The Ditch

I’m five minutes from my next hotel after over a week driving through the Auvergne, a part of central France known for its wine, cheese, and dozens of dormant volcanoes. My car GPS is yelling at me in French while my phone GPS yells at me in English; I’m surrounded by the sour stench of artisanally mite-infested cheese and day-old laundry that refuses to dry. My thumb is tourniqueted with a bit of toilet paper and a hair tie after, while “dining” at my desk last night at the French equivalent of a Holiday Inn, my too-sharp Opinel missed the link of dry-cured, lightly smoked saucisson an Ardèche farmer had given me and sliced through my finger instead.

Oh, and my rented Renault minivan is wedged in a ditch bordering a field of flattened, post-harvest rye.

Ça va?” I hear, through the ringing in my ears and the deafening sound of my own heartbeat. “Are you OK?” 

I look up to see a man leaning towards my car from the road, his hazards flashing in the twilight. He has a gold hoop through his earlobe – the same one as my father-in-law. Or rather, my former father-in-law.

Ça va,” I answer. “I’m fine.” And then, because it’s something to do, because if I say it enough, it may somehow become true, I repeat it. “Ça va. Ça va. Ça va.”

The man standing outside my window is 50, maybe 55. He’s not old enough to be my father, but I can see some protective instinct stirring under his skin.

Venez,” he says, scrambling down the steep edge of the ditch, his shoes slipping in the mud. He wrenches my car door open. “Come up here.”

It is only once he opens his trunk and I shakingly perch on the bumper that I see just how deep the ditch is, the way that the minivan is wedged at almost a right angle against the road.

“Oh my God. That’s my second rental car. Oh my God. I just got it this morning.”

“Not your day… is it?” the man asks. He chances a smile.

It’s really not. 

This morning, I woke up 140 kilometers from here to see that over the course of a stormy 14-hour drive through natural volcanic forest, I’d somehow torn the plastic off of the bottom of the Volkswagen Golf I’d picked up a week prior, in Clermont-Ferrand (home to the original Michelin guide and a volcano-themed amusement park). The minivan currently sinking into the mud on the roadside in Bresse (home to blue-footed, red-crested chickens protected by the state, the best of which is ceremoniously bestowed upon the French president each year) is a replacement: the only automatic car the local rental agency had on hand. I had to take it; I’m here on assignment, with two weeks to update 500 pages of a guidebook covering hundreds of kilometers. It’s the first road trip I’ve taken on my own since my marriage fell apart.

I’ve never been a strong driver. I was born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which would be reason enough, but I’ve also never had a good understanding of my surroundings: where I am in space, how much of it I take up. I fall over frequently, sometimes when I’m just standing there. I get lost in the neighborhood I grew up in (“Evens go east,” I mutter to myself as I stalk the same block, back and forth, back and forth, trying to remember if I want to be east or west of where I am.) I’m forever covered in bruises from walking into things. It’s kind of a miracle I managed to get my driver’s license at all (which I did on my second try; on my first, I cut off a truck making an ill-timed left-hand turn, leaving my examiner near-speechless, save a few renditions of: “I can’t believe you just did that.” Somehow, I still wasn’t sure until the end of the test whether I had passed or failed.)

My husband noticed my difficulty with navigating the world right away. He used to tease me: for my presque-chutes (almost-falls – a daily occurrence); for my propensity for self-assuredly stalking off in precisely the wrong direction. In a time before smartphones, I would call him in tears from a random street corner, and he would guide me over the phone to my destination. He would laugh, albeit with love in his eyes, and the more he did, the truer it seemed to become: I might be a bilingual journalist, the holder of a Master’s degree from the Sorbonne, but navigating the world remained something he could do that I could not. Born and raised in the French countryside, 400 kilometers north of here, he drove with more facility than I walked. He operated a stick shift like it was an extension of him. He could glance at a map for two seconds and map out an hour’s walk in his mind.

When we first planned this trip to the Auvergne – long before I got this assignment, long before I had the inkling that he might not be the person I would spend the rest of my life with – it was understood that he would be taking the wheel: to explore this rich countryside, to see the volcanoes I thought he was inventing to see how gullible I was. I tried to summit those very real volcanoes seven days and a rental car ago, but the panoramic monorail was exceptionnellement fermé, exceptionally closed. (I’ve often joked that if I write a memoir about my time living in France, this will be its title). With every kilometer I’ve driven – through rocky gorges, down tiny streets so narrow I overshoot my turn and then can’t think for the screeching of the backup warning alert that’s too smart for its own good and that I’m not smart enough to turn off – I replace that perfect, imagined trip with the reality: real and raw. I will never come to the Auvergne with him. I am on my own.

When I first saw the plastic hanging from my car’s undercarriage this morning, unsure of exactly where it came dislodged but fairly certain it was somewhere around the trou du diable, the devil’s hole, a waterfall hidden down paths better suited to a Jeep than my little Golf, my first instinct was to call, not my ex, but my ex-father-in-law: a trained mechanic, stoic and capable and strong. I wanted to call him as I attempted to clamber under the car, the tarmac covered in a film of rainwater. I wanted to call him as I drove around the Saint-Etienne train station, failing over and over to locate the entrance to the parking garage. I wanted to call him as I waited at the same stoplight for the fourth time, and a man knocked on my window to ask me, “Do you know you’ve got something hanging under your car?” and I burst into tears. Of course I knew – I could hear it scratching against the paved road and feel it vibrating in my fingers as I handled the wheel. I just didn’t know what to do about it.

I’ve long prided myself on my self-reliance, on my resilience, on my independence…But somehow, over the course of nearly a decade, I let myself need my husband.

My father-in-law would have known. He would have been the soothing presence he’d been since I met him nearly a decade ago, two months into dating his son. Following a visa snafu, I’d had plans to spend Christmas in Paris alone with a jar of cookie butter. He called and said, “If you don’t get on a train this instant, I’m coming to Paris to get you.”

He hated Paris. He had met me only once. And still, he would have come.

The man who really looks only a bit like my father-in-law is watching me watch the car I’ve just driven into a ditch. I think I’m still talking in a “Ça va” loop. At least I’m speaking French. I’ve been living here 12 years, since I was 19, but usually, in moments of shock, I forget how. It happened when I went into anaphylaxis at an Ethiopian restaurant the second year my ex and I were together. We rode in an ambulance to the hospital behind Notre-Dame Cathedral – the emergency center for the first nine arrondissements of Paris, where we lived. Where we still live, I guess. Just not together, not anymore.

“I think I’m going to shit myself,” I told my then-boyfriend in English, as the tainted food roiled through my intestines. He translated; the firefighters didn’t hide it when they laughed at me.

I’ve long prided myself on my self-reliance, on my resilience, on my independence. I moved to a foreign country at 14, a week after 9/11 rocked my hometown. I clawed my way out of financial straits; marching into prefecture offices following denied work permits demanding a second opinion. But somehow, over the course of nearly a decade, I let myself need my husband.

It started out with small things: his uncanny sense of direction and driving skills meant that I was relegated to the eternal role of passenger; he served as both captain and navigator. Though his brother and father never thought his DIY abilities matched theirs, in my mind, he was a whiz. When we moved into our first apartment together and found the shower was clogged, he plunged it until he discovered the newspaper bunched into the canals and scooped it out with an unbent coat hanger. He spent hours stalking and trapping a mouse, finally spearing it with a chopstick as it crawled up the back of our fridge.

He had an other-worldly ability to suss people out at first glance, letting me know months before that a new friendship would sour. “I don’t know…” he’d say. “I’m not feeling it. There’s something weird about her.” He was always right.

Maybe that’s why the moments I pinpoint as the turning points in the dissolution of our short marriage are always the ones where I’m at fault. It’s easier to tell a story with a bad guy, and it wasn’t him; ergo, it must have been me. But for as much as my storyteller’s brain hates to admit it, the truth is probably far greyer. We both tried our best; we both could have done better. We clung to each other for months, trading off who held on harder, longer. Whenever he was the one to pull away, I panicked. Maybe I thought that for as long as he still liked me, I was likeable. Maybe I thought that without his approval, I would cease to be. 

Maybe that’s why I’m losing myself in work: head-down, yet directionless. Maybe that’s why, in an instant, I lost control.

Maybe that’s why I find myself in my current predicament.

I’m still staring at the car, tallying the cost of a second insurance deductible, while the earringed man stares at me. People keep slowing down and asking if I’m all right; he waves them off on my behalf, and I let him. He is thinking something over; I can tell. Finally, he pulls his phone out of his pocket.

“Bring the orange one,” he says into the mouthpiece. “Yes, that bend. You know the one.”

He pockets it again.

“I own a Land Rover dealership,” he tells me. “My colleague is coming. We’ll pull you out. If we can find the tool we need.”

He opens my trunk, and my clean laundry, which had been drying over the headrest of the backseat, is now scattered throughout the car, a snowfall of lace and cotton.

Vous me permettez?” he asks, with far more deference than moving my underwear out of the way really merits. We search high and low, but the tool that would allow him to hitch my car to his is not where it’s supposed to be. He has to go pick up his kids from school; his colleague is coming, but without this tool, he warns, it will be for naught.

Alone, I claw at compartments – in the floor, in the doors – but I barely know what I’m looking for, much less where to find it. My shoes slip in the mud. I am pushing aside damp brochures given to me by overzealous and overkind workers at various tourism boards: visit our museum; discover our cheese, our artisan lace, our historic castle. And then, suddenly, beneath a leaflet advertising local nougat, my fingers brush against something. I feel like a child on an Easter egg hunt. The hitch tool was not in the right place, but I have found it anyway. Me, the girl who can’t find herself on a map. Me, the girl who can’t find her glasses when they’re on her face. 

The tool for which I have no name in English or in French feels like an object imbued with magic power and sanctity, and I grip it until not one but two cars arrive, hazards flashing, on the side of the road.

I stand and watch my not-father-in-law and his colleague, who has arrived in a Cheeto-colored Land Rover, calling out with sounds more onomatopoeic than semantic as this new man attempts to tow my Renault, the tires ill-suited to this sort of terrain. I watch as a third man – livid, and driving a tractor – approaches, and I steel myself for an argument. I’m usually good in an argument, particularly with French men I do not know, but I feel too fragile right now. 

I hate feeling fragile.

The man emerges from my minivan and approaches the farmer; his smile melts, and he is soon just as loud and livid as the man to whom this barren field apparently belongs. They argue and gesticulate, and after a moment, I watch the farmer climb back up onto his tractor and drive away. I watch the man with the hoop earring climb back into my minivan. I watch as slowly, slowly, the man driving the orange Land Rover pulls it out of the ditch and onto the road, the tires caked with mud and grass and hay.

“I’m just gonna test it, to be sure it’s safe,” the earringed man says, and he and my car, filled with my clothes and my computer and my ID and my camera, zoom up the road and into the distance. I am not afraid.

He pulls it back around in no time and climbs out, passing me the keys. “You saved my life,” I say, and he and his colleague chuckle.

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

I rummage through my car, find the paper bag from Ardèche. “You like saucisson?” I ask, and I hand each of them a dry-cured link. They laugh and try to refuse, but I won’t let them.

That night, when I get to my new hotel, covered in mud, my thumb bleeding anew, I go to the pizza place across the street and ask for a cup of wine to go. The waitress looks at me like I’m an alien – which, of course, I am – but she pours some local white into a paper coffee cup. I carry it back to the hotel, where I sit and sip it: alone, battered, and alive.

Edited by Peter Bailey-Wells, designed by Anagha Srikanth, funded by Sunday Long Read members.