What could possibly be more surreal than finding yourself naked in front of your in-laws? How about spending a weekend naked together with your in-laws? How about spending a weekend naked together in the south of France with your Parisian in-laws and your toddler when you are freshly widowed, and the occasion is your beloved’s memorial service?
In the summer of 2019, soon after my fiancé, Francois, succumbed to a rare and aggressive cerebrospinal cancer—and seven months after his abrupt hospitalization had left me to raise our toddler daughter alone in the loneliest of cities, Los Angeles—I found myself at an off-the-grid midcentury cabin nestled in a pine forest on the dunes west of Bordeaux, in a vacation community where clothing is not only optional but vehemently discouraged.
Housed under the same roof that August weekend, in rooms lit by gas lanterns and partitioned by panels of African block-print cloth, were the following people, whom I have now seen naked and who have now seen me naked: Francois’s sister and her partner; his niece, in her early 20s; his ex-wife; and his 80-year-old mother.
I’d spent the month traveling through Europe with my then-21-month-old daughter in what felt like a fated echo of my post-undergraduate Eurail Pass rite of passage. I’d said yes to unexpected invitations—a mothers-and-children yoga retreat, a seaside wedding. I’d had some fun, even.
I had spent the first quarter of 2019 debating with neurosurgeons about how many ventriculopleural shunts were too many to install in one body and wiping sticky blue morphine dribbles from beard stubble. I had to feel something else, somewhere else. Call me self-indulgent or in denial—some people with blissfully intact families did—but shock begets magical thinking. Rather improbably, I also had an American mother who had herself retired part-time to France. Two summers before, when she was freshly widowed herself, my mother had been set up with someone new by Francois, whose achievements as a matchmaker rivaled those in his career as an architect. It happened on a family vacation at his favorite surf spot in the Basque country, 150 miles south of the nudist resort, and she was now happily coupled with a resident there—which meant I had a base camp for the European vacation I never asked for.
The naturist colony had been founded in the 1950s as an experiment in postwar reparations between European cultures, and drew a sizable contingent of Dutch and German regulars. Francois’s parents, leftist academics from Paris, discovered the place in 1969, when he was a baby, and it was there that he came of age, fell in love for the first time, formed an affinity for minimal structures made of humble materials, and learned to surf. His skills on the water became the stuff of legend—“he would never steal your wave; he would just sneak in, like a cat,” one globetrotting board-shaper told me—and he stuck out for his commitment to sun protection: a chalk-white face achieved with a layer of zinc oxide-based diaper cream, a discovery made decades before he became a father. Big-wave riders from Point Dume to Sri Lanka fondly called him “the ghost.”
When surfers die, their brethren enact a ritual called a paddle-out: A group forms a circle in the water, shares words of remembrance, and tosses flowers into the center. There had already been one at Topanga Beach back in L.A. the day before his public memorial, a drone filming overhead, Francois’s empty navy blue wetsuit draped across my board like a boat passenger, a reversal of all the times he’d helped pull me toward the waves.
Soon after the ceremony, the people who’d grown up surfing with him at the French nudist colony decided they wanted to paddle out, too, and though I’d met only one or two of them once or twice, I wanted to be there. I had nowhere else to be but there.
Francois enjoyed being naked more than most people, even French people, not all of whom, contrary to popular assumption, enjoy public nudity. One American friend of his spoke at the L.A. memorial about a boat trip they’d taken: When Francois saw the first glow of phosphorescence, he immediately stripped off his clothes and dove in. Not long after we first met, I watched him stand unclothed before a large window in full view of downtown Los Angeles, sipping cognac and blowing smoke from a Marlboro Red out the cracked opening, and I understood I had finally met a man, one who lived fast and could die young, one who stirred the sort of emotional electricity I’d known existed from mood-board photos of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin at the magazines where I’d worked, but had never experienced firsthand.
Later, when he was awake enough to receive visitors at the hospital bed where he spent 68 days—on the good days, the ones when he wasn’t in a coma or anesthetized from one of 10 (seven brain; three spinal) surgeries, the ones when his cognitive impairment made for hours of loopy fun—he’d kick the sheets off and let his mint-green geometric-print gown splay open. “Let’s all live naked together in paradise,” he’d say to no one in particular.
But as it turns out, living naked in a French nudist paradise, when your life is shattered, doesn’t really feel all that different from living clothed in civilization. Strong waves do cause a bit of unexpected pain when they slap bare breasts, but the usual concern about bikini tops or bottoms falling down is eliminated. Although, when you wade back to a crowded beach from the water, it’s a lot harder to spot your group. In the resort’s commercial district, which felt like a Six Flags simulacrum of a French village, naked people were everywhere, going about their business. Tanned bodies queued up cheek to cheek for the ATM, or examined bins of bio cucumbers and cantaloupe, their own forbidden fruit hovering inches away. Alone at the cabin one day, I was interrupted during a naked vinyasa yoga session on the back deck by Francois’s mother, emerging from the bushes. She barely blinked.
The only time I felt embarrassed was when my debit card set off a fraud alert and was declined as I tried to buy Brebis bare-bosomed alongside Francois’s ex-wife. I’d met her for the first time, unexpectedly, back in L.A. in February, when she turned up at his hospital bed while she happened to be in town. I’d considered her from afar with a certain feminine envy—she’s Parisian, her first name is my middle name, she’d had 12 years with him while I’d had three and a half. But the instant I saw her, and the organic carrot soup she’d brought to that airless fluorescent-lit room, we were allies. These circumstances were no less uncomfortable for either of us, and cemented our friendship. During our topless tagine lunch, we noted the peculiarity of dining nude at a Moroccan restaurant, served by clothed men from a culture that required a certain degree of modesty from women.
A nudist vacation while mourning does have its unexpected pleasures, though, chief among them the sensation of riding a bicycle standing up, wind encircling nipples, a pure awareness of consciousness inside a physical form hurtling through space—which is really all any of us are. It was during one such moment that a familiar voice called my name. Stopped on another bicycle, wrapped toga-style in one of the African cloths, was P., one of Francois’s best friends from L.A., whom I’d known would be arriving that day.
“I didn’t recognize you,” he said, apropos of my uncovered poitrine, and we both laughed.
The other thing I discovered about nudity during my visit to a nudist colony is that there’s nothing erotic whatsoever about everyone around you being naked. By that point in the weekend, ocular fatigue had set in. Breasts and penises—I saw more of the latter during the first 20 minutes of my visit than I’d seen in my entire life prior—became faces in a crowd. C-section scars and exposed tampon strings, crepey flesh and carpeted chests: It was all a bit too on-the-nose a reminder of human impermanence. It’s clothing that is erotic, the requirement of imagination. The French understand this better than most.
P. and I had spent a week together as part of a group at the beach house I’d rented on Airbnb for Francois’s hospice, not wanting him to leave the earth landlocked. The night before he died, P. helped carry him, nurses looking the other way, for one final baptism in the ocean, despite warnings that the shock of the cold water might kill him. He’d held Francois’s hand during his last breath while our daughter and I slept upstairs.
We decided to wander off through the neighborhood of spartan wood cabins—called “Californie”—into the dunes, to a fenced-off and forbidden-to-visitors pine forest, where, word had it, there existed a vortex of special healing energy. A spiral made of rocks, some sort of Zen pathway, awaited us in a clearing. I draped a towel over my shoulders for sun protection, but I otherwise had no inhibitions left to shed. That’s the thing people tend not to understand, people who haven’t experienced watching the person they’d assumed they’d spend their life with lose theirs: The better one is acquainted with death, the less one is ruffled by any awkward situation that might come along before it. P. agreed, telling me that his chronic depression may have been permanently cured by the experience.
I wasn’t depressed, either. Since those days when I’d led bedside “Blackbird” singalongs and given permission to disconnect breathing tubes and screamed at the sea, I’d experienced spontaneous upwellings of bliss, a sense that I’d pierced a membrane between dimensions. I’d seen Francois’s face in clouds and ivy vines, unmistakably his. I’d met new friends who felt divinely planted. I was going to apply for a French visa. Things could only unfold magically, effortlessly, from here, I assumed. I’d be reimbursed for my suffering, plus interest. Yet suddenly, reunited with someone who had witnessed those same horrors, I was beginning to perceive a void I’d yet to confront.
“I guess I just need some emotional comfort,” I realized out loud when we reached the center of the spiral. “I’ve had so little of it this year.”
“I’d give you some right now,” he said, offering a half-gesture of a hug, “but you’re naked.”
Later, I contorted into a wetsuit for the paddle-out. The waves were choppy, uncatchable; the wind too fierce to make out most of the French being spoken. We threw cornflowers—Francois’s favorite color—and slapped our hands to create a spray, but the rip current stretched the circle into an amoeba. Most assembled on the shore and began drinking; everybody else told stories and laughed and cheered. A group photo was taken and posted to Facebook.
I knew how this place had shaped him, how a childhood running naked amongst these pine boxes in the woods had nurtured his concept of invisible architecture, but I didn’t know this version of him, these teenage hijinks before he became the man he was, and I never would, so I walked back to the cabin alone with my daughter and put on some warm clothes and sobbed us both to sleep, more than I’d cried since he was still alive. I no longer cared for after-parties; I no longer cared what anyone thought of my body, the body I was lucky enough to still have, the body that created the tiny body I held in my arms. Summer would soon end, and some months later, so would the rest of the world as we knew it, and we would not live naked in paradise together after all. I would have to construct my own sort of invisible architecture, a network of favors and miracles, a jerry-rigged scaffold of hope to enclose this project we’d broken ground on together.