As we stood silently, side by side at the baggage carousel, I stole a glance at the customer I would be driving to Montréal. Chantelle was as beautiful as her name, a slim brunette with dark, sad eyes. If she were a little taller, I thought, she could be a model. Looking past her beauty for a moment, I noticed the woman appeared exhausted, as if she hadn’t slept much for days.
As if on cue, she let out a deep sigh. I said, “You look tired,” and that’s what broke the ice.
“I am tired,” she said, with a touch of a French accent. “I don’t think I’ve slept five hours over the whole week I was in LA.”
“Was it a work trip?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m trying to launch a fashion line I’m designing. Oh, that’s my luggage coming around.”
I yanked her large suitcase off the belt, and she accepted my offer to wheel it out to the taxi for her. She followed me carrying her thickly packed garment bag. Thinking about it now, I probably took the easier job. As we exited the terminal, everything looked fashionable — the suitcase, the garment bag, the woman, her coat. Everything except me.
We loaded her stuff into the trunk, and she took the shotgun seat. Off we drove — two hours, give or take, to Montréal. When I’m driving an especially attractive woman, I sometimes worry that she will think I’m only making conversation because — well, men like to talk with attractive women. I take solace in the fact that I’ve never hit on a female customer and never will. Plus, I think I’m fairly adept at reading social cues: If a customer, male or female, indicates he or she doesn’t want to converse, I get it and button my lip.
“How did the trip go?” I asked. “Did you accomplish what you set out to?”
“The trip went fine, except for the last 24 hours, which have been a fucking nightmare. My fiancé broke up with me by phone while I was waiting for my connection at JFK. By fucking cellphone! Can you believe it? Michel was supposed to pick me up in Burlington. That’s why I’m taking your cab.”
“Jeez, that’s crazy. Were you, like, totally blindsided, or were there signs?”
“Things started going bad last night. He called me in the hotel room late, after midnight, and my assistant, Jacques, picked up. By the time Jacques passed me the phone, Michel was freaking out about him being in my room so late. But it was nothing! We were just working late. Anyway, Jacques works for Michel’s company in Montréal. Michel basically lent him to me for this trip. I mean, seriously. Michel’s last fiancée cheated on him, so he has, like, a big issue with this. But I couldn’t believe he’d call off the wedding.”
I felt for this woman, who was clearly in emotional shock. I’ve never forgotten the feeling when my longtime college girlfriend broke up with me: It was like a sledgehammer to the head. But at least I saw it coming over our last few months together. Twenty-four hours ago, Chantelle was dreaming of her wedding. Then, in an awful flash, it was all over. That’s too much to absorb. And by cellphone? That is stone cold. I was kind of hating Michel, and I’d never met the man.
We made it across the border without a hitch and motored along the mostly straight, flat road that leads north to Montréal. In the darkness, in the bubble of the taxi, I tried to read the emotional temperature. Did Chantelle still want to talk, or at least vent?
“I just don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said, her despair palpable. “He’s booked a hotel room for me. He doesn’t even want me to come to the apartment.”
“Do you have friends or family in town?”
“Well, my mother, but we’re not close. She used to be a stewardess and, before that, a model. She’s an exquisite woman, really. On a layover in Europe, she met my father, who’s from Austria, and they got married and settled in Montréal, where my mom is from. They divorced when I was 3, and my dad went back to Austria. I would visit with him every summer. Anyway, my mom was away all the time, and she would leave me with strangers, and I would cry and cry and cry. Eventually, I toughened up, so I just don’t feel anything. So, you see…”
Chantelle paused for a moment and chuckled, which threw me a little, given the painful history she was recounting. “I have what they call major abandonment issues.”
The thought drifted through my mind that we are all products of our childhoods. The patterns repeat themselves over and over, sometimes even getting passed down from one generation to the next. This seems to be the human condition, and I find it tragic. But it is possible, though not easy, to step out of the drama, to review what’s been going on and change the script. This I have done myself, albeit late in life. Better late than never.
“What about friends? Anyone you can talk to?” I asked Chantelle.
“I’ve lost all my friends over the past year. I had this big fight with my one close girlfriend the week before I left on this California trip. So I have no one.”
Chantelle wasn’t angling for my pity, and somehow that made her plight all the more heartrending. She was simply relating the facts of her life as she saw it at that moment.
In the distance, Montréal came into view, glistening like the Emerald City of Oz from the field of poppies. As we crossed the Pont Champlain, the iconic searchlights atop the Place Ville-Marie pierced the cityscape. Chantelle directed me to the hotel that her now ex-fiancé had booked for her. It was posh, a real four-star establishment. Somehow I didn’t think that would even slightly ease her broken heart.
“I do have a plan,” Chantelle said as we stood behind the cab with her luggage and she paid me the fare. “I think I’m going to move to Austria to live with my father. I have two stepbrothers there who work for a design cooperative. This is mostly the work I’ve done, web design. They’ve told me there’s a place for me in the company if I would consider it. So maybe this is all for the good. I’ve had it with Montréal — I really have.”
I took her right hand in both of mine. Looking into her sad and misty eyes, I said, “Good luck to you, Chantelle.”