Apr 26 ● BY C.C. Ashmead
He broached the subject as she returned from the bathroom, always a particularly vulnerable moment in life. And perhaps the return from the bathroom in a well-lit café in Paris is a vulnerable moment in the life of any middle-aged American woman. Marla had just sat down and smiled when Cyrus said,
“I think we should have an open marriage.”
Her mouth formed an ‘O,’ but she said nothing. Maybe she had misheard?
“Just listen. I’ve been thinking about it since we landed.”
Marla’s waistband pinched into her gut and made her feel as though, if she did not stand up soon, something terrible would happen to the seat of the chair.
“You’re leaving?” Cyrus said. He added excitedly, “Don’t make a scene.”
She sat down.
“Oh, that’s worse,” she said. She stood up.
“I shouldn’t have brought it up. Not until we were home again.”
“Things go over better at home.”
She wondered if this was true. More things in general went over at home, both good and bad, and perhaps this gave the impression of them all being mundane.
“I don’t mind,” she said.
“Traveling has always done funny things to your head. Remember when you bought that hat at Niagara Falls?”
“Keep your voice down.”
“Nobody speaks English here.”
Cyrus flung his napkin into his lap. Somehow she had embarrassed him. Hadn’t he embarrassed her?
“The waiters are looking at us.”
Marla had a feeling that their waiter, a contemptuous-looking Frenchman, was eyeing her from the doorway of the café because there was only one bathroom, and she had already used it twice. There was a paper sign on top of the toilet that said, in English, “No shitting.”
She stood up and, this time, stayed standing.
“Let’s just go to the castle, Cyrus. Didn’t we come to this country to see the castles?”
They had not had sex in years, but this did not bother Marla. If she were to walk past the same brook every day and watch it ebb away, it would not strike her as a horror. Only sudden changes, extreme and violent, suggested horror. Hurricanes, droughts. Though she recognized how a man her age might view things differently. There was more mortality in the brook that ebbed away. It showed that all things end, regardless.
He’s afraid, she thought.
A darker, deeper part of herself imagined taking her nails and clawing out his eyes. How dare he?
“Here courtiers gathered around Napoleon as he rose for the day,” the smooth female voice on the audio guide said as they entered a room with floor-to-ceiling tapestries and an opulent little four-poster bed. “He had a poor relationship with his second wife. They slept in separate rooms.”
Marla wished Meredith were here. These situations did not baffle her. Meredith understood (instinctively, it seemed) that having short hair or long hair or big legs or skinny legs had nothing to do with sex appeal. That your skin would decay when you died, so you might as well have it tattooed. Meredith had the capacity of a witch to make sense of broken, disparate things, producing vital utterances with prophetic power: “The system will collapse. The end is coming. The future is female.” Almost everything she said came printed on a t-shirt.
“What would Meredith say?” Marla wondered aloud.
“That it’s a good thing there was a revolution.” Cyrus pointed at the high, coffered ceilings with one sturdy finger. “Did Napoleon come before or after?”
“Then too bad there wasn’t a second one. Well, I guess there was a second one, wasn’t there? When did France become a democracy?” He frowned. “Is France a democracy?”
Embossed in the ceiling of the library were paintings of gods extending their hands to French kings. Women with breasts like rosehips covered their pubic areas with tempting silk cloths. The longer Marla stared, the more she was overwhelmed by their titanic pink-and-white skin, their parted lips, their latent sense of fear and sexual surprise.
“My neck hurts,” she said, rubbing it as they walked into the bright and blinding gardens of Fontainebleau. The fountains were shut off, so there was no visual relief from the trees and shrubs, which formed dark, sharp triangles against the sky. Marla leaned on Cyrus, who was humming a jazz melody to himself that had played in the café at lunch.
“Sleep on the train back,” he said.
They discussed it first at the expensive grocery store in Montparnasse, then past the Jardins de Luxembourg where men with little white hats sold hot cocoa and macarons. During their dinner on the Seine, Marla and Cyrus considered design and duration. The boat glided on dark waters past the Grand Palais, armored entirely in glass.
“You can have three, and I can have three,” she said.
“Why three? Why that number?”
“Three each,” Marla insisted. “That’s my limit.”
“How long?” Cyrus asked. “A night?”
“I don’t think the time matters.”
“One could be two weeks, the next two months, the third two years?”
“You don’t think a woman could love me for two years.”
“I think a woman could love you for thirty.”
“Will we tell the children?”
“I don’t see why they need to know,” she said.
“What if a woman leaves her panties in the house—in our bathroom?”
“You’ll have to say they’re mine.”
“Meredith will never buy it.”
“We could come back from France changed people. I’m sure lots of Americans come back with suitcases full of underwear. Silky and shocking.”
“Meredith might support it,” Cyrus said. “She wrote that article, didn’t she? You know she does that…” He pretended to spank an invisible person on the bottom.
Marla giggled. She was drunk.
“They do that in France, too.”
“Mer says they do it everywhere.”
He lifted a finger, as if quoting somebody: “But particularly in New York.”
Cyrus pushed away his plate of sole, half-eaten. In the shadows cast by the rocking boat, his face was at once very old and very boyish. Marla wondered how she seemed to him. Not intolerable, hopefully? That was how she felt about him, and she meant it as a compliment.
“What if I never find another woman, Marla?”
“How do you know?”
“I’ll write you a good review on Yelp.”
He snorted, then put his hand to his forehead. “Our parents couldn’t imagine doing this.”
“Sure they imagined it.”
“Mine didn’t. They were farmers.”
“What else is there to do on a farm?”
They laughed. The ship rocked gently. Probably there were lots of nights on a farm when you felt a cold foot close to your own and imagined it attached to a stranger. The thought filled you with fear. And more than fear.
Marla looked at Cyrus’s hand there on the table and tried to imagine it attached to the arm of a man she had never met, whose face she would see for the first time when she looked up.
The next day he took her to a lingerie shop on the Champs-Elysees. It was very expensive, with a tall spiral staircase. Men in black sunglasses guarded the doors. Strange to think that little silken things were as well-protected as diamonds at Tiffany’s.
“Can’t believe I’m buying this for another man,” he said as they went inside. She grabbed his hand and squeezed.
The woman who guided them around the shop was petite, with plum-colored lips and long, black hair. Her manner was skeptical, charming, and discrete. She took Marla to the half of the shop that offered more modest apparel, with long sheer nighties buttoning to the neck.
“That’s nice,” Cyrus said, fingering a slip fringed with red lace.
“No,” Marla said, indicating the other side of the shop. There the mannequins wore a series of ribbons and bows and nothing in between. Not unlike a Christmas veal trussed with string.
“Something a little more… adventurous, Madame?”
Marla took several inappropriate outfits into the changing room. Staring at her nakedness was painful and hilarious. How she’d agonized over her thighs when she was twenty-five! Then they’d looked to her like whale blubber. She’d pinched her butt and cried over the cellulite, mashed her face with her hands and imagined molding it into the flawless profile of Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago. How she’d hated herself. This creature in the mirror was even more massive, ungainly, but with that fixed, fascinating expression of something wholly itself, like cows that couldn’t look more comfortable stopping traffic. Why had she waited so long not to care? She laughed. But when she emerged from the room, she was timid, and she carried just a few of the articles she liked, folded into little packets of silk roughly the size of her palm. Cyrus bought them and looked in the bag curiously. She slapped his hand.
“And which color will you wear for the other man?”
“Three other men,” she said.
“One right after the other?”
“I’ll have them all at once. I’ll keep them for years. Like moles.”
They walked in the sunshine toward the Arc de Triomphe. Up the Champs Elysees sped a few classic cars from the 1950s, the tops down. Old women in the backseats waved yellow silk scarves, which caught and buffeted on the wind. The tires shrieked and the drivers—men in Panama hats—jumped a little behind their steering wheels. Marla stared at them like she stared at parades when she was a little girl, with that sticky, warm feeling in her mouth, the desire to eat candy, the sense that something was about to happen. She turned her head to watch them blaze down the road.
“What do you think they’re wearing underneath?” Cyrus asked her.
His breath was hot and close to her ear. She shrieked. But she did not hit him with the little bag. She was afraid of the undergarments falling all over the street, like large, colorful flakes of snow.
Tony had emailed them Meredith’s article. The subject line read “maybe you should read this,” and the body was blank except for a link. Cyrus had been convinced that it was spam. Perhaps Tony had been Googling his sister’s name, or she had asked him to review it, or, more embarrassingly, a college classmate had shared it on social media. The article was published in one of those online magazines that looked sleek yet seemed to talk about issues both insignificant and debauched, like the history of vaginal douching. Meredith taught at a little college in New York, so they were accustomed to seeing her name in obscure academic journals, which Marla kept by her nightstand, but they had not expected the title of the article: “How My Kinks Freed Me from a Conservative Background.”
“But we voted for Kerry,” Marla said.
“And Obama,” Marla continued, “Both times.”
Meredith charged her childhood with the sins of being “suffocating” and “provincial” and “hypocritical.” The vitriol was so pointed and (humiliatingly) fond that Cyrus retreated into the bathroom and banged around in the drug cabinet, yelling how he could never find the Tums. Marla had cried into her needle-point pillow, “Have we lost our little girl?” But it felt false the moment she spoke. She was only trying to indicate, if a little melodramatically, that something was unexpectedly very wrong.
They huddled together in the master bedroom, like politicians in the wake of a scandal.
“Did you know she had sex when she was fourteen?” Cyrus asked her.
“No,” Marla said.
“Did you suspect?”
“No.” Then Marla said, “Certainly not with that algebra tutor.”
“We should’ve pressed charges.”
“He was sixteen.”
“Well,” Cyrus said, waving his hand.
“He’s a man now. With his own family, probably.”
“On our couch,” Cyrus said.
“Not anymore, we gave that one to your mother.”
They thought about this for a moment.
“She went to nightclubs. How did we not know that?”
“She always said it was a bat mitzvah,” Marla said. “She was always going to bat mitzvahs.”
“It’s the internet,” Cyrus said, just as Marla said, “Was it her friends?”
“Are we horrible people, Cyrus?”
“Mer doesn’t think we’re horrible people.”
“Why did she say all of that?”
“It’s like that new fake wood,” Cyrus said. “They’re putting it in all the windows at our new outfits. You and me, Marla, we’re real wood. We come from the forest. There’s ups and downs to that. Termites, water damage. Meredith, she’s this new, composite material. It looks like wood, but it’s not. And it’s better for a home today, than the old wood. People still like old wood, but the new stuff is the moneymaker.
Marla nodded. Cyrus put his hand on her lower back.
“Maybe we should try something,” he said. “New.”
His hand trailed up her back. She shifted away from him.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” she said, though Cyrus was not asking that they talk about anything. Meredith’s article had exposed something about their marriage that had, until this moment, seemed tolerable, even desirable.
“Maybe we should take that vacation,” he said, withdrawing his hand.
“Where would we go?”
“Tahiti. Antigua. Or we could go somewhere like Brazil.”
She imagined sweating in Rio de Janeiro, surrounded by semi-nude dancers with glistening bodies girded by massive pink feathers. The idea did not excite her.
“We could take a cruise,” she said.
“Okay,” he said, and she knew that the idea did not excite him, either.
I could shoot him, Marla thought. He could shoot me. We could run naked around the neighborhood, burn the house down, sell everything, live on a boat, write our own articles exploiting every sexual experience we’ve had in our marriage. Or we could get a divorce.
Instead, one month later, they went to France.
That night he watched her in the mirror as she emerged from the bathroom wearing the new black dress they had purchased near the lingerie store.
Again Cyrus asked, “You’re feeling up to it?”
She retorted: “Cold feet?”
Cyrus shook his head. He wore a suit of dark, sumptuous blue. The blue of 9:00 p.m. in the summer, Marla had said when he showed it to her in the shop. The tailor had told them how sweet it was to see romance again in Paris. “People think it is just the holding of the hands, kiss kiss, movie star.” Marla and Cyrus had grinned at each other, like children about to steal something. “Ah,” the tailor had said, “you are really in love. Like the sixteen-year-olds?”
“We’ve spent almost all our money,” Cyrus told her, undoing one button on his shirt.
“No more meals. We’re both too fat.”
“Anyway we’ll be having too much sex,” he said, “to eat.”
They both became silent. Perhaps Cyrus was wondering what Marla wondered. How much could a body provide another body, before it was expended? He coughed into his hand and adjusted his tie, his pink pocket square. She stood behind him and smoothed his shoulders, adjusted his collar, combed back his hair. Wife, or mother? Friend?
“Give me your wallet,” she said.
“I’m the breadwinner around here,” he said.
But he handed it to her, and she dropped it into her purse, itself slim, discreet, like the shop girl.
“And your watch,” she said.
He unclipped it from his wrist and dropped it in the purse, too. Their eyes looked into one another’s in the mirror.
“Your cross,” she said.
“Put it in.”
With her help he undid the rosary from his neck and dropped it into the handbag. She did the same with her pearl earrings and her necklace with the sapphire stud. All items he had purchased for her when they were younger and what the tailor had called “in love.”
She held up her hand and flexed her fingers.
“Now?” he said.
He removed his own slowly from his finger, and the skin beneath was pale relative to the hand. She did the same. Both the engagement ring, and the wedding ring. One plain and gold, the other embossed by a small, jubilant diamond. It twinkled briefly red. They dropped their rings into the handbag. She snapped the bag shut, then placed it in the empty drawer by the side of the bed. When she stood and turned around, he was by the door. He looked like a different man. He opened the door. She exited like a stranger.
Along the bridge they walked, not holding hands. A few years earlier, the walls of this bridge would have been loaded with locks symbolizing eternal love. These locks looked cheap and garish individually, but terrible and metallic in the aggregate, like the backs of innumerable beetles clinging to the bridge. Each season this terrible weight caused the sides of the bridge to fall into the gray and churning Seine below. Municipal workers of Paris dredged the dripping, icy railing onto the shore, where the metal sheath sat like the vestige of an ancient giant’s armor.
Tonight there were no locks on the bridge. The chain-link walls had been replaced by solid panels covered in colorful, inoffensive graffiti. The weather was warm. Their steps were quick, indifferent, impatient. They did not hold hands, or glance at each other, or indicate that they were headed to the same place, or together. Except that their paths were parallel and would sometimes weave close, then far again, like cars driving recklessly in the dark.
At the door of the Caveau de la Huchette, she paid the entrance fee for them both. When she looked down her neckline, she caught a glimpse of red, and this made her shiver with expectation. Of what, she was not sure. They went inside, her first, then him. The bar was dark and empty. A few figures lurked in the corners, but they did not turn to look at the middle-aged couple, once called Cyrus and Marla, Marla and Cyrus.
Now down a short staircase with a low ceiling. The band beneath was playing jazz, couples thronging around an intimate hardwood floor. The younger couples danced badly, gaily but awkwardly, while the older couples swung the jitterbug and the Charleston. The women twirled. The men led. The band tapped their feet, blew their horns. Spectators at the sides sipped expensive drinks. The younger dancers watched the older dancers with surprised and humiliated appreciation.
When Marla looked behind her, Cyrus was gone.
She sat beside a young man. He had a square jaw and dark, heavy eyes. She leaned over and asked whether he was a student, and he said “What?” loudly and in a foreign accent. She asked again. “Belarus,” he shouted, “I play tennis.”
“My son,” she said, “plays tennis, too.”
He couldn’t understand her, so she yelled. People shushed them. She smiled and bobbed her head to the music. The young man stood and looked around as if he had seen a friend, leaving his drink on the table behind him.
Another man sat down beside her. She hesitated to look at him. She could feel his shoulder, the prickle of his suit. Her fingers drummed nakedly on the table. She moved her head from side to side. When she turned to smile at him, she saw that he was a woman. The woman turned to her coldly, then surveyed the room.
“My husband is missing,” the woman said.
Instantly Marla felt as small and ordinary as if she had been caught outside the bathroom with toilet paper on her shoe. “Do you need some help?”
“You’re from America? You haven’t seen an American man?”
“No—just a young man from Belarus.”
“Is that some kind of joke?”
The woman was belligerent but not drunk. This was worse than being belligerent and drunk in that it suggested a temperament problem.
“I don’t know why I come around here anymore,” the woman said.
Marla resolved to ignore her. But when she attempted to move away even slightly, the woman’s hand was like a claw on her arm.
“I said, I don’t know why I come here anymore.”
“I don’t know why you do, either!”
“I come,” the woman said in a low voice, “because there isn’t any other place to go.”
“You should put out a police alert.”
“Lay fleek, the French call them. That’s what they call police. Fleeks.”
“Let go of my arm.”
“Alright.” The woman sounded surprised, and her grip relented. Marla turned to leave, and the woman lunged forward, kissing her on her open mouth. Marla pushed her away.
“Okay,” the woman said. She laughed.
In all the years Marla had not changed. She could not change. She knew this now. She pushed through the people back up the stairs, through the dark bar, into the night. She stumbled onto the sidewalk. Traffic flowed smoothly, neon eyes in the darkness, honking at pedestrians who stumbled and ran across the street, laughing. Marla ran across the street, too, away from the Caveau and toward the edge of the quay. The lights reflected on the water, revealing its supple, organic edges, its liquid bent. Marla ran until she reached the edge and looked down into the river, breathing heavily.
A hand grabbed her shoulder. She screamed. Turning, she saw it was Cyrus. He was shorter than her, she suddenly remembered. His mustache was limp. His smile was skewed, and one eye was bigger than the other. The left. She saw him immediately and entirely in all his pieces and his flaws, and then he dissolved again, back into her husband of thirty years.
“Where did you go?”
“I was afraid,” he said. “What would Meredith say?”
“She’d say—you big chickens.”
“I guess we weren’t ready for the big time.”
“It’s France, isn’t it? Or the wine?”
“I was crazy for suggesting it.”
“No. It seemed like fun.”
“We’ll tell a story about it someday. It’ll be a good joke.”
They kissed. No sparks, but relief.
Three each, she thought, as she kissed him.
Three each, he thought, kissing her back.