By Emily Franklin
Featured Art: Sur La Plage, by John Schriner
I believe it’s possible to know someone’s name and have them be a stranger. I know you are Ihran, but in this world of being able to locate anyone (elementary school bully, heartbreaker, former colleague), I cannot find you. There’s the cruelty of having you Un-Googleable and also the relief of you receding in the rearview mirror of my past.
France. Summer, 1988. I’m an American studying in Villefranche-sur-Mer; a teenager unmoored, supposedly learning to be more fluent in French, but really gathering intel—where to buy oversized icy beer down the hill in the dark, a shack where the old French men gather in stained overalls and barely register me—seventeen and desperate to keep from being fully seen. I tuck my face behind a swathe of blonde hair and order beers – ten francs each – for me and the friends I’ve made. Anandi is Canadian-Indian, Caroline is Korean-American, Everly is from the American South with the drawl to prove it. I’m just blue-eyed and blonde, a master at sourcing beer or soft cheese or finding the hidden beach where we wind up the following day.
I don’t know it, but you, Ihran, see us walk from the university, past the beer shack, past the armed gates that block the ambassador’s residence, past town, to the beach. You watch me extract directions to the sandy umbrella-pined entrance. It doesn’t occur to me then – not for decades – to wonder why I always ask the right questions, why I can glean confessions or answers from anyone, why I am so good at getting others to admit, to open up — that this is so I can keep silent.
Sharp blue ocean. Sky the defeated pink of overripe fruit. We find the hidden beach, sun-oiled, sand-coated. Everly dares to go topless to blend in with the locals. Anandi says she will never blend. I use a pay phone by the pineapple stand. I’ve memorized the calling card number but despite practicing my French daily with the international operator whose greeting is bright as the yellow sunflowers (France telephone, Bonjour!), I still can’t locate my parents who’ve moved to the UK.
You are nowhere to be seen when my friends and I are too hot, too tired, too broke for taxis to take us home. “We’re not lost, though,” I keep saying as we trudge up the hill. This is no consolation for hungry, sweaty girls who now regret our outing. We stop in a small patch of palm shade, looking around for someone – anyone – who might have the answer.
“Something will come along.” This I say aloud though I don’t believe it until you appear on your motorcycle. And you are not alone.
A group of guys, dressed head to toe in black, all on matching motorcycles. Donor Cycles my father called them when he worked in the ER. Forbidden. You introduce yourself – Ihran. We say nothing to your swarm who remove their helmets, unveiling a variety of handsomeness, of skin tone, of hair dark and curled like yours. You stare. I stare back – and I can imagine it all: the rom-com meet cute, the exotic location as backdrop as the gorgeous stranger woos the American teenager. But instead you say, “You can’t be here.”
Anandi tugs at my white tank top, “Let’s go.” I shake her off, challenging your confident stance. “You can’t tell us where we can be,” I say with all of the calm confidence I lack in the rest of my life. I’m a girl unable to fill out forms asking for a permanent residence. I brush off my rootlessness with humor — I filled in planet earth on the form! Untethered to home town, I am also adrift from my body. Sunburned now, my body barely feels like mine after the abuse I suffered at the hands of a family friend (though this, too, I will not understand for decades). All of this is to say, Ihran, that if you are the stranger staring at me on the road from Villefranche-sur-Mer, I am the stranger reflected in your helmet’s visor. Who am I, really?
“I think he has a gun,” Everly says, slow in her Georgia drawl (and because it’s true). Ihran, you are armed and, when I take in the details, all of your buddies are, too. I pride myself in not flinching. In keeping my face placid as the afternoon ocean, flat and impenetrably glaring.
But you notice something. Maybe the pulse in my neck. Maybe Caroline’s trembling fingers on her yellow Walkman. “You can’t be here,” you say again and this time I hear not a French accent, something else. You look at me gently and gesture with a wide sweep of your muscled arm, the black cotton cuffed at the elbow. We turn to find we have stopped in the palmy shade just to the left of the gates with two armed guards. “This is the ambassador’s house.”
“Oh.” My voice is small. Not apologetic but embarrassingly American. Female. My skin itches with sand and annoyance. And then I remember something. “Ihran,” I say and your name is full in my mouth, uses the back of my throat the way prayers do at Rosh Hashanah, guttural – you were by the phone booth near the beach. “Are you following us?”
“I was working,” you tell me. My face is 100% teenage skeptic. Your crew defends you. “He was working! He’s always working.” Ihran sighs. “I was working and then I saw you.” You pause. “You seem lost.”
I want to say I’m not. I want to know exactly the route back to campus and just where I will go when classes end, when I will stop being afraid in my room at night, or learn to fill in those form blanks on my own terms. But right then, I don’t know.
I’m a mother now, Ihran, so this next part makes me giddy for myself and horrified lest my own children engage in such adventures. “I am lost,” I admit. You understand. Not only that we need showers, food, and a ride, but something else. Which is how we all find ourselves behind men in black, with guns, swerving on motorcycles on the French hillside, leaning into each curve, our screams lost to the wind.
Ihran, that dinner outside, the chicken slick with paprika and sprigs of rosemary, wine, and candles. Prayers. You put a match to the wick and I automatically sing, Bharuch ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh ha’olam and on. The Shabbat prayer. I put the pieces together – the guns, the Hebrew, the swarm of men in black. I’m having dinner with Mossad, I imagine saying to my brothers.
“You’re Jewish?” Everly’s eyebrows raise so high they nearly touch her hairline. Her face shows regret – I had been silent with her casual anti-Semitism.
Anandi looks at me half-impressed and a little put off, “You really can’t tell.”
Ihran smiles at me. “You’re a lost Jew?” That was my goal, Ihran, not to stand out. And I’d achieved it until you found me. “You look like my cousin – the rare blonde, blue-eyed Jew.”
I study the thick scar on your upper arm. My scars did not show and right then I wished they did. “And you’re Mossad?”
When I find the stockpile of machine guns in a room that clearly isn’t the bathroom, I demand answers. “Sometimes, you have to do things you wish you didn’t. But you get through.” Maybe you killed someone. Maybe you just miss Israel. When half of your crew bolt from dinner after an emergency phone call, the rest of us clean up and sing while you play guitar.
How brave I was then, believing in my detective skills. You were a man with a gun and a guitar. A Jewish man trained to defend. And that night I found protection in the least likely of places – from a stranger.
“You want to see UB40 tomorrow?”
I told you I’d go. I told you to pick me up. I did not think to get your address. No email. No cell phones. No last names. We would go to the show and dance and sweat and I would feel alive in my body, certain just for a few moments that the world would make space for me, that I would find solace in my body, in myself.
The mother in me wants to tell my younger self not to get on the motorcycle – that is the safe and sensible reaction. But also to tell that same girl not to open the bedroom door at night or to scream, knowing that sometimes screams are lost to the wind and other times they are heard—recognized and saved if only for one magical night in an exotic location. I wish I knew your name and could find you. I want to thank you for the ride home.
Emily Franklin’s work has been published in The New York Times, The London Sunday Times, Guernica, The Cincinnati Review, Blackbird, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Electric Lit among other places as well as read aloud on NPR and named notable by the Association of Jewish Libraries. Her debut poetry collection TELL ME HOW YOU GOT HERE was published by Terrapin Books in 2021. Her novel about the life of Isabella Stewart Gardner is forthcoming from Godine in 2023. emily franklin.com