The candle starts off bright but soon goes dim. And that’s OK because the light from outside comes on as the candle’s gone down. The two match each other’s dimness. I sit in the dark with my blanket and the clocks glad for where I am, glad for where I’ve been. France. Back in Laurent’s kitchen, Christmastime.
It is December 23 and Laurent is cooking something that translates in English to greased cock. He has a way of handling things when he cooks. Maybe it’s just because he’s French but it seems like everything is more elevated in his movement, almost musical. He’s a big man but delicate in his touch, the way he drapes raw cutlets in his hands and gently lowers them into the pan. He now chops onions from the inside, meaning he halves them from pole to pole but then flips them on their backs and cuts from the center, says it’s better that way. I trust him, he’s French. Even the potato peeling seems more precise. I’ve experienced this before with the French, my mom’s old friend Gilles. I’d ask him questions like how do you know when it’s done and he’d just look at me like I was stupid and say you just know.
I could be in France again because it was 10 years ago we visited Laurent and his family right before Christmas, driving up from my mom’s house in Germany. In fact it was that trip the brakes went out on her car just as we pulled off the motorway. We would have brought home fresh pastries and cheese and wine and the whole country if we could—for we pined for all that was French we could not obtain or consume three hours away, in Germany.
The light comes up as the candle goes down but there isn’t much light anywhere, it’s more a film of light this time of year, an impression. We don’t eat until 1 in the morning, which I still can’t believe. We start the prep work around 10, Laurent and I sucking down Heinekens. The bottles are smaller than we get in the States, seems you only get three or four good pulls. Laurent is often sweating and seems stressed, finally gives in and goes for a smoke out front. Dawn and I join him, the three of us huddled on the stoop. Laurent outs Dawn as an occasional smoker, one who bums smokes but isn’t addicted. He says if I smoked like that, I could smoke all the time!
When it’s time for dinner we open the sparkling wine and everyone gets some, even the kids. And then the heat comes on as we get into bed, the radiator pipes clank, and we are all drunk and hot in the middle of the night twisting in our sheets.
We wake in the morning on Christmas Eve to a quiet drive home from France to Germany. Looking out from the car, the farmlands harvested and tilled, turned over, all is bare and hardened by the night’s frost. The tread from the large tractor tires frozen in a final movement, preserved in the dirt and mud. The look of the land stretched out like that, used up.
We don’t realize the significance of any of this because we are still in the middle of it. In fact the significance comes much later in life, looking back. Seeing what we could not see in the moment, though we actually see a lot less from a distance. Maybe what matters is only what remains. There is so little it seems, it is mostly gone. But like this light, it doesn’t take much to warm a small room.