Soirée Plouf

 

I passed out in the yurt, and someone told me as I woke up, “I knew yurt to just mean the ‘tent used for nomads,’ but in Turkish it oddly means ‘motherland’ as well,” and I had barely opened my eyes yet. The sunlight poked my eyes like an acid wash when a volunteer exited through the tiny door. It was time to get moving. I crawled out of there into the sun, laid out on the tall grass in the field, and saw Gillem. He told me his car was gone now, his little cream white Renault from the 1990s scrunched like a dirty sock against two large trees and a river boulder, but that didn’t register until later. It was one of those sweet summer mornings, where even getting your shorts on was exciting. Every day of that week was filled with moments. Take the night prior to the talent show for instance—I got to sleep high up in a tree on a platform installed by a collective of professional arborist adventurers called les Petits Sauvages. Amazing times. It was nonstop like that for weeks.

We put on a surf pop cassette and drove off wearing board shorts and sunglasses. We were heading north on a small road 28 kilometers towards Die yet again. The mountainous road winded through tiny tunnels carved out as if a rock-eating-earthworm made them. Every curve felt like a blindfolded pinata shot in the dark, oncoming traffic could obliterate you in your small non-distinct lane and turn you into candy. The purple and orange canyon rock walls towered above, as we bob our heads to the guitar licks. Windows down and the hot summer sun baked the car’s insides, the seat was still cooling and the relentless smell of overripe melons and cheese seemed to hit me especially hard. My stomach fluttered around a curve that looked like Finisterre. We went on for half an hour like this, just going in tunnels and riding curves and near missing big Mercedez hippie vans.

We arrived at the town closest to le Claps, Luc-en-Diois, and stopped to grab limonade, potato chips, and pistachios. As we walked out of the little grocery store, two women driving in a 60s green Volkswagen beetle stopped with their windows down and honked. They knew Gillem. Tiny planet this France. The woman on the passenger side said, “Hey we’re all going to le Claps! Il fait trop beau aujourd'hui, non? C’est comme un rêve!”

“Who’s that?” the woman on the driver’s side said.

“Oh, this is my friend Henry,” Gillem said.

 I leaned into the beetle and we exchanged names. Celine and Margaux, they said, as we did la bise, three quasi kisses on the cheek in the south of France as opposed to the two in Paris. They had opera music blasting.

“Alright, see you there!” Gillem said, and we walked to his car and started it up.

 The small roads here gave me something that I never experienced in Los Angeles: speckled light. Overhanging trees on the road just doesn't seem to happen in a place where five lanes in both directions are the norm. Speckled light changed the way I felt sunshine. It was more like moonlight’s gentle caress on the skin but with micro spots of warmth and chill in the patterns of shadows of leaves, as opposed to the full exposure of a Californian beach or freeway, five minutes and you're burnt. We arrived at le Claps and stopped for an ice cream cone at le Snack du Claps and the two girls in bright bathing suits came up to us at the table.

“Will you faire du cliff diving avec nous?” Margaux asked.

“How high?”

“Hmm, you’ll see,” Celine said and smiled.

“Henry’s a pro, he’s from California,” Gillem said. And then a slew of questions about California came and I told them all the things that they wanted to hear. We grabbed our towels and slung them over our shoulders. We set up a spot at the little pebble beach under tree cover and watched people playing in the giant natural pool of crystal cool water.

We hiked to the cliff. I looked down and stared at the clear water below. I turned and heard a yipping yell, they were gone—splash. The last time I’d jumped off of a cliff was in Hawaii, one of those easy access waterfalls with pineapple slushies sold on carts, and relaxing parents watching their kids be daredevils. After the splashes, voices saying my name echoed around rocks.

“Jump Henry! Jump!”

I looked up at the sky and amongst the scattered clouds the blue seemed inverted and backward like I could jump the opposite way and land in space. Why was I so nervous? They’re fine. They didn’t hit any rocks. What’s the worst that could happen?

I took a step closer to the edge and looked down again. They swam away from the cliff to give me a landing spot. I just see their heads looking up at me and their hands in the shape of solar visors over their foreheads. In this theme park of life, you had to jump, or they wouldn’t call it le Claps. I wanted to fit in, needed to fit in or I was the odd man out. I felt so small standing barefoot on that holey limestone. A flea on a piece of swiss cheese looking down onto a martini. I’d made myself out to be this Californian adventurer. This guy who surfed and did extreme sports, and everything. Truthfully though, I was afraid of heights and especially unknown rocks or things that I could smack into. The longer I stood up there in hesitation, the more they must have thought I was a wimp. Time was wasting. Another second of thoughts or imagery of scared feelings would have been too long, so I yelled out “Aaaahhhhh!” and jumped and in the air my feet tread as if I was walking. The world stretched and, in a flash, I hit the water hard sideways, an almost belly flop. Water went straight up my nose as a million bubbles whirled around me as I sunk in deeper. But eventually I stopped sinking and regained where I was. I kicked my legs and touched my palms together as if I was praying—then spread my hands outward, and I started going back up. As I was swimming back up towards the surface I saw bodies enter the water in a slowed down time making their own million bubbles, like penguins in suits all around me. Some came in headfirst some feet first, some in chaos flails, they were people I recognized—faces I’d seen from distant and near past and future, friends, love interests, family, acquaintances. How deep had I gone? The surface was getting near and the people just disappeared as they sank into the dark water.

My head broke the surface and I looked around me. Celine, Margaux, and Gillem were cheering from the shore. I looked at a bright yellow hummingbird hovering over my head as I kicked towards them. As I stroked, I turned on my back and floated and spread out my arms. Head to the sky I was transported to the day Gillem and I went with that little white car to a lake on the other side of the valley. No one was there on the pebble beach except us and a couple with a Bavarian Mountain Hound that played in the water. The majestic dog was fetching a stick to and from the shoreline and into the water making huge splashes as he ran at full speed to retrieve the branch, and the couple told us how they communicated with him and their community using alphorns. Those long wooden horns you see at Bavarian restaurants and those old guys with beer bellies let kids try to buzz a note, and then that one annoying kid who is eight years old and happens to play the trumpet busts out a whole melody on the thing and you can’t even make a tone that doesn’t sound like spit. I wanted what that couple had. This mountain dog, mountain life: healthy, natural, free. Vacations. But that seemed far away as Gillem and I spent that summer visiting pockets of water, places to submerge ourselves from our outside worlds that wanted desperately to jade us, turn us from art and music, break our hearts and whip us into rent paying adults. 

 

It wasn’t even my car, but I panicked. We sat in silence during dinner as the groups laughed unaware of the totaled wreck outside. Some swerve marks in the dirt on the tractor path showing the moment imprinted, someone just took it and veered off into the adjacent field and disappeared off a ravine. I washed my dish and cup and went outside. I followed the path and looked down the ravine and saw that the car was charred. Windshield shattered. I wondered about the bed and pillow comforting the person who woke up and decided to steal the car that night. I sulked deep in a bathtub years later thinking about this. It’s hard not to feel more adapted, more well behaved than the kid who stole Gillem’s car. It made me angry thinking about those beautiful weekend getaways that were no longer possible sans car. We now had to stick with the groups at the Village—all our decisions were based on the sporadic and quavering moods of one or two teenagers, who hardly ever wanted to go to le Claps. Gillem and I sort of shared the sentiment that the fewer possessions one had the better, but it was sure nice—if only once in a long while—to take off with a car and cliff dive.

  

***

Little pools kept finding ways into my life. One November night, in a hostel in Sicilie, room 4b, the place flooded, and my toes touched water off the side of my bed. Dog piss? No smell, and too much of it. I had just seen La Traviata in the Opera house where they shot that Mafia movie. Someone was practicing scales on a cello in the suite next door of my eight-person mixed dorm room. We were told to disperse into other rooms for the night while they handled the flooding situation (I got the suite). The water sprawled into the hallway a bit and the other guests were complaining. I was too tired to care, really, I just wanted to refind the dream of cello playing before I was wetly awoken. I knocked, this must have been at three in the morning, still? I knocked again and this time I turned the clear fake diamond knob. Inside the room was a woman in a red dress with black hair hunched over her cello. She looked at me and stopped mid-scale. I knew her from somewhere. I hoped the staff would have informed her of the flood. I’m sure she would be more startled if they hadn’t. I tried to place where I’d seen her. Was it during the sudden lightning storm in the cable car up to the medieval plateau town Erice? Couldn’t recognize her if so, for this face was much calmer, muscles not so tense. Maybe Orto Botanico in Palermo, had a dog though. She set her cello down on its side and grabbed a cigarette from the coffee table. She lit it and turned her head out the window to blow smoke, but it spread widely around the window frame and traveled back to her face.

“You know, you pay extra for some privacy. . .” she said, then smiled as if to say just kidding.

“I’m very sorry to disturb you, I promise I won’t make noise, I’m a quiet sleeper,” I said.

“No, it’s alright, I get it. Not your fault. This hostel is disgusting. Please don’t snore though, haha. I hope you won’t be bothered by my cello; I have a performance tomorrow night and I have to be nimble. I got this room so I could practice,” she said and then I knew why she looked familiar. I’d seen her in the orchestra pit. We had one of those eye locking moments—though I was in the cheap seats with binoculars, I swear I saw her look at me during a thirty-two-bar rest. She seemed in no mood for small talk, so I laid out my sleeping bag and sweater (used as a makeshift pillow) on the floor on the opposite side of the suite in a corner and said goodnight. I had always dreamed of becoming a professional pit musician. In high school I played bass guitar in a Charles Dickens musical and loved the cramped space, it was like an underground cave, lit by little lamps that clipped on music stands. Dressed in all black, living in shadow night after night counting hundreds of bars of rests and waiting for a cue. Conductor’s wand writing calligraphy in the air. If a mistake was made the conductor talked to the stage director and like two ego-driven mediator snakeheads of one body, they fought. They looked out for their respective talent. “My orchestra is on tempo; your dancers are the ones rushing!” Dr. Stevens would say. Stevens would say there were rarely instances that the musicians messed the actors up, the actors were to blame if things went sour. I don’t know which are crazier, the ones pouring themselves on stage or the ones turning pages of dots and lines underground. I always missed the pick-up in Act II and the flutist always got it right.

We had an after party on closing night with the actors. The musicians and the actors hardly acknowledged each other during the entire run of the show, not to mention the rehearsals. But the afterparty was where all was forgiven, all the inside jokes of mistakes and all the good nights and moments were brought up around the sacred punchbowl. At this party, I stayed with my fellow musicians in a corner where we could be in our safe musician space. As the drummer was reenacting a triplet fill, one of the lead actresses came up to me and introduced herself. She said she was so grateful to have live music and asked what instrument I played. I said bass and explained I didn’t even know how to read bass clef before this show, I had to write down the names of every note with a pencil. She smiled and I could tell that didn’t impress her. We went over to the food table and ate pita and hummus and talked about how good Ebenezer was. He’s probably a famous actor by now. She started saying random and out of context anecdotes in a British accent. She kept talking in character for five minutes, quoting random Middleton phrases, “Thanks to loud music!” she said as if she was in front of an entire audience reciting an aside or soliloquy. And in a pause, I don’t know why I said this, but I saw these words come out and I remember looking at them flutter to her ear in horror, you never stop acting, do you? She looked at me like the magic spell of my presence had been thrown off like an invisibility cloak. Who are you? Her life became a stage and I had ruined her moment. So this should be up there on a list of things not to say to actors if you do intend to commingle with one who is dedicated to the craft. I walked back to my loser corner and told them what happened, and I was tackled by a chorus of ‘you idiot!’

The cello scales got slower and slower and quieter and quieter and the pitches went down like elephant groans that talked below the 20Hz that humans are capable of hearing in that delirious floor sleep (it may have been the mold) but I heard it, or at least I think I heard it. Frankly, I couldn’t sleep. It had to have been five in the morning. What was this awful noise? For in my dreams the sound resonated so divinely, and now my eyes were wide open, sideways on the floor, hands under my head. She never stops playing, does she? I could see the bow from my perspective, poking out the corner of the bed. As I blinked there listening to the worsening scales, I wondered if she was even still awake. I shifted myself up into a cross leg position in my sleeping bag and saw her eyes beyond bloodshot staring at a dead cockroach by the door as she stroked the cello with the bow, unraveling horsehair. If I somehow dared to speak, my words would be instantly webbed and eaten alive unless of course I found the right words to say. She heard me shuffle and suddenly she looked alert and sorry.

 

***

 

And so she had seen me. “In paradise,” she said.

“You mean the cheap seats?” I said, “Yeah.”

Something to do with those seats, up there with ‘the gods,’ something to do with how you're so close to the baroque paintings on the ceiling and how you can touch the clouds and angels. “How did you like the performance?” she asked, “Tonight should be much better.” Something to do with how you’re so far away from the actors on stage, but so close to the musicians in the pit, who can only see you looking down on them from the lofting balcony, their sound seems to come first, before the bougie seats upfront with the good view.

“I had to duck my head to keep from getting hit by rainbows and baby trumpets,” I said. She looked small when she played the cello. I stayed with her for a while, watching the sunrise, from our heads out the window facing the narrow-degraded alley. Garbage was everywhere, more than usual, times ten. With the strikes going on the city couldn’t manage its waste. Nobody wanted to pay them well enough, so they figured, well the trash will just stack up until you can’t get out of your golden door and go to work. Bags upon bags piled upon molding furniture. Pizza boxes on broken cat trees and plastic castles caked with thrown out soup noodles. I couldn’t afford to really try the cuisine of Sicilie, so I stuck with the euro and a half Aranchinis. Needless to say they won the strike. Though it wasn’t in my itinerary (it set me behind schedule for Mt. Etna), I stayed in Palermo to see the opera again. I sat in the same seat as the night before and watched and listened with a clinging ear to cello notes. And just as she said, the performance wasn’t anything like the night before, though it got the same applause. It wasn’t just a mere tourist representation of a classic, the annual doldrum hype like Shakespeare—going through the motions. It wasn’t number three out of a hundred shows. If only for a few ears. It wasn’t.