June is the smell of lilacs still lingering in the air

June is reading under a tree on the far end of a wide grassy hill. Turning towards the shade and feeling the heat of the sun on the back of your neck. Shooing away ants and spiders insisting on climbing onto you and everything you touch. A faint rattle of a bell, like the sound of a coin bouncing off the floor when it slips your fingers in the laundry room, and all of a sudden a small white curly dog jumps on the opened book on the towel and nearly licks your nose. The owner comes closer and keeps saying he is sorry, but it is a moment of shared excitement you are not sorry for. The soft fur briefly brushes against your forearm and the little bell scurries off. 

There are two kinds of people. When your hat is blown away by the wind and falls on the road, one kind drives over it and the other sees you standing on the side and stops to let you retrieve it. You tell yourself you should always strive to be the second kind. 

It is enjoying a meal at a high top table outside your favorite restaurant. Observing a group of young women in long dresses and one man cross the street to the Italian restaurant. One of the women is in a reddish pink dress with interesting flowy sleeves that drape like a shawl, hot pink hair and pink glasses and no shoes. The group peeks inside the window and turns back, calling out to a buff man in a white apron who just came out from his restaurant for a break. Do you have alcohol? they yell, and he yells back he doesn't but they are welcome to bring their own. They regroup and cross the street again to walk past and look at you plate, go inside and backtrack again. The young man says this place doesn't have drinks either but is cooler because it serves sodas. They walk down the street in a single file and you wonder why people don't do their research.

June is the smell of pancakes on Sunday morning, sweetness with a hint of vanilla. 

It is a woman next door singing. You can't make out the words or tune, but it sounds familiar somehow and reminds you of theater productions. 

You stare at the blank journals on the bookshelf, tracing their spines, picking one up and turning the pages. You imagine what it will feel like to write in them and can't make up your mind, because you finished writing in yours and need to start a new one.

It is walking up a steep hill, dragging your legs that seem to weigh twice as much in the relentless summer heat. It is gently rocking in a hammock together, listening to the shaky leaves of the oak tree above us and watching the sun climb down. It is watching just one more episode of Stranger Things while eating banana split ice cream out of matching bowls, because you're trying to have sensible portions but you keep refilling the bowl anyway. 

June is when you are anticipating the moment you will be bicycling down a particular street where the trees form a canopy, and you slightly lift your helmet to wipe the sweat off your forehead and feel the wind. 

The labored breath and snorting of a pug who is out on a walk with his owner trailing behind. 

It is a sweat soaked runner who walks with hunched shoulders, defeated like someone who has given up on outrunning a rain storm. 

An abstract sculpture suddenly takes up space on your path, a giant rock resembling a coral reef. People turn their heads and stop to look at this unusual thing materialized overnight. You tend to notice what is out of place and not what has already been there. 

You keep browsing in the bookstore on your way home from work, buying more books and ordering notebooks online for adrenaline. 

June is the old matted cat too tired to patrol around his yard, lying flat on the stoop, who slides down the steps like liquid to get closer to you.

It is looking for bunnies on your evening strolls. The two of you search for the one with the sprained leg. You see him in a spot where he is not usually spotted, chewing a blade of grass on a new lawn. He pauses mid-chew, his jaw turned to one side and then another, mastering the art of pretending to be elsewhere for the sake of blending in.

June is a strange dream where your shoes are full of sand and you see a house under construction in the middle of nowhere. It is a house of someone you know back in time. You try to take a photo for when you travel to the present but you can't find your phone and the sun hurts your eyes.

It is a thunderstorm. The rain streams down like a high pressure shower and within minutes it is over and a warm glow shines from around the corner. The tree stands perfectly still, when just a moment before the branches shook violently and a green flash card rose up from a balcony and flew up the roof of the building and into the sky. 

In June you miss the vibrant green of May and blooming hydrangeas that now lay collapsed from the heat. 

You start writing in a new journal and wonder if you've made a mistake, but now that you have filled several pages you no longer fidget with the bookmark. It is starting to feel like home and you feel something like happiness. 

June is the smell of lilacs still lingering in the air even though the flowers are gone.

Limits to devotion

“We are, all of us, molded and remolded by those who have loved us, and though that love may pass, we remain none the less their work – a work that very likely they do not recognize, and which is never exactly what they intended."

I came across this epigraph in a memoir and wanted to read the source. François Mauriac’s The Desert of Love, English translation by Gerard Hopkins, is a brilliant novel revolving around the shared experience of a father and son coincidentally infatuated with the same woman and the impact this passion has on the rest of their lives. I thoroughly enjoyed this story because it is not what it seems. This is a story about the awakening of desire, not of sexual love, but of the desire to come alive.

The story takes place in the early 1900s in a small town in France. Paul Courrèges lives in a lively multi-generational household. He is a respectable doctor and is quick to defend Maria Cross, who is one of his patients, whenever someone speaks ill of her. Maria Cross leads an unconventional life as a mistress to a Monsier Larousselle, left alone under the pretense of being a caretaker of one of his residences. She spends her days stretched on the sofa in the drawing-room, occupying herself with books and daydreams. She has the doctor tied around her finger, entertaining herself with sending him secret invitations to long visits in her room. After a while, she grows bored of him and shatters his heart before any semblance of the romance he imagines comes to fruition.

Paul’s son, Raymond, is an unruly and sensitive young man in the formative years of his youth. He just so happens to lock eyes with Maria on a six o’clock trolley on his way to school. The two are attracted to one another instantly, and this daily non-verbal rendezvous on the tram rekindles some excitement in her life and slowly transforms him into a man – at least in the outward sense. Paul, preoccupied with suffering from his heartbreak despair, barely recognizes the handsome man sitting across him at the dining table.

The story opens with Raymond, seventeen years later, seeing Maria Cross enter a bar.

“He recognized her as he would a road familiar to him in childhood, even though the oaks once shading it had been cut down.” (p. 10)
Struck down by the experience of his first love, he remembers her and the story takes us back to his upbringing and shifts perspectives from Paul, Raymond, and Maria Cross. Neither Paul nor Raymond could ever have her, because having her would shatter the “mysterious enchantment” in their eyes. Infatuation drives us to use another as “prop” for our idealized self, as John Armstrong puts it in his exploration of the variety of loves in Conditions of Love. Raymond needed Maria Cross to see himself as the desirable man he longed to be, and gave Paul a spring to his step in his otherwise lonely life. In Maria Cross, Paul fancies an “intellectual” partner to have deep conversations with and fantasizes about re-living his youth.

Paul’s wife, Lucie, is another suffering character.
“Tangled in her clumsy efforts at tenderness, she was, as it were, always groping her way forward with outstretched hands. But whenever she touched him it was to bruise.” (p. 27)

She constantly talks to him about trifles, town gossip and conflicts with their servants, drawing him away. When the doctor is bed-ridden and suddenly musters the strength to go see Maria Cross after being called, his wife is struck by jealousy and horror, still attends to him. She runs after him, “breathless,” bringing him a piece of bread and a chocolate bar for his trip. The choice of food, a chocolate bar, made me picture the two of them as children playing house. Children, who at first loved each other, and now cohabitate.

The most moving scene, to me, is where Paul finds himself alone in the garden outside their home in the evening after another failed attempt at conversing with his son. Lost in thought and feeling weak, he places his hand over the bark of a chestnut tree and remembers his children had carved their initials on it when they were younger. He embraces the tree and lays his cheek against the bark, a tender and vulnerable gesture of affection and unconditional love that is so difficult for him to express to his family members. 

“No love, no friendship can ever cross the path of our destiny without leaving some mark upon it forever.” (p. 62)
Infatuation, love, fear of aging, and a hunger to live, all of these concepts and desires are timeless. I enjoyed this book because the portrayed experiences of each character are relatable even today, and each profound in their own way. While there are romantic undertones, it is truly a story about the unbreakable bond between a father and son. Maria Cross is merely a catalyst for their shared desire to live.


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