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 a train in Paris. This afternoon, I arrived in Nice, and I’m on my way to villa, where I’m invited to go waterskiing this weekend with—I shit you not—King Juan Carlos of Spain.
I’m traveling with three other guys—my friend Alex, and his two fraternity brothers. We’re all students at Cambridge, we’re spending a week in France with our stupidhuge backpacks, and Alex’s family is doing very well: his father 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 a butler and a chef and an Olympic pool 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 21, 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 are driven away by 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 jesus, 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 the 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. I find a little bar by the train station, 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, only two train stops away. My name is Claude.”
This is some bonne chance. I help him close up 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 over a giant wooden 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 an antique writing desk and on the desk there’s a stack of polaroids with a rubber band. 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, like 40. I pick up the stack and the next photo is a different boy with his shirt off lying in the grass—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 21, but I look 16, 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 the 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 to the left, so I start walking. It’s very dark, and very quiet. I hear crickets, and then a door slam, and then I hear Claude yelling, “Come back! Come back now!” I pick up my pace. I hear a car start. I see headlights through the trees coming towards me, so now I’m running. When the headlights get closer I jump 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 now I’m following 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 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 a shitty little pensione. 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 and stinks like feet because, c’est la vie.
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.