translated from the French by Adrianna Hunter
People were “bridging” Ascension Day with the weekend and taking the Friday off. Neither Juliette nor Olivier was working. And the children didn’t have school either. Juliette looked at the sky and thought they could have gone to the country. But three weeks earlier Olivier had decided that he would spend a couple of days in Rome this very Saturday. Three weeks earlier. As they were finishing lunch, she sent the children to play in their bedrooms and, without really thinking, just to be sure, she said:
Put my mind at rest, this weekend in Rome, it doesn’t have anything to do with all this, does it?
I’ve been talking about it for months.
You’ve been talking about it for months but you made up your mind three weeks ago. And yesterday you told me this had been going on for, yes, three weeks. His eyes were evasive. She looked at him incredulously.
So you were planning to go to Rome with her?
I’m going to cancel it, he muttered. I told you that yesterday, I’m not going.
You were planning to go to Rome with her, she said again.
She suddenly felt overwhelmed. It was in Rome that her relationship with Olivier had started. She pictured him taking the plane the next day with this other woman, the phone calls over the next few days, her thinking about them together there in the sunshine, wandering through the streets, chatting on café terraces. Impossible.
Where were you planning to stay with her? At Maria’s apartment?
A few months earlier Olivier’s ex-girlfriend had found out she had breast cancer. It was even one of the reasons that had allegedly helped Olivier make up his mind to visit her.
The tone of his reply to Juliette was clearly intended to point out her heartlessness: Maria has better things to worry about. I didn’t want to mix her up in our problems.
After a pause he added, But Katarina’s in the know. She’s just had an affair herself. It ended badly, actually. She confided in me one time when she was in Paris. I talked about my situation too, and she said we could stay with her. She’s the only person who knows.
That sucked. That really sucked. Katarina had come to visit the year before with her husband and their little girl. Now she was going to have Olivier over with his “mistress,” as they say in trashy stage plays. Juliette could feel her hands getting clammy.
I don’t see what difference it makes, Olivier was saying stubbornly. Would you rather I’d spend money on a hotel?
Either way, it’s a no. If you go to Rome with her, I warn you, when you get back you’ll find your suitcases outside the door.
I’m going to cancel, he said.
A moment later he added: I bought a nonrefundable ticket. It’s money down the drain, but hey.
Juliette didn’t reply, but her thoughts must have been written all over her face because he didn’t press the point.
I’d better go let her know, he said. She’s already packed. I’ll go right away.
Call her, she said.
I can’t tell her on the phone, he retorted. That would be cowardly.
Juliette laughed quietly.
Whereas calling your wife on her cell phone to tell her you’re cheating on her and leaving her to get her shit together with the children while you go off to comfort your girlfriend, you didn’t have any issues with that?
He had his impenetrable look on his face.
I can’t, he said again. I really have to go.
Okay, she said with a vague impression she was reenacting an already familiar scene. Go then.
When Olivier closed the door behind him, it was two in the afternoon.
Juliette cleared the table and sat down for a while to think. Although she was off work that day, she’d asked Yolande, their Caribbean nanny, to come look after the children at the usual time so she could go to the hairdresser. She was a regular at a ridiculously expensive salon near her office in the Eighth Arrondissement; it was one of the few luxuries she allowed herself. Olivier had tried to persuade her of the merits of their local hairdressers, but she had stood her ground as much out of vanity as a need to demonstrate her independence. This particular day she felt less inclined than ever to make concessions to her husband’s economizing. After all, she earned more than he did, was financially autonomous, and wasn’t accountable to anyone.
Sitting in her robe by the bay window with a pile of women’s magazines before her while she waited for Fabrice to attend to her, she tried to take her mind off things by watching the entrance, the flurry of drivers dropping off customers, smiling receptionists in the lobby, manicurists offering their services. Close to her a very elegant brunette was describing her latest trip to Saint-Barth in a high-pitched voice. That was the sort of woman the word “adultery” had been invented for, thought Juliette. All at once she was crushed by sadness again, and she gazed at her reflection in the mirror.
Like all women of her generation, or nearly, she thought she didn’t look her age, and like all women of her generation, or nearly, she was right, although “looking her age” was a difficult concept to define accurately. In its rather muddleheaded way, what it meant to Juliette and to most people was that she looked much younger than her mother had at the same age. This objective and indisputable fact was not due only to the illness and abuse of medications that had prematurely worn her mother down. Juliette’s generation had seen women so radically emancipated that they seemed to have conquered a good ten extra years of youth as a sort of bonus. They were now deemed entitled to powers of seduction and an active sex life pretty much up to menopause, and notwithstanding plain arithmetic, Juliette had only a very abstract notion of passing time and felt much closer to her childhood than to that particular phase. She felt very close collectively to all the Juliettes she had been, and maintained constant, affectionate conversations with these former versions of herself that constituted who she was, with the significant exception of the few years following her rape, years that were like a black hole in which Juliette had lost track of herself; the person she was then had been wiped from her internal radar screen.
Right now it was the fifteen-year-old Juliette looking at herself in the mirror, trying to make her reflection coincide with the image she had always had of a betrayed woman.
It was impossible.
She couldn’t accept that this was happening to her now. To her. Adultery. The very word conjured bourgeois dramas or fusty vaudeville acts. Inside the word “adultery” was the word “adult,” that couldn’t be coincidence. She felt as if Olivier’s confession had propelled her violently into a new stage of her life. It was the end of dreams, youth, ideals. His way of telling her she was just a little woman like all the rest. The previous day he’d looked amazed that she wasn’t persuaded by his argument that he felt he was somehow allowed to betray her because “everyone was doing it.” He seemed to think it was a solid argument, a really good one that couldn’t be countered in any way. That was probably what she resented him for most, for seeing theirs as an ordinary sort of love, a banal love, there wasn’t far to travel between banal and mediocre. The celebrity magazines she started leafing through to clear her thoughts had headlines about people she’d never heard of. She was barely past forty, and all of a sudden she felt old.
Seized by a blast of inspiration when the hairdresser asked her what she wanted, she asked him to cut it. Short. She’d had long or mid-length hair since she was a little girl and had never had the nerve to go shorter than a chin-length bob. It was now or never: Olivier was cheating on her. A page had been turned. This was one way of registering that fact.
Next she went to see the doctor, having managed to secure an appointment that morning. The doctor’s office was in the Eighth Arrondissement too, a short hop from Juliette’s work, which made it easy for her to drop in when she had a cold or sore throat without eating into her workday. There were actually two doctors, sisters, one called Haddou and the other Haddou-Duval, and Juliette never knew which one she was talking to until she was handed her prescription and one of the names had been crossed out. Most likely identical twins. She went straight into the large waiting room, which was stuffy and completely deserted, there was no reception area. The place was old-fashioned, and its cleanliness dubious, fairly surprising in a neighborhood like this. After a long fifteen minutes she spent gazing, motionless, at the stains on the carpet, the doctor’s door opened. A slightly chubby, plain-looking middle-aged woman in a white tunic said Juliette’s name before standing aside to let her in.
What can I do for you? she asked.
Juliette claimed she had a backache and allowed herself to be examined swiftly. She waited until the doctor was sitting at her desk and had started writing out a prescription before adding nonchalantly, as she got dressed: And I’d be grateful if you could prescribe me some Bromazepam.
Dr. Haddou (Duval?) raised an eyebrow as she looked up.
Is there something you’re worrying about?
My husband’s just told me he was having an affair, Juliette heard herself saying with masochistic jubilance.
The doctor nodded, not showing any surprise or compassion or any particular interest. She went back to her prescription and, still scribbling, asked: Will one box be enough, or would you like two?
Perhaps this was routine for a doctor in the Eighth Arrondissement, Juliette thought as she left the office. Perhaps in this very bourgeois neighborhood Dr. Haddou (Duval?) spent most of her time prescribing tranquilizers and antidepressants to ultrarich, idle, cheated-on wives. She looked at the prescription in her hand. Duval.
On her way back to the subway station she walked with her head tilted up toward the Haussmann-style buildings on the boulevard Malesherbes, trying to imagine the apartments behind their tall windows. Given the price per square meter in the neighborhood, they’d be worth a for- tune. So who could afford to have an apartment like that in this day and age? No one she knew, anyway. Who were these mysterious inhabitants of the Eighth Arrondissement whom she never met anywhere, not at work or on vacation or in any of the places where her social life took place? Even in their working-class neighborhood, she and Olivier wouldn’t have been able to afford buying a place now. Prices had nearly doubled in seven years. Those of their friends who’d missed the boat at the time were forced to continue renting, probably for life, and even paying rent was becoming more and more difficult. It suddenly occurred to her that Paris must be populated by millionaires or wealthy heirs, people she came across in the street without even realizing it, or she could only guess they were there, lurking in their cars with tinted windows, because it seemed unlikely people like that would ever take the subway. She was surprised to find herself daydreaming about this world she had glimpsed at the hairdresser’s, where women wearing designer clothes and expensive jewelry sipped cocktails as they confided their marital woes to each other before amusing themselves with draining their husbands’ astronomical bank accounts. Which must be quite a consolation, whatever anyone says.
She went home, gave the children their supper, put them to bed, and then started watching a documentary on the arts channel. At ten o’clock she looked at her watch. It was eight hours since Olivier had left.
She picked up the phone.
He answered immediately. He was coming out of the subway, walking quickly, short of breath. I’m on my way, he said.
He’s back. Lets himself drop into a chair, looking exhausted. Looks at her.
You had your hair cut, he says.
An observation that requires no commentary.
So? Juliette asks.
So I told her. It was awful. She unpacked her bags. She screamed. She cried.
For eight hours?
He looks surprised.
That’s how long you’ve been gone. I don’t mean to be petty, but I’m struck by a certain lack of proportion: five minutes on the phone to tell the woman you’ve been living with for ten years that you’re having an affair with someone else, eight hours to tell the girl you’ve known for three weeks that you’re not going away for the weekend with her.
Let’s drop it, she says. And now?
What did you say to each other about what happens next?
I told her I needed to think, that I didn’t want us to see each other or talk for ten days. Anyway, I have some paid leave to use up before the middle of June, I thought I could go to Aubigny with the children. Use the time to think things through.
Juliette looks at him, totally incredulous.
You didn’t tell her it was over?
No, I told her we’re not going to Rome, I didn’t tell her it was over. I didn’t say I would do that, Olivier retorts warily.
I must have misunderstood, Juliette murmurs.
She smiles feebly. If it takes you eight hours just to cancel a weekend, set aside a good week to tell her it’s finished.
He softens slightly. You need to give me some time, Juliette. I need to go about this gently. Believe me, it’s not easy.