(Continued from Chapter 4, Rusty; to start book, scroll to “Chapters” in left side bar.) Veronica has always napped. In college, she indulged in a little snooze between classes most afternoons, especially when the winter temperatures in Boston slipped below twenty and the mere thought of venturing outside numbed her toes. While working in Manhattan, she looked forward to a two-hour nap on Sundays—her trick for stocking up on energy for the week ahead. A special treat as scrumptious as a slice of chocolate cake, the promise of a couple of hours cocooned in bed while the rest of the world muddled along helped her through countless drowsy lectures and meetings. Everybody has their vices. At least this one’s harmless, and much healthier than drinking tons of coffee or taking drugs.
During her pregnancy, napping evolved from a treat to an insurmountable need. From the day she began feeling queasy and sensing the powerful presence of life in her womb, exhaustion overcame her, so deep and so pervasive that even the simplest tasks—brushing her teeth, darting from the sofa to the toilet to throw up—seemed as onerous as swimming against a strong ocean current with a weight belt on. As if the new life inside her needed to drink every ounce of her strength in order to thrive, and she had no choice but to let it. All she could do was sit on the sofa, forget about painting, forget about housework, shut her eyes and, inevitably, doze off. Didier would come home after work to find her slumped into the couch, blinking as she drifted in and out of cat naps so intense that she drooled.
“I just can’t help it,” she’d murmur when she saw him, wiping the corner of her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Don’t,” he’d say, patting her tummy and kissing her soppy mouth. “The first trimester, it is the hardest. When it passes, your fatigue will pass, too.”
When she learned that she was carrying not one child, but two, she moved her lengthening cat naps upstairs to bed. Some days, it was easier for her just to stay there. Not only had her body become thicker, heavier, and slower by then, but the immensity of the news of impending twins weighed on her like two hundred pounds of lead. She had agreed giddily with Didier’s suggestion, shortly after their wedding, that she stop using the Pill and let Mother Nature take her course. But she’d assumed that getting pregnant would mean conceiving one baby. A baby—one—would feel as delicious squirming around in her belly as Didier’s hard, stout penis felt whenever it slid toward that space that only a baby could fill. One baby would make a delightful playmate and companion to lock eyes with, to coo nonsense syllables at, and wear in a Björn while window-shopping in town. With one baby, Veronica could paint while her son or daughter slept during the day. But two babies—two!—would mean crazed days stuck in the house waiting for one to fall asleep or the other to wake up. It would mean endless reams of laundry, of dirty diapers and bottles, and two infants for Veronica to rock and bounce and burp alone in a country where she barely spoke the language and had no family of her own. Coming to France had been hard enough, but she had chosen to do so. Having twins would be even harder, yet she never would have chosen it in a million years.
Napping while pregnant, she discovered the brand-new sensation of drifting into delectable nirvana, free from her cumbersome body, free from the irritating awareness of her sore breasts, her aching lower back, or the disgusting, amplified smell of dirty socks in the hamper. Buffered and unencumbered, she seemed to float, like her babies, in a sac of amniotic fluid.
During the months of twenty-four-seven nursing following the twins’ birth, a daily nap remained as essential to her life as that amniotic fluid had been to theirs. Nowadays, their continued night wakings are reason enough to crawl into bed for a couple of hours each afternoon. And she can’t resist. Alone in an empty house all day with nothing urgent to do, her pace becomes all the more sluggish. It’s easier to succumb to the urge to drift away than to force herself to stay alert. As a mother, though, Veronica wakes more easily than before, receptive even as she dreams to noises signaling that the kids might need her. Like the hum of cicadas in the summer reminding her of their cries, or the whiny buzz of the phone.
The phone. She jerks awake and blinks. Squinting, she checks the clock on the night table. Half past one: too early for her mother to call from New Jersey, six hours behind. Didier never calls at lunchtime—he’s always too busy racing through a meal at the same pizzeria where Veronica first noticed him while vacationing in Aix. And at Maria’s house, it’s nap time, too. The kids should be fast asleep, safe and sound.
Unless something has happened. She rolls over and gropes for the receiver. “Allô?” she says too loudly, to compensate for the sleepy hoarseness of her voice.
“Allô, Madame Benhamou? C’est Maria.”
Veronica’s pulse races and her veins flood with fight-or-flight adrenaline. “Il y a un problem?” she asks, sitting up.
“Luc est malade,” Maria answers, enunciating these three simple words with intentional, pointed clarity. “Il a de la fièvre.”
“Luc is sick, with a fever?” she echoes in English.
“Okay. Je viens.” Veronica answers. As she hangs up the phone, she realizes with embarrassment that the best way to say, “I’m on my way” is “J’arrive.” “Je viens” can also mean, “I’m having an orgasm.”
Clumsily, limbs still numb, she opens the shutters, steps into her Reeboks, and smoothes the covers back over the bed. She’s only napped for about an hour—half her usual time. Her temples throb. The crown of her head burns unpleasantly, as in a bad case of jet lag.
No more painting today, she thinks. An anxious burning sears her chest as she unfolds the empty stroller and pushes it out the front gate. How absurd to have thought she could plan her time or control its outcome with two young kids: something like this seems to happen every time. That’s why setting deadlines makes no sense when you’re a mom. Lucky thing she didn’t take her easel and head out to an olive grove an hour’s drive away. Luc needs her, right here, right now. When she gets him home, she’ll lie down beside him, stroke his hair, and read Barnyard Dance, belting out her best neighs and moos.
The stroller’s plastic wheels clack over the sidewalk as she curves to the left, past a neighbor’s almond tree decked in clusters of tiny, white blossoms, past a row of linden trees fragrant as honey, also set to bloom. No need to ring the buzzer at the gate of Maria’s house in the cul-de-sac at the end of the street: Maria is standing behind it, waiting, with Luc in her arms.
“Voilà Maman!” Maria sings to Luc, stepping back as Veronica enters the yard. Her voice chimes like a bell, and her black eyes flash with warmth. She nuzzles Luc’s head with her nose, rocks him side to side. “Pauvre chou, elle va te ramener à la maison.”
Luc peers up at Veronica and holds out his arms.
Veronica takes him. “That’s right, sweetie, I’m taking you home.” She says, placing a kiss on the bridge of his runny nose. She glances around at the teak table and sturdy wooden swing set in Maria’s manicured yard and her squat, rectangular house with stucco walls painted a uniform, mellow shade of peach. Maria’s parents, who moved from Portugal when Maria was a child, built it themselves and still live there, now in a two-room annex in the backyard they added when Maria got married. They still share a kitchen and meals with Maria and her husband, Manu, and help her out with her own daughters as well as with the four toddlers she watches during the week.
Pressing her lips to Luc’s forehead, Veronica notes that he feels barely warmer than he did this morning. He’s probably had a fever all along. She should have listened to her instincts when seized with the urge to keep the kids home. “I’ll make you feel all better, Duke, I promise,” she whispers, nose prickling.
“Il a à peine trente-neuf,” Maria says with deliberate slowness. Her words end in the melodic “euh” typical of a Provençal accent, making each sentence sound like a happy song. “Dans deux ou trois jours il ira mieux, c’est sûr.”
Veronica nods. Thirty-nine Celsius is about a hundred and two. He’ll probably need to stay home for the next few days. Her chest constricts. She can forget painting for the rest of the week.
Maria motions for her to follow her inside for Luc’s lunch box and binky. Her wavy, ebony hair cropped to the ears and bell-shaped denim skirt swing mirthfully as she turns, tiptoes toward the front door, and ushers Veronica in. In the foyer, she puts a finger over her lips. The lights are off, and the shutters are closed. An odor of sautéed carrots and something fruity and buttery, home-baked, fills the house. Veronica can make out the shadows of the living room to her right and the distinct shapes of three toddlers asleep on crib-sized mattresses spread out across the tiled floor. A fourth mattress, Luc’s, is empty. By the wall behind the mattresses stands an open ironing board draped with a man’s button-down shirt. On a table beside the ironing board, the hem of a flowered sundress cloaks the plate of a sewing machine. These are the tools of Maria’s second job mending and ironing strangers’ clothing—including Veronica’s and Didier’s—which she does while the children she watches are sleeping or playing at her feet. In the evenings, when Manu comes home from the convenience store he owns on the outskirts of Aix, Maria leaves for her third job running the shop until it closes at nine. And she still manages to care for her own two daughters, both under ten, to sauté carrots, have a sit-down lunch with her family every day, and bake.
Veronica shifts her weight and scans the floor. Céleste, as usual, lies supine with her arms sprawled to the sides, clutching her furry stuffed whale named Baleine in one hand. Her soft, rounded lips are parted slightly, like the almond blossoms down the street.
“Je la chercherai …” Veronica pauses, fitting together the words to explain that she’ll get Céleste at the end of the day. “A cinq heures.” She taps her watch.
“D’accord,” whispers Maria.
Céleste’s eyes pop open. “Mommy!” she exclaims, sitting right up.
“Chut,” Maria hushes, beaming at Céleste like an enamored bride. She swoops down, lifts her, and carries her out of the living room so she doesn’t wake the other children.
Veronica sighs. Yet another example of why deadlines just don’t work. Home alone with Luc, she might have had a chance to sketch for a couple of minutes if he fell asleep. Or she could have relaxed in the yard, harnessing her wherewithal to try again another day. Now she may as well take Céleste home, too. She’ll spend much of the afternoon rocking Luc in her arms while dutifully trailing her daughter as she toddles through the house asking questions and opening drawers.