Dawn Cleaver—seventeen, with plenty of secrets—shunts down a ceramic tunnel in St. Louis toward... a body. Her hysterical mother, June Cleaver, won't look. Dawn looks. "Is this your father?" the detective asks.
A second Dawn—about a decade later in Athens, Greece—WHAM! falls in love with Laurent Baude, a handsome Parisian artist on vacay. Four days after their fateful meeting, Laurent invites Dawn to quit her dream job in Greece and move to France. Another move? The 23rd since she ran away from home? Dawn packs, something she's good at. The budding relationship between Dawn and Laurent is the FREEZE FRAME through-line, but stories of Dawn's youth—psychotic mother, mysterious father (murdered by the Mafia?)—complicate the love story.
Garret Updates, 6th Arrondissement, Paris
Laurent left me in a friend's garret for the afternoon. We'd moved out of the hotel and into the garret for a few days while the friend vacationed in Normandy and Laurent searched for more stable digs. The friend, a thin man with a thin moustache, seemed nice but a bit odd—many years later there'd be rumors about things that I'd rather not share. The apartment was small and dark, but clean and well-kept, tucked discretely under the eaves. It had a miniscule kitchen and a sleeping slot elevated over a clothes rack, an armchair next to the dormer window. Beside the chair was a small table topped with a phone.
I ignored the phone.
I stood in the dormer window and looked out upon the rainy city with resolution and purpose. Even damp and gray, Paris was the most beautiful city I'd ever seen, with exquisite stone architecture everywhere the eye roamed. I recognized the Jardin de Luxembourg below, with its secluded fountains and walkways the color of biscuits, and in the distance, I could see a shiny black skyscraper thumbing its way into the clouds, but the city itself was a cipher. I didn't yet understand how the Seine divvies Paris into right bank and left bank, how arrondissements are made up of quartiers, and how, in turn, every street and every building is a repository of French culture. Gertrude Stein had dined with Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso only a couple of blocks away, while Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald downed absinth only a few doors in the other direction, but I didn't know that. I had nary a street map, let alone a guidebook. The only thing I really knew about Paris was that I wanted to stay.
Do it, ordered the phone. Of course the phone didn't really speak, but its very presence, its ipso facto existence, conveyed the message.
I didn't want to do it. Absolutely not. Instead I studied the streets below, mentally preparing for my first solo outing. I pinpointed rue-something with its bakery a few blocks away—Laurent's peace of mind required a constant supply of fresh baguettes, so that was the first stop. The second was an épicerie where I could buy ingredients for dinner. The chef at Augusta's, where I'd waitressed in Berkeley, had taught me my best pasta recipe, especially how to kill the heat before the tomatoes turned to mush but release enough juice to lube the noodles. Laurent loved me so much that I doubted he'd put me on a train back to Greece, but my first home-cooked meal would prove that I wasn't just a bimbo with two arty graduate degrees and a passion for antiquities: I was a keeper. Scottish Boyfriend loved the meal.
A flock of pigeons plunged from an adjacent roof and soared into the furrowed clouds.
In some other quadrant of spacetime—nine hours behind and roughly 5,700 miles to the west—Scottish Boyfriend was probably waking up in our apartment next to A-A Jewelry & Gun. He would be sitting on the green vintage couch I'd bought, or lying on the futon I'd bought, drinking tea and watching the morning news on the TV I'd bought, or reading a little literary fiction, preferably by African writers, before heading off to the press. He had no idea that I was looking out of a rooftop window in Paris.
The steady stream of postcards and letters to the U.S. had halted—I went dark when I left Athens. No one knew where I was. Scottish Boyfriend, especially, needed to know.
My emotions roiled. Guilt, regret and fear spun me one way, triumph, freedom and hope turned me the other—my very own psychic gyre. But I couldn't clutch the windowsill for long. Laurent would be home in a while. Duty pushed me into the armchair. I dialed.
Polly Berry Kennedy Linott was first up. I punched in the phone-card code, followed by her number. She'd understand. She accepted, even appreciated, my eccentricities.
You're where? she squawked. With who?
News that I'd moved from Athens to Paris to live with a stranger provoked alarm.
How well do you know this guy? she asked. What are you going to do when you run out of money?
She was impressed by the Picasso part but worried about the homeless part and the job part. You don't speak French, she observed. Do you really know what you're doing?
I assured her I did, but there was doubt in both our voices, lingering like the smell of autumn rain. I knew it was my fate to be with Laurent, but the reality of being homeless and jobless in a foreign culture was becoming harder to ignore. Every time worries appeared, I looked the other way, where Laurent was gesturing, moving his hands in billowing circles to indicate that Paris was all around us, waiting for us to be who we were meant to be. Just keep on, said Laurent, who has never wavered.
Berry requested an update soonest. Neither Kathleen nor Betsy were home—messages from (surprise!) Paris awaited their returns. I hoped that Mother wouldn't be home either. Calls with her were a most unpleasant activity. Incoherency might make her slurpy. Or she might be manic and Raise Cain with threatening one-liners: Dawn, be forewarned—the Lord God Almighty will extract His Awful Vengeance upon you when Judgment Day comes! It's hard to recall ever having an agreeable conversation with Mother—we were such radically different lifeforms that not even an intergalactic translator droid could have helped us find common ground. So Alien was Mother that it was genuinely impossible for me to believe that I'd ever poked my way out of her loins. Yet, psychological programming being what it is, I remained alert for any sign that she might actually be my mom. Longing from childhood recedes deeper into the psyche over the years, but like sediment from ancient fires, some of it turns to grit and lingers.
Dawn. Dawn—can you hear me? Mother said when she'd understood who was on the phone.
She was lucid, albeit mystified by long-distance communication. I explained that I'd left Athens and moved to Paris.
Dawn? Does this telephone work? Where is Paris? Is that in England?
I can still clearly remember announcing that Paris was a city in a country (near England) called France. I told her that Laurent was an artist, and that we were living together.
These revelations were so astonishing, so difficult to absorb, that Mother moved the conversation to the familiar ground of recent hospitalizations. A litany of her husband's ills followed—a few years after Dad died, Mother married Jacques-Pierre's vet. I expressed sympathy for their kaleidoscopic health concerns. Then she asked when I was coming home.
I told her, for the zillionth time, that I was never coming home.
Thou shall obey thy mother and father, she decreed.
I reminded her I was almost thirty.
Mark my words: you are ruining your life and you will live to regret it!
The knob turned, the flame surged: Alien prattle went up in smoke. I can't remember if I hung up on her. There was never anything much I could do about Mother other than put distance between us. So much water under the bridge—the leaf floats away. But I'd done my filial duty—not for her, not for me, but for Dad. Mother had copied down Laurent's studio telephone and address. If a next-of-kin situation arose, there was a trace of me in the household.
The final phone call was the one I dreaded the most. I don't know what scared me more: hurting Scottish Boyfriend by telling him about Laurent or hearing what he had to say about it.
A printer by trade, Scottish Boyfriend made cutting remarks as easily as he mixed ink. He was vicious when provoked, but the flipside—acerbic wit and encyclopedic knowledge—attracted and held me. For a while. After a half-decade together, I realized that Scottish Boyfriend was going to be satisfied living in Berkeley and printing on his beloved 1810 Stanhope Letterpress for the rest of his life: motor chugging, gears humming, the smell of oil tingeing the air while he fed wedding invitations, maybe business cards or a broadside, into the crushing jaws of his metal beast—if not the Stanhope, then one of the Heidelbergs. Although he was a brilliant type designer with top museum cred, the struggle to land small jobs or the occasional book would never go away. Ever. Yet he was content—with the press, Berkeley, with me. But I saw those ruled margins and knew I wasn't ready to be boxed in.
Fumbling for the right words—any words that could file the edge off the blow—I reported that I'd fallen in love with someone else and had moved to Paris.
Shock waves sluiced through the Transatlantic Cable and pinged in my ear. He hadn't had his second cup of tea yet. Instead of berating me, he said, What you mean—I'm coming to Greece to see you in December.
I explained that this wasn't possible.
But we're spending the holidays together in Athens. His voice was airless.
Back in Berkeley a few months before, spending a Greek Christmas together—with a visit to Patmos perhaps, Delos certainly—had seemed like a reasonable idea. We'd agreed to the plan as my departure neared, and I packed up all my clothes and papers. The cover story was that I was putting my belongings in cartons in the event that I extended my contract at the American College of Athens to a second year—under those circumstances, Scottish Boyfriend would probably swap our one-bedroom apartment next to A-A Jewelry & Gun for a studio closer to the press.
Really? Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he must have thought: she's going to leave me, she's leaving me. In my mind, I must have heard: I think I'm leaving him, I'm leaving him. After all, I was moving to Greece alone and had emptied my drawers, packed all my things. Except the books. I couldn't box those.
During departure countdown, I returned home one night after a shift at the prison to find books stacked up all over the apartment in towers of varying height.
I'm amalgamating our libraries! said Scottish Boyfriend, his voice almost gleeful.
It was too late to stop him. He'd already begun to rearrange the volumes alphabetically, by category, with the same precision that he set a perfect line of Baskerville type. My Loeb Library Edition of Plotinus lodged next to his Loeb Library Edition of Plutarch; his Ed Dorn poetry huddled next to my Robert Duncan. Whole walls of books blended in a doomed Dewey Decimal duet. Maybe he thought if he merged my books with his that I'd stay with him forever.
On the phone, I pointed out that I needed my books back, that I'd pay for storage.
He let me have it, unleashing all the things people say in these situations, nasty things that he had to express and that I had to hear. He concluded by telling me that I'd never, ever learn to speak French, and to never, ever call him again. He was partially right on the first count and completely right on the second. The Scots aren't called dour for nothing: they can really hold a grudge. For decades, Scottish Boyfriend has repulsed my sporadic attempts to make contact—even, on one occasion, physically darting away from my person when I spotted him at a literary event and gently called his name.
Telling Scottish Boyfriend that he'd been definitively replaced by a Frenchman was very sad—all the love I had for him I still had for him, but it had shifted, like a river when the climate changes. The currents still strong, but on an altered path. I hung up the phone weeping for the loss of a dear and trusted friend, the gyre spinning like a cyclone, bad weather all around. No one I'd called was happy for me. No one shared my excitement and joy at falling in love and moving to Paris. Mother and Scottish Boyfriend predicted my imminent downfall; even loyal Berry had her doubts.
I couldn't let Laurent see me in tears, or I'd have to explain all the things I didn't want to explain. We were in the very early stages of our relationship, when you keep some details to yourself, lest you reveal untidy loose ends and the whole future unwinds. Laurent loved me for who I was, the Dawn I was going to be, not all the different Dawns I'd been, Dawns he'd never need to know about. I reminded myself that I was in Paris, that I was making my very first meal for the man I loved, and that I was going to be very very happy. One boot in front of the other. I grabbed my backpack and slogged out into the rain to do errands. I was going to be very very very very happy. But when I got back to the garret, I realized that in my very very fluster, I had locked the key inside.
I knocked on a neighbor's door, hoping to use the phone to call Laurent. A young man answered.
BUNN-JER. I pointed toward the apartment. KEY nuh nuh. DOOR locké.
He shook his head, smiling. He wanted to help.
I uttered various guttural and nasal sounds, like some sort of Wild Child discovered in the Bois de Boulogne.
TERR-ee-ball. LOCKED. SHUT… locké? I rattled the door. TEHL-A-FONN?
His face lit up. Est-ce que la fenȇtre est ouverte? He pointed across his own apartment to the window and made an open-window gesture. I nodded.
He told me, I think, to wait. Then he shut his door and, in a few minutes, appeared in the doorway where Laurent and I were staying.
Merci! I exclaimed, the first word I could say convincingly in French. Thank God it was the right word, because the rest of the vocabulary was long in coming.
Back inside the cousin's garret, I looked with a mixture of wonderment and concern at the slender five-inch ledge the neighbor had toed across. We were eleven stories up, about fourteen feet between windows. Later—after a successful pasta dinner with no mention of phone calls—I told Laurent about the key and the neighbor, and together we looked solemnly at the rim ribboning the garret windows. It didn't look strong enough to support a flock of starlings.
Laurent said it was impossible. He knocked on the neighbor's door that night, and several times after that, presumably to thank him but really to find out how he did it. Was he an acrobat by training? A Cirque du Soleil star? A MI6 spy? I said spies speak English. Laurent said he was a secret spy. No one ever answered the door. We never saw him again; the owner of the apartment didn't know who he was. The neighbor was only there at the exact moment that I needed him.
Every time I've walked down the rue de Vaugirard after that, I've looked up at the windows beneath the eaves and wondered, not so much about who the neighbor was, or the details of the impossible aerial feat, but how, on occasion, what I really need is exactly right there.