“What do you recommend?”
Joséphine looked up at the Italian waiter, who stood there ready to take her order. Discouraged by the richness of the menu, she was trying to save herself the effort of having to think.
“I don’t know what you like, Madame.”
“What would you choose?”
Baptiste concealed his derisive expression behind the tall menu because he already knew what came next: the waiter would point out to her what he liked, Joséphine would grimace, he would suggest a second option, she would nod gently, reproach him sullenly for “really” not having the same taste as her, then ask what the people at the next table were having, and demand that very same dish. After this little comedy, which could last four minutes, she would conclude, “Actually, I’m not hungry.”
The waiter withdrew. Joséphine and Baptiste clinked glasses.
After taking a sip of her Brunello, Joséphine fixed her husband with an intent look. “I have something important to tell you.”
“I’ve fallen in love.”
Baptiste blinked, a reaction that mixed surprise and relief. Ever since the unsigned message, the strange yellow letter, had arrived, he had guessed that a plot was being hatched without his knowledge and outside his control. It didn’t take exceptional observation skills to notice that Joséphine kept rushing to the other end of the apartment to make phone calls, disappearing for a long time on the pretext of going shopping, and daydreaming in front of the TV news. Although he had already formulated a theory, he had been waiting for the explanation to come from her. Another husband would have followed his wife in secret, searched through her possessions, stolen her cell phone, established an inventory of her calls, and probably made a scene and demanded the truth. But Baptiste considered such behavior to be beneath him. The son of a couple who tore each other apart in domestic arguments, he had had such a hatred of jealousy since childhood that he had purged himself of it, and was averse to playing the inquisitor; but the true reason for his wait-and-see policy was trust: Joséphine couldn’t possibly be deceiving him.
She was looking at him, awaiting his reaction before carrying on.
“I suspected as much,” Baptiste murmured.
“I guess I didn’t exactly conceal it,” she whispered.
He nodded. Just as long as the conversation keeps to this respectful honesty, he thought. He leaned toward her and smiled. “So you’re in love … Is that good news or bad news?”
She took his hand solicitously. “I don’t know yet. After all, nothing’s going to change for you. No matter what happens, it’s you I’ll choose, Baptiste, and it’s you I’ll stay with. That’s the first thing I wanted to say to you. It’s you, you, you, before anything else in the whole wide world.”
Baptiste felt relieved. A wave of delight made him sink back in his chair. So he had been right to believe in Joséphine’s loyalty. He didn’t mind what she told him now, because she had just confirmed that he was still the chosen one. “When did it start?”
“Two weeks ago.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Arrange a meeting.”
“I want to arrange a meeting between the two of you,” she repeated cheerfully. “It’s natural, after all. You’re my two favorite people in the world. It would make me happy if you liked each other.”
“And who knows?”
“Who knows what?”
“You and I have always had the same tastes. There’s a good chance you might react the same way I did.”
Baptiste was so flabbergasted, he burst out laughing. “You really are unique, Joséphine!”
“I should hope so. So are you.”
To recover from the shock, he poured them more wine
He stared at the ruby-red liquid in his glass. “Sorry to ask for details, Joséphine … Have you … Have you already consummated?”
“Yes.” Modestly, she lowered her eyes. “And if you want details, it was very good. Oh, nothing like you. Very good. Different. You know I could never do without you where such things are concerned.”
Baptiste nodded, knowing she was being sincere: she adored making love with him, and he was surprised he didn’t feel more humiliated at discovering that she had given herself to somebody else. “Strange …”
“That I’m not angry with you. Your confession moves me, make me feel worried and vulnerable, but I don’t feel any anger toward you.”
“I should hope not! After all I’m being honest, I’m telling you everything, and I’ve already assured you that you’re more important to me than anyone else!”
He shook his head. “Try to be more understanding, Joséphine. We’ve been living together for twenty years, and you’ve just told me that the worst possible thing that could have happened has happened.”
“For normal people, yes.”
“Oh, Baptiste, please don’t start putting on the normal people act. Neither of us is normal, or has any intention of being normal.” She seemed really upset by this.
He laughed with delight. “That’s exactly what I was saying. You’ve taken me aback, but I can’t bring myself to be angry with you.”
Encouraged by this, she replied loudly, almost shouting, “Because you love me and I love you. You and I can’t destroy each other.”
Hearing these words, the other patrons turned toward them and smiled benevolently.
Baptiste squeezed her wrist to calm her down. “You’re probably right.”
They began on the antipasti.
Oddly, Baptiste felt more in love than ever.
There was something mysterious and miraculous in the understanding between them. Joséphine dazzled him. Simple, luminous, she viewed existence without brandishing taboos or casting ordinary judgements. Life had taken her by surprise, and she wanted to talk it over with him.
“You know, ever since this affair began, I’ve realized you’re the love of my life. I’m not joking.”
He kissed her hand.
“You’re the love of my life,” she went on, really excited now, “because you’re more intelligent, more talented, and more attentive than anyone else.”
“Go on, I can take compliments.”
“You’re the love of my life because I think you’re handsome, because I’ve liked you for twenty years, because I want to kiss you whenever I see you, because I need you to hold me in your arms and make love to me.”
“You’d better be careful or I might believe you.”
“You’re the love of my life because I want to grow old with you.”
“You’re the love of my life because you’re head and shoulders above all others.”
“Don’t exaggerate, Joséphine: you’ve found yourself another man.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“I’m in love with a woman.”
Baptiste shrank in his seat, turned to stone.
“Her name’s Isabelle,” Joséphine added, eyes sparkling with love.
* * * *
That night, Joséphine and Baptiste made love differently. The subtleties of Italian cuisine, the amount of Brunello they had drunk, the intoxication of a totally new situation brought them closer between the sheets. Because they were aware that other lovers would have lost their tempers, and perhaps even broken up, after that kind of conversation, it was as if their love had been renewed by the presence of danger. Trembling with anxiety and joy, Baptiste felt as if it was the last time. Josephine, the first. It had been a long time since they had last felt such apprehension when faced with each other’s bodies, such a sense of the sacred, such a respect for the intimacy they were offering each other, such bedazzlement at the reward of pleasure. They didn’t embrace so much as commune.
* * * *
The following day, Baptiste locked himself in his study. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t able to write, he needed these hours of solitude.
All he knew so far about Isabelle was that she was the same age as they were, about forty, that she had grown-up children who were completing their studies in the United States, that she still lived with her husband but that all she shared with him were possessions and a few habits.
“You’ll see,” Joséphine had assured him, “she’ll charm the socks off you. When she’s not looking at anyone, she looks quite ordinary, but as soon as she smiles, she has a glow about her.”
Baptiste had to admit it: he found the fact that Joséphine was having an affair with a woman less shocking than if it had been with a man. At least in this case he wasn’t, strictly speaking, in competition: he and Isabelle weren’t operating on the same turf, so Joséphine wouldn’t be distracted by comparisons. Even so, he was worried by the fact that she had a female lover … He couldn’t compete on that unknown continent.
He opened the window and looked out at the birds on Place d’Arezzo pursuing one another from branch to branch, looking more like playful monkeys than gorgeous creatures of the air.
That Joséphine was drawn to a woman didn’t surprise him. Not that she had ever shown such tendencies before, but he thought it was normal to be attracted to the fair sex. He found nothing more erotic than naked women entwined in a bed. If I’d been a woman, I’d have been a lesbian. For a long time, he had been unable to fathom how his gay friends could remain immune to that spell, until he had realized that they did appreciate the beauty of women—some even dressed them, designed their make-up, photographed them, or directed them like nobody else—even if they didn’t desire them. The only way he could explain this contradiction was by analyzing himself: he was capable of admiring a man without wanting to have sex with him. In Baptiste’s eyes, nothing sensual constituted a problem. Since sex was the experience of desire, all forms of it were natural, even minority ones. The group to which an individual belonged had little to do with his or her choices or history, but rather with a biological lottery: whatever your gender, you were endowed with genes that pushed you toward the bodies of one or other gender, and possibly even both.
He closed the window.
Joséphine appeared. “Are you all right for tomorrow night?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Meeting Isabelle …”
Baptiste sighed. He had feared this moment. “Give me time. I want to think.”
“Think? Think about what?”
“I need to get used to the situation.”
“Get used to what? What situation? You don’t know her.” She snuggled up to him. “My dear Baptiste, you have no reason to be upset. The situation’s in your hands. You’ll decide the future. As far as I’m concerned, my position is clear: I refuse to lead a parallel life and I can’t shut myself up in the closet marked ‘adultery.’ If you can’t stand Isabelle, if you tell me you never want to see her again, I’ll leave her. I’ll suffer, but she’ll go. I swear it. She either comes into our lives, or vanishes from them.”
“Is it as simple as that?”
“Don’t be scared. You have nothing to fear, my love.”
Mechanically, he stroked her arm. “But what about her? Does she want to see me?”
“She can’t wait.”
“Isn’t she scared?”
They laughed. This shared anxiety strangely drew Isabelle and Baptiste closer, Baptiste feeling a twinge of solidarity toward her. I’ve got the good deal here. Much as I dread the encounter, I’ll still come out on top.
“I’ll give you an hour to decide. Just time for me to finish my cake.”
“What kind of cake?”
“My favorite! That’s harassment.”
She ran away, bright, impish, lithe.
Was it possible to love someone this much? Joséphine inspired love in Baptiste every second of the day. The only thing that distracted him was his creative activity, but even then he told himself that he wrote first in order to seduce her, bewitch her, hold on to her.
From the very first day, he had fallen under the spell of her fiery, headstrong personality. Joséphine was quick: it took her one second to diagnose a problem or a character, while Baptiste had to think carefully to reach an identical result. She worked through intuition, he through thought. Whereas he would stack up arguments and references before coming up with a critical judgement, he would see her get to the point at the speed of lightning, as though touched by grace. While he was an intellectual, someone who’d always been top of the class, passed all the exams, gained all the qualifications, Joséphine, who had avoided taking her Baccalaureate, came across as more intelligent than he was. She owed her uniqueness to no strategy, no culture; aware of being different, she was herself, nothing but herself, intense, unable to do other than she did. She wasn’t impressed with authority, reputation, consensus; you could take her to see the work of an author who had been revered for centuries, like William Shakespeare, and she would come out saying, “What an awful play!”; she would sit next to a head of state at dinner and, no matter how wonderful or friendly he was—we know that politicians are, first and foremost, professional charmers—she would prove to him, without upsetting him, that his policies were wrong. In her eyes, a millionaire was worth no more than a garbage collector: on the contrary, owning a fortune made an error of taste unforgivable and she would not fail to denounce it. Baptiste’s friends had soon nicknamed her “Madame Sans-Gêne,” a reference to the solid, bold, loudmouthed Marshal’s wife who behaved at Napoleon’s court in the same way she had when she was a laundress. When they married, their friends had made up a new nickname for the young couple: “The street kid and the intellectual.” Then they had distanced themselves from their fellow students, who judged them in accordance with their own narrow prejudices. These days, Baptiste and Joséphine no longer saw them. They were free, happy, independent, and those old friends attributed this estrangement to Baptiste’s roaring success as a writer.
Baptiste was never bored with Joséphine because he never knew what she would do. Her power over him came from her unpredictability. Not only did she not react like other common mortals, she didn’t even react like herself. No sooner did you get a grip on her tastes or obsessions than she contradicted this classification in every detail. That was why you could never anticipate what she would like or not like. You might think that just because she proclaimed her admiration for Maupassant or Stefan Zweig, she preferred direct, unpretentious art without literary flourishes, but then she would wallow in the endless curlicues of Proust or recite the over-ornate poems of Saint-John Perse. After attacking some obscure, woolly-minded, incomprehensible intellectual, she would copy out diamond-hard, multi-faceted maxims by René Char that didn’t convey a direct message but revealed a multiplicity of meanings over time.
As changeable as the sky over the ocean, she reigned over Baptiste’s heart, at once cheeky and sophisticated, welcoming and demanding, attentive and uncompromising, emotional and intellectual, sad and cheerful, loving and mischievous. As changeable as the weather, she could replace all women because she was all of them. He would often tell her, “You’re not a woman, you’re a whole catalogue of women.”
Baptiste knew Joséphine provoked conflicting reactions: people either loved her or hated her. Mostly, they hated her. But that didn’t affect Baptiste. On the contrary. Their excluding her was a way of filtering out those with simplistic, conventional minds. Thanks to her, he got rid of lots of idiots. Of course, the inference from all this was that Joséphine was unbearable; and yet she was the only one he could bear; all the others bored him.
She came back into the room, brandishing a charred pound cake.
“All right, so my mind’s elsewhere: the cake’s burned to a crisp. I’ll only give you some if you’re sure you want to get cancer.”
He pulled her to him and held her tight. “It’s all right for tomorrow night.”
Joséphine’s face lit up. “Really? Oh, you make me so happy …”
* * * *
The evening had come. It was eight o’clock. Baptiste remained in his study for a long as possible. He didn’t know where to put himself: his desk reminded him that he couldn’t write a single line, but if he stood by the window, he risked seeing Isabelle too soon.
Joséphine had prepared a meal and lit candles, which he found grotesque one minute and delightful the next.
At last, he heard the doorbell. He felt a pang in his heart.
“I’ll go,” Joséphine said.
He heard the door open, then the indistinct babbling of the two women. Were they kissing? Were they taking advantage of his absence to behave like lovers?
Impatiently, he checked his clothes in the mirror. He had prevaricated long enough. On the one hand, he didn’t want to look ridiculous by being too elegant; on the other, he felt he needed to be worthy of Joséphine, and not inflict a scruffily dressed husband on her. Glimpsing his reflection, he thought himself so nondescript that he wondered why Joséphine was interested in him, with looks like that. Then, holding his breath, he walked down the corridor to the living room.
As soon as he walked in, Isabelle, blonde, luminous, turned to him, and her face lit up.
“Hello, pleased to meet you.”
He reeled, dazzled by her charms. She was no taller than Joséphine, and looked like her blonde sister.
Without hesitation, he leaned toward her, took her by the shoulder, and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
She quivered at the contact. So did he.
She gave off a delicious perfume.
Again they smiled, standing motionless a few inches apart.
“You see,” Joséphine said, “I knew you’d like each other.”
Baptiste turned to look at his wife. His joy-filled eyes were saying, “I’ve just fallen in love too.”
From THE CAROUSEL OF DESIRE. Used with permission of Europa Editions. Copyright © 2016 by Eric Emmanuel Schmitt. Translation copyright © 2016 by Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor.