The belly of the cathedral is cavernous. Buttery light streams through stained glass and pools on the concrete floor. It’s hollow and holy, and the echoes of tourist footsteps fill the space where kings were once crowned. They seek tranquility or spirituality, or a postcard to show to friends back home. The cathedral is in the center of Reims, in the Champagne region of France, a city a train ride away from Paris. I spent my first two years of college living in Reims, a walk away from the cathedral.
In September 2015, I went to my first club. It was hazy with synthetic smoke and my tongue tasted like cheap alcohol. I had started school a few weeks before and I was still adjusting to being a college first-year in France: new classes and new friends, the language and the culture.
Those first few weeks of college are sharp in my mind. My new dorm room with its bare white walls and its standard-issue furniture: the rectangular slab masquerading as a mattress, the toilet with the lid cracked in half, the plastic desk chair that squeaked when I sat. Making dinner in identical dorm room kitchenettes with other first-years—pasta with store-bought pesto, because none of us could cook. My first lecture, the diligent notes typed out on a new laptop. Drinking five-euro beers in huge plastic cups, the foam spilling over the lip.
By the time a few weeks had gone by, I knew enough people to feel comfortable. On a Thursday night in September, I’m in someone’s dorm room with a few friends and some people I know by face but not by name, drinking before going out to a club. We stumble along cobblestones, filled with that heady start-of-college feeling. The lamps, with their stooped necks and heavy heads, crane over the sidewalks as we thread through the streets.
We arrive at the club buzzing. We slip through the crowd, slick with mixed drinks, and form a cluster in the corner. The music is loud and we dance for a while in the cold smoke the club is pumping onto the dance floor.
At some point, I’m dancing with a guy I had seen in the dorm room. His shoulders shift back and forth to the music, and his head turns dreamily from side to side. After a few songs, the space between us gradually narrows. He smiles when he dances and his teeth, which are so perfect they could be in an orthodontics ad, catch the light.
All of a sudden, I’m kissing the guy I had seen in the dorm room. It’s sloppy and also—surprisingly—mobile. There’s a platform in the center of the club, and we’re circling it. They pump more smoke onto the dance floor. It’s still cold. We stop, and I don’t recognize anyone around me except for this guy in front of me, who now knows how my tongue tastes. My heart clenches tight like a fist. The boy is asking me, in an English thickened by a French accent and alcohol, whether I want to go outside and talk privately. I don’t know much about this boy, but I do know that I do not want to be anywhere private with him. Instead of telling him this, I laugh and look around the club. I see some other people I know near the front door and I start walking toward them. I try and convince myself that this kind of thing is normal, the kind of thing that sexually liberated college students do. I roll my shoulders back.
Once I reach the group by the door, someone I recognize starts congratulating me, although I don’t really feel like I deserve congratulations. He’s asking me what the guy’s name is, and I’m shaking my head. I don’t know. He nods. He walks over to the guy to introduce himself, shakes his hand, and comes back over to me. He tells me the guy’s name and I roll it around in my mind like clay, shaping it, wondering how you spell it. Is there an accent on that letter? Or maybe that one?
In high school, my friends and I nursed superficial feelings for men we knew, like our teachers. But we were only mildly satiated and thought a lot about college.
I had always imagined the college version of myself as sexually liberated, someone who could experience intimacy without the need for emotional attachment. During the fall of my first year, this was how I wanted to live. Kissing the guy in the club was my first step toward constructing that version of myself, and so I told myself that my uneasiness when seeing him after the fact would dissipate as I got used to the campus’ hookup culture, after I molded my body to fit inside its rhythms.
By November 2015, I had been at school for a few months. I had gotten used to the social scene, my classes, and life in France. Reims felt like home. This safety and security was disrupted quickly and powerfully by the terror attacks that took place in Paris on November 13. Suddenly, everything felt jagged and broken and uncertain.
I was in my friend’s room when I received a news alert on my phone about the attack. The death toll was still unknown. For the rest of the night, we silently watched the news scroll in, each update more horrific than the last. We sent texts to our friends and family, assuring them we were safe. On my way to go and check up on a friend, I ran into a boy in the hallway. He was crying, waiting for the elevator to reach the ground floor. I had exited the stairway that was next to the elevator. We had never spoken before. Wordlessly, we hugged each other. He cried into my hair, and when the elevator came, he got in and went up, wiping his eyes. It was an emotional time, especially for the French students who knew people in Paris. That first night was a difficult one to live through.
The next morning, my friend Nathan knocked on my door. I was still in pajamas, bleary-eyed. “A group of us are going to the cathedral,” he said. He wore a button-down shirt and a long black jacket with a stiff collar. “You’re welcome to join.”
I got dressed while my friends waited in the hall, and then we all walked to the cathedral together. There were lots of other people inside the cathedral that day, more people than I remember ever seeing on any of my previous or subsequent visits. People were praying, hugging, and crying. I sat on one of the wooden chairs and even though I wasn’t religious, it felt important that I was in that space with other people, coming together to mourn as a community. In contrast to the horror of the night before, the sleeplessness and the frantic texts home, the cathedral was welcoming and warm. We huddled together under its arches and buttresses on that gray morning, within its rounded embraces and underneath its crooked elbows, needing to be near others.
A few days later, I saw a group of people standing in front of the cathedral. They were holding a large, white banner saying Islam was not welcome in France. The people weren’t speaking, just standing silently. With their banner and with their presence, they had molded the cathedral to fit inside their narrative. The same space where I had gathered with friends to mourn and think now looked fortress-like and impregnable.
The space that I found solace in days before had been appropriated by people spinning a narrative that I fundamentally disagreed with. They were demonstrating what they felt France should look like: Christian and Catholic. Their manipulation of the cathedral sat sorely with me, nagging me for the next few days.
At the time, I didn’t realize it, but I can now see that I was doing exactly what those protestors were doing. I was slotting my body, a space I viewed as intimate and special, into a larger narrative about what I thought my sex life should look like. I was twisting my limbs into shapes they didn’t want to make.
There’s a building in the middle of Reims with peeling wallpaper and steep, curving steps. If you climb to the roof of this building, you can see the tips of the cathedral towers, and a half-moon of the rose window. Each apartment in the building was rented by a group of students, who some nights, would host parties.
At one of these parties, the boy from the club found me. We hadn’t really spoken for the six weeks since. When we saw each other in the hallways at school, we exchanged tight-lipped smiles and blushes. We had a strange but tacitly agreed kind of thing where we liked each other’s photos on Instagram, but avoided all real-world social interaction. Every time I felt uncomfortable seeing him, my inner voice told me that was a “me problem.” My other friends didn’t have issues seeing the people they had been physical with the night before. They would either talk to them or they wouldn’t; seek them out or act indifferent.
So, in the house with peeling wallpaper, when the boy turned to me and said, “C’est fou!” I decided to give it another go. I would do it again, and this time, I would be casual and relaxed. When I saw him in sober daylight, I would be a more chilled, unflinching version of myself this time around.
The music was loud. I leaned my head towards him. “What?”
“C’est fou! It’s crazy!” he translated. I nodded in emphatic agreement, as if this was, in fact, the craziest party I had ever been to, the craziest party that anyone had ever been to. After this brief but enthusiastic exchange, we tucked ourselves into a corner like longtime lovers, people who knew each other well, people who knew each other’s last names.
We enacted a stationary version of our performance from the club. We were in an unfurnished room, next to an opened window. Full ashtrays sat on the windowsill, still wispy with half-lit cigarettes. People entered stage right, smoked for a while, and then exited the same way. I wanted to know things about him, so, in between acts, I asked him questions. I wanted to know where he was from and why he was in Reims. What did he love to do? Was there an accent attached to one of the letters in his name—a gentle flick over that “e”? I asked him a lot of questions that night, but he only had one for me: “Do you want to find somewhere more private?”
After some time, I disentangled myself from him, from the cloying cigarette smoke-smell of the apartment. I unstuck my hand from the stair banister sticky with alcohol. I walked home alone, down the central street back to the building where I lived. It was cold and I wasn’t wearing nearly enough clothing. I remember hugging my crossed arms to my chest, lipstick bleeding into the skin around my lips.
There’s a break in the central street where, if you were walking back to where I lived, you could turn your head to the left and see the cathedral. At the time, there was scaffolding obscuring the cathedral’s facade. The scaffolding gave the cathedral the illusion of protection, like a cloak, like a pair of crossed arms.
As I walked, I remember thinking “enough.” Enough pretending that I was okay with what was happening. Enough with the quick bursts of physical intimacy, separated by gulfs of awkward eye contact and absent conversations. I was tired of warping my emotions to fit the “sexually liberated college woman” narrative I felt that I should be living. I was tired of playing a part.
Marine Le Pen ran to be the president of France in 2016. She ran a campaign which, to those on the left, was xenophobic, racist, and ugly. She chose the cathedral as the last stop of her campaign. The scaffolding had recently been taken down, so the cathedral was beautiful and bare-faced; a nice, newly renovated backdrop for a presidential candidate.
I was sitting in my university library, studying for finals, when I got the notification that Le Pen would speaking be there later in the afternoon. I shut the lid of my laptop and left the library. Droves of students walked down the main road towards the cathedral, my boyfriend and I among them.
The choice to speak in front of a cathedral in a French presidential campaign has clear symbolic value. Le Pen wanted to harken back to a Catholic past and align herself with French Christians. The National Rally, the current name for the party she represents, has historically been accused of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and of pandering to the Catholic far-right. When Le Pen chose the cathedral over a secular space, she tapped into that lineage. Le Pen conjured the same bile in my throat I felt when I thought of the anti-Islamic protesters with their large, white banner.
To me, the cathedral was a kind of haven, a place of spirituality, reflection, and community, a place too sacred to be slotted into a narrative. It felt like using the cathedral as a space to conclude a campaign bred on vitriol and hate was antithetical to the values I associated with it.
People had brought European Union flags and posters for Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! campaign with them to the cathedral. They ran around the cathedral entrances, waiting to see Le Pen, to chant and to smother her speech. People pressed against the body of the cathedral, creating enough pressure on the doors that Le Pen couldn’t emerge to deliver a final, closing speech.
By the time Le Pen was ending her presidential campaign, my time in Reims was also coming to a close. Over the two years I spent there, I had come to terms with my emotional needs and had outgrown the assumptions I held about sexuality in college. I had gone to the anti-Le Pen cathedral protest with my boyfriend, someone who answered all my questions and asked me his own, someone I trusted, loved, and felt comfortable sharing my body with. I had followed through on the promise I made myself after the night in the house with peeling wallpaper, back when the cathedral had been wrapped in scaffolding, when I walked home alone and swore to stop manipulating my own emotional narrative.
Although it sounds bizarre, I feel a kinship with the cathedral. While I was in Reims, I tried to manipulate my sex life to fit in with a prefabricated narrative I had constructed for myself. While I was in Reims, politicians and people with political agendas tried to manipulate the message of the cathedral in order to push their own narratives forward. We are both better off trying to tell our own stories.