There is a collection of objects inside a Louis Vuitton box, in a suitcase, under a coffee table, at my friend’s apartment, in Chambéry, France. We discover it one night while talking in the living room after dinner.
Hey, have you ever opened that thing?
Nope, let’s see what’s inside!
Someone else’s artifacts are inside. They belong, or belonged, to a young man named Yu Zhang, a previous tenant. These are the remnants of a former life:
-A handwritten contact list of Chinese phone numbers (hastily scrawled and marked by coffee stains)
-Yu’s social security and student cards
-An unused notebook
-A booklet on How to Write C.V. and Covering [sic] Letters
-The Bible in Mandarin (while looking at its pages uncomprehendingly I’m struck for the first time by the beauty of the characters)
-A Catholic catechism in French
-A hymnal in Mandarin
-A new testament in French
-An illustrated Jehovah’s Witness Bible in Mandarin
-A bulletin from a service at the Chambéry cathedral dated 1-18-2009
-An old Wi-Fi router
-Romantic correspondence in Mandarin between Yu and a Chinese girl (all letters are addressed using the western nicknames of Nicholas and Rosaline, respectively. Those from Rosaline are written in glitter gel pen, with many exclamation marks and hearts. One letter says Happy Birthday in French. Two of the letters have locks of hair attached to them with scotch tape)
-Many 5x8 photos of a girl (presumably Rosaline)
-Tickets to Gran Torino from 2008
-A tourist map of Geneva from 2008
-Photos of a man (presumably Nicholas) holding up signs in front of different landmarks in Chambéry
-L’Amour à Rome, by Pierre Grimal
-A receipt from O’Cardinals (the most popular pub in town)
-A dozen very small photos of the couple (with adhesive backing)
-Thirteen train tickets to Annecy
-Regional postcards (largely from Annecy)
-A copy of La Demoiselle d’Honneur from 1924
We pore over the mementos with voyeuristic delight, trying to reconstruct the mysterious narrative. I think about little else over the following days. My roommate, Xiao, helps me translate one of the letters. It is long and wandering. Rosaline talks of the dress Nicholas got her for Christmas, imagines what they’ll do when he returns to Tianjin, and scolds him for eating only noodles. The attached hair is from Rosaline’s wig (her hair was short and she was wearing a wig until it grew out longer). The letter concludes with a poem, which is a challenge for Xiao to translate:
For He Who is Mine
This day last year I will always remember
The memory, flying invisibly beside me.
Green ocean, blue sky, whispering stream doesn’t stop
Flowing into our hearts.
I’ve dreamt about a wonderland with a handsome prince
His face frequently appeared in front of me
He nods with a smile
Instantly the happiness envelops me in its arms.
A long time waiting suddenly becomes
The happiness of being reunited.
I believe deeply that man is
The one I could spend my life with.
A year later we’re separated by the ocean.
Missing you never ends, without you I will die.
Because of you the sky is blue.
The short separation is for the longer union.
When you return
We will never separate again.
From these scraps of life I piece together the story of Nicholas and Rosaline. Nicholas grew up in Tianjin, the middle-class son of stern parents. He placed well enough in exams to qualify for an exchange program. Nicholas already knew English quite well, but he wanted to learn a second language so he studied French and business at the University of Savoy during the fall of 2008 and the spring of 2009.
Nicholas left the woman he loved in China to learn and explore the world. Rosaline needed to talk more often than he did. They chatted daily using MSN and exchanged letters frequently. With the money she saved from her job at the astronomy museum, and with the help of her parents, she visited Nicholas in Chambéry during his Christmas break.
They were together again, in the same time zone, in a synchronized life. They shared two weeks of bliss. They shared their first kiss, finally beyond the range of parental supervision. They shared a bed. The couple traveled around the region, but they fell in love with Annecy above all. It was there, walking beside the crystal alpine lake, the snowy mountains reflected back at them, that Nicholas said he thought he could spend the rest of his life with Rosaline.
Their last night together was in Geneva for New Year’s Eve. They watched the fireworks from the roof of their hostel, still a little buzzed from all the wine.
Nicholas and Rosaline were silent during the long bus ride to the airport. Upon arrival, they only spoke in short sentences. There was a sadness welling up beneath the surface. It didn’t help that the departure process was so extended and indefinite. They checked in, walked over to security, and kissed. Usually Rosaline cried softly, but, as they stood there, her warm tears rocketed down her face and onto Nicholas’s hands. They kissed.
He waited as she shuffled through the security line. For the first time in two weeks, she was getting further away. It concentrated the moment: Nicholas could see her grow more and more distant, in little shuffled degrees. Step by step, Rosaline made her linear getaway. She avoided looking back; they could only bear to do so for an instant. She mouthed to him, I love you.
Over the next few months Nicholas went up to Annecy almost every weekend, alone. Whenever he missed Rosaline, whenever he needed to clear his head, he took the train up there just for the afternoon. He walked along the shore of the lake. He sat down on park benches for hours. He watched other couples.
As time went on, Nicholas slowly moved out of his social circle of Chinese students and made a greater effort to understand France. Western religion, for example, was alien to him. Some people handed out Gideon bibles on campus, and he sometimes visited churches. It was a kind of scientific inquiry to him. Even as Nicholas learned more and felt more at home in France, deep down he still considered himself an outsider—tethered to another country.
One of the letters in the box is addressed to Rosaline, maybe a draft. I translate it. It says something like:
Dear Rosaline I think of you when I see a couple kissing in public and when I open champagne and when I hear anyone talk about medicine and when I wake up and when I drink tea and when I go to bed and when I take the bus and when I walk home late at night alone and when I make my bed and when I try a new pastry and when I see a beautiful person and when I open my closet and see the purple towel that I bought just for your visit here and when I look at your picture on my desk and when I make a lot of soup just for myself and when I write and when people ask me what I miss most about home. I love you.
Nicholas considered staying in France after he finished studying, and he looked into potential jobs. There was, however, always one question in the back of his mind: how could he delay his reunion with Rosaline? How could he elect to stay apart even one day longer? Every day he thought of the small of her back, her one charmingly crooked tooth, and the way her eyes glimmered when they lay down beside one another. In the end the issue was moot: he couldn’t find a job, and he had to return to China due to visa issues.
One question still remains: why were all of these vestiges of intimacy left in a Louis Vuitton box, inside a suitcase, under a coffee table, at my friend’s apartment, in Chambéry, France? Maybe their love dissolved in distance and time. Maybe he knew the exact moment when he first said I love you and no longer meant it. Maybe it was like discovering flowers were fake when he tried to smell them. He simply left the remnants behind.
Or maybe the night before Nicholas left France he was still celebrating and saying his goodbyes early into the morning. In a haze of fatigue he packed his bags, collecting the life he had distributed throughout the apartment. In his disarray, he missed the old Louis Vuitton box full of keepsakes. A few days later the roommates found it and placed it with the rest of Nicholas’s forgotten knick-knacks. They threw it all in a suitcase that was abandoned by a different Chinese exchange student the year before, and relegated it all to the growing collection of miscellany under the futon to be reorganized intermittently and eventually discovered by us one night after making chicken noodle soup. Maybe now whenever Nicholas looks through all of the souvenirs of their relationship that he collected before and since France, he can’t help but think of the ones he lost. Maybe he senses the absence of evidence, that section of life, as if he were missing part of his own body.