The Porsche, the Benz, the Beemer, the Harley, the big black truck: all of the standard American midlife-crisis autos are variations on the same theme. Their purpose is to wrap the softening, slow-moving, sparse-haired 50-something male frame in a hard, shapely carapace that says, more or less transparently, “Don’t look there; look here.”
Here is how fast I used to run. Here is how beautiful the lines of my torso were. Here is what a monster I was coming off the line of scrimmage. Here is how people used to stop and stare.
My own midlife crisis happened in France, during a six-month family stay in rural Languedoc, where the rules of midlife crises are generally the same, if expressed in their own regional idiom.
Mine proceeded like so many others: a certain longing for something I’d had when I was younger. A bit of surreptitious online browsing. Photos exchanged. A rendezvous secured. Thoughts of love and possession.
I had fallen in love once before in France, some 30 years ago. I spent nine months of my 22nd year in Paris, visiting the elderly for the Little Brothers of the Poor. It was where I learned to speak French, in dimly lit living rooms full of furniture from other centuries, with people who wanted to talk about anything at all for as long as I would stay and who sometimes wouldn’t have another guest until my next visit. I arrived in Paris barely conversational and left fluent.
In the course of my work, I drove so extensively around the city that my Parisian colleagues started asking me for directions. The car I drove was a Renault 4: a dark blue, bulbous, compact sort of proto-SUV with skinny tires, a rackety underpowered engine, and a manual gearshift mounted into the dashboard that required a laborious process of pushing and pulling to wrestle the car up through its gears.
She seduced me. She was my regular companion, my partner in crime. She drove me reliably to scheduled appointments and naughtily to stolen hours in cafés, where she stood by as I snuck a cigarette and a grand crème over several pages of Camus. She represented all of Paris, all of its inconvenient, stubborn, mundane glamour.
Thirty years later, married, with two kids, on a very different kind of adventure — an adventure about family and legacy and finding domesticity in a foreign place — I found my old love online.
There she was, posing in three-quarter profile: elegantly upright, a little dented, white this time (but don’t we all grow a little white with age?). Her birthdate was 1988, and her nickname was Savane. She jumped out from a list of thumbnail photos on a website called Le Bon Coin (the French equivalent of Craigslist), and all the neurons fired in that corner of the id that convinces middle-aged men the world over of the absolute rightness of their most adrenal and impulsive decisions.
It was true love. There could be no question.
The day of our meeting was brilliantly sunny, a remnant late-September ember of summer heat chilled by a steady wind sliding down from the shoulders of the Pyrenees and across the Mediterranean coastal plain.
With a little twist in my stomach made of combined excitement at this new thing in my life and fear that I was doing something I might regret, I walked out our front door onto Avenue de la Liberté in the tiny village our family had called home for the past two months and held the passenger door open for my wife, Mary Jo, as our two kids piled into the back seat of our rented, sensible, roomy, late-model crossover.
I got behind the wheel, set the GPS for Pézenas and leaned over to give Mary Jo a kiss on the cheek.
“Thank you for understanding,” I said.
“Let’s go meet her,” she replied.