The summer after a year of living in Barcelona, I kissed my Spanish
boyfriend goodbye and boarded a train for La Coste, the French village where the
Marquis de Sade's infamous castle lay in ruins. I went there to meet P, a
young man I had fallen for in Kafka class during my freshman year
of college. P had been everything I was looking for in a lover: volatile
and self-loathing, with literary ambitions and alcoholic habits to match.
And if that wasn't enough of an aphrodisiac, there was the tantalizing obscenity of
our age difference. He was a senior, after all. And like a dark
Pygmalion, he tutored me in the ways of lugubrious writerly pretension.
With him I got drunk, stoned and high on hallucinogens for the first
time; sat in seedy bars and brooded about the symbolism of the hunger artist; learned to kiss with my whole body; squatted in a borrowed
loft in the Bowery. But none of what he did -- neither the drunken,
chain-smoking rampages at 2 a.m. in the streets of New York, nor the
irrational displays of devotion ("Come on babe," he said one evening in my
Colorado College dorm room, "I'll drop you at home on my way to New York,"
knowing full well that home was California) -- none of these little dramas
prepared me for what I would find in that tiny walled village of historical
He was lying on a bare mattress with a rough blanket thrown over his naked
body. The stone basement room's only window lay in the permanent shadow of
de Sade's castle. He was reading Kafka's diaries. For the third time.
P had come to France as a dishwasher for a tony painting program for rich
American youth, but in the first week he'd had words with the director and
been fired. Since then he'd spent the summer trying to figure out what
proportion of alcohol, coffee and cigarettes would turn him into a great
I stood next to my bags and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness,
the burning ember of his cigarette moving back and forth between his slow
words. "Baby," he croaked, "come lie down next to me."
Rendezvous between old lovers in the south of France were not supposed to
be like this. Outside the sun filtered through the ancient vines and
dappled the cobblestones. I begged him to get up, and he agreed to take a walk
up to the top of the hill, where the castle erupted in weedy rubble, with
little stone steps winding down to the royal dungeon where the screams of
Justine's muses were once muffled from the villagers.
P told stories about the Marquis and his debauched spectacles between drags on his Lucky Strike. In the thin bright foreign air, I could see him much more clearly now, as colors are enhanced by psychedelic mushrooms. "Sade wasn't a criminal, y'know, he was just a guy with a passion."
Beyond the ruins there was a town full of arrogant American kids high on
oil paint and red wine, and there were French locals wonderfully
unselfconscious in their Frenchness. Outside those walls was the French
countryside, mile upon mile of cherry trees ready for harvest. Now I
wondered: What had made P's dreary world so irresistible? Why was darkness
deeper than light?
As if to escape P's self-made dungeon and merge with a bigger
world, I spent the next few days running obsessively through the orchards
and gorging myself on stolen cherries. Life would be a bowl of cherries if
it made me sick, goddamn it. At day's end I returned, teeth red, bowels
watery, plastic trash bags stuffed with the perfect scarlet marbles, which
I fed on through the night.
But at night the cherries lost their power. Making love on the bare
mattress under the heavy woolen blanket -- not out of some necessity but
because my dear boyfriend was losing his mind -- introduced me to a new kind of despair. I imagined de Sade's ghost lying on me, taking me, making me into something unrecognizable, and replayed this over and over. Soon I said "no sex" and we fought. The days dragged on, reduced to a dreamlike laundry list: cherries, running, fighting, Kafka, de Sade, the mattress and the blanket.
One night I awoke with the feeling that something was wrong. I leaped out of bed and turned on the light. Hives covered my body and I was shivering, despite the summer weather.
"I can't stand this," I said, finally breaking down. Now it seems evident that I was showing classic symptoms of hysteria. P had never seen me so out of control; he had always been the drama queen. "Hey, hey, I'll buy sheets tomorrow," he said softly. "Baby, I'm sorry."
The next day I returned to the cherry orchard and he to his Kafka -- not to a
That night the shaking and hives returned more violently still. My skin was
mottled and swollen as if I'd been whipped. P tried to comfort me again but
I refused. The next morning, the hives didn't go away. I packed my bag and
P borrowed a scooter take me to the bus stop in the next big town. Halfway
there he pulled over and said he wouldn't go.
I would have to find my own way, he said, gesturing to the open road. I
acted like he was playing, though I wasn't at all sure he was.
The cherry trees looked like old men. Witness this, I thought.
"I'll be back," I lied.
P got down on his knees. "I'm begging you, Carol. Do you really like to see
me here down on my knees?"
But, of course, I did and he knew it. We had played these strange games for so long.
"I'll change. We can buy some sheets, borrow a scooter and go to Italy.
I'll buy you ice cream."
I smiled down at him, suddenly unable to play my part. Our scene dissolved.
Literary-ness hung by a thread between us. Snap.
That night I took a sleeper train to Calais, on my way to meet a friend in
Ireland. As the train hurtled through the darkness, I stayed up reading
Andre Malraux's "Lazarus." It's as sweet a meditation on the absence of life
as I've ever found and it cast a spell of precarious rapture. The sleeper
compartment was like a capsule transporting me to another consciousness.
By the time dawn cracked with the spine of the final page, my skin was
clear; I had remembered why I loved words and roads.
And I didn't need P to teach me.