Chapter Twenty-Four: VIP Guests
In which the kids and their mother, my ex’s ex, come to inaugurate the house.
First, some business: my most heartfelt apologies for going dark last week. LCI, one of France’s national news channels, asked me to comment on American political matters, which meant cramming Saturday morning, only to be asked one very short and not super helpful question later in the day than originally programmed. (Doing live commentary in a language that is not your own is terrifying, but honestly they mostly want me on there for the authenticity my foreign accent provides, so mistakes sort of work. This is what I tell myself, at least.) Then the domino of Saturday errands in preparation for my annual pilgrimage back home to LA fell on my head. New cat food, bottles of grower champagne and four kouign ammans to schlep home in the suitcase, determining which trash American food to bring back for the ex’s kids. (Not Marshmallow Fluff because I refuse; yes Knott’s Berry Farm jam, since it’s my fault they got addicted in the first place.) More mundane details of this nature.
Now here I sit in the front part of my childhood home with my brother and my mother’s dog, while my mother, who tested positive for Covid the day I arrived, stays quarantined in the back, and I desperately await daily Eleanor and Lucy updates. (News: they caught a mouse and left the chewed up corpse for their cat sitter. I’ll spare you the photo.) This has been my mother’s first time with Lady Rona and thank God she’s vaxed and only had a fever for a few days. So the holidays are calm, we have planned and shopped for the meal, including ordering the tahdig from Farsi Café to accompany some very haram pork roast, and now we return to our semi-regularly scheduled updates, which have brought us all the way up to July, 2021.
Now that I was in the house, even if it was mostly a filthy bombed out hole with just a couple of wooden folding chairs to count for lounging, I invited the kids and their mother to come check it out. I am forever grateful that the family into which I temporarily legally blended has the kind of values that say, in fact, there is no temporary blending. If you’re in, you’re in. Things may not have worked out with their father but the bitterness that was already fading into a dull throb had nothing to do with the kids or their mother anyway. I really wanted them to like it out in Saint-Maxime, because as much as I had created the place to be a kind of escape for myself, I also wanted it to feel like an escape for them. So the sooner I could get them out and show them around, I thought, the better. We had been in contact already. Every now and again the girl and I would exchange a little note on Instagram, or she’d be walking to school and give me a quick call just to say hello, or I’d send a picture of Fred and Penelope to a group text string I had set up for her, the boy and their parents on WhatsApp. I didn’t know what role I would end up playing in their lives yet but it was out of the question to disappear from it.
I only had one bed, and Lilian and Paul were in the only spare room with walls, so inviting them out did not mean putting them up. But there was a cute hotel in a beautiful village about 20 minutes away, next door to another house I had once wanted to buy and lost when I couldn’t make a timely offer. The hotel had a lovely pool, something of a rarity in this soggy corner of the country, and I knew already that pools plus kids usually equal success.
But that wouldn’t be enough. You need to jazz hand it purposefully with kids, choosing multiple activities and lures. It’s only overworked adults who think mooching around and looking at trees and drinking wine and blathering for hours is enough. So I booked us all a trail ride at a local equestrian center a few minutes from there hotel that I had discovered on one of my pandemic back and forths.
Figuring out horses felt, to me, like the ultimate token of having arrived in the country. You’re uniting man and beast with some elan and specialist equipment, getting some exercise, and having a nature moment. The problem is once I get close to horses, they scare the shit out of me. They’re so big and powerful and they instantly smell the trepidation that I can’t fake my way out of it with a smile and a joke. When I’m in the saddle I’m usually so scared of what might happen that I keep the horse on a too-tight rein. (Obviously there’s a metaphor in here somewhere.) At some point on every trail ride they just stop because they think my nervous jerking is me putting on the brakes.
The equestrian center in question had very gentle horses for beginners, examples of some Scandinavian breed that was fat, with relatively short legs, blonde hair and a docile demeanor. Knowing this didn’t make me any less apprehensive picking up a stray leg to chunk the mud out from around their sensitive hooves during the pre-ride prep. The kids and their mom had more experience with this than I did, and they went through the motions with less trepidation. (Apparently a lot of French people, especially those from middle to upper middle classes, formally learn how to ride at some point in their lives. Some of them also do fencing, which I find hilarious and sort of wild.)
We saddled up and started the slow walk through the village on our way to the forest. I tried to keep my white knuckles hidden and gritted my teeth silently trying to stay on the trail. Once we left the confines of the wee town, the forest in high summer did its magic. It was quiet and enveloping and impressive and soaring, like a church that wasn’t man-made. As the kids and their mother were far more confident riders than I was, when the guide asked us who wanted to try cantering and galloping, they enthusiastically raised their hands and went on ahead. I was happy to hang out under the canopy of trees and listen to the birds chirping to each other, thick in conversation I’d never understand, trying to keep my fat little horse from eating everything in sight. I could see from everyone’s faces on the return back to the stables they were having a good time. Victory.
They all followed me back to the house where I was going to cook dinner. I arrived ahead of them and was already out of my car as they pulled up to one of the parking spaces by the church across the street. “C’est cool!” the girl chirped, as their mother made admiring noises and the boy smiled. I led them around to the backyard, describing it as a shantytown, and they whistled and rolled their eyes and told me I was not wrong. “Gardens always take time,” mom said.
I gave them a tour of the house first, and the kids were happy to go digging for the cats under my bed like they used to when we all lived together. Down in the kitchen, I served the kids Cokes and opened a Côtes du Rhone for mom and me while I boiled water for gnocchi. It was basil and tomato season, and I had already made some pesto with a good wedge of Parmesan I got at one of the fussy, magic little grocery stores in Saint-Jouin, and some sausage marinara with fennel seeds and hot pepper. The kids remembered the marinara from the before times, and they were in the middle of shaving way too much Parmesan over their bowls when a little boy parked himself outside my kitchen window, about three feet from where we sat, and didn’t move for an hour and a half.
He had wispy blonde hair, wide blue eyes, and looked enough like Lucie that I figured he must be her little brother. He was maybe six, but already had a pierced ear. Multiple “bonsoirs” on our part did nothing to provoke a response. He just sat there on his tiny bike, his expression slack. As the boy and girl giggled quietly and poked each other under my desk, and their mother wondered if something might actually be wrong with the boy, finally I just closed one of the interior wooden shades in defeat. This felt like the rudest thing imaginable, but it was already so awkward.
It read like a scene from Deliverance. Recall how that film’s first act plays so perfectly with the city gaze. “Look at the rural weirdos, are they dangerous?” I was trying in some way to become one of maximiens, and here I was worse than Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty before it all went terribly wrong. I had often heard there was tension between locals and the Parisians who had come to colonize the remaining available real estate. Understandable. Look at us in our up-to-the-minute sneakers: we were kind of assholes. I saw the kids sniggering into their phones, which is a perfectly natural kid reaction, I don’t blame them for it. But I, the adult resident of this village, didn’t know the boy’s name yet, which was my fault. Nor did I know why he might be standing there rather than inside with his family, other than that he must have been lonely and bored. I hadn’t seen any other kids his age in the village so far. We were an attraction of sorts to him too.
I spent the next day at the hotel with the kids and their mom, playing the tourist again, and we had a wonderful time. It would be OK, I thought to myself. At some point, I’d figure the place out. The kids and their seemed to like it quite a lot, which was all that mattered in the moment.