18

<> Where the author meets a Swiss banker, visits her childhood home and is encouraged by Claire Picart, her mother, to jump from a high bridge.

In the morning there's an awkward moment when, while we are getting ready for our nine o'clock appointment with the account manager at Credit Suisse, Mother picks up my hair brush without asking me first. I had never realized until that moment how offensive I always found her hair. I knew from old photographs that her natural hair was straight and light brown but I had never seen her "au naturel"; I had always known her with bleached and permed hair.

With this aggressive treatment, over the years my mother's hair had acquired the texture of oakum, and it was the thought of her tortured and unhealthy hair coming into contact with my own that made me rush and take the hairbrush from her hands, and to her insistence that she needed it just a little bit, oppose a vigorous resistance, for which I immediately feel an intense shame.

Then she tells me that I should take a picture of the vineyard that stretches from the foot of the hotel to the top of the hill and I'm offended that she dictates to me what photos to take. But I don't want to show ill temper so I suggest that she enliven the landscape of the vineyard with her face, and she poses in pro- file, looking out the window unsmiling, in her trademark nose-up, eyes-down attitude.

We get into her car and start for Geneva on one of those crisp and sunny alpine fall mornings. The air smells of apples and well-fed cows. Once in the city, Mother asked for directions to two or three pedestrians and finally we park in front of the bank.

We are shown into a small room and are joined by the account manager with whom Mother made the appointment. He brings a printout of the transactions on the accounts (there are several) but Mother says that she'd rather not take it with her for fear that it might be discovered by the customs agents. I note that my father has speculated on foreign currencies, and has invested in stock and bonds and mid- and long term instruments. Some of the accounts bear interest. I also note two important withdrawals: The first on January 5, 1989 for four hundred thousand french francs, the second three months later for three hundred thousand french francs. And on June first of the same year Agns arrived in New York and gave me such a fright, and said that Father was paying for her trip.

Mother doesn't withdraw any money and we cross the border back to France. We spend the day in Haute-Savoie, visiting the region where we lived for sixteen years, we even go to the house my father had built in the late fifties and then sold at a huge profit in the early seventies when he wanted to live closer to Paris.

The new owner had a swimming pool built where the neglected orchard used to be, and the ornamental trees my parents had planted, which I knew only as widely spaced skinny young trees, have reached adult proportions, seem closer together and throw in the sky their exuberant foliage, and on the ground their deep shadows. I wish it all looked like this when we were living there. But the pastures which surrounded us have given way to ambitious real estate, modern architecture stands side by side with centuries old farm buildings and the brook that used to enchant me with its confidential songs on the walk back from school has been paved over.

At the end of the afternoon Mother decides to spend the night at Jean Nicolas', a friend of my parents from that time who came to my father's funeral in Normandy, and she buys a nice bouquet. She probably called him before we started on our cross-country trip to tell him that we would be in the region, and he has probably invited us already but Mother did not tell me anything, she gave me the impression that she was imposing both herself and me on these friends, so when Jean opened the door I was horribly embarrassed.

Several years after becoming a widower Jean had married a former nun, Marie Antoinette. Mother has never had anything flattering to say about this woman and now she's kissing her and treating her with warmth and affection like an old friend. I have never met her and find her quite pleasant, except that after dinner, while talking to me only, she insists a bit heavily on how expensive and "not for every purse" her trip to the Sahara Desert had been. And also she speaks at inordinate length about some stones that are there in the desert and when you open them, you find a colorful powder inside and you never know what color it's going to be. I don't believe that this actually exists, she sounds like she's telling a child a fairy tale but why is she doing this to me?

During the aperitif, Jean evokes the memory of my father. He says that he holds my father in high esteem because when my father broke a leg in a ski accident on a Saturday many years ago, he waited until the next monday to get medical help so that he could pass the fracture as a work-related accident and have the medical expenses covered by insurance. What a strange eulogy! And what a coincidence since I am myself recovering from leg fractures! Is Jean trying to make me believe that he doesn't know how my leg got broken?

They speak about everybody, his five children, their spouses and children, my siblings, their spouses and children, except about me. Nobody asks me any questions about my life in New York and once more I feel like I'm invisible. When I ask for a third whisky Jean gives me a quizzi- cal glance.

For the night Mother and I share a large bed. Oh, how uneasy I feel sharing a bed with my mother! And again her voice becomes very hoarse and she can hardly speak. In the morning I ask our friends to let me take their picture with Mother before they leave the living room after breakfast. I didn't bring my flash- light so I have to use the available light. I back toward the window until Jean and Marie-Antoinette appear in the viewfinder with mother between them. I concentrate on the settings when Mother interrupts me. "You're not getting the bouquet in the picture!" she says reproachfully. I explain the lighting problem but she doesn't hear, she seems to believe that I cut the bouquet out to slight her, but I'm positive that if I take the picture from any other angle it will be underexposed. So to appease her I offer her to take the next picture with my camera. On the picture I take she's in profile again, staring at the bouquet off-camera while Jean smiles at me and Marie-Antoinette looks down with a forced smile.

When we're ready to leave in the morning and I'm about to carry my bag from the bedroom to the foyer, Mother starts pulling the sheets from the bed with stern resolve. Marie-Antoinette walks in at that moment and tells Mother not to bother,("Ce n'est pas la peine!") but Mother insists much more strenuously than the situation warrants: "Ah si! Ah si!" The two syllables echo in my memory. What does she mean? Does she mean that anybody is worth bothering to change the sheets for except me?

We're back on the road for a long stretch, I think, but less than an hour into the trip we're still in the Alps when Mother stops the car without warning and invites me to come with her. We walk about one hundred feet and I find that we are at the famous Pont de l'Abme, the "Bridge-over-the-Chasm". Mother starts walking on the bridge and I follow her for what I believe is our last sightseeing stop.

We are now halfway across the bridge. The wind sweeps up from the abyss that is half in the shadow, half in the light. The Empire State Building would probably fit beneath the bridge. Mother interrupts my thoughts.
"You know," she says dreamily, "I've always admired people who had the courage to jump." And she insists heavily on the word "courage".

"You know," I answer dreamily, "I've thought about suicide several times in the past but what stopped me each time was the certitude that after committing the irreparable act, like jumping off the bridge for instance, I would suddenly have the revelation of the solution to all my problems, which would then make my death pointless, and I would die knowing that I died for nothing."
She gives a deep sigh, looks angry and disappointed but pinches her lips as if to prevent herself from saying anything.

In front of us, parallel to the bridge where we stand is the old suspended bridge that was taken out of service when the highway was built. A person standing on it gives the eye a point of reference and I snap two photos. The scale is like a horizontal line drawn one inch below the top of a standard sheet of paper, representing the bridge; anywhere on that line type a capital X, representing a human, and draw a big V with the point at the bottom center of the sheet, reaching up to the bridge, and that's your chasm.

I'm a bit embarrassed, having revealed that I had considered suicide more than once, because one part of me wants to confide in my mother while the other part knows that my mother has always betrayed the trust I had in her, which makes her a stranger, nay, an enemy. Still the intimacy-seeking part of me is surprised that she doesn't pick-up the subject. She doesn't say anything.


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