Скачать 0.55 Mb.
I was looking at the lilac bushes in the garden. “I have my own lilacs now,” sprang into my mind—and with it the memory of an incident when I was around 10, getting caught breaking off someone’s lilacs.
The memory surfaced from nowhere very clearly. My friend Annette and I were walking home from school through an old alley lined with lilac bushes in bloom. I had just broken off a few stems when a patrol car was suddenly rolling towards me. It stopped and the policeman asked:
“Are these bushes yours?”
“No,” I meekly confessed, my thin body quaking.
“You’re breaking the law,” he said.
“I’ll let you off this time but don’t do it again.”
He took the branches away from me. I recall it as one of the great horrible moments of childhood.
The fact was, I wanted them for my mother. Where we had lived before, the lilacs were ours and when they were in bloom she always had a few stems in a vase. Their fragrance filled the rooms. She loved lilacs in particular. It went back to her own childhood.
When I was 10 we lived in a rented house in a strange city and felt a profound nostalgia for home. If I was breaking off some lilacs it was for soothing my mother’s heart.
But then, as I stood in front of my own lilacs it suddenly occurred to me that it must have been around the time my mother lost that baby.
I try to bring the memory in—even though I dread to think about these things—they are so long ago, after all. But there is some connection here.
All the circumstances surrounding the death of this baby take me out of the lilac lined alley where I’m humiliated by the policeman to an even worse moment when my father and the mortician meet in front of our house and transfer a small box between cars.
“Let me come with!” I plead.
“No, it’s not a place for a child.”
They left me standing on that corner, at the center of the intersecting sidewalks, crucified by the light.
My mother was still in the hospital. She knew the baby was sick, but not that it’d died. When she called a while later, I was crying, or rather, I burst into tears at the sound of her voice. I thought I should tell her the truth but was afraid to. It wasn’t my place. I knew unequivocally that I must say nothing.
“Why are you crying?”
“I fell down.”
“You never cry when you fall down.”
She knew, alright, that something was wrong. They’d refused to show her the baby. Shall I breathe the word “Thalidomide?”
Why was all this coming back to me in connection with a lousy bunch of lilacs? My own lilacs haven’t even bloomed yet and already their fragrance is suffocating me. I see myself in the back seat of a car with Annette. Her mother is driving us home from their house. On the empty front seat sits a wrapped package. I fear it might be a baby gift but I say nothing. What if it’s not a baby gift and my comment implies she ought to be bringing one? Can you just blurt out such words as “The baby died?” I am struggling for words and air but can’t find either. We don’t know them that well. She hasn’t asked, “How’s the baby?” If only she had asked I could have told her. She did ask “Was it a boy or a girl?” “It was a boy,” I croaked, stressing the WAS, but couldn’t get the rest out; before I could say “…but he died,” she’d jumped in with, “Oh how nice!” I keep thinking, as we drive, that a moment will come, that kind of perfect moment when words speak themselves, but it doesn’t.
My mother is home from the hospital, grieving over the truth. To my horror Annette’s mother gets out of the car with us, to come in. I feel the icy hands of death around my throat. Why didn’t I tell her, why don’t I stop her? Mercifully, or intelligently, she has left the gift in the car. I feel like screaming, Don’t go in, the baby died! But it’s too late, she’s in the door, she’s hearing it from my mother. She’s shocked and angry, turns on me with “WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME?” I want to sink into the floor. I want to die.
I wonder if Annette told her mother about the lilacs and the policeman. If she did, she made out it was all my idea, and it was. I wanted to put some lilacs in a vase and see my mother’s face sink into them, into the fragrance of home. Bereft and bankrupt I was then, poor and broken in body and soul. But that was a very long time ago.
I have my own lilacs now.
Lester Stone’s fiancée almost ruined my life.
It was only after he’d had his heart broken but good that he began to really paint. He’s famous now. I can’t afford his paintings.
They are exquisite and gallery owners snap them up before they’re finished. These small canvases sell for five figures. Delicate faces that look you in the eye. Street scenes at dusk after rain, a sky like pink wine falling through dark trees to shine on silver pavements. He paints in the style of the last great Impressionists, a hundred years later. His hand is sure, the images pure, classics before he paints them.
Lester Stone is an old acquaintance. He was the friend of a couple we knew and sometimes he tagged along. Once briefly married, he has a grown daughter, spends the summers in Wisconsin with his aging parents, is a vegetarian and belongs to a meditation group, although he seems to know nothing about Buddhism. Nonetheless, a gentle soul, living off a tiny trust, in a monastic manner. One room with a mattress on the floor, but always immaculately groomed and dressed. A perfectionist, if you must know, very meticulous about paying his own and only his own exact share to the penny of every restaurant bill. He usually omitted the tip. But he was very mellow and otherwise had good manners, he didn’t get on our nerves.
He was a friend of Fran’s, who’d met him in a painting class. She was as slow as honey on ice and he was too, lazy and shiny as a house cat. He did not work at any job that we could ascertain and we had no idea how he spent his time. If he were as much of an artist as Fran, there was no danger of it ever amounting to anything. We regarded him as a dilettante, except that he was practically devoid of ideas.
He often brought a female friend along, each time a different one. They tended to look old and hard, carried rucksacks, wore hiking boots. He always claimed he wasn’t hungry and drank only Fruitopia. It was just lucky he wasn’t obnoxious or we would have banned him right away. He never talked about painting and for ten years we forgot all about it.
One Christmas, to escape loneliness and depression, Lester booked a Club Med vacation somewhere in the Caribbean. When he returned a week later he was ecstatic. He had met a woman, a wonderful person, French Canadian. She knew all about health food and healing. They were going to get married as soon as she liquidated everything in Montreal. He was radiant, a changed man.
“She’s not like the others,” he said. “She’s different.”
We were dying with curiosity. He showed us some photos of a lovely, winsome 45-year old with a pale oval face, sparkling eyes, dark hair. Camille.
When Camille arrived in the spring he introduced her to us. We were at the Riviera, a very old Mexican restaurant in a sunken shack dominated by a bar and pool tables. The place is an institution, dwarfed by 30 years of commercial development around it. In recent years they’d added a greenhouse (glassed in garage) and a patio with plants and umbrellas. The food is good and ridiculously cheap. Maybe that’s why Lester and Camille agreed to join us. By then she’d been in town two weeks. From the foliage of the greenhouse she emerged like a flower.
Her French accent was very strong and, to my surprise, her English very weak. She had that lovely Parisian flair, her straight hair cut simply, her clothing subdued. And she was different from all the others: her face was alive. She spoke and laughed with abandon, hands aflutter, eyes bright. Her eyes literally sparkled. Yes, she was lovely and charming. I was happy for him.
But when we went to the Ladies Room, Camille cornered me.
“This not going to work,” she declared. “I don’t know how to get out now, I give up everything to come here, now I am here and he have nothing.”
“Yes, he does live simply.”
“No bed! Only mattress!”
I had to smile. I sleep on a set of mattresses on the floor, sans frame. In brightly colored sheets it looks very modern, almost Japanese, and the firmness of the floor is great. I fondly recall the 60’s when sleeping on a mattress was cool. Pity I don’t know any French. But what’s this? She’s crying?
“He give me no money for food, not enough to buy meat – I am dying for steak. He gives enough only for radishes!”
“I thought you were a vegetarian, aren’t you a health food expert or something?”
“I am, but I must have meat. I am craving it.”
“Little things like this can be worked out.”
“Little things? No furniture! One room!”
“Didn’t he tell you about himself when you met? When you decided to get married?”
“He tell me he have everything he need,” she sobbed like a cheated child.
“And so he does.” I embraced her. She pushed me away.
“I cannot live this way! I sell my car. I give away my piano! Let go my apartment. I have no place to go and I must leave. I kill him if I stay.”
“But what about this romance you had? I thought you were so attracted to each other?”
“I was but no more. I am repulsed by him.”
“You must have seen something in him, felt something, to have gotten this far.”
“I DID! But it’s gone. And if I want coffee I must drink in secret on the roof!”
True enough. Lester did not touch anything that had caffeine, nicotine or alcohol. She felt he’d misrepresented himself when he told her he had everything he needed, which was true because he’d reduced his needs to almost nil. She at a later point confessed that her old life was such a mess she’d seen Lester as a savior. But now she stood looking at her new life as into an abyss. It was too Spartan, too big a leap; he was too human, had flaws. She now saw the reality of day to day life with him and wanted to flee it. She had deceived him, too, by depicting herself as a health food, yoga and meditation expert. She could have told him right off that she needed a steak, a cup of coffee, perhaps a glass, oh well, why not a whole bottle, of wine or even a cigarette. Better yet, she could have told him she cared about money and things. Saw them as the bolts holding life down. Could have told him she was crazy, had tried suicide, but didn’t.
“If you love each other these are just details.”
“I hate him!” she screamed. She was distraught. She splashed water on her face and ran wet hands through her hair. I was tempted to invite her to stay with me until things cleared up, but knew she’d accept and make me an accomplice to the demise of this affair. The length of my acquaintance required loyalty to Lester who, even if she left, I’d have to see again. Also, I took his side. I secretly envied his lifestyle. Never did he crave nor did he toil. He was enlightened, or rather, had enough money coming in to keep his leisure if he kept it simple. If Camille wanted to change, this was her chance. She could become someone else. But she didn’t see it as an alternate lifestyle.
“No table, no chairs! I can’t invite people!”
“Most couples start out with almost nothing,” I said as we returned to the table. “You buy things together, things you both like. You can look for a larger apartment, you will choose it, then a house. It’s a gradual process, Camille. Give it time.”
A few weeks later when we went on a picnic (he refused to lunch in a restaurant) she brought pasta salad and radishes.
“Lester needs to loosen up a little,” my husband observed on the way home.
“That would help, wouldn’t it?”
Lester couldn’t expect everything to stay the same. The appearance of Camille in his life also demanded some changes in him. So far he hadn’t changed one iota.
Whenever Camille and I were alone she’d poured out her heart like a bottle of bitter Algerian wine. She didn’t know what to do. Couldn’t decide. Couldn’t stay, couldn’t go. It was nauseating.
Her lively face and glittering eyes were still a joy to behold and I could see why he’d fallen for her. Utterly feminine in behavior, in a way American women aren’t. She was blatantly emotional, weeping freely, flaunting her hands. Particularly when we met alone for coffee, as we did sometime later. She would sit at the table and cry openly. It was revolting. How could a woman not make up her mind and act on her decision?
It really had nothing to do with Lester, he would agree to anything. She was like a typhoon that had blown into his life, he loved her and wanted it to work, and would probably even have bought a bed on a frame and taken her to a steak house. But he was at a loss now, what to do with her. He wouldn’t rent a larger apartment without some commitment on her part that she would stay, but she couldn’t decide. In his passive way he simply waited.
“Do you cry in front of him?” I asked, sipping my cappuccino.
“All the time.”
“Do you make love?”
“Has he given up?”
“No, he still try for it to work.”
“Camille, what do you want? He’s a good man. He loves you.”
She’s crying again. I’m looking at her and I see a manic-depressive.
“What sort of life did you have in Montreal? Can you go back? Did you have a job?”
“Yes. I am dietician.”
“Were you involved with someone?”
“A rich man. Much older. Married.”
“Can you go back to him?”
“Yes but I sick of it. Also a younger man, he don’t want me. I running away when I meet Lester.”
“Now you’ve met him and you’re running away again.”
“How many more chances like this do you think you’ll get? He’s a truly nice guy. You are not going to do better. You could have a wonderful life together. He loves you. He will not abuse you. If nothing is waiting for you in Montreal, why not take a chance?”
But she couldn’t hear me. She was sobbing wildly. Like a rollercoaster she was plunging and taking me with her into her whirlpool. She didn’t know anyone else in town and was clinging to me. It was raining just as wildly outside and I needed to get home to be there for my 3rd grader getting off the schoolbus at 3:20. I kept looking at my watch and trying to detach myself from her. I was afraid to take her with me to my house so she could continue her mental breakdown uninterrupted because I was afraid she’d never leave. I desperately needed to go. The rain was coming harder and the distance, since I live in the sticks, was far. I had to wrench myself out of the middle of her operatic performance and depart. I hadn’t counted on the traffic barely moving. It was like driving through Niagara Falls. By the time I got home I had missed the school bus. I drove into the garage and ran out to the driveway, looked on the porch, up and down the street. The child was nowhere to be seen. Lightning and thunder crashed all around. I ran to the houses of neighbors whose children had been on the same bus. Three houses had boys the same age who played with my son but as I rang and banged on those doors I couldn’t believe that no one was home. Where are these people with children running around in this storm. Not a single door opened to me. I was wild with grief. What if he’d disappeared? What if I never found him? With a sword through my heart I stood in the middle of the street in the pouring rain and shrieked his name. That damn Camille could destroy everyone around her. I finally found my child under a pine tree but my heart would never be the same.
Months went by. Lester was silent as a saint. Camille tore around, a storm of emotions, a tornado. One of the things that happened was that she’d fixated on his paintings and dragged him around to galleries.
Whatever paintings he’d done she photographed and showed to galleries. The photos even surfaced at the Riviera, where they were passed around the table. I looked at them closely. A street scene I fancied was done in twilight blues, a man in top hat, a woman in a long pink dress reflected in the rain-swept street.
This involvement was good. He ought to try to have his work shown and sold. She was perhaps a bit too fervent about it, like someone who has found a new religion. And there was the taskmaster about her, lashing him onward to paint more, faster, to produce.
“She’s a slave-driver,” he’d say with a wan smile. He looked pale, his beard silver. He wasn’t a young man, to put up with Camille. And she wasn’t that young either but took the prerogative of acting like an adolescent, plunging from laughter to tears. Euphoria and tragedy occupied the same space. I wasn’t surprised when she left, nor when she came back, and no one was more relieved than me when she ran off for good.
От издателя: Book Description In the first in a new series of brief biographies, bestselling author Peter Ackroyd brilliantly evokes...