The Memory of Place Ch. 02byAdrian Leverkuhn©
So many passages at sea can be terrifying, or simply a physical ordeal that you wish would be over as soon as possible. My journey across the Atlantic was simply pleasant and uneventful. I had left Charleston, South Carolina a month and a half ahead of the boisterous Atlantic hurricane season, and the abnormally calm passage reflected my state of mind. I felt a release of tension as America drifted away behind me. I puttered about the boat, tended little housekeeping chores like mending a sail or checking tension on shrouds and chainplates - little things that need to be kept on-top-of in order to survive at sea. Well, that - and I read.
Curious about Lisa Mullins' question - had I read Pat Conroy before? - I had picked up a copy of Beach Music before Charleston became just a memory in my wake, and I passed many an hour reading that book as aquaTarkus arced eastward across the sea. Conroy's tale made an impression on me. It was a story, to me, about the memory of place, about how place awakens feelings we've long since forgotten, and about the interconnectedness of place and emotion across generations. It made me think of my Dad, something that rarely happened anymore. He had moved on more than ten years ago, and I missed his steady hand. I thought, as I sat up at night eying the radar, how much he would have loved making this trip.
After seventeen days at sea I closed on the coast of France, and began to pick up contours of the Seine River estuary on radar in the middle of the night, and, mindful of the complex shipping environment in the English Channel, I moved in close to the coastline to avoid the thickest of it. The boat fairly slipped along on a beam reach through the night, and as the sun came up I could make out the marina I was headed for in the distance, just to the left of Le Havre's city center and docklands. I negotiated a complex maze of breakwaters and turned into the marina a little after nine that seventeenth morning, and threw my lines to the Gendarme waiting for me on the Customs Quay.
The plan was simple. I'd make arrangements to have aquaTarkus's mast unstepped and shipped to Marseilles by truck. Thus unencumbered, I would take my boat through the vast canal network that laces across France and emerge in the Mediterranean. I planned to move from Le Havre directly to Paris, spend a month or so there, then laze my way through the summer months and arrive in the South in, say, October or November. I found that I really didn't care how long it took. In fact, I was of half a mind to get lost somewhere out there in the middle of nowhere, someplace near a village that had a nice bakery, decent cheese, and, yes, a steady supply of rum.
Anyway, I felt that after all I had been through with Liz, and with the confusing epitaph of Lisa Mullin's little "mercy fuck" routine behind me as well, I was a little dead from the neck up. It was time for a change. A real change.
I cleared customs and made arrangements to berth-up aquaTarkus in the marina for a few days, then walked up to the Strand and looked for a coffee. I didn't have to look hard. I ducked into a little place and ordered a café au lait and a couple croissant, then settled outside on the splendid boardwalk and marveled at a world that wasn't bouncing and rolling to the beat of mad Sea-Gods. It's hard to convey sometimes just how good it feels to walk on solid earth, to feel the warmth of the morning sun on your face as the smells and sounds of life come to you on a quiet breeze that smells of life - city life.
After a while - it could have been an hour, or a day - I walked back to the boat, collected some things in a rucksack and made my way to the train station. I hopped on a local to Paris and spent the next four hours reveling in the smooth motion of rails. Not one wave smacked the bow and washed over - me - and the boat, even if the motion of the train did feel a little odd to me. I got into Paris in the middle of the afternoon and made my way to the American Express office just in time to collect my mail. I flipped through the handful of bills and unwanted correspondence until I came to a letter from Liz, and - wonder of wonders - two from my humble mercy-fucking attorney. I wandered if she was going to hit me for services rendered.
I planned to scout out a marina in the city - or a place along a quay, perhaps - someplace to bring aquaTarkus and tie her up. I didn't want to arrive without that much accomplished, so - guidebook in hand - off I went. Letters would remain unopened for now . . .
I looked at a couple of places upriver from the Isle Saint Louis, and the second one looked perfect. The proprietor told me it would likely take me a week, maybe ten days to journey from Le Havre to Paris. He encouraged me to set aside two weeks, enjoy the trip, he said, you'll never pass this way again. It sounded like good advise, so I made a reservation, left a deposit, and after finding a nice place for dinner, I jumped on the metro back to the station and hopped on a midnight express back to the coast.
I think I slept for a day after I got back to the boat, then went out in search of provisions for the boat. The following morning saw us headed upstream, passing under the Pont de Normandie, then the past the limestone cliffs abutting the Pont de Tancarville, and in an instant I was in another world. The upscale urban sprawl of Le Havre gave way to a series of bucolic vistas as the river turned to the west and entered a land peppered with quaint villages and rolling farmland. Not to mention an occasional refinery. But as the coastline receded, the transformation continued, and soon I felt like I was - home.
I know that sounds odd.
Something about the air, the light, and - I don't know - suddenly I felt like I was home. I knew my Mother's family in France, we had had many special times together during my youth, but I was essentially an American. I wondered if mother still kept up with them? Maybe I should Jean Paul?
I don't why I pushed on that first day, but I ended up tied off to a little public quay near Caudebec-en-Caux as the sun set, and I walked into the village and sat in the first place that looked good and had some wine and cheese, then some oysters and duck. It was amazing. With each passing moment I felt as though I was nearing home. Were my roots really so shallow?
After eating I stood in a phone booth as a cold fog rolled in and called my mother in Colorado. We exchanged cool pleasantries, then I asked her if she still kept in touch with Jean Paul, with her family in France.
Quite often, as it turned out. I listened as she rumbled from the old house in the shadow of the Rockies - cussing and muttering as she did - and she made her way back to the phone breathlessly. She rambled on for a minute about this nephew and that good for nothing cousin, and I wrote as she dictated names and addresses and telephone numbers of family all over northern France. She offered to call Jean Paul the next day, and I gave her my sat-phone number to pass along. I rarely used the thing, the cost per call was exorbitant, but I thought the situation warranted it. I caught her up on the trip across, and she told me Liz had been calling two times a day for the past three weeks. Mom said Liz was upset about something.
That seemed odd.
After I hung up from talking to Mom, I fished out the letters Liz and Lisa had written. I hadn't opened them. Frankly, I didn't want to.
I opened Liz's letter. Call me! she wrote, and her words were underlined insistently.
I opened Lisa's first letter.
She loved me, she wrote in two pages of parsed legalese. And she was pregnant.
Then her second letter. Please come back for me!
I didn't know what to think.
I looked at my watch. Almost midnight here in the chilly coastal fog; that would make it seven in the evening back in Carolina. I could hear cicada buzzing away in pecan trees when that thought rolled over me, and soon the heavy brackish air of the Ashley River filled my senses. I just as quickly thought of Lisa and her pulsing need, and in an instant we were on the boat again, making frenzied love after she had fixed me breakfast that fated night. I could see her face, her inextinguishable need for connection, her fine breasts heaving as she thrashed away in the clutches of her abandon.
I called the restaurant's number, asked for Liz, and waited impatiently while she came to the phone.
"Tom? Tom, is that you?"
"None other, kiddo."
"Where are you? Did you make it to England, or France?"
"I'm on the coast, in Normandy. I picked up your letter today, and talked to Mom. What's on your mind?"
"Tom, oh Tom! I don't know where to begin! Dad's got prostrate cancer, it's advanced, has moved up into his spine."
"Oh. Sorry to hear that, Liz. Really. How's your mom taking it?"
"And Tom, that lawyer of yours is pregnant. She's been telling people you're the father, and that you skipped town when you found out. Also, I heard from someone who knows her well that someone else might be the father. Someone named Drew."
Well, what can I tell you? That's life in the big city.
"OK Liz, thanks for the heads-up. How are you doing?"
"Tom? I miss you terribly. I want us to be together again, and I don't care what it takes. I love you more than anything in the world."
What was this? The second act in her play? I couldn't think of anything to say, so I remained quiet for a while - while the fog wrapped it's arms around me. Such was my need . . .
"Tom? You there?"
"I am indeed."
"I see. OK, Tom. I wish you the best." Her voice was breaking up, I could hear tears welling up, then the line went dead.
I hung up the phone, stood in the damp air for a long time. My eyes were blinded by the dingy fluorescent light in the booth; between the light and the fog I couldn't make out anything around me. It was like I was floating in milky space. I could hear the river in the distance, but there was no way I could pinpoint the direction.
I thought about Liz for a moment, and her father. I remembered our wedding day, when her father and mine, both more than three sheets to the wind, had danced together while our mothers egged them on. My father. Lung cancer. And now that link to the past would be gone. Another sentinel gone.
What Liz said about Lisa seemed to me simply incredible; something in my gut said if Lisa was pregnant, it had to be mine. And I couldn't believe Lisa would spread a rumor so vile about me - or anyone else, for that matter. I just didn't think she had that kind of meanness in her.
So, I stood there in the fog wondering if I should call Lisa. I looked at my watch. Again. Ran a couple of fingers through my damp hair, looked at water on my fingers glistening in the light.
I picked up the phone, punched in the interminable string of international calling codes, credit card numbers, and telephone numbers. The first ring caught me off-guard. I thought about hanging up. Second ring. I'm about to hang up when someone on the other end picks up the phone.
"I got your letter."
Now it was someone else's time to be quiet, to keep someone else guessing.
"I'm sorry, Tom. I guess I should have been more careful."
"Well, it takes two to tango, darlin'. By the way. Who's Drew?"
A long silence followed that question. Then the line went dead.
I called Mom the next morning. Turned out the whole herd of relatives still lived on the coast near Deaville, in the little village of Hennequeville, which is just down the beach a bit from Le Havre. I always marveled at Mom's journey as a young woman from the Norman coast to Southwest Colorado. It was the stuff of legend.
It's a long story, but not uninteresting.
Dad's B-17 got shot up over Germany in early 1944, and he almost managed to get the bird back to the English Channel before it came apart on him. The crew had bailed-out all over northern France, and he jumped ship before fire engulfed the entire plane. He came down in thick forest just a few hundred yards from the beach, breaking his ankle in a tree as he did. A farmer - and his future father-in-law - pulled him from that tree before a German patrol found him, and well, the rest is, as they say, History with a capital H.
You couldn't tell a farmer's daughter joke around dad without risking a serious pop in the mouth. He worshipped Mom - and her family - did until the day he died.
"You know, Tom," I heard her saying, "if you're going up to see family, I'd love to come. I haven't seen Jean and Marie for years, and I'd love to see them again."
Hmm, this was beginning to take on hues of a major family get together.
"Mom, do you feel up to the trip?"
"Oh, silly boy. Of course I do. How is the weather there now?"
I was sitting in the cockpit, talking on the hideously expensive sat-phone, and I looked around at the lush trees and ancient buildings all around me. It was so beautiful outside that it took my breath away.
"Oh, mom, it's beautiful here right now. I think you should come, in fact, I insist on it! I can book you a flight right now if you want me to."
"Oh, Tommy! That would be so nice, so nice to see our family again. Yes! Let's do it!"
"OK, Mom. I'll call you in a bit. Start packing, and would you call Jean Paul? Tell him I'm tied up at the quay in Caudebec-en-Caux."
"I did, Tom. He said you should go see the little chapel there, up the hill."
"I will Mom. Talk to you in a little while."
Later that afternoon I was working down below, in the galley as I recall, when I heard someone calling my name and a knocking on the side of the boat.
"Tom! Tom! Are you there, Tom!"
I knew that voice, that unmistakably cultured physician's voice. It had to be Jean-Paul. My cousin, Jean-Paul Dumas. I hadn't seen him in more than ten years; and he had always been a rascal. He was brilliant and women simply stared at him when he came into a room - he had eyes that seemed to be express pure empathy - and everyone - everyone - seemed to gravitate toward him. We had all of us - Liz included - come over for his wedding in the early nineties. He had married an American woman - irony of ironies - the insufferably intelligent and unbelievably gorgeous Marie-Suzanne Sommers. She was a career diplomat at the U S Embassy in Paris, and a lawyer by training.
I popped up the companionway to see Jean Paul rubbing his hands along the boat's teak cap-rail.
"Tom. She's beautiful. I read your book, but I had no idea."
"Thanks, JP. How ya doing?"
He stopped rubbing the wood long enough to look up at me, then spoke.
"Not so good. Marie and I are, I think you say, in Splitsville. Getting a divorce."
I think that was my cue to be empathetic.
"What's happened, Jean? I can't believe it!"
"Oh, this mess in Iraq. It has caused us much tension. Here in France, and in our house."
Yes, I could see that. Jean Paul was about as liberal a human being as one could find, anywhere, whereas Marie had always been a bit of a hawk if you scratched beneath her Radcliffe exterior a little too deeply. Perhaps it had always been inevitable. But this Iraq mess, as JP called it, had taken it's toll on relations in very unpredictable ways.
"Sorry to hear that, Jean Paul. Anything I can do?"
"You? No, dear Tom! But have you been to the chapel yet, up the hill?"
"No, not yet."
"Well, put some shoes on. Let's go!"
We walked through the little village for about ten minutes, then stood looking up at a beautiful gothic church. Jean Paul told me all about the building, its origins and significance, and as we walked inside he crossed himself and said a quiet prayer. I had forgotten this, this piety so remote from the America I grew up in, and the simple act startled me with it's significance.
The light in this part of the world is so pure, yet so pink; it suffuses the stone buildings of the region with an otherworldly quality that really must be seen to be appreciated, and all this came together in a blinding moment of insight as I took in the beauty of the gothic interior. I was, in a very real way, a part of this land - just as much as I was an American. In that instant I felt again just what had suddenly intruded only two days ago. This sense of being "home". This part of France, unlike so many of the places Liz and I had visited during the last five years of our marriage, was a part of me in startlingly intimate ways. My mother was from here, as was her family. They had lived in the region for as long as records had been kept in the village halls and churches; chapels and cathedrals around the region recorded dates of marriages and baptisms of family members back to the twelfth century, and that history was a part of - me. Jean Paul was a part of - me! These limestone cliffs, the soil from which all life sprang, all were a tangible part of what had created - me - and the resonance of that insight penetrated my soul as we walked about in that hallowed space.
It was a pure moment, to have roamed so far and to realize I had - at least in part - found what I had been so desperately looking for, and for so long.
Jean Paul and I walked back to the quay, and there looked out on the Seine and the barge traffic that made its way to and from Paris - and on out into the world - as it had for hundreds of years. We had a coffee, talked about Iraq and Darfur, and of Jean Paul's recent decision to rejoin Médecins Sans Frontières and return to volunteer medicine in Africa.
"You should come to the house tonight," he told me. "Some physicians that are just returning from six months in Darfur will be talking to some of us, sharing insights on new medicines. It might be boring, but you might learn something, too. It will only take an hour to make the drive, and I can bring you back later tonight."
We asked about leaving the boat again for the night, and the once surly harbormaster said he would look after the boat. He said he knew Jean Paul, and now knowing my relation to him I was suddenly a member of the family, so to speak, in more ways than one. I told him when I would be back, and he told me not to worry about the boat.
We crossed the Seine in Jean Paul's little silver Citroen and drove along winding country lanes overgrown with riotously verdant trees until we arrived at Mom's family's ancestral home. I wasn't a huge chateau, but neither was it a farmers shack, and there was that mesmerizing view down to the English Channel through trees and gardens. We arrived in time for dinner in the village, then walked back to the house. Cars full of chattering physicians began arriving not a half hour later.
I do speak a bit of french - my mother insisted that I speak at least enough to get by here - but my medical vocabulary was woefully inadequate to the animated discussions that filled the house that night. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to run into a couple Liz and I had encountered in Moorea. Small world, indeed. Luc and Claire Menton were amazing sailors, having ventured from Deauville to Tahiti - via Cape Horn - in an engine-less 28-foot sailboat. We caught up with each other's progress - including my divorce, to which they expressed sorrow - and they were more than interested in my plans to travel through the canals down to Marseilles.
"We have never done this journey," Luc told me during one of the breaks in the medical presentations. "Would you mind some company, perhaps, for part of the trip?" I knew the portion on the Rhone - from Lyon south, would be a monotonous river journey, but the segments between Paris and Lyon were arduous, with many locks to be negotiated. A couple of extra helping hands would be appreciated, and I told them so. Luc looked at Claire, gave her a knowing nod, and we exchanged phone numbers, and he looked at mine suspiciously.