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Je passais au bord de la Seine
Un livre ancien sous le bras
Le fleuve est pareil à ma peine
Il s’écoule et ne tarit pas
—GUILLAUME APOLLINAIRE, “MARIE”
I will start with the tree. Because everything begins, and ends, with the tree. The tree is the tallest one. It was planted way before the others. I’m not sure how old it is, exactly. Perhaps three or four hundred years old. It is ancient and powerful. It has weathered terrible storms, braced against unbridled winds. It is not afraid.
The tree is not like the others. It has its own rhythm. Spring starts later for it, while all the others are already blossoming. Come late April, the new oval leaves sprout slowly, on the top and middle branches only. Otherwise, it looks dead. Gnarled, gray, and withered. It likes to pretend to be dead. That’s how clever it is. Then, suddenly, like a huge explosion, all the buds flourish. The tree triumphs with its pale green crown.
No one can find me when I’m up here. I don’t mind the silence. It’s not really silence, because so many small sounds fill it. The rustle of the leaves. The moan of the wind. The buzz of a bee. The chirp of the cicadas. The flutter of a bird’s wing. When the mistral is up and rushes through the valley, the thousands of branches swishing sound like the sea. This is where I came to play. This was my kingdom.
I tell this story now, once, so that I don’t have to tell it again. I am not good with words, whether they are spoken or penned. When I’m finished, I will hide this. Somewhere where it won’t be found. No one knows. No one will. I’ve never told it. I will write it and not show it. The story will remain on these pages, like a prisoner.
“IT’S BEEN LIKE THIS for the past two weeks,” says the listless taxi driver. The rain pours down, a silver curtain, hissing, obstructing all daylight. It is only ten o’clock in the morning, but to Linden, it feels like dusk glimmering with wetness. The taxi driver says he wants to move away for good, flee Paris, find the sun, go back to balmy Martinique, where he is from. As the car leaves Charles de Gaulle Airport and edges along the jammed highway and ring road that circles the city, Linden cannot help agreeing with him. The sodden suburbs are dismal, clustered contours of cubic volumes bedecked with garish neon billboards flickering in the drizzle. He asks the driver to turn on the radio, and the man comments upon his perfect French, “for an American.” Linden grins. This happens every time he returns to Paris. He replies he’s Franco-American, born in France, French father, American mother, he speaks both languages fluently, with no accent at all. How about that, eh? The driver chortles, fumbles with the radio, well, monsieur certainly looks like an American, doesn’t he, tall, athletic, jeans, sneakers, not like those Parisians with their fancy ties and suits.
The news is all about the Seine. Linden listens while squeaky windshield wipers thrust away rivulets in a never-ending battle. The river has been rising for five days now, since January 15, lapping around the Zouave’s ankles. The huge stone statue of a colonial soldier situated just below the pont de l’Alma is, Linden knows, the popular indicator of the river’s level. In 1910, during the major overflows that inundated the city, the water had crept all the way up to the Zouave’s shoulders. The driver exhales, there’s nothing to be done to prevent a river from flooding, no use fighting nature. Men need to stop tampering with nature; all this is her way of lashing back. As the car inches along sluggish circulation, unrelenting rain pounding on the car roof, Linden is reminded of the email the hotel sent him on Tuesday.
Dear Mr. Malegarde,
We are looking forward to your arrival and stay with us as from Friday, January 19th, at noon, until Sunday, January 21st, in the evening (with a late checkout, as requested). However, the traffic situation in Paris might be problematic due to the level of the river Seine. Fortunately, the Chatterton Hotel, situated in the fourteenth arrondissement, is not located in an area liable to inundations, and therefore will not be concerned by the inconvenience. For the moment, the prefecture informs us there is nothing to worry about, but our policy is to update our guests. Please let us know if you need any assistance. Kind regards.
Linden read it at the airport on his way from L.A. to New York, where he was booked to photograph a British actress for Vanity Fair. He forwarded the message to his sister, Tilia, in London, and to his mother, Lauren, in the Drôme valley, who were to join him in Paris that Friday. Linden had not included Paul in the email because his father only appreciated letters and postcards, not emails. His sister’s answer, which he received when he landed hours later at JFK, made him chuckle. Floodings?! What?! Again? Don’t you remember there was already a scary flood in Paris last November? And what about the one in June 2016? It took us years to organize this bloody weekend, and now this?! She signed off with a series of scowling emoticons. Later, his mother replied to both of them: Will come by boat if we have to, dragging your father away from his trees! To at last be together! No way will we cancel this family gathering! See you on Friday, my loves! The Malegarde family was meeting in Paris to celebrate Paul’s seventieth birthday, as well as Lauren and Paul’s fortieth wedding anniversary.
Linden had not given the hotel’s warning another thought. When he left New York for Paris on Thursday evening, he felt weary. It had been two full days, and before that, weeks of hard work around the globe. He would have preferred to fly back home to San Francisco, to Elizabeth Street, to Sacha and the cats. He had not seen much of Sacha, nor the cats, in the past month. Rachel Yellan, his dynamic agent, had landed him one job after the other, a dizzying swirl from city to city that left him depleted and longing for a break. The narrow blue house in Noe Valley and its cherished inhabitants would have to wait until this special family event was over. “Just the four of us,” his mother had said, all those months ago, when she had booked hotel and restaurant. Was he looking forward to this? he wondered as the plane took off. They had not often been together, just the four of them, since his teenage years at Sévral, where he grew up, and more so, since he had left Vénozan, his father’s familial domain, in 1997, at nearly sixteen. He saw his parents once or twice a year, and his sister whenever he went to London, which was frequently. Why did “just the four of us” sound both so cozy and ominous?
On the flight to Paris, Linden read Le Figaro and realized with a jab of apprehension that the situation described by the hotel was, in fact, disquieting. The Seine had already flooded in late November, as Tilia pointed out, after a wet summer and autumn, and previously, in June 2016. Parisians had kept a wary eye on the Zouave, and the little waves lapping up his shins. Fortunately, the flow had stopped increasing. Le Figaro explained that thanks to modern technology, one could predict the river’s engorgement three days ahead, which left ample time for evacuating. But the actual problem was the torrential rain, which had not lessened. The river was on the rise again, and threateningly fast.
After traffic jams and more foreboding talk on the radio, the taxi crosses the Seine at Concorde. It is raining so thickly, Linden can barely make out the river below, just enough to notice the churning flow seems unnaturally foamy. The taxi crawls along waterlogged boulevard Saint-Germain and boulevard Raspail, and reaches the Hôtel Chatterton at Vavin crossroad. In the one minute it takes Linden to leap from car to entrance, the rain plasters his dark blond hair to his head, dribbles down the back of his neck, seeps into his socks. The chilly winter air enfolds him and seems to follow him into the lobby. He is greeted by a smiling receptionist, he smiles back, hair dripping, shivering, hands her his French passport (he has two), nods back at “Bienvenue, Monsieur Malegarde.” Yes, his sister is arriving later on today by Eurostar, and his parents from Montélimar by train. No, he’s not quite sure at what time. Is he aware that his parents’ train will be diverted to Montparnasse and not be arriving at Gare de Lyon, because of the inundation risks? No, he knows nothing of this. But that will make it much more practical, he realizes, as Montparnasse station is barely five minutes away from the Chatterton.
The receptionist, whose badge reads AGATHE, gives him his passport and room key, and tells him, not too effusively, how much she admires his work, what an honor it is to have him at the hotel. Is he here for fashion week as well? she inquires. He thanks her, then shakes his head, explains this is a family weekend, that he will not be working, not a single shoot scheduled for the next few days, a well-deserved rest. He has only one camera with him, he tells her, his beloved vintage Leica; he left his gear in New York, with his agent, and the only people he plans to photograph are his parents and sister. As for fashion week, that’s certainly not on his list; he’ll leave those glitzy creatures tottering on their stilettos to their own confederacy of glamour and catwalks. The receptionist laughs. She heard on TV that if the Seine continues to rise so alarmingly, fashion week might be canceled. Now it is Linden’s turn to snort, and he feels a furtive pang of guilt, and cannot help thinking of what it would mean to actually cancel fashion week, which starts tomorrow, what a colossal waste of effort, time, and money. The receptionist then refers deferentially to his father and says what a pleasure it is to have “Mr. Treeman” with them, and Linden is amused at her fervor (little does she know how much his father resents that sobriquet, how ridiculous he finds it, and with what difficulty he deals with his illustriousness); his father is such a respected figure, she goes on; his struggle to save notable trees around the world is admirable. He warns her, genially, that his father is shy, not easygoing and talkative like himself; however, she’ll have a ball with his mother, who is the true star of the family, and his sister, Tilia Favell, is quite a number, as well.
The room on the fourth floor, giving onto rue Delambre, is warm, comfortable, and prettily furnished in tints of lilac and crème, although a trifle small to accommodate his long-limbed frame. A basket of goodies awaits on the table—fresh fruit, roses, chocolates, and a bottle of champagne on ice—with a handwritten welcome note from the hotel’s director, Madame Myriam Fanrouk. He remembers his mother choosing the Chatterton two years ago when she decided to go ahead with the anniversary and birthday weekend. It was labeled a “charming, delightful boutique hotel on the Left Bank, bang in the heart of Montparnasse” and TripAdvisor comments were positive. Linden had left the organization up to her. He had booked his flights when he was sure of his agenda, not an easy feat for a freelance photographer. Lauren had also picked the place they were having dinner tomorrow night, Villa des Roses, a one-star Michelin restaurant on rue du Cherche-Midi, behind the Hôtel Lutetia.
Why Paris? he wonders as he unpacks his small suitcase and hangs up the dark green velvet jacket he’ll be wearing tomorrow evening. Tilia is based in London with her daughter and her second husband, art expert Colin Favell; Lauren and Paul live in Vénozan, near Sévral, in the Drôme valley, and he is established in San Francisco, with Sacha. Yes, why Paris? Paris does not mean much to his parents. Or does it? Linden gives it a thought as he undresses, casts aside his damp clothes, and steps under a hot shower with relish. He knows his parents met in Grignan, during the ferocious heat wave that desiccated France in the summer of 1976, when Paul was working as head landscaper for an ambitious garden-design firm on the outskirts of the small town. Tilia and he know the story inside out. Lauren, barely nineteen, was visiting France for the first time with her sister Candice, two years older. Born and bred in Brookline, Massachusetts, they had never been to Europe. They started with Greece, then Italy, and made their way up through France via Nice, Avignon, Orange. A halt in the Drôme had not been planned, but it had been too hot to pursue their route and they decided to spend one night in a modest but welcoming bed-and-breakfast in Grignan. At the end of the sweltering day, the sisters were enjoying a glass of chilled rosé in the shade of the cool square, where a fountain tinkled, beneath the statue of regal Madame de Sevigné, whose imposing château graced the top of the hill, when Paul drove by in his pickup. He wore faded white overalls that had a Steve McQueen aura to them, a frayed straw sun hat, and a roll-up cigarette jutted from his mouth. Lauren’s eyes followed him as he parked the truck and hauled various pots and shrubs from the trunk into a nearby shop. He was broad-shouldered and muscular, of medium height, and when he swept off the hat to wipe off a perspiring forehead, she noticed he had hardly any hair, just a segment of brown fuzz at the back of his head. Nearly bald, but young, not even thirty, she guessed. Candice asked why she was staring at the guy in the overalls, and Lauren whispered, “Just look at his hands.” Candice replied blankly that she couldn’t see anything special about his hands at all, and Lauren, in a sort of trance, murmured she had never seen anyone touch plants the way that man did. Their father, Fitzgerald Winter, was something of a gardener; so was their mother, Martha. The girls had grown up in a verdant, tree-filled neighborhood in Brookline, near Fisher Hill, where residents spent a lot of time tending to their gardens, with shears in one gloved hand and a watering can in the other, anxiously appraising a rosebush’s growth. But this man was different, and Lauren could not take her eyes off his robust, tanned fingers, watching the way he tilted his head to stare at each flower, how he caressed the branches and blossoms of every plant he handled, cupping it in a strong yet gentle hold that mesmerized her. Paul must have felt the pressure of her gaze, because he at last looked up and saw the two sisters sitting a little farther away. Tilia and Linden knew this part by heart, as well. He saw only Lauren, her legs, her long hair, her slanted eyes, although Candice was just as beautiful. He walked over to her table and silently handed her a small potted olive tree. She spoke hardly any French, and his English was nonexistent. Candice mastered French better than her sister, so she was able to translate, but to them she was invisible, just a voice choosing the right words. His name was Paul Malegarde, he was twenty-eight, and he lived a few kilometers away, near Sévral, on the road to Nyons. Yes, he loved plants, especially trees, and he had a beautiful arboretum on his property, Vénozan. Would she like to see it, perhaps? He could take her there, would she like that? Oh, but she was leaving tomorrow with her sister, off to Paris, and then London, and then back home at the end of the summer. Yes, she could maybe stay a bit longer; she had to see.… When Lauren got up to shake his proffered hand, she towered over him, but neither of them seemed to mind in the least. She liked his shrewd blue eyes, his infrequent smile, his long silences. “He’s not half as good-looking as Jeff,” said Candice later. Jeff was Lauren’s preppy Bostonian boyfriend. Lauren shrugged. She was meeting Paul again later, by the fountain. There was a full moon that night. The heat did not abate. Candice was no longer there to serve as translator, but they did not need her. There was not much talking. David Bowie, Paul’s favorite singer, sang from the cassette deck in the pickup as they gazed up at the stars, their hands barely touching. Jeffrey van der Haagen felt thousands of miles away. Lauren Winter did not make it to Paris, nor to London; nor did she go back to Boston at the end of that scorching summer of 1976. She visited Vénozan and ended up never leaving it.
Linden grabs a towel, dries himself, and slides into a bathrobe. He remembers his mother’s mentioning that meeting up in Paris was more convenient for the four of them. She was no doubt right. And this was to be a “no spouses, no children weekend,” she had pointed out. That meant no Colin, no Mistral (Tilia’s daughter from her first marriage), no Sacha. Just the four of them. He draws the curtain back and watches the rain cascade down to the gleaming pavement. Scarce passersby dash through the drops. His mother had scheduled several walks and visits to museums for tomorrow. The rain and cold will no doubt hamper her plans. A gloomy noon in Paris, and three o’clock in the morning in San Francisco. He thinks of Sacha sleeping in the large bedroom on the top floor, the tousled dark hair on the pillow, the gentle, regular breath. His phone pings and he turns to retrieve it from his coat pocket. Dude, have you arrived? Tilia always calls him “dude,” and he retaliates with “doll.” Doll, I’m in my room. Number 46.
Moments later, he hears an authoritative rap at the door and opens up. His sister stands there, drenched, hair flattened and dripping, eyebrows and lashes spiked with wobbling droplets. She rolls her eyes, outstretches her arms, and staggers forward like a zombie, which makes him laugh. They hug, and, as ever, she is small compared to him, small but robust, built exactly like their father, with the same broad shoulders, square jaw, the same quizzical blue eyes.
Whenever Linden and Tilia are together, they never know which language to choose. They grew up learning both at the same time, speaking English to their mother, French to their father, but between them, it is a confusing, rapid jumble of both, a Frenglish potpourri of slang and personal nicknames that give other people headaches. While Tilia dries her hair on a towel, then with the hair dryer, Linden notices she has put on weight since the last time he saw her, just before summer, when he was passing through London. But it suits her, this new plumpness, giving her a femininity she sometimes lacked. She had always been a tomboy, the kind of girl who climbs trees, plays pétanque with the men in the village, whistles with her fingers between her teeth, and swears like a pirate. She disregarded style, makeup, and jewelry, although Linden notices that today she is wearing a well-cut, if sopping, pair of navy blue trousers and matching jacket, attractive black boots, and a gold necklace. He compliments her on her appearance, and she mouths “Mistral” above the blast of the hair dryer. Her poised eighteen-year-old daughter, a fashion student born of a Basque father (a renowned chef), is Tilia’s fashion police, and it appears her efforts are paying off. Her hair now dry, Tilia walks across the room to turn on the TV, saying she wants to watch the news about the river, and Linden notices her limp is worse than usual.
They never talk about the car accident she had in 2004, when she was twenty-five. She refuses to ever mention it. Linden knows she nearly died, that parts of her left leg and hip were replaced, that she underwent extensive surgery and spent six months in the hospital. The accident happened near Arcangues, when she was returning to Biarritz with her best friends from a party. One of the girls was getting married the following week. They had hired a car with a chauffeur in order to be able to drink safely. At three in the morning, an inebriated driver speeding along the small winding roads smashed into their minivan. Four girls were killed on the spot, as well as their chauffeur and the other driver. Tilia was the single survivor of a car accident that made headlines. It took her years to get over it, mentally and physically. Her marriage with Eric Ezri broke up a few years later, in 2008, and she obtained custody of their only daughter. Sometimes Linden wonders if his sister has ever gotten over the tragedy, if she is aware of the toll it has taken, like a chunk out of her life.
“How’s Colin?” asks Linden carefully as Tilia switches to the news channel. They both know—the entire family knows—that her elegant British spouse, an eminent art expert specializing in old master paintings at Christie’s, her charming, bespectacled, smooth-skinned husband with his quick-witted small talk and toothy smile is a drunkard. Not the social type of drunkard who, clutching his tepid champagne glass, will careen through parties, delightfully tipsy, ensconced in a haze of innocuous gibberish, but the hard-core, bad-news type of drunkard who starts his day knocking back gin at ten in the morning and who ends it in a coma, curled up dead to the world on his doorstep at Clarendon Road in a pool of his own urine. Tilia takes her time to answer, perched on the corner of the bed, eyes on the TV screen, where old black-and-white photographs of the 1910 Paris flooding file past. She answers, tonelessly, that the situation is the same. Colin promised he would stop, that he’d go back to the clinic (for the third time), but it is not better. Things are becoming problematic at work. He had been able to hide it for a while, but not anymore. She is fed up. Colin is aware of it. He says he loves her, and she knows he does, but she is running out of patience. For the first time, Linden glimpses defiance in his sister’s face. She looks bitter, resentful. When she married Colin Favell in 2010, she had no idea he was an alcoholic. He hid it cleverly. He was dashing and handsome. Nineteen years older than she? So what! It did not show. He was marvelous to look at, such a seductive Jaggerish smile, all those teeth. He also had been married a first time and had two grown-up sons. They met in London, at an auction, where Tilia had gone with a friend. Mistral had liked him, too. In the beginning. And then, gradually, well after the wedding, the truth was revealed. The drinking, the lies, the viciousness. He never hits her, nor Mistral, but his insults are odious daggers of venom.
Tilia is going to be forty next year, she reminds her brother with a smirk; that hideous age, that ghastly number, and her marriage is a disaster. Her husband is a disaster. The fact that she has no job and is living off him is a disaster. But she never really had a job in her life, so who’s going to hire her now, at her age, with no diplomas or experience of any kind? Linden interrupts her. What about her painting? She scoffs at her brother. Her painting? Another disaster! He cannot help laughing, and so does she, in spite of herself. Yes, of course she still paints, and she loves it, and it saves her, but no one gives a shit about her paintings. No one wants to buy them, at least not her husband’s snobby friends from the art world; they turn up their noses at everything that’s not a Rembrandt. Everything around her is a disaster except for her daughter. Her daughter, born in December 1999 during a mighty storm, her baby named after the powerful northwesterly wind that blustered through Tilia’s childhood, is the apple of her eye.
At the end of her rant, Tilia turns to Linden and says brightly, “And how’s Sacha?” Sacha’s fine, quite a bit of work at the start-up, a fair amount of stress, but Sacha knows how to handle stress. The only problem is that they don’t see each other much right now, with Linden always on a plane, and that wedding date, which always gets postponed because of traveling, well, they are going to have to do something about it. Tilia asks if their father has ever met Sacha. Linden says no, he hasn’t. Lauren and Sacha were introduced to each other in New York in 2014, and they hit it off fine. They met again, later, in Paris and it had gone just as well. Their father leaves Vénozan only to save remarkable trees, not to visit his family. Doesn’t Tilia know that? Linden adds drily. Tilia plays with her necklace. Does Linden think their father perhaps doesn’t want to meet Sacha? Linden is aware that question is coming; his sister has always been outspoken, so he is not surprised. But he finds he has no answer. He glances toward the TV, where a map of the Seine is now being shown, alarming red arrows darting here and there, marking possible flooding. He says cautiously that he does not know. He has never asked his father outright and he has not discussed it with Sacha. All he knows is that Sacha and he have been together for nearly five years, that they plan to get married, and that Sacha has never met Paul. Tilia observes that San Francisco is not exactly close to Vénozan. Linden agrees, but he reminds her that there was that one time, not very long ago, when their father had flown to California, somewhere near Santa Rosa, to prevent a plantation of an uncommon species of redwood trees from being axed to enlarge a railroad. Paul had spent a week battling the authorities with his cluster of followers, composed of arborists, dendrologists, scientists, botany students, activists, historians, nature lovers, and ecologists. He ended up saving the trees, but he never went to visit his son and meet Sacha, a mere hour’s drive away. There had always been an excuse: He was too busy, or too tired, or there was another rare tree to save.
Linden changes the subject, focuses her attention on the news. The previous November’s flooding had apparently been a narrowly averted disaster, thanks to the four giant lakes created upriver between 1949 and 1990. A drone films from above the lakes, situated near Joigny and Troyes, roughly two hundred kilometers away from Paris. They act as reservoirs when the flow is too high, and the past November’s swell was reduced at least half a meter due to the lakes. However, the present problem, the journalist continues, is that the lakes are still full from the previous inundation, unable to empty themselves, and the rain has not stopped falling for the past few weeks, which means that the ground is thoroughly sodden, no longer absorbing water.
“Shit, that looks bad,” mumbles Tilia. If only the bloody rain would stop. They can’t even go out, it’s so wet. Will the river truly flood? Surely the authorities, or whoever, will prevent a catastrophe. Surely nothing bad will happen. They go on watching; the same topic comes up on each channel: the Seine rising, the unstoppable rain, the growing anxiety. Oh, why don’t they turn it off, Tilia groans, and Linden reaches for the remote control. The only noise now is the pitter-patter outside. They talk about the presents for their parents. Linden was able to get his hands on the only Bowie vinyl Paul was missing, Station to Station, which he somehow misplaced years ago and could not locate. Tilia had procured the latest biography in French about Bowie. As for their mother, for her wedding anniversary, they decided on a joint present, which Tilia went to get on Old Bond Street, a diamond-studded Tiffany key, snug in its turquoise box.
“I think I’ll have a snooze,” Linden tells his sister diplomatically. His jet lag is not overpowering—he travels too frequently to suffer from it—but he wants to be alone for a while, before his parents arrive. Tilia takes the hint and gets up to leave. On her way out, she mutters, ironically, that he does indeed look shattered, but the older he gets, the more gorgeous he becomes, while she looks like a hag; it’s too unfair. He good-humoredly throws a pillow at her as she slams the door.
Layers of weariness have been building up in the past weeks, and he can feel their hold in the tightness around his neck and shoulders. He misses Sacha’s warm, supple hands, kneading away his tiredness. There is a list of things about Sacha that he misses, he realizes. Let him count those things, he thinks as he lies down on the bed: the sense of humor, smile, wondrous cooking, laugh, hazel eyes, sometimes brown, sometimes green, depending on the light, the entrancing fragrance just below the jawbone, the love for opera and La Traviata in particular, the enthusiasm, sensitivity, creativity, and sheer magnetism. Sacha and he have never spent much time in Paris together. Their story started in New York in 2013.
Yet Paris is clandestinely special to Linden. He keeps a personal bond with the city, an intimate history of love, sadness, and pleasure, buried deep within him, like a bittersweet secret, and often thinks back to the twelve years he spent here, from 1997 to 2009. He sees himself, gawky and skinny, painfully self-aware, turning up on Candice’s doorstep with his backpack and his joy of being here, away from Sévral, his parents, Vénozan. What the hell did he mean, leaving home, his mother had thundered, to go where, do what? Linden’s grades weren’t all that good; the English teacher even wrote to say Linden was “arrogant.” As he listened to his mother’s remonstrance, Linden was aware he could never explain, never describe how different he felt, in every way; he was a stranger, yes, even in the very town where he was born; he was a stranger because his mother was an American who had never lost her accent, and he was therefore half American and reminded of it every single day in class, even if his father came from an old Sévral family, even if his great-grandfather, Maurice Malegarde, had made a fortune with his lucrative carton-packing factories and bequeathed a touch of magnificence on all descendants to come by creating Vénozan, an early-twentieth-century folly built to resemble a Tuscan villa. As for the English teacher, cantankerous Madame Cazeaux, how could he explain to his parents she was infuriated by his perfect English, which only drew out her own abysmal accent? No, he could not reveal how uncomfortable he felt at school, with no one to talk to, no one to confide in; it was almost as if he came from another planet, as if the others intuitively sensed his difference and rejected him. He did not fit in, and it made him miserable. It had gotten worse with puberty, when he shot up in one go and the others felt belittled. He almost told his mother they spitefully nicknamed him “l’Américain,” increasing his wretchedness, which he found despicable, considering he was born in the Sévral clinic, like most of them. They used other names, other insults. He felt unwanted, unhappy, lonely. And the worst part was that when his mother sometimes came to fetch him in the old pickup, wearing her short jean dress and her cowboy hat, each one of them, boys and girls, ogled her. How could they not? She was the most beautiful woman they had ever seen, a vision of loveliness with her honey hair and curvaceous figure. The only person who was aware of his daily agony was Tilia. She had flamboyantly taken his side once his mind was made up, and had faced their parents, sputtering with wrath, why on earth couldn’t Linden go and live with Candice, attend a Parisian lycée, spend a couple of years with his aunt? What was their problem, for Christ’s sake? Why were they being so old-fashioned? What a bunch of fuddy-duddies. Linden was going to be sixteen in May. There was nothing complicated about changing schools in the middle of term; these things were done, had been done before! Linden needed to get out, to go see the world, to discover other places. Couldn’t they see that? There had been a silence, his parents had glanced at each other, then back at him, and then Paul had shrugged. If that’s what Linden wanted, deep down, then he wasn’t going to stop his son. Lauren had added she was going to call Candice right away and make arrangements for a school transfer. Linden had stared at his sister with overt admiration, and she had winked back, flaunting a V for victory at him. It is amusing to think that most of those contemptuous, insufferable pupils of the Sévral lycée he put up with for all those years now flock to his Facebook page, liking every single one of his posts, and he has even seen some of them turn up at his exhibits, groveling, patting him on the back, saying they knew he was going to become a star.
His aunt Candice lived at 1, rue de l’Église, in the unremarkable fifteenth arrondissement. Her building was on the corner of rue Saint-Charles, a long, bustling street stretching from rue de la Fédération all the way south to place Balard. It was not considered a hip area, but he did not care. When he arrived on that nippy March day in 1997, Linden felt free for the first time in his life. He stood on the balcony of Candice’s sun-filled sixth-floor flat and looked out, elated, his hands gripping the railing. How well he remembers standing there, like a captain at the helm of his boat, Paris enticingly spread out at his feet, the rising roar of the traffic sounding like music to his ears, thrusting bucolic Vénozan and his parents farther and farther away. He did not mind the uncomfortable sofa bed, the complications of Candice’s love life, the new faces at the lycée on boulevard Pasteur. He did not miss spring at Vénozan, the cherry trees boastfully blossoming first, the scent of fresh air and lavender whipped up by the merciless wind. He did not miss the twitter of the birds, the exquisite perfume of bloodred roses that grew outside his bedroom window, the view over lavender fields studded with fig trees, inky green cypress, and silvery olive trees. There was nothing from Vénozan that he pined for. Not even his father’s arboretum, which he had loved so as a boy. He embraced his new life as a Parisian. He blended in at school. He was popular for the first time ever. No one realized he was a country boy, born in rural territory, not afraid of insects, not even the black scorpions lurking on the stone walls; a boy who knew the power of the wind, the supremacy of a storm, the Latin names of trees, and no one could tell he had been raised in the company of eagles, deer, boar, hornets, and firebugs. The others thought he was “cool,” with his flawless bilingualism, his impressive command of American swearwords, and his faint southern accent. They did not make fun of his first name; they did not care who his father was. He was invited to parties; girls had crushes on him, mooned over his blue eyes and wide smile. He was even considered good-looking. No one here thought he was different.
The phone on the bedside table beeps, startling him. It is the receptionist, announcing the arrival of his parents. Does Monsieur Malegarde wish to come down? He says he will do so immediately. He flings off the bathrobe and fishes around the closet for clothes. A moment later, dressed, he leaves the room, using the stairs to go faster. The first thing he notices when he gets to the lobby is how exhausted his father looks. It is a shock. Paul is slumped in an armchair, his hand propping up his face, his skin crumpled and unnaturally pale. He is wearing a dark anorak, which makes him seem even whiter. He looks thinner, too, almost gaunt.
“Oh, sweetie, there you are!” His mother’s voice, husky, warm. She hugs him, then steps back to look at him. And he, in turn, looks at her, his stunning mother, still a beauty at sixty-one, standing tall and long-legged in her boots and jacket, ash-blond hair swept back. Wrinkles and sags, although they have insidiously appeared, have not been able to tamper with the symmetry of her face, her elegant beak of a nose, which he inherited, her full mouth, the slant of her almond-shaped blue eyes, framed by the dark sweep of lush eyebrows. As usual, she wears no makeup, and, as usual, she turns heads. He leans down to embrace his silent father, then swivels backs to Lauren questioningly. Yes, Paul is not feeling too good, his mother tells him, lowering her voice, he must have caught cold, he just needs a rest, a hot bath, he’ll be fine. Tilia comes down; more hugs ensue. His sister notices their father’s state instantly. Concerned, she squats down to speak to him; he opens heavy eyelids, mumbles something about a headache. Well, why doesn’t he go up and have a rest? It’s raining far too hard to go out, and no one wants to anyway, so why not make the most of it? Lauren motions to the receptionist, and the luggage is carried up to their room. Linden listens to his mother telling Agathe that her husband is tired, could they possibly have a cup of tea, something to eat? Her French, after all these years, is still hesitant and slow. But it adds to her charm, and he can already see how the receptionist has fallen for it. Once his parents have gone upstairs, he turns to his sister.
“Papa’s face! So awful, so white…” he murmurs. She nods, concerned. Paul usually has a healthy glow about him, even in the middle of winter.
For the first time, their vigorous, hardy father looks like a shriveled old man. The thought sobers them and they do not speak for a while, sitting in the hotel lobby, shoulder-to-shoulder, hushed, while the rain drenches the city.
* * *
At the end of the day, Linden goes to check on his parents. He knocks softly on the door of room 37, and his mother opens it. She is wearing her reading glasses; her phone is in her hand. Over her shoulder, he sees his father in bed. Lauren whispers he is having a good rest. She canceled the dinner plans for that night. Dining at the animated Rotonde on boulevard du Montparnasse was not the best idea for Paul in his present state. She’ll order room service for them later on, which means Tilia and Linden can do as they please. Linden toys about having a meal with his sister. On the one hand, he is tempted; Tilia’s company is diverting, her stories amusing. On the other, this is a family weekend, and they will be together for three entire days. Maybe he should make the most of his unexpected freedom and look up an old friend. He tells his mother he’ll do that. Tilia won’t mind.
Linden tiptoes around the bed to have a look at his father’s face. His skin still seems gray and furrowed.
“Is he all right?” he asks his mother uneasily. Shouldn’t they call a doctor? Lauren is bent over her phone, fingers flying over the keyboard. Paul looks ghastly, she admits, but he’ll be fine; she’s not worried. He’s been overdoing it lately, as usual, she adds, pushing her glasses up over her head. Paul can never say no to a new tree to save, even if it’s on the other side of the country. He hasn’t had a proper rest since last summer. And when he is at home, he’s constantly on the go, roaming every square inch of the domain, keeping an eye on his beloved lime trees. It was difficult to get him to come to Paris, she goes on, lowering her voice; they are all aware of how much he dislikes the city.
Linden has no urban reminiscences of his father. Everything to do with Paul Malegarde steeps in nature. His earliest memory of his father was watching him tread the craggy land at Vénozan with his precise, steady gait, followed by Vandeleur, his faithful gardener, a dog or two on their heels. Paul’s hands seemed perpetually grimy, but Linden soon learned it was not filth that coated his palms, but the grit of soil, and the fine, dusty powder that lined bark. His father caressed trees as if they were the most beloved creatures in the entire universe. A tree is just as much alive as they were, Paul told his little boy, lifting him up so he could also touch the rugged, coarse surface. A tree must fight for survival, his father told him, and it must do this every single second. It has to fight to find water, space, light; it has to ward off heat, drought, cold, predators; it has to learn to battle storms, and the bigger the tree, the more vulnerable it is to wind. It seems simple, Paul told him, how trees live, standing in the sun with their roots in damp soil, but there’s much more to it than that; trees can anticipate; they are aware of seasons, of sunlight, of temperature changes. They transfer huge amounts of water; they channel rain as it falls; they have a power man must learn to respect. Humans would be nothing without trees, his father said. He could go on and on, and it never bored Linden. Even the botanical appellations of trees fascinated him as a child. Quercus, Prunus, Ficus carica, Olea, Platanus were the ones he remembered by heart—oak tree, prune tree, fig tree, olive tree, and plane tree. And his father’s favorite, Tilia, for lime tree, or linden, after which both he and his sister had been named. The arboretum, situated just above Vénozan, was composed of fifty majestic limes, planted over two hundred years ago, well before the house was built in 1908 by Maurice Malegarde, Paul’s grandfather. This was, Linden knew, where Paul had taken Lauren, during the heat wave of 1976. She, too, had fallen under the spell. How could she not? The lindens created a wide canopy with the velvety abundance of their interlacing branches and leaves. To stand beneath their magnificence in June or July was like showering in a honey-perfumed green glow, encircled by the humming of bees darting from bud to bud.
As he looks down at his father, Linden remembers he has never been to Vénozan with Sacha. Sacha has never seen the lime trees in full bloom, knows very little of that part of his life, because Linden has pushed it behind him. In the almost five years they have been together, a trip to the Drôme with Sacha has never been mentioned. Why? Is it because his father has never officially invited them? Is it because Linden has not mustered up enough courage to go? It is not the first time these thoughts have visited him. As usual, he brushes them away, troubled.
A few moments later, up in his room, Linden calls Sacha on FaceTime. It is ten o’clock in the morning in California. Sacha is at the start-up, in Palo Alto. The beloved face shows up on the screen, the hazel eyes, the desirable smile. Linden tells Sacha about his day—the rain, the river, his father’s haggard expression. Sacha talks about the start-up, the cats, the weather, which is so glorious that it’s hard to imagine the Parisian downpour. After saying good-bye to Sacha, Linden starts thinking about how he is going to spend the rest of his evening. He scrolls through the contacts on his phone. There is one name, of course, that jumps to his mind without even having to read it. A name that isn’t even in his list anymore. Hadrien. The number he remembers is no longer in service, but he still knows it by heart. And he remembers the address, too: 20, rue Surcouf, Paris 75007. Third floor, door on the right. The sadness. The pain. Why is it some memories never fade?
The next name he picks is Oriel Ménard. He gets her voice mail after a couple of rings. She is a photographer he met when he graduated from Gobelins, École de l’Image in 2003, the prestigious Parisian school of visual communication. A few years older than he, she was already by then a fully-fledged photographer, and she gave him a few helpful hints when he started out on his own. She now works for a French photo agency and specializes in author portraits for renowned publishers. He is in the middle of leaving her a message when she calls him back, delighted to hear he is in town for a family gathering. They agree to meet in half an hour at Le Dôme, on the corner of rue Delambre and boulevard du Montparnasse. Armed with a hotel umbrella, a warm scarf around his neck, Linden runs down the street in the icy deluge, leaping to avoid large puddles. People hurry past, enfolded in raincoats. Cars roll by, wheels making rubbery squelching sounds. At the Dôme, almost empty, save for another couple, a dour waiter tells him it’s never been this bad: the rain, torrential, incessant, terrible for business. He might as well hand in his notice, get the hell out of Paris, before the serious trouble begins, before the river wreaks havoc on them all. Linden asks him if he really believes the Seine will overflow. The man stares at him and inquires politely but with a touch of sarcasm if monsieur has been living on another planet.
“I live in San Francisco,” admits Linden sheepishly. And over there, he adds, it’s the earthquake that everyone is afraid of, the famous “big one,” which doesn’t stop people from getting on with their lives. The waiter nods, it’s the same thing here; Parisians are getting on with their lives, but the rain has not stopped, the forecast is not good, and the Seine might well flood just like it did in 1910, and then what? The city will be paralyzed, thousands will be homeless, economic activity will freeze, and the government, he thinks, should be taking the matter more seriously, like they did last November. What are they waiting for? Why are they being so circumspect? They need to act now, fast, while the river is up to the Zouave’s ankles; after, it will be too late. To Linden’s relief, the waiter’s diatribe is interrupted by Oriel’s arrival. Linden has not seen her for a while. She still has the same wiry brown hair, tiny button mouth, gray eyes. She is pretty, waiflike, always dressed in black. They speak in French. It feels good to let forth in his father’s tongue. At first, the French seems rusty; he senses American intonations popping up here and there, fights against them, readjusts, and then after a couple of minutes, he regains his usual complete fluidity. They order chardonnay, and all of a sudden, as they click their glasses together, Oriel lets out a peal of laughter.
“I’ve just remembered something!” she says. Does he recall what happened when they first met, in 2003? Linden, amused by her mirth, says he doesn’t. Oh, it was excruciating, she says, sipping her wine. He was twenty-two; she was twenty-four. They were at a party held for Gobelin graduates in a loft near the Bastille, and she had made a fool of herself by trying to seduce him. It does come back to him now, her doggedness in a dark corner, pressing her lips against his. He had kissed her back, nicely, and when she wanted to take matters further, he had politely pushed her away. Still, she did not get the hint, kissed him again, running her hands against his thighs, under his shirt, murmuring he didn’t have to be shy, that she’d do everything, he could just relax, close his eyes, until he had stated, as simply as he could, that he wasn’t into girls. She had stared back at him, gray eyes fluttering wide open, had remained silent for a few seconds, and then had muttered, did he mean he was … and he had finished her sentence: gay, yes, he was gay. And she had looked so crushed, he felt sorry, stroked her face, and said it didn’t matter. Then she had said, and he remembered that part well, that he certainly didn’t look gay, so how could she tell? It was unfair; he was so good-looking, tall, masculine, how could she ever know? He had asked, sotto voce, with a wicked grin, if she could describe what looking gay meant, and she had clapped her hand to her mouth and muttered sorry. Did he realize they had been friends for over fifteen years, she now asks. Isn’t that rather remarkable? What about another glass of chardonnay to celebrate? Linden gestures to the waiter. Oriel goes on to insist it is indeed notable, especially since he has become who he is, Linden Malegarde; she utters his name exaggeratedly with her beguiling French accent. Famous worldwide for his arresting portraits, and the best part is that he has not changed, not one bit; all that success could have turned him into a conceited prig, but no, he remains such a nice guy. She claps him heartily on the back. Linden feels uncomfortable with this sort of chitchat, wondering if the other person harbors any well-concealed bitterness regarding his fame, and as she continues, he stares into his wine, listening to the rain fall onto the glass roof. Oriel says she could tell the world all she knows, when he wore the same black leather jacket and black jeans, over and over again, when his hair was long and wavy, like a Pre-Raphaelite hippie (he cringes), when he lived in the fifteenth with his American aunt, who spent her evenings waiting for a phone call from her married French lover. Linden soberly tells her his aunt Candice died six years ago, that he had not been able to make it to her funeral and had felt so guilty. Candice had been crucial to him during the years he had lived in her flat. He refrains from telling Oriel how Candice died, the miserable aftermath of her death, how it had left its mark on him.
The glum waiter brings the second round, and when he is gone, Linden whispers under his breath that the guy was being most disheartening about the Seine flooding before she got here. Oriel’s expression is solemn. She whispers back that the waiter is right; inundating could well occur and it would be hell. Linden jeers at her, what is she going on about? She sounds like those pessimistic journalists on the news, painting the bleakest of pictures and frightening everyone.
“This is perhaps not the ideal weekend for being in Paris, you know,” Oriel says matter-of-factly. Because of the rain, she means? She stares at him again, as if he were an idiot. Yes, the rain and the flood, does he realize what might happen, in a city like Paris? He has no idea, does he? Her tone is irritating. Well, there haven’t been any governmental warnings, have there? No one’s being told not to come to Paris. Isn’t she exaggerating a little? Not at all, she retorts. She has a close friend who works at city hall, and they’re getting all worked up. The river is up to 3.80 meters at the pont d’Austerlitz, she says, and if this goes on for any longer, according to her friend, they’ll stop all fluvial traffic, to begin with. If the rain does not cease, they’re in trouble. The level is rising too fast. Puzzled, Linden says he thought centennial flooding occurred only once a century, that the city had learned its lesson well since 1910, that Paris is prepared. That’s what everyone thinks, she points out wryly, everyone thinks Paris is safe. Everyone thinks the Seine has been tamed, that the flooding will not happen again. But Paris is not safe. Her friend Matthieu said the situation could well become disastrous, quickly, much more quickly then anybody could ever imagine, and they would know more by tomorrow, she says, or even during the night. Matthieu told her the Seine’s flow was constantly monitored, that the tricky part was trying to anticipate whether the swelling was an ephemeral one that could abate in two or three days, like in November, or, on the contrary, one heralding a dramatic flood. Last time, even before the water rose to six meters, under the Zouave’s waist, the prefecture had sent out dire warnings, displaced citizens situated in certain areas of the twelfth, seventh, and fifteenth arrondissements, dispatched the army, closed some Métro stations, shut down the Louvre and d’Orsay museums, but the river had finally subsided. The government had been criticized for getting the Parisians agitated and worried for nothing. Two months later, the authorities were watching their step and were conscious they could not go wrong.
“I’m here for my father’s birthday and my parents’ wedding anniversary,” Linden tells Oriel. It is not an event he can easily cancel. Surely he can make sure they avoid all flooded areas, wherever those might be. Oriel looks serious again. She’ll text him if she hears anything from Matthieu. The Seine will make headlines; of that, they can be sure. Good news, or bad news. Most probably bad news. Linden interrupts her, this is sinister; it’s getting him down. What about a bite to eat? And what about her work? Is she still photographing authors? Aren’t they a pain? He’s had a few of those recently, some bestselling ones who think they are kings of the world because they’ve sold millions of copies. They order seafood and more wine, and Oriel is now happily chatting about her job. A couple of hours later, when they part, it is still raining.
When Linden gets back to the hotel, at midnight, there is a note under his door from his mother. Your father seems better. Had vegetable soup and is now fast asleep. See you tomorrow. Tilia texted to say she’d had a drink with an old friend and gone to bed early. He does not turn on the television. Instead, he takes his iPad out of its case and logs on to the hotel’s Wi-Fi. Sacha has sent him some messages, which he responds to swiftly. His agent, Rachel, who is aware that he is not working for the next few days, has emailed him some propositions. He’ll check them out later.
Linden looks up the word Seine. The name comes from Sequana, used by the Gauls and Romans who navigated along the river and settled by its swampy shores to later form Lutèce, the future city of Paris. An ancient Celtic goddess with healing powers, called Sequana, was worshipped at the river’s source, near Dijon. She was represented in a small boat, graceful arms aloft. Linden reads on. He is amazed to discover that the river had often destroyed the city it nurtured; there have been at least sixty serious inundations since fluvial recordings were first registered in the sixth century. The most drastic one to be measured against the pont de la Tournelle was in February 1658, when the Seine gushed to 8.96 meters, its highest-ever recorded level. Dozens of people drowned as houses built on the pont Marie were whisked away by torrential waters.
When sleep takes over, Linden’s last thought is not for Sacha, nor for Sequana and her ornamental headband, nor for the rain still drumming outside, but for his father, sleeping in the room below, with his mother; his father, whom he loves but whom he cannot talk to. Something always holds him back. Timidity, apprehension, whatever it is, it means they cannot have proper conversations. They never have had. To make matters worse, Paul is the reserved type, apart from his two favorite topics, trees and David Bowie. Linden wonders if Lauren hadn’t carefully crafted this family weekend with hopes of interaction sprouting between father and son. The uneasy feeling perseveres. What if Paul does not want to know more about his son, who he is, whom he loves?
Copyright © 2018 by Éditions Héloïse d’Ormesson