“She says you exaggerate,” Mathilde tells me. “The shops are not boarded up. They only have signs in the windows.”
T’exageres—the phrase I missed, and not the first time I’ve been accused of it. My French is decent but not fluent, and Marie-Paule, our elderly roommate, doesn’t have the patience to slow down or split her words apart for me. Tonight she’s mincing parsley for the sole meunière; she lets Mathilde fill in the gaps in our conversation as she speaks to me with her back turned.
“Peut-etre vrai. C’était choquante. C’est tout,” I tell her. “Maybe true.” It was shocking, is all.
Marie-Paule double-clicks her tongue, a habit I found charming when I arrived in Aix-en-Provence, but now, after weeks sequestered inside, I fix a steady glare between her broad shoulders. She says something else short and quick, a tu sais and a la Rotonde somewhere inside of it.
“I have a headache,” I tell Mathilde in English. “I’m going to lie down.”
I go into our bedroom, mine and Mathilde’s, and close the accordion divider. It hardly dampens the noise, but Marie-Paule and Mathilde slip back into a rapid Provençal French in my absence, and when I can no longer understand it I sink into the pillows and the headache dulls.
I am an American documentary maker, and Mathilde is someone I met and romanced as a tourist here two summers ago. We wrote each other dozens of emails while I was back in the States, spanning twenty months, and two short-lived relationships each. Mine were with men—a Tinder match who coincidentally lived on the second floor of my apartment building, a college ex who made a brief reappearance. Mathilde’s were both with women.
Then over the winter we fantasized together about reuniting, and I told her I would apply for a grant to make a film about Cézanne tourism in Aix so that I could be with her. She admitted that she thought it wasn’t very original, but I got the grant money, and she said Marie-Paule would have me if I was tidy and if I spoke to her in French, so I came over on a twice-delayed Air Portugal flight in early February. Within weeks, we were hearing rumors of the virus. Now it’s April, and there is no tourism at all, artistic or otherwise.
In the kitchen, I hear Marie-Paule remove the lid of her saucier, and I can see steam rising in the gap between the room divider and the ceiling. I had not anticipated, when I proposed moving in with Mathilde and her roommate, that we would spend so much time in close quarters together. Mathilde has always described Marie-Paule as an independent retiree with a vibrant social life, a near-eighty-year-old who’s been known to shoulder a black sequined jacket and stay out until 3:30 in the morning at the discothèque—normally, Mathilde swears, she rarely sees her. But as it is, Marie-Paule spends her days shuffling between the three small rooms in a yellow-and-pink Moroccan robe, raising and lowering her reading glasses on her arched nose, and brusquely telling us to move out of the kitchen or open and close some combination of windows.
Their conversation slows, and Marie-Paule’s voice says, “Dis-lui.”
Mathilde comes into the bedroom, closing the divider behind her, and says, “She said to tell you that dinner will be ready in twenty minutes.”
Pulling an arm over my eyes, I answer, “Then come and get me in twenty minutes.”
She exhales through her mouth. “I know things are not ideal,” she says, “but you don’t have to be a bitch.”
Once, I told her bitch is a very offensive word to call another woman in the States, and she said that she knew.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “J’ai le cafard. I shouldn’t take it out on you.”
She frowns, her overgrown bangs parted unstylishly down the middle. At thirty-one, the only wrinkle visible on her face is a vertical line between her eyebrows from pinching them together the way she is now. While my American friends have been sharing endless posts about solidarity, self-care, and collective grief, Mathilde has been with me day in and day out telling me It is not so bad and You are homesick—it will pass. Her words are unaffected, blunt. It’s in her silence that I can see she cares.
“Fine,” she finally says. “You get your wish. I will come back when the fish is done—but after that, you take your walk. Maybe then it will be safe to be around you.”
The table is set with the same plates we’ve been handwashing and drying twice per day, the same cabernet sauvignon Marie-Paule had ordered a case of at the first sign of crisis. Marie-Paule insists that Mathilde and I eat our fish hot while she finishes preparing the vegetables.
For the first few weeks, I thought I was the one person on earth who had gotten a good deal. I was in the south of France, reunited with my lover, eating fresh, candlelit meals prepared by a seasoned cook. Now, even Marie-Paule’s cooking doesn’t make me feel lucky, even the sun setting over the potted apricot tree on the balcony, the distant Romanesque bell tower of the Saint Sauveur cathedral.
I match Mathilde bite for bite, still watchful of my Americanness in eating, my tendency to take in big forkfuls half-consciously. The fish is warm, flaky, not enough. I stretch it out with sips of red wine, but still, it disappears by the time Marie-Paule tips a heap of asparagus onto my plate and thumps into the third kitchen chair.
She fills her glass, shifts her eyes toward me with a small smile. “As-tu entendu?” she asks. “Ton président a dit à tout le monde de boire du désinfectant.”
“Oui,” I say. “Je sais.” This week Trump wondered if we should all drink bleach—last week, he recommended hydroxychloroquine. Marie-Paule takes great pleasure in telling me these things. When I arrived, I told her I had flown in from JFK and she said, “Oh? Pas le Donald Trump International Airport?”
“Ne l’embarrasse pas,” Mathilde tells Marie-Paule.
“It doesn’t embarrass me,” I say. “I’m not the one who said it.”
Marie-Paule double-clicks her tongue. “C’est pourquoi je pense que vous devriez filmer tout cela. Sinon on oubliera,” she says. That’s why she wants me to film all of this. Otherwise, we will forget. I nod. Marie-Paule has been trying to get me to turn my camera toward the crisis, the eerie quiet of Aix, this Mediterranean landscape under a haze of fear. I’ve been resistant to it, first because everyone I know in the documentary field is preparing a COVID film, and also because it’s difficult to film nothing. I’ve been successfully insulated from the horrors—they happen behind closed doors, or far from here.
“Peut-être,” I say. Maybe so.
In the plaza, the fountains have stopped running. There are signs in French and English in front of the mairie indicating that all offices are closed and that all concerns should be directed to phone or email. Under the archways—where tourists usually stand with cameras, trying unsuccessfully to capture it all, the way the architecture frames the liveliness of the square—there is no one now, the curved stone casting uninterrupted shadows on the ground.
Students—American, English, and Scottish—sit on the steps of their shuttered international schools or try the doors of any bar that they swear looks open. Inside la Rue de la Molle, the highway that circles center-city, shopkeepers live with their lanky children, those teenage boys who work the grocery registers from behind plexiglass sheets with no fear in their eyes. Outside the loop are the elderly couples or widows like Marie-Paule, men who read the paper in smoking slippers on their balconies, and women who feed feral cats from round, ceramic dishes. There are few people like me, late-twenties women just grabbing a foothold in their careers. If they’re French, they’ve long moved away to Paris or London—if they’re foreigners, they’ve gone home.
There are a few French children, siblings I assume, playing with a packet of glow sticks, though the sun is just sinking in the sky. Their exhausted mother watches them from a bench, a pale bandana over her nose and mouth. I don’t want to film her children without permission, and I don’t want to approach her to ask.
I take my camera out of its bag and sit with its weight in my lap for a moment. Then I turn it on and record empty cobblestone, capturing the cheerful voices of the children in the background. I notice a gendarme in uniform on the other side of the plaza, wearing dark glasses and a flat, peaked cap. Police have always made me nervous, but I find myself filming him, not trying to be discreet, zooming in on his muscled figure, his arms behind his back, the way he looks down the bridge of his nose. He’s watching as the sparrows hop over the uneven masonry, but the way I have him framed, he looks almost menacing, poised to strike.
I never tried to go to film school. The only child of Methodist parents, I was a shy and insecure high schooler, and I applied only to small colleges with squat brick buildings laid out in horseshoe formations, quaint campuses where it would be impossible to get lost.
My major was journalism, but I ingratiated myself with the film faculty right away, a duo of professors with fine arts degrees who hosted screenings of long-forgotten nouvelles vague and Weimar-era Expressionist movies. I advanced through the three available courses and wanted more, so I embarked on my first of two independent studies. The subject of my first film was “death in spring, birth in autumn,” and I worked tirelessly on it. I shot a hundred hours of footage on a loaner camera: a blighted ginkgo tree fading to a ghostly white, a swollen lab rat dropping pink pups into a nest of paper bedding. I begged for access to an editing suite in the journalism building, and when I got it, I camped out there for entire nights, making tiny changes with a fleece blanket draped over my shoulders.
My advisor, Professor Weber, said it was all right. I swiveled quietly on a chair in her third-story office as she told me that I had an eye for images, that I was honing my technique, finding the right parallels, but that the film didn’t tell a story. Where was the story? So I booked a study room in the library and paced around all night with a steno pad, circling the table until a story fell out onto the page.
In the plaza, my phone rings on the ledge beside me. In mid-February, no one would have heard the sound over the noise of the pedestrians, the tour guides shuffling their groups back to buses, the rumble of motorbike engines turning over. But in tonight’s stillness, the children, the mother, and the gendarme all turn to look at me. I glance at my phone—it’s my father. I turn back and they are still looking.
The gendarme moves toward me, and my thumb fumbles the camera off instinctively. By the time he makes it within shouting distance, the camera is back in its bag, the bag back in my lap. “The curfew begins at dusk,” he says. “Do you live in town?”
It takes me a moment to register that he’s said it in English, and it unnerves me that he can tell from across the plaza. Mathilde, too, has told me I’m “obviously” American. It’s the button nose, she claims, but I think it’s something in the way I carry myself.
“Yes,” I say, translating the French explanation I had prepared into English again. “I live just to the northwest—it will take me less than fifteen minutes to walk there.”
“The sun will go fast,” he says, and he turns away.
I collect my camera bag and head back up the Rue des Cordeliers, glancing once more at the children, who are innocently tucking their glow sticks back in the package to save them for later.
I get halfway back to the apartment before I remember to check the notification. It’s mid-afternoon in northern Virginia, where my father works in defense manufacturing, and he’s not in the habit of calling from his desk. I take my phone out and read the voicemail transcript—Hey it’s me I um hope things are good there in X well know you’re busy but just give me a call when you can I um . . . about your mom okay honey bye.
When making my first film, I had stopped by my advisor’s office twice a week, asking her questions about my camera work or probing her on logistical matters, like how I could gain access to the rodent lab. But my second film I incubated privately, like a secret pregnancy. I couldn’t talk about it. When she asked me to tell her what it was about, I said I wasn’t sure I knew.
In the spring of eighth grade, I’d had my first girlfriend. Gretchen. I barely knew her. She sat beside me in earth science, and I knew she called herself a lesbian, and I could see myself kissing her so I wore a rainbow silicone ring to class until she asked me for my number. Our dates typically clocked in at about ninety minutes each—we ate frozen yogurt or lounged in the grocery store’s Starbucks. Occasionally we visited each other’s houses after community service projects or band practices. We kissed and touched topless but never had sex—we said we were waiting, but really we didn’t know how.
It never occurred to me that my mother was reading our texts, taking my phone from my room while I showered and scrolling the contents of our confused half-romance. So when she said she was taking me to talk to someone about my “hormonal trouble” at the start of summer, I assumed she meant a gynecologist. In the parking lot of a church that was not our own, I said, “Wait—is this where we’re going?”
I went four times a week all summer, until Pastor Dan told me and my mother that he believed my homosexual behavior was a thing of the past and sent me off with a reminder that I was forgiven.
The second film was fifty-five minutes long. I shot scenes in my backyard, in the parking lot of the middle school, in the empty pews of a church. I pored over pages of my old diaries, the worksheets from camp that I had stowed in messy folders and tried to forget. Sometimes I paired these entries with nature scenes, Mattawoman Creek flowing into the Potomac as I narrated Pastor Dan’s cautionary tale of a homosexual murder-suicide. It suffered from the melodrama and from being made in secret, but I’ll admit, even now, that it was something.
Dad tells me that Mom’s caught the virus, that in the time it took him to decide it was serious enough to tell me, she’s gone from fine to bad to worse, that she’s at Prince William and that he’s on his way down there to see her, to “find out what the situation is.” He coughs throughout the call and I know he’s stress-smoking in his car, but I make no comment.
“Who’s there with her?” I ask.
“Jenny and the cousins are at the house, waiting for news. Nobody can be at the hospital.”
“You’ll talk to the doctors?”
“Hoping so. They have me on a callback list but I haven’t heard.”
There’s a silence between us, of a deeper hue than the one that always falls when we talk about Mom. He couldn’t live with her but never hated her, never stopped taking her calls. I send a card once a year on her birthday with a ten-dollar scratch-off ticket inside, and I leave off my return address.
“She’s healthy. She should come through it,” I say.
He takes a deep breath, lets it out. “That’s what I’ve been telling Jenny and them.”
I look up and see that the pink sky has faded to a purplish-blue, that I’m alone on the sidewalk. I pick up my pace, placing a hand on my bag so the camera won’t bounce against my hip. There’s the sound of traffic on my end of the line, the sound of traffic on his.
“Dad?” I say. “Don’t catch it.”
“Okay, hon,” he says. “Talk soon.”
“Okay, Dad. Bye.”