Another one of my favorites, an older story I thought needed a little brushing up. This was my first take of a sailing story on the Seine, and I think my first attempt at using a personal sailing narrative for the basis of a story. The original shell is still here, intact, the arc cleaned up a bit, the grammar, hopefully, too.
Oh, the aircraft images in this post are mine, made in X-Plane and Painter on the Mac. Peripheral to the central storyline, perhaps.
So, here it is, the memory of a memory. Hope you enjoy.
The Memory of Place
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock T S Eliot
There is a tree I think of from time to time. A tree in winter, it’s limbs bare. Blackened bark, wet with cold rain. I stand and look at it’s limbs fracturing upward into low scudding cloud and I am struck by how these bare shoots reach out like nerves, and I wonder what they feel when winter comes, when all memory is holding fast to a fading summer’s light.
And what can you say about a marriage that dies, not quietly in winter but in the harsh light of day? What could I tell you that you haven’t seen and heard a hundred times before, perhaps experienced in your own darkest hour? And so, what if I could tell you a tale of broken dreams in darkest night, of betrayals so sudden and unexpected they might make the most hardened heart weep in despair? And even if I could, what would be the point? We all seem to plod-on through life with vacant eyes, ignoring life’s lessons until it’s far too late to change the patterns of our acquiescence, and so if history does indeed have lessons to teach us, why is it that we all seem so willfully resolute in our ability to ignore them?
My wife had, once upon a time, been my best friend. We dreamed a little, conspired a lot and had, I thought, been completely in love with one another. We’d managed to build a fairly successful restaurant business over the years – years spent side by side, together – and then an unexpected opportunity had come along one fine September day. A friend wanted to buy our place, and the opportunity looked like one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ shots at breaking away from the grind that you always hear – and dream about.
But was breaking away what we wanted? We were at the top of our game, making good money and enjoying ourselves to boot. Yet I thought we’d both always been vagabonds at heart, and we both loved sailing, and we had been consumed with more than our fair share of wanderlust over the years. We talked about the sailboat we’d bought just a few years before – even then with distant horizons gleaming in our eyes – and we talked through that night about dusty plans of sailing to faraway places and exploring distant beaches – with our bare feet planted firmly in the depths of remembrance.
Remembrance? Why does that word resonate so when I think back on those heady days?
Was the choice really so simple? Was the decision driven by a growing lack of connection we felt to our everyday lives together, and had those weakening bonds pushed us past the memory of place – and into the beckoning grasp of worlds we’d always dreamed to see? If we held on to the present, if we held on to the dying vines of such questionable common ground – and by that I mean a withering lack of connection to our past – how could we hope to hold the future in such high regard? What is the future without the past?
Look at in another way: how could having so much in common lead two people so far astray?
Liz and I read books and magazines on cruising in sailboats for years before we made the leap, but while the journey itself always seemed – through our mind’s eye, anyway – to be idyllic in and of itself, seeing the world had grown secondary to living the journey, yet in the back of my mind I found myself wondering if we hadn’t simply become experience junkies. So yes, I had begun asking myself if the means had grown more important than the ends? So yes, it felt good to think about selling out and moving on; this was heady validation for years of effort, wasn’t it?And our success enabled feelings of empowerment that ruled our outlook.
But perhaps now’s the time to look back at a few key moments along the way…
We had sailed from our home port of Newport Beach, California to Baja more than once over years, in those years before the big break, so we knew the reality behind the dream. And we knew the reality can be both better – and worse than the dream.
Our first trip south, we made the 300 mile crossing to Guadelupe Island, off the west coast of Baja California. We made the trip not to see the herds of elephant seals that winter over on the rocky beaches there, but the Great White sharks that come to feed on the seals. Liz was fascinated by sharks, had been since she was a kid, and while I might have taken this as a warning, at the time I just didn’t pick up on it. There were three dive boats in our anchorage on the northeast coast, their operators chumming the water and dropping shark cages into the infinitely clear water, and several of the magnificent beasts glided by the side of our boat – their black eyes regarding us cooly as they slipped by – and it seems odd to me all these years later that those eyes stand out clearest in my memory. Being regarded as a meal by a super-predator is a lonely experience.
On our third trip south we went all the way to Manzanillo, on the Mexican mainland, and sheltered at the little marina at Las Hadas. You’ve seen it, too, at least you have if you’ve seen the movie ‘10’, that is. You remember, that blazing beach with Dudley Moore watching Bo Derek running down the beach in slo-mo? Great place, the hills around the resort are spectacular, too. So spectacular they’re lined with Mediterranean-style villas these days, and this rustic corner of paradise looks like Laguna Beach these days. I guess the houses are cheaper.
So, the point I need to make is both Liz and I came to love sailing, especially the challenges it presented, yet in the end we came to know this dream as a calling, and the call grew louder, more insistent with each passing year. And with each trip taken, our desire to cast off the ties that bind grew with shrill insistence to the drumbeats of a primordial lust. The music crescendo came with the offer to buy out our restaurant.
After talking about our choice over dinner, we decided it was time to cut the cord. Time for a new boat, a bigger one of course, with room for our lives. Our first boat was 34 feet small, and living aboard was one step up from camping. Spartan, in other words, yet uncomplicated, and fun. And isn’t that the way? Most of our friends had started off that way; make a few bucks and discard small and uncomplicated for big and complex, and so we followed in their footsteps. We traded 34 feet for 43, simple for so complicated the boat came with multiple 3-ring binders for each of it’s systems – and then of course we added even more stuff.
We moved aboard our new aquaTarkus after we sold our house, and we actually said we were moving aboard for good, didn’t we? For ever and ever, for better of worse, in sickness and in health – for good. It was our joint decision to not go quietly into that good night, and we would journey hand in hand, together, beyond the threshold of all our dreams. We would walk those faraway shores.
Faraway shores, indeed. I smile when I think back on that night, and how blind I was to the reality of the situation.
So we moved onboard, fitted her out, then sailed south down Baja to Cabo San Lucas. We shopped at a Costco (!), tightened a few nuts and bolts, then jumped off to make the ‘coconut run’ to French Polynesia.
I remember most the blue water on that crossing. Lots of blue water, a blue so clear and deep and mysterious no words can describe it.
And no storms. No howling gales. Just an endless expanse of the most startling blue sea you’ve ever seen, day after day of cerulean dreams come true. Maybe what I really remember most was our first big landfall, in the Marquesas. Kaoha Nui: the words mean Welcome. We were kaohi nui, welcome to dream away among the soaring, pearl-like atolls, anchored under volcanic ridge-lines that sheltered us from a world splintering away from us too fast. Time stopped in Nuku Hiva, in the shadow of the cathedral spires of Hatiheu Bay, and we were only too glad to remain in those shadows – hiding from the truth.
And as we lay at anchor, swinging in the current under sheltering skies – and after only a few months – all our choices seemed vindicated, our future assured. We were as happy there as we had ever been, and I didn’t think life could get any better.
After a few months in this paradise we sailed south for Tahiti, and when we arrived at Papeete we weathered not storms on our approach to the island, but cruise ships and tourists flooding Papeete like an errant tide of effluence. So it was in Tahiti that we first perceived the ghastly contours of a world out of sync with itself; so many people in search of perfect harmony, yet all these people were, in their infinite hordes, destroying all they sought to experience. It was like all of us were on a pilgrimage, seeking out the Holy Self in an ever more profane world, and almost overnight the reality of our explorations began to feel more and more like an act of desecration, and over the next year we ran into the same phenomena over and over again. We found the world had built a six lane freeway right over what had once been ‘off the beaten path’; commuter airliners disgorged hundreds of SCUBA divers on atoll after atoll, and in even the most remote anchorages we would always find one or two multi-million dollar mega-yachts at anchor, jet-skis buzzing about and coconut oiled, bikini clad women kicking about on desolate beaches while impoverished natives looked on. We came to believe that we were all in search of something ephemeral out there, all of us seeking some connection to pasts that had grown inaccessible, perhaps. Yet in the end I listened to people, expecting to hear stories of escape from the daily 9 to 5 grind, but what I heard was a desperate humanity, all of us in search of something missing from our lives.
I wasn’t sure what it was then we were looking for, but I had an idea.
I think it has something to do with that tree.
For we were, I think I saw, disillusioned, on a pilgrimage like all the other disillusioned travelers through time, you might say, some in search of salvation, a few even looking for a way out of the endless drudgery of what had become a meaningless existence. And there were people like myself, and to a degree, Liz. We were people who wanted to see this world, all we could, rather than be content to know one town, or one state. We were, we decided, explorers.
Liz and I had both grown up in a world dominated by the aftermath of war, with the shimmering reality of nuclear holocaust seemingly just over the next horizon. Emaciated bodies of Jews rotting in lime-lined pits were nothing new to our experience of history; we had been schooled in the “realities” of genocide on a daily basis for, well, all our lives, so by the time Vietnam became a household name we were fully charged with righteous zeal. Liz and I met at UC Berkeley just as the anti-war movement was winding down, so we came to know one another in the context of war and resistance, a narrow gauge world of Hendrix and Dylan and sandalwood scented head shops full of day-glow peace-sign posters. We lived in fantasy land, where the children of privilege protested over better wages for migrant farm workers.
And we walked to classes – more often than not – with troops on campus, and anti-corporation leaflets fluttered out classroom windows like psychedelic snow. Yeah, I know. Can you believe we actually believed that crap? It’s hard to look back on it now without feeling a little embarrassed about it all. By the time Watergate flushed the system all we could say was something like “See, we told you so…”
Anyway, what’s that old saw? Things fall apart, the center cannot hold? That was the sixties, in a nutshell.
Moving from the heightened sense of the possible we found at rallies and teach-ins to the corporate sensibilities of Orange County was, in retrospect, the beginning of our journey along the hard road to dissolution. More and more, our lives focused on becoming successful, on making money, on buying a house, then a bigger house, that new BMW, a boat, a bigger boat – it was endless, and we knew better. I’m sure we did.
It’s hard to look back on it now – from the perspective of our unravelling – as we, like the world around us – slipped into the quiet dissolution of material excess. It’s easy to say that somewhere along the way Liz and I sold out. We joined the Me Generation and never looked back. And it was so fun, all of it – sorry, but it was. I bet Faust had fun until the bill came due, too.
But, you know? Devils always have the last laugh.
Somewhere in our fourth year of sailing we decided we’d had enough enlightenment and decided to head back to the States. We knew we wanted to ‘go home,’ we just weren’t exactly sure where home was. We decided against California, however, because everything there seemed to have gone wrong, terribly wrong. Too many bogus lawyers chasing the legal lottery, businesses crushed by the greed, prices out of control. Anyway, that’s what we thought at the time, but a lot of people we knew were leaving, headed north to Seattle, so we considered that area – until we looked at rainfall totals.
I had grown up on a ranch near Durango, Colorado; Liz in Charleston, South Carolina, and there’s not much sailing in Colorado so we decided, after many lively nights under the stars talking about our options, to head for the Gulf of Mexico, maybe New Orleans and open a new restaurant. Of course, we were at anchor in the middle of Milford Sound, on the ass end of New Zealand’s South Island when we said this. Look at a map sometime if you want to get an idea of just how far off the beaten path you can get. Just how far it can be from where you are to where you want to go.
Searching for a metaphor?
And by that point it felt like we were stuck in the middle of a nowhere, dancing on a volcano. We were ready to blow, so we opted for the straightest course home, to buck the trade-winds and head straight for Panama. It was, in retrospect, an interesting choice.
Sailing a small boat hard into the wind across the Pacific Ocean is a treat for the well and truly insane, as both Liz and I could attest when we finally dropped anchor off Balboa, adjacent to Panama City, some forty seven days after leaving Whangarei, on New Zealand’s North Island. We were beat up, bruised, tired to the bone, and thought seriously of selling the boat right then and there. Anyway, we secured the boat and grabbed the next flight on American to DFW, changed planes, and about six hours later were in the heat and humidity of the South Carolina lowlands. I’m sorry, but you haven’t experienced culture shock until you’ve tried something as harebrained as sailing a boat almost five thousand miles into gale-driven mountain-sized swells for damn near seven weeks, then hopping off your boat onto a still-lurching dock and into a twenty year old Fiat taxi, and a few hours later sitting inside a waterfront restaurant in the American South with your alcoholic in-laws.
Take my word for it. You ain’t been there, and you don’t want to, either.
Let’s get down to basics, right here, right now.
If Liz’s dad was a pistol, her mom was a tiny thermonuclear warhead.
Fritz Strohman had come back from dropping bombs all over Europe in 1945 and within a few years managed a Buick dealership for some of the local rich kids. He made a good name for himself, married the tempestuously wild and beautiful Betsy Cummins, and somewhere along the way managed to have some kids. Betsy was a hard-charging Duke alum, a real ‘alpha, go-getter’ type that went on to Georgetown Law before returning home to go through all the local boys like a hot knife through buttered grits. But Fritz and Betsy were a team – a well-lubed team. Fritz went out on a limb in the early 70s and mortgaged his soul to buy a Japanese car dealership, and, well, the rest is, as they say, History. After two oil embargoes and skyrocketing gasoline prices, by the 80s he bought the Buick dealership out from under the rich kids and never looked back, at least until his right carotid artery got so clogged up from cheese grits and chicken-fried steak that he almost died while banging away on one of his secretaries.
Then he found God. The big time Bible Belt religion kind of God.
Betsy Strohman? Well, the last time I had seen her she didn’t have any use for God, and as far as I could tell she never would. Their marriage had become…interesting.
Betsy was a very impractical woman in an equally impractical world, and Liz was a lot like her in so many ways. As I watched mother and daughter at lunch that first afternoon back in Charleston, the parallel contours of their lives together became very clear, yet where Betsy was rapacious in her lust for power and control, Liz was demure, a little more coarse and manipulative when she wanted something from her daddy, and I felt for the guy. Between the two of them, he’d never had a chance. Of course, you can draw your own conclusions about where that left me.
Charleston isn’t quite New Orleans when it come to high livin’ and haute cuisine, but, to be fair, some of the restaurants in the old part of town come pretty damn close. So of course Fritz wanted to go in with us and open up a restaurant, a world class place to put the city back on the culinary map. Betsy did too, really she did. Wouldn’t we move back, she pleaded, perhaps settle in, have some kids – “before it’s too late?” I swear Betsy looked at the Rolex on her wrist as she said that, while Liz, bless her heart, was licking her lips, almost drooling. There was that biological clock tick-ticking away, and now she wanted to come back to Charleston so badly it was palpable all around the table.
Like I said, Liz was a lot like her mom in many ways. Same line line of attack, just a different approach.
So of course you know we never had a chance.
We returned to Panama on an American 757 a few days later, got aquaTarkus all ship shape and readied her for her first trip through the canal. We rounded up some gringos at the local yacht club to help with lines in the locks, and as soon as the (required) pilot from the Canal Zone was dropped off we shipped anchor and motored off toward the Miraflores locks.
You know what I remember most about that day? Of course you do…
The look on the Pilot’s face when he saw our boat.
No, no super-tanker for this guy. A forty three foot Hinckley. ‘A fucking sailboat,’ I could hear him muttering under his breath. The poor guy looked so crestfallen it was almost heartbreaking. We motored across Gatun Lake looking over our shoulder as thousand foot long behemoths slipped silently through the water not a hundred yards off our ass. Our Pilot hid his face so the pilots on the bridges of those tankers – on those real ships – wouldn’t see him stuck on this lowly gringo yacht trolling along a five knots.
I felt for the guy. Really I did.
We stopped off in the San Blas Islands after we cleared the canal before heading north across the Caribbean. Once these islands were famous, out of the way places, the native folk turning out molas one at a time. Now? The islands were overrun with tourists from a never ending flow of cruise-ships that plied the Caribbean, and hey, everyone was smiling, making money selling Chinese made molas and having a hell of a time.
Me? I’d bought some local rum in Balboa. It was like 150-proof rocket-fuel, so I was set, happy as a clam. I’d even given the pilot a bottle for his troubles, before he hopped off the boat muttering obscenities in an impolite Creole-Spanish.
I think he was crying as he motored away. Almost. They probably give better rum on the cruise ships. Poor guy.
Not quite two months later we were sailing past Fort Sumter into Charleston Harbor, bound for a huge marina on the west side of the Battery. I wondered if it was just me, but why did the walls of the fort look like they were coated in old, worn out blood? What memory of place did those walls hold for people who considered the place holy ground? More to the point, would history repeat itself in my little world, the world around these troubled waters? Little histories always seem to, don’t they, when families get involved?
Liz and I followed a subtle progression from happiness, after we arrived in Charleston, to a mild, partly cloudy entropy as time wore on. As we drifted within this entropical paradise, we found we were, more often than not, trying to be polite to one another, trying to avoid conflict at all cost. To not rock the boat. Then one day, out of the blue she was talking about selling the boat and buying a house, setting down roots, having kids. Hell, we were almost forty years old and she was talking about kids, plural, not singular, and the longer we stayed tied up at that dock the more insistent this talk grew. It was frankly upsetting, and she took on a wistful, pouty look when she hinted about moving back to the street she had grown up on as a kid; pretty soon it was like she was telling me it was her societal obligation to bring two or three more souls back into that world, and that world only, and well, when contrasted against the life we’d known the past five years her whole performance struck me as delusional, to the point it was ironic, if not downright comedic.
And I told her so. I think I even used the word delusional – and more than once, too – which is why I never applied for a position at the State Department, if you know what I mean.
Hell, I don’t know, maybe I was looking at Fort Sumter off in the distance while my mouth ran along. Maybe I was the one who fired the first shots of our onrushing little uncivil war. I don’t know anymore, and in the long run I don’t imagine it really matters because after that she looked at me like I’d thrown acid all over her dreams. I’d never seen so much hate on another human being’s face in my life, and I looked at her for a moment – until she turned and looked away, looked at the old spires and buildings along the Battery looming out of the afternoon smog – and I shuddered at the feeling of desolation that swept over me. Had I really ever known her? Had we really been on such a different path? Had I really been so clueless – or had we just ‘changed’ over the years?
Yeah, I know, probably clueless, but I think paths almost have to diverge when ‘middle age crazy’ and that tick-ticking biological clock collide. Like matter and anti-matter, I reckon. Instant annihilation.
I think back on our first day back in Carolina from time to time. I found the marina Liz’s dad had booked for us, and called the dockmaster on the VHF as we sailed up the Ashley River channel, and they said they’d send a boy out to help us into our new slip. We motored around in circles for a while until the kid bounced down to the docks, then I followed his directions and took the boat into the slip he pointed out to us, and Liz and I jumped off to help him get her tied off.
“Where y’all coming from,” the kid asked as he helped us with the lines.
“Whagarei,” said I, ever the seasoned world traveller.
“Oh, that down in Florida?”
“New Zealand,” I tossed back at him in my slowest deadpan. John Wayne didn’t have nothin’ on this white boy!
“Oh, right,” the kid said, “down by Miami, ain’t it. Heard of that place.”
“Yeah.” Me too, kid. Welcome home, sucker.
No one could relate to what Liz and I had just done, let alone what we’d been through emotionally. Funny, but maybe I was the only one who couldn’t see what was coming. Maybe that kid on the dock wasn’t the only dullard out there that day.
It’s funny what sticks out in your mind, isn’t it?
I gave it my best. I tried to like her dad, I tried to like his country club and his brown Rolls Royce with the tan vinyl top, but the poor guy was always so sauced by noon he never remembered a thing we talked about. And Betsy? Hell, the first time she slipped her hand under the table and tried to pull down my zipper? Well, I don’t know, but things between all of us just seemed to get weird after those first fateful encounters.
Maybe weird isn’t the best word to describe those shenanigans, but it’s damn close. Things got real weird. In a hurry. We opened the new restaurant down by the river, a pretty upscale low country place that soon hit the cool zone and was the place to be seen. Liz and I became local celebrities for a while, while the book we penned about our adventures in the Pacific did a brisk business for a week or two, and things were beginning to shape up as, well, maybe predictable would be stretching the point, but things were at least tolerable between Liz and I. We were making money again, everyone was happy, and…
…she came back from a doctors appointment one day, told me she couldn’t have a baby, that we’d waited too long. ‘You’re off the hook,’ she told me sarcastically, but what got me was that she was the one who looked relieved. She had me to blame, I guess, but that was merely a convenience. I’d made her wait too long, or so the story went, so it was all my doing and that was that.
Yet nobody seemed to give a damn. Not her mom, not her dad, not the brother or sisters who dropped by the restaurant occasionally for a free meal. Surreal. But Liz DID seem to care about not being able to have a baby, in a convoluted way that felt increasingly manipulative. I guessed there were so many conflicting emotions boiling around in her mind that, well, I thought for a time she was simply starting to come unglued.
But no, she was thinking along different lines. She was plotting a new, very different course.
We still lived on the boat; neither one of us could let go of that, but the space there began to feel small. It never had before, not in 12,000 miles and almost five years, but now we just couldn’t get out of one another’s way fast enough. Everything about US was out of balance, everything seemed confined – out of place.
Then I came home very late one night and found a Sheriff’s Deputy waiting for me on the dock by the boat, and he served divorce papers to me right there in the early morning fog, and gave me notice that the boat – my home – was now off limits until the divorce proceedings settled all questions of ownership. He would wait while I got some things off.
True to form, all Liz’s things were gone too. The boat looked like a huge, empty tomb, now impossibly large. Had we really taken her half way around the world – and back? The Deputy came below and looked around, and I talked to him about the journey Liz and I had made. He was impressed. Hell, so was I.
Had we really done so much together? Seen so many new places, made so many new friends?
And after those miles and years had we learned so little about one another?
Anyway, the deputy came by weeks later and asked me to autograph his copy of our book. Yeehah.
The lawyer I’d found to handle incorporating the restaurant – a cute gal named Lisa Mullins and a real tiger by all accounts (as she was universally loathed by most of the divorced men in town I’d met) who knew more about my life than I did by the time the dust settled. Anyway, I was in sock and Mullins told me not to worry about stuff like this, that she’d take care of me. Within a few days I had rented a small loft near the Battery, and a small circle of friends I’d accumulated at the marina began to rally ‘round the flag. Lots of rum flowed those days, though it was dicey for a while. Things felt alright one day, like I might live, you know? Hell, stranger things have happened, but when your world gets rattled like this it takes a while to figure out which way’s up. Down, on the other hand, is a hell of a lot easier to find.
I kept to a schedule, walked to a Starbuck’s up the street every morning, got to the restaurant by nine to get things up and running, hit the office behind the kitchen to get caught up on all the paperwork, then out on the floor to get ready for the lunchtime onslaught. I hardly ever bumped into Liz, and she was cordial when we did.
Mullins the lawyer called a few weeks later. Liz and her family wanted all interest in the restaurant; I could have the boat and a little cash. Sounded like a good deal for them, not too bad for me, so I gave Mullins the go-ahead. Liz signed off on it a few days later, so the case went to court uncontested, and after a few more weeks it was a done deal. Seventeen years of marriage. Done. Over. Faithful all the way, reasonably happy with each other, we didn’t hit each other, bite each other, tell lies about each other.
We had watched the idealism of our generation take hold and move the world, we had tried to reach out into that world, tried to understand the forces that always seemed to keep people at each other’s throats. No matter. In the end we turned on each other just like everyone else. Maybe like everyone else in our generation, we self-destructed when we realized the enormity of what we’d attempted. It’s hard to fight the tides of human nature…just ask any salmon fighting upstream to spawn.
So, in the end I found myself thinking: was our marriage a mirror of our times? I don’t know. Maybe.
We’d sold out once before, embarked down the path of suburban conformity, but then we dropped out, tried to rekindle the spark that defined those years at Berkeley. We moved out into the world, searching for some kind of hair-brained truth, but ultimately we were lost just like everyone else – and we knew it, too – even if we were afraid to admit it. Like all of us who sold out, we tried to come back to the reality of what we’d lost, only to find that we’d become anachronisms, our dissolution as a couple – and as a generation – complete.
But had we learned anything at all along the way?
Maybe by turning our backs on the choices we made, to the choices that defined a generations need, we repudiated the very meaning and purpose of our lives. In the vacuum that was left, all manner of crazy extremism rushed to fill the void. No running from conformity could take us back to the truth we’d found at Berkeley. No amount of self-deluding existential bullshit could erase the reality of what we’d come to know about ourselves.
We were just like anyone else out there, and now that time was at an end, those days were over. That’s what it means to sell out, I reckon.
It was unnerving, moving back on the boat, putting my shirts back into the same old drawers – drawers that had been Liz’s for so many years – then laying out my navigation instruments again – like I really knew where I was headed. I did, however, have a ton of boxes up on the dock to move back on-board. Anyway, moving boxes gave me time to think about the options.
Money wasn’t a problem, but staying here would be. Charleston’s a small town when you get right down to it, and I wasn’t a local. That’s always a bad mix – more so after a divorce – and there were still lots of places I wanted to sail to. I’d never considered sailing alone before, but it could be done.
I walked up to the car again and brought another box of books down to the boat, and I saw ‘Mullins the man-eating lawyer’ waiting by the boat as I walked back down the ramp.
“Hi,” she said. “Nice day for a sail. Wanna go out?”
I looked at her, standing there dressed like a freshly-minted yachty right out of a Ralph Lauren catalog. Red shorts, new Topsiders, white Polo shirt. Every fucking cliché in the book. She looked kinda cute, though, in a preppy kind of way. Clean, if you know what I mean. Lawyerly and clean.
“Yeah, it looks nice out there. I’d love to but I’ve got stuff all over the place down there, things not stowed yet. Maybe in a week or so . . .”
“Let’s take mine. It’s just over there.” She pointed across the way to little blue-hulled double ender.
“Oh, is she yours? Is she a WestSail?”
“Yup, an old 32. I picked her up a couple years ago, been cleaning her up.”
You know, all of a sudden I felt like going out for a sail. “Yeah, sounds good. Let me get this box out of the way and I’ll be there in a minute.”
“OK,” she said. I heard her walking away down the dock and turned to look at her legs.
“And, Lisa,” I said, not really knowing why, “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Nice smile, too.
She came down every Sunday, she said, and took Soliloquy out for a turn on the harbor. No matter; if the weather was foul she came down and sat on her ‘saloon’ and read books; her affair with the boat was a symbiotic one, she said, they both gained from their time together. She’d come down today, saw me loading boxes on board aquaTarkus and decided to ask me to go out for a sail with her. No pre-arranged agenda at work, just a simple gesture. She had a quiet smile on her face, kind of an all-knowing, insider’s joke kind of smile.
She wasn’t a bad seaman either, as it turned out, and I don’t know why that surprised me – other than just pure misogynistic simple-mindedness. Still, after Liz and I published that coffee table book about our voyage, we enjoyed a little celebrity within the local sailing community, and maybe that’s why Mullins was so nervous. So, I kept out of the way as she backed out the slip, stayed out of her way as much as I could while she hoisted sail, then just watched and enjoyed the day as it unfolded, like any other guest on her boat might. It was a cool Spring day, a freshening breeze was coming out of the northwest and whitecaps already dappling the harbor. Lots of other sailboats were out on the bay, and all those full sails stood in bold relief against the blustery sky, and after an hour or so found I was letting go, enjoying myself.
“There are a couple of cinnamon rolls down on the chart table,” she said as she kept an eye out for traffic coming out the Ashley River channel. “Wanna bring ‘em up?”
I dropped down the companionway, picked up the sack and turned to climb back out into the sunshine, but something caught my eye. A little plaque mounted by one of the port-lights; a diploma from an Outward Bound School in Colorado, dated January, 1977. A winter mountaineering program. Now I was impressed; this girl wasn’t pretender.
Lisa sheeted off the genoa and we munched on cinnamon rolls for awhile, as Soliloquy reached across the harbor towards Fort Sumter, and I watched her as she steered with her foot on the tiller, her eye on the sails. She seemed to be communing with the boat, and though I knew the feeling well I t was nice to watch someone else fall into the zone. Or, I soon thought, I used to know that feeling well. Somewhere, somehow, that simple symbiosis had left my life on the sea, probably about the time I started taking all kinds of things for granted. Like our marriage, for instance.
That failure was easy to see out on the water that afternoon, 20-20 hindsight being what it is; instead of reveling in the audacity of our choice to break away, Liz and I had grown complacent, we’d slipped into that other zone lots of married people do. We’d begun to take for granted the many great things about our life together, and in that quiet complacency the meaning of those things grew vague and obscure, then all the goodness was gone.
When you get to that point in a marriage, well, there are no compasses to help you find your way back. There are no obvious courses to steer through the rocks. All you can hope for is that the designer included enough lifeboats…
Lisa Mullins hadn’t lost that sense of purpose. Somehow, she held on to life just as she held on to Soliloquy – firmly, symbiotically, as if her relationship to the boat was a kind of marriage.
“Where are you?” Startled, I heard her voice and looked at Mullins. She was looking ahead, looking at the set of her sails.
“Did you say something?” I asked.
“Yeah, where are you? You look lost.”
There it was. My feelings of loss were so obvious even a lawyer could see them.
“Yes, I suppose I am.”
She turned to look at me.
“Is it Liz?” – Or, ‘Are you really so lost without her?’
“I don’t know. I don’t think it’s that simple, but who knows? Maybe it is…”
“Maybe you just need some sea time,” she laughed as she looked at the genoa.
“Yeah, that’s got a be it.” I looked at her and smiled. “So, where’re we headed, skipper?”
“You up for a little adventure.”
“Let’s head down the ICW a couple of miles, down Stono’s Creek. There’s a good dive down there on the water. Shrimp and grits kinda place.”
“You like shrimp and grits? Oh, I forgot, you be a California boy, dat ‘bout right?” She gazed at me for a moment, and a thrill passed through me. I hadn’t felt one of those in years. Amazing.
“Is that a Charleston kind of accent?”
“Low country, you poor white boy. You ever read Pat Conroy?”
“Oh, you be a poor, stupid white boy.” She laughed, and her eyes sparkled as she tacked the boat through the wind, heading upriver for the Intra-Coastal Waterway.
“Sorry. Man’s got to know his limitations.”
“Yeah? That must be a guy thing.”
So, she wanted to play dirty, huh. “Where’d you go to school?” This could be fun . . .
“School? You mean like high school?”
“Tulane. Then Yale for law. Why?”
“Just wondered,” I said, not wanting to get killed and filing that one away for another day.
“Wondered? You wonderin’ about ‘lil ole me?” she said in a Carolina accent that seemed a little too thick. She was looking right at me, though, with an intensity I found unsettling, if a little amusing. She was doing the alpha-chick thing, and enjoying herself immensely.
“Yeah, well, it’s not everyday I get to go sailing with an Ivy league lawyer who’s into cheese grits, if you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, yo ain’t lived ‘til you et cheese grits wit yo lawya.”
“I hope they have cold beer.”
“Shit, white boy, yo sho dumb, yo knowz it? People breast feed on beer ‘round these parts.” Now she was smiling, truly enjoying the persona she had so easily slipped on. I think she was trying to make me comfortable, me being a foreigner and all, but this really was a world apart from anything I’d ever been around before, but it felt comfortable. She felt comfortable, like an old pair of shoes. But, I thought, nothing felt like home anymore. Colorado was a memory too far to grasp, and California was, well, lost forever the sixties.
“I’ve never been on the ICW before,” I said, changing the subject. “Have you done much of it?”
“Naw, not too much. You have to motor, so what’s the point. I like blue water.”
“Done much of that?”
“Nope. That’s the dream, though.”
“What? Sailing off into the sunset?”
“Yeah, something like that. Got to finish up some things first, then I’m gonna head out, look around for a while.”
“Not your everyday kinda dream, I guess you know.”
“What, for a girl, you mean?” She took a sidelong glance at me, then focused on traffic in the channel ahead.
“I didn’t say that. It’s just that not many people have that dream anymore, you know. It was a sixties kind of thing. Drop out and see the world. ‘Westsail the world’…wasn’t that their ad slogan?”
“That’s bullshit, and you know it. Why is sailing dropping out?”
“It’s turning your back on what society expects of you.”
“Well, that’s kinda frowned on, ya know. Hell, you’re a lawyer…I’d think you’d know that better than anyone.”
“So what? Who gives a shit?”
“I don’t know, isn’t that what the law is? I mean, if you think about it.” I looked off at the sky, down into the water, looked back at all the implications of our choice to sell-out and sail away. “That’s what life’s all about, isn’t it? Conformity? Conforming to the will of the group, to the rule of law. It’s pretty off the wall for someone who represents the force of conformity to be a non-conformist. If you think about it, I mean.”
“Hmm. I don’t know that I buy that, but I’ll think about it.” She looked ahead, adjusted her course to scoot behind a trawler crossing ahead of us. “So, is that what it was all about? For you and Liz? Non-conformity?”
“Not exactly, but we met at Berkeley – if you know what I mean. I don’t mean to frame the decision in just those terms. It wasn’t about what other people thought about what we were doing, about why we were doing it. It was the act of doing it – of leaving – that was, I think, a statement of, oh, I don’t know, a rebellion against our choices, maybe. Getting out there and doing it, letting life hang out over the edge for a while. Experiencing the world while everyone else watched it unfold on television. We chose not to live on everyone else’s terms, so I don’t think we cared too much about what other people thought about the trip, about what they thought we were doing.”
“So, what? You and Liz had a monopoly on that dream? No one else can take a shot at it?”
Our eyes met. I laughed; she didn’t.
“You know, we met tons of people out there, but mainly from Europe. A lot of people from France, but a lot of Germans and Swiss, too. Bunch of Brits in the Caribbean, but not in the South Pacific. Most of the people out there, and I hate to generalize about something like this, but here goes, most of the folks out there were tired of conforming to arbitrary rules set out for them by bureaucrats and governments, they just wanted to live their lives without governments and jobs breathing down their necks all the time. So I think all of us were searching for something simpler.”
“Amen to that.”
“So, doesn’t that make you the non-conforming conformist? Or are you a conforming non-conformist?”
“Yeah, you. Like I said, I’ll have to give that some thought.”
“Take your time.” I said, laughing again. “Let me know if you ever figure it out.”
“You’re bad, you know it?” She was still smiling as she said that, and that was a good thing. I was getting thirsty, and didn’t particularly want to swim back to town.
“Don’t you have any beer on this tub?”
“Tub? Tub!? You callin’ my baby a tub?” She leaned over a rubbed a patch of teak. “There, there, girl,” she cooed to the boat, “don’t let the mean asshole hurt your feelings.” I just shook my head, grinned at her.
“So, you gonna take this girl out on your trip?”
“I don’t know. She’s about as big as I can handle alone, you know. I wouldn’t mind something bigger.” She let that thought hang in the air for a minute. “I don’t know, Tom. I always thought I’d end up doing this . . . I always saw myself doing this alone.”
“I was married once.”
“Oh? Didn’t take?”
“No. Leukemia. About ten years ago.”
“Oh, God, Lisa. I didn’t…”
“I know, Tom. I know you’re not from around here, don’t know all the local gossip. Don’t worry about it. And,” she said as she looked at me again, “I know you’re not mean.”
We settled on a course down the middle of the waterway and she asked me to take the tiller for a minute. She went down below for what seemed like an hour, then came back up, her face scrubbed, her eyes a little puffy. She’d been crying. She looked around, took in the surroundings.
“Almost there,” she said. “About half mile.” She looked at me while she sat down, didn’t take her eyes from me. “Man, it’s nice to have someone around to take the stick for a while.”
“You really sail around here by yourself all the time?”
She nodded her head, smiled at me a little defiantly. “You betcha.”
“I don’t know, Lisa, but I think I like you.”
“Like me? Oh, boy. That’s not was I was hoping for, Tommy-boy.”
“Oh, what were you hoping for?” Then it hit me: I had smiled as her words hit me.
“Yeah, Tom. I was hoping – I was hoping I’d finally met someone who likes cheese grits as much as I do.”
“Well, like you said. I’ll have to give that one some thought.”
She just looked at me for a minute, then she smiled, pointing. “There it is. Hope you’re ready for this, white boy!”
She was right, of course. Sitting outside on a screened-in porch, looking out on the waterway as all manner of small craft puttered by, I felt there was something almost mystical about the South. Everything I’d experienced about the south felt like a proud anachronism, with more than a little irony thrown in for good measure. On one side of this bifurcated terrain you had a fairy-tale land of overt meanness, the sidelong suspicions of in-your-face backwoods rednecks, the really uncool vibes of down-home racism that still bubbled in near-dormant malevolence to the surface from time to time. Perhaps most disconcerting of all, there was throughout the region an easy acceptance of intolerance that was utterly unnerving when you saw it in action. Not exactly ‘Gone With The Wind,’ but not too far removed from Tara and Scarlett when you got right down to it. On the other you had, you had people like Lisa Mullins. Bright, articulate, compassionate, accepting; Lisa was everything the South was not, except she too was the South, and it was this constant in-your-face contradiction that had me baffled.
Whatever it was about these contradictions that fascinated me, it was all soon forgotten as she sat across from me, leaning over the driftwood-planked table pointing out some of the good things on the menu, and hinting that there were some really, really good things for the asking – if you knew who to ask, and what to ask for. She leaned closer to me as she talked about her love of place, this place in particular but the South generally.
And I could feel heat in the air between us just then. I was getting warm. Unsettled. So many contradictions alive in the air, and maybe more than too much irony.
I looked out at the waterway: trawlers of all sorts droned along under the intense afternoon sun – buzzing like insects – while an occasional sailboat drifted by in humid silence. Both these forms of moving across the water embodied contradictions too, didn’t they? Ultimately, they were one and the same, people moving across the water from point A to point B, people looking for some time alone or with friends away from the noise of everyday life, but weren’t there inherent contradictions within the choice to burn gas or play the wind? Something about the purpose of your life? Looking for that place to fit in?
Lisa ordered her low-country favorites, shrimp & grits, some Gulf lump crabmeat sautéed in butter and lemon, with some chopped pecan thrown in for good measure. We ate and talked, talked and ate, the beer so cold it felt good going down even though we were sitting in the shade. The sun arced across the sky as we sat, but time had long since stopped keeping track of us.
So yeah, we were lost within that slow-glowing arc of time, and I was soon lost in her story.
Her parents were evangelicals, adherents of the gospel of prosperity, so of course she grew up hating everything about them. She’d considered herself a hard corp agnostic all through high school, and flirted with being a full time atheist by the time she moved away from home. By the time she finished law school she knew enough about the world to understand you didn’t make those kinds of choices lightly, and seeing how other people’s faiths sustained them had made an indelible impression on her. Speaking of irony, she envied people whose faith seemed pure, unassailable – at least on the surface – but the more she scratched that surface the uglier faith became. Religion, she said, had become the central paradox of her life, one she felt would never be resolved. She said the country was kind of like that, too.
And then the law had become her religion. I could see that plainly as we talked over shrimp and crab that afternoon. When she talked about the law, she would become assertive, almost masculine. She picked up her long-neck beer by the top of the bottle and swung it up to her lips with two-fingered ease, and there was nothing feminine or dainty about the way she did that. No, plainly she just felt so at ease in these surroundings that all pretension melted away.
It was inevitable that as we talked I drew comparisons to Liz.
While Liz had always been open – almost vivacious – in public, she was really quite reserved around the people she cared most about. She cared a lot about what others thought of her too, about the labels inside her clothes, for instance, or if her hair was ‘in style’ or not. She watched television shows but hated movies, hadn’t read a book since college, and loved to invite strangers to the boat for dinner whenever we pulled into a new anchorage. She hated that I listened to the BBC on the boat’s shortwave radio while we sat in some remote anchorage at night, and thought my interest in the stars was pathologically weird. But we cared about social justice, we found common ground when we talked about the disenfranchised and oppressed, and we even argued about things we held in common, challenged our preconceptions about the world. We had always found it easy to talk to one another, even when we knew things between us were turning sour. And there was that history between us, those California afternoons that seemed to linger like her breath on my neck in almost every memory I have of those days. Liz was a fragile, almost willowy blond who nevertheless always seemed ready to ask the hard questions – but then again, I always thought she had embraced life on her own terms, was rarely a follower. Yet another irony; as the tears and years swept by, I realized she had been holding on to me by following my dreams, following in my wake, then resenting the implications of my choices on our lives. She was, I had come to understand, a pretender. And then, I suppose, she grew bitter about having been found out.
As I listened to Lisa, I had the feeling she had had her fill of pretension, her fill of men who sought power for power’s sake, and that she’d also had a belly full of life in the sewers. She made it clear that while almost all legal professionals have to deal with the sewer from time to time, she had embraced criminal law in spite of all that, she knew the implications of her choice but stuck to it despite all her misgivings, and it was amazing to me that she wasn’t more jaded than she appeared to be. Sure, she was rough around the edges, but hell, who isn’t; by that I mean life does that to you, it grinds away at you, exposes all the things you’d rather other people never found out. But she still wanted to go after her dreams, and in my experience not too many people can claim to hang on to those by the time they hit forty. Conforming to expectations chews away at your dreams – until one day they’re gone.
I wasn’t sure that was what killed our marriage; after all, Liz and I did get out there and chase our dreams – even if mine became the prime mover. Anyway, I asked Lisa what she thought of marriage, because surely she’d seen enough marital bliss in family court to have a fair understanding of the terrain.
“You know,” she began, “most marriages fail for one simple reason. People play games with one another. Power games, dominance games. Con games. They get used to conning their partner for what they want, and sooner or later all honestly leaves the relationship. There’s not an honest emotion left in the marriages I see falling apart. Everyone I see says the same thing: ‘I can’t believe I married that son-of-a-bitch’. But is it that? Is it that they didn’t know the truth about each other when they got married, or is it that the truth got lost in all the lies and games?”
“Truth gets lost? That’s an interesting idea.”
“Have you thought much about Liz, and what happened? What happened to you, I mean?”
I looked at her. There was no hesitation in her eyes, no regret for having asked the question. “I don’t guess I’m too different from most other people, Lisa. For a while it’s all I thought about. It hurts. The split seemed so unexpected, yet now, looking back at things, it seems like the split was inevitable. I don’t think we got caught up in lies, I think they caught up in our dreams.”
“That’s a subtle distinction. But you were running? Is that what the boat was all about?”
“We never thought about the trip in those terms, and I’m not sure it’s an accurate way of looking at the decision, either. But I’m willing to think about it.” I think I was smiling as I said that.
“So, what are you going to do now?”
“I’ve been wanting to get a smaller boat, shallower draft. I want to go to Europe, wander through the canals in France, then maybe go to Greece.” Of course Liz and I had always talked about doing that someday, but maybe ‘our dream’ was mine after all.
“When are you going to leave? I mean, any plans firming up?”
I shook my head, but didn’t know where this was going. “No, gonna play it by ear for a while.”
“Well, one thing’s certain,” she said as she looked down at her watch. “We gotta be headin’ back soon or the tide’s gonna turn and smack us right on the nose.”
Life’s like that, you know? If you don’t watch out, you spend your whole life swimming against the tide. If you’re lucky you figure it out before you’re too old to give a damn.
The wind faded with the afternoon, and we pushed against the tide the last mile or so back into Charleston. I watched Lisa again as she worked the tiller, her calm self-assurance, the practiced eye she cast on Soliloquy’s course or other traffic crossing ahead. As we got near the marina, I set out dock lines and dropped fenders over the sides to shield against a hard landing, and stood up by the bow-sprit for a while, enjoying the sunset and the history that was all around us as we turned by the Battery. The waterfront was beautiful, quiet and full of history. I looked over toward my boat, and saw the outlines of a woman sitting in the cockpit. I squinted through the fading sunset, and could just make out Liz sitting there.
I turned, looked at Lisa, and saw the expression on her face. She had seen her too, and suddenly, to me at least, she looked hurt, almost betrayed – like the forces of destiny had just lined up against her.
We docked gently, and I turned to help Lisa sort out the lines, but she stopped me short.
“You better go now, Tom. She’s come back for you, so be careful.”
“Well, I see it didn’t take you long to land on your feet.”
I was just stepping onto the boat – ‘our’ boat – when she let go with this first assault.
“Hey, you know what? I didn’t file for a divorce, you did. Tell me what exactly I’m doing wrong here, would you?”
“Oh, Tom, I’m sorry. I didn’t come down here to fight with you. I, well, to tell you the truth, I half expected to find you shacked up down below with some girl.”
“Well, you know, if you’d given me another hour…” I let the nastiness in my voice trail off into the air.
She looked at me for a moment, then shook her head. “I’m sorry, Tom. I really am. I should never have done this to you. To us.”
“Well, breaking news, kiddo. We’re divorced. You said you wanted one, in writing, as I seem to recall, and you got just what you wanted, too.” I was trying to be as obtuse as I could possibly be, and frankly I think I was doing a damn good job, too. “I’m just curious, is this a social call, or was there something you wanted from the boat?”
“No. No Tom, there’s nothing.”
It was almost dark now, and I could barely make her out in the fading light, but suddenly she was crying. I knew that quiver in her voice, I remembered the air of alarm that sound used to imply, how uncomfortable I used to feel when she cried. She was a manipulative crier, cried when she wanted something and didn’t get it, or when she didn’t get her way. Now she was facing the consequences of her actions. Maybe she was sorry, or maybe she was feeling sorry for herself. There was no way to tell, maybe there never had been, and standing there on the boat I realized that I didn’t care anymore one way of the other.
“Yeah, well, mind if I go below? I wanna change clothes.”
“Was that your lawyer, Tom?”
“She’s kinda pretty – in a frumpy kind of way. Never would have thought of her as your type, though.”
I moved past her through the cockpit, unlocked the companionway and began to lift the boards out, then moved to place them on the seat next to me. Liz reached out and took the first board and placed it gently on the seat, taking care not to scratch the ten coats of varnish she had so lovingly applied to the teak not a year ago. Automatically I handed her the next one, then the last board, and I was caught short by my reaction to the familiar in my mind.
Caught within the memory of place, within the echoes of a heartbeat, I saw Liz as she was twenty years ago on a Saturday morning in San Francisco, when we had gone out sailing on our first date, and within that moment I saw her face as she looked up at mine on our wedding day, her eyes so full of love, and I remembered my love for her on that day as an absolute. As something time could never rip asunder.
I paused before I pushed the companionway hatch open, unsure where I was, unsure if I was still on the boat or caught within the shadows of a never-ending dream. I saw her standing next to me when we first saw our boat taking form at the yard in Southwest Harbor, I saw the pride in her eyes, the will to take this creation to the limits of our imagination.
Were we really so bound together through the life we had shared on this boat? Had we really been such a well oiled machine that we sailed half way around the world – and back – trusting each other so completely, knowing how the other would react in the face of a storm, knowing that if we worked together we could overcome any obstacle, reach any destination?
Oh, the fucking irony of it all.
“Do you want me to leave, Tom?”
I didn’t have an a pithy comeback waiting that time, did I?
“Liz, just tell me what you want.”
“I want us. Us, Tom. We belong together.”
“Yeah, we did once.”
“We can again.”
“Liz? If you don’t mind, this is just a little too weird for me right now. Maybe in a few days?”
“OK, Tom. Could you still help out at the restaurant. We haven’t found a new manager yet, and it would be a big help.”
Ah. So that was it.
“Uh, no Liz. I’ve got other plans.”
“Oh. Right, well, I’ll give you a call.”
I could hear it in her voice. I wouldn’t hear from her again. Not unless she needed me for something, not unless she wanted somebody else’s dreams to call her own again. I made my way down the companionway steps and flipped on the breakers, then turned on the red light over the chart table. I felt the boat move as she hopped off, heard her footsteps recede in the darkness. I’d never felt so utterly alone in all my life.
What was I doing? What had I done?
Moving through the boat I just managed to get my clothes off and hopped into the head before I lost it. That thundering realization in the cockpit had been the single most nauseating moment of my life. I flipped on the shower and stood under the water, felt the grief from my soul wash away as the hot water beat down on the back of my neck. Everything seemed to be moving like the boat was at sea in a storm, though I viscerally knew the boat was still tied up to the dock. Everything felt out of place, because my senses weren’t reliable anymore.
I don’t know how long I stood there. The water cooled, then it stopped completely; I’d run the tanks dry. Maybe a hundred and fifty gallons of water, gone. I was shivering, and suddenly thought I was hallucinating. I smelled bacon frying, and coffee brewing.
Walking into the forward cabin, I heard her in the galley, knew she’d come back and was now making me bacon and eggs. I didn’t want to face her, not now, not ever again. I didn’t want to ever see her face again, and as I put on a shirt I grew angry at her audacity, at her contempt for my feelings.
She had what she wanted. Why couldn’t she just leave it at that and go on her merry way.
I knew then that I’d have to leave this place as soon as I could get the boat provisioned, leave and follow my heart over the next horizon. I pulled on some sweatpants and slipped on an old pair of boat shoes, then stood and took a deep breath. I thought of what I needed to say, how I wanted to say it. Turning, I opened the door into the main cabin of the boat, prepared to let the full fury of my anger run its course.
She was in the galley with her back to me, cracking eggs in a bowl when I walked in. She turned and I stumbled, and my world lurched again. It wasn’t Liz, and suddenly it hit me: I’d never been so happy to see a lawyer in all my life.
“You want some rum in your coffee?” Now that was an ice-breaker if I’d ever heard one.
“Look, I heard Liz storming up the ramp, cussing under her breath. I came over here and heard you in the shower. You didn’t, well, didn’t sound too good. Anyway. Bacon and eggs usually get me over the rough spots. Thought I’d get some going for you.”
“I’m glad you’re here.” She looked up from the stove, looked at me.
“Yeah? Well, what’s it gonna be? Coffee black, or coffee with a little kick in it?”
Over the next week or so I got all my stuff back on board and worked on getting everything stowed away. Not too hard a job when your head’s screwed on tight, but I was still having a time of it. Maybe I was depressed, or maybe just tired, but I was having a hard time making sense of even the smallest things, and everything I tried to do seemed filtered through molasses. I felt like tar on hot pavement – oozing around under the sun, getting stuck on everything, and ultimately just making a mess. And I found that my thought processes weren’t much better. Hot and messy, if that makes any sense at all.
I’d never thought of Liz as the devious type, as a shrew. In almost five years of sailing, she’d never once been as overtly manipulative as she had been that last Sunday night. What was going on? Had we simply lost our way, or had I been missing something vital for almost twenty years? It just didn’t make sense! Anyway, as I worked around down below, thoughts like those kept bouncing around in my head: after a few days of this nonsense I was beginning to question just about every assumption I’d ever made.
Then there was Ms Mullins.
Of course I knew better.
That didn’t make our first night together any less interesting. She turned out to be an imaginative lover. Actually, maybe enthusiastic would be a better descriptive. Just about every time I touched her she launched into blistering wet orgasms, and yes, I’m using the plural here deliberately. I have never seen anyone so ‘multi-orgasmic’ in my life. It wasn’t me, of that I’m fairly certain. I think a light breeze hitting her down there would have sent her over the edge. Anyway, the first time I went down on her it was like spontaneous combustion. She grabbed my face and pulled it into her and started yelling and pulling my hair and carrying on like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. After about a half hour and three hundred orgasms later I think she collapsed. I say ‘I think’ because I had about a two minute reprieve before she went down on me, rallied round the flag, so to speak, then hopped on top of me.
The poor thing.
The first thing that ran through my mind – after she’d mounted the flag – was that she was having an seizure. Her body went rigid – so rigid I thought something might have been terribly wrong – then tremors somewhat akin to shockwaves ripped through her body. She was soon flailing about and yelling so loud I was sure everyone in the marina was going to be dialing 911, and just when I thought she couldn’t possibly get any louder the girl launched into a frenzied orgasm that, well, it still leaves me thunderstruck to even think about it.
You have to keep in mind that I was, well, by that point just laying there, because anything else on my part might have been dangerous. I mean, it wasn’t like she had just dropped by to borrow a cup of sugar – I wasn’t that detached about it, I don’t think – yet in a way I felt superfluous to the proceedings. I don’t think she needed me at all, really, well, other than to make use of my hardware. When all was said and done (at least for me, anyway), the whole episode was kind of a letdown. She seemed kind of embarrassed for a minute, then got real sweet and cuddled up next to me and fell asleep. I guess she just assumed that somewhere in the maelstrom I had managed an orgasm of my own. But how would she have known? She hardly knew I was on the same planet.
Like I said, it was an interesting night. She took off in the morning, sometime around four or so, I think. Never said a word, no kiss on the forehead, nothing.
She came by again that next night, knocked on the side of the boat, called out my name.
I looked around quickly, wondered if there was a back way out of the place (kinda hard to pull that one off on a boat), then I popped up through the companionway hatch.
“Howdy,” said I, ever the suave urbanite.
“How’re y’all doin’ today, big guy?”
OK, lets get this straight right now. I’m not real tall, and I’m not fat, either. Big Guy? Me?
“Fine, Lisa. You have a good day?”
“Well, kinda.” She moved around, feigning pelvic discomfort. “Kinda sore down there, you know?”
“Hmm. Wonder why?” I tried not to smile. She, on the other hand, smiled like the Cheshire Cat.
“Up for a encore tonight?” Now for some odd reason that put the fear of God into me, so I just looked at her, indicated at best a passive receptivity. “Ooh, goody!” she said reflexively. “I’ve got some paperwork to do. Could I work here? I really don’t want to go home.” It was then that I noticed she had an overnight bag in her left hand.
You know, I had a decision to make. A big one.
I could send her packing, or by golly, I could take matters in hand and try to fuck her brains out.
For some odd reason, I chose the latter. Call it ego, but I was damned if I was going to let this broad get off again without returning the favor, so as soon as she got to the bottom of the companionway I was on her like Preparation H on hemorrhoids.
I didn’t have a chance.
I think, after about an hour of her riding my face, I might have tried to cry ‘Uncle’, but no way was this woman about to quit. Finally I threw her over and tore into her. At that point I felt like a crazed wolf and wailed into her with the hardest, deepest thrusts I’d ever delivered anytime to anyone, but after a whopping minute or so I hit the short strokes and popped off.
Well, not having had any in a while, I think it fair to say I let loose a gallon and a half of the stuff. She was coaxing me along the whole time, and as I slowed down a bit, spent as I was, Lisa just got foul-mouthed-horny and started in on me again.
I should have known what was coming next.
I lasted a little longer that second time. About two hours, give or take, and the creature underneath me was like a thing possessed. By the time I noticed her fingernails digging in to my back I really didn’t give a damn, and when her not-so-short high-heels started digging into my calves, well, shit, I didn’t care about that, either.
Once I slowed down and she slapped me, hard – yet playfully, and told me to stop now only if I was prepared to die. Ahem. Not exaggerating here, Kemosabe. This chick was into her orgasms, and during my second she started in on me big-time. Do not to quit now or I will combust. That was the message.
Now, give me a break. I’m trying to be modest here, and, well, you know, there was no way I was going for round three. Maybe fifteen, twenty years ago. At 40? Nope. No way.
Anyway, after my stalwart friend deserted me Lisa rolled me over and mounted my face again.
And you know what? About four hours later she was set up in the salon working away on some depositions, while I wondered how many hours she billed that night, and for what services?
And oddly enough Lisa didn’t come to the boat again. In fact, I didn’t see her for a couple of weeks, and then only in passing out on the docks. It was pretty disconcerting. When we did get a chance to talk for a minute or so a month later, she kinda let on that she’d given me a ‘mercy-fuck’ – that she’d sensed I was really down and needed a quick pick-me-up.
Was she for real?
I saw Liz one day during that period, too.
I was working up on the foredeck, tearing down the anchor windlass and lubing the paws, and I looked up to wipe some sweat from my forehead and saw her up in the marina parking lot. She was looking down at me, down when I looked up. I think we looked at each other for a few minutes, then she waved at me before she walked off. I looked at the empty spot where she had been, for, I don’t know, maybe an hour or so. There was a hole in my heart, and I didn’t know how to fix it. I did, however, know how to fix a broken windlass.
A week after that, all my things stowed just so on the boat, I sailed out of Charleston Harbor, alone. I passed Fort Sumter, this time off to starboard, and I thought about civil wars again, and about who fired the first shot in our little war. I thought about that place in my heart Liz used to occupy, yet I was so far removed from the pain now it didn’t matter. Yet still, I felt empty.
Clearing the harbor, I looked to the right, to the south, then north. I didn’t know which way to turn. So I turned around and looked deep into the wake that trailed behind me, looked back past the old Fort, back to the Battery, and thought about my life up to that moment.
I could turn back, I thought. Turn back, chase my past. Live within that memory of place.
Or I could just move on, forge a new course.
I sat behind the wheel, looked at the chart-plotter and it’s readout staring me in the face, almost daring me to dream again. I scrolled out, moved the cursor across the Atlantic until it rested right in the middle of the English Channel, and pressed the Calculate New Course button. A few seconds later the screen flashed a new heading, indicated the new course to steer, and just how far I had to go to get there.
There was a prompt on the screen.
Press ‘Enter’ it said, to start the new route.
Was it really so simple? Turn away from everything I had known for almost twenty years? Hit ‘Enter’ – and start a new life?
Or turn around? Find my way back to the past and live there within all the lies and manipulations.
My finger moved to the screen, hit the ‘Enter’ button. The machine thought for a moment, and a new screen emerged. Me and my little floating world appeared as a small red arrow just off the mid-Atlantic coast of North America, and a new course was projected across the ocean to the waters between England and France. I settled in behind the wheel, put my feet up in the sun, with my eyes looking up at the set of my sails I listened to the water – as it trailed away behind my little boat.
So many passages at sea can be terrifying, one long physical ordeal that you wish would be over as soon as possible. My journey across the Atlantic was simply pleasant and uneventful. I had left Charleston, South Carolina a month and a half ahead of the boisterous Atlantic hurricane season, and the abnormally calm passage reflected my state of mind. I felt a release of tension as America drifted away. I puttered about the boat, tended little housekeeping chores like mending a sail or checking tension on shrouds and chainplates – little things that need to be kept on-top-of in order to survive at sea. Well, that – and I read a lot.
Curious about Lisa Mullins’ question – had I read Pat Conroy before? – I had picked up a copy of Beach Music before Charleston became just a memory in my wake, and I passed many an hour reading that book. Conroy’s tale made an impression on me. It was a story, to me at least, about the memory of place, about how place awakens feelings we’ve long since forgotten, and about the interconnectedness of place and emotion across generations. Rome and the Low Country, how far apart those two places stand on earth, and how close they were in his story. His relationship with his daughter made me think of my Dad, something that rarely happened anymore. He had moved on more than ten years before, and I missed his steady hand. I thought, as I sat up at night eying the radar, how much he would have loved making this trip with me. And I think I cried one night thinking how fun it would have been for us to make this journey together.
After a month at sea I closed the coast of France, and began to pick up contours of the Seine River estuary on radar in the middle of the night, and, mindful of the complex shipping environment in the English Channel, I moved in close to the French coastline to avoid the thickest of it. The boat fairly slipped along on a beam reach through the night, and as the sun came up I could make out the marina I was headed for in the distance, just to the left of Le Havre’s city center and docklands. I negotiated a complex maze of breakwaters and turned into the marina a little after nine that morning, and threw my lines to the Gendarme waiting for me on the Customs Quay.
The plan was simple. I’d make arrangements to have aquaTarkus’s mast unstepped and shipped to Marseilles by truck. Thus unencumbered, I would take my boat through the vast canal network that laces across France and emerge on the Mediterranean coast. I planned to move from Le Havre directly to Paris, spend a month or so there, then laze my way through the summer months and arrive in the South in, say, October or November, yet I found I really didn’t care how long it took. In fact, I was of half a mind to get lost somewhere out there in the middle of nowhere, someplace near a village that had a nice bakery, decent cheese, and, yes, a steady supply of rum.
Anyway, I felt that after all I had been through with Liz, and with the confusing epitaph of Lisa Mullin’s little “mercy fuck” routine well behind me, I was a little dead from the neck up. It was time for a change. A real change.
After I cleared customs and had made arrangements to tie up in the marina for a few days, I walked up to the Strand and looked for a coffee. I didn’t have to look hard. I ducked into a little place and ordered a café au lait and a couple croissant, then settled outside on the splendid boardwalk and marveled at a world that wasn’t bouncing and rolling to the beat of maddened Sea-Gods. It’s hard to convey sometimes just how good it feels to walk on solid earth, to feel the warmth of the morning sun on your face as the smells and sounds of life come to you on a quiet breeze that smells of life – real honest to dirt city life.
After a while – it could have been an hour or a day – I walked back to the boat, collected some things in a rucksack and made my way to the train station. I hopped on a local to Paris and spent the next few hours reveling in the smooth motion of rails. Not one wave smacked the bow and washed over me or the boat, even if the motion of the train did feel a little odd to me. I got into Paris in the middle of the afternoon and made my way to the American Express office just in time to collect my mail. I flipped through the handful of bills and unwanted correspondence until I came to a letter from Liz, and – wonder of wonders – two from my humble, mercy-fucking attorney. I wandered if she was going to hit me for services rendered, and if oral sex was an allowable charge.
I planned to scout out a marina in the city – or a place along a quay, perhaps – someplace to bring aquaTarkus and tie her up. I didn’t want to arrive without that much accomplished, so – guidebook in hand – off I went. Letters would remain unopened for now…
I looked at a couple of places upriver from the Isle Saint Louis, and the second one looked perfect. The proprietor told me it would likely take me a week to journey from Le Havre to Paris, what with all the locks. He encouraged me to set aside two weeks: “Enjoy the trip,” he said, “you’ll never pass this way again.” It sounded like good advice, so I made a reservation, left a deposit, and after finding a nice place for dinner, jumped on the metro back to the station and hopped on a midnight express back to the coast.
I think I slept for a day after I got back to the boat, then went out in search of provisions for the boat. The following morning saw the mast removed, and an hour later I was headed upriver, passing under the Pont de Normandie, then the past the limestone cliffs abutting the Pont de Tancarville, and in an instant I was in another world. The industrial sprawl of Le Havre gave way to a series of bucolic vistas as the river turned to the west and entered a land peppered with quaint villages and rolling farmland. Not to mention the occasional refinery. But as the coastline receded, the transformation continued, and soon I felt like I was – home.
I know that sounds odd.
Something about the air, the light, and – I don’t know – suddenly I felt like I was home. And here I need to take a little journey into the past…and talk about the other side of the coin for a while.
My mother’s family still lives in France, and we traveled here many special times during my youth, but I was essentially an American, and I wondered if mother still kept up with them, because I sure hadn’t.
“Maybe I should call Jean Paul?” I said to myself.
I don’t know why I pushed on that first day, but I ended up tied off to a little public quay near Caudebec-en-Caux just as the sun set, and I walked into the village and sat in the first place that looked good and had some wine and cheese, then some oysters and duck. The evening was amazing, and with each passing moment I felt as though I was reaching up out of the darkness, finding my way home. Then the thought hit me: were my roots really so shallow? Wasn’t I an American, weren’t my roots in the American West? I didn’t really have any answers to those questions – as I sat in candlelight staring at the flesh on my hands. Whose skin was this? Mine? Or the expression of genes stretching back to antiquity?
After dinner I walked out into the night and looked up at the night sky, feeling lost and humble once again, then I stood in a phone booth as a cold fog rolled in and called my mother in Colorado. We exchanged cool pleasantries, then I asked her if she still kept in touch with Jean Paul, with her family in France.
Quite often, she said, as it turned out. I listened as she rumbled on about our old house in the shadow of the San Juan mountains – cussing and muttering as she looked out the window at a passing herd of elk – and she rambled on breathlessly about her life. Then she paused, reported what she knew about this good nephew and that good-for-nothing cousin, and I wrote as she dictated names and addresses and telephone numbers of family all over northern France. She offered to call Jean Paul the next day, and I gave her my sat-phone number to pass along. I rarely used the thing, the cost per call was exorbitant at the time, but I thought the situation warranted. I caught her up on my trip across the Atlantic, and she told me Liz had been calling two times a day for the past three weeks.
Then Mom said Liz was upset about something.
That seemed odd, until I remembered the letters.
After I finished talking with Mom I fished out the letters from Liz and Lisa. I hadn’t opened them, and frankly, after all this time I still didn’t want to.
I opened Liz’s letter first. Call me! she wrote, and her words were underlined insistently.
Then I opened Lisa’s first letter.
She loved me, she wrote in two pages of parsed legalese. And then: ‘Oh, by the way, I’m pregnant.’
Then her second letter. ‘Please come back to me!’
I didn’t know what to think. Would you, I wonder?
I looked at my watch. Almost midnight here in the chilly coastal fog; that would make it early evening back in Carolina. I could hear cicada buzzing away in pecan trees when the thought of Charleston rolled over me, and soon the brooding, brackish air of the Ashley River filled my senses. I just as quickly thought of Lisa and her pulsing need, and in an instant we were on the boat again, making frenzied love after she had fixed my bacon and eggs that fated night. I could see her face, her inextinguishable need for connection, her fine breasts heaving as she thrashed away in the clutches of abandon.
I called the restaurant’s number, asked for Liz, and waited impatiently while she came to the phone.
“Tom? Tom, is that you?”
“None other, kiddo. What’s up?”
“Where are you? No one has the slightest idea!?”
“I’m on the French coast, in Normandy. I picked up your letter today, and I’ve just talked to Mom. What’s on your mind?”
“Oh, Tom! I don’t know where to begin! Dad’s got prostrate cancer, it’s advanced, has moved up into his spine.”
“Oh? Sorry to hear that, Liz. Really. How’s your mom taking it?”
“And Tom, that lawyer of yours is pregnant. She’s been telling people you’re the father, and that you skipped town when you found out. Also, I heard from someone who knows her that someone else might be the father. Someone named Drew.”
Well, what can I tell you? That’s life in the big city. Just when you get your hands up to defend yourself, someone kicks you in the nuts.
“OK Liz, thanks for the heads-up. How are you doing?”
“Tom? I miss you terribly. I want us to be together again, and I don’t care what it takes. I love you more than anything in the world.”
What was this? The second act of her never ending drama? I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I remained quiet for a while – while the fog wrapped it’s arms around me. Such was my need to hurt her, I guess you’d say.
“Tom? You still there?”
“I am indeed.”
“I see. OK, Tom. I wish you the best.” Her voice was breaking up, I could hear tears welling up, then the line went dead.
I hung up the phone, stood in enveloping fog for quite a while. My eyes were burning from the dingy fluorescent light in the booth, and between the light and the fog I couldn’t make out anything around me. It was like I was floating in milky space – I could hear the river in the distance, but there was no way I could pinpoint the direction.
I thought about Liz for a moment, and her father. I remembered our wedding day, when her father and mine, both more than three sheets to the wind, had danced together while our mothers egged them on. My father. Lung cancer. And now her father, and that link to the past would be gone. Another sentinel gone, another memory to fade away to place. Directionless, lost in the fog.
What Liz said about Lisa seemed simply incredible; something in my gut told me if Lisa was pregnant, it had to be mine. And I couldn’t believe Lisa would spread a rumor so vile – about me, or anyone else, for that matter. I just didn’t think she had that kind of meanness in her.
So, I stood there in the fog wondering if I should call Lisa. I looked at my watch. Again. Ran a couple of fingers through my damp hair, looked at water on my fingers glistening in the light.
I picked up the phone, punched in the interminable string of international calling codes, credit card numbers, and telephone numbers. The first ring caught me off-guard. I thought about hanging up. Second ring. I was about to hang up when someone on the other end picked up the phone.
“I got your letter.”
Now it was someone else’s turn to be quiet, to keep someone else guessing.
“I’m sorry, Tom. I guess I should have been more careful.”
“Well, it takes two to tango, darlin’. By the way. Who’s Drew?”
A long silence followed that question. Then the line went dead.
I called Mom the next morning. Turned out a whole herd of relatives still lived on the coast near Deaville, in the little village of Hennequeville, which is just down the beach a bit from Le Havre. As she talked I remembered once again Mom’s journey from the Norman coast to Southwest Colorado. It was the stuff of legend around these parts.
It’s a long story, but not uninteresting, so let me digress.
Dad’s B-17 got shot up over Germany in early 1944, and he almost managed to get the bird back to the English Channel before it came apart on him. The crew bailed-out all over northern France, and he jumped ship just before fire engulfed the plane. He came down in thick forest just a few hundred yards from the beach, breaking his ankle in a tree as he did. A farmer – and I might add his future father-in-law – pulled him from that tree before a German patrol could find him, and well, the rest is, as they say, History – with a big, fat capital H.
Oh…you couldn’t tell a farmer’s daughter joke around my father without risking a serious pop in the mouth. He worshipped Mom – and her family – and he did so until the day he died.
“You know, Tom,” I heard her saying, “if you’re going to see family, I’d love to come. I haven’t seen Jean and Marie for years, and I’d love to see them again.”
Hmm, this was beginning to take on hues of a major family get together.
“Mom, do you feel up to the trip?”
“Oh, of course I do. How is the weather there now?”
I was sitting in the cockpit, talking on my hideously expensive sat-phone, and I looked around at the lush trees and ancient buildings all around me. It was so beautiful outside it took my breath away.
“Oh, mom, it looks like Hell here. Trees in full bloom, not a cloud in the sky, and the air smells sweet, kind of like heaven, I reckon. I think you should come, in fact, I insist on it! I can book you a flight right now if you’d like me to.”
“Oh, Tommy! It would be so nice to see my family again. Yes! Let’s do it!”
“OK, Mom. I’ll call you in a bit. Start packing, and would you call Jean Paul? Tell him I’m tied up at the quay in Caudebec-en-Caux.”
“I did, Tom. He said you should go see the little cathedral there, up the hill.”
“I will Mom. Talk to you in a little while, so start packing!”
Later that afternoon I was working down below, in the galley as I recall, when I heard someone calling my name and a knocking on the side of the boat.
“Tom! Tom! Are you there, Tom!”
I knew that voice, that unmistakably cultured physician’s voice. It had to be Jean-Paul. My cousin, Jean-Paul Dumas. I hadn’t seen him in ten years, since Dad’s funeral; while he had always been a rascal, he was also my idea of a wonderful human being. He was brilliant and commanded attention when he came into a room – he had eyes that seemed to be express pure empathy – and at parties everyone – I mean everyone – seemed to gravitate to him. We had, all of us – Liz included – come over for his wedding in the early nineties. He had married an American woman – irony of ironies – the insufferably intelligent and unbelievably gorgeous Marie-Suzanne Sommers. She was a career diplomat at the U S Embassy in Paris, and a lawyer by training. Of course, she had to be.
I popped up the companionway to see Jean Paul rubbing his hands along the deck’s teak cap-rail.
“Tom. She’s beautiful. I read your book, but I had no idea.”
“You read my book?” Brilliant choice of words, don’t you think?
He stopped rubbing the wood long enough to look up at me, then spoke.
“Yes. Not bad, considering.”
“Uh, well, how are you, JP?”
He shrugged. “Not so good, really. Marie and I are, I think you say, in Splitsville. Getting a divorce.”
I think that was my cue to be empathetic.
“I can’t believe it, Jean Paul. What happened, Jean?” I wonder…is there a dedicated facial expression for irony?
“Oh, all this mess in the Middle East, and all the terrorism. It has caused us much tension here. Here in France, and in our house.”
Yes, I could see that. Being a physician, Jean Paul was about as liberal as one could get, anywhere, whereas Marie had always been more than a bit of a hawk – if you scratched beneath her Radcliffe exterior a little too deeply. Perhaps all this strife been inevitable; politicians sure seemed to be counting on it. But this ISIS mess, as JP called it, had taken it’s toll on relationships in very unpredictable ways.
“Sorry to hear that, Jean Paul. Anything I can do?”
“You? No, dear Tom! But have you been to the chapel yet, up the hill?”
“No, not yet.”
“Well, put some shoes on. Let’s go!”
We walked through the little village for a few minutes, then stood looking up at the entry to a beautiful – though small – gothic church. Jean Paul told me all about the building, its origins and significance, and as we walked inside he crossed himself and said a quiet prayer. I had forgotten this about him, this piety so remote from the America I grew up in, and the simple act startled me with it’s significance, then we walked into a world of shattering light.
The light in this part of the world is so pure, yet so pink; it suffuses the stone buildings of the region with an otherworldly quality that really must be seen to be appreciated, and all this came together in a blinding moment of insight as I took in the beauty of this gothic interior. I was, in a very real way, a part of this land – just as much as I was an American, and in that instant I felt again just what had suddenly intruded only two days ago. This sense of being “home”, of – in the truest sense of the word – a homecoming. This part of France was, unlike so many of the places Liz and I had visited during the last five years of our marriage, a part of me in startlingly intimate ways. My mother was, as I’ve mentioned, from the region, and her family could trace their lives along this coast back at least 800 years. They had lived in the region for as long as records had been kept in the village halls and churches; chapels and cathedrals around the region recorded dates of marriages and baptisms of family members back to the twelfth century, and that history was a part of – me. Jean Paul was a part of – me! These limestone cliffs and the soil from which all life sprang, all were a tangible part of that which had created – me – and the resonance of that insight penetrated my soul as we walked inside that church.
It was a pure moment, to have roamed so far and to realize I had – at least in part – found what I had been searching for, and for so long. All these feeling were a part of the world I had conscientiously ignored almost my entire life.
Jean Paul and I walked back to the quay, and there we looked out on the Seine and the barge traffic that made its way to and from Paris – traffic moving out into and out of the world – just as it had for hundreds of years. We had a coffee, talked about Syria and the Sudan, and of Jean Paul’s recent decision to rejoin Médecins Sans Frontières and return to the world of volunteer medicine in Africa.
“You should come to the house tonight,” he told me. “Some physicians that are just returning from six months in Darfur will be talking with us, sharing insights on new security procedures and facilities. It might be boring, but you might learn something, too. It will only take an hour to make the drive, and I can bring you back later tonight.”
We asked about leaving the boat tied up for the night, and the once surly harbormaster said he would look after the boat. He, of course, knew Jean Paul, and now knowing my relationship to him I was, well, suddenly a member of the family, so to speak, and in more ways than one. I told him when I would be back, and he told me not to worry about the boat. C’est la vie, Paco.
We crossed the Seine in Jean Paul’s little silver Citroen and drove along winding country lanes overgrown with riotously verdant trees until we arrived at my mom’s ancestral home. I wasn’t a huge chateau, but neither was it a farmer’s shack, and there was that mesmerizing view down to the English Channel through trees and gardens that I remembered from childhood visits. We arrived in time for dinner in the village, then walked back to the house. Cars full of chattering physicians began arriving not a half hour later.
I do speak a little French – my mother insisted that I speak at least enough to get by here – but my medical vocabulary was woefully inadequate to the animated discussions that filled the house that night. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to run into a couple Liz and I had encountered in Moorea. Small world, indeed. Luc and Claire Menton were amazing sailors, having ventured from Deauville to Tahiti – via Cape Horn – in an engine-less 28-foot sailboat. We caught up with each other’s progress – including my divorce, to which they expressed sorrow – and they were more than interested in my plans to travel through the canals down to Marseilles.
“We have never done this journey,” Luc told me during one of the breaks in the medical presentations. “Would you mind some company, perhaps, for part of the trip?” I knew the portion on the Rhone – from Lyon south, would be a monotonous river journey, but the segments between Paris and Lyon were arduous, with many locks to be negotiated, and extra hands are always needed negotiating locks. So yes, a couple of extra willing hands would be appreciated, and I told them so. Luc looked at Claire, gave her a knowing nod, and we exchanged phone numbers, then he looked at mine suspiciously.
“Is this an American number, or a satellite number?” he asked.
“Satellite,” I advised.
“You must get a local number. Coverage is excellent and cheap through our organization. I can arrange this for you in Paris.”
I thanked Luc, said I’d take him up on the offer and he smiled, satisfied now that he had returned a favor.
I laid eyes on Madeleine Lebeq for the first time in my life not an hour later.
Actually, Luc introduced me to her, and I suppose fate hinged that evening on my meeting Luc and Claire almost three years earlier in a lagoon in the South Pacific. When I think back on the circumstances, the idea really is breathtaking.
And to be exact, she was introduced to me as Doctor Madeleine Lebeq. She was a physician, a specialist in infectious diseases who had vast experience in tropical medicine accumulated over fifteen years of volunteer work with Médecins Sans Frontières, and I could not have conjured a more opposite number to Liz if I had worked on it for years.
Where Liz was willowy and tall, Madeleine was tiny and looked purpose built to work in small, confined spaces. While Liz was known best for her almost obtuse loquaciousness, Madeleine was studious, quiet to the point of being regarded as snobby, and rarely spoke unless addressed first – unless she was giving a lecture on medicine. Liz, athletic, a great swimmer; Madeleine intellectually dexterous, and had never been swimming in her life, at least not until she met me, and then not under the best of circumstances.
Anyway, Madeleine had made her way over to talk to Claire, and Luc introduced us. I had been talking to Jean Paul when Luc first tried to get my attention; it was Jean Paul who tugged on my elbow and asked me to turn around.
I turned to Luc, caught on that he was trying to make an introduction, but I almost didn’t see Madeleine. She was caught in the ebb and flow of the meeting, and it just has to repeated here that she is not at all tall, and that she does not stand out in a crowd. Indeed, I’d have said when I first laid eyes on her that she had gone out of her way to be as unobtrusive as possible. And I’d have been wrong. Madeleine simply didn’t give a damn what she wore, never had, and probably never would. To this day, when I see her in my mind’s eye she’s in pale green surgical scrubs, her hair tied in a severe bun.
Anyway, that night she was wearing a teal colored turtleneck sweater and taupe gabardine slacks; her hair auburn, a little to the reddish side of auburn, really. No makeup whatsoever. And she had the most stunning eyes I’d ever seen in my life. Penetrating, intelligent eyes, the deepest blue-green I’ve ever seen. I was a good foot taller than she, and I looked down at her while Luc tried to cover for my less than gracious attentiveness. After a minute she moved off to join another conversation, and I watched as she walked away with a lump in my throat.
I rejoined Jean Paul and our conversation about Mom’s arrival two days hence, and we confirmed plans to drive together to De Gaulle to pick her up and take her to lunch at Le Grand Vefour. We continued to talk about Marie and the problem of divorce in general when I felt a tug on my shirt-sleeve and turned to see Madeleine Lebeq.
“I understand that you are a sailor, like Luc. I would like to learn, but have never had the time. Could you teach me?”
“Madeleine! Do you know this is the world famous sailor Thomas Deaton? Of course he can’t teach you – he’s always much too busy!”
“Oh, knock it off, would you, JP?!”
“So, you are a famous sailor, Thomas?”
“No, not in the least. Jean Paul likes to make me look like an idiot sometimes, if you know what I mean.”
“Now, now, Tom. Why would I do that when you are so accomplished at doing that all on your own?” I threw a pointed glance at Jean Paul, then turned to Madeleine.
“What do you have in mind? I’m not really going to be sailing until I get down to Marseilles, perhaps in August or September.”
“What are you doing now. Luc said you were on your boat. I assumed here in Deauville.”
“Not anymore, Doctor. I’m on the Seine now, the mast is down. I’m motoring across France, through the canals. Then I will put the mast back up, in Marseilles, and move on.”
“Where? Where exactly do you plan to move on to?”
“I haven’t decided yet. To Greece, perhaps, by way of Corisca and Italy. But I’m undecided, really.”
“That sounds, I don’t know, odd, yet nice. To not know where one is going – to just go. It sounds almost like heaven. You are very lucky. So?” she added, “you wrote a book.”
“Ah, yes, my wife and I did. About a year ago, about sailing through the South Pacific.”
“You are married?”
“No, like all good Americans, I’m divorced.”
“Indeed. Most of the men in this room are from France, and most are divorced. Are all Americans so self-deprecating?”
“Yes, Ma’am. It’s our defining characteristic.”
“I see,” she said. And there it was, the beginnings of a smile. Just a hint, really, the faintest echo of a smile touched the corners of her lips. “So. Perhaps I could join Luc and Claire for a part of your journey? Would that be good for you?”
Frankly, I didn’t know if it would be good or not, but something in those eyes had me by the short hairs. I mean, they were looking right into the depths of my soul and my heart was pounding. I could see that her practiced eye was taking all that in, and that she was not unamused. Docs, by the way, can just look at a few key places and know exactly what’s running through your mind…take my word for it.
“I would be honored to have you come along, Doctor.” So said I, the humble world traveling expert sailor, in my most urbane middle school French.
“Ah. I hope you sail better than you speak our language, Mister Deaton.” And with that she walked away. I think then I remembered to breath again. Jean Paul, bless his heart, didn’t even laugh at me, not even a little bit. I think he was watching the pupils of my eyes, counting respiration rates, all the usual bullshit.
JP and I made the quick drive to Paris and picked up Mom on the anointed day, and had our ritual lunch at the Vefour; there’s something inherently intoxicating about eating in a three hundred year old restaurant that used to be one of Napoleon’s favorite hangouts. Anyway, the grub was good and Mom wasn’t too jet-lagged yet, so we ate and reminisced and commiserated on the prevalence of divorce in the post-Tammy Faye Baker era. We drove back to Deauville and put Mom to bed in the middle of the afternoon; jet lag finally hit her and she slept for almost twenty hours. Jean Paul cobbled together a somewhat massive family get-together for the coming weekend – even his soon to be ex, Marie Suzanne, was coming – and Mom wanted to be rested for the affair.
I – for my part – wanted to get to the bottom of this nonsense with Lisa back in Charleston, as it had begun to weigh heavily on my mind. The idea of becoming a parent with Lisa was disconcerting, to say the least, but the somewhat odd twist Liz had tossed out about a possible third party being involved only served to make me terribly ill at ease. I was hoping the matter could be settled over the phone, but was unsure how to proceed after my last attempt to talk to Lisa had ended so – ambiguously? Something smelled fishy about the whole situation.
So, while I was sitting on the patio behind JP’s house, looking out over the garden at the English Channel, I decided to call Liz. Again.
She was at the restaurant, working in the back office when I called that afternoon. I got right to the point: I asked her what she knew about Lisa and this alleged third party – this Drew – whoever he might be.
“Tom, I don’t like all this third-party hearsay stuff any more than you do. I’m just hearing things that worry me, you know?”
“Well, when I called her after I talked with you the other night she sounded fragile, but when I asked “who’s Drew?” she hung up the phone. I think, well, I’m a bit flummoxed, you know what I mean? Bad enough she’s claiming to be pregnant, but to me the situation appears anything but clear. Something’s not right.”
“Yes, I think so too, Tom. He’s supposed to be a guy she’s been seeing off and on for a couple of years. Drew Nicholson’s his name, by the way. They were engaged a while back, too; at least that’s the rumor going ‘round now. Maybe high school sweethearts or something like that, but now I’m hearing that he’s the one who ran off as soon as he heard about the baby. That would’ve made her nervous, you know, but I can’t believe an attorney would try to pull something like this, make a false allegation. It’s just too bizarre.”
“You got that right, kiddo.”
“You know, Tom, I never liked it when you called me ‘kiddo’; you think we could do without that from now on.”
“I’ll try, Liz. Old habits die hard, you know? What do you think I should do, by the way?”
“I don’t know, Tom, really I don’t. Hire a P.I. maybe, or just confront her . . . well, that probably wouldn’t accomplish much over the telephone. But it’s suspicious she hung up on you, that’s for sure. Anything else going on over there?”
“Mom flew over; we’re having a family get together at JPs house this weekend.”
“Oh, that ought to be lovely this time of year. I wish I could make it. How are Jean Paul and Marie doing?”
“Uh, getting a divorce, or at least thinking about it.”
“Oh, no, Tom! That’s so, that’s such bad news. What’s wrong with this world? Is nothing permanent anymore…?”
I actually thought that was an odd comment coming from her. Somewhat ironic, as a matter of fact, but I politely kept my mouth shut. The silence stretched out for a moment longer…
“Well, I wish I could be there. I love those people,” she said.
“Oh, remember Luc and Claire from Moorea?” I shot back, wanting to lighten the mood a bit. “I ran into them at JPs a couple nights ago. Small world, huh?”
“Oh, my, yes. I remember Luc. What a great ass that guy had!”
“LIZ!” Just when you think you understand women they hit you with something like this.
“Oh, Tom, just kidding. How are they doing, anyway?”
I filled her in on the rest, leaving out talk of Luc and Claire joining me on the river this summer, and I didn’t mention Madeleine Lebeq, either. When it’s over, it’s over. No reason to rub salt in that wound any longer. I thanked her for the info and that was that. Cordial. No bullshit, no hysterics. Just like old friends. So goddamn weird!
I sat looking out on the garden as the sun fell closer to the western horizon, and resolved to be nicer to Liz in the future. Then I called Lisa.
“Mullins and Associates,” the voice on the other end sang out. Associates? I thought. Who was she trying to fool?
“Tom, is that you?”
“It is indeed.”
– silence – then…
“I’m sorry about the other night.”
“Listen, Lisa, I want to get to the point here; I’d like to know what Drew Nicholson has to do with this. Is that asking too much?”
“No, Tom, it’s not. And you have every right to be angry with me.”
“I do? So, this pregnancy is not related to anything you and I – to what we did? The baby isn’t mine?”
“Correct on both counts, Mr Deaton.”
“So, well, excuse me, but why? Why all the calls and letters. And I’ve heard he’s run off. Is that the score?”
“I’ll be damned.”
“I doubt that, Tom. I might be. But not you. I treated you poorly, and I’m sorry.” The line went dead again.
This was about the weirdest string of conversations I’d ever had in my life, and after the line went dead I wanted to get well and truly drunk. I wondered if JP had any rum in the house, but knowing he was French, I doubted he even knew what rum was.
Boy, was I wrong about that.
We drove Mom back to the airport a week later. She was looking frail, and it turned out she had grown terribly lonely without Dad. She mentioned selling the ranch back in Colorado, asked me if I wanted the place when she passed on, and I told her that no, my ways were pretty well set now. I’d live aboard until it was my turn to check out – then she tossed out a bombshell.
“I’m thinking about moving back here, Tom. To be with family.” I could see Jean Paul looking nervously out of the corner of his eye just then; I think he very nearly lost control of his little Citroen.
“Oh?” I recall saying, ever the master of understatement.
“There’s no one, no family in the States for me, Thomas.” Uh-oh. Whenever she uses Thomas I know she’s like a tick – all dug in and ready for a fight.
“You know, Mom, if that’s what you want to do, I’m all for it.” That took the wind out of her sails, and she actually looked disappointed.
“What about you? Where are you going to settle, Thomas?”
“Wherever the anchor drops longest, Mom.” She shook her head at that.
“No children. Such a waste.” Now that I didn’t expect.
“Well, Mom, you never can tell about these things.”
“Oh, that’s a wonderful thought. My grandchildren being born on a sailboat, being raised like gypsies.”
“Ce la guerre, Momma.”
Jean Paul looked as if he was going to explode when he heard that. He was laughing so hard he almost missed his exit for the airport. We’d all been drinking rum the past few nights, and I’ve heard that hangovers from rum are the worst. Maybe that was behind all this nonsense about children, and moving.
Two days later, with Mom’s revelation still much on my mind, I slipped lines from the municipal quay in Caudebec-en-Caux and motored upriver against the current, toward Paris. As much as I wanted to stop in Rouen and visit the cathedral there, I resisted the impulse; the docks were a oil-soaked mess, and I really wanted to move on to the big city. Rolling hills rich with trees and fertile farmland gave way to a broad expanse of generic industrial landscape over the next three days, and I struggled to handle working locks on my own. Still, I felt almost like a salmon struggling upriver, and too soon aquaTarkus and I were enfolded in the very fabric of Paris, surrounded by that ancient, gorgeous landscape. And I was early for my reservation at the “marina” too, but the manager found me a temporary spot to tie up near Le Petit Palais, right under the Pont Alexandre, and I had the Eiffel Tower right off the stern for company now, as well as, I think, about two million uncomprehending tourists walking by the boat at all hours. The funny thing about it was I don’t think many of them could believe their eyes.
Because right there on the banks of the Seine – smack-dab in the middle of Paris – was a sailboat flying an American flag, hailing from Newport Beach, California. My bare feet propped up on the cockpit coaming, I sat there munching Reese’s peanut butter cups while I finished rereading Conroy’s Beach Music for the umpteenth time, and all in all, I think I made for a most unusual diversion from the well beaten tourist path they were on.
Ce la guerre, indeed! Je suis comme le Hollandaise Volant, condamnés à errer dans le monde seul…
I met Luc the next morning and we walked the block or two from the hospital where he and Claire worked to have lunch. We talked about the proposed journey down the Seine toward the first canal, and the rigorous trip to Lyon that would follow. The more I talked about the journey, the more poor Luc got worked-up about making at least some of the trip. By the time lunch was over he wanted to make the entire trip – all the way to the Med! Clearly I’d have to lay on more rum if that turned out to be the case, but he was fun and enthusiastic about making the journey, and after working just a couple of locks by myself I knew I needed help.
He gave me directions to pick up a cell phone that would work particularly well in rural France, and that would be cheap as hell to boot. And toward the end of lunch, he asked me what I thought of Madeleine Lebeq, and would I mind them coming down to the boat this evening to see it. Madeleine was, or so Luc said, very interested in seeing a sailboat, and in learning to sail generally.
And he was so subtle about Madeleine I could almost feel his elbows digging in to my sides.
So, yes, I told Luc I liked Madeleine just fine, at least she seemed nice after the few minutes I’d spent with her, and that tonight would be fine. I would have drinks ready about seven. I remembered Luc could throw down rum with the best of ‘em, and I hoped Claire would warn Madeleine to be prepared for a seige.
Drunk sailors on the Seine! Who woulda thunk it!
Arriving fashionably late, Luc and Claire knocked on the hull about seven fifteen; Madeleine, they advised, would be along shortly. I’d laid on some cheese and crackers and sliced pears, and had mixed up a pitcher of Suffering Bastards for my poor, unsuspecting friends. The drink has a long and storied history, but Trader Vis’s used to describe it as a “forthright blend of rums” mixed in with a tiny bit of fruit, but the simple truth of the matter is two of them will knock most people on their can, so it’s a good ice-breaker (ahem). Anyway, we sat in the cockpit and shook there heads, thinking that the last time we had all been together – almost three years ago to the day – we had been sitting in Cook’s Inlet, Moorea, which is surely one of the most beautiful lagoons in the world. We had been deep in French Polynesia, and now we were in deepest Paris – sitting in the same cockpit. The incongruity of the scene was startling to us, as memory was juxtaposed against the reality of our surroundings, bound together as one in the modest confines of my little cockpit. I know it’s hard to describe, let alone relate the immediacy of the moment, but boats have a way of transporting much more than the physical; our souls’ had been rejoined by the memory of place, and it was as simple as that.
Luc tossed down his drink in the spirit of the moment and asked for another one. Against my better judgement, I demurred and poured. By the by, I hate to dwell on this, but if you’ve never had a Suffering Bastard, head to the nearest Trader Vic’s and be prepared for the unexpected. You’ve been warned. Anyway, Luc finished his second while Claire and I cautiously sipped our first, and I looked on utterly amazed while Luc started in on hers.
Madeleine arrived and I helped her negotiate the jump onto deck. The girl had run out to buy a pair of boat shoes after work, she said, and I complemented her on her choice as I helped her duck into the cockpit. The little teak table attached to the wheel was set up, and she marveled at the varnish on it. I had to bite my tongue; Liz had probably spent a week layering twenty coats of varnish onto that table little more than a year ago. She had taken such pride in her varnish work. So many memories crammed into such an impossibly small space!
I fixed a Bastard for Madeleine and she flinched when she sniffed the drink, then she took a tentative sip at the thing. Her eyes went wide and a little shiver ran through her body. Luc commented that ‘this was a real sailor’s drink’ and the poor girl gamely took a long pull from her glass. One thing about Bastards: they hit hard but get real smooth after about three or four good pulls. And after that – look out! Luc was already three sheets to the wind and going for broke, Claire looked on with a wry eye at her husband, while Madeleine – on learning that a Suffering Bastard was in fact an honest to God sailor’s concoction – gamely tossed her drink down in one fell swoop.
I thought the girl was going to have a seizure right then and there! Nous devons charger les mitrailleuses!
But mon Dieu, she was up for another one!
“Listen, I know we’ve just met and all, but could I get you an Evian, or perhaps some Perrier?”
“Oh no, I’d like another Bastard, please!”
It’s fair to say that I knew where all this rum was going to end up. I mixed the next round with a lot more juice – which led to choruses of derision – and while I remixed the pitcher to a nice healthy octane rating (equal to, perhaps, something akin to jet fuel), I asked them if they’d like to go out to dinner.
“Let’s whip something up here!” Madeleine said. “I can’t believe you can cook on a boat!”
That, ladies and gentlemen, was the wrong thing to say to both Claire and your modest storyteller. Quicker than you could say ‘butter my muffin’ we were down below whipping up all kinds of nonsense, and by midnight we had dispelled any delusional notions of inferiority that poor, demented Madeleine might have harbored about galley facilities on yachts.
I’m not saying that having had four Suffering Bastards clouded the woman’s judgement. No, not at all. On the contrary, I’m sure she was quite sober after diving into the Seine – buck naked, mind you – while a tourist barge motored by, it’s spotlight trained on her bare ass while she sputtered and screamed like a drowning child. Hadn’t she mentioned she didn’t know how to swim?
Thus are our memories made.
In due course, Luc and Claire helped me fish Madeleine from the river, and we dried her body and tears and we consoled her while she ranted about being (almost) forty and not having learned how to swim. It was official, she declared to us all in front of God and three hundred laughing tourists, ‘I am going to take swimming lessons! starting tomorrow – so help me God!’ or words to that effect. I think the fact that she was stark naked on the deck of a sailboat in the middle of Paris had something to do with the solemnity of her oath. But maybe that’s just me.
Ah! We had also cleared up one other item of vital importance. Claire and I could cook a mean Gran Marnier soufflé – even if we were on a goddamned sailboat!
I doubt if it would surprise you to learn that within a week Madeleine and I were going out with one another almost every night. She belonged to a tennis club that had a very nice swimming pool, and I cheered her on while she took lessons in the evening. We would follow that on most nights with her beating me at tennis (and by humiliating margins, too), then we would head out and grab a quick bite before returning to the boat for some serious exercise.
It was all very nice.
Paris is like that.
Of course, there were riots in the suburbs, almost unbearable heat as June droned along and old people were dropping like flies, and then there was Madeleine’s looming commitment to return to Darfur in September for another three month stint. But, like most people in Europe, Luc, Claire, and Madeleine were scheduled to take their six week vacation in July and early August. Accordingly, I planned to take off from Paris and putter along slowly for a couple of days until they could join me for the rough passage through the canals toward Lyon.
That was, of course, just before Jean Paul called to tell me that Mom had died.
Sitting in an Air France 747 flying over the Atlantic, I watched as hundreds of miles of ocean passed underneath in what felt like the blink of an eye; those miles are hard won in a sailboat, of course, and I thought about that for a while. Perhaps that seems out of place, given the circumstance, so perhaps I’d better explain.
Jean Paul was with me that morning, and we sat quietly as the jet arced across the Atlantic towards America, and I suppose we were lost in all manner of thought. I was sitting by a window on the left side of the jet, looking down at the sea as time reeled by slowly, and I was lost in the idea of my mother’s passing – her patient, excitable smile now gone from this world. I’d felt cold and empty since he told me, and the passage of time had seemed to grow slower with each passing minute; I guess that’s what was really on my mind. Not the passage of miles, but the passage of time – time within a family.
We had put her on this very flight not two weeks ago – only now it felt like just hours ago – and I reached into memory to remember her face as she looked at me that last time, and I remembered her cool cheek on mine as she kissed me. Had she sat looking out this same window, I wondered? What had she thought about on that hideously long flight back to Denver. That she was alone. Moving back to France, to be near the bosom of family. Grandchildren? Probably. In fact, I supposed that was a certainty. I didn’t have to wonder about her feelings about my decision to live aboard: that much she had made abundantly clear over the past few years. She had wanted grandchildren to bounce on her lap, like she had me, once upon a time. I’d really come through for her, hadn’t I?
No, as the jet slipped through time I wondered what she had learned in her life. How she loved my father so fiercely, despite the insane differences in their backgrounds. How had she make the transition from France to Colorado after the war, from farmer’s daughter to pilot’s wife? What had she left undone at the end of her life? What were her regrets, what were the things she’d never done that she wanted to?
Why had I never taken the time to ask her these questions? Why do sons take their mother’s love so pitifully for granted? Which of course made me ask myself if I’d taken Liz’s love for granted…the death of a marriage, then the death of my mother…all these thoughts bouncing along in the turbulence, all my life laid out below on the shimmering blue sea.
Mom left directions – explicit directions, really – on what to do with her remains. Her notes were on the kitchen table, along with a note from her attorney to call when we got in. The first thing I did, after JP and I got settled in, was to read her last thoughts.
There was a tree on the estate in Hennequeville. She had drawn a map, as a matter of fact, that revealed in remarkable detail just where to find her tree. It was the tree where her father had found my father, dangling upside down in his parachute harness late one February afternoon in 1944, and it was here that she wanted her body – and my father’s – to intermingle one last time. As stardust, perhaps, but joined in the soil of her France one last time – and for all eternity. I smiled as I read her directions to find the tree, remembering our walks there when I was so small she had to carry me most of the way. Yes, we all knew where the tree was, where the initials Dad carved into the stately old oak were, even the very branch where he had become lodged, and his ankle had snapped. It was a part of our mythology now, a part of our family’s community of memories. A part of our memory of place.
Mom had spelled exactly which verses from which books she wanted read, and what food to serve in the garden later that day. I think she left the wine to our discretion, or perhaps I lost that page in my connivance. I’m not sure anymore. She specified who she wanted to attend, and who should not be invited, and it was then I noticed that she had scribbled these notes down two nights before she passed.
She had known. Known what was coming.
And she was ready, too.
Mom also wanted Liz and Marie to be at the tree-side service, and if Mom had been around as I read that she would have caught an earful. I read this request to myself once, then again – aloud – for my cousins benefit…
“Mon Dieu,” Jean Paul muttered as he listened to me. “I never knew she had it in her to be so, I don’t know, so adroit? Is that the word I search for?”
All I could do was laugh. I think JP thought me a little crazy that evening as he watched me laughing. Laughing until the four walls cried, I guess you might say.
And there wasn’t a drop of rum in the house.
And Liz came to the service, bless her heart. I think the audacity of my mother’s last wish wasn’t lost on her, but whatever she felt, she came. We walked the Norman beaches one last time together, Liz and I, and even held hands for a while as we remembered how things had once been, how life had been special once, between us. But she seemed like a different person now, like she was a trespasser on my personal landscape – and I think she felt decidedly out of place. She no longer wanted a reconciliation. I think she sought a redemption through my Mother’s passing, maybe wanted to revisit some of those memories one more time.
Madeleine and Claire were there, as well. Luc was engaged with a lecture and couldn’t make it, but I think he had the presence of mind to tell Madeleine more about Liz and the circumstances of her being there than I had stomach for. And Madeleine was amazing. She laid back, avoided playing the possessive’s hand and gave Liz and I the space we needed to say our last goodbyes.
Family was there, all of our family. And this was my family now, once again, this was where I belonged in that most spiritual sense. If thoughts live in the shadows of our senses, then surely with that realization I had found that peace which had eluded me for so long. I knew I belonged with these people. Simple.
Jean Paul and I drove back to Paris after we said our final goodbyes to Mom, and we dropped Liz at de Gaulle for her flight home on our way back to aquaTarkus. I hate to make the point again, but something told me once again that Liz had reached a certain peace with our divorce; still, there was something in her eyes as we said goodbye. Sorrow, regret perhaps, a gentle longing that would remain unfulfilled? For a moment I wanted to hold on to her, never let her go – but the moment passed like a breeze. Watching her walk away, so familiar once, was as impossible as saying goodbye to my mother. I was quiet on the drive into Paris, I had nothing to say, really, to compete with the loneliness I felt. Even Madeleine seemed a distant memory as Jean Paul danced through the midday traffic.
I felt empty inside. Empty in ways I never had before. As bad as it had been when Dad passed, this was worse. I wished then that I had brothers and sisters, and realized that I had always relied on Liz’s family to fill that role. Now all those faces were gone, unavailable, yet in their place I had a mega-family of people I’d met once or twice before, but who, really, were strangers. Well, not Jean Paul – who all of a sudden was my anchor in this storm. The boy could put down rum when it came right down to it, and that made him the best kind of family, in my book, anyway, but now there was something much more important growing between us.
We had grown close the past week, too. Mom was JPs last link to his own parents, and he felt her loss acutely, too. I think we needed each other more now than we felt comfortable talking about.
aquaTarkus was now moored in the narrow, sliver-like marina about three hundred yards south of the Ile Saint-Louis, in a little slip of water that ran from the Seine to the Place de la Bastille. I had never seen or been in any place quite like it before in my life. There she was, my home for so many years now berthed right in the middle of a slender, tree-lined park in the center of Paris. Kids in strollers rolled by – pushed by mothers and nannies, dogs on leashes – walked by the most eclectic people you can imagine – ambled along the walk just above my home – and at all hours of the night and day. With just a few minutes walk I could sit on benches behind Notre Dame Cathedral – or hop a train at the Gare de Lyon for any point in Europe. I could, and did, take in an opera, or walk to any number of world class restaurants. Life there was intoxicating.
Me? How did I manage all this ‘new’ life?
Well, true to form, I ran across an eminently practical old fella who had a rolling crepe stand he kept near the marina entrance, and Gaston made the best crepes I’d ever had in my life. His stand was located out in the open, usually under a broad oak tree about fifty yards from the boat. Within a few days of my return from the coast we were on a first-name basis. A week later we were old friends. Yeah, Paris can be like that. You open up to it’s possibilities, and soon the whole world seems a better place.
Madeleine and I resumed our friendship, as well, but time was breathing down our neck.
We continued to go swimming two or three times a week, only now I joined her with mask, fins and snorkel and was soon teaching her what she’d need to know if and when we hit the Med together; she, on the other hand, continued to whip my ass at tennis, though I was improving. With the change in plans necessitated by Mom’s passing, it now looked as though Madeleine – along with Luc and Claire – would depart Paris with me, and with our narrowing time constraints decided to make a nonstop, mad dash for Marseilles – so we could all experience the entire passage together. Then Jean Paul said he might have enough time to join us for parts of the trip!
And actually, calling this a mad dash is a bit inaccurate. The trip can be made in as little as seventeen to eighteen days; we still had almost five weeks. The only possible bugaboo was the intense heat of summer, and the possibility that drought conditions could lower water levels enough to close some of the routes. I didn’t have air conditioning on aquaTarkus, had never found a need for it, but France was in the death grips of a brutal heatwave. I’d contacted a sailmaker in Le Havre in May and had an awning made that would at least keep the sun off most of the living spaces, and when that simple addition arrived I sat on-deck in the marina – in the middle of Paris, mind you – and rigged-up the most fantastic looking contraption I’d ever seen. My new awning looked like something out of The Arabian Nights. It was huge, it was geometric, it was…
“My God in heaven, Thomas! What is that thing?!”
I turned to look up at Madeleine and Jean Paul standing up on the walkway above my slip. Such is life in a marina; you get used to the conditional privacy or you find you don’t enjoy life so much anymore.
“Just think of it as an umbrella. For the sun.” I looked up at them and smiled, and tried to sound reasonably sure of myself as I did so, but not having seen my new addition from their vantage I now guessed the thing must look like a stupendous monstrosity.
“Ah! Of course!” Jean Paul said. “If you say so, Thomas.”
“Mon Dieu!” said my dearest Madeleine, and I heard her muttering something off color to JP about the thing looking more like a zeppelin than an umbrella, and soon they joined me down below for a nice, refreshing round of Suffering Bastards. Of course I poured them strong.
“Oh, my…” she said after her first sip, and that was all she managed to get out before we broke out laughing. “Refreshing…” Jean Paul coughed after his second tentative sip, then of course he was off to the races. Madeleine set about whipping up dinner while JP and I finished setting up – then taking down the awning, and JP kept popping down Bastards until he looked like he was going to pass out, then he was down for the count. I trundled him down to the guest stateroom and got him laid out, then returned to help Madeleine in the galley.
It was amazing to me how well she had acclimated to life on board, but then I remembered her long stints with MSF in Darfur and Somalia, Chad and Uganda. She wasn’t your run of the mill department store addicted American girl, that’s for sure, but there was something else about her experiences that drove her resilient outlook. I wasn’t sure what it was yet, and wasn’t sure I wanted to know, but by now I knew she was one in a million. As she cooked dinner I looked at her again and again, and realized I couldn’t contemplate life without her now…
I helped carry dinner up into the cockpit and we sat and ate as the sun slipped behind the canyon of buildings that surrounded the marina. A simple omelet, some summer squash, and a nice cold Alsatian wine, and I looked up at all the folks strolling by on their way to dinner or the opera and I wouldn’t have traded anything for that moment.
And I thought about marriage again as I finished my dinner. I don’t know, maybe that’s just what men do . . . feel an overwhelming attraction and act on it. Was I ready to even think about getting married again? I had felt that strong impulse with Lisa Mullins as we sat eating shrimp and grits under the low country sun, yet I knew the feeling was a juvenile reaction, but still, the feeling was there. And it had felt all too real, so unjustifiably real. And now, here it was again, leaving me questioning my maturity – if not my sanity.
Why do we yearn for such binding connections? Is marriage the only way to feel so aboriginally bound – one soul to another? Is it simply a herding instinct? The caveman protecting ‘his’ woman from poachers? We’ve all read that stuff, why marriage evolved over time the way it has, yet I wasn’t sure then why the impulse is so physically powerful. Hell, I’m still not sure.
And I took a sip of wine, looked up at Madeleine. She was lost in thought, watching people move in the twilight dance of water and city lights; she looked calm, serene, almost contented as she drank her wine. The light reflected off the water, washing over her face – and the reflections formed quiet nocturnes in my mind.
We made love that night like we were the last human beings on earth who understood the severity of desire. We joined our struggle in the forepeak, and with the hatch above us open to the moon and stars we rode through the night, our joyous cries I’m sure more than entertaining to the couples who strolled by just above. Poor Jean Paul…I remember hoping he was too drunk to hear us, but his grin the next morning told me otherwise.
It’s an odd thing, really, to pull out of a marina in the middle of a city and motor off under bridges heavy with trains and cars. Some of the neighbors I’d shared this magic space with waved as the five of us puttered away slowly toward the Seine, and we instinctively ducked when a train rumbled overhead. Too soon it seemed we transited the three overpasses that lay between us and the open river, and only then were we in a sense free of the city. We turned to port as we cleared the last overpass and looked upon a waterscape full of tour boats and barge traffic; I could just make out Notre Dame aft before it slipped behind a row of buildings, and I eased the throttle forward to work our way more fully into the current.
What should I say here, now? Give you a travelogue? A play by play commentary of our world as we slipped from urban cityscape to rolling pastures – where horses grazed on the banks of our watery ribbon as we motored by? I suppose I could, but surely you’d grow bored, for we became, I soon saw, just one more part of a frantic world that seemed to have changed gears, where time was money and every barge we passed seemed in a hurry, and yet each of us on aquaTarkus seemed very much aware that this journey was a transfiguration, that our time was different than theirs…
But aren’t all journeys transformations, in one way or another. Maybe that’s Conrad talking, but the feeling was there…the feeling that we were a changing – or were we being changed? – by the landscape as we reeled by on that cellophane ribbon.
What can I say about motoring into a river’s current for hour after hour, day after day, then into locks that lift you a few feet at a time to higher elevations, into cooler waters and softer airs that seem to hold you in a kinder embrace. We motored along grass-lined waterways, sometimes little wider than the hull, the banks we grazed lined with trees that grew up and over the way ahead. There were times the way ahead looked as if we were floating down the center aisle of a vast cathedral – framed not by stone, but by vast overhanging trees. Farmers walked along ancient, stone-lined pathways atop the canal banks, and we often waved at one another, lost in our contemplations about each other’s lives. And the America flag waving off the stern caused more than a few double takes along the way.
We drifted along like this for days. Watching ancient worlds drift by as if in a waking dream, ramping-up alongside a town quay for lunch or dinner, walking to a farmer’s market or a bakery as we saw fit, holding the bounty of this simple life in open embrace as we crossed through the soul of France.
Time becomes meaningless in places like this; I watched our wake trail away behind us and I saw the strictures of time dissolve with our passing. Luc and Claire were, I saw, were as enchanted as Madeleine and I. Even JP seemed to get caught up in the mystery of this passage.
One night Madeleine and I made love on deck – in the moonlight. We lay together afterwards in the warm breeze, listening to swift waters race by the hull, and we jumped when we heard a noise in the grass on the nearby bank and turned to see a huge white horse standing not five feet away. As we stared at each other it wasn’t hard to imagine that once upon a time he had been a unicorn, or a dragon – so distant had that other reality become.
Days became weeks, and weeks too soon almost a month. We easily made Lyon, and now deep in the wide reaches of the Rhone we tumbled southward at an alarming rate toward the Mediterranean, and Marseilles. We soon arrived, and at a yard the mast was reunited with the hull, and lickety-split, aquaTarkus was a sailboat again! With a bit more than a week left together we burst out into the blue waters of the Med and turned hard left and sailed past Marseilles toward a very special part of the coast…a series of small, steep-walled inlets – called calanques – and to one in particular, the Calanque d’En Vau near the Port of Cassis. Here, though the water was quite deep, it was as clear as any swimming pool I had ever seen, and we slipped like seals from the boat into the water and dove among rocks and pulled ourselves out onto the beach and lay in the blistering sun until it was time to swim back to the boat and do something really strenuous – like eat lunch.
This kind of pleasure comes but a few times in life, and I was sorry to see our time together coming to an end. We all took a bus into Marseilles and I went to the American Express to collect my mail after taking Jean Paul, Luc and Claire to the train station for a painful goodbye. Madeleine and I took a room for the night and I held her to my breast as tightly as I could, fearing tomorrow’s parting more than anything I could remember. I simply didn’t have words for what I felt; my feelings were vast and oceanic – beyond simple knowing.
I recall vividly as we walked along the quay that evening, lost to the world around us, lost to anything and everything but the simple joy we found in the touch of each other’s skin, the warmth and hope we found in each other’s eyes. We ate a small dinner by the harbor and walked back to the hotel where we sat on the front steps as the moon rose overhead. I think we knew we hadn’t finished our music together, but I knew the road ahead without her by my side would be an unpleasant one.
I had no idea, really, how bad things could get.
I’ll spare you a description of our parting the next morning. I’m not big on tears, especially when they’re mine.
I made my way back to the boat – empty now for the first time in months – and sailed down to the Calanque de Cassis – where there is a lovely marina – and I had the boat hauled and long postponed maintenance performed. I took a room nearby, as the boat was hard on the ground, and I worked on replacing an old braided fuel line that looked long past it’s prime while workmen puttered away on the ground below.
For some reason the marina had asked for emergency contact information, which soon came in handy. Do we believe in coincidence?
It was a dreadfully hot day, hotter than any other time I could remember that summer, and I was working down below, not drinking enough water and pushing myself way too hard when it came.
A crushing pressure in my chest. Yes. That pressure we all know and love. I just managed to crawl up into the cockpit and get a passing mechanics attention before I passed out.
I have no recollection of events as they transpired. A medical team took me to Cassis and thence to Marseilles. Jean Paul was contacted, and he must have called the President of France because overnight I was flown to the best cardiac hospital in Paris where a team of JPs friends went about clearing out my somewhat over-clogged plumbing. Madeleine was soon in attendance, clucking over the freshly minted zipper now right down the middle of my chest, and she chided me once again about not eating enough fruits and vegetables and drinking too much rum. Did she mention my passion for Hollandaise sauce, too?
You know, fruits and vegetables are one thing, but messing with a sailor’s rum? And Hollandaise? Come on! Cut me some slack, wouldya? I me, why bother.
Madeleine left for Darfur about a month after my événement cardiaque. I healed nicely, or so JP said anyway, and I used the time to get caught up with business affairs back home. Getting Mom’s final affairs put to bed – the ranch on the market, equities liquidated, etc. – took up most of the time that wasn’t being chewed up by truly sadistic nurses in cardiac rehab. Fortunately, my little hiccup wasn’t a really bad affair – more like a warning shot across the bow, really – but it was a warning that I took to, well, to heart. I know, I know…I’m so sorry.
Madeleine was due to return just in time for Christmas, and we had talked about spending the time down on the boat, so as soon as I could I planned to make my way back to the coast. And so it was that JeanPaul flew down with me in late October, and we found that the workers in the yard had done a nice job on the bottom paint and engine overhaul. The sailmaker who’d made the zeppelin, er, the sun awning, had graciously made me a new main-sail and the yard crew had put that on, too, so with a fresh autumn breeze at our backs JP and I sailed down to the made the short sail to the Calanque d’En Vau again. He handled the anchor and then we slipped our toes into the water.
It was unanimous! Way too cold for mere mortals to swim in, so we made a nice (healthy) salad and sat in the sun, while the steep walls of the canyon kept the blustery air just offshore from working us over too badly.
“What are you going to do about Madeleine?” Jean Paul asked me in his usual, delicate way.
“What am I going to do? What the hell does that mean?” I shot back.
“When she heard about you, dear Thomas, and about your little circulatory problem, she came unglued, you know. I mean totally unglued. Mind you, this is a woman with a heart of steel, pure steel. I’ve never seen her cry before. And the things she’s seen, well, they make me cry to think about.”
“I hear you, Jean Paul. I love her. That’s all there is to say.”
“And – what?! Look, the ink on my divorce papers has barely had time to dry, you know what I mean?”
“That’s bullshit and you know it. Love is love. Commitment is commitment, and time is fleeting. You of all people should understand that now.”
“And don’t I just know it, my friend. Thanks for reminding me.”
“And I thank you for that, Thomas. Truly. I am honored to be your friend. And as your friend, I tell you that you are full of bullshit.”
Yeah, there was no doubt about it. He was from my mother’s side of the family alright, with just enough of my mother’s steel-edged irony to cut deepest when least expected.
I don’t know much about Darfur; I didn’t then and I still don’t. I don’t keep up with that stuff anymore. I figure that people are going to keep killing people for any and whatever reasons they can come up with. I’ve experienced it personally in Central America, in the southwestern Pacific, and in Ireland. I’ve seen it in South Central L.A., and in Oakland. I’ve nearly been knifed in Mexico City and mugged in New York City. Yeah, it’s usually some kind of religious gripe that sets people off these days, but hell, why blame God for all our nonsense. Assuming he gave us this paradise in the first place, most of the time we’ve pretty much fucked it up all by ourselves and with no help from him. Besides, more often that not it just comes down to somebody else wanting your stuff, and they’re willing to hurt you to take it from you.
So, when it comes to believing in the goodness of man, I’m an agnostic.
That’s why I was such a stoic when I heard that Madeleine and a handful of other physicians had been abducted by Islamist militants from their aid station outside of Nyala, in southwestern Sudan.
As far as I could make out, there wasn’t much reason for this latest war. One group of (well-armed) muslims with – basically – nothing of value to call their own were out killing another group of (somewhat less than well-armed) non-muslims who had – basically – nothing of value to call their own. A few well-intentioned people were trying to stop the murder, but – basically – the general public in the west had had it with the never-ending stream of tribal genocide that had been playing out on television in their living rooms – night after night – for almost thirty years. Throw in a few misadventures playing out in the Middle East at the same time, and – well – Darfur was getting lost in the shuffle.
But then, as these things tend to, all of a sudden Darfur got real personal for me.
I flew up to Paris and was met at deGaulle by Luc and Claire; Jean Paul was at MSF headquarters getting caught up with the latest news. Rumors were flying about a French military mission into the area to try to recover the physicians – something the docs at MSF were adamantly against, by the way – when video was released showing one of the doctors being beheaded. A knife-wielding masked militant declared that any attempt to rescue the others would only lead to more beheadings. I watched this bastard tell me he was going to kill the woman I loved right there in the baggage claim area at Orly Airport – on CNN.
You have to believe me when I tell you this. I believed him, I was willing to take him at his word. And I wanted to kill that son of a bitch more than anything else in the world. Maybe that’s what terrorists want – to fill the human heart with hate – and if that’s their aim they have surely succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
Well, it seemed the son of a bitch had used an unsecured connection to send his demands to CNN, and of course our good buddies at the NSA intercepted the transmission and forwarded the coordinates to a group of United States Marines already operating (ahem, covertly) in the area.
I never got the chance to kill that prick. Some kid from Flint, Michigan probably got that honor. One other doctor got wounded in the rescue, but the rest were hustled out of the Sudan on a US Air Force C-17 within a couple of hours of their ‘release’ – at least that’s what the press was told – and Madeleine and her associates her winging their way back to Frankfurt, Germany, where a group of French spooks debriefed them before their return to Paris.
All this Jean Paul related to me over dinner across from the Tuileries; Luc and Claire were simply too devastated to eat – they had known the murdered physician quite well, so JP and I sat quietly by ourselves and ate our dinner. The worst was over, Jean Paul told me, and though relieved this part of Madeleine’s ordeal was now in the past, we both knew there would be trying times ahead as she came to grips with the broader contours of her ordeal.
“Have you thought about our last conversation? On the boat?” he asked.
“Little else, my friend. Little else.”
“Don’t you think this would be the most inappropriate time to bring all that up? I mean really, Jean, look what she’s just been through.”
“I see. I see that you are still full of bullshit. Too bad. She deserves better.”
“Pardon me, Jean Paul. But fuck you.”
“No, you spineless coward, fuck you! You love the woman, and she loves you! She is all alone in this world, no family, but a handful of friends, and yet it is you that she loves more than anything else in this world. And what are you going to do? Get on your boat, perhaps, and run away again?”
I think I was stunned, too stunned to say a word. I think everyone else in the restaurant was too stunned as well. But was my dear cousin finished with me just yet?
Oh-no-no, mon ami, he was just getting started: “You have grown disgusting, Thomas. You called yourself a hippy once, a revolutionary, then you opened up a restaurant and served plates of fifty dollar crap to the very same people you once condemned. You got rich off them, off their money. Then off you go in search of everything you turned your back on – in a half-million dollar plaything, and you did this when your country needed people of conscience more than at any time in it’s history. Shit, Thomas, when the world needed people of conscience. And now here you are, faced with the reality of love, love from a true woman of conscience, and you are prepared to run away from her too, aren’t you? Aren’t you!?”
I felt like getting up and walking away from the table, but he held me with his eyes. Remember, I think I once mentioned his eyes? Empathetic, all knowing eyes? Jean Paul is a rare bird, and I love him. But he can be such an ass.
So of course I looked at him, and in my best poker face asked: “You gonna eat those snails?” I spoke in my best deadpan, but I gave it away too soon and started to grin.
He looked at me for a moment longer with astonishment registering clearly in those eyes, then he laughed. I’m not talking a little snort of derision, either; we’re talking a major-league blow-out laugh, an eye-watering, side-splitting laugh, and soon he was pounding the table and trying to catch his breath, and then the people around us started to laugh.
That was it.
I laughed so hard the staples in my chest hurt, then everyone in the restaurant was laughing, and our laughter spread to the street, across the city, then a continent. Soon the whole world was laughing at the absurdity of life.
We laughed until we cried. All of us.
Late the next rain-soaked afternoon, Madeleine returned to Paris in a little Dassault Falcon 50, and all of us were waiting for her when the little white jet pulled up on the ramp at a private airfield south of Paris. She was the third one off the plane, and I could see she walked now with a limp and a cane, yet when she was still a good distance away she saw me and started to run. I could see her grimaced pain, and I rushed past a security guard to meet her. We met while still out on the wet tarmac, rain falling on our shoulders and faces as we kissed, and I think we both cried, though it was hard to tell – we were both so wet.
We piled into JPs little Citroen and slipped back into Paris and made our way to Madeleine’s little apartment next to the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Pres.
What do you do at times like this? Do you celebrate? Get drunk? Go to church?
Well, yeah, but in what order?
I sat beside Madeleine as she kneeled at her pew inside the Abbey, and I listened as she whispered a prayer and crossed herself. After a while she sat beside me and I took her hand; she returned the pressure I felt building in my heart, and with her hand in mine I turned and looked at the overwhelming beauty of her face in the subdued light of the chapel. She tried to smile for me, but the attempt was lost in the grief we felt.
We left the chapel and walked out into the chill air of the late autumn evening and walked the four blocks down to the Seine, and it was as if gravity had pulled us as we walked upstream to the Ile de la Cité and Notre Dame. We continued along the river, her hand in mine, on past the cathedral until we came to the little bridge that cuts across to the Ile Saint-Louis. Still we walked on, on toward the Place de la Bastille and our little marina.
On to our own memory of place.
Gaston, the astute old man running my favorite crepe stand, recognized me from a distance and put on a couple for us as we approached. We asked him to fix us two with Gran Marnier and strawberries, then went to sit on a bench by his stand overlooking the spot where aquaTarkus had been not so long ago, and we sat in the quiet evening and ate our crepes as we looked down at all the boats and relived other times. We sat there for hours, I suppose, wanting to commune with spirits of the past, the memory of place guiding our love tentatively towards some sort of conclusion.
I felt a chill on Madeleine and stood, held my hand out for her, but instead she took mine and pulled me back down to face her.
“Tom, what is to become of us?”
Ah, there it was. Had we come to the most important question of my life – and hers – so soon?
“Oh, Tom, I’m so sorry. This must be so strange for you? I should not…”
“Strange? Why would you think it strange for two people in love to ponder their future? Why shouldn’t two people who love each other as much as we do talk about commitment and what we want the future to hold for us?”
Suddenly she was very quiet, and the air took on a preternatural hush.
“So, I don’t know Madeleine, perhaps it would be crass to ask you to marry me tonight. I know you’ve been through so much the past few days, so much violence and sorrow. Why would you want to contemplate spending your life with an old vagabond.”
“Yes, my love?”
“Shut up, Thomas. Shut up and kiss me.”
“Yeah JP, what’s up? You still at the office?”
“Thomas, a woman is here in the clinic. An American. Lisa something. She says she’s here with your daughter, and that she wants to see you right away.”
“My daughter? In Deauville?”
“That’s what she says. My, Thomas, but you have led a complicated life.”
“Last I heard, Jean Paul, she said another fellow was the father, but I haven’t kept up with her too much since I left America. I think she may have a few loose screws, if you know what I mean?”
“Well, she has made an appointment to see me. So. Would you like me to talk with her about this, or would you like me to keep out of the affair?”
“Hell no, Jean Paul. Find out what you can. Just keep in mind that Liz has heard some contradictory things about this woman, and her pregnancy. Do you have Liz’s number?”
“Yes. But it shouldn’t come to that, should it?”
“I don’t know. I doubt it.”
“Can you come up tonight?” he asked.
“Yeah. On my way. I can just make the one thirty to Deauville. Be there about five.”
“Good. I’ll pick you up at the station. Oh, Thomas? Will you come alone?”
I didn’t know what to think.
Was this woman a pathological liar? What in God’s name was she up to?
The one thirty was a local, not an express, and the train stopped at every little station between Paris and the coast. The closer we came to Deauville, the more upset I became until, at one point, I was so nauseated I thought I might lose it. I had long thought this incident over and done with, and, well, at least my part in the affair was at an end, so I hadn’t given the problem of Lisa a thought in months.
Oh, so complicated, yet so simple. Some mistakes never leave you; they follow you until they find you at your weakest, then they turn and face you, ready to sprint in for the kill.
I called Madeleine before I left for the station. She had gone to work that morning to do some difficult analyses in her lab, and I simply laid it out on the table for her as best I could. I could hear the strain in her voice when I told her I would get to the bottom of this as fast as I could and call her that evening.
And she wished me good luck.
When the woman you love wishes you good luck, in my experience you ought to start packing your bags – because they surely are.
The train arrived a half hour late, but Jean Paul was on the platform, waiting, and I could see a little impatiently. A light drizzle coated the old beige tiles of the station platform as I met him, then we walked out to his Citroen.
“I dropped her off at the house. I thought it better for you to talk in quiet surroundings.”
“What did you find out?” I asked Jean Paul.
“No, Thomas, first I want you to talk to this woman. Listen to what she has to say. Also, forgive me, but I called Madeleine, asked her to come up tonight.”
“You did – what?”
“Again, Thomas, talk with this woman. Listen to what she has to say. But Thomas, understand this. I love you; you are my family. I will support any decision you make, because I know you will make the right choice.”
We crunched down the gravel drive, tires popping over the wet pebbles as we pulled up to the front door. It was dark now, and honey colored light shone out the front windows, spilling onto tired grass now long asleep, and I grabbed my overnight case and walked with Jean Paul into the mother’s house. He took my case from me and indicated that I should go to the last bedroom – the old blue one at the end of the hall – and that Lisa was waiting for me there.
I walked down the hall; instinctively I walked as quietly as I could, like I was sneaking up on my past, trying to surprise it.
The door was open and I looked in.
Lisa was asleep on her side, and though a light was on I couldn’t make her out too well. I knocked lightly on the door.
“Tom?” And I could hear the truth in her voice.
“Yes, it’s me.” I walked into the room, and I could smell sickness throughout the room.
“I’m so sorry for all this. I really am.” I could see her emaciated body under the sheets, her bright eyes now lined with dark circles, sunken deeply in her yellow face.
I moved to her, sat on the bed beside her.
“Lisa, what is it? What’s happened to you?”
“Well, turns out I’m a little sick.”
“I can see that. Where’s the baby?”
“She’s with Liz right now, in the kitchen.”
“She’s…Liz is…here, now?”
“Oh, poor Thomas. This must be so impossible…”
“Go. Go see her, Tom. Then come back and talk to me.”
I was speechless, frozen in place, felt like I was floating outside my body.
“Will you please tell me what’s going on first?”
“Go, now,” she said, pointing. “Now, Thomas. Go and meet your daughter.”
I stood in a daze and walked to the kitchen. Jean Paul watched as Liz, holding the little girl close, held a bottle to her lips. My ex-wife looked up at me for a moment, the moment I walked into my mother’s kitchen, and she smiled at me as though this was the most natural thing in the world.
Ah, I understood now. I was having a dream! None of this was real! It couldn’t be, could it?
“Was she asleep?” Jean Paul asked me.
Oops. No, not a dream.
“No, she’s…Jean Paul? What the hell’s going on?”
“Sh-h-h!” hissed Liz. “Don’t upset her, Tom. Here, come hold her.”
I walked forward, looked at the little bundle in Liz’s arm.
“No, no. Not quite yet. Jean Paul? How ‘bout a little truth right about now?”
“Lisa has an aggressive cancer, Thomas. A pancreatic cancer. It’s a miracle she carried the baby to term, really.”
“Liz?” I asked. “How long have you known about this?”
“Me? Oh, right after the funeral, Tom. Lisa made me promise not to tell you.”
“And the baby’s mine?”
“Well, the blood test for the other guy, Drew, turned out negative. He insisted, wanted to…wanted proof. So, he was happy, anyway, and moved on. Then Lisa found out she was sick, back in August. That’s when she came to see me.”
“She wants you to raise the baby.”
“Thomas,” JeanPaul said, “look at this baby girl. This new life. It’s yours.”
Thanks, JP, always nice to have a master of understatement in the family.
I walked closer to Liz, looked closely at the little girl bundled up in my ex-wife’s arms, and I gasped when I looked at my little girl.
She looked exactly like pictures of my mother when she had been so little.
I took her from Liz and held her close.
We moved down to the coast, my two girls and I, we moved onboard aquaTarkus. Moved on for good. But not before Madeleine and I married on Christmas Eve, in the little chapel by my mother’s house – by my home, really – my home by the sea near Hennequeville. Liz stayed for the wedding, and even Marie came, too. Jean Paul talked about a reconciliation while Luc and Claire played with little Elizabeth in the snow afterwards. Madeleine and I decided to put Lisa’s ashes in the yard by my parent’s tree, so Elizabeth would always have the sanctity of familial love focused intently on the spot that had united us all, once upon a time – when my father fell from the sky.
I wanted Elizabeth to always know the memory of place. Her place in the world.
So, yes, we moved aboard, for good. We resolved to live our lives afloat, to carry Madeleine’s practice to distant lands, where she could bring the miracle of her strength and love to those bereft of hope, to those bereft of peace. And yes, to those bereft of love.
After all, she had given this to me. And my daughter, because you never know where the next memory will come from.
©2007-2016 Adrian Leverkühn | ABW | firstname.lastname@example.org
Again, hope you enjoyed the journey.