June 19, 2017
In 1999 I met Marie in the southwest of France. Tall, straight blond hair that cascaded down her back, rapturous blue eyes, mischievous big smile—she got a lot of attention from men, and I felt lucky to have hers. We were at the Seaside Bar in Hossegor, both of us in town for the Rip Curl Pro, an international surf contest. I was writing about it; she was doing marketing/P.R. for her employer, Oakley Europe.
Over drinks we talked about Magnum photographers, Brazilian writers, and the loutishness of the pro-surfing tribe. She told me she loved bullfighting, that she anxiously awaited the corrida de toros season (April-October) so she could spend weekends in Seville, where she wore flamenco dresses and occasionally danced on tables. “There’s this torero who trains for the corridas by going to the beach at night with his cape,” she said. “He pretends that the waves are bulls.”
Marie lived in Paris, in the 16th, on Rue Passy—“really bourgeois, but also really beautiful. Catherine Deneuve is my neighbor.” She wrote her number on a cocktail napkin. “If you’re in Paris any time soon, come visit.”
I was there three days later. We met at a sushi restaurant, had an excellent dinner and lots of sake, and went for a stroll. On the steps of the Trocadéro, the Eiffel Tower presiding over us, we kissed for the first time. At her one-bedroom, minimalist apartment that smelled of roses and strong cheese, we had sex.
I left the following morning, back to Southern California, where I worked as the editor of Surfing magazine. Marie and I kept in touch over email. She sent me a gift of photo books (Lartigue, Cartier-Bresson) and a handwritten note in a small wooden frame—“Missing you, thinking about you, sending good vibes from Paris.”
I was not so generous. I’d been through a breakup only a few months earlier with a girl I’d planned to marry. We’d given it an earnest go, and the fact that it hadn’t worked left me with a sense of doom. Or, as my terminally single friend put it: “We all just grind each other to dust.” I was also enjoying what might be called a “fuck buddy thing” with a girl who lived near me in Laguna Beach.
A couple of months later, Marie met me in Los Angeles and we flew to Hawaii together, both of us there for work. I stayed with my fellow mag-makers at a beach house; she stayed with her Oakley co-workers less than a mile away. We hung out a lot. But driving to dinner with Marie one evening, me at the wheel, she riding shotgun, her arm hung around me in a way that felt claustrophobic, suffocating, a reminder that I was not yet ready for a committed relationship. This became even more apparent when I went to stay with her in Paris.
She was smart, passionate, interesting, interested. We shared plenty in common. At night, typically drunk, me a little stoned, we’d fuck and fall asleep in the center of her queen-size bed. As the night progressed, though, she’d keep nuzzling closer and closer, at times almost on top of me, so that by morning I’d be hanging off the edge of the mattress. A lot of the love dance, I believe, plays out in sleep. I wasn’t consciously trying to run, but mount a camera to the ceiling and shoot a time-lapse of our slumber and it would look like I was.
There were more gifts from Marie (L’Occitane soaps, a scented candle, a Miles Davis Ascenseur pour l'échafaud CD). There were the lychees, bought at the local market and set on her kitchen counter with a note that simply read J. There was her “all-time favorite restaurant,” Le Fumoir, near the Louvre, where we drank strong martinis and ate raw steak with bone marrow. And in her all-white bedroom, perched assiduously on her nightstand, there was a framed photo of me, which a couple of years into a relationship might have made me happy, but given our newness, given my reluctance to fully commit, made me uneasy.
That summer I got an interesting offer. My Aussie colleague Derek Rielly had been living with his family in Hossegor, editing Surf Europe, a quarterly magazine printed in French, Spanish, English, and German. He was there on a two-year contract, but his wife had gotten a job offer in Sydney that she couldn’t pass up. She and their young daughter were already there, and Derek wanted to go spend some time with them.
Would I come live in Hossegor for three months and guest edit an issue?
I loved the southwest, I was entranced by Paris, I liked Marie, I’d recently left my job at Surfing specifically so I could travel—I put my worldly belongings in storage and moved there a couple of weeks later.
That expression “…walk a mile in another man’s shoes” took on literal proportions in Hossegor. Not only did I inherit Derek’s office, staff, and coffee mug at Surf Europe, but I also got his rental Peugeot, his sturdy mountain bike, his quiver of surfboards, and his spartan beach house on the dunes. With the house came guests, a dozen or so, most of whom were photographers, illustrators, and writers for the magazine.
It was a bohemian scene. Empty wine bottles scattered the sandy concrete floor. Hash joints were smoked around the clock. Unwashed skate kids in Vans and big shorts draped the stained sofas. There were more bodies than beds. On the night of my arrival I was drifting off to sleep in the master bedroom when Hannah—buxom, blond, German, a girl I’d met on a previous trip and took an instant liking to—shuffled in.
“Nowhere to sleep,” she said. “Can I share the bed with you?”
I marveled at my good fortune. She slid under the covers.
Then, how to get from easy, whispered conversation to sex. I figured a hand on her belly might be a good start. I moved slowly, gingerly. The distance between my naked right hand and her T-shirt-covered belly was maybe a foot, but it seemed like nine miles. My heart thumped almost audibly. My fingers trembled. I felt a kind of heat haze emanating from her skin as I inched my way there. And then I gently touched her, and she giggled as if ticklish, and broke into a full-scale belly laugh, and told me that she thought of me kindly, but not sexually. And so began my long, tormented, sleepless night.
But Marie. She was in Paris, I was in Hossegor. The flight from nearby Biarritz to De Gaulle was an hour and a half. I went to see her a couple of times that summer. We hung out in what to me was our casual way.
I spent a lot of time at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, an art museum in an 18th-century mansion in Le Marais. I’d started shooting portraits and lifestyle to accompany my travel pieces and gotten fully consumed by photography. In the basement library, I immersed myself in the work of Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, Sebastião Salgado. Through photojournalism I got a glimpse of what had originally attracted me to writing: a license to study and investigate and plunge into the things that interested me.
I was fascinated by the surrealist imagery of Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Arthur Tress. I loved Peter Beard’s visceral, blood-smeared collages. On the Metro ride back to Marie’s, I filled my French-ruled notebooks with loosely-sketched rectangles and stick figures. In the margins I wrote stuff like: Pentax 6x7 on a tripod, Portra 160 NC, 4.0/30 secs, post-sunset soft blue light w/ amber streetlights in background. Ideas for photos hit me in the middle of the night, and I’d get up, turn on the light, and write them down. It was a beautiful haunting.
Marie and I didn’t move forward and we didn’t move backward. She was too graceful to tell me that she was hoping for more. I was obtuse, self-involved. I needed a good whack upside the head.
It came at the end of that summer. I was in Hossegor trying to put the issue to bed. We’d made plans to spend the weekend together in Paris. On Thursday, Marie called to say that she’d been invited to Seville to watch the last bullfight of the season.
“You know how much I love the corridas,” she said. “But listen, you come to Paris. Stay at my apartment. Try to have a great time without me.”
I did exactly that. I flew up on Friday night, caught a taxi from De Gaulle to Passy, exchanged greetings with Olivier the doorman, who by this time I was on a first name basis with, and slid the key that Marie had left me into the lock. The smell of roses and strong cheese. Her small living room was as white and minimalist as ever. Her kitchenette was clean and organized, with a carton of fresh pink-red lychees on the counter. Her bed was made, pillows fluffed.
All was exactly as I’d last seen it, except for one thing. On the nightstand my picture was gone. In its place were two photos: one of a torero in an elegant swish of the cape with charging bull, the other a close-up portrait of that same torero. He had slicked-back hair, a chiseled, gallant face, and smoky dark eyes. He looked like the sort of lover Madonna circa Like A Prayer might have taken on.
Arranged neatly next to the photos was an estoque—that long spear the torero stabs into the bull’s spine at the end of the fight, the coup de grâce. It was sheathed in clear plastic, a prize, the bullfighting equivalent of the grand slam baseball. I picked it up and took a close look. Blood-caked tufts of black shiny hair, splotches of dried-up blood on the plastic, like something you’d inspect under a microscope. A real specimen of gore. I imagined a massive, bleeding bull in the middle of the ring, a stadium full of cheering fans, the sexy torero sashaying over to Marie, sitting ringside, and handing the bloody spear up to her. At the time I felt a wave of dumb, primal, male proprietary instinct, but today I only want to applaud her.