Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Chapter Twenty-Seven of Hampton from the Halfway Line

'I'm a fool to want you.' Who better than Chesney to weigh in at this point on Novak and Marianne.


South Derry, Vermont

The midsize, NetJet Hawker landed at the private, Mt. Snow Airport in West Dover, Vermont. A colleague of Julius Novak, from the University of Paris, had made the plane available to him at Westchester Airport outside of New York. Novak normally drove to Vermont from either Boston or JFK – a couple of times even Montreal, but he accepted it might be fun to descend directly into the mountains. Indeed, the experience of dropping out of the clouds and seeing first the rounded tops of the fabled Green Mountains, then the specks of the little mountain villages was a reasonable high and made him feel as excited as he imagined a little boy might be.
His only experience with Mt. Snow had not been its fine skiing but nearby Adams Farm – an agrotourism offering that included a petting zoo, apple picking, hay rides and scary stories with hot cocoa and marshmallow roasting. Marianne had been bringing Isabel to Adams Farm throughout the child’s life. Anytime Novak was in Vermont, he and Marianne would bring their little daughter to Adams Farm. Always there was something new for her to see. One time, she marveled at the spitting llamas; next time it would be the Merino sheep. When she was about eight, she could not take her eyes off the 800-pound hog that just lie there in the mud with flies all around. It was the biggest porker any of them had ever seen.
The farm had evolved over the years from a working dairy concern to a recipient of Reagan-era farm subsidies to a full-on tourism destination. Pre-Civil War, the family reportedly had harbored fugitive slaves as the runaways made their way from south of the Mason-Dixon line to the legitimate asylum of Canada. After the passing of the cowardly, federal Fugitive Slave Act, bounty hunter scum roamed largely unhindered in feeding on the potential of catching a dark-skinned American scurrying north to freedom.
Novak now found himself coursing north on mountainous route 100 in a rented and fully loaded Infiniti M45X. His friend Francois, knowing that his colleague was a beat-up jeep kind of guy, had called ahead and insisted. Of course, if Novak chose to play along (which he did), he would be stuck with the massive hit on his VISA. He would register this harmless incident and return the favor, with interest, at the appropriate time. A private jet? A snazzy sports car? Game on, Fran-swar.
Novak’s assistant, Beverly had cleverly timed the professor’s visit to Marianne in Vermont to coincide (strategically, she thought) with Mother’s Day. They talked about possible gifts and decided on a magenta IPod Nanochromatic. He downloaded (or is it uploaded?) the ridiculously small and featherweight device with what he deemed to be some rather tasteful Uncut magazine CDs and other forward-looking, British-based sounds he hoped Marianne might enjoy while creating her art. To complete the mix, he threw in a thoughtful selection of Chet Baker live sets. He found some recordings of shows they had actually seen together, or he believed they may have seen, in the mid-80s featuring Chet and the German vibist, Wolfgang Lakerschmid.
Novak sometimes used to sing ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ to her. Marianne had always treasured the rare moments when her lover would lose himself and give the entirety of his modest emotional output to her in ways big and small. His guide in such matters would be to imagine Chet Baker on stage, as he had seen the living legend, the tragic jazz icon pouring into his songs an excruciating level of voice and soul and fragile energy that looked as though the effort could easily kill him. He always seemed, to Novak and others, like a deeply-weathered homeless man who just happened to play the most impossibly sublime trumpet and flugelhorn on the planet. Astonishing and unforgettable to have witnessed and one of the many reasons Novak treasured the fact of living in Europe.
As Novak progressed along with the up/download, the Chet selections began to outnumber the alternative selections, and the corresponding feeling that Art Brut and Arcade Fire and Antony were taking over the world dematerialized. He shipped it FedEx, so she would receive this uniquely personalized trinket prior to his arrival; and he included connecting wires and simple instructions for her to plug into the big receiver with the speakers. He was feeling really good about it.
May in Vermont was not like May in the other parts of the world in which Novak had lived. In the midwest United States, in Cologne, in Essex, London, Gloucestershire, even in Slovakia and especially in Spain, May meant spring and flowers that would live after you planted them. In Vermont, buying and planting flowers for Mother’s Day is a risk mostly not worth taking. Unless you have the flowers in pots that are not too heavy to carry inside at night when the thermometer dips below freezing, or you just happen to own a greenhouse on wheels that you can position on top of your garden. Otherwise, the delicate blooms require a blanket at bedtime.
Marianne (unlike many full-time Vermont residents as well as the great majority of tourists -- if the empty shops and inns were any indication) reveled in Vermont’s idiosyncratic version of May. She’d never had occasion to be adversely affected by the mud. She never thought, frankly, that things got that muddy at all. Well, of course, the first time you come to Vermont during what most refer to as mud season, the cars do appear to be covered with mud and dirt, the driving only possible by constantly deploying the windshield wipers. Washing fluid is as valuable as gold and could be sold for much more than the going rate of three dollars a refill. Everyone’s cars are filthy; one just can’t allow oneself to care.
Most often, Marianne found, mud season arrived little by little. A thaw in late February just before the three feet of snow that falls every first day of March; another a few weeks later; another in April together acted to mitigate the potentially torrential lava flow of May. Now, if the ground remains frozen for a solid four-to-six months before the temperature goes up in May, then you would have a mud season of science fiction horror film intensity.
The only people who claim this happens every year, she felt, are those who have sunk into the quicksand of bitching about everything. Marianne heard these folks complaining in the village store or at the bank or post office. When anyone would comment to Marianne that they hate this time of year, she seems to recall that same person as having said that they hated the cold or the ice or when the tourists come or when the flies appear at dusk or when the ladybugs come into your house on hot October days or when they have to rake all those damn leaves or how expensive everything is or when it rains too much or when it doesn’t rain enough or when it gets dark too early or when the school bus is in front of them on Route 100.
To these people, Marianne takes great pleasure in declaring, “I think Vermont is beautiful during every season. That’s why I choose to live here. If I didn’t love everything about it, then I’d live somewhere else.”
To herself, she would think, ‘You should try Belgrade during an ethnic cleansing rally.’
She then would take her leave with her biggest smile and a hearty, “I’m off. Bye, now.”
By the time Novak pulled up the hill, through a large copse of evergreens and onto the Gourlie-Papineau’s rocked circle drive, the wheels of his temporary high-performance machine were splattered brown. Streaks and splotches of grit had sprayed all along the lower parts of the car. Novak stepped out wearing a predominantly brown, wool Corneliani sport jacket and an untucked, French blue Joseph & Lyman cotton twill dress shirt over jeans and his favorite, multi-purpose boots. His sunglasses were Persol, purchased in Bologna. His hair was cut in London. Still, he considered his tastes to be proletarian.
Marianne, whose heart … OK, it fluttered, collected herself on the cedar walkway a few feet from the drive. Not the kind of man one usually sees in South Derry, she thought.
“Nice car,” she grinned with her arms crossed, accepting that her chest was heaving a bit.
“The clown Francois called ahead and insisted,” he laughed. “Too bad I’m not Ben Hampton; they’d have let me have it for free if I’d agree to a photo in front of their sign.”
“Maybe after his book, you’ll be more adequately famous.”
“Yeah? Do you think it’ll be ‘all good,’ as they say these days?”
“Oh, of course,” she laughed, as they kissed both cheeks. “There won’t be one, single negative to come of it. This book will be the first perfect thing to have ever happened in this world.”
“People will no longer be able to utter the phrase, ‘Nothing’s perfect.’”
“And, as they say up here, you’ll be all set.”
“All set!” Novak bellowed like a Vermonter.
For those who have never lived in Vermont, the ‘t’ in ‘all set’ is jarringly silent and the subject of much scrutiny. The degree to which a person drops one’s ‘t’ at the end or sometimes in the middle of certain words (such as ‘Stratton’ or ‘mountain’) often signifies a point of no return to one’s previous linguistic civilization.
If you really want to say the word ‘mountain’ correctly, then you disregard both the middle ‘n’ and ‘t’ for a sort of ‘mou-in.’ Novak, as a wordsmith, was intrigued by the Vermont branch of the rural New England accent.
After their greeting kiss, the two moved away from each other; but Novak’s left hand and Marianne’s right hand came together. They held on timidly, then locked fingers and stared at one another with an easy smile -- an alarming development for both parties.
“Thank you for the Nano,” she said softly. “Really not fair putting music on that would make me cry, you fuck; but it was a lovely gift. Very Julius and very typically … tender, and … definitely … no one knows me like you, and … I’m babbling.”
She pulled her hand way and said, “Let me carry something.”
“I’m really, really happy you liked it.” He handed her his laptop briefcase. “I wanted it to be … you know … something … you know.”
“Yes, I know. A Julius gift. Nothing off the rack.”
“No, I mean … a piece of, you know, mixed in with something … I don’t know, entertaining or … useful or …”
“I get it, sweetheart. Believe me, I get it.”
“OK, good,” he said, relieved.
The former couple moved up the cedar, plank walkway toward the main entrance of the multi-building, Gourlie-Papineau compound. The groundskeepers had been, in the days prior to Novak’s arrival, clearing away all the dead things that had been missed in the autumn or had turned brown while under the snow in the winter.
An indispensable feature of Vermont landscapers and yard crews was the power broom, which looked like a small steamroller, used to quickly and efficiently remove small rocks, gravel and other debris from lawns. How did the debris find its way to the grass? It is pushed there amid large piles of snow by the constant plowing from December through March.
Marianne offered Novak a drink. He picked out a beer. Marianne had found a Vermont-made Kölsch just for him. She made herself a fast tea from the Keurig brewer.
The only other human sign of life (other than the Bernese Mountain dog, who was treated like a beloved aunt) was Sissy, the housekeeper and all-round dogsbody, who offered to take Novak’s bags up to the guest house -- where Ben Hampton had stayed back in January and Novak’s usual accommodation. He allowed her after she insisted she was headed that way to finish preparing the bedding.
When Sissy was gone, Marianne said, “She loves you, and it makes her happy; gives her something to talk about with her husband and their friends. You have no idea.”
“No idea, eh? Remember Mrs. Baynes at the cottage? She was essentially the town crier.”
They sat in the kitchen and discussed all things Isabel, which evolved into talk of Joanna and Roger, Marianne’s work, Novak’s work, and, ultimately, the Ben Hampton book.
“Do you have any clue what he plans to do with all of it?” Marianne asked, meaning the hours of interview material.
“I thought I did, at first,” he said, oblivious to what he’d set in motion. “Now, I’m not so sure.”
Novak, indeed, had no idea how far Marianne herself had gone in her depiction of the footballer (during and after his sports career) as an affected, self-centered prick. And, like many self-centered pricks, completely self-unaware.
“He became inordinately interested in our years together,” Novak continued preposterously. “Although that was, admittedly, wrapped up in all the Wüppertal stuff. But Ben really seemed to be trying to get at how everything was connected – you, me, football, sculpture, teaching … how we …”
After a long pause, Marianne offered, “Fucked up our relationship?”
She spoke it in her usual manner, like one might say ‘how about a week from Wednesday?’
“Yeah, I suppose.” He smiled at the dry way she uttered momentous things. She’d always been that way – when she wasn’t sobbing and spitting and hurling malleable materials, that is.
“Well, I think you should know that he and I spent a fair amount of time going over … pretty … personal, private things that went on between us in Germany.”
Novak went a bit pale. “Not like … “
“I don’t mean pornographic,” she assured him. “I mean the emotions we experienced, good and bad. You know … emotions? Those human feelings that can be so irritating to acknowledge?”
The ex-Arsenal midfield warhorse felt that familiar twinge of serious discomfort that came on whenever he was obliged to face something deeper than which student to select for the Council of Europe Committee on Culture, Science and Education internship; or whether to drive to London or take the train. But he knew ‘such matters would be forthcoming.’ He’d actually either agreed to a settlement of accounts regarding himself and Marianne or brought it on himself, hadn’t he? So, whatever was fated to happen was beginning its course. Or had it begun at some point previously … and rather not of his doing? His life was about to change; and he was here, in historic New England – birthplace of Yankee sensibility, to learn what form it would take and what role he would step up to play. Novak was not accustomed to ‘getting forward’ all that much, having been designed at birth, probably, or else formed by Hermann Roth and Bela Magurany, to bullishly man his position and provide cover for others. He considered getting stuck in, in the shape of saying something, but changed his mind.
“Since you’re momentarily speechless, I’ll take the opportunity to tell you that Ben insists the reason he became so ‘inordinately interested’ in us was because you went out of your way to mention me every five minutes. So the red flags went up in his writer’s mind … or whatever colors the writer’s mental flags happen to be. Help me out.”
“Ben really said that?”
“Is it true?” she asked, giving nothing away as to whether or not she hoped it were.
Marianne had spent nearly half her life developing a workable sobriety when it came to confronting her former lover. Ten years ago, she would have tried to cut him verbally by this point. Twenty years ago, she might have gone at his face with her chisels.
‘Enter the room, Novak – the same room occupied by Marianne. Standing outside watching hasn’t gotten you anywhere.’
If this were a Greek drama, that bit would have been spoken by the Chorus played by most of the rest of the cast of the story – Ben Hampton, Isabel, Roger and Joanna, Rosalie McMahon, perhaps Nayim, three waiters from a Benicassim tapas bar and, most importantly, the Highbury kit man.
“I don’t know ‘every five minutes.’ But …”
If he’d come all the way here to make some kind of positive impression, she thought, he’d not got off to a very good start – except for maybe the impact generated by his … hotness.
“Yes, well, whatever,” Marianne was willing to allow Novak a little time to shift out of first gear. He had just landed, after all. Give him a few more beers, maybe he’ll even cry. “I’ve got a few errands in the village. Would you honor me by coming along?”
“Let’s take my car. XM Radio. Hands-free phone system,” he fell back into laddish humor. “And, I think its algorithm has already adapted to my driving style. It’s fucking unbelievable.”
“I knew it,” she said, without emotion. “All this time, you’ve been a typical, American gearhead. You probably have a ’72 Malibu in the bat cave right now.”
“Yes, I do,” he joked. “It’s bright yellow, and the hood is open with connecting wires hanging out the sides so I can plunge right back into the overhaul when I get back home. I would be very popular with the Blockley teenagers, if there were any.”
“I thought the stone wall company was meant to keep them around.”
“That might take a generation actually,” he smiled, as he pointed out the control on her 10-way power seat. “We’re constantly adjusting the business plan.”
She knew all about adjusting the business plan. They motored down the hill for no more than a pulsating mile to the village. Novak asked Marianne if she noticed how all four wheels seemed to be turning as one, almost caressing the road like a brush would a canvas. She ignored him and told him where best to park, somewhere good for walking to the things Marianne needed to do. The nursery to order some special potting soil from Provençe for her father’s white roses. Novak understood perfectly. The bank and post office, of course. And the little village grocer as well as the specialty pantry – associated with the country inn – renowned for its unbeatable French cheeses.
Of all the women to meet in New England in 1961, Roger Papineau of Bayonne, Aquitaine, was devilishly fortunate to have fallen in love with a girl from a small Vermont town in which a chef from the Vaucluse would one day choose to park his sauce pans. Marianne’s parents were in New York where Roger was receiving a Hemingway Grant, from the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, for his translation of Pierre Bayard’s puckish “Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus?” ("How to talk about books you haven't read.")
They chatted as they strolled the uneven marble sidewalks. The 200-year-old village with the West River running through it was somewhere between picture postcard and rustic scruffy. SUVs, pickup trucks and high-end, foreign sports cars slowed to allow driver and passengers to get a better look at the Papineau girl – Bill and Pips Gourlie’s granddaughter -- walking with, yes, that’s the man we see from time to time. The little girl’s father from away.
They were never married, you know. He was here around Christmas time with some bald novelist from London. I heard … yadda, yadda, yadda …”
Unlike the Gourlies back in the day, the Papineaus didn’t mix all that much. They tended to have a miniscule group of very close friends, people whom we consider to be more like family than those we can’t help actually being related to.
So whatever gaps there were in the locals’ knowledge about the reclusive artists and academics and such up at the old Gourlie place were filled in with gossip, speculation, half-truths and wicked falsehoods. Sissy couldn’t come close to afford living in the town, so whatever spice she divulged seasoned the soups of a faraway community – not South Derry. Oh, one might get hold of a taste of insight through the grapevine, but such fruit was not low hanging.
The handy man, Hazelton, when interrogated, would smile and nod and remove his Baltimore Colts cap and scratch his hair and respond in upstanding generalities, giving scant satisfaction.
He would say things like, “Aw, they’re just folks like anybody else. Same problems. Just quie(t) and priva(t)e. Nothin’ wrong with tha(t). That’s how they’re wired. I’d say they’re more decent and generous than most around here.”
‘But what about that young woman who was staying with them a couple of years ago? I heard she was the French teacher’s daughter from one of his affairs when they lived in Paris.’
That kind of stuff.
To which Hazelton would chuckle, “Aw, c’mon.”
It was killing the locals that they did not have much to gnaw at. They yearned for red meat still on the bone. And, in reality, there was plenty of it. Much of the juicy details existed on Ben Hampton’s tape recorder, in his head, and – sometimes painstakingly; other times fluidly, tapped into the RAM of his laptop and e-mailed, often chapter by chapter, to Rosalie McMahon.
The problem inherent in waiting for the book (which they had no clue was being written anyway) was that very few, if any, of the South Derry residents would have the horsepower to plow through what was intended to be the real story – the inspiring tale of the obscure but plucky soccer player. And there was no way that any of the excerpts worth excerpting in the mainstream press would be of any use to the tellers at Chittenden Bank or the ladies who organize the annual church rummage sale or the historical society fanatics or any of the gaggle of ex-Darien, Connecticut questionable minds unnecessarily put off by and envious of the cerebral and aloof Papineaus.
Their sunny afternoon talk migrated naturally to the topic foremost on Marianne’s list – the so-called biography of her Julius’ Arsenal years around which no one could seem to wrap the mind. Her marathon-length scything of the man, in direct conversation with Ben and through extended written replies on her laptop, had first given her a feeling of euphoric, if misplaced vindication. Now she was experiencing mild guilt at the thought of humiliating this gentle, easy-going man with whom she parented their fabulous daughter, who was now the same age as Marianne was when the future sculptor so pivotally signed up to be a nude, artist’s model in 1982.
But first, approaching them on the marble walk were three women from the town, the town manager’s wife who walked as though she had two very chapped thighs; a realtor Marianne found distasteful in the extreme; and one of the many Republican, trust-fund busybodies who always behaved as though they were entitled to something exclusive.
Marianne, wrapped an arm through Novak’s and whispered, without moving her mouth or her head, “I’m afraid we’re not going to be able to avoid this ...”
“Delegation? Fine with me,’ he said, flashing his biggest smile and assuming his most refined and charming, Cary Grant attitude. “I won’t let you down, pet.”
Felicia (middle-aged, personal-trainer-fit, trust-fund baby) spoke first.
‘Hi, Mary Ann. Gwen (distasteful, fifth-generation Vermonter realtor) and I were just telling Penny (chapped thighs) all about the sculpture class we’re doing with you. Nancy can’t make it to anymore Wednesday afternoons, so Penny’s going to step in.”
“Oh, nice,” Marianne said with a fake grin.
As was her birthright, Felicia assumed anything she decided would become the law of the land. She had once phoned Roger Papineau, out of the blue, to tell him she needed him to remove some fallen trees on his property so that she and her boyfriend could ride their horses through his property to more quickly reach a trail they both enjoyed (also mostly on his property). Roger informed her, as nicely as he could, that he planned on getting around to it, Felicia my dear, at some point since he and the dogs walk that way quite often and had been having to step around the branches, etc.
Felicia said, in effect, ‘Oh, good. Kent’s brother and sister-in-law are here, and we’d like to go riding up there this afternoon.’
Roger countered, in effect, with, ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to portage, then, mon cherie.’
When he shared the details of the phone call with Joanna, he had said, “Believe me, zat woman would do well to avoid me when I am carrying a chainsaw.”
Penny, then, did step in.
“I’ve actually been working with clay for many years,” Penny sniffed in an insecure, sort of attention-seeking behavior. “I’ve sold a few pieces; and you may have seen my work at the Southern Vermont Arts Center.”
Marianne raised her eyebrows and increased her grin.
Gwen came forward with her right hand extended. Maybe she was hoping to sell Novak a house.
“I’m Gwen Long. You must be …”
All three women looked hungrily back and forth between Novak and Marianne. Marianne hoped it wouldn’t have come to this. She hated giving these people anything to work with. Novak was not about to introduce himself. That would be improper under the circumstances. He actually enjoyed seeing how long it would take Marianne to fulfill her unavoidable duty to tell these women who he was. She gritted her teeth and got on with it.
“Julius Novak, Isabel’s father,” she said, with as little affect as possible.
Gwen was not ready to let go of Novak’s hand just yet, but she was, frankly, nudged aside by Felicia Allen. Both women looked as though they were about to wet themselves. They knew this was potentially a scene of great moment and one rife with social and fundraising, not to mention shameless and inappropriate name-dropping possibilities – in other words, a score. Novak moved down the greeting line like the humble yet exciting gentleman he was, as Felicia and Penny duly provided name, rank and serial number.
“The ladies are part of my sculpture class, Julius.”
“Oh, wonderful,” Novak pretended not to be clueless. “How’s it going?”
Marianne hadn’t gotten around to mentioning what was, to her, not that big of a deal. An acquaintance of her mother’s had asked Marianne if she could please donate something to the Theatre Festival auction event (Felicia Allen, chairperson) held last March. Joanna suggested six sculpting instruction sessions, from a somewhat well-known artist, for a group of ten. The winning party bid a bargain basement $750 – about a tenth of what someone like Marianne Papineau could reasonably charge.
“How long are you in town, Julius?” Felicia asked -- a married woman, by the way. Or partners, they called themselves. “You live in … Paris, don’t you?”
‘Oh, she makes want to vomit,’ Marianne thought to herself.
“A few days, I think,” he answered. “And it’s England. I wouldn’t live in France if you paid me. Brilliant place to visit though.”
The three women looked stunned by the news that someone would not want to live in France.
“Well, we’ve got a few more errands,” Marianne squeezed Novak’s arm, pulling him forward.
Then, the sham-intimate bombardment.
“Nice seeing you all,” Marianne was already looking the other way.
“Yes,” Gwen looked crestfallen that it was all over so quickly. “Wednesday, then.”
“See you then.”
“Great to have met you.”
“Give my love to Joanna and Roger.”
“Lovely to have met you.”
“See you again.”
Marianne walked the star of the show quickly away toward one of the newer and quite good cafes in the village.
“Gwen … Long??” Novak asked. “Poor woman. That’s really her name?”
“Shhh,” Marianne pulled him closer and looked over her shoulder. The gaggle still were within earshot.
He began to sing, “Gwen to run all night. Gwen to run all day …”
“Please stop.” Marianne was laughing and trying to run while clutching Novak’s arm.
“Bet my money on a bob-tail nag …”
“All right. All right. Somebody bet on the bay. Just keep moving.”
“I was going to say, ‘I did it myyy way.’”
She looked at him, honestly straining to fathom the joke.
“Sorry,” he grinned. “Fawlty Towers. Never mind.”
They continued, arm in arm, past the shops, the twenty years apart peeling away. Both Julius and Marianne would remember if pressed, but neither would celebrate the fact that one month from today would be exactly twenty years since she asked him to get out and stay out.
“Reminds me of a secretary in the social anthropology department at Selwyn,” Novak went on, as he does. “Name was Mary Barge, which was unfortunate enough, really, because, while she wasn’t actually the size of a barge, she did have rather a brusque way about her that you got the sense she couldn’t quite help. I always thought if the poor girl had had a different name, things could turn around for her. Then she got married.”
“Mm,” Marianne was resigned to play the straight man. “So it got better.”
“Sadly, no,” he said. “She married Tom Hoar from mathematics.”
“Mary Whore?”
“If only. No, bizarrely, the fool kept her original name, Barge, in there and went all hyphenated. Mary Barge Hoar.”
“Oh, that’s awful,” Marianne tried to stifle the laughter unsuccessfully.
“Kind of made her sound like a pub, The Merry Barge Whore. I’d certainly stop in for a pint.”
Marianne was lost in laughter but managed to sputter, “Maybe even drop your bags for the night.”
“Drop my what?” He let that one sink in before closing with, “Not before polling the other punters at the bar, you silly girl.”
“Figures. You always did have to ask around first before you tried anything.”
“That’s from being told to ‘be careful’ about 10,000 times before the age of five -- a victim of my environment. Speaking of ‘Bag Drop,’ isn’t that where those three women have to stand at the Field Club while their husbands play golf?”
“Now that’s just shocking,” she stopped laughing.
“Before I forget, ‘Wouldn’t live in France if you paid me?’” she twisted her face.
“Sorry,” Novak was sheepish. “I thought you’d like it if I said something memorably staggering. You know, shake ‘em up a bit. I somehow got the feeling you found them revolting.”
“Oh, God.” Marianne groaned. “Did you?”
“So, forget about that. We were talking about Ben and the book.”
“Right,” she perked up and commented, as they entered the cafe. “Let me tell you, I honestly won’t know what do with myself now that my literary interviews have come to an end. I began to feel I was part of something big. And it felt good to work through some of the memories.”
“Mm,” he winced. “Can you believe I’ve gone and gotten us all mixed up in this?”
She was through playing around. Small talk concluded. Queue the real world.
“You know exactly what you’re doing, Julius. You always have.”
“That didn’t take long,” he said, as he eyed the pastry case and the specials board. “Suppose I deserved that.”
“Oh, please,” she whispered, so the girl behind the counter wouldn’t be able to easily hear. “Do you want to have an actual conversation, or would you rather I continue to be the snarling wolf and you be the passive victim?”
When the girl turned to prepare their cappuccinos, Novak answered. In fact he fairly leapt into it like someone who has crammed for the final exam and wants to answer the questions as quickly as possible.
“Conversation. Definitely, conversation. I’ve thought of nothing else for some time now. Talking to you, being with you, and raising Isabel together – well, you carried the burden there; but everything having to do with you is … the only real thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
“Have you rehearsed this?”
“Only for about twenty years.”
“Well, at last you’re doing passably well,” she said in her normal voice, bending over to peer in at an appealing carrot cake and a flourless torte tower. “Carry on.”
“Ok … um … how do you feel about all this?” he backpedaled.
“Ohh, no. We’re not to me yet, hot shot. We’ve only just started hearing from you.”
“What’s all this royal We? Don’t stop. I kind of like it. Gives everything a little more pomp and substance.”
“‘We’ is … um … I suppose, ‘Us’ – the overarching ‘Us.’ Like you say, everything having to do with me … and you, like one big entity.” Her eyes took on that look normally reserved for being lost in beaux arts work. “It breathes; it moves; it cries; it has a shape. And that thing, that ‘We,’ is eager to learn what comes next in its life.”
The days of Novak being fazed by artists and the way they express themselves were long past. In fact, it was one of the things that turned him on all those years ago in Cologne. The Bohemian coven was a foreign world to which he wanted to be connected. Now his own daughter was throwing Beckett in his face. She’ll be a handful for some unsuspecting male, he thought. Unless she goes native with certain of the Mount Holyoke and Smith crowd, whereupon she’ll be getting it right back.
“So you’re its spokesperson,” he said.
“Yes, well, I thought it needed a pretty face.”
Novak smiled, gazed into her eyes, and the years drifted off like ashes from a fire.
“All right, so, would you like me to begin with all of my mistakes? Grab a table. We could be here for a while.”
“I’ll let you know when I’m ready to move on to something else.”
“Very kind of you.” He took a deep breath as they sat. “Well, uh, first of all, I hurt you terribly; and it wasn’t just once. I hurt you for years while we were together. I was an immature fool, and we’ve all suffered because of the choices I made. We had a child, and I just, in effect, went on my merry way. I didn’t want to endure what I would have needed to endure to grow up and be with the woman, first of all, and, secondly, the little girl I was meant to be with.”
“What do you mean by endure? I have an idea, but I want to hear it.”
“Face what needed to be faced. Look at myself honestly. Do some uncomfortable rooting around and unearth who or what exactly I was and …  am. Instead I took the easy, relatively painless road where I could exist or hide, really, behind a façade of … whatever. Soccer man. Teacher man. Continental, Intellectual man. Rather than just … man. A man responsible for himself and a woman and a daughter. A man who puts his family above everything else in his life, and everything he does is meant to add joy and security and love and abundance in the hearts of those to whom he’s connected – spiritually, for want of a less hackneyed notion.”
Marianne’s look said to continue.
“I learned, and it hasn’t just been recently, that … uh … adult human beings are meant or required actually to take care of their, like you called it, the big ‘We’ before anything else. For most people, I imagine enviously, the human quality in your brain or in your soul guides your thoughts and your choices; and you instinctively know what the right thing is to do. For others, the ability to know what to do requires strength and experience – more strength than I was willing to put aside for us. You, me, Isabel. I’ve known this, understood this, I think, for quite a few years now; but … I’ve still been too weak in character or merely unwilling to put it forward, I guess. I could make all kinds of excuses about why I’m just now getting around to being honest and apologizing and committing, I suppose, to do something positive, something truly meaningful about it.”
“Don’t bother. I’ll tell you why,” she cut in, squaring her Gallic jaw. ‘Because you’ve done every single thing for yourself that you ever wanted to do. Now you’ve reached middle age, and you’re thinking, ‘Ooh, I’ve left something out that I wanted but didn’t get because I wanted all the other things more. But now that I’ve got those other things all locked up and established, and I’m betting they’re not going anywhere, I can now shift my energy and attention and my cleverness over to that thing I chose not to get. And if I play my cards right, I can kill every bird with one stone without having to give anything up. I can have a full-time, mature and loving mate, wife, bird, whatever, and a grown-up woman, daughter with whom I can travel around Europe and show off and continue to get all the good things without having to experience any of the negatives.”
She stated this opening salvo with almost nonchalance. She sipped her espresso drink.
“I didn’t expect you to be convinced halfway through the first act – not that it’s an act.”
He was rattled but kept his cool.
Marianne laughed pleasantly once again and Novak continued, as they got up from the table. People were looking.
As he held the door for her, he said, “Did you not take note of the bulge … in my suitcase? I’m here for as long as it takes to show that I’d like to keep talking … and listening ... about whatever we both want to talk about. I’ll listen to anything you want to say to me. And if I don’t understand it immediately, then I’ll stop and try to get a grip.”
Marianne paused when they reached the sidewalk and gazed at the face she had fallen madly in love with twenty-five years ago and had excised (from her bed only) five years later. If anything, his face had grown even more handsome and alluring. She was certain that she had cried all of her tears available to cry regarding one person; yet now she feared there were more on the way. He was beautiful, and she felt her inner arguments, for keeping clear of him, winnowing.
She had known this man long enough to know that his words and his expression were genuine. Novak seemed truly to believe what he was saying. But that didn’t make it all true or right or, her new favorite word, authentic. Of course, she nearly leapt from her socks when he said ‘bulge.’
While she was mature enough and experienced enough to know that you shouldn’t turn your life inside out just for the sake of an erotic attraction, she was beginning to accept the notion, put forth by everyone whom she knew, that it was not too late to take Novak back into her life on a permanent basis. Weirder things happen every day in the world. This was nothing.
With that in mind, “Well, honestly, it’s not like you abandoned us in a turnip field. And you contributed much more than was actually fair money-wise and presents and holidays and being helpful and showing up at unexpected moments and so much more. I know of quite a few deadbeat dads out there. You’re quite the opposite. Other than the fact that we weren’t the conventional family unit straight out of a catalogue, I’d say you’ve never given us a stitch of trouble, really.”
“Well, thank you,” Novak responded humbly. “I felt like shit, and, like I say, I continued to …”
“You were there for quite a bit of it, considering.”
“I just never allowed myself to visualize or dream, even, that we could go forward together like, you know, like … we were, or not like that but, yeah, like that – like before,” he stammered, “but more seasoned, not as lunatic, not as self-centered. That’s me; not you.”
“I was the lunatic. I was. I had impossible expectations of you. I mean, you’re good; but you’re not that good.”
“I can tell you mean that,” he grinned. “You seemed really to hate me there for awhile.”
“Yeah, a little,” she wrinkled her nose, “but what I need for you to know is that no one is as complete a model as what I demanded of you. There is not a man alive who could have passed my infantile series of litmus tests and character requirements. It was my own adolescent problems that I never worked out. I was lashing out at Roger through you. I was totally fucked up. Why on earth did you stay with me for as long as you did?”
“Are you kidding? You don’t mean that. I was the fuck up. You completely committed yourself to me and were trying to get me to grow up, rightly so. Yeah, sure, maybe I was a little young …”
“No excuse.” Marianne, not Novak, would decide when to decrease the tension.
“No excuse,” he quickly agreed, as they got back into the car, the errands completed. “Absolutely none. I do think I understand, though, how it happened … how we both got it so wrong. Because, listen, I wholeheartedly accept my piece of it …”
He paused, hoping to be met somewhere near the center circle, as the car climbed back up the hill toward the Papineau lodge, West River rushing with spring fever past them in the opposite direction.
“How would you describe your piece of it?” she asked, instead.
“I have to tell you, I was really hoping you might have offered as to how you accept your bit.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Tell me what you think you did.”
Novak sighed. “Well, I was …”
“Absent … sorry. Go on.”
“Would it please you if I used the word ‘absent’?”
“It’s not a matter of pleasing me, Julius. It’s more a matter of accuracy.”
“I don’t think you mean accuracy,” he said. “We’re not studying radiocarbons. We’re talking about what our feelings were.”
“Authenticity, then, Mr. Literal.”
He emitted a soft grumble.
“I think we both know what I did or didn’t do. And I think we’re agreed that you needed certain things for certain reasons and didn’t get them. And you were probably entitled to most everything you wanted from me. It didn’t happen. I didn’t make it happen. I let everything else get in the way, and we missed our chance. It’s like we fired our arrows and just … barely missed each other. We missed our chance – our … first chance.”
That was it. Was he going to say it?
Novak pulled into the courtyard, and they walked out onto the granite flagstone terrace with the dogs. They pondered the view of the greening hills and perhaps considered what lie beyond. The thing for Novak to do, the thing he owed Marianne to do, was to take a running leap into what might, as far as he knew, be an empty pool. Not exactly off a terrifying cliff or an Olympic high dive; he didn’t deserve to die. But maybe some broken ribs or a few weeks in the hospital; perhaps some slight disfigurement, extra difficulty getting up in the morning or a pain whenever he laughed. Something to cause him to think of someone else.
Of course, if he had an injury, then he would just be thinking how much it hurt … himself. He had never taken a leap in his personal life. The leaps he had taken were: leaving home at seventeen and moving to Europe; agreeing to play in a world cup for a crap side; opening himself to painful ridicule (and just … pain) by teaching at one of the finest universities in the world while simultaneously playing football for one of the most famous clubs on the continent; and, only just recently, agreeing to be the subject of a book by a massively popular author.
Can a man take massive risks all along the way in his professional life, while at the same moment expose himself to potentially heart-crushing and terrifying, yet somehow edifying anxiety on the serious and mature, love relationship front? What would that even look like? I’m thinking, like, gay songwriter in the pre-gay acceptance age. Billy Strayhorn or someone. There must be heteros in the list, some mainstream man of action from whom Novak could draw inspiration. Clearly he rates himself among the more heroic in society, as though a man need achieve a certain level of renown in order to be deserving of veneration.
Did he not know anyone in his Cotswolds village who fit the bill? Anyone from Oxford or Cambridge, or his old village in Essex? Whom did he know who appeared to have it all in balance, all in perspective while still maintaining an impeccable reputation? Who worked at his relationship just as passionately and honestly and with the same drive and ethic as he did his professional calling?
How about … the author of ‘Revolutions per Minute’?
How about Ben Hampton?
Arsenal’s most celebrated supporter, for months, had directed his writer’s gaze toward Julius Novak, reforming the same questions, looking for simple answers to why there was such a criminal disconnect between what the American had achieved in football/academia and how dramatically he had failed as an ordinary man. For he had failed, or so would think anyone with a conscience.
As he stood there with Marianne, Novak saw Ben Hampton as something other than an effortless wordsmith, lionized storyteller and someone many blamed for the fact that we now go to football matches and are sat next to a solicitor. Novak suddenly twigged there was more than just a man who had put his balls on the line with a deeply personal football memoir, followed by one unorthodox bestseller after another. He now registered Ben as a man who had bravely faced a difficult first marriage right up to its final, heartbreaking conclusion and was now in the midst of another relationship with wife and kids where nothing could be taken for granted.
There were days, Ben had told Novak, when he preferred staying under the covers or sleep on the love seat of his Camden office rather than face what he knew he would have to face regarding some thorny aspect of his marital relationship. Nothing in his writing career had ever been so difficult and painful as the emotional tug-of-war that he had endured in his two marriages. He is aware, is Ben Hampton, of the challenging and wrenching days ahead if he is to, along with Kate, successfully navigate marriage number two until death do them part.
Ben’s reputation, among friends, is that of a tender and thoughtful husband who often invites his wife to Arsenal matches.
“Things are different now,” he accepts reluctantly. “Lots of girls go – for better or worse.”
Marianne suddenly felt, on the surface, like a teenage girl instead of a mature, forty-three-year-old artist who had once represented France at a Biennale. But Julius Novak had the knack for splashing cold water on a woman’s face just when she was about to become suitably intoxicated.
“If Isabel were to want to leave New England, for any reason; say, if she failed to settle in the autumn, or if she decides now not to return for another year …”
‘What an arsehole,’ she thought.
“I was going to say … or … I wanted to say, would the two of you … do you think she’d want to come to England? Would you come to England, Marianne?”
She stared at him as though he had just asked her for the name of their child.
“Why would I want to come to England? I don’t really know anyone in England, except for you. I’ve only just moved back here; it was quite traumatic, leaving Paris.”
Strike one.
“Well, it’s not so much … Marianne, I would want you to come … to England, to the country. I think we should be together. I want to be together. I came here to find out if that’s something you might want …”
Still, she stared expressionless.
“ … or had thought about … at all.”
At this point, she might have acknowledged that this man had just made something of a, kind of, commitment. For Julius Novak, this went beyond sticking his neck out. This was a blind gallop into no-man’s-land. Instead, she treated his first crack at a proposal like he was suggesting a restaurant or a film.
“Julius, I … don’t really think I want to live in the UK just now. I’m quite settled here with my parents and my studio and Isabel not far away at university. I would not leave her here. We can’t. She’s not a grown woman just yet. I like it here. Actually, I love it here. What are you talking about?”
What does she mean, he wondered? That she was open to the idea of getting back together but not in England? Was she deliberately missing the point to have fun with him?
“Right. I said, if she didn’t want to stay at Mount Holyoke, if-if she missed Europe too much and wasn’t happy for whatever reason. Of course, she should have family nearby – one of us, certainly; both of us … even. Do you hear what I’m saying?”
“I think I heard you say something about Isabel and myself halting our lives to come and live near you.”
“Not near me, with me.” He took her hands in his.
“Shouldn’t we go to bed with each other first to see if we like it?”
“I seem to recall that not being a problem,” he said with great tenderness. “In fact, I’ve never come close to duplicating it.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Marianne, in fact, had experienced two or three seriously gifted lovers over the years, though, granted, not for as consistently as long a period of time as she had enjoyed under the musical yet wild tutelage of Julius Novak.
‘She’s giving me nothing,’ he thought. ‘I deserve it.’
“I would consider … coming to Vermont,” he took a large swallow of air, “or wherever it is you are.”
“You couldn’t live in the United States,” she said, playfully shoving him away. “George Bush and Dick Cheney’s America?”
He laughed. “If Roger Papineau can do it, I can do it. Of course, he retired; and I still love what I do.”
“Here it comes,” she smirked. “The many reasons why Julius Novak must do exactly what he wants to do instead of stepping outside of himself and doing something solely for the woman he claims to care about.”
“That’s not what I’m doing. That’s not what I’m saying.”
“No buts,” he said. “Yes, I finally have the career I’d always dreamed of, and it could only happen at Oxford or one of the Europaeum universities; but …”
She smiled and crossed her arms.
“No, this is a good ‘but,’ not a Julius bad ‘but.’ But … I would work something out if it meant we could carry on together. But I’m very fulfilled at the Europaeum. That was a bad ‘but.’ You win.”
“You’ll be shocked to know we have some quite passable colleges in New England. My father taught at one. Your daughter is attending one. Or would you get more fulfillment out of doing the exact same thing the rest of your life.”
“Well, it’s ever-changing as Europe evolves; but, yes, I get your meaning. Of course, there’s the stone wall company. That just getting some wind in its sails.”
“We have crumbling stone walls and more stone for more walls,” she said, quietly extolling the virtues of the Green Mountain state.
“We’ve just begun to make some headway with some of these kids.”
Marianne remained patient.
“We have kids here who could use some worthwhile jobs so as not to leave the countryside. Look around; it’s rural.”
Novak ducked his head, then looked at her and smiled once again.
“But most of all, we have me.” She looked into his eyes. “Does Gloucestershire have Kiki Papineau?”
“Gloucestershire could, if Kiki moved there.”
That was it.
“Putain merde!!!” she turned abruptly away, moving across the terrace toward the kitchen door. She began to shout. “Enough! Forget it, Julius. You haven’t changed. You’ve gotten to live out your selfish dreams for twenty-five years now, with no thought of me in your life at all. You want everything to go your way. This is the same fucking argument we had before I had Isabel. If you say ‘before we had Isabel,’ I swear to god I’ll strangle you. I had her! I raised her! You played football and seduced 20-year-olds in your little lecture rooms and waltzed in and out of universities all over Europe and developed your stupid writing projects and student groups and … ruined Ginevra’s life, by the way; and you’ve gotten to do all of this without any of the constraints of being a parent or a partner or spouse or anything. Why was I stupid enough to think you’d learned anything? Ben told me as much.”
“I’m sure he did. He was stunned at what a fool I’ve been my whole life. Why didn’t I listen to you when I was twenty-five? Why didn’t you hit me over the head?”
“You wouldn’t stand still.”
“I … couldn’t afford to miss the next match.” He laughed at his own absurdity. “Some German hot shot would have taken my place.”
“I know. I know. You mentioned that a few times.”
He moved toward her, and she held up her hands.
“I’m not arguing anymore,” she turned away and looked for a corkscrew in the cutlery drawer. She felt it was time to share a bottle of … anything. “It gets me nothing, and … I just can’t.”
“This is not an argument, Marianne, because I don’t dispute anything you’re saying -- except the part about my not changing.”
“What is it that you came here to say to me, Julius? Stop and think about it this time. What exactly do want me to know?”
“That I’ll do anything to get you back.”
A very long, ten seconds went by before she spoke.
Novak didn’t like the look on her face.

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