and over again. Every year. Everywhere. The book I could not close was actually just a chapter, of a yet bigger book.
You would think that five years of time, five happy years of a rich and busy life would have healed the scars of heartbreaking and tearful goodbyes between dear friends. Apparently, not. One nineteen years-old American girl and her guitar ripped open an old wound, with nothing but a couple of notes and a song she wrote about her experience. The chorus going :”it’s almost time for me to go”. She wasn’t finished yet that tears had already flooded my eyes, running down my cheeks. Damn the sound of guitar. It would get to me anytime, it’s like Kryptonite against Superman. I wasn’t moved by the lyrics. Of course not. I am so over this. Obviously.
Four more performers followed her, each of them being rather fun, so I quickly switched back to the joyful mood of this entertaining night. Or so I thought. Not fifteen minutes later, another teen had a slideshow projected on the screen, featuring pictures of the exchange student during their year, during parties, trips, etc... with appropriate music, of course. It was enough to bring the tears out again. I did manage to hold it together when the Fin girl and her Taïwanese friend, both gifted with breathtaking voices, performed a romantic song in a beautiful duet. But when, as a last presentation, another rather nostalgic slideshow was displayed, with many thanks to the Rotary for “the best year of my life”, I had to sneak out of the room, and go up a deserted floor, to let the flood out. Tears were pouring out my eyes like blood out of an open wound. I kept seing over again the pictures from the slideshow. Why on earth were they getting to me like that, I had never seen these people before, I don’t even know their names. But it wasn’t them I was seing on the pictures. I was looking at my own foreign friends, from district 7040. It was torturing. Maddening pain, making me lose all self control. I was caught off my guard. Usually, I don’t surrender that easily. When in a tough situation, I raise my head and fight back. But I didn’t know what I was supposed to fight. I felt powerless. The rage resulting from this complete helplessness was killing me. What am I supposed to do ? How am I supposed to overcome such a distant past, that is obviously still deeply affecting me ? I remember losing a grandfather, and the pain resulting from the loss. I would rather bury ten more grandfathers than having to deal with the pain that silly unharmful talent show woke up last night. Grieving is easier, because people understand. This is different. I don’t even understand it myself, how are other people supposed to help ? I waited over half an hour before being able to pull myself together. I then rallied the dorms and went to bed. I felt empty. I slept a dreamless night, and woke up with the same emptiness.
Pierre had asked me to this week end in order to share my experience with the Outbounds, the teens the Rotary was about to send abroad, this summer. I felt it was beyond my strength. I did manage to tell and share, but I avoided talking about “after”. The return. Any mention of it, I felt the tears ready to come out again. Clearly, I had not been ready to do this. But who would have understood ? It’s been FIVE years, for heaven’s sake, how many more am I going to need to put the pain behind ? Looking back, I noticed it was only the second time in five years that I was indeed, attending this week end, as a “Rotex”. The first time being the same year I came back from Canada. Each year since, I had taken advantage of iron-cast excuses, in order to avoid it. I either had exams, an intership going on, or had been away on a trip. I found it pathetic ; I owe them so much, and I couldn’t gather up the courage to pay them back by passing on my experience ? So this year, when I got Pierre’s email, I quickly checked I was not sitting exams. And I hit “reply” immediately, not allowing me to think it over ; this way (so I thought!) I would not chicken out. But when I booked my return ticket, I chose the earliest train out ; later was too late. Somehow, staying over the whole week end seemed kind of ... long. Pierre mentionned I could get a ride to Metz, and take a train there... So I changed the ticket. But I then half-asked permission not to wear my blazer, the Rotary jacket we custom during our exchange year. I pretexted fear to mishandle it during the long train trip. Yeah, that was the actual reason. It wouldn’t have been because, carrying around my memories from Canada is painful enough, without having to wear them actually pinned to my chest. Of course not.
I had been resisting my own decision all the way there. Honestly, it had been fine, really, until that girl, her guitar and her song. And those slideshows. Turns out, I was even less ready then I tought. For god’s sake I didn’t even know these people ! I did NOT know that girl, and she broke me down with a SONG ? What she did, they did, they brought ghosts out of the closet. I have two lives going on, but I can only live one at a time. Neither is truly complete, for each is missing the part that the other feeds on. I cannot bring myslef to end either one of these lives, because it would mean severing the ties that bound me to the people connected to it ; I cannot let go of these ties. But I could not keep them all. So I let some of them whither and die on their own. Some got ripped off, against my will. Over the years, I healed the wounds resulting from it. That’s just the way life goes. Sometimes, both lives collide, when a memory resurfaces. For a second, I see a clear picture of it, the people, the canadian moment. An angel passes, as they say. But Saturday night was different. Whenever I dream of Canada, I picture myself with the waist-long hair I wore back then. Even when I imagine going back, in the future. But life went on without me. Even if I went back, I wouldn’t be anything but a ghost. For them, I am a memory, just as they are for me. You can’t leave your life on “pause” an expect to start back from there once you return. I learnt it the hard way when I returned to France. Why would going back to Canada be any different?
Sunday morning at breakfast, Pierre jokingly said to me “so, last night, got a bit nostalgic eh ? I guess a certain slideshow did poke a sensitive spot, right ?!”
Yeah, you could say so. I just ripped my stitches out.