mercredi 5 janvier 2011

Fault lines

At the Odéon

Cities have it over the countryside in the part of the winter when the snow is absent to make the mud and ugly green of winter beautiful under a pile of white. It is depressing, although not the only thing that is these days.

There is the dryer, for one. It has stopped working properly, and it's not the dryer's fault. It's the garage's fault. Which is to say, our fault, but I don't like to apportion that blame evenly. I tried to clean the garage, and I got in trouble for it.

"Je ne trouve plus rien," said my husband in his whiniest, most accusatory voice.

Where, in other words, had I dared to put his mess, and from where did those new shelves and plastic storage closet come? He knew that the old broken lamps, the bits of tubing and wire, the lengths of wood and sections of metal somethings or another, saved for the day when they would find their utility at long last, were not hidden in that new plastic cupboard. They had gone to the dump by the Fiatful, and I was to feel guilty for freeing up the floorspace to sweep clean of dust, dirt and dead leaves.

Où sont passés ma poussière, ma salté et mes feuilles mortes? I expected him to challenge me. J'ai gardé tout cela soigneusement dans le cas où j'en aurais besoin.

It takes courage to clean the garage, a storage shed, old unfinished shelves -- anything -- here. Cables to the 20-year-old Mac he hasn't used in 17 might one day find their utility, and I can be sure that I will catch hell for having thrown them out when that day rolls around in his senility. For a man who cannot remember a conversation a month before, he has a gift for recalling that he had 3 lengths of red wire he found on a sidewalk in Bergerac when he went to the market with his sister's friend visiting from Sicily under the metal shelves, behind the box with the boat model he began 23 years before, and it was very, very important to him. Having mustered that courage once, I am not liable to do it again for awhile, and, meantime, I can keep turning the dryer back on for three days until his socks and long-sleeve naturally dyed cotton t-shirts, the ones he likes, are finally dry, although a little funny smelling, while the towels, sheets and jeans pile up in damp heaps, waiting their turn.

You see, the dryer sucks air in from the floor, and with it, it sucks in all the dust, dirt, dry leaf particles and stray animal hairs, clogging the ventilation system and killing all possibility of the dryer drying anything, and to clean the floor I'd have to spend a week emptying the garage, searching fruitlessly for places to put everything we never need that is in there -- including several generations of bicycles in need of repair that no one has ridden in as long as I have been here, but which make an elevated surface upon which to pile more crap, like the cheap, give-away backpack his second son left here 13 years ago and hasn't thought about since, but which surely reminds his father of some moment. Or, it will surely just be useful some day.

Not that anyone would be caught dead with it. Possibly not even my husband.

It takes all kind of courage to clean a garage. Courage I don't have. And so, I fall deeper into despair, and from there to depression, waiting for the socks and cotton naturally dyed t-shirts to dry so I can put in the jeans, and then the sheets and the duvet cover, and possibly wash and dry our ski clothes before Sam and I leave on Saturday for Argentière. I know that is not happening. We'll be packing what I removed from the bags in August to pack the summer stuff for Dordogne, which will now have to come out so I can put the ski stuff back in them, which reminds me of the next reason for being depressed: the lack of dry closet space free of all traces of humidity and mold to put all those out of season clothes away.

One hundred years ago, closet space was unheard of. In our budget, armoirs are unheard of, and so we live in a circulating system of piles of useless stuff, out of season clothing and in season clothing still wet from the washing machine.

Then, for depression making, there is raising the stepchildren. I had lofty ambitions, surefire parenting philosophy in my store of arms, love for my husband to spur me, and a seemingly endlessly good opinion of my own strength of character and abilities, all of which I was certain would see me through to success. I forgot one thing: my stepdaughter's firmness of mind to try me. Nothing like it to drain the rest of one's resources to the dregs. It took only a little less than a month before I showed signs of stress, and just hours beyond that to split my resolve right along those fault lines as we pulled up to park the car, coming home New Year's Eve. In our space in front of the neighbors" across the street was a car with out of département plates. My husband sighed.

"Ils se sont garé dans nos places," he said.

For once, he said what I do when I see a visitor's car parked in our spots. He normally responds with "Elles ne sont pas nos places. Elles sont devant chez eux, et ils ont la gentillesse de nous laisser nous garer là," but tonight, he was taking my outlook on the situation. I nodded my agreement and sympathy as he began backing up to put the wagon on the sidewalk before our house.

"Leurs invités pourraient au moins se garer ici ou devant la mairie," I concurred, opening my door to step down before he eased the car tight against the neighbor's garden wall. And then, my stepdaughter piped up.

"C'est pas nos places. C'est devant chez eux, et ils ne doivent pas nous laisser nous garer là," she told me in the most icily, pointedly deprecating of tones. She was drawing her line in the sand, and it was clearly between her father and her on one side and me on the other. I felt my pulse quicken and a murderous impulse rise.

You must, I heard my more mature and wiser self interject with lightening reflexes, remain in possession of yourself at all times. That includes now.

"Alright," I said to that self. "Fine. I can do that," and I turned to my stepdaughter, who was slinking out of the car behind me, very clearly perfectly aware that she had fired a shot into the New Year's air.

"Nous avons un accord avec les voisins," I warned her off, "et de toute manière, ceci ne te regarde en rien."

The BMW slid into place along the neighbor's garden wall and she continued her slinking along the street wall of the house.

"Tu es insolente, et je te rappelle que ton insolence ne sera pas tolérée." You are, I informed her in the clearest of terms, being insolent, and I remind you that insolence will not be tolerated.

She stared at me, and then at the ground at her feet, trailing behind me as slowly as a human being can move while the two of us waited for her father to catch up with the keys to the house. He had heard most of the most unpleasant exchange, but I assumed I could trust him to find laudable motivations for her outburst. Just days before, in the heat of an hysterical fit, she had hurled words at me, words chosen for maximum impact (Ah! the intelligence of the hysterical and angry woman-child!), Je suis venue vivre ici pour voir mon père et tu m'empêches de le faire!

I have come to live here, she shot at me, to see my father, and you get in my way.

Cheap shot, myself said to me. The one I recognize as merely myself.

"Yeah," I agreed, watching her rail against me and trying not to smile, and wondering at myself for that in the midst of my own troops lining up, my own general ready to give the cry to engage. Who has not seen this before who has herself been a woman-child against the world?

Treat it seriously, myself cautioned. Any appearance of a smile will be taken as derision and met with rage.

"I know. Don't worry, anger is winning the upper hand here, anyway."

She was not here, then, as she had told us, to escape the endless conflict at her mother's home. Not, then, as we had believed, to find a more stable and structured environment to do her work of growing up. Not, then, as I could have believed from many comments over the past years, because here we put the children first and organize our lives around insuring that their needs are met. No. She was here because she wanted to see her father, a man who returns from work hours after she returns from school, hours I have cleared my life to make sure are available to her, to her school work, to her riding, to her peace of mind, while I am in the way of what she wants. Legitimate, but sucks for me.

These are realities that sit you hard on your bottom and dim the light around you, cause a loud buzzing in your ears, leave you with your forehead pressed against the cool mullions separating the panes of glass between you and the sodden, winter-ugly garden, feeling heavier and more toxic than mercury.

On her way up to bed on New Year's Eve, having told me precisely what I was worth to her in her early adolescent life, she called out in her winningest sing-song voice, "Bonne année, Papa! Bonne nuit, Papa!"

"Bonne année, ma chérie. Bonne nuit, et dors bien," he replied.

"It's normal," I hissed to myself. "Of course he wants to meet cheer with cheer, even if I am pointedly excluded. She is his daughter."

I limited myself to muttering all the way up the stairs, repeating "Bonne année, Papa! Bonne nuit, Papa!", imitating (with but the merest touch of mockery) her sing-song under my breath.

Very mature, said my better self.

She had been spoken to by her father for her outburst. I had not spoken to her since then, preferring to retreat to the haven of my room, with the piles of books rotating at my bedside like the piles of out of season clothes and bags at the foot of the bed. She would return from school soon, and I would be taking her to her riding lesson. I would do what I always do; I would tell her exactly what I think and feel.

"Tu maches du chewing gum," I said, watching her jaws work over in her seat. I hit the button and the window slid down on her side. "Tu sais ce que j'en pense de ça. C'est vulgaire. Avec moi, tu ne macheras pas du chewing gum. Tu peux le jeter." You know what I think of that. It's vulgar. With me, you will not chew gum. You can throw it out the window. Her eyes got big.

"Mais, ça c'est de polluer," she objected.

"C'est biodégradable. Que penses-tu arrive quand tu le mets à la poubelle et la poubelle part à la déchetterie? La même chose. Jete-le."

"Je peux le mettre dans un mouchoir," she said, removing a tissue from her pocket and folding the wad of chewing gum into it.

She turned the topic to why the French do not use recycled kraft paper shopping bags like they do in the States. A brief conversation led her to the conclusion that because they do this, apparently, in the UK does not mean that all English-speaking countries do the same; we tend to use biodegradable plastic bags, which are being outlawed there like they are here, in favor of reusable shopping bags that will eventually wind up in landfills. We rode around the small traffic circle and headed for the light. I did not turn my right turn signal on.

"On va chez McDo. Je te prendrai ton déjeuner que tu peux manger au club," I explained, keeping the unfriendliness from my voice. I was determined to be firm, but neutral, and I started again, while we waited for the light to change to green to cross, "Les relations sont fragiles,"I told her, glancing her way. She was looking at a point between her lap and the passenger window. "C'est comme un compte en banque. Quand tu mets quelque chose, tu peus en tirer, mais quand tu es dans le rouge, tu dois en mettre avant d'en tirer, et tu frôles le rouge." I glanced again as I said the last words, and I saw the smile play on her lips.

She knew. She knew exactly what I meant. Relationships are fragile, I told her; they are like bank accounts. When you have out something in them, you can take out of them, but when you have taken too much and you are in the red, you have to put back something back in again. You, I said, are very close to being in the red.

"Tu peux jouer avec Maman et Papa, mais pas avec moi. C'est comme tu veux," we drove up the rutted drive and pulled into the parking area at the stables. "Bonne équitation et à tout à l'heure."

"Merci," she said, as I handed her lunch to her after she arranged her bag with her gear on her shoulder. "A tout à l'heure." I watched her walk toward the stables, spot a friend over beyond the paddock. She raised her bag of McDo, and her friend broke into a run.

I had drawn my line in the sand, You can play with your mother and your father, but you can't with me. It's up to you.

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