There was a delightful little restaurant called Gare Saint Lazare in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago many lazy afternoons and moonlight nights ago. She knew, the moment she’d set eyes on a foreign-looking man sweeping the restaurant’s front sidewalk, that the image of him would be forever burned into her heart and memory. There was something curious about the man in his mid-thirties, seemingly misplaced along Armitage Avenue and all alone. He wasn’t a photograph. He was a painting: one she’d seen but could not recall.
She was new to the city of Chicago that autumn, arriving from Fort Lauderdale on a train with half of her worldly belongings the week before. The other half of her once-cherished possessions were sold before she’d said her “goodbyes” to a boyfriend, a roommate, and chums. The Art Deco sofa, table, desk, and chairs would be replaced by inherited and styleless furniture, musty collections of Twain and Dickens, gold coins, stamps, and stuffed rainbow trout she would never hang.
Leaving South Florida, a Spanish-flavored escape, was an idea she’d never imagined. But life happens. Circumstances change. Arriving in the big city in mid-October, when the maple leaves were burnished to red, was the ideal time and long-lost little “what if” she’d imagined when growing up in the far western suburbs.
She exited the three-flat on that glorious blue afternoon, back when incomes, no matter what the jobs, were steady. The foreign-looking man was shorter than she’d assumed on approach and stocky. His oversized brown wool trench coat didn’t help his posture. Neither did the thick, wild hair, mingled with a long knit scarf, an accouterment a la Tom Baker — the current Dr. Who. The man paused when she neared, looked up at her, and offered a genuine “hello.” Pleasantries, since forgotten, followed.
He shuffled inside, the young woman, still in her late teens, carefree enough to tag along. He motioned to the long bar, the sort every corner tavern in Chicago used. Such formidable antiques were compulsory relics, much like pastel-pink buildings lining the illustrious A1A. It was a time when neighborhoods and cities were enclaves and had not yet succumbed to the blanketed madness of national chains and cement boxes that devoured the long-established flavors. The long mahogany bar was an anchor she saddled up against.
The dark cavern was quiet on that weekday. The luncheon crowd had dispersed by the time she found the place. The man mixed her a Long Island Iced Tea. Hungry for conversation, he leaned across the counter. He’d never asked for an ID. She never thought twice about the legal drinking age.
The wood-paneled walls were adorned with black and white photographs, aged to sepia. The frames were crooked, alignment jostled by Sunday afternoon crowds who’d assembled to watch the Chicago Bears. The football team, it was rumored, was headed to the Super Bowl. No one bothered to straighten the pictures. No one really cared, and neither, back then, did she. Her aesthetic sensibilities would change in later years. A fireplace was unlit. A jukebox, nestled next to the front door, was silent.
How she met the man’s best friend since childhood remains a blur, but Said was always there — always part of the new scrapbook and photo album she assembled. There were matchbook covers, takeout menus, and coasters. There was conversation. The Gare Saint Lazare was where she first heard “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” by The Georgia Satellites, the Southern Rock genre out of place for the bistro but never on those languid afternoons. The price of the jukebox was twenty-five cents, but she never paid to hear the song. Said reset the jukebox for her whenever she wanted.
During those private afternoons, she sampled pâté and enjoyed the aromatic crepes and “Plat du jour.” There was a hearty stew. The friendship between the two of them was warm.
The two celebrated her twenty-first birthday at a new bar when he’d moved on.
The recollection would come amid the humor. The Gare Saint Lazare was indeed a Paris train station she’d read about but had not visited in her travels. Unfamiliar with the fine art world, she hadn’t recalled that The Gare Saint Lazare was an impressionistic painting by Claude Monet. But Said was an artist, schooled at The Académie Des Beaux-Arts. Or, perhaps, he’d said “École.” She had seen the painting countless times in her youth in books and paintings by Monet at The Art Institute of Chicago, but she’d never equated the two. There was far too much to absorb in those carefree days of youth.
His youth was spent in Algeria before the War of Independence. Then he’d traveled the African continent in a car. Those were tales he never elaborated on, sparing — no doubt — her still-tender ears from any escapades he may — or may not have — encountered. Those were his private memories — reserved for the oil paintings brushed in crimsons and the effortless sketches, seemingly windswept onto paper.
“Algeria,” he first mentioned. She pronounced his surname on the first try when she saw a photograph of his father riding camelback when the war broke out.
An image of windswept sand dunes flooded her wild imagination. Exotic sands beneath a blazing-hot sun. Gold and yellow ochres. Raw Sienna. A camel rode to victory while a son studied abroad.
He sketched her while she slept on a futon in his apartment after she’d fallen asleep to the sound of an Oud.
Those were careless days, in so many ways, as well.
The Gare Saint Lazare was engulfed by fire long after she’d moved from the neighborhood. She’d been dazzled by the love of her life, then lured away by a pedigree. Two friends drifted apart but never parted in spirit. Those languid days were how she would remember him years later when next they met inside a colorless apartment but for the paintings, stacked away like figments of dreams passed.
For a brief time, filled with sorrow and sadness, they dined on flavorful stew and couscous, listened to Algerian Raï, and remembered: “what could have been.” They were two acquaintances pulling into the train station beneath an ornate clock, carting trunks, wardrobes, and leather suitcases filled with brushes and pens in another century.
Once upon a time, they’d carried worn passports stamped with the colorful entry marks of all the roads she had not traveled, wondrous stories that he shared with her, tales she would one day tell the world.
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