Over my head

Surviving a bomb in Biarritz.

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If my sister had not reminded me, I would have completely forgotten I was once the victim of a bombing. For a second I thought that said a lot about me, to be living a life so crowded with adventure and excitement that the fact I was once hurt by a bomb merits hardly a blip in my memory space. But then I recalled that, at the time it happened, I hadn't even realized a bomb had exploded, and I really think for someone to garner coolness credit for having experienced an event, she should at least have been aware the event was happening.

I'd like to blame the French for this. I know it's true I sort of blame the French for everything, but in this instance I think I'm justified. My little sister Kim and I had traveled to Biarritz on a side trip as part of our excursion to backpack through Europe after we each spent a year of college abroad. We were in search of the focus of my fanatic passion that year, a young man and fellow student named Fabrice, who had hair the color of polished mahogany and kind eyes the shade of faded denim that crinkled into half moons when he laughed. He was exactly the kind of guy every girl falls immediately in love with. My friend Grant has a word for that particular trait in a man, and that word is "gay." I see now how inarguably correct that assessment is, but at the time it went right over my head.

So every other day I would reliably throw myself at Fabrice, who hardly spoke English and would act like he didn't understand my meaning no matter how brazen my actions, which once included taking his actual hand and placing it on my actual breast. His nickname for me was "Pure." I have no idea why. All I know is that he shouted it from across the room whenever I entered, motioning me over so he could brush each of my cheeks with a kiss, hold my face in his hands and say it again. "Pure." Looking back, I have a feeling he was too nice to reject me outright, so instead he treated me with lavish respect, repackaging his lack of enthusiasm into a reluctance to sully my new loveliness. It was literally the most tender rebuff I would ever experience.

Then one day Fabrice removed himself from my clutches to return home to Biarritz without so much as even the attempt to impregnate me beforehand, which constituted unfinished business as far as I was concerned, hence the swing-by to Biarritz on my ensuing European sojourn with my sister. We never found Fabrice, but at least there was the bomb.

I know French people are refined, but still there was alarmingly minimal panic surrounding the bombing. My sister Kim and I had been a few blocks away, begging the proprietor of a cafe to serve us a big bowl of whipped cream. We loved French whipped cream — it was thick and a lot less sugary than the kind in the States, and Kim and I were always asking waiters to oblige us with bowls of the stuff even though it was never on the menu. This is when we heard the bomb explode.

Before I go any further, I would just like to interject here that I have since heard plenty of explosions over the years and have mistaken nearly every one of them for a bomb, including that time a birthday clown accidentally popped his balloon animal by my ear, but on the one occasion when a bomb actually did explode near me, all I did was sit there wondering why it was thundering outside when there weren't any rain clouds in the sky.

Later, still oblivious, Kim and I walked back to our pensione, wondering where all the people were and why all the shop fronts now had shattered windows, when a shard of glass pierced my flimsy sandal and cut my big toe. It wasn't until we were in Spain the next day that we read about the bombing, for which some Basque terrorists took credit. No one died, though some had been injured, and I guess technically I was among them.

"Oh my God, we could have been killed," Kim exclaimed, and I suppose she was right, but I hardly gave it another thought until she reminded me of it the other day. She asked me if I felt lucky to be alive, and after some thought I realized that is not why I feel lucky. Not at all. Because it all came back to me right then, all the new loveliness everything held to me at that time, when the world was my personal field of feathery dandelions for all I knew, when a kind-hearted boy could breathe on my face and make my heart race and when I was invincible and nothing on Earth could sully me. That's what I feel lucky about — to have ever been so pure that a bomb could explode nearby and it would go right over my head.

Hollis Gillespie authored two top-selling memoirs and founded the Shocking Real-Life Writing Academy (hollisgillespie.com).

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