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DIVIDING DAY AT THE GRAND-HOTEL DU CAP - FERRAT

By Loren Stephens

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The Montréal Review, July 2012

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"CONTEMPLATING THE NEXT MOVE"  (OIL ON CANVAS  16 x 16 INCHES, 2008) BY IAIN FAULKNER. ELEANOR ETTINGER GALLERY, NEW YORK

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Norman, my soon to be ex-husband, and I were sitting at opposite ends of the sofa like two prize fighters before a match. Norman pressed his body into the arm rest to create more space between us. Our psychiatrist, Dr. David Viscott, relaxed into the black leather of his authentic Eames chair opposite us. Resting his feet on the matching ottoman, I noticed that the tread on his sneakers was barely worn. He looked like Peter Pan ready to bound out the window over Boston's red brick buildings.

David was Boston's psychiatrist du jour, widely revered and widely feared for his blunt, take-no-prisoners therapy popular in the 1970s. He believed in quick fixes and was enchanted by the business side of psychiatry - often at the expense of his patients: he had recently launched a line of greeting cards, Sensitivity, Inc., and a board game of the same name which encouraged players to share their innermost feelings. Most upper class Bostonians preferred a stiff drink to Dr. Viscott, but my husband and I were desperate enough to put our misplaced faith in him.

Dr. Viscott turned to Norman. "So how do you see this trip to France going? What do you want Loren to promise?"

My husband didn't look at me. He focused on David, anticipating the hurt in my eyes. "Well, we can go on the condition that I get one day away from her - just to do something on my own. You know, time off for good behavior."

I said, "I thought this was going to be a vacation where we'd spend lots of time together - going to museums, relaxing in the sunshine, hanging out with Max and Fran."

Norman said, "We've got 21 days - one day is not going to make or break our marriage."

David asked Norman, "What did you have in mind for your solo expedition?"

"It doesn't really matter. Just getting away, exploring the Riviera. Maybe I'll take a train to Nice. I'll figure it out."

"And what do you want from Norman, Loren?"

"I really don't know. I am hoping that a few weeks without the baby, time away from the office, will be good for us. That's about it. I don't need any promises. Too many have already been broken."

"Hmm and how do you feel about paying for this trip?"

I clenched my teeth. "Well, to quote my husband, 'I should feel lucky that I have a job which affords us the luxury to do this.' "

He baited me. "That sounds like a convenient rationalization, doesn't it?"

"Well, it's certainly not the way I saw our marriage going. After seven years, I thought I would be the one to choose whether to work or not, but it has not turned out that way."

I had been supporting us since Norman had given up a well-paying corporate job without consulting me to start a theater production company. I didn't see any way to slow down even after our baby was born. Four weeks after giving birth, I went back to the pressure of mortgage banking, and he went into business with Max, the scion of an Oklahoma City oil family whose wife, Fran, was my best friend. Max and Fran owned a Madison Avenue art gallery and lived in a Fifth Avenue penthouse with a glass arboretum for an entryway. They used their 12-room apartment as an extension of their gallery displaying a vast art collection and entertaining wealthy international clients and academics. Norman and I didn't fit into either category. We were a bit like the poor cousins from Boston, but we had enough interests in common to earn us a place at their table, and apparently the trip would give Max and Norman time to make plans for their next Broadway production.

We thought it would be fun to travel together; Fran was studying for her doctorate in art history with Professor John Rewald, an authority on Cézanne, and as part of our vacation we'd be spending a few days at La Citadelle, John's fifteenth-century stone fortress overlooking the lavender fields of Provence in the medieval village of Ménerbes in Luberon. He had a live-in Spanish butler and cook who made fresh sorbet from the fruit trees in the garden, and cooked paella in an iron pot over a woodburning fireplace. I was seduced by all this luxury, and thought it was worth the trade-off of my husband's "one day off for good behavior." It would turn out to be short-term gratification for long-term pain.

My husband and Max had just had their first critical success, Dracula (the production won a Tony Award ), but the box office went to pay back their investors. Broadway was not a poor man's sport, and Dracula had sucked us dry. When I suggested to my husband that he go back to work rather than throw the dice again with Max, Norman whined, "How do you expect me to pay you back if I don't try again?"

I remember screaming at him. "I really don't care. Why don't you drive a taxicab?"

The destruction of a marriage is usually not unilateral, although there is something satisfying - albeit delusional -- in believing that it was all my husband's fault, and I was the long-suffering, sacrificing wife who put up with his profligate ways and unrealistic dreams of fame. (Not that I wouldn't have wanted to be the wife of a successful Broadway producer - it was the unsuccessful part that riled me.)

When our fifty minutes was up, Dr.Viscott summarized our session, "Sounds like you both need to re-evaluate your expectations. Marriage is hard work. You need to spend as much time on your relationship as you do on your careers. Otherwise, I don't see why the two of you should stay together. Here's one of my Sensitivity cards. They're selling like hot cakes." Norman read it out loud:

"To fail is a natural consequence of trying. To succeed takes time and prolonged effort in the face of unfriendly odds."

Then he handed me another card:

"You must think of yourself as becoming the person you want to be."

I thought, "And how do I go about doing that married to a man who only wants a "get out of jail" card?

A few weeks after consulting with Dr. Viscott Norman and I sat in the back seat of a rented gray Citroen; the windows were rolled up; it was stifling hot (the air conditioner had died somewhere between Paris and Lyon). The windshield wipers made a sharp, slapping sound. Max drove through the rain, and Fran read the map navigating our way to Cap-Ferrat where we encamped at the Grand-Hotel, a five-star palatial confection overlooking the Mediterranean. From our balcony, I could see all the way to the coastal lighthouse with its green lantern. Our spacious room had toile de joue wallpaper, chintz curtains, and a marble bathroom with clawfoot tub and glass shower. Just beyond the gardens below were an Olympic-size swimming pool, and a graveled pathway that led through the rocky boulders to the Mediterranean. Some of the women sunned themselves topless. I felt ridiculous in my one piece Jantzen bathing suit, my hair tied back in a kerchief that had as much soignée as a babushka from the shtetl. At thirty-three years old, I had not yet found my style. On the other hand, Fran looked very chic in her turquoise bikini and oversized, black Jackie O sunglasses. She spoke French with a Louisville drawl, and Max was fluent in German which made them a popular couple at the hotel. My French wasn't too bad although I mixed up matelas (mattress) with maillot de bain (swim trunks) when the concierge asked what my husband was wearing when he left the hotel.

 

The winding paths around the Grand-Hotel grounds were lined with Aleppo Pine and tall palm trees, and the air was filled with the fragrance of honeysuckle. It was heart-breakingly romantic, although totally wasted on Norman and me. At sunset we had drinks on the hotel patio, with a small orchestra playing French boulevard music in the background. When I started humming "Ne Me Quitte Pas" Norman looked embarrassed and said, "You know, they're not paying you to sing." Fran turned away and Max got up to order us another round of drinks from the bar. They were not interested in getting caught in our marital cross fire.

A sailboat glided through the shimmering water in the distance. Norman mentioned his intention to take the next day off. Fran offered, "Loren, why don't you come with us? We're going to the chapel at Saint Paul de Vence for the day. I'm dying to see the Matisse windows and I hear the architecture is just glorious. And then we're going to stop at the Cote Bastide shop to pick up some candles and lavender."

"No. I'll stay at the hotel and read. I'm right in the middle of Tender Is the Night."

Norman interrupted me. "When I was at Princeton, I took a class on Fitzgerald. His editor, Maxwell Perkins, is a Princeton grad and was a member of my club, Cottage. Frankly, I much prefer The Great Gatsby. Now that was the great American novel." I sighed. I was really tired of Norman's name dropping and pontification as if he had the final word on everything. When we were first married, I found his abundant self-confidence charming and assuring; now I found it grating and demeaning.

Max took up Norman's cause, "What did you write your thesis on?"

"Hart Crane's Brooklyn Bridge. I was an American Studies major."

Fran turned to me, "Weren't you an English Lit major at Cornell?"

"Yes, I think that was one of the reasons Norman and I got along so well in the beginning. Right?"

Norman ignored me. "It's getting chilly out here. Why don't we go in for dinner? I want to get an early start in the morning. I checked with the concierge. He said it's going to be a perfect beach day."

Norman left at 6 a.m. When I pulled the curtains open, sunlight spilled across the carpeted floor; the palm trees waved gracefully in the breeze, a large yacht heading in the direction of Monaco slid past the open window. I could hear the waves crashing against the rocks below the hotel. A couple dressed in white linen strolled along the gravel pathway and a waiter carrying a heavy breakfast tray walked briskly toward one of the cabanas. I thought, "Damn it. I wish it were raining."

I felt paralyzed and stayed in my room all day. I remember Norman once telling me, "The Boy Scout rule is: if you ever get lost, stay where you are. Someone will find you." That would have been good advice if anyone had been looking for me.

I thought maybe Norman would call sometime during the day and I didn't want to miss his call. I was hoping he'd be back by dinnertime. I paced back and forth from window to window. I must have looked like one of those frantic, nineteenth century Nantucket wives scanning the horizon for a sign of their husband's ship returning from sea. That evening I turned on French television and watched Truffaut's "Jules and Jim" with Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner and Henri Serre. I wondered what it would be like to have the confidence of a woman who kept two men at her beck and call, when here I was, struggling to hold on to one man. What did I see in my husband? I couldn't come up with one redeeming feature other than his ironic sense of humor and his intelligence. And I hated defeat.

At eleven o'clock I went to bed. Tender Is the Night lay unopened on my nightstand. At midnight, I called the front desk. "What time is the last train from Nice toVentimiglia?"

"The last train is in one hour, madam. Do you want us to call a taxicab for you?"

"No. I am expecting my husband to return. I think something might have happened to him. Maybe he has been murdered." I started sobbing out of frustration. "He should have been back hours ago." The concierge asked, "And what was he wearing? Should we alert the police?" I was too embarrassed and hung up the telephone. The beam from the lighthouse rotated every three minutes.

At three a.m. I heard the door open. Norman dropped his bags on the sofa at the foot of the bed, wiped the sand off his feet, and crawled into bed. I smelled his salt-coated skin. I pretended to be asleep, and the next day Norman did not offer any explanation for his whereabouts.

After ten days in Cap-Ferrat, we drove to Ménerbes. On the stone walls of John Rewald's home was an impressive art collection: original paintings and drawings by Calder, Picasso, Cézanne and Lautrec. Manuscripts were stacked on the three desks in his library. I glanced at his familiar text, The History of French Impressionism, which I had read in college. Fran pointed out a painting by Mary Cassatt. "She was quite a fascinating woman. John introduced me to her oeuvre. I am writing my thesis on the Havemeyer collection which included some of her most important paintings." I hope to have my thesis finished. . ." She stopped mid-sentence and looked at John who came into the library carrying a bouquet of sunflowers. He peeked over the blossoms and smiled at Fran adoringly, "You will be finished soon enough. You are almost there, cherie." Then he turned to me, "Fran is my most outstanding student. I am hoping to make a place for her in the art department."

John suggested a drive to Arles with just Fran and me. We crammed ourselves into the front seat of his 1956 Chevrolet convertible which barely made it through the narrow streets of Ménerbes and down the mountain. Children lining the streets waved at us and yelled at John who was a fixture in the village with his bushy eyebrows, mustache, and shapeless hat that looked as if it had spent more time underneath his derriere than on his head. During the time we stayed with him, Fran disappeared regularly with John, and Max and Norman went into the village to buy sausage and cheese for picnics on the lawn. Sometimes, I'd stay in bed wishing the pain in my stomach would just go away.

Is there a moment in a marriage when one partner or the other is finished? When love ends and all you are left with is a cold shoulder? I am reminded of the song in "Light in the Piazza," when the divorcee, Margaret sings the wounding words her husband tells her as he leaves, "Thank you/ We're done here/ Not much to say/ We are together/ But I have had Dividing Day.

After Norman and I divorced, I found the pictures of Norman 's solo excursion to a nude beach -- he is sandwiched between two bare-breasted, smiling blondes, his chin jutting out into the Cote d'Azur sky, a wine glass in his hand. I always wondered why he put those photos where he knew I would eventually find them. By the time I did, he had already bought himself a one-way ticket to Los Angeles , leaving me in Boston with our two-year old son, a house, a mortgage, and those Polaroids which I ripped into shreds.

It took me a long time to give up the martyr role and start behaving like a confident and independent woman, but I eventually got there. As for Norman , he and I are far better parents and friends than husband and wife. Marriage is a lot more complicated than a message on a greeting card, and sometimes trying is just not good enough.

I have not returned to Cap-Ferrat, but I have a photo album worth keeping - pictures of Professor John Rewald in his Chevrolet; me in pink pants and a pink and tangerine T-shirt, sun shining on my shoulders with the Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat in the background, a tri-colored flag snapping overhead; Fran and Max standing arm in arm at the swimming pool looking like Sara and Gerald Murphy, she in a white pinafore with a big straw hat trailing streamers, he in a navy blue blazer, a cravat tied around his neck and sporting white linen pants.

It wasn't a happy time, but it was a glamorous adventure all the same. And as Edith Piaf sang, "Je Ne Regrette Rien," I have no regrets, or at least just a few.

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Loren Stephens is the president and founder of Write Wisdom, Inc. (www.writewisdom.com) and on the editorial advisory board of Memoir (and).  She is also an Emmy nominated documentary filmmaker. Her essays and short stories have appeared in MacGuffin, the New Plains Review, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Eclectica, the Write Room, and the anthology, Thanksgiving Tales, among many.

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JACK'S ROOM

by Michael Milburn

My three brothers, eighteen, sixteen, and fourteen years my senior, lived away from home for most of my childhood. Our interaction was limited to their week-end visits to our parents' house, or the occasional longer stay when they would reoccupy their rooms during intervals between schools or apartments. Regardless of their proximity, it was hard for a boy of six or seven to feel brotherly toward young men in their twenties. Their main value to me was as role models, especially in my adolescent years when I began to crave more approachable alternatives to my imposing father. But even then our relations were so distant and the age difference so great that I often emulated their behavior without understanding it... | read |

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