The Devil’s Coach Horse, or A Weekend in Bordeaux

One day, back in the late 1980s, some friends of mine in London decided to do me a favor and fix me up with an almost famous British author who was coming to “write” in Paris for a while. They thought it was time I dated someone with more to offer than the dinner check or Chlamydia. Yes, my last beau had been a broke photographer who’d given me Chlamydia (hey, it happens to the best of us), and immediately previous to him I’d dated a strange man (I still don’t know exactly what his profession was) who’d declared me “an angel” in a café — an unfortunate misreading of my personality. Things had gone rapidly downhill for us when I’d noticed a large, moist green-grey booger in his nostril one day, from which point I was helpless to look at him without thinking I was seeing one again every time the light played on his nostrils, which just happened to be naturally lumpy and shiny to begin with. He wrote me an affectionately psychotic farewell love poem that contained the word “larval.” Last I heard he was living on a remote Polynesian island, having fathered a large family.

So, why not? I’d never allowed myself to be set up. For me, it had always been a matter of pride turning down set-ups and blind dates. But maybe being realistic and practical might be a good change from proud: who was I to be proud after Germy-McPenis and Ol’ Booger-Nose? I had to admit that the empirical evidence pointed to the possibility that pride was not a luxury I could afford. I’m not embarrassed to admit I’m wrong, so I said yes. Why not. Set me up! Send him over.

Well, my first thought upon meeting this guy was that he wasn’t my type at all. He seemed to be about seven feet tall, which isn’t a bad thing, except it was mostly neck. But I was determined to be open-minded. He was an almost-famous writer after all. There must be something good about him. By way of introducing himself, he’d given me a copy of his most popular book (not his latest), which was straight out of the trendy late-eighties British dick-lit department. It seemed to reveal that he was overly sentimental about himself and his sex drive, narcissistic in a “meta” way, but I didn’t think that was necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it seemed like a late-’80s thing, which I accepted might make him just a perfectly normal specimen of his generation.

He proved to be amusingly quirky with his constant objections to my apparent sexism: for example, one late summer afternoon while walking along the Seine in a sundress with him I announced that I was feeling chilly, to which he responded: “Well, I hope you don’t expect me to give you my jacket just because I’m a man. I’m cold, too.” It was such a refreshingly offbeat and stupid thing to say that, giving him the benefit of the doubt, I put it down to a calculated British sense of humor (do the Brits have any other kind?) and delicately consumed all further similar blurtations (and privations of warm jackets) as if they were high tea and cucumber sandwiches, savoring the privilege of being amused by (rather than, thankfully, part of) his weird culture.

He had a habit of holding my hand up high, almost as if we were dancing a minuet, when we walked down the streets of Paris holding hands. Again, beguilingly strange. So, people stared: I reckoned that after stripping in front of strangers to nothing but a flesh-colored thong backstage of fashion shows for years I ought to be able to handle being seen clothed and holding hands with an oddball.  “Look!” I said to them all in my mind, “I’ve got an eccentric British boyfriend.”

He favored pretentious pronouncements like, “I can’t learn anything from anyone who isn’t superior to me.” I disagreed, and even suggested he had a few things to learn from me (which he doubted), and then found it intriguing that he really believed his own nonsense. Or perhaps he was just being ironic. I had no idea. He was like a strange animal that had attached itself to me and followed me home, and my curiosity kept me constantly entertained: did this or that action mean he’s hungry? Sleepy? Did he need to go outside? Did he need something to eat? Should I put a bowl of beer out for him?

Sex was alright, nothing fantastic, but nothing for a single girl to sneeze at, either, lest we overlook the fact that it may have been in my interest to interpret his oddities as intriguing rather than objectionable.

Well, one day when I was just about weary of him, however amusing he was, he phoned and invited me to join him for a weekend at a country house in Bordeaux where he planned to spend a week or two. He was already there, in fact. I saw myself wearing a lace sundress, languorous from too much sex, resting in a hammock and sipping red wine under an awning of grape leaves while plump, ruddy-cheeked peasants bicycled by in the dappled yellow sunlight with baguettes and wheels of cheese in their straw baskets. I imagined my lover dressed in rustic white linen, tenderly feeding me red grapes when he wasn’t at a desk hunched over his writing, being a late-’80s genius. Of course, I’d never been to a “maison de campagne.” (If I had, I would’ve had visions of mice in the kitchen and many, many gnats and biting insects everywhere else, instead.)

Of course to this fantasy I said yes. He gave me the address, and suggested that I take the train to the Bordeaux train station, then hitch a ride to the town near the house. He said he would meet me at the Café de la Poste, the only café in that town. I tried to overlook the fact that he was not offering to meet me gallantly at the station. He’d pleaded short of money for a cab. (Obviously he was not in love. But I was getting used to swallowing my pride: I could live with less than head over heels for the fabled romantic weekend with a writer in a Bordeaux country house.) The only problem was that I’m from New York, and all New Yorkers know that hitchhiking is exactly the same as begging strange men to rape, murder, then chop you up and place you in several different garbage bags simultaneously. (And not necessarily in that order.)

So I came up with a very clever plan. The next day I went to the Porte de Clignancourt flea market to buy myself a cheap folding bicycle and a basket to hold my six-month old mutt. The only bike I could afford was a little one-speeder, but it was adorable: milk white, with a wicker basket that my dog would fit into perfectly. After buying a bike bell and a bunch of bungee chords to strap my belongings onto the rear rack with, I took it on a test drive to the subway. The seat had a tendency to sink down as I rode along, but otherwise it was a cute little donkey of a bike. At the subway station I folded it, carried it downstairs and brought it home to pack. For the next couple of days I practiced riding around the courtyard with the dog in the basket to get her used to the idea.

That Friday morning, when we arrived at the Bordeaux train station, I took a deep breath, unfolded my bike, strapped my belongings to the rack over the rear wheel, plunked the dog into the basket and, after provisioning myself with some rabbit paté, a baguette and a bottle of water at the local shops, headed for the first point in the directions I’d written down after consulting my road map. But just as I was about to turn onto the road indicated in my directions, I noticed a little, arrow-shaped sign that had the name of the town I was headed for. It was a road not on my map, and it pointed in the opposite direction. That’s odd, I thought. But that was definitely the name of the town.

What were the odds there were two towns just outside of this train station with the same  uncommon name? And why would I follow these multi-step directions and brave a highway, when there was obviously a nice, quiet road that went directly there? I’d had bad dreams about the highway leg of my route. So what could I do but choose the narrow little road with the “try me” sign? I began pedaling uphill persuaded that I was very clever indeed. So, the ’80s genius had nothing to learn from me, eh?

About an hour later I was still pedaling uphill. There were absolutely no cars. It was a very hot summer day and I quickly ran out of water. I stopped at the first farmhouse I saw and knocked on the door. A Jean Valjean lookalike opened the door. He was about sixty, filthy, and sweating like a pig. I asked him for water for myself and the dog, and he genially filled my bottle. Then he pointed out to me that he could see my tétons through my sundress because I was not wearing a bra and invited me into the house. “Ah, non,” I said, “you’re too kind,” declining to remark to him that I could see his tits through his sweaty wifebeater, too, “I must be running along! Bonne journée!”

I hesitated at the next house a half hour later, but damned if I wasn’t out of water already. I’d had to use a lot of it to sprinkle the dog’s head and ears to keep her from overheating, so it went fast. As it happened, that day went down in the weather annals as the hottest day in the history of all recorded French summers. At the time the only inkling I had to that milestone was the wonderful epiphany I’d had when the fine, sandy substance that was mysteriously collecting on my arms and décolleté turned out to be salt.

I knocked on the door and a couple opened the door and spoke to me in Spanish. I was frozen in perplexity for a moment before babbling: “Dios mio! Estoy in España?” Did I make a wrong turn? The couple chuckled gently and told me no, they just happened to be Spanish. They filled my bottle, gave the dog a bowl, and wished me a bonne route.

Relieved and watered, I pulled my bike seat back up, whipped out my collapsible hat and put it on over my prescription Christian Lacroix transition sunglasses to battle the elements. The dog was remarkably cooperative. She wasn’t wild about the long, slow uphill segments of our journey during which I sang “My momma done told me,” but she did like standing up on her hind legs, placing her front paws on the edge of the basket and letting her ears flap in the wind on the way downhill while I sang “Blue skies, smiling at me…”

Well, it turned out much later that the road I was on was a very old road that was formed by the valleys in Bordeaux. It was not an efficient highway that cut past all the ups and downs and meanders that I had yet to pedal up and down and this way and that way on all day long. Once you were on this road, that was it. It was a road to the town I was headed for, and nothing else.

At lunchtime I stopped at the side of the road just before another uphill stretch and used a tree stump as a table upon which I placed my glasses and spread out my rustic French lunch. Carmen (the dog) and I lunched, rested in the shade for a while, taking in the idyllic view, feeling the heat waft off the road, watching it create little mirages. We listened to the cicadas. When I felt sufficiently charmed by the countryside and the paté, I put my hat back on, tied it under my chin, cocked it at an angle against the sun and pedaled off again, uphill. About a half hour later I realized that everything was fuzzy. I’d left my glasses on the tree stump.

Going back would mean going back downhill, then back up this hill that I’d just climbed. The very idea made me feel like bursting into tears, so I had no choice but to decide I’d just get them on the ride back. What was there to see on this trip, anyway? It was one long road all the way to town, no place to make a wrong turn. No one would steal them – I’d been the only human on this road for the last few hours.

The rest of the trip was very Seurat. I rode on like a combination of Doris Day (still singing oldies to cheer myself on) and Ahab on his rails , licking the salt outcrops on my arms from time to time, hoping to replenish my electrolytes. Yet even during my frequent stops to pull my seat back up and reapply sunscreen, I still felt smarter than the pencil-necked geek who couldn’t be bothered to meet his lover at the train station.

The sun was setting when I pulled into town, salted like a peanut, my legs feeling like rubber.  I was several hours late. Pretty much half a day late. By this time, I hated the guy I was about to spend a weekend with. But here I was. And here he wasn’t. He wasn’t at the café I was supposed to meet him at, and had left no message. I found a pay phone and treated myself to a flurry of reproaches and irritable suggestions for how to find the house on my own. I had an irritable suggestion myself, which involved him getting his ass out to meet me so I wouldn’t get “lost” again. He arrived on a bicycle borrowed from the house.

On our way to the house, I rode my bike into a ditch and the dog went flying, but my British lover took no notice, just hurried me along with a stiff upper lip. (It really was stiff, I tell you. I don’t know how they do it, those Brits.) When we arrived at the house, he informed me that the dog could not come into the house because of the white rug. He would not bend on that question, apparently impervious to the degree he was imperiling (perhaps, in his mind) or absolutely nullifying (in mine) his chances of getting laid this weekend. When it was time to go to bed, I had to tuck her little foam bed under a bush by my window to prevent her from being whisked away in the talons of an owl, and she howled for a few hours till I took her back in, carrying her to keep her paws from dirtying the rug. Needless to say, I’d selected a guest room instead of spending the night with loverboy.

In the morning, loverboy knocked on my door at 8am (just like an Englishman to wake one up, I thought) informing me that he was going to the market and did I want anything. My legs and arms were so sore from the previous day’s riding that I gasped in pain as I tried to sit up. I mumbled that I was sleeping and sent him away. With tears of pain rolling out of my eyes I fell back asleep till eleven.

I found him in the kitchen after I let the dog outside in the yard, and asked if I could have a piece of toast.

“What toast?” he asked, “I thought you didn’t want anything. I only bought bread for myself. You want some of my bread? I asked you if you wanted anything and now you want my bread?”

Ah. Now, alas, the spell had broken. The spell that made me laugh at things like, “Well, I hope you don’t expect me to lend you my jacket just because I’m a man,” I mean. The man appeared to be serious. I gave him ample time to change his story, but he wasn’t biting. He was for real. Perhaps if I’d known about Asperger’s Syndrome at that time, I might have applied a little compassion to my understanding of this standoff. As it was, I didn’t, so I had no choice but to demand a goddam piece of bread for my breakfast, which I did, and promptly toasted. Then, as I munched my toast, desirous to mask the inordinately loud sound of my crunching in the baleful silence, I asked, “So, what did you want to do today?”

“How about make love? We haven’t done that yet,” he said, facing me, looking indignant in his kitchen chair.

Right. I had no words to describe how unattractive he had become in so short a time. I considered “I’d rather fuck a red-assed baboon,” but settled on: “I don’t know about you, but I’m going to read a book.” I’d noticed a bookshelf filled with English language books in the hall. When I finished my toast and coffee (coffee borrowed and which I promised to reimburse him for), I selected a book on “The Insects of Europe,” figuring there were enough bugs to read about in it to keep me, for a while at least, from dwelling upon the disaster the weekend had become.

I’d hardly gotten through the beetles, when I began to hear short, high-pitched squeaks, spaced intermittently, outside. That was odd. I tried to continue with the beetles, but I heard another squeak. It could be a rusty iron water pump, I thought. But the rhythm was strange. I opened the door and saw nothing. Then I heard another squeak coming from around back. I crept towards the sound, and saw loverboy in a baseball pitcher’s stance (or possibly a cricket pitcher’s stance, though I can’t say for sure), nothing in his hand, apparently. He threw his pitch, and yep — another squeak. Mysterious. I watched as he bent down and chose a pebble from the ground and assumed the pitcher’s stance again, which was when he noticed me. And which was when I noticed my dog cowering against the house.

You couldn’t possibly imagine how inconvenient it was that I had no money to change my train arrangements and go home that very minute. I know I said something in fury, but I can hardly remember it now. I’ve blacked it out. All I remember is that I had a day and a half left in Bordeaux, and that the next day and a half I spent exclusively with the dog.

Since our non-lovemaking presence seemed to gall our host, we explored the countryside. All day long we strolled the roads along the orchards, and though there were no peasants on bicycles, we did have plenty of lovely dappled sunlight. It was in the shade of the trees along these roads that I taught Carmen to heel, and how to tell the difference between left and right. (Nobody believes me, but I did.) I have memories of picking plums up off the ground in a plum orchard and eating them, and wondering if the trees might come to life and slap me if I tried to pick one off a branch. I finished my insect book under one of them, discovering in the last pages the identity of a mysterious black bug back in Paris that had raised its tail at me like a scorpion when I found it in my closet under my hiking boots and screamed. All in all I was quite proud of myself for making the most of an otherwise ruined romantic weekend.

I had dinner alone and planned the trip back to the train station. I still had my glasses to pick up at the tree stump so I’d have to leave at the crack of dawn, judging by how long it took me to get here in the first place. But this time, I was prepared. At bedtime, I packed my clothes in the dog’s bed again, and bungeed it to the rear rack with plenty of water, some hard goat cheese, a dry sausage and a mini-bottle of Bordeaux wine. I laid out my sundress, flip flops (for a half-decent foot tan line) and collapsible hat. I set my little Braun travel alarm and went to bed with the dog. At sunrise, we were on the bike.

It was foggy, but it was a morning fog illuminated by a tender yellow sun and topped by an Easter egg blue sky. Maybe I was hungry, but I remember thinking that riding through it felt like I was a warm knife in butter. The ride didn’t seem as long this time – I guess it never does, once you know where you’re going. In just under two hours I’d found my glasses. Luckily I’d dreamt about them sitting on that tree stump enough times to recognize the spot immediately, even without glasses on. Upon placing them on my nose and trading my flip-flops for sneakers, I doubled back and took the highway. There wasn’t enough time to enjoy the long and winding road again. I actually considered it.

The highway was brutal. Every time a six-wheeler rolled past me, I got hit by the wind in its wake and practically knocked over sideways into the ditch. Just as I was getting used to it with the help of frequent loud exclamations of “motherfucker!” a police car pulled me over.

“Young lady,” asked the officer as his partner stared at my nipple region on my sundress, “Where do you think you’re going like… like… this?” “This,” meaning: looking like a crazy, bra-less woman in a yellow sundress and collapsible hat, riding a tiny folding bike packed with luggage tipping sideways on the rear rack and a dog in the front basket.

“To Bordeaux train station, officers,” I said, restraining my natural belligerence in the face of authority and smiling as beatifically as someone who looks nothing like an angel can. (I may be crazy enough to ride a small, one-speed bike with a dog in the basket on a major highway, but I know better than to sass French police officers.) Upon which they asked me for identification. Trying hard to make my nipples disappear by sheer willpower, I handed them my passport, which contained several pull-out folding pages attached to the original pages.

“Yowza,” they said, or the equivalent in French. Might’ve actually been “ça, alors!”

Apparently they were impressed or bewildered enough to let me go, because after looking at all the passport stamps and asking me what my favorite destination had been (mais, la France, I said, bien sur!), they did. Off I pedaled to the station.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. I arrived at the station just in time for the train, and although I knew my host would be on the same train, I did not spot him. Phew.

Upon reporting back to my friends, they expressed disappointment that things hadn’t worked out with the dog-abuser, but I found them suspiciously unsurprised. I threw away his book. We met once more on my way home from the supermarket, fought on the sidewalk in front of some bourgeois-looking old ladies when he refused to help me (just because he was a man) to either carry my six liters of water or hold the dog’s leash before changing his mind (probably shamed by the looks on the old ladies’ faces) and trying to wrest the water or dog leash from me unsuccessfully. Empty-handed, he followed me home, where we discussed his insensitivity before parting forever. Upon my accusation of insensitivity, he’d said, “How can you say I’m insensitive? Haven’t you read my books?”

***

A few weeks later, I was in my little Paris garret with the dog, listening to Gardener’s Question Time on the BBC World Service while painting an extra window in India ink on my side wall, when a listener in Chichester (or somewhere) called in about a mysterious insect. “It were long and black, and ‘bout near as big as a large beetle, and when I moved, it raised its tail like a scorpion and bit me! Me arm swelled up something orrful and it made me quite ill, it did.”

Nobody knew what it was.

Nobody but me, that is. It was the Devil’s Coach Horse, from the next to last page in the insect book from the bookshelf in Bordeaux.

I ran to the phone, bubbling over in glee…

Previously: One That Got Away.

Carolita Johnson’s cartoons appear in The New Yorker and at Oscarinaland.

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