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Powerful magnets were pulling him down from under the floor or so it seemed. That strained motion of shuffling feet and the high-pitched whistle of his shoulder-strapped oxygen tank triggered a barrage of flashbacks. As the elderly gentleman sat beside me on the store’s green park-styled bench, respectful nods were exchanged. I said, “Hello.” Surprised and with a heavy French accent, he returned “Err, hello. You are American?” Instantly, the clamor of cash registers, chattering customers, and buzzing light fixtures were transformed to mouse-like hush.


I watched his swollen and clubbed fingers notch down the level of oxygen flow from six to five. My eyes were laser locked on each one as they quivered in medicated misery. My stare was caught as the man's drooping gaze began to shift upwards. Then, billows of sulking gloom morphed into a smile and began to soothe my uneasy stare, as love can do. Though a stranger, conservative ways of decorum would not come between the unfolding of our chance encounter. Without refusal, the warmth of his widening eyes reeled me in. 


My left hand draped over his trembling right one instinctively. Immediately, its nerves ceased to flinch. Relief and gratitude poured over our skin. Aflame was a deep sense of understanding, a shared secret. I began asking about his condition and if someone else was accompanying him in the store. My attention and curiosity were welcomed; however, his reply first addressed the machine my eyes were fixated on. “Typically, I set the machine to four, sometimes five; when I walk, six.” Six was the maximum output—I knew. Although fatigued, he went on to express his wife’s love and flair for gardening. With a chuckle, he added, “Today, she lured me outside of the house to buy a new pair of work gloves. With the passion of Jeanne d’Arc, she insisted only I could choose the best pair for her and their garden.” I mirrored his tender laughter while noticing his wafer-thin legs and the swath of storied thin slacks that draped over them. My attention quickly tilted towards his coffee-colored eyes; beyond them, I saw my mother smile.  


He continued speaking about breath; how God sent him the portable-oxygen equipment just so he could go on shopping with Claudette, his wife. As he gave further precision about the evolution of his rare pulmonary disease, I surrendered to brimming emotions and confessed, “My mother had it too.” 


At that moment, after leaving their respective checkout stands, both of our French wives simultaneously joined us at the bench; Sandrine with a small bag of groceries and Claudette with her gardening gloves. Cordial introductions and pleasantries were shared before the man gave me his hand to help him rise; I followed. There, standing in a muted world, the four of us stood in harmony. An eternal second seemed to linger before he swiveled back and faced me and Sandrine. He uttered, “En France, on préfère « à bientôt » plutôt que « au revoir ». Alors, à bientôt Eric.” 


When the couple neared the exit, an emotional storm took over me. "Madame! Monsieur!",

I called out. Onlookers spun around and saw me running. Just before the sliding doors the two turned, and I halted. Stillness bridged our souls. My inner voice was clear, “This time, I am not too late.” I reached into my jacket’s right pocket and then brought his hands together, cradled. I placed a wrapped mint candy in them. “It’s my last one. I love these.” He chuckled, “So do I." With my “A bientôt, Edouard”, Claudette took his arm as Sandrine took mine.


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