The Scarlet Letter

In high school, Tyler Magyar fell in love with a girl from Paris.

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A decade ago, you could see it perfectly.

Today, you’d really have to strain your eyes to notice. The wound has mostly healed, it seems. That plastic edge must have been too dull to render a proper scar.

Had I wanted my efforts to properly endure the past ten years, I should have made use of something sharper than a school-issued protractor. Or I could have been braver, tracing the entire A-shape deeper into my skin.

Her name was Anaelle.

Some of my best ideas occurred to me during statistics class, none of which were math-related. This, however, was not among them. I’d sketch out concepts for short films along the margin of a page, keeping an arm across my desk to obscure my plans from the teacher’s view. I’d daydream about girls and ska concerts and college plans, but mostly girls. I’d think about those who attended my high school, and how the majority of them flocked to the flavorless morons who infested its hallways. That was fine. They could have them. I’d settle — although that’s hardly the word — for Anaelle. One April morning, all lovesick and determined, my time-killing took a turn towards the macabre.

Which brings us back to self-mutilation.

The day’s lesson dealt with polls and sampling bias, I think. My best friend Tim, seated next to me, pointed at a bandage on my left hand. He creased his eyes and cocked his head away from me. “What the hell is that?” His mouth formed the perfect circle of disgust-tinged curiosity. He knew perfectly well what it was. I lifted the bandage from my skin.

“You sick fuck,” he whispered.

I smirked at him as two red letters were revealed — one freshly cut into my opisthenar, which I’d learned is the proper name for the back of your hand. The other had faintly stained itself into the bandage’s white cloth.

A… A.

Tim didn’t know Anaelle, but he knew plenty about her. At least, he knew everything that I knew, which wasn’t all that much. I’d spent a few weeks in Paris the previous July, coming back with a pocketful of French slang and a sweet Parisian girl in my heart. Tim mocked me about it, but for my benefit he would also speak about her as if she lived in the next town over, as if there was a chance she’d come to prom with me. Tim was a great friend, not solely because of that or because he drove us all over with his van. Tim ought to know I think he’s a great friend.

Compared to the plainness of my cul-de-sac existence, Anaelle was exotic and untouchable. I loved her the way that fifteen-year-olds love, which is not to belittle the amorous efforts of teenagers. I was brutally infatuated by her, by her accent and mispronunciations and how her body had begun to fill itself out in such incredible shapes far before her American peers. What I felt seemed like love because it hurt. Movies made a point of that: if it hurts, it’s love.

Worse than my wounded hand, this hurt.

The summer before I had been visiting Eric — a foreign exchange student my family had hosted — in Paris. The three weeks I spent with him, unforgettable as they are, aren’t relevant, save for an afternoon barbecue at his cousin Charlie’s house. In that suburban backyard, a handful of teenagers sipped beer and smoked cigarettes with neither fear nor fanfare. The Rolling Stones played from a window-side record player. Standing in the corner of a half-thriving garden was a quiet brunette with calm yet serious eyes and an imposingly wide smile. Anaelle, in all her slow-cinema glory.

Nervous, I spoke with Eric’s friends in careful, deliberate English. Occasionally, I’d include a French word that I had noted on small piece of paper and laminated with tape. Eric and I had crafted this little cheat-sheet as a way to communicate easier (la gauche, le droit, quatorze ans, américain) and to speak in codes of sort. While he was with me in the States, I asked Eric how to say ”fox” in French, informing him that it was a slang — and ridiculous — term for a beautiful girl. He said renard, which only meant ”fox” to him. Now, I reasoned, we could send a signal if a pretty girl was on the radar.

I glanced over at Eric and smiled. “Renard,” I traced out with a smiling mouth. He discreetly pointed his beer bottle towards the garden. “Fou.” Crazy, to us, became a nickname, a term of endearment, and a way to express satisfaction. “Fou,” he whispered. Everyone there must have thought we were crazy. Not fou. Crazy.

After the twelve-pack was emptied, we took a few photos together. I asked someone to take one of Eric and me. Then Eric took my camera and insisted that Anaelle posed with me. Then he took one of just her, posing with a hand on her hip and a sarcastic wink. Few acts of truer friendship have ever been made. Merci, mon pote.

Once the girls all left, the guys sprawled out in the living room. Charlie overheard Eric teasing me about Anaelle. Maybe he knew about our code, renard and all. “Ask her out!” he gleamed. Before I could argue, he locked me in his father’s office armed with her phone number and a smiley face. A man picked up the phone. Shit. He somehow comprehended my terrified mumbling and handed the phone to Anaelle. We each say “Hello.” Twice.

“So we’re going to the amusement park tomorrow” I nervously state. “Charlie and Eric and everyone, yes. Would you like to come?” The boys wailed from the other side of the door. “…Really? Awesome. Okay. A demain!

I was fou.

The best part of the day we spent at Parc Asterix was the eight minutes I found myself alone on a bench with Anaelle. We shared a fear of roller coasters, so we sat, near silent, as everyone else roared above us with fantastic speed. I had my hand on her knee for a second, which made her look over at me. She permitted it, to my surprise, and it remained there until our courageous friends came running back from the ride. They were ecstatic. So was I.

The rest of that afternoon still feels like a daydream. We continued on the the rides but, all things considered, my fun was over the instant my hand left her knee. We spoke sloppy versions of one-another’s languages. We rode less intimidating rides. We ate overpriced snacks. We laughed, and then we ran out of time.

The next thing I remember is arriving at Anaelle’s stop on the train home. When we said a rushed goodbye, and I kissed goodbye her four times on the cheeks instead of the Parisian norm of two. I was fou. She waved as the commuter line pulled away from her suburban town. She was a renard.

Anaelle and I spent a total of two days together that summer in Paris. That was it, but it was enough. The instant I returned stateside, I pinned the photo Eric had taken of her to my wall. I studied the photo of the two of us, but didn’t like that I had braces on my teeth. I hid that one. She stood guard over my adolescent bedroom alone. The features of her face are so deeply ingrained in my mind that it seems I have a photograph pinned to the wall somewhere in there, too.

That photo survived a half-dozen different bedrooms and, honestly, a few girlfriends. Eventually, it got tucked away in a shoebox with the rest of that fateful summer’s evidence. As the years passed, fewer people would ask what the scar on my hand was. My skin stretched with passing years and shed away, and my once-scarlet letter became more of a white-ish scratch or two. I fell in love with another girl. I remembered my dusty shoebox. I had a bad breakup. The scar reminded me. It faded. Then, for a while, I forgot.

A decade after that afternoon barbecue, I moved to France.

Only after I was comfortable enough with my wobbly French did I meet up with Eric. In his apartment on a street I’d unknowingly passed ten times before, I asked about his cousin Charlie, and joked about Anaelle.

“Oh yeah, Anaelle.” He laughed. “Would you want to see her?”

I laughed back. “No, it’s cool.” I sighed, and we went on to reminisce about everything else. After all, Anaelle was nothing more than an idea anymore, and the hope I felt about her was nothing more than remnants of my childhood self. I didn’t want to see her, and still don’t. Mostly.

Within the world’s complex logic, Anaelle probably has something to do with why I came to the city I met her in, and stayed. I loved her, and I’ll always be in love with at least the idea of her. She embodies a time in my life, and a version of me I sometimes must remind myself existed.

After all, I’ll need reminding once the scar fully fades — when I’m a little less frantic and a lot more settled — I was once fou.


Illustration by Hallie Bateman

Tyler Magyar worries too much and lives in the Northeastern United States. He hopes to one day archive his entire memory in ornate, fragrant boxes. He is a good dinner guest, a satisfying cuddler, and a terrible liar. A post-rock band will play at his wedding, where there will be a lot of speeches. Tyler's projects can be found on his website.