Souvenirs

A journey of life, of death, of France.

Editors’ note: An earlier version of this essay appeared briefly on the author’s blog, Silly But True.


I had no business going to France. My mother had died of cancer just two months before, and my father would follow within another few. My husband and I had set aside our little pile of savings for a new heater, though it was still early May and we would have until October to plunder that pile — October, when we might well be dead ourselves, when we would in fact have sold our cold little clapboard house, too close to two cold bodies anyway. Neither of us spoke French; we both smiled too freely at strangers to be remotely respectable on the Continent. The French would scoff, would turn down their graceful Gallic noses at us; that much was certain. But I liked their perfumes and their puppets and their palaces and their lean violin noses all, and that, for the time being, was what mattered. The land of Colette, carillons, and tongue kissing, of otiose superfluities too long in short supply, was only an ocean — and one broken heater — away. So as long as we were alive, however technically, we were going. We were going to France.

Photo by Flickr user bachmontIn Paris, skies were raining, the air algid for late May. The wall separating our headboard from that of the couple in the next room was an indigo hymen I could have punctured with my fingernail, though I did not. Early the next morning, our Siamese beds rocked to the rhythm of our synchronous lovemaking, ours hesitating and slow, theirs fast and sure. Lying supine with the skin of my stomach pickling in sweat, I stared through the open window and vaguely scanned the faces in the wax museum across the alleyway. I searched for a comforting face and found Queen Elizabeth smiling the abstract smile of people whose profiles appear on coins as Robert climaxed into my mouth. In the shower, the water overflowed the tub’s low rim, flooding the tiles surrounding the sink. Stepping out into a metastasizing pool, I wrapped myself in a towel and then dropped it into the water at my feet, regarding my naked body in the mirror for the first time in months. My waist had swollen like an astronaut’s suit. My nipples had turned purple as grapes, and my pubic hair had receded beneath a tumescent abdominal crescent. I was ripe as an apple just starting to rot.

After her mastectomy, my mom declined the doctors’ offer of plastic surgery to fashion her a new left breast. Instead, she wore a piece of silicone in her bra that was a few sizes too small, a few inches too high. Her clothes she invariably wore loose, but even under the airiest blouse you could easily spy the limp artificial lump. At night, under either her winter gray woolen or summer pink terrycloth housecoat, she returned her bra to its top dresser drawer and left the right breast to hang, pointing abjectly toward her feet. Walking in on her in the bath, I confronted the scar in the concave ocean of her chest, the arresting blankness an eye that was permanently closed.

Before France, I spent whole evenings hunched on a bookstore floor reading accounts of mourners maintaining full-fledged relationships with loved ones who had passed on: Teasing banter and minor disagreements continued on, as if death and all its entrapments were nothing but an elaborate canard, the coffin merely a mahogany jack in the box. Typically the dead and undead in these stories shared an intimate language built on signs. Bon Jovi playing in the frozen food aisle, for instance, might mean Dad is warning you to keep watch on a sore throat. A penny on a sidewalk could prompt a telepathic dialogue on American history. For my part, I paid special attention to perennials, sequins, and hair dye, because I knew my mom died still regretting my refusal to become a bottle blonde, which better complemented my skin tone, she always said. But she kept silent, as mute as death itself. She never said a word about France. She had left me to lie awake at night with only wax faces for comfort, eyes that never blinked, breasts that never succumbed to disease.

In her last month of life, I had suggested journeying to France together. In fact, we could time our trip for July and celebrate Bastille Day. We would take a riverboat tour since walking was all but impossible. But she rejected the idea out of hand, saying it sounded terribly extravagant; she could never spend that amount of money and then there would be other years, when she was stronger.

But why shouldn’t we be extravagant? She wasn’t going to have other years, yet still we had to leave the money in the bank. And for what? For perfume, puppetry, and palaces. That was all that was left when she left me with no better answers.

So why not France? The land of sprawling anarchist bookstalls, of lingering late-morning coitus, of forks tapping the caramelized crust of warm crème brûlée. It wasn’t until years later that I could see with what arrant, aching misery I had sipped vintage rosé in the Rhone River Valley, sunbathed topless in Villefranche, ridden the carousel round and round in Montmartre. God, it was awful. What I wouldn’t have given to be painting barns and plying my spade into thistle roots on our small Indiana farm instead. What I wouldn’t have done not to have needed France at all.

In Monaco, we ate lunch on a docked schooner behind a phalanx of bleachers erected for the Grand Prix. I picked at my salad and stared off toward the castle, caring nothing for Grace Kelly. Sitting next to us was a young couple from London. They were celebrating the man’s 25th birthday and planning a trip to Cuba in the fall. When they asked me to take a picture of them, each brandishing a tall glass of champagne, my husband snapped one of them as well — the girl, draped in a black silk halter dress, was radiant as a strawberry, sweeter than any overripe apple.

He would think of her while he was sliding off my nightgown and I wouldn’t mind. On the Cap Ferrat, I left him lying prone, the back of his legs blistering like crabs’ claws in the sand, and walked down to the water without tying my top back on, inviting the sun to burn my breasts. Except for a few fathers tossing their children into the waves, the waters lay empty of human limbs. I swam out as far as a sailboat angling toward shore, letting myself grow breathless with the effort and choking on a mouthful of sea water. However tired, I was too strong to drown.

In Villefranche, our hotel had ants in the bathroom — a tiny space which Franc, the owner, had beveled from a corner of the main room. A single pane of translucent glass that fell several feet short of the ceiling separated the toilet from the neighboring bedpost. The first morning I found two ants plundering the bristles of my toothbrush, plowing through the white thickets like Bushmen through cane. In a tobacco shop next to the laundromat I bought a new one the next day and kept it on the window ledge, overlooking a grove of lemon trees encircling the parking lot.

Franc spent most of his afternoons repairing his motorcycle but managed to serve a decent breakfast and point us to several neighboring villages not in our guidebook. As the days passed, we left Cannes and Nice for hamlets higher and higher into the mountains, where civilization grew wilder, the people less well-dressed, their games of street soccer fiercer, with balls flying recklessly off cliffs, and cats’ cries echoing against the altars of dilapidated churches, hollow and cold.

In Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, I bought a small print of Van Gogh’s sunflowers outside the asylum where he cut off his ear. The flayed bark on the trees looked like molting green skin but was smooth to the touch. The lavender fields wouldn’t bloom until July, but in a shop overlooking an ochre vineyard I purchased several lavender-scented soaps for friends. I would tell them they smelled just like the fields that yet lay scentless and green.

I didn’t buy my dad a single souvenir. Souvenirs are for those who assume that life is long, those who have time for memories. And what would he have wanted anyway? He had never seen a Godard film or tasted foie gras. What he would have wanted, I knew, would have been for me to be with him rather than going to France. And I would have — I would have listened to his happy, hissy whistling issuing from the gap in his front teeth for hours on end as we drove down the center of the road in his dusty pickup truck — were he not dying. I only began to travel when it was clear my home was gone, when I had no choice but to wander and to pack light. When we returned, I sat on our living room floor at my dad’s feet rhapsodizing about the rustic cuisine of Bourgogne, the paintings of the d’Orsay, the crisp Provencal wines, while he spooned himself corn from a can in dirty pajamas with a hole in the pocket.

As he sat back in his armchair, his brown eyes yellowing from a fresh leakage of bile, his stomach inflated into a fleshy planet from a bowel obstruction that almost killed him during my absence, I told him about France. I relayed the ecstasy of eating chocolate crepes beneath the Eiffel Tower, while I thawed hamburger my mom had bought more than a year ago. When I visited him in later weeks, I would fold my legs onto my mom’s end of the couch, wrapping my hair in her curlers that lay in a basket below the inn table, and watch reruns of M*A*S*H. Neither my dad nor I bothered removing the raised toilet seat the hospital had provided for my mom; sitting on its plastic rim, I sat tall enough so I could see out the window into the orchard where lightning had split the peach tree while I was drinking pinot noir in Burgundy. Sometimes I would play the same Chopin sonatas on the piano I had in junior high as my dad slept in his chair, his mouth hanging open like a broken doorway. When I made him a grilled cheese sandwich with a side of applesauce, he smiled the smile that only dying people can smile, dazzlingly bright and yet visibly disappearing, and said I made him feel like a king. When he was consigned to hospice care, his stomach too weak for even applesauce, my sister would be the one to insert the enemas.

For years afterward, I felt the epic wrongness of it — the wrongness of France then, maybe always. But now I see it as just one small wrongness inside a larger one, one so expansive I couldn’t have begun to glimpse its edges at the time. I couldn’t see the sun for the moon and the moon for the hand I held up to its face, a hand I had begun to weigh down with silver rings bought from a Paris flea market, brighter than stars. Only now I do I see the wrongness of crawling away from pain in itself. I see it, though I continue to crawl at times, when I can’t stand up anymore. I crawl to France and then I crawl back, tired of perfume and puppetry and palaces.

Article © 2013 by Melissa Wiley