a photo of Marseille, France
Julien Capmeil

Mama’s Haven

A short story

It’s on the train that Marni realizes she doesn’t have the address. She has the 15 pages of instructions, including how to use the washing machine, how to hang up clothes outside to dry. She has the warning about pigeons roosting above the bedroom window and the apologies for the crumbling stairs and the hallway in disrepair. She has pages of information about where to buy the best fruits and vegetables, and wine, and about the Arab markets down the hill that sell the best dates and olives (because their host has written that they are almost in North Africa, don’t forget). They have the keys for the building and the apartment. But there is no address.

It’s not possible, she thinks to herself. And then, Trevor will kill me.

They are on the fast train, the TGV, to Marseille, which they almost missed. You had to be there, the travel agent had told them, 20 minutes before it was to depart. But traffic was so bad in Paris, and all the way Trevor grumbled that they should have just taken the metro but they’d had so much to carry. All the books and laptops and things they carted with them. So they rushed to the Gare de Lyon, but they had forgotten that it was what the French called the “black weekend.” That weekend when everyone leaves Paris on their holidays—all the Parisians escaping to the south.

So the train platforms were jammed and the ticket takers indifferent, as the French can be, and they had trouble finding their compartment. In fact, they dashed at the end, just making it, then flung themselves into their seats, which were, of course, facing the wrong way, as Marni had been praying wouldn’t be the case, because sometimes she suffered from motion sickness.

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But then they settled in and were even slightly amused by the scene before them. That French businessman in his tidy suit and tie putting his briefcase overhead when the African man with the shaved head and a pungent odor, in that wifebeater, sat down beside him. The businessman could barely hide his disgust. Marni whispered to Trevor, “Was that about race, class, or just hygiene?” They chuckled. At last they could relax, after running around in Paris. Also, though this was hard to admit, they had felt slightly uneasy in Paris, wary, hesitant to ride the metro or visit Notre-Dame. But now they were going to Marseille to have the real vacation part of their vacation, if one can divide things in this way.

As the train zips along, Marni flips through the pages again and again. She hadn’t really looked over these notes. She knows that she should have well before now, but she’d trusted Danielle to give her all the information required in the attachment she’d sent with the last email, with “Happy Marseille” in the subject line. After all, Danielle works for the Michelin Guides, doesn’t she? And so Danielle had sent her these pages and pages of notes, which will prove useless if they can’t find the apartment they’ve rented for a week.

It’s Marni who plans their travel. Marni finds the apartments and hotels; she books their flights. She’s meticulous. She makes sure that they get two seats in a side row, rather than the middle, when flying economy. She tries to get upgrades whenever she can. She finds affordable Airbnbs in cities like Barcelona and Rome, located not too close to the center of town and all the tourist attractions. She spends months on every trip they take. But she didn’t look over the information that Danielle had sent her until now. She’d been so busy. There’s always so much to do.

What’s the worst thing that can happen?, Marni asks herself. It’s what her father used to say: What’s the worst thing? It isn’t that Trevor has a temper. He doesn’t, not really. But he has a sternness about him. He can go cold on her, sometimes. But she can’t avoid it. She has to tell him. She turns to Trevor. “I don’t know where we’re staying. I think Danielle forgot to give us the address.”

“That’s impossible,” Trevor says, putting down his book.

Marni is shaking. “Maybe you can find it?” She sits watching Trevor, a lawyer, turn the pages slowly, carefully, as if this were a deposition he’s just received. After about five minutes he turns back to her. “You’re right. We don’t know where we’re staying.”

Marni tries to text Danielle, whom they’ve never met and who’s on vacation herself somewhere, in Greece, perhaps, though Marni isn’t entirely sure. But there’s no service on the train. “What are we going to do?” This isn’t the worst thing that can happen, is it? It’s an inconvenience and maybe they’ll be out a little cash, but it isn’t really something bad, except that it feels bad. And Marni has no idea what they are going to do.

All the way down to Marseille they miss the fields of sunflowers and lavender, the castles and ramparts in the surrounding hills. They miss the only glimpse they’ll get of the Alps—all because they are trying to figure out where they are going. Together they scan the 15-page document, searching for clues. Coordinates, landmarks. Ways to at least get closer to the apartment they will be renting for the next week. There is the metro stop near the building: Cours Julien. So they know the general area. There is a mention of a good bookshop that’s “up the street,” so perhaps that will get them closer.

Then they see that Danielle has told them about the hotel that has just been built next door. It is a disaster, Danielle writes, and she is in a lawsuit against the owners because the foundation of Danielle’s building was damaged when the hotel was built. Its restaurant has a large garden with an outdoor bar that can be loud, and the noise can go on until the wee hours. The hotel is called Mama’s Haven, and she’s given them the mobile-phone number of the manager. “You can call him,” Danielle has written, “if things get too loud.”

“So,” Trevor says, “we’ll go to Mama’s Haven and take it from there.”

“And if worse comes to worst, we’ll spend the night at the hotel.”

So it is agreed. They have a plan.

When the train pulls into Marseille, Marni begins trying to call Danielle, but there is no answer. “You have reached the cellphone of Danielle. I am away from my desk …” Now Marni wonders whether the number she has is her cellphone at all, or an office line. And then she wonders whether the whole thing isn’t a scam. She’s read about it. Those people who paid $1,000 for an apartment in New York, only to arrive at a parking lot. Or that young man who was held captive by his Airbnb host in Brussels. But Danielle had come well recommended. She had more than 60 reviews for her place in Marseille.

Marni isn’t sure why they picked Marseille. It seems as if it was Trevor’s choice. He likes those gritty cities. And he wanted the south. He enjoyed Paris, London, Rome, Tokyo, but he was more interested in the fringes, the outskirts. Not that Marseille was exactly off the beaten track, but you could almost skip a stone to North Africa. Tunisia, Libya, Algeria weren’t that far away. It was tucked into the edge of no return. So they compromised, as they do on most things. They are good at compromise. They share their entrées in restaurants. They alternate going out with his friends on Friday night and hers on Saturday. Or if they stay home one night (Trevor’s preference), they go out the next (Marni’s). On this trip it is 50-50. A week in Paris, and now a week in Marseille.

They had, of course, planned this before the Bataclan attack. Marni thinks they wouldn’t have done so afterward, but they’d already had their tickets. It was a terrible thing, a tragedy, but it seemed as if life would go on and Paris would be Paris, and besides, they didn’t have travel insurance. That wasn’t the only reason they went ahead, though it was a factor.

As they leave the station, they are met with a blast of hot, boiling air. The stench of the city, fetid, rotting, shocks them. And the light. It is as if they have just emerged from a cave. This light is so bright that it almost burns. No wonder van Gogh, Matisse, Cézanne came to Provence to paint. It was for the light and the shadows. Still, they feel as if they’ve walked into an incinerator. It has been a long journey, hot on the train, really, and with this glitch in their plans and riding backwards, they are tired.

They stand in the line for a taxi. Danielle had warned them that the apartment was quite close to the train station but that the taxis might overcharge. “Do not pay more than 10 euros for a cab,” read her instructions.

Marni tells the man who is ushering people into cabs, “Mama’s Haven.” He is small and wiry with greasy skin, and he barely looks at her. “Twenty euros,” he says. He says it in French that they can hardly understand. This must be the Midi dialect she’d read about.

Marni shakes her head. She knows how to bargain. “I know it is a 10-euro ride.”

The little man, who seems like a thug, turns his back on her. “Twenty from here.”

Then Trevor steps in. “If he thinks he can pull one over on me, he’s got another thing coming.” It sounds like something a cowboy might say before a gunfight. Trevor never talks that way, but he is so earnest that Marni almost laughs. Instead they walk away from the taxi stand toward the bustling street, where traffic zips by. They try to hail a cab, but the ones they flag won’t stop and instead drive up to the taxi stand, where that same man stands guard. At last, defeated, they surrender. “All right,” Trevor says, “take us to Mama’s Haven.”

It’s the principle that bothers them, of course. After all, what does the ride come to? Not much more than $20. Still, it reminds Marni of that time in Fez when the guide the hotel set them up with finally broke them down, and they ended up buying a rug that has never left their closet. “It was made with the blood of widows,” their guide kept saying. Those tourist traps you fall for because you are in a strange place and vulnerable and you don’t know all the rules.

The greasy man takes them himself, and now they really know he is ripping them off. This annoys them as much as anything, but they are too drained to argue. It is hot in his black SUV as he drives them on a winding route through old Marseille, in and out of one-way streets that seem like a maze they will never get out of, and as he is driving Marni is sending texts to Danielle that read, “URGENT. PLEASE ANSWER.” She doesn’t really notice the twists and turns they make, the laundry hanging out to dry, the dirty streets, the old buildings by the sea.

This will all work out, Marni thinks. We’ll get to the hotel, where we’ll have an iced tea and regroup. Danielle will write back to them. They’ll have the address and, voilà, they’ll be in the apartment. Marni had been thrilled by the pictures. The white walls, the French doors that opened onto courtyards of ancient houses, the small balconies. The shelves lined with books and records. It would be the perfect place for them to retreat and rest. They will go to the sea and visit the famous Calanques (which Trevor keeps referring to as the Colonics because he can’t pronounce the name), perhaps spend a day in Cassis. All of that is waiting for them.

“Mama’s Haven,” the driver says. He doesn’t get out to help them, and Trevor doesn’t give him a tip, though in Europe you really don’t have to tip anyway, do you? Besides, you wouldn’t tip someone who’s ripping you off. They walk from the hot, blaring sun into the almost cold, black lobby of the hotel. At first neither of them can see in the darkness. The only sensory organ that seems to be working is their ears. Disco music is blasting. Slowly their eyes adjust. To their left is an enormous bar lit only with deep-blue lights that remind Marni of an aquarium. Thirty-somethings are sipping cocktails, though it is fairly early in the afternoon. In the austere lobby, it is difficult to see where the black floor ends and the black walls begin.

Since Trevor speaks French better than Marni does, he decides to go up to the reception desk, where he struggles to explain their problem. The clerk listens and then, without a word, begins typing. A few moments later he replies in English, “I have one room available for tonight, sir. It is 350 euros.” Trevor hits his hand to his head. He turns to Marni. “What do you want to do?”

“It’s my last room,” the receptionist says, not without some contempt. Marni isn’t sure it is their last room.

“Can we leave our bags here for a minute while we talk? Could you hold the room for us for 10 minutes?”

Now the receptionist doesn’t look at them. “Ten minutes.”

Everything feels like a rip-off. They’ve been in Marseille only half an hour, and they’ve been fleeced twice. But what alternative do they have? Trevor and Marni go out onto the street. “I hate it when I speak French and they answer in English.”

Marni nods. Why does he care about such a petty pride thing now? “I know,” she says. “The French are that way …” And of course they are. Everyone knows how the French are about their food and their language. How arrogant and at times pointlessly mean they can be.

They almost decided not to come to France. To just cancel the whole thing, never mind the loss. The events of the past year had given them pause. Trevor was a survivor, after all. He should have been in the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. He had a breakfast meeting there that was called off at the last minute. Someone had a toothache. At dinner parties he’d shake his head. “It wasn’t my appointment in Samarra,” he’d say, and people would nod thoughtfully, though Marni often had the feeling that they didn’t know what Trevor meant by that, and it would be so awkward to explain about the servant in the marketplace who meets death and so on.

Marni checks her phone one more time. No text from Danielle. “What do you want to do?”

Trevor is shaking his head, trying not to be annoyed. “Well, we both had a responsibility to look at what she sent us, didn’t we? I mean, I’m used to you doing the checking, but you’ve been busy.”

“It’s my fault,” Marni says. “I should have checked …”

“We are both responsible.” He sighs. “This is ridiculous.” They go back into the hotel and take the room.

Their room is a study in black and white, with a series of complex light switches and faucets that are difficult to figure out. Exhausted, they put down their things and both take a shower. Then they flop on the huge king-size bed in the ultramodern room that does look out onto some old buildings that appear as if they might collapse. That old European look is what Marni was hoping for. They fall asleep, and wake up hours later. It is after 10 o’clock and dark out now. Marni checks her phone to see whether she’s received a text from Danielle, but nothing. “She’s probably on some isolated beach somewhere. In Crete or something with no reception.”

“I have an idea,” Trevor says as he pulls on his trousers, his shoes. “In the morning we could go door-to-door and see if the key fits into any of the buildings. After all, Mama’s Haven has to be close enough to cause a problem with the foundation and make noise to bother the people living there, right?”

Marni nods. “Good work, Sherlock!”

Trevor smiles and takes her by the arm. They are very hungry now. Too hungry to wander around, so they decide to eat downstairs, where they are without question the oldest people in the restaurant, and they aren’t even 40 yet!

Dinner is slow to arrive, and they spend most of the wait watching another couple, with two children who should be in bed but instead are throwing tantrums at the table next to them. They think about moving to another table, but Marni thinks it would be rude and perhaps make the parents feel badly about having their children up until almost 11 o’clock at night.

They’ve been married for five years. No kids. They’ve gone back and forth, but in the end they don’t think they want children. Trevor is an entertainment lawyer, and Marni is an architect whose specialty is brownstone restoration. They have their careers. Their daily spin or yoga classes. They eat out all the time. Like many of their friends, they don’t want to be burdened. No dog either. Besides, they like to travel.

At last their meal arrives. It is served on wooden plates. Fish and salad. The fish is fried, which wasn’t clear on the menu. They eat quickly and head upstairs. They think they won’t be able to sleep because they took a long nap in the afternoon, but within moments they drift off.

They are up early, trying to slip the larger key in the doors of buildings near the hotel. They have decided to work strategically, moving building by building away from Mama’s Haven. The street is surprisingly dirty, with trash everywhere. They have to be careful where they step. Already that North African sun is beating down on them. When the key doesn’t work in the first two locks, they begin on the buildings farther down the block. As Trevor fiddles with the key, Marni leans casually against the wall, attempting not to look suspicious. It would be difficult to explain that they are not criminals trying to break into people’s homes. “I don’t think my French is good enough to explain that,” Trevor says.

“We could just act like dumb tourists who don’t remember where we’re staying.”

Nous sommes perdus,” Trevor says. “We are lost.” He smiles at how quickly his college French is returning. At the fifth building, the key opens the front door. “Bingo!,” Marni shouts. They enter a hallway of broken stairs, with clumps of plaster on the floor. It looks like a construction site. Marni vaguely recalls in Danielle’s magnum opus a description of the hallway in disrepair. “Do not be dismayed,” she wrote.

So now they have the building, but it is six stories high. Do they try to open every door? “We can’t just go from door to door, putting our other key in the locks. What if people are home?”

They decide to knock on doors. If someone answers, then obviously it’s not that apartment. An elderly woman comes to the first door and glares at them. “Excusez-moi, Madame,” Marni says, almost with a curtsy. They continue up the stairs. A young mother answers, then a teenager, a man in his boxers. Marni leads the charge with Trevor pulling up the rear.

“Maybe this isn’t the way to go about it,” Trevor shouts up at her. He is a floor below, reluctant to climb any higher. At last, on the fourth floor, Marni knocks and there is no answer. Hesitantly she puts the key in the door, and it opens. “Eureka!” she shouts. As Trevor comes huffing and puffing up the stairs, Marni walks into the pristinely white apartment, darkened now because in the Mediterranean style, all the shutters are latched. It is stifling hot—the place has been closed up for weeks. So hot she thinks she will faint. Marni begins to move through the apartment, opening windows to get the air flowing. She recalls what Danielle wrote in her manifesto. “Marseille is always cooler than Paris, especially when those sea breezes blow.”

She pulls back the thick velvet curtains in the bedrooms, shoving the French doors open as wide as she can. She moves on to the kitchen and living room, which is large and white and spotless. It is a beautiful apartment, and she opens the shutters and the windows, and while the view of the old port of Marseille is spectacular and old and dilapidated and quaint and just what Marni hoped for in this flat, there is no breeze from the sea. There is no breeze at all. In fact, the air is perfectly still.

Trevor, who’s just coming into the apartment, sees her rummaging around. “What are you doing?”

“I’m looking for the fan. Danielle said she had a big fan.”

Tucked in a corner in what Marni assumes is a child’s room, there is a standing fan, but it is hardly big. It’s tall, but small. Marni turns it on. The fan blows hot air into her face. Marni finds that if she stands directly in front of the fan, she gets a breeze. She moves it into the living room. They go back to Mama’s Haven and bring their belongings to their place and settle in. Marni loves the apartment. The white curtains that billow out in the occasional hot breeze that blows up from North Africa. The whiteness of it all compared with Mama’s Haven. Marni shudders. “That was hell.”

“Yes,” Trevor agrees, “but it was cool.”

Trevor comes up behind her and puts his hands on her shoulders. “Someday we’ll laugh about this.”

“I bet we’ll be laughing about it by next week.”

“We’ll be dining out on it,” Trevor says, pulling her to him despite the heat, kissing her, running his hands through her thick brown hair.

Afterward Marni unpacks. As she’s hanging up her clothes, she realizes that she’s forgotten her blue summer dress, the one she planned to wear when they walked by the sea. She is annoyed at herself for forgetting. It was perfect to wear in Marseille. In the eaves she hears the pigeons that Danielle said would be roosting there.

It is still early as they head out. They stop at Place Paul Cézanne for coffee. The café is actually an offtrack betting parlor, and all around them men are placing their bets. They head down the hill to the North African markets, where in her notes Danielle has promised they will find purveyors of dates and spices and roasting chickens. There is a breeze as they walk down the rue d’Aubagne, heading to the long street of the Capucins. From the top of the hill they have views of the harbor, the sea, and the rooftops of old Marseille.

As they descend, the world around them changes. The dull, dirty streets become washed and scrubbed, planters with blooming geraniums are in front of every store. They pass hair salons with pictures of African men, their hair buzzed circa 1980 New York. A tall, handsome black man is sweeping the front of an Ivory Coast restaurant. They come to a world of spices, colors, smells, curries, turmeric, sugared fruits, dried fruits, nuts, tea from Sri Lanka, China, and Indonesia. There are shops for soap and for grain. In a spice shop they buy a bag of the sweetest dates they have ever tasted. They buy olives and cheese. They eat an Arabic crepe soaked in honey.

They turn onto a larger street that is much more crowded, and suddenly they find themselves caught up in a sea, a tsunami, a flash flood of humanity that stuns them. It seems to have come from nowhere as it surges around them, past them, surrounds and engulfs and carries them along. A crowd that can drown them or just choose to ignore them. The street is filled with the young, the hungry, the idle. It is as if with one step they have left Europe and walked into a street of Algiers, Tangier, Tunis. Africa is just a boat ride away.

Women from Mali in elaborate wrapped dresses and head wraps that resemble enormous flowers sell yellow fruit from baskets. Muslim women in white and lime and pale pink scarves pull their children through the throngs. Arabs hawk their wares, selling socks, fans, watches, fake Louis Vuitton and Prada bags, slippers, miniature Eiffel Towers, key chains, scarves. Some are speaking various dialects from Africa, Arabia. Others are speaking French and Ligurian, Italian and Spanish. A man rocks a screaming baby in a soggy diaper that he will never change. Another man sits in a wheelchair, his right leg raised and bandaged. His foot is missing. His junkie girlfriend pushes him along. They are both shouting into their cellphones. Meanwhile, the elderly try to shove their shopping carts through the throng.

An Arab carries a huge electric fan, and for a moment Marni contemplates offering him money for it. Pregnant women are rubbing their bellies. Asian women in shorts with dyed red hair giggle on street corners. Everyone is doing a deal, selling something. No one knows what will happen the next day.

This is where accidents occur, where someone will yell in your ear or spit in your face or steal your bag. It strikes Marni as they make their way down these market streets that they are no one. They are just two of millions who rise and fall and emigrate and immigrate and come crashing like a great wave onto these shores. They come crashing down on you, carrying you along, and there is nothing you can do, not even step aside. There is nothing you can do to get out of the way.

Marni feels as if she will suffocate in the crowds. She’s never been able to handle mosh pits, stadiums, packed trains. Breathless, she grabs Trevor by the arm, pulling him toward an alleyway. “I need to get off of this street,” she tells him. Trevor guides her by the elbow, leading her down the passage. They come to a corner shop that is decorated in blue and white tiles. Inside, shoppers and merchants are sipping cups of sweetened tea. “Let’s go here.” And Trevor follows her in.

It is a beautiful little shop with pastries lined up in perfect rows and dry tea in glass jars labeled from Sri Lanka, Japan, Morocco. Marni and Trevor select the teas they want, and the waiter brings them in red and blue glasses that are at first too hot to touch. They sit for a moment, bent over, sipping without lifting the glasses to their lips and munching on cookies sweetened with honey and almonds. The waiter comes by. “How is your tea?” he asks. He is a handsome man with salt-and-pepper hair, but when he smiles, he has bad teeth. They are crooked and yellow.

“It’s delicious,” Marni says, and it is.

Tea, the waiter explains, evokes the memories of childhood. It is all in the tea. “What memories do you taste in yours?” he asks Marni.

“My wet dog when he’d get out of the lake.”

The waiter laughs. It seems as if he can picture the wet dog. “And what do you taste, sir?”

Trevor thinks for a moment. “It’s the smell of the cemetery near my home at night. My friends and I used to go there when I was a boy.”

The waiter looks at Trevor oddly, as if there is suddenly something frightening about him. Then he slips away. “Well, that was a conversation stopper, wasn’t it?,” Marni says.

“I guess so. Let’s head back.”

They finish their tea and trudge up the hill to their apartment, laden down with the food they’ve bought. Marni is surprised at the heat. It isn’t like anything she’s ever known. It’s as if you are walking in an oven. A steady heat that is all around you, even in the shade.

When they get back to the apartment, Marni takes a cold shower, which means sitting in the bath and holding the nozzle in her hand. Then she goes into the kitchen, wrapped in a towel, to help Trevor unpack their purchases. He is setting the table for lunch. He has put out a platter of dates and cheese, figs and roast chicken. A bottle of rosé is on the table. “How lovely!,” Marni exclaims.

Marni digs into their shopping bag to see what else they have bought. She finds some fruit and olives, which she puts into a bowl. Then she touches something hard and cold. Pulling it out, she finds the blue tea glass that Trevor was drinking out of. She holds it up to him. “Trevor, did you steal this tea glass?”

Trevor shakes his head. “No, of course I didn’t. Why would I do that? I have no idea how that got in there.”

“But you must have picked it up by mistake.”

Trevor shrugs. “But I’d know if I picked up a tea glass. Maybe you put it in the bag.” Marni is perplexed. How did the tea glass get into the bag? It’s almost like a magic trick. She has no idea when or how it happened.

“I didn’t pick it up,” Marni says firmly. They both realize that they are about to enter the blaming cycle that their couple’s counselor has warned them against. You don’t always have to win, she hears the therapist saying. Sometimes you win by losing (a concept neither of them has quite grasped). “Well, it really doesn’t matter, does it? We’ll take it back this evening.”

Marni had noticed that the tea shop closes at six and Trevor smiles. “It’s amazing how you remember those little things.” They eat in silence. They are both disturbed by the tea glass, and neither can quite let it go. Whose fault was this? How did it get into their shopping bag? And now they must take it back. They don’t want the waiter to think that for some reason they stole it. What if, it occurs to Marni to wonder, that tea glass is a tipping point? What if the waiter has lost faith in humanity and somehow the fact that they stole the tea glass pushes him over the edge to the point of no return?

Now the heat of the day is upon them, and the apartment is boiling hot. They decide to rest. Marni drags the fan around with her as if it were an IV pole. She finally settles onto the couch with a book, and Trevor goes into the bedroom. When they get up, it is almost 5 o’clock, but it is still sweltering. On the way down the hill, Trevor says, “I think I know what happened. I think that when I was picking up our things to put them into the shopping bag, I must have swept the tea glass in as well.”

Marni nods. “Yes, that’s probably what happened.”

They are proud to be on this little mission. The waiter will be grateful. Somehow they will have made the world a little bit better by returning it. The karmic balance will be tilted slightly in their favor. When they arrive, their waiter is standing out front, smoking a cigarette. He smiles, remembering them, and when they show him the tea glass, he looks at it curiously. “It fell in our shopping bag,” Marni says.

Merci,” the waiter replies, crushing out his cigarette. “I thought that’s what happened.” And without another word he takes the tea glass inside.

They’d planned to go to all those cities whose names begin with A—Aix, Arles, Avignon. But it is too hot to travel and sightsee. They read in the news that this wind, called a sirocco, is blowing up from North Africa to Provence. It is too hot to do anything during the day. At night the noise from the disco at Mama’s Haven is blasting. And it is so hot in the apartment. There really aren’t any of those Mediterranean breezes that Danielle promised. Not to mention a big fan. Whenever they are inside, Marni keeps dragging the fan from room to room. They go out in the early morning, but in the afternoon they are too hot to do anything. They lie in the bed, reading, the fan blasting whatever moving air it can, until after four days of this, Marni turns to Trevor. “Let’s go back to Paris.”

“But we have our train tickets. And where will we stay?”

“I’ll change the tickets. I think I can do it online. And I’ll get us an Airbnb for the weekend.”

“All right.” Trevor seems relieved. “If you want to take care of it, let’s do it.”

It is easier than Marni thought to change the train tickets. Same train, two days earlier. No extra charge. Now that was a small stroke of luck. And she finds an Airbnb studio in the Marais that promises air-conditioning and is less than 100 euros a night. This is so easy. It’s all meant to be. They really won’t be out that much in the end, and besides, they never heard from Danielle and this whole thing feels like a rip-off. Truth be told, Marni doesn’t feel that comfortable in Marseille. She can’t tell from the streets or the neighborhoods where safety ends and danger begins.

The next morning they clean up the apartment and pack their things. They call a cab to take them to the train station. The cab costs half of what it cost them to come here. “It’s all a racket” is what Marni’s father would say. She tried to get them seats facing forward, but online there was no way to guarantee the direction. They inquire at the train station as well, but the ticket agent says that she has no way of knowing. In the end they are riding backwards again.

At first the train is fairly empty, and they are able to sit across from each other, with Marni facing forward, but in Avignon the train fills up. Marni is sitting in a woman’s seat, and they have to switch. She is an attractive brown-haired woman, but she has tears in her eyes. She slumps into her seat and begins blowing kisses out the window. A man stands on the platform blowing kisses back. He is older than she is, with a head of long gray hair. He is frumpy, with a scarf flung around his neck. They keep blowing kisses, muttering “Je t’aime, je t’aime” as the train pulls out. He is definitely not her husband. Has she gone to Avignon for a midweek tryst? Now the woman has her lips to the glass. When she slumps back into her seat, the impression of a kiss remains.

Across from Marni a man is sitting, reading an auto-mechanic magazine. He seems very absorbed in it. As the train moves on, Marni watches as the light of Provence recedes, the skies turn gray, and the land becomes brittle and brown. She has yet to see a field of lavender, and now she knows that she won’t. At least not on this trip. Marni turns to Trevor, “Let’s go get a drink.”

He follows her into the café car, which is filled with travelers, including two gendarmes. One is almost 7 feet tall. Marni stares up at him. It’s as if John Wayne is guarding her train. She orders a glass of rosé, and Trevor gets a beer. They sit on stools, looking out the window. The train is oddly calming, soothing. The man next to them is an American from Texas, and he starts to tell them his story out of the blue. He was on the train earlier that day, going to Paris. His wife wanted some space (in other words, they were having a fight), so he got off the train to stretch his legs in Avignon. And the train took off, just like that, without him. He snapped his fingers to show them how fast. He had nothing with him. No luggage, no passport, not even his wallet. The stationmaster was understanding and helped the man get a ticket back to Paris. His wife, he tells them, will meet him at the station. “I guess she got the space she wanted,” he quips.

The man from Texas starts speaking to the giant gendarme about guns. He is telling the gendarme how the French need to arm themselves. “You need more guns,” the Texan says. Marni and Trevor finish their drinks in silence, and then return to their seats. Now the woman who was blowing kisses is sleeping, perhaps dreaming of her lover, wanting to hold on to that moment longer, not ready to let it go. The man with the auto-mechanic magazine is speaking into his phone rather loudly.

As they sit down, Trevor makes a face, and the man gets up to go between cars to talk. They are glad to be going back to Paris. They got to see Marseille. That was good. But they are disappointed as well. They didn’t make it to the Calanques. They didn’t get to see the wild horses of the Camargue. “Well,” Trevor says, “we’ll have something to come back for.”

“That’s right.” This pleases Marni to no end. The notion of having something to come back for, but definitely it won’t be in July or August. They’ve already decided this. They never want to come to Europe again in the summer. “Why is it that the Europeans have no air-conditioning?,” Marni muses.

“And no screens on their windows,” Trevor adds.

It is what they like about travel, though. The way other people do things. The not knowing. And they had that funny experience of not knowing where they were staying. It will be a good story to tell when they get home. “That was so inconvenient,” Marni says.

“And expensive,” Trevor adds.

Marni nods, but she feels badly. It was really her fault. She should have checked. She should have made sure, but on the other hand, Trevor never blamed her, which showed progress for them as a couple, didn’t it? Anyway, what’s important is that they got through it, and they managed despite the heat to have a good time. She checks the weather in Paris and sees that, though it is raining, it will be cooler. “I’m glad we decided to go back to Paris early,” Marni says, yawning.

“So am I,” Trevor says and yawns as well. Yawns are contagious. They are joking, and then they both grow drowsy. It is almost as if someone has sprinkled fairy dust on their heads, and they fall asleep as the train speeds along beneath them.

Marni isn’t sure what startles her out of sleep. Perhaps it is a rumbling she hears somewhere in the back of the car, or perhaps it is just when Trevor gets up suddenly. Or the ping of a text that comes in. The text is from Danielle. “Sorry! My bad.” Do people all over the world say “My bad”? Danielle includes the address of the apartment where they’ve just spent the past five days and offers them a slight refund.

Marni laughs to herself. Then she looks up because she wants to tell this funny ending to Trevor. The end of their silly story. Why did he get up so suddenly? She calls out his name, pointing to her phone. Trevor is bounding down the aisle toward the front of the car with a strange sense of purpose. Would he walk that way just to go to the bathroom? A man in a grimy T‑shirt with a fixed stare in his eyes is moving through the car. He has something slung across his chest. “What is that?,” Marni calls out. But Trevor doesn’t answer. He’s rushing toward the man.

For an instant Marni freezes. She thinks she should warn her fellow passengers, and then fling herself under the seat. She waits to see what Trevor will do, but he goes past the man. He was just going to the bathroom after all. The man walks toward her but doesn’t seem to see her. One of his eyes doesn’t move because it is made of glass. He has a small pack slung across his chest. He goes past her into the next car.

A few moments later Trevor returns, and she slips her arm through his. For the rest of the ride the sky turns grayer until they are on the outskirts of Paris, where it is raining but less muggy and warm.