The Memory of Place Ch. 03byAdrian Leverkuhn©
Jean Paul and I drove back to Paris after we said our final goodbyes to Mom, and we dropped Liz off at de Gaulle for her flight home on our way back to aquaTarkus. I was quiet on the drive into Paris, I had nothing to say, really. We helped Liz with her bags, made sure the Skycap put the right tag on it, kissed her on the cheek and she was gone.
I felt empty inside. Empty in ways I never had before. As bad as it had been when Dad passed away, this was worse. I wished then that I had brothers and sisters, and realized that I had always relied on Liz’s family to fill that role. Now that too was gone. In it’s place I had a mega-family of people I’d met once or twice before, but who, really, were strangers. Well, not Jean Paul. The boy could put down rum when it came right down to it, and that made him the best kind of family, in my book, anyway.
We had grown close the past week. Mom was JPs last link to his parents, and he felt her loss acutely, too. I think we needed each other more now than we felt comfortable talking about.
aquaTarkus was now moored in a sliver-like marina about three hundred yards south of the Ile Saint-Louis in a little slip of water that ran from the Seine to the Place de la Bastille. I had never been in any place quite like it before in my life. There she was, my home for so many years now berthed right in the middle of a slender park in the center of Paris. Kids in strollers rolled by, dogs on leashes walked by the most eclectic people I’d ever seen ambled along the walk above my home at all hours of the night and day. With a ten minute walk I could sit by Notre Dame Cathedral or hop a train at the Gare de Lyon. I could take in an opera or walk to any number of world class restaurants.
I’d found an eminently practical fellow who had a rolling crepe stand, and Gaston made the best crepes I’d ever had in my life right there out in the open about fifty yards from the boat. Within a few days of my return from the coast we were on a first-name basis.
Madeleine and I resumed our affair, as well.
We continued to go swimming at least to or three times a week; she continued to whip my ass at tennis at least as often, though I was improving. With the change in plans necessitated by Mom’s passing, it now looked as though Madeleine - along with Luc and Claire - would depart Paris with me, and we decided to make a mad dash for Marseilles so we could all experience the entire passage together.
Actually, mad dash is a bit off. The trip could be made in as little as seventeen or eighteen day; we had six weeks. The only possible bugaboo was the intense heat and the possibility that drought conditions could lower water levels enough to close some of the routes. I didn’t have air conditioning on aquaTarkus, had never needed it, but France was in the deathgrips of a brutal heatwave. I had contacted a sailmaker in Le Havre in May and had an awning made that would at least keep the sun off most of the living spaces, and when that simple addition arrived I sat on-deck in the marina - in the middle of Paris - and rigged-up the most fantastic looking contraption I’d ever seen. My new awning looked like something out of The Arabian Nights. It was huge, it was geometric, it was . . .
“My God in heaven, Thomas! What is that thing?!”
I turned to look up at Madeleine and Jean Paul standing up on the walkway above me. Such is life in a marina. You get used to it . . .
“Just think of it as an umbrella. For the sun.” I looked up at them and smiled, and tried to sound reasonably sure of myself as I did so, but not having seen my new addition from their vantage I now guessed that the thing must look like a total monstrosity.
“Ah! Of course!” Jean Paul said. “If you say so, Thomas.”
“Mon Dieu!” said my dearest Madeleine, and I heard her muttering something off color to JP about the thing looking more like a zeppelin than an umbrella, and soon they joined me down below for a nice refreshing Suffering Bastard. Actually, this was JPs first introduction to the lethal concoction, and he rolled his eyes after taking his first good pull from the drink.
“My, my . . .” was all he managed to get out before Madeleine and I broke out laughing. “Refreshing . . .” he got out after his second tentative sip. Then he was off to the races. Madeleine set about whipping up dinner while JP and I finished setting up and taking down the awning, and JP kept popping down Bastards until he was looking like he was seasick, then he was down for the count. I got him down into the guest stateroom and got him situated, then returned to help Madeleine in the galley.
It was amazing to me how well she had acclimated to life on board, but then I remembered her long stints with MSF in Darfur and Somolia, and Chad and Uganda. She wasn’t your run of the mill department store addicted American girl, that’s for sure, but there was something else about her experiences that drove her resilient outlook. I wasn’t sure what it was yet, and wasn’t sure I wanted to know, but by now I knew she was one in a million. As she cooked dinner I looked at her again and again. I couldn’t contemplate life without her now . . .
I helped carry dinner up into the cockpit and we sat and ate as the sun slipped behind the canyon of buildings that surrounded us. A simple omelet, some summer squash, and a nice cool wine . . . I looked up at all the folks strolling by on their way to dinner or the opera and I wouldn’t have traded anything for this moment.
I thought about marriage again as I picked at my food. I don’t know, maybe that’s just what men do . . . feel an overwhelming attraction and act on it. Was I ready to even think about marriage again? I had felt that impulse with Lisa Mullins as we sat eating shrimp and grits in the sun. I knew it was a juvenile reaction, but it was there. And it had felt all too real. And now, here it was again.
Why yearn for such connection? Was it the only way to feel so aboriginally bound - one soul to another?
I took a sip of wine, looked up at Madeleine. She was lost in thought, watching people move in the twilight dance of water and city; she looked calm, serene, almost contented as she drank her wine. Lights reflected off the water, and washing over her the reflections formed quiet nocturnes in my mind.
We made love that night like we were the last human beings on earth who understood the severity of our desire for one another.
We joined our struggle in the forepeak, and with the hatch above us open to moon and stars we rode through the night, our joyous cries I’m sure more than entertaining to the couples who strolled by above.
It’s an odd thing, really, to pull out of a marina in the middle of a city and motor off under bridges heavy with trains and cars. Some of the neighbors I’d shared this magic space with waved as the four of us puttered away slowly toward the Seine, and we instinctively ducked when a train full of people rumbled overhead. Too soon it seemed we transited the three overpasses that lay between us and the open river, and we were in a sense free of the city. We turned to port as we cleared the last overpass and looked upon a waterscape full of tour boats and barge traffic; I could just make out Notre Dame aft of us before it slipped behind a row of buildings, and I eased the throttle forward to work our way more fully into the current.
What can I say here? Give you a travelogue? A play by play commentary of our world as we slipped from urban cityscape to rolling pastures where horses grazed on the banks of a watery ribbon as we drifted by? We became, I soon knew, just one more part of a world that seemed to have stopped, where time was held in abeyance, and each of us on aquaTarkus seemed very much aware that this journey was a transformation.
Aren’t all journeys transformations. Maybe that’s Conrad talking, but the feeling was there . . . the feeling that we were a changing - or were we being changed? - by the landscape as we reeled by on our cellophane ribbon.
What can I say about motoring into a river’s current for hour after hour, day after day, then into locks that lift you a few feet at a time to higher elevations, into cooler waters and softer airs that seem to hold you in a kind embrace. We motored along waterways barely wider than our boat, the banks we passed lined with trees that grew up and over the way ahead so that at times it looked as though we were driving down the center aisle of a vast cathedral. Farmers walked along ancient pathways beside the water, and we waved at one another, lost in our contemplations about each other’s lives.
We cruised along like this for several days. Watching ancient worlds drift by in our waking dream, ramping alongside a town quay for lunch or dinner, walking to a farmer’s market or a bakery as we saw fit, holding this earth in our open embrace as we moved across her soul.
Time became meaningless; I watched our wake trail away behind us and I thought the strictures of time dissolved in our passing. Luc and Claire were, I saw, as enchanted as Madeleine and I.
One night Madeleine and I made love on deck in the moonlight. We lay together afterwards in the warm breeze, listening to swift waters race by against the hull, and we jumped when we heard a noise in the grass on the nearby bank and turned to see a huge white horse standing not five feet away. As we stared at each other it wasn’t hard to imagine that once upon a time he had been a unicorn or a dragon - so distant had that other reality become.
Days became weeks, and weeks too soon almost a month. We made Lyon, and now deep in the wide reaches of the River Rhone we tumbled southward at an alarming rate toward the Mediterranean Sea and Marseilles. We soon arrived, and at a yard the mast was reunited with the hull, and lickity-split, we were a sailboat again! With a bit more than one week left together we burst out into the blue waters of the Med and turned hard left and sailed past Marseilles toward a very special part of the coast . . . a series of small, steep-walled inlets - called Callanques - and to one in particular, the Callanque d’En Vau near the Port of Cassis. Here, though the water was quite deep, it was as clear as any swimming pool I had ever seen, and we slipped like seals from the boat into the water and dove among rocks and pulled ourselves out onto the beach and lay in the blistering sun until it was time to swim back to the boat and do something really strenuous - like eat lunch.
This kind of pleasure comes but a few times in life, I knew, and I was sorry to see our time together end. We all took a bus into Marseilles and I went to the American Express to collect my mail after taking Luc and Claire to the train station for a painful goodbye. Madeleine and I took a room for the night and I held her to my breast as tightly as I could, fearing tomorrow’s parting more than anything I could remember. I simply didn’t have words for what I felt; my feelings were oceanic - beyond simple knowing.
We walked along the quay that evening, lost to the world around us, lost to anything and everything but the simple joy we found in the touch of each others skin, the warmth and hope we found in each other’s eyes.
We ate a small dinner by the harbor and walked back to the hotel where we sat on the front steps as the moon rose overhead. I think we knew we hadn’t finished our music together, but I knew the road ahead without her by my side would be an unpleasant one.
I had no idea.
I’ll spare you a description of our parting the next morning. I’m not big on tears, especially when they’re mine.
I made my way back to the boat - she empty now for the first time in months - and sailed down to the Callanque de Cassis - where there is a lovely marina - and I had the boat hauled and much too long neglected maintenance begun. I remained on board, even though the boat was hard on the ground, and I worked on replacing an old braided fuel line that looked long past it’s prime.
For some reason the marina had asked for emergency contact information. Which came in handy. Do you believe in coincidence?
It was dreadfully hot, hotter than any other time I could remember that summer, and I was working down below, not drinking enough water and pushing myself way too hard when it came.
A crushing pressure in my chest. Yes. That pressure we all know and love.
I managed to crawl up into the cockpit and get a passing mechanics attention before I passed out.
I have no recollection of events as they transpired. A medical team took me to Cassis and thence to Marseilles. Jean Paul was contacted, and he must have called the Premier because overnight I was flown to the best cardiac hospital in Paris where a team of JPs friends went about clearing out my somewhat over-clogged plumbing. Madeleine was soon in attendance, clucking over the freshly minted zipper now right down the middle of my chest, and she chided me once again about not eating enough fruits and vegetables and drinking too much rum.
You know, fruits and vegetables are one thing, but messing with a sailor’s rum?
Come on! Cut me some slack, wouldya . . .
Madeleine left for Darfur about a month after my événement cardiaque. I healed nicely, or so JP said anyway, and I used the time to get caught up with business affairs back home. Getting Mom’s final affairs put to bed - the ranch sold, equities liquidated, etc. - took up most of the time that wasn’t being chewed up by truly sadistic nurses in cardiac rehab. Fortunately, my little hiccup wasn’t a really bad affair - more like a warning shot across the bow, really - but it was a warning that I took to, well, to heart. I know, I know . . .
Madeleine was due to return just in time for Christmas, and we had talked about spending the time down on the boat, so as soon as I could I planned to make my way back to the coast. And so it was that JP flew down with me in late October, and we found that the workers in the yard had done a nice job on the bottom paint and engine overhaul. The sailmaker who’d made the zeppelin, er, the sun awning, had graciously made me a new main-sail and the yard crew had put that on, too, so with a fresh autumn breeze at our backs JP and I sailed down to the Callanque d’En Vau. We dropped anchor and slipped our toes into the water.
It was unanimous! Way too cold for mere mortals to swim in, so we made a nice (healthy) salad and sat in the sun as the steep walls of the canyon kept the blustery air just offshore from working us over too badly.
“What are you going to do about Madeleine?” Jean Paul asked me in his usual delicate way.
“What am I going to do? To do? What the hell does that mean?” I shot back.
“When she heard about you, dear Thomas, and about your little heart problem, she came unglued, you know. I mean totally unglued. Mind you, this is a woman with a heart of steel, pure steel. I’ve never seen her cry before. And the things she’s seen, well, they make me cry sometime.”
“I hear you, Jean Paul. I love her. That’s all there is to say about it.”
“And what?! Look, the ink on my divorce papers has barely had time to dry, you know what I mean?”
“That’s bullshit and you know it. Love is love. Commitment is commitment. Time is fleeting. You of all people should understand that now.”
“And don’t I just know it, my dearest friend. Thank you for reminding me.”
“And I thank you for that, Thomas. Truly. I am honored to be your friend. And as your friend, I tell you that you are full of bullshit.”
Yeah, there was no doubt about it. He was from my mother’s side of the family alright.
I didn’t know much about Darfur. I don’t keep up with that stuff anymore. I figure that people are going to keep killing people for any and whatever reasons they can come up with. I’ve experienced it personally in Central America, in the southwestern Pacific, and in Ireland. I’ve seen it in South Central L.A., and in Oakland. I’ve nearly been knifed in Mexico City and Panama City and New York City. Yeah, it’s usually some kind of religious gripe that sets people off, but hell, why blame God for all this nonsense. Assuming he gave us this paradise in the first place, most of the time we’ve pretty much fucked it up all by ourselves. Besides, more often that not it just comes down to somebody else wanting your stuff, and they’re willing to hurt you to take it from you.
So, when it comes to believing in people, I’m an agnostic.
That’s why I was such a stoic when I heard that Madeleine and a handful of other physicians had been abducted by Islamic militants from an aid station outside of Nyala in southwestern Sudan.
As far as I could make out, there wasn’t much reason for this war. One group of (well-armed) muslims with - basically - nothing of value were out killing another group of (unarmed) muslims who had - basically - nothing of value. A few well-intentioned people were trying to stop the murder, but - basically - the general public had had it with the never-ending stream of tribal genocide that had been playing out on television in their living rooms night after night for almost thirty years. Throw in a few misadventures playing out in the Middle East at the same time, and - well - Darfur was just getting lost in the shuffle.
All of a sudden, Darfur got real personal for me.
I flew up to Paris and met Luc and Claire; Jean Paul was at MSF headquarters getting caught up with the latest news. Rumors were flying about a French military mission into the area to try to recover the physicians - something the docs at MSF were adamantly against, by the way - when video was released showing one of the doctors being beheaded. A masked militant declared that any attempt to rescue the others would only lead to their death. I watched him tell me he was going to kill the woman I loved right there in the baggage claim area at Orly Airport on CNN.
You have to believe me when I tell you this. I believed him, I was willing to take him at his word. And I wanted to kill that son of a bitch more than anything else in the world.
Well, it seemed the son of a bitch had used an unsecure connection to send his demands to CNN, and of course my good buddies at the NSA intercepted the transmission and forwarded the coordinates to a group of Marines already operating (covertly) in the area.
I never got the chance to kill that prick. Some kid from East Lansing, Michigan probably got that honor. One other doctor got wounded in the rescue, but the rest were hustled out of the Sudan on a US Air Force C-17 within a couple of hours of their ‘release’ - at least that’s what the press was told - and Madeleine and her associates her winging their way back to Frankfurt, Germany where a group of French spooks would debrief them before their return to Paris.
All this Jean Paul related to me over dinner near the Tuileries; Luc and Claire were simply too devastated to eat - they had known the murdered physician quite well - so JP and I sat quietly by ourselves and ate our dinner. The worst was over, Jean Paul said, and though relieved this part of Madeleine’s ordeal was now in the past, we both knew there would be trying times ahead as she came to grips with the broader contours of her ordeal.
“Have you thought about our last conversation? On the boat?” he asked.
“Little else, my friend. Little else.”
“Don’t you think this would be the most inappropriate time to bring that up? I mean really, Jean, look what she’s just been through.”
“I see. I see that you are still full of bullshit. Too bad. She deserves better.”