Herbert Cantly hadn’t really wanted to get up before seven, an ungodly hour for him, the morning of their final day in Paris. His sleep problems, really his norm lately, hadn’t improved his willingness to be driven to some out-of-the way gardens in the boonies. But his wife, Jessy, though also groggy, was excited about seeing where Monet had lived, painted, and nurtured his paradise.
Corinne, their ebullient chauffeur and tour guide for this Thursday – a French friend of an old friend of the Clantys back in Connecticut – had picked up the couple from their timeshare apartment at eight am, the hour, she said, they needed to leave to avoid the worst of the late July crowds at Giverny.
Before exiting Paris, Corinne pulled up to a worn little house in the 7th arrondissement, not far from Saint-Germain, where the other two American passengers got in her spacious red Renault. The second couple, seated up front next to the driver, greeted Corrnne with kisses and, in Herbert’s opinion, over-the-top enthusiasm, and paid scant attention to the Cantlys.
Sterling and Georgie seemed a lot more awake than the visitors from across the sea, who let them set the tone and substance of the conversation for most of that day. They both went on at some length, mostly with Corinne, about the week-long yoga retreat they’d just attended in Gironde, “It was just sheer transcendence,” said Sterling.
“Except it didn’t do anything, unfortunately, to ease my back pain,” said Georgie.:
Herbert took an almost immediate dislike to Sterling, who was very blond, very tall, tanned, lean, and muscled — quite unlike Herbert, whom Jessy called, only in private of course, pleasantly pudgy. He also pictured himself as well, when trying to be objective, rather bland in both appearance and disposition.
Herbert paid less attention, initially, to Sterling’s dark–haired wife, almost a foot shorter than her husband, and who, at least from Herbert’s back seat vantage, looked to be pleasing in both form and features – nose perhaps a bit aquiline, maybe a bit on the plump side, hard to tell in her shapeless smock.
They arrived in Giverny around ten a.m., each paying their ten euros admission, and entered Claude Monet’s domain, little changed, their guide book told them, since the artist lived there for two score years a century ago.
Their explorations of both the house and gardens, under bright enervating sun, took about two hours. Although Georgie had been there before, she, like Jessy, oohed and aahed about the unconstrained flowerbeds and the vast water garden. But, Herbert, uncertain whether he knew the difference between Monet and Manet, and annoyed by the chattering hordes of chirpy, picture snapping Chinese or Japanese tourists, he couldn’t tell which, dutifully following their guides with the signal flags, would have been happy to depart Monet’s paradise after sixty minutes. He exited the tour prematurely when their guide got to the separate upstairs bedrooms of Claude and wife Alice, informing Jessy that he was going downstairs to sit on the porch.
Slumped in an uncomfortable wooden chair, Herbert reflected on Sterling’s take-charge persona, his superior view of himself and his “transcendent” adventures into the higher spirit life. To his surprise and annoyance, Sterling soon joined him on the porch, saying he’d been at Giverny several times before, and didn’t like house tours, even homes of great artists.
Turned out that Sterling just wanted to enthuse more about the wonders of their yoga retreat. Even though, despite her expectations, Georgie had found no relief from her nagging back pains – which began the previous year when she fell off her bicycle into a passing truck. His juices warmed up, and apparently expecting little response from Herbert, Sterling proceeded, with equal enthusiasm, to talk about the spiritual path both he and Georgie had embarked upon, after his earlier years peddling various medications in places like Djakarta and Abu Dhabi. Buddhist Right Action, the Eightfold Path, kharma, reincarnation. Transcendence. Herbert wished he could just find a cozy little sofa somewhere and take a nap.
At lunch, in a flower- adorned café just a few hundred feet from the garden entrance, Georgie recommended the terrine. So, they all ordered terrine, paté, and cheeses, before talking for a few minutes, initially, about what was going on back in the States.
Jessy said they were heartened by what Obama had accomplished in his first two years, “Oh yeah,” said Sterling; “He’s a great orator, I’ll grant you. But, my God, still those endless wars, rotten health care insurance, great inequality in money, race, and so on. We’ll wait a while, thank you, before we pay another visit to the States.”
Trying to veer in another direction, Georgie told the vacationers that she and Sterling meditated each morning for an hour, “It helps de-clutter your brain and soul.”
“Helps us focus,” added Sterling.
Jessy said, after a moment, “We play Scrabble every afternoon.”
“I read,” Georgie deadpanned, that playing Scrabble can help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. After another brief time of silence all around, she asked, “But do you and Herbert have any spiritual practices?”
”Actually,“ said Jessy with a trace of vehemence, “We’re quite conventional liberal but conflicted Catholics, like some of our friends. Hoping for the best, for meaningful reform, change. But we’re not ready to give up the Eucharist. And all the trappings.”
“They help us find,” interjected Herbert, entering the skirmish, “What’d you call it, Sterling? Transcendence!”
“Well, different strokes, as they say. You know, Herbert, I had one hell of a road to Damascus experience about ten years ago,”
“After you left Big Pharma,” added Georgie.
“And my marriage,” Sterling added; “Georgia left hers too. We make ends meet, nowadays, by a variety of odd jobs. Translating, music transcription, teaching something or other from time to time. It’s allowed us to lead our nomadic existence in a number of interesting countries. We’ll likely stay in Paris a bit longer, in our rented house, until the universe leads us somewhere else. Right, Georgie?”
His wife nodded. “My trust fund helps.”
“And we both left your universal RC church,” said Sterling with a chuckle, continuing the tale of his odyssey, “We gave up all those myths, those conventions, those absurd, stifling, puritanical ideas. And now we’re really free. And getting freer every moment. Aren’t we, Georgie?”
“Truly,” replied Georgie, with an almost beatific smile, “Except for this damn pain in my back. I need to take ten to twelve pills a day just to keep going. My supply’s running very low, and my doctor’s on vacation in China for the next month.”
“What kind of pills?, “ asked Herbert.
“Hydrocodone. Oxy. Others.”
“Oh yeah, OxyContin. We got just a few of them, but a lots of others. They give us more little plastic bottles every time we get a dental extraction, or a root canal. Or minor surgeries. We hardly ever need them, They’re piled up in one of our drawers at home. For a rainy day, I suppose.”
“Do you think you could kindly spare a few dozen, Herbert? If you have that many?”
“Sure. I guess so,” said Herbert, “Why not? Gladly. We’ll mail you three or four dozen as soon as we get home.”
Returning to Paris, Corinne suggested, for some religious diversity, that they all go to the Jewish Museum before it closed for the day, and then to the Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis Church in Marais.; “My late husband and I sometimes attended Mass there.”
Herbert begged off. He was pooped, and just needed to chill out for a while. Saying she needed to do a few vital household chores, Georgie invited Herbert to recuperate at their home until the travelers returned at nightfall.
“I really appreciate your sending me four dozen of whatever pills you got,” said Georgie after they were dropped off at her house. Following a round of iced gin-and-tonics, Georgie excused herself to bestow some much-needed water on her garden, turning on the TV, so Herbert could watch football, of the French variety.
Coming inside after only a few minutes, complaining of the heat, and getting them another round of drinks, Georgie asked Herbert if he’d like to try out the hot tub with her, “You can use a pair of Sterling’s trunks, if you need to.” Putting the TV on mute, Herbert said he’d just rather keep relaxing indoors,
After several minutes of silence between them, Georgie said, “You’re not too keen on Sterling, are you?”
“I barely know your husband.”
“He’s not my husband. So tell me, please. What’s your first impression?”
“We’re not soulmates.” He hesitated after that announcement, “He’s too self-assured for my taste. Too full of himself. But, as he told us at the restaurant, ‘different strokes.’”
“He often does suck all the air out of the room. But he has his share of doubts, insecurities. He didn’t mention that, in addition to his failed marriage, there were two little boys. He hasn’t seen them for years.” She stopped, looking thoughtfully out the widow towards her garden, “That’s why he goes on that way. We understand each other.”
Herbert was silent, uncomfortable with this information, bothered, but simultaneously pleased, by Georgie’s sharing with him her husband’s secrets. He told himself that he was all the things that Sterling wasn’t. He was glad of that, he assured himself.
“You know,” she said after a few minutes, “What Sterling said about being free of restrictions, puritanical inhibitions. We have a pretty open relationship. It’s okay what we do with others, so long as we don’t shove it in each other’s face.”
Unsure of how to reply, he again muttered, “Different strokes,” wishing he could come up with some fresher catchphrase.
“For instance, he and Corinne….”
His mind racing, confused by where this conversation was going, Herbert turned to the silent TV, trying to watch the silent ghostlike figures on the screen racing up and down the field.
“I need to cool off,” she said, suddenly standing up and tugging her shapeless garment over her head, revealing, to his surprise and wonder, her teeless, braless, firm, and erect breasts. Trying not to gape, Herbert’s head sniveled again to the TV.
Bending her body down towards his face, moving shakily, perhaps because of the gin, Georgie glanced at his lap and laughed, “I guess you’re not so tired now, are you?” Herbert looked down too, as both observed the sudden bulge on his lap.
“Okay, Herbie,” she said, pulling him up from the sofa, “It’s time for us to take a little spiritual journey of our own, before the weary pilgrims return.”
“You really don’t have to do this just because I’m sending you some pain killers.”
“I’m actually not that transactional, sweet Herbie.” she said; “It’s just one kindness for another.”
Beckoning toward the worn steps leading upstairs, Georgie showed the way to the little bedroom. He followed her, a little woozy, but he felt less and less confused. She closed the door behind them.
“There must be close to 250,” said Herbert, back in Milford,the following Sunday after Mass, and Pad Thai at Lucky Rice Bowl restaurant, as they sat at the kitchen table counting. “Vicodin, Toprol, Darvacet, Tramadol, OxyContin. “I never heard of half of them,” he said; “We’ll never use them. It’d be a kindness to help relieve someone’s pain.”
“You realize she’s most likely an addict,” said Jessy. “Even if she didn’t make up that sad tale about falling off her bike.”
“She doesn’t look like an addict to me.”
“Okay, Mr. Expert, then just give her your pills. I don’t want to be her enabler,”
“I’ll send her a hundred now. Maybe more later.”
Good. Then you can keep up your correspondence with her.” Trying for a more positive note, Jessy asked, “You know the best part of our trip for me beside Notre Dame? Giverny. The lush lily ponds, those bridges covered with wisteria. That cute country restaurant. Paradise on earth. How about you?
“Yeah, the gardens” he said, picturing, not for the first time in the last few days, Georgie’s tanned body next to him in bed, trying not to think about the guilt feelings already beginning to enfold him, “A great experience. To quote Sterling, ‘transcendent!’”
Gerald Kamens worked in a mental hospital, White House, U.S. Senate, and Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is published in the Christian Science Monitor, Baltimore Sun, Grief Diaries, Ravensperch among others. Recent works include children’s stories, essays, and short plays. He lives with his wife in Falls Church, Virginia, USA.