• The Company of Others

    Sara Freeman

    Spring 2022

    I spent that first afternoon alone, without my family, on the terrace of the Café Ti-Loup, in a pleasant state of half-reading, half-listening to a couple arguing, to a father and his adolescent son sharing a moment of taut silence, glad for once not to be contributing to the ambient family discord but bearing peaceable witness to it instead. I was getting ready to leave my table when I saw her, walking on the other side of the street, and into the caisse populaire. The similarity was so uncanny that it wouldn’t be right to merely call it a resemblance. No, in that instant, there was no doubt in my mind that it was her, my mother, as she had been the year of her death, nearly twelve years before—tall, fair, the same proud, inquisitive nose, the dark, expressive parentheses for eyebrows. I drank three large gulps of water, standing there above the flimsy outdoor table, trying to steady my hands, which were now cold and shaking, the nails drained of their pink. My mind immediately set to breaking the spell: the hair was different and I didn’t remember my mother being quite so tall. And yet I could not convince myself that it was not her. The waitress asked me if I needed anything, she was hoping to give the table to someone else, and I managed to say absentmindedly: Non, tout va bien, mademoiselle, allez-y, and step out onto the sidewalk, where I stood, agitated, like a dog tied to a lamppost, waiting for its owner to return from an errand.

    Moments later, my mother emerged from the bank again, her head down, as she placed a large wallet, with its old-fashioned ball clasp, the very kind I suddenly remembered she’d always carried, back into her handbag. As she lifted her head my error was revealed: the nose was all wrong—flatter, broader—the eyebrows thicker and far darker than I’d first thought. The entire effect was unpleasant, and I was reminded of the time when in a restaurant some years earlier on Saint-Denis, out for dinner with my husband, Bertrand, I had ordered a cheese soufflé and found, past the miraculous and airy dome, the slimy amniotic soup of raw egg beneath.

    That queasy feeling, a tightness at my jaw, remained all day. By the evening, even the apartment had begun to bear the signs of my nausea, of this close call with another realm. I opened the door to my daughter’s room and turned the lights on and off and back on again. What did I hope to find there? My mother, smiling, her teeth in their gentle disarray, her heavy breasts, her unyielding blue eyes? In reality, I found nothing but the indelible traces of my daughter—opposite to my mother’s old-world austerity—the bright colors of the feather boa that she had worn at Halloween slung over the headboard. Dafna was a girl of accessories, talismans, shells collected and arranged, collages she’d made tacked to the corkboard, memories of herself.

    I had collected nothing as a child, not a rock or a doll.

    We had spent the days before Dafna’s departure for summer camp shopping and packing, finding the perfect sleeping bag and flip-flops, the myriad toiletries that pleased her. Under regular circumstances, I would have let Bertrand take care of this part of the preparations, but I must have felt a certain amount of guilt about the plan from which I had excluded myself entirely. He would drive her to the camp just north of Quebec City; he would pick her up. And in the interim, he would take the opportunity to visit with his mother, who had been recently widowed and was desperate for the company of her favorite child. There had been some talk, when the plan had first been devised, of my going with them, staying with Bertrand in his mother’s house, but the accommodation was uncomfortable, a lone cot that we would have to share like much younger versions of ourselves. In those first years together, I had welcomed the discomfort of this sleeping arrangement and its forced physical closeness verging on siblinghood, which, having grown up as an only child, I found nearly erotic. Or perhaps, to put it simply, I had been hungry, in those early years, for any excuse to be physically close to Bertrand. His nearness, from the beginning, had seemed like a kind of concession granted to me by some stroke of luck or circumstance.

    His mother, it was no great secret, had never especially liked me. She had couched the feeling as linguistic in nature, cultural in kind. My French, at age twenty, had been so halting and internal, I could not blame her for finding me an odd and abrupt successor to Bertrand’s most recent girlfriend, a francophone classmate in his PhD program, whom he had been with for the better part of a decade. But it was my refusal, a few years later, to christen our daughter, which I justified would have ostracized me permanently from my own Jewish family, that had been my first unpardonable sin. My open insistence on speaking English to Dafna, even when we visited Quebec City, had surely not helped my cause either. But even after it had been clear that my efforts had failed—Dafna had not spoken a word to me in English since she had started public school in French two years earlier, and there were increasingly vociferous stirrings about wanting to be confirmed—Bertrand’s mother’s disapproval had broadened, like a kind of generosity, to include the farthest reaches of my decision-making: my choice to work only part-time as a homework assistant in an English boys’ school, my preference not to dye my hair, even after it turned, shortly after Dafna’s birth, prematurely salt and pepper.

    I would not have said, at the time, that summer of 1992, that my family was falling apart, only that we were at something like an impasse, that it was true that my eight-year-old daughter’s sizable will had recently flourished and seemed aimed at annihilating me. My husband, despite his efforts at fairness, firmly sided with our daughter, and so a fault line had emerged, and I had found it easy to simply give myself over to it, to fall into this trench in my own family life. And yet the problem was that I could not remember a time before this one, the arrangement before this one. I could not recall ever having been pleasantly and easily at the center of my own life, at the center of Bertrand’s attentions. Like all small familial tragedies, it seemed, that year, as though it had been there all along, this truth, waiting to live out its inevitability. For months now, I had wanted this time alone, advocated for it. In our ten years together, I had asked for almost nothing from Bertrand. This is not to say that I had been a particularly good wife, only that my badness, if you could call it that, had little to do with making actual demands.

    On the phone that evening, as I described the encounter with my dead mother, Bertrand was patient, as he always tried to be when I recounted something that he found irrational. After a lull in the conversation, he asked:

    “Do you miss her?”

    “Dafna?” I responded, irritated by the question.

    “I meant your mother,” he clarified.

    “I don’t think it’s that,” I said, and brought up an inconsequential improvement in the apartment, a shelf I hoped to install in the bathroom while he was away. “That’s a good idea,” he said, knowing, just as I did, that I was not likely to complete such a task without him. Bertrand, before hanging up, said je t’aime, as he always did, and I put down the receiver very softly as I heard the words taking on their worn-in shape, preserving the possibility, for his sake, that I simply had not heard him.  

    But even after we’d hung up, I could not dislodge Bertrand’s question. A jagged crumb at the back of my throat: Did I miss my mother? To miss someone suggests a past shared, a present remembered. I could think only of a half-dozen times Bertrand and I had talked about my mother in the decade of knowing one another. I had met him in my second year at university, just one year after her death. I had categorized it then, her passing, as a kind of perceptual trap, a sleight of hand, the world playing a cruel trick on me. Nothing that talking or revisiting might resolve or clarify. We had had a fight the last time I’d seen her, a small thing made infinitely bigger, so small in fact that later I could not, when it came time to remember it, locate it—the exact slip of the tongue, the single look or gesture, the mismanaged instant that had made me leave the apartment and return to my residence hall across the city without saying goodbye—this moment that had led me to wish, in the private way that only eighteen-year-olds can, that my mother should go ahead and die, that I could only start living when she did, and that she should actually, ten days later, do it, and so very swiftly at that: the lung had clotted, the heart had stopped. For the days and weeks and months that followed, I believed that it was me who’d done it, that the wish had been enough; mothers murder their daughters and I had murdered my mother. And so it had stayed that way, my mother’s death: a room in the house I refused to step into, a devastated place that existed nearby but that I would not, for any reason whatsoever, ever wish to visit.

    The next morning, I drank my coffee quickly and ate a few dry crackers with jam before heading outside, eager for the loose company of others. I had slept badly, stuck on the image of the stranger’s face, the exact moment of distortion, my mother’s vanishing point. I walked south on Saint-Laurent, and east down Rachel, all the way to Parc Lafontaine, where I had not been in many years. Later, I would ask myself why I’d chosen this park in particular, this walk, when so many others were available to me. It was one of the side effects of parenthood, this small radius of the city I now inhabited: apartment, school, pediatrician, dance studio, and soccer field. Perhaps that day, I would later justify it to myself, I had simply wanted to expand that circle, to walk beyond its reaches to see what I might find.

    I wore a light blouse and skirt, and from time to time I caught sight of a pale leg and was surprised to find that it was my own. I stopped by the pond, where the ducks were placidly gliding, then dunking their heads, flapping their wings maniacally, their animal repetitiousness on delirious display. I settled on a bench just outside the perimeter of the playground and watched as a few children played on the swings and monkey bars. Their noises were comforting—gleeful yelps that carried the distant pleasure of children not your own. A little girl, five or maybe six, a little younger than Dafna, sat with her legs spread wide in front of her. A teenager was with her, no more than sixteen or seventeen, crouching nearby. She had dark kohl around her eyes that had smudged, lending the impression that she had not slept the night before, or had wanted it to appear that way. She looked somehow unformed—the body, the face, still in search of their shape. How strange it seemed then, suddenly, that we should ask adolescents, the most unreliable of creatures, to care for our children. The babysitter held her cigarette away from her body and that of the child and rose from time to time to take a long, sensuous drag, which she blew out in messy, unprocessed puffs. She coughed, looking around as though she had lost something of some importance to her.

    The two moved wordlessly, in a functional sort of apathy. The babysitter pressed her ringed hand into the little girl’s, urging her to write something with the thick chalk. The little girl made a single circle on the ground and promptly dropped the piece of chalk, looked up at the babysitter, who rolled her eyes. The babysitter gave the child another colored piece of chalk. The girl hesitated before bending over and making another circle—larger this time, but only timidly so—to surround the first one. This went on, until the little girl declared that she had no more colors. Exasperated, the babysitter sighed and said, “Use your imagination.” The little girl picked up the same color and began to reverse the chromatic order of the circles. It was impossible not to find in the scene a real suspense, not to be compelled by the childish hand—steady, rhythmic, making its imperfectly concentric circles.

    She was a pretty child, with dark, almost black hair, cropped right beneath the ear and parted on the side with a short fringe that revealed dark, astute eyes. She appeared odd to me that day, but I wouldn’t have been able to explain why. I have always had an uncanny ability to remember faces, to see them once in public and locate them again, often even able to remember exactly where I have seen them first—on the metro, at the supermarket, behind the counter at a coffee shop. But this was something else: a feeling I had of immediate interest, of unfounded complicity, the kind I had only ever felt those few times in my adult life when I’d met a woman I wished to befriend.

    My daughter, it was true, was the kind of child who required constant attention, who, presented with the suggestion of an activity, would immediately reject it for another—her own, usually—which she deemed more interesting. It was one of Dafna’s gifts to me that despite preferring her father’s company, she did not let me out of her sight. When I was in another room, she always yelled out: “What are you doing? Come back.” Often, when I joined in whatever activity she’d decreed, she commented impatiently: “Why are you doing it like that? Daddy doesn’t do it that way,” and so on. I had read enough child psychology to know that this was normal enough, that a parent, at this phase, is in essence sacrificial, that she must, in order to inspire the child’s long-term confidence, survive her own destruction. A parent, I had even heard, is merely a fixed spot on the wall that the child can look to, should she need to regain her balanceI knew this all in the abstract, of course, but in practice, I was not a dot on the wall, an immutable shape on the horizon, and I found that the destruction merely had the desired effect of destroying me.

    This little girl, on the other hand, was perfectly content to work slowly and consistently with only one object in mind. Having located another color from her collection, the child looked up and met my gaze, smiled, then returned to her necessary, purposeful task. The babysitter, on her second cigarette now, was oblivious to the interaction. She got up and pulled at her jeans, which, beltless, revealed a lower back etched with deep purple stretch marks. Having seen the split skin, hidden and then revealed, the body’s cruel logic on display, I felt new empathy for the babysitter, who said something inaudible to the little girl before walking away in the direction of the public restroom, a good distance away from the playground.

    Under the canopy of the ugly stucco building stood a boy the babysitter’s age, maybe even younger than she was, his hands dug into his pockets, the wiry body curved inward, waiting for her. When she arrived, he shuffled from one foot to the other. They did not kiss or touch, but from time to time, they laughed, never both at the same time, in a courteous sort of call and response. When they said goodbye, it was with rushed urgency and a stern, flattening embrace.

    The babysitter returned, making a loud, unrelenting phlegmy sound before spitting into a bush. She began picking up the chalk and pushing it into the box in a messy tumble. She was in a bad mood, as though having gotten what she’d wanted, it was impossible to return to what she did not. The little girl had just finished her final circle when the babysitter took her hand firmly in her own. “Allez ouste,” she said in her disgruntled tone.

    Before leaving, the little girl turned toward me and made a barely detectable shrug. She was sharing, I read in her expression, the knowledge of her own circumstance: childhood, its injustices and absurdities, its imposed companions. I smiled back, warmed by the welcome sense of complicity. I had been a child once, the kind who knew what childhood was, the orchestra of rule and routine, discipline and disappointment.

    I slept in my daughter’s bed, in her sheets and their waning scent of her, every night that week, but I did not exactly miss her. One night as I was courting sleep, however, an image of her returned to me, complete, with the precision of a photograph. The summer before, at the cottage of our family friends, my daughter in her red and pink polka dot bathing suit, arms akimbo, surveying the placid lake. She holds her head high; there is a slight tilt at her hip. She is seven, but already poised and somehow easy, both aware and dismissive of her audience, an actor or an executive in the making. My husband calls out: “Vas-y ma belle.” I wait for her to turn back, to look at us, to ask us for permission or encouragement, but she does not; she doesn’t need anyone’s blessing to do exactly what she wants. When she has finally made up her mind, she runs and dives in, swimming in that feverish but efficient way of hers, yelping from time to time. She is not a technically good swimmer but can thrash around for hours, noisily, exuberantly. I never learned to swim myself, but I always watch and clap, congratulate her on her progress, shaking out the sand from the towel and handing it to her, drying her off until she insists I leave her alone.

    Sara Freeman is a Montreal-born writer based out of Boston. Her novel, Tides, was published in January 2022 by Grove Press.

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