So we have more or less enjoyed our stint here in France, subsisting on orange-chocolate, olive oil and cases of rosé. I wish I still smoked, as I would then have chugged a baker's dozen cartons of Gauloises and achieved the Quad-Franco-Fecta. Brown as a berry and fit as a lass, living here even for a short time away from the cortex shriveling rays of Bushland can have salubrious results. I am wirier, my fast-twitch muscles are faster and twitchier. And yet, this vacation has proven to be in many ways my personal crucible of discomfort, actual terror and deep shame. For it is here in the Côte d'Azur that I almost died and took my youngest son with me.
I won't get into a corny preamble about the inability to accurately perceive our own mortality which subsequently allows us to behave in ways that blah de frikkin' blah oink oink oink. Suffice to say I never felt or acted as I did before, despite a febrile imagination which often sees grimacing, judgmental boggarts in the creases of a pair of carelessly balled up slacks. I have taken risks, but calculated ones to fit my downscale delusions of daredevilry. Even my six skydives had an acceptable margin of safety, despite their power to dominate a dinner conversation for about six minutes.
We are staying in a high-end hotel in the heavily moneyed yet still quaint town of Antibes. The air itself seems to refract in sepia and gusts of warm salt with are mixed with a hint of diesel exhaust which is interesting and exotic as opposed to the revolting toupee of smog that sits atop Los Angeles. It's a different recipe with different mix ratios, using fresh, local, organic pollutants as opposed to those stale, additive tainted imported ones from China. There is a similar disconnect concerning the wine consumed here as opposed to that drunken in the US, suggesting to the conspiracy inclined once again that at home, in an effort to appease so many middle-men, a bewildering variety of non-essential "preservatives" are slipped into the wine, creating the skull cracking aftereffects not found here. There is no hangover, just lingering tinges of tannin and a tiredness in the quadriceps and pelvis from the midnight, Bordeaux-fueled chicken impersonations. Prolonged vacationing in London and France can create the overall effect of being cut and pasted into a 1950's travelogue, or a customized version of "Westworld" in which any shnook with some basic armchair wanderlust can actually enter the dream milieu they'd always seen in films shown late at night before TV got hip to itself and substituted the Home Shopping Network for "Room at the Top", places where the locals are throwbacks to an impossibly well adjusted culture, where body image is a distant fourth or fifth and long meals, long naps and other honey-laced pleasures are prized among all else.
The beaches which lay adjacent to the winding, Vespa crammed roads are a marvel of time travel, resembling Weegee photos of Coney Island but without the attitude. The amount of women over the age of 60 who go topless and unadorned by cosmetic surgical enhancements is extraordinary, remarkable for the total naturalness of it all, giving those crinkled nymphs a sublime appeal which elbows our whole Calvinist approach to the human body out of the way and speaks with great authority about beauty being generated from within rather than from a syringe wielded by a dermatologist. The amount of men supporting the physique of Sydney Greenstreet wearing unapologetic bikini bottoms, terminally tanned to a mahogany/cobalt; the kids running around naked as feral baby beasts; girls in pigtails; boys digging sand forts with broken shells and busted pails; unisex bathrooms that stink from the last user. It's a quasi-proletariat wet dream and I love it. People know themselves, walk with confidence, play with conviction. And live well, with or without a lot of money.
Into this world I step, uncharacteristically ready to rip off a hunk of something and chew it to paste. And yesterday I was thrilled to dive into and swim in the same Mediterranean Sea that I know my late English roué of a father-in-law swam in. He was sixty years old when he sired his children, having been married to a woman with a daughter from a previous relationship. When he felt she was "of age", his affection turned from his wife to his consenting step-daughter and after a time they themselves married. Oy, in spades. Hard to say whether this was ever considered charming. The label "roué" was well deserved and well known but somehow all involved parties were able to make this eyebrow-raising transition with reasonable success, don't ask me how. The guy wore a tuxedo, gambled, drank Guinness and various ginny concoctions until he was eighty five, after which he experienced a steep physical decline, becoming an incontinent husk of his former endearingly debauched self. And perhaps deservingly, given his flouting of various moral and ethical codes. But this is the sea my wife's father loved and it is in his peculiar honor that she brought us here.
Each chop of the ocean looked like a glinting slice of shale sheared off to make way for the next indigo flake and on and on. The water laps at the rocky base of this legendarily opulent hotel and is hence a nightmare price-wise and kid-wise, what with my two sons' wild ways. So, today the boys wanted me to once again dive off a board (which they had seen me do the day before, to their delight and mine) into that chopped shale salad. And after I did so again, they wanted to get in the sea themselves.
About twenty five yards out from the stairway leading from the pool patio and into the sea bob two, large, floating, wooden rafts, which normally provide a place for skinny girlfriends of Russian gangsters on which to sun themselves alongside gulls and the omnipresent gull excreta. These platforms roll and pitch with the sea but as it was reasonably calm at the moment (or so I judged), I thought I could ferry the boys one by one to the raft, as was their wish, in complete safety. This would be a moment we would all have fond memories of, encompassing no more than a sentence or two in the telling, but saying so much more about life, travel, family.
My wife, a strong swimmer -- in a pool -- went first. She regularly does up to an hour of laps when she can, dozens of steady, rhythmic lengths, which I find unbelievably dull and unreasonably taxing. When she reached the platform which yawed atop the still (so I thought) calm enough water, I followed with my five year old, his arms around my neck. I breast-stroked with a touch of difficulty given his added weight but made it, aware that I was being watched by a cluster of Euro-babes on the other raft. Like "Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel" an audience made me work better and faster. This audience, as opposed to the one in the classic children's story, wore micro bikinis and large Hermes sunglasses. After depositing my young son onto the raft with his mama I then swam back and retrieved my seven year old. This time I was winded but still managed a stable and steady stroke, though when I reached the ledge of the raft my arm shot out like a grappling hook.
Once settled on top, we (along with some gull excreta) basked for about 10 minutes or so. We watched the nearby girls abandon their raft and swim back in ways which would not upset their hair or three figure shades. It was then decided by the diminutive but nonetheless persuasive duo of waterlogged Weberlads that we, too, should get back. I was still a bit winded but thinking nothing more of it, lowered myself in. Once again, I would take one boy at a time and the younger was elected. My wife lowered him onto me but this time, instead of clinging to my neck from behind, I opted for a side-stroke with a modified cross-chest carry, the latter technique I retained from the junior life saving course I took in sleepaway camp in Sussex, New Jersey when I was twelve. I barely passed that test, having at one point in my exam retrieved a cinder block from the bottom of the lake and as I surfaced, displayed it proudly over my head which promptly sent me and my salvaged slab back to the silty depths.
And then about halfway into the tandem swim, I began to tire suddenly and rapidly. The waves, which seemed tolerable before, now became less so and I felt a stab of real fear as my strength was giving out. At that moment I realized there was no one watching us from the hotel, no one leaning over the rail with their drinks, no life guards, no one, save for my wife and son on the bobbing platform behind me, seeing only the back of my head and my five year old son, who I still managed to keep hoisted above the water. I was losing steam really fast now. I actually had a fleeting image of an anatomical diagram charting the diminishing return of energy to oxygen under duress and I thought: Oh no. This is what happens when. And this is happening now.
I was sucking great gulps of air, my lungs feeling like they were expanding beyond capacity, the muscles of my face so constricted with my spreading terror and desperation that, would we have been seen by someone in front of us they would surely have screamed and heaved something buoyant at us or jumped in themselves. And I held my young boy to me, unable to exhort him to doggy paddle in the chop, something he did so easily in the serenity of a currentless Los Angeles pool. "Hold onto me", I gasped. "Are you alright?" But he seemed unaware of what was happening, which in that second was at once comforting and alarming. I could not let him go or let us drown. How disappointed he would be with me.
We were about twenty feet from the stairs and panic was now overwhelming me. I still held him as high above me as I could manage but I knew it would be moments now before I would either reach the bannister of the staircase or lose everything. And just as the last bit of hope left me me like the last inch of ledge passing beneath the feet of someone leaping off a cliff, my flailing arm grabbed the ladder and with rasping, heaving breaths, I pulled us up and onto the stairs. I put my son next to me and we sat there for a moment. I was clearly in a state I had never experienced before. Looking up to my wife and son on the raft, I could detect concern in their faces, though they were far away. I signaled that I would find someone to retrieve them and taking my still unaware son by his hand, went upstairs to the pool patio to do just that.
After one of the cabana boys ferried them back in an inner tube (I had earlier bonded with the guy, having been a cabana boy myself and sporting the tell-tale shin lacerations to prove it), we reconvened by the pool. And I was destroyed utterly. Indeed, my wife told me that she realized I was in some trouble, that she heard me talking to my little passenger, asking him if he was alright while I was struggling. After we gathered our things and started to head for our room, I broke down, horrified at the realization that I took such an insane risk, that I almost killed my son. My wife and boys comforted me, hugging the sobbing schmuck, their almost amused pats and assurances that all was okay making my colossal blunder seem worse. This moment could have been far different than it was now.
The next hours were spent with me in a terrible state of jitteriness while we went into town, walking (to my further anxiety) on the side of a road with fast moving French drivers whizzing by. We arrived finally at a place for lunch, a downscale coveside hotel perched on a gently lapping bay, the water's bland currents and and comforting pollution putting the Mediterranean, now devilish and deep as a siren's kiss, back into the hands of those that were born to it and better borne by it. While the boys played in the shallows, my wife and I had a deep, occasionally angry discussion about my weaknesses as a husband and as a parent, my lapses in judgement, my whatever the fuck other old topics freshly dredged up by my now electrified, jangled nerves. I had to strike out at her and myself, to blame her or myself, to try to fight something I could recognize and could see but, like my earlier confrontation in/with the Mediterranean, my defenses were wasted against her clearly articulated arguments. The discussion eventually became more civil but still, so much had been stirred up by the day's events that it was far from normal. Later, we walked back and went once again -- holy shit! No escape! -- to the pool for a pre-dinner swim, which I did not partake in, so lost in the day was I, sitting there on a chaise lounge, emotionally depleted, dehydrated from too much sun, still freaked out. My wife and the boys returned refreshed from their dip to find me staring into an empty glass of grenadine.
No sleep tonight. At four eleven A.M. that next morning every time I closed my eyes I was back in the water with my boy, struggling, terrified.
But I was finally about to succumb to my exhaustion around five when my son (who was sleeping in bed with me while my wife and older son were in the other bed) woke up and whispered he was hungry. We shared a bowl of dry cereal together that was left over from the previous day's breakfast. We ate and crunched our cereal softly in an odd, perfectly low key solemnity which was, in essence, a kind of coda to the whole thing. We finished our late night-early morning snack and he fell immediately back to his sublimely innocent sleep. I kissed his back and his face in a way his rambunctiousness would never permit when he was awake, grateful to feel the warmth of his life on my lips, grateful to be in that room with my wife who saves me more than this day's momentary desperation ever could, grateful that both my sons were unaware really of the pitch of my terror, so sharp and discordant with the benign dreams of adventure and exotic allure I want for them outside the frequently stale, misdirected and contrived life in America. The possibility of change in America, the break in the manufactured routine, the hopeful revivification of the American spirit is stirring equally seductive dreams within the people I've met who live over here in England and in France and who want to venture from their own home turf to the States again, now that its darker times seem to be about over. I then slept a short but relatively sweet sleep, having tasted briefly the beauty and terror of being in foreign places. But in that room with my boy asleep next to me, I returned home.