Love and Death at the Gas Station: A French Suicide
July 21, 2014
Hey, hey, I saved the world today. And everybody’s happy now the bad thing’s gone away.
I was in no way thinking along the lines of a proposal. I boarded the plane to Paris with Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song in hand, having had my boyfriend run an X-Acto blade through the 1,000-page tomb, dividing it into three cartable sections. “Who brings such a depressing book to the south of France?” he asked, shaking his head and pressing the knife deeper into the bind. I watched the sinew flex in his forearm and shrugged. “Don’t be silly,” I countered. “The entire country is depressed.”
He asked me to marry him a week into our trip, kneeling down on a grassy hill in Bourgogne. I had to hug myself to keep the wind from whipping up under my jacket, and the sun had dipped so low it was hard to see. “Yes,” I blurted out of custom, and then demurred. “Can I think about it?”
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to commit – we’d lived together faithfully for five years and I wanted kids with him. I’d just always been vocal about the fact that I thought a marriage certificate was irrelevant – not to mention a possible death warrant for romance – and this was the first I was hearing he did not. In retrospect, my position seems facile: what did I know about an institution I had never been a part of? That night, we dined in a hideaway restaurant with a huge brick oven that warmed the entire room. “If I say no, will you still grow old with me?” I asked, the wine drowning out my anxiety. “Of course,” he said without hesitation, and I knew he meant it.
When I ask him now where the suicide happened in the span of that trip, he never says: after I proposed to you and you said maybe. He says, “After Arles and before Collioure.” He cannot tell me how he felt about it or if he was frightened that day, but seven years later he can tell me the exact gas station where it happened. “Here it is,” he says, pulling it up on Google maps. “Just outside of Montpellier.”
I remember thinking that the rest area felt almost comically American in scope – a football field-sized scrape out of the French countryside with a long row of gas pumps and two convenience areas flanking each end of the asphalt. The bird’s eye view of us, a young couple on a road trip pulling into it, dragged to mind the pivotal scene from The Vanishing – not the original Dutch version, but the American remake with Kiefer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock. “She disappears into a gas station,” I explained, shoving the middle section of The Executioner’s Song into the floorboard and pulling on my sandals. “And then Kiefer Sutherland can’t find her and becomes obsessed and then when he finally finds out what happened – well, it’s the worst possible thing.”
“You and your macabre stories,” he joked, parking outside of the smaller convenience store.
“I don’t like them because they’re macabre,” I said defensively. “I read them to be prepared. In case something bad happens.” I walked across the asphalt lot alone to the bigger convenience plaza, looking for food. In the Mailer book I was reading, people also met terrible fates at the gas station. Gary Gilmore killed a gas station attendant, Max Jensen, for no practical reason. I had told my boyfriend that these stories gave me a sense of control – that if I studied them, I might know how to save people. But Jensen had done exactly what Gilmore asked – given him the money, lain down face first on the floor – and Gilmore had executed him anyway. Now I realized there was something more important they were cautioning me against: taking people for granted. The people we love nothing more than a cluster of atoms, too easily destroyed. The narratives implored me to hold tight.
Returning, I cut through a line of cars flanking the side of the store where we’d parked. As I approached the driver’s side window of a small sedan, I saw the back of a man’s head propped against his window. Asleep, I thought, and then the unmistakable feeling that I should look closer. My eyes shifted downward to his door, which was ajar by maybe a centimeter, and through the tiny sliver I could see his arm slack by his side and a steady line of drool trickling down his chin.
I looked around for help. In the car to my left, a middle-aged French couple sat talking and languidly smoking cigarettes in the afternoon sun. I waved my arms, and when the woman in the passenger seat turned I motioned to his window, flipping my palms heavenward.
She shook her head at me and mouthed, “Non”, then shut her eyes and put her head to the back of her hands to mimic sleeping. Then she turned back to the driver and started talking again.
My face flushed – the cliché of the unflappable French blowing off the overdramatic American – but I steeled myself and tapped the couple’s window again. “No dormir, no dormir,” I mouthed, hating my terrible French. Wearily, she got out of the car, stubbed out her cigarette and tapped his window. When he didn’t respond, she narrowed her eyes at me and cautiously walked around to the passenger side. She opened it and pulled out a note: A Dieu, pour tout ce que tu m’as fait.
To God, for all that you have done to me.
I ran into the gas station. My boyfriend stood at the espresso vending machine, a tiny paper cup in front of him. “Come”, I croaked, “a man is trying to kill himself. Can you tell the attendant to call 911 in French?”
Outside, a small group formed around the man in the car: the smoking couple, a pretty teenaged girl and her mother, the gas station attendant and us. The six of us looked like stock characters in a canned farce, frozen in indecision until the mother announced she was a registered nurse. Under her direction, we slipped into action – grateful to stay busy until the ambulance arrived.
Combing through his backseat, someone unearthed sleeping pills and an empty 6-pack of Heineken. With the car doors open, I could see dozens of small stuffed animals, some with the word “Grandpa” etched across it. My stomach knotted: somebody else’s irreplaceable cluster of atoms. My eyes passed over the driver’s legs, which were small and atrophied. He was disabled. To God, for all that you have done to me.
When the paramedics finally arrived, they sauntered out of their vehicle slowly, like tourists stretching their legs at a vista. Even facing calamity, the French took their time. My boyfriend and the male half of the smoking couple helped the male paramedic bring him into a tiny back room inside the station, while the female paramedic asked me questions and the nurse translated. After a while, they carried him to the back of the ambulance and my boyfriend returned with a smile.
“They think he’s going to be okay. They’re taking him to the hospital now, but they’re almost positive he’s going to make it.” I smiled, relieved, and he smiled back. “You saved him,” he said, his eyes uncharacteristically big with adrenaline. “You helped save his life.”
I nodded slowly, unsure how to process it. “But what if it isn’t okay with him?” I whispered. The man had wanted to die, and I had intervened. I was instinctually proud, sure that I had done the right thing – but a small part of me still felt uncomfortable altering another man’s life course. I could never know the extent of his suffering. I looked at my boyfriend: “He was clearly in pain,” I said. “Maybe he needed peace.”
Walking back to the espresso vending machine, he picked up his cup. It had sat there for well over an hour, and nobody had touched it. Only in France, I thought. “If he doesn’t like it,” he said, taking a sip, “he can always try again.”
The next year, I married him.
Cindy Price (@cindyeprice) has written for the New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, The Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Weekly, Hemispheres and The New Leader. Her food and travel writing has appeared in three New York Times anthologies and the American Michelin guides, and she has taught classes for the New York Times Knowledge Network, Mediabistro and Gotham Writer’s Workshop. Born, raised and educated in the South, she now lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and two young sons, Frank and Leo.