This is a series of rewritten journal entries from the summer I spent in the south of France, the first entry here.
Rob and Paul seem like an unlikely gay couple to me, not knowing what gay couples are supposed to be like. Rob is gruff, shaped like an ape: Paul, demure. They show no signs of affection towards one another and by all accounts, are not “out.” They’re both a good 20 years older than me and not aging well. Rob has unkempt eyebrows, big features, a mustache and sagging gut. Paul is bearded with glasses, wears old hats, thrift store coats.
John, who’s become my step-dad, met Rob and Paul in London in the ’60s. They all liked Basset hounds and drinking. Other than this, and being English, I don’t see much else in common. Maybe traveling to France, but this an English tendency I learn, more of a one-way affinity. I don’t see many French vacationing to the UK.
Mike and I visit London for the first time and stay with Rob and Paul at their home in Arnos Grove, taking the Bounds Green tube stop. We meet the Bassets, Bentley and Bess. The Bassets have drooping eyes with pink folds and pendulous ears that need cleaning, a process Rob executes by holding one of the Bassets on his lap and applying drops to their ears, cupping the liquid in place, then dabbing out the yellow fluid with a hanky. The dogs look on as Rob narrates, adjusting his tone between me and Bentley/Bess, English-formal with me, stern with the Bassets. Over time I imagine that Bentley resembles Rob, and Bess, Paul.
Rob works as a pharmacist at the neighborhood apothecary and returns home the same time, stopping by the corner shop for a can of lager. He drains the beer and opens a bottle of wine, then prepares dinner. It is the same routine every night.
Paul is off to the sides tinkering with picture frames he’s staining, always a number of paintings, drawings, or projects underway. He has a naturopath shop he owns nearby, but at heart, he’s an artist. The house feels choked by his art, either tacked to the walls or leaning in the narrow hallways, stacked on desks and chairs, altering the intended function of any object or surface so it becomes instead a platform for his work.
His art is distinct: it spills out to John and my mom’s house, and even now, in 2019, you can still find remnants of Paul (dead several years) in our garage.
Sadly, Paul draws nudes of adolescent boys and men. It vacillates between art and pornography though, and we don’t talk about it. Rob and Paul sleep in separate rooms and one morning I catch a view of Paul in his chamber: an undersized bed frame intended for a young teen at best, so small he has to fold himself into a ball to fit inside.
The year before I move to France, Mike, Rob, Paul and I journey to Collioure from London with the Bassets. Rob and Paul own a VW camper van with a loo in the back and a stove to boil water for tea, or hard-boil eggs. There’s a small seating area where the four of us can sit when we stop for breaks. Paul peels an egg, his hands still steady, the Parkinson’s a distance away.
We take the Chunnel, Rob driving the whole way. They both sit up front while Mike and I are in the back with the Bassets, who sleep the entire length of France, which looks just like Pennsylvania and takes roughly two days to cross. When they pee it’s a small squirt, and they stare at me while squatting and then trot back into the van, their tales high and firm as a conductor’s baton.
It is my first time in the south of France, and Mike’s first visit to Europe. Though the scenery from the van isn’t much, it becomes more so as we approach Collioure: the snow-covered Pyrenees mountains, some with lookout towers and castles…large cacti starting to bloom, palm trees and aloe growing along the hillsides. We visit in April, and it feels like summer. When we arrive at the apartment, Rob and Paul sleep in the nearby parking lot in their van, while Mike and I share the foldout couch and my mom and John, the small bedroom.
Paul collects interesting pieces of driftwood along the beach, one that resembles a human figure with its legs spread. You can really see the twist of the torso and how the hips flare out, the muscles in the upper and lower legs. John displays the piece on the book shelf where the setting sun illuminates it, and Paul produces another figure to serve as its companion, then stages an argument between the two, making his voice sound funny. We are all drinking Pastis, a French aperitif you add ice and water to, that turns the drink bright yellow, the color of anti-freeze, a milky potion.
John reveals more to me about Rob and Paul in private: there’s Paul’s upsetting nudes, but Rob has this thing about cheese. It’s not an allergy, more a phobia. He can’t have anything that’s come from a refrigerator where cheese has once been, as if cheese spores have been released and affected adjacent contents of the fridge. This is awkward, because John especially likes cheese with wine, while in France. And each time we go out and Rob surveys the menu, there is the solemn exchange with the waiter over Rob’s selection, to verify there’s no cheese in his order. And then Rob’s insistence that there is in fact cheese and sending it back, and the five or six of us leaving the restaurant quiet, embarrassed, feeling not only like foreigners and tourists, but freaks.
Rob and Paul are friends with the English painter Barry Blend, the biggest local artist in Collioure, who does bright, cartoon-like oil paintings: landscapes of boats in the harbor, portraits with exaggerated hands a bit out of proportion, playful and light. John buys many of Barry’s paintings and then commissions Barry to do T-shirts featuring John’s brand of musical strings.
We are all invited to Barry’s house for dinner, meet his Dutch wife Tineke, their two small boys. Mike and I smoke cigarettes with Barry’s Dutch wife, who gives us advice on where to go in Amsterdam. Barry is grilling large sardines, the local featured cuisine, and looks like Mel Gibson: the same large, radiant eyes but with bushy graying hair. His eyes are the same color as the blue he uses in his paintings, the color of the sea. Their house is a wreck and feels like artists occupy it. Kids’ shit everywhere, fly swatters in the kitchen, painting supplies. John plays acoustic guitar and we all sit at the same table, set for 10. In the photos I still have of that night, Mike and I are making faces with the emptied out heads of large shrimp we’re holding in our mouths like cigars, like we’re smoking them. Both of us look very young, and drunk.
Paul is diagnosed with Parkinson’s and on my last visits with him, looks shaky and frail, can’t really drink now with all the medications he’s on. They buy an old farm house in the hills outside of Collioure, and Dawn and I visit briefly on a long hike that snakes through the surrounding hills. Lookouts across the valley along medieval walls where the archers aimed their bows—the sense that the past is very much a part of the present, here.
Rob boils water for tea, and Paul produces breads and pastries from the local bakery. Each time we see them, I come away with more objects and artifacts, gifts from Paul. Perhaps he’s trying to shed, I think.
My favorite is a scene of the Collioure harbor, modeled after a painting Barry Blend did of the same scene, made to look like stained glass. But Paul has painted onto the glass so it looks like individually carved panes. And put a rustic stain on the frame so it looks antique.
Rob would call my mom even after John died, most times on Christmas or New Year’s, and toward the end he sent photos of himself, injuries or physical anomalies mom would pass on to me, but I couldn’t look at. Because Rob’s last name was Bradshaw we’d joke and call him Brad Shaw, the same for Paul: “Matt Hams,” for Matthams.
The past flickers ever so in these old photos, and I realize Rob and Paul were around the same age I am now when we met. And I sense Paul’s presence in the work he’s left behind. I wonder if our kids will inherit one of his pieces, never knowing its creator, or how our lives intersected.
I look at these things and realize I can’t part with them, because they contain memory and by extension, me. A business card from the Tandoori restaurant at King’s Cross where Rob took me and Mike our first night in London. A printout of his curry recipe I’ll likely never make, but will keep. You can boil our lives down into a storage unit of varying sizes. And if the past is truly us, and doesn’t really exist, then I wonder what that says for me now.
Still in search of a journal from that timeframe, today I found the other antique Rolex John gave me, which stopped running about five years ago. I immediately slipped it on, and after a few hours the minute hand crept a quarter inch across the face. I found a drawing I did of it a while ago, I’ll name Antique Rolex in Scorpion Pose.