First Five Pages of Chapter One
June 24, 2005
This is a story about my family home, before it vanished, and all that blue gray water before the house. In 2005, our villa loomed over the Gulf of Mexico defying August hurricanes that threatened to suck beach mansions into the waves like surreal icebergs. Other manors had succumbed in 1927, `47, and`69. But the twenty-year span that birthed the big hurricanes had passed, and my family felt safe.
I was seventeen and from New Orleans, ninety minutes away, and Grandma in the ancestral tradition had expanded her recreational compound, named Serenity, so that all the family could go there in the summer. It was the biggest and most impressive villa on the most exclusive strip, Pass Christian, Mississippi. Built of steel post construction and St. Louis brick to look old, the house rivaled the Queen Mary in construction.
That June day, the chauffeur, Clifford, walked me through the sun-parched grass, his navy uniform crisp over brown skin. It was already a hundred degrees. We passed police dogs lounging on the gallery. One snarled at Clifford and showed its yellow teeth. A black yardman had thrown stones at the dog and made it hate African-Americans. Clifford marched on.
Rockers rattled in the breeze, and windows reflected uneasy trees. My mother had waved good-bye on this gallery before running off with her lover over the timeless gray sea. She had brushed back my hair, soft fingers soothing my temples, and promised we would be together soon, if only I would visit her in Paris.
Clifford heaved back the steel door, spilling out cold air, and smiled. Had he learned of my expulsion from Ursulines Boarding School? He was always kind enough to avoid hurtful subjects. I’d been living with my Dad in the city, and last week the nuns told him they had denied my appeal. Where could I repeat senior year?
A portrait of my twenty-eight-year-old uncle in the foyer startled me. He seemed so close, almost breathing. His soft doe eyes looked down as if to say hello, youth lending sweetness to a brooding smile. It carried an edge, which defied his hair, loose and tumbling against his brow, and huge hands, defiantly useless, resting on china-white slacks. Uncle took twenty years to rip off that suit and run off to the French Quarter. How long will it take me?
Clifford led me to the chilled morning room, with its swags of dreary olive fabric and silk cord. The expensive furnishings were upstairs on the second floor, higher than the surges of Hurricane Camille in `69. Serenity, built in 1971 one thousand feet farther back from the Gulf than the previous mansion, was twice as big.
I started to call a friend on my cell phone when from upstairs, my grandmother, Irene Dubonnet, screamed a greeting. She was a petite woman with red hair who, even in stifling Mississippi, dressed as if going to high tea. A widow, she still wore the classic style appropriate to her husband’s career: designer suits, pencil-heeled pumps, hair swept in a loose French twist.
She waited for me on the second floor balcony, outside the living room. Her gray eyes took in my T-shirt with a dismissive stare as I ducked through the French doors. She was a proper woman who had done all the right things to get a rich husband, and she didn’t want her façade to be broken by a sloppy granddaughter, now that he was dead.
I pecked Grandma’s forehead, which reeked of Chanel. To others, she appeared unemotional because she used calm as a shield during a crisis. I knew she was tense. We sat on coffin-gray chairs, me slouching, she upright against the wall, to catch every drop of shade. Her skin was sensitized by weekly peelings and facials and would flare up on the least provocation.
Below, my white German shepherd, Greta, lunged at Clifford, who leashed her and took her whimpering away behind the house.
Nature seemed uneasy, the sun speckled and hot, the Gulf too quiet, the moss thinning in the oak trees. Drilling offshore had eroded the marshlands that surrounded the villa and dirtied the water out front.
The family didn’t talk about global warming in New Orleans or Mississippi unless it was to raise the A/C when it was getting hotter or to negotiate a better contract from the oil companies drilling in the Gulf out front. The family owned the water rights in front of Serenity and leased them to companies that paid a good price and drilled discreetly beyond sight. The same companies financed legislation to support the New Orleans Zoo, the Aquarium, and nature parks throughout Mississippi and Louisiana. One time Grandpa had entertained letting them test for oil on our back property because of the huge prices paid, but Grandma had held firm.
Today, she appeared calculating behind intense eyes. Had she received my report card?
“Beastly weather! Boils the flesh!” Grandma said. “Your Uncle Blaise doesn’t seem to mind. He likes it.”
My pulse quickened at my uncle’s name. I fantasized a sexual explosion between us, kissing underwater, then a rendezvous at midnight in the guest bedroom. He was a few years older than his portrait in the living room, but I carried that image inside me.
No one knew of my desire. Even though my mother was adopted and Uncle Blaise was no blood relation, it didn’t squelch the guilt. If I didn’t meet some boys soon I’d lie down naked before the first gardener I found. Put down that spade. Spade me, spade me.
I looked out. The gallery of oaks screening the house forbade approach. Behind them, a shiny highway coiled before the private beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. Few boys would have the nerve to visit here.
Grandma loved to socialize. “I’ll line up some sailing lessons for you.” She smiled, lips tight over perfect teeth, and handed me the yacht club schedule. “Your uncle will take you the first time.”
My heart skipped. Blaise preferred regattas and champagne to jeans and Pepsi. He’d studied at the Philadelphia School of Art and shocked the family by painting nudes in the New Orleans French Quarter. How was I to deal with this man whose brushstrokes captured breasts and thighs, who sculpted women in oils so he could touch every curve in their bodies?
Grandma frowned down at Clifford, who was below us on the gravel drive. He washed the Cadillac daily, the dripping hose loose and familiar. She didn’t like her help out front. But, mud in the back yard got soggy quickly because of the nearby swamplands.
Oh, how I wished she could talk to him and not me. With her, I felt on the defensive. Perhaps the sternness in her voice came from the heat and not that rotten report card.
“Cadillacs suit any occasion, Sistie. Weddings, funerals, divorces. What was that thing your uncle drove?”
“A yellow sports van.”
“A banana truck. Far be it for me to judge your uncle. The older he gets, the less he resembles me.” She poked at the brace that squeezed her torso. Her car had slammed into a pothole, racing to report Blaise missing to the Coast Guard when he took the sunfish out during a squall. “Blaise is totally unreliable.”
“Defends your mother’s running off to Paris. We won’t discuss this thing. Your mother’s remarriage thing.”
“I don’t like that word. It’s ‘Irene.’ ”
“Irene.” First-naming someone so old felt disrespectful, like a funeral director nicknaming a corpse.
“I don’t like ‘Sistie’ either. Why not call yourself after me and my mother?”
My real name was Irene Leger (pronounced lay/jay like the French) Teddy Roosevelt had called his grandchildren Sistie and Buzzy years ago, and Mama was reading his biography when she got pregnant with me. “Popular kids have nicknames,” Mama had said. “Especially girls. I’m Kitten, you’re Sistie, then there’s Aunt Bitsy, Cousin Peaches, Tootie, Pudding, Bootsy, and Muffin.”
“You’re Irene to me. Besides, your mother is pubescent. Leads a self-centered lifestyle. I hope you pray for her, because I can’t.” Grandma straightened the pearls between her tiny breasts.
“You and I have the advantage of being full busted,” Mama would say. “And blond. We can act smart and not scare men off. But those blood Dubonnets like Blaise are tall and dark haired.” Then she would let out her high lilting laugh. “ So I like being an adoptee.”
“I don’t like your Mama’s attitude,” Grandma said, after a lapse in which she searched for a way to bolster her opinion. “Women need strong first names but they should use their married names, whenever possible. I tell most people to call me Mrs. Dubonnet so they know to whom they are speaking. Your mother should learn to be less familiar--Nicknames are an invitation to a proximity you may not want.”
Mama had left after Grandpa died April 4, postponing her remarriage to May 7 and slipping away the next day. Dad sold our house June 1 and went to live in the French Quarter, and I boarded with the Ursuline nuns.
Outdoors a sea breeze from the Gulf shore picked through my hair. For a moment, I was thirteen; squishing wet sand into a castle while my mother sunbathed and read The House of Mirth. “You need to build up your soul with books. You’re going to love Edith Wharton,” Mama had said, her voice resonating to the red splashes of sunset. She quoted a line: “My heart was beating all over my body—in my throat, my limbs—”
Was my mother lonely then? Had she already given up on Dad?
My father had strolled over, hadn’t touched us, just walked down the beach. Mama had raked my hair back in a slow sweeping motion. I supposed I could go the rest of my life without talking to my father. Millions did. Still, sometimes I missed the pale blue eyes that shone through me. His touch rattled my heart. But I could do without it, if I had my mother.
Grandma handed me a card from my mama in Paris, heralding the Luxembourg Gardens: luscious roses and Greek fountains. If I ever got lost when I visited Paris, Mama had promised to meet me there. On the card was the giant fountain where nude powerful Cupid reached for his beloved Psyche. Water streamed down their moss-encrusted faces, chests, and thighs. Did Mama read Ronsard to her lover there? Did he appreciate the poet of chivalry who eulogized the child named Rose? “Rose who lived like roses. The space of one morning.”
My mother loved American beauties. When she’d get a bouquet from my dad after some transgression, she’d pick the sweetest one and perch it delicately on her dresser. “Rose who lived like roses.” I kissed the card.
Grandma winced as if she too missed Mama. “For each action there is a natural reaction,” Grandma said. “Mine is different from yours because you’ve your mother’s sentimentality. If I’d known the pain that adoption would cause, I’d have sent her back. The girl goes to the best schools, makes her debut, marries a professional man, then runs off to some foreign country and sends a monthly card.”