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July 14th: Bastille Day. Joyous fête in the Hexagon, celebrated with military marches and fly-overs, politicians’ cliché-crusted speeches — and, of course, mind-blowing fireworks at the Arc de Triomphe. Millions of Frenchpersons belt out the “Marseillaise.” It’s a slightly weird choice of national holiday, given that the glory that is la belle Patrie existed long before raging crowds stormed the Bastille on July 14th,1789 — which was something of a fizzle anyway, since the squat tower prison boasted only seven prisoners at the time. No matter. Today a colored mosaic running the length of the quay of metro stop Bastille dramatizes the Storming, with baby-faced folksy heroes and heroines led by Marianne, the avatar of the Republic. Not to be confused with Joan of Arc, the real life baby-faced avatar of French independence. Or maybe. Why not? Perhaps #metoo (or, locally, #balancetonporc, roughly: ‘heave-ho your pig’) has roused less passion in France than in more chauvinist countries because from the so-called Dark Ages on down through Madame de Stael and our era of Marine le Pen and Christine Lagarde, so many Frenchwomen have enjoyed considerable respect and power.
Sadly, this year’s country-wide fireworks were summarily cancelled. The reasons being one, the risk of setting hot, parched woods ablaze, and two, fear of re-igniting the riots that have barely ceased since a teenager of North African background was shot last month by a cop during a traffic stop. The kind of ‘accidental’ killing that might have quickly faded from the US media, catalyzed France’s summer of burn, baby, burn: looting, tear gas, cars torched, mayors and their families threatened, thousands of arrests. The trigger-happy cop is behind bars. Who would want to launch a red, white, and blue rocket into the tinder of France’s still seething banlieues?
A touch of irony: President Orban of Hungary and other ‘nationalists’ point to France’s historically more open immigration policy (family reunification from Africa, for example) as the cause of her current social indigestion, and proof positive of the need to keep their own borders tightly sealed against the exhausted migrants at the gate (mostly Africans).
July 14th: My brother’s birthday. When he was a teenager, mention of the coincidence drew from him a small proud smile. He was a Bastille Day baby for sure, a critically thinking 1970’s leftie. Pro-union, anti-racism, against the war in Vietnam. Which didn’t stop him, after high school graduation, from going downtown to the recruiters’store-front. If draftees who couldn’t buy their way out of the killing fields had to sacrifice, he’d go too. But the Marines classified him 4F, to his fury and humiliation. Six years later, the resurgence of a brain tumor we’d thought vanquished proved the Marines had gotten it right. My brother died two years after that, in bright June, in a university infirmary room with a to-die-for view over Harvard Square. His dissertation nearly finished; he nearly blind. Shouting, cursing the dark.
As kids we lived for the summers. Don’t all kids? Dropped off on distant relatives’ farms we learned to dog-paddle, to milk cows, to play hearts by storm lantern light with cousins in the ‘bug-house.’ Outside, waves tripped like piano riffs along the lake shore. Once back in the city, we’d ride a bus to the nearest jam-packed, sticky urban beach. The rare best times were when our father, stopping by home for a short visit, drove us to far Ogunquit or Horseneck Beach. In the car we squeezed each other with overflowing anticipation. Then came the tar-scented parking lot, merging into jewel-bright sand. Brilliant endless swells. My brother fell hard for the Atlantic ocean. It was love at first sight. He jobbed scrubbing hospital floors, earning the money to learn to sail.
When the tumor resurfaced, ‘a tiny lesion,’ we still believed in science, in the basic decency of the universe, and specifically that a full-bore medical offensive however brutal would cure someone young and otherwise healthy, a college competitive swimmer, even! Working as a t.a., trying to laugh off his hair combing out in clumps, he reckoned how much he needed to earn and “salt away, heheh,” to build his dream house on the easternmost edge of America. He sketched blueprints, gallantly including a suite for me. “That’s what I want, K,” he told me. “To live by the ocean. Nothing less. Nothing more.”
Can one person’s dream steer someone else’s destiny? My sister, my surrogate? Twice as old as we were when he drew his house plans, I now live summers in an small antique cottage wind-sheltered behind North Atlantic dunes that careen down to swells now frenzied, now glassy smooth, where I swim every day, sharing the water with the great whites. (They have their business, I have mine.)
These days, though my bro and I talk less often, I sense him close to me as ever. Not only on Bastille Day, but especially then. Some years the 14th has found me in Paris, toasting friends and France with champagne, raising a wordless salut! to him. Au fraternité! Other years I’ve followed paths with names like Wisteria Road and Azalea Lane past august tombstones to the inexorably sinking small mossy slab that marks where his urn is buried. A fraught pilgrimage, and probably not the birthday gift my bro would choose, if he had a say.
Let me preface by saying, first, that before he chose classical history my brother studied marine biology. And also that when we were both still young enough to not reject all magic, my bro tucked a fuzzy red lobster into the crib of my first-born child. That toy was the first thing other than me that the baby’s little fist grabbed onto. A metonym for the sea, casting a benevolent spell.
This year I found a different way to celebrate.
At the town pier, crates of former swimmers still in a flipping frenzy are unloaded each morning. Tuna, stripers, bluefish, oysters, scallops. Inside the seafood shack, I peered into the tank where bewildered crustaceans crawled unceasingly over and under each other. Brown, blue-tipped, orange-tipped. Beautiful, looked at long enough. I wanted them all. I told the fisherman’s daughter I wanted one lobster. Strong, energetic, not too big.
“So who’s the lucky guy?” A svelte orangish captive, wielding massive claws, signaled upward wildly with his feelers. (I knew it was a ‘he,’ after the fisherman’s daughter sexed him. Fyi, male lobsters have slightly tinier generative orifices.) She plopped him onto a metal scale just like the one a nurse used to weigh my newborn, decades ago. “Comes to twenty-eight dollars and thirteen cents.” Wow, I didn’t say. Small and so pricey. The lobster’s feelers wheeled like semaphores. “Want us to cook it for you?” “No! I’m going to let him go.”
Meeting her dubious stare (is this lady nuts or what?) I asked the fisherman’s daughter for a tip on where Lordie the Lobster might prefer to be freed, habitat-wise. As in, survive. “Bay-side or ocean?” She smiled a terrible small smile. We both knew the bay and ocean were dotted as thick with lobster traps as the Ukraine with Russian landmines. “Definitely the back shore.” Which is localese for the open Atlantic. “Want a bag?” I nodded. She lowered Lordie into a bag that fit him just right, and I and my brother’s (what? avatar? soulmate? eternally wild companion?) got into the car and drove to the beach I considered least likely to be larded with traps.
You park at the sand strewn windy dune crest and walk hop or run down a very long steep sand path to the sloping beach. On a chill, foggy day at mid-tide there was plenty of parking and No Lifeguard On Duty.
Even so, as Lordie and I sonared toward the boom of breakers, a ghostly line-up of vacationers’ blue umbrellas materialized out of the mist. Mystery of the tourist mind, I told Lordie. The sea was in a temper, grey and roiling. Grizzly-high waves smashed down hard on the shingle, the skirt of rocks and pebbles, pulverizing them further, and then receded with a muscular intake, pulling tumbling rocks with them, only to spit the rocks back up on the next shore attack. A bad sign.
I opened the paper bag to check on Lordie. He gazed up at me, beady eyes brimming with questions. Not worried about a random pinch, I tugged the green rubber bands off his gorgeous claws. He clacked thin air. First freedom! I lifted him out by the carapace. The two of us edged into the salt spray, me in shorts, barefoot on the sharp shingle, Lordie waggling all his legs. The waves nearly peeled my legs out from under me. I was cursing my own stupidity, want of foresight, of basic intelligence.
I’d envisioned myself wading ten yards into the briny, then pitching Lordie with a sandlot ball-player’s overhand far and high, to splash down through the lens that separates two universes. From there he would sink gently through layers of ever denser cobalt to the well-swept sand floor he’d been jerked up from in a baited one-way box. His home. That done, I’d sing Happy Birthday to Lordie, my brother, but this time with no sting of tears.
Another aside is now overdue. After my brother died I knew I would write about him, was bound to. I wanted to paint him alive with words. But I couldn’t. First lines felt stillborn. Only many years later, after a series of bad things that would have broken me without his memory, was I able to start the novel in which the boy who had rescued me so often was the hero. I called that character Laurence, and Lordie for short.
The breakers crashed waist-high, white logs of foam and spume. I struggled to advance while staying upright on the sharp, shifting shingle. If I tossed Lordie out from here, what chance would he have against the endless pull and suck? But soon progress was impossible. The next alpha wave would seize and churn us upside down like rags in a washer. I raised the gaily flailing lobster high, and leaned my torso back with a sideways twist the way Lordie had taught me long ago, and pitched Lordie out as far as I could into the roiling sea. I backed-stepped fast, watching.
The sight was horrific. The sea was welcoming Lordie as its plaything, tossing him back up on the wet sand, to let the next wave tug him back in to its maw. Despite my salt-blurred eyes I could see him too clearly, struggling, rowing, just inside the glassy wall of a wave’s flank. Tossed to another. And another. Salt spray, salt tears, what difference? You jerk. You can’t save anyone.
I stood on bubbling sand, shivering from cold. I couldn’t look away. Lordie was hoisted up over and over, and flung into the shingle. Flashes of gold-brown and orange. Nature’s casual cruelty—but no, only humans are capable of cruelty. Nature’s wastefulness, then. His movements were slower, weaker. So would he die now, only suffering more, thanks to my dumb sentimental gesture? Could I dive in and try to rescue him? But I could hardly follow his spirals. Then a wave dropped him a bit further from shore, and a bit further next wave. For a moment I saw him swim, actually swim. One more shingle scrape, and then—nothing. I paced, squinting at blank grey surf. I called, “’Bye, Lordie. Swim good. Have fun!” Over and over, the blessedly pure and empty waves rose, broke, and fell.
* * * * *
My father believed that every year we should all take a sea water cure. And I was never so happy as when we went sea bathing in Olinda, Recife.
My father also believed that the healthiest time to go sea bathing was before sunrise. Leaving the house while it was still dark and catching the empty tram that would carry us to Olinda felt to me like the most amazing of gifts.
I would go to sleep the night before, but my heart remained alert, expectant. And out of sheer excitement, I would wake up just after four in the morning and rouse the rest of the family too. We would pull on our clothes and leave before breakfast. Because my father believed that this was how it should be: no breakfast.
We went out into the dark street, feeling the predawn breeze. And we would wait for the tram. Until, far off in the distance, we would hear the sound of it approaching. I sat perched on the edge of my seat: my happiness was just beginning. Crossing the dark city gave me something I would never have again. Even while we were on the tram, the weather would begin to brighten, and a tremulous light from the still-hidden sun would bathe us and the world.
I looked at everything: the few people in the street, the journey through the countryside with all the animals already up and awake: “Look, a real pig!” I shouted once, and that cry of astonishment became a family joke, and now and then one of them would turn to me and say, laughing: “Look, a real pig!”
We would pass beautiful horses standing waiting for the dawn.
I don’t know what other people’s childhoods were like. But that daily trip turned me into a child filled with joy. And it served me as a promise of future happiness. It revealed my capacity for being happy. In an otherwise very unhappy childhood, I clung to the enchanted island of that daily journey.
The day was already beginning even while we were on the tram. My heart beat faster as we approached Olinda. At last, we jumped off and walked to the beach huts across ground that was already a blend of sand and vegetation. We got changed in the huts. And never did a body bloom like mine when I emerged, knowing what awaited me.
The sea at Olinda is very dangerous. You could take just a few steps over the flat bottom, and then plunge down about six feet.
Other people also believed in sea bathing before the sun was up. There was a lifeguard who, for almost no payment, would lead the ladies into the sea: he would spread his arms wide, so that the ladies would have something to hang on to as they did battle with the powerful waves.
The smell of the sea filled me, intoxicated me. Seaweed bobbed on the surface. Oh, I know I can’t convey how, for me, those pre-breakfast swims, with the sun still pale on the horizon, were just pure life. I’m almost too moved even to write about them. The sea at Olinda was briny and salty. And I did what I would always do in the future: I put my hands together and plunged into the waves, swallowing a little water as I did: I so wanted to be a part of the sea that I drank from it every day.
We didn’t stay long. The sun had already risen, and my father had to go to work early. We got dressed again, our clothes stiff with salt. My salty hair stuck to my head.
Then we would wait in the wind for the tram back to Recife. In the tram, the breeze would leave my hair crisp with salt. I would sometimes lick my arm thick with salt and iodine.
We would only have breakfast when we got home. And just the idea that the following day the sea would be there for me again, made me grow quite serious at the prospect of such venturesome adventures.
My father believed you shouldn’t take a shower immediately after sea bathing: the sea should remain on your skin for a few hours. I would reluctantly take a shower later on, leaving myself clean and sealess.
Who should I ask for a repeat of that happiness? How can I feel again the fresh innocence of the red sun rising?