The summer after I finished school I lived in France, in the village of Auvillar in Tarn-et-Garonne, so named for the two rivers that traverse it. I was working there, managing and occasionally lecturing at a study-abroad art program that drew its students from an international pool. We paneled white cardboard over the walls of the studios we borrowed, and for the five weeks we were encamped in town, the smell of willow charcoal and acrylic paint filled the air.
Auvillar is beautiful to the point of hyperbole. Its streets are narrow and admit mostly bicycles and roses and poppies bloom below houses so ancient sometimes you can see light through the gap between stone and mortar. It’s far enough west it seems it should be in a different time zone from the one it’s in, but it’s not, so the evenings blend into the night and in the summer it stays bluely light until ten or eleven.
I was profoundly depressed when I lived abroad. I worked long hours and was hardly ever touched and I felt adrift on the sea of myself, without direction or affection or much in the way of a long-term life plan. Mostly, I drank—usually rosé, sometimes beer—and smoked menthol Royales off my balcony and went to bed feeling a little bit sick.
There was just one bar in town, which was called La Cave. That’s the term for a wine cellar, I think, but I never went in—there was never the time—and so I only imagined its interior as a cross between Plato’s and the Lascaux Caves. I imagined it was dark, and had a dirt floor, and paintings on the walls, and that music played.
It’s weird to be depressed in the middle of something beautiful. You feel bad already, and then worse for feeling bad when the whole feast of your life, conceivably, is laid out before you. I can’t iterate to you enough how lovely Auvillar is, how beautiful it was, how the river Garonne unfurled beneath my window—every day! indefatigable!—its buttery reflection smooth as oil paint, as though it were slicked onto the world with a palette knife. How lucky I was, how very lucky!
Still. I cried myself to sleep at night, most nights. I left the lights in my room off even when I was in it, drank constantly, and dreamt about caves. I likened myself to one, a yawning pit of unhappiness, encircled by a beauty I couldn’t touch or feel.
(I wonder if there’s a difference between people who say lucky and people who saygrateful, or if the difference is between those who say either and those who say nothing at all. I feel entirely too lucky entirely too often.)
Lately, in New York now, in the city with the people I have chosen, I’ve found myself with the urge to ask for reassurance. I come from displaced folk, I’ve always needed evidence. It’s strange but not so surprising to me that I ought to feel this way at this moment now, when I’d like very much to be happy, when I am still finding all these types and categories of joy. But it’s hard when I come up against myself, when I feel the prickly parts of me prickling someone else.
A weekend. Not very long ago. In bed next to Daniel I am quiet for a long time and then, before we both fall asleep, I say: “Sometimes it astonishes me that someone like you could love someone like me.”
“What makes you say that?” he asks. His voice is tender with sleep.
“I don’t know. I have dark tendencies,” I say, half in jest.
I think about how all the joys I’ve ever felt have been tempered by my fears they’ll disappear, though I do know joy, though I have had it. I think about how when I’m so deep inside the cavern of myself it makes it impossible to remember the light of day.
“Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m worthy of love,” I say.
It’s work. You, me, this, life, everything.
“You are,” he says softly, and perhaps in hearing it I believe it for the moment as long as it lasts, as long as I can hold it in the space between consciousness and un-.