“When I lost the woman I loved, I knew it was because she was afraid of me. I saw it in her eyes… the fear….”
This was how I began my first ever face-to-face colloquy with my first ever and only psychotherapist at forty-six years of age. She thought I was talking about my wife from whom I was recently separated. I had told her that small bit of information about my marital situation on the telephone, along with the fact that my twelve-year-old son was living with my wife and not me. They had just moved to Toronto. She also gleaned from me, in that one-minute phone conversation, my age and occupation—writer.
I did not tell her what kind of writer. I did not tell her that I had published, to reasonable acclaim, two very long novels and one book of poetry, that even my dissertation on Henry James had been published nearly two decades ago, and that I did not support myself and my family through my writing. The books provided little remuneration, but I am able to write because my now deceased father was extremely wealthy, leaving me the means to scribble to my heart’s content (which I do very dedicatedly), without having to consider how to put food in my mouth or in that of my dependents, nor how to protect us from the elements. Eventually she would learn all this. She would also learn that the woman I loved was still the woman I loved. She was no longer in my life, had not been in my life since several years before I married, but in her own way had caused my marriage to dissolve—a marriage, I might add, that was not unhappy, unfulfilling, or frayed at the edges—a marriage that I continued to think viable, since I deeply admire and enjoy my wife of nearly thirteen years. She was and is everything a man like me could want in a wife. In my opinion, we were a functioning family of three.
My son was troubled by the break-up and disturbed about the move to Ontario, but since I was a man who could basically pick up and see him anytime we wanted, he did not kick and scream as he might have done with a father that did not have the means or opportunity to fly to Toronto at a moment’s notice. His mother had got a job in Toronto, even though the question of financial support from me was a nonissue. She wanted to return to work and therefore she was pulling Cameron out of his comfort zone in Montreal. He would adjust. He was well adjusted anyway, she claimed. We loved him and he knew it. And she needed a new beginning. Cameron, however, dear sweet boy, was fond of saying that two people who managed to laugh so much together should be able to live together. I could not agree more.
That first sentence I uttered in that office is perhaps the most important sentence of my life. It is my life. I did not know this when it passed from my lips into the surrounding space. I did not know exactly how it was so important. It just came out. I had basically been saying it to myself from the moment Gemma left me, eighteen years, nine months, three weeks, and three days ago. You could say that I was completely conscious of its significance, since I see her face before me every day, expressing not subtly, but vividly her horror of me and perhaps of what she deemed me capable. But I really was not fully aware of the weight of this disclosure. Yes, I am an introspective person. Yes, I am quite analytical. Yes, I write about what people feel, and think, and say. But, here I was, forty-six years of age, and I had never seen the inside of a therapist’s office. I had never really been forced to take the measure of my sentences to determine their place in the hierarchy of psychological importance. Never.
Let us leave it at this: I said it without much thought. I was ostensibly in there because I had not wanted my wife to leave me. I had wanted to go on, to work it out. I thought it was possible. I felt like an amateur sailor in a boat without a rudder. Hélène had always been my rudder, or at least for a pretty big chunk of time—all my adult life, in fact. I wanted my rudder back. I was off course. I was haplessly flailing around trying as best as possible to steer clear of rocks and sharks, and not doing a very good job. And yet, I walked into that office, sat down facing this unknown smiling woman of approximately my own age, whose benevolent eyes were carefully assessing my demeanour, and without much ado, startled the air around us with a supposedly off-topic comment. I have learned, of course, that nothing is ever really off-topic—certainly no emotion.
So, you may ask, what was the follow-up to that initial speech of mine? Afraid for my very life, I took it back. “Uh… I mean… that is not what I came here to talk about. Let’s start over, shall we? I… I… came here because I am not coping, or coping very badly since my wife and son took off. I… I… I’m a mess.” Pause. Long pause. I was beginning to sweat. I was so uncomfortable it was discernible in my breathing. I felt as if I were panting from a sprint. I am a good long-distance runner and a bad sprinter. I had no idea that this would be so hard.
Okay, I am not going to give you a blow-by-blow account of what ensued. Suffice it to say, those first words about Gemma—how the fear that I discerned in the expression on her face compelled me out of her life, without a modicum of opposition on my part—could never be taken back. If you must know, the only question to pass from my therapist’s lips, that first session, was about why Gemma was afraid of me. At any rate, I never answered it then. What I managed to put forth was a willingness to fight this time for Hélène, where I had not fought before for Gemma. And, to give me some credit, I did let leak out that Hélène had left me because I only “sort of” loved her, as she said. I really and truly would always love Gemma, and Hélène was no longer able to sit around and wait for me to wake up to the fact that Gemma was long gone and that, if I wanted a marriage with her, I would have to love her, really love her, not sort of love her. Just because it was convenient for me to live with such a “charming” woman and mother to our son, it did not mean that our marriage had to persist. She was right. At the end of that session I was more miserable than when I had walked in. I hated myself. For being a stupid, immature male, who could not get over the fantasy about his first great love.
Two days later I was in there again, admitting all my foibles as a husband and a father, flagellating myself as well as any early Christian—a one-man Inquisition of the medieval variety. No wonder I had chosen a therapist of the opposite sex. I wanted no sympathy.
This went on for some time. I was pouring my heart out at a rate of two sometimes three sessions per week. The doctor had no necessity to probe. I was vomiting bile and self-loathing without the proverbial finger down the throat. Every now and then, when I stopped for breath, my listener managed to bring me back to Gemma, and my insight into her reason for leaving me. But my harangue continued for several months, before I could even hear the question, let alone attempt to answer it. I only wanted to talk about my inability to “really” love my wife.
One day this question appeared seemingly out of nowhere: Did I truly believe I was incapable of love? I mentioned my love for my son, my sister, and although my relationship over a long distance with my mother is lukewarm, I included my mother. The therapist waited. She waited and waited. And so, with fifteen minutes left in our twenty-fifth session, I began to cry.
The tears, at first, came in drops. I managed to brush them away. But once the faucet was turned on, there was no holding back. From that time on, I cried and sometimes sobbed in that office. Once in a while, I returned to the topic of Hélène and Cameron, especially after I had just come back from a visit to them, but it must be said that I could no longer avoid revealing all the hurt and sorrow associated with my loss of Gemma, as well as the agony of a little boy rejected by both parents, but especially my mother, and sent to live thousands of kilometres and a continent away.
No longer did I spew self-hate. No longer did I spew… period. Everything came out haltingly, painfully, at a pace of about two words a minute. I do not exaggerate. Except for the tears. I cranked them out like a writer in total subjugation to his muse, if his muse were exacting payment in liquid and not language. My hold on linguistic utterance was minimal. I had the verbal skills of a three-year-old. I guess you could say therapy was working.
Gemma and I met in Italy. Gemma is and was already, in her early twenties, a journalist who moved comfortably around the world, reporting from various European cities, mainly because of her gift for languages, her self-confidence, and a measure of luck. She had known the right people and then proved that she was good at it. Today she has an international reputation, and her assignments take her to distant lands. I have followed her career since she cast me out. I have watched her speak on television, comment on the hot spots in the world, have probably read every article she has ever penned. I often wonder if she has read me with equal interest.
I know that she married before the age of thirty, another journalist, but one who does not travel. His name is Morgan something. They have a daughter, an older teenager, and, as far as I know, they are all still together, unlike me, Hélène, and Cameron.
Before Gemma and I fell in love, when I was twenty-five and she, twenty-three, there had been a story about her and some big shot ‘Ndrangheta crime boss. She had been working on a series of articles, her first big assignment, in the south of Italy, Calabria to be exact, when this dangerous liaison with Vittorio developed. After a few months, she had to escape. She ran away from him, but his tentacles were long, and even in Florence and Venice, where I was doing some research for my doctoral thesis on Henry James in Italy, and in Siena, the home of my mother, she was constantly looking over her shoulder. After a few months, she decided to return to Canada, and finish her work there, and I was ready to follow her to the ends of the earth. I had been sent to boarding school in Ontario at the tender age of eleven. I had virtually grown up away from my separated parents. My father had moved to Montreal after the demise of his marriage, to be with his various brothers and sisters, who had already emigrated. My mother remained in Siena with my younger sister, who is now married with children, and living in Florence. I was virtually a Canadian, enrolled in a Canadian university. If I had thought previously about returning to my roots permanently, perhaps trying to get a teaching job in some English department of some Italian university, Gemma’s absolute need to get away from Italy and the threat of Vittorio far outweighed any such ambition on my part.
We lived together for a little over three years. Is it too cliché to say it was the happiest time in my life? Of course, Gemma left every now and then, and sometimes stayed away for up to a month. This never diminished our love. Perhaps these circumstances even fuelled it.
After my father died, and my inheritance made it possible to do what I have always wanted—write whatever and whenever—I sometimes traveled with her around the world. We even returned quite regularly to Italy, where she also went on her own for her work. Was it brave of her, or reckless? We knew that Vittorio was capable of violence, but I never really understood what he had against her. Anyway, given that years had passed since that flight from her crime boss, she assumed she was safe.
Our life came to an end one day. And I have always believed that I know why.
Again, a question comes to mind. Did Gemma, to some extent, certainly beyond the limits of most people, crave the terror, the expectation, the excitement of possible violence? After all, she had chosen Vittorio in the first place, and only left him when the threat became unbearable, or grew beyond her ability to adapt to the ever-increasing dangers linked to a penchant for stimulation, sexual or otherwise, derived from the anticipation of aggression. How’s that for psychological acuity? I offer this suggestion up to scrutiny, because I am now coming to the climax in my therapy—the very moment when I began to reveal the story behind my opening declamatory statement—that Gemma left me because she thought I was capable of hurting her. Not psychologically. Not emotionally. But physically.
“She believed that I was capable of taking something from her that she did not want to give me.”
Although my therapist generally revealed little or no emotion related to my disclosures, I am certain that her eyes opened wider as soon as I had pronounced this little pearl of perceptiveness. You must not think that I am always one for bald assertions. I can beat about the bush as well as anyone, but every now and then I let fall a nugget. This was my second one, an expansion on the first. I had finally arrived at the why and wherefore of my life. I did not say it easily. And I certainly did not kick off the session with these words. In fact, they made their appearance at the end of the hour. I uttered only one more agonizing confession. My lips were trembling. My eyes were glued to some tiny decorative scroll mark on the rug beneath my feet. My throat was so tight, it ached. My hands were clenched to keep them from shaking.
“She knew I was capable of rape.” No comment. No gasp. No shudder of disgust. Only a “we’ll continue with this next time.” I left without making eye contact.
I do not wish to carry on about what I did, or how desolate I felt, between this meeting and my next one. I kept busy. I talked to my son and my wife at length about a million little things. I took long runs. I wrote—poems about my wife, definitely not worth publishing. And I lay in the foetal position more than I care to admit. What do other rapists do in between the fact and the admission? I have no idea.
Before divulging this to my therapist that I had once taken from a woman, girl really, what she did not care to give, I had only ever told the awful story to Gemma. Gemma’s reaction was unusual, to say the least. Not what I had expected.
Did the nature of my relationship with Gemma seem to change right after I delivered the in-depth history of my teenage humiliation? It did not. Why did she not exhibit fear of me more immediately? Why did it not come up until a couple of years later, when she left me? She did leave me, so I certainly thought, out of fear of what I could or might do. But I had never showed any aggression towards her. I can never even remember raising my voice in anger. Why did the fear manifest itself so much later with nothing specific to trigger it? What kind of vibrations were emanating from me that provoked such a conclusive reaction on her part suddenly, years after my outpouring of self-degradation? Was I exhibiting something all along that finally broke her and us? I needed to know.
“My girlfriend’s name was Heidi. I loved her. And yet, like any man who wants what he wants, I used my superior male strength to keep her with me when she only wanted to leave.” I stopped the rush of words. I took a breath. I wiped my brow with the back of my hand. If I had hated myself before, when talking about my inability to love my wife as she needed, I hated myself much more at this moment. I was talking of the defining moment in my life, the moment when I had violated the supreme dictum: The powerful must not take advantage of the powerless.
After several minutes of unbearable silence, I managed to relate the rest of this chronicle of tragedy. Up until the night in question, Heidi and I had never consummated our love. I could barely contain myself. Everything in my being cried out for that ultimate union. “I wanted it so badly I could barely concentrate on anything else. But Heidi kept me at bay. One day I was kissing and mauling her in the alleyway next to her apartment building, when she stopped me and said she couldn’t stand all our groping in grungy places. It was time to make love in a bed like sophisticated adults. I certainly agreed. All I could think of was when. When, when, when?” Again I stopped and swallowed. I was considering flight. Surely my therapist could wait for the sequel? A few more days maybe and I could start all over again.
“You’re doing fine. Would you like to drink some water, wash your face perhaps?”
“I’d like to leave.” No response. I leaned back in my chair, lifted my face to the ceiling, to some deus-ex-machina, closed my eyes, and tried to let the tension leak out of my knotted muscles. I wanted to retract every word that I had already voiced. But most of all I wanted to take back the deed. Finally, that is what I said.
“I wish it had never happened. I wish I could take it back.”
I could feel her nodding, even though my eyes were shut tight. When I opened them and tilted my head forward so I could see her face, she was smiling, a sad sort of smile. How could she smile at a moment like this? I was revealing the most horrible action I had ever taken in my life and she was smiling? The hostility I suddenly felt gave me the impetus to continue. I’d give her something to smile about or I’d wipe the smile from her face.
“A few nights later we took a hotel room downtown. Her parents were away. I lied to mine, said I was going camping with friends. Finally, we were there. We were in a real bed. I took off my clothes and then I took off hers. It was happening. I touched every secret corner of her body.” My breathing in that office was rapidly getting louder. I was losing the courage to go on. I could not sustain my anger.
“I don’t know if I can go on. You will hate me. You will throw me out.” And I didn’t want that. I wanted this person’s understanding, her forgiveness, her acceptance. I was no longer looking at her. My elbows were on my knees. My head was in my hands. I was talking into them. My speech was barely audible. I listened to my breathing. I felt utterly ashamed.
It was time to finish, get it over with. I drew back from the safety of my hands and with my eyes staring unseeing towards the door in front of me, I exhaled the end of my vile confession.
“Heidi suddenly stopped. She urged me to stop as well. Don’t do this, I heard her say. I could not believe my ears. This was our moment, the moment I had been savouring for weeks and months. I could not let her go. More than anything in the world I wanted to be inside of her. But she managed to pull away from my embrace. She got up off the bed. She turned her back to me. She began to walk away… I… I… grabbed her from behind. I pulled her back down onto the bed. I begged her not to go. I repeated the words: don’t leave me. Don’t leave me. You have to stay. She was twisting and fighting me, trying to push herself forward, trying desperately to break my hold on her. She was sitting on my thighs, straining away from me. I was holding her as tightly as I could. I could no longer contain myself… I came all over her back. She was sobbing. I was sobbing. I kept saying how sorry I was. We stopped struggling. She did not stand up, but she moved sideways to sit on the sheet. She did not want me to touch her. She kept on crying. I ran into the bathroom to get a towel. I came back and started wiping her back. I apologized over and over again.”
I took a moment to compose myself. The memory was pouring around and through me. I was re-living my helplessness, my remorse, my shame. I was alternately crying and speaking.
“Slowly she rose. She began picking up her clothes. I watched her as she dressed, as she prepared to walk out of my life. Everything was over. At last she was ready. She walked toward the door. She turned around and took in the scene of our failure, of my failure, my failure as a human being. She said these words, “You look so sad.”
“You’re leaving me.”
“And then like the total woman she was, she responded, “Yes, I am.” I don’t know if she came into that room a grown-up, but she left like one. I, on the other hand… I… have no idea what I was… besides a male who had used his strength to… to…”
“—to keep her against her will, to use her to fulfill my… my… And don’t say that since I did not actually penetrate her… I mean that’s a technicality… just a technicality….”
“Do you know why you couldn’t let her leave, when she wanted to… for whatever reason?”
“I didn’t want her to go.”
“Why didn’t you want her to go?”
“Because I thought… because I thought… if she walks out of this room, there will never be anyone else who will ever love me.”
And then I gave shape to a terrible question. I felt as if my voice were being carried over the ocean right to the door of the person in question.
“Why couldn’t my mother keep me with her after my father left? Why did she have to send me away? Before my father came here, when they took up separate domiciles in Italy, she said it would be best if I went with him. It was only fair. I would go with my father and my little sister would stay with her. But I didn’t want to go with my father. I wanted to live with her and Alessandra. I pleaded. And every time I spent a weekend in our old house, and my father’s maid came to pick me up on Sunday night, I cried. I never went willingly. Why couldn’t she just keep me, too? I know my sister was easier, tidier. My mother is a very tidy person. Everything just as it should be. Son with father. Daughter with mother. All neat in a package. But I wanted nothing of that package. I wanted to be my messy self. I wanted her to want my messy self. Instead I got sent to boarding school to get unmessy, to learn to be tidy in my person, in my being. And when Heidi didn’t want me anymore, I became that eleven-year-old, banished from his mother’s hearth. Something was wrong with me. Heidi had recognized it at the eleventh hour and called it off. And no one would ever want me.”
My breathing began to slow to normal. I had actually stopped crying, when I began to speak of my mother. I felt less, not more ashamed of what I had done with Heidi.
“What I did with Heidi… what I did with her… it was like begging my mother to love me, wasn’t it?”
My therapist was nodding. “Isn’t it interesting that you didn’t say: what I did to Heidi? You said: what I did with Heidi.”
I thought about that. “Does it mean I’m not a rapist?”
“I think you can answer that question yourself.”
She waited a while, but I said nothing. I wanted her to say it. With every cell in my body, I wanted her to say it.
“How was Heidi the following days at school?”
“She kept away from me at first. But I caught her looking at me in class every so often. She had a pitying look in her eyes. I was not a man. I was a boy to her, I think. And soon after, she started going out with someone else and I knew they were having sex. You could just tell. And finally she came over to me in school one day and told me to get on with my life, to stop being such a jerk, to stop feeling sorry for myself. I defended myself, said that I felt sorry for her. She tossed her hair at me, as she blew me off, and told me to grow up.”
“Do you think she meant it?”
“Yeah, I think she meant it. She had no respect for me.”
“When you told this tale to Gemma, how did she react?”
“She kept asking me, like you, in fact, why I couldn’t let Heidi go. I couldn’t answer her. I thought she would completely turn away from me after my revelation. I thought I would make her skin crawl. But she was comforting. I thought she was the most forgiving female on the planet. I just loved her all the more.” And then it hit me. “Why oh why did my beloved Gemma leave me? What was she afraid of?”
It wasn’t long—just days in fact—before I found out exactly why Gemma had discarded me. And when I was no longer in the dark as to her motives, I felt delirious. I was a man in total shock. She had done the right thing, the only thing she could have done, but it devastated me.
Don’t think that I rushed out of my therapist’s office and e-mailed Gemma demanding to know why she had ejected me from her life. I would never have done that. Besides I was still distraught over the other self-discoveries. The whole abandonment theme in my history weighed heavily and so, too, the disruption to Cameron’s family life. I did not wish Cameron ever to feel as desperate as I had after my family disintegrated. I did not want him to feel like me in any way, shape, or form. It was critical for me to go to him, lay it out clearly that no one meant more to me than he did. And if, in the process, I could ingratiate myself anew into Hélène’s existence—so much the better. Not that I was going to use my experience with my mother as a way to make Hélène see the light and come back to me for Cameron’s sake.
More and more I was seeing that she had been right all along. I had to give up my fantasy of the one that got away. To value Hélène was not the question. She knew how much I valued her. But there is always something more intriguing, more attractive, more magnetic about the woman who could never be yours. I had to stop fantasizing about what could have been.
In the aftermath of our break-up, I had taken Cameron with me for about ten days to visit my family. It was a pleasant homecoming all in all. I found my mother’s husband of four or five years most agreeable, as I had on previous occasions. My sister and her family always seem to cheer me up, and Cameron loves his cousins, especially Tommaso who is only one year older than him. Although I did not say it out loud, everyone knew that something was up between me and my wife. Otherwise she would have been there. I think that Cameron might have told the others anyway what had happened. He needed their love and support. In fact, that was why I had come home, so that Cameron could feel loved. You could say that perhaps I went home for me, too—to feel the love. My sister is an affectionate person. I admire that about her. I love it when she throws her arms around her big brother and makes me feel as if her whole world revolves around me. That is definitely true. But it is harder to get emotion out of my mother, way harder, and I am usually disappointed. However, there are little things that I appreciate, that I can only get from her, like for instance, the way she pronounces my name. She makes me feel special when she says it, because only she can say it like that. So even though I am most definitely left unsatisfied by a visit to my mother, at least there is some consolation.
I was named after my mother’s English grandfather. I still remember my great-grandfather. He died when I was seven. Graham was his name, as is mine. But until I came to Canada no one ever really said it properly in Italy. It made me think that Canada was obviously my real home, for in Canada I was definitely Graham, whereas in Italy I was only some variation of the true articulation of this difficult name, difficult, at any rate for my mother, who always calls me “Gram” as in “slam” or “cram” with a short “a,” one syllable only, and, of course, with a rolled Italian “r.”
Anyway, I mention this particular visit home because my mother and I had an important talk, not long, mind you, but definitely eye-opening for me, because I realized that my mother knew me in ways I had never suspected.
We had had a big Sunday lunch at my mother’s, the family home that had never changed. Cameron went off afterwards with his cousins and aunt and uncle to their house in Florence, where we were staying. Enrico, my mother’s husband, went to have a nap. My mother asked me to stay. She gave me a look, the kind that brooks no opposition. I was fine with it. I could either go back to Florence, just under an hour away by bus, later on in the evening, or stay the night without Cameron.
We worked together to clear the dining-room table, we placed the soiled dishes in the dishwasher, we swept the floors. My mother had already washed the pots. We worked harmoniously. My mother has taught me to be quite tidy, in the home, at any rate, if not in spirit. Then we sat down in the living room and my mother got me to tell her unequivocally that Hélène not only had left me, but that she had even moved to Toronto. She got me also to tell her that I was not doing well alone, that I wanted more than anything to live with Hélène wherever she wanted. My mother likes Hélène. She finds her strong, neat, funny, and mature. She doesn’t have to say this. It is obvious my wife has qualities that my mother approves of.
“You know why she has left you, don’t you, figlio mio? It is no mystery to you, I presume.”
“Well, ye-e-s,” I hesitated slightly. “She has told me many things about me, things that I will have to change if we are to… you know… live together again.”
“And she is right, I presume.”
I wasn’t exactly happy about where this conversation was going. I would have appreciated some measure of moral support, if not gushing maternal love.
My mother shook her head sadly. “It is hard to live in the shadow of Gemma.” The tone of her voice was so poignant, so weary. She took my breath away. I was unable to say anything. I swallowed hard and nodded, feeling unspeakably sorry for Hélène, feeling her pain, just as my mother was. My mother’s eyes grew moist. I stayed the night.
And now I come to the crux of it, the heart of the matter, the question of questions. If Gemma was in no way afraid of what I might do to her, because I was unlikely to do anything to her, then exactly what had prompted the terror that I recognized so indisputably in her face during our final conversation?
A week or so after I had recounted the entire story of my sexual fiasco with Heidi to my therapist, I received a phone call from Gemma. How unbelievable was that? It seemed impossible that this very person who had caused me such mental and emotional anxiety would be calling me now, especially now. I was actually in Toronto at the time, the city in which she lived. With very little preamble, and, without what I would imagine to be the usual formalities involved in contacting a long-forgotten lover, she asked if we could meet, and since I was in Toronto anyway, would I come and visit her.
“Are you dying?” was all I could think to ask. Gemma responded with a laugh.
“No, there is someone I want you to meet.”
I have to tell you that I had no desire to meet anyone in her family. I had no real desire to be her “friend.” I had loved her. I still loved her and maybe, just maybe I wanted to keep the purity of her image intact. I went to see her.
Her teenage daughter was there. I liked the girl instantly. Perhaps she had that indefinable something about her that her mother had always had. And Gemma, well, was still Gemma, a little older, a little more defined, a little more angular. In fact, she found me more angular as well. I had recently lost quite a bit of weight, what with the separation from wife and child, and the suffering in the analyst’s chair. I was just shy of skeletal perhaps. But Gemma said I looked very distinguished: shy and skinny went together.
When we were seated in her living-room, she asked about my wife and son. I had to tell her of my failure to keep it all together, but I said I was working on my family harder than I had ever worked on anything before, harder than I had ever worked on my writing. She congratulated me. She mentioned that she had enjoyed my books.
“I, too, will soon be publishing a memoir of certain episodes in my life. And so, among other things, it is important that I tell you some of the incidents that will be in that book, before you read of them. You have to hear these things from my lips first.”
I nodded slowly, giving her my undivided attention, but not responding. Yet I have to say that she appeared so comfortable, so relaxed, so in tune with herself, her daughter, the world, and me.
So I asked her: “How is it that I have never seen you so at ease? Your calm at this inexplicable reunion is nothing short of amazing.”
“Vittorio is dead, Graham. He’s gone, out of my life, no strings, no threats.”
“There have been threats?” I had no idea. I was shocked. It was like being part of a television melodrama.
“You really do not know how that man has plagued me these last eighteen years or so. He has never let me forget him, no matter where I am. In fact, every year, on my daughter’s birthday,” and here she turned to the girl in question, smiled at her, and continued, “every year on that day, he manages to communicate with me, speak to me, or send me a message.” At this moment Gemma covered her face. I think she actually moaned. Her daughter was instantly at her side, arms around her mother. I had had no idea that man was such a tyrant. I could not speak. Her revelation was heartbreaking.
Finally, Gemma lifted her grief-stricken face. “He was murdered, Graham, shot by some rival. And I know that he kept me a secret from everyone. No one over there could care less about me. His ruthlessness dies with him. I’m free of him. And now I can tell that story. I need to tell that story, although I will alter the names of various people, and where they come from.” All this she pronounced in a hoarse whisper. She did not seem to be exactly rejoicing. Vittorio had taken his toll.
“I want you to know, Graham, that when I forced you out of my life, I did not want to. It is not what I wanted. It was what I had to do. I was pregnant, and…” but she could not go on.
I looked at the girl, almost woman, by her side. Was this my daughter?
“Yes, she is your… our daughter.” I stood up. I am not sure why. I needed my body unfolded to bear the force of her words. I am sure I looked horrified, not the picture of a loving long-lost father. And then I collapsed again onto the seat.
“Why… why didn’t you tell me?”
“I couldn’t tell you anything. I had to drop everything, our life together. If I didn’t leave you immediately, Vittorio threatened, and in such a way that I knew was unmistakably truthful, he would destroy me by destroying our child, once born. I could never escape him. He wanted me to suffer all my life, he said, because I had rejected him. If he could not have me, neither could you. I would pay. I would feel loss the way he had.” She was nodding now. “And I certainly did feel loss. I wept for you many days and nights and weeks and months. But there was nothing I could do. I could not call you. I couldn’t shield myself from evil with your love and protection. Vittorio made me know unequivocally that, if I contacted you at any time, he would take our daughter’s life. Every year he reminded me.”
“He… he let you marry Morgan.”
Gemma glanced at me with compassion in her eyes. “I’m sorry, Graham. Morgan did not matter to him. Morgan was not responsible for taking me away from him. Not that you were. Vittorio was responsible for my departure, my flight from him. But he did not understand that. I wasn’t about to explain it either. I needed Morgan when he came into my life. I wanted him.”
“You loved him,” I managed to say with difficulty. I felt as if my heart had stopped.
“Yes, and I still do,” she said, nodding sadly, the sadness, I am sure, for my sake. This emotion, however, did not make it any better for me. I had been living a nightmare lately, one that I was slowly crawling out of, but these startling disclosures from Gemma knocked me back inside my black hole.
“But… how… how is it that Vittorio knew you were pregnant and I didn’t?”
Gemma sighed before answering my question, a deep and painful sigh, as if she knew this was a question I would ask, a question that would inevitably bring back a memory that had been agony to endure all these years.
“You remember that I had been in Italy just before…before I told you it was over?” I nodded. “Well, that time as on other occasions, too, which I…never exactly told you about… Vittorio came to see me. I don’t know how he always knew where I was, but he did. He was worse than usual this time, more menacing, more haunted. I was scared. I wanted to get rid of him.” I could feel it coming. She was going to tell me of her grave error in judgement. She thought it would repulse him.
“I thought it would repulse him, Graham. I thought that if I told him what I had just found out myself… and I was so happy... I couldn’t wait to come home and tell you… I thought surely this will send him packing. He won’t want me anymore because I was carrying another man’s child.” An intake of breath and she went on. “I was wrong, so wrong. I could not have been more wrong.”
I could feel Gemma’s suffering, her guilt, but I didn’t want to be there anymore. I was not there to comfort her and if I was, I couldn’t. I needed to breathe the air outside. I needed to push my body forward. I needed to be in motion.
“I have to go, Gemma. I… I… need to walk.”
I left her sitting on the couch. I turned from her and headed for the door. When I got there, I realized her daughter, my daughter, was at my side.
“Would you mind if I walk with you?” she whispered. It was as if she thought me so fragile she could not speak up or I would break.
“All right… Walk with me,” I said. We headed into the night.
She and I did talk, carefully at first, side-stepping emotional mines, the ones involving her mother, especially. She had known more than I did about her true parentage. Her mother had talked of me, but she knew that she could never ever see me because of Vittorio’s threat. She was glad that was over now, even if a man had been murdered. She was glad to have met me. And I told her that I looked forward to coming to know her better, because it was true. I found her remarkable. Eventually she went home and I blundered on into the night until I found myself at Hélène’s door.
It was Hélène and not my therapist to whom I first divulged the whole gruesome but now exposed mystery of Gemma, our daughter, and Vittorio. I was glad she was there. And in the talking, I realized that I would survive the ordeal. Something good would come of it. I had a daughter, a whole other human being to discover. And there was Hélène. She did not abandon me and I was never more certain of my feelings for her. She was my present, and Gemma was my past.
That weekend we went to a cottage on a lake, a place that we had often rented during the summers. Cameron brought a new friend from school, and I was the honoured guest, hoping to become once again the live-in husband and father, for I was ready to give up the fantasy, and I wanted my wife to know that. Perhaps I felt cleansed the way that Gemma had. The secret and its power had vanished. It made me realize that, for many, the reality of organized crime is a remote country. Vittorio’s world had substance at the bottom of the peninsula, certainly not where my family lived. But I had been wrong. That world had crept, unbeknownst to my innocent self, right into the heart of my life, and certainly into the heart and soul of Gemma’s.
My wife and I were sitting on the dock. It was about midnight. It was warm and still. Cameron and his friend were in the house, in bed, probably asleep. We were talking quietly. I was so grateful for the solidity of this woman, for the closeness that we would always have, even if she chose to live apart from me.
“I can never love you the way that I loved Gemma. It is not possible, because you are not Gemma. I can only love you the way that I do. And I am not the person I was when I loved her, so I can no longer crave her the way I once did. I have always known this. I have always known that I would choose you hands down every time… but I… I also know that… even if I am someone who obviously can communicate… I failed to communicate this to you. I hurt you and you were right to leave me.”
I stretched my hand towards hers and she let me hold it. We sat a long time like this, hand in hand, beneath the constellations of a Canadian sky. Finally, I got out of my chair, and knelt before her placing my head in her lap. She stroked my hair, and I felt the sadness in her touch, because all these years I had deprived her of something she rightly deserved.
“Let’s go for a swim, Graham. Come on.” She made me stand up and in a flash she had her clothes off and was diving into the water. I was not far behind her.
“I think she thought, initially anyway, that we were having farewell sex,” I later pronounced to my therapist with a smile on my face.
“And what were you having?” she asked.
The smile broke into a foolish but heartfelt grin. “We were having the sex of the century.” She laughed a short laugh, a “men are such boys” kind of laugh, and I did, too. So what if I was being a boy? My wife was taking me back, wasn’t she?
“Once it was decided, I immediately called my mother, and then my sister to tell them the good news. And Hélène invited them all this summer to come to Toronto. And they accepted. They will come in shifts, though. My sister, her husband, and kids in the first shift, and then later on in September, my mother and Enrico.” I was still smiling. Nothing could put me down. “I will stay here until I get the arrangements done for selling the house. I will pack up my clothes and computer and head for Toronto as soon as possible. After, when the house is sold, I will come back and pack up the remnants of the furniture to be shipped. At least half of the original amount has already gone to Toronto. It won’t be that difficult.”
“And when all these people will be visiting, will Hélène still be working?”
“She has let them know at her lab that she will not be available full-time over the summer, but they do not seem to mind. They want her any way they can have her. I know the feeling.”
My therapist seemed amused at this admission. “And what about you and your work when you have all these visitors?”
“I will edit all those poems I wrote in that period—while I was heaving my guts out to you—after my mother leaves. I need the time away from them anyway. I need the gap, so I can read them with fresh eyes.”
My therapist nodded. Of course there was much I had to say yet. I was thinking a lot about my eighteen-year-old daughter lately. I had to figure out how to bring her into my life. And since my family was coming for a visit… well, something had to be said about that.
I sighed heavily. She waited. “There is this thing about my daughter…. In fact, I am excited about this totally new person who, from now on, for the rest of my life, in fact, will be in my life. I am cautiously excited. My wife has pointed out that she comes with Gemma and Morgan. I am afraid of that. Who wouldn’t be? I think Hélène is afraid of that, too. The tendency to make comparisons is normal though undesirable—all kinds of comparisons—between her and Gemma, between Morgan and me, between our marriage styles, between the styles of child-rearing. There is something very unpleasant in the pondering of all these things… but…”
“Well, it’s challenging, but I have faith. I mean I know what I want. I have always known what I wanted from the moment I set foot in this office. Isn’t that true?”
“I believe it is.”
“I have always wanted Hélène back…. Besides, my dear doctor, who, in their right mind, would name their daughter Graham? Think of all the psychological damage to a girl going around with a boy’s name. Gemma had to have been crazy. I am certainly not so crazy.”
And then we both laughed, for me, the huge and welcome laughter of release—the laughter of the century, in fact—and I said as much.
But my therapist shook her head and said, “No, just the laughter of farewell.”