We needed a weekend in the country and could not wait for summer when Paris becomes empty and apocalyptic as its inhabitants flee to Deauville, Bordeaux and Saint-Tropez.
Unable to bear another day in the rain-soaked city, I begged my boyfriend Ben to take me anywhere, and with little persuasion we convinced our friend Louis to join us on a train headed to Valence. There we rented a car and drove south, booking bed & breakfasts with our phones, moving without a plan but desperate to escape the city's grasp. By Saturday we’d driven so far I suggested, pleaded, demanded that the two of them keep going to Montpellier, where we could swim in the sea.
The south of France! I’d never been, despite countless petitions to my boyfriend. It was May – not too cold – and the possibility of a swim was irresistible. Seafood by the sea. Lounging in the sand. In the morning I wore my bathing suit and we drove, the forest thinning, the coast just thirty, then twenty, then ten minutes away. We found a beachside restaurant for lunch. We ate shellfish and drank white wine and one of us, one of the boys, realised he’d been here before and had encountered something that could be “funny” for us to experience.
On reaching Paris, the concept of a swinger’s club had been foreign to me: slightly disturbing yet intriguing. The swinger’s club in Paris, it turned out, is a darkened room with generally good-looking, well-dressed people holding flutes of champagne and shooting eyes at one another until someone takes someone’s hand and pulls them into an even darker room downstairs that’s pulsating with music and shrieks of pleasure.
It was something that, the first time I went, felt borderline ridiculous: a club space designated for couples to have sex with other couples, and a smoking room where everyone is dressed for a night out and flirtatiously engaging in typical bar conversation (what do you do? where do you live?), knowing that in half an hour they’d meet downstairs to rip off clothes and say and do dirty things for which my conservative Connecticut upbringing had not prepared me. The fun of it for me was in playing tease and voyeur, enjoying the evil pleasure in seeing how far I could push an admirer before moving along to someone else. Reeling in the freedom of the place. Admittedly, the thrill of a regular club pales in comparison after such experiences. Where’s the girl in nothing but a lace thong whispering in my ear about my breasts? Where’s the man unhooking my dress as another rides his hands under it?
The concept of a swinger’s colony, however, was so other-worldly, so unimaginable that I just had to say yes, yes let’s go check it out, let’s go for a swim at the swinger’s colony. As long as I go for a damn swim soon, I thought, the white wine giving us courage. And like children off to break the rules, we giggled as we climbed back into the car.
The swinger’s colony consists of a series of communist-looking buildings. Borderline elderly French people stumble down concrete paths clutching whiskies in the broad daylight, swaying past apartment porches where very naked people are resting or fucking and then rolling onto the terraces of bars. There, men sit with pride and open legs, while unabashed women lean over sagging breasts to pour more wine.
Inside the club, of which there are a few (most open all day), you must remove all of your clothes before entering. After paying (the cost is twice as high for a single man) you are given a towel (you’re not allowed to use your own), hoping to God it’s been washed at least six times before you reluctantly wrap it around yourself. We get our first round of drinks free, Ben assuring me it’s because we are the youngest and best looking in the place. Planting ourselves on a plastic couch, we sit nervously, careful to keep our towels between it and our bare asses, as porn blares from the many screens. Two old Arab men across the room are watching me, jacking off. The place echoes with moans and screams of satisfaction, the voices at least 20 years older than mine. It’s like being in an extremely poor porno, where at least one person accidentally drowns while having sex in the Jacuzzi.
It is very early in the season. I imagine this place at its peak in August, when maybe the people are better looking and the beach is infested with bare skin, bare breasts, bare dicks swinging as they manoeuvre into the sea or lurch towards another body. For now, in the chilly May breeze, we’re left with a 200-pound man, limbs sprawled over a beach chair, his massive belly rising and falling in time with the waves. A couple, or couple of strangers, are fucking on top of a towel in the sand. And a tall, thin, vampire-pale man dressed, inexplicably, in black jacket and black trousers, drifts alone on the promenade, adding a post-apocalyptic zombie movie feel to the whole scenario. There is no champagne, no coquettish glances. No suited bouncer, no dress code, no flirtatious conversation. I run into the water wearing nothing as the fat man lifts to his elbows to watch, smiling.
Ben and Louis and I do not discuss this vacation. And I certainly don’t tell my parents about the time my boyfriend took me to the south of France.