Fluffy Towels, Part 2
by Lilly Kilvert and Véronique Vienne
A Father's Secret
No, I thought. These two demoiselles, so serene on the surface, could not have known. Only recently had Lilly discovered that Tippy’s mother, the famous “Aunt Jackie”, was having an affair with her father at the time of her mother’s death.
In 2006, the shameful family secret was still kept under wraps. What had been a brewing scandal when her mom was alive had become classified information the minute she had died. Lilly’s siblings still refused to admit it. Lilly, who had heard about her father’s betrayal from a trusted cousin (apparently, the affair had been common knowledge among relatives), was still reluctant to discuss it, even with me. The skeleton in the closet had everyone petrified.
Lilly would shrug off my explanation that her parents’ looming divorce had probably been a factor in their decision to send her away to Europe. I’d attempted to put a positive spin on the sordid story. I’d argue that Lilly’s mother had not abandoned her, as Lilly suggested. My thesis was that her mom had arranged for her youngest daughter — a high-strung child, her most gifted offspring — to go abroad for the summer in order to spare her the ugliness that was sure to take place.
Was it my imagination? I had the feeling that the nuns knew something we didn’t know. They were waiting for a sign, a question, or they were praying, perhaps.
The peaceful environment of the retirement home, the emptiness of its spare rooms, the stateliness of its high ceilings, and the sounds of furtive footsteps going up and down the stone staircase, all this was soothing, yet it made the sorrow of the world more acute.
I am sort of dreaming,
still worried about the monk, his grey head on my naked chest.
I know this is not good —
I can feel the itchy hair and smell the oily earth, smell of his head though my eyes are squeezed shut — I think I can see it.
I am crying a lot,
silently I think, but I sing when I work — so who knows.
The sisters’ life goes on around me.
Bonjour ma petite they whisper to me.
No one talks full voice in here.
My eyes hurt so I can't read,
but my skin hurts too, and I am so hot
it must be July.
Some girls come to my window to see me.
I am not germ-ridden apparently, so there is no danger.
I look at them and think of the bloody rags.
Whose rags I wonder
They are going to prepare to kill the pig
I can't imagine what that means.
Soeur Marie-Claire of the kitchen brings me broth and teas
and the little pills to put under my tongue.
She chatters about the pig
Do I want to come with her?
I see myself thrown over her shoulder like a sack....
Maybe not, but what will she do to the pig
and what about her babies?
I have been American again.
She then looks softly and tells me I need to have a bath.
Will I go back to the dormitory? No here.
Bonne Mère is coming and going,
she has mail.
One letter for me from my mother
with notes from my sisters —
they are all in Nantucket now.
Bonne Mère looks ill
Needle rash for her too?
She leaves the letter on my bed — not in my hand.
I am getting to bathe
in a small tub in a room with a high window and a white towel.
I am to leave my smelly pajamas.
Not much warm water.
I try to imagine the sister having to get out of all their garments in such a small space.
The basin only has room for my small hands.
There must be another place.
This is the guest area,
I am the guest.
I am in bed again in a stiff white gown which torments my skin
and Bonne Mère is back
on at the foot of my bed looking at me in such an odd way.
Am I dying?
I could tell that Bonne Mère and Soeur Jeanne had been good friends all their life, and like Lilly and me, when they were together, they were able to call upon their collective brain in order to figure out what to do next.
“You probably have a lot of questions to ask us,” said Soeur Jeanne, and she put one large reassuring hand on the entwined fingers of Bonne Mère.
“When did you learn that my mother had died?” asked Lilly at last in a voice so neutral it gave me a chill. Showing no emotion, she proceeded to recall how she had had nightmares for weeks preceding her father’s arrival with the bad news. In fact, one night, she had woken up screaming because she had dreamt that her mother was dead. “How long did you know before I did?” she inquired.
“It was late one night when we got a phone call,” said Bonne Mère. “It was the first time anyone from your family had contacted us. It was too much information too late. So yes, we knew before you did. We prayed a lot that night and held a vigil for the next three weeks during which you were sick and we had to keep your mother’s death a secret.”
“Ah!” said Lilly. “Three weeks. But I had a premonition, didn’t I? That’s why I got sick. I had Scarlet Fever. I couldn’t get well. Instead of leaving me in the infirmary, you took me with you, in the nunnery, and you nursed me the best you could.”
“It was a very trying time for all of us,” said Bonne Mère. “We had almost no information. It was a test for our community. We didn’t want the other children to be affected, so we had to carry on, hide our sorrow from them, but also hide it from you.”
There was a pause. Mademoiselle Fruchet was conjuring up the young nun she had been.
”You were just getting better when your father arrived, but you were still in a very weak state,” she explained. “We had not known when he would come, how long he would stay, or whether he would take you away from us.”
She fell silent again. She didn’t have to say anymore. Watching Lilly go through her ordeal must have been like being forced to watch an innocent man receive a guilty sentence.
Bonne Mère looks away.
I am getting better, my skin is not cracking, my eyes don't burn,
my head aches less.
I want to go outside
So I do. Soeur Marie-Claire comes with me.
Everywhere I go now there is a sister within eyeshot.
Do they think I will pass out and drown in the well?
I want to go home or I want to go to the beach or back with the girls — I just want to be somewhere.
I am in the woods outside the main buildings
just looking around.
It is a dry day, the grass crushes under my feet,
there are swallows swooping around and bees humming.
The air is light and warm,
my short sleeves let the sun warm my skin.
It is pleasant
But here comes Bonne Mère again walking quickly toward me.
I feel I should duck, hide, run, but she has me in her eyes.
Her hand comes out of her pocket and she is smiling softly.
Her hand now is on my shoulder, turning me.
Look she says,
look who’s here.
I walk beside her around the corner of the building.
Look she says again.
This is aggravating me: I look away instead.
Then: “tu vois, ma petite, tu vois.”
Yes I see.
It is almost an impossible image to perceive.
There, in the courtyard, smiling,
a jacket over his arm, tie loose,
satchel at his feet, smiling in a slightly insane way, is my father.
My head whips back to Bonne Mère. She is smiling insanely too.
My dad is waving
and holds his arms out.
My brain flies thru the possible explanations:
I am delirious, he is lost,
there is a mistake,
he is someone else in disguise,
my dad cannot be here: he is in Nantucket with my family.
All this happens in a half second.
I almost stumble and then he has his arms wrapped around me.
Yes, it is him. The smell is unmistakable, musky.
He slaps it on his face after he shaves.
But another smell too,
He is hugging me too long.
I want to wiggle away but the sisters are watching.
He holds me away to look at me.
What am I seeing?
What is he seeing?
He is smiling too much.
Now I am really puzzled.
The sisters come to us, take his bag and jacket,
we enter the guest room,
they bring him a bottle of water and a glass,
he keeps running his hand through his hair, and glancing back at me.
Then I go to stand beside him and put my hand in his hand, checking,
He doesn't wear a wedding ring. He never did.
His hands are neat and square,
He smiles at me, he is sitting so we are almost face to face,
“well shall we take a walk.”
Now I know he is crazy:
we have never taken a walk. He hates walking without a purpose.
What can it be,
what am I missing?
I can barely open my mouth.
My mouth is so dry I can't say a thing.
He stands up still holding my hand and we pass out of the room into the courtyard past the dormitory toward the garden.
I can see myself from above,
a bird’s-eye view.
Dust, bees, grass, sneakers, tree rustling. I am sweating.
We arrive at a bench — a stone bench I have never seen it before.
He sits and pats the spot beside him.
I feel the cool stone on the back of my thighs below my shorts.
He is still holding my hand,
it is very awkward.
Does he get a cigarette? I think maybe, or he is reaching in his pocket.
He looks up at the sky and around him,
at me again.
Now he is sweating.
I begin to feel sorry for him,
what a mess to be here with the nuns and a pale sick girl,
and then without warning he speaks cool as anything
“your mother died three weeks ago.”
What what what.
Again he says “your mother died.”
I can't think of why he is saying this,
all I can say is
“you mean I will never see her again?”
Then the fumbling begins again. He has his wallet in his hand and say “no here look here she is,”
and he shows me her picture,
the picture she had taken when I was having my passport picture taken,
a picture I have.
All I can think of is poor guy.
He must be crazy
to show me a picture.
This is pitiful.
Lilly’s mother’s name had been Margaret, but everyone called her Peggy. Peggy Jo. I had only seen a couple of photographs of her, but on every single one of them, she was a shinning presence, so beautiful it hurt my eyes. Granted, she had gained a little weight after her five pregnancies while her “best” friend, Aunt Jackie, had remained slim and petite, even after having given birth to seven daughters.
Jackie’s porcelain skin and her doll-like features were still factory-fresh, as if she had been kept in tissue paper all her life, while Peggy, in contrast, had the kind of curvaceous body that was every red-blooded American male’s sexual fantasy — every red-blooded American male except Charles, her husband.
Charles was a wealthy man, by most people’ standards, though his puritan ethics and old money values made him use cheap paper napkins for the children and reserve the good linen for out-of-town guests or rich neighbors who came for cocktails. He never had to work, and when he did — he was trained as an engineer — he made sure that his various business ventures turned out to be utter failures. Good looking, in that uselessly handsome manner of well-bred wasps, he was, as a young man, quite a catch.
Peggy, whose grandfather had lost his fortune during the Crash of 29, was made to feel lucky to have married him. She was from Florida, a distinction Charles’s New England relatives held against her. Her “big chest” was not considered an asset either. When she walked into a room, sex reared its ugly head. Lilly, who, like her Mom, had the most beautiful cleavage, was ambivalent about being endowed with such a desirable feature.
It makes no sense.
I am so disappointed.
My father never travels:
Nantucket, Providence, that is his world.
Why is he here, why did no one tell me he was coming?
Did he just turn up? How did he find me? He had never written to me.
How did he known when to wait for low tide to drive to the island?
Did he drive over the sand, did he bring a car?
I feel myself sucked back into my watching mind.
I must watch a lot more carefully as
I have clearly missed something huge.
My dad looks at his shoes,
at the sky.
We sit for a while, he has my hand again,
what can he be thinking?
Somehow we are back in the guest room.
A table is set with coffee and bread.
Another bed has been brought in
with the standing screen between them.
The sisters are coming and going.
Nobody says anything.
I hadn't notice how small the sisters were
but with my father in the room I could suddenly see they weren't much taller than me,
except for Sister Marie-Claire.
Peggy was only 35 when she died from pulmonary thromboembolism. No one could imagine that her magnificent body, which had been such a liability in her marriage, would finally betray her completely, and, in the process, cancel out the betrayal of her husband and best friend.
Before she had sailed on the ss Rotterdam with Tippy, Nana, and Nana’s woman’s friend, Lilly had come down from Providence with her parents and spent an overnight in New York. They’d stayed at the Westbury Hotel on Madison Avenue. Lilly recounted to me the strange circumstances. After the traumatic beauty salon experience, her mom had bought her an expensive winter coat. In April? In preparation for a summer abroad? Most disconcerting to Lilly had been her mother’s ultimate gesture: behind her husband’s back, she had taken Lilly aside and insisted she put in her luggage a letter marked “to read later.”
It had been a terrifying omen. Lilly had refused to take the letter — refused to touch it even — but her mother had tucked it in her suitcase anyway.
The letter remained unopened for years. When Lilly finally tore up the creamy envelop with the peculiar handwriting on it, she found inside the most conventional prose. Her mother was prompting her to be a good, polite and a grateful child, to study hard, and to try to make her parents proud. “Remember that, no matter what, I will always love you,” she had added at the end with a flourish.
All the weirdness of modesty had seemed to disappear.
My dad was now in the nuns’ house too.
We were a strange family.
My father was cheerfully settling in, changing his shirt.
It is clear we weren't going anywhere.
I had a million questions but really didn’t want the answers.
I turn to the window away from everyone on my bed, knees at my chin,
maybe I am shivering again.
Everyone is acting oddly,
lots of smiling.
I stare out the window
The girls now know what a tragedy I am, they pass my window smiling, tipping there heads. No one speaks to me.
I am back in my head watching the sounds of words fade. I am dreaming awake, the air is filled with tiny feather like things swirling. The sound of repeated lessons is a drumbeat.
The chatter behind me like tinkling bells or clanging cutlery.
I look at my hands:
they are dirty,
my fingernails grimy.
My mother hates dirty hands. I stick them behind me
then under me.
Everything about me I know will upset her.
My hair’s a rats nest, pale thin blue veins showing through my skin.
I can see her hands lifting up, all diamond rings flashing, as she tries to stick my hair down with her spit.
I want to fly away,
Could I do it?
Nothing makes sense
I hear my dad's voice,
deep and mellow, struggling in French,
accepting the tender attention of the sisters.
I hear another voice that makes me turn:
doctor monk is back.
Clearly everyone knows.
He calls out to me jovial and clasps my father
He is coming at me now.
I go limp.
He feels my forehead, my pulse, stares into my eyes. I quickly close them.
"She is better yes, but a few days more."
I feel vomit in my throat, uncontrollable vomit not from sickness but terror panic.
This focuses everyone on my sickness, not on my unbearable pain, the ripping in my chest, the unimaginable truth.
I am lost now,
No sooner had Peggy died, her husband made sure her memory was safely placed out of reach on a high pedestal. That pedestal was her burial mound. I had repeatedly suggested to Lilly she take me to visit her mother’s grave, but she had never made it happen. Not invited at the funeral, she felt no connection to the silent mausoleum.
She knew better: her mother had not been a saint, a martyr, or an angel, as her father would have liked his children to believe. Neither had she been a paragon of patience and virtue. She used to spank her kids hard with the back of her blue plastic hairbrush. She’d slam doors. She’d scream at Charles. She’d cry in her pillow. But when she laughed, particularly when Aunt Jackie’s husband, “Uncle Don“, was around, she was the prettiest woman on earth.
Even as a child, Lilly knew that there had been a casting error: Peggy should have married Uncle Don, while Aunt Jackie… well Aunt Jackie got it right eventually, when she divorced Don and became Lilly’s step-mom.
I keep my eyes closed
and when I open them it is dark.
In the room I can see just shadows.
I can hear voices but far away. Prayers? Singing?
I can hear breathing.
It is my dad behind the screen. I try to remember what I know now but maybe it is nothing.
Maybe that is not my dad.
The light is so soft, the light so smooth.
I slip out of bed.
My feet feel the cool linoleum, I feel for my robe, my slippers but I find nothing.
I wait, I listen.
Nothing. I stand and walk to the foot of my bed,
touch the door to the courtyard.
It is dark but I can see enough to get to the breathing sound.
If it is my dad, then it is true.
I decide not to look and crawl back in my bed.
Bringing my knees to my chest I pull the covers over my head.
I am in my own cave
inside my head.
I am listening to the morning sounds,
the bells, the girls, the clanking from the kitchen, the footsteps, the greetings.
I smell coffee and bread.
There is a knock and then like a storm Sister Marie-Claire enters.
She has a tray with pitcher, cups, bowls, bread, and a bucket under her arms.
she calls out bonjour ma petite bonjour Monsieur.
And there she is.
Me in my worn pajamas and my father in his under drawers.
She barrels through without noticing.
She puts down the tray, pours water in a porcelain bowl and mimics to my dad
and laughs and she is gone.
I look at my feet then at my dad who is smiling then laughing.
I start to laugh.
We are laughing and then we are not.
There is no place to go, we are stuck.
I have never spent time with my dad,
not by myself —
always two or three kids, a few dogs,
my aunts, cousins.
Always a pack of people and here we are
alone in a nuns’ house in our pajamas without a thing to say to each other.
He looks so young to me now.
He is younger than the sisters I think.
How is this going to work?
I knew how the world worked before.
I know how it works here but, what will happen now.
How will we get back —
where is back?
I get back in bed and close my eyes tight,
I will be asleep,
I will just be asleep.
In Bonne Mère’s watery blue eyes, I could see now that, after all these years, unanswered questions still troubled her.
Lilly’s mother, whose death she had to keep to herself for weeks, haunted her. Were the circumstances surrounding her death the source of some unspeakable sorrow?
“How long did Tippy stay with you after Lilly returned to the States,” I asked, careful not to glance in Lilly’s direction.
There was an uncomfortable pause. I got the distinct feeling that Tippy’s relatives had not been as discreet as one would expect. “She remained at the convent two more semesters after Lilly left,” volunteered Soeur Jeanne.
And had the nuns stayed in touch with Tippy all these years? If they had, then they probably knew that Tippy’s mother had finally divorced her husband and married Lilly’s father.
By then, of course, the children were all grown up, and it is as adults that Lilly and Tippy, willy-nilly, had become step-sisters.
“We stayed in touch with Tippy for a while, but eventually lost track of her,” offered Soeur Jeanne, reluctantly.
“So they know,” I thought. They know the bare facts, at least. The spouse swapping. The scandalous intrigues. The hanky-panky that preceded the tragedy. The guilt. The shame. The loss. The damage control. The inevitable lies.
Meanwhile, Bonne Mère was praying.
Her gaze rested on Lilly without a single ripple disturbing the smooth surface of her retina. She might as well have been watching a distant comet cross the night sky.
The sisters are delighted by my dad.
He is so charming.
He agrees to view the garden and walk around the town and meet the monks.
It is as if they now have two children to care for.
It is so outside my experience with them.
They are playful.
We have dinner with them.
Generally a solemn affair but, this is nearly a party.
Dad is relaxed, though he does leave to smoke a lot.
He relates to them in such a calm happy way.
They have become the team of cheerfulness.
I am sour grapes
I watch my dad in wonder.
He smiles and laughs,
occasionally glancing at me and almost as a matter of course he rubs my head.
"Straggle" he says,
then he explains that he has always called me “Straggle” and tries to translate it —
not a success but the sister get the concept.
My hair has been a great source of amusement for all.
I am resentful.
These are my sisters and my dad and now they have joined forces and I am the outsider.
I wonder if I am the only one who sees this.
We are all pretending.
I do get out of my pajamas at last,
I can walk around.
Most of the girls are gone
It must be some sort of break.
I know we are leaving soon
not because anyone tells me
but it is logical.
My dad and I take a walk outside the convent into the woods trying to get to the beach.
I want to ask him what is really going on but I can't seem to find an opening.
He talks about the beauty of the island, the kindness of the sisters, how good the food is.
He is right there:
“Until now I never knew that green bean was green or that bread and butter could be
a most delicious meal. I had never eaten melons out of the garden or eggs from a chicken with parsley from the ground.”
He keeps talking, then blurts it out:
do I want to stay with the sisters —
stay and finish my studies.
I look at him, I am horrified.
He wants to leave me here....again!
He is smiling:
maybe he thinks it’s a good idea.
I can't see how.
No I say.
No, I want to go home.
“Why don't you think about it.”
Unexpectedly, Bonne Mère decided to pursue a different line of inquiry. She proposed we all get up and continue our conversation while taking a walk in the park adjacent to the retirement home. The day was bright, the sun warm. Lilly welcomed this break. She was never one to sit still very long. Maybe the Mother Superior remembered how difficult it had been to get the restless towhead to study her lessons.
Soeur Jeanne and I lagged behind deliberately to give Lilly and Bonne Mère a chance to be alone. We watched them take off in the alley ahead of us, two slim figures on an unmarked path.
Lilly doesn’t recollect what they talked about. “It’s funny how I remember so little of the encounter with the nuns,” she now says. “I remember how anxious I was. I was so afraid that my time at Les Sorbets had been a figment of my imagination. But as each memory was reconfirmed, a new anxiety rose up.”
By the time Soeur Jeanne and I ran out of nice things to say to each other, Lilly and Bonne Mère were back from their stroll around the basin. We took pictures of each other, exchanged numbers and addresses, and got directions on how to get back on the highway to Nantes.
As we were parting, it crossed my mind that, for Hélène Truchet and Jeanne Giraud, our visit had been a small proof that God is merciful. For Lilly and I, it was more complicated. We were glad to get back into the car, buckle up, and adjust the angle of our seats. We waved the nuns goodbye while maneuvering out of our tight spot in the parking lot.
I am very tired.
My father is making phone calls from an office I have never seen before.
He is smoking a lot.
He politely steps outside though I don't think he has to.
I believe he talks to my sisters and brothers.
I think he asks me if I want to say hello.
I don't know what to say.
Hello how is it now that mummy's dead?
Hello is mummy really dead or did she run away
because we are such awful kids?
Hello did you send me away so mum could leave?
My clothes are being washed by Sister Marie-Claire.
In the kitchen I see her ironing with a heavy iron
Smashing the wrinkles out of my shirts.
It is late, the sun is down, the courtyard is quiet.
There is the cat slipping into the barn, the chicken pecking.
I walk softly.
I don't want company.
I want to look around.
The piglets are pigs now.
The garden has grown rich with beans, tomatoes, herbs, purple eggplants, yellow squash, peppers not just green, melons the size of soccer balls.
I run my hands over them and bring my fingers to my nose:
such good smells.
At the sisters’ house there is murmuring maybe they are praying or making lists,
they are always busy.
I walk behind the dormitory,
listen for the girls but it is silent.
I circle past the front gate running my fingers over the stonewall.
There is a tree near by and I squat under it.
I draw circle in the dust with a stick.
I want someone to come get me
or at least notice that I am missing.
Or maybe I really have become invisible.
Did I make all this happen?
I can't think.
I put my elbows on my knees and start to cry
lightly — the tears run down my face and land like dusty pillows in the soil.
I am crying harder but I think soundlessly.
There are streaks of wet on my legs,
a puddle underneath me.
Later on my bed, not in it as I have not undressed,
I lie looking out the window.
I hear the swish of fabric and Bonne Mère sits on my bed,
at the foot of my bed.
We look at each other.
I don't want to cry anymore.
She puts her hand on my shoe,
it is enough.
I know that she knows me,
she knows what I know.
This is such kindness.
I don't know how long we are there together, she with her hand gently but firmly on my shoe,
me gulping air so not to cry.
I don't look at her
but I know she can see me,
she can stand my pain
and my loss.
I think she must have losses of her own.
A nun’s world.
Slowly my breathing regulates
but she doesn't leave
we have our peace together.
She has soothed me
and still she stays
my foot in her hand.
We drove for an hour and an half at dusk but hardly said a word to each other. Lilly was busy manufacturing amnesia — consigning the last 36 hours to oblivion.
She was not ready to bury her mother yet. We didn’t know it at the time, but Lilly would have to bury Bonne Mère first. Only after she’d wept over the passing of the nun would she be ready to start the long trip home — almost half a century after a death she’d refused to acknowledge.
I know we are leaving,
my suitcase in by the door,
my dad is in his jacket and tie.
I am in my blue smocked dress with the white collar,
white socks, mary-janes —
where is my hat?
No one knows.
We are going on a boat?
I am just now only with one person.
I try to imagine where we are going.
Will the sisters come with us to the boat?
The boat then the train.
We sit across from each other.
I look at my hands so white and bluish.
The land rushes by cows, towns, churches.
I sleep and dream that I am with my mother sleeping in church.
I am sleeping on the pew holding her hand. She has long fingers, red polish, beautiful rings.
She pulls her hand away and I look up at her blonde hair, neat in a French bun, small earrings, perfect ears, red lips — but she is angry or sad I can’t tell.
She will not look at me
but I am in a train with my father not asleep.
Then the taxi in Paris:
I am staring out the window,
the wind on my face cools me and my hair is tickling my neck.
My father touches my hand "we are here" he says.
Where are we?
The grand hotel. Hotel Regina.
I feel myself shrinking.
Everyone is so sharply drawn.
The man who opens the door, the man who carries our bags: I am at waist height.
Above the counter the boxes that hold the room keys are lined with velvet.
How did they do that.
The key is huge.
Dad gives it to me to hold while he signs the paper and gives them our passports.
Will they give them back?
The elevator has two gates and the man who opens and closes them. It is very beautiful
but noisy — we go by, floor after floor, and the gates open. We are led down a long corridor, then another.
I am falling behind, the lamps on the walls glitter as the glass bits knock against each other.
The carpet is so thick and each door is so very wide.
When I catch up with my dad he has given money to the man who carries our bags.
He lets me pass in front of him and I enter into a jewel box room.
Out the window is a golden city.
The latch is huge but the window opens smoothly,
the lace curtain billows out, I can step out and look down.
The noise and the smell rush up to me almost blowing me back
My father calls me Elizabeth when he is angry.
Come away from there, stop moving around, come sit down.
So I sit down.
My dad needs to go downstairs.
I wait for him to leave
and then start to look around,
again to the windows looking out.
The streets seem empty of people:
where were they? — in this is a big city
I look around,
I have not been alone in a room.
The furniture has golden legs.
The mirrors are huge: I see my face to my feet
I am pale thin dingy, my blue dress dusty and wrinkled.
My hair pinned back, white and crinkled.
While I am looking, I touch the mirror's coolness, touch my image
then my face.
My face is warm, I look in my eyes.
Who’s in there?
I feel that I am two people:
the one that the mirror sees
and the one inside me.
I run my hand over the marble top chest down to the golden feet.
There is a table with flowers, a large telephone, a desk with another mirror and more flowers.
Next is a bedroom with a large bed, white sheets, big pillows.
The fabric is so soft, like skin;
Do they know I have a dead mother?
Do I have a dead mother?
I try to remember her face but mostly I feel her hands.
I lie on the bed.
I will never lie beside her again, smell her smell
No — that can't be.
She is warm and soft and has her arms around me,
She pulls me close to her,
she breathes into my hair,
she smells like bread and flowers
and another smell. Her perfume is weak in the morning
her red lipstick faded, her lips pale.
I hear her heart beating, she is sleeping again
I have her all to myself.
I will stay so still I will breathe her in.
I feel her heat here alive, her hair is soft,
she is mine,
I squeeze my eyes and hold my breath so I wont lose the felling.
But I must breathe and open my eyes: I am on a white bed alone.
My face is wet.
I look around some more.
Oh the bathroom is a beautiful room white gold silver.
I take off my shoes, the floor is so cool, there are two basins free standing not too high for my hands, and two toilets. I know what they are: one is for washing.
My sisters don't know this:
my mind is like two minds,
one is what I see what I know, one is what they don't.
The tub is huge, cool, so smooth, with gold feet again.
There are towels soft fluffy towels.
Big and little jars of bath stuff with ribbons.
Can I take a bath?
What would happen. My dad is not back.
I could lock the door.
I get my suitcase and bring it in the bathroom.
My suitcase bought special —with my initials in it.
The clothes inside are dingy.
I am being crazy.
I dump everything out, I take off my clothes, lock the door,
the water comes out of a wide mouth,
it is sparkly warm and cold together. It rolls over my hands.
The plug — I forgot the plug
but in time I get it in.
I can have salts or bubbles.
Salts I think.
Then shampoo — there is a handle I can rinse with.
The water is getting very high.
My feet don't reach.
I can be totally under water and float.
I can wave my hair like a mermaid.
I can roll around top to bottom.
No one can see me
I am a fish, I sink and float and sink and float
I am free, nothing in here but me.
In water I am safe I can't hear only water
I laugh underwater.
I scream underwater.
My skin is smooth and weightless in my little ocean.
But there is someone knocking
I turn off the water, get out of the tub,
and careful wrap myself, slide toward the door.
It is the maid.
She talks very fast and laughs.
She sees my clothes and bundles them up,
puts down more towels, more towels, and leaves.
I am wrapped in a towel and she has taken my clothes.
My dad will kill me.
I will pretend, I will lie, I will tell him this is very French.
They will wash them or buy me new ones.
She didn't take my sneakers but my mary-janes.
Yes that is it:
She is going to clean them.
But now the world descends on me, I am alone in a white bathroom wrapped in a towel,
no mother, no father, no Bonne Mère, no clothes.
There is a bathrobe: I stand on the toilet to get it
It is very heavy soft heavy.
I have to make this seem okay.
I brush my hair, put on the robe.
Way too big but I will bluff, empty the tub, clean the floor, make my presence disappear,
unlock the door, sit down in the chair, and wait.
I am holding in my hand the lovely note Hélène Truchet sent me a few months after our encounter. As I read it — and re-read it — I can’t believe how impossibly cruel life can be.
Bonne Mère and I had known, the minute we’d met, that we were kindred souls. We were the two people on earth who had tried to be surrogate mothers to Lilly — and had failed.
Neither she nor I had been able to comfort Lilly. Ultimately, our compassion had proven inadequate. Maybe, in the end, other people’s grief and anguish are theirs, and theirs alone.
In recognition of this fact — the unassailable nature of human misery — Bonne Mère had offered me in all earnest her friendship.
In her note, she had asked me to come see her as soon as I could, with sweet and quiet urgency.
I had not taken her up on her invitation. As much as I wished I could have (it would have made her and me feel good), truth be told, she was not my Bonne Mère. I could not give her the reassurance only Lilly could have given her: the reassurance that her prayers had been heard, that her faith in the power of goodness had not been in vain, and that the little rich girl she had welcomed in her convent years ago had been touched by grace.
If I had tried to tell her, in my own words, that she had made a difference in Lilly’s life, I would have usurped my friend’s place — and I would have lied.
Unfortunately, Lilly was not ready.
Bonne Mère died in January 2008.
Today, at long last, Lilly is ready. What follows is the rest of her story.
I am sitting alone in a hotel.
I have never been alone in a hotel before.
I have never been alone anywhere before.
My mother is dead.
Was she run over?
Killed in a crash?
Shot by a burglar?
Can't imagine anything.
She was young,
not like me.
What would make her die?
It makes no sense.
I look at myself in the mirror: It is flecked with black, old, mottled
with wet hair in a white robe
I am old.
My father flies into the room.
He moves too jerkily these days, looks around as if he forgot what he was doing here,
almost misses me in the chair.
He seldom calls me Lilly.
We have tickets.
We are going home on a big jet.
Why do grown-ups think that children are so ignorant:
I know what a jet is.
We should go out and have dinner
but as he is saying this he sees that I am wet and undressed.
Where are your clothes?
He is sweating again and gets his cigarettes.
Always an operation:
First he pats his body to find out where they are, (always the same place), then digs them out like they are buried, fumbles with the package, crinkling paper and tin foils, digs again for the cigarette itself, pulls it out while replacing the pack, turns the cigarette over a few times to be sure that's what it is, all without looking, then searches his body again for the zippo.
The flashing silver appears and instantly is clapped open and zip...there is flame.
The magic part.
Then he lights up his cigarette, sucks deep and slips the lighter away, picks a piece of tobacco off his tongue, exhales, and then looks at me, calmer now.
That’s the ticket.
So we order
steak pomes frites — wine for him,
ice cream for me.
This unheard of luxury gets only a smirk.
We are both being bad.
We eat on the balcony.
I have found a nightgown.
I am so tired.
The radio is playing classical.
My father looks out at the city expressionless.
I know he doesn't know what to do:
how to find words for me.
In his shirtsleeves, smoking on a balcony in Paris with a dead wife and a motherless girl:
he looks like no one I know.
I am floating. My dad lifts me from the chair.
I am dreaming.
I can barely feel the bed beneath me it is so soft.
My hair is dry and scratchy but I think I am sleeping,
my eyelids flutter.
He sits away from me looking at me in a blue and golden chair,
drink in one hand,
cigarette in the other,
hunched over, smoke, drink, smoke, drink.
I watch his eyes are red
his face flushed.
Smoke, inhale, exhale,
clinking the glass placed on the floor,
cigarette stubbed out.
I am so small inside my body,
He comes to lay down on the other side on the bed
in his boxers.
He smells of cigarettes and musk.
I don't want to move but I must see his face.
I don't want him to disappear.
Like a baby snake I turn just enough to see him:
he is larger, somehow lying down,
he has another cigarette.
He twists to sip his drink.
In the dark room, lighted only from the night sky,
I watch him smoke delicate whiffs. Light catches it.
He is the saddest man in the world.
I know I have lost something but not really:
I didn't see her die
or go in the ground.
I don't know if she cried
or asked for me.
I don't know anything but what he told me.
He knows it.
It's different —
there must be something so awful he knows:
he stares at the ceiling and smokes.
When I woke up the sun was shining in my eyes. I couldn't quite figure out where I was.
I could hear water.
My dad was showering
I curled into a ball and hugged the pillow to my body.
Trying to shield my eyes and shut off my brain.
I could hear noises from the street below,
the fabric of the sheet and pillow had smelled
like lavender and soap and something else.
I watched the sun moves with my eyes closed.
The bathroom door opened and my dad emerged, shaved, naked and smiling.
He pulled on his drawers, searched for his cigarettes and his zippo.
His face was shining, he smoked almost as if he had forgotten I was there.
I watched his body relax.
He continued to dress, put his change in his pocket, cigarettes in the jacket, shoes, socks, everything in order — then he must have sensed me.
His head whipped around in a kind of horror.
I had frightened him.
We looked at each other both caught in the strangeness,
like almost equals, not like parent and child.
"Get up girl! I will be downstairs in the restaurant. We have a few hours to walk around before going to the plane. Get dressed for the trip home!”
He smiled almost pleased to have delivered such a well put together set of instructions.
In a moment he was gone.
I slipped out of bed still weak and dizzy.
I did what I was told, methodically washing my face clean.
Tried to comb my hair.
Tried not to look in the mirror
My dress was hung clean in the closet, all my clothes had been returned clean and folded, restored, even my socks were ironed.
Did I need a sweater?
Did I need to pack my suitcase?
Where was the restaurant?
I am frantic.
What am I doing alone in a room in Paris?
What if there was a fire?
But I went out into the hall, the wallpaper was silk, I hadn't noticed the patterns of the rugs. I walked the wrong way, then back again to the elevator.
It wasn't there. Just the cage.
But I noticed a bell.
I rang it.
The sound of chains metal and the smell of cigarettes came up toward me.
A young man greeted me as he opened the door.
He wasn't much taller than me, or much older it seemed.
But he closed the door and we went down.
He didn't speak.
When we reached to main floor the door was opened.
I hadn't noticed how big the lobby was.
A great hall with tall windows, heavy curtains, thick carpets.
I am so very quiet.
I stood very still and smelled perfume, cigarettes.
Slowly, chatter came toward me.
Such an amazing woman had just entered the lobby.
A lady at least 100, looking like a tiny queen, in a pink suit and hat.
She smiled at me.
Immediately tears ran down my face.
She touched my face with her white glove:
“Ma petite tu es toute seule” or something.
I nodded, tears coming fast now.
She took my hand in her tiny hand and lead me to the desk.
She was frail like a child but somehow so strong.
Where was my father? His back to me, he was struggling with the bill.
He was so big and awkward.
My lady and I were about the same size
I wanted to go with her, have her hold my hand, let me be and cry.
But dad turned.
“There you are, always wandering off.”
The lady smiled at him, kissed my cheek and went.
I watched her walking on tiny legs. She looked back and smiled.
She nodded her tiny head.
Well, shall we walk?
We have time.
Maybe a cafe and some cake!
It seems he thinks that if he feeds me sweets I will be all better.
We walk the whole length of the lobby, its sounds muffled by the curtains and carpets,
glittering mirrors, flowers, golden robes, such good smells.
My feet make no noise, the ceiling is impossibly high, almost like the sky.
The doorman opens the door and bows.
My dad waves and smiles and we take off.
Two times in my life, I am walking with my dad and no one else.
It is hot, bright, buses, cars, but not too busy, smells strong.
We walk I think toward the river.
He walks slightly ahead of me. I can see his head bent forward as if into the wind.
I hurry but he stays ahead.
We arrive at a bridge. I want to look at the water and the golden horses so I just stop.
He is half way across before he turns.
The look on his face I have never seen.
I want to look at the horses.
There is something about the horses that makes me cry.
Not sob but the tears are hot on my face.
By the time my father gets to me I look up at him. I feel him collapse inside.
He can't look at me so he looks at the horse ands I look at my shoes.
We take a black car to the airport.
I fall asleep immediately.
Or maybe I just close my eyes.
This is what I will do now: I will pretend always to be asleep.
I won't look — but I can't keep it up. The window is open and the smell is mixed with dust and flowers, something like chocolate and endlessly cigarettes and pee.
I watch things blur by me,
I squint to make it more out of focus,
I am sure there is a way to watch but not see.
Seeing is more painfully.
We are whisked through the airport,
passports stamped, on to the runway, up the stairs,
into seats without other passengers.
The plane in nearly empty.
We are seating beside each other.
I so want to move away.
Can I sit by the window?
Yes — so I am one seat away.
My father lights a cigarette and pulls in the smoke.
I press my face hard against the window I am just in front of the wing.
So I see part ground and part wing — shiny metal very clean.
The cigarette is out.
We tumble down the runway.
It is so noisy.
I have never been on a big plane, only little ones from the mainland to Nantucket.
It is so loud and as we go longer and longer.
The terrible weight of the plane seems to cling to the ground.
We lumber and struggle to break free from the earth.
I am holding my breath
then the fat bird bumps up into the air wavering a minute, then really now we are flying.
I am amazed, I am thrilled for those few minutes my heart is open,
I am smiling, I am delighted,
then the zippo clicks open
and I am back.
The seat itches my skin.
My white socks have slipped down almost into my shoes, my hair is electric and sticks to the window and the fabric of the seat.
Though I know this is not possible I feel myself hurling into space like I am the plane.
I am fighting too with gravity.
I am dreaming I am in the ocean on our island.
I am under water, the warm salt water all around me, the sun shines through, the water making swirls and speckles. I can hold my breath a long time.
I dive down to the sand and take some in my hands, it is fine and slips thru my fingers.
I roll like a seal and break out of the water gasping. But, no, I am on a plane, my father is asleep, his mouth open, snuffling a little.
There are so few people around me.
The airplane lady smiles and comes to me.
“You missed lunch young lady, I didn't want to wake you, you must be hungry.”
While she is talking I realize how long it has been since I have heard American from an American lady.
Her teeth are very white, her lipstick bright orangey red and her hair perfectly arranged under a perfect little hat. My mouth is dry.
Her eyes are so blue and she is perfect.
She turns away without waiting for an answer and in a moment she has pulled a table out of the seat. A white tablecloth flutters and silverware and a glass of water with ice cubes.
Ice cubes? No ice cubes in France.
I drink the water and she has filled it again.
I drink it all again.
Then there is salad and crackers and bread and something coming in a baked dish.
So much food and more water.
I am trapped in my seat.
I need to pee.
I kick my shoes off and slither out of my seat and step in the seat besides me in my dirty white socks.
My father is asleep. I climb over him into the aisle.
The lady leads me to the toilet.
The door closes and I am in a tiny bluish room.
I see my face and close my eyes.
I don't want to see myself.
The noise of flushing: crazy blue water. I wash my hands and am out as quick as I can to climb over my dad and slide back into my seat.
I taste the lasagna so salty and the salad cold ice cold.
The bread is warm.
I eat the bread with plastic butter.
My stomach turns and I taste vomit in my mouth.
I put the napkin in my to my face and smell the starch:
The starch in the kitchen as sister Marie-Claire irons. A fresh clean white smell.
I am calm again.
I close my eyes.
I am not there if my eyes are closed.
I am not there at all.
I am sleeping maybe.
I smell my sour smell, I hear my dad laughing, I am dreaming, but no he is there joking with the stewardess — smoking, a drink in his hand, standing up by his seat, chatting with the stewardess with white teeth.
He is so charming, light, happy, head tipped back as he laughs.
His brown red, slightly curled up hair touches his shirt.
I am furious. Will he bring her with us?
He smiles over at me.
“Hi Straggle, did you have a nice nap?”
Back to the stewardess: "We are going home, she was in school in France, the little traveler."
He rambles on, the lady laughs and smiles at me and I hate her.
I look away out to the sky.
It is pink, the wing is silver pink, the clouds open up a little to the sea below, I think.
I am not afraid of the flying or falling. I am afraid I am lost.
My dad is gone down the aisle, cigarette and drink in his hand, out of sight.
I stand up on the seat.
I want to know where he is.
He is chatting with some one I can't see, hidden by the seat.
The pilot comes out, my dad comes back,
Now they are chatting.
All so jolly.
What is it?
I don't understand now.
What is it?
I don't know something. I can't think.
I slip back into my seat and everyone moves back to their spot.
The pilot comes forward.
“Come Straggle, want to see the cockpit?”
He is calling me Straggle,
my nickname only in happy times.
My hand flies to my hair. It is up, sticky and wild.
I don't want to see the cockpit but he takes my hand, almost my hand, and pulls me right out of my seat.
I am limp, standing behind the pilot.
He is not holding the wheel but lights are flashing. We are splitting the sky and he is not watching.
The back of his head is neat, the hair close cropped. I can see his scalp.
Does it hurt?
His hat is so tight on his head, but he is smiling and joking and my dad leans over me to look at the dials.
I smell his smell, smoke, musky, light summer jacket.
But, sweat and fear too — I smell it.
I smell it on me too. I am dizzy.
“Come on, Girl. Back to your seat.” The belt goes on, we are going slowly down.
I can see the land grey green, then closer I see boats in the harbor, houses on the shore, even cars.
And sliding onto the ground — lots of screeching and metal noises.
My ears hurt.
I am putting my hands to my face. It is wet, am I crying?
More squeals and the lumbering giant rolls to the building.
We are whisked down to the ground across the cement, walking fast with two airport men. And then we are in a little cart across to the other side to where the little planes sit like toys.
Another cart is behind us.
Is someone coming too?
I turn my head and feel the wind and my hair across my face.
Bonne Mère is in my head.
I close my eyes and try to remember
but the noise is different, the seat is plastic, my dad holds my arm.
My arm is like a stick with white blue veins.
I have lost my gloves. When did lose them?
When did I have them?
We are slowing down and beside the little plane, the planes I know:
six people — and dogs allowed.
The pilot is waiting by the stairs and nods to my dad, smiles at me.
Why is every one smiling at me?
I look down. My socks are filthy, my shoes scuffed up, my blue dress spotted with what, and rumpled too.
“Get in Dear.”
He comes in too, the pilot next, and pulls up the stairs in one quick move.
Locks the door.
Excuse me, excuse me, to his seat.
So it is just us. Then my dad moves to sit with the pilot.
I am by the window, a few seats back
The window is tiny and scratched. The air is blowing on me from a spout.
I am paralyzed, empty, thoughtless, weightless, I am like air.
My bones are gone.
Inside my skin there is nothing.
The propellers start whump whump, grinding.
The tail of the plane moves around, we roll forward.
My hand goes up to my hair. It is knotted at my neck.
Where is my hairbrush?
We roll more forward faster. I tighten my seat belt.
There is a fly in the plane, it lands on my arm and then on the window. I can hear its buzz.
The plane lifts and over the ground back across the houses and boats and slowly out to the sea.
I can hear my heart racing.
Is it my heart?
I don't know any dead people.
I am wondering maybe there is nobody dead just missing.
But maybe everyone is dead, maybe the dog too.
The clouds are wispy and pinkish.
My dad turns his head and looks at me.
Back to the pilot and what, what is he thinking?
I feel the fear rise up in my throat.
The ocean is grey and green shiny and I can see the island.
There is fog lying on it.
We are in the fog now and I cannot see anything.
I sit on my hands as my whole body is shaking.
I stare at the seat in front trying to make my breath slow but I am on fire, my face is hot, I feel us going lower.
I don't see the ground but then suddenly it is there, the runway, the ocean beyond.
We touch down but bounce a little, swerving. I close my eyes tight but the sun burns through my eyelids.
The plane arrives on the wrong side: I can't see anything but the runway
In a second my dad is up tearing to the door.
He is there waiting pushing to get out but he has forgotten that I am still in my seat.
He pulls on my arm and undoes the belt. The door opens and he is out the door.
I am behind him.
He bounds down the stairs.
I stumble to the door.
I am looking down at my feet. They are under me. I watch them on each step
But now I must stop and look.
My brothers and my sisters. Their presence is like a shining wall.
Beautiful light comes off them.
They are brown from the sun and their hair is sparkly.
They are so gleaming, so healthy, so solid. They stand in a tight line — I can see nothing beyond.
My dad kneels to take them all in his arms.
They are a ball of light and they make a sound, I can’t tell what it is.
I feel my bones sticking out of my white skin,
I feel the dark under my eyes and my dead hair,
my dirty dress and socks all too big now.
I am shrunken inside them.
There is no light in me.
I can almost see through my hands.
So this is what it is:
they are one thing,
I am another.
They are together,
I am not part of this.
I will never be part of this.
I am not to be one of them.
They are my sisters and brothers but they know something I don't.
They are tied up.
I cannot fit.
I am lost.
I am frozen.
I am invisible.
Not even the dog can see me.
In 2011, when Lilly and I were patching together our joint recollections, we decided to send our two-sided narrative to Sister Jeanne for comments. Would she be kind enough to check facts and, if need be, correct some of our assumptions? We were taking a risk: she might dismiss Lilly’s experience as a collection of childish notions.
Sister Jeanne took her time to react and I was getting worried. But she had warned me that she would show our document to Sister Marie-Ange, someone Lilly had never mentioned, but who was, with Sister Jeanne, one of the last survivors of that period. I imagined the nuns severely appraising our account of the events. Exactness was an issue for Lilly and me: sticking to the facts as much as possible had been a number-one objective.
Two weeks went by before I received Sister Jeanne’s response. She’d pour over our text alright, but with a sense of wonder. She’d read it as if she was watching a movie of her life. Lilly’s minute observations and keen details had conjured up, with perfect accuracy, the events of that strange summer long ago. The lost child who had fallen from the sky — “The Little Prince” as the nuns secretly called Lilly — had miraculously reappeared. It had not been a dream after all.
Sister Jeanne only corrected a few things: the cows Lilly recalled didn’t belong to the school but to the farmer next door. The “monk” had been an ordinary chaplain. The man nursing Lilly during her illness had been the village doctor. The other students were not young delinquents but local kids. And the beloved cook (who had died of a cancer twenty years ago) was simply called Sister Marie.
Sister Jeanne had given Lilly’s story careful consideration. Her comments were meant to put our mind to rest. She confirmed every single anecdote. But then, with one last remark, she pulled the rug from under me. “I hope that soon Lilly, you and I can get together with Bonne Mère and Soeur Marie and talk it over,” she wrote. “Your account reads like a novel, but, incredibly, it is not fiction. It is real — a complicated true story.”
What actually happened at Les Sorbets will only be revealed in Heaven? Meanwhile, down here on Earth, for Lilly and for me, there are no certainties. A story is just a story.
1/5 - Lilly with Soeurs Ursule and Marie at the Sorbets school in 2006
2/5 - Soeur Marie takes Lilly on a tour of the school ground. The dorm is now closed
3/5 - The main school building didn't exist when Lilly was there in 1961
4/5 - Bonne Mère and Soeur Jeanne with Lilly at the nuns' retirement home of Roche-sur-Yon
5/5 - Lilly circa 1968, when she was a student at Columbia University Film School