by Don Dussault
For me everything is in the present tense. Whatever whoever slips away into the past I yank it back. Here something of me thrives. And him. Too much of him. Straight hair a paler brown than my rich dark walnut. Bright blue eyes. At any moment I revive that most dramatic afternoon with an unexpected visitor, a guest from America.
We dally. I love that word, a sweetener for the sweaty groping gasping noises and smells it connotes and the rumpling of the young man’s bed, dally, ah, the scrubbed-clean sound of it, this primary color word, cadmium yellow letters, or red-orange, on a cobalt field, signifying the most pure of pleasures filling us with golden glowing warmth as we look brighteyed at each other afterward, strong young male with smears of dark hair on his chest, mature female thickened, not yet sagging. We relax knowing we won’t be alone for long in our overheated universe. I get up first. He watches me getting dressed to resume my role as consort to the aristocratic landowner, really a modern businessman with an antique title anachronistic in an era of capitalist socialist quasi-republics. The Count and the quite young female companion of my bedfellow are riding back to the castle.
A genuine castle in eastern Europe mostly spared by war towering in hills above a city rebuilt in the image of a theme mall. The Count we call him. Acts no, lives the part. My count possesses the circumspection not to flirt nor dally too long with the young quite female half of our guest couple. The verb plays in my mind. Ah, that smile of his! I know little about them. Jerry and Alicia, she a photo-journalist hoping to make her name by recording the rebuilt cities since the world war. I savor the glow of of this young man’s body.
As I idle in Jerry’s room, reluctant to leave, subconsciously seeking clues to this young traveler’s personality, I notice atop his dresser loose paper money, coins, a rumpled handkerchief, his passport. Ever piqued by photographs I open the passport. In the this-is-me square signed across the side he looks younger than his eighteen years, with an innocent infectious grin he now wears in real life, watching me. “I look pretty goofy in that picture, don’t I?”
Jerry turns out to be Jeremiah Slade. I’m about to tell him I have a son named Jeremiah when his last name echoing through my mind shivers my pleasant woolly mood, sets me trembling, for my own Jeremiah and his mother—myself!— have not seen each other since he was two, and I ask his father’s name, dreading his response to this innocuous question. “Senator Slade.”
I can hardly control my voice. “A United States Senator?”
“He’s a State Senator now but he’s running for the United States Senate.” Impatient I blurt, “Senator Marlon Slade?”
I can write this with some clarity now, recalling my incoherence as old scenes and images swirl and blend into each other and as I assemble them I see satisfaction in his calm features as he reclines with his arms folded behind his head, mildly surprised I’ve heard of the Senator. I mutter I keep up with American politics. I read his birthdate— the same as my son’s! My full weight rests against the dresser. Both hands braced on the dresser. It slides away. I gaze at the white ceiling. His anxious face intrudes. He is kneeling beside me, holding my hand, eyes filled with concern. “Are you OK?”
I shake my head not in reply but to clear it. Steadying myself on my arms I let him help me up, leaning against him, shaky, avoiding his touch while I straighten my clothes. “I’m fine. Truly, I’m fine. I’m going downstairs.
Get dressed. Tell no one what happened. We don’t want controversy at dinner, do we? The Count hates controversy.”
My son has the intelligence to volunteer no information that could trace our paths to his room. I force a smile and after watching him leave, thinking it would be my last sight of him, I try to stroll with blithe steps, managing not to totter, out into the hallway.
To avoid meeting anyone I take the stairs up to a walkway along a parapet under the roof. A single thought burrows into my mind: I seduced my own son! Leaning outward between crenels, mind whirling, I peer down into the courtyard and the square stones fitting together, imbedded in concrete. Jocasta, wife and mother of Oedipus, a suicide. Could I? Too dear a cost to preserve my awful secret? My duty, proper retribution for having enjoyed my son’s youthful maleness in ways no mother should! I curse the horrid impossible coincidence that brought him to me, challenge my courage to fly down to those square stones. See my stiff, crumpled, broken body on the flagstones as Vasile and his servants venture out to stand around in bemused silence. Am I artfully posed, lovely, saintlike, asleep in perfect peace? My sister Eleanor cries out, “You must dramatize yourself as usual! Selfish, inconsiderate this latest stunt of yours, turning yourself into a gruesome mess on those stones for others to clean up.”
Remembrances of my sister halt my plunge into despair. Afternoons of dancing with her, laughing under the backyard arbor of sweet green grapes. Wiser than I ever was, she raised my son well. Vasile and Alicia ride into the courtyard, laughing. From my height I observe their progress toward the stables behind the castle. Handyman, chauffeur Dracul marches across the courtyard and closes the gate. Make a decision— walk downstairs or leap. I can’t take a first step. I shiver as mountain shadows creep over the parapet. Fear frazzles the soles of my feet and my ankles tremble and weakness riddles my knees. Too cowardly for the coward’s way. Has some time passed? Lighted rooms cast pale-yellow trapezoids across the dim courtyard stones so far far down.
Hours of my madness shiver any semblance of rationality in me. Don’t believe the rationality. I’m back to my first days with Count Vasile Grigore when, in Paris, I veer away from the upperclass woman I’m supposed to become, who holds charity events, perhaps joins Suffragist rallies, ages in ease and contentment. Tell Vasile I have a son or await a reply to my letter home, a reply that never arrives, no, I can’t. A man of the world, Vasile won’t judge me harshly. Can a woman feel certain she understands a man? Or a man a woman? A pleasure-loving wealthy businessman respected in his homeland who adheres to traditional principles of honor, who’d sympathize, probably comfort a woman amid her tangled feelings, might Vasile go so far as to forgive my tryst with Jerry? Irrelevant. I can never tell Vasile what transpired between my son and myself. Words of forgiveness mean nothing when our eyes meet, every day, every year.
During the years between my carefree travels with Vasile and my night of despair in his castle, I surrender at moments to thoughts of returning to Marlon, father of a son forever a small child in my mind. Moving on, willynilly, I can’t fathom them moving on from me. Year after year a soft hectoring guilt buttresses my doubts. Returning home to them is another indulgence in fantasy. My sister is a better mother to my son than someone so deficient in maternal instincts as I. How dare I disrupt their lives again! A year is a day. Is a minute. Every delay diminishes any likelihood I’ll return. The past enters the present with a vengeance. Today with stunning finality a bizarre improbability has forced the long-avoided confrontation with myself. No choice remains. Protect the innocents, now including my own son.
In the darkness a wavering light appears in the entrance to the walkway. I don’t budge, awaiting the inevitable inquiring voice, Vasily’s, worried. “Why are you up here alone?” I shrink from the brilliance of his flashlight as if it would burn me to ashes, clinging to my silence, afraid my tone may reveal my distress. He repeats his question, adding, “Are you angry toward me?”
I latch onto any guilt he might or might not feel, hoping he dallied with Alicia in the forest. I chill my entire self, becoming that Biblical pillar of salt not to sound fragile. “Would you have any reason for me to get angry?”
“None that I can think of.” I hear sufficient puzzlement in his voice to believe his denial, at any rate caring little. He sounds anxious. “Does something trouble you?”
I steady my voice. “Nothing that should concern you.”
“You are missed downstairs. You should not be late for dinner.”
“I have no appetite. I wish to forgo dinner tonight.”
Over the years, when stressed, I have fallen into his rather formal manner of speaking. He sounds curious, concerned. “Are you well?”
“Tired. I may be coming down with something. I need to go to bed early.”
“You do look peaked.”
I make my voice weak. “Our guests should leave tomorrow morning.”
Unease drifts into his eyes. “Has anything happened in my absence?”
“You have nothing to worry about. I don’t feel up to entertaining strangers any longer.” I manage a weak smile. I can speak his lingo. “Their limitless youthful energy strains my own.”
I walk past him trying not to touch the stone walls, not to seem I rely on them to avoid tottering. In my own private bedroom with the door locked my sleep is fitful. Tormented by images I can’t banish, suspicions about myself— did I intuit my special prior connection with this manchild? A profound chill penetrates my being. I stand in my nightgown watching the dawn from a parapet with no recollection of how I got there. Returning to my room I lay sleepless on my bed. A new notion rushes round and round in my mind, sparked by fear that, without thinking, I may blab to Vasile our American visitor was my son. Around midmorning Vasile knocks, pauses. I know his knock. Through the closed door he tells me our guests have gone. “Good,” I call back.
Waking again late in the morning I stay in bed. At noon someone knocks on my door. After several minutes I rouse myself and discover the door locked from the inside. I cannot recall locking it. Walking away, our housekeeper Sorina turns to frown in impatience. On the carpeting outside my door she has left a tray containing a dish of mamaliga topped with a fried egg, a small bowl of yogurt and a tall glass of coffee. I eat mechanically and then sleep again until after dark. A light night breeze energizes me. I wander upstairs and along the ramparts and gaze at the half-moon teasing its way among pale clouds. My torments overflow in spasms of numbness. Emily, admit your genuine attraction to Jerry, beyond maternal. A young male of eighteen can be aroused by almost any bearer of a vagina, especially one who returns his interest, even merely piques it with brightening eyes. He’d have been aware of his physical appeal to a woman living in rural castle isolation. This young Jerry could have been any handsome man of any age, I any promiscuous female. In the courtroom of my heart I argue I shouldn’t be faulted, for how in a distant continent could I possibly meet and recognize my own child how old, two? learning to walk, talk, run, whom as a baby I’d pushed in a pram on Westchester sidewalks. A liaison unlikely beyond the wildest chance. I find myself believing, hoping, it never happened, I dream it, while, dreamlike, he and I join as lovers finding each other. My own dear boy Jeremiah, my son, what must you have envisioned in a woman your mother’s age tumbling with you in your bed, stirring subliminal remembrances of a mother you lost early? Sincere, romantic, you remark, “We should be strangers but we don’t feel like strangers.” In believable naive sincerity you reveal the loving man in you capable of winning a woman. Don’t lose that gift, dear one, when you recall, as you may, with amusement and male pride the eccentric middleaged stranger of your fling. If Jeremiah should learn this stranger was his mother, what harm would that knowledge bring! My son must never know. Alone I bear the burden of that afternoon. I may envelop myself in innocent ignorance or wallow in despair at my violation of nature, of human nature, yet never rid my spirit of that night and the images locked into my brain— the easy grin in a handsome face which somewhere certainly contains traces of the baby I gave birth to, the supple young body, the lean yet muscular arms, the surprising stamina of this incipient man…
Hard as I try to avoid moping, I catch surreptitious glances. I avoid the kitchen, the common social area, unless I have instructions to impart. I go horseback riding in the morning while Vasile works in his office, giving myself an excuse not to ride with him in late afternoon, his favorite time. At dinner I labor at contriving conversation and avoiding extended silences. When we sleep in the same bed, he notices my lack of enthusiasm and my poor attempts to simulate it. Dare he ask what’s troubling me, I may blurt oh, I met my son whom I abandoned. His next words? Likely wonderful, we must celebrate the reunion. I clutch at a straw. “I’ve been away from my family far too many years.”
“Then we shall visit America. I would be pleased to meet your family.”
Feigning immunity to my diffidence he makes another offer. “They can come here.”
“They never travel.”
“After so many years, you cannot know their feelings. Does that frighten you?”
I fear I may explode in rage, and worse, I worry. I’ve sunken too deep into my sorrow for any anger to surmount it. Tell him, Emily. Truth is reputed to be liberating. Tell Vasile the story of that afternoon. Leave it to him to forgive me or banish me. Emily, overcome your paralyzing fear. I should fear my weakness more than his response and the risk of altering my life with him. Crossing a Rubicon is no longer a mythic tale about someone else. It’s become my story. I must reveal my past to a man of great importance in my life. I owe him that.
How might it go? Tentative, I approach him in midafternoon. “About my life in America, there’s something you must know,” and he waits, perhaps inquires, “You have a husband?” and I stay calm, “I’ve never had a husband,” hoping I need go no further, aware I must, while he holds his silence, “My parents live in Newport,” for whatever that might mean to him, “My sister is married to an attorney,” which jogs his memory, “I believe you mentioned a sister once,” and now I wait until he continues, “Do they have children? Do you have nieces and nephews?” and in a soft voice I reply, “No,” and now I’ve gone too far to turn back, here goes, “I have a son.” I must say it, “By my sister’s husband.” I can say it. No, not today…
As the quiet and isolation of the castle exacerbates my moods, I fancy bright lights and crowds bringing lifesaving distractions. My passing fear Vasile and I are losing each other is buried among the debris of my disfocused thinking. “Vasile, I need a change.”
“I do as well. Tomorrow we may be on the train to Vienna.”
Good to be out of the castle and in a bustling city. My melancholy overcomes the best of Vienna. The stolid Viennese architecture displaying the overwrought fervor for an empire that no longer exists fails to conceal the changes brought on by two great wars and an era of social evolution. Telephones of old friends are disconnected. After a magnificent Don Giovanni at the State Opera an acquaintance informs us one of our friends is an actor in Hollywood and another has moved to Prague. In caffes the young chat in excited voices sparked by bursts of laughter. Vasile isn’t one to conceal his disappointment. “The lights of Vienna are not as brilliant as I recall.”
I understand he means the intellectual illumination of our age. “The splendor has faded, the horrors of war can do that.”
“No doubt the world has changed. America may become the center of dialogue.”
“We Americans aren’t much for daylong conversations in caffes.”
I recognize the expression on his features, marked by a brief distant look. “The future is in the beginning.”
“One of those ancient ideas you love.”
“It originates in nature, as do most good ideas. The seed determines the fruit. The manner of America’s entrance on the world stage may tell us much about the role your people will play. The English Bard reveals his hero in his first lines, Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.”
“Is that from Othello?”
“The commanding entrance of a general. So different from Hamlet, who is detached, aloof. Hamlet’s first words are an aside. America arrives like Othello, a formidable warrior.”
“That seems kind of unfair. Americans love peace.”
“In due course we shall see.”
With me, briefly he indulges in his moment of intellectual badinage. We cut our trip short and return to the castle. My moods return. Unable to conceal them forever I force myself into activity. I help in the kitchen that I may learn from Sorina how to prepare local dishes. I take an easel outdoors to paint the trees on green slopes, sunsets on undulant ridges. With my mind clouded by guilt I don’t quite realize a growing impulse is driving me, until I finally express it to Vasile. “What would you think if I went to Paris by myself for a, oh, a visit to old haunts?”
His eyes darken to flat black and thoughtful. “Paris holds special meaning for you. It is the city where you awoke to yourself.”
“Where we met.”
Irrelevant now, he gets it. “I understand your longing to revisit Paris.”
I can hear his regret. He knows I’m not inviting him. Ever ready to accomodate my wishes, withholding his reservations he lets me go. I deserve no such easy reprieve. Suddenly I want him to sit me down and command me to tell the truth about my past or face his wrath. I want to hear him tell me he loves me too much to let me drift away. Neither are in his nature. Does his reliance on traditional nobless oblige signify he is weak of spirit? My spiritual kin would be one who wouldn’t as easily have allowed me to leave. My spiritual kin, yes, with whom I couldn’t live any better than I live with myself, now overwhelmed with fear and proddings of guilt.
I project my weakness onto Vasile. More than once I’ve overheard him berating some business associate on the telephone. Never has he spoken with harshness toward the castle help nor to me, transmitting any displeasure toward us, a rare event, with a look and a curt phrase. He can ask me a hundred questions: did I run to Europe to escape an unloved husband, do I have children in America, what is my family like, why am I not closer to them? So many questions he refrains from asking— whether from courtesy or weakness, no matter— and now, as I gain his approval for my solo trip to Paris I notice in his dark eyes a whirligig of hope I’ll return and a sense I won’t. In his eyes the blent shades of premonition and loss mirror my dark grief at a past that’s a long knife aimed at his heart. No, my dear Vasile, nostalgia is not a primary reason why I must return to Paris. My voice is thankful. “With your blessing, I’ll pack tonight and leave tomorrow morning.”
As his thoughts cycle through the potential consequences of my departure, he listens to my announcement with weighty calm. “You will not return?”
It’s both question and statement. I owe him more than an abrupt departure— the full truth about myself. Dare I repay my happy years with him by telling him the tawdry tale of a mother who abandoned her son, leaving him, my best friend and lover, satisfied to be rid of such a person but defiled by years of my deceit, first by my misrepresentation of myself and now by an incestuous infidelity. He is owed the full truth about me. Now arrives my final chance to confess, to set him free of me forever, to allow him to abandon hope I might return, to wish never again to see me. I manage a pittance of honesty. “Probably not.”
I see sorrow in his dark eyes, hear tradition and nobility in his softened voice. We’re all captives of something. “Your quest, wherever it may take you, may it bring you happiness.”
I love him more than ever for those words, an intimation I may never have loved him as much as we believed. That night an automaton inside me packs two suitcases and restores me to sleep every time restless thoughts jar me until I rise well after the sun. I hear Vasile typing in his office with its door closed as usual. Without a word Sorina fixes me eggs and ham and pours my coffee and then departs for the garden, where Ilie is already at work. Dracul sips coffee in silence until I finish my breakfast and then in response to my inquiring uncertain look accompanies me upstairs to my room, where he lifts my suitcases and we start out to the courtyard. Pausing as I pass Vasile’s office I knock at the closed hardwood door and announce I’m leaving and he calls back, “I’m on the telephone. Have a pleasant journey.”
In the backseat of the Mercedes I recline, surprisingly tired so soon after a night’s sleep and I doze at moments as the car winds down the mountain. I stand at the station ticket counter with my bags beside me where Dracul left them. I hear the Mercedes driving away. At my window in the Orient Express I watch the day melt into twilight, then into darkness.
As I did years ago I rent a room in the Sixth Arrondissement. At outdoor tables I sip coffee and study faces seeking anyone I might recognize. I rummage through my memory for faces and names. Brendan of course who turned out to be more adventurous than I thought, how does he look today? Bigboned, has he put on weight and settled in with a stout Dutch milkmaid? Dominique, to whom I gave a dress and a smock when I was packing my suitcases, Joe from Ypsilanti practicing on his guitar, Jean-Pierre, Lars, others who might remember me. I scan the faces of passersby. At dusk I wander to the Seine. Two young men pick at their guitars, young and they look it, as our crowd must have. They are Jerry’s generation. Absent well over a decade, I’ve lost my connection to this city, my favorite, with familiar streets and buildings, hotels, produce stands, book stands side by side along the green Seine, the Louvre, the city where I once came to find freedom, where I’m now a tourist like any other.
I urge myself to write Vasile a note thanking him for our years together. My persistent procrastination in letterwriting reminds me I’m temperamentally unreliable, given to sudden enthusiasms and equally sudden retreats into myself. Never having gotten a reply to my letter from his castle years ago, at intervals I wonder if it vanished in one of the postal systems it passed through, or if my sister threw it away, perhaps unopened, still peeved at me, holding a grudge uncharacteristic of her, as if that matters now! I could have followed up with other letters, had considered writing her and Marlon again, many times. The past returns as present. I know what I want, to reclaim a home no longer mine, rejoin a family who can refuse to accept among them a deserter in disgrace. In my Paris room my mind prances through New York, reviving Eleanor and Marlon, now like me entering middleage, Jeremiah resembling the small boy in my memory morphed into the handsome young stranger. A flickering double image. Hope tempts me to override my fear they’ll reject me. Wisdom urges, accept your new reality. You’re alone in the world. Runaway hope breeds illusions capable of outshining reality. I ponder tactics. If I return home now, Jeremiah is likely still away on his travels with a young woman too assertive for his gentler nature but who can enable him to forget me, and his absence will help me postpone the ultimate necessity of divulging our encounter to some later time when, after winning the family’s acceptance, I again become a real Emily to them, not a ghost: a risky scenario. I could undermine myself with a slipped word, a guilty look. Oh, the intricacies of hope! The traps of selfishness! At my window I contemplate walls and rooftops. I see the city as Kokoscha might, or Matisse, or Cezanne. Alignments of metal, ceramic tile, wood, redbrick, stone in the cold geometry I chose above my family, my son. a decision correct at the time only because bold, spoiled, independent, I betrayed the sister who wound up bringing up my son. Because I live on whims, I have since my teen scorn of pretentious high society elites, claiming I’m different from the subservient spoiled other girls flouncing in ruffles, frills and furbelows. I defy an often pretentious Procrustean society. Selfindulgence gives me the right. Hovering, transparent in my hotel window, my reflection stares at me. In the window my sad eyes rebuke me. Selfish brat you are, abandoning your boy, then seducing him mere months removed from childhood? Could the window image speak, her words would scathe my flesh: Emily, you like your babies fully grown and primed to serve your evil fantasies. Wherever in our social circles I may venture whispers will follow: a woman your age having a fling with a teenager— a scandal to set tongues wagging, as they say, yet not comparable to the scorn for a mother seducing her son! Damn that mute reflected face! Let the social elites, the hoi polloi, the lowest rabble condemn that face, those empty features, that mindless image on glass I can turn away from. Elsewhere in another place and time, condemnation awaits me in judgment fair and merciless. I’ll postpone judgment as long as I can.
Where’s my delectable sense of irony gone? Dare I turn my sarcasm against myself? My window image brightens as dusk darkens the sky. You are not me, I inform it. I see youth lingering in those features, hope straining in those eyes. An illusion. You’ve never acted your age. You ran from your baby son as if tossing away a doll you were tired of. You had a quest, or convinced a sophisticated count you had one, while you played your part unaware that it was more a stage performance than a spiritual search, a pose of high seriousness, accomplishment… Doubt hasn’t left me. Dreading selfdelusion I continue succumbing to it.
Gossip columns and TV celebrity shows would feast on our scandalous story. They who were once my family have moved on without me. Haughty, careless, having isolated myself from my sister, from the father of my child, finally from my own child, I’ve harmed them enough. Time to accept my exile, wherever it should take me, not New York, nowhere I’d risk running into family or former friends. Free to go where I want, live wherever I choose, do what I please, I don’t feel free. I need a sprawling American city, Chicago, Los Angeles, where I can vanish into the crowd. The wise course.
Primeval instinct urges me to return home. Threatens to overwhelm my good sense. An ocean voyage should give me time to prepare myself to confront my kin, brace myself against their onslaught. If I fail to win mercy I can leave before Jeremiah returns from his travels. Perhaps with the acquiescence of Eleanor and Marlon I can become his crazy aunt and our old deception will continue, enabling him to view me with distaste to spare him the torment of knowing he Biblically knew his mother. For his benefit they may go along. Our family is adept at deception. I can live another false life. Indeed embrace it! What have I to lose? Nothing but my final shreds of selfrespect. Well, dears, they are mine to dispose of. The next morning, assuring myself I’m being rational and destiny is best met than avoided, I purchase a steamship ticket to New York.
About the Author:
Don Dussault lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. His history includes a BA and MA in English literature and postgrad study in linguistics. His work appears in several literary publications, a few of which are excerpted on his website, presently under construction at https://dondussault.net/ He’s wrapping up a multivoiced saga of a dysfunctional family.