The Deep End of the Pool
By Nancy Lefenfeld
He was one of the regular swimmers at the Piscine Pontoise, the famous Art Deco pool in the Latin Quarter. He swam two or three times each week. Sometimes it was a slog from beginning to end. But sometimes his mind grew quiet and calm, and the coordinated rhythms – the rhythm of the arms and the legs and especially the rhythm of the breath – took over and drove him forward, almost effortlessly. And so it had been on this particular afternoon. He finished eighty laps. Felt he could have kept going. Forever. He leapt out of the pool, retrieved his towel and slippers, walked halfway along the pool’s length, and sat down in a plastic chair. Relaxed and invigorated, he watched the swimmers circle the lanes. Seven lanes. Six or seven swimmers sharing a lane. Self-segregated by speed. The faster lanes and the slower lanes.
He stood and headed toward the showers. As he walked along the width of the pool, at the deep end, he looked down, at nothing in particular, just to see the swimmers make their turns. For the briefest interval, two or three seconds, he saw the deformed, stunted fingers and thumbs splayed across the edge of the pool. He felt a shock of recognition and stopped. He knew these hands from a hundred million years ago. From deep in his past. From a place far away. And with a certainty that was both exhilarating and frightening. He watched the hands disappear, the swimmer turn. He watched the red swim cap and the black straps across her shoulders. With a smooth, easy stroke, she was gone, headed for the shallow end. Another swimmer came up quickly, made the turn, and set off after her. And then another and another. But he kept his gaze on her, watched her reach the shallow end and turn and swim back, towards him. He stood and waited, hardly daring to breathe. She reached the deep end and grabbed the edge with one hand. He stared and, before he could say to himself, I cannot believe it, she had turned and was gone.
He had no idea what to do. It felt as if his whole past had swum up to him and had then turned away, and he was left desperately wanting to reach out and grab it and just as desperately wanting to flee. He stood and watched her make the turn at the shallow end once again and swim toward him, one arm and then the other reaching forward. But before she reached the wall, he walked away. He showered and went to his changing cabin and dried himself and dressed, but all of his motions were automatic. He finished quickly, left the building, and stood at the curb. He waited and watched. What was the probability he would recognize her when she exited? Maybe fifty-fifty. It had been so long ago. He had been six years old and she had been eight. He tried to picture her as she had been in 1943 and then imagine how she might look as an adult. Like an artist does in the case of a child who went missing so long ago. How many years had it been? Forty-six.
Suddenly she appeared. He saw her come through the doors and he knew her right away. He pushed himself forward, into her path.
She stopped short, raised a hand in front of her chest, and said, “Pardon!”
He touched her lightly on the wrist and said, “Micheline!” He was nearly a head taller than she.
Startled, she said, “Yes?”
He smiled at her and said, “Votre petit Marcel.” Your little Marcel.
She took a small step back and looked at him. Her eyes flickered over every feature of his face. Then she said, “Mon Dieu. Marcel!”
They grasped one another by the shoulders and planted kisses on one cheek and then the other and back and forth. She took his arm, and they walked down the street, not knowing where. They found themselves at a sidewalk café on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, sitting with glasses of beer. They spoke of their spouses and children. Of his mother and of her mother, who was recently deceased. The conversation spread outward like a ripple on the surface of the water. Some talk of university and careers and how it came to be that Micheline had left Nice and moved to Paris. When their glasses were empty, he said,
“It was you who taught me how to swim. Remember?”
She said, “I taught you how to swim, and I also taught you how to ride a bike.”
He nodded and thought about that. His expression grew serious, and he said, “You were a very good teacher. I remember that we played school, and there was so much I should have known that I did not know. I don’t know what I knew. I don’t think I knew anything.” A brief pause, and then he asked earnestly, “Was I a good pupil?”
Without hesitation, she smiled and said, “You were my best pupil ever.”
She excused herself and went inside to use the telephone in the back. The sidewalk was crowded with people rushing home from work. He gazed past the throng, past the traffic on the boulevard, to nothing in particular. He thought of the words he wanted to say to her but could not. That she had been to him like the sun. That each day began when she rose. That he had been a small planet in danger of disappearing into cold, deep space if not for her gravitational field.
When he got home, he described the encounter to his wife, whose name was Séverine. Then it was as if the subject of Nice was an unexpected guest that stayed all through the evening. At the dinner table, Séverine made a point of mentioning the story to their daughter, Sophie. The sixteen-year old listened but didn’t say anything.
Séverine said to Marcel, “Tell me again when you and your mother arrived in Nice. I’m so foggy about the dates.”
Marcel said, “I’m foggy about the dates, too. I really don’t know when certain things happened. It seems that my mother and I came to Nice in early 1943. And then my father came later.”
His wife said, “And did you live with Micheline’s family…what was their name?”
He said, “Beaufay.”
She continued, “Did you live with the Beaufay family the whole time you were in Nice?”
“No. At first, my mother and I had a room in a boardinghouse. A small room in the attic. Then my father arrived. And we went to the home of the Beaufay family. To their apartment, on the rue Verdi.”
Sophie, who had been studying the remains of her meal, asked, “But what is wrong with her fingers? Why are they deformed?”
He said, “I don’t know. No one ever told me, and I didn’t ask.”
Sophie said, “Maybe her mother took that drug when she was pregnant. Thalidomide.”
Séverine said, “But she’s older than Papa, and Papa was born in 1937. Thalidomide wasn’t prescribed until the fifties.”
Later in the evening, turning off the television, he realized that his wife had gotten into bed and was sitting propped up, reading a book. He flopped down beside her. She took his hand in hers and said, “Your mother had a file. Remember? What ever became of it?”
He shook his head and said, “I cannot tell you how annoyed I am. I’ve asked her about the file. Several times. She can’t be bothered. The truth is, I’m not just annoyed. I’m angry. Because she refuses to speak to me about what happened. She has never been willing to help me understand any of it.”
His wife stroked his head and said, “I know.”
They sat, each chasing down their own thoughts. Séverine said, “Call her when she gets back from Brittany. When is she coming back?”
He said, “Saturday. A week from tomorrow.”
She said, “Offer to come to her place and help look for the file.”
“No,” he said, “I will take care of it myself.”
The next morning, he let himself into his mother’s apartment. The curtains were drawn, allowing only a pale yellow light to enter. He called out, “Hallo!” He went to her desk, sat in her chair. He had gone into her files only once before, a few years earlier, when she was in the hospital and had needed him to pay some bills. He opened the side drawer and pulled out a stack of folders. They were of many different colors but a single design, the three-flap type with elastic corner straps. Some were so thick and bulging that the straps were permanently distended. He began going through them, one by one. Reaching the bottom of the pile, he thought ahead to what might be next. Snoop in her clothes drawers? Her closets? He opened the last folder, an azure blue. From a small sepia photo, beneath thick dark brows, the dark eyes of his father met his own. A dapper young man whose hair had been dabbed with brilliantine and brushed back from his forehead. His tie sat well-knotted between starched tabs of a white collar, neatly tucked into the lapels of a dark suitcoat. The photo was tapled onto a piece of paper called a Certificate of Identity, issued by something called the Bureau of Administration of the Polish of Nice. He glanced through the other contents, closed the folder, and held it in his hands. The azure blue of Nice, of sky and sea.
“I felt like a thief in the night,” Marcel said to Séverine. It was Sunday afternoon, and they were seated side by side at the kitchen table. He was watching her sort through the contents of the folder. She examined each document, looked across the tabletop to find its rightful place. The exercise yielded four meager piles. She took four sheets from a notepad and wrote a heading on each one: Paris Early Years, Montauban/Albi, Nice, and Paris After the War. When she was done, Marcel said, “I had hoped there would be more.”But Séverine assured him it was a good start. Moving three groups off to the side, she took the group labeled Nice and spread the papers before them. Pieces of a puzzle. The Certificate of Identity with his father’s photo. A ration card in his mother’s name filled with stamped dates from the summer of 1943. Delicate pencil sketches done by his father, which the two agreed were rather good. A pink cocktail napkin from the Hôtel Le Negresco. A yellowed newspaper article reporting that Benito Mussolini had just been ousted. A child’s drawing of two cows made in green and brown crayon. Several other documents, things that would take some time to figure out. Like the form letter dated February 12, 1943, issued by the Refugee Aide Committee. It appeared to be some sort of housing voucher. Marcel pointed to the committee’s address, on the boulevard Dubouchage, and said,“I remember going there with my mother. I think it was a synagogue.”
On the piece of paper marked Nice, Séverine made a list.
Fania & Marcel in Nice before February 12 (1943)
Fania & Marcel in boardinghouse
Jakob in Nice by March 13
All go to Beaufay home (when?)
[Mussolini deposed July 25]
[Germans in Nice September 10]
Jakob arrested October (day?)
Marcel taken to farm in the mountains (likely November)
Visits by Mme Beaufay twice? Three times?
Mme B. & Micheline come to farm, take you home September 1944
Fania comes back (from where?)
Fania & Marcel back in Paris December 1944
When the list was done, Séverine said, “I would like to meet Micheline. And maybe she could help us answer some of our questions. Would you call and invite her and her husband to dinner?”
Marcel said, “Yes, of course.”
They discussed whether or not to include the children and decided against it. Could be awkward enough without a sixteen-year-old girl and seventeen-year-old boy. Perhaps it would be okay if Micheline’s daughter could also come, but she was in Lyon, at a university.
The next weekend, Marcel, Séverine, and Sophie had Sunday dinner at the home of Séverine’s parents. Her mother and father had met in Toulouse a short time after the Liberation. He had been a Catholic activist and resister, and she, a Jewish nurse who had worked in a Catholic hospital under a false identity. Over coffee and dessert, the conversation turned to the subject of Nice during the war.
“The Italians – what would you call them? Is ‘benevolent’ too strong a word? I don’t think so.”
“But let’s not forget what they did in September, after the Armistice was announced. They disappeared! Overnight! They left all those Jews to their fate! Just as if they themselves had placed them, you know, right into the hands of the Gestapo. What about that?”
“A terrible thing. Yes. But, tell me, what were they supposed to do? What could they have done?”
Signaling it was time to change the subject, the grandmother shook her head, shrugged her shoulders, and said, “Ach! Nice. It was the best place to be until it was the worst place to be.”
Sophia said, “Mamé, you’re a nurse. Tell me, what would make a baby be born with little, deformed fingers and thumbs?”
Marcel added, “She is asking about babies born before 1950. Unrelated to thalidomide.”
Mamé said, “Well, for one thing, you can have a rupture in the amniotic sac. If that happens, fibrous strands can become detached and float around. They can wrap themselves around the tiny fingers or toes and cut off the blood supply. I knew of one case where fibers became wrapped around the umbilical cord and the baby died.”
At home, Séverine said to Marcel, “But why haven’t you called Micheline?”
He said, “I know, I know. I’m going to do it now. I have to confess… I am so happy to have found Micheline, but at the same time, I have felt very bad. See, my mother never went back to Nice to thank Madame Beaufay for all she did for us. I myself should have done it. And now it is too late. I actually cannot believe she is gone. She was the one who kept me safe. After my father was arrested. I don’t even know where my mother was at that time or what she was doing. And now I feel such regret. But why didn’t I go back to Nice to see her? Why didn’t I write to her? I know why. Because I sensed that my mother would not approve.”
Two weeks later, the four adults sat together: Marcel and Séverine, Micheline and Alain. The strangeness of the gathering had begun to dull, thanks to glasses of a very good Burgundy and a shared desire to find humor. “I remember the first time you took me to Voilier Plage,” Marcel said. “It was so crowded. And I got lost. And I had no idea what to do. I didn’t even know how to get back to the rue Verdi.”
Micheline explained to the others, “Of course, I hadn’t asked anyone’s permission. I just took this little kid by the hand and we walked down to the beach. By ourselves. Can you imagine? And, of course, when I could not find him, I thought he had drowned.”
Marcel laughed and said, “And I thought she had drowned.”
Micheline said, “I have no idea how long it was before we found one another. It seemed like forever.”
Marcel said, “Forever.”
Micheline said, “But it didn’t stop us. We went to the beach many times. We went other places. Nobody cared. I remember that you went barefoot all summer long.”
The two of them told stories, small stories that made them all laugh. The small stories made Marcel see himself as a small boy. Skinny and loose-limbed. Unsubstantial. Micheline said, “When Maman was getting ready to take Marcel to the farm in Gréolières, she told me that we had to dress him as a girl. He would be safer if the Germans thought he was a girl. And, of course, you were not very keen on this idea. But you did it. You tried on each of my dresses. And my shoes. We made it into a little game. We put together a little outfit. Fortunately, your hair was long and curly because you hadn’t had a haircut.”
Marcel was listening to her, a faraway look on his face. He said, “I don’t even remember that. But there are so many things I don’t remember.”
Sometime later, Marcel said, “I remember the day that you and your mother came to the farm. I was so surprised to see you. Your mother had come two or three times before. But I had not seen you in so long. You looked so different. You said, ‘It’s time to come home.’ So we went home. We took a bus, right? We took a bus, down from the mountains, into the city. But my mother wasn’t there. I have no idea where she was. Do you?”
Micheline said, “You know, we should leave some of this discussion for another time. I think you would agree that both our spouses have done a heroic job of listening to us go on about the past. But now, I want to know more about you, Séverine. Tell me about you.”
And so they spoke of Séverine and Alain and the three children for a while longer, until it was late. As Séverine and Alain went to get the coats, Marcel said to Micheline, “I’m ashamed that I never went back to Nice, to see your mother and to thank her for all she did for us. I doubt that my mother ever adequately thanked you. I’m sure she did not. She refuses to talk about any of this. But that doesn’t excuse my negligence. In fact, it should have compelled me to go.”
Alain approached, holding her coat in his hands. But she gave him a sign and he stepped away. She said, “Oh, Marcel, it was so complicated back then. And neither of us really understood what was going on. How could we? Please don’t feel bad. You mustn’t. Let’s talk again soon.”
After midnight, as Séverine slept, Marcel put on a bathrobe, went out onto the balcony of the apartment, sat in a chair, and looked at the grey rooftops and the yellow light across the way. He could not remember wearing the girl’s dress, her shoes, her hair bows. He could remember what her bedroom looked like, with the large window that opened onto the courtyard. He could remember arriving at the farm with Madame Beaufay. To distract him as she left, someone took him to the barn where the goats were kept. He thought about the goats, their elongated reddish-brown faces with the long ears that point in opposite directions and the eyes. The strange, luminous eyes, some of them golden with a black pupil that was a narrow horizontal slit. The sound of the bells they wore around their necks. He became aware of a terrible pain deep inside. He reminded himself that it had nothing to do with his real life. It was a pain from a distant past, an ancient, prehistoric pain of a different age, a different eon, before men walked upright and wore shoes. It had approached him before, but he had not recognized it. He had turned away. He heard the door behind him open, felt the weight of the heavy blanket thrown around his shoulders, and heard the soft closure. He sat and pictured the small, skinny boy.
Not long afterwards, on the sidewalk outside of the Pontoise pool, the two nearly collided again. It was a Friday afternoon. Micheline was hurrying off, having finished a workout. Marcel was just going in. They should meet for lunch, they decided. Somewhere in the neighborhood. They checked their appointment books and set a date for the following Friday. He stood on the sidewalk and watched her as she walked away. He needed something from her, although he didn’t know what it was. She held the key to something.
The next Friday, over lunch, they spoke of many things, just two old friends getting together like any others in the café. They spoke of arranging something, something that would include the kids. Wouldn’t that be interesting? Perhaps the kids would like to know the shared history. Perhaps not. One never knows.
Finally, Micheline said, “You asked me about your mother. You asked, Where was she when we brought you back home? I did a lot of soul-searching, and I decided I should give you copies of some documents. I was uncertain about doing this because of the fact that your mother is still alive. But I think you should know.”She took a large envelope from her purse, opened it, and extracted a bundle of papers held together with a rubber band. “In 1949, your mother hired a lawyer in Nice. First, she attempted to bring criminal charges against Maman, accusing her of having kidnapped you and taken you away. But nobody would listen to that, and it didn’t go anywhere. Then she began pursuing civil charges, claiming that Maman had taken her money and jewelry. Maman sat for a deposition, and she had four others prepare written statements in her defense. But then your mother dropped the case, and we never heard from her again. It was all so distressing. It still upsets me to think about it.”She handed him the bundle. She said, “Really, I don’t care if you read any of this legal stuff. But I do want you to read this letter.”She drew a last sheet of paper from the envelope. “Maman wrote this some years after the whole legal business ended.”
My dear ‘Petit’ Marcel,
Forgive me, because I know you are a grown man now and yet I still think of you as my little Marcel. I don’t know what your Maman has told you about terrible things that happened in Nice. I don’t know if she told you about the legal actions she sought to bring against me.
You did not witness your father being arrested on the sidewalk just a few steps away from our apartment. For this, I thank our Heavenly Father. Your mother and I saw it from the window. I had to restrain her, to stifle her screams and keep her from running down the stairs and into the street. It would have been the end of all of us. Your Papa was carrying good false papers. But that didn’t save him. Perhaps you know what the German swine did in our city; they pulled down the man’s trousers to see if he was a Jew. They did this to your father and then beat him with his own belt and pushed him into the back of a vehicle. This was around the end of October. I do not remember the exact date.
I contacted my godparents in Gréolières – the couple that you know as Auntie Édith and Uncle Jean. They agreed to hide the two of you. But your Maman was crazy with grief. Inconsolable. She was really a danger to everyone, and I could not take her to the farm. I didn’t know what to do with her. I found a place that would take her in, a convent outside the city. Some of the women there were sick in their minds. It was both convent and asylum. Even then, I lived in fear, not knowing if your Maman would turn up at our door or what she might do. Finally, the Liberation came. Micheline and I brought you home. (And I must tell you that, as I write those words, I feel now what I felt then, the great sense of relief, the profound happiness.) But when I brought your Maman home, she was depressed and angry and barely spoke to anyone. I didn’t know what to do or how to help her.
Perhaps you have heard a different version of these events. Or no version at all. I gave a deposition, which you may read, if you would like. Also, there are sworn statements by four witnesses.
I write this letter not knowing if it will ever reach you. I write it because I must. Because some things simply must be said. I think of you so often, Marcel. I hope you think of me now and then.
With great affection, Violette Beaufay
After they parted, he went to the pool on the rue Pontoise. He began his workout. He lost himself in the rhythm of the arms and legs and the rhythm of the breath. At some point, he lost count of the number of laps he had done. At some point, he lost count of himself, becoming a fish in the water, agile and free. He swam as if there was no such thing as a lap, as if were no such thing as a shallow end or a deep end. No end at all. Only a blue sea.