Read Florida Online

Authors: Lauren Groff

Florida (21 page)

The big boy sits on her feet and leans his dark head against her knees. The wind plays with his hair, but he won't let her touch him. After a while, she feels his body stiffen. The little boy says, It's my friend!

She sees the galoshes in front of her, the jeans patched at the knees, the belly jutting over the belt. Jean-Paul. He is grinning and his teeth are thick at the gum with tartar. The little boy is waving Whoopie Pie at him.

Alors!
Jean-Paul says. He thought it was them from way out, he came in to say hi, to see how the researches were going, how the boys liked this little town, if the house was treating them right, if all was well, if there was anything he could do to make her more comfortable.

She says it is all fine, fine, fine. She thinks of the
broken wifi, but doesn't want Jean-Paul in the house and stays silent about it.

He stares at her, or she thinks he does, his eyes so sunken. He shows the boys his bucket. There are shells moving slowly in it. He tells her they're
bulots
.

At first, she translates this in her head as jobs,
boulots
, which makes no sense. Then she understands the creatures to be whelks. Sea snails. Escargot from the sea.

The little one dandles his hand in the bucket happily, but the older one makes a polite noise and leans harder into his mother's legs.

There is not much left to say. Jean-Paul offers them some whelks, and she tells him no thanks! and then he makes jokes with the boys that they don't understand, and when the silence goes on too long, he crunches away. They watch him pick over the black mottled rock.

Were those alive? the older boy says.

Yes, she says. People eat them with garlic and butter.

Oh, the little boy says, then, Why?

I think it's because they're delicious, she says.

Snails? he says, making a face. She watches him think. He is thinking, she can see, of the snail who would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join the dance in
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
. The snail who refused to be thrown into the sea. It's marvelous to know another person's entire literary canon by heart. It's like knowing their secret personal language.

Later, at the restaurant with the excellent lunchtime
prix fixe, the older boy is made jealous by the little one's adroit handling of his mussels, plucking out one fat bite after the other, and he leans forward and says, Those were alive, too. But now they're dead. You're eating dead things. Dead little mussels sitting in your belly.

The little one puts down the shell he was using as picker and says, No!

Yup, the older boy says, eating calmly. Pleasure flicks over his face as he watches the little one crumble, then he laughs when the mother shoots him a furious look. He is not a sociopath, she hopes. Just an older brother. She has an older brother who has turned into a fine person, a kind doctor who takes care of veterans and has become a feminist with the arrival of daughters, but who was endlessly cruel to her as a child. Her older son is only rarely cruel.

The little boy climbs into the mother's lap and cries into her chest.

Oh, Little Bear, it's okay, she says, stroking his head. The older boy eats his little brother's french fries, another thing they never get at home.

It's not okay, the little one says. It's really not okay to eat alive things.

You don't have to if you don't want to, she says.

After some time, he calms. She carries him back home for naptime, and when she puts him into his sleeping bag, he pushes her face to one side and whispers hot and sticky in her ear, What if someone wants to eat
me
? And she can't tell him nobody would want to eat him, because
it's not the truth; sometimes she herself wants to eat him, bite into his perfect soft sweetness as if he were a brioche.

Guy had three children with a woman named Joséphine Litzelmann, none of whom he recognized, all of whom died bastards without his name. How sad for those little children to be unclaimed by their father. How terribly sad for Guy, to not know how to love, not even his children. She smooths her son's hair until he naps.

—

She is asleep. The moon is out, the room pale. She was too tired to close the windows; she wanted the cold air. Something falls into her dream, into the middle of the floor.

It is enormous. It is the biggest seagull. He is looking at her.

She makes her body heavy and still. She barely breathes.

The bird doesn't move, just stands in the silvery light.

She wonders if it is about to speak, because that's what birds do in stories, and the language she is most fluent in is story. It would have a deep male voice. Even now, even after all she knows and has read, the default voice of stories is male. But the bird just stands there, mute.

Eventually, her eyes grow heavy and she drifts out again.

In the morning the boys creep in, their limbs cold. They stay quiet. The little boy sucks his thumb, sighing
contentedly. She unpeels her eyelids with tremendous effort.

I had a dream last night, she says. An enormous bird came into the room through the skylight and stood in the middle of the floor just staring at me.

Your breath stinks, the older boy says. It's like something died in your mouth.

Can we watch
Tintin
? the little one says.

She pulls her feet under the duvet and warms them on her children's legs, and they shriek at the ice in her bones. Why the hell not, she says.

When she can gather her body enough to move, she stands. She narrowly misses stepping in a huge jellied bird poop in the middle of the floor, shining and bloodshot like an eye.

—

The waitress said to the mother's question that it was true, Fécamp was heavily bombed during the war.

She sounded cheerful, but must have been offended because she never came back after she delivered their food. All the mother asked was why there were almost no old buildings by the harbor; though, it's true, it may have been evident in her voice that she'd never seen such an ugly city as this one.

The day is tannic in color. The beach's curve between the cliffs is much larger here, dwarfing the cliffs themselves so they seem an afterthought. On one end of the
boardwalk, they had seen a carnival covered in tarps. The carnies smoked cigarettes moodily in their plastic chairs.

The boys begged to see the rides, but the carnival didn't open until afternoon, and the mother thought she'd probably die of sadness if she were to stay in this town for that long. She dragged her boys into a restaurant that looked less bad than the others.

The boys are sick of
galettes
, sick of
pommes frites
, but everything else on the menu was once alive, and she capitulates; she has no more strength, she lets them eat pistachio ice cream for lunch. Each bowl comes with tiny lit sparklers, and her sons' faces open, momentarily happy. She drinks a pitcher of cider and picks at her scorched omelet.

On the long boardwalk, the same flags that exist everywhere up and down the coast whip and snap in the wild wind, in the dirty sky.

The tourists in the town seem morose, hurry into the restaurants, warm their hands on copper pots full of mussels in creamy sauces, barely speak to one another.

She is a shy person, but she has an urge to pull a chair up to any of these tables with their glum diners, to speak breathlessly about anything, about politics or money or God, anything adult, to bend her tongue toward thought. Solitude is danger for a working mind. We need to keep around us people who think and speak.

When we are lonely for a long time, we people the void with phantoms. Guy said this, in “Le Horla.”

Every hundred feet down the boardwalk are tiny perfect playgrounds, and she decides to turn the day into a workout day to keep it from being a total wash. The other parents watch her from the corners of their eyes, weirded out, as she does crunches and pull-ups and push-ups and runs in place while the boys scream and climb the equipment and play hide-and-seek, ignoring all of the other children.

None of the little shacks on the boardwalk are open, but she still reads the offerings on their placards as she counts out squat-jumps.

A
coupe américaine
is an ice cream with eight different flavors, whipped cream, a banana, and three separate kinds of sauce.

A
hot-dog américain
is a foot-long sausage in a half baguette, covered in toasted Gruyère.

A three-foot whip of multicolored licorice stuffed with colorful cream is called a
réglisse américaine
.

All things nauseating and deadly are American, apparently.

Well, okay, she can't disagree.

They leapfrog on down the string of playgrounds. Despite the cold, she begins to sweat, and so do the boys. The sun comes weakly out and the brown fades into pale.

God, I'm lonely, she thinks.

They arrive at a lighthouse at the end of a channel where great ships, all rust and gunmetal gray, are drawn into the relative safety of the town to rest. The armpit
where the pier comes off the edge of the channel and extends into the sea is host to waves gone crazy, deadly. The
galet
stones leap like salmon. If a person were to wade in, she'd be brained. The sound of the waves withdrawing is like deafening applause. The mother feels giddy from the exercise and bows, thank you, thank you, but the boys don't laugh. They stand watching the leaping stones for a long time, and then she looks at the map on her phone and crows. Look! she tells them, gesturing up the harbor at a little cluster of nineteenth-century houses on the other side of the channel, which huddle together, distrustful of the twenty-first-century industry around them.

That house there—she points at Quai Guy de Maupassant—is where a lot of people say that Guy de Maupassant was actually born. Nobody really knows, though. His mother had been ambitious, had rented out a château, the Château de Miromesnil; we're going to go stay there when we're done with Yport—

I'm done with Yport, the older boy says.

Me too! the little boy says.

—anyway, his mother said he was born at Miromesnil, but other people said he was actually born here, that she only pretended because she was a horrible snob.

Guy, Guy, Guy, the older boy says. That's all you ever talk about.

I don't even know who Guy de Whatwhat is, the little one says.

I don't even care, the older one says.

I don't even care neither, the little one says. He looks at his mother from the corner of his eye and says, I
hate
him.

Me too, the older boy says.

Hate? the mother says, and as she says it, she understands that she also hates Guy, that despite the fact that she's been trying to write about him for a decade, what she feels is no longer love, it is hatred; it's as simple as that, that this man had no morals at all, that he was the antithesis of everything she loves and holds dear in both men and literature. She has hated him, in fact, for a long time. Since, at least, the moment she read about in the biographies when Guy was just a young man, working at the Ministry of the Marine, going off on the weekends with his dissipated friends to row and fuck and eat fried food on the Seine. There was another man who wanted to be a part of the little fraternity, a man as soft and pale as tallow, and for boys as wicked as Guy and his friends, this man was prey. They hated him. They called him
Moule à b
., an obscenity, equal to something like Cunt Face.

So they decided to haze the hanger-on. They waited for nightfall. Then they held Cunt Face down. First, they masturbated him with fencing gloves. Second, they stuck a ruler up his rectum. He died three days later at his desk. It was not entirely clear if he died from the injuries sustained from his hazing. That's when Guy wrote a letter to
his friend: Great news!!!! Cunt Face is dead! Dead on the field of battle, which is to say his fat bureaucratic ass, at about three p.m. on Saturday. His boss called for him, and when the intern entered, he found the poor little body motionless, his nose in his inkpot. They tried artificial respiration, but he never regained consciousness. They were all distraught at the Ministry of the Marine, and some said that it was
our persecution
that shortened his days . . . dead, dead dead; what a dense and wonderful word; dead, no joke, he's dead, dead. Our Cunt Face exists no more. Kicked the bucket. Killed. Kilt in his sissy kilt. Did he, at the very least, kill himself?

I also hate Guy de Maupassant, the mother says in a low voice.

The boys look at her with surprise.
Hate
is the worst swear word they know.

Why are we even here, then? says the older boy. If you hate Guy Manperson so much? I don't get it.

Are you mad at Daddy? the little boy says.

Oh my God, no, she says. Then she remembers that she is supposed to only tell the truth and says, I mean, no more than usual.

Then why are we here, the older boy says.

She counts on her fingers: One, to help you learn French. Two, to do research on Guy, whom we all hate. Three, to get away from Florida in the summer because the heat makes me want to die.

She doesn't say, Four, because there has been something heavy on her heart that she was hoping to remove by running away to France.

Well, the cold makes
me
want to die, says the older boy. I hate France.

She sighs.

I want Daddy, the little one says. I want my friends and my grandma and my daddy and my summer camp. It's pirate week! he says. I think.

The older boy puts an arm around his brother. It's always pirate week at summer camp, he says sadly.

—

They have tickets for the carousel, but the boys are too glum to ride.

They will only sit in plastic chairs, watching other children spin over and over. They have rimmed their mouths in green pistachio ice cream.

Well, at least the mother had an entire carafe of rosé at dinner and the pounding music is drowning out the seabirds. The sky is already red: sunset will take hours tonight. She feels untethered. She sits beside her sons watching a little band of six or so dirty blond children who are playing on the seawall. Every one of their heads is buzzed, and half have a slick of snot from nose to chin. A few, she thinks, are girls. There are placeholder nubs for boobs.

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