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The Center of the Universe: A Memoir



In the ancient forest on the Right Bank of Paris lies a jewel-like island where Napoleon, just back from the Alps, built a Swiss chalet. Emerald lawns and ruby flowers shimmer beside a sapphire lake as peacocks stride by. On a sunny Sunday morning in May, I am ensconced on the chalet's terrace, now a cafe, replenishing more energy than my leisurely jog has exhausted. Around me, lazy hands stir sugar cubes in slow circles and spread butter on crusty baguettes. These are the only signs of industry in a city where the principal exercises are digestion and strolling, where laissez-faire is practiced and preached, where intermission is the pace of life.

I saunter through the woods toward my apartment as the ladies of the night flee daylight like vampires stumbling upon a cross. I know one of the Brazilians by name, since I pass her most mornings as she’s wrapping up her night’s work in tissues. Alexandro has just become Alexandra. Like her, I came to Paris to reinvent myself three years ago. Although I had no surgery, I did change my name, and while no one calls me a prostitute, sometimes I feel like one, admittedly, in another old and unlofty profession, advertising.

I’ve been relocated from headquarters in New York to tackle a marketing emergency for an important toiletries client— the launch of France’s first sorely needed antiperspirant. Our team on the Seine—ninety-nine people smoking and loitering above a gas station—won the coveted assignment (code-named Stink-o) even though they’ve failed for a decade to browbeat their countrymen into American bar soap. Which is why someone very high up at bar soap headquarters, someone with a good nose but a rarely used passport, smells an untapped market for deodorants over here, and although I can imagine the logic that led to this conclusion (and my relocation), the person who reached it hasn’t had to sit through forty focus groups in unventilated conference rooms in the provinces. Getting the natives to “adopt” a roll-on, stick, or spray will require “a paradigm shift,” I’m learning, a long and winding road that’s synonymous with a huge media budget and then, usually, failure. What would make the French—who relish the bleu on their cheese and their skin, who have a whole class of things they fondly call “stinky”—what would make them plug up their pores with wax to placate and enrich our big American client? This is the onerous marketing dilemma I face daily in my otherwise idyllic life in the City of Light.

To help me think through the Stink-o conundrum, I have the Semis—a squadron of French semiologists, not just translators but also linguists and cogitators, who are deconstructing the semantics of our antiperspirancy muddle. Not solving it exactly, just scrutinizing it in the Gallic way, ad nauseam. For my edification, the Semis are writing a treatise on perspiration, its cultural heritage, its evolutionary value, its distillation of primeval body essences. My task is to develop a successful campaign against sweat, when it rivals the madeleine in the collective olfactory unconscious.

Tucked behind a manicured garden in the Sixteenth Arrondissement is the elegant rue where I live—in a Beaux-Arts town house with a tiny filigreed elevator, where I would imagine Maurice Chevalier crooning to Leslie Caron even if “Gigi” weren’t playing on the concierge’s stereo. From my apartment on the top floor—four rooms with high ceilings and crown moldings, eight times the size of my New York studio, thanks to the value of the dollar under Reagan—there’s a postcard view of the tip of the Eiffel Tower, which I am admiring through open windows, when my phone rings.

The connection has a bad echo, so it’s an overseas call, although it’s two in the morning in the States.

Surely, as the poet said, some revelation is at hand.

My brother, Ben, weeping hello, sounds both frantic and measured. He tells me he has “terrible news.” He says I’d better “prepare” myself.

I have never had any idea what to do after someone says “prepare yourself,” since the warning itself is an angst infusion.

“Sssxxzzz is dead,” Ben says, but the ocean is sloshing against underwater cables, making puddles of noise in his words.

“Who? Who’s dead?” This is the moment when time collapses, when what hasn’t yet been said feels like déjà vu.

“DAD!” he shouts. “DAD is dead.”

The echo repeats his words. “Dad is dead—dad is dead.”

Our father is fifty-eight—a vigorous, athletic, handsome fifty-eight. “Boyish” is the first thing people call him, not always as a compliment.

“Dad is dead? How?”

“The boat—the boat.”

That is explanation enough.

Facing me is a photo of our father aboard his secondhand fourteen-year-old “cabin cruiser,” the Mr. Fix It, unwrapping my last birthday gift—an inflatable life raft. Spouting the Coast Guard motto, Semper Paratus, he is, or was, constantly fiddling with nautical instruments whose failures are legendary. Last year’s close call came fifty miles off Martha’s Vineyard, with no land in sight, when he and my mother happened upon a “sudden” storm—which functioning radar or a transistor radio would have disclosed. It swept the deck furniture overboard and almost did the same to them before they strapped themselves into their seats. So it is easy to picture Mr. Fix It himself chomping on a cigar like Ralph Kramden, piloting blind from his flying bridge under a starless sky, next to a mute radio, as an unforeseen tidal wave washes over his boat (again) and drags him into the Atlantic. I glimpse his black hair bobbing in the ocean and his hands flailing as a shark circles and pokes him in the chest.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned . . .

“He drowned?”

“No, it was carbon monoxide. Dad was asphyxiated.”

I see my father get down on his knees in the galley, where he opens the oven door and puts his head inside. Resting his cheek on the oven rack, just for a moment. Deciding. He reaches for the knobs and turns them on, one at a time, and, squeezing his eyes shut, he takes a deep breath.

But the only oven on his boat is a toaster.

“How did he do it?”

“It was an accident. And Mom was with him. She’s in a coma.”

The second shoe. The widening gyre.

“How long will Mom be in the coma?” I ask stupidly. I have always trusted in the omniscience of doctors, especially when the doctor is my brother. Ben is a lung specialist in New York’s busiest emergency room, with a need to come to the rescue so old and so deep that only triage at Bellevue seems to satisfy it.

“I’ve done everything I can. It’s out of my hands.”

I am afraid to ask whose hands it’s in now. “Can I make it home in time?”

“She’s in a little Catholic hospital at the beach for Chrissake.”

Meaning what? Is this code for pulling the plug? Or for not being able to pull the plug? I want to ask, but I don’t want to ask—having come of age in the sixties, I always assume my phone is tapped. So I keep that thought and a whole stomachache of fears to myself—while I try not to think about Sunny von Bülow.

“I hate to say this—I know it’s awful—but you’ve got to prepare yourself for a double funeral.”

How do I prepare for a double funeral? Pack two of everything? Pack clothes that are very black? The unimaginable has just happened, and the unpredictable is around the corner, and it feels like I missed my chance to prepare.

My brain screens an improvised documentary short, like a practice drill. His and hers coffins roll off an assembly line. Their sides touch in a final wooden embrace; then they linger at the edge of a double grave—a deep pocket of dirt for two. The Mourner’s Kaddish is sung, and God is glorified and sanctified for no reason I’ve ever been able to discern during a funeral. And then the twin boxes tip into the breach, headfirst or feetfirst—impossible to know which; maybe one of each.

Long drum roll. Fade to very black.

Telling the story in an orderly way oversimplifies it, since truth is less tidy than prose, and maybe less plausible. Were Madame Defarge to knit the narrative, the yarn would have a dark side and a light side, and it would flip itself over and over—a tale of quick reversals—full of snags and dropped stitches and tangled threads. Frayed and raggedy, perhaps, but lively nonetheless.

I began taking notes for a story about my mother the minute I could write. I wrote everywhere—on my school desk and in the margins of my books and notebooks, on paper napkins and garbage bags when there were no pads around because she was using all of them, and eventually into one diary after another. There are things I didn’t write down—not every story needs to be told—but I recorded plenty.

On my dresser is a family photo from the fifties, of me with Ben and our little sister, Helen. We’re sitting closer than we need to be in the spacious backseat of our father’s yellow Chevy, dressed identically in crisp white shirts and khaki shorts, three small slightly green faces—six, eight, and ten—set against the smoky haze of an airtight sedan. We’re on the road to summer camp in the Catskills, in uniform, with our father, Mort, behind the wheel, blowing smoke rings. Frank Sinatra is singing “Stardust” on the radio.

And now the purple dusk of twilight time
Steals across the meadows of my heart
High up in the sky the little stars climb
Always reminding me that we’re apart.

Our mother, Lola, has been asleep, with her head in Mort’s lap, but she wakes up spring-loaded: Her auburn curls pop up above the seat, followed by an incandescent smile. Glancing down at us in the back, she blows a theatrical kiss and gets ready to tell us a story.

“I was dreaming,” the story begins.

She waits until everyone is paying attention. Mort turns off the radio.

“I am the center of the universe,” she says, looking at each of us in turn, making sure we appreciate the significance. “And everyone else is a star revolving around me.”

This is a confession. A revelation. A pronouncement. This is the way of the world.

She is Norma Desmond, descending the staircase in Sunset Boulevard, eyes wide and frozen, getting ready for her close-up. She is Salome, stripping the veil off the face of the cosmos. She is my mother, Lola Hornstein.

And she is crazy.

Twirling her fingers in dainty arcs, she demonstrates the rotation of the solar system around her, right there in the front seat. Cupping her hands lovingly around a star to bring it closer, basking in its reflected light. She is Pivotal, the axis of a magical orbit, spinning, spinning, while the rest of us are drawn to her by gravity. I am as weightless as dust, sucked into her vacuum.

She giggles, then blushes, and her hands leave their stellar rotation to stifle a laugh. Then she chuckles and cackles until she roars.

“Cut it out, Lola.” Mort is weary.

“I am the brightest star,” she insists, peeved, since it’s obvious that my father doesn’t get it yet, that he needs further clarification.

But I get it: Lola could burn out fast, or she could burn out slowly. The speed is unknowable, but it’s certain that a firestorm is coming. And then it will get very dark.

“But it was only a dream,” Mort says.

“It was a vision!” she responds grandly, infuriated by his impertinence. “I AM THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE!”

Widening her sphere of influence to enclose all of us, she swirls her arms majestically, and her hand grazes the wheel accidentally, making the car veer into the next lane.

Mort pushes her away.

“Knock it off. I’m driving.” He sounds angry now. I’ll bet he’s scared, too.

“I command you to stop this car!”

He glances over at her, then back at the road, noncommittal, and turns the radio back on.

Love is now the stardust of yesterday
The music of the years gone by.

“I’m talking to you, mister. You’d better stop this damn car right now, because I’m getting out.”

I’m rooting for getting out, too, and soon. But Mort doesn’t follow orders. Mort thinks he’s in charge.

So Lola leans over and reminds him who is the center of the universe—she beats his chest like a tom-tom, chanting that she hates him. She’s very convincing.

Down the two-lane road we drift, while Mort tries to bring Lola and the Chevy under control. Finally, he pulls over to the breakdown lane, and the right wheels end up on a grassy embankment like a Tilt-O-Whirl, so what seemed lopsided only a moment ago now truly is.

Lola throws her door open and runs off in her yellow sundress and sandals, weaving through thick hedges at the side of the road.

“Why is Mommy playing hide-and-seek?” my little sister asks.

Traffic slows down as people lean out their car windows, pointing at my father, who’s running after my mother, who’s puking tuna fish on rye, no extra mayo, please, in the bushes. When he catches her, he grabs her by the shoulders and wipes vomit off her chin with his sleeve. Then he leads her back to the car, puts her in her side, and locks her door.

Lola looks at herself in the visor mirror and reapplies her lipstick, moving the brassy tube around and around and around her thick red lips, getting ready for the next scene.

“Okay, everything’s fine now,” Mort announces as he gets in, transferring tuna vomit from his shirt to the front seat.

We are halfway to Camp High Peak, three hungry birds in a wobbly nest, imprinting on an ostrich with his head in the sand while a wild hyena nips at his tail.

Halfway to Camp High Peak

Copyright © 2009 by Nancy Bachrach
Excerpted from The Center of the Universe by Nancy Bachrach. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Photo credit (top): Anne-Lise Spitzer, Le Chalet des Isles, Paris.