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I was sitting in the waiting room when my mother grabbed my hand and squeezed it softly. At midnight we returned home. My father knew something was wrong, and did not ask any questions. We didn’t speak the whole evening, and when I couldn’t find any reason to sleep or stay awake I went outside and walked for a few hours. It was six in the morning when I returned, and they were both at the kitchen table, my father’s hands clasped tightly around a glass of water, neither of them speaking.
Ten months earlier we had rented a villa in France by the Mediterranean. We planned to stay there all summer. The building was large and grand, with ropes of ivy clinging to its walls, and there was a semi-circular window at the front of the villa from which you could look out across the valley of water, and when the mist cleared you could see the mountains in the distance.
I awoke at seven my first morning there, having already explored the house the day before. I dressed and went down to the beach; a short, narrow strip of sand and gravel. I sunbathed there for an hour before my mother called out to me, and introduced me to my aunt, uncle and cousins. I smiled and greeted them all; they were Tommy, Brandon and Elise. Tommy and Brandon were seven and ten, and Elise was seventeen. She was beautiful.
I went back to the beach after eating a light lunch of ham and bruschetta, and spent the rest of the day with my younger cousins. Their youthfulness and energy made me nostalgic, and although time with them grew weary I enjoyed their company, if only because it allowed me to reflect upon my own childhood. By midday I was entranced by the memories I had involuntarily uncovered, many of them having been forgotten for years, but which seemed almost as vivid and as real as when they had happened.
Yet I soon realised just how draining and infuriating spending long bouts of time with children could be. I also had no ambition to sunbathe or get a tan, yet it was all there was to do here. Elise spent her days with my mother, either reading or relaxing or simply enjoying one another’s company (my aunt and uncle had left on only their second day, having already booked a holiday in Greece long in advance.) When my father finished work a week into our vacation and arrived at the villa, my mother spent far less time with Elise, who spent the next few days in her room.
We had both talked as children, and I remember that we remained distant friends during our teenage years, but my mother had had a rift with my aunt three years ago (I can’t remember what about) and we saw nothing of each other since then. I can remember us both phoning one another on rare occasions, but apart from that we never spoke, and for a time I couldn’t think of how to even begin to approach her.
But we talked, eventually, either by the beach or at the kitchen table. Within just a few days I found that I could speak to her as openly as I could to anyone. We didn’t share many interests, but that didn’t stop us from talking about almost everything we could think of. I enjoyed reading, sports and film and she enjoyed art, music and dance, so we had little to talk about in the way of careers, which was just as well, because I was still self-conscious of my desire to be a writer. We never went beyond teasing each other’s unlikely career prospects, something of which we were both starkly aware of. For a time being we lived blissfully, without any need to look to the future.
I had just finished my first year of college then, and she her last year of schooling. She found college life fascinating, so I exaggerated it, for her benefit. I knew that it could be as empty and as stressful as all other facets of life, but I didn’t say this to her. Her innocence was almost endearing, but something about it worried me, too. (It was only then that I questioned whether I was doing something wrong by us being with one another. The question of age spilled over to the question of our being related, and for many nights I lay awake, at once horrified with myself yet unable to deny what I felt. I did not know how to think. I felt governed by two separate entities who could not agree; I made countless rationalisations, defences, accusations and threats, and yet I couldn’t come up with an answer.)
We would spend our mornings at the beach, where we would sit and eat breakfast and look out at the ocean. After that we would relax by the beach or swim, or go to the local market and buy food and alcohol. In the evening I would read to her, and at night we would go out to local clubs or stay in with my mother and father. I can distinctly remember the four of us spending countless nights watching films together, an activity that almost always left at least on person unhappy, as we had such vastly different tastes.
I told her I loved her halfway through our summer, and she said she loved me too. We had not yet slept together, which we did some nights later, her first time, my second. We hadn’t said anything to my mother and father, and yet I suspected they were beginning to realise the truth about our relationship. I knew what they would think, and I didn’t blame them. At first I was terrified of the prospect, and then when it occurred I was ashamed by my lack of inhibition.
We would sneak out at night sometimes or in the early morning, when my parents were asleep. We probably could have stayed out anyway, but instead we chose to believe there was some omnipresent force restricting us. We would swim, the water slick and cool in the night sky, with slivers of light reflecting from the ripples made by our presence. We would dry ourselves afterwards and lay down beside one another, sometimes talking, sometimes not.
My mother and father found out about our relationship, as was inevitable. I knew that we wouldn’t have been able to lie about it to them, but such thoughts proved pointless; my mother had seen us together. Despite their generally open and liberal attitudes they were horrified, and condemned us both, but not before making sure that we were separated. My father was clearly angry, but he was quite subdued; I believe he was shocked more than anything else. My mother at first vowed to tell my aunt about us. Elise begged her not to, and eventually she agreed, however reluctantly. I cannot explain to you the anger in my mother’s eyes; I can easily narrate her cruel, harsh words, but it is far harder to describe her expression, something which I had never seen before. Even the mere thought of it evoked feelings of deep shame within me.
When my mother realised she couldn’t simply not allow us to talk to each other, which occurred for a week, she relented, but we were forbidden from ever going out together, day or night. We were only allowed to talk to one another on the small, short strip of beach, where my mother and father could see us clearly at all times. By then it was the end of summer, and while we longed to be alone we were more than willing to abide by what we had been granted.
My aunt and uncle came a week later and left that same day, for they had no reason or want to stay on with us (my mother’s relationship with my aunt was still somewhat turbulent.) I spent the last week alone, finding something oddly charming in the symmetry of finishing the holiday as I had started.
I got a call from Elise in September. We talked for an hour before she said she had to go. I called her at the beginning of October, and then again in November, during which she told me she was pregnant. She said she had known for some time, and that she had been meaning to tell me. She sounded nervous, and I suppose I must have, too, but we spoke in calm and measured tones about our plans for the future. She said she didn’t want to give it up for adoption, or to be a surrogate mother. I agreed. I asked her if her parents knew. She said they did. We talked for another hour, professed our love for one another and said goodbye.
By then we were both in college, and though I knew that my life was unravelling I felt a strange calm. My parents were told by my aunt and uncle over the phone. They were furious. Everyone who knew about it seemed to be furious. They told me that my aunt and uncle had refused to ever talk to me again. I listened, but couldn’t connect to anything they said. I just nodded and feigned upset, and lay awake at night, my thoughts incoherent and rambling.
She was due in early April. I saw her in January, when she visited alone. We spent a week together. I took time off from college; she had had to stop going. We talked about the baby, and about ourselves, occasionally stopping to eat or drink, and I felt I could have lived out my whole life like that. I drove her to the station, and kissed her before she left.
The next time I saw her was at the hospital. She had already been there an hour. My aunt and uncle called my parents late, perhaps deliberately. We drove over. None of us said anything. It was as if the disputes that had consumed our lives now meant nothing. I realised that we would probably never argue about it again, when the baby was born. I thought I would be happier.
When we arrived at the hospital she was already in labour. By then it was seven in the evening. I was allowed in whenever I chose, so long as I knocked and was quiet. I sat with her for an hour, just the two of us and the nurses and sometimes doctors around her. I pretended we were alone. She hardly looked at me. I stroked her forehead and hair, shushing her, telling her it was alright, it would all be fine. I did this until she seemed to have calmed down, and by then an hour was almost up. I held her hand and told her to look outside, that’s it, look outside, it’ll be fine, isn’t it peaceful. The sun was dark red and already setting, only a semi-circle now.
My father had gone home, but my mother stayed with me. Most of my time was spent in the waiting room. I sometimes looked at her through the window outside her room. I remember thinking she was beautiful, and waiting for this all to be over. I tried to imagine what would happen next, but I couldn’t think. I felt sick. I wanted to go in and talk to her. For the last few hours no one was allowed in. My mother hardly said anything, except to reassure or encourage me. I was glad she was there.
The baby had dislocated its shoulder. That’s what the doctor said, when we came back the next day. After he had expressed his sorrow. The night before my father had posted a large banner on the kitchen door: Congratulations on the new baby! When I woke the next morning it was gone.
My aunt and uncle weren’t angry. I hugged them and cried, as did they. I didn’t think I would cry. I hadn’t cried last night, I had just stayed awake, running it over, trying to think, remembering everything. It hurt more to think about the future than to think about her.
They said he would need an operation. My mother didn’t ask me anything. Presumably my aunt and uncle would want him. I didn’t ask them, and they didn’t say anything about it. I couldn’t think. I kept going back, trying to find some sort of answer. There was none.
They took me to see him. He was crying. He was kicking his legs and swinging his arms and gyrating back and forth. He was in a small blue blanket in an incubator. When I looked at him I felt like crying. I threw up at the back of the hospital. My mother asked me if I wanted to see him again today. I shook my head. I couldn’t speak. I kept going back, reliving old memories, searching for something to hold onto. I didn’t want this life. I wanted to go back to our summer, to live it out forever.
I could see the ocean in the far distance, and past that the mountains, and I remember when we had looked out of a window in an attic in a villa in the south of France, watching the waves go by, and the solid, immovable mountains, and our reflection in the glass; her smiling face, her head rested on my shoulder, and her eyes, a pale blue, looking straight ahead.
I looked out at the ocean, and at the mountains in the distance, and thought of Elise.