There are cockroaches on the mattress. The mattress is on the floor. I’m spending the night here. It’s a cement floor in a windowless basement that smells like feet and wet towels. It’s not how I planned to end my day. This morning, I got on the train in Paris, heading south. This afternoon, I arrived at the station in Nice. I’m on my way to villa, where I’m invited to go waterskiing this weekend with—swear to god—King Juan Carlos of Spain.
I’m traveling with three other guys—my friend Alex, and his two fraternity brothers. We’re all studying for a semester at Cambridge, we’re spending a week in France with our stupidhuge backpacks, and it turns out Alex’s family is doing very well: his dad is summering at what they call The House. It’s a 20,000 square foot estate in Monaco on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean, with an Olympic pool and a butler and a chef and a nine car garage, and they share a boat dock with King Juan Carlos of Spain. And His Majesty is taking the boat out this weekend, and we’re going.
Alex calls his dad from a pay phone at the train station—I’m 22, there are no cell phones yet—and his father informs him the staff has only prepared for three guests, not four. So after an uncomfortable silence the three frat boys look at each other, then look at me and say, sorry bro, and they drive away with le chauffer.
Suddenly me and my stupidhuge backpack are at the train station in Nice with nowhere to stay. Fortunately, there were two American girls on our train and they’re still here. Fortunately, they have a hotel room near the casino in Monte Carlo, and they’re planning to dress up and drink and gamble all night. And fortunately, they say totally, come with us! And I say thank you to them and thank you to jeezus, because now I’m shacking up with Stephanie and Michelle from Miami which is so much better than boating with three frat boys and an aging monarch.
I wait outside while they check in because they only paid for two guests, and you pay per guest at this hotel, so technically I’m crashing. We spend the afternoon at the pool sipping cocktails and later that evening we’re getting dressed for our night at the casino and there’s a knock on the door. Boom boom boom. “Open the door! Gendarmes!” And I don’t speak a lot of French but I’m pretty sure you don’t want to parlex vous with no fucking gendarmes in your hotel room. There are two of them wearing these super snappy uniforms, and they’re with the hotel manager, and they throw me out.
So now me and my stupidhuge backpack are walking down the hill, past the port with all the yachts owned by the sheiks, and I find a small bar down by the train station, and I order a baguette with ham and cheese and a Belgian ale. It’s getting late, and pretty soon my beer is gone, and my sandwich is gone, and my villa is gone, and my girlfriends from Florida are gone, and the bartender says he’s closing. I say do you know a hotel? He tells me the hotels are sold out for the holiday. It’s a holiday in Italy and all the Italians are in France. I say, my friends left me behind and I have nowhere to stay. He says, “Well, if you like you can stay at with me for one night. I have a very large home that belonged to my grandmother. I live in Beaulieu, it’s only two train stops away. My name is Claude.”
This is astonishing good luck. I help him clean the bar then we ride the train 20 minutes and walk a mile or so through winding streets with trees on both sides until we come to a storybook French manor home surrounded by a stone wall, with a path leading to a side door that opens into a huge kitchen, bigger than my apartment in LA, pots and pans hanging above a giant butcher block table, the sink has a water pump, like nothing has changed in 200 years. Claude says, “You can wait in there”—it’s a sitting room with couple of couches—he says, “Here is some wine”—he hands me a glass—“I will come back and show you to your room.”—and he leaves.
The home is exquisite—the kitchen, the artwork, the décor, all this Louis XVI stuff . . . this is what I want! I want to stay here, and hang out with Claude, and meet his friends, and work in the bar, and be like a local . . . this is so much better than trying to talk those girls at the hotel into a threeway.
I’m looking around the sitting room. There’s a stunning antique writing desk and on the desk there’s a stack of polaroids with a rubber band around them. The photo on top is a little boy, like 10 years old, smiling, in a swimsuit by a waterfall—I think maybe it’s his kid—Claude’s super old, he’s like 40. I pick up the stack and the next photo is a different boy with his shirt off lying in the grass—oh, maybe he has two kids? The next photo is two boys hugging each other. The next photo is another boy who’s a little older blowing a kiss. I look around and I notice on the bookshelf there’s a crate full of polaroids, and on the coffee table and the windowsill there are more. I’m 22, and there’s no pornhub yet. This room has hundreds of polaroids of little boys.
I don’t say au revoir. I set down the wine glass, grab my stupidhuge backpack, and book it—through the kitchen, out the side door. I get to the street . . . I’m pretty sure the train station was that way, so I start walking. It’s totally dark, and totally quiet. I hear a few crickets, and then I hear a door slam, and then I hear Claude yelling, “Come back! Come back now!” I walk faster. I hear a car start. I see headlights through the trees coming towards me, so I start to run. When the headlights get closer I duck off the road and hide in the woods. He drives past me and turns a corner. I think he’s headed for the train station, so I follow him.
At this point it’s very clear that I will not be enjoying the royal waterskiing entourage, and I am not enjoying Stephanie and Michelle in a Monte Carlo ménage à trois, and I’m not enjoying the hospitalitè of the local bourgeoisie—because I’m running through the woods on moonless night to escape from a bartending French pedophile named Claude.
Eventually I find the center of town and there’s some shitty little pensione, and I’m sweating and out of breath and I ask the night manager, do you have a room? He says, “No rooms,” and I’m like dude, por favor, anything. He says, “Fine, the housekeeper is not working today,” and charges me 50 francs for a mattress on the floor in the basement that’s crawling with cockroaches because, c’est la vie.
One thing you hardly ever ask somebody on your first online date is, “Are you allergic to bee stings?” I read like a thousand websites with top ten lists of dos and don’ts for meeting someone on a dating app. Not one of these mentioned bee sting allergies as an important compatibility question. I’m here to tell you it’s important. It’s a Do.
To be truthful, I have no business dating online, or offline. I have no business dating at all. I’m over 50, I live in my truck, I have no address, no job, and all the personal belongings I have left are in a storage unit in Salt Lake City. My tech company went from startup to shutdown. I sold my home, spent my savings, settled four lawsuits, laid off employees. I sprinkle the experience with some hippie romance. I tell people I’m a digital nomad, or I’m taking a sabbatical. But really all I’m doing is driving my failure around on back highways, sleeping in campgrounds and truck stops and Airbnbs. I’m on this dating app because I’m grasping. I’m not looking for a relationship. I’m not even looking for a hookup. I’m looking for a reason. I want there to be a reason that my business tanked, and me with it I guess. I need a sign or whatever from the universe or whatever, about something.
Meeting Patrice was it.
Day 1. We text all afternoon. I look at her photos forty-seven times: a little black dress at a winery in Barcelona, a rugged mud-smeared hike in the jungle, a flirty pic in a two piece. She lives in the mountains, biochemistry PhD, a can-do adventurer who totally buys into my shpiel about being on a creative retreat. We meet in the bar at the Lake Arrowhead Resort. Bright green eyes, like jewelry, long dark hair, skinny jeans in an armchair by the fireplace. She sips a mojito, I get a margarita, we get a couple more. We laugh our asses off for hours. I go in for the closing hug that sort of lingers and gets tighter. It couldn’t be better. .
And then it does get better. On the drive back to my campsite, she calls.
“Hey, my kids are with their dad. Why don't I jump in my camper and meet you? Is it cool if I bring my dog?”
Definitely. I’m staying at a private campground tomorrow on a nature preserve (like I’m some kind of van life VIP). I’ll text you the address. Is three o’clock good?
She agrees. Yes! This is the reason for all the heartache and loss. It was leading me here, to the beginning of a new life with Patrice, tripping down highways of laughter and chocolate and money, starting tomorrow afternoon.
Day 2. She calls exactly at three. “Something's wrong with my camper van. I don’t think it’ll run.”
I find Patrice and Ally her three-year-old mixed breed standing outside a fruit market on Highway 62. There’s antifreeze on the ground, and there’s a hose clamp under the van, the metal ring that attaches the hose to the radiator. I hold it up like it’s the Stanley Cup.
Look! I say, easy fix. We’re good.
The problem now is that my campground tonight is off the grid. I can’t call the guy, there’s no reception, only GPS. I have to meet him at five or else I lose my spot and have nowhere to stay. I need to get this chick’s van fixed in the next hour and get us to the campground so we can get busy building our life together.
“I don't know . . . I'm going to call my insurance company.”
Wait—you didn't have an accident. You don’t need to--
“I'll call the insurance company, and then I'll call triple A. And then I'm calling my friend Janine.”
She’s no longer talking to me. She’s talking to herself, or maybe to Ally. She’s making a mental list, putting imaginary sticky notes up on the inside of her head. I get the feeling she does this as a response mechanism, any time she’s confronted with the unexpected. I wonder what happened to the can-do confidence of that woman from the lobby bar who hikes in the jungle.
Look, I say, there’s a mechanic’s shop over there, the white sign. We can drive your camper—it’s downhill. But if you tow it home, you’ll just have a broken van in your driveway. I’m impressed with my skill at rhetoric. The guys from the shop come out and predictably tell her she needs a new radiator for $1,500. She starts to hyperventilate, and calls Janine.
I go in and tell the guys, look, it’s only a hose clamp. Just charge her fifty dollars and attach the hose. If she gets a tow, you get nothing. They have a meeting and say, okay, half an hour.
In some hidden corner of my mind, I see the crack widening down the center of this fantasy. I know it’s over. But I can’t leave. I need this story of luck and timing and redemption to be true. I can’t exit the narrative I’ve already written.
They finish two hours later. The van runs fine, and I miss my campground meeting. It’s colder now and getting dark. The mechanics tell us no one cares if we park overnight by the nature preserve.
We find a couple of parking spots under the trees. I pull out the stops. On my camp stove I bust out a chicken piccata, fresh lemon and garlic, capers, bowtie pasta, chilled sauv blanc. Making dinner in the parking lot! Years from now we will laugh when we tell our friends this story.
Patrice eats everything and says nothing. No eye contact, except with Ally. Why isn’t she being more fun and flirty, after I fixed her van and saved her fifteen hundred dollars? We should be rocking the camper by now. She chugs two glasses of wine, stacks her dirty dishes on the ground, and tells me her plan to get up early and call the tow truck. She wonders if tow trucks are more plentiful before 7am or after. She is blind to every detail of this experience except her desperate, irrational need to tow her fully-functioning camper van seventy-five miles back to Lake Arrowhead. She’s tired now, and needs to feed Ally, and disappears inside.
I’m doing the dishes. I hate her. But—maybe she’s embarrassed, or she’s afraid I’m not interested after such a shit day. I’ll make breakfast and tell her I’m having a great time. Which I’m not. I’ll help with the tow, and we’ll go back to her place, and have makeup sex, and start our life together. Soapy water runs over my shoes.
Day 3. I make pour-over coffee, hash browns, sausage. No morning flirt, no thanks-for-everything yesterday. She glowers at her phone. It’s an hour until the truck gets here so she offers, “Let’s go check out the nature preserve.”
I’ve never been here so, sure, why not? We bring Ally and a couple of water bottles. The hiking trail wanders through an oasis in the Mojave. It’s surprisingly lush. There’s a creek, some little waterfalls, dense vegetation surrounds us. The cool air and fresh water sort of wash away my frustraton. It’s fine. Just end it. Say goodbye and part as friends.
She says, “There’s a lot of bees here.”
It’s fine—they won’t bother you.
“I might be allergic to bee stings.”
Really? But I’m not thinking, “Really?” I’m thinking, You don’t know whether you're allergic to bee stings? You’re 46.
I say, Don’t worry. It’s just a bunch of honeybees.
She says, “Ow.”
Please, let it be a cactus.
“I got stung.”
No, you didn’t.
“I did. Look at this red streak going up my arm.”
I see the mark of the stinger on her wrist. There is a reddish streak climbing her forearm towards the elbow.
“I need to get back to my camper.”
I’m calculating. Twenty minutes. I know exactly nothing about the physiology of the body's allergic response to bee venom. This is a purely uneducated guess. I’ve got twenty minutes before Patrice passes out or foams at the mouth or something.
Let's get back. Here’s some water.
“I feel dizzy. I’m getting a headache.”
We need to get you back to your van.
“My vision's getting cloudy.”
You’ll be fine. It’s not far.
“No, it's not that way. It's this way.”
No, it’s not.
“Yes it is—it’s this way.”
It's fucking not. It's fucking that way. This relationship outlived its potential a day and a half ago. The only thing keeping me here at this point is my fear of being charged with misdemeanor accidental negligent homicide or something if Patrice spasms to death by bee venom on this hiking trail.
We make it back to the parking lot. Twelve minutes left. She appears to be fine even after the hurried walk. Ordinary beesting.
She says, “I have an epi pen in my camper.”
She comes out with a little kit, and reads the instruction booklet on how to self-administer a rescue dosage of epinephrine. Looks like her vision is not so cloudy anymore. Nine minutes to go. She sits on the curb, positioning various items from the case uncertainly on the ground around her.
Have you done this before?
“No. I've never been stung by a bee before.”
If you’ve never been stung why do you think you’re allergic?
“Well I just don't know. I better call 911.”
I don't think you need to call 911. You seem okay, no seizure, no respiratory problems. I’ll drive you to a clinic. I immediately regret saying this aloud. And by the way, that's the fire station right there. I saw it when we pulled in.
“No. I’m calling 911.”
Well, if you call 911, they're just going to call those guys. I point at them, even though we can’t see them, inside their cinderblock firehouse across the street. I get a bowl from the back of my truck and pour some water for Ally.
She calls 911 and tells the operator, “Medical emergency.” Is it? Six minutes. She recounts the hiking trail, the bee sting, the epi pen, our location. A minute and a half later, the station doors swing open. An ambulance and a fire truck roll out, sirens on, lights on, a whole production. They drive past three houses and a length of chain link, and turn into our parking lot.
I’m holding the leash. Ally and I watch on our left where two EMTs exit the ambulance, connect Patrice to a saline IV, and help her onto a gurney. On our right, two other first responders are doing paperwork when the truck arrives from Yucca Valley Towing. Rick the driver winches Patrice’s camper up onto his flatbed, so now Patrice and her van each have their own gurney, even though they both are running fine. The tow truck drives away as Patrice is hoisted into the back of the ambulance.
Where are you guys taking her?
“Desert Regional—closest emergency room.”
That’s an hour away.
As the doors close, Patrice calls out, “Hey! Bring my dog! And my purse!”
I am caring for 11 monarch caterpillars in my garden during July and August. I am so hopeful, invested in each little life. I want to see them all transform into butterflies, to see that nature still holds promise, that the unimaginable is possible, that beauty and delight have not deserted us.
Nature is not so straightforward.
To my dismay, only two of them live to full maturity. Number One emerges while I am away, and I miss it. Then, ten days after transforming itself into a chrysalis, Number 11 cracks open and yes! A new butterfly folds out. Its wings are fragile and malformed. It behaves as though it is still its former self, still a worm that crawls. Its body is bloated and full of toxins. It flexes and flaps but does not fly. It literally clings to the shell of its old life.
Hours pass. The wings gradually straighten and solidify. When it flies from the garden, its flight is halting, awkward, lacking grace. It crashes into a palm tree, where it spends the night, too far to return, too weak to go on. In the morning sun it flexes its wings again, but still does not fly—until a sudden breeze lifts it, ready or not! And it is away.
The metaphor is unexpectedly complex. Instead of simple faith in progress it seems to say, take your time. Don’t expect too much at once. Allow ourselves to grow strong enough before we attempt to catch the wind. And even then, trust that the moment will come when we don’t need to do anything, except let go.