It’s a weird day. Prince is dead, and I’m sitting in a friend’s house in a medieval village in France, caged by gray stone walls built centuries ago. The friend in question is an Australian novelist of some note. She’s also an incredible human being. In other news, she’s not here. She’s far away on a whirlwind European tour.
I’m in this village for a few months, ostensibly editing a recently-sold novel, in reality drinking with locals and basking in the glory of the most ethereal place I’ve ever been. It’s all cobblestone streets and quaint balconies and climbing vines. Every time I walk outside, I feel compelled to quote Shakespeare. Don’t ask me why. Yes, I know he wasn’t French. But soft, what light from yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun. Every girl on a balcony is Juliet if you drink enough French wine before you see her.
I’m staying in a cozy, no-frills studio, which I love, partially because it doesn’t offer time-sucking modern amenities like wifi, which means I can devote myself to writing, at least when I’m not drinking with some fascinating locals, which is almost never. Today, I’m hungover, having imbibed with aforementioned locals just last night.
After waking and brushing my teeth, I had a hankering for an email update, so I wandered down the way and used the old fashioned gold key my friend gave me to open her colossal blue door, decorated with iron fists holding flowers. Now, I don’t want to go home. I want to stay here alone on the third floor of her paradise, staring out the window, drinking red wine, watching yellow birds flit through lilacs, worshipping twilight as it turns the world purple, because. . .
Well, Prince is dead. And who will cry with me if I go to my internet-less apartment? The ghosts that appeared to me in my dreams the first night I came? Prince himself? Who knows, but I want to be where I can commiserate with my Facebook friends. “Enter the purple rain, baby,” I posted, an epitaph meant to send Prince on his way, along with a video of him singing. And now, my internet friends like it and emoji-cry with me, and it’s not exactly human connection, but it’s something, isn’t it? Is this what it sounds like when the doves cry? Forever quiet? In the French countryside twilight, even the birds are mute.
I don’t normally mourn dead celebrities. What’s the point? I didn’t know them. They didn’t know me. But somehow, it feels like I did know this one. His songs were an integral part of my life for three decades. And God, did it ever feel like he knew me, every time he sang my angst-ridden teenage heart, every time he shattered another culturally imposed illusion, every time he was unapologetically everything he was born to be, and in so doing, dared me to be me. Maybe he was part of the reason I left behind the small town kindergarten teacher and found my true self, standing in front of all those rock shows dancing, never mind what the haters said. Maybe he was part of the reason I walked out on gray, abusive relationships, desperate for some love alive with color. Maybe, because I heard him scream, “When the elevator tries to break you down, go crazy! Punch a higher floor!” I kept trying to fly.
I found out a few hours ago, after a surreal day. All days here are surreal. I’m utterly convinced this place is not of this world. When I close my eyes, I see colors bursting just on the other side of my eyelids, as if heaven is a blink away. I’ve found myself in a cave-like bar dancing to a calypso band, pressed hard against bodies I’d never seen before but somehow felt were part of me just then. I’ve found myself crying with an Australian stranger on a stone floor because he knew the lyrics to Tom Petty. I’ve found myself staring through the window of a crumbling, ancient house grown over with ivy, 100% sure I could feel the spirits of the ones who built that house a thousand years ago.
But this day went above and beyond in the surreal apartment.
This afternoon, having completed my internetting for the time being, I was leaving this house to return to my apartment. I opened the door, and a woman in torn jeans was standing there on the cobblestone street, ready to knock. I was shocked, but recovered quickly enough to explain that the person she had come to see was out of town. After a moment, I recognized my friend’s would-be visitor. The strong, smiling redhead was hard to forget. I’d been introduced to her twice before, once as I was crossing the stone bridge to enter the village for the first time.
“It’s a local tradition,” she said in beautiful, heavily accented English. “You meet three times, you share a drink.” So what was I to do? I invited her home for a glass of bordeaux, of course. She brought a dog with her, a gorgeous, delicate thing called Angel. I thought he was a girl, but he turned out to be a boy. My daughter and her husband recently lost a beloved dog named Angel, so the dog’s name struck a note with me, as did his deep brown eyes. As I held his face in my hands and stroked his soft fur, the gentle creature bowed. He stayed like that while we were having our drinks, literally doing downward facing dog, which in spite of its name, I have never seen a dog do before. I couldn’t help but think he was humbling himself before something. What, I didn’t know. He never got up the whole time we talked.
While my canine guest prostrated himself, my fascinating human guest spoke of her art. She spoke of all the great men and women who had inhabited this village in centuries past, all the famous ones who inhabit it now. She told me this was Naomi Watt’s mother’s dog bowing before me, determined to get in a good hour of yoga if it killed him. I laughed. If having Naomi Watt’s mother’s dog doing asanas in front of you isn’t a surreal and mildly pitiable brush with greatness, I don’t know what is. We drank one glass of wine, and then two. She told me she was worried about the dog. He had a wound that wouldn’t heal, she said. He wouldn’t eat. He was depressed. The vet said he was ok, but she didn’t think he was. For reasons I couldn’t explain, I thought the word cancer, but didn’t say it. Why jinx the dog? Yes, his breath smelled wrong when I got close to his face, like sickness. But why talk about that now?
Eventually, my guest’s cell phone rang, and she had to go, which made me sad because I liked her. When she was gone, I sauntered down the street to my friend’s house again, to check my email one last time before bed. It was here, sitting on this well-loved couch, surrounded by stone walls, children’s drawings, and endless, unpolluted sky, that I found out Prince was no longer a pretty purple spot on Earth’s sometimes bleak, beleaguered horizon. My dear friend Polyxeni wrote me to tell me. “prince died,” she said. There was no capitalization, no punctuation, which was strange for her, since she’s a fastidious librarian. Let your English teachers say what they will about the power of punctation, but I knew my friend was frantic because of her lack of it. It was the kind of slip-shod, punctuation-less email you send when tragedy strikes. i have cancer the dog got hit by a car we are being evicted. I ran an internet search and found a link saying it was all a hoax. “It’s a hoax,” I wrote back, relieved. She replied with links to real news stories from real news outlets saying it was no hoax. That’s when I cried.
And I thought, because I like to think things like this, that maybe that dog named Angel was bowing for Prince, escorting him out of this world. In retrospect, that androgynous dog seemed like a canine representation of the musical virtuoso, all delicate bones and beauty and otherworldly gestures. Even his possible sickness seemed poignant in retrospect. A beautiful, doomed, soon to ascend thing he was.
So I ascended to the rooftop, put on “Purple Rain” and escorted Prince too, dancing with all my heart, for the boy who taught me that in this world, you’re on your own. “When the elevator tries to break you down, go crazy. Punch a higher floor!” I sang, never mind what the neighbors thought. Far away, the moon dangled blue, begging to be kissed. I pulled her close and tried. I felt her warmth oozing through my body, drank in the scent of lilacs hanging heavy in the air, sensed something electric on my skin. I like to believe that when a great man is leaving this realm, he says goodbye to the ones who are listening. I like to believe that bit of electricity was what was left in the air when a soul who had the power to make the whole world his bitch said, “Sayonara, mother fuckers.”
Under that milky moon, on a stone roof heavy with spring and resurrection, I listened to his parting words. Now, I speak:
To the Prince who knew all the boundaries and broke them, I raise a glass to you, here in this medieval French village I’m beginning to wish was mine for keeps, where a woman just regaled me with stories of the bonafide kings who once lived here. Under the shade of crumbling castles, I toast your memory while it’s still hot and purple like you. Looking out over endless rose colored roof tiles, glinting red in the moonlight, tangled in vines, I remember we all come into this world with the capacity to become royalty. But only a few have the courage to do it. And you did. Now, from miles away, ancient church bells ring. And though they do so every night, tonight, I know they are for you.
Enter the purple rain, baby. Punch a higher floor.