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Somerset Maugham called the Côte d’Azur “a sunny place for shady people.” With a history as colourful as its sapphire sea, it’s home to a hodgepodge of nationalities, celebrities, gypsies, and nouveau riche expatriates…like me, it’s a melting pot of extremes. I miss the golden awakening of morning and the mixed blessing of sunrise solitude. But for me, the French Riviera will always be about the insomniac hours before sunrise when the magic and moonlight of the glittering coast holds me hostage.
Like the flaw of a bubble in Murano glass, I had a sense that something was wrong in our idyllic paradise. It was my husband’s birthday, but he wasn’t present. He’d postponed his trip to our villa in St. Paul de Vence, due to work back home in San Francisco. Dan, my college-aged “unofficially” adopted son was visiting. Then there were two guests coming from back home in from the Bay area, a Barbie doll southerner and her husband, whose claim to fame was once training Jean-Claude Van Damme. Fortunately for me, spending time with my four year-old daughter Alessandra and two year-old son, Stephan, softened my anxiety of hosting guests without my husband.
When our new guests arrived feverish with the flu, I put the chiseled ex-trainer, his bleached blond, perky-breasted wife and their two young children in our adjacent guesthouse. The staff named the new houseguests “Ken” and “Barbie,” after one too many demands. “He’s asking for a cappuccino and she wants softer pillows,” whispered our Italian housekeeper. “Don’t they know that you don’t drink a cappuccino after 10:30?” said the her husband, our gardener. So, we all banned together to appease our guests in the exterior guesthouse. It’s not that we were mean-spirited. They were the Americans that the French love to hate – the kind that don’t understand why Tylenol and Sports Illustrated can’t be bought in a french pharmacy selling french products. In the end, our shenanigans forced me to concoct a story about the staff being wowed by his buffed body and her beauty pageant beauty after I accidentally called them Ken and Barbie.
10:00 p.m. I put on silk pajamas and a long velvet crimson robe. Silk felt good on my parched skin. I threw my diamond earrings and bracelet in a bowl on my makeup table and tossed my jeans into the clothing hamper. I couldn’t stand wearing jewellery at home. Earlier that morning, the security installer had installed a safe in my closet. “Madame, deposit the valuables in this safe. If you’re held up, take the robber to this safe, not the big safe downstairs where you keep cash.” I’d heard the bone-chilling stories, like the one about the robber who cut off a woman’s finger when she couldn’t remove her ring. Surely those tales were inflated by over-served villagers after one pastis too many. Right? Shivering, I pulled the drape closed, metal rings sliding across metal. I remembered my son’s laughter last summer when I was changing out of my swimsuit. I assumed that he was laughing about the white circles on my burned torso from the decorative rings on my swimsuit. Pointing at my breasts, he said, “Mommy, your boobs are making money!” I’d forgotten about the one euro coin tucked into my swimsuit for the grocery cart. Sea salt and sweat had left it stuck to my breast. With my husband absent, my children were a balm to my loneliness, like aloe on my salt parched skin.
Chanel and Dior ensembles filled my closet. Matching shoes and bags were stored in clear plastic boxes with photos of the contents on the front. My “Texas is bigger than France” t-shirt seemed out of place, waiting for my annual fourth of July party. I didn’t need a psychiatrist to tell me that there would never be enough order or designer luxury goods to erase the memory of a mother who abandoned me and my brothers or a father who walked away and never looked back, yet I kept shopping. I liked being able to write a check to make problems go away, but at what cost? Strange. The closet drape was open. Shaking off negative thoughts, I closed my bedroom door en route to my favourite room – our screening room.
10:30 p.m. Ken, looking frazzled, rang the doorbell. “I need a break.” Who leaves sick kids and a wife? I wondered. Was it my imagination, or was this Claude Van Damme guy a little too flirtatious?
10:40 p.m. Dan and I sat on one end of the sofa and our suspicious houseguest laid across the opposite end of the u-shaped black leather ensemble like he owned it. Just as I pushed the play button on the remote, I saw a moving figure through a slit in the double door separating the media room from the living room. Was Barbie spying on us? Irritated, I opened the double door. I’d have to turn the volume down to not wake the children. I thought of a scene in Great Gatsby as I walked across the oversized tapestry to pull yards of heavy alabaster silk damask drapes cascading on to the polished limestone floor to the side of the wall-to-wall glass windows. The jewel of the property, with its long lawn and view of the sea sparkled under the moonlight. Was he playing some kind of game to make his wife jealous or wait…were they swingers? I could not ’t shake the feeling of being watched. If she wanted to see him, no problem. Anyone outside looking in would see our own ghostly show under a canopy of magic and moonlight.
11.15 p.m. I tiptoed to the kitchen to make a snack tray: a fresh baguette, homemade tapenade and rosemary hummus. The sharp smell of rosemary reminded me of summers in Duncanville, Texas, a lifetime away from a mentally ill mother known for locking her children out in 100 degree heat to pick weeds. Get ahold of yourself – you’re losing it. You’re safe, As I turned to exit the pantry a smell of musk and sandalwood assaulted my senses. Startled, I gasped, just as Ken’s lips met mine. He pulled me closer, pressing me against a wall. I recoiled. Horrified, I realized that he was blocking my exit.
“If you were my wife, I’d be with you.”
“Like you are with your wife?”
“I want to do something special for you, like buy you a purse.”
“Go!” I said. Days later I would think of all the things I could’ve said. I’d analyze my every action, to try and understand. Had I innocently led him on? In the end, I would conclude that what happened had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the seduction of free flowing wine, decadent days, and the allure of the Côte d’Azur. Jarred by a strangers unwanted overture, I decided to call it a night. I locked my bedroom door from the inside, before tossing the key in my bedside drawer. Our high cost of security meant that if there was a fire, I was the only one with a set of keys to get out.
5:49 a.m. A familiar creak. I sit up rigid. I know that sound…the one from the hard-to-reach cabinet on my children’s mirrored wall that needs oil. Could it be the nanny, looking for diapers? No. I’m coming unhinged over my purse-bribing houseguest and missing husband. I hear the noise again. I flip on the bedside switch, which casts a soft light across a butter yellow duvet, illuminating an expansive room with drapery-covered French doors opening to a terrace overlooking 5 acres of fruit and palm trees, lavender, and grass leading to a single focal point – the sea. My mind is racing. I’m locked in a fortress of iron bars covering every window. All of the exterior doors have steel cylinders with flat plates soldered on the outside so that they can’t be drilled through by thieves. I’m safe, I tell myself. I telephone my husband, thousands of miles away in San Francisco. He answers on the first ring and I hear familiar laughter in the background. Our conversation about our houseguests is not new.
“Something’s wrong,” I whisper, “I need you to get on a plane and come. You-know-who behaved inappropriately.”
“Are you sure you didn’t misunderstand?” I hear glasses clinking in the background.
“I didn’t misunderstand when he crammed his tongue down my throat after telling me that he wanted to buy me a purse,” I say, raising my voice.
“What kind of purse?” says my husband laughing.
“Hello! Are you listening? Something is wrong. Very wrong”
Am I second-guessing myself after being panhandled? Do I hear breathing? I’m besieged by a repeated onslaught of boundary crossings; my husband missing his birthday leaving me with a house full of sick guests, the sickest being Ken’s complete disrespect of my marriage, and his own. Suffocating behind iron bars, I’m trapped, no longer safe.
6:35 a.m. In an instant, I know that I am not alone. I flip the bedside light and the exterior flood switch on again. I hear the soft footsteps of padded feet pajamas walking through my closet, which connects to my children’s room.
Relieved, a long, sigh escapes, but my shoulders don’t relax. I open the bedcovers and turn off the light. I listen. As her warm little body molds next to mine, I marvel at how we breathe in tandem as she sleeps. I’m anxious. She never awakens, yet here she is. The creaking sound…I hear it again. I turn the bedside light on again, which I will do three more times. Each time I sit up and lay down. My daughter sleeps. Am I losing my mind? Did I drink too much Bailey’s with Dan? Then I hear the breathing. The air grows thin. I’m paralyzed with terror. Someone is crawling on the floor next to my bed! The body stops and I see an outline of what looks like a gun. My heart pounds as I see the outline of shoulders moving towards my bathroom. What about my daughter and how do I get to my son on the other side of the house? I hear noises coming from there. Panicked, I sit up, rigid. Shards of light come through the edges of my drapery-covered windows, casting light across the carpet. It’s as if fireworks are going on outside without noise. A flashlight turns on and off. Some kind of code is being transmitted. There are multiple people involved. I can’t breathe. The intruder in my bathroom is locked inside the house with me. I have the keys to all the exterior doors in my bedside drawer. Afraid to move, the pounding of my heart rings in my ears. Someone outside is flashing a light. A light beam crosses the windows and door in front of me. I know how the movies end. The intruder’s only way out is through my bedroom.
“Mommy, what is it?” Her words cut through a terrifying silence.
I call out, “Who’s there?” with authority, as if the intruder could speak English.
A man wearing a sweater mask and tightly fitted ribbed pullover walks across the room.
Having adjusted my eyes to the dark, I look at my terrified daughter.
Calmly, I say, “Don’t worry honey. They’re just looking for food.”
I have no idea why I said that, but I need my daughter to feel safe. I wonder about the burglar’s choice of word. In Italian, “scussi” is formal. It seems absurd, that a masked man has just passed my bed with perfect manners. Later, l learn that “scussi” is the same word in most Eastern European languages. Terrified, I am in adrenaline overdrive trying to be calm for my child’s sake. I dial my husband’s cell phone, afraid to turn on the light.
“Call your parents. Now. We are being robbed.” He understands my clipped tone and uses someone else’s phone to dial. He’s told me stories about his petite father holding robbers at gunpoint until the police came. I want my husband to protect me. My mind is racing. What do I do? Trembling, I call my home phone, which rolls over to the second line. I can hear the ringing outside my door throughout the house. I let the phone ring until finally Dan, on the other side of the villa answers, “Massa residence.” Trembling, I hold on to the receiver, my lifeline.
Hoarsely, I whisper, “Turn on lights. Make noise. We have robbers. Come quickly.”
My daughter asks, “Mommy, what’s a robber?”
Wanting to appear calm, I hug my daughter and say, “People who need food are robbers.”
My daughter nuzzles closer. “I love you Mommy.”
Oh, my God, why didn’t I push the panic button? I push the red button on the silent remote to summon our private security company.
45 minutes later a young security guard arrives in a black-ribbed sweater. Could this be the same person? I start shaking and sobbing uncontrollably, so my in-laws, who arrived earlier, speak with the security guard. The police arrive an hour later and tell me that they see no intrusion after investigating the exterior.
“And what about the black glove marks on all of the open cabinet drawers?” I shout, pointing to a dining room of open drawers and doors.
“It’s true. We see the black marks,” they say.
Are you kidding me? This is all they have to say?
The in-laws shake their heads.
“You can’t trust anyone – not the police, not the security service. No one,” they say.
Hours later, Ken appears and asks me to follow him to the patio outside my bathroom. After showing me the scratched metal where the robbers tried to bore out the cylinder to free the robber inside, he places a jewelled knife in my hand and says, “You need this more than any purse.” I look down at the bronze handle with its intricate carving with sapphire jewels. I wonder, is that all it takes…a purse to get a woman in bed?
“You need protection.” Speechless, I take the knife and follow him across the lawn, to outside the media room double glass doors. He points to the ground. I see four round wood cylinders.
“See where they bored out holes in the door?”
Oh my God, this had to have happened when we were at the beach, I think. Pointing to a crowbar in the grass he says, “They made a custom-made iron rod to open your only door handles that didn’t require a key.”
I’m paralyzed. I remember that the double doors have an elaborate system that unlocks when you rotate them up and locks when you rotate them down to lock them in place.
“They were casing the place while we were watching the movie,” he says.
We sit down on the step. I begin to cry. He says, “You live in a prison behind bars. Are you the host or are you the hostage?”
I open my mouth, but I don’t have the courage to answer. My houseguest – the intruder – the man I do not feel safe with, is telling me that I need protection.
My husband calls from the airport en route to Nice. “You now have a private guard and dog patrolling the property.” Our house guests leave, just before he arrives. We open the safe in my closet and find it empty. We realize that my wedding ring that I left in my jean pocket and my other jewellery in the bowl of cotton swabs are also gone. My mind can’t stop replaying the evening of the robbery. I open the drape in my closet and go outside to look in through the closet window with my husband.
“I can’t see the laundry hamper where I took off my clothes.”
“Are you sure?” he asks.
“I wasn’t alone,” I say, terrified. “Oh my…I was naked…with someone in the closet.” I retreat deeper into my fear. The house is quiet and my husband is organizing an elaborate security system of cross beam motion sensors for the wall-to-wall glass doors for the screening room. Doesn’t he understand that our daughter saw a masked man in our bedroom?
“What about our family ski trip?” I ask. “I have business back in San Francisco, but you take the kids,” he says. He doesn’t suggest I come home with him and I don’t ask him to. It’s as if the winter sunlight has illuminated the widening crack in our marriage.
Back in San Francisco, my husband calls.
“You moved our Maserati and Mercedes outside of our courtyard,” he says angrily.
“Have you forgotten that the robbers took our keys? When they come back to get the cars, they will not scare our children,” I bark.
“You’re being paranoid,” he says without confidence. “I found an armed policeman and his family to move into the guesthouse.”
I’ll visit Florence to help Dan move into in his college apartment, where he’s studying photography. Dan will tell me that he’s the one who found the drilled out cylinders. We’ll joke about Ken’s taking credit for his discovery and how Dan enjoyed his first Bailey’s. I’ll laugh because it feels good to laugh again and wonder whose laughter is coming out of my body. Thankful for the family that we are, I’ll ask him to accompany us to the Italian Alps to learn to ski for the first time. I’ll insist on booking the corner room on the highest floor and ask Dan to check the room before I enter. When I see my children ski for the first time, I’ll remember what it feels like to feel joy again. At night in the hotel, I’ll awake wondering: Who was in my closet with me? How did they get the code to the safe? While we’re in the alps, the robbers will seize our SUV when they follow my father in-law to a hypermarket. I’ll want to tell my husband that I was right to move the cars outside, but really, what’s the point?
7:47 a.m. Sunrise and the beginning of what would become a habit – greeting the morning. The morning of the robbery, the sun rose at 7:47 a.m. That was when my eyes finally closed, and when my daughter began sleeping in my bed. Shaken to my core, I’d spend my nights awake looking through iron security bars at the moonlight view of the sea and wonder how something so terrible could happen in a place so exquisitely beautiful.
One friend said, “You’re the only person who hadn’t been robbed; it was a matter of time.” Another counselled, “Don’t make any changes for a year.” I heard the whispers. “She is fragile, give her time.” But I had left my body. The outside world’s indifference created a vacuum for my loneliness. I realized that waiting for the sun to rise could neither be rushed, nor delayed. It came on its own terms, releasing its hold with every golden shard of light at sunrise. It wasn’t until June 8 that a sunrise caught up with my fear at 5:49 a.m. Feeling like an interloper in my life, I disarmed the alarm, unlocked the terrace doors, and walked out on the lawn. I’d heard that sometimes, in summer, the Scirocco wind would bring high temperatures and reddish desert sand across the Mediterranean Sea from Africa. That morning, the sky lit up in shades of red, orange, yellow, and pink, illuminating everything they touched with beauty, colour, and life. The earth began to glow in the golden light as the sun rose higher and higher in the sky. The smell of chalky limestone, lavender, and orange blossoms, sat still with me. I sighed, relaxing my shoulders, breathing in the day’s first light. Unclouded clear radiant sunlight enveloped me and in that light I could see traces of the red sand. In the end, it wasn’t the robbery. It wasn’t the young babysitter back in Texas with whom he was sleeping. It was that I needed him. Trauma, the ultimate hijacker doesn’t negotiate. I took the proffered advice and didn’t make any changes for a year. Then I filed for divorce. My divorce was an exodus from my marriage as much as my contrived self. Sitting on a moonlit dock on Lake Austin, far from the magic moonlight of the south of France wondering who I’d become – I smiled. Sometimes when you have it all, the only thing left to discover is what you need.