I ASKED HOW LONG the immersion would last, though I’d seen it dozens of times.
“No more than three seconds,” my father said. “You’ll be fine.”
In the cold water, his grip on my shoulder was light; he had never touched me so tentatively. I opened my eyes and they burned; I closed them and saw my father standing by the linen closet. “Don’t forget to bring a towel,” he’d said the night before. “Take the softest one we have.” My father, beaten with a belt constantly as a boy, fed bowls of ketchup soup when that was all they had: Where had he learned such gentleness? When he hit me, he sought my permission first: Do you know why I’m doing this?
Out of love, I had learned to say, which was the same as saying, Go ahead.
This love could take your lungs, I thought. Let me up.
IT ALWAYS BEGINS with the same scene—his long white fingers wrapped around my short black hand. It’s February in Geneva and we’re walking on Cour St-Pierre toward his Great-Aunt Beatrice’s home. Snowflakes fall unhurriedly. They remind me of our long nights in Paris. She is very rich. She will leave me everything when she dies, he says.
Inside Aunt Beatrice’s dark flat, her frail hand clenches the ball of a mahogany walking stick.
She is seated as she eyes me up and down. They speak in French and I try to intuit their meaning.
Elle m’a donné dix bons jours. She gives me . . . has given me, ten good days, he says.
Si vous trouvez du miel, mangez-en juste assez. If you find honey, eat just enough, she says.
The room smells of mint tea and wax. I am not asked to sit down.
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