Maria, fair of face, full of impish grace
I'm headed north on the train. The Mediterranean passes by the window. I'm sitting at one of the cafe car tables, my legs crossed, my arms crossed, my suitcase at my feet. The steam of my coffee uncoils like a thread into the air, a rope I wish I could climb away.
At a far table a little girl sits in her mother's lap as the mother braids her hair. A small group of tourists huddle together and pose for photos. Others queue for their coffees, tiny cans of soda, and plastic wrapped baguettes. I bring my coffee to my lips, but it's too bitter to drink.
I'm going home. My father will be washing the sheets, combing the market for vegetables and wine, talking to the locals about the weather in his sweet, hackneyed, American French, Oui, Il fait beau, beau temps d'hiver, not able to understand their replies. But I forget, of course, his French must be better now. It's been years he has searched for me.
The station announcement crackles over the speakers. I could get off here, or the next stop, or the next. I scramble in a sudden panic through my pocketbook for my passport and wallet, lay my finger on the smooth faux leather. I'm doing this every half an hour or so.
I return to my seat, lean back and shut my eyes. I can't remember the last time I slept properly, each night full of nightmares that I immediately forget upon waking, only the fear remaining. If the fear had a name it would be his -- Omar of Rabat, Omar of the Tarn, murderous Omar, amorous Omar, Omar by the swimming pool. My scalp tightens. I keep my eyes closed.
I've always been an insomniac. As a child, my insomnia allowed me the exquisite pleasure of slipping into my parents' big four-poster bed at night.
"Squeeze all the muscles in your legs and arms tight as you can," my father said.
I tensed my muscles and gritted my teeth.
"Now let go. Feel your body relax."
But I couldn't relax, the squeezing made me more excited, and I would roll onto my side, my stomach. I would nuzzle into their backs or arms, so happy to be there. My father was a physical man. He had been an all American soccer player and reduced everything to the body. If I was sad, it was because I didn't get enough exercise. If I was bored or tired or had bad grades, it had to do with the body's discipline, not enough stretching, not enough of the vitamins that came in hard, dry pellets that I was loathe to chew. I had to jump, to bend, to sprint my way toward balance. And don't forget, posture was of utmost importance. One could not perform in any manner without perfect posture.
My mother was more imaginative. In that way, she was more like me, with a hyperactive life of the mind.
"I want you to imagine a hot air balloon," she said. I rested my hand on her bare arm. We had the same small line, an extra crease on the inside of our arms where the elbow bent.
"It's red," I said.
"Yes, it's red," she said.
"Now, smell the cool air, look at the trees beyond. Listen to the sound of the flame that propels the balloon. It's taking off from the ground. The sky is big and blue and the red balloon is going up and up."
Her voice was deep but quiet, not quite a whisper, stronger than a whisper, and the tone was the same as when she told me that I had been good that day, or that she loved me. I could see the balloon so clearly.
"It has a basket. There's a girl in there, she's waving," I said.
"There the little girl goes, up and up into the sky. It's flying slowly away. Soon it will be only a speck in the sky. Follow it through the blue until it disappears. Let's count to ten. When I get to ten the little girl will be far away, someplace safe and warm. Think of where she might be going, think of the nicest place you can, that's where she'll be. Just listen to my voice counting to ten."
Just listen to her:. . .