Summer comes for the first time on a seaweed-strewn beach on the Cap Corse, the finger of Corsica that points, unwavering and unmistakable, toward France. (And Corsica, her storefronts striped with graffiti, her guttural dialect, knows exactly which finger it is.)
That morning, my friend takes a flight back to Paris and school and I take a bus up the coast to a tiny town with a beach, a half-moon of white sand cradling neon blue ocean. This would become, it turns out, my seasonal theme. But by June, summer has only half-arrived in the northern stretch of the Mediterranean. Drippy, late-afternoon rain still falls every other day. I wear a jacket and retreat to my room to watch dubbed TV.
The very last day, though, the clouds blow away and the heat settles, leaving the sky a suffocated powder blue. For the first time, I pull my bathing suit from the bottom of my suitcase. The bus ticket costs 2 Euro and the driver accelerates around the corners as though he’s playing a video game. Stomach still touchy from the flu, I close my eyes as we fly around the rim of the Cap—the coolest roller coaster ever. The one that falls over water.
My destination is a pebbly parking lot hemmed in by mountains on one side, green vineyards clinging to their slopes. In the center of the lot, looking weathered and out-of-place, stands a painted cement altar dedicated to Saint Anthony and the chapel that stood on the spot before it was bombed in World War II. The beach itself is serviced by only a ramshackle bar and café at one end, its awnings flapping the breeze. The sand is mostly empty, save a few scampering children and their weary moms, and picky gobs of seaweed that look like dish-scouring pads.
I hardly remember how to be on a beach, what to do on one. It’s been that long. I am early-season pale and soft from all those macarons in Paris and reluctant to stand around in a bathing suit, to make tanning-related pretenses while the women around me are mostly topless and brown already. (In Paris in the cold, where such things are easier to say and do, I boast of being topless all summer. In the actual Mediterranean in actual summer, I realize that certain parts of my body have never known direct sunlight and that the acclimation process could prove painful.)
I spread out a towel. I have no idea what to do. My bathing suit is a riff on a 1930s showgirl costume. There is no better way, in the Mediterranean in early summer amidst sleek black suits and skin without tan lines, to look like an American. It might have been more effective, maybe, to paint a target on my back in sunblock and let the rays do the rest.
He appears before my eyes in a clinging blue bathing suit that is vintage chic and worthy of the window display at Le Bon Marche, and so does the second theme of my summer. That I will be approached —in several different nations, situational contexts, and languages—by handsome men who bear, along with a certain sort of swagger that I will only call international, a single question.
“Are you traveling alone?”
The answer to this question changes depending on my mood, the exact contours of that situational context, and whether they guy seems, at the outset, like a would-be or even a seasoned murderer.
In this case, the suit whispers a tantalizing, “Maybe.” So does the ravishingly beautiful boy, no older than 19 or 20, who shares his beach blanket. As the man leans over to ask if I’d like a coffee, my eyes wander to the boy, whose dense curls—a lazy midday yawn—distract me and make me wonder if I am in a sort of real-world version of a Bond movie. Only I’m wearing a bathing suit with too much fabric.
I say no thanks to the coffee and he smiles.
“Do you want to swim?”
“Yes,” I say, “But I want to warm up first. I’m going to wait a little while.”
“Come on,” he says, waving me toward the water. I blame the language gap.
I follow because I am grateful for the company or maybe because I like swimming in Corsica with handsome men, two things that can get a girl killed in all sorts of situations. When I ask where he’s from, he smiles, reveals a row of gleaming teeth and says, “France.” Assuming that “No shit” won’t translate particularly well, I ask which city.
“Paris,” he says, before diving under the surface.
“No shit,” I say to the splash.
The cove at Pietracorbara is surrounded by high green cliffs that obscure the view to other parts of the coast. The sky is cloudless, the color shifting from pale to sapphire as your eyes move higher. The beach itself is rounded and white, a thumbnail edged by reedy grass. I take stock, float over the waves, prepare myself for weeks more of just this.
The man emerges from the waves and says, “Do you know what they are, les meduses?”
“Yes,” I say. “Jellyfish.”
He laughs at the word and we converse for a solid five minutes about my French-language education, my time in Paris, his “good friend” back on the sand, how much he loves Corsica, before he says, “Ah, there is a meduse right in front of you. So many in the water today.”
I arrive safely back on my blanket approximately four seconds later. My friend stops by later to check in, water still dripping from his hair. He asks again if I want coffee, and I thank him but refuse again, unable to grasp the idea of drinking coffee in a bathing suit. Later , he brings some back to the boy.
I flip. I read, but only a little. I braid the ends of grass. I watch a mother wrangle a kicking, squirming little boy into her line of vision. I wonder how I will manage my summer alone, how I will make my way down endless stretches of sand, vacation everywhere, the domain of the exhausted, all while knowing no one. I touch the clumps of seaweed to see if they really feel like scouring pads. They don’t. They’re softer in the center.