Fog on the Cher
Nine days after the World Trade Center towers buckled toward lower Manhattan and the Pentagon burst into flames, my husband and two small children and I flew to France for a seven-week academic sabbatical. The international flight, among the first to receive post–September 11 clearance out of Washington D.C., our hometown, was nearly empty, as quiet as a funeral. Bathed in the blue glow of the real-time flight information video screens, we watched the virtual plane cross the Atlantic for eight hours. We were holding our breaths. We were silent.
Throughout our stay in France people approached us as one might a person whose family member had died: “Je suis désolé,” they would say. I am sorry. At a grocery store in Vouvray, a small town along the Loire River, my credit card was taking a long time to clear, and the middle-aged cashier put her pen behind her ear and shrugged to the line of women shoppers behind me and told them: “Américain.” She did not mean this in a cruel or dismissive way. The women, wearing flat shoes, knee-length pencil skirts, and buttoned cardigans pilled with wear—typical small-town French attire—nodded and made that noise in their throats we make when we hear about death. I did not expect this level of sympathy. It caught me off guard. It called attention to our collective sorrow, the horrors of the world, the loss.
The women clutching their bags of chard and shallots as they walked home up the hill to prepare dinner for their families did not know, of course, that some of the loss was personal, complicated. Back in the states, five of my neighbors died in the Pentagon crash—two of them children traveling with their parents. The family had been on their way to their own sabbatical in Australia. They had been in the air only minutes when the plane turned around and headed toward the five-sided, concrete building. They lived two blocks from my family. I did not know them well, but I put our nine-month-old daughter in a stroller and went to their house and saw the candles and stuffed animals already gathered there on the front stoop. I thought of the terror of the minutes, the mother shielding her children as the concrete walls grew closer and closer.
The theme of loss hovered, clouding that fall season, but I see now that it rolled in earlier, slowly, subtly. A few weeks before September 11, my husband and I had traveled to Guatemala to pick up our adopted nine-month-old daughter. My sister stayed home with our biological four-year-old son. Adoption is a joyous occasion, but much like giving birth, it is also tempered with sorrow. For every child adopted, a gain, there is also loss—for the birth mom, for the child. My daughter would not know the dirt roads of her hometown, the smell of hand-patted tortillas cooking over an open flame. She would not know the family members she resembled. You understand this going in. You must be brave. You must be up for the task. My husband and I believed we were. You tell yourself, and probably rightly, that if you do not adopt this girl she might live on the streets. She might sell Chiclets at stop signs. She might die. People often ask why I adopted my daughter. My answer is simple: I did not want to bring another child into the world when I knew so many already in it needed a home. When I first saw my daughter at the consulate in Guatemala City, I surprised myself by bursting into tears. I felt so stupid, crying among Guatemalans who were there just to get a passport, a visa, a document signed. My tears caught me off guard.
On the flight home from Guatemala City, I thought about tears—the actual physiological response. We say we cry at weddings or during a birth because we are happy, but maybe even on these joyous occasions we cry from grief, a sense of loss, from the feeling that we are giving up one life to merge it with another. We say we cry at funerals out of loss, but also maybe we cry out of joy because we lived, because we were spared. Grief and joy. Gains and losses. A delicate dance.
I cried at my own wedding—twice. The first time, a beach wedding on Pawleys Island, I sensed I was crying partially out of grief. But I did not tell anyone. Not even myself. I was grieving, a little, for the loss of me—someone I had grown to like very much, an East Coast journalist with an MFA in creative writing who had come a long way from flicking cigarette butts out the windows of pickup trucks on dirt roads in Missouri. And there I was, marrying a kind, stable, but very quiet man, a poultry scientist, who had just taken a job as a professor in a town in East Texas with only one movie theater. What would happen to her, this girl? I cried again five years later when we renewed our vows in the Catholic church so that we could baptize our children. After, I got into the car with my two girlfriends, who had served as witnesses and accompanied the ceremony with guitars, and said, “I feel like I just left a funeral.” Both writers, both sensitive people, they looked at each other meaningfully, and then I added, “I mean, because my eyes are all puffy from crying.” But that was not the whole truth.
At the time of the French sabbatical we had been married eight years. Our young marriage, it would seem, could handle upheavals with grace—September 11, the deaths of neighbors, a new baby, a seven-week international trip with two small children. In fact, others envied our marriage, and often said so. Anyone who saw us in France would have said, “Now that’s one happy family.” We lived in seven houses in seven parts of the country over seven weeks. “Crazy!” our friends told us before we left. On Halloween eve at a cottage in the Dordogne Valley, my husband and I found a pumpkin at a farmer’s market, carved it into a jack-o’-lantern, found a candle, and placed it inside the pumpkin. At dark, we took the kids outside, and my husband ran around the foggy hills with it, chasing our giggling four-year-old-son, making monster noises, as I held our baby daughter on my hip. Later that night, I walked alone outside into the rural dark. More fog rolled in. The bells from the lone church on the hill chimed. I thought: this is one of those moments—when you know you are alive, lucky, blessed. The next morning, our daughter took her first steps as my husband sat on the terra-cotta tile floors, his hands out ready to catch her.
We grabbed the video recorder and captured the moment. At another house in a different town, I videotaped our son when he borrowed a French boy’s bright-orange bike with flame decals, called a Rockrider, and rode over the hills on an island in the middle of the Loire with the Amboise castle off in the distance. Both my husband and I videotaped it all—wanting to never, ever forget this magical, strange time: our children running along the garden paths of Château de Chenonceau; stumbling and laughing up steep castle steps, playing in the sand on the beach in Fréjus, on the Côte d’Azure. Maybe even then, we knew: We all need proof of joy in life. We need evidence.
One day in the very early morning fog we drove along the Cher River toward Château de Loches, a fortress of a place with its famously high keep, a place where Richard the Lionheart lived in the twelfth century. Driving along in our rented Renault Scenic, we listened to the final song on Beck’s Mellow Gold album. The album came out in 1994, the second year of our marriage. The final song, “Blackhole,” is melodic and dreamy. “Wake up, wake up. Nothing's gonna harm you.” The fog, the song, the children happy, snuggled safely into their car seats, my husband’s hand in mine. It felt like joy. We also listened to a lot of Buena Vista Social Club as we drove around France. The eponymous movie about the Cuban band playing with American guitarist Ry Cooder had come out in 1999. We were smitten and brought the sound track with us. The band’s complex story of loss, perseverance, and beauty spoke to us. We particularly liked the elegant boleros sung by Ibrahim Ferrer, the tall, thin man who always wore a newsboy cap.
In those pre-Wi-Fi days, it was easy to insulate ourselves in our little love cocoon. But one night in our gîte, a country home, in Vouvray we tucked the children into their twin beds and turned on the television. We watched, mesmerized, as green lights formed arcs and halos in the night sky of Afghanistan. The French newscaster said something. “I think we’re bombing Afghanistan,” my husband said. We had not yet realized that American media had already reduced the horror to two words: “nine,” “eleven.” I remember feeling removed from American culture—suspended. We turned off the TV and listened to Ibrahim Ferrer sing one of his sad boleros.
The days in France grew short. The trees changed color. Leaves fell. Christmas lights were strung across the thin alleys in the college town of Tours. One day, while my husband was at work, I opened the tall French casement windows of my bedroom in the fifteenth-century white stucco house in Amboise, letting in the cold, and realized: it was time. This particular adventure was coming to an end.
We went to Paris to stay a night in a hotel before flying out. Against our usual preferences, we chose a chain hotel near the airport to ease the mayhem of the early flight the next morning with two small children. We had a crib, toys we had amassed, two giant blue suitcases stuffed with dirty clothes. And the photos. And the videotapes. Seven weeks’ worth. And the music CDs, the sound track to our marriage. At the front desk of the Holiday Inn we asked the manager if he thought our big blue bags would be safe in the car overnight. The hotel garage was locked, closed with a metal door. Only the front desk could let cars go in and out, via a button. It was already evening—surely not too many guests would be coming and going. The rental hatchback came with tinted windows and a cover you could pull over the luggage. The manager assured us the bags would be fine. So we grabbed toothbrushes and a few other items, and brought them to the room. Then we hit the streets of Paris. Christmas was coming with a lovely bite in the air. I bought a Persian patterned wool scarf from a street kiosk. People on the street were joyful, laughing as our entourage moved down the street with our son standing on back of the stroller and our daughter giggling in front. Several people pleasantly asked us if we needed help with directions. “Pont Neuf?” my husband asked one lady. She smiled and pointed at what was directly in front of us: Bridge Nine, and Notre Dame on the other side. We burst into laughter, even the kids, forever marking this moment.
The next morning, we headed to the breakfast buffet before going to the airport. My husband left me with the kids to bring the car around. A few minutes later he stormed back into the restaurant. Something was wrong. I could see this clearly, even from the other side of the room. “Our bags!” he said. “Everything is gone!” This took a minute to sink in, the loss. The utter loss of it all. The photos. The videos. The souvenirs. The CDs. The proof of our happiness.
I began to cry. I could not shake the image of videotapes of my children tossed on the side of a road. I blubbered to the manager, “You promised us. Why did you promise?” He patted my shoulder as I held my daughter on my hip. I felt something enormous give way, a dam breaking. The manager said, “I’m sorry, especially after all your country has been through.” His referral to something much larger seemed both odd and somehow appropriate. The next events were a blur. We went up the elevator to get our toothbrushes. We went down the elevator. We went up again. The clock was ticking. The plane was leaving. We met with the manager. We met with the police. We signed documents. We were running out of time. We had a plane to catch. We simply had to leave—leave it all behind. All of it.
We scrambled out of the hotel and into the rental van. We explained the damage to the rental company at the airport. We got through the heightened, post–September 11 security. We ran for the gates. We collapsed into the seats of the plane.
Four hours later, I stared out the window at the sea of blue below and replayed the hotel events. At some point, I had been on the elevator with the kids. A group of Spanish-speaking people, one of them wearing a newsboy cap, walked on to the elevator and began to chatter with my daughter. I heard the phrase “niña bonita.” The thin man with the newsboy cap was especially kind and warm. I could tell my Guatemalan daughter understood his words—perhaps more clearly than my own. Halfway across the Atlantic, I turned to my husband. We hadn’t spoken a word on the flight. Maybe other couples would have fought. Maybe others would have accused each other, blamed each other for choosing to leave the bags in the car. Not us.
“By the way,” I said.
He turned to me and answered flatly, “Buena Vista Social Club.”
I nodded solemnly. “In the elevator.”
He nodded. “I saw them too.”
I added, “The whole band. They must have been playing a gig in Paris.”
My husband and I turned away from each other, then, and closed our eyes.
This moment, this cryptic exchange, would come back to me many years later.
Our marriage lasted another fifteen years. No one—not friends, not family, and especially not I—saw the end coming. One sunny morning in the living room of our much-envied, well-decorated 1930 bungalow, my husband told me that he was leaving, that he had been unhappy a long time. For weeks I could barely move.
One fall morning, after he moved out, I sat at a red light on the way to work and suddenly thought of the cryptic exchange on the flight out of Paris. For many years, I had interpreted my and my husband’s clipped words about the Buena Vista Social Club in the hotel elevator as a kind of telepathic understanding that comes from the unique bond of marriage. Or, in that case, a comfortable kind of exhaustion.
I pulled over to the side of the road. Some marriages end with dinner plates tossed against walls, raised voices. Not ours. I sat in my car on the side of the road and thought about that season of loss. My husband and I suspended in silence miles above the Atlantic. The videotapes of our happiness decaying under a shrub along a street in Paris. The deaths of our neighbors. The Pentagon in flames. The fog on the Cher.