(Continued from Ch. 1, Van Gogh’s Ear; to start reading, scroll to “Chapters” in right side-bar.) At six fifteen Veronica’s eyes pop open just as the alarm clock starts beeping. She hasn’t used one in eons; Luc and Céleste usually do the job. But today, before she can get to work on a painting for Stella, she needs to clear from the kitchen sink the stack of dishes that she left last night, too weary to deal with it, and to organize the mess of discarded layette clothing she’s been promising for ages to pick up from the floor of the closet in the office upstairs. She needs every extra minute she can get.
Across the hall, Luc winces in his sleep as if wired directly to her heart. Veronica jolts upright, pulse racing. Creating a painting is one thing. Getting it done in a month or two verges on insane. It’s hard enough to do things quickly when you have small children, who interrupt you constantly and suck up every extra bit of energy and time. But in Provence, time plays by a whimsical set of rules, evaporating as instantaneously as particles of moisture evaporate from the crackling, dry air. Stores shut from noon to four, appointment times serve as rough approximations, and the immense distances to traverse, punctuated only by crags and cliffs and cornfields, can swallow you up like a riptide. Families spend entire Sundays picnicking along the maritime cliffs to the east of Marseille called Les Calenques. Bellies full, they gaze idly at the Mediterranean’s indigo waters stretching out to the horizon until the sun goes down. In Didier’s family—the vast Benhamou clan—Saturdays are just as lazy, with three generations convening to share a dafina that also takes its own sweet time, simmering on a hotplate overnight. The scent of curry and cumin weighs on limbs like the heat of a sauna, and the meal is never over until everybody’s sprawled out on the sofa, half-asleep.
When she moved to Provence, Veronica embraced the laid-back pace. It suited her: she never did like rushing or stress. Before taking her job in the art department of a Manhattan children’s book publisher after college, she envisioned a future in which she’d spend days dabbing the final touches onto commissioned portraits of children and Oz-like landscapes populated by her trademark unicorns and cherubs.
“I’m going to be a painter, not some office peon chained to the clock and a desk!” she protested when her father, who heard about the job through one of his patients, suggested she send in her résumé.
“If you want to be a painter, be smart about it and make sure you have some other skills to fall back on and an income on the side,” Rich answered. His fleshy, pockmarked cheeks jiggled like a Saint Bernard’s, taking the edge off his stern gaze and making him look as though, if you offered him a biscuit, he’d wag his tail and give you his paw. Ruffling Veronica’s hair and then giving her a noogie the way he used to before dismissing her from a scolding when she was a kid, he added, “Think of it this way: if you have a job, you can start saving up right away for a place of your own. And you won’t have to hit your mother and me up for cash every time you want to go Dutch on a date in some fancy-shmancy uptown restaurant, or buy a new pair of shoes.”
After a few weeks of sulking and taking stabs at a drab view of the Manhattan skyline that came out looking more like a service station off the New Jersey Turnpike, Veronica agreed that a day job to finance evenings and weekends at the easel wasn’t such a bad idea. It would get her out of the house and into the city, where she could grab lunch every now and then with her college roommate, Terry Malone. Terry—skinny, sassy, surly, with nails bitten down to the bone and a mop of black ringlets that matched her all-black wardrobe—had majored in painting and sculpting. Her canvases and brass figurines showed hands in various states of toil or distress. By day, Terry pitched stories to fashion magazines for a PR agency, and over regular lunches at Au Bon Pain once Veronica had started working, she entertained her with snarky imitations of the reporters who hung up on her when she called. “Who cares?” she once said, tossing a short curl off her forehead. “I still get paid.” Veronica’s job also got her out to happy hour with colleagues. It provided a stream of cash for pedicures and ten-minute massages at the nail salon down the block from her office, and membership at a gym.
When she told her father she’d take the job, she figured that, since she’d be free to paint in the evenings and on the weekends, she had nothing to lose. But racing from the bus to the subway and then down the jam-packed avenue, up the elevator, to her desk, to her screen, to the phone—which she answered as it rang off the hook all day for a taciturn art director named Brenda Gray—frazzled her. So did jouncing around in traffic on the interminable ride home. The oppressive, pungent scent of Brenda’s Eau D’Issey perfume and the sight of her pin-thin legs and horn-rimmed glasses as she strode down the corridor, always in a rush, always chasing something urgent yet elusive, gave Veronica a debilitating headache. Why couldn’t Brenda—and the phones, and the constant flood of e-mails—slow down? Each meeting she sat in on about page size and cover design left her feeling drained, and depressed from pretending she cared. With her nerves crackling from overload night and day, she could do nothing but veg out in front of the TV when she got home.
By her third year working in Manhattan, the visions she’d nurtured during college of spending days painting commissioned portraits and Oz-like landscapes in a sunny, SoHo loft had become overwritten by mental notes to double-check whether an author’s photo was in a .jpg file and to pick up her father’s dry cleaning on the way home. Her cheek twitched whenever she recalled her initial plan to sell a painting or two, then quit work. And she rolled her eyes so high up in their sockets that it hurt each time she pulled into the driveway of her parents’ house in Tenafly at the end of the day, anticipating another evening of greasy rotisserie chicken from Shop Rite or takeout lasagna that her thighs could do without. When was her salary going to climb out of the twenties so she could afford a decent place of her own? Not that she minded her parents’ company or the comfort of granite counters, cedar closets, and dinner on the table every evening. She just wanted her real life to begin. After three years of waiting, she was itching for something—anything—to happen. Even a date in a fancy-shmancy uptown restaurant with a man whose future might help shape her own. In three years, she’d met no one she cared to see again. A package vacation to Provence including airfare, lodging, meals, and daily painting classes seemed like a perfect way to carve out the tranquility and peace of mind missing from her frenzied days.
Across the hall, Luc winces again and then whimpers. How ironic that even in Provence tranquility and peace of mind exist only in brief spurts, few and far between. Veronica tugs the window open, and unlatches the shutters outside, inhaling the tangy, organic scent of damp earth and mulch burning in a freshly tilled field beyond the outskirts of town. The sky, often misty in the morning, glimmers behind its sheen of sapphire blue. The feathery tips of cypress trees in a neighbor’s adjacent yard reach toward the heavens in mild supplication as though Van Gogh himself had placed them there to study while painting Starry Night. Her heart clenches anxiously the way it used to back in school before a test. Against such an illustrious backdrop, even the simplest subject, like the fig tree in her backyard, appears hopelessly intricate. How can she possibly capture the unfathomable complexity of the tension in its gnarled, knobby, branches on canvas—the tree’s very soul?
She takes a deep breath. There’s no reason to get all worked up over a canvas for Stella, who may have a law degree from Harvard, a live-in nanny, and a house the size of a roadside hotel but still brags to her Boca and Manhattan friends that her younger sister is an artist in Provence.
No time for a shower this morning. Instead, she splashes some cool water on her face, taking a quick glance at her reflection in the mirror. The dark circles that appeared beneath her eyes shortly after the twins’ birth haven’t faded and probably never will. Her broad chin juts out from her hair’s straight, dark frame. On good days, it makes her look confident and determined. Today it makes her look more like a camel.
Another whimper, then Luc sneezes. “Mommmmy!” he wails, sneezing again.
Veronica wipes her face with a towel and frowns. Luc usually sleeps for another hour or so. And while he tends to wake in tears, he rarely cries for her with such gut-wrenching despair. “Is Luc the Duke awake?” she sings out, trying to sound cheerful.
From the room beside Luc’s—a niche behind it, really, accessible only through a passageway in his wall—Céleste calls out, “Milk!”
“I hear you, too, princess,” Veronica answers with a sigh, entering Luc’s room and flicking on the light. Luc’s cries must have woken her. So much for getting off to an early start.
Stenciled circus animals—hippos, lions, and giraffes—painted shades of gold and olive-green waltz over the room’s tan walls, interspersed with a few unicorns and cherubs. Papier-mâché renditions of each creature dangle from satin ribbons nailed to the ceiling. Veronica designed them while she was pregnant, delighted to imagine the awe and fantasy that her creations would inspire in a child’s mind. She crafted the papier-mâché figures by hand, stenciled the images onto the walls and furniture in both kids’ rooms and appliquéd cloth versions onto the curtains. While mixing colors and kneading the strips of paper into gluey paste, she pictured herself sitting on the floor making papier-mâché and stencils with her children one day, happy as a kindergartner at craft time.
Luc, sitting in his crib, stretches his arms out and waves his hands, silently imploring Veronica to pick him up. Céleste demands, “Milk, Mommy, milk!” in a voice as grating as the alarm clock’s beep.
“Okay, okay,” Veronica mutters, slipping her hands beneath Luc’s arms. She’s used to adjusting her expectations according to what’s going on with the kids. They need her, and there’s nothing more important. That’s the job description for “mom.” Scooping Luc up, she kisses him on the soft, concave bridge of his nose—one of her favorite spots to place a kiss.
A bubble of mucus billows and deflates at the tip of Luc’s left nostril. With her free hand, Veronica snatches a tissue from a box on the changing table and presses it to his face. “Blow,” she says.
Luc jerks his head away, leaving Veronica holding the tissue in midair.
“Come on, Duke, you have to blow the snot out,” Veronica insists, bracing her hand against Luc’s face.
“Mommy Mommy milk milk milk!” shrieks Céleste.
“I know, princess, I know,” Veronica answers, mustering as much patience as she can. With Luc on one hip, she marches through the arched passageway between the rooms and hoists Céleste from her crib, crinkling her nose and recoiling as she breathes in the distinct, sour-grass smell of urine-soaked clothing and sheets. “But first we’ve got to change you,” she says, shaking her head.
“First milk!” Céleste yells, pounding Veronica’s shoulder.
For the next half hour, Luc whimpers each time Veronica takes a few steps away. He refuses his Bob the Builder sippy cup filled with warm chocolate milk and his bowl of dry Cheerios. His brown eyes droop dolefully at the corners, and he sneezes often, expelling a goopy glob of mucus each time. To get dressed, Veronica has to bring him upstairs with her so he doesn’t bawl.
“What’s with you this morning, Duke?” Veronica asks as she laces up her Reeboks and ties back her hair, which really could have used a shampoo. She lifts him from the floor of her room and presses her lips to his forehead. He doesn’t feel feverish or warm. “So much fuss over a silly little cold!” Picking him up, she heads downstairs and sets him back into his high chair beside Céleste’s. “If you stay grouchy, you won’t have fun playing at Maria’s today.”
Céleste, hearing her nanny’s name, rattles the tray of her high chair and sings, “No nounou today, Mommy. No nounou!”
Veronica frowns and folds her arms over her chest. It’s hard not to lose her temper with such a stressful day ahead, but the situation would only degenerate if she did. She’s just going to have to focus on the here-and-now and stop anguishing over what time she’ll make it into the studio. With little kids, it’s the only way. Curling a lock of Céleste’s copper hair around her index finger, she says, “But you love seeing Maria, your nounou.”
Indeed, Maria’s house is like a second home to Luc and Céleste—a spacious, sunny home packed with friends and toys. The twins began spending a few pinch-hit hours there every day at the age of three months, after the departure of Veronica’s mother, Shirley Berg, who had come for an extended visit from New Jersey after their birth. Their daily stays with Maria lasted just long enough for Veronica to catch up on some of the housework that her mother had been doing until then, and a little sleep. It was a good compromise between having her mother come over every day—which Shirley swore she would have done in a heartbeat had Veronica lived anywhere in the tristate area—and having no help at all. “You’ve got twins, for crying out loud!” said Shirley. “Twins! Nobody in their right mind should have to chase twins around alone all day!”
Around the time Luc and Céleste turned one, Didier suggested signing them up with Maria full-time so that Veronica could not only keep up with laundry and groceries, but also, finally, paint. The decision was easy: in France, government subsidies make high-quality child care affordable to all. Most parents take advantage of the sturdy network of day-care centers called crèches or the certified nannies like Maria, who watch small groups of children in their homes. Moms who don’t work enjoy the convenience of public, hourly drop-off centers known as halte garderies. In the pediatrician’s waiting room, at playgrounds, and at Halloween and Valentine’s Day parties organized by the godsend club of local, English-speaking expats called the Anglo-American Group of Provence, Veronica has met more young mothers than she can count who don’t have jobs but who guiltlessly drop their kids off so they can shop, take a yoga class, prepare dinner parties, or get their legs waxed. Didier supports it wholeheartedly, just as he supports Veronica’s painting. “C’est normal,” he’s often said. “Every mother needs time to be a woman.”
By then, the twins had become so accustomed to Maria, to her flashing black eyes, her bubbly, Mediterranean warmth, her Portuguese-twanged accent and toy-filled family room that they barely seemed to notice the difference between their own house and hers. Even Veronica had come to view Maria’s place as an extension of home built at the end of a very long hallway: the road. Enraptured by the swing set in Maria’s front yard, the company of the two other toddlers Maria watches and her two school-aged daughters who come home for lunch every day, Luc and Céleste rarely, if ever, protest going. Of all the days to start. Maybe, Veronica thinks with a pang of regret, they sense her urgent need to focus on something else and feel insecure.
Luc frowns at the Cheerios scattered on his high-chair tray and brushes them aside. “No nounou,” he echoes.
“Oh, come on, you guys!” Veronica says in her best cheerleader’s voice. “I’ll tell you what: we’ll go out for a little treat, like Nutella crêpes, when I pick you up.”
Quickly, while the kids’ moods are still dappled with visions of licking melted chocolate from their hands, she dresses them and zippers them into the new nylon windbreakers she bought for the spring. The temperature’s already above fifty Fahrenheit. On such a gorgeous day they may not even need them, but better safe than sorry.
Outside, she snaps open the double stroller, a train-style contraption with one seat behind the other that she chose on the misguided assumption that she could negotiate it fairly easily through Aix’s narrow sidewalks. Since she can’t, she rarely takes it—or the kids—into town.
Seated and strapped, Luc gropes continually for her hand. Veronica has to pause often as she walks to let him grasp her fingers lest he howl. Most days, this would drive her crazy. By this time of the morning, she’s usually ready for a little peace and quiet.
Today, though, her heart lurches with each glance at Luc’s sorrowful eyes. At each squeaky whimper he emits, she hunches over him, crooning, “Sshhh, sshhhh,” more to soothe herself than to soothe him. Though less grating than Céleste’s shrill demands, Luc’s cries convey such profound, unbearable desperation that they invariably leave Veronica feeling desperate, too. As she approaches the wide stretch of gravel before the gated entrance to Maria’s yard, a sudden, overwhelming urge seizes her to keep both kids home so she can spend the day coloring and papier-mâchéing with them, painting mouse whiskers on their cheeks, playing duck-duck-goose, and blowing Luc’s nose.
Click here for Chapter 3