(Continued from Chapter 9 – Honeymoons End. To start book, scroll to “Chapters” in right side bar.) Insistent noon light bathes the deck outside the family room, bright as a summer solstice in New Jersey, though the sun has yet to peak on this late February day. Didier, just back from playing tennis with his sister Anne’s husband, Gilles, climbs the deck’s steps and tugs off his sweatshirt, tossing it onto one of the teak lounge chairs Veronica removed from the storage shed last week. His cheeks, slick with perspiration, radiate burgundy heat. His eyes brim with triumph: he won.
“Good game?” Veronica asks, her chest billowing with hope. For nearly two weeks she has kept her news about July locked up in her heart like a secret, patiently awaiting the right moment to tell him. She’s used every trick in the book to improve his relentless foul mood, from preparing the Benhamou family’s favorite roast chicken recipe with garlic and roast potatoes one evening to slipping into a lacy camisole the next night at bedtime and massaging his feet. The chicken elicited only a lugubrious scowl followed by complaints that it was undersalted and overcooked. The camisole sparked a short round of petting, but while halfheartedly fondling her breasts, Didier fell asleep.
“Not too bad.” He sinks into the lounge chair’s white canvas cushion and fixes his gaze on Luc and Céleste, busy shepherding toy animals through the Lego farm Veronica built with them this morning in the grass.
“The way things have been going lately, that’s worth a celebration!” she chimes. On top of his foul mood, Didier caught Luc’s fever last week. He sequestered himself on the pull-out sofa in the office for seventy-two hours, missing work and groaning that, with the backlog piling up in his absence, he’d be better off slipping into a coma than going back. Battling a fiery throat and a postnasal drip of her own, Veronica snapped into action at each of his cantankerous demands: “Can you get me more broth? With lots of lemon this time? And those Propolis drops, do we have any left? Ah, then you must go get some in town.” If patience paid off in dollars, she’d have raked in millions by now.
Didier shrugs, reclines, and shuts his eyes. At least he’s not scowling.
“Hey—speaking of celebration—” Her mind whirs with a thousand silly phrases she might begin with to transform his blank, unreadable expression into a receptive smile. But the sentence that’s been simmering in her chest all this time beneath dutiful small talk about grocery lists, surgery schedules, and the kids is about to boil over. After weeks of playing nurse and single mom, she has the right, at least, to speak her mind. “My parents said they’ll cover airfare for July,” she blurts out, a moment too soon to rearrange her anxious expression into one that’s sprightly and sunny side up. “Isn’t that great?”
Still reclining, eyes still shut, Didier doesn’t flinch.
“Hello-o!” she says after a couple of seconds. “Anybody there?”
“Whoa. Interpreter, please. Does that mean ‘No, nobody’s there?’ Or ‘No, you don’t think it’s great that my parents will fly me and the kids to Jersey in July?’”
“You know exactly what it means.” Didier opens his eyes, fiery with impatience to speak his mind now that this chance has come up.
Veronica approaches the lounge chair, balls a fist, and knocks it on his head. Sunny side up, she reminds herself. Sunny side up. “Yeah, I think it means nobody’s there! You must have been bopped on the belfry by a tennis ball. I can see just the headlines: ‘Brilliant Surgeon Wins Tennis Game but Loses Marbles.’ Who in their right mind would scoff at free airfare?”
“Marbles?” Céleste pipes up, climbing the steps to the deck and bucking her toy horse against Veronica’s leg. “Neighhh. Horsey wants some.”
“Lost marbles,” Veronica corrects her. She opens her hands, which tremble with shock and fury. “See? Nothing.” She leers at Didier.
“It’s true,” Didier tells Céleste. “No marbles.” Turning to Veronica, he adds, “Just dignity and common sense.”
“Oh, please. What kind of common sense would make a person sneeze at an offer that’s too good to refuse?”
“The kind that tells me we are adults and must solve our problems on our own.”
“That’s absurd! This isn’t even a problem. My mother offered to fly the kids and me to Jersey in July. I accepted. End of story.”
“Horsey’s bored without marbles,” Céleste whines, waving the brown plastic horse.
“We’ll go hunting for marbles in the house in a minute, princess. I’m sure we have some there.” Veronica narrows her eyes at Didier as though to say, “Drop it. We have more important things to do.”
Didier ignores her glare. “This story has no end. Your parents’ gifts are like cocaine: each sniff makes you feel good for a while but is never enough.”
“Oh, so now I’m a junkie! Thanks, Doc.” Veronica tries to smile but manages only an ill-disguised sneer. She figured Didier might purse his lips at her news, blow an annoyed puff of air from his lips or, in the worst of cases, give her the cold shoulder by retreating to his office after dinner for a day or two. But take such a hard line? Maybe now wasn’t a good time to tell him, after all. She paces to the deck’s edge, down its three sturdy steps, and over to the tall, mossy stone wall enclosing the yard, breathing deeply to gain control of her tone. A calm, confident demeanor is the only leverage she has. “Seriously, how can you say that? How can you even think it? Without my parents’ help, we wouldn’t have this deck where you’re enjoying soaking up the sun!” She waves at the deck’s concrete base extending from the sliding glass door, topped with a mosaic of Italian tiles in various shades of sienna. She designed the mosaic herself, spending weeks sketching out a pattern of renaissance medallions and supervising the custom cutting of the tiles, to add a little pizzazz. It all cost a bundle, but, thanks to Rich and Shirley, she and Didier didn’t pay a cent.
“You know that I thought your parents were too generous in paying for us to remodel the house,” he says.
“Yeah, like we really had a choice.”
“Of course we had a choice.” Didier jerks forward and perches his forearms on his knees, tapping his left foot with agitation. “We could have done the remodeling little by little over time. We could have chosen to live in a place less expensive, like an apartment, or a place in perfect condition, like a newer house outside of Aix.”
“In other words, we could have either sucked up living in a house that looked like a bunker, moved to the boondocks and gotten a couple of goats, or crammed ourselves into a two-bedroom apartment like Mireille. Now that’s what I call a plan.”
“That’s called a compromise, Vero.”
“Just look who’s talking about compromise,” Veronica snaps, blinking back a deluge of tears. What an asinine, insensitive thing for Didier to say. And she hates it when he abbreviates her name to Vero. It reminds her of the Spanish word for “true,” but the way he pronounces it—“Ver-O”—it sounds more like a joke, an arrogant mockery of the truth and of her.
“I know you have made many compromises.” His voice is steady and neutral, clinical. “That is why I accepted your parents’ help with the renovations, and with furniture. But the renovations are done now. We are comfortable in our home. And so, we are done with gifts. Gifts are the fruit of other people’s work. We must do our own work now to build our future.”
“The future. Great. So, like, I’ll be able to spend July in New Jersey in what—ten years? When we’ve practically paid off our mortgage, and the kids are hitting puberty?”
“It all depends on us. For example, many things about my work could evolve.” His lips part briefly and then clamp shut again as if he’d been on the verge of some announcement that, on second thought, he decided not to make. “And you, your painting career has not even started. Perhaps staying here in July will give you more time to complete a painting for Stella—or even several paintings.” He studies her hard, as if combing the pages of an open book in which no nuance, no cryptic meaning, escapes him.
Veronica’s cheeks tingle. “Either that, or the thought of not going to Jersey this summer will throw me deeper into a rut.”
“Part of an artist’s job is knowing how to climb out of a rut,” Didier replies. “Non?”
Céleste tugs at the leg of Veronica’s overalls and wags her plastic horse. “Mommy, can we find the marbles now?” she begs. “Can we? Neigghhh! Neigghhh!”
Luc, snapping together and then detaching the same three Lego pieces beside the mock farm, announces, “Me, I’m wet.”
Veronica glowers at Didier, silently commanding him to drop this, surrender, and move on. Squatting, she slips a finger inside the elastic band of Luc’s elfin jeans. “You’re wet all right, Duke. Soaking wet. We’d better change you.”
“I’ll do it,” Didier says. He carries Luc inside.
While Didier diapers Luc upstairs, Veronica leads Céleste on a hunt for the bag of rubber superballs she intends to pass off as marbles. Real marbles are out of the question: God knows, Luc and Céleste would probably insert them directly into their mouths. She stomps over to the compact wooden toy chest in a corner of the living room, which she hand-painted last year with the same pattern of gold and olive hippos, lions, and giraffes that she created for the kids’ curtains and walls. After amassing its contents on the floor, she makes her way to the paltry corridor that passes as a kitchen. “Comfortable in our home?” she hisses, banging her knee on a cabinet door. She might be if she were a skinny French woman who’d mastered the art of well-timed self-effacement and could fit into skinny jeans.
No superballs in the toy chest. None in the kitchen cabinet that Veronica has stocked with beat-up pots and pans and other makeshift toys for the kids’ to entertain themselves with while she puts together meals. Céleste, delighted to rediscover the toy chest’s contents, has forgotten her quest for marbles and bangs instead on a xylophone’s rainbow of metallic keys. Veronica, however, pursues the search with a vengeance, flinging open drawers, crouching to inspect the dust-ball-infested underside of the hutch by the dining table, determined—driven—to accomplish this one small feat and fulfill her promise to her daughter.
Marching toward the stairwell, she barges past Didier, Luc in his arms.
“Shall we have a quick lunch and meet Gilles and Anne at Les Calenques?” he asks, confident enough that he’ll prevail in their dispute to put it aside. “Gilles invited us to take a walk with them. Maybe Mireille’s family will come, too. It is a beautiful day for walking by the sea.”
“No thanks,” she snaps.
“Allez.” He grips her arm. “You should not get so upset over a simple change of plans. November is a fine time to travel. Perhaps by next year, you will be able to go in the summer again.”
“What change of plans? I’m not changing my plans. I just don’t want to have to fight with you about them.”
Luc wriggles from Didier’s arms and steps toward the mound of toys in the living room, a veritable kingdom waiting to be conquered, fortified by his sister’s vigilant guard.
“This is not a fight, Vero. It’s a discussion. About things that are important—for us, and for you.”
Veronica regards her husband. He hasn’t showered yet. Locks of dark hair cling to his forehead, and his stubble resembles a layer of embedded dirt. Even disheveled and perspiring, he’s infuriatingly handsome. And that look in his eyes—that gleam of lucidity subdued by a modest, downward tilt of the head—it turns Veronica’s heart into a lump of putty.
“Oh, one of those,” she says, toughing up the lump. “An Important Talk. Capital I. Capital T. The last time we had an Important Talk you convinced me to schlep the kids to a Kol Nidre service at the synagogue. I had to banish myself with them to the women’s section upstairs so you could pray, or meditate, or basically replenish your soul with the men while I read them stories and fed them clandestine gummy bears to keep them quiet. Well, to hell with Important Talks. What’s the point? If we disagree, we disagree. I’m done giving in. You want to take a walk at Les Calenques, go for it. I’ll stay here with the kids.”
Usually, Veronica looks forward to the Benhamou family’s fair-weather ritual of taking a lengthy, Sunday stroll atop the inlets in the cliffs along the coast between Marseille and Cassis. Yellow-studded gorse and fragrant, wintergreen thyme bushes edge a network of hiking paths, their surface knobby from the roots of Aleppo pines and Mediterranean oaks drilling past copper-colored gravel into dust. Oak branches twist into peculiar, sinewy filaments resembling lengths of petrified rope, or, as Veronica often imagines, the invincible muscles of God’s arms. Leaving the men to crack their usual litany of bad jokes while pushing jogging strollers and carrying tired children up ahead, she joins Mireille and Anne at the rear of the pack, where they chat about the kids, the weather, or the supposed provenance of a boat on the horizon. At first she found these conversations frustrating, always skimming the surface without evolving into the kind of gritty girl-talk she might have had with Stella about how to look and feel sexy when your breasts are leaking milk, or with Terry, on the pros and cons of online dating services or whether holding down a corporate job is tantamount to selling your soul. The few times she ventured to ask Anne how she manages to concentrate on her demanding job as a software engineer without her thoughts wandering to her house and her children, Anne ran her fingers through her long veil of midnight hair and answered, “Bof”—the verbal equivalent of a shrug. When she quizzed Mireille on the hassles of raising four boys in a small apartment, Mireille replied, “We are lucky for what we have.” Over time, though, Veronica found herself craving the simple yet reliable connection these exchanges fostered, the effortless bond of human contact immersed in wild nature, free of judgment and pretensions. Gritty girl-talk could be saved up for the monthly gatherings of the Anglo-American Group of Provence’s mom-and-kids playgroup, where Veronica has befriended a handful of young expats like herself from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia, or for phone calls with Stella and Terry. And while both Stella and Terry can prattle on about the soft underbelly of relationships and the ins and outs of every imaginable choice, neither of them is likely to devote an entire, lazy Sunday afternoon to family or friends.
“Stay if you want,” Didier shrugs. He clearly knows she’s cutting off her nose to spite her face. “But I will take the kids. The fresh air will be good for them.”
Her stomach tightens. If she’s going to skip the Calenques, she may as well roost with the kids at home. She likes spending downtime with them. The minute-to-minute concerns they raise now that infancy’s behind them—a punctured juice box to replace before it dribbles or a palliative Band-Aid to apply to a black-and-blue mark—keep her mind busy without bogging it down. They spare her from agonizing over more daunting problems, such as the bouquet of poppies disintegrating in the studio or what, if anything, to paint instead.
“Don’t bother.” She glances at Luc, a few feet away. He has infiltrated the kingdom of toys on the living room floor, despite his sister’s guard. In a rare moment of détente, the two sit back-to-back, Céleste still banging a xylophone, Luc rolling the fat, rubber tracks of a Tonka bulldozer against his palm. “It doesn’t look to me like these guys are in the mood for the Calenques today, either.”
Didier purses his lips. “Luc and Céleste are two years old. Their moods change more quickly than the wind. You, on the other hand …” He walks into the kitchen and begins removing Tupperware containers of leftover dafina from the fridge: sulfurous hard-boiled eggs and chunks of beef floating in congealed stew. “You are very predictable. You will help them play Legos for a little while longer and then watch TV with them for the rest of the afternoon.”
“Well, if that’s what they want to do, we will!” she snaps, wondering why the hell she should have to defend herself for volunteering to stay with the kids.
“So tell me,” he says. His voice has an icy edge, so acute that it seems to have been produced by a stranger—the type Veronica would not want to bump into in an alley, dark or light. “Is that what you want to do?”
“It’s Sunday. Why not?”
“And what about on Monday? And Tuesday? And all the rest of the week, when the children are not with you?”
Heat rips across her face like a slap. Of all the times for Didier to raise this. On top of feeling as helpless as a dog tethered to a leash, she now has to take a beating for having disappointed Didier—and herself.
“I’m sorry, Vero. I do not mean to sound so … vicious. It is just that, this rut you are in, it seems to me to be very long. I do not find you—comment-dire?—very, well, enthusiastic about your art. So I wonder: do you want to continue? And if not, what, exactly, do you want to do?”
The microwave emits a long, shrill beep. A whiff of cumin and paprika mingles with the house’s embedded, powdery scent of diapers and Johnson’s baby shampoo. Numbness creeps through Veronica’s body like morning fog. She backs into the armchair by her side, sinks into its overstuffed cushions. Can’t Didier see that she’s wounded and in no state whatsoever to talk about her art? Why should she have to time potentially thorny conversations with surgical precision if he doesn’t do the same? She has the right to remain silent and to ignore his expectant gaze. She has the right to shut her eyes, to let her thoughts wander off to the slopes of the Sainte Victoire, to the glorious day years ago when his grave expression while banging ocher earth from his shoes brightened at her outburst of laughter. This moment, like so many others in a marriage, will pass. It must. They will have lunch. The children’s chatter, their clamor, will drown out the echoes of this conversation which, eventually, will drift away like a letter in a bottle lost at sea.
NEXT INSTALLMENT, BEGINNING OF CHAPTER 11, COMING IN A WEEK. MEANWHILE, MORE BACKSTORY BLOG ON THE WAY