Paint By Numbers
I walk into L’auberge de Jeunesse, a hostel nestled in woodland hills overlooking a glorious aqua-blue, buoyant stretch of the Mediterranean. Down below is an enormous Jacuzzi of tanned, topless Europeans in Chanel bikini bottoms. I’m in paradise, schlepping a suitcase of little black eBay designer dresses. I might as well tack a sign, Just Fired, to my derriere, the only French word with any color that I remember.
“Parlez-vous anglais?” I mumble, embarrassed by my 9th grade parlance.
“Oué, I do, thanks for asking,” says the receptionist, a freckled French hippie girl. “Here is your key and the internet password.”
I station myself in the cafeteria, armed with my laptop. When backpacking with a lover or friend, hostels are places to meet fellow wayfarers. But alone, you imagine cliques, factions, haters, and predators.
Furiously, I type and gripe with my sister back in Brooklyn.
I’d spent two weeks as a salesgirl at a ritzy boutique hotel. My big mistake? I’d brought a bellhop back to the apartment, which I shared with my boss, a Parisian designer, Claudet. I’d found him on Craigslist. He vacationed on the Riviera and wanted a summer assistant. He’d forgotten to mention we’d be roomies when he bought my ticket. Claudet walked in on the bellhop and me simulating a game of miniature golf. Don’t ask. Riddled with class bias and a latent desire to concubine me, he accused the bell hop of trespassing, and chased him outside. I was given a thousand Euros, and sent on my way.
I notice a table of young Moroccan boys free-styling. Two Canadian girls (betrayed by the maple leaf patches sewn onto their backpacks), have their faces buried in Rough Guide. A motley crew at the table across from me feasts on homemade spaghetti and meatballs. An older woman, a fifty-year-old version of the receptionist, sets down a plate. “For you, cher,” she says, to a man who has entered the scene.
He is hunched over his plate of spaghetti, alternating bites with genteel sips of rosé. He’s bearded and looks like he sails a boat, between Nice and Marseilles, back and forth, just for sport. His muscled arms are tanned as caramels, but hardly as soft. His shorts are short, almost too short. He finishes his meal and then walks off, plate in hand. A minute later, he comes back into the cafeteria and perches himself on the window sill. He begins meticulously hand-rolling a cigarette.
“Hey,” he says, noticing my unabashed staring. “When’d you get here?”
“About an hour ago.”
“Want a smoke? You look like you want one.”
“I’ve was actually eyeing your spaghetti and meatballs.”
“So random. I’m from the Bronx.”
“You might as well be from France.”
“You got jokes.”
“I’m just hairy.”
“I’m Puerto Rican.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I was teaching a French model how to paint landscapes. Today was our last
class. Back to New York in a few days.”
“How’d you get that gig?”
“Craigslist. What about you?”
“Craigslist. I’m a salesgirl. Was a salesgirl. Now I’m fired.”
“Ouch,” he says. He pours me a glass of rosé.
“How’d you find this place?”
“Same as those chicks,” he says, pointing to the girls with the guidebook. “The hostel needed someone to clean the bathrooms. I said I’d do it and so I stay for free.”
On the rooftop, we sit on plastic lawn chairs, drunkenly exchanging personal trivia. There’d been a crowd of people up here, talking about language classes and water sports and the Tour de France, but one by one, the Canadian sisters, the receptionist and her boyfriend, and finally, the Parisian teenagers, excuse themselves. One of them winks pointedly at Lalo.
We start kissing. Our tongues are coated with rosé and cigarettes; his tongue is tinged with garlic and basil. It’s dark outside, except for the streetlamp, which casts its strange amber glow upon us. People fly across the world with the hopes of encountering something, or someone, exotic. And here I am, on the French Riviera, making out with a Puerto Rican guy from the Bronx. The only difference is we’re sleeping in bunk beds in different rooms, with four or five other people. There’s nowhere to have sex.
The next morning, we trek downhill to town, where he sets up an easel along the cobblestone alleys and brilliant pastel villas. I’m in a bar nook buried in an alley, tapping away at my computer, ignoring the humdrum about. After a day’s work, we meet again.
“You want to add a stroke?” he asks, handing me a slim paintbrush.
I paint a lavender stripe along the side of the storefront on the canvas. He squints, as if it will help him see better. He runs his finger over my stripe and whatever gray or black is still wet on his finger darkens it.
We sit on the beach composed of paperweight-sized rocks. Lalo spreads a large towel spread over our legs. His fingers, which are still covered in acrylics and cigarettes, spread me open. I hit snooze on the Carcinogens!-Infections!-General Discomforts!-Oh-My!-alarm, and quietly meditate on the row of villas that disappear into the settling twilight.
Bastille Day. The hippie receptionist and her boyfriend, the spaghetti ‘n meatball crew, and Lalo and I pack baguettes, Roquefort, ham, slices of tomato, and lettuce, and head out to Nice to see the fireworks’ show. The beach is littered with flags and Kronenbourg 1664 bottles and gasoline residue from fire-eating girls’ lips.
Back at the hostel Lalo wants to show me something. He swipes a bed sheet from the laundry room. We go up to the roof and climb down the side of the hostel. We walk through the surrounding woods for a few minutes, until we reach a patio-sized slab of concrete, made for fucking in the middle of nowhere. He lays the sheet down. Even though the sheet is worn soft and cottony, after a few minutes of gallant thrusting, my backside is raw. He comes, quickly, because his knees have started bleeding.
Midnight Laundry. Lalo has to wash load after load of twin bed sheets, including our bloodied one. I slip off my one-piece bathing suit, and throw it into our load. He locks the door. He takes a firm hold of my naked hips and slaps my bottom once, hard, and nods toward the clean sheets. It’s a billowy pile on the floor, more inviting than the concrete slab and beach rocks we’ve endured. His eyes crinkle mischievously.
“Voulez-vous coucher—” he starts to say—
“Oh, no. We can’t,” I say. “We just washed this shit for an hour.”
We spend an hour re-soiling the sheets, and then re-washing them until five in the morning.
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Try something today. Count how many times someone brings up some sort of mental illness in normal conversation. Add that number up and tell me it doesn’t strike you as kind of weird how many normal people walk around with the belief that there is something wrong with them.
She assumed it was jewelry. Every year he gets her a charm for her gold chain or a pair of dangly earrings.
Fall if you will, but rise you must.
You may lose what would have been the joy of the experience had you not been so focused on some fabricated idea or unrealistic expectation you had of how it was going to turn out.