A Love Story
At the root of our sorrow was a love story. A love story that captivated strangers when they saw the two of them together or were charmed by his accent or the shape of his jaw.
They had met in a restaurant at the airport when she was picking up her sister who was returning from Ohio and he was enroute back- depending on how you looked at it- to Switzerland or to France after a finance meeting in Boston. He was flying back home to us, to our home, to his home, to our mother, to a part of France where the closest airport was in Geneva. He was carrying a present for each of us, as he always did. My handsome father.
HOW LUCKY you are, people always told us. You each inherited his long-limbed legs, the shape of his cheekbones, the clear blue of his eyes, the way the clothes he wore always looked as though they had been designed with him in mind.
CARLA WAS 7 and a half and I was 9 when our parents called us out to the patio and told us that our father was moving to America and was soon going to marry the woman he had met at the airport. They were expecting a baby. He would travel to us once a month and he wanted us to be flower girls in the wedding. Nothing would change. He would still be our father.
Carla asked what her name was, and he said Louise.
Paul and Louise.
WE MET LOUISE in the morning of the wedding day. She looked ordinary to us as she stood in a billowy dress surrounded by her family as she greeted us and then gazed again at her soon-to-be-husband, his cheekbones, and the curve of his upper arm in his polo shirt. I could not see it at the time, but I suppose she only wanted what we all might want: a home and love. And a baby into the bargain.
Why did they need another baby we grumbled when we had settled into our hotel room for the night? They each had two children already. Wasn’t that enough? Her children looked strange to us in their t-shirts with logos that we could not identify, and their loose cargo shorts stuffed with toys.
The boys were younger than we were and spoke not a word of French. We struggled to converse with them in our schoolgirl English while our father hugged these strangers and spoke to them in idiomatic American English. Our ability to understand English vastly outpaced our ability to speak it.
AT THE WEDDING held in the hotel where we were staying, the guests streamed out through the doors and sat on the white chairs rimmed with gold that had been set up on the lawn overlooking the ocean. Louise emerged in a flowing white dress with a low lace neckline, and we dutifully followed her scattering petals into the air as we had been instructed. Carla’s and my dresses matched and were stiff and scratchy at the sleeve and the waist.
Paul-and-Louise circulated among the guests smiling and dispensing hugs. We were left on our own to forage for food at the long tables. Some of the guests tried to engage us in conversation in English or in the little French they knew. They asked where we lived but the town of Divonne-les-Bains was unfamiliar to them, and they nodded politely when we spoke of the wondrous pool there and the proximity to Geneva and the way we could walk from France to Switzerland in a couple of hours if we wanted to.
The talk was exhausting and eventually we sat behind a tree near the food tables.
Things were winding down a bit when we heard a guest say goodbye to Louise. “Won’t this be hard on Paul’s girls?” she asked. “Not at all,” said Louise. “They have their lives in France and they will be with their mother, at their school, with their friends. Paul will go over once a month to spend time with them.”
Carla and I are much older now, but those words still echo in our minds. Whenever we feel sad or angry about anything at all, we think about the tree and the tables laden with food, and Louise’s white dress and her hand around our father’s waist as they drifted from table to table.
Two days after the wedding, our father put us on a plane headed for Geneva and when we landed, there was our mother and all around us we heard people speaking French.
TWO WEEKS LATER, school started, and we were caught up in it all, Carla in her plays and me in the changes in my group of friends. We sat around the immense blue pool in the center of town and watched the daring ones jump from the diving tower two stories high into the deepest pool. I tried it once and the sensation of uncontrolled tumbling and the feeling of the water shooting up my nose at a high velocity made want never to try the jump again, despite the entreaties of my classmates or their scorn.
Our teachers had known our father and many of them remarked how lucky we were to have been born with his cheekbones, his ice- blue eyes, his athletic limbs. At sports time, they told us we were “naturals” just like him.
Our mother sent video clips of Carla’s rehearsals but there was nothing apparently video-worthy of me to send to our father. My mother refrained from filming the daily moments when we staggered from bed or sat curled up with our textbooks or ate our suppers.
Our father was caught up in work after his honeymoon and then in October there was a new baby in his life. He visited us in August and in September but then there was a long stretch until February when he didn’t travel and then his plane was delayed, his stay rushed and taken up with many hours of his sleeping while we waited for him to awaken and spend time with us in the Airbnb he had rented. I could not see it at the time, but I suppose Louise only wanted what we too might eventually want as well: a baby and a husband with whom to share the first smiles of their new baby and to help with the sleep challenged nights.
On our father’s phone were pictures of the new baby, Lola. Lola slept in a pink crib covered with flowers. Her new brothers still wore cargo pants and raced cars in the living room and brought home frogs from the pond near their home.
Summer came and with it our month in the US with Lola, Louise, and our father plus the two boys with their unpronounceable names and hyper-American ways. They played football, ate nonstop peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, shouted at the TV when they watched sports, and ordered chicken fingers and fries whenever we went out to eat. The house was enormous, and Carla and I were offered our own rooms but we just wanted to be together and to whisper at night and compare notes. All around us were the signs that our father’s financial management gig paid very well. In mid-July, our father took a business trip to seal a deal in Los Angeles.
Louise took us to the pool club they belonged to and told us we could order anything we wanted at the snack bar. We huddled together on a deck chair, Carla and I, and ate cheeseburgers and drumstick ice cream cones in the heat. Louise brought Lola to the pool for a bit, then returned with Lola to the house for nap time. The boys visited with their sturdy friends. We could call to get picked up any time after 3. The pool was tiny compared to Divonne-les-Bains and the diving board was low to the ground.
Louise also dropped us off at the Mall with a credit card we could use for clothes and souvenirs. I was to watch after Carla and not let her out of my sight now that I was 11. The stores were filled with tube tops and lacey halters and frayed shorts with holes: things that we knew our parents did not want us to wear.
The food court had an enormous TV that showed a couple fixing up an enormous house with granite tabletops and a walk-in shower to the evident delight of another couple who jumped up and down as they toured the finished project.
When our father returned, we all went out to an upscale French restaurant that Louise had chosen “to make us feel at home.” It wasn’t half bad, but it wasn’t really French. “God bless you, Mom,” said the waiter to Louise as he surveyed the large brood. “What a love story–and here’s the princess,” he said, turning his attention to Lola.
Our happiest memories were the trip we took with just our father to Chatham on Cape Cod. We gorged ourselves on saltwater taffy and lobster rolls. We walked around the town holding hands and we were allowed to choose the places we went for lunch and dinner. My father had two hands and finally we each got one.
When we got back to the house, Louise’s parents and sister were there watching football with the boys. They were still there when our father packed our suitcases in the car for the trip to the airport.
THE STEWARDESSES hovered over us and brought us Shirley Temples and Pina Coladas without the alcohol. They gave us cards and writing folders we could keep and two stuffed Berne bears. We slept a bit, crumpled upon each other, then watched a movie and followed the dot on the screen indicating the plane’s progress. Suddenly, we were no longer over water, we were over land. There was the outline of Portugal and Spain and then the border between France and Switzerland.
The plane landed in Geneva and when we cleared customs, there was our mother, and we were laughing and crying all at once.
CARLA AND I are in our twenties now. Lola, to our great delight, looks like Louise and not like our father. Her face is round and soft, and she has none of his knack for picking up sports that we do.
We all want what we want. All of us: Louise, Lola, my mother, my father, Carla and me. Louise and Lola wanted our father. So did we.
When we cross the ocean to visit our father, Carla and I always go together. We always ask to share a room in the immense house, and if you happen to pass the door to that room late at night, you will hear us whispering in the darkness.
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Anita Kestin, M.D., M.P.H., is a medical doctor with a varied career and gray hairs to match. For most of her career, she has worked in a traditional academic setting but for the past ten years she has worked as the medical director of a nursing facility, as a hospice physician, in the locked ward of a psychiatric facility, and in public health settings. She is also the daughter of Holocaust survivors, the wife of an environmental lawyer, the mother of wonderful grown children, a grandmother, and a progressive activist. She is attempting to calm her nerves during the pandemic by writing. She submitted her first piece when she was in her sixties. Read the author’s commentary on her story.