An earlier version of this story by Laurie Lesser first appeared in Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine in Fall 2013.
"Damn!" I said, as I put down the phone, feeling terribly sorry for myself. I couldn't believe I was going to miss the funeral of a good friend, a woman who went by the name of Sputnik. (She was born in India on October 4, 1957, the day the Russians launched the first satellite in space.)
"Of course, I understand that you can't make it," her long-term partner Ian had said to me over the scratchy cellphone line. "Just think of us on Monday at 4 o'clock -- 8 a.m. your time."
The service was set for the following Monday, the day after Bastille Day, at Père Lachaise, the sumptuous burial grounds I had visited many times over the years as a tourist, but only once before to attend a cremation.
Ian and Sputnik were both radio journalists, working in different parts of the developing world. They were to have spent a week's vacation in Paris, where they'd first met and worked together and fallen in love.
But for me, an unplanned trip to Paris from Washington for a funeral -- I couldn't possibly justify the airfare. Still, I kept searching the Internet over and over again throughout the day, expecting some kind of miracle. "When else will I see all of these people in one place, together, again?" I asked myself. "How could I not be there?" I took a deep breath and booked a flight.
Sputnik had been diagnosed with cancer 18 months earlier and had been living in India, choosing ayurvedic treatment over traditional medicine. On the plane to Paris, a blood clot in her leg traveled to her brain. She died peacefully in the hospital, in a coma, with Ian at her bedside, holding her hand, before the cancer had a chance to claim her.
I thought back to the eighties and early nineties when we, a group of young (well, young at the time) women living in Paris called ourselves the La Bande des Cinq. The Gang of Five. Martine, Sue, Lisa, Sputnik, and me.
I arrived on the Fourteenth of July. It was a fine, festive day to be in Paris. I met Martine for lunch at Bofinger, the famous brasserie just off the Place de la Bastille. We ordered a bottle of champagne, Sputnik's favorite drink.
"Do you remember the last time we were all here, the Bande des Cinq?" Martine asked me as we ordered our food. "It was just before Lisa left for Dublin, before her kids were born." (Her eldest is now 22. You do the math.) "We met at noon," Martine reminded me, "and one after another, we each paid for a bottle of champagne." By 5:30, she said - and five bottles of Ruinart later - the management was so impressed that they offered a sixth bottle on the house.
I didn't remember -- I blame the champagne! -- but it seemed fitting to be there that day, drinking champagne with Martine. We ate well -- sautéed foie gras and oysters and some cheese and salad for dessert. We cried, we laughed, but mostly we celebrated. We celebrated friendship, we celebrated the passage of time, and we celebrated the sadness -- and loss -- of growing older.
The next day, I'd arranged to meet a friend who was not attending the funeral for lunch at a small restaurant just outside the gates of Père Lachaise. I got there a few minutes early and stood at the zinc bar of a nearby café, and ordered a coffee. Next to me, a man -- who'd obviously been drinking something stronger than espresso -- was showing the woman behind the bar a photograph. "And this is another one of my wife. Isn't she lovely?" I had no idea whether he'd just buried his wife that morning, or if this was a recurring theme, if he was a regular. I looked at the woman wiping down the bar and thought, I bet she gets that a lot.
After my coffee, I went next door to meet my friend. It was a cheery place with good hearty food and filled, I was guessing, half with mourning families and half with tourists, with a sprinkling of locals for whom this was just their neighborhood bistro.
After lunch, as I approached the crematorium, I saw a lot of familiar faces, people I hadn't seen in years. I introduced myself to an English woman I didn't know, who said she'd worked with Sputnik over the past few years, producing independent radio programs, mostly in Africa.
"You might say we were fellow travelers," she said.
I smiled and commented on what a fitting expression that was. She looked at me, puzzled.
"You do know that the Russian word Sputnik means 'fellow travelers,' don't you?" I asked her, amazed that she could have chosen those words randomly.
The ceremony, in English, lasted less than an hour. Friends read from letters and tributes that had come in, played Sputnik's favorite music, and recited from her favorite Rumi poem, Only Breath, one that she herself had posted on her Facebook page not long before:
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath -- breathing human being.
When it was over, Sue and Martine and I made our way to the same restaurant where I'd had lunch, to digest the afternoon's events and to say a last goodbye in the only way we knew. Sitting outside, under the hot sun, we ordered three coupes de champagne.
We talked about our old friend, her strong opinions, her difficult, provocative personality, and the fierce sense of loyalty that lay underneath it all. We admitted that Sputnik could be, at times, hard to take. I recounted the last time I'd seen her, when she visited Washington (where I'm now living) about seven years ago. I was feeling guilty; I didn't feel like I'd been very inviting or hospitable to her. For one thing, it annoyed me that she insisted on smoking in her non-smoking hotel room.
"Well, they promised me a smoking room!" she'd said defiantly, as smoke blew out of her nose.
I took a sip of champagne and said, "That's why I think events like these are so important. It's a chance to get these things off my chest and clear the air."
"Oh," said Sue, suddenly breaking into a laugh. "So it's all about you. I'm glad we've made that clear!"
"Of course it's all about me!" I said. "Isn't everything?"
We parted soon after, hugging, our tears having turned to laughter. We were still, and would always be, the Gang of Five.
When it comes time for me to go, I hope that I am considerate enough to do it on a glorious summer's day in a place at least half as beautiful as Paris. I urge Martine to have a generous helping of foie gras the day before my funeral, and I invite Sue to reveal all the things that have annoyed her about me over the years. I hope Lisa will turn up and remind everyone of the time I showed up at her house in Tobago and had to borrow a hundred bucks from her and her husband just to get home. I urge everyone to drink champagne, lots of it.
Because it will be all about them. I'll just be providing the excuse.
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