By Andréa Ferrell Gannon
Claire didn’t want Milo tagging along; he was too old, too quiet, his face too sun damaged, his lips too fleshy. Why did he want to go anyway? He was uninterested in crowds or movies… So what was it? Did he just want to interrupt any sparks of interest between her and Joachim? She was obligated to welcome him along though, she supposed, since he was her boss. Besides, he had lent her his blazer, and it really spiffed up the mishmash of her outfit.
If it weren’t for Joachim, Claire never would have known about Cannes or its film festival or Palais Hall. Joachim was the brave one—maybe reckless—the one who first spied the secret door. He was a film undergrad in New York and said he needed to get close to the action. She followed the stocky, coolly dramatic, artistic young man through side hallways and staircases into theaters to watch the ’90 films up for consideration. It was the year the American Wild at Heart triumphed. Joachim was half Vietnamese, half white, and fully American in the way he smacked his gum and ducked into doors not meant for him. He set the rhythm: wait till the opening music faded to dialogue, fumble in the dark to any vacant seat, then split before credits and lights.
On the first day, while they checked out festival candids pinned on a large rolling corkboard, Joachim asked her about visas. Claire had none. He had a student one. “You’ve been here how long?” he asked, shaking his head. “Four months? You can’t stay more than three without a visa.”
Behind the corkboard was a door. A nothing door, without a placard or any special knob, but blocked by an elderly gentleman sporting a smart uniform and an affable smile, more greeter than guard, Claire thought.
“Because. You just can’t be here. You can’t just live in any ol’ country you choose.”
Another gray papi appeared, this one in a stained beret. He bellowed a hearty “Bonjour, Jacques,” and Jacques bellowed back, leaving his post to thump his old comrade on the shoulder. Then they trundled off, still shaking hands, Jacques motioning with an elbow to some wall display.
“But I am, though. Here,” Claire said.
Joachim pulled her along behind, saying, “They can kick you out of the country for overstaying. They can keep you out for, like, ten years, if they want.”
She resisted hearing this. Her plan had been to live in France, eventually, to get a real job and to never go home.
Joachim cracked the nondescript door and quickly pulled her through it.
Just like that, they were on the other side. A click as the door shut again, and they found themselves in a white-tiled corridor dotted with doors that ended at a staircase.
He tossed an airy “Let’s see” over his shoulder to her before trying to turn another knob.
Claire cared about the visa business, she did, but trailing behind in daring borrowed from Joachim made her feel—for that moment anyway—untouchable.
On the second day, they happened onto the rooftop. It was empty of people, but a buffet beckoned and a table covered with microphones awaited. Since there were no witnesses, the pair helped themselves to pâté, melon, and fried raviolis, which they ate in a corner overlooking the marina. “So sorry, we’re early,” they joked to each other, their voices lilting, pretending to be invited and circulating among invisible guests. Joachim held a bottle of sparkling water to her, which she refused, crossing her legs painfully and grimacing. “Oh, gosh. I have to pee so bad.”
If they abandoned their spot to search for a bathroom, there was no guarantee they could come back before other—authentic—guests arrived, or without roaming security nabbing them, and no way was Joachim going to miss whatever was about to happen at those microphones. He watched Claire jiggle and strain through their snacking. Then, as if struck by a bolt of inspiration, he said, “Hey, you wanna know one sure way to stop the need to urinate?”
He gave a sly smile, and she lifted a warning hand.
“No—I cannot go in that bottle,” she said.
“No, no, seriously…. Sex.”
“Sex. Intercourse. It works, I swear.”
“No really.” He shrugged. “Something about the bladder positioning.”
Claire, still young enough to need men to think she had to be talked into sex, had been waiting days for Joachim to make his move. She didn’t care if he thought her ditzy or if he credited himself with some great come-hither line. “All right,” she said. “Let’s go.”
His plate jerking betrayed his surprise.
“At this point, I’ll try anything,” she told him.
With no one to stop them, he was soon behind her, then inside her, hands braced on the top of the low wall. The docks, where stringed quartets serenaded diners aboard luxury yachts, stretched out below them. Jazz notes breezed upward. Afterward, with clinical nonchalance, Claire thanked him because, weirdly, though executed hastily and without panache, his trick had worked.
They had barely returned to their hors d'oeuvres when older, more serious people, dressed business-casually, finally trickled through the same door. At first the young couple was regarded with curiosity, then ignored completely when a director, a journalist, and a producer each sat before a microphone. A panel discussion. Claire translated the first couple of Q and A’s for Joachim, but after so many movies, and food, and the feel of his hands and hips against her, her fledgling French synapses went kaput.
“I can’t anymore,” she told him. “Let’s just watch.”
She felt power denying him, and relief at being able to enjoy sitting in the pastel shade and digesting under the lavender and citrus scents trailing in from the hills.
After thirty minutes, when the panel adjourned and Joachim was off mingling, the official Palais photographer sidled up to Claire to capture her photo, kilometers of clear blue sea and sky behind her. He asked for her name and role in “the film” for his notebook, and suddenly, terrifyingly, the word visa echoed in her ears, and she fumbled her words till she refused to answer at all. The photographer and she frowned at each other. He snapped his camera case shut and moved off. Still, the next afternoon, she scanned the corkboard for her image, eager to see herself—gloriously youthful and freshly fucked, Provence on her palate, cultured, sophisticated, and backdropped by Azur. She might unpin it, she thought, and keep the souvenir. Alas, if there was a photo of her, she and Joachim never found it.
Her boss, Milo, hadn’t been interested in the films or food or secret passageways, and she was glad. Claire and he had met weeks before in the Nice youth hostel where she had been staying. She agreed to his sailing tour with her new Danish traveling buddies, Rita and Camilla. That first night, Milo let them stay onboard for free. And then again, the next night until the Danes departed for home on the third. Their leaving left Claire feeling rudderless, unsure where to head next, or what to do, but she knew she loved that boat business—the soft rocking to sleep at night, the skimming over sparkler-splashed water by day, the gulls soaring overhead, the itch of salt water on her skin.
It was her first such experience, and she wished it would go on forever, so she flirted with Milo, let him kiss her and even once smack her derrière. With purposeful shyness, she bowed her head to look from under eyelashes or over a bared shoulder until he gave her the V-berth. Once installed and unpacked, and another day had gone by, she was avoiding his kisses, partly because of the white spume at the corners of his mouth, but also because of his pelican-like legs, spindly from climbing up and down mast poles, and his hair, which, when not blown by the wind, settled into a limp yellow pompadour. She should have paid closer attention when they were working out terms.
Claire had hidden behind the vivacious Danes on their last day while they redirected Milo’s attention with questions about his homeland, South Africa. Rita had been the first to point out the soles of Milo’s feet. The skin impossibly thick and inhumanly gray, as if he’d pulled on a pair of dead man’s feet as slippers, or some elephant’s hide.
“They should look like that,” Milo told them. “I walked across Africa to get them.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” said Camilla, and Milo explained that when his wife walked out of their marriage, Milo also went walking—due north. And he didn’t stop till he hit the end of the continent.
The trio of young women frowned at Milo, dubious.
“‘The continent’? You mean, of Africa?” asked Rita.
“From Cape Town, yes. Locked up my house and went walkabout.” Months and kilometers had trudged past, he told them, rainy seasons, wide spaces of blistering heat, more rain, more villages, more asphalt than imaginable. His shoes wore out. “Disintegrated,” he said.
People along his route offered him new ones, but what was the point? He held a lit cigarette to a sole and shrugged.
He was also offered beds for a night, and fruit, and wooden spoons and bowls of stew to-go. “I knew I would be taken care of. Africa is a hospitable place,” he said, making eye contact with the three of them in turn as if challenging them to say otherwise.
A journalist had caught wind of Milo’s undertaking and tracked him down to a hospital when he was being treated for malaria.
Rita snorted and Claire said, “Right. Pull the other leg.”
He led them to his cabin where he dug a newspaper clipping from his lockbox. There, in grainy black and white, reclined Milo on a cot, a half grin across his mug, and his inhuman feet prominent in the foreground. They read the recounting silently. “Min gud,” said Camilla, and they turned in unison to look at Milo newly. He straightened with bashful pride, mistaking the women’s expressions for admiration. “But, why though?” one of them asked.
He shrugged again. He said he had bought the ketch they were on as a consolation prize for his beloved—an around-the-world adventure to compensate for the bad news from their third fertility doctor. Milo would not be giving his wife any little Milos. She left, he left, and when he hit the northernmost shores, in Morocco, he found he had the urge to fish, so he sent for his boat.
Claire and the Danes conferred when Milo hopped below deck for more beer. It was all too odd. The women decided that Milo probably kept his prices so low, not because he was a bad businessman, but because he couldn’t stand to be alone.
Once the Danes debarked for good, leaving just Claire and Milo, she let him kiss her even less, offering a cheek first, then pushing him away solidly. “I’ll work for my board,” she said.
It seemed in the days that followed that he accepted their new just-friends relationship, but to be sure, Claire made brisk business of her duties. Row the dinghy to shore daily for supplies and fresh baguettes. Trek up and over the Parc du Mont Boron with Milo to lasso more guests from the hostel. Make and serve aperitifs, then lunch. Check, check, check.
Yet, out of pity or maybe guilt, she let Milo stand close in the galley when he taught her his curried vegetable recipe, the staple lunch they served on tours. He insisted on adding the cayenne pepper himself, then chortled when sweat and snot poured from their guests. The male guests acted unaffected, but the heat sneaked up like poison, turning it all into some macho contest of wills. The curry, too delicious to pass up, was suffered through with awkward laughs. When finally someone admitted that Milo had the stronger constitution, he would pass a toilet paper roll around the table for all to sop up with. Claire apologized as a wife would, indulgently, adding an exasperated eye roll.
The usual guests were European or Canadian college students away from home, on break, and more than eager to sail into the bays lined with tangerine and pink villas that Milo knew so well by then. He knew the wilder, deserted bays, too, empty but for olive trees and pebbly sand. Guests and staff alike spent the afternoons frolicking like marine mammals in what Claire imagined was a cool bowl of summer sapphires.
During each day trip, she dove overboard to swim, lean, brown-bodied, and as topless as any Frenchwoman, then resurfaced, her hair a heavy rope down her back and, across her face, a wide smile of America-straightened teeth—as white as any trace of cloud in the sky above. When Joachim joined their crew of two, he and Milo both watched her. They took turns swimming under her or diving over her, showing off for her. En route back, Milo tuned the radio away from Vanessa Paradis and Sinéad O’Connor to a classical music station, volume spun high. “It’ll attract dolphins,” he told them, and it did. The guests were delighted.
Business boomed with the arrival of Joachim. He had a dimpled chin, and his way of looking into guests’ eyes made strangers feel like family. But, once they’d sailed close to Cannes, Joachim convinced Milo they should stay for a few days for the festival. So, Milo put tourist rustling on hold and stayed back at the boat, where he fixed lines and drank Carlsberg with fishermen neighbors while Claire and Joachim adventured. Until, that is, the evening Claire was touched by cabin fever, Joachim by the need to see and be seen, and Milo by whatever it was that made his eyes narrow suspiciously at the two of them. Milo announced he planned to join them at the Palais that evening after being left behind all those afternoons.
Claire had complained to Joachim that Milo lumbered and shuffled on land like some scaly, old dinosaur, and he’d surely hold them up. When her boss emerged from his cabin in a flannel shirt and sneakers, he looked to Claire like all men a decade older than herself: a dad about to garden. He shrugged at Claire’s complaints, claiming comfort.
“The idea is not to be comfortable, though,” trailed Claire.
“You’re lucky I’m even in shoes.”
“Why am I lucky? It’s nothing to do with me.”
“But you have my blazer.” To which she had no retort. He looked at her longingly. “You don’t want me to go? You two want to go alone?”
She stopped herself from patting him like she would a hurting child, and Joachim jumped in to say, “No way. You have to come—you haven’t been even once.”
Joachim was confident that even with a third wheel, they could do the usual (minus the sex): wait in the back hallway for the movie to begin, then slink in, apologetic and precipitous, which they did, right to three center seats.
The film was a bore. They applauded its end with the audience, then broke their own rule by staying until the lights came up, so pressed in they were by the full theater.
“Oh, shit,” Joachim said when they could finally see. They were awash in opulence: jewel-toned gowns and velvet, diamond barrettes and slippers. The three exchanged startled glances, then huddled together in an embarrassed effort to hide their scruffiness.
“Oh my god,” said Claire. She was underdressed.
Getting ready on the boat earlier, since it was evening, she had opted for her black Naturalizer pumps instead of her usual sandals bought at a flea market in Athens. (She had noticed many of the Greek statues with the same sandals carved onto their feet and wondered if the Greeks were stuck in time somehow. Had there been no advances in shoemaking after all these years?) She had brought the heels because she had fantasized about a different sort of trip while packing—a trip with hotel porters and evening sherries. Because somewhere in Italy her dressy dress had been ruined in a laundry snafu with a vermilion sweater bought to stave off the chill of a rainy Roman afternoon, Claire wore a black lace teddy left behind by one of the Danish girls—who had also imagined a different sort of trip. In Capitan Milo’s black blazer, her well-worn, low-slung Levi’s, and the heels, one could say her ensemble had a certain Vanity 6 style. But still.
Milo studied the carpet and Joachim searched faces.
The now-lit theater emptied slowly at first, the glamorous crowd shuffling as one, then sweeping down and out onto a landing overhung by a wide chandelier, then along a straightaway, then through double glass doors onto a red-carpeted staircase, where they all paused and where the mass of people seemed to take a collective, fortifying breath. The cool balm of the spring evening was a surprise. Then as one, the throng, fancy feet still on red carpet, flowed downward and were hugged between red velvet stanchions. There were pop-pops, lights flashing to the left and right, and half shouts of “Here! Look here!” Abruptly then, the carpeted walk ended. The trio found themselves on hard gray concrete. The river of people thinned and fanned out, funneling onto terraces with attending servers in long white aprons.
“Why didn’t I wave?” moaned Claire, throwing up a regal hand and giggling. “Oh! It was over too soon!”
“Okay, okay. Let’s get our bearings,” said Milo. “Coffees. My treat.”
They sat at the first open café table they came upon.
Joachim gushed dreamily, “Real, live paparazzi! That’ll be for me. When I am a famous director.”
They sipped their espressos, awed to silence and half listening to each other. Some moments passed, and when they agreed they felt sufficiently descended from the stars and present on the cobblestones, Joachim and Claire focused on Milo, who was twisted around to stare at a couple at a nearby table; a Black man traced patterns on the wrist of his fair companion, then bent to trail kisses there. Discomforted by Milo’s stare, Joachim and Claire, in silent agreement, scooted their own wicker-backed chairs to where their knees almost touched Milo’s to recapture his attention.
The lovebirds finished their meal and rose, the man tossing some bills onto a saucer. Joachim and Claire watched Milo watch the couple stroll the sidewalk, the woman’s hand light on the man’s elbow, until the crowd swallowed them. Claire wondered if Milo recognized them. They could be South African actors, so exceptionally tall they both were, and striking.
“What a waste of a good white woman,” Milo said finally.
Claire’s demitasse clattered on its saucer, and Joachim hissed, “What is wrong with you?”
Milo held his palms out. “Hey, where I’m from—”
Claire said, “You should know better.”
“Where you’re from?” Joachim said. “You mean South Africa? You mean land of apartheid?”
Milo leaned back in the chair and folded his arms. “It is because I am South African that I know this.” He lifted his chin. “I’ve lived this. It’s in me. What do you expect?”
There was a stretch of shivery silence as the feeling of acid doused their cheer.
“Well,” said Claire, reaching for something to say.
“That’s…” started Joachim, then stopped. Sour-faced, he stood and thanked Milo for the drink. “Let’s go,” he said.
Claire scrambled to her feet, relieved. Milo dragged along behind. They came together again, wordless, at the dinghy that would take them to their boat anchored in the bay.
Unable to sit still, Claire stood at the prow to man the oar. Once boat side, Milo made to help her aboard. She swatted at his hand. “Seriously, Milo. I have been doing this myself this entire time.”
Joachim mentioned the late hour, and soon they were changed, washed, and calling out halfhearted good-nights through portholes, Joachim and Claire with unspoken agreement to finish what they had started that afternoon, to fuck all the way to the end, then sleep. They settled into her berth, heavy.
“Milo likes you,” Joachim said. “He tries to be with you.”
“No. Maybe.” She didn’t tell Joachim, who’d slid his hand under her unzipped sleeping bag to find her stomach, about the kissing. “Whatever. Condom?”
He didn’t have one.
“You didn’t care earlier.”
“Well, now I do.”
He stilled then and cocked an ear. Claire followed his gaze through the black of the darkened hull, where she caught a crouched form outlined in the shadows. Joachim motioned with his chin, and they squinted to puzzle out the silhouette.
“He’s watching us?” she whispered.
Her boss was perched on the steps, immobile but for the hand holding a cigarette. Joachim breathed low and scared. In her ear he said, “He is.”
Seconds stretched to minutes. Rolled masts settled above them. There was a muffled clang, an occasional slap of wind. Claire was filled not only with disgust, but with fear, and being frightened infuriated her. She inched her back down against the foam mattress.
Joachim took in a breath, and she felt his lips on her ear. “He’s starting to really make me angry.”
“Good. Me too.” She nudged him hard. “Go ask him for a condom.” She ignored his whispered objections, his compromise to pull out, and nudged him harder. “Make him give you one.”
Joachim worked his way across the galley. Claire saw their faces in outline bend together.
Joachim returned disturbed. He paused beside her, rigid, a foil packet in his hand.
“He said…” Joachim chose his words. “He said, ‘Fuck her good.’”
Together they peered back across for the brightest source of light, Milo’s cherry ember and the purple-black haze that swirled from it, but it was gone. Milo was back in his stateroom.
“Well, then, do it,” Claire said.
Joachim tried kissing her again, but any flames that may have been stoked by the afternoon romp and the starry-night flirting were extinguished. They moved together wanly, slowly, lest Milo feel their rocking. Joachim finished quickly, and when Claire hissed at him to go, get another rubber, he made a sound of disbelief.
“C’mon. Geez,” he said. “Let’s leave the poor guy alone.”
The morning dawned, again yellow and stupendous, and coffee bean aromas wafted over from the restaurants to stir up the day. Water lapped the two dozen vessels in the sleepy bay. It should all have worked to remind her that she hadn’t a care in the world.
Claire and Joachim took their time pulling on their shorts, indecisive about another day—one too many—of movies. “I’ll go if you want to...” one of them said. “Only if you do,” said the other. The decision was made for them ultimately in the form of a padlock hanging from their plain but special door.
Joachim wondered aloud about the date, “Maybe it’s over?”
“Maybe... Is it May still?” Claire said, and Joachim laughed at her.
“I can still make it to that fashion show in Milan before classes start up again…” he said, looking sideways at her as they slumped their way toward the docks. Claire made a vague statement about the Iberian Peninsula.
The sky seemed a starker white than the previous rose yellow, though the yachts were still strung together in their slips, knocking bumpers futilely against wood.
Back aboard, Joachim thanked Milo for having allowed him to stay on. The men clasped hands, their eyes met with a certain gravity, and Claire took the moment to cut in her own good-bye, piggybacked on Joachim’s. She swiped at some crumbs on the table, noticing spidery cracks in the slick varnish. Milo smoked and burped quietly at his spot at the table overlooking some receipts and a thick ledger while Claire stuffed belongings into her pack. When a second sweep ensured nothing was forgotten, they let Milo load them onto the dinghy and row them ashore. They swapped brisk hugs and promised to drop postcards when they arrived wherever they were going.
Milo and Claire watched Joachim’s back recede as he headed to the stairs cut into the purple bougainvillea hill below the train station. Milo unfolded and folded some bills. “Pocket money,” he called it, and thanked Claire for her help and her company.
She started to refuse the offering, but unsure what lay ahead, she palmed it. “I might need it.”
They turned from each other.
Milo waved vaguely upward. “I heard there’s a youth hostel over Sainte-Maxime way…”
By day’s end, his green ketch would be hugging the shores of the Mediterranean, Joachim would be flirting with a beautiful older designer who would invite him back to her home, and Claire would be laughing into the wind from the back of a thumbed-down motorcycle.
Andréa Ferrell Gannon, MFA, is a California native, the daughter of an English immigrant and an Oglala Sioux, and works teaching English to immigrants and refugees. A former poetry editor at The Coachella Review, you can find her there, at GXRL and The Washington Post. She is finishing a memoir.