Authors: Lauren Groff
The mother decides to take her two young sons to France for August.
She has been ambushed all spring by quick fits, like slaps to the heart. Where they come from, she doesn't know, but she is tired of keeling over in the soap aisle or on the elliptical or in the unlit streets where she walks her dread for hours late at night.
Also, Florida in the summer is a slow hot drowning. The humidity grows spots on her skin, pink where she is pale, pale where she is tan. She feels like an unsexy cheetah under her clothes.
These reasons seem slight. Dread and heat. None of her family or friends would understand. Anyway, since winter, they, with their worries about schools and Scouts and tenure and yoga, have seemed so distant to her, halfway dissolved in the sunset. Her work is mysterious to
them, but they can understand its necessity. So they nod knowingly when she tells them she has to do research on Guy de Maupassant.
It's not untrue. For ten years, she has been stuck on a project about the writer. Or maybe Guy de Maupassant has been stuck in her, a fish bone lodged in her throat.
The problem of Guy de Maupassant is grave.
Once, during her darkest months, Guy de Maupassant had meant a great deal to her. She was eighteen and an exchange student in Nantes, France, for a year, and didn't know the language as well as she'd believed. She had been put in a
, a class of fourteen-year-olds. In her misery, she grew fat on crÃªpes and cheese, poked at her stomach in the mirror and watched it jiggle. The salvation was the cheap paperback bookstore, five francs for a book, an education one dollar at a time. The first book she bought had been a thin pale edition of Guy de Maupassant's
Contes de la BÃ©casse
. She skipped class to sit in the Japanese garden down by the river, where she could be hidden by a sort of grand and impersonal beauty. She loved the book, and the writer, because reading his warm voice made her feel less alone, less inept.
Slowly, through reading, she became aware of the way the demands of a language can change you. She became a different person in French: colder, more elegant, more restrained. She is most herself in French, she hopes.
With the Guy project, she wants to explode the writer or explore him, she doesn't know which. It began as a translation project, but after she read more than three hundred of his stories and found a mere handful she loved, it then turned into a historical fiction. But reimagining another writer's life in fiction has begun to seem tricksy to her, diversionary, like sleight of hand. The times are too troubled for such things. These urgent days she wants the truth, stark and cold.
Her boys take the news of going to France stoically. They do not even cry.
Her older son will be seven at the end of August. He is of a physical beauty so rare that sometimes she can't believe he'd come out of her. He is muscular, very tall for his age, with a graceful large-eyed face like a fawn's. His beauty is mitigated by painful shyness and extreme sensitivity.
He's like a perfect, windless pond, her husband once said. You throw something in just to watch it sink, and you're going to see it on the bottom staring back at you for the rest of your life.
The four-year-old is different. He is sunny, golden. He sucks his thumb, even though they paint a bitter polish on it. He carries around a cat puppet called Whoopie Pie. He makes friends with everyone. After the endless flight, during which he vibrated and did not sleep, on the train from De Gaulle to their rented apartment in the
shows a big-boned German girl his tiny red backpack. The girl was crying, but when he climbs into her lap, sucking his thumb and reaching back to fondle the girl's ear, she clutches him to her and puts her eyes in his hair. The mother worries that he smells rancid, his skin is still covered in the milk he spilled all over himself back in Orlando, in that other, Florida life that she already doesn't regret having left behind them. But the German girl doesn't seem to mind. The mother and her sons get off the train, the older boy holding the little one's hand tightly and the mother carrying all their bags in her two strong arms. The mother looks back and sees that the solace was temporary, that the German girl has started weeping all over again.
They spend the first week in Paris because the mother is hoping the boys will pick up French the way they pick up dirt. She takes them every morning to the Poussin Vert playground in the Jardin du Luxembourg to play with French children and learn French by osmosis, but her sons keep to themselves, zip-lining over and over again, the little one trying to hold his brother's hand, his brother too sweaty and focused to allow him. They eat lunch, a decent prix-fixe vegetarian at Le Restaurant Foyot, and though it's only one o'clock, she gets buzzed on a half carafe of cold white wine and laughs too hard when she shows her boys how to eat crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e.
It disconcerts her to find that Paris has become
somehow Floridian, all humidity and pink stucco and cellulite rippling under the hems of shorts. It is ten degrees warmer than it should be, much brighter and louder than the Paris that lives in her memory. She had always thought this would be the place to be during the climate wars that she sees looming in the future. A city of water, surrounded by fields, temperate and contained. But maybe there is no place to be; maybe all places on a hotter planet will be equally bad, desert and hunger everywhere, even here. The mother takes her boys to do touristy things in the searing afternoons, puppet shows and Eiffel Towers and museums and picturesque early dinners on the Seine. They speak for five minutes a day with her husband over Skype, but he doesn't really have time; August is when he works eighteen hours a day, and the boys sense his impatience and become resentful and less and less willing to come to the computer to chat. When she speaks to adults, it is only to order things, her French going gluey in her head.
At night the boys sleep ten hours in the same cramped room with her. The mother, in order to have some time alone, drinks wine and watches French sitcoms on her computer with earphones. She really should be rereading Guy, or taking his biographers into the bathtub, elegant Francis Steegmuller, lascivious Henri Troyat, but she's too tired; she'll get started tomorrow. Every evening she tells herself that the next day they will go to visit Dr. Esprit Blanche's asylum, where Guy died at forty-two years old of tertiary syphilis. A century before it was a
madhouse, it had been the Palais de Lamballe; the Princesse de Lamballe was Marie Antoinette's dearest friend, and when the revolutionaries came for the princess, they raped her, lopped off her head, and paraded it on a spike before the queen's window. When Guy was in his final throes of insanity, believing that there were precious jewels in his urine and that he was the son of God, the headless princess came through the walls to visit him.
Yet day after day, the mother doesn't go to Guy's last home: there would have been so much to explain to her children, what syphilis is, what insanity is, what revolutions are. Instead, every day, she wakes foggily with the boys at dawn, starving for
pain au chocolat
and coffee and fruit, and gets sucked into their life of playgrounds and joy. At last, before she can see where Guy ended his days, she runs out of time.
On the seventh day, they get up very early and take a train to Rouen, where, at the station, they rent a Mercedes for the drive west to the Alabaster Coast, in Normandy, where Maupassant was born and where he returned again and again. His mother, Laure, was from the area, a woman who gave her two sons their love of books, who went on walking tours in Europe alone as a younger woman, who dared to divorce back when divorce was not done, but who ended up a neurasthenic, sad
and alone, both sons dead of syphilis, trying to strangle herself with her own long hair.
The mother drives, feeling fat and wasteful and American in the Mercedes. She has never understood the purpose of luxury cars, but she couldn't drive a stick shift on the tight cliffside roads or she would stall the car and kill them all.
The trip should take an hour, but they get lost in the twisty tiny villages, and the four-year-old pukes on Whoopie Pie, then falls asleep; and the six-year-old cries quietly to himself when she yells at him to stop whining about the smell, and she has to crack the window to settle her own stomach, and then drizzle whips incessantly into her eyes, and she pauses in FÃ©camp to ask directions of a man who pretends not to understand her French when she knows, irritatedly, that her French is, in fact, quite good. She is shaking when at last they swing down a steep hillside into Yport.
It is a fishing village, all silex and brick and stone streets and hills. There is a small curve of beach covered in fist-sized stones, bracketed by extreme cliffs that are disappointingly not white but creamy beige limestone with horizontal veins of gray flint. The air here, she thinks, has some kind of fizz to it, something thrilling, which makes you feel drunk, makes you want to dance and do wild things as soon as you arrive, as though you've just drunk a bottle of champagne. She's pleased with
herself until she recognizes her thought as a paraphrase from Guy's best story, “Boule de Suif.” She parks in the lot at the casino to await a man named Jean-Paul, who is supposed to show them to the house at three. She feels heavy when she sees on the clock that it is only eleven.
We're here! she says.
We're where? the older boy says. They look together through the windshield at the empty gray beach, the gray ocean, the gray sky overhead.
Nowhere, he says darkly.
The little boy wakes with a start and says, Flags!
She hadn't noticed, but it is true, there are two dozen flags on very tall poles lining the boardwalk, all frayed for the last foot or so at the whipping ends. Not one is American. This place is for the Swedes of the world, the Danes, the Brits, but certainly not the Americans. She is glad. When she steps out, the wind is chilly, the gulls scream overhead, but she feels a looseness in her joints, a wildness that she identifies as freedom from the doom that had waited for her just around the corner at home in Florida, that she'd even felt watching her in Paris. Yport is so small, so anonymous. It has gone downhill since Renoir painted it. Surely, her bad pet dread would never think to look for her here.
Down on the beach, the boys chunk rock after rock into the boiling waves. They like the rattle the stones make on the hard bottom in the troughs and the gulping sound the stones make in the crests. They climb into a
cave in the cliff that is shaped like the nave in a church, but get spooked. She admires the way the wind tousles the older boy's dark hair, and she doesn't notice when the little one strips quickly to his underoos and runs into the rough waves. She sees only a flash of gold hair going under. She wades in and drags him out. His skin and lips are blue and his face is startled, but when the older brother laughs at him, he laughs, too.
It is so cold in the wind. Her skirt is wet and the little one is shuddering, but she is too tired to go back to the car to change their clothes. There is a small set of tin shacks on the beach for souvenirs, fried seafood, gelato. There, protected by a lufting sheet of clear plastic, she orders three buckwheat
with cheese and egg, and one salted caramel crÃªpe for dessert. At home they eat sugar only on holiday or in emergenciesâshe knows it is a poison; it can make you fat and crazy and eventually lose your memories when you are old, and she has a severe horror of being a stringy-haired cackler in the old-age home; she has boys, she's not dumb, she knows that sad obsolescence will more than likely be her fate if humanity even lasts that long, as girls are the ones who change your diapers when you've lost control of your bodily functions, and no son wants to wet-wipe his mother's vulvaâbut she wants her boys to love France and has discovered of herself that she isn't above bribery. She holds the little son against her skin,
under her shirt and cardigan, to warm him up. Then the bigger one says that it isn't fair, that he is cold, too, and so she makes room on her lap and lets him into her cardigan. Like a bag of holding, it stretches to encompass them all. She isn't hungry, so she drinks her local cider and lets the alcohol warm her. It has low notes of manure and grass, which nauseates her until she thinks of the taste as terroir. This is what Guy de Maupassant tasted long ago, she imagines, sitting in this same salty cold.
Of all the Guys she knowsâthe Parisian playboy who seduced rich society ladies, the obscene youth rowing and fucking on the Seine, the obsessed Mediterranean yachter chased from harbor to harbor by his madnessâshe truly loves only the Guy of the Alabaster Coast. He had been a hearty dark-haired Norman child here, running barefoot in the orchards and playing with the children of the fishermen. And she can imagine him on this beach as a very young man, walking into the waves for a dawn swim. Laughing, his moustaches dripping, red in the cheeks. This Guy who was as strong as a bull, not yet a bad man.
Atop the cliffs, there are emerald meadows of grass blown back by the wind like pompadours. There are tiny white specks that she squints to see. Cows or sheep? she asks the boys, and they make fun of her terrible eyesight and finally say, Sheep, Mommy, jeez, definitely sheep.
She holds them in her arms and sniffs their necks and imagines one iconoclastic sheep, after a long life of envying the birds in their graceful rest above the sea, coming
to a sudden decision. He'd take a step to turn gloriously bird. Then he'd meet the ocean, turn jellyfish.
When the boys finish their food and hers, they slide to the ground. Her dark green cardigan is stretched hopelessly out of shape, streaked in yellow with yolk.
The boys jump off a low stone wall in front of the casino into a bed of lavender orbited by golden bees. She thinks of herself as a mother who lets her children make their own mistakes. She doesn't want the boys to be in pain, but she wouldn't mind if they began to pay more attention to danger, and the world is full of far worse lessons than a bee sting.