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From This Strange Eventful History, which will be published this month by W. W. Norton.

He could hear his wife, Barbara, now in the other room, getting ready for his father’s funeral. This day, another to be got through. So many sensations—were they emotions? He tried now not to register emotions, not simply in this period of his father’s final illness and now death, but in this stage of his life. He sometimes felt that getting older was like inhabiting a mansion you couldn’t afford, so that you were forced to shut down one room after another, eventually entire wings, until you huddled in the kitchen, breaking up the furniture for firewood. How to catalogue all that had been lost, even before his father’s serious fall, just under a year before?

No, better to move forward, even in agony (walking had become an agony—the sciatica, unpredictable and crippling, as if an invisible nemesis shot mercury through the veins of his leg), than to dwell on the past. What had the expression been, back in the day—his own family was already long gone, but the pieds noirs used to say la valise ou le cercueil, “the suitcase or the coffin”—that was it. And he’d chosen, time and again, the suitcase. Pack up and move on. Keep it packed, indeed, so you’re ready at any moment. And as the years went on, make sure there was a bottle of something in the suitcase at all times.

The family thought he drank too much—they harped on about it, the girls especially. What none of them understood was how much he didn’t drink, the phenomenal feat of self-control that marked the rhythm of his days. He woke up in the morning and he did not drink. His body, in pain, called out for relief, but he didn’t grant it. Each long day, he waited till sunset. He punished himself, his soul’s longing for rest and for oblivion, just to forget—to forget that his beloved mother, the only spirit that he’d always felt loved him unconditionally, was long dead, that his wife and often his children seemed to despise him . . . not to consider the professional side. Retirement was often tough; he’d heard that beforehand. Feeling stripped of your identity, of respect, under­utilized, bored—he’d read the articles. That hadn’t stopped him: he’d leaped as early as he could afford to, perhaps too early, even, but he couldn’t wait any longer, miserable at the office those last years after the insider-trading crisis and then watching the company crumbling around him, the whole world, it seemed, crumbling—not just the aluminum business, taken over by Russian bandits, but everything that had made sense to him. Mammon was indisputably king now. Thank goodness for his Fidelity retirement funds—but where would it end?

“Are you nearly ready?” he called. It was almost eight. The undertakers would soon arrive to take his father away. He wanted to be there, to say his last farewell, to kiss, one last time, that high bony brow. He dreaded the walk uphill, and then all the steps, a torture for his legs. He’d take another Doliprane. She hadn’t answered him. “Barb, are you nearly ready?”

He could just about hear the irritation in his voice, though it reached his ears muffled by the very irritation itself: he was essentially in it, rather than observing it. But he’d come over the years to understand that his anxiety registered to her as ill temper, and that she then responded with ill temper, and that he should try harder to widen the wedge between his impulses and how he behaved. He called again, more softly, “Barb? I don’t want to be late.”

“Do you want to go on ahead then?” she called from behind the door.

He did not. He wanted to climb the hard hill together. In his imagination, she might even hold his hand. He was climbing, after all, to see his father put in his coffin. He who could barely walk. Surely he wouldn’t have to go alone? A literal calvary. Why would she deny him? How could it be that he did not even merit this small solace?

“It’s okay,” he said. He went to the kitchen to get a Doliprane. His neck and shoulder hurt too, on the left side. Not just his leg and his back. He coughed. Always. He wanted a cigarette but wouldn’t have it—five a day, on this day, would require serious discipline. A crock. Sixty-seven and a crock. He would not complain. That he had long mastered. He might be full of rage at the world, at shitty politicians and crooks, at the general idiocy, but he did not complain about his own lot. She did enough of that.

How had it come to pass that all his determination and his courage, all the fortitude of the boy he had once been (his mother’s gentle verbena-­scented hand against his cheek as she kissed the top of his head, that long-ago day in El Arba, early in the war, when he had carried his sister so far upon his back, his legs jelly when they at last arrived home to Tata Baudry’s, and their mother, instead of scolding him in her worry, had blessed and embraced him and called him “mon brave garçon,” “mon fils chéri”), all of it seemed now, in the eyes of the world—in his own eyes, let’s be honest—to have amounted to so little? He’d worked so hard as a boy. He’d succeeded in spite of bombs and bunkers and months of school cancellations. Off at seventeen to Lycée Louis-­le-Grand—and there, must he recall it, his first encounter with true despair, the first failure. All these years later, he still felt the same about Paris, a visceral dread—the cold, the damp, the isolation and hunger, the brutality of the school and its competition, never enough even to eat and the cats howling in the alley outside at night—above all the darkness. Like a plant, he could not live without the light, his Mediterranean, African light, that was to him the same as being alive. “This is hell,” he’d written to his mother, asking that she not show the letter to his father, who would think him irretrievably weak, “and I am dead here.” And his mother, he would never know how, had persuaded his father that he should come home, that it was the only solution, that otherwise he might die, actually die, which had felt true; and so he had come home. In the fifty years since, nobody had ever spoken of it. The page had been turned; the door to that room had been closed.

He had turned, then, to the States, had applied of his own accord for the fellowship nobody in Algiers had heard of: the Fulbright. He had been, in his time, the intrepid adventurer, impressive, even rash, to his school friends, off to an unimaginable life in English as his peers, stuck in the past, refused to learn it. He went to Amherst, to Oxford, then eventually to Harvard—­and he’d managed, better than many, better than most, a career bestriding the Atlantic. He’d been a rising star in the corporation, headed perhaps even for the top, or close to it.

Those long, hard years of commuting in New York from Monday to Friday, so many dinners and evenings alone, the empty bed, despairing—­like Paris, he used to joke, just with more light—­only to arrive home exhausted on Friday night and feel that none of them even wanted to see him, that their faces fell when he came through the gate at the airport, that they were happier without him. Not welcome in his own house, just the ox to plow the field, the beast of burden.

At least, he thought—as he buttoned his white shirt, knotted the dark tie he’d packed in his suitcase in Connecticut weeks before, knowing that the next time he took it out and unrolled it, his father would have died—at least things were not like that now. He and Barbara had weathered the storm—those terrible first years in Connecticut, the awful fights—all of it a dark blur. Probably, certainly, he’d drunk too much, alone in the bleak Middletowne Hotel on 48th Street in those long commuting years. He had relied too much on his old friend Johnnie Walker to get him through.

Yet, working all those years, he’d never felt the pain that had dogged him since. He’d never woken thinking of the bottle in his suitcase. Always blindingly busy, lurching from airport to office, from Grand Central to Greenwich, from kid’s graduation to dutiful parental visit, paying the bills, polishing his shoes, repacking his suitcase, always exhausted, always responsible. He’d never thought, for years, about the rooms he would, then could, no longer enter, entry no longer even being imaginable—to think that he might have been a scholar, that he might even have been an artist. (Why not? As a little boy, he’d loved to draw and paint—he remembered his mother, in a particularly impoverished wartime Christmas, somehow finding for him a set of colored pencils and a notebook, when even the paper had been precious!) To think that he might have felt at home somewhere, anywhere—though home, of course, as his father would have said, was a matter not of geography but of family. How to articulate the terror and misgiving that had, for almost all his life, accompanied his love for his family, profound as it was? How to convey that even if he could belong with them, he needed not to; or, rather, he needed to find somewhere else or someone else to belong to; and that there, of course, lay the greatest sorrow, that Barbara did not, could not, open her arms to him.

Here she was at last, his wife, ready to go.

They were, they always had been, so different. Maybe he’d thought that in marrying her he could escape who he was, could transform into, say, her father, a bluff, unthinking, unintelligent, unselfconscious man who liked sports, cars, and playing cards and was interested in money. Or maybe he hadn’t thought anything, had simply been felled by her good looks, her wide mouth and long limbs, her slightly awkward laugh, and the way she lowered her eyes when she spoke . . . Maybe he’d wanted chiefly what he shouldn’t, the new—his insatiable desire for the New World, to escape once and for all the hideous fettered conformity his father desired for him.

But his father, this formidable old man against whom he had long struggled and yet whom he loved fiercely, whose opinion had always mattered to him more than he knew it ought—for years he’d sent him the children’s report cards, for God’s sake, he couldn’t quite believe it, but he had—that father, born into poverty, had made his life’s work becoming and then being a Frenchman, a French gentleman no less—a colonial French gentleman, perhaps the most fervent sort, the way a convert is more zealous than a born Catholic. He’d insisted that nothing would stand in his way, not the humble circumstances of his birth, nor the father who vanished when he was a boy—a Maltese father, indeed, neither a white man nor a gentleman, by the standards of the time—not his distance from the metropole, not his unexpected and uneasy choice of a spouse. But he too had failed, in his time: his run for political office in Algiers hadn’t succeeded, nor his oil exploits in the Sahara. He’d been buffeted by History, every bit as much as his son. But in the end he had chosen to remain a French gentleman, to believe, cheerfully, unwaveringly, in his country and himself. He had thrown in his lot with the persona he had willed into being, and his wife had believed in him always; maybe that was all it took, a cult of two, and he, they, had been happy.

He told Barbara: they’d have to hurry, though he could not move fast even when he wanted to. She wore her black dress suit, a pale lipstick. Even now she took his breath away—she never aged, as tall and slender as she’d been on the bus that rainy day in Oxford forty-three years ago. She smiled at him, tenderly, adjusting her new birthday scarf at her throat, its black trim fitting for the day.

“Is that okay?” she asked.

“Perfect. It looks just right.”

Even if she did not reach for his hand or begin to understand him—as he could not begin to understand her—still, now, she walked alongside him, out into the cold morning. Which was not nothing, was something. They had surely accomplished something.

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