Facing the Rivals

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My parents were unhappy immigrants, who made few connections in their new land and lived in an enclosed world of three, which unhappily included me. Family life managed to be cold and stifling at once. My mother felt starved of affection and ceaselessly gnawed on her collected losses and disappointments, while my father retreated into his work, which was constant. That changed, to a degree, when I became a teen-ager, on the eve of my bitterest conflicts with my parents. Around that time, a couple of young Belgians, whom I’ll call Henri and Marie-Céleste, came into our lives.

Henri was the son of the newsagent in our home town, and of course my parents knew his father; it was that kind of burg. He was in his twenties, and was pursuing postgraduate work in New York. Marie-Céleste, who came from a prominent Francophone Flemish family, would be continuing her studies by correspondence. Once settled in New York City, Henri’s letter said, they would like to meet my parents, who lived in the New Jersey suburbs, and glean whatever tips they had on living in America.

My parents could not have been more delighted. Not only were they happy to meet people with whom they could speak French—there wasn’t anyone else around—but they were overjoyed to have a chance to show off their newly purchased house. It was a tiny Cape Cod on a sliver of an acre, but it had a detached garage and a deep if narrow back lot. More important, it was theirs. They had managed to save up and buy a house after less than five years in the United States. We left the apartment I loved, near the center of an older, larger suburb, where a record store, a bookshop, and a vast public library were just blocks away, to settle in a dull postwar bedroom community that was all houses. Our street did not even have sidewalks, which I thought unconscionable, though I never saw anyone out walking but me. Anyway, they had bought this house and appointed it with Ethan Allen furniture, but had no one to display it to. They could now finally play host.

The Belgians arrived on the Erie-Lackawanna, which in those days still ran brown coaches with rattan seats and ceiling fans. All three of us went to greet them at the station. Henri was a tall galoot with a hawk nose, very little chin, and a prominent Adam’s apple. He stared at everything in childlike wonder. Marie-Céleste wore narrow-framed glasses and kept her red hair wrapped and pinned in a beehive. She seemed at all times to be reserving judgment. The ice was quickly broken. Henri loved to laugh, to put on a show; he seemed to be constantly in motion, his mouth always open and yakking. My parents ate it up. Marie-Céleste sat placidly, lips pursed, limiting herself to the occasional dry remark, but she could turn on the smiles when appropriate. They were an oddly matched pair, but they somehow functioned as a unit.

The day was a roaring success. Henri loudly praised my mother’s vol-au-vents, my father’s wine selection, the house, the furniture, our car, and the Japanese maple out front; Marie-Céleste nodded and smiled. Henri made a fuss over my mother’s poodle, traded bewhiskered Walloon jokes with my father, flung himself into a lawn chair and rhapsodized about the purity of the air, laughed and laughed at everything and nothing; Marie-Céleste busied herself with the dishes. They were in, not that the admissions test was very hard. Henri was one of us, born of the same soil—we might be somehow related—a class clown with a sunny disposition who was at the same time a serious scholar, richly accredited. Marie-Céleste was Flemish, of course, which accounted for her seriousness, but she was charming and obviously well brought up.

The couple came for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and soon they were coming every couple of weeks. I don’t recall ever seeing their apartment in the city. They accompanied us on trips to Lake Hopatcong, the Delaware Water Gap, the Poconos. Henri could be counted on for full, theatrical appreciation of whatever natural marvel we were gazing upon, enhancing the experience with running color commentary and some light miming when appropriate. He loved the road, the diners, the Americana, loved to have us stop at scented-candle outlets so he could run in and inhale. I was commuting to high school in the city by that time, but my parents kept me on a short leash at home, and anyway I didn’t have any local friends. So weekends would find me conscripted into these adventures with Henri and Marie-Céleste, both of whom I had begun to loathe.

My relations with my parents were at their nadir. Their views on the world no longer had any relevance to me. I yearned to be living real life, which for me at the time meant a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side, along with girls and drugs and occult knowledge and revolution. For their part, my parents were baffled at the changes that had come over me since early adolescence. I was no longer thinking along lines they could recognize; they worried that I was under the influence of drugs, which I often was. Henri and Marie-Céleste stepped into the breach. I may have wanted to be free of my suffocating family, but they seemed more than happy to become my parents’ children, and my parents were overjoyed to have them. Increasingly, I felt like a spectator peering in on the antics of a family that no longer included me.

When I was seventeen, in my senior year, my parents planned a trip back to Belgium. I was ecstatic—I’d have the house to myself for two weeks. I’d been expelled from my school in the city and was back in public high school, so finally I knew local people. I could have a party! On the eve of my parents’ departure, however, Henri and Marie-Céleste showed up. They were going to live in the house during the two weeks and supervise me. Naturally, I was enraged. I decided to get a job at a notorious nearby plastics factory, unsafe and sometimes violent, which my parents never would have allowed. It paid a bit better than my job as a stock boy at the five-and-dime, but above all it was a demonstration of macho, with left-wing overtones—this was 1971, after all. My parents left on Saturday, I had the job on Monday, and when I came home exhausted, after midnight, I found that Marie-Céleste had kept my dinner warm. It was spaghetti, with ketchup. I was starving, but I could not choke it down.

The following September, I started college in the city. In my mind I was gone. In actuality, I had to go home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter—and Henri and Marie-Céleste were invariably there, now sharing a new set of experiences and inside jokes with my parents. I no longer wanted to be part of the family, but it still galled me that the couple had usurped my place. Being an only child had kept me under the hot lights of my parents’ attention, but it was not without a certain prestige. Now, in the face of these two perfect children, I had lost whatever lustre I once possessed. Now I was merely a long-haired American teen-ager with an authority problem. Even if I did possess certain gifts, it wasn’t certain that I would use them, or use them for good.

Though Henri and Marie-Céleste took the spotlight off me, they did not relieve me of my primary burden. Their rapport was principally with my father, who appreciated both their humor and their intellect—I always thought that my dad, who worked in factories from age fourteen until his retirement, might in different circumstances have become an academic himself. I had few conflicts with my father, the more broad-minded of my parents by some distance. My mother clearly enjoyed the company of Henri and Marie-Céleste, but wasn’t quite as close to them, because they lacked the one quality she considered essential: piety. My mother was a hard-shell peasant Catholic who had never read the Bible but believed fervently in rituals, icons, beads, scapulars, and above all the spiritual benefits of hardship. Although I kept it secret from her, with adolescence I had lost all trace of belief. Fearing for her mental and emotional stability, I continued to keep up the fiction of regular attendance until I was in my late thirties, but she intuited early on that I had chosen the left-hand path. So my war with her continued apace, and she frankly didn’t care about my alleged gifts, or the possibility of worldly success.

After college I came home less and less, although I was held fast to the schedule of major holidays. At some point, Henri obtained his degree and he and Marie-Céleste went back to Belgium. The holiday table wasn’t the same after that, the laughter in the house largely stilled. My father went back to his solitary regime of war memoirs and televised sports, my mother to her hours of daily prayers and the devout old widow ladies she fed on alternate Sundays. But the spectre of Henri and Marie-Céleste persisted. Ever since Henri had assumed the role of my older brother, a golden boy who could do no wrong, he had been held up to me as an example. He wasn’t just an inveterate joker but a hard worker who, quite unlike me, was assuring his future step by step. The proofs of this multiplied. He had been awarded a professorship at the local university. He was appointed to institutes and commissions, took on administrative duties, appended his name to significant research papers. My postgraduate studies in low-life bohemianism seemed even shoddier by contrast.

A decade later, in the early nineties, having in the meantime embarked on my own career, I began to plan my third book, a sort of memoir that examined my life against its historical background: my family, my city, Belgium, emigration. I had been awarded a fellowship to conduct research and was eager to spend time in my native land. I lucked out: Henri and Marie-Céleste were leaving their apartment for a huge modern house in the suburbs, and they offered me the last months of their lease. I had to meet with Marie-Céleste several times to work out the details. I was looking forward to it, because I had never talked with her alone, and I had grown to like her dry humor. She seemed to me the more interesting of the pair, largely because she was an introvert. But she was brisk and to the point, did not engage in chitchat. For her, familiarity meant not having to make nice.

So I took over their spacious apartment, which they’d left minimally furnished, and felt immediately at home. Even more luckily, I became fast friends with their neighbors across the hall, a German woman my age I’ll call Beate and her much older husband, Alphonse, a former priest. In subsequent visits to Belgium for my research, I stayed with Beate and Alphonse, who fed me well, took me on field trips to German museums, and taught me more about Belgium than I could have got from mere books. Alphonse became like a second father to me; in my mind, he holds up a crooked index finger and says, “Great is the littleness of mankind.” Beate was a complex creature, full of wicked humor and perverse decrees and the occasional nutso theory presented as unqualified fact. Although a German-born scholar, she loved to talk trash in gutter French. The two of them knew Henri and Marie-Céleste, of course, but they weren’t especially close. Beate, though, was a major-league gossip who seemed to keep tabs on every occurrence in town. I remember several reports about Henri’s career, and about how Marie-Céleste, so ambitious, maybe pulled the strings while he pranced.

I didn’t see Henri again until a while later, more than a decade after he’d returned from Belgium. He, Marie-Céleste, Beate, Alphonse, my wife, and I all went out to eat at a novelty restaurant: Walloon cuisine. What on earth could that be? asked those of us who had grown up eating it. That unremarkable hybrid of French and German had never been considered a “cuisine.” I couldn’t tell whether the restaurateurs had invented the dishes or were delving into manuscript recipes from the deep past. In any event, my penchant for ordering the most disgusting thing on the menu led me to an inedible monstrosity, a cow’s udder filled with sirop, a reduction of pears and apples with the viscosity of hot tar. The instant I plunged a fork into it, a jet of sirop spurted all over my jacket.

The evening was convivial if not especially intimate, but I noticed that Henri was really putting away the red wine; the table was already on its third bottle when we were done with the starters. He was a different person from the one I’d seen at my parents’ house. Once lean, he had grown an enormous paunch, had all sorts of worry lines incised among his features, and bore no trace of the class clown. Instead, his face grew redder and redder as the evening progressed. He began fulminating against his professional rivals, accusing them of ignoble motives and unspeakable practices. As if he had been reading Sun Tzu during a stretch in the cooler, he declared that he was going to root out his enemies—and kill them! By now he was bellowing, as the whole restaurant hushed.

I next saw the couple three or four years later. My wife and I had bought a summer house on a dirt road in the Catskills, sufficiently remote that we had few visitors. But Henri and Marie-Céleste, on a stateside visit, chauffeured my parents up there. It was a sombre occasion. My father’s Parkinson’s had begun edging toward dementia, and he sat silent and hunched. My mother, who earlier in life would have admired the trees and asked about the animals, barely gazed around her, absorbed behind her social mask. Henri did his best to become the Henri of old, and we joined in the somewhat forced merriment for my parents’ benefit. Marie-Céleste, who was hoping her breast cancer was in remission, played nurse, attending to my parents’ every need. We heard all about Henri’s various enterprises and looked at photos of their colossal house, like a set from an Antonioni movie. (They had no offspring.) But I came away feeling that, for all their sins, Henri and Marie-Céleste were much better children to my parents than I was.

My book was published in French about a year later, and for a month or two I was everywhere in the Belgian media: newspapers, radio, television, live events in several cities. I heard no word from Henri and Marie-Céleste and didn’t have time to reach out to them. Soon after that, my son, Raphael, was born, the same week that I began commuting upstate to teach at Bard, and three months later I had to have my father committed, his dementia having entered a violent phase. We moved upstate full-time the following summer. I was writing, teaching, and helping to raise an infant, and all the while I was driving to New Jersey to check up on my mother and regulate my father’s affairs. They celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, but my father did not appear to be in his body. His eyes were no longer focussing, and he had stopped speaking and never would again. Both my parents died, within two and a half months of each other, in the aftermath of 9/11, not that they knew about that event. In the rush of things, I heard from Henri and Marie-Céleste in occasional messages, by greeting card or phone call. They promised Raphael a complete set of the Tintin books, but never sent it. They did not attend my parents’ funerals—or, actually, they did not respond when I called and wrote to inform them of their deaths.

When things had calmed down a bit, I decided that maybe they hadn’t received my voicemails or letters. I had no fewer than six phone numbers for them, but none seemed to work; some rang endlessly while others immediately disconnected. I had two or three e-mail addresses, but they either bounced back or fell down a well. I went to the university’s Web site, searching for Henri, but shockingly couldn’t find a listing. All the links led to a professor in a different field who had the same common name. I was flummoxed. My wife suggested that perhaps they were angry at me for having been inattentive to Marie-Céleste’s medical woes, but the mystery ran far deeper than that. It was as if they’d fallen off the map.

After a while I stopped being preoccupied with Henri and Marie-Céleste, although their disappearance nagged me now and then. Then I had occasion to go to Belgium, and went to visit Beate, Alphonse having died a few years earlier. I was travelling with Raphael, who was on spring break from a semester in Berlin. He’d last met Beate when he was six, but soon they were comparing notes on their shared passion for the First World War. My thoughts strayed to the apartment across the hall, and I mentioned my inability to get in touch with Henri and Marie-Céleste twenty years earlier. Beate’s blue eyes widened. “You mean you never heard? Well.” She rested her palms on the table.

According to the rumors, Henri had been in the running for the position of rector of the university. He had the backing of many in the upper echelon, but he had a serious rival, an insurgent candidate from a different discipline. Then unsigned letters began to make their way to members of the administration denouncing the rival, saying terrible, actionable things. The administration quickly identified the pattern and involved investigators to find the source of the letters. Saliva residue under one of the stamps was traced to Marie-Céleste. She and Henri hadn’t been heard from since.

They would likely have relocated within the E.U., I remember Beate saying. They would have changed names and appearance. They probably had cash squirrelled away somewhere, but if not they had enough practical business-world skills to find work. I was entranced by the image of Henri and Marie-Céleste as Bonnie and Clyde. A few weeks later, I was in Spain, and found myself searching for their faces among the crowds in Madrid and Barcelona. I naturally saw them wearing dark glasses, a caudillo mustache on Henri and a Dutch bob on Marie-Céleste. I imagined their weeks or months on the run, saw them changing cars behind a barn somewhere, procuring false papers, sanding down their fingertips, giving each other hand signals through plate-glass windows. I imagined Marie-Céleste packing heat.

But then I reconsidered the scenario. Would anyone care enough about a poison-pen letter to perform a DNA test? And wouldn’t Marie-Céleste have found a less amateurish way of circulating her provocations? I suspected that the part about the rectorship and the rival was true, and possibly that someone might have sent libellous messages to the electors, but the rest was too good. I didn’t know where Beate had got her information. Was it gossip—or did she just make it up on the spot, filling out my own embryonic conspiracy theory? I suspected that Beate was gleefully regaling me because she might not like Henri and Marie-Céleste very much, and I suspected that I’d jumped on the story because I didn’t like them either. I really wanted those model children to be secret criminals, even if it was too late to show my parents.

Internet searching has become much more sophisticated in the past twenty years. It took me only a few clicks to learn that Henri had linked his middle name to his first with a hyphen. He was now an emeritus, and much beloved. A tribute had been published by his former students. Besides the university, he had taught in multiple programs at home and abroad, and was known for several influential papers. The professional notices stopped more than a decade ago, but there was a recent photo of him being inducted into the wall of fame of some institution. He had shrunk considerably, and his face had begun to look like my mother’s in old age. I could find only a single mention of Marie-Céleste on the Internet. She was listed as principal of a business firm. The firm’s address was that giant modern house in the suburbs, the place where the phones rang and my letters fell through the slot. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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