THE ILLUSION OF SEPARATENESS
The mere thought of him brought comfort. They believed he could do anything, and that he protected them.
He listened to their troubles without speaking.
He performed his duties when they were asleep, when he could think about his life the way a child stands in front of the sea. Always rising at first light, he filled his bucket, then swished along the corridors with pine soap and hot water. There were calluses where he gripped the handle. The bucket was blue and difficult to carry when full. The water got dirty quickly, but it didn't annoy him. When it was done, he leaned his mop against the wall and went into the garden.
He sometimes drove to the pier at Santa Monica. It was something he did alone.
A long time ago, he proposed to a woman there.
There was mist because it was early and their lives were being forged around them. They could hear waves chopping but saw nothing.
In those days, Martin was a baker at the Café Parisienne. He had a mustache and woke up very early. She was an actress who came in for coffee one morning and never quite managed to leave.
She would have liked the Starlight Retirement Home. Many of the residents were in films. They come to breakfast in robes with their initials on the pocket. They call him Monsieur Martin on account of his French accent. After dinner they sit around a piano and remember their lives. They knew the same people but have different stories. The frequency with which a resident receives guests is a measure of status.
Martin is often mistaken for a resident himself.
It would be easier if people knew exactly how old he was, but the conditions of his birth are a mystery.
He grew up in Paris. His parents ran a bakery and they lived upstairs in three rooms.
When Martin was old enough to begin school, his parents seated him at the kitchen table with a glass of milk, and told him the story of when someone gave them a baby.
"It was summer," his mother said. "The war was on. I can't even remember what the man looked like, but there was suddenly a child in my arms. It happened so quickly."
Martin liked the story and wanted to know more.
"Then she brought the child into my bakery for something to eat," his father said.
"That's right," his mother added. "It's how we met."
His father stood at the dark window and confessed to the reflection of his son how they waited years before doing anything official.
His mother's tears made circles on the tablecloth. Martin looked at her hands. Her nails were smooth with rising moons. She pressed on his cheek and he blushed. He imagined the rough hands of a stranger and felt the weight of a baby in his own arms.
When he asked what happened to the child, they were forced to be direct. Martin stared at the milk until it made him cry. His mother left the table and returned with a bottle of chocolate syrup. She poured some into his glass and swirled it with a tall spoon.
Our love for you," she said, "will always be stronger than any truth."
He was allowed to sleep in their bed for a few days, but then missed his toys and the routine in which he had come to recognize himself fully.
A short time later his sister, Yvette, was born.
When Yvette was six years old and Martin a teenager, they closed the bakery and left Paris for California.
Martin never quite understood why they waited so long to apply for adoption papers. Then, when he was a freshman at a small college in Chicago, smoking in bed with a lover, the curtain was lifted.
It was snowing. They ordered Chinese food. A good film was about to start on television. As Martin reached for the ashtray, the sheet uncovered his body. His legs were so muscular. She laid her cheek against them. He told her about West Hollywood High School, track records still unbroken. She listened, then confessed how she was curious, had been wondering why, unlike other European men, Martin was circumcised.
Excerpted from The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy. Copyright © 2013 by Simon Van Booy. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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