Space Between Mountains

Story no. 4. 

We started in Martigny, Dad and I. He made noises about wishing he could have brought his own bike, the three-thousand-dollar custom creation, super lightweight aluminum frame enamel-coated with the precisely correct shade of blue, thirty gears and mounted with pouches to carry his tire kit and first-aid . . . but the truth was that the price of flying into Geneva from Omaha with Mom had already made him white-knuckle tense, and any further expenses would have pushed him beyond rigid to unhinged.

Mom was meeting us in Montreux. It was only a fifty kilometer ride—thirty miles, Dad said, have you forgotten how to talk like an American—but in any case the ride should have taken four or five hours allowing for time to stop at the St. Bernard museum and to take pictures of the gorges—not too long to leave Mom alone, and anyway the train ride from Lausanne to Montreux was an easy one, twenty minutes. I had printed out maps for her, so she knew exactly how to get from my studio to the gare and from the gare to the castle we were going to see together. There was a piece of paper tacked to the fridge with an orange magnet: parlez-vous anglais, “par-lay voo ahn-glay;” pourriez-vous m’aider, “poo-ree-ay voo may-day;” je voudrais celui-ci, s’il vous plait, “juh voo-dray suh-looee-see, see-voo-play.” Below that I had written my phone number and careful instructions how to call it from a pay phone, from Skype, from a Swiss cell phone (what if she got locked out and had to ask a stranger to help her?)

It was an easy route, for the sake of both of our knees, Dad’s bearing years of work as a dairy veterinarian, mine cracking under the weight of unfortunate genetics and too much travel. Too much walking, more like; too much climbing up and down things that I was entirely unready to go up and down.

My father had biked semi-competitively for twenty or twenty-five years. What I mean when I say semi-competitively is that my father can’t open a jar of pickles without turning it into a competition: was he the fastest at opening that jar? Did he dent the lid when he wrenched it open? Could my brother have done it more quickly, more smoothly, with better technique? But the only time that he really measured himself against other riders was during the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride, when he made a point of rising every morning at five AM and finishing the sixty or seventy or one hundred mile ride each day by eleven.

We picked up our bikes at the luggage counter in the Lausanne gare and boarded the train in the empty section left for people with large equipment on the CFF. We talked about diesel trains versus electric trains and he told me the story again of riding a Union Pacific passenger train out to western Nebraska as a young Boy Scout.

He asked me again if I was staying in Switzerland past my Ph.D., and I said I still didn’t know.

He told me Swiss immigration was awful, and couldn’t I get a job in the U.S.? It didn’t even have to be in the Midwest. They’d visit me in Boston or . . . somewhere. But not Chicago. The taxes were too high. (What about San Francisco, I almost said.)

I think that there are two kinds of parents. Type one: the free space between them and their children gets easier and more open with every passing year, as the obligation to wear the parental mask, to have the correct kinds of emotions and opinions for fear of warping your progeny, slowly drops away. We can just be ourselves now: we don’t have to think every minute about who is the parent and who is the child. Type two: the safe space diminishes by the length of a question every year.

The taxes are too high in Chicago. Do you have a retirement fund set up?

Martigny is a nice town. I don’t like being away from Lake Geneva so much; it makes the space between mountains seem less cramped.

The route I picked goes along the Rhone. We started at the St. Bernard museum, circling the kennel with the dogs and making appreciative noises. Safe jokes: Now we just need to go to Berne and find a Bernese Mountain Dog museum, I said. That’s a nice city.

It’s the capital.

Yes. I wonder how they picked a capital here, all of the cantons are so different . . .

We went on like this as we got up on the bikes and started off.

It took me a minute or ten or twenty to notice, because my learning to bike was a product of coming to Switzerland, and I still felt unsteady and foreign the first first rotations my legs moved through, before my thigh muscles recollected the ten-year-old drunkenly swerving around our gravel driveway in belated triumph and set me going in a steady direct motion.

But Dad was slow. I hadn’t seen him bike in years: I hadn’t been back in the U.S. during his usual season for five. I recalled the leg he had been favoring the day before as we walked up to the Cathédrale. My knees are my father’s knees are his father’s knees are his . . .

So I didn’t hear the sound it made when it happened, when part of the bike or a section of his knee gave way, but part of me was waiting: waiting: waiting. I couldn’t catch his weight but I could brace him on the good side as he came down off the bike, and we hobbled/walked/rolled to a tree on the side of the path so he could lean against it and swear in a huge voice and scream at me.

Don’t sit down. I can’t get you back up. Let me call.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. Dad curses like this when he is kicked by a cow, bitten by a dog, bucked by the bike.

His insurance would reimburse him, I said. Right?

FUCK. Fuck, fuck fuck.

Swiss medical care is expensive, I said, and wanted to bite down hard on my hand and not talk again. Maybe you can pretend to be me your daughter and you could use my insurance and then it won’t be expensive and it won’t hurt and we would have had a nice time between Martigny and Montreux and I could show you, I could show you . . .

We forgot about Mom waiting at the Chateau de Chillon, and when I remembered I couldn’t call her because my parents had only American cell phones, old ones without the chip, and when I rushed into the apartment that night at nine PM (why do hospitals take so long), she was sitting at my table, my kitchen table, doing nothing and holding her purse in her lap.

When I came in she looked up at me, eyes wide and betrayed, and started to cry.

I think that there are two kinds of parents.

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