Chapter Six: Vive la Libération?
Getting the thing you want is not always easy.
When the thing you’ve wanted forever finally happens, you’d think you’d be doing ecstatic back flips. Instead, it is often weird. I had been counting the minutes til liberation day, and once it came, I simply saw it as more shit to do. Big change requires big accommodations. But also I couldn’t let myself enjoy it because it was too complicated, so I turned the whole thing into an onerous checklist because I could do dread more easily: I still didn’t have my license, I would have to pack four years of accumulation, make an exit plan, figure out how not to tear my heart out of my chest over no longer sharing a home with the kids, and I would have to find a house. Fast. Yes that. The thirst trap perfect house I had been fetishizing and now I had to rush to find it and the field was not currently great.
Also, I was sad. Which seemed strange to me—finally I was released! But by the onset of the rush of visits at the end of 2020—which I continue to credit to Jean-Pierre—my ex and I had achieved a solid peace.
I’ve mentioned it briefly before, but it was COVID confinement that did it. It wasn’t just that he and I were stuck together and something practical and realistic kicked in to get us through lockdown. That would have been enough. In fact we were terrified and needed each other for comfort. Strange to turn to the person who hurt you the worst to make you feel better, but the world is strange and relationships are strange. And a year had passed by now. You can’t live on full boil forever.
I caught the thing in early March, 2020, most likely, at Kanye West’s Sunday Service. And then my ex and the kids did right after. It was Fashion Week in Paris, which meant the entire fashion press and buyers network arrived en masse from Milan, where the first outbreak happened. Why did I think it was a good idea to sit in a very small and unventilated theater filled with double-cheek-kissing, better dressed Typhoid Maries, where a chorus of 120 singers went full-throated together as close to the audience as you can imagine? Denial I guess, because we were all well aware it was going around. (A reminder that Kanye hadn’t yet gone full Nazi. Kim and Kourtney were there. It was a simpler time? Read the review I wrote in Air Mail and see what you think.)
(If someone wants to explain how to get a GD video into this website I will happily share some from that performance, because it was fantastic.)
It’s that same strange instinct to do the normal thing in the face of chaos that I had on September 11. I watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center from up on Carnegie Hill, having just finished a morning session with my analyst, and then perplexed, shrugging, got on what would turn out to be the last subway running, and went in to my job at Glamour magazine. The normalcy bias is strong with this one.
I’m sure all of you who remember the first wave of COVID have tried to bury the terror. Allow me to remind you that three short years ago there was mass death, unrelenting brutality for first responders, and we watched horrified and powerless as it targeted the elderly, and anyone who had had a history of compromised health, which, for deplorable reasons, included too many Black people. (A friend of mine in New York City told me about all the family of friends of ours that were getting mowed down. It was unspeakable.) We can’t ever forget this. It will destroy our souls if we do. It halfway destroyed our souls anyway. We are only barely brushing the surface of how collectively traumatized we are.
Even with allowances made for the man flu, my ex’s symptoms were much worse than mine. I was lightheaded, at times overly exuberant, fatigued and had scary bouts of shortness of breath that sent me to the hospital twice. I remember sitting upright in my bed from one of them and crying, thinking to myself, “I don’t want to die here, so far away from my family.” All your confident thoughts about reincarnation and the transitory nature of death evaporate like so much burning sage. The E/R where I went for a blood oxygen and respiratory system check was desolate and terrifying, everyone sitting as far away as possible from each other while trying to peep each other from the corners of our eyes. I am asthmatic and was instructed not to even use my inhaler once I got home, because nobody understood the potential interactions. I went with Xanax instead and discovered it helped. Though I’ve never suffered from panic attacks, some of that shortness of breath was very understandable anxiety. The ex had fever so bad he was on all the paracetamol the doctors would allow and just lay there in his bed across the landing moaning for days.
I was better off than him, so without saying anything I picked up the slack with the kids, who were confined with us and also sick with the virus but only showing light symptoms. The thing held on for two months. Each of us thought maybe it was passing, and then by the afternoon of a hopeful morning, somebody was back in bed, or still couldn’t taste their food. I had to ask friends to help me transcribe interviews, because my brain was not firing and didn’t for months after.
We had the right instincts and got each other through it with grace and good humor and remembering why we liked each other in the first place: though we are capable of a lot of insensitive bullshit, we are fundamentally nice people who laugh at the same things. Of the many things in my life I’m proud of, which include helping my father die and putting myself through grad school at a private university, getting through the pandemic and establishing a friendship with my ex is high on the list. The kids cooked a meal a week. Unsurprisingly the boy always did burgers but they were excellent and kicked off a tradition we all knew we wouldn’t have a lot of time to establish. So suddenly, now half a year later with the offer on the house, a part of me was sad. And thus I turned to dry, unemotional, stressy, pissy little lists.
I hadn’t had great luck with the most recent batch of Perche houses. I don’t know if this is true in the US, where it seems like the wheels of commerce spin around the clock all year long, but in France, there are seasons for house hunting and selling, and Christmas was the worst. To pass the holiday, I went down to stay at an old friend’s family chateau outside of Lyon where I’ve spent many happy weekends over the years. The main building is shut up during winter because you cannot imagine the heating bills, but in the little wing that was semi-heated, four of us had capon and morels and drank our body weight in high end Rhone whites. (If you’ve never had Condrieu, what are you waiting for?) It was rueful but jolly.
A few days before I was set to get the train back to Paris, Sasha got back to me with her real estate agent’s contact info. She was the one who first suggested Le Perche and in the time it took from that conversation to Christmas a year and half later, she had found and bought a place out there herself: a stone farmhouse on an acre of land with a barn for the two horses she wanted to get. (Had she ever owned horses? No. Was she a serious rider? No. Such mundane practicalities are not a Sasha thing.) I was relieved and happy to see she would be out there already by the time I got there. Though she can be something of a chaos agent (see: getting horses when you work full time as a lawyer in Paris and also have four dogs) she does not seem to know fear and she has always been an adventurous influence. I have lots of Sasha stories I will tell as we wind through this little narrative adventure.
I thought I had seen every listing there was to see, but, sitting under blankets in a space heated, off-chateau living room that hadn’t been vacuumed since Sarkozy was president—these were all dude friends if that helps to explain it—I made contact with the agent and she thought she might have something. It was a village house (check) and the listing hadn’t yet gone public because the owners were a divorcing couple (my sympathies) who couldn’t agree on who would pay for the required lead-asbestos-electricity-termite check (get it together). She sent over some pictures of the façade. It looked big and kind of English, with tall, white-framed windows all in rows. Not a farmhouse but more like what you’d call a maison de maître, belonging to someone in one of the professions, who didn’t produce grain or apples that needed to be stored. Hey that sounds like me. Outside of the discipline to exercise daily and make my deadlines, I am the laziest woman alive. I wouldn’t know what to do with an orchard except let everything fall to the ground, decompose and attract rats. It’s important to know your limits.
The place was right in the center of a small village I’d never heard of. It was priced to move. There weren’t a ton of pictures of the inside, but I was sure, at that price, probably everything would need to be redone. I liked it.
I let myself get excited.
Please join us next week when we shall reveal this bad boy. I’m not showing you pictures of the outside because I would like to retain some semblance of privacy but if I know you already and you somehow still haven’t seen the thing, email me for a pic.