It had been another fruitless day. She had lost count of the times she had bussed this route to look for him. She had known him for less than 24 hours a year ago, this man to whom she had felt a deep connection, and now longed to see again. He had been her first kiss and she knew, even at the tender age of 17, that maybe she was being foolish to spend so much time trying to find him again.
Caesar was a hitchhiker. When Michelle’s father pulled over to pick him up the family holiday had been underway about three weeks, and she sorely needed a reason to keep living. Jaded by the constant bickering of her parents and the crowded conditions of the tent, things started to look up when Caesar slid onto the back seat next to her.
They were camped near the beach and had been heading back there after stocking up on supplies when they collected him. It was New Year’s Eve, 1984.
Although naturally shy Michelle couldn’t help but quiz Caesar – she blamed her curiosity on being born in New Zealand. Being so far from anywhere was both the best and the worst thing about the country. It didn’t take her long to learn that he was a Swiss national, an only child, a few years older, and they shared a common language. Well, almost. Her schoolgirl German had allowed them to form a bond, haltingly at first and then easier as the day wore on.
Back at camp they chatted easily stretched out on the beach, basking. Small waves, little more than a boat’s wake, rolled in and sloshed against the shore rhythmically – it was a bad day for surfers but perfect for lazing.
Reclined on her elbows, Michelle noticed how comfortable she was in his company. He was easy to like and his open expression was only improved by his ready smile. His skin was the colour of honey; a likely result of the days and hours spent roadside waiting for providence in the form of a benevolent motorist. He was tall with shaggy blonde hair. There was a faint aroma of roadside dust and more subtly, sweat. His nose was prominently Roman in shape and he explained that his real name was Daniel but friends called him Caesar because of this rather astounding proboscis.
She learned of his objection to national conscription in Switzerland, which he was effectively avoiding by taking a long working holiday in New Zealand; of his ability as a carpenter, and tragically, his father’s suicide when he was ten.
“I found him,” he said. “He was.. I don’t know the word..”. He tilted his head and used his fist to indicate the rope. She realised he was telling her his father had hung himself.
“Oh my… that’s terrible,” she said.
Shocked, she held his gaze and tried to grasp the horror he had witnessed. Surely the father never meant for his only son to find him like that.
Evening fell and the beach bonfires of New Year’s Eve roared and crackled into life as the pair moved to join fellow revellers. She was happy to have him by her side – in previous years she had been forced to duck the gropes of random men at midnight. Tonight maybe they would leave her alone.
“I plan to go south and work in the ski fields this winter,” he said as they sipped bourbon and toasted their front sides against the fire.
“Maybe you can call in on me at home on the way through. We’ll be heading back in a few weeks.”
“I think that would be nice,” he said, smiling his big smile. It occurred to her that the dental care in Switzerland must be outstanding.
Midnight arrived with a countdown and was followed by the traditional ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and kisses from strangers. Seated around the campfire were about 30 people, and in what Michelle could only think of as a very European display Caesar insisted on kissing each person on both cheeks and proclaiming ‘Happy New Year!’ He came to her last, and after a kiss on each cheek he followed with a third on the lips. She had been stunned and delighted and it became the first of many that night.
The revellers dispersed and the fires were extinguished so they waded along the shore by the light of the moon wrapped around each other, talking, laughing and knowing their time was short. Caesar would continue his journey south in the morning. Michelle’s father had already offered to drive him back out to the main road. It was almost dawn when they fell, exhausted and happy into their beds – she in the tent, he in the rear of the station wagon.
Later, she was almost embarrassed to think of that night and use the word ‘magical’. Such an overused word, she thought. But there was none better.
No one had ever given her a second glance. She had never been asked out, never kissed. Caesar had changed all that. It was as if all the insecurity about her attractiveness, her value, had dissolved in the ocean that night. She felt desirable and powerful. She wished she could have given that to herself, but would settle for it as a gift from Caesar.
Michelle made a decision as she farewelled him with a hug and pressed her address into his hand at the roadside the next morning. To her surprise and while her father wasn’t looking, he slipped her a note detailing his address in Switzerland.
She decided that even if they never saw each other again she would choose to be satisfied with her one night with Caesar. She would gently fold this memory up inside and guard it like a precious gift. It would sustain her for as long as she needed it to.
It took about a day before she decided to move heaven and earth to find him.
Which is why she now found herself on an old, cold, rattling bus in a strange part of the city having failed to locate him yet again. She knew he stayed in youth hostels and had visited them all at least once a week to check the sign-in books. She had been doing this for weeks, and would soon have to admit defeat. She had even called the ski fields further down country with no success.
Weeks ran into months with no sign of Caesar. It was time to move on with life, and opportunity was beckoning in the form of a place at a journalism school, which meant moving to another city. Michelle’s days soon became busy with classes, interviews, writing and parties.
In quiet moments she would occasionally find herself wondering where Caesar was and what he was doing. Perhaps he was back in Switzerland. She hoped he wasn’t prosecuted for avoiding conscription. She prayed he was safe, and despite the occasional relapse, she accepted that he had moved on to other things, had perhaps even met someone special.
After months of wishing and hoping, the time had come to give up her search. The slip of paper with his address remained in the back of her wallet, though. She couldn’t give up the dream entirely. Not yet.
The gravel crunched under his feet as he walked the long driveway to the house. He checked the address again and reassured himself he was in the right place.
If Michelle’s mother had seen him coming, she probably wouldn’t have answered the knock at the door, but she had been caught unawares and so opened up. Standing there smiling, the young man with a backpack seemed familiar.
“Hello! I don’t know if you remember me… you gave me a ride last year, at the beach.”
“Yes. I remember.”
“Could I speak to Michelle? She gave me your address and said to call in if I was passing by.”
“No, I don’t think so. She isn’t here. She’s away at school.”
“Oh, … ok. Could you give me her address there?”
The door slammed shut.
Story by: Michelle Tom
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