Since You Went Away
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world
draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.
SINCE YOU WENT AWAY
The first thing I remember is standing on a stone bridge above a river. I was walking toward the end of it, toward the quay, where there were cafés and shops. I must have been two or three. I always assumed this was Biarritz, but of course there is no river in Biarritz. So, where? It could have been Paris, crossing toward Boule’ Mich’, or St. Germaine, or crossing in the other direction, toward the Faubourg St. Honoré and the coutoure shops. Colin says it was Prague or Budapest or Krakow, or somewhere and Finn says he’ll tell me about it some day. There were women in wool felt coats, hunter green with hoods. There were people carrying baskets. I was marching toward the quay, stamping my feet, when Colin picked me up from behind, scooped me up, and Finn laughed at me. They both laughed. I was off to see the world, I suppose. I did not very much like being stopped. Finn says at that age I did not like any of my movements to be curtailed. Anyway, it started to rain then, and there was that wet smell, that smell when people are outside in a city and their hair and wool coats get wet. Finn and Colin took me inside, to a hotel room or an apartment, and put me into dry clothes, rubbed my hair with a towel, and gave me a bowl of hot chocolate. It was too big for me to lift, so Finn sat me on his lap, and fed me the hot chocolate from a spoon. I will always remember it.
Biarritz, Spring 2001
Deliver yourself from your great toe; then the companion comes
Sometimes I like to play a game with myself; that game is to divide my life at the pivotal points, after which nothing is the same. Before I went to Paris when I was twenty, after I had lived there for a year; before I met my husband Dylan, after I’d lived with him for ten years; before that Easter in Biarritz, when I met Finn, Colin and Emma -- and after. I did not yet know the after to that last turning point; I had not yet realized that it even existed.
I was in the café, in Biarritz, during the Easter holidays, when the three young Frenchmen sat down with me. I was in town to help my husband Dylan with a villa he was intent to restore.
I knew that French men approached women – in cafés, on the street. Nevertheless, I was immediately suspicious.
I ate my chocolate croissant, sipped my latté, and tried, despite my skepticism, to be polite to the three young men who approached me.
I am Michel, one of the young men said. This is Jean and Francois.
I nodded. The three men sat down; Michel motioned for the waiter and ordered espressos. I watched. They looked like the college students I had met in ’86 – twenty-something, handsome, with dark, curly hair, members of the communist party whose fathers ran labor unions.
I could pack up and leave, I thought. That was what women did here -- they acted indignant and left with a flourish, or they stayed and pouted. At thirty-five I was too old to have attitude and too American to pout. After the kidnappings of the Getty’s and other millionaires’ sons in the 1970s, young women in Europe all began to take precautions. We didn’t walk alone in under-populated areas. We carried a whistle and a lipstick-sized can of mace. The men who kidnapped were Russian mafia, and took fifteen year-old girls from eastern bloc countries into France, Italy, Germany.
Vacationing? Francois asked.
Working, I answered. I opened my hands toward the papers laid out on the table.
Ah, Jean said.
They had missed the most obvious sign. These were not travelers’ maps, brochures, guidebooks; they were in fact blueprints, deeds, fact sheets, specifications, work orders.
Spanish? he said. German perhaps?
I’m from California, I said. The trick I had learned fifteen years before in Paris, was to never say that I was American. It was embarrassing, humiliating, and occasionally dangerous to be American, but Californians were mysteriously exempt. Californians were tolerated, sometimes even liked. After all, Carmel was in California; the French embraced Carmel.
American, Michel observed.
I shrugged; I couldn’t deny it.
Do you like this part of France? Francois asked.
The coast, I said. I waved my hand up and down, making it dip and swim like a fish, along the many miles of rugged coastline in southwestern France.
Coast? Jean asked.
Coastlines, I answered. I like them.
All of them? Francois asked.
The ones I’ve seen, I said. I sipped my latté. Michel, Francois and Jean took this as a cue and raised their espressos, which had arrived when we were making our disjointed and pathetic attempt to discuss coastlines. Michel leaned over and whispered in my ear. He told me they were Basque Separatists and asked me, quite simply -- just like that -- if I could get them guns.
First I thought this was a new form of flirting that I had not experienced fifteen years before; reserved perhaps, for the older, mid-thirties American woman who might have a cultural or even a political je ne sais quoi that could be appealed to. But even then it was too farfetched. Next, I thought perhaps this was a new form of anti – flirting, having a little political joke at the American’s expense, one that would fly over the head of a twenty-something, but would scathe a thirty-something. I could not think of a third possibility; I could not believe they might be serious. The French knew our history better than we did, how could they possibly imagine an Americaine in her mid thirties, traveling on business would be inclined to procure them guns, or even that it would be safe to ask her?
I was still too baffled to be concerned. I was too old and too far west to be kidnapped. I did not appear rich; Dylan wasn’t rich enough to approach for ransom. I was almost certain they were ridiculing me.
You’re kidding me, right? I said. I scrutinized each one of them in turn.
They stared back at me, as most Frenchmen do, unmoved. I experienced that moment of dislocation, where something so bizarre is happening that events suddenly feel unreal, the moment frozen in time.
I vacillated. I was sure they were putting me on, having a little fun with me. But then, if I was sure, why did I feel alarmed. I ran through the usual precautions: the concierge knew where I had my afternoon latté, and if I didn’t come back to the apartment by 5 pm to rest before dinner she would phone the gendarmes and send her son to look for me. My husband Dylan would call me at 6 pm and if I was not in the apartment, he would call the concierge. I could throw water in the face of Michel, and call for a waiter. Even better, I could throw a hot latté in the face of Francois, and scream in my best 19th century French (from my favorite movie, Children of Paradise) Assassin!
Not knowing what to do next, I waited, and while I did I committed the social faux pas my mother had forbidden me from age five through eight: I stared at them.
They stared right back.
This is no joke, Michel said.
I made a sweeping glance, trying to further gauge the situation, then, that having failed, I leaned in over my latté toward the middle of the table and spoke very quietly and seriously, in case they were not kidding. Just because I am American, I said, doesn’t mean I can get you guns.
Jean had been drawing on a napkin; he pushed it toward me. This is the Basque area of France, he explained. He turned the napkin over. This is our flag, he said; this is our alphabet.
I inspected the drawings on the napkin. They brought to mind notes that had been sent to me on napkins in bars on Cape Cod, non-sequiturs and come-ons like, Piano player luster. I stored those napkins in a Nine West shoebox with letters, cards and airplane tickets from that period. Of course, I would save these too, but where would I put them? In a political-terrorist shoebox?
You’re serious, I said. I couldn’t imagine it. In America, Hawaii always wanted to be its own country, but that made sense because it was an island. People joked about California being its own country. After all, as my husband Dylan always said, California was the fifth largest economy in the world, and was nothing like the rest of the country. In the 1980s, when I had lived in Paris for a year, African and Caribbean countries were beginning to throw off the yoke of European colonialism and gain back their independence. At that time I could even see Grenada, that little island off Latin America being returned by Margaret Thatcher to its rightful owners. The year I married Dylan, the proverbial Wall came down, and the Soviet Bloc broke apart, freeing up the eastern European nations to explore the evils of Capitalism. Since then I had had long talks with Ukrainian and Lithuanian limo drivers in Los Angeles about that moment. But then, I knew nothing about Europe, not really. When I was in my twenties I had only lived in Paris for a year, and I had lived as all expat artists live -- as an invited guest, not as a local. Now I could stay in France, help Dylan restore villas, study the language and the history, travel, eat the food, but none of it conveyed understanding. I had grown up in a large, arrogant country; I was so insulated I didn’t even know how to use a vespienne (a toilet inside a closet comprised of a floor drain, two foot pedals, and a pull cord hanging from the ceiling). This realization had thrown me into a perpetual panic. I mean, for heaven’s sake, if I didn’t know how to use a toilet in a western European country like France, how would negotiate daily life if I traveled to China?
The I.R.A. trains us, Francois explained.
It’s true, Michel confirmed. We’re being trained by the I.R.A.
I put my hand on Michel’s arm. I gathered up all the accumulated American guilt and contrition I could muster: the Native Americans, slavery in the southern states, Latin America, the CIA sponsored overthrows of leftist regimes in favor of totalitarian regimes – everything -- all of that.
I know you’re serious about your movement, I said. Suddenly I felt responsible; I felt terrible. Perhaps they knew me better than I knew myself.
You’re an Americaine, Francois repeated.
I always marveled at how some people insisted upon stating the obvious for dramatic effect.
You can get us guns, Jean said.
At that point I stood up, grabbed my bag, thrust my cameras, papers, blueprints, deed of sale, checklists, specifications and work orders into it, and tossed some five-franc notes down on the table. I’m sorry, I said. I really don’t know anything about guns.
I slung my bag over my shoulder and strode out of the café, trying to look as confident and sure of myself as I could possibly muster. My apartment was a five-minute walk away, down windy cobblestone streets along the beach, a beach full of tourists and sun worshippers.
When I looked back, Jean, Michel and Francois were glancing over at the two Irishmen I would soon learn get to know as Finn and Colin. Michel shrugged his shoulders, threw up his hands and pouted. Colin smirked back; Finn got up to leave.
I walked downhill toward the beach, peering into the windows of the bakeries, cafés, clothing stores, surf shops. After twenty minutes or more, I left the shopping area and followed the walkway that led past the casino and down to the beach. Then I headed out toward the cliff point, past the aquarium, to the cove tucked underneath the cliff.
I sat cross-legged in the sand, extracted my camera from its bag and took photographs of Dylan’s boarded-up villa on the other side of the cove. I swung my camera around and took in the view through its lens, until it captured the image of Colin and Finn walking up the beach toward me.
Why hadn’t I gone straight to my apartment? Had I not been suspicious enough? Had I not kept my guard up? Did I want to meet them? They looked familiar to me. Had I met them once, with Dylan? They looked like men I would want to meet. They looked like men who would see me as an artist, as me, not as my husband’s assistant in his architectural firm. Not as an American.
At twenty in Paris, I had congratulated myself on losing men who were following me by slipping onto a metro car. But I had also let men find me, approach me – in the garden of the Rodin museum, for example, or in the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. Like all artists, I trusted my intuition the way an animal trusts its sense of smell.
I hid the camera behind me, as if this would protect me.
Student? Colin said.
Me? I said. No.
I glanced eagerly toward a hypothetical hotel where my mythical husband was waiting, peering out the window, waiting for my return – like Penelope and Odysseus with their roles reversed. Of course there was neither a hotel nor a husband in shouting distance, only tourists, a concierge back at the apartment, a cell phone, a husband three thousand miles away. I was on my own, finally, which was where I wanted, and didn’t want to be.
On holiday? Finn asked. He smiled at me.
What is this? I said. I thrust my camera back into its bag as forcefully as I could. I would play the outraged American.
Sorry? Colin said.
What do you want from me? I asked. I hadn’t decided on the confrontational, approach I had learned at twenty; but I was scared and used it.
Want from you? Colin repeated.
He looked so genuinely perplexed I apologized. Later on, when I knew Colin better I would realize how disingenuous it actually was. He was playing me.
I’m sorry, I said. There were these guys – in a café just now -- they wanted guns.
Guns! Finn said, widening his eyes. Finn’s eyes were blue, but they had specks in them, like flint.
Colin laughed. Oh yes, guns, he said, and that camera, especially the camera. They glanced at each other and had another laugh at my expense.
I’m having a really strange day, I said. I’ll just go. I grabbed my camera bag and stood up.
Don’t do that, Colin suggested.
We’ll go with you, Finn offered.
He reminded me of a puppy when it licks your face. Are you Australian? I asked.
Irish, Colin answered.
I’m sorry, I said. I kept apologizing; I did not know why exactly, beyond the obvious: For being American? For being followed? For mistaking them for the people they were? Who were they?
Hey, Finn said, no matter.
So you’re a photographer by trade? Colin asked by way of statement.
But I was hurrying away. Look, I said, I’m sorry. You’ve been really nice.
I rushed off. Finn started to follow me, but when I turned around to check, Colin grabbed his arm. Maybe we’ll see you again then, Colin shouted after me. I waved, and turned back around. Colin was letting me go -- that time.
In my room that night, I sat among the drawings, photos, plans and blueprints, and waited for Dylan to phone from California. In those days I was always waiting for something to happen: to meet someone, discover a house, capture a photograph, paint a canvas; for someone to call, stop by, introduce themselves. When something did happen, it happened too suddenly and was over too soon. When the moment came I wanted to know it had arrived, to experience it in slow motion, in all its glorious intensity.
But it was not as bad then as it had been before, in college and art school, when I always wished my life would start, wondered when it might. After art school it had begun -- I felt that. That night after I met Colin and Finn for the first time, I looked back and realized that my life had never “started” – it was always on; despite myself, I had always been living my life.
The phone rang -- Dylan. I was always happy to hear his voice, which soothed me. Despite his elegance and sophistication, he had a solid, presence that I found calming. Before I’d met Dylan the ocean was my only comfort.
How is it? Dylan said.
I’m almost done, I said. I have that villa on the cliff to visit tomorrow, and some locations to shoot in Eze later in the week. I should be done in two weeks.
And afterwards you’ll come back? Dylan asked
Of course, I answered.
That’s good then, Dylan said.
I didn’t say anything.
Do you fancy it? Dylan asked, the work, I mean. And how is your flat?
I love it, I said. It’s so nice to be back in France.
I thought you would, Dylan said. I wish I could be with you.
I know, I said, though I knew he didn’t want to be there with me; he wanted me to go in his place. He didn’t mind being away from me, and he had no desire to return to Europe, even to the Continent – France, Italy or Spain. I didn’t mind, as long as nothing changed between us. I had never liked partings. I was always afraid that if I were away from the one I loved, he would leave and I would lose him.
I do love you, you know, Dylan said.
I know, I answered.
I considered telling Dylan what happened at the café, and about meeting Finn and Colin, but I didn’t. I kept quiet. I told myself a million things that afternoon. Now, looking back, I wonder how many of them were true.
I had dinner that night in a noisy, crowded bistro around the corner from my apartment – one that the broker for the villa had recommended to me. I ate salade nicoise, drank a glass of Chateau Margaux (a favorite from my Paris days, now considerably more expensive) and inspected the architectural drawings. After all, it wasn’t California -- you were allowed to linger at a table over your food or coffee, to be alone. You were allowed to be at your leisure, to not be working all the time.
The other diners were eating, laughing, gesticulating, poking each other, feeding each other forkfuls of fish and mussels in rich, spicy, Basque tomato sauces.
That’s when I noticed the two men who had followed me down to the beach – they were drinking champagne, and watching me. As tried to remember their names, they held their glasses up to me in a toast, and drank.
I brought my eyes down on my work. It’s a small town, and out of season, I reassured myself. It’s a popular restaurant. You’ll see people over and over.
Colin and Finn, I scolded myself, they said their names were Colin and Finn.
Word was that Dylan had sent a representative from Hutchinson International to Biarritz to inspect his new villa. We had to keep an eye on her and get to her if we could.
Colin thought we should try having a word with her. I would have a go first unless she was older and then he would be the first to try.
I didn’t like Colin always deciding everything for us but when I balked he only brought up Amélie-- that would be Vanessa to you -- and how I bollocksed it up in Prague and almost got us all killed. If I said that was twenty years ago he’d just waved this away with his hand. If I said he was just jealous because he’d never loved anyone or because Vanessa wouldn’t have him, he’d just laugh.
But we have Emma because of me, I complained.
Oh holy focking mother of god he said, would you stop yer whining?
I gave up then and let him call the shots. I didn’t much want the responsibility anyway.
Well, we met Gabriela, as she called herself. She was gorgeous, the kind that every guy fell for. Emma thought she looked like the model Carla Bruni – when she was in her twenties, not now. Anyway, I was to follow her to Eze. We had her phone tapped in her apartment and she rang up Dylan every night, so we knew where she was going.
I couldn’t believe how easy they were making it for us. Colin had started to get the men out of the house. They couldn’t go back to Hyeres, or anywhere in Spain for the time being – it was too hot there at that time. So some of Colin’s men planned to take them into the Pyrenées, to one of our safe houses there. Of course I am not going to tell you where it was. Emma wanted to go with them but of course she was daft. I told her, Not if she wanted to grow up to look like Carla Bruni. More likely the wee one, as I liked to call her, would get her face slashed if she spent too much time with those Spanish ETA blokes.
Colin had his fun toying with Gabriela before he set me on to her. He had Michel, Jean and Francois sit down with her and explain the whole movement, drawing her maps and flags and the alphabet on paper napkins. The Basque Separatists used to do this for real in the 70s, they were an ingenuous, reckless, suicidal lot then. Anyway, Gabriela was confused at first, then suspicious, then she was just tiffed. She stormed off. She had a bag of cameras – Leicas I think, and when Colin and I followed her down to the beach she snapped a photo of us. Colin got angry then and almost snatched the Leica away from her. I watched him physically restrain himself; pull himself up short, like a horse who won’t jump a culvert.
I got a laugh at that. Then we had to listen to her mobile call to Dylan, inane stuff. I told Colin to get the rifles out of the basement before she went to see the villa, but he never listened to me. He preferred to play with people. I didn’t think he was playing with her, I think he was playing with Dylan. He wanted Dylan to know there were crates of rifles in his basement. For fock’s sake, I said. You have gone over to the other side. But Colin just told me to pipe down and , and we’d sort it . There was no harm in drawing Dylan out a little into the open again. Draw him out, you’re drawing him in rather, I complained, but again Colin wasn’t having it. He had his own way of doing things and he didn’t what he risked.
Colin thought I was getting soft, and I might go walkabout on him again, might bollocks things up like I did with Vanessa, but I told him I wouldn’t. He was half right, I felt bad for this girl, well, she wasn’t a girl really, she looked to be my age, but she seemed a girl, tender hearted like the wee one, and sheltered like an American girl would be. Seemed Dylan hadn’t told her anything about his past,. We still didn’t know why he sent her. We thought he might be up to something in the States and needed her to go away. We put Ryan on that. Anyway – then there was the day alone with her in Eze.
Ten pairs of tortoises cannot oppose it
A few days later, in Nice, put my camera bag into the rented baby-blue Renault convertible (Coloure de la mer! according to the car rental agent) and set out from the Hotel Negresco where I had booked a room, toward the Botanical Garden a few kilometers down the road in Eze. As I negotiated the windy Moyennee Corniche, I tried not to think about the possibilities of Death By Convertible, Grace Kelly driving off a cliff on the Grande Corniche, Isadora Duncan getting strangled by her scarf when it wrapped around the wheel of her Bugatti on the Promenade des Anglais. I tried not to think about Dylan, Colin, Finn, or even of the task at hand, which was to photograph the plants and views from the Botanical Garden at Eze for a landscape restoration in the Santa Monica hills. Our California clients wanted to use the same plants, if they could, create the similar vistas down to the ocean. They desired a “painterly” feel, a canvas of shape and color, according to Dylan, who related the request to me when he assigned me the job. Any requests for something “painterly” fell to me, because any landscape or interior decorating job I did ended with the same question – Is she a painter?
I didn’t mind. I remembered Eze from my college days. At that time I had enjoyed the view of the beach town of Eze-Sur-Mer and the Mediterranean from the steep cliffs. Had it been possible, I would have moved right in to the Botanical Garden there. The vista was one of the most haunting and spectacular I had ever seen – grand and glittery but at the same time, calming. For some people, certain moments lock them in, they are right there, in the present. For me it was not so much moments as places that riveted me, held me in the present. In college I had found two places like that – the tip of the jetty at the yacht harbor in Santa Cruz, and the vista from the Botanical Garden at Eze.
When I arrived I concentrated on the photos -- getting them staged, centered, captured. I captured an image as an animal would capture prey.
Will you need anything else, Madam? the caretaker asked me.
No, I’m all set. Thank you, I said, wondering when exactly I had transformed from a mademoiselle into a madam.
I took photographs of the spiky aloe, cactus, and agave, the bristly torch thistle, opuntia, and bromeliads. They were all the drought resistant, hardy zone 9 and 10 plants that a southern California landscape required. The bromeliads stored their water in the center of the plant stem, underneath the one flower, and soaked it down into the plant, instead of drawing the water up through the soil, the roots. I also photographed the views down to the water. Though I preferred to be right on the water, occasionally I liked to be this high up, on a cliff, looking down at the ocean from a distance.
When I’d shot several rolls of film I wedged the camera bag in the trunk and took out my picnic lunch: a baguette, a disc of brie, an apple, a cluster of grapes, a mound of pistachio nuts in a paper sack, bottles of spring water. The caretaker showed me where I could sit and enjoy the view.
Was it selfish to want to share your life with someone? I had wanted to be one of the artists in America whose work was known – like O’Keeffe in the 40s, Frankenthaler in the 50s, Alice Neel in the 60s, Louise Nevelson in the 70s, Judy Pfaff in the 80s, Cindy Sherman in the 90s. Instead I had this –- the Botanical Garden at Eze; my baguette, brie and grapes; the view of the Mediterranean. It seemed mean-spirited and selfish to want any more.
I immediately recognized Finn as one of the two Irishmen from the café and the Bather’s Cove in Biarritz the week before. I had not noticed him on the train from Biarritz to Nice that morning, at the Hotel Negresco when I had dropped off my luggage, or even renting the sea-blue Renault convertible. What was he doing here? Was it an innocent? An accident? Propinquity? Was he following me?
I thought that I should be afraid. Why wasn’t I?
Something drew me that I could not explain, and I did not feel afraid enough to back away. I did wonder, though, where the caretaker had gone.
Finn watched me eat. I offered him a grape. He laughed. Do you know that expression, he said, Is someone peeling grapes for you?
No, I said. I don’t know it.
His glance veered beyond me, toward the view. Then his focus came back to us. He was thinking about something – the sun on his face, the unusual calm, his proposed good fortune.
I had rarely been attracted to men my own age. They were handsome, but they lacked complexity. All the clichés applied. They resembled me too much – where I was, what I was trying to get away from.
The other problem with men my own age was that they seemed awkward, gauche; they had that raw but tainted smell, like a puppy’s breath, like a dirty sock.
That’s why I had ended up with Dylan, twenty years my senior. And I felt trapped. I was no longer a painter. I was somebody’s wife.
What are you doing here? I asked.
I thought you might fancy a bit of company, he said. He grinned again, as if he were quite pleased with his orchestrations, and ate another grape.
I tore off a piece of baguette for Finn. So you’re following me? Again?
But this was not just an idle stroll down the Promenade des Anglais to Old Nice or a beach cove, this involved trains and cars and who knows what else.
Well, he said, I just wanted to make sure you were safe.
I would feel safer if you weren’t following me, I said. You were on the train?
Finn shrugged, the way a Frenchman might. My grammar of self-protection was well honed. So what was this -- a lapse? Where was that caretaker? Where was my cell phone?
You were on the train? I repeated. Finn nodded again. He was eating another chunk of baguette, more grapes. He appeared very blond and blue eyed, disheveled, with his leather jacket hanging off his shoulder, revealing the white v-neck t-shirt underneath. He tugged at his blue jeans and scuffled his leather, zip, ankle-high boots in the dirt underneath our feet. He inspected the pistachio nut, twirling it between his fingers as if it were a foreign object, before cracking it open and popping the fruit of the nut into his open mouth. He smelled of the French Provencal lavender and lemon verbena soap that had become popular in southern California in the last twenty years but had been used in the south of France for three hundred or more. I wondered why, if he were Irish, he dressed like Jean Paul Belmondo in Breathless, and smelled like a French milkmaid from Cezanne’s era, or perhaps earlier. (Did the French even have milkmaids?)
Right, sorry, he said. He set down a small pile of pistachio nuts between us on the retaining wall where we had been sitting. Then he stood up. I can go if you like, he offered.
I didn’t know what I liked. I packed up the lunch and cameras.
Finn walked behind me to the rented car. Daddy’s car? he asked.
I climbed into the convertible, and drove down the Moyenne Corniche back to Nice and the Hotel Negresco.
I watched Finn in the rearview mirror. I was afraid he’d lose his brakes, catapult himself over the top of my rental car and die there on the hood. Death by Vespa, a la paparazzi
In the Hotel Negresco, I slung my camera bag over my shoulder and stepped into the elevator; Finn rushed in behind me.
When I was in college, I developed a crush on a sixteen year-old boy who surfed the jetty at the harbor where I lived. I used to watch him execute hairpin turns on the crests of the waves, twirling off like a miniature typhoon. Once, we were both in our little sports cars. He chased me past the casino and river mouth, gunned it up the cliff and whipped around a few corners to my apartment at the beach. I owned an Austin America then; I was nineteen. The boy was blond and lithe, and drove a Sprint or an MG -- I was never sure which. His was the convertible; mine was not.
Finn had stepped into the elevator right before the doors closed. He pushed his body up against me. He regarded me for a moment, then pressed his mouth against mine.
This is insane, I said.
Finn smiled and nodded. We could be murderers, he offered, by way of commiseration.
I let him saunter behind me into my hotel room. What was I doing? I set the camera bag down on the desk, shut and locked the door. I peeled his clothes off. He was lean and hard, with soft white skin like a boy. By then the lavender and verbena was gone, scrubbed away by the sea air -- he just smelled of lemons.
We made love like strangers, like people who have everything to lose. In the middle of it all I stopped him, pushed him away by the shoulders and said, You’re right. What if we were murderers?
In the early afternoon I met the broker at the villa in Biarritz, with my blueprints, camera, a copy of the contract, good intentions and cell phone.
Monsieur Henri Courtois, was a prim but sturdy French man with unusual off-white skin, the color of cement, and a ring of antique keys. I studied him more closely than I would have if he had been a well-worn type -- the arrogant Parisian; the down to earth, fun loving, southern French fisherman; the savvy, sophisticated European out for a good time. The broker was none of these.
M. Courtois let me in to the nineteenth-century villa. Though abandoned for many years, it was still salvageable, and not without charm. Through some spaces in the boards over the long windows I could glimpse the ocean, and I could locate the cove where I had met Colin and Finn. I photographed the rooms to show Dylan both the condition of the villa and the architectural details, so that later, when the renovation began, he could explain to the workers what he wanted preserved, and order the proper supplies. I compared the layout and dimensions of the rooms to the blueprints Dylan had supplied.
The broker waited quietly, hardly moving, while I inspected the first floor, then the second, and the third. He behaved as decorously as a mortician. Dylan had seen photos of the grounds, facades, and interior rooms online; he knew the location and had arranged for an official inspection of the property, but many of the features of an old villa like this could only be ferreted out in person, by the buyer or in this case, someone representing their interests.
He was about to usher me out when I asked: And the basement?
There were many reasons for the French to pout: disgruntlement, impatience, frustrated desires. Monsieur Courtois’ pout was a response to what he perceived as my impertinence.
There is nothing in the basement, he said.
According to the designs there are rooms in the basement, I said, and waved the blueprints around wildly like an indignant Frenchwoman.
I believe those rooms were filled in to reinforce the foundation, the broker said. He gestured beyond the walls at the eroding cliff outside.
I can’t see the basement? I asked.
But of course you can see the basement, M. Courtois said.
We walked downstairs together. The broker excused himself for not having a flashlight, and eventually located the light button. I photographed the rooms, took notes, and compared what I saw to the blueprints.
There should be a door here, I said, pointing to a wall on the cliff side. And over there, I said, pointing to the wall facing the cove.
Monsieur Courtois shrugged, as if to say he was not responsible, as if to say -- What did I expect, exactly? I told you it had been walled in, the broker reminded me.
He followed me upstairs. When we reached the brittle sunlight, he asked if I had any more questions. When I hadn’t, he laid the ring of antique keys in my palm. Felicitations, he said. This is very good work; a very good property. It is very good that someone will restore this very important property. The town will be grateful to your father; felicitations to your father.
He’s my husband, I explained.
That night I lay on my bed and thought about the villa, its views, the empty echoing rooms, and the thin layer of ochre dust that covered everything like gauze. I thought about the basement and its walled-off rooms, to which there was no access, about Dylan and how I’d betrayed him.
That’s when it struck me -- what if there was access from the ground floor? Even in the States, elaborate, turn-of-the-century houses contained hidden passageways, camouflaged doors leading to secret stairways or rooms. Perhaps the villa sported a hidden door in one of the ground floor rooms that concealed the stairway leading to the walled-off basement rooms.
I threw on my shoes, grabbed my camera bag and blueprints, borrowed a flashlight from the apartment’s concierge and raced down to the villa.
The inside of the villa seemed bigger at night, and darker than I imagined any interior rooms could be. There was a moon out, but since most of the villa’s windows were boarded up, very little moonlight filtered through to illuminate the rooms. The house could have been magical in the moonlight, with all the windows thrown open. Sometimes there is more mystery, and certainly more magic, when things are revealed than when they are concealed.
I felt a little silly. After all, when I was nine I had invented a detective game, centered inside an abandoned shack in a field where an imaginary outlaw was hiding out. I drew up WANTED posters and constructed an elaborate scenario of deceit, theft, and betrayal for my outlaw.
Now, in this abandoned villa on a sea cliff in Biarritz, late at night, I was almost nine again, living out my game. Maybe it was a way to divert myself from my conflicting guilt and desire. Who knows.
I pressed on wall paneling in the library, on chair rails in the dining room, moldings in the salon -- anything that might reveal an otherwise hidden door, an entrance. I even hammered my palm against all the light buttons, thinking one of them might actually open a hidden door instead of turn on a light. I had watched my share of Thin Man, Sherlock Holmes and Bond movies, and laughed at myself -- I knew where to look. After all, panic rooms were not invented in the twenty-first century, or even the twentieth. Houses in many eras had tunnels, escape routes, secret rooms, secret passageways.
Finally, I found what I was looking for in the library – a wall panel that gave way beneath my hand and swung inward to reveal a stairway. Even the light had an on/off button, and a bulb that worked.
I descended the stairs slowly, keeping my flashlight on, stepping gingerly on each stair at first, afraid that the tread might be rotted and give way. But every wood plank felt sturdy under my feet, more secure in fact than the rest of the house, as if it had been cared for more recently.
The bottom of the stairs opened out to the three basement rooms that were sketched on the blueprints but no longer accessible from the unhidden stairs. I found the light button and punched it. Wooden crates were stacked in all three rooms. I pried open the lid on one. (This was not snooping – most old houses had treasures of some sort left in them, and when we bought the villa, we bought whatever was inside it).
Military-style rifles nestled inside the first crate. What is this, I thought, some B movie? I heard noises and dropped the lid back down onto the crate. I stood there frozen. In an emergency I usually felt deadly calm, but now I was immobilized by fear.
Eventually, when no one came, I found I could move again, so I wandered into the back of the room, toward the noises. I saw light there coming from the moon – an exterior door, leading to a landing and small dock on the bay water was open and men dressed in black were clambering into a small motorboat.
It would have been all too absurd if the voices I heard had not sounded so familiar. The last man out shut the door behind him. For some reason, perhaps the familiarity of the voices, I walked to the door they had just shut, and cracked it open enough to look through.
Colin was climbing into the boat. I remembered his name when I saw him again. Finn, already aboard, was pulling Colin aboard. Michel, Francois and Jean, the three young men from the café, sat in the boat, reaching for Colin. Colin had his back to me so he didn’t see me at first, but when Finn noticed me he looked stricken.
Finn, I whispered, too quietly for anyone but myself to hear.
Colin stepped into the boat, put his hand around Finn’s neck, and pulled him down to a sitting position. The motorboat twirled around, away from the dock, and headed out into the bay.
I huddled on the landing and watched them. Finn turned and fixed his eyes on me. Colin kept his arm around Finn’s neck, much the same way he had held Finn back from following me out of the cove the week before.
I am not going to rattle on about Eze. You would only blame me the way Colin did. I succeeded at what he wanted, to involve her. But as usual, Colin suspected me. He asked me if this was going to happen every fifteen years, I would meet a woman who had some hold over me, and botch the job. I assured him over and over it wasn’t going to be like that again, but he kept after me and after me until I wanted to hit him over the head.
He was busy botching the job himself, but not over Gabriela, but over Dylan, of course. He couldn’t seem to leave that poor mucker alone. He just wanted to aggravate him. Bring him out, he said. What the fock did we need to bring him out for? I said. We had Emma and we didn’t want to give her back, so we should have left the poor cuckold Dylan to his business.
Of course he had no business being with Gabriela. I admit she did have something over on me, but it wasn’t going to be like Prague all over again.
So, Colin had her phone tapped, and she told the poor horned Dylan that she was going to the villa. Of course our froggy fake Henri Courtois couldn’t even do his one little job – he could not convince her there was no basement; that it had been sealed up. It was on the goddamn Atlantic ocean, for fock’s sake, but that didn’t dissuade her. Colin came up with the logical reason, that the foundation needed reinforcement, but she didn’t believe that for one minute. She wanted to go looking around down there. Maybe we all underestimated her. Maybe Dylan had taught her something after all.
Anyway, Colin kept an eye on her that night after she rang Dylan. Of course she never bought the line about reinforcing the foundation so she got to thinking about the whole thing, and sure enough if she didn’t get her flashlight, and who knows what else and set out in the dark for that empty villa. Maybe she wasn’t such a scared little girl after all.
So we followed her back to the villa and watched her try to get into the basement. Damned if she didn’t find one of the doors in from the library. My money was on the door in the pissoir, but no, she found the one in the library. No matter. Anyway, we watched her look around, all fine, pull some lids off some crates, no harm done, not likely she’d phone up the gendarmes or ring up daddy Dylan again that night. We had time to think of something. Of course Colin could have gotten the crates out in time, but no, he had to fock around with everybody.
So, instead of just leaving it until morning, when we could come up with some kind of measured response, as they say in the business, or studied plan, Colin, the stupid tosser, staged a little drama in the basement, shutting the door when our bird was in there and getting in the boat and motoring away, with Jean, Francois and Michel all in it. I was there too. I tried to look at her and make her feel like it was all a joke or a gag or something so she wouldn’t worry, but when the American bird had never seen a rifle before there was no convincing her with a look that she needn’t take stock in it, or that Colin was crazy. Why did she marry that fock Dylan, anyway? A man twenty years older than her? What was she thinking? Was she lonely? I bet she was lonely in Biarritz.
Of course I didn’t sleep that night. Was he IRA? Was he part of the IRA training the Basque Separatists as Michel, Jean and Francois had explained to me?
I had never been political. I had never even seen a gun before the night before. I had never seen violence, except on the news and in movies. Once, on the beach in Santa Monica, I had saved a tiny Jack Russell terrier from the attack of two Great Danes. They had approached the Jack Russell and just started biting it before it could get away. I reached down and snatched the Jack Russell up from the sand, and gave it back to its owner. I told her to take it to the vet. Then I walked away, thinking What did I just do? I hadn’t thought about it first; I just acted. I didn’t wonder whether I should or not. I didn’t assess the risk.
So I had slept with a stranger who, it turns out, along with his friend, ran guns for Basque Separatists. Men who blew up trains.
How did this happen? Why did they seem familiar? Why did Finn remind me of Dylan?
At about 6am I got out of bed and showered. A few hours later, when I was sitting at the table by the window, trying to work, Colin appeared by my side. I did not speculate as to why he had let himself in without knocking. I started to shake. Men who blew up trains.
He loomed above me, very tall and thin; my position sitting at the table made him appear even taller. Perhaps if I hadn’t been so afraid.
Are they out yet? I said. Can you get them out?
Sorry? Colin said.
Guns, I said. Separatists.
You don’t know that, Colin said.
And you’re training them? I asked.
Colin crouched by my chair; he was eye level with me. We just need a bit of time, he said. Don’t tell anyone.
I looked at his back, his arms, his pant pockets. If he had a gun on him now it would have been strapped to his ankle.
I crossed my arms over my chest and grabbed my upper arms with my hands. This made my shaking less noticeable. I yawned to get some air. I needed to think fast, but that added pressure just muddled my thinking even more.
Why are you training them? Why did you set me up? Who would I tell?
The police, Colin answered, your father.
That was the problem with asking three questions – you only got an answer to one, and then only if you were lucky.
He’s not my father, I said. He’s my husband.
Oh that’s rich, Colin said. He stood up, ran his hand through his hair, and laughed.
His hair looked very black, and very silky; I wanted to touch it. If he was using someone’s house for something as important as running guns, wouldn’t he know more about whose house it was? Wouldn’t he know if the woman sent to do business for the owner was a wife or a daughter? Did he think I was obtuse? Taken in?
Why wouldn’t I tell, I asked him. I remembered the time when I was seventeen and my car threw a rod, the engine got fire and I pulled over to the shoulder of the freeway. I did not notice I was afraid until the fireman dropped me off at my apartment and I phoned my father to tell him what happened. Then it hit me. I could have been killed.
You’d put your husband and yourself in danger, Colin said. And Finn.
He looked so earnest, so sincere. But his reasoning was more like a bribe. More like blackmail.
Not you? I asked
Not as much, no, he answered.
And why is that? I asked. I stood up, next to him. I don’t know why. Where was I? Don’t approach the bear. Back away slowly. Make yourself large. Of course, if you are caught between the cub and its mother, there is no hope for you.
Look here, he said, don’t ask. The less you know, the safer you are.
He could give you up, I suggested, save himself.
Colin smiled. He was amused at me, this time, as opposed to my wife-not-daughter role.
Finn? he said. Finn wouldn’t do that. Or are you talking about your husband?
Colin smiled and crossed his arms over his chest. He looked smug and victorious.
I sat down again. I was too stupid to keep silent, leave, cut my losses. The trap I was in scared me; but this was a kind of fear I had rarely experienced, the type that propelled instead of paralyzed me.
Finn, I said. Are you friends?
Something worse, Colin said. He looked tender again. Finn’s my baby brother.
That’s rich, I said, mocking him.
Why would a man who is using your husband’s newly–acquired villa to run guns be honest with you? I began to wish the phone would ring, and wonder where my cell phone was. I looked around for it.
Colin said, You won’t tell. I just came to let you know we need a bit of time -- to make other arrangements.
Why won’t I tell? I asked. It wasn’t a rhetorical question; I was curious to know.
Because you don’t want to get arrested, Colin said. And you fancy Finn.
Do I? I asked. After a few meetings?
In Paris when I was twenty, the Greek law student from Athens paced under my sixth-floor window, furious when I wouldn’t answer his knock or come down. He called the French gendarmes; he said he feared for my safety. I understood passion when you were twenty and meridional (in particular Greek, French, or Italian).
Colin was saying, I’m sorry -- really I am. I wish it were I and not Finn.
Who was at risk? I asked.
Whom you fancied, Colin answered.
I wasn’t taken in by Finn; I wanted to say I wasn’t taken in by either of them; but I just sat there down and studied the wood grain of the tabletop.
Colin bent down and stared at me for a moment, then he kissed me on the lips. I kissed him back. I thought, I have to take a plane out of here -- tomorrow.
I’ll keep Finn safe, Colin said. I’ll keep all of us safe. Just give me a bit of time.
I nodded, and watched him leave the apartment. When he was gone I turned back to the desk, to my papers and photos, and shuffled aimlessly through them.
When Colin returned a few minutes later he put his hands on my shoulders, bent down and kissed me. He took my arm and led me over to the bed.
The next morning I sat out on the terrace, alone, eating my almond croissant and drinking my orange juice. Buzzy could recite one sentence: Orange juice please, I would like some orange juice please. My college friend Paul always told me he could say one thing in French: I eat the window.
I wondered if Buzzy understood what he was saying, what it would be like for him to drink orange juice, have it brought to his perch on a tray, lap it up with his scratchy, miniature parakeet tongue, like a cat. Would it be new, like my lovemaking with Colin the night before, or would it remind Buzzy of drinking fresh rainwater?
If I had asked Dylan politely for some orange juice, please, he would have stared at me blankly. If I had asked Finn, he would have brought it to me, and knelt beside me while I drank it, relishing how it slipped down my throat, how it slaked my thirst, how my lips moved. If I had asked Colin he would have laughed at me and asked me if I expected him to wring the fresh juice out of the oranges for me.
I wondered if perhaps this was some turning point people came to in their mid thirties, when you realized the depths of incomprehension of your own life you had sunk to, some slick, smooth well you could never climb out of.
The sun was just coming up behind me, warming my back. I faced the sea, as usual. I liked the idea of facing the Atlantic, but facing west. In the States, I had grown accustomed to gazing at the Pacific when facing west, and the Atlantic when facing east. For some reason this reversal delighted me.
Colin hadn’t stayed all day and all night, but I felt as if he was still next to me. He filled the little terrace where I was eating my breakfast and the apartment inside; he covered my skin. More than touching him or making love with him the day before, I had soaked him in, lapped him up, like Buzzy had his orange juice.
But breakfast was finished, the sun was rising, and Colin had left some time during the previous afternoon, when I was napping. In my mind I pictured other rooms off the basement with more crates stacked in them -- different crates. I wasn’t sure if I had invented this, or it was in my memory, my side vision from when I was last there. As I walked to the villa I asked myself why I hadn’t called Dylan, why I hadn’t called the gendarmes, why I hadn’t even left a note in my apartment explaining what had happened to me.
I walked to the villa and headed down the hidden stairs to the basement. I found that I was right -- it hadn’t been in my imagination; I did locate another room and different crates -- taller, narrower, in sizes that better fit paintings and sculptures. Being a painter I recognized them as such. I tore the lid off one and pulled a painting out -- a Modigliani, or a copy; I wasn’t sure which. I had studied paintings all my life, but always by examining the real thing, never a fake or a copy. I didn’t really know what they looked like.
In any case, Modigliani’s Reclining Nude: all reds and ochre, the woman lying on her back with one hip tilted up, her knees bent, her arms thrown back over her head.
Those came with the house, Colin explained.
I swiveled and looked at him. Then I bent down, rested my hands on my knees and got my breath while my terror passed. How deep his quiet always was; he could enter a room without me ever knowing. Colin – the Zen master of appearance and disappearance.
Like the guns? I asked.
Unlike the guns, Colin answered.
Like you? I asked.
Unlike me, Colin answered. He peered into the crate.
Fakes? I asked. Or perhaps “de-accessioned”?
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1990s, infamous scandals erupted when the new director allegedly sold off wide swaths of the Museum’s holdings to acquire enough ready cash to purchase an Etruscan vase. The Board of Trustees was not amused.
Spoils of war, I suppose, Colin said.
I stared into the crate with Colin, wondering what else was inside. Colin draped his arm around my shoulders from behind, kissed me on the neck, and rested his head on my back. He felt lovely – his skin, his smell -- like the sun at breakfast.
I broke away from him. I can’t, I said.
Daddy? Colin asked.
He was smirking now, neither amused nor tender. I had seen him smirk like this before, but not at me. It was in the café the first time, at Michel, as I was leaving.
He’s my husband, I answered.
Colin perused the paintings in the open crate.
Dylan knows these paintings are here then? I asked.
Colin stopped and regarded me tenderly, with regret. He touched my face with his fingertips, as if he were remembering something in his past-- I didn’t know what. Maybe it wasn’t something so far in the past -- me perhaps, the night before.
Only Dylan can tell you what he knows and doesn’t about what is housed inside his properties, Colin answered.
He winked at me. When Colin said Dylan’s name he sounded like he knew my husband, like he had known him all along. I wondered what it would feel like to know everything.
He blew my hair away from my face with his breath and kissed my cheek. Then he left me there alone, in our basement, with our crates of paintings and guns, terror and defiance, our arguments and reconciliation, memories and regret.
That’s what I liked about Gabriela: she didn’t ask many questions. She didn’t ask to see photo albums or make me invent stories about what happened in my childhood. It was hard to find a woman like that and when I found her, beautiful and a painter as well, I married her. I thought we could get through the difficult bits if we established a strong enough tie before anything went wrong. I didn’t suspect that nothing would go wrong, that my past wouldn’t bleed through to the present at some point – I was just hoping that by that time we would be strong together, that we would have an understanding.
When it finally happened I realized how disingenuous that was – you can’t have a strong bond with someone who doesn’t know you. How could she have known me without knowing my past? How much of me was understandable without it?
I played the part, the reserved, older British man, who wanted to start new in America, in California, with a young girl and a blank slate.
Gabriela sounded distant, uncertain. She sounded as if she knew information and events that she was not telling me. I was trained for years to hear that in voices, all different voices: English, Irish, French, Italian, German, Czech. There was usually something raspy in it, like the person had eaten dried toast and had not been allowed to drink any water.
And the phone line was clicking. Who would tap her phone? Were they planning to bring me back in on a project and wanted to make sure I was not already under contract with someone? Were there parties trying to get at me through her? But if so, why? I had been out for so long, what would have been the purpose of it?
I thought perhaps I should just reassign my projects in Los Angeles and fly to Biarritz, but if someone were setting me up I would have been walking into a trap. If they were researching me in preparation to contact me and re-engage me, it was best for me to just wait. I didn’t think her life was in danger. If she were that far into something I think she would have told me, or she might have sounded more frightened than she did, or betrayed herself some other way. She had stayed in Paris for a year when she was in college in the mid-eighties, so maybe something about being back in France had unsettled her. I thought I could always put someone on her when she came home if I still wanted to find out what was going on. I had her checked by the agency before I married her ten years before; there was nothing in her past that could compromise her. I talked to the concierge at the apartment in Biarritz several times; she too sounded on edge, but wouldn’t reveal anything to me.
How did we know she’d be his misses and not some employee of his fake, knock up, front of an architectural firm? How did we know he could land such a beauty?
Finn says I underestimated Dylan. So what if I did, we were no worse off, were we? The only real risk was that Finn was going to fall in love with that girl and we were going to have another Prague spring (forgive my sick joke) on our hands like we had fifteen years before, with squalling babies and dirty nappies and the whole rest of it, and god save us another focking child to bring up from the cradle. If Finn could have just kept his head; but that’s not like Finn. When has Finn ever kept his head? I wished his genius for improvisation and his imagination to work out solutions came with a more sober outlook, but of course it didn’t. It was passion and flight – nothing else in that wee boy. Why did I ever bring him in – I often asked myself that question. I wanted the baby brother with me perhaps. I wanted to make up for not being there when he was growing up. Maybe I did. Fock, I didn’t know why. I didn’t know why I did the focking things I did, so will you let off me, will you? I couldn’t take pressure. I had to blow off steam. I fancied a little mischief now and then. There was no harm in that -- was there? And what was Dylan doing buying property in Biarritz anyway? Wasn’t he inviting trouble to be back here? Was he on another job? Had they brought him back in? We were all acting like Dylan was so innocent and we were just in his business - - well, when was Dylan so innocent? Was he ever?
Dragon appearing in the field
A few days before I was scheduled to fly home, I planned to spend an afternoon visiting the aquarium across the street from the villa and cove.
I still needed to re-crate and ship home some of the paintings in the villa’s basement -- spoils of war or de-accession –but otherwise I had no further work obligations in Biarritz. I had no idea if they would pass unnoticed through customs or if I would be arrested in the airport. It occurred to me of course to tell Dylan in one of our nightly phone calls all that had occurred, or all but my infidelities. But I still did not tell him. Still, something stopped me. How could he protect me? Wasn’t he the one who had put me in danger? In any case, it was too confusing to sort out before the plane ride home.
For the most part the aquarium was what I had expected: tanks of neon colored fish, ancient turtles, spiky sea anemones, bulbous jelly fish; glassed display cases of shells, coral, rocks, bones and twigs of all varieties; plaques with their concomitant drawings, and text describing glorious maritime exploits of Biarritz, arduous travails of French fisherman, the tradition of merchants, trade and exports.
What I didn’t expect was a gentle and tentative tap on my shoulder. The girl was a young but still teenage, standing against Finn, wearing a gracious and expectant look on her face, and a devilish twinkle in her eye that made me wonder if she was related to him -- Finn’s younger sister perhaps? Colin’s daughter? She was tall, lithe, and pretty, with her auburn hair and ice blue eyes with indigo rims, and sophisticated in that way that only European teenagers possessed—urbane and precocious at the same time, but with energy, engagement, and without the disdain that American teenagers had.
This is Emma, Finn said. My daughter.
Hello, Emma, I said. Emma smiled broadly; she seemed immensely happy. You’re not old enough to have a teenage daughter, I told Finn.
Tati was only twenty when I was born, Emma said. She looked at Finn, the man she claimed to be her father. He seemed blank, but when she tugged at his sleeve, he sprung to attention.
Emma wanted you to have this, Finn said.
He handed me a small bottle. Inside was a shark embryo, bobbing in alcohol. It looked like an intrauterine device – a Lippy’s Loop, the one that caused damaged and was pulled from the market after a flood of lawsuits.
They attach to kelp stems in the ocean, and a tiny shark squirms around in the sac until it pops out, Emma explained. She looked very pleased and proud, as if she had designed this method of gestation and birth herself and I was the first and only person to whom she had offered it.
Thank you, I said. She was certainly endearing.
Emma grasped my hand and pulled me over to one of the aquarium tanks. For some reason I found this gesture charming. I liked Emma immediately; in many ways she reminded me of Finn – her warmth, her childlike delight, her unwarranted trust, her quick intimacy. But at the same time, given the fact of the Basque Separatists, the guns and artwork in crates in my basement, I couldn’t help but suspect her.
This is Sophie, Emma said, pointing into the tank at a sea turtle. She’s a hawksbill – one hundred and fifty years old. She got caught in the current and washed up on the wrong coast.
I inspected the sea turtle. It swam aimlessly, occasionally looking at us. It was very large, but it did not seem a hundred and fifty years old. The plaque affixed to the wall next to the tank said that hawksbills had once been prized for their shells and for the soup that could be made from them, and as a result had almost become extinct. Not quite, I thought.
We were going to eat a bit of lunch, Finn said, on the beach. Will you join us?
Emma nodded vigorously and held onto my hand again, so I agreed. After all, what harm could come to me with Emma there?
We stopped at Finn’s car, a Citroen Deux Chevaux, and gathered up the basket of food. On the beach we smoothed out a blanket and arranged our lunch on it: a baguette, two small rounds of monk’s cheese with a leafy crust, a few D’Anjou pears, slices of ham rolled into wax paper, bottles of Evian water.
We ate for a while, smiling and exchanging hesitant glances. Then Finn walked down to the water.
Does your mother live in Biarritz, Emma? I asked.
I never knew her, Emma said. She held out some grapes to me. Then she folded up a slice of ham like origami and pushed it into her mouth. Tati took care of me, Emma continued. Tati says Mama was married to an architect who moved to California after she died of cancer.
I was too stunned to speak, and popped grapes into my mouth one by one, trying to act as if this information had nothing to do with me.
Is something wrong? Emma said. She touched my arm with her fingertips, then waved a half a baguette in front of my face, pointing the oblong, blunted end at me like an accusation.
No, nothing’s wrong, I said. I ripped off a chunk of the bread and chewed on it. Finn ran back from the water, and shook his wet hair on us. Emma laughed, sprung up, and strode down to the water herself.
Do you know my husband? I said.
I don’t even know you, Finn said. He sat down cross-legged on the blanket, shook his hair out a little more, and spread some monk’s cheese on a slice of pear. He took a bite, and then offered me the rest.
Emma returned from the waves, dripping and shaking her arms; I wrapped a beach towel around her shoulders; she thanked me and pulled it tight against her chest, wiping her face with one of the dangling corners. We packed up the remains of our revelatory lunch, shook and folded the blanket and layered it all into the boot of the Deux Chevaux. Then we strolled hand-in-hand along the cliffs above the ocean. Finn pointed out the empty villa, and explained to Emma why I was in town. We passed the casino. Emma insisted we stop, so I waited with Finn while Emma ran up, pressed her face to the glass and looked in. The casino would remain closed until summer. Then we went back to the Deux Chevaux.
Finn drove us up the coast, showing Emma and me some of the other abandoned villas on the outskirts of town, the acidic odor of the monk’s cheese, and musty smell of the damp baguette emanating from the boot of the car. When we returned, we explored the tiny streets in the old part of town, stopping on impulse in the clothing and surf shops. Whenever Emma would see something in a shop window that delighted her, she would declare it lovely, grab our hands and pull us inside the store.
In the evening Finn drove us up into the mountains. We were all quieter by then and simply stared at the Italian Cypress trees, terraced gardens and stone houses. Eventually Finn and Emma dropped me off at my apartment. I didn’t want to go. Emma was so charming. I wanted to stay with them -- Emma and Finn.
In the morning I went down to the villa and chose the “de-accessioned” canvases I wanted shipped back to California. I had arranged for the concierge at my apartment to crate and air express them for me. I tried to convince myself they must be copies. Certainly a Matisse Still Life with Fish Bowl and a Modigliani Reclining Nude, or a Balthus Seated Girl in Red Shoes with Cat could not be real, or could not really be in my basement, unless the versions in their respective museums were copies posing as real. The ones I had could have been copies art students had rendered, to be pawned off as real – but there was no monetary gain in selling copies as such. I couldn’t insure them --if they were real they were worth too many millions and if they were copies or had been obtained through a prior theft.
While I was choosing which canvases to ship, Finn appeared. The flinty flecks in his eyes seemed to shine. His blonde hair seemed to shine as well. I had never seen him more beautiful.
I came to say goodbye, he said.
I won’t see you again?
Finn watched me set a painting down on the floor. Colin’s right, Finn said. You would never be safe.
Am I safe now? I asked.
It’s no life, Finn said.
Emma’s with you, I reminded him.
I’m all Emma has, Finn said. You have Dylan.
I laughed. Having Dylan -- that was a new concept. No one had Dylan.
You said his name, I answered.
I don’t want this to be how we end it, Finn said.
I didn’t know we were --- ending it, I said.
Let’s not, he said.
When I was a child I made my mother stand at the door of our Christopher May ranch house in Los Angeles and watch me as I scampered down the front walkway to school. I made her promise to watch until she could no longer see me. I insisted to her numerous times that this and only this would insure my good fortune and prosperity in life, and so, however reluctantly, she played along. Her figure standing in that doorway was my talisman against mistakes and humiliation, embarrassment and failure, disaster and catastrophes of all sorts: floods and hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes, impostors and con artists.
The day I left Biarritz Finn and Colin made their presence known in the crowd at the Nice airport by walking by and bumping shoulders with me, and then bowing deeply as I turned around to scowl. They reappeared after I boarded the plane -- their faces pressed up against the glass windows of the terminal. I watched them stand there while I sat down, strapped myself in, and ordered an orange juice with no ice from the flight attendant. When I held my orange juice up to drink I noticed that they waved at me. I only smirked, wondering if Emma was at the lycée, and why they were watching as my plane pulled away from the terminal. Did they want to make sure I was leaving the country? Did Finn know yet that I had slept with Colin? Of course he knew. That’s why he introduced me to Emma. That’s why he took me out for a ride and a picnic on my last day in Biarritz.
Malibu, a week later
The underbrush is of such abundance
That the small stars can be seen at noon
People tend to forget that Los Angeles is a desert. Angelinos don’t. They tote water with them everywhere. They carry it in little plastic bottles with twist-on caps. Oftentimes they suddenly feel as if they can’t speak or breathe or live another moment if they don’t drink some water.
I am an Angelino. Growing up, I drank tap water with chromium 6 in it. When I was a teenager I’d hike up into the canyons on Getty Oil land above my housing tract, and sit under an oak tree until the sun set. I brought water with me – and lunch in a paper sack.
One way to find water in the desert is to locate a stand of palm trees. Dig. There is a spring underneath. A less obvious way to find water in the desert is not to find it at all, but instead to bring it. Locate the nearest water source and build a channel from it to the desert. If the water is five hundred miles away, up in the mountains, you build a channel five hundred miles, down into the desert. You can do this if you dare, much to the consternation of the people up in the mountains who own the water, whose water you are stealing. This can become such a big issue that it will be talked about for decades to come, people will make movies about it, and it will become part of your history.
Do not look for water in the desert by walking toward the shimmering horizon; this will kill you. There is no water on the shimmering horizon. The horizon always shimmers in the desert; it is just the heat dancing.
My husband Dylan owned a cubic light box of a house, at the top of a windy canyon road in the Hollywood Hills. This mid- century modern commanded a view of the entire city below, and at night, the city lights. He wasn’t an Angelino. He was British, and twenty years my senior. When I married him I didn’t give up my little beach house in Malibu. Until I went to Biarritz, I just spent some of my weekends at the beach house -- sometimes alone, sometimes with Dylan. That way I could stay in Los Angeles but remain aloof from everything it was and stood for. And I had what all Angelinos craved whether they knew it or not: authenticity, which I had married into, and water – which, at that time, I considered my only necessity.
But after I came back from Biarritz I could not live in the Hollywood Hills with Dylan anymore. The hills made me claustrophobic and the glass house made me feel exposed.
So I retreated to the beach house in Malibu.
It is a unique experience to step inside your home after you’ve been away for a month or more. It looks different because you have not seen it every day. You experience your own house the way a stranger or a friend would, someone who doesn’t live there. And you can smell it, when usually being there daily; you would be immune to the smells. You have changed measurably, and you can gauge that difference by remembering who you were when you left, and comparing it to who you are when you step through the door.
Here is what I will tell you. I had an ulterior motive in retreating to the Malibu house. I needed time – time away from Dylan and away from our work at his architectural firm, to check the artwork. I wanted to see if the art in both our houses was real or fake. I wanted to see if the art I was crating in from Biarritz was real or fake.
I had only been back a week. I had barely recovered from jet lag. I had not yet had time to absorb what had happened to me in Biarritz or decide what I would do if the paintings that were supposed to be copies turned out to be real or vice versa.
I made discreet inquiries. The art dealer who seemed to protect his clients’ privacy with the most zeal had his gallery on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and his offices on Laurel Canyon, just above Hollywood Boulevard, across from Capitol Records.
The dealer wore a light gray suit and a slate gray ascot. He met me at the door of his office. When I told him what I wanted he did not seem the least bit shocked or surprised.
Are there any drugs involved? He asked me.
His calm was unnerving. Drugs?! I said. No. Why? Should there be drugs?
He waved the question away with his hand.
He explained to me that through gas chromography testing and mass spectrometer readings we could determine the date of paint samples taken from the artwork I brought him. We could also, sometimes, if we were lucky, determine even the brand of the paint. Through extensive research, the dealers assistants would pore over photographs, art books, monographs, biographies and other documents pertaining to the artists whose work I brought in, and find out what art suppliers the artists used. 
You can do this? I asked, incredulous.
The dealer laughed. We have been quite successful with other clients, he explained.
The dealer produced two matching charts and calendars, and together we concocted a schedule by which I would bring in each painting, have it sampled, and bring it back to the Hollywood Hills house or the Malibu house and re-hang it before Dylan got home from work. The dealer coached me on various ways of hiding the absence of the painting on the wall – by switching the paintings around, or adding a new piece I had made myself.
We arranged to start on the sculptures, figurines, Pre-Columbian idols and antiques after we completed our initial testing of the paintings. All in all, the entire project would take three or four months.
If you’ve ever had adventurous children, been confined to your bed; or spent a lot of time in the dark, in an old house with wooden floors, listening to people charge up and down stairs, tromp on the floor above your head, bang or rush in and out of house; you will come to know people by the personality of their footfalls.
I sprawled on my teak steamer chair, staring out at the ocean. For the week since I had returned from Biarritz I had been expecting Finn, or more accurately, I was hoping for him. I imagined he would emerge from the waves, swimming, like a merman.
But instead, Colin announced himself from the street. He bound through the front door, into the house, strode through the hall and living room as if this were a daily occurrence, and found himself on the deck, where apparently he knew I would be.
Had he followed me to the art dealer? Did he know what I was up to?
Colin specializes in pre-visit reconnaissance.
Gabriela, how long do you plan to stay here?
I tilted my head back and gazed up at him, shielding my own eyes with my fingertips. Colin: Impossibly tall and lean, with his matte-white skin, his glossy Black-Irish hair. How long have you been in the country?
Of course, it was a useless question. He could have taken the next plane after mine, or he could have waited a week. Who knows? He could have come at Dylan’s summons. What did it matter? By then I knew that neither my husband nor anyone associated with him told me the truth.
Colin crouched by my chair. He considered the side of my face, my hair. Gabriela, he said, forget what happened. Return to the work. Don’t make Dylan suspicious.
He waved his hand away from the beach and toward the house, and beyond: at the access road, and further on, the Pacific Coast Highway, its gas stations and strip malls, hotels and motels, corner produce markets, beach parking lots; and finally, inland: the city, flattened out and stretched to the size of a small state – Rhode Island, maybe.
I am working, I said. I looked out at the ocean. I had never known what I wanted exactly, but I knew that whatever it was, it had something to do with the water.
Is Finn with you? I asked. It was a reasonable question, to which I knew I would receive an unreasonable answer. I asked in spite of this knowledge.
Colin said Finn wasn’t with him. Did that mean he was, and he meant to trick me, or that Finn really was elsewhere, but up to something secret and devious?
Where is he? I said.
Colin shrugged. He smiled at me. It was an amiable smile, a conciliatory smile. It was not a gloating smile, enigmatic smile that Finn would have provided, or the cat-got-the-bird smile that Dylan would have offered. No, none of that.
I scrutinized him for a moment, trying to figure out what he meant. He was lying; Finn was here. No, Finn was with Emma somewhere -- in Paris, in Madrid, taking the Basque Separatists to another safe house, planning to bomb a train.
I couldn’t decide. I returned to watching the waves.
I haven’t heard from him, I said.
I wouldn’t know about that, Colin said, with a kind of mock discretion that reminded me he must have told Finn he had slept with me. He must have gloated over it. Just to antagonize him? Or, to make Finn do what?
He stood up, his hard, lean leg pressed against the steamer chair. Suddenly he seemed like a butler, or an attendant, or a nurse at a spa in the Alps in the nineteenth century, where women went into seclusion to ward off tuberculosis and mend a broken heart.
Look -- can I get you anything? Colin said.
I laughed. Another Modigliani? I said. At the time, Modigliani was my favorite, Modigliani and Matisse, those M painters. It’s different now, of course.
Gabriela, he said, do you want me to look after you?
I laughed again. Was he kidding me? What was he up to? What was this world I found myself in?
I considered his offer. How would that work exactly? I imagined him sleeping on the chintz sofa next to the sliding glass door to the deck, his eyes matching the ice blue sky on sunny days; Dylan traipsing in and out at will, car keys in hand, carting in groceries and coffee mugs, his broken heart.
That depends, I said, playing along for a moment with his solicitude.
Will you ring my mobile every few days and let me know you’re all right? Colin asked.
I laughed again. You’ll give me your cell number?
Colin laughed a little too then, and shook his head. That’s one of the things I liked about Colin, his ironic sense of humor, his willingness to look at himself, look at me, and laugh broadly at both of us.
Colin watched me stare out at the water, trying to will Finn in to shore with the strength of my determination. As if having Finn there would solve anything.
Do you really think he’ll arrive by boat? Colin said. Wouldn’t it be simpler to fly in a plane, as I did?
I don’t think he’s going to come at all, I answered, knowing full well that Colin knew exactly where Finn was, if he was coming, when he was coming.
Of course if Finn came, Colin would know why. He would pretend it was because he “fancied” me, the way Colin was pretending he was concerned for my apparent listlessness.
I’m here, Colin pointed out. So why not Finn?
You’re different, I told him. In those days I liked telling people what they already knew, hoping that in return, they would tell me something I didn’t.
How’s that? Colin asked.
Practical, cynical, I told him. I watched his face change. -- those fine shadings that the faces of those you love filter through: puzzlement, then amusement, regret, and finally chagrin – all in the space of five seconds.
I imagined Colin thought that for thirty-five, I was very young -- too young. I would be one of those women who failed to grow up, failed to take responsibility. And hence, he could manipulate me. And when he failed, Finn could.
I fancy you, Colin insisted. I want you.
You don’t want me, I shot back.
Keep telling yourself that, Colin said; then he snorted and shuffled his legs. He had all the mannerisms of a shiny black colt with a white star on his forehead that’s been locked in his stall overnight, and his happy to finally have been let out.
Why? I asked.
If you say it long enough, it might come true.
What if I don’t want it to be true? I asked.
Colin sat down on the edge of the chair next to me. Was it his way of giving up? What was mine?
What do you want? he asked.
I shrugged. If I knew what I wanted I was not going to tell him.
There must be something, Colin ventured.
To see Finn again, I said.
I didn’t say: To know the truth about my husband -- and many other things -- if I only knew what they were.
Maybe then you wouldn’t want him so much after all, Colin said.
At that point I tried to stand up, then sank back down again into the steamer chair. Not wanting something after you got it seemed to me to be mean-spirited and unsophisticated. To think I wouldn’t want something after I had it was insulting. Was he trying to insult me? Trying to anger me into some kind of passion? Plea? Confession?
I’d offer you coffee, but --- I said, and let my voice trail off. I didn’t know what the reservation would entail, so I just let Colin fill it in.
It was all the invasions, I guess. When people invade you or your country, repeatedly over the course of history, you have to develop a sense of humor; you can’t survive without it. We think sense of humor is a luxury, but it isn’t. The sense of humor is a life skill. They employed it while trying to get their own country back, and help the Basque Separatists get their own back. Bombing trains.
That’s all right, anyway, Colin said. He reached out to touch my hair; then stopped himself. He slid off the edge of the seat, and crouched down by my chair. He kissed me on the temple.
How long have I been back? I asked. It wasn’t a real question.
Barely a week, Colin answered.
But I was not thinking in terms of weeks. I was thinking in terms of that day, lounging on the steamer chair. I was only thinking in terms of hours.
Tati and Uncle Colin had gotten themselves mixed up in something again. I didn’t know what it was at first, because they kept everything from me that they could, but it was something a little different from the usual bits. Tati was all in a lather about this American girl whom he had met in Biarritz. He had got his knickers all in a twist about her as if he were a fifteen year-old girl like me, fallen over the moon after some bloke from Spain or whoever knows where. Anyway – I met her. Tati made me give her a present and act all sweet to her. He said Please for your Tati because I like her so much. Well, it wasn’t difficult, she was beautiful and she was kind enough, but I had never seen him care about anyone but Uncle Colin and me. So why, all of a sudden, was he so keen on this American girl?
Then of course all bloody hell broke loose for some reason I don’t understand because Tati and Uncle Colin wouldn’t tell me anything if they didn’t have to. They were fighting and raging at each other until I thought they had been drinking again or rowing out in the streets or with some other blokes. I didn’t know what to think, in short. Had Uncle Colin shagged her too? That had never been such a big deal before. So why did it matter with this girl?
Then Uncle Colin disappeared and Tati went ballistic saying he’d gone to the States after this girl Gabriela. Tati of course wanted to go after him, but it was not so easy getting a visa to the States even if you were someone like Tati. He’d got no jobs in the States, he’d got no reason to go, or to take me with him. I wanted to stay in Biarritz to surf and finish the spring term out at the Lycée. He said she lived on the beach where they made movies, near Hollywood. I told Tati there was no beach in Hollywood, for one, and Hollywood was not even a real place, it was an idea, an idea of the cinema industry, well, the American cinema industry, not ours of course.
But he insisted Hollywood was a place, and the beach was a place and we were going to it.
Let your magic tortoise go
And look at me with the corners of your mouth drooping
After Colin left, I grabbed my coffee mug and strode down to the beach. I’d been in the house two weeks. In Children of Paradise, Jean Baptiste is hiding out in this tiny hotel room he used to live in before he became a famous mime. He feels trapped, so he paces around and says, Il faut que je sorte. Il faut que je marche. Which means: I have to go; I have to walk.
No matter how ample my beach house was, no matter how wide the beach was and how vast the ocean beyond, I still felt trapped. I ambled down to the water and thrust my feet in. That would be the wake up call, or so I hoped.
It was a man who had come up to me on the beach without my realizing it. I was not paying attention. I was not keeping my guard up when I needed to. Colin always left me flustered and threw me off my game.
Not really, I said. Eventually, all the players would gravitate toward me, like the moon pulling in the tide. There was any number of safer, more cautious things I could have said, such as: Yes, my husband is in the house and coming right down; or, No, he’s watching from the window.
No one really used this beach, except the neighbors, so if this man had been legitimate in any sense of the word I would have met him before. So was he keeping tabs on me, or keeping tabs on Colin? And if he was watching Colin, why didn’t he just arrest him?
Trapped while seeking to free myself – the story of my marriage, up to that point. I sipped my coffee and considered how to get away.
Parisians say you can always identify a tourist’s nationality from his shoes, the way in the States you can determine a person’s demographics by their cigarette brand. I had these both down to a science in earlier days – first the cigarettes, later the shoes. What kind of shoes does an undercover narcotics officer wear?
The undercover narcotics officer, (or perhaps a visitor to one of the neighbors. though I was doubting it more and more) was examining the houses along the beach and the cliffs above.
Have you ever noticed that none of the homes here have widow’s walks? He gestured at the row of beach houses, and at the houses on the hills behind.
He turned to me. I pretended to glance at the houses, then met his gaze. I peered into the window of my living room, where my spouse, (partner, consort, companion, significant other, or just somebody), was supposedly watching me. I sipped my coffee, and raised my nose and forehead into the sun and breeze, gauging the amount of danger I was in, while trying to enjoy the warmth and weather.
Of course, neither was working. Nothing worked. I had always marveled at that fact. Teenagers drove cars, planes took off, trains strove to keep to a schedule, artisans baked bread, businesses started up and ran, everyone grew up and died, and yet, nothing ever really worked, if you know what I mean. There was process, but no function in it. There was the appearance of function, but if you stuck your head in and really looked, there was this gaping hole where the function ought to be.
If we were in Europe, the man went on, or even on the east coast, we’d have them -- Widow’s walks.
The only thing I know about widows’ walks is hat they were not designed so wives can stand on the roof and search for the return of their sea captain husband’s ship. Widows walks were designed to provide safe access to the roof from the upper floor of the house, so one could safely inspect the chimney.
Are you an architect? I asked. Was this intruder on my peace of mind, this a dangler of penny loafers, and a mincer of words an associate of my husband? Was he an old college buddy of my husband that he had hired to have me watched while I was on leave from work and the Hollywood Hills house?
No, but I’m something of an architectural historian, the man said. I’m your neighbor, three houses down. Ryan.
The alleged Ryan gestured south toward the house he supposedly lived in, then held out his hand. Reluctantly, I shook it.
If the paintings were real or fake, stolen or bought, if my marriage was real or a cover, if Finn truly cared for me or not, if Colin was interested or playing me, if Ryan was undercover narcotics or a private investigator for Dylan – I didn’t know yet.
So what got you interested in architecture? I asked. This was my big plan: ask questions, ask a lot of questions; keep asking them. I knew it was an imperfect, spur of the moment plan, but like most of my spur of the moment plans, I stuck to it.
The sounds, Ryan said.
Sounds? I said.
Escutcheon, soffit, balustrade, that sort of thing, he said. It’s soothing, like the sound of the waves to me, Ryan explained.
Oh, I offered.
I listened. I heard a siren in the distance. I heard a woman screaming. I heard a dog barking. I heard the whine of a helicopter overhead.
And the curves, Ryan said. I’m, hooked on curves. Always have been.
Curves, I repeated. I sipped my coffee. I gazed at the houses along the beach. I tried to listen to the waves break, but all I could hear was the now growling dog and the persistent whine of the helicopter. I wondered how dangerous a man who was either trailing Colin, trailing me, or an undercover narc could pretend to mourn the absence of widow’s walks and quickened at the sounds of architectural terms. He lacked charm. He was unconvincing. This made me lean toward the narc – but what about a fourth option – perhaps he was working with Colin, the way Michel and Francois had been -- some American connection?
Oh yes, Ryan explained, a well-turned column or balustrade. It really sends me.
I see, I said; sounds and curves.
Sounds and curves, he answered, that about sums it up. What about you? What sends you?
You know, I said, my husband’s an architect.
The thing about people who misspeak is that they always know instantly what they should not have said and why. It’s like an adrenaline rush, informing you of your coming mortification, which will arrive in the next three to five seconds. It’s like putting your finger to the hot stove, and waiting, that one second, until the searing pain slams into you. Don’t give out any information unless you absolutely have to. It’s a simple axiom that I couldn’t seem to follow.
Do I know him? Ryan asked.
Dylan Hutchinson, I answered. Hutchinson International. He does historic preservation work in the south of France. Restores villas mostly, but also some museums, chateaux, that sort of thing. Takes projects here as well. We’re based here, downtown, well, in West Los Angeles.
So is he the one you’re waiting for, Ryan asked, or is he what sends you? Or both?
I have to go in, I said, and turned to go. Tassled penny loafers or not, he wasn’t going to get any more information out of me.
Sure, Ryan said. No problem. He raised his palms to his collar bones like he’d suddenly found himself held at gunpoint, and then, finding he was not, he let those hands fall back again against his khaki chino trousers.
A few nights later, Finn was swimming in front of my house, taking long, deliberate, carving strokes, the way a dancer might, dipping his face into the salty waves and tilting it out again to breathe. It was midnight – true midnight or living midnight, depending on your point of view, depending on your inclination.
He pulled himself against the current and tide, and loped out of the water. As he bounded up the beach and onto my deck, he shook himself, freeing the water from his hair and bathing suit, the cold from his muscles. Then he slid the door open and stepped in to my living room.
Finn sat down on the bed beside me and stroked my hair with his fingertips. I did wake up then, and I stared right at him.
He smiled at me. I touched his face, arms, lay my head against his chest, tasted the salty water on his skin, on my fingers.
I fought to stay awake, but I could not. Finn slid into the bed next to me and cradled me. He whispered that he had to go back to Emma; he couldn’t leave her alone so late at night.
He stayed for a few minutes, and while he did, I charted his breathing, felt his skin against mine. He rested his mouth on my shoulder. Had I been able to block out the questions there would have been so much delight in this -- bodies touching, skin against skin. If I could have removed the context, I would have admired the simplicity in it.
Then he slipped away as slowly and gently as he could, somehow managing to let me drift back to sleep. Or he had roofied my glass of water.
When I woke up the next morning, the glare from the water dappled the ceiling. I stretched, sat up, looked at the ocean, around the room, searching for signs of what I had remembered, to verify if it was a dream or real. I noticed the impression on the pillow. I saw the sand and watermarks on the hardwood floors. I climbed out of bed and tracked them through the hall to the deck entrance, but found no other traces of him.
Kate and I sipped our lattés from Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. There’s a Gahan Wilson cartoon from the New Yorker, where the auto mechanic stands at the side of the road, hunched over, leaning forward, peering down the street, while the other auto mechanic idles by the dismantled car, its hood open, gazing into the engine, with tools strewn about. He says to the car owner, “Old Jesse has located your problem, Mr. Watkins, but he won’t tell us what it is until the ice cream truck comes.”
So are you sure it was this Irishman you met in Biarritz called Finn? Kate asked. She pointed out a particularly adorable and charismatic child on the slide, who reminded me of Emma. All adorable, charismatic children, ages five to sixteen, now reminded me of Emma.
That’s the name he gave, I answered. I knew that I was still violating the first axiom, being: don’t give out any information – try to glean information. But Kate? Even with Kate? I couldn’t trust anyone? Not even my best friend?
I began to wonder who had started this game, who had made the rules, why I had been drawn into it, and how I could get out of it.
We stood up and walked around the outdoor shopping court carrying our waxed cardboard coffee cups with us. I thought for a moment about things that are waxed: apples, surfboards, furniture, Chinese take-out food containers.
We strolled into the shops and ran our hands along the distressed furniture tagged with outrageous prices we could never pay, fingered the chenille throws; held the lemon verbena soaps, themed potpourris in cellophane wrappers to our noses and inhaled -- the tropical version with dried fruit, flowers, and seeds; an ocean variety with shells, sand, and starfish.
Why is he here? Kate asked.
I don’t know, I answered. Does Dylan know? Kate asked.
Don’t know, I answered. I pressed a lavender soap to my face, shut my eyes and inhaled. I loved the smell of lavender. Then it occurred to me: sometimes Finn smelled like lavender -- lemon verbena and lavender.
We walked, talked, shopped, laughed and sipped from coffee until the late afternoon stretched our shadows longer than our actual selves. It was getting hotter. We sat down again to rest. Kate sat so close to me we were almost touching. I could smell her – she smelled talcy, with a touch of spice – like Kouros. Exactly like Kouros. Kouros was Dylan’s cologne. The only one he wore. Kate’s husband was a banker and he wore what all bankers who wore cologne had worn since the 1950s – he wore Grey Flannel.
My best friend. Did her husband know? Did he turn a blind eye? Was her banker husband working with Dylan, financing the terrorists? Financing the art smuggling? The gun trafficking? I wondered if Dylan had sent me to Biarritz alone so he could spend more time with Kate. With my best friend, Kate. I guess the first axiom applied with everyone, after all. The sooner I learned it the better.
I told Kate I wouldn’t be able to see her for a few months, but she wouldn’t have it. She thought it was another woman. I couldn’t very well tell her the truth: some dangerous types from the south of France, who had shagged my wife and were pretending to fancy her, had followed my wife back to the States and they might hurt us all? No, she’d just laugh in my face if I told her that, Dylan Hutchinson, staid British architect. Or she’d call the police.
What was I doing, anyway, risking a messy, complicated divorce and an enormous financial loss to shag my wife’s best friend of twenty-six years? What kind of new folly had come in to my life? Was I just going along with things now?
I was surprised when Kate showed up at my office an hour after Gabriela’s plane to Nice had left the runway. I had barely gotten back to the office. She asked me to go out with her for coffee. She said she had to talk to me about something, something important. I took her to Figaro’s, in Westwood, but all during our coffee she said nothing about this urgent situation of great import. We talked only of art, and she asked to see the Rothko in the Hollywood Hills house. It was pretty late by that time.
I don’t know why I took her to the Hollywood Hills house. Maybe I just wanted to see what would happen. She is pretty enough, kind enough. She always seemed a good friend to Gabriela. I never questioned it. What else has she done to her?
We looked at the Rothko together. We talked about Rothko’s suicide, the Marlboro Gallery, the 9 million dollars the estate had won from the gallery for defrauding it and undervaluing the paintings, filtering the payments to Rothko through Switzerland to misrepresent their value and at the same time hording other Rothko paintings in secret in the gallery vaults until their values skyrocketed after Rothko’s death.
She sided with the artists of course, which I thought was admirable, but she didn’t believe that my Rothko was a copy, though she knew it was a copy painted by Gabriela.
We didn’t even speak of Gabriela. We acted as if I hadn’t been married to her for ten years and Kate had not been her friend for twenty-six years, since grade school.
I wondered how she would get us into some sort of amorous situation. I waited to see what she could manage. Her ruse was that the view of the hills out the bedroom window had caught her eye. She had just been in the loo and had gone down the hall to see the other rooms. She had seen the view from the hallway. She was exclaiming about it.
Of course I could hear her and I knew what would happen next if I went into the bedroom and stood beside her. But I didn’t know how it would happen.
She turned to me. She stood behind me and pulled the band out of my ponytail. She ran her fingers through my hair. Then she reached around and unbuttoned my shirt.
So of course I turned to her. I took her by the wrists for a moment and looked in her eyes.
I could have stopped it then. Maybe I should have. I don’t know any man who would refuse a woman’s advances -- maybe an ex-priest -- no one else.
Afterward, I told her she couldn’t stay the night.
I was the first one to speak of my wife. I told Kate I had to ring Gabriela on her mobile in the morning. I reminded her of the nine-hour time difference between Los Angeles and Biarritz. I told her when Gabriela came back from Biarritz I couldn’t see her anymore.
She asked me why I assumed she wanted to see me again.
I said I hadn’t assumed it, but of course I had.
She said she supposed that women were always throwing themselves at me, because I was handsome and British and had a foreign accent. I didn’t respond to that.
She asked me if I was happy. As happy as I could be, I told her. She asked me if I was happily married.
What is this about, now? I asked her.
Kate shrugged. She put on her clothes.
I’m not getting a divorce, I told her.
Aren’t you getting a little ahead of things? she asked me then.
I said I supposed I was. But I didn’t want to mislead her.
Well, she said, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m not getting a divorce either. But it’s not ending when Gabriela comes back from Biarritz.
With that, she picked up her purse and left the house. I stepped into the shower. I knew that in the end she would have her way.
When the man who calls himself Ryan first approached me and asked me to get close to Dylan to spy on him for me, I laughed at him. I thought it was some kind of practical joke. So he brought me to the FBI offices in downtown Los Angeles. It never occurred to me there might be FBI offices in downtown Los Angeles.
He told me that I would be helping my best friend Gabriela by watching Dylan, getting close to him, and then reporting back to Ryan what I had learned. I didn’t understand how sleeping with my best friend of twenty-six years’ husband would be doing her a favor.
An associate of this Ryan sat in on the conversation. All they could tell me was that Dylan was an individual who was in some kind of danger from foreign “influences” and it was their job to monitor him and “keep him safe.” After a little probing I got them to concede that they were more interested in keeping the country safe than keeping Dylan safe.
After a lot of balking and incredulity on my part, they said they would come clean with me, (I am quoting them verbatim to demonstrate how absurd they sounded) and told me that had inadvertently introduced foreign elements into our country that threatened it. They told me he was not part of a terror organization but he had ties to a known, thirty year-old terror organization headquartered in Europe that seemed to be coming into our country to do its business here. The FBI, they said, did not want this terror organization to get comfortable in our country or start to use our nation as a staging ground for any of its activities, such as – training its new recruits, establishing safe houses for its members on the run from the law in its own country, smuggling etc., because they feared that if this organization became established or comfortable here the bombings and other terrorist acts might migrate across the Atlantic, even though at the present time there was no ideological reason for it.
I asked them who these terrorists were and what country they were from but they said they couldn’t tell me. They would only give me information on a need-to-know basis.
When I asked them how they expected me to remain friends with Gabriela while I was sleeping with her husband, they told me that it would be easier than I expected, and they also encouraged me to tell them anything she did or said that seemed to be of interest in the case.
I told them this was all too absurd to believe and I needed to verify it. So they let me call information on my cell phone, get the FBI number in Washington D.C. and call it. They told me whom to ask for. His name was Simms. I assumed it wasn’t a real name. They told me to tell them that I was in FBI headquarters in Los Angeles and a Ryan had recruited me to help them.
This man Simms, on the other end of the satellite waves, told me that he could verify everything that Ryan was telling me and asking me to do. He said he hoped I would agree to keep our country safe.
I asked him, What if I couldn’t?
Simms said that if I couldn’t I should ask Ryan about my husband’s recent banking activities.
I ended the cell phone call. What’s this about my husband’s banking activities? I said.
Ryan told me we needn’t concern ourselves about that if I was willing to help them. I said I wanted to know. He repeated his claim. He sounded mechanical -- like he was talking off a script,. I told him I wouldn’t help unless he told me about my husband’s banking activities.
Recent – Ryan corrected me.
I nodded. Ryan told me that my husband was engaged in bad banking practices, that he was approving too many unsecured business loans, that he was approving mortgages well above the appraised value of the properties. This had drawn the attention of the FDC, who had investigated and found that my husband was taking unreported “gifts” of money from clients and depositing it in offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands.
When I told them this sounded like an ill-conceived James Bond movie and my husband would never even know how to do these things; they reminded me that my husband was a banker. They asked me to phone Simms back to confirm.
Simms said he was sorry that I was unwilling to help my country without having to be informed of my husband’s illegal banking practices.
No one said they were illegal, I replied.
Simms said they were highly illegal, and that the only way my husband could avoid scandal, a high profile trial, and lengthy jail time, was if I helped them.
I ended the call and set my cell phone down on the table. I told Ryan and his unnamed associate that they were all scum, but it seemed I had no choice.
Ryan said it was not as if Dylan were unattractive. The other man, his associate, who still hadn’t given me a name, said that there must be some disturbing event in my long friendship with Gabriela that I wished to get back at her for. This was my opportunity for revenge. And if not Gabriela, some event with my husband, some infidelity, some hurt ---
He stopped. Ryan had put his hand on the man’s shoulder. They looked at each other.
What event? I said. What else has my husband done?
It’s merely a hypothetical, Ryan said. He sat down, drummed the table with his fingers.
What is this man’s name? I asked Ryan. I pointed to his associate.
Waxman, Max Waxman, Ryan said.
How do I get a hold of you if I find out anything? I asked.
I will get in touch with you, Ryan said.
How, I asked. How does it work?
I will just show up, Ryan said.
Out of nowhere? I asked.
Yes, out of nowhere, Ryan said. When you least expect it.
When I’m alone, I said.
Yes, he confirmed, when you’re alone.
Making progress with horns is permissible
Only for the purposes of punishing one’s own city
After Kate left me, I crossed the Pacific Coast Highway to the Adamson House and registered for the historical tour.
While I waited for the tour to start, I loitered on the patio, sitting on the low, stonewall, mesmerized by the ocean, the waves breaking and tried not to think about Dylan with Kate. I’ve never understood why the ocean is only thing that calms me and brings me peace – that and lying next to someone I’ve slept with. I wondered if Dylan felt that way after he’d slept with Kate.
Scientists say positive ions discharge when waves break, as if that explained all the mysteries of the universe. I don’t know. At home, when I turn on my ionizer it only makes me nervous. I know my love of the ocean has something to do with the combination of water with vastness and endlessness. Deserts and plains make me claustrophobic; water that’s contained in a lake or pond leaves me indifferent; so the combination of the water and the endlessness must be what soothes me -- the feeling of being on the edge of land. And ionization aside, there is something comforting about the waves breaking – a placid ocean frustrates me. Had Dylan turned to Kate because I’d been frustrated by his placidity? Or he mine?
When enough tourists had amassed to make a tour worth the guide’s time, he led us into the house. The polite and ingenuous visitors asked about the elevator and the hand-made tiles, the officious tour guide told us about the original dairy and pottery works that had been destroyed by fire, the original Native American settlement, the original pier. Was anything in California, even the oldest mission-adobe building, still original? In California everything original had been diluted by the extremes of commerce: the blockbuster in the film industry, the Alaskan pipeline in the oil industry, the platinum syndrome in the music industry. Anything that sparked the imagination was made profitable; everything magical was made into a Disneyland.
At the pool house, I stayed behind unnoticed while the others strolled back up to the main house and souvenir shop. With an antique brass key that Dylan had kept from his restoration of the estate, I let myself in to one of the inner changing rooms and sprawled out on the wooden bench there. I would wait. Perhaps I would even fall asleep waiting. It would get dark; the moon would come out -- then I would see.
It was true, most of the time I rushed -- everyone in California did. You could see it most clearly on the freeways. Angelinos had to drive as fast as they could, do everything as fast as they could, no matter what the cost -- and that cost was incredibly high.
The freeway: I often thought about retired football player O.J. Simpson, and his “low speed chase” after he’d been accused of murdering his wife, the cops following, the fans screaming and waving from street corners and overpasses. Like a “freeway,” a “low speed chase” is an oxymoron in California. For O.J. a low speed chase probably meant -- I am not trying to get away, I am not trying to outrun you. I just need a little time to decide whether I should shoot myself or turn myself in.
The residents of California are trying to outrun just about everything – the laws of motion, physics and gravity; ageing; their own lives. In California, to rush is to live to slow down is to die. It was no accident that in O.J.’s famous Hertz rent-a-car commercial he was hurtling over conveyor-belted people-movers in an airport to catch a plane. It was no accident that after he was acquitted O.J. moved to Florida: the east coast California, the other California, with humidity, torpor, the other Disneyland, South Beach and the Versace murder; the California where it’s so hot you have no choice but to slow down.
The only quality prevalent in California that rivals speed is monumentality. Lavish productions are the rule; colossal scale is de rigeur. William Randolph Hearst’s relentless and endless building and rebuilding of his San Simeon Ranch, his enormous amassing of artwork, his equally enormous amassing of debt, was the apotheosis of California’s tendency toward the lavish production. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and his restoration of the Niebaum estate and vineyards is a more recent example. The O.J. murder trial in the 90s and the Manson killings in the 60s reflect the dark side of California’s tendency toward lavish productions.
But the urge toward the colossal and monumental exists in every form and facet of California life, from art collecting to debt amassing, from wine making to movie making, from killing to cooking. It especially manifests in the architecture – from the 30-million-dollar estates in Bel Air and Napa Valley to the 50-million-dollar cottages on the cliffs in Pebble Beach and Carmel.
That night, as I drifted off to sleep on the hard wooden bench in the Adamson House pool cabana, the history of southern California architecture squeaked like an old movie reel on the wall: Julia Morgan’s constant redesign and revamping of the Hearst Ranch to W.R.’s specifications, Wright’s Mayan-motif, cement-block house in the Hollywood Hills; his winged house on the cliffs in Carmel; Eichler’s fifties, low-income houses with their pristine, Calvinist lines; Clifford May’s ranch houses in Pacific Palisades; and Gehry’s ongoing experiments with form – until I could no longer keep my eyes open.
When I woke up the moonlight shone on my face. By my wristwatch it was 2am. A noise had woken me. It sounded like banging -- someone pounding on the door, or someone pulling on the door repeatedly to get it open. I didn’t know if I had dreamed it or it had happened.
I realized that I wanted to wake up in my own home, beside Dylan, beside a Dylan who had never slept with Kate. I wanted to wake up having never gone to Biarritz. I wanted my old life back. But my old life had never existed, and I was the only one who hadn’t known it.
I checked by looking out the windows. I couldn’t see anyone. Cautiously I tiptoed outside. For a moment I delighted at the moonlight shimmering on the pool water, and the ocean beyond. Peace, freedom from care.
If you eat chocolate croissants every day you can’t --- Finn began, but I interrupted.
Was that really you last night? I asked.
Finn stopped treading water and stood up in the shallow end of the pool. I could see how beautiful he was then. He was especially beautiful when wet.
Yes, he said. It was really me. Did you miss me?
It’s only been a week, I answered. I let myself in through the pool gate and slumped down on the coping. I slid off my sandals and sunk my feet into the cool water of the deep end. You would think someone who loves the ocean as much as I do would not like pool water, but I do. I love the aquamarine color, the smell of chlorine. Only the size bothers me -- the limits and lack of expansiveness. A pool isn’t endless, and, or course, there are no waves.
You almost never say yes, Finn noted. His legs splayed for balance, he skimmed the surface of the water with his hands, like he was petting a cat.
So where have you been? I asked.
I was shadowing you, Finn answered. He swam out to me in the deep end, buoyed himself by resting his hands on the coping and cycling his legs in the water.
Hiding in plain sight, I repeated.
Something like that, Finn conceded.
Couldn’t we have met at my beach house?
They’re watching your beach house, Finn said.
They? But you were there last night, I insisted. Weren’t you?
Only for a moment, Finn answered. Tonight we need more time.
Time for what? I thought.
No one watches my house, I pouted. No one watches me. It was what I wanted to think – before Biarritz. The hinge.
Finn freed one of his hands from the coping and smoothed the surface of the pool water with it. Everyone watches you, he reminded me. He pulled on my leg. Why don’t you come in the water?
I stripped down to my bathing suit and slipped into the water, wondering why I had waited to be asked. After all, it wasn’t his pool; it wasn’t his house; it wasn’t even his town, or his state, or even his country. How had he claimed ownership? I wondered why I conceded everything to everyone: my body, my husband, my safety.
It’s just as dangerous here, I said. You like danger. No, you prefer it.
Finn swam with me to the shallow end and embraced me there, with his encircling arms. If a park ranger or cop comes, he warned me, just dangle your key and invoke your daddy’s name.
You know he’s not my father, I scolded him.
No, Finn said, he’s something worse. He splashed me with the water – a sharp wedge of water from the side of his hand. It hit my face when my mouth was open and choked me. I tried to walk through the water to the pool’s stairs, but Finn grabbed me and pulled me to him. I slipped on the stairs and went under.
I thought of Orcas trapped in marine parks, how their loving trainer, who feeds them every day, will get into the water with them -- loving them and trusting them. Then one day, while she’s playing with the killer whale, the beautiful black and white animal will grab her shoulder in its teeth and pull the trainer down to the bottom. She will struggle to get up again, but right before she reaches the surface, the Orca will grab her again, ever so gently in her teeth, (perhaps the trainer’s wetsuit tastes rubbery) and drag her down to the bottom again. The Orca will do that, again and again, until the trainer no longer struggles to get to the surface, until the trainer drowns. It will go about his business then, with the dead trainer floating beside him in the pool, until another trainer comes out and finds her.
When I finally broke free to the surface of the water, I climbed out of the pool and lay on the coping. I coughed and tried to breathe. I tried to suck in air. It made a strange whining and wheezing sound, like the keening of a seagull. I tried to relax my chest. Eventually, after taking three or four breaths like that, my throat cleared and I could breathe. I lay on my back for a minute to collect myself.
Come back in the water, love, Finn said.
Are you crazy? I said. Are you trying to kill me?
Don’t be daft, Finn said. It was just horseplay. Did you play in the water when you were a kid?
We did play in the water. We would climb on my father’s back and he would take us for a ride – underneath the water, up again long enough for a breath and then into the water again. We called it the dragon ride. It was scary and thrilling.
But I didn’t tell Finn that. I stood up and stared down at him. What did you ask me to come here for? I said.
Don’t be like that, love, he said. He patted the water with his flat hands. Come back in.
I shook my head. I dressed, grabbed my keys in my fist, and hurried away before he could get out of the pool.
On the way to my car I thought about the Adamson house, the beautiful tile they used to make. It was a shame the pottery making had ended when the warehouse had burned to the ground in the 1920s. The tour guide had told us that the firemen at the time had suspected the heat of the kilns, perhaps a spark. Someone had left wood, crating materials too close to one of the kilns. Another theory was that some of the glazing materials had spilled near the kiln and ignited.
I wondered if the business was going under. I wondered if they owed money to the bank or had made bad investments. Maybe the owner had a gambling debt and he couldn’t repay and a bookie had set fire to the warehouse. Maybe it was arson, foul play.
I wasn’t trying to drown her for Christ’s sake. I was just playing with her a little. Why does she have to be so bloody sensitive about everything? Even Colin complained. You’re supposed to be trying to gain her confidence not frightening her out of her goddamned mind, he said. Why couldn’t I do anything right? He said. Must I step in and continue shagging her myself just as an assurance? He said, execute the back-up plan?
You always meant to continue shagging her, I corrected him. He grinned his fake, smug, self satisfied, self-congratulatory grin that always makes me want to puke. How could Colin be my older brother? He was a half brother – was it the half not bound to me in blood that made him so distasteful?
So anyway, I had ground to make up, Colin told me, I had to win her confidence back, and I had to use the baby Emma to do it if necessary.
Emma had taken a fancy to Gabriela, so it was not like I would by twisting her arm. You can’t make a teenage girl do things she doesn’t want to. You know how they get so obsessed with phonies at that age – they can’t do anything that would make them a phony themselves, god forbid.
Beat me, fock me, make me write bad checks, I told Colin. He laughed.
Then I reassured him that I would get back into her confidence, and that Emma would be more than glad to help me. But I was wearying of Colin and I was wearying of being in the States. I was wearying of all the games. I was wearying of Colin’s goading Dylan and myself.
It was at that moment that I realized I wanted out. It began to grow on me from that point on. How could I get out? How could I get out and take the baby Emma with me? Would I have to leave her with Colin for a while? Was that wise? If I had to leave her with someone would Dylan be the better man? As crazy as that sounded, it was the truth. Emma would be safer with Dylan, of course, that was obvious. But it would be easier, as well, to get her back from Dylan.
But how to go about it? How to put the pieces into play? How to play a third game on top of the two we were already playing?
I spent the rest of the morning researching different alarm systems and surveillance equipment. By the afternoon I had an alarm company out to the Malibu house installing an elaborate system of triggers and cameras. Everything was wired: the windows, the doors, the front entrance, the sliding glass door to the deck, my bedroom, even the refrigerator. I had them install cameras at all the entrances and windows, in the hallways. My art dealer had finally been the one to recommend them, and I told them that I needed the equipment as protection against theft of the artwork in the house. They told me they understood, given the recent thefts of art in my neighborhood, and that they were surprised I didn’t have a system installed earlier.
I watched the team wire the house and install the cameras so I would know where everything was and how it worked. The young man who led the installation team was very patient and willing to explain to me how the two systems linked together. He let me watch him test the cameras when they were ready. I made the team lemonade and they ate a plate of butter biscuits with apricot jam.
Before they left the young man in charge showed me a second time how to turn the DVD recorders on and off, and how to retrieve the recordings and reset the timers. He showed me how to turn the alarms on and off and had me practice my number code on the keypad. He showed me how to reset the alarm after it had gone off, and posted the phone number to the alarm company on the kitchen cabinet above the phone. He assured me there were no blind spots anywhere around the outside perimeter of the house, but explained to me that at certain times the sun’s glare or the glare from the ocean could create a blind spot. Inside the house, there were of course blind spots, depending on where the cameras were aimed.
The next day, in the late morning when I was sure Dylan was at work, I drove downtown to City Hall. My idea was to look at the supporting documents for Dylan’s business license to start his architectural firm, Hutchinson International. Maybe the copy of his birth certificate, application for citizenship, passport renewals, or anything else might tell me something I needed to know about Finn, Colin, or Dylan’s first wife, anything to unravel some of the mysteries about recent events and how they were linked to the past.
I showed the clerk at the information counter my driver’s license and asked to see the documents. She searched for a few minutes on her computer, then went into a back room for another five minutes or so. When she came out a very tall, thin man was with her. He was dressed in a black suit with a navy blue tie. He reminded me of the men in black you see in so many science fiction thrillers and I half expected him to tell me my husband was an alien. But what he did tell me was even more disturbing.
Mrs. Hutchinson? He began
Yes, I said.
Can you tell me your maiden name?
Mitchell, I said.
Mrs. Hutchinson, I can’t release any of the documents relating to your husband. He shifted his weight from one foot to another, looked contrite, and pushed the information request slip to and fro on the counter between us.
Why? I asked him.
Because those documents are sealed.
Yes, ma’am, he said.
I waited for further explanation, but none was forthcoming.
How do you mean, sealed? I said. Sealed by whom?
The federal government, ma’am, the tall man said.
Isn’t that illegal? I asked. Isn’t there a freedom of information act?
Not in this case, ma’am, he said.
And what is this case? I asked.
A case of national security, he said.
Of course I was stunned. National security? What could that mean? I must have just looked blankly at him a while. The woman who had first helped me and summoned the tall man stood next to him. They exchanged looks.
But, I began, even in the case of national security, don’t you release documents that are heavily edited, censored, you know – with the blacked out sections?
Not in this case, ma’am, the thin man said. The whole file is sealed.
File? The whole file? You have a file?
We don’t have it, ma’am.
Who has it? I asked.
The federal government, ma’am, the thin man said.
So who would I appeal to if I wanted to see these records? I asked.
Probably the Pentagon, ma’am, the thin man said.
We all three looked at the counter for a while. The thin man pushed the information request form I had filled out toward me with his finger. I picked it up.
I’m sorry, ma’am, he said. I would like to help you.
We would both like to help you, the woman said.
Okay, I said. I put the information request form in my pocket. Thank you anyway, I said.
On the drive back to Malibu I felt a little shaky and tried to concentrate on the road and traffic. The Santa Monica Freeway ended, and I turned north up the Pacific Coast Highway. I passed the Getty Museum, the Santa Monica Pier, the surf and turf restaurants. I passed people playing volleyball on the beach and riding their bikes up and down the coast.
A few days later, in an attempt to get away from myself, my demons and my highly monitored beach house, I gathered up some of my drawings, designs, and blueprints, lists and work orders, and brought them down to Paradise Cove. I ensconced myself in a booth in the diner there and gazed out at the water. There wasn’t much to Paradise Cove, just a paved parking lot complete with kiosk; the diner with its very good and reasonably priced fish burgers; a tiny wooden pier, tilted precariously uphill as it stretched out into the water, not quite clearing the incoming waves, furnished with only brass lamps and redwood benches; and a narrow stretch of beach at the edges, with glass and clapboard houses to the south, and an expensive trailer community on the cliff to the north.
So I slumped in the booth and looked out, anticipating my Mahi Mahi burger and club soda.
Ever been out on the pier at high tide? Ryan asked. He loomed above me, his thighs resting against the booth. The waves come up through the slats in the planks – see how it happens despite the fact that the pier slants up, away from the water?
Ryan, or the man who called himself Ryan, sat down opposite me in the booth. He pointed out the window at the pier.
I thought, I can escape the highly-monitored house but the demons follow. But, I really just want to be alone right now, is what I said.
You’re always alone, this Ryan said.
I thought about that. I had been alone since I had met Kate at Cross Creek Shopping Plaza and smelled Dylan’s Kouros cologne on her, since I had met Finn at the Adamson House pool and he had almost drowned me, and since the team of handsome young men had installed the surveillance and alarm system in my house.
Look – I began, I’m not alone. For one, you’re here. Secondly, we’re surrounded by other beach-going diners. Thirdly -
I stopped and started again. Thirdly, I said, I’m trying to work and you’re interrupting me again. I don’t know what Dylan or your narc boss told you – Mr. Ryan --
But Ryan didn’t give me the opportunity to finish. Obviously, I was about to lose my temper and I threatened to blow his cover in front of the other diners. He threw his hands up in his characteristic held-at-gunpoint manner, climbed out of the booth and skulked over to the bar a few feet away, where he installed himself and commanded a Tequiza with lime. I thought of the homemade signs hammered into the dilapidated wharfs at the surf beaches in Venice in the 70s: Locals Only.
The waiter brought my Mahi Mahi burger and club soda. I told her to give Ryan another Tequiza, with a shot of Jack Daniels, and put it on my bill. I wrote out a little note to go with it that said: No drinking on the job. Then I extracted the drawings, designs, and blueprints from my bag and began to pore over them. I tried not to glance over at the bar. So much room, I thought derisively. He’s afforded me so much room. If Los Angeles really is as big as of Rhode Island, you’d think there would be enough room, even pressed up against the ocean as we are.
I wasn’t really working. My architectural plans were just a ruse, a cover. I was really trying to figure out what my next move was. The Malibu beach house was wired to the hilt. The paintings and other art and antiques were being examined and tested. I couldn’t get any documents from City Hall. Should I really try the Pentagon as he suggested? Should I appeal to someone through the Freedom of Information act? Should I hire a lawyer? A private investigator? I tried to write down everything I knew from what had happened so far, but the pieces did not add up. And I did not want Ryan to see what I was writing.
After fifteen or twenty minutes, I relinquished the idea of trying to work things out in the Paradise Cove Diner with Ryan scrutinizing me from the bar, but instead of going back to the house and staying there, I walked home, passed immediately through the house from the beach to the street side, climbed into my Volvo and drove out to Dylan’s office, near the home he owned in the Hollywood Hills. I hadn’t been to either since I’d returned from Biarritz two weeks before. My idea was that if I was going to learn anything more I was going to have to be back in contact with Dylan again. As much as it might frighten me to be near him, or disgust me to sleep with a man who was sleeping with my best friend, I wouldn’t learn any more at this distance. I had to go back to work.
Dylan’s office contrasted subtle, old World, Mediterranean charm with unabashed California vanity. A bronze plaque to the left of the entry had Hutchinson International stamped in it. The tile and adobe façade, the adjoining terrace bloomed and scented with wisteria, the massive oak doors imported from Spain decorated in raised panels carved with conquistadors and family seals -- all these whispered Dylan’s brand: authenticity. Inside, the cool saltillo tile entryway that led to a carved eucalyptus stairway – one of only two in California, told you that you could have both style and history. That the building was an homage to Villa Montalvo was no accident -- the similarities went far beyond the fact that they were both rendered in the Mediterranean style, in particular, Spanish colonial. The office building was newer of course, and therefore lacked Villa Montalvo’s most extravagant flourishes: stone sphinxes, the filled-in pool, the pergolas and loggias, the acres of gardens with African baobab trees and Chilean cacti.
The interiors on the second floor impressed much like the outside of the building and its entryway; the glass walls and tile floors revealed the architects and designers discussing projects, striding through the halls armed with rolls of plans, blueprints, and artist renderings; lingering over renderings or swatches or color slabs, their hands pressed against their chins. We are serious, these offices said. We are dedicated; we are knowledgeable.
Here is what fascinates me: the mystery of desire, the messiness of need, complications in relationships that people create, the flashes of anger and ardor that cross a face, the unpredictability of want that will provoke hate, or anger that will trigger violence.
First I only appeared at the office to glean what the architects needed, and then later, to deliver my artist renderings; but once Dylan recruited me to serve as a manager on his restoration projects I began to come to the office more and more. At that time I hadn’t spent time around groups of people in a while, having painted for so many years after college in my studio alone. Working among people again was strange and disorienting at first; it was like having been exiled for many years from your country and suddenly being allowed to return.
On this particular day, I sat down at my project table and unpacked my bag again, layering the blueprints, photos and notes over the papers and drawings already there. I had locked the notes I had written at the Paradise Cove diner in the glove compartment of my Volvo, away from others’ eyes.
Before I could even get started Dylan came in. I had my back to the door and he entered quietly, but I could feel him whenever he was near. He has a charisma, a presence that extends outward from him a few feet in all directions. You feel it when he passes you in the hallway; it is as if something has gone through you.
First I wondered if Ryan had trailed me inland, up into the hills; perhaps he wasn’t just stalking me at the beach but following me everywhere. From there I extrapolated – what if he had called Dylan from his cell phone, and told Dylan that I had entered the building. Had Dylan really hired him as a private investigator to keep track of me? Or had he hired Ryan to watch me while he was with Kate, so he wouldn’t be caught?
The more obvious source was the people in the office itself. Information spread fast here; I wondered if they knew about Dylan and Kate. I wondered what else they knew, and how I could find it out from them.
Dylan rested his hand on my shoulder; then he sat down at my worktable and looked at me.
You see -- I wasn’t just myself to Dylan. I had been made responsible --not to him, not to do things, or even to be things -- but to stand for things. To Dylan, I embodied everything he loved about California: its absence of gloom, refusal to acknowledge its past, physical beauty -- bright and crisp and young like a newly-minted coin, its potential for art and culture free from the burden of history, complexity without gloom, speed, ingenuous and unabashed striving after success and fame, its hedonism, desire to enjoy life and sensual pleasures -- but without the European gloom and weight of history.
Why? I don’t know why. Sometimes imaginative people don’t understand you, so they invent you, which leaves two options: you can either go along and enjoy representing states, landscapes and ideas, or you can insist on being recognized and seen for only who you really are.
Dylan loved everything about Europe that could be found in California, but he did not miss Britain or the Continent. All that had been wrecked for him, first by his childhood – the ridicule, the somber atmosphere that insinuated itself into everything like a damp cold, like a bad smell; and then by the debacle of his first marriage. Perhaps if he’d grown up in Italy, Spain, or the south of France, in one of the hot countries among meridional people – but even then he wasn’t sure – even there you couldn’t escape the history, the classes. Perhaps if he had left sooner and never gone back.
He had confided these ideas to me -- both those he knew to be true and those he was unsure of. All he was really certain of was that in California he had discovered happiness, pleasure, beauty, and success. He even delighted in the traffic, smog, undrinkable water, and the high price of everything. And Kate, what was she responsible for? What did she stand for? What pleasure, enjoyment and peace did she provide?
Can I have a word? Dylan asked.
Of course, I answered.
He sat silent for a moment, staring down at the work on the table. Finn’s come, hasn’t he? Dylan said. He stood up and gazed out through the glass walls, the windows of my office.
I shouldn’t have sent you over there, he added. I should have gone myself to Biarritz. I should have ---
I wanted to snipe at him, say if he hadn’t sent me to Biarritz he wouldn’t have had any uninterrupted time with Kate, and ask him how Kate’s husband was got out of the way, but I didn’t. I was observing axiom two: Knowledge is power. I wasn’t going to tell him what I knew.
You can’t second-guess everything, I offered. For a moment I wondered if this were real regret, real contrition, but I knew that most likely it was another act for my benefit, another layer of deception. He had not offered any explanation.
You can anticipate, Dylan answered.
He folded his arms across his chest and scrutinized me. He seemed certain about the way things should be. I wished I were certain – about anything.
Sometimes you can’t even do that, I said.
Dylan stood behind me, and rested both of his hands on my shoulders; they were warm and heavy. Thankfully, he did not smell like Kate. You want something more dangerous, he said.
I smiled and almost laughed. This had been his constant refrain since we’d been married – that the twenty-year age difference was too much.
You were dangerous, I answered him.
You still are, I thought. More than I could ever have imagined before I went to Biarritz.
What are you thinking? Dylan asked. In our ten years of marriage he had never asked me that. I was thinking about him and Kate, of course.
I’m thinking about how dangerous you are, I said.
Don’t mock me.
I’m not, I said. I’m not mocking you.
Are you going to see him again? Dylan asked. Is he staying?
I don’t know, I answered. I so much wanted to mention Kate, to bargain. If you stop seeing Kate, I’ll stop seeing Finn. But I resisted. Axiom two, I told myself. Axiom two.
You don’t know much, Dylan said.
It seems that’s always been the case, I said.
The superior man changes like a panther
The inferior man molts in the face
Dylan’s house in the Hollywood Hills was luxurious, restrained, dignified. The living and bedrooms were vast and spacious, not cozy like the Malibu house, with glass walls that stretched floor to ceiling. Panoramic views of the Manzanita and scrub oak hills and the shimmering city beyond spread out on the other side of the windows. Dylan often stood before these landscapes mesmerized, watching the coyotes slink through the brush and the SUVs rush down the boulevards further away. After dark the sparkle of the city lights took on a life of its own.
I suppose you could say that this cubist light box was predictably furnished in a mid-century-modern-meets-industrial-loft style, with its Mies Van der Rohe tufted leather Barcelona chairs and daybed in the living room, (but in a cinnamon shade, not the traditional black), Rothko color-block paintings on the walls (my copies, not real – or so I thought until I went to Biarritz), Italian stainless kitchen with limestone counters, beehive bookshelves in the library, dedicated music room, dedicated gym, indoor and outdoor pools. The outdoor pool was sculpted with an infinity rim, leaving no border between water and sky. Sometimes it looked as if the thirsty coyotes were walking on water.
It was not easy to get the young men at the alarm and surveillance company to rig up the Hollywood Hills house. The house was in Dylan’s name, and even though we were married the surveillance company needed both names on the contract. I was at a loss to convince them, but somehow my art dealer in Beverly Hills worked it out for me. What did he tell them? Did he vouch for me? Or did he just give them cash?
It was late – almost midnight. I came inside the house, dropped my keys and bag down on the kitchen counter, thumbed through the pile of mail by the phone, and then trekked down the hallway to the bedroom, where Dylan slept. Luckily I did not smell Kate. And I did not smell Finn’s lemon verbena and lavender. For a moment there was only Dylan -- me and Dylan.
I wanted to stay up all night in the overstuffed reading chair, at a distance from him and watch him, but I was much more inclined to lie next to him, feel his warmth, listen to him breathe. If he felt someone next to him, maybe he would dream, maybe he would say something in his sleep. Maybe he would say something to Kate, or Colin, or Finn.
I climbed into bed next to Dylan and ran my hand along his back. Sometimes, when he was half asleep, my touch woke him when I did not intend it, but when I slept and Dylan touched me so I would wake up, he always meant to wake me. This gesture was bold in a way I had never experienced in other parts of my life – intimate: a risk taken, affection asked for and given, a question posed and answered. But that intimacy was gone now. I wondered if it had ever been real. I wondered if there had ever been a time when Kate had not been part of our lives. I knew there had never been a time when Finn had not been part of our lives – he preceded me.
After we made love I got up again, sat down in the overstuffed chair near the window, and looked out. I was surprised at how easy it was. You don’t stop loving someone because they’ve betrayed you, or because you find out you don’t know them at all. You should, but you don’t. I wondered how long it would take.
Dylan watched me. I wondered if he still loved me, if he had ever loved me. Sometimes I thought he had loved me the way you love your youngest child – the troubled one, the one who won’t conform, the one who is earns straight As in high school but by college inhales cocaine, crashes the family Volkswagen and allows her boyfriend to Saran-Wrap her naked to a tree during dormitory parties; the one you’re proud of for her beauty, verve and courage, but at the same time, given her lack of common sense and outlaw tendencies, you’re chronically reluctant to admit it.
You knew, I said.
Knew what? Dylan said.
In the Hitchcock movie Rebecca, Maxim confronts his first wife, the one he hates, in the little boathouse on the beach. She’s cheating on him; he’s convinced she’s pregnant with another man’s child; they argue; she antagonizes him; she trips, falls and hits her head. He hasn’t killed her or even pushed her, but she’s dead and he blames himself. He knows no one will believe him, so he stashes her corpse in her boat, sails it out a few meters, drives a small hole through the hull, and while the boat is sinking to the bottom of the cove, swims back to shore undetected. Later, after he’s remarried, he will be accused of murdering her.
You knew what I’d find in that villa in Biarritz, I said. You knew I’d meet Colin and Finn. You planned it; you set it up, you ---- Why?
How could I have known that? Dylan said, his eyebrows furrowing to points at his patrician nose.
I came back to the bed and sat down next to him. I stroked his head, looked him in the eye. You knew, I said.
We stayed like that for a long time, me stroking his hair, him allowing me. Dylan loved to be touched. His hair was long and steel gray then, and he wore it tied back in a ponytail.
In the morning after Dylan had left for work, I lingered over my coffee, watching the DVD of us making love that the surveillance system had recorded the night before. Despite feeling as if I had committed a crime, it was quite beautiful. I thought of sending it to Kate with some kind of cryptic note, but I resisted. I was determined to follow axiom two, Knowledge is power, and stop giving myself away.
Before Biarritz, sometimes I had slept alone at the Malibu house, weekends mostly. On the rare occasions when I had needed a block of time there, I had even stayed a month or two. Dylan hadn’t minded until Finn arrived. Since then I had spent the first two weeks of my time alone at the Malibu house, and after that less time with Dylan at the Hollywood Hills house, or at work than I would have usually spent.
I was a fitful sleeper. I might knock myself out with a snifter of Rémy Martin when I couldn’t sleep, but that only lasted a few hours. Then I’d wake up repeatedly in the middle of the night -- at 2am, 4am, 5am, 6am. I’d get up when the sun rose, and the ocean started to blaze from the glare, tinting the sand gold and reflecting a cerulean-blue light off the windows in the coast houses. The odd thing was, I could always tell what time it is within about fifteen minutes; I didn’t know why this was so.
I disliked being short on sleep – it made me ache all over as if I had the flu -- but I didn’t mind being awake in the middle of the night, when everyone else was sleeping. I enjoyed the sights and sounds. At the Hollywood-Hills house I noticed the way the moon and streetlights filtered a blotchy gray light through the trees, the azure pool light reflected undulating, rippling lines on the walls and ceilings of our bedroom. I listened to the dogs bark urgently in the distance and tried to gauge where the sound is coming from.
At the Malibu house I could always hear waves crashing and seals barking. Sometimes I could hear neighbors whisper on the sand, cars hum and rasp on the roads in our conclave.
A few nights after I played the du Maurier-esqe second wife to Dylan’s Olivier-esque murderous, unfathomable and secretive husband, I lay in bed in the Malibu house, and listened to the waves break and the seals bark from underneath the pier at Paradise Cove. In breezy weather you could hear them from as far as a mile out.
I listened as someone let herself in through the deck door; I heard the light, patient steps on the hardwood floors. I turned the alarm off before it started blaring, but kept the DVDs running. I would be able to see on the DVD how she had unlocked the door without a key.
Emma? I said.
I missed you so much, Emma said.
I wondered why. We had only met a few times in Biarritz. I loathed myself doubting the veracity of a sweet fifteen year-old girl.
She sat down on the bed next to me. I sat up.
I missed you too, Baby, I said. It was true enough. I was fond of her.
Have you seen Tati? Emma said.
Once or twice, I said.
I pushed the hair out of her eyes. She didn’t look older; after all, it had only been three weeks; but she seemed more confident, more earnest – old enough to have tried out the pretense of not caring (as teenagers are wont to do) and found that it was not often useful. Was she as deceptive as her three fathers? Do you know what he’s about? Emma said.
Not really, I said. Do you? We had both been exposed to Finn’s mystery and subterfuge; Emma had had her entire lifetime to understand it, I on the other hand had only had three weeks. Maybe she would tell me what she knew. Axioms one and two were in play. He was here to get the art back. Or he was here because it was too dangerous in France and Spain right now.
I’m clueless, Emma said. I knew we had to see you. I knew we’d come. Aside from that I haven’t an idea – except for one.
What’s that? I asked.
Oh, that maybe he’s bollocksed up something and he’s here to fix it, Emma explained.
I smiled at this -- she’s the perfect age, I thought. Whether she was lying or telling the truth, She’s the perfect girl -- the perfect daughter.
Will we ever be all together again? Emma asked.
Maybe, I said. Of course we were practicably all together right at that moment, but I understood what she meant, whether it was sincere or disingenuous.
Emma kissed me on the cheek and brushed back my hair as I had done with hers. She looked around the room. She seemed to want to wander around the beach house, and interrogate me about each piece of furniture, (Where did you come by it?), painting (Is it yours?), box on the tables (What is inside?)
Right then she said she had to go back, had to be careful. I kissed Emma on her forehead. She got up and exited as quietly and carefully as she had arrived. I heard her lock the deck door behind her. I turned the alarm system back on.
After Emma had left, I lay back down on the bed, turned over, and listened to the waves break against the beach. I pictured Emma running down the beach, her feet splashing the water, until she reached the house where Finn was waiting.
They all thought they were so wise, didn’t they. They all thought they were using me, using the wee one, the sweet Emma, the baby Emma to help them, and if I would just do a bit of this and that, here and there to make sure they could get what they wanted from each other, then everything would work out in the end. Bollocks. What a load of bollocks that was.
Yes, I knew that Tati loved me. I was the only one he’d ever loved besides his half-brother Colin. You can’t help but love a baby, unless you’re some kind of monster. Tati had raised me. But no one ever thought about what I wanted, did they? No one thought maybe I wasn’t so fond of games as they were, so fond of deception. No one thought that maybe I wanted something for myself, like a home, or a bloke, or to finish at the lycée, or to know something about my mum.
That’s right, my mum. Sometimes they called her Vanessa. Sometimes they called her Amélie. Sometimes they said she’d died in childbirth. Sometimes they said it was a motorcycle accident, but Finn wasn’t driving. Sometimes they said it was pellagra. Like people still keeled over from pellagra. You’d think I was daft.
No. It occurred to no one that maybe the sweet Emma, the dear wee one, would like to know about her mum. Would like to see photos of her mum. Would like to see letters from her mum. Her handwriting. Anything. Would like to know where she was born, a country, anything. Would like to know where she had grown up. What was my mum’s first boyfriend like? Who had been her first kiss? And the where and how of it? Was she pretty? Had she many blokes? What language did she speak? Did she have a regular life with a mum and da, or did she have a crazy life like mine? Was I her first-born? Did she love me?
Well, they can go on playing their silly games and claim it’s of international importance and all the misguided, delusional things they do; but, I am going to find out about me mum.
I may play along sometimes, but if I do, it’s only because I love Tati and Uncle Colin and I love the life we’ve had – and also because I think if I do I will find out about me mum.
That’s all. Really, that’s all. The rest of these wankers can kiss my ass. And I will smoke Gitanes, too – if I feel like it.
The next morning I walked straight out to the beach, with my usual cup of coffee. I needed some salt air before watching the DVDs. I wondered how busy a night it had been. I wondered if I could see how Emma had unlocked the sliding glass door. I wondered if Finn would be visible on the beach in the DVD, escorting her to the door and waiting to walk her back home. Then it struck me, had he come in the house with her? Had been searching the house while she was talking to me? I hadn’t heard any other noises. She hadn’t been with me for long. Was there something particular in the house he wanted to remove? If so, the tapes would show it.
Ryan came over to me and sat down next to me on the sand.
Escutcheon, I began. Soffit. Axiom three: pretend to play their game, but all the while, be playing your own. I had become someone I didn’t even recognize.
Balustrade, Ryan offered.
Palladian, I replied.
Crescendo, imbroglio, Corinthian, Ryan said, changing the subject – changing it back.
The neighbor who isn’t a neighbor, I answered.
I wondered who he was and what he knew. I wondered why he hadn’t called the police. Had Finn planted something in my house, rather than removing something?
I wondered why I disliked Ryan so much. He was like the corrupt priest, the child molester who counts on your silence, complicity, shame. He knew what my silence meant: either Finn was in the country, or I suspected Dylan of something.
Ryan tucked his legs up under him and looked out at the waves breaking. He didn’t behave like a priest; why did I feel complicit?
He said: What would you say about someone who is wanted by four different people but can’t live with any of them?
She’s careless, I answered and flicked the sand from the sides of my legs.
She? Ryan asked.
Four? I said.
Ryan watched me. What if she could keep them safe, he asked, all four of them?
I stared back at him. What was the point of this exercise, exactly?
I stood up, brushed the sand off of my arms and legs. How could she keep them safe, I asked Ryan, when she can’t even keep herself safe?
Of course the question was rhetorical. I trudged back into the house. I pretended I was headed for the kitchen telephone, and the front page of the address book, where I had scrawled the phone number for the Malibu Police. As always, I could feel Ryan’s eyes on me as he watched me go.
The DVD was inconclusive: Emma had come and left on her own. Finn did not appear to be with her. None of the exterior surveillance DVDs showed anyone but Emma outside the house. She used what appeared to be a standard burglar’s or locksmith’s set of tools to trip the latch on the sliding glass door and let herself in. She did not appear nervous, but she did seem a little chilly, in her thin sweatshirt. She did wear the hood up, whether from the cold or so as not to be identified, I didn’t know. She did check the computer before she came in to see me, but I hadn’t left anything on the computer that I didn’t want them to find.
So she was working for Finn -- that adorable, sweet, fifteen year-old girl. Was Finn really her father, then?
Toward midday, when I was sitting at the kitchen table watching the neighbors jog down the beach, Dylan came in from the street side and sat down across the table from me. I offered to pour him a cup of coffee, but he shook his head. I held my sandwich out to him, but he waved it away.
They need you at work, Dylan said to me. He looked out at the window, where he thought I was looking.
I miss them, and work, I told him. Of course I didn’t, not in the way that the phrase implied. Until recently I could basically have done without everyone and everything, except the ocean, painting, and Dylan. Since Biarritz, I needed to know which parts of my life were true and which weren’t.
That visit was a bit of a tease, Dylan said. He kept his eyes fixed on the beach scene beyond the window: barefoot young women dressed in low-slung jeans with wide leather belts and spaghetti-strap tank tops, their midriffs revealed in between; Jack Russell terriers poised in mid flight, their jaws open to catch a spinning Frisbee just beyond their reach.
I took a bite of my sandwich. Now there’s something you’ve never accused me of, I said.
I always thought my life would follow a totally predictable straight line: the painter who enrolls in college, art school, studies in Europe, procures some passable job to support her art, falls in love, paints in obscurity, cleaves to the ocean -- nothing more, nothing less.
Dylan shifted in his seat, crossed his legs, and folded his hands into his lap. He tore his gaze away from the beach finally, and watched me carefully while I ate my sandwich. After a few minutes of this, Dylan uncrossed his legs and leaned in toward the table between us.
I don’t fancy a row, he said; but of course I prefer you home, where I can look after you.
He took my napkin from me and wiped the corner of my mouth with it. He pushed my hair back with his fingertips, the way I had to Emma the night before, and she to me.
I know, I said. I sipped my coffee and regarded him skeptically. Before, I had never I had never known he was lying to me. He wanted me at his house to watch me, not to look after me. I wanted to ask him how he would see Kate so readily if I were at the Hollywood Hills house, but of course I didn’t.
I marked the day I found out Dylan was sleeping with Kate as the moment I began to stop loving him. I wondered if he felt the same about me – and he had begun to lose his love for me when he found out I had slept with Finn. What would replace this lost love? What would remain? Would we stay in the marriage? And why did Kate matter in the face of guns, terrorists, a fifteen year-old girl and my husband mixed up somehow in the middle of it all.
Do you want me to beg? Dylan said.
It wouldn’t be like you, I said.
Wouldn’t it? Dylan said.
I thought about what he must have been like in his twenties, before age and silence had afforded him both mystery and dignity: some gangly, awkward Dylan with disheveled hair and pleading eyes. If you couldn’t imagine someone’s younger self you knew immediately that you were in danger.
Is that who I am to you, then? Dylan asked.
I put down my sandwich. Dylan, I said, did you and your first wife ever have a child?
You know we didn’t, he answered. We didn’t want children.
Did she have a child with someone else? I asked.
I hardly think so, Dylan said.
How did she die?
Cancer, Dylan said. We’ve discussed this -- many times. What’s going on?
I looked out at the beach one more time, then stood up from the table and brought my plate and coffee mug to the kitchen sink.
Sometimes I feel like Sophie, I said.
It was true. Sometimes I did feel like Sophie: under water instead of beside it, old instead of young, washed ashore in some strange land instead of in my own country, alone instead of among friends, able to see out but unable to see in -- and trapped, always trapped.
Sorry? Dylan said.
Ever feel like you got caught in the current and washed up on the wrong coast? I asked.
Never, Dylan answered. He stood up and came to me in the kitchen.
I rinsed off the dishes and dried my hands with a towel and wondered how I had transformed into the second wife.
I turned to him and leaned back against the counter. So is Ryan your invention? I asked.
Ryan? Dylan said.
Did you send him over here to watch me?
I don’t know any Ryan, Dylan said. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
To be powerful in the cheekbones
A few days after I accused Dylan of hiring Ryan to follow me, I returned to Dylan’s office.
I tucked my portfolio under my arm, and wondered what exactly I was trying to signal by this style of return. My coworkers’ surprise registered on their faces; but they were good natured and sympathetic. Credit Dylan, his British dignity and reserve, and his natural elegance, for setting the tone.
What would you say if I come back to work? I asked. I set my portfolio down on the table.
Superb, Dylan said. Quite good. I have a job you’ll fancy. He laid the papers down next to my portfolio. One of the original Rancho Boca houses in the Santa Monica hills, he explained. I opened the folder and scanned the pages inside, pretending not to notice how intensely he was watching me. I began to feel crowded, claustrophobic; I shifted my weight from one leg to another; eventually I gave up and sat down.
You’re coming home then? Dylan asked.
He meant to his cubic glass and steel house in the Hollywood Hills. Since Colin and Finn had appeared I still had not stayed there for any length of time. I had come in to pick up the paintings to be tested, and to get the house wired for surveillance, and left again. That was all.
I don’t know, I said, maybe.
Dylan looked around, searching for the answer in a concrete object, something within the room. Solutions to problems could be grasped in the hands, as well as the head and heart.
I wish there were something to say, Dylan said, something to do.
Isn’t there? I asked. Sorry? Dylan said.
Tell me the truth, I said, closing the folder.
The facts? Dylan asked, or the truth?
Isn’t it the same thing? I said. I thought about Picasso: Art is the lie that tells the truth.
Is it? Dylan asked. He sat down at the worktable next to me, grabbed my arm, and looked me in the eyes. The truth is, Dylan said, you’re the most important thing to me. He let go of my arm.
And the fact is, I said, there’s something between you and Finn.
I stood up from the worktable, and stuffed the file for the Rancho Boca house in Santa Monica into my portfolio. I’m going to start this now, I said, gesturing toward the portfolio. I walked to the door and stopped there, turned back to him and leaned my hand on the doorjamb, resting my cheek on my hand.
I don’t know who you are, I said.
Yes, you do, Dylan said. You know exactly who I am -- you always have.
When I arrived at the Rancho Boca adobe with my briefcase and portfolio, my cell phone, and my desire to obliterate all personal ties. I did not see Finn among the workmen repairing the adobe, replacing tile, shoring up the foundation and rebuilding the chimney. But Finn saw me.
The clients met me out on the walkway, as it was too noisy to talk inside the house. I unrolled blueprints and pulled out samples. The homeowners bent their heads around my ideas and suggestions, my swatches, sample tiles and stones. We took a turn around the exterior, and I pointed out the damaged tile and cracked adobe. When we were finished, I shook hands with them and the clients retreated into their historically significant house, full of worry about costs and hopes of legitimacy and fair dealing.
Finn was waiting for me at the car. I already saw a pattern: one of us always possessed a means of flight (a boat, car, train, airplane), and we always shared the glamorous backdrop of a sea or an ocean. I opened the rear car door, tossed my briefcase and portfolio on the back seat, and slammed the door shut. I unlocked the driver door. Something always pursued me: a man, my obligations, responsibilities, memories; my unrealistic expectations for myself, my own demons. Even up against the sea as I was, up against my own self-loathing, I could not get away.
I was trying to get back to normal, I said to Finn.
Then I turned up, he said.
And Colin, I added.
In truth I had wanted them to come. I hoped it would lead to a confrontation among the men. I was convinced it was the only way I would find out anything about my husband’s past. No one would reveal anything in calm conversation; the art testing and surveillance was only yielding a limited amount of information.
I opened the driver door and lobbed my cell phone over to the passenger seat. I turned around and stood facing him, my hand resting on the top of the doorframe. I thought about all the men who took these situations for granted when they were in them, who sought them out, who thought they were a matter of course, a privilege, some type of dual life they were entitled to. But I didn’t want a dual life, I already had too much push and pull, torn between my job and my own artwork, who I was and who I wanted to be, the life I had had and the life I wanted. I didn’t want to be involved with more than one man, or live with one, desire another, and be preoccupied by a third. I had wanted to be loved and happy, but also free.
If things were starting to get back to normal you wouldn’t still be sleeping at the beach house, Finn said.
I’m going back, I said.
And to where might you be going back? Finn asked.
Home, I insisted.
And where might this mythical home be? Finn asked.
Dylan’s, I answered. I don’t know why you came here, or Colin.
I sat down in the driver’s seat, shut myself inside the car, and buzzed the window down. I knew why I wanted Finn and Colin there but I still hadn’t reasoned out why they had come. The artwork? A safe haven when the situation heated up in Biarritz? Did they need to see Dylan? Get Emma out of France?
I don’t want to be wrong about you, Finn said, about us.
Do you and Dylan have an arrangement to hide your Basque Separatist trainees and your guns in his houses in France? I asked.
Finn stood there for a while and considered me through the open car window. Then he bent forward and rested his hands on the sill. This is a question you should be asking Dylan, he said.
I’m asking you, I said.
For a short time in Biarritz I had a home, Finn said. Emma had a home. That home was you.
I started the car engine. You’re not making sense, I said.
Bollocks, Finn said. I thought you wanted to see me.
I did, I answered.
Emma wanted to see you, Finn said. Some things have to be made right in person, face-to-face.
And Colin? I asked.
Colin’s his own man, Finn said. He lifted his hands from the car and stepped back.
Colin’s your brother, I said.
He told you that? That tosser! Finn said. Then he laughed, folding his arms up against his chest. He twirled around in a circle, bending his leg at the knee as he went, as if he might begin to dance.
I don’t know what to do, Finn, I continued, playing along. I don’t know what you want.
Finn stepped toward the car again and leaned down to me. We all see things in you, Finn said, – Emma, Dylan, Colin, and me. We all notice things in you that you can’t see.
I glared at him and put the car in gear. Finn backed up again. I drove up the coast to the cottage in Malibu. What things, I thought. What?
How long was I going to wait? How long was I going to let Finn bollocks everything, before I stepped in and took over, took control of things? If you have a baby brother, ten years younger, for whom you feel responsible, perhaps you understand my frustration. Sometimes I wondered if I should have brought him in to this business at all. What was I thinking? Of course, I could keep an eye on him, watch out for him, but he was in a hundred times more danger than if I’d just left him alone to be a surfer or a bank clerk, or a salesman. If he had some regular job at least he’d know there wasn’t a bomb, or guns, or fugitives in the boot of his car.
And then Finn, he is so utterly predictable, and so unpredictable at the same time. I should have known that somewhere down the line there would be another Vanessa, another cock-up of this sort, I shouldn’t have let him go on. How could I have let him go on?
Sometimes I thought Finn wanted to ring off, but I didn’t ask him. I didn’t want him to have a row about it, or have him think I was trying to suggest it, push him out, break up the happy little family. I worried too, that if I mentioned it, he would go in the opposite direction just out of spite or obstinacy. And of course, I couldn’t bear to part with the baby Emma. So we stayed on, not changing things.
But fifteen years pissed away. The little Emma became a teenager and went to the lycée in Biarritz. She would go to university soon, be on her own. I was almost lulled into believing that despite his reckless nature, he wouldn’t veer off too far, wouldn’t become to dangerous to himself or the rest of us. We had developed, not a routine – for it was never routine – but at least a way of doing things. Maybe I became complacent –I don’t know.
Then Finn met Gabriela.
It was too dangerous to walk on the beach at night, but once it was dark I set out. At night I could walk without being watched. I had given up handball in college so I wouldn’t be watched. I had been reluctant to take up painting and sculpting for the same reason. I didn’t like anyone to watch me – not walking the beach, not painting, working, or driving, not making a fool of myself or worse with three men who obviously knew each other much better and much longer than I had known any of them, even my own husband.
It was late, almost midnight and there was a moon when I left the house through the sliding glass door, set the alarm and proceeded up the beach. I walked as far as Paradise Cove and out onto the empty pier. It was the only one I knew of along this stretch of coast that had nothing on it -- no restrooms, concession stands, or restaurants – just wood railings, the occasional bench, and a few scattered lights.
I stood on the empty pier, gazed into the vast expanse of water, up the coastline and concession stand. Concessions. Conceding. Conceded. Concede. I stand here and I concede that you ----
So you know it, Ryan said. He was standing behind me with his arms crossed over his chest – the poster boy for smug condescension.
Know what? I said. My heart pounded against my throat. I should have known he would show, that I was going to meet him, but still, I had not seen him coming. I bent over and put my hands on my knees to get my breath back.
That feeling of standing on the pier with the waves coming up through the planks, Ryan explained.
Yes, I do now, I said.
I didn’t think you were listening, Ryan complained.
I stood up again and looked out at the water then back at him, at the water, at him. Did Dylan hire you? I asked.
Hire me? Why would he hire me? Ryan said. I’m not an expert.
On what? I asked.
Architecture, Ryan asked.
What is your expertise? I asked.
Ryan turned and stared at the ocean. Oh, I don’t know, he said. Negotiating. Solving problems. Finding the solution that benefits the most people and damages the least.
A divorce lawyer, I said.
Ryan laughed. No, he said.
A smokescreen, I said.
No, Ryan said, still laughing.
Did he hire you to watch me? To follow me?
No, Ryan said again.
Well then stop, I insisted. And change those shoes.
I can’t, Ryan said softly, lowering his eyes, examining those ridiculous penny loafers he wore with the absurd tassels. He almost sounded contrite, apologetic.
Why not? I asked.
I just can’t, Ryan answered. He shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged.
Are you mixed up in this? I asked.
Ryan strolled past me, up the pier to the railing and then came back again. He seemed to be considering his options, but what were his options? Tell the truth? That was never an option.
You are mixed up in it, Ryan said. Maybe you didn’t want to be. But now you are.
Are you a cop? I asked.
Do you need one? Ryan said.
No, I said.
A divorce lawyer? Ryan asked.
No, I said.
What do you need?
I guess I need to see my way clear, I told him. I was not inclined to tell him the truth. After all, he was a part of Dylan and Finn’s imbroglio, in some way I had yet to understand. Plus, he was following me, and I didn’t like him. I never had. I thought perhaps when I learned the whole story I would understand why.
Ryan nodded. He paced again. We all need that, he said. He tried to lay his hand on my shoulder, but I began to back up. I thrust my right arm out. I shoved my left hand into my pocket and clutched my canister of mace.
Get off me, I said. I walked to the end of the pier and onto the sandy beach. I didn’t turn around to look back. I couldn’t hear footsteps over the sound of the waves. I felt his eyes on my back; as usual, he was watching me go.
He who considers the mouth important
falls into perplexity
Dylan had never liked P.F. Chang’s, but he went there to please me. There was something not very Chinese and very Californian about P.F. Chang’s that bothered Dylan. Maybe it was that the artwork hung low on the walls and each painting had an identifying plaque affixed next to it, like in a gallery. Maybe it was that under the chic and trendy halogen lighting everyone appeared more sophisticated than they actually were, or that the distinct and conspicuous lack of anything red screamed rebellion -- he wasn’t sure.
Colin and Finn sat down at a table behind Dylan and me. Since Biarritz, they had shadowed me, turning up at beaches, houses, hotels, even airports, sometimes alone, sometimes together, but always in that Irish, I’ve –seized-the-moral-high-ground way -- an attitude that Americans never could seem to credibly adopt. I tried to lose them when I was on the way to the art dealer’s but I could never be sure if I had.
Ryan sat down at a third table, where he had an unobstructed sightline to all of us. So we’re all accounted for, I thought. Dylan sat with his back to them, and didn’t know they were there behind him; I was facing them, so I had the dinner-long assignment of trying not to stare.
The bus boy brought us two glasses, each filled with ice, water and a lemon wedge affixed to its rim.
Bad for glass, Dylan remarked, winking at me. Dylan rarely winked. I wondered if it was some signal to Finn and Colin. I wondered if they could see his reflection in the window.
What? I said and sipped my water.
Remember? Dylan asked, in Chinatown? The gardener in the backyard at the Mulray’s house? Bad for glass?
One of Dylan’s favorite movies: Chinatown. Embedded in the movie’s plot, a scam to raise the value of land by illegally diverting water to it, and illegally purchasing that land at “cut rate” prices, using the names of dead people from the Mar Vista retirement home. Mar Vista – sea view.
So what was their scam? Dylan, Ryan, Colin and Finn? And how did I figure into it? And what didn’t they want me to find out?
Saltwater, it’s bad for the grass, I quoted.
That’s right, Dylan said. He raised his water glass to me. Here’s looking at you Kid, he recited, and drank. It sounded odd with Dylan’s British accent and minus Bogart’s numb and paralyzed upper lip. I wondered if people who could successfully imitate Bogart had discovered a way to immobilize their upper lip. I pulled experimentally on mine.
Casablanca. Now you’re mixing your movies, I warned him.
Mixed movie, mixed metaphor, Dylan said. He winked at me again.
I looked at the window reflections again, trying to gauge what Finn and Colin could see. Chinatown: the entire movie was about water: tap, rain, ocean, and saltwater. Set in Los Angeles, where I had grown up, where developers had razed orange and walnut groves and built the housing tracts over their root systems, stealing the water from dams in the north to supply the new neighborhoods -- it was my story, sort of. Or at least I had thought of it that way – before Biarritz.
My sister, my daughter --- my sister and my daughter, I quoted.
Oh, stop now, Dylan said.
Except he slaps her around a few times then, I said.
I thought of Finn and swallowing water in the pool, feeling pushed down, held under, choked, drowning; I thought of the Orca, his unsuspecting and loving trainer. But the Orca was wild and he was trapped. Bad combination. If you find yourself between the mother bear and her cub you are lost. Make yourself large. Axioms one, two and three: put them in play.
It was set in the forties and he was a detective. Dylan reminded me, as if this were syllogistic. If it’s the forties, and you’re a detective, then you hit women.
I had never felt that particular kind of panic before Finn held be down in the pool. I had never felt betrayed until I smelled Dylan’s Kouros on Kate.
It was Nicholson, I said.
A similar thing had happened to him – the woman he believed was his mother was really his grandmother, his sister really his mother. He didn’t find out until long after he made the movie, or that’s what the bio-documentaries claimed.
And he was shagging the director’s daughter, Dylan said, the trag shag.
That too, I said. In the new British slang, which Dylan took every opportunity to use, trag shag meant the strategic shag or lay, sleeping with someone to gain an opportunity.
What is it? Dylan said.
And he didn’t find out until long after, I answered.
Oh stop now, Dylan repeated.
The waiter came and we ordered. Dylan wanted the peanut chicken, and I asked for the prawns in the garlic cilantro sauce. I thought about the water – some of it was in our glasses, in pipes under the ground, some contained in sparkling chlorinated pools in backyards, or small, unchlorinated koi ponds in backyards, even effervescent hot springs further north in the Sierra Nevada.
Finn caught my eye. I was trying not to glance at any of them, lest Dylan notice and turn around. Finn winked at me and then inclined his head toward Ryan.
I don’t know where we’re going, I told Dylan.
Dylan sat back in his chair and put his hands on the table as if his food was being served, but it wasn’t. And where would you like to go? he asked.
The waiter arrived. He placed the saffron rice, peanut chicken and cilantro garlic prawns in the middle of the table, so we could share. He cradled the white porcelain serving spoons along the edges of the whiter, oblong plates. The busboy stopped and refilled our water glasses.
We can’t, Dylan said after the waiter and busboy had both left.
I knew that. I scooped a mound of rice into my bowl, and heaped some prawns on top of that.
What does Finn have on you? I asked.
Dylan slid some rice on his plate, some peanut chicken next to it, and a few of my garlic prawns beside that. He used his fork. He did not subscribe to the Californian approach to restaurant dining.
He has you, Dylan answered.
Before me, I said.
It’s nothing, Dylan said.
We ate for a while; drank water; occasionally we at each other. Is Emma your child? Your wife’s child?
Dylan drank more water. He sat back and stared at me. You’re my wife, he said.
Your first wife’s child, I said.
I can’t speak to that, Dylan said.
Can’t speak to that, I thought. Can’t speak to that. He should have been in politics. He should have been a diplomat, Ambassador to Brazil -- something. Who knew, maybe he was. I glanced over at Colin and Finn’s table, but they had gone. I looked at Ryan’s table, but it too was vacated.
Expecting anyone? Dylan asked. He did not turn around to look.
No, I said. I wondered if he had seen them leave, watched their reflection in the aluminum teapot.
Dylan pushed his plate away; it was empty. There was something pathetic about the gesture. He dropped his napkin next to his plate.
Look here, he said, why don’t you try this: come home. Let things sort themselves out. He twisted his fingers into the napkin. Trust in things to sort themselves out.
Trust you? I asked.
Why not? Dylan said.
The bus boy arrived and took our plates and left me with three perfectly white, perfectly square cardboard cartons in which to house the remaining food.
Can I? I asked. Trust you?
I think you can, Dylan answered. You must.
Are you going to end up in jail? I asked.
Dylan sat back again. Unlikely, he said. No.
I threw my napkin on the table. I scooped the remaining food into the three cartons, folded the lids and tucked in their tiny flaps. I arranged the boxes in a circle, like a bouquet, and then into a line in front of me.
You could know everything – I could be utterly transparent, and you wouldn’t understand it any better, Dylan said
I stacked the boxes on top of each other. Then I straddled two boxes and placed a third on top. They became a pyramid, a miniature tower. I thought about the possibilities of making architectural models out of cardboard takeout cartons: so neat, so clean, so off-white.
Do you ever feel like a door has shut on a part of your life, I said, and you can’t get it open again, even if you wanted to?
In the middle of the table, the waiter set down a plate with two oranges slices, and a black billfold with the check inside. Dylan reached for the billfold. He slipped his credit card inside, tucking it in the plastic pocket, so the card was visible at the top of the billfold. He left the whole contraption at the edge of the table, his hand resting over it, his fingertips following its crenelated ridge.
Dylan and I sat at the maple table by the window in the Malibu house, eating our almond croissants.
Dylan poured a glass of orange juice from a pitcher. I looked outside, through the window, at the play of light that blinded you.
In some landscapes the sunlight, or even the moonlight refracting off the sea is so bright that it causes residents to become dizzy and disoriented. Sometimes it provokes panic attacks or claustrophobia. The Eskimos call this kayak sickness; they say you can die from it.
A franc for your thoughts, Dylan asked, even though there were no coins of any nationality playing between his fingertips.
Overpaying, again, I answered.
It’s from Casablanca, he explained.
I know, I said. I held up my orange juice glass and recited: No Rick, I won’t come back, because you see, Victor Lazlo is my husband, and was when I met you in Paris.
Is that what he had wanted me to tell Colin and Finn when they came back? Or had they come back for his benefit, not mine?
Dylan smirked, knocked his glass against mine and drank.
I was thinking about the parakeet we had when I was growing up, I lied.
Why the parakeet? Dylan asked.
I liked it when Dylan was curious about me.
He was green and yellow, I explained, a little thing -- no bigger than three inches. He used to say, Orange juice, please. May I have some orange juice, please.
What else did he say? Dylan asked.
I shrugged. I had been very young then, and that was all I remembered.
Dylan tossed the last croissant from his plate onto mine, stood up from the table, and carried his empty plate and glass into the kitchen. I watched him go. Before Biarritz I had wondered why he seemed elegant, sophisticated and mysterious to me, even at his most mundane moments, even after ten years of marriage.
Dylan returned to the table empty-handed. He stood next to me and ran his fingers through my hair. I leaned back against him, not taking my eyes off the water, the bright light. Would he choke me? Break my neck? Smother me? In front of the windows? The surveillance cameras? Had it come to that?
You fancy seawater, but you can’t drink it, Dylan said.
I can float in it, I said. It makes me buoyant. I thought about Finn and the pool.
He grabbed my shoulders and shook me. Here it comes, I thought.
And I can watch it, I said. It calms me down.
You’re daft, Dylan said. And what’s more, you’ll go blind.
I already am, I said.
Dylan kissed the top of my head and retreated to the kitchen. There would be no smothering or strangling, or breaking of necks – not today, anyway. He placed the pitcher of orange juice in the refrigerator, and began washing the dishes. I crept up behind him at the sink and wrapped my arms around his waist. I squeezed him. Then I put my hands over his eyes. Had he ever been frightened, I wondered. Had he been near death? Had he ever feared for his own safety. Was he vulnerable? Was his own life in danger?
I’m blind, I’m blind! he offered.
Garden of the Finzi Continis, I said.
Just so, he answered.
I let my hands drop from his eyes and leaned my head on his back. Secretly, I listened to his heartbeat.
I wish we could stay here like this, I suggested.
You’d get bored, he answered.
No -- you would, I told him.
That’s the problem with men, I complained. We bore you.
Dylan dried his hands on a towel and turned around. He rested his arms on my shoulders and watched at me, his head bent a little.
You’re endlessly fascinating to me, I asserted. I could live here just like this, and never get bored.
That’s the beach, the ocean, Dylan said, not me.
But I’d be restless here alone without you, I whined. I am.
And you’d be bored if I did nothing else but walk the beach with you, feed you almond croissants and force you to drink orange juice.
I thought again about force. I thought about the surveillance cameras, what they could record. I thought for a moment.
And ask me about the parakeet, I added.
Yes, and that, he conceded. He wrapped his arms around me.
You and the ocean, I said, that’s enough.
I wanted the rest of it to go away.
You know it isn’t, Dylan said, but it’s sporting of you to say so. He kissed me on the nose.
I was thinking about how I did not consider myself to be sporting, when Emma burst in to the room. Uncle Dylan! Uncle Dylan, she whispered. She hugged him.
Dylan took her face in his hands. She smiled at him. Then he stepped back and considered her, taking her in. He shook his head and hugged her again.
Emma went to the window and looked out. She shielded her eyes against the sun. Dylan and I followed.
Uncle Dylan? I said to myself.
Emma beamed at Dylan. He glared at me and sat down at the table, tapping on the wood with his fingertips. He seemed beleaguered, resigned; he appeared harried, like a man whose past had caught up to him.
Uncle Dylan? I repeated aloud.
She remembers you, Finn remarked to Dylan. Finn was in the kitchen, leaning against the wall, watching us.
I wondered why the alarm hadn’t gone off. He must have turned it off. Or Dylan had. Someone knew about the alarm system. Someone knew the code. Already. Had they disabled the surveillance cameras as well?
Dylan gazed out the window at the sea. Of course she does, he said.
Colin swept past Finn into the dining room. One big happy family, he announced. He hugged me and tousled Emma’s hair. How long has it been? he asked.
Ten years, Dylan answered, still looking out the window.
The year he married me, I thought.
I was five, Emma added. She went to the table and sat down across from Dylan. They stared at each other, and reached across the table to hold hands. Dylan smiled at her, and then turned his attention back to the sea.
Colin put his arms around me. I tried to push him away. Dylan kept looking out the window. I searched my memory but could not remember when he had been away from me for any length of time right before we married.
Finn stayed in the kitchen, still leaning against the wall. They all seemed so familiar with the house. I realized they’d all been there before, individually, to see me; now they had come collectively, to see Dylan. And now they were familiar with the alarm system. Or one of them was.
We’re going back, Colin told Dylan. We won’t be using your houses anymore.
Or my women, Dylan added.
Or your women, Colin affirmed. He still had his arms around me. Was this the time? The death grip? The mother bear’s suffocating embrace?
Gabriela’s coming with us, Finn offered from the kitchen. He shifted his weight, but remained leaning against the wall, watching Colin.
Dylan turned around finally, and glared at them both. He stood up and walked toward them. No she’s not, he said.
I thrashed again, and this time Colin let me go. I went at sat at the table with Emma. When I passed Dylan I stared at him. He stared back at me. Emma reached her hand across the table to me and I took it.
I realized I needed more than an art dealer to test my paintings and a surveillance system. I needed a private investigator. And self defense classes.
Ask her, Finn said, nodding toward me.
I longed for the ability to see things impartially, the way they really were -- to know the truth, or at least to know where I stood. Barring that, I longed for the ability to judge without hope or fear, without my own personal history of loss and guilt obstructing my view and clouding my reason.
You blame me, don’t you, Dylan asked Finn.
Yes, I do, Finn answered, but he did not leave the kitchen. Colin was standing between them.
And so you make me pay, Dylan continued.
Blame you for what? I asked. I relinquished Emma’s hand and stood up from the table. I paced around and among the three men, who were now all watching each other as if Emma and I were no longer in the room.
You just don’t want to admit there’s never much of a reason, Colin remarked, keeping himself between Finn and Dylan.
I continued to pace. Emma stayed in her seat. Emma, the Wise, I thought.
Never a reason for what? I asked.
For anything, Colin answered. He had not taken his eyes off Dylan.
For what we all do to each other, Dylan answered. He was watching Colin now, and occasionally, Finn.
Who? I asked. I thought about the years –(how many?) – when they were in each other’s lives, and I was not. I was off somewhere (Paris, art school, college) alone, carefree if you discount poverty and terror, with no idea that they even existed.
Everyone, Dylan answered. He motioned with his hand for Emma, who sprung up and went to his side, leaning against him. Dylan put his arm around her. She kissed his cheek and gazed up at him adoringly.
I knew that look from the inside out; I knew what if tasted, and smelled like. I knew what it felt like breathing in.
Sure, there are reasons, I began.
Revenge, Colin offered.
Hatred, Dylan said.
Malice, Finn mumbled from the kitchen. He was tossing a pear now; he took a bite out of it.
I tried to remember when Finn had left the wall to grab the pear. I looked past Finn, deeper into the kitchen, where Ryan stood, leaning his hips against the sink. When he saw that I had noticed him, he came and stood behind Finn. Finn set the half-eaten pear on the counter, and linked his hands together behind his back. A policeman came in behind Ryan and handcuffed Finn.
Several policemen charged in. The alarm did go off then. Ryan must have reset it after he had come in? Why? He motioned for me to go and turn it off.
One of the officers handcuffed Dylan, another Colin. Dylan and Colin kept staring at each other, even as the cops took them by the arm and led them toward the front door.
Like a child’s staring contest, I thought, to see who will look away first. But I didn’t believe other grown ups still felt like children – only me. Dylan had warned me many times – it is dangerous to think you were the only one who is vulnerable. I knew it. I believed him. But I had not rid myself of the habit. I wondered if I could do that now. Recent events had made me more aware of my own vulnerability, not more aware of others’ - - except perhaps for Emma’s.
Ring up the lawyer, Dylan shouted at me. Have him make bail.
Stay here with Gabriela, Finn told Emma.
The policemen escorted Dylan, Colin and Finn outside.
Ryan stayed in the house, smirking at Emma and me
Ryan appeared contrite, almost guilty. He opened his mouth to speak and raised his hand toward us, then stopped, and expelled his breath. He had suddenly deflated.
The phone rang. I assumed it was the alarm company. Ryan motioned for me to answer it. I assured them that everything was under control. After I had hung up the phone I asked Ryan,
So you’re a cop?
No, Ryan answered. He returned to the kitchen sink and leaned his back against it. Then he twirled around and poured himself a glass of tap water. Emma and I exchanged furtive glances. No one who lived in Los Angeles drank tap water.
C.I.A.? I asked.
Something worse, Ryan answered.
Whatever is it? Emma asked. Do tell us. Quite.
But Ryan shook his head.
Emma rushed to the front door, gripped the jamb and watched as the police cars sped away, their sirens wailing and lights whirling; Finn, Colin and Dylan slouched in the back seats, handcuffs chaffing their wrists.
Ryan sat down at the dining room table. I followed him. This time it was Ryan who shielded his eyes from the glare off the water. I watched him, wondering what, if anything, I knew about my life with Dylan up to this point was true.
So Emma was the fourth? I asked.
Fourth what? Ryan asked.
The fourth person you wanted me to keep safe.
Maybe, Ryan remarked.
I went into the kitchen and poured two glasses of bottled water. I dropped ice into them. Emma had followed me in. She hugged me, then wandered down the hall somewhere -- probably to my room. To disable the surveillance equipment? To watch the DVDs? To check my computer again? That had to be the worst part – suspecting a fifteen year-old girl. But hadn’t she given me cause?
I brought the glasses of water to Ryan and set them on the table, but I did not sit down with him. How long will they be in jail? I asked.
Colin and Finn will be extradited back to France, Ryan answered. Dylan will be held overnight. He’ll be released tomorrow afternoon. He sipped his water, watching me replay the events in my mind.
That gives you some time, Ryan said.
Is anybody going to tell me what just happened? I asked.
Ryan shrugged. He lathered the air with his hands.
So no one’s going to tell me what’s going on? I repeated.
The only one who could is Dylan, Ryan answered, and he won’t. Well, he’s agreed not to.
Agreed? I said. With whom?
I was still standing over Ryan. He motioned with his finger for me to sit down and pushed my water glass toward me. I swatted at it, but I could not make that water glass or what had just happened go away.
Do you know him? I ventured.
I wouldn’t say I know him, Ryan said. Only you know him.
I laughed. Clearly that was furthest from the truth.
Is Finn blackmailing Dylan? I asked.
Ryan sipped his water and looked out at the glare. He looked up at me and smirked. Then he shrugged again.
So I’m never going to know? I asked.
I think you know, Ryan answered. Maybe you’ll just never be certain.
And that’s better for whom? I asked. I sat down at the table. I didn’t want to reveal how wrong he was, how little I had reasoned out.
Ryan stood up and pushed the chair away with the backs of his thighs. For everyone, he answered. He bent down, kissed me full on the lips, and left the house.
Oppression at the hands of the
man with the purple knee bands
I wiped off my mouth with the back of my hand, and drank some water. Unwelcome kiss with a water chaser. I stared out the window. Emma had left the house again. She was out there now, on the beach, sitting in the sand. I held my fingers up to the window and measured how large Emma was at this distance – about three inches. I thought about things that were about that size: the width of a Gerber daisy, the forearm of a squirrel, the width of my own wrist, the length of my own thumb or of an AA battery, the average thickness of a paperback book, or in particular, Aeschylus’s Oresteia, in the Oxford edition, or of, for that matter, a ham sandwich.
I poured Emma a glass of bottled water, tossed in the ice, grabbed a pair of sunglasses off the kitchen counter, and brought them out to her.
Emma squinted up at me, and accepted the sunglasses and water glass. I sat down next to her. She had her legs tucked up under her chin, her arms wrapped around her shins.
If Tati doesn’t come back, Emma began; can I stay here with you?
Of course you can stay here with me, I answered. I pushed the girl’s hair out of her eyes. Such pretty, silky, straight hair, the kind that made you want to be her, only a slightly altered version -- nineteen (not fifteen) preferably with both parents still together, keeping an eye out for the trouble that was surely ahead
Emma played with the sand next to her foot. She wiped it smooth with the palm of her hand, then wrote in it with her finger, and wiped it smooth a second time. She looked past me, and at the water. We didn’t get to spend the day together, Emma said, the three of us. Finn wanted that.
Maybe when he comes back, I suggested and patted Emma’s shoulder
I don’t think he’s coming back, Emma explained.
Emma was wise beyond her years. What happened these days to those girls? Did they marry young? Travel the world? Drive too fast? Run off with a drummer? Smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, or the kind in dark paper that smelled like cloves?
Are you hungry? I asked. Emma shook her head no. Do you mind if I go back in? Emma shook her head again.
I’ll be in soon, Emma offered.
I played with her hair for a minute. Then I stood up and brushed the sand from my legs. I watched at the ocean, knowing that this time, no one, not even Finn, would be swimming out of it. I walked back into the house.
On the way to the private investigator’s office, I considered my options, starting with the least likely and working my way toward the most likely: I could give up trying to find out what was happening to me and flee, hide somewhere, change my identity. I had always yearned to do that – travel to Ranga Roa or some other remote atoll, not tell anyone where I had moved, start over. I could ask the federal government to put me, wife of the man whose records were sealed for national security purposes, into the witness protection program. If my husband’s records were sealed for national security purposes, clearly I was in danger from people who thought I knew more than I did, or that I could put the pieces together and understand what was happening in a way that only I knew I couldn’t.
Or, more reasonably, I could take Emma to Biarritz or County Kerry, or Bolinas even, and insist that all three men, well – all four in fact, if I counted Ryan –not bother us. But, of course, since Emma needed her fathers, all three of them, this wasn’t a particularly viable option.
I could divorce or remain married, leave Dylan or stay. I avoided the more emotionally pressing and morally ambiguous alternatives: living with Finn, with Colin, moving to Biarritz or Nice alone, without the cover of Emma’s stewardship.
I could learn to shoot a handgun.
And of course, there was the most obvious, nagging like an unreturned phone call – I could return to making my living as a painter. Rent a little studio in Venice amidst the drug dealers, the over forty-something Dogtown skateboarders from back in the day, and the psychotics. Sink into obscurity. That would be more authentic it appeared, than living with Dylan.
If the records were sealed, and I couldn’t find out the answers on my own I would have to enlist some help to do it. I would have to trust someone that much. Trust a stranger, when I couldn’t trust my husband or my lovers. I navigated, steered the boat through the storm at night. Like St. Exupéry, alone in his tiny single engine airplane, I used the stars to find my way.
I had never wanted to have occasion to use a private investigator, but in many ways I had always wanted to be a private investigator. Piecing the puzzle together interested me. At first I had respected Dylan’s privacy; I believed that his first wife was none of my business and whatever else had happened to him had happened long before he met me. It complemented his dignity to do preserve his privacy; anything less would have been a violation. But now, I no longer knew with whom I was living. Everything was a lie.
The private investigator’s office was plain, but clean. It had a sternness reminiscent of 40s design, a mid –century modern, Richard Neutra-esqe seriousness. Dylan’s house -- if he hadn’t broken any of the rules.
Gabriela Hutchinson to see Mr. Waxman, I told the receptionist.
I sat down and leafed through the magazines on the side table – Yoga Journal, Alternative Medicine, Garden Design. Though you could tell a person’s nationality from their shoes, you could certainly tell which city they resided in by their magazine subscriptions. No matter how plain, clean and mid-century modern the building was that I had entered into, I was always in Los Angeles.
The receptionist punched phone buttons and told Mr. Waxman that I had arrived.
Waxman looked more like a shoe salesman or a gynecologist than a private detective. He was short, about five feet tall, balding, had heavy rimmed glasses with dark frames, dark eyes, dark hair. He was wearing an impeccable suit of merino wool in a slate gray with a subtle, cream-colored pinstripe.
Waxman ushered me into the office. The walls were covered with shelves that houses leather-backed tomes, numbered and lettered -- that looked like law books. He had a pipe rack on his desk, several phones, a few more cell phones, a desk blotter and an old-fashioned rolodex stuffed with little cards.
How can I help you, he asked.
I want to find out about my husband, I began.
No, I said. He’s an architect. I was helping him with a villa in France.
Yes? He said, because I had stopped.
Is this like a shrink? I asked.
What do you mean? He said.
If you find illegal activity are you obliged to report it?
No, he said. I’m not.
Okay, well, I found guns, artwork and maybe IRA or Basque Separatists in the villa in France. I want to know if my husband is involved, and if so, how.
Is this some kind of practical joke? Mr. Waxman asked. He pulled one of his pipes from the pipe rack, and opened a side drawer in his desk. From the desk he extracted a bag, which he unrolled. He stuffed tobacco from the bag into the pipe. The tobacco smelled good, like apples.
No joke, I said. I wish it were.
Have you looked into this? Waxman asked.
I’ve tried, I said. My husband’s records are sealed – national security they are saying. I can’t find anything out from the men I met in Biarritz.
Men? Waxman said. Do these men have names? He lit his pipe.
Colin and Finn, I said.
I don’t know, I said. I have this – I gave him the photo. They were just arrested and extradited back to France last week – there might be a record of it.
And the art – Waxman said, looking at the photo – what kind of art?
I told him about the Matisse’s and Modigliani’s that I assumed were fakes. I told him about the Rothko copy in my house that I now suspected might be an original.
You have had the paintings tested?
Yes, I said. My dealer has been working with me. He’s the one who recommended you.
I can run the photo through the Interpol databank, he said. It might turn up something.
Please do, I said.
With sealed records, it might be difficult to find anything out. The arrest and extradition have most likely been expunged. Is anyone following your husband?
Following? I said.
Have you had him followed? Watched?
No, I said.
I can have someone follow him. You may find out other things. Things you don’t want to know.
I already know that part, I said.
Anything else? Mr. Waxman asked.
Someone is following me, I said.
Another foreigner? Waxman said.
No, I said. American. A man. Might be Midwestern. Says his name is Ryan.
Try to photograph him, if you can, Waxman said.
I nodded. I thought about the surveillance DVDs from the arrest. Ryan would be on them, if he or Emma hadn’t taken them.
He got up, so I did too. Are you in danger? Waxman asked.
I think so, I said.
He nodded, sucked on his pipe and waived me to the door.
Have you thought about hiring security? He asked. A bodyguard? Something?
I shook my head. I told him about the alarm system and surveillance equipment.
Well, a bodyguard would be an extra layer of security. If you decide to hire one, I can recommend someone trustworthy, experienced, he said.
Dylan had always been a great supporter of my work as a painter, and we often went to gallery openings and museum shows together, in addition to the pilgrimages Dylan often made to important or historic architectural sites. This time it was the Getty. We drove west on Sunset Boulevard from Dylan’s house in the Hollywood Hills; afterwards we planned to continue on Sunset to the Pacific Coast Highway, and up the coast to my house in Malibu.
He insisted on driving a Jensen Healy, even if they were quirky and idiosyncratic, and their Byzantine design made them difficult to keep running and expensive to repair. At least he didn’t drive a Jaguar that required you to remove the entire axle to replace the brake pads.
Emma sat in the front seat next to him, with her hand on his shoulder. She was so used to men raising her. I curled up in the jump seat behind them. The whiny growl the sports car emitted as Dylan accelerated and shifted gears reminded me of the Alpine Renault I had rented in Nice the previous Spring. I ran my hand along the leather seat back; it felt like someone’s skin.
Frank Gehry had designed the Getty Museum, and it consisted of gigantic, voluminous outdoor plazas that made Emma twirl and Dylan crane his neck and throw back his head. The outdoor spaces were not much bigger than the indoor galleries.
Dylan was jealous of Gehry; he looked upon him as some kind of icon, role model, benchmark, nemesis, – the architect and the phenomenal success Dylan thought he should have been, if he could have reinvented himself as a maverick American.
Emma insisted on visiting the Antiquities exhibit first. The main antiquities collection was at the Getty Villa on the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica, Dylan told her, and he offered to take her there on another day, but there were enough pieces here to fill her imagination, and my own.
We stood in front of a terra cotta pitcher; it was tan with a black rim and handle, and deer and elk grazing in profile in three orderly lines across its middle sections. The top stripe also housed a large duck; a griffin with a sphinx head, striped curved wings and a curled tail and its otherwise panther-like body, with lion claws and jaguar haunches. Dylan explained to Emma what a griffin was, and pointed out on the pitcher its most salient features.
The label said Oinochoe with Friezes of Animals/ Rhodes/ 625 B.C. Emma was disappointed we didn’t know what an Oinochoe was. Dylan assured her it was probably the style or type of pitcher, but she insisted we should know everything, or barring that, at least the things that she herself would like to know.
I thought about Dylan’s home in the Hollywood hills, where I had been living for ten years–the vases, the pitchers, the art, the antiques I was testing with the dealer’s help–how many of them were stolen? Did his purchase of them fund Colin and Finn’s gunrunning and training operation? Was Dylan the money? Was he their art broker? Along with Kate’s banker husband?
Dylan told Emma that you have to work to know, and if you didn’t work you wouldn’t remember anyway, so it wasn’t really helpful for him to explain everything to her. She balked at this, as most teenagers would. He was in the middle of delivering a great truth to her, the one that begins: the more you know the more you realize you don’t know, when she ran off toward the corner of the gallery to inspect an enormous, dark green, bronze cat with wings. This giant winged cat bared its teeth and lolled its tongue out the center of its mouth.
When Emma was out of earshot I asked Dylan if he was the money man.
What? He said.
You heard me, I answered.
You’re daft, he said.
You broker the art for them: the stolen art, the de-accessioned art.
Stop it, Dylan said. We’re in the Getty and you’re talking about stolen art.
Why don’t you want me to know, I asked.
Dylan was looking at a bronze shield strap fragment showing the abduction of Helen and Deianeira of Argos. Helen of Troy – when Paris kidnapped her, had he taken her back home with him, as everyone supposed, or had he really taken her to Egypt?
Do I have to spell it out for you? Dylan said.
I wish you would, I said. I could think of six or eight reasons why he might not want me to know his involvement with Colin and Finn. The most likely would be that he wanted to keep me safe. But he had put me in harm’s way. Would he say that was inadvertent? How could he explain it?
I didn’t know which of the six or eight were Dylan’s reasons, -- what he believed, feared or wanted. I didn’t know what he was thinking about at all.
Dylan kept scrutinizing the shield strap fragment while he explained it to me. But before he told me, he squinted into the light, then bobbed his shoulders up and down, rolled his head around and shook out his arms, like a boxer about to go back into the ring.
I grabbed his arm but he shook off my hold. It is hard to be someone’s wife when everything you say and do to try and help them is a threat to their dignity and their privacy. Helen was in Egypt.
Why wouldn’t he tell me?
The same reason, I said, that if someone thinks they might be dying they don’t go to the doctor and get diagnosed and treated.
I trailed him to the next artifact. They don’t want to face it, I added. They don’t want to make it real.
It’s real whether you face it or not, Dylan said. It’s real whether I tell you or not. I’d rather not. I’d rather you didn’t know.
We were standing in front of a tiny bronze horse – it looked like a Giacometti, but was from Greece in 600 B.C.
Don’t tell me it’s to keep me safe, I said. Please don’t tell me that.
I won’t, he answered. But there is something…
What? I said.
You brought Emma back to me. And Finn took you away, Dylan answered.
But I’m right here, I insisted. And they came back on their own. I didn’t bring anybody.
I followed Dylan again, this time we went over to a tan Mycenaean Jug with a bull and jumper drawn on it in reddish-brown clay slip. Cyprus. 1225 B.C. A bird sat on the bull’s back. It resembled the ceramic bowls that hippies brought from Mexico into California the 1960s.
Dylan, I said.
What is it? he asked. He turned to me, as if I had his complete attention.
Do you ever feel like your own life isn’t even about you – that it has very little to do with you?
All the time, Dylan said. He put his arm around me and kissed my forehead.
Emma came bounding back to us, holding out her hand. She dragged Dylan over to the bronze cat with wings. She wanted to know what kind of cat had small, jagged teeth like his. The cat’s face appeared Egyptian or Mayan -- like a jaguar on the temple of Quetzacoatl.
Why do all these animals have wings? Emma asked. Dylan shook his head. But why? she insisted. Why are they always adding the wings to these creatures?
This winged cat was a furniture support, from Spain, Tartessos, in the 6thC B.C.; it had an Art-Deco flair. Dylan patted Emma on the head and then stroked her hair. She put her arm around his waist and her head on his shoulder, but kept staring at the bronze, winged cat.
Did Emma call Dylan uncle as an affectionate nickname? Was he really her uncle? But that would make Dylan and Finn brothers –unlikely, given their twenty-year age difference.
After we perused some Attic cups, bowls (called Kylix) and vases (called Lekythos) Emma drew us into the decorative arts exhibit. She ran straight to an oblong marble table, black and white marled, held up on either end by two sets of white marble rams. They were standing with their horns curled on the sides of their heads like conch shells and their bellies extended. Each set of rams stood back-to-back, with large griffin-like wings flying out from their shoulder blades, and what looked like peacock tails draped out from their tailbones.
More wings! Emma declared. She touched the layers of feathers with her fingertips, and then rubbed the swollen bellies with her palm. The sign indicated it was a table by Franzoni, Rome, circa 1780.
He restored sculpture, Dylan told Emma. He worked at the Vatican.
The Vatican, I thought. Was someone else involved besides the French and the Irish?
Look at the peacock tails, Emma said, pointing.
Those are laurel swags, Dylan explained.
What’s a swag? Emma said. She folded her arms across her chest, knowing which answer was coming. She let her fingertips follow the line of the tabletop. You restore things, she reminded him.
Houses, Dylan conceded.
Villas, Emma insisted, smiling. She ran over to him, wrapped her arms around his waist and squeezed.
Yes, and villas, Dylan said.
I thought they were peacock tails too, I admitted.
See! Emma said, and she went to art school! Emma swatted Dylan lightly on his shoulder.
There’s no hitting, I reminded her. Emma was behaving more like she was eight than fifteen, but under the circumstances I didn’t mind, only worried.
Emma just laughed. Then she stood with her back against mine and extended her abdomen.
If only you had wings, Dylan said.
And peacock tails, Emma said.
I said I preferred those long, curly, jaguar tails on the two griffins we had seen. Dylan said he preferred to go without.
Without a tail! Emma said.
Not without you, I said.
Never without you, Dylan added.
Without us! Emma said, seizing my arm. She asked us why the rams had wings, if they were not griffins.
Dylan said he didn’t know. He explained that some fantastical winged creatures were griffins and some were not.
In the analogy tests I suffered through in high school, you were meant to wrestle groups into their proper relationships. Some oblong groups overlapped, others were contained. In this case, the oblong
group griffin was contained entirely in the oblong group winged creatures.
I was extremely satisfied by this decision, when Emma asked Dylan to explain again what a griffin was, if it was not any winged beast. He explained a griffin usually had the head of a man or a bird, and the body of a lion.
And wings, Emma added.
Yes, and wings.
But they put wings on other animals, Emma continued, and those are not griffins.
That’s right, Dylan said.
And peacock tails, I added.
Laurel swags, he said.
Emma made a joke about swags and shag; then rushed into the next room.
I thought about that category: fantastical winged beasts who are not griffins -- that would be me. Dylan would be a griffin itself, Emma a creature with wings.
Dylan and I followed Emma into the exhibit of 17th Century Italian Drawings. She was standing in front of Guercino’s Seated Youth.
What’s natural about it? Emma asked.
Sorry? Dylan said.
The tag says it’s drawn in a “naturalistic” style that some guy named Carracci made famous, Emma explained.
And? Dylan asked. He reached over and took hold of my hand. It was one of those surreptitious gestures that are thrilling because they are tender and clandestine at the same time.
And, Emma said, mocking him, I don’t quite see what’s natural about it. This drawing doesn’t look any different than any of the other drawings.
She pointed to a Da Vinci. Dylan shrugged.
The other drawings are supposed to be more stylized, I suggested, always the referee, caught between two or more others, trying to facilitate – you would think I had grown up the middle child, not the youngest.
Right, Emma said, nodding. This one, she said, pointing to the Guercino, is just as stylized, and no more natural, than these. She lathered the air with her hand, whipped, swirled it, gestured defiantly.
Natural and naturalistic are not the same, Dylan began.
Emma shrugged and stomped off.
Naturalistic means like natural, but not natural, he went on, even though she was out of earshot.
Yes, I said, but that’s not her point. Her point is they don’t look any different than the ones that are supposed to be more stylized. So - natural or naturalistic, whichever -- it doesn’t matter.
It’s moot, Dylan said. He ran his hand along my arm.
Exactly, I said.
So we should push on, Dylan said.
Probably, I said.
A picnic, he suggested.
Yes, I said, on the cliffs above the ocean.
Superb, he said.
On the way to the Jensen Healy, Dylan explained to Emma that Carracci and Guercino were trying to change the style; they were attempting something more natural than the stylized way of drawing, hoping to change the way people saw.
Well they failed, Emma said, plopping down in the front seat and adjusting her sunglasses.
Actually, they didn’t, Dylan said. They revolutionized drawing. They paved the way for the Mona Lisa. You just can’t see it.
Where are we off to? Emma asked. She punched the CD player on, ejected Samuel Barber’s Adagio, and slipped in the hard driving No Doubt. She cranked up the volume.
I watched them banter. Before the police had taken Finn, he told Dylan he was bringing Emma back to him.
I’ll revolutionize you, Emma said to Dylan.
Touché, I said.
Dylan laughed. See the blood dripping on my shoe, he said.
The art dealer in Beverly Hills continued to be discreet. When I went back to see him he wore a light blue suit and a slate blue ascot instead of a tie.
The results were alarming at best. The Rothko I thought was a copy, my own copy, was either an original, or a copy made in the 1950s, not the 1990s. The chemists could identify not only the year of the paint sample, but sometimes also the brand, with the gas chromography. The chemist felt it was likely the Rothko was an original, as was the Modigliani, the Matisse’s, and a few pencil drawings by Picasso. I was stupefied.
After we had discussed the paintings, we moved on to the sculptures and figurines in the Hollywood Hills house. Many of the copies of works from the Getty, the Met, and other museums, turned out to be originals, or old enough to be originals. Luckily, the dealer was nonplussed and my private investigator and had no inclination to take any of this information to the police. We did fax all the test results, findings, and speculations to the private investigator, so he could follow the leads, search old news files on the internet for information about suspicious sales, museum curators being fired or let go suddenly or suspiciously, thefts, etc. Initially he felt that some of our “holdings” originated from the suspicious sales from the Met in the 1990s, and others might have come from a theft from a museum in Copenhagen in the late 1980s. Still others might have been undetected thefts where the works had been replaced by convincing copies. But he had to do more research and cross checking before he could draw any conclusions. I filed all the information away, hoping It would lead me to the answers I sought, or add up to something later.
A melon covered with willow leaves.
He comes to meet with his horns.
Joy comes softly.
One night, while I sat in my usual place at the window, feasting my eyes on the ocean, Dylan tiptoed into Emma’s room. She’s asleep, he said.
The night was unusually warm, and typically beach breezy; the barrier of evening fog had not yet rolled in. Dylan sat down across from me at the table and gazed out the window where I was looking. He had carried a glass of ice water with him and he set it down on the table in front of me.
I stared down blankly into the glass, as if I were in a bar with a stranger, necessitating some quick if not graceful exit on my part.
What do you see in there? Dylan touched his finger to my water glass.
Nothing, I answered.
Before Biarritz, I had regarded Dylan as my best friend. It can be maudlin when people say their husband or their lover is their best friend, but sometimes it was also true. Dylan had been my husband, my lover and my best friend.
It’s just water, Dylan insisted.
I can smell that, I said.
Drink, he said. You need to re-hydrate.
What are you looking at, he asked, tapping on the window. Is something out there? A boat?
I shook my head. But I couldn’t help wonder if he was expecting someone.
A person, he asked. A barking dog? He cocked his head to listen.
I shook my head again. Who was he expecting?
A taciturn woman who sits by the window and gazes out at the ocean, Dylan began.
Laconic, I said, playing along, hoping to make him slip and reveal something.
I figured it out, I said. Maybe an element of surprise would work on him.
Ah, he said. What is it, then?
Finn came here to bring Emma back to you, I said, not to see me. Finn is your son. Emma is your granddaughter.
Dylan stood up from the table, pushed the chair back with his legs, and stuffed his fists in his trouser pockets. He tilted his head to one side and looked at me, then said, That’s daft.
I sipped my ice water.
I can’t believe the romantic fantasies women won’t let go of, Dylan added.
He sighed, traipsed into the kitchen. I could hear him banging cabinet doors, then opening the refrigerator door. I pictured how the light from the refrigerator cast an eerie, fluorescent glow on his disgruntled face. I thought about how the surveillance camera would show it, if he hadn’t turned it off. I heard him shut the refrigerator door -- that strange sucking sound that only refrigerator and revolving doors make -- rubber sucking plastic, suction, snorkeling face-mask peeled from the cheekbone, plunger pumped into the bottom of the toilet bowl.
I am an island, I sang quietly to myself. I am a revolving door. I am a ---
He returned to the room and leaned against the wall, scowling at me. His hands were shoved back into his pockets.
He ambled over and stood behind me, kissing the top of my head. Having married you when you were so young, he said, it was disingenuous of me to think you would be faithful.
Dylan placed his hand on the window frame above his head and leaned his head on his arm.
I don’t love anyone else, I offered. I never have.
I hoped to appeal to his conscience. Make him feel guilty. Make him think of Kate.
I have, he answered.
He said it to hurt me. I know it sounds paranoid, but he was not forthcoming, so that was the type of confidence he would usually omit. He wanted to twist the proverbial knife. You’re not the only one. It was unnecessary, a non sequitur, like a husband telling a wife he didn’t love her any more, or that he wanted a divorce. Just get the damn divorce and shut up. I hadn’t become involved with Finn in order to hurt Dylan.
Dylan lifted his head and let his hand drop from the window frame. He stood up straight, arched his back, tilted his head from side to side, rotating his neck. I watched his reflection in the glass. The waves broke behind it, behind him, out on the beach. Inside the waves little bursts of light were exploding. The harder the waves crashed, the brighter the light exploded.
The grunion are running, I said, pointing out the window.
Sorry? Dylan said.
The fluorescent lights in the water, I explained. Little fish. It only happens every twenty-five years.
What does it mean? Dylan asked. He was headed back to the kitchen.
They didn’t take me to jail. They took me to that round, twenty-storey hotel below the Getty museum, adjacent to the San Diego Freeway. There was a man there. He said his name was Waxman. He stayed with me. He went out onto the breezeway every fifteen minutes or so to smoke and ring up various types on his mobile. I asked him when I could go home but he just laughed at me. He asked me if I wanted to ring up Kate to come and stay with me. How did he know about Kate? Were they following me? Had they subpoenaed my cell phone records?
Eventually this Waxman went into the adjoining room. I sat up late, watching the cars go north and south on the freeway – north into the San Fernando Valley and south into Pacific Palisades and eventually San Diego.
That night when I was supposed to be in jail I decided I mustn’t see Kate again. I didn’t love Gabriela anymore, after everything that had happened, but I wasn’t planning to leave her. I didn’t love Kate either, I never had. It was just a situation that had presented itself. So I took it. I was a selfish fuck. An irresponsible bastard. Luckily, I was a retired irresponsible bastard so I couldn’t be blackmailed.
Later that night, I tiptoed in to check on Emma myself. She was sprawled on her side with the covers tugged up to her shoulders. The lamp on the nightstand was lit. I’m not asleep, she informed me.
She sat up and patted the covers next to her; I sat down. We watched each other for a minute, until Emma smiled. Then she let her eyes wander around the room as if she were searching for something. Finally she stared at the covers, and spread her hands over them to smooth them out. She scrunched up her face the way fifteen year-old girls will – somewhere between wincing and squinting.
I hope that wasn’t about me, she said. She glanced beyond me, at the bedroom door.
I shook my head. How are you doing? I asked her.
Okay she said. Better.
She didn’t say better than what – better than before, but which before? Better than when Dylan was gone? Better than when Finn first left?
He never really means to hurt anyone, Emma said, taking my wrist in her hand.
Dylan? I asked.
No, Finn, Emma answered. She brushed her hair away from her face and plumped up the pillow behind her back. She glanced at the door again. Colin doesn’t either, she went on. It just happens sometimes.
I straightened the covers around her legs, and wondered what she was referring to. Right now, when they left her here? Or the pool? Something she had witnessed before he met me. How much did Emma know? Did they keep more from Emma than they kept from me? Less? How involved was she?
Emma slid down into the bed, inside the covers. She turned over on her side. Finn didn’t love anyone again after my mama, she told me. But after he met you, he didn’t want to leave you alone.
I brushed her hair out of her eyes and kissed her forehead. Why wouldn’t he want to leave me alone? Everyone kept talking about wanting me. I didn’t even know why they had started. Now they had me talking about it. I just wanted us all to stop.
He said so, Emma added. She let go of my wrist. You’re so pretty, she explained, with your blonde hair and green eyes. You’re so exotic looking -- like that Italian model Carla Bruni when she was young. I imagine men have always wanted you. I can imagine no man would want to let you go. Not Tati, not uncle Dylan.
I reached across to the nightstand and switched off the light.
We stayed there in the dark for a while, not moving at first. Then she took hold of my wrist again.
That’s quite a good bit of time, she explained -- not to want anyone again. I don’t know anything about yet, really– well, not the romantic kind of wanting.
Emma ran her fingertips over the top of my hand where it lay on the bed next to her. It’s just you, she explained. You are the kind of person he always yearned for. Exotic, beautiful, troubled – what’s the word in English – conflicted?
I nodded. Conflicted was a word I knew quite well.
You suit his wildness, she added.
We lived like that for a month, Emma, Dylan and I. We traveled back and forth between the Hollywood Hills house and the beach house in Malibu. Dylan and I worked; Emma attended high school.  On the weekends we tramped through museums and galleries, sat through plays and lingered in restaurants. We lounged on the beach.
When Dylan was at work and Emma at school, I worked with the private investigator, tracking down leads, examining birth certificates and other documents, searching for information on the web. I worked with the art dealer and his staff, taking the paintings out of Dylan’s Hollywood hills house to the dealer for mass spectrometer tests and gas chromography tests, to date the paint samples, and returning them to their exact locations on the walls of the Hollywood Hills house before Dylan got home from work again.
I checked the surveillance DVDs regularly to see who was coming into the house, who was checking my computer, who was making phone calls. I made sure to erase the history of my web searches, and left decoy web searches and decoy emails and phone messages to thwart and derail anyone who might be checking them.
I enrolled in a self defense class, and practiced how to stab a man in the Adam’s apple, poke out his eyes, kick him in the groin and shins, karate chop him in the back of the neck, and generally disable him. I trained for how to release myself from someone’s grasp and control. I rehearsed daily the martial arts they taught us. I suffered through a shooting class, and learned how to hold the gun with both hands so I could control when it recoiled after firing.
Occasionally if I jumped as the phone rang, or became jittery when the mail arrived, or I sat slumped at the kitchen table, staring out at the ocean for too long with my brow furrowed, Dylan would start asking questions. He’d watch me, snipe at me. Occasionally, at the diner at Paradise Cove, P.F. Chang’s on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, or the canals in Venice, I would spot Ryan at a distance, trailing us. He would nod to me, as if I were someone who had earned his respect and acknowledgement; I would smirk back.
Finn and Colin rarely phoned, but when they did, they asked only for Emma. Dylan always answered the phone. Emma could tell by the expression on Dylan’s face and the way he held the phone out to her that it was Finn. She would squeal, yell Tati, grab the phone out of his hand and run down the hallway into her room. She never talked about the conversations afterward. Neither she nor Dylan ever passed the phone to me. I wondered why Finn and Colin phoned on our landline, and not on Emma’s cell.
One night, late in April, when Dylan was sprawled out on the living room couch, reading The Grammar Of Architecture, I sat down next to him and riffled my hand through his hair. I told him I was going to Biarritz -- just for a month or two.
Dylan put the book down next to him on the couch. Does Emma know, he asked.
Not yet, I said. I drummed my hands on my knee and looked around aimlessly. I suddenly wished we had a Jack Russell terrier that I thought was a girl when I first brought him home at eight weeks, because the breeder told me she was, until the vet confirmed later that he was really a boy.
I have to end it with Finn, I told him. Of course that was not the reason at all. I had to find out the truth. And if bringing them together a second time was what it took I was no longer afraid to do it.
It’s been over for a while, hasn’t it? Dylan asked. He book-marked The Grammar of Architecture and set it on the end table, under the lamp.
But not ended, I answered.
And Colin? Dylan asked.
Dylan stood up and ambled into the kitchen. I followed him. That’s dangerous, he told me. He opened the refrigerator door and pulled out a pitcher of tea. It was a mixture of green and black teas, matté, eleuthro ginseng, B-vitamins and a citrus flavor. A restaurant in Carmel where I vacationed with my sisters often served it to us, until we started buying it ourselves.
Dylan poured us each a glass of tea.
I thought we were pretty good, Dylan said, -- you and me, and Emma.
He handed me my glass. I took it and drank. We are, I lied, thinking of Kate.
You won’t come back, Dylan answered. He set the pitcher of tea on a shelf in the refrigerator.
Why would you say that? I asked him. I wondered if he expected Finn and Colin to kidnap or kill me. But if he did would he be bringing it up?
To make it easier when you don’t, he answered. He sipped his tea.
I kissed his cheek. Don’t say that to Emma, I told him.
That I’m not coming back.
No, why not? Dylan asked. He drank more tea, setting his glass on the kitchen counter. He put both hands on the counter and rested his weight on them. He looked me in the eyes and waited.
You don’t want her to suffer needlessly, I explained.
Don’t toy with me, Dylan said.
He left the kitchen and went back in the living room; I followed him again. I don’t understand you, I said.
He sat down on the couch and picked up his book. You understand me, he answered.
During those intermediate days before I told Emma I was going away, Dylan behaved as if it was business as usual, and no one was leaving.
When I finally approached Emma with the news, we were at the Malibu house. She was sprawled outside on the sand watching the waves break and the neighbors jog by with their dogs.
How long will you be gone? Emma asked. She was making arcs in the sand with her fingertips.
A week, I answered, maybe two.
That long, Emma remarked. Are you going to see Finn?
And Colin, I said. I put my hand on her shoulder. Not so long.
Is Tati going? Emma asked.
I told her no.
Can I come with you? Emma asked.
No, Baby, I’m sorry, I answered.
Emma jumped up and threw a neighbor’s Golden Retriever its ball. The Golden had left the ball next to Emma’s thigh, nudged her leg with its wet nose, then run back, its glossy coat bouncing, and turned, anticipating her throw. I wondered if this were a dog she knew, a neighbor she knew.
When will I see Finn again? Emma asked.
Three years, I answered, when you’re eighteen, and graduated high school. I’ll take you if you want.
I wondered what three years in her time was equivalent to in my time – Ten years? Fifteen?
Three years, Emma repeated.
I stood up to go, brushing the sand off my knees. I gazed out at the water and the shore break, then let my vision travel up the coastline: Zuma, Port Hueneme, Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Montecito, Goleta. On the coast -- public beaches, small yacht harbors, multi-million dollar houses, gated communities, military bases. Inland: rolling meadows spotted with oak and Manzanita, farmland, more multi–million dollar houses, gated communities and military bases.
Emma, what does Tati mean? I asked her.
It means Daddy in Czech, she answered.
Czech! I said. Emma looked at me blankly and squinted, as if to say, What? What is it? I felt like the rookie lawyer who’d been taught not to ask a question if she didn’t know the answer, but who, out of rashness or recklessness or a momentary lapse of judgment, forgot to heed that advice.
Finn said we were in Prague for a while, Emma explained, when I was a baby. I started calling him Tati.
I had finally experienced viscerally what the expression my head is spinning actually meant. I tried to act nonchalant, all the while wondering what Colin and Finn (and therefore Dylan and perhaps even Ryan – if his association with them went back that far) were doing in an Eastern bloc country five years before the wall came down.
But I couldn’t wonder about it and act casual so I tried to keep my mind blank.
Emma brushed off her arms and knees; she hugged me.
It must be hard, I said. I cupped her chin in my fingers.
Emma smiled. In a way, it’s a luxury, she said – having two fathers. But I miss Finn.
She gazed past me, up the coast, where I had been looking a moment before. Three years was a long time for her to wait to see Finn again. Why do we want what other people have?
It’s only a week, I said. I tried to keep at bay the whole issue of Prague – why, how, and most importantly – who – who was this man I’d been married to for ten years, who were these other men I’d been drawn to the last few weeks, who were they all, really?
I’ll be extra nice to Tati while you’re gone, Emma offered.
I know you will, baby, I said.
We started to walk back to the house. Emma waved to some jogging neighbors and threw another stick, and then a Frisbee for a Rottweiler and a Chocolate Labrador Retriever.
Gabriela, Emma said, when Finn was sent back to France, if Tati hadn’t been my father too, would you have let me stay with you?
I put my hand on her shoulder while we walked. Of course, I reassured her. You can always stay with me.
I thought as much, Emma responded. She bounded up to the house to greet Dylan, who was standing on the deck in his usual posture, his hands leaning on the rails, watching us. Emma threw her arms around his neck and he lifted her off her feet. They’ll be fine, I thought. At some point very early on, it appeared Dylan and Emma had been separated. But now, after fifteen years, they were together again. Emma had been retrieved. She was no longer in Biarritz. She was no longer in Prague.
I thought I knew what would happen. I thought they would all go back to Biarritz one by one, and I would be left in Malibu, all alone, with a chest of money, like Pippi Longstocking, after all. Colin and Finn had already gone, and then Gabriela was going.
She said it was just for a few days, but no one really told the truth. Even if they thought they did, even if they meant to, they didn’t really know what they were up to, did they? Finn had often told me he would never leave me with anyone else, and then he had, hadn’t he? He’d left me with Gabriela. Or he’d left me with Dylan. I couldn’t really make out which.
Perhaps he thought Gabriela and Dylan would stay together. I had no such illusions. She was too young, and he was far too British. That was an easy call, even for a fifteen year-old, half French, half Irish gamine, Yes, I knew what I was, but did they know what they were? Or who they were? Sometimes I wondered. Sometimes I felt so old, older than any of them had ever been. What was I doing in this fifteen year-old who hadn’t even finished up at the lycée?
I had no one with whom to bet, but I wanted to make a bet with someone about when Tati Dylan would leave. Would he wait a week before going after Gabriela in Biarritz? Would he wait a month? Grownups were so predictable. Tati Dylan didn’t love Gabriela anymore, but he didn’t want her to be with Finn.
It furthers one to cross the great water
I wasn’t in town for more than three days before Colin appeared. He had watched me amble through the produce market, window shop, sit on the beach, and wonder how the hell I was going to find out what I wanted to know and what the hell I thought I was risking even trying to find out.
When Colin arrived, I was inside my apartment, seated at the table by the window, fiddling with my camera lens, and looking out at the view. He proved to be his usual bemused self. Clearly, it entertained him to show me that he could get into the apartment without knocking. Clearly, he didn’t believe in knocking. It was against his religion, and I use the word in the most vernacular sense possible.
Colin stood next to me in his usual manner (both smug and mischievous), rubbed my head, messed up my hair, then touched my face and neck tenderly, looked me in the eyes, and kissed me on the lips.
News travels, I said.
Emma here? he asked. He took the opportunity to roam around the apartment. He picked up a camera lens, set it down gingerly, then picked up some photographic negatives and held them up to the light from the window.
He knew I was in town, and where I was staying (though that wasn’t difficult since I always stayed in the same place), so wouldn’t he know the particulars of how I was traveling – alone, or with company, and if accompanied, with whom? I was learning his game.
I shook my head. Colin kissed me again, pulled me by my wrist to the bed, and lay down next to me.
Where’s Finn? I asked.
He doesn’t know you’re here, Colin answered. He brushed the hair out of my eyes and stared at me.
After we made love, Colin napped, while I lay against him, listened to him breathe, warmed my nose against his chest, and tormented myself with all the things I wanted to know and my plans to find them out.
When Colin woke up he turned over on his side and rested his hand on my hip. Did you come to stay? he asked me.
I came to say goodbye to Finn, I told him. This was my pretext while I searched for information.
Colin lay back on the bed. He patted my shoulder. Stay with me, he proposed. Finn’s a hothead. Finn’s a –
Finn’s your brother, I reminded him.
Colin lathered the air with his hands.
You’re don’t really want me, I said. You never did. It’s just something you like to think because it gives you some relief from your unrelenting cynicism.
In truth I knew why he wanted me. It wasn’t his cynicism. It was his rivalry with Finn and Dylan. That part was clear enough. But what happened? What happened in Prague?
Colin laughed hard and loud, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes. God, he said, no wonder I want you so much.
He kissed my collarbone, then got out of bed, pulling on his underwear and pants. He stood over the bed and watched me for a while. I wondered if he knew how handsome he was.
Some day you’ll figure this out, Colin said softly. You’ll figure it all out. I’ll feel sorry for you then.
The morning Finn agreed to meet me the wind was whipping up. As I walked down to the cliff to meet him, the sky grew dark, cloudy and the damp air thickened. Obviously it was about to rain. I thought: Wuthering Heights plus Atlantic but minus ill-fated lover; sat on the rock wall on the cliff above the ocean and waited for Finn. I am accustomed to waiting, but almost always I am waiting for something to start.
Thanks for coming, Finn said. He kissed me chastely on the cheek.
You’re welcome, I said.
Shall we walk? he suggested.
I stood up and we started along the cliff toward the Bather’s Cove where we had first met. Since the weather was both unpleasant and threatening the walkway, usually crowded, was almost empty.
Finn took my hand. How is Emma? he asked.
She’s good, I answered. She’s fine. His hand was very warm; he squeezed mine.
I’m glad I brought her back to Dylan, Finn said. I miss her terribly, but I feel this sense of peace, this sense of letting go -- almost like having jumped off a cliff.
I put my hand through his arm. You’ll see her again, I told him.
I know, Finn said.
We walked for a while in silence. When we reached the Bather’s Cove we ventured out onto the sand and sat down, completely alone. Despite the foul weather, I wondered where everyone was. The town seemed to have emptied out. Where did everyone go in bad weather? Were they inside the outdoor cafés? Were they in their apartments, villas, shops, hotel rooms?
Are you staying? Finn asked me.
Not for long, I answered.
Finn played with my hair, first lifting it up at the ends, then brushing it off my face and shoulders. I thought you would stay with Colin, Finn remarked. He wants you to.
I leaned back on my elbow and searched his face. If I stayed with anyone besides Dylan it would have been Finn; I thought he knew that. I told him so. No, I added, I’m going back. I’m going back to Dylan, to Emma.
Finn lay down in the sand and held onto both sides of his head with his hands. If he had placed them a little farther back I would have expected him to begin sit-ups.
God, how could I leave her, he remarked. Emma. I’m daft.
You’re not daft, I answered; she’s your daughter. You want her to be safe. In fact it would be impossible not to want her safe.
I hoped he would tell me then – Emma his daughter? Dylan his father? Why he brought her back to Dylan, the resemblance between the two men, why Finn was alternately trying to hurt and soothe Dylan.
But Finn said nothing. After a time we stood up again and shook out our limbs until all the patches of sand that had clung to them fell off. Finn took my hand and we started walking back along the cliff edge. The sky had darkened and drops of rain rushed down and hit us at a slant. Thunder cracked over the yacht harbor, rocking the little boats from side to side as if they had been swatted with a giant hand.
Suddenly Finn stopped walking and grabbed my arm. You know what’s the best thing? he asked.
No, I said, what is it?
Not knowing anything, Finn answered. Not understanding anything -- and being all right with that, being completely all right with that.
I couldn’t agree. He was the one who knew, who understood. I was the one who didn’t. He had no right to say it -- unless he was speaking more metaphysically. But I didn’t argue with him.
We walked again. Eventually, Finn led me to the door of my apartment. I opened it and let us both in. The rain was coming down harder. It started to pelt the walkways, rock walls and zinc rooftops, ricocheting off at jagged angles. I’m not there yet, I said. I’m not anywhere near there. I don’t know if I’ll ever be.
The bed is split up to the skin
That afternoon, while we made love, Finn continued our conversation that began on the cliff. I was waiting. I could feel myself waiting. I was waiting for them to cave in and tell me what I wanted to know. I was waiting for Dylan to come and get me and confront them, blurting out the confidences that I so eagerly wanted and they so zealously kept secret.
You were there once, Finn said to me.
Where? I asked.
That place where it’s okay to not understand anything, he answered.
Was I? I asked.
Yes, he said.
Really? I insisted. I sat up on my elbow, ran my fingertips along his chest and stomach.
Yes, Finn answered. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye. He reminded me of a whale when he did that -- gray whale, the ones who migrate down from California to Baja to breed and raise their young.
When? I asked.
Before you met Colin and me, Finn explained.
How do I get back there? I asked, even though I had no hope or even desire of getting back there. Now that I realized all that I didn’t know, I wanted to know. I kissed his chest above the nipples and lay my head down on him, listening to his breath and heartbeat.
I told you, I don’t know anything, Finn answered. He wrapped his arms around me and squeezed hard -- so hard, I couldn’t take a breath. Then he loosened his arms so I could breathe again, but kept them against me.
Will I get back? I asked.
I think so, Finn answered.
I threw my leg over his hipbones and my arm across his chest. I rested my head on his shoulder. Thank you, I said.
For what? Finn asked. He ran his hand up and down my arm.
Everything you’ve done for me, I answered.
What’s that, he asked.
I don’t know, I said.
We laughed. See, you’re on your way, Finn said.
We turned on our sides and faced each other. For Emma, I ventured.
But he only looked at me.
For spending time with me, I added.
Yes, there’s that, Finn remarked. He brushed the hair out of my eyes with his fingertips.
Can I ask you? I began.
Yes, Finn said. He laid a hand on my hip.
Why don’t you ever ask me to stay?
Because then you wouldn’t want to, he explained. He swept my hip and leg with the palm of his hand.
Wouldn’t I? I asked. I touched his chest with my fingertips.
No, Finn insisted. Then I’d be like Colin, wanting something from you, so you wouldn’t want to give it.
Finn turned to lie on his back again, and put his hand under his head.
So this way I want to stay, but I don’t?
Exactly, Finn said.
And that’s better to you than if I stayed and didn’t want to? I snuggled up to him, and tried to get comfortable in the crook of his arm.
Sure, Finn answered.
But what if I stayed and wanted to? I asked.
Not possible, Finn said.
Finn looked out toward the window. It was still raining. The breeze was coming through the linen curtains. You could hear the waves crash against the cliff.
Dylan has a hold on you, Finn explained. He knows how to make you stay with him. No one else knows how.
I thought about this. But not how to make me be faithful to him, I added. And I thought: and not content without the answers to all these secrets.
You will be faithful, Finn said, eventually. In a way you are now.
How’s that? I asked.
You don’t love anyone else, Finn answered.
I kissed him on the cheek. Love. There was that word. The prize I always desperately wanted and never had until I met Dylan ten years before. The gift I felt suffocated, manipulated, and coerced by. I’ll marry you and live with you for ten years but I won’t tell you anything about my life before I met you. Was that love? What was that love worth? What kind of life had that been? And what would it become now that the love had faded?
Will you do something for me? Finn was saying.
What is it? I asked.
Finn brought his arm down from behind his head, and threw it over my arm. He held me close. Will you keep Emma safe?
I’ll do everything I can, I assured him. But how could I keep her safe when I had no idea what was going on between the four of them – Finn, Colin, Dylan and Ryan.
I turned on my back. We both inspected the ceiling for a while. I listened again to the waves crash, and felt the breeze against my neck.
Finn, I said.
Dylan’s first wife, was she very special?
Vanessa? She was incredible, Finn said. Hasn’t he told you? You can see a lot of her in Emma now.
Vanessa. Her name was Vanessa. And she really was Emma’s mother. So was Dylan Emma’s father? Or was Finn?
He never talks about her, I said.
It sounded like the complaint that it was. I had not even begun to learn their arts of subterfuge.
He’s lucky to have you, Finn said. He turned over on his side again, facing me.
Why? I asked.
To take his pain away, Finn said. He ran his hand over my stomach and collarbone.
What pain? I asked.
Of losing her like that.
I turned on my side to face him. Like what? I asked.
He never told you? Her first husband murdered her when she was married to Dylan, Finn said.
I sat up on my elbow. Then I lay back down again, stunned. Was this the truth? Or another lie? I wondered. Who was the first husband?
He never told you? Finn repeated.
Finn got up. I heard him rummaging in the refrigerator -- the frigo as they said in France. Then I heard the tap water running in the kitchen sink. When he came back and sat on the bed, he set down a plate of grapes and goat cheese, two forks, and two glasses of Bordeaux on the night stand.
Dylan said his first wife died of cancer, I explained. Emma said her mom died of cancer and her mom’s husband was a British architect who moved to California after her death. I plucked some grapes off the stem with my fingers, speared a forkful of goat cheese, and drank the Bordeaux.
I couldn’t tell Emma her mother was murdered, Finn said. It would have been too much. Finn stroked my hair. You shouldn’t mind that Dylan didn’t tell you, he added.
Why not? I asked.
He didn’t want you to feel sorry for him. And anyway, some things are too awful to reveal.
Finn tasted his wine, ate some grapes and goat cheese. He always swallowed elaborately, and stretched his throat, like it was too narrow or raw inside and gave him trouble.
Does he know you know? I asked.
I was there, Finn answered.
Finn watched me while I got out of bed and threw my clothes on. I even slipped on my shoes, even though I never wore shoes in the house.
How can you do this? I asked, though I should have directed the accusation at myself.
Sorry? he asked. He was still eating. He looked so innocent.
How can you sleep with both his wives? Kidnap Emma? Are you Emma’s father? Or is Dylan? Are you related to Dylan? How?
I’m the most rank tosser in the world, Finn said. He drank more Bordeaux, ate more grapes. He clambered back into bed, pulled the covers up to his waist and sat there, his back resting against the padded, pin-tucked headboard.
I sat down on the bed next to him. He held me. Anyway, it goes both ways. How could you sleep with me? he asked me.
But he knew it didn’t go both ways. He had known whom I was when he slept with me. He had known he was connected to my husband and how. I still didn’t know how.
I had no idea you knew my husband, I answered.
Finn fed me grapes from his fingertips, one by one. I took them into my mouth obediently, chewed them and swallowed. That won’t solve anything, he chided.
Why does he take me back? I asked.
Finn handed me my glass of Bordeaux. Sometimes loss is so hard to bear, you can’t choose it, he explained. He lost one wife. He’s not going to let you go. Anyway, it’s not your fault. As you said -- you didn’t know.
I know now, I said.
Yes, there’s that, Finn said. He ate more grapes. He laughed.
Finn? I said. Why were you in Prague? Emma said you took her to Prague.
Prague? Finn said. Finn was still sitting up in bed, the sheet pulled up and twisted around his legs, eating grapes and goat cheese. I didn’t take her, he said. He looked right into my eyes.
When I woke up the next morning in my apartment in Biarritz, Emma sprinted to the bed and hugged me. She grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me into the kitchen where Dylan was leaning against the counter. The kitchen smelled like berry pie. I pictured the pie hot, with a scoop of vanilla low fat frozen yogurt, riddled with cherries and chocolate bits melting on top.
I spoiled him rotten since you went away, Emma said, beaming. But we couldn’t wait for you to come home any longer. So we came to you.
Emma smiled at Dylan, and he winked back at her. He looked at me, tilting his head to one side.
Good, I said.
She was very nice -- very nice. Dylan said.
Emma told us she would be on the patio, curtsied, and made that awkward, twisted-up face that teenagers make when they are embarrassed. Dylan laughed at her, and said, Off you go, then. It seemed like they had accumulated some secrets since I’d been away from them, but I dismissed it this idea as paranoid. If it was dangerous to tell me the truth, it would be even more dangerous and perhaps even inappropriate to tell Emma.
Of course I had always dismissed my suspicions as paranoid, and look where that had led me –to immersion, to being in too deep to get out. Inappropriate laughter: I kept thinking of the Godfather movie (2? 3?) when Pacino stands with his legs apart, looking down at the floor and grumbles something like, Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in! and claws toward his chest with his hands like he’s pulling a wide net of fish from the sea.
What’s so funny? Dylan asked.
Nothing, I answered.
No, tell me, he insisted.
Just a scene from The Godfather, I explained.
The horse’s head? Dylan asked.
No, I said. The Just-when- I-think-I’m-out-they-pull-me-back-in moment, I explained.
Very well, then, Dylan said.
But he seemed puzzled. He was watching me more closely than ever before. I opened the refrigerator door and stared in aimlessly. I often did this -- usually when I wasn’t hungry. In fact I was rarely hungry -- I would get dizzy or weak or cranky before I ever got hungry. But I always had cravings. At first I thought they were cravings to be loved, but now I was loved and I still had them, so my theory was disproved. Perhaps I craved comfort or safety. I’d never had those. Does anyone? I was hoping for the illusion of it, but even this had not come. The best I could hope for was the belief that when danger did come, I could handle it. In any case, food only satisfied the cravings temporarily. Well, chocolate did -- nothing else worked, really.
You were wrong, I told Dylan.
You’re really through with Finn? Dylan asked. Colin isn’t dangerous? Or wrong to come here after you?
All of the above, I answered. Though I had been hoping he’d come – hoping to force a crisis that would lead me to answers. I hadn’t hoped that he’d bring Emma. But I hadn’t thought it through.
Not exactly, Dylan corrected me.
Dylan came up behind me and shut the refrigerator door, gently, without recrimination. He brushed my hair off my neck, and kissed my shoulder. He wrapped his arms around me. I leaned into him. He took me by the wrist and led me down the hall to the bedroom. When I passed the sliding glass door to the patio I noticed Emma was sitting out on the sand.
I won’t go away again, I told him. This is the last time.
He was taking off my clothes. He never took off my clothes -- I always took them off, and he took off his own.
You’ll do whatever you like, Dylan answered.
I want to be with you, I insisted.
Whatever you like, he said.
As we were getting into bed I told him – You knew I’d come back, didn’t you? Why didn’t you wait?
Dylan said no, he hadn’t known.
After we made love, and I was resting in the crook of his arm, I asked him if Emma was all right.
Emma’s lovely, Dylan answered. She missed you.
We were silent for a while. Then I asked: Why don’t you ever say to me, You can’t go, or, If you go you can’t come back.
Dylan turned on his side to face me. It’s none of my business, he answered.
Why isn’t it? I asked.
Because you’re free, Dylan said. You do what you do of your own free will. If you’re with me, it’s because you choose to be. If you’re with someone else, it’s because you choose to be.
The World According to Dylan. I’d never heard him say so much about himself, or about me. He only said that much about an architect, or an art object, or a painting.
And you, I said, are you free?
No, Dylan answered. Not anymore.
So you don’t choose me, I said.
I choose to be here, Dylan said. Wherever I happen to be.
He lay on his back again, and took me in his arm.
With me? I asked.
If you’re here, he answered.
But I’m your wife, I insisted. I liked to say it, wife/husband, just the way I liked to say, my house at the beach, or my job, or my painting, or now about Emma, my daughter. I liked to say them because I was simply incredulous. I didn’t believe any of them. I didn’t believe I could ever have anything I wanted. Was that why I had become so greedy?
He laughed. I haven’t forgotten, he said.
The more I know about you the more puzzling you become, I told him.
Dylan ran his hand along my arm. I’m very simple, he said.
You know what I think? I asked.
Here we go, he said. No, what do you think?
I pulled the covers up over my shoulder. I think what you really want is to have me, I began. And you do have me. And you know you it. But you wouldn’t have known it if there hadn’t been someone to take me away from you, so I would want to come back, choose to. So I would choose you over them -- over all of them. That’s what you wanted -- you got what you wanted.
Now it seems like a cruel thing to have said, under the circumstances, but I didn’t know all the circumstances.
Men always have to have another man to be the adversary, I concluded, so they can win.
There it was: my theory of Dylan and me.
You think too much, Dylan said. Just live.
He kissed me on the forehead.
If you could have anything in the world, what would it be? I asked him. Then I remembered the lawyer’s rule: don’t ask anything for which you don’t already know the answer. No risks.
Not to feel anything, Dylan said.
I don’t believe you.
What, then? Dylan asked.
To have your first wife back, I answered. I didn’t say her name. I didn’t want him to know that I knew her name.
Dylan raised up on his elbow. For what? To raise another man’s child? So I can lose her?
So she was another man’s child? Whose?
If she hadn’t had a child, you wouldn’t have Emma, I reminded him.
And if she hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have you, Dylan added.
Dylan lay back again, stared at the ceiling.
I’m not sure you want me, I ventured.
I told you what I wanted, Dylan said -- not to feel anything.
A few nights later while Dylan and Emma were eating dinner I went for a walk down to the Bather’s Cove beach by the aquarium. I know I shouldn’t walk at night, it’s dangerous, but the sky was moon lit, and I was restless. I know, I should expect to see Ryan if I go out alone, even in Biarritz, but experience had taught me that I wasn’t imagining things -- he really was following me and turning up everywhere.
I strolled out onto the Bather’s Cove. There was a slight breeze, not too windy. Pleasant. The salt spray from the waves breaking against the rocks refreshed me. For a moment I felt like I was in a gum commercial: peppermint, spearmint, something with twins.
You’re back in Biarritz, Ryan remarked.
Your jurisdiction extends to Europe? I asked.
When did you get back? Ryan asked.
I turned away from him, rested my hands on the cliff face and stared out at the ocean. You probably knew before I did, I said.
I knew you would come back, Ryan answered.
You were the only one, I said. I turned to face him. So, that bastard who killed Dylan’s first wife –
Ryan laughed. Just plunge right in, he said.
I hope he got the chair, I said.
He couldn’t, Ryan told me. He was already dead.
You killed him? I asked.
Dylan shot him, Ryan said.
So I had been married to a man for ten years who shot and killed people.
Dylan, I said. Why isn’t he in jail?
Self-defense, Ryan answered.
And Finn? Finn told me he was there.
Dylan shot him too, Ryan explained. Self defense – again.
So I was sleeping with a man my husband had shot but not killed. I turned away again. I leaned over, into the wind.
Why did he shoot Finn? I asked.
Because Finn was in bed with his wife, Ryan answered.
I walked down the beach toward the water, Ryan following.
To hurt him, Ryan added, to make him pay -- maybe to kill him.
I had reached the surf. Would he do it again? I asked.
Probably, Ryan answered. Yes. He tilted his head to one side and scrutinized me. He put his hand in his pants pocket and played with his cell phone, turning it over on its side, once, twice, three times. Why don’t you stop asking? he said.
I turned to face him. What? I asked.
Dylan doesn’t want you to know, I don’t want you to know – why don’t you stop asking? Ryan repeated.
He’s my husband, I answered. I want to know.
It makes everything worse, Ryan insisted. It’s distasteful. The indignity of it all. The woman’s dead. They all wanted her. Why can’t you all just leave it alone?
I want to know who Dylan is, I said.
That’s not who Dylan is, Ryan said. That’s something that happened to him.
I shook my head. Ryan came and stood beside me. The truth is, it all happened before Dylan met you, Ryan said. It has nothing to do with you, nothing at all.
I looked down at the water. It was a murky brownish-green. It swayed from side to side as it receded from shore, like a boat wake, or water sloshed in a bucket.
Why were Emma and Finn in Prague? I asked.
Stay away from Colin and Finn, Ryan warned me. Go home. Stop asking questions.
Stop following me, I said.
Tit for tat. I thought. One good cessation deserves another -- and all of that.
I can’t, Ryan answered.
I started walking back up the road, Ryan lagging behind, as usual.
And me, Ryan added.
And you, I conceded.
So stay out of it, Ryan suggested.
I can’t to do that now, I said. Dylan, Colin and Finn involved me..
I told you how, Ryan insisted. Anyway, your part is over.
And if I can’t stay out of it?
Then, Ryan said, you won’t forgive yourself when something happens.
We had stopped at the entrance to my apartment. He exchanged looks with my concierge, who was watching him. Then he pushed me up against the wall and kissed me hard on the mouth.
I didn’t mean that, Ryan said.
The kiss, or the blame? I asked.
The blame, he said. It wouldn’t be your fault; but stay out of it.
Ryan walked away. I wiped off my mouth.
He is oppressed by creeping vines
A few days after her sixteenth birthday, Emma met Finn on the beach at Bather’s Cove. It took a week of Emma prodding Dylan for him to allow it. Of course Ryan was in evidence, watching at a cautious distance, on a street filled with shops. Emma didn’t notice him, and if Finn did, it didn’t register on his face.
Emma had packed the picnic lunch. She selected two fresh baguettes, baked that morning, a round of brie, and some very green hard apples that in American we would call pippins. She also brought two bottles of Evian water and two napoleon pastries in wax paper in a neat square cardboard box, along with the usual supply of plastic utensils, napkins, and cups.
When she strode up to Finn on the beach, proudly swinging her basket, he stood up and hugged her. They sat down together on the blue and white striped beach blanket that Finn had brought, and spread out neatly on the sand before her arrival, carefully smoothing out any ridges or folds. Finn helped Emma extract the baguettes, brie, pippins and bottles of water out of the basket. He ooohed, ahhhed and otherwise crooned like a young father should. After all, Emma was sixteen; in a year she would graduate from high school, and she was wonderful in every respect.
Are you going to stay then? Finn asked her, when they were eating their baguettes with brie and apples.
No, Emma answered. I’ll go back with Tati Dylan and Gabriela, finish high school there, and then study at university in the States.
You can do as you like now, Finn said. You’re sixteen. He brushed the hair out of her eyes. During that period she wore some stylish low bangs that were always falling into her eyes.
I know it, Emma said. She picked at her baguette. In the months away from Finn she had grown tall and lithe, and become a fussy eater, especially when she was nervous. She didn’t need to be nervous; she rarely needed to stand her ground. She was afraid she might hurt Finn, and if she did he might stop loving her. She would learn -- she would grow, slowly and steadily, into the idea that she would always be loved. But this would take a while; she was only sixteen. Who knows what she had been through as a baby, how she really lost her mother.
Will you ever stay? Finn asked. He drank his Evian water.
Perhaps after university, Emma said. Will you?
Will I what now? Finn asked.
Stay, Emma said. She was scraping at her pippin now.
Sorry? Finn said.
You could come to the States, Emma suggested, stay on with us.
I don’t know, Finn said, we’ll see. He uncrossed his legs and straightened them out along the blanket. He leaned back, stretching out and resting his weight cavalierly on one elbow. Has Dylan been good to you? he asked.
Yes, Emma said. And Gabriela.
Has he been a father to you? Finn asked.
He has, hasn’t he, Emma said, winking. He’s a grown up.
What? Finn said.
A grown up, Emma repeated.
Sorry? Finn asked. He sat up, re-crossed his legs and leaned in toward Emma.
He sees things as they are, Emma explained, not the way he hopes or fears they might be.
I’m not a grown up? Finn asked.
No, Emma said, nor is Gabriela.
Emma sat up on her knees and reached her arms around Finn. Growing up with you and Colin was like three kids growing up together, Emma said, always on the run -- a grand adventure.
Emma sat back down and started to pretend to eat again.
I was a young chap then, Finn said. Barely twenty -- only four years older than you are now. Can you understand that?
Did we ring off and go to the States to see Gabriela? Emma asked. Or was that just some ruse, some bollocks for you to bring me to Dylan?
Women always want men to admit everything. They want motives out in the open, stated. Men are more willing to keep silent, agree to a tacit understanding, to assume the parties involved know the score. It’s more confident, subtler, dignified. Most women can’t abide it.
We went to see Gabriela, Finn answered, not to take you to Dylan.
Finn liked to stick to his story, no matter what it happened to be.
Gabriela thinks you meant to bring me back to Dylan, Emma told him. She was growing up right there, in front of his eyes.
Very well. Maybe I did, Finn conceded. But I think not.
They stared at each other. Finn spread some mango chutney on his chicken breast with a plastic knife and took a bite. He sipped his Evian. He wiped his mouth with a paper napkin, and stared at the napoleon, sitting appallingly smug in its waxed paper, in its neat little square, perfectly square, cardboard box, as if everything was as it should be.
I’m afraid, Emma said.
Of what now? Finn asked.
Of being like Gabriela, Emma answered.
How’s that? Finn asked.
Always torn, Emma said, between you and Dylan, staying and going, Biarritz and Malibu.
Finn put his baguette down. Emma, he said, you don’t choose your life. Sometimes you just stay with what’s familiar --what’s safe, what’s already happening.
But she chose, Emma said. She chose Dylan.
They ate the rest of their lunch. Finn asked her about school and boys, the colleges she would apply to, Dylan’s work. Emma asked Finn about Colin, how they spent their time, where they had traveled, what their future plans were.
Ryan stayed the whole time, at a distance, on the street crowded with shops, waiting, watching. When Finn finally left her, patting her on the head and tell her, Off you go, then, Ryan followed Emma back to our apartment so he could be sure she was safe, but safe from what?
After her picnic/meeting with Finn on the beach, Emma came home, put her head in my lap and cried for a while. As all good girls do, she wondered why. Was it because she might not see Finn again until after college? I told her she could come to Biarritz and visit him in the summers if she chose. Was it because she was afraid she’d hurt his feelings? I assured her she hadn’t, that Finn loved her unconditionally, supported and respected her choices, and knew she loved him the same way, in every particular.
Did she have some premonition? I don’t know. If she did, she did not mention it then, and has never spoken of it since the incident that followed.
I was puttering in the kitchen, banging pots and pans, pretending to be occupied and useful.
Do you think you did the right thing, I said at last, bringing Emma here?
Dylan looked up from this café au lait and Le Monde. He turned away from the beneficent effects of the breeze. That would have to wait. What’s the right thing? Dylan asked. Anyway, he continued, if I hadn’t, she would have come on her own.
He leaned against me and watched me for a while, then patted my shoulder. You needn’t worry about every permutation, Dylan chided.
He stayed for a minute or two longer; then he told me he was going out and would be back shortly. He did not say where he was going -- unusual for Dylan, so I imagined he had yet another secret to take care of. But that was okay, as I now had a few of my own.
I stood at the street-facing window and watched him as he made his way, in a casual but elegant zigzag fashion, down the street. Whenever I watched Dylan in a crowd, or I watched him without him knowing it, I realized how handsome he was, how graceful, European. It made me want to be with him, and I was compelled to remind myself that I already was and had been now for thirteen years.
As a child, in the mornings, when I left for school, my mother habitually stood at the door with my lunch bag, handed it to me, kissed me goodbye, and watched me walk to the end of the driveway and out of sight down the street. I told her she had to stand there and watch; otherwise I would have a bad day. I made a rule – perhaps my first. I was a suspicious child, who believed in chance, fate, destiny and self-will, all muddled up in some kind of Byzantine theories I was developing. But above all, I believed in luck, and I was convinced that if my mother left her post at the door while she could still see me, I would be plagued with bad luck, and all manner of horrific things would descend on me.
Finn opened the door, glided into the apartment, and closed the door behind him.
What are you doing here?
I had to see you, Finn answered.
But I thought we’d agreed, I whined. I thought we’d settled all that.
Finn approached me and grabbed my arm above the elbow. Maybe you should stay, he suggested. He sat down at the kitchen table.
I thought – I began, and then stopped, because I hadn’t the slightest idea what I was about to say. What did I think, exactly? I wanted answers. I wanted to know who my husband really was, what had happened to him.
Finn looked up at me from where he was sitting at the table. Colin misses you, he explained. I miss you. He leaned back into the chair and dropped his hands in his lap.
Finn, I started, without knowing where to begin. I went up to him, and stood next to his chair. He put his arms around my legs, and rested his face against my stomach. We remained in that embrace for some time, silent, motionless.
Thank you for taking care of Emma, Finn ventured.
You don’t have to thank me, I answered.
Why not? Finn asked. He looked up at me -- boyish, concerned, curious, handsome.
I would have done it anyway, I told him.
Will you ever have kids of your own? Finn asked.
I don’t know, I said. I don’t think Dylan wants them.
I wondered if he had had any with Kate.
Do you want them? Finn asked.
I don’t know, I answered. I stroked his hair and kissed the top of his head.
If you hadn’t had to take care of Emma, Finn began, if you hadn’t met me.
If I hadn’t met Dylan, I said. If, if, if ---
What? Finn asked.
It doesn’t matter, I said. What could have happened, what would have happened, what might have happened if --.
What does matter? Finn asked.
What did happen, I answered.
I stopped. I had begun to feel as if I were practicing French, conjugating a verb.
I still want you, Finn went on. Colin still wants you. That is happening.
I choose to be with Dylan, I said.
You don’t, Finn insisted.
I do, I said.
Why? Finn asked.
He’s my husband, I answered.
You could marry me, Finn suggested. You could marry Colin.
I stroked his hair again. He looked up at me with his boyish charm.
There’s something so complicated about Dylan, I said to him. I rested my cheek on the top of his head and looked at everything sideways.
It makes him endless, I went on; you can’t get to the end of him. Dylan’s like the ocean.
You’re not making sense, Finn mumbled.
Ah, but I am, I said, maybe for the first time in my life.
I lifted my head off his and looked down at him. Finn stood up and kissed me.
Don’t Finn, I said. Don’t start.
I tried to push him away. Of course, Dylan came in then, with a L’Ouest magazine and bag of almond croissants. Finn had not bothered to lock the door. Finn ran out the door, as would be expected. Dylan dropped the baguette and paper and ran after him. So here was the confrontation I had been hoping for. Now perhaps I would get the answers I wanted. But now that it had come I only felt fear.
Finn ran down the street until he reached the cliffs above the ocean; Dylan followed. Some passersby turned to watch them: shoppers, upright citizens, innocent onlookers, men and women running errands -- but most people did not seem particularly alarmed. No one shouted robber, or murderer, or anything (Voleur! Assassin!), the way they had in Children of Paradise. I followed of course, but didn’t run. I wanted to know the truth but I didn’t want to see Dylan or Finn get hurt. I am a coward; let’s face it.
At a certain point at the cliff, (Finn kept looking down to gauge where he was) Finn stopped and waited for Dylan. There were some gulls above him, screaming and circling. The wind whipped up. Finn had something in his eye, and bent over a little, putting his finger to his face to try to remove it.
Why don’t you leave her alone? Dylan shouted, out of breath, when he caught up to Finn. Why don’t you leave Emma alone? Why don’t you ring off, leave us all alone? You have no claim on any of us.
Yes I do, Finn answered. He was quiet in the face of Dylan’s rage.
Finn backed up to the edge of the cliff, glancing behind him every few steps, again to gauge his position. When he reached the edge, he held his arms out toward Dylan, beckoning him. When Dylan approached, Finn pulled a gun and pointed it at Dylan.
I had not felt the gun against me a few minutes before, in the apartment when I held Finn, when he kissed me, so I had a hard time believing it was even there, but this was the story everyone reported to me: the gendarmes, bystanders, Colin. But I am getting ahead of myself.
What’s this? Dylan said. Finn had never pulled a gun on Dylan, if Ryan’s stories were true. But Dylan had pulled them on Finn.
Put the gun down, Finn, Colin advised him. Colin had appeared, on Finn’s left, opposite where Dylan was on Finn’s right, like a mirror image, and was standing about the same distance away.
I laid down on my stomach the ground, as flat as I could, behind a plane tree, and tilted my head just enough to see them. I was a hundred yards away -- safe from rogue bullets behind the tree. Free to watch. Free to listen.
Put the gun down, Finn, Ryan said. He was also there, even further to Finn’s right, beyond Dylan. They were all three of them, Ryan, Dylan and Colin, evenly spaced, like spokes on half of a wheel, with Finn on the cliff edge, at the center.
Finn bent down very slowly, deliberately, and set the gun on the ground. Then he swung his arms back, pumped his legs once, and spreading his arms out like wings, he jumped backward off the cliff toward the ocean. Dylan ran forward at that point and tried to catch Finn, but didn’t reach him in time. He threw himself on the ground and grabbed for Finn’s ankles, like a base runner sliding into second, so he wouldn’t go over the cliff himself from his forward momentum.
When Dylan stood up and brushed himself off, he saw that Ryan had his gun pointed at him. He looked at Colin. Colin also had a gun pointed at Dylan, who was now unarmed, having dropped his gun at some point when he grabbed for Finn. But Dylan did not appear perplexed; he just looked as if he were waiting to see what would happen next. He looked almost like he was planning to try to duck the bullet, as if such a thing were possible.
It happened fast, but it looked to me as if Ryan shot at Dylan, Colin shot at Ryan, and Dylan dropped to the ground.
Colin rushed over to Ryan to make sure he was dead. He kicked him a little in the shoulder, then kicked Ryan’s gun away from him. Then Colin walked over to Dylan, and extended a hand to help Dylan up. Dylan got up and brushed himself off again. They both looked over the cliff. Finn was floating there, face down in the water.
Colin placed his hand on Dylan’s shoulder. Don’t blame yourself, Colin said. He’s wanted to for a long time. Since Emma left. Only he waited. He waited for her to come back. To see her one more time.
I shouldn’t have, Dylan said.
Don’t, Colin said. Finn always wanted to be you. He always wanted to surpass you. And he didn’t make it.
Colin looked down into the water again. He brushed back his hair with his free hand. Dylan took a handkerchief out of his pocket and draped it over his hand. Colin poured a chemical from a bottle onto the handkerchief and then put his gun in the handkerchief. Dylan wiped the gun off thoroughly and threw it over the cliff. Then he picked up Finn’s gun with the handkerchief, fired it into Ryan, wiped it off a second time, and threw that over the cliff as well.
So what happened? Dylan asked. Ryan fired at Finn and he jumped?
That seems to be what happened, Colin answered.
That’s when I stood up. I wasn’t shaking. I must have been in shock. I had never seen guns fired, and especially not by anyone I knew. Emma was standing beside me. She must have joined me at some point when I was lying on my stomach behind the plane tree. I do not remember when. I remember only people running in different directions, lying behind the plane tree, watching and hearing shots and finally, standing there with Emma. Emma was in her wetsuit. Her hair was wet. Her surfboard was leaning up against the tree.
Emma was headed for the cliff. Colin caught her so she wouldn’t look over it. She was screaming and crying. I wondered how she knew.
You killed Ryan? I asked Dylan. Ryan’s CIA!
Ryan’s not CIA, Dylan answered. I’m CIA -- or I was.
I looked at Dylan, incredulous.
I looked at Colin. He was still holding Emma. He nodded, as if to say it was true – Dylan had been CIA, not Ryan.
Where’s Finn? I asked.
Colin nodded his head toward the cliff.
I tried to stop him, Dylan said.
I had never heard Dylan plead with anyone before, least of all me. He appeared to be in shock. I slapped his face. I slapped it again and again, until Colin grabbed my wrist.
It wasn’t Dylan, Colin insisted. Finn did what he wanted.
Colin kissed Emma’s forehead, stroked her hair, held her. She was still crying. Colin looked over Emma’s head at me. He whispered to me: Finn’s last move, charming -- isn’t it?
Dylan put his arm around me. I touched his face where I had slapped it. He took my arm by the wrist as Colin had done.
I guess that was when the gendarmes showed up.
It was a few days later before I had the chance to talk to Colin about all of it. We sat on the beach where Finn and Emma had had their picnic, but we didn’t have any food. We didn’t bring anything with us.
I’m sorry it had to go down that way, Colin said.
Did it have to? I asked him
What else, Colin answered. Finn became very philosophical after we left Emma with you in the States. I thought he’d found some peace, oddly enough. I thought he’d forgiven himself – because he’d set things straight.
And then? I asked.
And then -- after you came to visit he got very dark, Colin answered. He stayed dark. I knew he was barely hanging on. Hanging on for something I didn’t know what -- until Emma came back. Then I knew.
Couldn’t you stop him? I asked.
If there were a way to stop Finn, we’d all have done it a long time ago, Colin said. You shouldn’t blame yourself. You shouldn’t blame Dylan.
I don’t have to, I said.
Colin sat closer to me. He put his hand on my arm. What do you mean? he asked.
Dylan’s already taken the blame, I answered. He blames himself for everything – for his first wife’s murder, for Finn taking Emma.
For Prague? Colin asked.
What happened in Prague? I said.
You don’t know? Colin asked. He smiled his mischievous smile, and leaned in toward me until our shoulders touched. But he doesn’t hate himself? Colin asked. Dylan, I mean.
No, I said. Why should he?
Well, if he blames himself for all that – Colin trailed off.
No, I answered, Dylan doesn’t hate himself.
Colin took my chin with his fingertips and turned my head toward him. I’d been looking out at the water until then. He kissed me, long, on the mouth. It felt like an apology.
I don’t hate myself, Colin said, and I don’t blame myself either.
No, I didn’t think you did.
Colin got up and reached his hand out to me. I took it and stood up. We walked down the beach.
I was never going to shoot Dylan, you know, Colin told me. If I’d pointed the gun at Ryan right away he would have shot us both. I had to go along.
Who was Ryan? I asked.
Sorry? Colin said.
Who was Ryan, if he wasn’t CIA? I asked.
Let Dylan tell you, Colin answered. He put his arm around me and drew me to him while we walked.
You know Dylan never tells me anything, I said. Colin laughed. Finn was the only one who ever told me anything, I complained, and now he’s gone.
I still wanted to know so many things. I had so many questions. Finn’s loss was tremendous, and I would probably never get the answers.
We walked for a while in silence. Colin removed his arm from around my shoulder and stuffed both of his hands in the pockets of his jeans. He raised his shoulders up toward his ears, as if he were cold.
I expect Finn has not gone very far at all, Colin remarked.
I would have pursued it, but whatever it was, I imagined Colin wouldn’t tell me. And anyway, I was sick of pursuit, as sick of pursuit as I was of letting things run their course.
I stopped and stared at him. You killed Ryan, I said.
That I did, Colin said.
How does that feel? I asked him.
We started walking again. Feel? Colin repeated. It feels very bad, very bad.
Colin stopped me. He put his hand on my shoulder. Gabriela, he said, are you going to stay with me now?
No, I answered.
I didn’t think so, Colin said.
We started walking down the beach again.
Do you ever feel like your whole life has been a mistake? Colin asked me.
No, I said. Do you?
No, Colin said. But I worry Finn felt that way.
We walked for a while in silence. I felt the breeze on my face, the salt spray. Listened to the waves crash against the beach. Colin walked me to the apartment, kissed me on the forehead, and let me go in, alone.
Hollywood Hills, April 2001 -- a week later
Dylan and Emma had taken up cooking: they liked to cook together. It was always something of a romp. They would throw arugula and radicchio in each other’s faces, and pop grilled shrimps and smelly cheeses into each other’s mouths. One would hang on the other’s shoulder while the first stirred a béarnaise sauce, or sautéed red peppers.
But that night was different; Emma was out with her friends, and Dylan had enlisted me to make a salad with him.
We had not talked about what happened in Biarritz during the month we’d been home. I had not asked him any questions. Sometimes Emma would cry for Finn in her room late at night and I would go in and comfort her. When I climbed back into bed Dylan would tell me Emma would be okay, eventually. Then he would ask me if I was okay, and if I were going to be okay. But otherwise we didn’t speak about what had happened. Sometimes I thought this silence, this avoidance, this insistence upon an ordinary life was our one chance, our chance to go back to the way things were before Biarritz, before I had ever met Finn and Colin. Of course I knew some things now that I could not begin to forget, that I could not stop wondering about. And we had Emma.
I tried not to ask Dylan all the questions that were circling around in my head like so many peregrine falcons. Since I couldn’t talk to Dylan, and couldn’t risk confiding in anyone else, I played out the post – mortem discussion and analysis in my head, sorting through the eyewitness reports, the newspaper articles, what I had witnessed when Emma and I finally came on the scene, what Colin and Dylan claimed, what Ryan had told me those few years before; posing my questions and considering several possible answers.
Dylan and I maintained a guarded silence with each other. We were kind to each other, considerate, affectionate, even solicitous of each other – almost excessively so, suspiciously so. But something was broken: trust, maybe, belief – but belief in what? Transparency? Truth? Had I ever believed in those things?
That lasted a month, after which I just couldn’t keep silent anymore.
Dylan was slicing carrots at a severe and almost excessive angle, that Japanese way, with a large knife. As I watched him, I thought about all the secret parts of his life before he met me -- his marriage with Vanessa, his work in the CIA, (if indeed he had worked for them), before that -- university, before that, growing up in London. It went by in my mind like a reversed movie reel, spinning out of control.
Dylan, what happened in Prague? I began. Finn said –
Dylan put down the large chopping knife, but kept his other hand on the carrot. Remember when I ran out the door chasing Finn, Dylan said, and you shouted Dylan, Let it go, let him go?
I thought you hadn’t heard me, I answered.
Well, I had, hadn’t I? Dylan said. That’s what you have to do Gabriela, let the past go, let Finn go.
He resumed chopping. End of conversation.
Dylan rarely used my name. I wondered what it meant.
Colin said you shouldn’t blame yourself, I ventured. He said Finn had been suicidal for a long time. Dark. Just hanging on until he could see Emma one more time.
I wondered if he had even heard me. Dylan put down the knife again, and turned until he was facing me. Colin said, Finn said, Ryan said, he began. Has it ever occurred to you that no one is telling you the truth?
Yes, I said. Except you – you won’t tell me anything at all.
At least I don’t lie to you, Dylan said. He resumed chopping, then stopped, as if waiting for my reply, then started again.
Except by omission, I said.
He continued chopping. Not the same thing, is it? he asked, still looking down at his choice of vegetable. He had dispensed with the carrots, and had begun on a cucumber.
I tried to engage him with a few other intriguing or provocative questions, but he had traveled as far as he would go. We finished chopping the salad, he grilled some shrimp, and we ate; he changed the subject to work, then politics, then art, then aesthetics, then the neighborhood. I let him.
No Fish in the tank
A few days later I was resting on the steamer chair on the deck at the Malibu house, breezing through books that were half serious historical architecture, half glossy coffee table photo displays -- Mediterranean Vernacular, and Mallorca Living – when Emma bounded through the sand, headed for the water, and when she reached it, kicked her feet at the surf. I had watched her become more and more gamine-like over the last few weeks, more and more French, as if she never left, as if she were over compensating, lonely for her country and family. As much as Dylan and I could be her family, she had not grown up with us. That, for her, defined family.
I set down Mediterranean Vernacular, heaved myself up out of the steamer chair and ambled out onto the sand. Emma and I sat down together. For a while we watched the surfers. I wondered if she had a boyfriend out there, his abdomen flat against the board, getting wax rash. We watched the neighbors saunter by with their designer dogs.
I stroked Emma’s hair. I felt for her – Malibu was a far cry from Biarritz. There were surfers in the water, it was a high-end coastal resort, both the residents and tourists were affluent, but the similarities ended there.
What is it, Emma? I asked. Is it Finn?
Emma brought her knees up to her chest and wrapped her spindly arms around them. I keep thinking he’ll come back, she told me. She twisted her head around to look at me.
Do you dream about him? I asked.
I thought about my own dreams. They were filled with bad puns, pieces of the previous few days, jumbled up and then rearranged in a more surreal and provocative order, nullifying any and all hope for cause and effect. But I enjoyed them. They amused me, kept me sane. If a person is systematically deprived of dream sleep, they grow more and more agitated, until finally they die. Dreams are, after all, necessary, both figuratively and literally.
Sometimes, she said. Do you?
Sometimes, I answered. I spread my legs out in front of me, and leaned back on my outstretched arms. Are you unhappy? I asked.
She looked unhappy – the dark circles like kohl under her eyes, the frowning down-turned tips of her mouth, instead of upturned and elephant-like, the hunched shoulders, the shambling way that she flung out her lithe limbs.
I feel like I shouldn’t be happy, Emma told me then, like it isn’t right. She turned to look at me, gauge my reaction to this. I don’t have the right to be happy if Finn’s dead, she continued. It’s disrespectful. Someone could think I didn’t love him.
I sat up again, and put my hand on Emma’s arm.
If you had died, I said to Emma, and Finn were alive, would you want him to be happy?
Yes, Emma answered, very much so. I’d want him to have a rich, full, happy life. But I’d want him to miss me.
Emma stretched out on her elbow, and smoothed the sand with her hand. Then she stopped and poked holes with her fingertips in the smoothed-out surface.
There’s your answer, I said.
Emma nodded and looked out at the water. She waved to the passersby, more neighbors with dogs, and to one of the surfers, who was shouting at her. She was always waving. It seemed someone was always shouting for her.
Sometimes I think he’s going to swim right out of the water here and stand over us, dripping and shaking his head, Emma remarked wistfully.
That’s what I dream, I confided. He swims out of the water and clambers up the beach, all wet.
Like a merman, Emma added, only with legs. Emma sat up again, and twisted around to face me. Gabriela, she said, do you think Dylan is realistic? Do you think he sees things as they are, not as he wants and hopes they’ll be?
Dylan. I had missed the segue. How did we get from Finn to Dylan? For a moment, I saw our mirrored experiences: Dylan to Finn, and back to Dylan once again.
Sometimes Dylan is realistic, I answered. Why?
Not all the time? Emma asked. She was brushing the sand off her hands and legs and adjusting her bathing suit top. She brushed the hair out of her eyes.
He couldn’t have started the business if he were only realistic, I explained. He had to have a dream, drive, vision. He’s realistic -- but not just. He’s realistic when he has to be.
What is this about? I asked.
Emma leaned in toward me. It’s just something I told Finn before he died.
That Dylan was realistic? I asked.
And that Finn and I weren’t?
Emma laughed and nodded. Don’t be angry with me, she pleaded.
I’m not, I answered.
We sat up, faced the water, and watched the surfers for a while.
It’s not your fault, I told her.
Emma looked at me, tilting her head to one side and furrowing her brow.
Anything to do with Finn, I added. Anything you might have said or done, or told him. He loved you -- that’s all.
He died because of me, Emma insisted. My mother died because of me. Emma took handfuls of sand and threw them into the oncoming breeze.
Your mother? What makes you think that? I said.
She died in childbirth, Emma answered, wiping her hands again.
You told me cancer.
They told me cancer, Emma began, next a car accident. They told me a lot of things. I wish they’d keep their stories straight. They’re liars. They’re all liars.
Emma sprung up and bolted across the sand, up the deck stairs and into the house. I watched her go.
A few minutes later, when I was thinking about the surfers and their bloodshot eyes, their bleached out hair and copper skin tones, their wax burns, and their low blood sugar, Dylan came out and sat down with me.
What’s this all about? Dylan asked.
She blames herself, I explained.
For Finn? Dylan said. She’ll get over it. He lathered the air with his hands, as if the notion was in the air, and by pummeling it a little bit, he could diffuse it, disperse it, will it away.
Dylan stretched his legs out and rested on one elbow. He seemed not to see the surfers or the neighbors or the dogs, the ocean or the sand, or even me. I wondered what he was looking at, thinking about. I wondered what was really in his head and in his heart. It was the saddest thing to me that I would never, could never really know.
You know one constant thing about you, he said.
I shrugged. It was hopeless. What? I asked.
The ocean. You cleave to it. I could never pry you away from this place. We might as well move down here.
He sounded like he was capitulating. To what? I wondered.
I like the view from your place in the hills, I countered. I ran my hand up and down his arm from shoulder to elbow and back again.
Our place in the hills, Dylan corrected me. He tossed my hair back and forth over my shoulder. So, why, he said. Why this?
He gestured toward the ocean, the waves breaking. The vast, endless expanse, the mist rising off of it, the crashing sounds. How could he not know?
It calms me down. I’m anxious. Why do you think I ask so many questions?
Because you think life is a puzzle, Dylan said. And you want to solve it. Settle everything. Put it in its box in the closet.
I want to know what’s real, what’s true, what happened, I said.
You could just live, Dylan answered.
My mother had a recurring dream; she told me about it once. She said there were little men with high-pitched voices, chasing her. She was terrified, and had to wake herself up. I always wondered what her dream meant. That’s what the questions felt like -- little men with high-pitched voices, screaming and running toward me.
I turned to face him. Is Finn alive? I asked.
Why would you ask me that? Dylan said.
Something Colin said, I explained. Something Emma said.
We buried him, Dylan answered. He lay flat on his back in the sand.
We didn’t bury anyone, I said. We cremated someone.
Figure of speech, Dylan said. He put his wrist over his eyes to shield them.
Emma wants to know how her mother died, I told him.
It’s only natural, Dylan answered.
She thinks her mother died in childbirth, I added.
Who told her that? Dylan asked. He turned his head to look at me.
I don’t know, I said. I lay down in the sand next to him and looked up at the sky. Some things I don’t ask, I told him.
I know, Dylan said. He took my hand in his and squeezed it.
Yes, I do, Dylan said.
He turned toward me, kissed me on the forehead and got up, staring at the water. Are you coming in? he asked.
In a minute, I said.
Dylan headed toward the house. I stood up, scrutinized the neighbors’ houses, wondering which of them were empty, wondering if Finn was still alive and watching us from one of them.
The next time I walked up the beach to Paradise Cove I expected to see Ryan there as always, until I remembered that he was supposed to be dead. Of course I couldn’t believe it. I almost felt sorry, if in fact it was true. I was reminded of when my mother died, and the Chocolate Lab we called Bess used to press her wet nose against the dining room window, peer out onto the front walkway and whimper, as if she were waiting for my mother to come home. We didn’t know how to make Bess understand that my mother had died. But even if we had been successful, I don’t think Bess would have believed us.
It was a sunny day, but not hot. The usual breeze was strong, and pushed against me as I forged up the beach. The usual suspects were out, walking their Golden Retrievers, reading on striped beach chairs dug into the sand, or walking solitary and contemplative, stopping to pick up rocks (we have more rocks than shells on our beaches – but they are attractive).
When I reached Paradise Cove I headed out onto the pier. The waves were not high enough to reach the floor planks. I sought out the end of the pier, leaned my elbows on the wooden railing and looked over to see if there were any seals or sea otters. The seals lounged under the pier, expecting people to drop food, or simply seeking shelter from the sun, wind and waves. Sea otters didn’t usually travel this far south, they stayed above San Simeon, but sometimes a few bold or impertinent ones would try our warmer waters.
I heard footsteps behind me.
Ryan? I said, turning.
It’s Colin. Ryan’s dead, isn’t he? Colin grasped my shoulders and issued two polite French kisses on each cheek, chaste and formal.
Is he? I asked. What are you doing here?
Colin took my arm in his hand, just above the elbow. I thought he intended to steer me, using my arm as the tiller. I wondered if I would have occasion to try out my martial arts or self defense skills on him. I wondered if I could convince him to lure Kate away from Dylan.
On this pier? Colin asked, or in the States?
I shrugged and said, Either – both.
I told you, Colin said, I’ll never be far away.
You said Finn would never be far away, I countered.
Did I? But Finn’s dead too. Colin steered me, and we began to walk down the pier toward the sand.
Is he? I asked.
Isn’t he? Colin said.
I don’t know what you are all playing at, I said, but it seems very dangerous.
Colin laughed. My anger always amused him. I guess he considered it a show of bluster, or he delighted in my emotions, any I might happen to have. Or perhaps it was just my ingenuousness that amused him.
Indeed it is, he said, trying to sound serious, but I saw his eyes twinkle.
Two people are dead, I reminded him. I sounded like I was scolding a small child. Or they faked their deaths. For the benefit of whom? The French gendarmes? FBI? CIA? MI-5? The intelligence community?
Three people are dead, Colin corrected me. You are forgetting Vanessa, Dylan’s first wife.
How can I forget that? I asked. Colin always brought me back to what was real, if it were possible to know.
I can’t forget it, Colin was saying.
You can’t? I said.
No, Colin said, because you see, I was the one who shot her.
You! I said. You were her first husband?
Colin looked at me quizzically. Me, he said, no. Did she have a first husband?
Then he laughed and steered me some more, his hand on my arm just above the elbow. We were headed north up the beach, away from Paradise Cove pier and diner. But we were traveling toward a cliff; there was no beach after a few more yards.
Finn must have told you that, Colin concluded. Dear Finn. Maybe jumping off that cliff wasn’t his last move.
Why did you shoot her? I asked.
She was going to kill Dylan, Colin said.
He said it so flatly, so forthcoming, that I believed him. Her own husband? I said. Why?
She was a hostile, Colin said, an agent – but not for us.
Us? I asked.
You, the States.
This was in Prague? I asked. Did Dylan know she was a hostile?
Yes, Colin said. Yes and yes.
Then why didn’t he just get out of there?
She was his wife, Colin said.
I noted a hint of impatience in his voice when he said it, condesension. So Dylan trusted his first wife when he shouldn’t have – and then he never trusted anyone again. Hence, I knew nothing about him.
Dylan was going to let Vanessa kill him? I asked.
He was going to take the baby and go, Colin said. But Finn took the baby first. He was supposed to give her back to Dylan. And then he didn’t.
Why was she in Prague? I asked. Was she KGB?
That’s where she was, Colin said, so we all went after her.
But Ryan told me Dylan shot the man who killed Vanessa, I explained.
Colin opened his arms wide and smiled. Here I am, he said.
Ryan said that Dylan shot Finn, I continued.
Colin stopped. We’d reached the cliff.
Dylan never shot Finn, Colin said. What makes you listen to Ryan? Ryan’s a tosser.
So what’s your role in all this? I asked.
We sat down on a flat rock underneath the cliff. Above us, on the top of the cliff was a trailer park, where at that time, in 2001 the trailers sold for four hundred thousand each. A few years before, in 1999 they had sold for one hundred and fifty.
What does it look like? Colin asked.
To make sure Dylan doesn’t get killed, I said. Didn’t you know she was a ‘hostile’? I asked.
Dylan’s wife? Colin asked. No, not in time.
In time for what? I looked down at my hands, and began to fidget. I made swirls in the sand with the toe of my sneaker. I’m surprised he married me, I said, trusted someone enough to be his wife again.
I thought Colin would come back with something cynical like, Dylan doesn’t trust you; or something philosophical, like: The past does not equal the future, or something hurtful like, He trusts Kate. But instead he said,
Dylan’s full of surprises.
So why are you telling me all this? I asked. I knew it was just to further confuse me, but I was playing along.
After all, it was not like them to tell me anything.
Sometimes secrecy is not the best tactic, Colin said. He stood up then and looked down at me. He brushed himself off and offered me his hand.
Or else it’s just more lies, I said. I took his hand and stood up.
Colin hugged me. Have I ever lied to you? he asked.
I looked around. So what are we doing here? I asked.
You came, Colin explained. I followed. Why did you come?
To see if Ryan would show up, I said.
The supposedly dead Ryan.
Or Finn, Colin added.
So he never really wanted me? I asked. We were walking back down the beach, toward Paradise Cove, the diner and pier, and eventually, home.
Why would you say that? Colin asked.
Because nothing I find out is true, I answered. Nothing I find out is real.
I looked at the ocean. The water and waves were real. The sand and the breeze were real. The seals and the gulls were real. The diner and pier were real. The people walking and reading were. The cliff and the astronomically expensive trailers were real. But after that, who knew?
Colin put his arm around me. You love Emma, don’t you? he asked.
Yes, I said. I love Emma.
And you love Dylan?
Yes, I love Dylan, I said.
He said it as a statement, not a question. I stopped. He went on walking for a beat, then stopped too and swirled around.
And you don’t want me, Colin said.
Another statement. It occurred to me right then that Colin was masculine for colline, or hill.
And I don’t want you, I said.
Colin laughed again. He wrapped his arms around me and squeezed me so tight that for a moment I couldn’t breathe. He kissed me on the mouth.
Just keep saying that, Colin told me. Just keep believing that.
We continued down the beach with his arm around me. Finally he spoke.
We’ve told you so many contradictory things, Colin said, it’s natural you don’t know which is real, if any. But your love for Dylan and Emma is real.
I knew he didn’t believe it, but I nodded. After that we walked for a while in silence, with our arms around each other. I wondered how I could still love Dylan when I didn’t really know him. I wondered if Kate loved him. I wondered if I should let my dealer in Beverly Hills sell off my very valuable collection of artwork and disappear somewhere.
When we came close enough to my house, he peeled off, and drifted away. I watched him go. Where are you going? I whispered. Where are you staying?
He winked at me, grinning his mischievous grin, then turned on his heel, and walked away. Just like that.
These comings and goings, I thought. Sometimes I believed that I just couldn’t take them anymore, that in the end they would kill me too, if Dylan or Ryan didn’t.
There appears a flight of dragons without heads
Emma had stretched her long, lanky, sixteen-year-old self at the kitchen table in the beach house at Malibu. In front of her sat two almond croissants, and a large baby blue bowl of hot chocolate. It was a French morning, I concluded, not a Chelsea morning, (the kind I would have had at sixteen) not a Malibu morning, but a decidedly French one. For all her British origins by genes (except what was Vanessa? British? Czech? French? I’d never asked…), and her Irish roots by Finn’s parenting, she was a French girl in almost every aspect. It proved to me what I long suspected, that culture played a larger part in forming a child’s identity than anyone cared to admit.
I kissed her on her gamine’s cheek and sat down next to her at the table with a mug of coffee. It was a bright, sunny day, full of the kind of glare and bravado of which only a southern California beach is capable. I basked in it and smiled. I felt more like myself than I had in a while. I wondered if I should take Emma to self-defense classes, martial arts training and shooting instruction.
Where’s Dylan? I asked.
He had to go to back to Biarritz, Emma said with her characteristic blitheness. He’ll be back next week.
Biarritz? What for? I asked.
To see Colin, Emma answered.
But Colin’s --- I began to say and of course stopped myself.
Colin what? Emma asked.
Nothing, I said.
Emma watched me for a while. She could read my face, so I tried to erase it, make it blank, and replace my wonderment and suspicion with something else. Emma grew bored with my opacity and sipped her bowl of chocolate again.
A package came for you this morning, she told me. It’s from Biarritz. I think it’s from Colin.
Where? I asked.
Emma pointed to the kitchen counter. She kept her eyes on me, so I tried to act curious but neither alarmed nor suspicious when I walked over to the counter and inspected the package. I didn’t touch it. I’m a coward – I believe I’ve already admitted to that.
Suddenly I was exhausted again.
Did Dylan see this package? I asked.
It came after he left, Emma explained.
So he didn’t open it? I asked.
No, it came after he left, Emma repeated. Is it open?
No, I answered.
Emma abandoned her croissants and bowl of chocolate, extracted herself from the table and chair, and stood up. She wiped her gamine mouth on a napkin.
Are you going to open it? Emma asked.
Yes, I answered.
I tore off the paper, cut the tape and pulled the flaps apart. Several packets of old letters were crammed inside, aereogrammes as they called them in Paris. The dates and postmarks ranged from the 70s, up to the present. Most were addressed to Dylan, but some had been sent to Finn. All had the same return address in Prague, and the same French script, which matched the exterior of the package.
What is it? Emma asked.
Letters to Dylan, I said -- simplifying, reducing. Sent from Prague. I skimmed the letters. All about you, it seems, I added. Maybe they’re from your mother. Colin wanted you to have the letters from your mother, now that Finn is gone and you are living with us?
Emma shrugged. The package was addressed to you, she said. Is there a note of explanation? From the sender?
No, I answered. No note from the sender.
I leafed through the aereogrammes. From what I could glean, it appeared that Vanessa was half Czech and half French. She was having an affair with Finn – while married to Dylan.
Maybe we should wait for Dylan to come back, I suggested.
If he comes back, Emma said.
You don’t expect him to come back? I asked.
I rested the sheaves of letters on top of the packaging and string, and scrutinized her, in her totally gamine incarnation. So: half British, if Dylan was her father, (half Irish if Finn, a quarter French, a quarter Czech.
Emma shrugged. I don’t know what to expect, she said.
Sounds like you expect the worst, I answered. I went over and hugged her tightly. What should we do to cheer ourselves up? Cross Creek? Window-shopping therapy?
A mahi mahi burger at Paradise Cove? Emma suggested. Kate could meet us there?
Whichever you like, I answered.
I’ll brush my teeth, Emma said. She ran down the hall. I brought her almost empty bowl of hot chocolate and her half-eaten croissants on their plate in from the kitchen table and set them in the sink. I gathered up my bag and keys. I left the letters where I had set them, on the kitchen counter. Here, at long last were the answers to all my questions. Why did they seem too personal to read? Why was I squeamish now, about invading the past and the privacy of a woman I didn’t know? And who besides myself wanted all my questions answered?
Kate could not come with us – her phone answering machine said she would be out of the country for a week or more. I wondered why Dylan had chosen to take her with him. A cover? When they were together did they pretend to be married? I tried not to picture it.
Emma was content for the two of us to go out on our excursion alone. When we returned from Cross Creek shopping Plaza Emma was laughing; her faith in humanity was easily restored by wandering through the boutiques and inspecting at all the pretty throws, interesting vases, nice- smelling potpourris that no one really needed.
When I set my bag and keys down on the kitchen counter it was Emma who noticed first.
Did you put the letters away? she asked.
No, I left them right here, I answered.
We looked at the counter. The letters were gone.
Emma bent over and searched the floor around the counter tops, then stood up again and searched the counters, the table tops, even the couch and chairs in the adjoining rooms.
Maybe Tati came back? Emma suggested.
We wandered through the house. We did not see any sign that Dylan had returned, and we did not find the letters. I got on the phone.
Who are you calling? Emma asked.
The apartment in Biarritz.
Would he be there yet? Emma asked.
I checked my watch. Probably not, I answered. I hung up and called his cell phone. No answer there either. I decided not to try Kate’s cell -- I would try Dylan later.
What can I say in my own defense? I hadn’t wanted to get involved with Dylan. Ryan and Mr. Waxman had convinced me it was necessary. The phone calls to the FBI seemed legitimate. I phoned information from my cell phone, after all, and then I phoned the FBI. How could they have tricked me? Were they in control of satellite transmissions?
Anyway, once I started seeing Dylan I admit I would not have stopped, even if they had told me to. I was not finding out anything useful for them, so I don’t know why they didn’t tell me to stop. Or else it didn’t seem useful to me. Maybe they just needed to know where he was at certain times, or needed to know they had something against him, something that Gabriela wouldn’t like. Maybe they needed Dylan to betray Gabriela, so she wouldn’t trust him.
I still haven’t found out. Eventually my banker husband Christopher confessed to me his wrongdoing. I expected to hear about the offshore account in the Cayman Islands, and the money he was funneling there. I expected to hear about the bad mortgages, the phony appraisals, the dubious business loans. But that’s not what he told me. He told me he had invested in amen’s clothing business with a friend, the business had not succeeded and he had lost several million dollars. He was ashamed for not telling me, but he knew the business was risky and I wouldn’t sign the loans, so he forged my name, brought an associate in from the bank to pose as his wife and sign for me.
I was stunned. Who was lying? Him or Ryan? Or were both scenarios true and he just hadn’t told me about the difficulties Ryan had outlined?
I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know whom to believe.
Dylan did ask me to go to Biarritz with him, the second time, when Gabriela would not be there, but Ryan told me not to go, so I didn’t. Ryan told me to reset my answering machine to say I was out of the country. I did. Then I went up to Montecito to stay at my mother’s house. Ryan wouldn’t tell me if the failed business venture Christopher had confessed to was the truth or another ruse. He insisted that the story he originally told me was true.
What is the rule? Only lie as much as you have to? Tell the truth about everything else?
When it grew dark we made a fire on the beach. Emma used a brochette skewer to stab the flames. We liked the play of the warm fire and the cool breeze, the bright flame, crashing water and the darkening sky, the opposites drawn together.
What if Tati doesn’t come back? Emma asked.
Dylan will come back, I answered.
But what if he doesn’t, Emma insisted. What if he didn’t?
I lay back on my elbow by the fire. We’d just live, I said. You’d finish high school. You’d go to college. We’d spend summers together.
Would you go live with Colin? Emma asked.
Would he come live with you?
No, why? I asked.
Emma tucked her knees up to her chest and hugged them. I always thought he wanted to live with you, Emma said.
I never thought so, I told her.
We sat there for a while in silence.
Did you ever read Pippi Longstocking? Emma asked me.
I told her I had but I couldn’t remember it. I was lying; of course I could remember it.
Her father died and she lived alone in his house with a big chest of money at the foot of the bed, Emma explained. He was a pirate.
I smiled at her.
It would be like that, Emma continued. Like Pippi Longstocking: You and me alone in the house.
And the chest of money at the foot of the bed, I added.
Well, not the chest of money, Emma said.
Dylan will come back, I assured her.
I sat up and brushed off my hands. We were silent again, for a while. I listened to the sharp papery sound of the fire crackling and the deep thudding sound of the waves breaking on shore. I felt the mist coming towards us and watched it evaporate when it came near enough to the flames.
Do you love him? Emma asked.
Very much, I answered.
Emma, I said, what did your friends at the Lycée in Biarritz call you?
I don’t know why I asked it, intuition, perhaps --a hunch, something not quite right, off kilter.
Amélie, she said. It is my original name. My French name -- my mother’s name.
Your mother, I said, I thought her name was Vanessa.
They called her Vanessa, Emma said. But Colin said her real name was Amélie, and that she was half French. Colin said she had named me Amélie as well, and she would whisper it to me when she put me to bed at night. Colin said it was a secret, but I expect that doesn’t matter now.
Progress like a hamster
You know that corny saying that when you stop looking for something you will find it, when you stop wanting something you will get it, when you stop waiting for something it will arrive? I hate that theory/ philosophy – whatever you want to call it. I think it’s tripe, pop psychology invented in the 60s when the generation twice removed decided to appropriate eastern philosophy for its own ends.
So of course I hate it when it turns out to be true.
About a week after my dream that Finn was alive, I was sitting on the beach in front of the Malibu house, wondering yet again what the hell I was doing with my life, and how I was going to recover from this backwash induced tailspin, when Dylan walked up to me and sat down. He regarded me for a while, cautiously. I assumed he’d been in the house, talked to Emma, and knew how angry I was. Or perhaps he just had some British common sense and insight into the human psyche.
Anyway, he kissed me on the forehead. Then he took a chance, and kissed me on the mouth. He smelled like Kate.
You don’t even answer your cell phone? I said.
He looked sheepish. He looked appropriately contrite.
You leave without saying goodbye, without saying where you’re going?
I told Emma.
You leave suddenly, without a word, you don’t call, you don’t answer your phones, you’re unreachable?
Dylan sighed. Sometimes I will have to go away suddenly.
He never had to before. Not in ten years.
You could call, I said.
Sometimes I can’t call.
You can always call.
Do we have to argue? Dylan asked.
You’ve never done it before, I said. Not in ten years we’ve been together.
You have, Dylan said quietly.
But I knew the whole thing was a lie. Why did I want him to lie to my face? Did I want to see if he looked different, so in the future I could tell when he was lying to me?
You saw Colin?
Yes, he said. But of course he couldn’t have -- I had been with Colin.
The day you got there?
Yes, I think so, more or less, Dylan said. Why?
Why? Because Colin would have had to take the Concorde to get back that fast. Of course I didn’t say this.
Well, which is it, I asked. More or less?
Is this your version of a grilling?
More or less, I said. Did you take the letters?
What letters? Dylan asked.
Emma came running out then and threw her arms around Dylan’s neck. She started crying.
What’s all this? Dylan asked.
She thought you weren’t coming back, I said.
A few nights later, I was lying in bed staring at the ceiling. Dylan was lying beside me. We had just made love. I was still calling it that. Most men are more affectionate after lovemaking, warmer, more inclined to grant you what you ask – or so says the latest research. But Dylan had never been like that. After lovemaking Dylan grew distant, almost suspicious. He withdrew. I was thinking about his when Dylan asked,
So where are the letters?
I just laughed. I had been wondering when he would ask me about the letters and after several days, when he hadn’t, I put it out of my mind. This was a new feeling, the power of knowing something that your more powerful partner does not. He could not have gone to see Colin --- Colin was with me. Colin – masculine for hill – colline.
Emma told me you received a packet of letters from Colin, from Biarritz, Dylan said.
I turned on my side and looked at him. How he looks when he lies – I wanted to remember it, memorize it.
So where are the letters? Dylan asked.
I turned onto my other side, away from him. You’re very interested in these letters, I said. In fact, I’ve never seen you so interested in anything.
Don’t toy with me, Dylan said.
So I told him: We went out for the day, I explained. We left the letters on the kitchen counter. When we returned they were gone. We never saw them again.
You searched everywhere for them? The whole house? Outside the house?
Yes, I answered.
All right, he said.
And that was that. Except of course, I couldn’t leave it there. Is that what Emma told you? I asked.
Yes, Dylan said.
So you’re checking stories now?
I’m not going to fight with you.
Have you gone back to work for them? I asked.
CIA, MI-5, British Secret Service, whomever you worked for in the first place.
No, Dylan said. Drop it now.
One final question.
Go, he said.
What is the one thing you know for sure?
You have to leave the past behind you, Dylan said. And yours?
But I didn’t answer.
When I walked down to Paradise Cove that night, in the middle of the night, (well, let’s say it was at 4am), I was fully awake -- not dreaming, not sleepwalking. I went out to the end of the pier. There could have been someone there but it was too foggy to be certain. Even so, to my deranged sensibilities, it looked like Finn and like he was dropping something over the edge of the pier.
Why did I risk my life in this fashion? Why don’t I buy a dog and walk it during the daylight hours? Was I carrying my canister of mace? My gun? Did my gun have real bullets or blanks? Of the many questions one could ask of me, these are only a few.
I called his name. Finn? I asked. The man, if there really was a man, turned to look at me and then jumped into the water. But I’m guessing now. It was so foggy I could have been making it up. My eyes could have tricked me.
I ran to the end of the pier and looked down into the water. It was too dark, I couldn’t see a man, couldn’t see what, if anything, the man, (if he was a man), had dropped into the water.
Dylan called my name from the other end of the pier, the safe end, the sand end.
Let’s go home, he said.
Did you follow me? How did you know I was here?
He didn’t answer, but I walked back with him all the same.
Is Finn alive? I asked. Is Ryan? Vanessa/ Amélie? Colin?
Finn is dead, Dylan said, as is Ryan, and my first wife. Colin is in Biarritz.
How long have you been seeing Kate, I said.
Emma’s home alone, Dylan said. You don’t want her to wake up and wonder where we are, do you?
When the sun came up, the letters were floating in the water at the Paradise Cove pier, washing up on the beach, wrapping themselves around pier’s wooden posts like so many dead squid, their ink from 20-30 years before running, making the lines unintelligible. For fifteen minutes or more the waiters at the Paradise Cove diner stood at the window and stared before going back to their breakfast preparations. But I heard them talking about the letters as I wedged myself into the booth near the window. I ordered a Belgian waffle with fresh fruit and a decaf coffee, only half-filled, to allow room for milk. I thought only this: The message has been let out of the bottle, but that very act has rendered it unreadable.
As I stared down into my water glass someone sat down in the booth opposite me. I was not surprised to look up and find that it was Ryan. I was almost expecting him.
Ryan sat in the booth, his arms crossed over his chest, his legs crossed at the ankles, smirking.
You’re not dead? I asked. Is Finn dead? You all faked your deaths? For whom?
I put down the water glass. Who are you? I said. For a moment I thought he could be anybody: CIA, FBI, a cop, a serial killer, some garden-variety stalker, my cousin Bob.
Ryan shook his head. He waved me into a room at the back of the diner with one hand, while keeping the other on the doorknob. We can’t have you digging around anymore, he said. You’re going to undermine them. You’re going to blow their covers.
I sat down. The room was an office. A Cycladic Figure, mounted on a resin block stood guard on the desk. A matching head, also affixed to a resin block, watched from the bookshelf. I thought about heads: Two heads are better than one; don’t lose your head; The headless horsemen of the Apocalypse; Cone Heads, Eraser Head; Out of my head; Off my head; Off with her head, etc.
Ryan paced around the desk. I’m going to tell you what we know. It won’t make you feel any better, but I can’t waste my time anymore intercepting you.
We? I thought. There’s a “we” now?
I crossed my legs and waited. For the first and only time in my life, I wished I had a cigarette.
Ryan continued pacing; he wouldn’t meet my eye. Much of it is what you suspected, he began. Dylan’s first wife, Vanessa, was Emma’s mother. Finn thought that he was the father, not Dylan, and so he took Emma.
Emma is really Finn’s? I asked.
Finn and Dylan refused to have blood tests, Ryan said. He threw up his hands in a gesture of disgust, futility and incomprehension.
He sat on the edge of the desk, next to the Cycladic Figure, in the office he claimed was not really his, (after all it could have been a cover for something) and stared at me. The father who is not really the father. The neighbor who is not really the neighbor.
In my twenties, after art school but before I met Dylan, I was engaged to a Greek physicist. His group of Greek ex-pat friends kept insisting they take me to the Cyclades. They said that these were the cleanest, brightest, most blue and white, and most heavily touristed islands. In particular, they wanted to show me Santorini -- their favorite. We never made the trip, but they showed me the pictures: white domed rooftops giving way to vast expanses of blue water – the mouth of an extinct volcano sunk into the sea; they claimed Atlantis was buried there. My fiancé had grown up across the Aegean on Imrvos, near the Dardanelles; the Turks had settled there after World War II, chasing the Greeks off of their homeland.
Dylan thinks Finn is Emma’s father? I asked.
Dylan thinks Dylan is Emma’s father, Ryan answered. He spent the first five years after Finn kidnapped Emma trying to get her back. His first wife Vanessa died, he met you …
And the Basque Separatists? I asked.
Ryan stood up again. He walked away from the Cycladic figure to the window and looked out.
Colin and Finn have trained the Basque Separatist Army, Ryan said, have helped them to secure training sites in the Pyrennées, ship guns, supplies and ammunition. There’s no proof Colin and Finn are IRA, but we think they are – that they started out MI-5 and went rogue.
The artwork? I asked. I had hung what I had believed were copies, but what the dealer now thought were originals -- the Modigliani and Balthus -- in Dylan’s Hollywood Hills home.
The artwork was often purchased under less than desirable circumstances, Ryan explained, museums trying to liquidate certain holdings before their board of trustees found out, executors trying to liquidate portions of an estate before the beneficiaries found out, etc. The artwork was always sold at a profit -- and with the intent to use the proceeds to buy the guns, and fund the training operation --- whether that be housing and feeding the trainees, or transporting them from one safe house to another. You found the artwork in a villa that Dylan had already purchased, so Colin let you keep it. He wanted your complicity, so he couldn’t take it from you. It was a gift, to silence you, make you guilty, make you a participant, someone the gendarmes could arrest.
Dylan knew they were using his properties? I asked.
Not until you revealed to Dylan that you’d met Finn, Ryan answered. Colin and Finn used the properties because Dylan was CIA -- and he wanted Emma back, and if he couldn’t have that, he at least wanted to know she was safe. After you met Finn, Dylan also wanted you safe, wanted you back.
And who is Finn to Dylan? And Colin? I asked.
Dylan thinks Finn is his son, Ryan said, a son he fathered before he married Vanessa. Colin is Finn’s half brother.
Why did they bring me into it? I asked. I rubbed my hands across the chair and realized it was one of those tufted leather Mies Van Der Rohe Barcelona chairs Dylan had on display in his living room -- the iconic symbol, the brand even, of Bauhaus modernism.
They knew you were working for Dylan, Ryan answered. They claim it never occurred to them that you were his wife -- they thought you were at worst another daughter; but frankly, we think this is disingenuous. You’ve been married ten years – since Dylan gave up trying to get Emma back. We assume they’ve been keeping track of Dylan closely enough to know his personal life.
Anyway, Ryan went on, they knew you were there to inspect the villa for Dylan. They had miscalculated – usually they are in and out of his properties before he shows up to view them. But they couldn’t get out early enough this time; they weren’t prepared. They didn’t have the requisite boats and trucks lined up. So, they hoped if you got to know them and liked them, maybe they could convince you to keep quiet until they shipped the guns out of the house.
Ryan returned from the window and sat on the edge of the desk again. Now his arm was almost touching the Cycladic figure. He moved through the office more like someone who owned it than someone who was borrowing it. And the Bauhaus chairs and daybed were suspicious -- had he been an associate of Dylan’s in their student days? Did they go to architectural school together? What was this office a front for?
He was so close to the Cycladic figure, I was afraid he might knock it over.
Finn fell for you; Ryan said, so did Colin.
I balked at this. Everyone kept talking about wanting me. It seemed absurd to want anyone in this situation. It seemed more like a trumped up excuse for them to hurt Dylan again, but why would they want to? They already had Emma; why did they need to have me? Why did they keep hurting him over and over?
Finn wanted everything Dylan had? I asked.
And Colin wanted everything Finn had, Ryan answered. Dylan has quite a lot to want. Finn claimed that not only did he not know you were Dylan’s wife, he didn’t know Vanessa was Dylan’s wife when he got involved with her fifteen years ago. As I said before – we don’t believe him; we think it’s disingenuous.
So Emma and Finn are really brother and sister? I asked.
If Dylan’s right, Ryan answered. If he’s wrong and Finn is really her father, then Dylan’s her grandfather.
And who does Emma think Dylan is?
A friend, an uncle, she doesn’t know, Ryan answered. All she knows is that Finn’s her father, Finn wants you, she loves you like a surrogate mother, and that she never had a mother.
My god, I said.
Another person who Ryan claimed loved me. I couldn’t get used to it. Dylan was hard enough to adjust to, after ten years. I never really believed it. His first wife was a convenient excuse not to believe it—I could just go on thinking that he really loved her and not me, that I was the consolation prize. But now, ten years later, and after only a few months of association, a sixteen year-old girl loved me like a surrogate mother?
Ryan stood up and made his characteristic hand-wiping gesture. I wondered if now he was free of it, or if his explanation was simply finished. At least he hadn’t knocked the Cycladic Figure off the desk.
Feel better? he asked.
Hardly, I answered. I smirked at him. We both knew he hadn’t told me what I wanted to know, that he had raised more questions than he’d answered.
Is Finn alive? I asked him. And who the hell are you, anyway?
Isn’t it obvious? Ryan said. I’m the insurance agent. I’m responsible for making sure the art is safe – in your houses, and not sold to someone from whom we can not get it back.
Ryan opened the office door. Go home, he advised me. Get some sleep. You’re still in shock from the shootings.
The fake shootings, I said.
Real enough to put you into shock, he said. I warned you to stay away – to stop looking for answers.
As I was leaving I resisted the urge to linger and run my hands over the Cycladic figure, and Mies Van Der Rohe tufted leather Barcelona daybed.
Is Kate involved? I asked.
Ryan shook his head, and lathered his hands in the air as he turned away.
It is easy enough to breathe lying smack down in the water, any water, even the Atlantic coast. You simply attach the breathing apparatus, like a snorkel. The others were way up high on a cliff, and from that height it wasn’t hard to bollocks them. Emma, my spy in training, paddled up on her surfboard and I grabbed on underneath while she towed me away. That’s when the other bloke stepped in. The real dead bloke. The floater.
Gabriela was easily fooled. Really, think about it: if we weren’t all CIA, how were we traveling back and forth to the continent so easily? She didn’t notice the simplest things – why were our names so alike – Finn and Colin? Ryan and Dylan? It was all jerry-rigged. She questioned it, but she then she swallowed it whole, like a crane downing a gopher, or a python inhaling an elk.
The first thing you should know is that I didn’t plan to steal the baby Emma. All bloody hell broke loose in that hotel room in Prague that morning, blokes screaming, scrambling to pull their clothes on, brandishing revolvers, the baby squalling; then the threats, demands, confessions. The only sane thing seemed to be to take the baby and ring off. But that was after-the-fact rationalization. The truth is, I lost my head. I just grabbed the little one and ran. I was daft.
Later, when I learned that Colin had shot Vanessa (someone had to, as he blithely put it) the little baby was all I had. So I named her Emma, after my grand-mamma. Vanessa had asked me once, if anything happened to her, if I would take care of her little one, Amélie. Vanessa had named her Améie, after herself, actually, her real Frog name. Anyway, I promised I would. So, not only was I obeying my daft instinct and clinging to Vanessa after she passed, I was keeping my promise to Vanessa, myself, and the little one – yes, I promised her too. I promised all of us: Vanessa, the baby that I would take care of that wee, scrum-faced girl, and myself.
Let’s face it -- this was grand. Sure, I fancied keeping my job, I admired my big brother Colin. But the baby made everything different – the little one made life count, she made life full to bursting. Suddenly the days, and weeks and months took on dimension, color, depth, those magical elements that all of us empty, despairing blokes lack. I had a little one, Emma, to love, and she wanted me to love her back.
She fancied me. She was quirky and fussy, endearing and silly. Colin said we were a pair, twins even, the boy and girl versions of the same one. Possibly. She didn’t seem similar to me. She seemed a foreigner, someone I had never known. She was mine to protect and look after. Sure, we risked, Colin and me, as we must have done, for the job. We bollocks ourselves into awful corners some days. But we scrapped our way out again. There was a reason to go on now, a responsibility, someone to grab onto. Colin said baby Emma Jekyled me into someone I never was before: responsible, protective, custodial, serious. Perhaps he was correct, or possibly that bloke was always inside me, just with no one to bring him out. Emma brought me all out.
We didn’t go to Biarritz on a job, not at first. We went there, ironically enough, on holiday, to surf. I am a surfer. Yes, don’t laugh -- I am a bad surfer, but a surfer nonetheless. So the first time we went there I surfed, Colin laughed at me, and we liked it so much we thought why not make our base there. So we did. We got a place and we kept it. We still have it. We went there whenever we could. We raised little Emma there, put her into a proper French school with other French kids. She thought she was French herself after a while, a French girl with two Irish fathers. We muddled through, and she came out all right in the end, despite all the confusing and traumatic bits in her past.
Colin got into the business first. I guess it was up on five years he’d been in before he shot Vanessa and I grabbed the wee baby. At first he didn’t tell me he had gotten in. He kept it a secret, kept it away from me. To tell you the truth, I didn’t really want to know. I was still a lad, and I just wanted to have fun. But he was my big brother and I was always curious about him and looked up to him and wanted to be like him, so after about a year I sensed that he was about something, and I wanted in on it. Of course he told me to bugger off at first; he didn’t want me to get hitched, he said. But I followed him, shadowed him, hounded him, until finally he relented. Actually I thought he was either on the take, or with the boys themselves, and I was really scared for him, down to the bones scared. If I hadn’t thought that probably he would have never told me. But he wanted to disabuse me; he wanted me to know which side he was really on. He had to get permission to bring me in. They had to check me out and all. That took three months, I found out later. At the time I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know he had asked. Oh sure, I was a cocky sort, all gangly and rough around the edges, and only interested in surfing and girls and smoking pot, and of course I was interested in my brother, but there was no dark past, nothing anyone could blackmail me for, and according to them, psychologically I was strong as an ox, so those were all that mattered to them -- then, anyway.
So they took me. I laughed when he told me. When he asked me rather. When he told me I had checked out and told me I could join, could come about with him, if I wanted. I laughed and laughed. I rocked on the bed laughing. I told him he was off his head, that he was making it all up. He got so angry he grabbed me by my mohairs and took me down to one of them and I laughed at him too until they showed me the big file they had amassed on me and all the photos. It was too big a file to be a gag. So I believed him then. I wasn’t supposed to know and he wasn’t supposed to drag me down to that fellow, and the fellow wasn’t supposed to show me the file with all the photos so we were all in a bit of a bind. They told me I could still surf and smoke and chase girls (well, up to a point of course). They told me I wouldn’t have to kill anyone or be in a lot of danger. In short, they lied. They’re all lying bastards. I loved my brother just the same though. Colin, my half brother, older by ten years. Colin, male for hill, as Gabriela likes to say.
When I started I was too young. We both were. I was fifteen and Colin was twenty-five. It was only five years after that all bloody hell rained down in that hotel in Prague, and I stole the baby Emma. So I was only twenty then, and Colin only thirty. You see how it was.
They sent us to Dublin when we started. We were just to keep an eye on things, and tell them, when something was about to go down. We were not supposed to interfere, and we were not supposed to participate, unless we had to in order to keep our cover. Of course that didn’t last long – not participating. You had to act, or you were suspect. They weren’t a bunch of bloody morons now were they? We both felt conflicted about it, but we were conflicted about everything so what was the difference.
When they started training the Basques well, that was perfect for us, because we already had our place in Biarritz, we had already been going down there on holiday to surf, so they put us on to it. Who would be suspicious, since we’d already been there for years, they said. The others, well they said of course, keep an eye out, tell us what is going down, and don’t participate if you don’t have to. So we got out of Dublin and landed in Biarritz full time. I had a cover as a surf instructor and Colin pretended to to be in banking, but that was the biggest joke of all.
So it went on like that for five years, until Prague and Dylan, and stealing the baby Emma.
It happened like this: I had met Vanessa in a bar in Biarritz. It was Easter time and when all the Parisian, Spaniards from Madrid and Romans descend on Biarritz for holiday. I called it the Four Corners, but of course, there was a corner missing, wasn’t there? That’s what Colin always said, even though the locals were meant to be the fourth.
It was the bar in the Casino, right on the beach. Very romantic. A little gambling, people dressed up, twinkling lights, all of those bits. Vanessa must have been thirty, thirty-five. I can’t be certain. She was a rare beauty. I have never seen anyone more beautiful, not before and not since. I have not met anyone more magical, before or since. Emma has a little of it.
But Vanessa -- she was so tall, and thin, but shapely, not a scrawny thing, not the way you see girls now. She was drinking bourbon, neat. She said a friend had told her it would make her appear alluring. She knew she already was. I convinced her to abandon her drink and the crowd and the twinkly lights and come out for a walk on the beach with me. You could be a murderer, she said, but I just laughed and said, Who ever heard of a twenty year-old Irish murderer?
Of course she had heard of plenty, but she came with me all the same, didn’t she. I held her hand. Oh, if you could have seen the way the breeze played with her hair. She looked at me softly, almost like a child would, and the first time I tried to kiss her she scolded me, but only slightly. She ran then, and I chased her and I pushed her down in the sand, though not roughly. She was quiet. She let me kiss her. I told her I loved you and she laughed at me. You’ve only just met me, she said, but I was telling her the truth, I did love her already. I think she knew it and I think it touched her – my youth, my ragged ways, my random bits, the love – all of it. Colin was of course at my place with so she took me by the wrist and we almost ran to hers. I’ve never made love like that. I know, I keep saying it, but not before or since. My god, I asked myself, who was she?
She smoked Gitanes. She told me she was half French and half Czech, and that she had grown up in Paris. Her father was a French diplomat and her mother was a violinist. I can imagine that all of this was true; the trick is to lie only when you absolutely have to, so. She said she had been married once, to a British architect, but she was divorced. She said that the marriage had been a disaster, that he had been jealous, possessive, suspicious. She said there were no children. She said she would never marry again.
I assumed she still lived in Paris, and she was on holiday, like all the other Parisians. She didn’t tell me any different.
When I woke up in the morning not only she was gone, but all traces: her clothes, her cigarette butts. The room was wiped clean of her fingerprints, the pillowcase stripped off the bed, her towel missing. I searched all over the town for her: the shops, bars, restaurants, casino, coastline, villas. I discreetly asked some key people where she might be. No one would tell me anything. What’s worse, they wouldn’t even hint at it.
Colin was not sympathetic. He told me womanizing was one thing, but to fall so hard for someone older, French, someone who disappeared overnight – this was not what was wanted, what was necessary. He needed me to be discreet, safe. I told him I had been safe, that she knew nothing about me, nothing, and it was true. Except you love her, and she knows that, Colin said, and that’s the opposite of safe. Anathema. I knew not to tell him how she’d wiped the room clean of her traces when she left – he would have been suspicious and rightfully so.
I didn’t see her for ten, eleven months. I didn’t hear from her, unless you count the anonymous hang up calls, or the face imagined (glimpsed?) for a second behind a shop window or lamppost. But I couldn’t forget her. I always looked for her, out of the corner of my eye, no matter where I was. I was a silly twenty year-old romantic and I believed in my heart I would meet her again, somewhere, by chance or perhaps her artful design. I didn’t realize she would summon me, to Prague of all places, eleven months later.
She rang me. She told me only that she’d come to Prague to visit her family, that she was half Czech. She told me the little two-month old baby was hers and her ex husband’s, the British architect, but I knew it was mine. Vanessa kept telling me no, no, it was not.
She brought me to Prague to help her flee the country. She could get in, but not out, you see. She thought if I was with her, and pretended I was her husband, I could get her out, to France. She wanted to go to Paris, but she said once we were safely across the border I was free to leave her, she would make her own way. I told her of course that I would never leave her again, and she said that was the silly twenty year-old boy talking, that I had to leave her, but since I loved her she hoped I would do her this one favor, the biggest favor of all -- to save her life.
We spent three days in that hotel room in Prague. It was one day too many. On the last day Colin and Dylan showed up. The accusations flew for a full ten minutes before the bullet. Colin shot Vanessa – one clean shot to the head, assassination style to send a message (but to whom?), I grabbed the baby and we left Dylan there, to clean up the mess, I found out later.
Colin explained to me after we left, idiot that I was. Of course she knew who I was or she would never have asked me to come to Prague. Why? Because otherwise I would never have gotten into Prague, and certainly could not have gotten her out. He knew she’d asked me for help. I didn’t believe him at first, but eventually, when I did, I was of course, in shock. Why did Colin have to off her? Why did she have to die? Maybe they asked him to. Maybe he thought I had told her things that made her a liability.
It was months before Colin told me Vanessa was Dylan’s wife; but she was not one of ours. She was not a friendly. She was at worst KGB, at best a double agent. Couldn’t we have just left her there? Alive? Or brought her back to Paris?
No, we couldn’t. Colin never said why. Or maybe he did and I just didn’t believe him.
I never forgave him for killing the only person I loved after him, and before Emma. Of course, who would? But he was my brother, my half brother anyway, and we continued to work and live together. He warned me, Don’t ever fall for anyone again. It’s not safe. They’ll use you for something. People don’t use you, he warned me, you use them. I told him I understood. I was too scathed to fall for anyone again. I was sure of it. Except the baby Emma, which was, apparently, allowed.
I expected Colin to tell me I had to give the baby Emma back. But no, he never once mentioned it. He seemed to accept Emma as the inevitable product of my ineptitude, my monumental breach in protocol. Or maybe he just loved that wee baby as much as I did.
In 1991 the wall came down, but that made no difference to us, because we had been for a long time by then on our own, training the Basques. It did make a difference to Dylan. Dylan got out of the business then. We heard from various people that all along he had been trying to find us, that he was aiming to get the baby Emma back, a toddler and then a preschooler, all of five years old.
Dylan did track us down finally, that year in Biarritz. We explained to the five year-old Emma that Dylan was her uncle, and let them spend a few days together, but at the end we managed to ditch him and send him packing without her. We were not giving up the baby Emma. Not for anyone. We had tacitly and silently agreed upon this. When I look back now, sometimes I think it was the only thing we ever agreed upon. It was almost as if Colin was trying to make it up to me for killing Vanessa. Or maybe he was afraid for my life – he always told me he feared I was close to suicide – death by cop, death by KGB agent, death by ex CIA agent gone off the grid, death by Renault Alpine sports car on the windy Moyenne Corniche with the top down and no seat belts. He let me keep Emma. I could have offed him myself, but I was grateful for this one concession.
Anyway, about a month later we heard that that Dylan had gotten out of the business, had moved to Los Angeles, and married some American painter, twenty years his junior, and that he had given up trying to take Emma back. We were grateful. We had her all to ourselves, and we could concentrate on raising our baby girl, and on our jobs, the task at hand.
When I met Gabriela of course I knew who she was, because Colin had set us the task of compromising her, so she wouldn’t turn us in. that’s how he designed the game: we make her complicit, guilty somehow – either by asking her to run guns (and then she won’t report it), or making love to her and cuckolding that insane, newly horned, post-wall, (pseudo) post-agent Dylan.
Finn is daft. Finn doesn’t know anything, so you should start by not believing a word he says.
First off, I have to tell you that Dylan was still CIA when he came looking for the toddler Emma, and he is still CIA now. He will die CIA. Maybe he doesn’t work as much now that he’s older.
Second off, I have to tell you that I wasn’t the one who shot Vanessa. She was shot all right, but I’d ‘a’ been damned if I was the one who was going to do it. There was another agent in the room that day. Maybe Finn didn’t see him. Maybe Finn likes to believe I shot her so he can hate his old half brother for something. The boy is daft, I tell you again and I will keep telling it to you. But it was Ryan who shot Vanessa. No operator in his mind would have asked me nor Dylan to do it. You’ve got to understand human nature in this business. We were all in love with Vanessa. I think even Gabriela fell in love with her – twenty years after she died, just by reading a few of her letters -- but nevertheless. No, only Ryan, that windowless, soulless creature they persist in calling a man – only he never loved Vanessa. He did want Gabriela, in his sick, twisted, windowless way, and for that reason he protected her from everything.
Now mind you, don’t go off half-cocked thinking that now you know everything. I haven’t explained my part in it, or Dylan’s, and not a half of how Gabriela and Emma rucked about in the whole mess, complicating it up to the hilt, if you will excuse my mixed metaphors.
You ask me to tell you the story in my own words. Alas, if only I could.
I could tell you the end of this story in American English, in British English, in Irish English, in Irish, or in French. You see, I don’t have my own language anymore, after living in the States these last few years. Maybe I never did. If you want me to tell you the end of this story in my own language, I would have to invent it. Did you ever read that novel Fiskadoro, by the American Denis Johnson? In his post apocalyptic Los Angeles, the surviving residents speak an amalgam of Spanish and Vietnamese, or such like. My language would be like that – only a combination of Irish, French and the three types of English I know best.
But, here it is:
He (Tati, Finn, my first father) didn’t stay dead for very long. After a few months I started getting post cards from exotic beaches – Ranga Roa, Bora Bora, Easter Island, Galapagos, Kosrae, Bikini even, and such like, sent to me at my college dormitory, never to Dylan or Gabriela’s addresses.
But of course, I already knew, since I was the one assigned to bringing the dead body double out under my surfboard, and then paddling away again to the waiting boat with Finn under my board.
In the postcards Tati Finn told me that the weather was sunny, that the water was warm, that he was drinking marguerites, or pina coladas, that he missed me, and would write again soon.
He signed them all – The Third Policeman. I knew from my Freshman Literature and Culture course that was a book by an Irish writer named Flann O’Brien called The Third Policeman, so I read it for clues to where he was and when I would see him again. The novel was filled with them. He was making it fun for me – the postcards, the books, the clues. He had always made it fun for me, growing up. By the third Flann O’Brien novel, The Dalkey Archive, I realized I would see him again soon enough. Finn, my real father, my one love.
I knew that he would not give me up, give me away. I knew that he would not abandon me. The rest of them should have known him enough to figure out above all else that he would not suicide. It was not like Finn. As much as I loved Gabby and Dylan, I had grown up with Finn, so real father or not, he was my father. I could be separated from him for long. Finn promised me it wouldn’t be any longer that it had to be.
Each time I got a postcard I would read up on the island he had visited. I became an expert on Islands. Galapagos is the island off Chile where Darwin invented the survival of the fittest. Easter Island was first deforested, and then abandoned, for some unknown reason, and there is a string of 20-foot tall stone heads with funny hats on them carved in volcanic pumice rock and strung out along the coastline to welcome you. Some are still left in their sculpting pits. No one knows how the islanders carted them out to the coastline, some miles away. Bora Bora is an island off Tahiti, where Gauguin lived. Ranga Roa is off Fiji. Kosrae is an island in Micronesia. Bikini is the island where the Americans did their nuclear testing in the 1950s. These last three islands were featured in the American novelist Laura Marello’s novel The Landscape of Rain and Fire, one of my favorites because it is about a daughter searching for the truth about her dead mother. I think of myself as such. But, back on my subject, I could become a tour guide, or a cruise hostess, if I didn’t have higher aspirations. I am studying International Relations and Political Science at Williams College in Williamstown Massachusetts. A double major – no mean feat for someone whose first language is a mélange of five different languages, and is irrevocably and hopeless linguistically challenged.
People will tell you that the word is dead, that it’s a visual world now. Even Gabriela, my surrogate mother will tell you that. I call her surrogate because she won’t allow me to call her my stepmother. She says it reminds her of the wicked stepmother in Cinderella. I tell her that wicked means good in Ireland and in the 1960s slang of her own America, and especially of her beloved state, California (state of the mind, state of the Union) but she cannot get out from underneath that word, it is like a tombstone, a death sentence for her, and so she has me refer to her as a surrogate, not step.
But where was I? The visual world. Yes, it is a visual world, but look at what people my age do now. More than ever we text message, we instant message, we email, we blog, we ring each other up on our mobiles. Above all, we talk, talk, talk, we write, write, write. No matter what the old foggers think, we require words for all that. Hang their prophecies, we are more literate than these dying Boomers ever were, and we don’t need quill pens, and inkwells, and snail mail to be that way, now do we?
I began to realize that Tati, Finn, my first father, was not necessarily on any of the particular islands that he claimed to be on. It began to dawn on me. As sure as the sun rises every morning it began to dawn on me. The meanings of words, the meanings of idioms, slang, vernacular, jargon. We don’t think about them. We don’t investigate them. We take them for granted until they come back and bite us in the throat. Imagine a Jaguar, the strongest jaw of any creature, its sharp teeth lodged in your throat.
Why did I suspect? It was a combination of things: the taunting repetition of phrases in his postcards, as if he were mocking me; the names of the islands and the order in which he was allegedly traveling through them, things I discovered reading The Third Policeman and the Dalkey Archive, even things I was learning in my Political Science and International Relations classes.
I assumed he was writing the postcards not just for me but for the ones who were intercepting and reading them – Ryan for one (of course Ryan couldn’t have been dead if Finn was not) and Dylan, Tati, second father, for another. Finn was taunting them all while he teased me. He was alerting them that he had come out of hiding, that he had broken his vow; and he was daring them to come and find him. He was throwing down the gauntlet, so to speak.
What Finn and Colin both taught me, in the course of growing up with and around them, was how to hide in plain sight. Finn liked to hide in the most obvious places. He liked to be exactly where he was least likely to be, where it was most dangerous to be. He liked disguises. And as you know, he liked to occupy empty houses, of people he knew, people who were on vacation, people who were a few houses down from the person he most wanted to visit.
So, knowing Finn, and I did know him, better than anyone, because he had raised me, he could have been a student in my Modern Irish Literature class (Joyce, Beckett, Flann O’Brien). He could have been sharing a dorm room with a boy on the floor above mine. He could have been having almond French toast for breakfast at the Cobble Café, just across the street from campus. After all, it was the best French toast in America, made with the richest egg bread, almonds from Palm Springs California sliced razor thin, milk from the dairy cows across the border in Vermont, and real maple syrup, again, from just across the border in Vermont.
Americans never cease to amaze me. I hate to be a snob, but let’s face it, all people in my age bracket (20-25) are snobs in one way or another, they are music snobs, or art snobs, or surfing snobs or boarding snobs or ski snobs or country of origin snobs, or nationality snobs, or cultural snobs, or slang snobs, some other snob. Being cool is more important than anything. So, I hate to be a snob, but aside from some of my classmates at Williams College, and Gabriela, my surrogate mother, I have failed to warm up to Americans. Maybe it’s because this is where I lost Finn, my first father. I know, it is also where I found Dylan again, my second father. But unfortunately what hurts more counts more, and losing Finn hurt more than anything.
Think about it though: the border of Vermont. Williamstown, where Williams College is, is right on the border of Vermont, Massachusetts and New York. Three state lines
I can walk from my dorm room to the border. There is a little hiking trail in the woods, and it will take you up to the border. Very secluded. Tati Finn must have planned it that way, or was I just hoping Tati Finn would come back to me? If the state police got wind of him, he could escape into the woods, and take the trail across the border. By the time they alerted the New York or Vermont police, and the Feds, and Dylan, and the CIA and the FBI he would be across the border in Canada, and there they could not touch him.
That’s probably where he’s living, Canada. He probably comes down and watches me, discreetly, and then goes back. When I was a child growing up I used to always feel like someone was watching me. I wasn’t paranoid, it was a good feeling actually, like I was being watched over. At first I thought it was my dead mother, keeping an eye out, keeping me safe. Finn and Colin were fun, they were the best time ever growing up, but you never felt what anyone would call safe. Later, when I better understood what was going on, I realized that it was not my dead mother watching me, it was more likely Finn and Colin watching me from hiding places, or people watching them who were also watching me, or such like. I suppose that shouldn’t have felt safe, but in an odd way it did. We perhaps were not safe from those watching us (unless they were watching to protect us?) but we were likely as not safe from all others, since the watchers would have stepped in and averted whatever danger came our way. Finn said it was probably Dylan watching, or some of Dylan’s people watching me, to make sure I was safe. After he married Gabriela he stopped trying to steal me back. But Finn believes that Dylan’s people kept a watch on me, and were ready to steal me back at any time, should Finn do something to put me in danger. I don’t know what to believe, frankly. I’m not sure I ever believed anything.
Finn knows not to come too close. I grew up with him, you see. I was a baby. I know his smell. Or his smells, rather. When he’s happy he smells like lavender and lemon verbena. They make soaps that approximate it now, and bath salts. But he is a little different than all those. When he is afraid (yes, even Finn is sometimes afraid – I think the people who take the most risks actually feel fear most acutely – but that is just a pet theory of mine). When he is afraid he smells slightly different, predictably, he smells a little more acrid – but the lavender and lemon verbena remain. I guess it’s more like the smell of hay, but fresh hay (oxymoron that it is) not hay that’s been trampled, or slept in, or spread through a barn, hay that’s just been cut and rolled into those giant pinwheels. That hay.
When he’s in love he smells more lavender and less lemon verbena. When he’s angry, well, I’m too scared when he’s angry to really know, but maybe I can try to remember. He’s rarely angry, you see, and for some reason his anger scares me more than anything I can imagine. Finn says he’s sorry, that it’s his fault I frighten him, something to do with our past, when I was a baby, he won’t say what. No matter. But when he’s angry he smells like lemons, maybe broiled lemons, like on the top of a broiled fish, for example. When he’s sad, well, when he’s sad he smells more like lavender again, but it’s too deep, almost unctuous, like an older lady who is overweight and has put on too much perfume. When he’s bored, well – you get the idea. If he sat next to me in class I would know it was him, and well, I’d jump. I’d embrace him. I’d cry. I’d make a scene. And we can’t have that, can we? So, in short, in sum, he is probably keeping a little distance, and rightfully so. When he reveals himself, it will be somewhere that will be safe, where I won’t give him away by my exuberance.
But back to the beginning: growing up with Finn and Colin.
The first thing I remember is standing on a bridge. It was a stone bridge, over a river. I was walking toward the end of it, toward the quay, where there were cafés and shops. I always assumed this was Biarritz, but of course there is no river in Biarritz. So, where? It could have been Paris, crossing toward Boule’ Mich’, or St. Germaine, or crossing in the other direction, toward the Faubourg St. Honoré and the coutoure shops. Colin says it was Prague or Budapest or Krakow, or somewhere and Finn says he’ll tell me about it some day. There were women in felt coats, hunter green with hoods. There were people carrying baskets. I was marching toward the quay, stamping my feet, when Colin picked me up from behind, scooped me up, and Finn laughed at me. They both laughed. I was off to see the world, I suppose. I did not very much like being stopped. Finn says at that age I did not like any of my movements to be curtailed. Anyway, it started to rain then, and there was that wet smell, that smell when people are outside in a city and their hair and wool coats get wet. Finn and Colin took me inside, to a hotel room or an apartment, and put me into dry clothes, rubbed my hair with a towel, and gave me a bowl of hot chocolate. It was too big for me to lift, so Finn sat me on his lap, and fed me the hot chocolate from a spoon. I will always remember it.