Biarritz

By DWYER MURPHY

 

We took the twelve-thirty train and got into the Biarritz station just after six. There was a bus schedule nailed to the wall, but the train ride had been smooth and I didn’t want to spoil our momentum, so I waved to the first in a row of taxis and offered the driver ten euros, which was quite a lot for me in those days. Probably there was a flat rate to the center of town, but the driver looked at the thin crowd coming off the train and at Katja, who was wearing espadrilles, and said ten would be okay, once he’d finished his cigarette.

On the drive in, Katja leaned against the window and didn’t say too much. The landscape was gray and battered. It was April, but winter still had a grip on everything: the low sun and the farms, with their lean cows, and the roads, which were scarred by fissures.

“Are you disappointed?” I asked.

Katja smiled, like she’d known I would wonder. “With what?”

“That it’s not warmer.”

“Did you think it would be summer?”

“It’s the south.”

“Yes, of France. It’s not such a big country.”

Without turning, she reached for my hand.

“You wanted to take me to the beach,” she said. “That was good of you.”

It didn’t take long to reach the hotel, which was on a narrow street near the old harbor. La Belle Époque was the name. It was an expensive place, even in the off-season, though it was nothing grand. The façade was a little shabby and corroded by salt.

Inside, there was a small lobby and a desk where the proprietor sat. Katja introduced herself as Madame Murphy and me as her husband, and she chatted with the old man for a while. They went through all the usual pleasantries. Did Madame enjoy the scenery from the train? Was this her first time in Biarritz? Katja’s tone was imperious, the way you think married women sound when you’re that age, and as they spoke, she kept her hands on the desktop, so that the proprietor could see she was wearing a ring. It was a copper ring, bought at the Montreuil flea market for three euros and polished until it could pass for gold. I had told her I didn’t think the ruse was necessary, that this was France, not Poland, but she insisted, and, in fact, behind the lobby desk there was a crucifix and several prayer cards scattered around: St. Christopher, St. Julian, a few others.

The proprietor insisted on carrying our bags to the room, which was two floors up. It was a nice room, in my opinion. The bed was lifted high off the floor, unlike many you find in France. Katja looked things over for at least a minute, maybe two, before announcing that it would do. The proprietor held the bags and watched her closely all that time. He was taken with her, you could tell. She had that effect on old men, especially. She asked him to ensure that we were not disturbed, and as he shuffled out of the room on the balls of his feet, with his hands cupped over his belly and his eyes on the floor, he said he would personally guarantee the peacefulness of our stay.

When we were alone, Katja threw herself down on the bed.

“That was close,” she said. Her voice was drained of all that haughty
confidence.

“Was it?” I asked.

“He had a nasty look. He would have turned us away. I’m sure of it.”

I didn’t think so, but she was feeling good, so I told her I agreed and that he looked like just about the meanest old Catholic I’d ever seen. Before I joined her on the bed, I threw open the windows so that we could listen to the sound of the tide filling the harbor.

“I’ve seen meaner,” Katja said.  “His manners were impeccable.”

“I guess nobody’s all bad.”

“Even so,” she said, after a long pause, “it was clear he had his prejudices.”

That night, while Katja slept, I lay awake in bed, and every once in a while my mind would start to race. I’ve always been powerless to stop that sort of thing, once it gets going. I was thinking about what would have happened if the hotel had turned out to be the kind Katja believed it was and if we hadn’t pretended to be married—if we’d been kicked to the curb, that is. It was an absurd thing to worry about. Everything had worked out fine. But for some reason I kept thinking about what might have happened, and I was imagining Katja and me walking around the streets near the harbor, looking for a place that would take us in, squabbling over this and that as we got tired and cold. Things could have gone awry so easily, and I felt very strongly that Katja deserved a pleasant, untroubled weekend, the kind the proprietor of the hotel had personally guaranteed she would have, and I felt that I, too, should be able to make those kinds of guarantees without hesitating or losing sleep. Also, the cold air was keeping me up. I was fighting a nasty cough, and the open windows weren’t helping. I could have closed them, of course, but with the windows closed, you couldn’t hear the tide, and anyway, a stuffy room might be just as bad.

There wasn’t much to do in Biarritz, but what there was, we did. In the morning, we walked by the marinas and saw the casinos, which were closed, and looked at the framed billings for the acts that had come through town the season before. They were mostly musical acts, but there were also a few interesting-looking shows, things you wouldn’t normally see, like the trick shooter who had performed in October. We went around to the surf shops, too, and Katja couldn’t stop laughing about how they displayed the surf wax exactly the way a cheese monger would. She said the French were a nation of shopkeepers, and you could see how, in a few years’ time, all these supposed surf rebels would turn into their bourgeois fathers. She often spun things out like that, with a clear, sharp eye for the future. She was twenty-three and had come to France in order to get her master’s; then she would go back to Poland, where she would take up a government post. It was a definite and sensible plan, and she tended to see the world that same way. In any event, she had a good laugh every time we went inside one of the surf shops. We probably stopped by four or five, since there were so few places open that time of year. The shops were all playing the same kind of music: it was rock, but with sitars in the background. We asked somebody what it was called, and he told us, but I don’t remember the name anymore, only the sitars and the way one song seemed to bleed into another.

Because of the seaside air, I was coughing a lot as we walked around town, and Katja wanted to stop at a pharmacy, but we couldn’t find one open anywhere in the center.

“You need to see a doctor,” she said. “When we’re back in Paris, you really should.”

The cough had been going off and on for months. In fact, when we first met, after a lecture at the university Katja was attending, she said something about the jacket I was wearing, how it wasn’t heavy enough for winter, how men, especially American and British men, always insisted on suffering in such halfhearted, unnecessary ways, and it was an insult to people who had really lived. I’d been coughing all through the lecture, apparently. I apologized, and she told me about a place nearby where they sold hot soups for two euros and said if I had any wits about me I would go straightaway, before I lost a lung. That was how we started seeing each other. She knew a lot of good, cheap places like that, especially in the neighborhoods where Polish people lived. I would pick her up at the university and we would walk across the river, rather than taking the bus. We were both trying to stretch our money. Often we split the cost of our dates. That caused me a good deal of shame at the time, but now it seems ordinary enough, and really there was no good alternative.

I told her I’d see a doctor when we were back in the city. I’d find a pharmacy, too.

“It’s not hard,” she said, with that imperious tone again, the one she’d used to inspect our room at La Belle Époque. “You call up the office, make the appointment, take the métro, sign in, wait to be called, talk with the doctor, then do what the doctor says.”

The way she described the sequence was so simple, it would have been ridiculous to resist. And also she was speaking from experience. She had gone to the doctor herself, just the week before. It turned out she didn’t really need to go, but she had gone nonetheless, in order to be sure. Or at least I assumed that’s why she went. I didn’t see her all that week. We only exchanged a few texts. She could have just bought a pregnancy test at the pharmacy, but maybe the home tests weren’t so reliable in France, or maybe she believed she knew what the answer would be and wanted a doctor around to lay out her options. Anyway, the doctor’s test came back negative. It was probably just her diet, or the stress of school or of being away from home. Whatever the answer, she got it straight from the doctor, and she wanted me to get my answers, too. It took the better part of a morning, yes, but what was I doing with my mornings that I couldn’t spare the time for my health?

“I’ll go,” I said. “Not this week, but the next. A week from Friday at the latest.”

“Do what you like,” she said and waved her hand in front of her face, which struck me as an impressive, even a ruthless gesture, the way a butcher would cut into a side of beef. “It’s your cough. I won’t be a woman who nags.”

At one, we were expected for lunch at a restaurant overlooking a long, narrow beach that had been famous once, years ago. The restaurant was called l’Ami de Claudette. The dining room smelled like bleach, and there was only one waiter on duty. He was rushing around, trying to get every place at every table set, though hardly anyone was there.

We were the guests of a friend of Katja’s family, a barrel-chested man with leathery skin and jet black hair and paunch around his throat. He wanted me to call him Jack. His real name, his Polish name, was long and difficult, he said, and not worth the bother. I don’t remember how the lunch was arranged. Katja must have called and said we’d be in town for a couple days, or maybe she told her parents and the message was passed along. Jack was retired and living in one of the hillside villages with his wife, who was Basque. He said that in France, people believed he was the plumber, but he could forgive their mistakes, because the French lived well, which was all he asked of anyone. He delivered that line with a lot of gusto, then summoned the waiter and ordered us each a plate of hake cheeks.

We talked and drank a good deal, well through the afternoon, and at some point, it occurred to me that Katja and Jack must have slept together, back in Poland, before he was retired, when he was still robust and Katja was young, but not too young. There was nothing obvious between them. He didn’t dare touch her, and neither of them said anything suggestive. But I was sure nonetheless. It was in the way he looked at her, like she owed him something, like they both knew that she did, and he couldn’t help but admire the way she was here, flaunting her refusal to pay up. I wasn’t upset. Probably I’d been waiting a long time to prove how cosmopolitan I was. And I was curious, too. While we talked, I found myself watching Katja more closely than usual. I saw her through Jack’s eyes. I felt his old man’s lust bubbling inside me, useless and pitiful, and I thought of his elderly wife, stashed away in the Basque hills,
waiting for him to return from his lunch date.

Afterward, Jack drove us a ways out on the corniche, pointing out the landmarks and the hollows that the surf had worn into the coastline. He stopped in front of our hotel and said he would be glad to pick us up the next day and to drive us to the train station. Katja told him it wasn’t necessary. We could take a taxi, the same as when we’d arrived. Jack tried to insist, but Katja was firm, and eventually he understood and said his goodbyes.

When we were upstairs, alone, I opened up a newspaper, which I’d bought earlier at one of the surf shops, and asked Katja with all the aplomb I could muster whether she and Jack had been together just the once, or if it had been a proper, drawn-out affair.

She had to steady herself on the bedpost, she was laughing so hard.

“Now I see why you were so quiet,” she said. “Like a monk, throughout the meal.”

“You can tell me. I’d prefer to know.”

“He was my father’s business partner.”

“That kind of thing happens all the time.”

She shook her head, still laughing, still gripping the bedpost. “Things don’t happen. A person chooses. Two people. Do you think I’m a person who chooses things like that?”

I didn’t answer. The truth was, I couldn’t. We’d known each other less than three months altogether. I was in no position to guess what kinds of things she would or wouldn’t choose. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I must have made a mistake. I drank a bit too much wine.”

“It’s fine,” she said. “I always end up with jealous guys. Ever since I was a girl.”

“I’ve never thought of myself as jealous.”

She shrugged. “Well, here we are.”

She went into the shower, and when she came out, she was laughing again, though it struck me as a different kind of laugh, one I’d never heard from her before. She’d been keeping it in reserve, maybe, waiting for just the right moment to let me hear it.

“I remembered something,” she said. “I can’t believe I forgot about the son.”

“What son?” I asked.

“Wojciech’s. Jack’s son. We were together once. I was fifteen, sixteen.”

Her back was to me, though I could see her in the mirror, getting dressed.

“Don’t be disappointed,” she said. “I completely forgot. It was a lifetime ago.”

It was an honest mistake, I knew, and not even a mistake, since she hadn’t slept with Jack, and it was still foolish of me to think she had. I was relieved, in fact. I knew I’d seen something between them, and in the way he looked at her while they ate their hake cheeks and talked about the old neighborhood. Now I understood: he was trying to take his son’s measure, to see what kind of man his son was by studying one of the women he’d chosen, or who had chosen him. It was a natural thing to be curious about. I thought of my own father, and promised myself that when I got back to Paris I would write to let him know I was fine.

“I’m not disappointed,” I said.

Katja nodded. “It was a lovely lunch, don’t you think?”

“The fish was good.”

“It’s sad about Jack, though. That hair. Why do men do such idiotic things?”

“What do you mean?”

She looked at me like she thought I was trying to make her laugh again, then saw that I was serious. “The hair dye. That absurd shoe polish on his head. It broke my heart.”

That night, while Katja slept, I sat on the balconet, looking down at the street.

I’d been an ass, I knew. In Paris, she hadn’t needed anything except for me to pick up the phone, or for me to go to the places I normally went, so that she could find me and talk about what she should do. Instead I’d sent those texts—stupid, careless texts—and when it was over, after I knew she’d gone to see the doctor, I reappeared with a pair of train tickets, like an ass. She’d only mentioned Biarritz in passing once or twice. It was nowhere special, but I’d pretended it was some dream of hers that was finally coming true.

How would she remember the weekend, I wondered? As an insult? A halfhearted apology? If, in that moment, she had woken up suddenly, I think I would have proposed, just to dare her to tell me how she really felt, what kind of bitterness she was holding onto.

But she didn’t wake up. She was a sound sleeper, in my experience.

Down in the street, there was nothing going on. A few cars were parked on the curb. The lights in the shops were out. It reminded me of the street where I lived in Paris, and I wondered what time the cleaning crews would come around with their hoses and brooms.

Late in the night, I heard a noise coming from somewhere inside the hotel.

I left the room barefoot and went down the stairs, which were narrow and wrapped tight around the elevator shaft. The proprietor didn’t seem too startled to see me. He was there in the lobby, at his desk, studying something by candlelight. He waved at me, first to say hello, then to urge me closer. “You are very welcome,” he said. “Please, come.”

The stone slabs of the lobby floor were cold, and I hurried across them.

At the desk, he moved the candle so that I could see what he was studying: placards, fourteen of them, hand-painted on plywood sheets, depicting the Stations of the Cross. I recognized a few: the condemnation, the different falls, the beatings, Veronica with her rag.

“Would you like to join me in prayer?” he asked. He seemed to think it was a simple question, the kind people ask each other every day, the same as they discuss the weather.

“Thank you,” I said. “Not tonight.”

He fixed his stack so that the corners of the placards were flush.

“You are welcome to watch,” he said. “I will continue, and you may observe.”

I had seen the ritual performed many times. I knew there was nothing to it and nothing to watch, but the old man seemed to want company, so I pulled up a chair, and he resumed. As he recited the prayers, he lowered and raised his head toward the placards, and I realized that the sound I’d heard before, the sound that had drawn me downstairs, was caused by his rocking. The floor wasn’t level—or else the chair was uneven—and as he rocked back and forth, raising and lowering his head, the chair legs beneath him tapped against the cold stone slabs. The tapping went on and on, marking the end of one verse and the start of another. Hearing the words of the Stabat Mater in French was disorienting at first, but after a while I was able to follow along. The rhymes were clever and often lovely.

After the final verse, I thought he might begin again, but instead he sat back in his chair and smiled. “Madame is sleeping well in the room,” he said. It was a statement, not a question. I told him she was, and that it was a comfortable bed.

“But not Monsieur?”

“No,” I said. “Sometimes that’s how marriage is.”

“Yes, naturally. Men and women have different habits, different preferences.”

“And your wife?” I asked.

The question seemed to embarrass him. “Marriage is a sacrament,” he said.

“It is.”

“Unfortunately, I remain a bachelor.” After a pause, he went on. “I hope to be worthy of it someday, though perhaps it’s too late. I am almost seventy now. There are some the Lord prefers to be alone. Priests, for example. Monks. Prisoners. The maimed.”

His voice trailed off, like there were many more he might have named.

I wanted to comfort him, but didn’t know how, so I took his stack of placards and made the corners flush again. I could feel him watching and was delicate in how I handled the placards, like I believed they held some special power. Their paint was starting to fade. Another Lent and he would need to replace them.

“You seem plenty worthy,” I said. “Although I’m not sure how much that counts for.”

He sighed. “You are already married. The blessing seems simple to you.”

I thought about telling him the truth, but that would have been worse.

“It doesn’t seem simple,” I said. “It seems like chance.”

The man nodded gravely. “The other one makes us think that way.”

He was looking down at the floor, or further down than that, I suppose.

“Do you think so?”

“Oh yes,” he said. “He’s very clever about such things. Disguises and so on.”

I stood up from my chair. “I should get some sleep.”

He looked flustered. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“You didn’t. Not at all. We have the train tomorrow.”

“We are all tempted that way…”

I had a feeling he was going to tell me about his many temptations.

“Madame will be wondering where I’ve gone off to,” I said.

He nodded. “Yes. She shouldn’t be startled. That’s true.”

I went upstairs and got into bed. The windows were open, and the room was full of cool, damp air, so I reached over to turn on the electric heater and pulled up the covers. As I felt sleep coming on, I heard the same sound as before—the chair tapping against the stone floor—and I was very grateful to be where I was, with the heater running and the windows open and the sea nearby. I didn’t care about the waste. It’s a city full of old men, I thought, and the old men don’t need much to live on, so why not keep the heater running?

Katja wanted to go swimming in the morning. We had come all this way, she said, and hadn’t touched the water. So, after breakfast, we walked to the old harbor and went down the stairs beside the portico. This was one of the first places in France where people swam for recreation. There was still a proud swimming tradition among the Basques. For a long time, all along the coast, even on the Riviera and in La Rochelle, you could hire Basque men as personal  lifeguards. They would wade into the water and lift you when the waves rolled in. Jack had told us all about it at lunch. He said that in the villages, they still talked about how difficult the swim exams were in those days and about the tips the Englishwomen used to give.

Before going in, we sat on the sand. We had towels, but we were being careful with them, because of the sign in our hotel room, above the sink, which said that use of the bath towels at the beach was strictly forbidden. Katja was the one who noticed the sign, and it must have still been on her mind, because she asked if I ever got tired of all the signs they put up in France. “They’re everywhere,” she said, “forbidding things. Telling you where to stand, where to sit. In the parks, they’re absurd. The grass is sleeping. It’s Vichyssois.”

I had the feeling she wanted to say something more, but was holding back.

I told her the signs in the parks might be gone by the time we got home. They were only up for winter and early spring. At least that’s how it was in the parks I knew.

“We should go in before it’s too late,” she said. “We still have to pack.”

The water looked cold, and I didn’t think we’d want to swim for long, but I agreed we might as well go in. I was getting intimidated, staring out at the surf, which was choppy and erratic. Further down the corniche, you could hear the enormous swells thundering into the cliffs and the splash raining down on the empty roads.

“Are you sure you’re up for it?” she asked, after we’d stripped to our bathing suits. “With the cough, it might not be the best idea.”

“I’ll be fine. We came all this way.”

We went in side by side. I was content to tread water close to the shore, where it wasn’t too cold, but Katja wanted to go farther out. She turned on her back and paddled without any mind for the waves, riding them up and down. She was headed toward a boulder at the edge of the harbor, another thirty or forty yards out. It was a jagged, primitive rock with a ledge on the leeward side. As she got close, I couldn’t help picturing the worst. I saw her swept up by a rogue wave and dashed against the rock face. I heard the hollow crack of a body split like firewood. Blood and panic. It could have gotten ugly. There was no one around to help. It was Sunday, and we were all alone.

None of it came to pass, of course. She swam in close to the rock, hugged it tight, climbed up by her knees, rang the water from her hair, and lay down on the narrow ledge, with the sun hitting her square. After a few minutes, she dove back in. The dive was clumsy. In the water, she was functional, but not especially graceful. She swam with her arms and her feet, but not her legs. Still, it was pleasant watching her from a distance.

“You’re still here,” she said, when she was a bit closer.

I was sitting in the shallows, letting the last of the waves sputter over my chest.

“I thought you’d quit,” she said. “I couldn’t see you from the rock. Could you see me?”

“You found a good spot. You looked warm in the sun.”

“Did I? I’m freezing now. Are my lips purple?”

“No. They’re normal.”

“Yours are purple. You look like a drunkard.”

We went back to the beach and dried off with the towels from the hotel bathroom.

In the end we walked through the lobby without hiding anything about the towels. In fact, I remember Katja wearing one around her torso, and another around her head, like a turban. She must have brought two along, or maybe I’d given her mine, to help make her point.

“You can draw up the bill,” she said to the proprietor as we passed.

“Yes, Madame.”

He was trying to catch my eye, I thought, but I didn’t feel like looking at him.

“Our car will be here soon,” Katja said. “Please call the room when it arrives.”

“Yes, Madame.”

I wish I could remember more about the train back to Paris. It was mostly a quiet ride, it seems to me. Trains, more than other forms of transport, tend to be solitary places. Even if you’re with someone, chances are you’ll end up staring out the window or reading a book or picturing how it would be if the train stopped and you hopped off and disappeared into one of the passing towns. I do remember, though, that we talked for a while about our plans for Easter, which wasn’t too far off. Katja had the week off from classes, and she told me about a trip she was taking with some friends. They were going to rent a car and drive to Italy. Their plan was to cross the border in La Brigue, then drive south to a mountain village where one of her friends had inherited a small house. “It’s the strangest place,” she said, meaning the mountain village. Apparently, the government paid the residents a subsidy to live there in the original homes, which were carved out of the mountainside. There was no industry allowed; a few modern conveniences were available—running water, electricity—but not many. Because opportunities in the village were scarce, the young men often went abroad to work construction jobs, and many of them had come home with wives from India. The only restaurant in the village was a curry shop, which operated behind a false storefront that advertised artisanal pastas. Easter, according to Katja, was the big holiday for the village. “They have an enormous parade,” she said. “Everyone marches. Tourists, locals, the diaspora, the papier-mâché saints, the Indian women. It’s going to be fantastic. After the parade, they have a feast that lasts three days.”

That’s an imperfect record of our conversation. She had a lot to say about the village. It really had a grip on her, and she was excited about the details of the trip. There were four of them going, four friends. Katja had volunteered to take charge of renting the car and plotting the route. She’d already bought the road maps and arranged for insurance.

I wasn’t offended at not being invited. I was happy just listening to her talk. It occurred to me then, or maybe soon after, when the train ride was still fresh in my memory, how quickly she would forget about me. In a few months’ time, she would be back in Poland, working her government post, and I would be in Paris still, or maybe in America, and if, in the future, anyone asked her about the people she’d known when she was getting her degree in France, she would have to search for my name. My little cruelties could never pierce her. What I’d done in Paris didn’t matter. Biarritz was the same.

There was one more memorable thing about the return trip: I didn’t cough the entire way. As we were walking through the Montparnasse station, Katja mentioned it. When she did, my chest welled up and that familiar numbness spread across the back of my throat, and I let out a cough loud enough to scare the pigeons from the rafters. Katja thought that was proof the illness was imagined. “It’s a nervous thing,” she said. “A habit.”

“A tic,” I said. Her English was almost perfect, and she rarely needed any help.

“That’s good news,” she said. “Don’t you think? You don’t need a doctor.”

“I guess not.”

“You don’t need anyone. You just need to keep noticing, and you remind yourself that it’s a tic. Wear a rubber band around your wrist. Tie a knot on your finger. It’s easy.”

She pointed at her own hand, demonstrating, I suppose, where I should tie the knot, and I noticed that she was no longer wearing the copper ring from the flea market. Her knuckles were a little gnarled. I noticed that, too. She must have cracked them when she was young.

“How funny,” she said. “Coughing all this time, for no good reason.”

We must have taken the métro home, but she lived near République, and I was east of the university, so we probably switched at Châtelet and said
goodbye. I ran into her a few times after that. Once, in June, I saw her with some people in the park and asked about Italy, but she only said that the countryside had been beautiful to drive through. I wanted to ask her about the village with the Indian women and the Easter parade and the feast, but her friends were gathering their things, and I could see they needed to be somewhere.

When summer was done, she must have gone back to Poland. I visited Biarritz twice more: once in the fall and once more in the summer. It was never as warm as I expected, but in the summer it seemed like a good place, and I could understand why people went.

 

Dwyer Murphy’s work has appeared in GuernicaThe Paris Review DailyMidnight Breakfast, and other publications. He was a 2014–2015 Emerging Writer Fellow at The Center for Fiction. He is currently an editor at Electric Literature.

[Purchase your copy of Issue 10 here.]

Biarritz

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