(Continued from Chapter 12, White Lies, Freedom Fries; to start book, scroll to “Chapters” in right side bar.) Didier leads the way down the Cours Mirabeau toward Mireille’s apartment, where the Benhamou clan will gather shortly for Shabbat lunch. On this cheery March morning, Aix bustles like a carnival with shoppers and tourists vying for space beside market stalls laden with hand-sculpted wooden cicadas, loaves of artisanal spice bread, and sachets of dried lavender, three Euros apiece. Luc and Céleste doze in their double stroller, oblivious to the gruff banter of vendors barking out prices and chanting numbers while counting out change. Didier, at the stroller’s helm, elbows through the line stretching from the door of Béchard’s—the Tiffany’s of pastry shops—where Veronica’s mouth waters at the scent of passion-fruit mousse cakes topped with white chocolate shavings and marzipan pear tarts in a caramelized sugar veneer.
She should venture into central Aix more often, she thinks, pausing to admire a tablecloth patterned with saffron sunflowers on a backdrop of olive green. The branches of plane trees rise above the streets like fireworks frozen in midair, releasing a festive profusion of fuzz balls that loop and swirl in slow motion on their way to the ground. The tantalizing display of eggshell linen suits and Hermès bags in store windows, the rows of sidewalk cafés packed with students and tourists, and the proliferation of ageless stone fountains burbling water fresh from the source make her limbs tingle with the same mysterious sense of anticipation and promise that drove her, years ago, to sign up for a painting vacation in Provence. Even the banners tacked to balconies today protesting Pas de Guerre en Iraq and Non à l’Agression Américaine are eclipsed by the beauty, the merriment.
Since the twins’ birth she’s shied away from the heart of Aix, leery of maneuvering their double stroller around tight corners and over cobblestones. And during the hours they spend at Maria’s, her anxiety about painting—or not—and what to do instead, has made her stomach lurch with guilt at the thought of treating herself to a leisurely stroll. But her new vision of how she’ll spend the next few years, which emerged after the playgroup meeting this past week, is exempt from such guilt. She’s thought it over carefully and can’t wait to tell Didier that, rather than canvas and coveralls, she sees herself donning coloring books, crayons, and … maternity wear. That she’s already planned out the finger-painting projects she’ll entertain the kids with in the studio, which she’ll convert into a multipurpose art room, and the clay pots she’ll teach them to throw. It won’t further her career or her earning potential, but it will enrich the family in other ways. Then, in the spirit of Freedom fries, she’ll give herself permission to join the playgroup moms for a quick coffee at Le Grillon from time to time, to window-shop, and otherwise enjoy this thriving, clay-and-tangerine hued town.
Didier cocks his head to the left, signaling that it’s time to cross the Cours Mirabeau and duck through the Passage Agard—a narrow thread of a street covered like a Florentine bridge. He’s less tense than he’s been in ages, perhaps because spring has settled in, hoisting temperatures into the seventies most days and coaxing roses, periwinkle, gorse, and Spanish broom into full, abundant bloom. Or maybe because Veronica hasn’t chided him about his recent habit of coming home after ten each night: all things considered, it’s only fair to give him space to do his job. Nor has she resumed their argument about July. As he’ll understand in just a moment, there’s no need.
“Hey,” she burbles, pulse racing, as they start across the Place de Verdun, home to France’s second-largest court of appeal. Given Didier’s placid expression—forehead smooth, face alight at the scent of garlic and tomatoes wafting from a restaurant nearby—now seems like a very good time. “I’ve been thinking.”
Didier raises an eyebrow. “Well. That is big news.”
“No fair! At least hear me out.” She fakes a pout, elbows him in the gut.
He continues walking, his eyes darting over the open-air antiques market that brings the sleepy square at the foot of the court to life on Saturday mornings. “Yes, of course.” His tone borders on sarcastic, as it has for quite some time—a sign that he’s still angry.
Veronica takes a few giant steps to keep pace and lifts her chest. This conversation should help clear the air. “I’ve figured out what’s at the root of my painting rut.”
“Ah, bon!” Sarcasm gone, he pauses before a stall displaying random 1970s memorabilia: bubble-shaped, orange lighting fixtures and drinking glasses embossed with overlapping brown and powder-blue spheres reminiscent of the Jetsons. His brows slide up a few notches as he catches Veronica’s glance in a round, frameless mirror. “What?”
Didier’s brows jump even higher.
“No, no, no. Don’t get me wrong.” She sticks out a hand, flaps it back and forth. “I don’t mean that motherhood’s a problem. It’s painting that’s the problem now that I’m a mom!”
His jaw tightens. He pulls his expression into neutral, professional. Blank.
“Trying to focus on anything other than Luc and Céleste is a total disaster. That’s why my painting’s going nowhere.”
“But Vero.” The tension in his jaw . “For about eight hours each weekday Luc and Céleste are not with you.”
“I know, I know. But it makes no difference. It’s even worse when they’re not around. Then my mind starts wandering off to all the things I need to do to keep their lives and ours running smoothly. You know, the kitchen, the laundry, things we’re running low on in the medicine chest, clothes they’ve outgrown. I can’t just let those things slide. They have to get done. And the days go by so quickly. Knowing that it’s never really long till they come home, I just can’t seem to switch gears and concentrate on something as demanding as painting, something that takes me so far away.”
His features wilt from neutral to glum, darkened by the same look of abandonment he wore the afternoon a few weeks back when Veronica opted out of a walk at Les Calenques. Perhaps she was too straightforward, too dry and abrupt, she thinks. Her confession caught him off guard. A dose of silliness would have helped him take it in. She sucks down her lips to keep from smiling as the perfect remedy of a phrase spills out: “Think of it this way: the day the kids were born, I … I … had a gigantic brain fart!”
He gapes at her in disbelief. “A brain fart?”
“So to speak.” Veronica giggles.
“A brain fart,” he echoes. “And this is funny?”
She rolls her eyes. “Loosen up! You make it sound like we’re talking about some sort of disease!”
“Yes, Vero. That is exactly how I feel. Like this is … pathological.”
“You are so overreacting!” she snaps. “Maybe ‘brain fart’ was the wrong way to put it. But geez, cut me some slack! Do you think this is easy? What I mean is, when the kids were born, my maternal instinct kicked in and took over the rest of my brain. It’s natural. It happens to tons of moms. Not every single one, I know, but …” She pauses, searching for a tactful way to imply that Didier’s superhuman sisters are exceptions to the rule. “But most. They think they wanna do all these amazing things: produce movies, trade commodities, help the homeless, end global warming. But when it comes right down to it, their kids are born, and they suddenly realize that deep down inside, the only thing that really matters, the only thing they really want to focus on, is them. And by association, their family and home. Just look at Stella: the big-shot corporate lawyer turned stay-at-home mom. It’s taken a while for this to sink in, but as it turns out, I’m hardwired to be a stay-at-home mom, too.”
Didier stares past the Jetsons memorabilia to some indiscernible spot beyond the square. The creases in his forehead deepen, his lips press into a thin, impermeable line.
“Look,” she continues, before he can speak. She curls her fingers around the stroller’s handle, rocks it. “It’s been a really tough few years for me. You know that. Moving to France. Having twins. Maria has been a godsend. With my mom so far away, I have no clue how else I would have survived. The thing is, though, I’m feeling more settled now. And more on top of things with the kids. So there’s no need for them to be at Maria’s all week anymore. Maybe a couple of mornings—you know, like a preschool schedule in the States. Then I can get some chores done and take a little … break. But as long as I’m hardwired to focus on the kids, I should go for it. A hundred percent. Right?”
He nods at the spot in the distance. “So you are not hardwired to paint.”
A short gust of wind blows in from the east, lifting Veronica’s hair from her shoulders, spreading it out like a fan. She shivers and hunches over the stroller to tuck the twins’ cotton blankets around their shoulders and under their chins. “Of course I am!” she clucks, standing back up. “But right now, the kids are little, and my maternal instinct’s on high. They won’t be little forever. I can always paint later.”
“When, exactly, is later?”
Céleste stirs in her reclined seat. Veronica rocks the stroller a bit faster while jiggling it side to side: her special “shake-em-and-bake-em” stroke that never fails to put them to sleep or add a few minutes onto a snooze.
“Exactly?” she repeats, trying not to sound irked. “With little kids, who can ever say ‘exactly?’ I’ll just have to take things one day at a time. So much could happen. A year from September, they’ll start school. Maybe that’ll be a good time. Maybe not.” There’s a lot she could add to this, but it wouldn’t be productive right now to bombard Didier with all the details. The school schedule in France makes it hard to find the kind of long blocks of time painting would require. And just like in the States, school comes with all sorts of opportunities to get involved. On top of this, the chocolaty craving for another baby that seized her after the last playgroup gathering has deepened into a void akin to hunger, as if she’d opened the cupboard late at night for that one square of chocolate that would take the edge off, only to find that there was none left. She can feel it even now, cold and nagging, in the pit of her womb. With this mind-set, she might find herself pregnant again before she knows it. While she’s eventually bound to figure out how to fit all these pieces together into a picture that includes time for painting, she can’t say when.
Didier’s nostrils flare. He glances askew at the merchant overseeing the Jetsons stand, a portly, sixty-something man with ruddy, wine-stained cheeks clad in a rumpled, gray suit, no tie. Grabbing hold of the stroller’s helm with one hand and Veronica’s elbow with the other, he advances a few yards, pushing the whole family out of the merchant’s earshot. After a stealthy survey of the square for familiar faces to avoid, he lowers his head and says, “Vero, it is difficult to be a painter, I know. Any meaningful career is a challenge, but artists, creators, they work alone in a void, with no colleagues, no structure, few parameters.” His words stream out like a filament of smoke, vaporous and muted yet pervasive. “The structure and parameters, they must come from within. It can be frightening and discouraging, I know, but surmounting the fear, finding the confidence to do what you believe in, this is perhaps the most important part of the work. Just like taking a step out into the world when you have spent so much time alone at home. You must overcome your fear, Vero. The sooner the better. The more time passes, the harder it will be. Do not hide behind the kids.”
“Hello-o! Earth to Didier!” Her hands fall to her sides and thud against the heavy black denim of her skirt. “Did you hear a thing I said? This isn’t about colleagues or parameters or fear or confidence or even about art. It’s about motherhood! Being a mom!”
“Chhuut!” Didier hisses, shushing her. “Do not make a scene.” The tendons in his neck strain. Fury blazes in his eyes. “Having strong parental instincts is normal. It is a fact of life. I have them, too. But now you are telling me that perhaps you do not have strong painting instincts.”
Sucking in her breath, she turns away and absorbs the spectacle of a pair of Italian tourists at a nearby stand haggling for a couple of more Euros off the price of a tarnished silverware collection. Their arms flail in spirited gesticulation while the antiques dealer puffs up her cheeks and folds her arms over her chest: final offer, take it or leave it. Céleste stirs in her seat again, and Veronica knows that in a few minutes at most, this conversation will have to alternate with snacks and diaper changes and toddler babble, or end. And she hasn’t even made her point. So much is riding on it.
“Look,” she says, as calmly as she can. “My painting instinct is on hold for right now. That’s all. It’s on hold so I can focus on our kids. It’ll come back when the time is right. No big deal.”
“Such instincts never stay on hold for very long. This, I know.” He pauses, stares at her hard as though trying to zap over some secret message via telepathy. When he resumes, his voice splinters with impatience. “Your painting instinct, it has been on hold for so much time that I wonder if it was ever really there.”
She stares at him, tears singeing her eyes, prickling her nose.
“Artists—creators, si tu veux—they feel a driving need to do their work. Just like anybody with a passion or a sense of commitment to something outside of themselves. They fight the doubt, the fear, the obstacles, and find a way. So of course it is normal for me to wonder how passionate, how dedicated or committed, you have ever really been. You have had many chances to paint, starting long before Luc and Céleste were born. And yet you have not found a way.”
“What if you’re right?” she blurts out, too upset to try to refute him. How thoughtless of him to let his blasted French honesty rip when she’s only trying to work with him to make their family happier. “What if, just what if, I’m actually not a painter at heart, but a mom? What if everything I’ve done over the past decade, including art school, coming to Aix on vacation, and meeting you have all been leading up to the discovery that What I Want to Do—what I really want to do—is raise my kids? Would there be anything wrong with that? Would it be such a crime for me to just want to take care of my children? Our children? Your children?”
Didier purses his lips and rubs his chin. He glances at Céleste, whose eyes have popped open. Round with awe, they soak in the busy market scene. “In principle, no,” he replies, stroking Céleste’s head. “But you are forgetting one thing.”
She has a hunch about what he’s thinking: something he has every right to question, and she has no real right to defend. “I know,” she sighs, relieved. She’s been saving this concession as a last resort but will gladly make it to help keep the peace at home. “Maria. We can stop sending the kids altogether if you want. Not even a few hours a week. I mean, if I’m gonna go for it and focus on the kids, I should go all the way. Not one, but two hundred percent. Right, doc?” A wave of tenderness rocks her. Didier may be demanding and fastidious, but it’s always in the name of doing things well. It’s a fine example to follow. From now on, she’ll try.
“Comment?” Didier screeches, to her astonishment. He jerks his head side to side as if dodging flies. “I am not speaking about Maria! I am speaking about me!” He pounds his chest.
“I … you … you’ve lost me there.” she whispers, her mind blank.
“Five years ago,” Didier snaps, “I met and fell in love with a passionate artist.” He narrows his eyes, stabs his gaze right into her soul. “Remember? She knew what she wanted and was determined to get it. Her energy, her enthusiasm, her drive, and her belief that if you just persist, even the craziest dreams can come true, they were contagious. I began to dream, too. I dreamed about a partnership with my wife. I dreamed about us working together to make a life where we could both pursue our creative ideas. In this dream, my wife, she wanted to do her best to contribute financially, through her art or through other initiatives she wanted to take. And I, perhaps, could have slowed down a bit at work eventually. I could have found some time for my family, which I am very sorry to have no time for now, and for my research. Remember? This research, I thought you knew how important it was to me. So can you imagine how it feels to do everything I can to offer you the option of pursuing your creative vision only to hear that, well, as it turns out, you are not interested in it anymore? Or to realize that personally, I have no options left except to continue working seventy hours a week so that you may have the opportunity to grow lazy and dependent and lose your mind to brain farts and potties and juice?”
Sunlight bounces off the sweet, cotton-candy pink walls of a court annex to the left, slaps Veronica’s back, bangs her head. A couple of shoppers turn to stare at what has now escalated into an official, full-fledged scene. From the stroller, Céleste yelps, “Papa, Papa!” She waves her arms, demanding liberation. Luc sobs mutedly, his eyes squeezed shut, as though struggling through the thick of some private, inner torment. Forget dreams: this is a nightmare. Of course she remembers all the fantasies she and Didier once brewed up. How could she forget? She was going to sell paintings to her parents’ and Stella’s rich friends for gobs of cash. She and Didier would build a cushy nest egg. They’d lead a life straddling two continents, filled with travel between Aix, Boca Raton, and New York. They’d expand their house. They’d invest in Didier’s research. He wanted to design some sort of disposable, plastic scope for opening patients’ throats during surgery, more hygienic and cost-effective than the reusable metal devices on the market now. Sooner or later, they’d sell it for a hefty profit, too.
But that was ages ago! Everybody fantasizes when they’re young and in love. They conjure up far-fetched scenarios about taking two years off to sail around the world, about buying a town house in Greenwich Village or growing all their produce in a sustainable, organic garden in Vermont. Eventually, though, reality sets in. For 99 percent of the human population, reality means wiping butts and paying bills. You don’t have to let go of dreams, but you do have to keep them in perspective. The nerve of Didier to take all the romantic ideals they once entertained so seriously when in fact, they’d simply been tossing these ideals around like coins into a fountain. The nerve of him to hold Veronica to them, right down to the tiniest detail, like some sort of doctrine or law. But then again, “serious” is Didier’s middle name. Veronica should have seen this coming all along.
“Well, we’ve both hit up against a whole slew of unpleasant surprises, then, haven’t we?” she lashes out, practically spitting as if to rid her mouth of her words’ bitter taste. This conversation has become so severely derailed it no longer matters what she says or how, and she’s too hurt to care. “Five years ago, when you fell head over heels for a passionate artist, I fell head over heels for a promising young physician who said his priority would always be to support a family. Remember? Huh? Oh, and by the way, where I come from, physicians are well paid.”
“Papa!” Céleste screams, shaking the stroller.
“I suppose that is why you Americans say—what is it? ‘For richer or for poorer? For better or for worse?’” Didier sneers. “That is the vow, non?”
“But you and I didn’t say that vow, did we?” She lunges for the stroller and unstraps Céleste. “No, we said it in French, just like you wanted. When the rabbi asked if we’d take each other for husband and wife, we just said “Oui.” Whatever that means.”
In silence, Didier leans down to unstrap Luc, also now fully awake. His back is rigid, his eyes are glassy, tinged with resentment and disgust.
He’s not the only one who’s disgusted, Veronica fumes silently, swinging Céleste onto her hip so that with her free hand, she can feel around inside the diaper bag for the ziplock bag of crackers she’s packed. His monologue about the passionate artist he fell in love with implied that he doesn’t love her anymore. That he doesn’t know her anymore. That he never did.
Anger and disgust aside, however, she must now collaborate with him to change Luc’s diaper and find Céleste a public rest room so she can practice wriggling out of the pull-up she’s already wet and then pretend to go pee. They’ll have to act like everything is normal as they make their way through the antiques market, as they push the stroller past the Église de la Madeleine, where Cézanne was baptized, and head toward Mireille’s street, the rue Epinaux. They’ll have to coat their expressions with a sheath of sunlight as brilliant as the one enveloping this glorious day, lacquer their demeanor mint green and periwinkle blue like the shutters overhead, and add a touch of embellishment as lush and natural as the potted geraniums spilling from windows, the ivy crawling over doors. Can such beauty possibly be skin deep?
Briefly, she considers turning around and heading back to the house. But she’d be better off getting lost in the crowd at Mireille’s than wallowing in self-pity alone at home. Besides, a good dafina and a few rounds of jokes with Gilles and Uriel might help Didier cool down. Together, the three are like a troop of wannabe stand-up comics competing to deliver the best punch line to a litany of well-worn jokes about Jewish guys named Moishe, Samuel, and David. The names alone, with their absurd pronunciations—“MOY-shuh,” “Sam-yoo-EL,” “Dah-VEED”—provoke raucous howls and sniggers. If a little dose of family and laughter can bring lightheartedness, it can bring reconciliation, too. When couples are at odds, family tends to bring them back together by roping them in. Then Didier will loosen up and realize how harsh he’s been, how out of line. He and Veronica will return home with their elbows linked, and she will tell him her own punch line, the crucial point she wanted to make this afternoon: that with the money they’d save by reducing or eliminating the twins’ hours with Maria, they could afford to send Veronica, Luc, and Céleste to New Jersey in July every year.
CONTINUED AT CHAPTER 14.1.