December 21, 2017 by The Citron Review
by Jessica Clements
When you ask if I took a gap year, we are in the cafe, cradling mugs of warmth, and tired from trawling bookshelves for titles to add to our already too-long lists. It’s our tradition: to meet up and spend hours buried and inspired among others’ words before heading with our heavy bags and emptied wallets to rest so we can talk about things like books and travel and words, our own this time. We commiserate over unfinished stories and illegible sentences jotted down at 2 a.m., and give each other advice over what we’ve been working on.
I tell you about how I am trying to write more personal stories, and that sometimes I cannot find the words for things I struggle to say. Like the almost-year I spent in a hospital at nineteen, hooked up to a feeding tube and cutting glossy pictures from pages of the out-of-date magazines I found in the lounge. I think of the shiny image of the Eiffel Tower with its cherry-blossom-filled green strip of park out in front that I blue-tacked to the back of my door, not as a hope but a hunger that the old crinkled pictures never seemed to fill. I want to ask you if it would count as a gap year, but the words get stuck in the back of my throat and I start coughing on the after-taste of peppermint tea.
When you ask if I took a gap year, we are in the café, but it’s only a few weeks before you leave to go away. You talk about how you’ll be living on your sister’s couch in Toronto, attempting to wrestle with the remainder of your PhD while immersing yourself in things like ice hockey and maple-leaf candy.
I shift uncomfortably on my chair, the wooden seat hard on my shrunken behind, my homebound feet beneath the table beginning to itch. I wonder if you notice the way that my jeans have grown baggy around my legs. I wonder if you read my work and notice the changing structures of my slow and starving mind.
When you ask if I took a gap year, we are in the café, and you’re telling me about the exchange year you spent in Brussels as a teenager. How you were passed between host families before you landed on one that made you feel at home. You tell me how you still keep in touch with them now, posting letters back and forth in an effort to retain your French.
I think about how I didn’t escape the country until I was twenty-seven, when my father was there to help me lift my suitcase off the train in Paris. How only then did I stand among the rose bushes in Monet’s garden, clumsily splitting a macaroon with my mother and dissolving my half of that delicate almond shell to stave off a sugar-low. Needless to say, things weren’t as I’d once imagined. I lived on protein bars and filled myself with sights of cobbled streets and iron-laced balconies, and of bookstores so crammed with second-hand books I had to navigate their rows sideways.
When you ask if I took a gap year, we are in the café, and it’s the last time we’ll meet before you go away. You say we should start up a book club as a way to stay connected throughout your trip, suggesting we handwrite letters to exchange our words.
I talk about how we will become famous, how someone will want to publish our letters, and that the sales will fund our travel and word-filled dreams. I wonder if I could write something to explain the moment I stepped foot off that first train to Paris and felt something like belonging. How I discovered that, like books and starving, travel was another kind of escape, another hunger that I knew I could spend my life chasing and never quite satisfy.
When you ask if I took a gap year, we are in the café, and it’s the last time we’ll meet before you go away, and you are looking at me, waiting for an answer. I begin to try to tell you about how I will write you a story, filled with the words I cannot say out loud. I will tell you about that almost gap year I spent confined to one plain grey room dreaming of Paris, and then about the real Paris and the ways it wasn’t what I’d imagined, but better somehow.
I’m still thinking about how to tell you when I glance up and see you smiling in that way you do when you listen to me lament over my unintelligible work. When you somehow know the things I want to say. I want to ask if you can see them now, the words I cannot find, and I wonder if you already know: there’s hunger in me still.
Jessica Clements lives and writes in Adelaide, Australia. She has an MA in English and creative writing from the University of Adelaide and has been published in various Australian literary magazines and online.