This is a series of rewritten journal entries from the summer I spent in the south of France, the first entry here.
Shawn Lee is my favorite bartender at my favorite bar, The Six Arms. He is often smiling, and looking for excuses to make you laugh. Shawn is traveling through Europe when I’m there and promises to visit, but when I finally hear from him, he says he’s picked up a traveling mate named Seamus, a Canadian, who I’m sure to like. It’s no longer just Shawn, it’s Shawn and Seamus.
The condo has one bedroom, with a foldout sofa bed in the living room. I’ve been sleeping on the sofa bed most of the time before Shawn and Seamus come because there is a problem with the bedroom: whenever I sleep there, I get the worst nightmares. They’re the kind of dreams where I’m convinced something else is in the room with me, threatening. I’ll offer up the room to Shawn and Seamus as a gesture of hospitality but in fact, it’s a test to see if the same thing happens to them.
Today the morning sky is pink at 6. It’s just inside September, but gives the impression of being cooler in the morning than it really is on account of the dark. It’s the first morning I’ve put my sweater on, and needed a blanket to write. I’ve gone through the notepads I have from my brief time in France, June through October, 1998. I read the entries leading up to my departure, then the first couple when I returned to Seattle.
Because I took my cats with me and flew through Barcelona, I actually had to get paperwork stamped at the Spanish embassy in New York. I detail the day I take the bus there and what it’s like, all those people speaking Spanish, me writing a check for $36, then turning back for the two-hour ride home. I couldn’t have had more than a thousand dollars in my checking account then. It was the time I had to worry about late fees, and dropping below the minimum monthly balance.
Shawn is traveling through Europe like me, to figure things out. He’s also single, and can’t seem to find the right girl. We have that much in common. I’ve been alone in this small town for three weeks by the time they arrive, counting down the days for company. I hunkered down for a week of bad winds, only going out to walk the dog or buy groceries. My journal entries imply a fair amount of beer drinking, failed efforts to write, getting tired of the cassettes I’ve brought already. When Shawn and Seamus come, I imagine, I’ll see the place through their eyes and feel renewed. And how sorely I miss Americans.
When we meet, Shawn and I do a bro hug but Seamus’s eyes don’t meet mine as we shake. He is wearing a baseball hat, T-shirt and shorts. He has the look of Irish stock and a strange accent I can’t pinpoint, that’s not the Canadian I’m familiar with. It’s like the gypsy Irish dialect from that Brad Pitt movie about street fighters. He kind of mumbles.
We go to the beach. There are two beaches to choose from, on either side of the condo unit. We get right to the matter of whether or not they’re nude beaches and I confirm that there have been limited sightings, and they nod. I’ve been doing push-ups every morning and sunning myself to help attract a French girl but so far, no luck. My journal entries come back to this as a recurring theme: the scene of a pretty, young woman with her dog walking the beach, trying to communicate with her in French about my dog, Chumley. She’s asking if he’s Chinese I think but in fact, she’s asking me if he’s fixed, a detail we need to pantomime. Chumley and the French dog take a liking to one another, though the French dog is on her period. Chumley is pumping the air with his hips, and she’s on her back as they mimic love-making on the sand, half-in, half-out of the water with the waves coming in. It’s laughable, with the sun going down behind them. I learn the woman is from the north, but moved here on account of her husband. The scene ends…and my writing rings of self-pity. No wonder I couldn’t find anyone.
We make plans to go into town so I can show Shawn and Seamus the bars. I don’t really go out though, as I haven’t got much money or any way to earn it. I’ve done some work for the Canadians Allanah and Gregory who flip old homes, and live in them as they’re renovating. They’re in one across the harbor from my parent’s place in Port-Vendres. The deal is, I help Gregory demolish walls or carry things (my only skills) and in return, they feed me big lunches. We drink a fair amount of wine, and the work day ends by the time we start lunch.
I take the guys to Les Templiers, the first bar we started going to when we came to Collioure. It’s named after the Knights Templar, a 12th-century Catholic military order. There’s an original Picasso behind the bar, from the time he stayed there and left the painting for payment. The village was a popular destination for painters because of the soft light and natural beauty. Salvador Dali’s home town is an hour away on the Spanish coast, and he’s buried at the base of a museum in another town nearby.
Shawn is listening but Seamus seems distracted, far away. I curse Shawn for bringing him. They’ll need to work out whether they share the queen-sized bed or take turns on the other sofa that’s not a pull-out, in the living room. They’re not clear about how long they’re staying either, always a bad sign. I get the impression that they’re going to stay as long as possible because it’s “free,” and the town is pretty posh. I’ve already started rehearsing how I’ll broach the topic with Shawn.
After a day or two with Seamus it’s clear that I can’t take him anywhere I’ll be recognized or associated with him, which includes introducing him to my small group of friends. He’s homophobic: problematic because I have a gay couple coming to visit me in July, and another gay couple (Rob and Paul) who helped us settle into this town. Homophobes make me nervous because I feel like they’re hiding something, or hateful. I don’t know what Seamus does for a living, why he’s in Europe, or why exactly Shawn chose to buddy up with him. Seamus the person, the character, has no distinguishable features: he is as featureless as a river rock, mere form.
Days of sleeping in, the look of men’s bare feet sprawled out on couches…dirty tube socks. Then, the straw that breaks the camel’s back: the day Seamus has something important to say, something he’s seen. He takes his cap off for the first time and runs his hand back over his head, agitated:
Guys, you won’t believe this.
Seamus has returned from the bakery, or the gas station. On his walk down the driveway to the condo he saw the most amazing thing: hundreds upon hundreds of ants coming out of the ground, everywhere. Seamus describes the scale of this, then naturally begins killing all of the ants, stomping them into oblivion. But they’re everywhere, and the task takes more time and effort than you’d imagine.
I think I got all of them, but I’ll go out again later to check.
Shawn and I look at each other and Shawn says wow, and I have nothing more to say to Seamus. I’ve been reading about heightened states of perception and awareness, collective consciousness, the notion of groupthink: I can’t even begin to explain to Seamus why this is wrong, why it makes no sense to just kill like that.
I lie and tell them both I’m leaving town and they’ll need to make plans to vacate, too. Shawn senses I’m lying and apologizes, but it’s hard to reconcile. He realizes he’s made a mistake and I let him sit with that; I’m 27 and not very evolved myself.
As a way of thanks for my hospitality, Seamus returns from the butcher with a large white bag and offers it to me, diverting his eyes but proud of his purchase. It’s horse, something he’s never seen available anywhere, so let’s try it. None of us know how to cook horse and the internet doesn’t exist yet, so Seamus, of Irish stock, finds my biggest cooking pot and boils the large brown cut until it’s gray, most surely done. We each have a portion on a plate with nothing else, just the meat, overcooked and rubbery, tough as tire.
There in my journal is Seamus’s full name spelled out with a number and country code I don’t recognize, the day they left. His handwriting is delicate and exact, and seems unreal to me now. Shawn and I saw each other one more time in Seattle and exchanged numbers, but it was never the same.