The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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The Paris Affair

©2008 by Steven Alm

1

At the agreed upon time, Seth and Anne Prestwick found their agent, a Madame Berthillon, waiting for them on the sidewalk outside the Paris apartment they had booked online. A small French car passed along the narrow street. A pair of young lovers kissed against the side of the quay. Three green-headed mallards skimmed across the surface of the water, chasing a female, who swerved at wild angles to avoid them. Two streams of cars flowed on the far bank of the Seine with motorcycles weaving rapidly in and out between them. Over the famous skyline, the heavens were a cold stone gray, though there were hints of blue in the distance.

Madame Berthillon, who was a tall brunette with a chic red scarf wrapped around her neck, watched with a bemused expression as the Prestwicks approached with their luggage bouncing on the street behind them.

“Mr. and Mrs. Prestwick?”

“Yes.”

“How was your trip?”

“Fine,” they said, almost in unison, though Anne’s voice was louder and more dominant.

“You didn’t take a taxi?”

“No, we took the train from de Gaulle,” Anne said.

Pursing her lips into a pout of surprise, Madam Berthillon flicked her eyes over their trim bodies, their clothes, and even their luggage, and then pressed her hands together in a gesture that seemed to indicate she approved.

“Would you like to see the apartment?” she asked, punching a code into the keypad next to the door, which immediately buzzed open. “Did you know that Daumier lived in this building?” she asked, as she led them along a dark cobbled entryway, through another doorway, and across an open courtyard to a flight of stairs at the far end.

“No, we didn’t.”

“You know—Daumier—the famous artist.”

“Of course,” they said.

There was no elevator. The staircase rose in front of them like a series of switchback curves along the side of a steep cliff.

“We have to use the stairs?” Seth asked, surveying at the hike in front of them.

“This is what Parisians do,” said Madam Berthillon. “Isn’t this what you wanted—to live like a Parisian?”

Without commenting, the Prestwicks lugged their bags with the wheels bumping behind them like charwomen pulling vacuum cleaners to the apartment above. The wooden treads were worn and uneven. Round and round they went, following Madame Berthillon, whose heels clicked like a metronome in front of them. The space was narrow. Garlic and olive oil permeated the staircase as if imbedded in the plaster walls. A radio blared from one of the apartments. As his breaths began to come in short, sharp pants, Seth wondered whether Parisians were some species of Sherpas, for he could not conceive of making this climb several times a day. It seemed unnatural, somehow un-American.

When they reached the apartment on the top floor and their guide led them inside, the Prestwicks were initially disappointed. The space was smaller than they expected (“Like the inside of a boxcar,” Anne whispered), though this was counterbalanced by the fact that it had all the amenities they wanted—a full kitchen, a tub in the bathroom, satellite television, and an Internet connection. They had hoped for a view of the Seine, but, of course, for the money they were paying this was too much to expect. The windows looked into an interior courtyard. Seth suggested it was safer this way and certainly quieter, but Anne demurred. Everything in the long, narrow space was either blue or white—white tile floors, appliances, furniture, and blue walls and bedspreads, and this grated on Anne’s sense of taste. After a brief conference between husband and wife, they offered the idea that they should look at another place, but the agent told them that the Ile St-Louis was a choice location for doctors and lawyers, and this—together with the fact she would not refund their deposit—made them believe in the end they had chosen the right spot.

“At least, we’ll be safe here,” Seth said.

“There is no safer spot in Paris,” Madame Berthillon agreed.

After the agent had gone, Anne unpacked her bags and began organizing her clothes and toiletries in the wardrobe and chest of drawers and in the cabinet in the bathroom, but said little except to chide her husband for being slow to unpack his own things.

“Hurry up, Seth.”

“We’re on vacation, darling.”

“No, you’re on vacation. I have to work, remember?”

Since he had taken his early retirement, Anne had become increasingly intolerant of her husband, and often nagged him for piddling things. He had known there would be a period of adjustment and tried not to let her barbs get under his skin, but it was not easy. He had to use all his powers of positive thinking to get along with the woman he had fallen in love and married thirty years before. Discussions had become fruitless. The more he tried to bring issues into focus so they could talk about them, the more she seemed to go off on emotional tangents that had nothing to do with the subject at hand. Seth never used the word menopause to describe her behavior—he didn’t dare—but he certainly thought it.

“Not there, Seth!” Anne exclaimed, when he tried to put his toothbrush and tube of toothpaste on the glass plate over the bathroom sink. “In the cabinet.”

On that first night in Paris, Seth and Anne seemed to find their way again.

They went to a highly rated restaurant not far from the apartment, where they sat wedged between two couples who chatted in cooing tones. The host was charming and knowledgeable, and happily explained the food and wine list to Seth in English. They started with champagne and then ordered a bottle of St-Emilion. As usual, Seth’s eye wandered. The woman opposite had a soft, feminine glow that was utterly French. Everything about her was perfect—her long hair, her oval face, her shoulders and breasts, and what he could see of her legs dangling on one side of the table. He tried to catch her eye and racked his brain for something to say, but his French was too limited.

Realizing she had no interest in him, he gave up and turned his attention back to his wife.

They talked about how lucky they were to be in Paris, how the apartment was in such a great location, how distinctively French Madam Berthillon had seemed, and how much they were enjoying their first taste of Paris food. After drinking the wine, consuming their three-course meal, and ending with an expensive Armagnac, they walked back to the apartment in a happy mood, though as they crossed the Seine, Anne’s expression suddenly turned dour.

“What’s wrong, darling?” he asked.

“Do you have to drink to be attracted to me?”

“What do you mean?”

“Aren’t I good enough the way I am?”

“You’re gorgeous, honey. No woman in Paris your age looks half as good.”

“No woman my age?” she asked. “What do you mean by that?”

“You look absolutely wonderful for an older woman.”

Anne appraised him as if he were a cantaloupe she had rejected in a supermarket because it was soft on one side. “It’s always interesting to find out what you really believe,” she said. “So you think anyone who’s younger looks better than I do. Is that it?”

“No, of course not,” he insisted, though in his mind he thought otherwise. How could a woman of fifty hope to look as good as one who was twenty? What did she expect him to say? That he preferred younger women?

2

The morning sunlight sparkled on the water below him. Crowds of people crossed the bridge. From his perch in an alcove on the Pont Neuf, Seth caught sight of a well-dressed man with gray moused hair and dark glasses rushing along the bridge, straining after the words his young companion flung at him over her shoulder. He tried to keep up, but like a beast of burden he was laden with her purchases—a box of shoes under one arm, two bags of clothes over the other, and a small packet of something bulging from his coat pocket. Seth couldn’t help chuckling. The guy reminded him of Aristotle Onassis chasing after Jackie Kennedy.

“Tu me prends pour quoi!” the man shouted at her.

Dressed in a black coat that reached her ankles, shiny leather boots with heels, and a fur hat of what Seth imagined was pure ermine, the beautiful young woman strode ahead of him without acknowledging his presence. Clearly, she had had enough of him.

“Merde,” he said, and making a face of Gallic resignation, rushed after her.

It was an odd scene, especially in Paris, where couples took special pleasure in displaying their affection by holding hands, kissing, walking arm-in-arm, hugging, and smiling as if enraptured to the core of their French hearts. Lounging against the wall abutting the Seine, Seth took another drag on his cigar, a Cuban he had purchased at an elite cigar emporium on Rue St-Honoré, and blew the smoke toward the river. A tourist boat pushed slowly against the current. Diners toasted one another in the rear of the sleek vessel and made their way to their tables for lunch. People examined the wares in the stalls of the booksellers along the quai. Cars moved in fits and starts, and the spires of Sante-Chapelle and Notre-Dame towered above the Ile de la Cité like the tops of barren pines.

Anne had stationed Seth on one end of the Pont Neuf so that she could go off without him to buy a bouquet of flowers at the flower market, the Marché au Fleurs. She had instructed him not to leave the spot and to be finished with his cigar by the time she returned. Seth did not begrudge her these sentiments, nor for expressing them, knowing that marriage was a matter of compromise, hard work, and getting along despite one’s differences. He knew that it was up to him to keep the peace. Besides, he could afford to be philosophical. He was a robust fifty-eight years old, recently retired, married to a still lovely and intelligent woman, with enough money in the bank to keep both of them going in style until his heart finally gave out (in his sleep, he hoped, between the ages of seventy-five and eighty). Besides, they were in Paris, The City of Light. It was only a matter of time before Anne got out of her funk.

Since spending a year at the Sorbonne as a young woman, Anne had always wanted to return to France, but the obligations of raising a family and running a business had precluded it until now. As a literary editor—and a very good one—she had helped a number of famous authors (whose names can’t be mentioned here) turn their books into best sellers. In the last few months, Anne had pruned her client list to two writers with ongoing projects and was officially retiring at the end of the year. Her ostensible reason for going to France was to see one of these authors, but it was really, she said, a way to deduct the trip for tax purposes.

“Who is he? Anyone I know?” Seth had asked.

“Edmund Fitzgerald,” she answered, a little nervously, as if she had something to hide.

“Where have I heard that name before?” he wondered, thinking he knew him, but uncertain where or how. Seth seemed to recall a song—perhaps, a folk song—but he didn’t know who sang it or what it was about. The name haunted him.

“He’s an American,” Anne answered. “A young novelist of great promise.”

“What’s he doing in Paris?”

“Living there, pauvre imbécile.”

At first, she had suggested going alone, saying Seth wouldn’t cope very well with the Parisians, who could be rude to Americans who didn’t speak French, but she changed her mind—though not without a struggle—when he insisted that there had been riots in the Paris suburbs recently and he couldn’t forgive himself if something happened to her. Anne, of course, had forgotten that Seth had been to Paris himself as a student, when he had stayed at a hostel near Les Halles for a couple of weeks.

From his spot on the bridge, Seth remembered that there was a statue of Henry IV on a point of land in the middle of the Pont Neuf and headed there, as he might have as a student, following any whim that entered his head. Passing by the famous monarch on his bronze horse, he descended to the triangular point of land jutting into the Seine like the prow of a ship, and choosing one of the benches at random, stared at the scene around him. There were views of the Louvre, the Right Bank, and a tourist boat waiting to be boarded; a line of houseboats anchored on the far side of the river, shaped like old barges with clothes hung out to dry; a man with a beret in front of an easel painting the Seine; gray-and-white pigeons mechanically pecking the grass at his feet; mallards flying low over the dappled water; seagulls scavenging on the lower walkways along the river; boisterous children playing under the watchful eyes of their mothers; and tourists flitting from place to place like ravenous bees.

Sitting there, Seth relived his glory days as a student discovering Paris for the first time: learning to drink absinthe with his Danish friend Henning; taking the metro to see the famous Sacré-Coeur; flirting with a pretty girl who had wanted him to come back to England with her; being derided by the hostel’s charwoman whenever she saw him in public; using the same cloth napkin and eating the same cheap spaghetti-and-cheese lunch every day; being invited by an older American woman to travel to Switzerland and kindly refusing; watching old men play boccie ball in the Tuileries; drinking vin rosé and later eating fondue with an Englishman whom he later realized was homosexual; getting drunk with Henning and having him repeat, “It’s real, Seth, it’s real,” and only years later realizing that Henning indulged in more than just alcohol. Everything had been so easy then. The girls seemed to appear as if by magic.

An hour later, Seth felt someone roughly shake him by the shoulders, and he turned to find his frowning wife, mocking him. “Espèce de crétin! I knew you wouldn’t wander far.”

“I’m sorry, darling. I meant to go back and wait for you, but I kind of drifted off. How did you find me?”

“The smell of that awful cigar,” she said, pointing at the blackened stub of tobacco in his hand.

Despite her annoyance at having had to track him down, Anne looked radiantly happy. Holding bouquets of red and white roses in her arms, she seemed like a girl who had returned from an outing in the country. She actually glowed. Seth was struck by how beautiful she was, and realized it had been years since he had really looked at her. Although no longer young, Anne still had firm skin, luxuriant hair, and refined features. Her age showed around her eyes and mouth, which were creased with the strain of having read manuscripts for decades, and her brown hair streaked with gray, which she refused to color. She wore small, clear-rimmed French glasses with a blue tint that emphasized the deep hue of her irises. Seth suddenly grew alarmed. He had never once doubted her fidelity, but for some reason—perhaps, because she was so ecstatically happy—he wondered whether she had come to Paris to meet someone.

“Throw that thing away,” she said, pointing at the cigar.

“How long were you away?” he asked, glancing at his watch.

“About an hour.”

“More like an hour and a half.”

“I wanted to give you enough time to finish that thing.”

“Beautiful roses,” he commented. “Did you do anything interesting? Have a look inside Notre Dame? Stop for an ice cream? Have a long chat with a French admirer?”

“No, I just wandered around.”

“Was the flower market interesting?”

“About what you’d expect,” she said, pulling him to his feet. When he was standing, she handed him the flowers and a small bag to carry.

“What’s in the bag?”

“Some chocolates.”

“For us?”

“If you like,” she said, “but not until we get back to the apartment.”

After tossing his cigar into one of the ever-present Paris trash containers, Seth hurried to catch up with his wife, who had already climbed the steps and was striding past the bronze statue of Henry IV. When he reached the surface of the Pont Neuf, Seth froze. “It can’t be. I’m not like that,” he said, suddenly remembering the French couple he had seen earlier, and how pitiful the older man had seemed trying to keep up with his young lover.

Anne had read about a falafel place on the Rue des Rosier that had gotten rave reviews in The New York Times, and grabbing Seth’s arm, she said they go there for lunch. He had wanted to have streak frites at a fancy bistro, but Seth acceded to his wife’s wishes, happy for once that she was happy.

“Everyone raves about them,” she said.

“Can I have one with meat in it?”

“Of course.”

When they got to the Rue des Rosier and found the deli, it quickly became apparent that half of Paris had the same idea, for a disorderly line of customers two- and three-abreast snaked around the corner of the building into the next street.

“Are you sure it’s worth it?” he asked, unable to see where the queue started. “How long is this line, anyway? It will take ages to get to the front.”

“Just be patient and hold our spot,” Anne said. “There’s an open counter up ahead. I have to go inside and pay. You want a shawarma?”

“Yes, with lots of meat.”

Seth distracted himself by watching people in line in front of him. Most were young tourists chatting excitedly in Japanese, German, Spanish, English, Italian, or in one of the Slavic languages. Now and then, a waiter carrying food would burst from the entrance of the deli and split the queue, heading toward another part of the establishment. How it worked was a mystery to him, but he trusted that Anne knew. A Scandinavian girl with blonde hair, grey eyes, and prominent breasts caught his eye. She couldn’t have been more than twenty. She stood chatting with friends as if no one else existed in the world except them. Her confidence was amazing. Why were women so fascinating? So perfect? Seth slowly examined her from head to toe and was schussing down the rounded slope of her derriere, when he heard Anne’s voice behind him.

“Like what you see?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, quickly turning a bright shade of pink.

“She’s very cute.”

“Who?”

“How stupid do you think I am?” Anne demanded, glaring at Seth as if he were some species of lower life-form—though she quickly composed herself and even managed a smile as a plan formed in her mind.

“You remember I have an appointment with Edmund this afternoon?”

“Today?”

“At two o’clock.”

“When did you tell me this?”

“You don’t listen to a thing I say, do you, Seth?”

“Yes, I do.”

“No, you don’t!” she scolded, glowering at him until he ducked his head in embarrassment. Of course, Anne hadn’t once talked about Edmund Fitzgerald since leaving the States. But this hardly mattered. She was incensed.

3

The afternoon sun shone through the tall windows of the apartment. At the dining room table Seth worked on his computer, while Anne put the finishing touches on her makeup.

“I’m going now,” she announced, looking like a senior editor of Elle as she emerged from the bathroom.

“Where again?” Seth asked, amazed at what she had done to herself. She hadn’t looked this good in years.

“I told you, Montparnasse. Edmund has an apartment there.”

“Do you know which metro to take?”

“Of course.”

“Should I come?”

“No, I don’t want you with me.”

Seth watched as his wife took half of the roses—the red ones—and the chocolates she had purchased, and made for the door. Having spent an hour making up her face and changing into her most chic underwear, hose, and dress—a sexy Adeline André creation she had found on the rack in the States—she looked stunning, and his heart caught in his mouth as she slipped on her coat and made for the door.

“Seth, if you go somewhere, please leave a note. I don’t want to have to worry about you.”

“Where would I go?”

“Why not see the Louvre? Spend a few hours exploring the galleries there, and later we can have dinner together.”

“And see what?”

“Suit yourself,” she said, and closed the door smartly behind her.

The sharp clap of the door went through him like a pistol shot. Why had she dressed to the hilt and made herself look so sexy? Was it simply to make an impression on a fledging writer or was there something more? What was she trying to do, turn this guy on? Seth hated being jealous. It was confusing and demeaning, but he couldn’t help himself. Anne treated him like an afterthought, a useless appendage. Didn’t she understand how long and hard he had worked to keep his feelings in check? Didn’t she know how determined he had been to make their relationship work? Who did she think he was? Some kind of smiling, ass-kissing fool who would go on taking it forever?

Grabbing his jacket, he jerked the door open and dashed down the staircase.

At the base of the apartment building, he caught sight of her, already on the Pont de Sully, making her way to the metro stop. How elegant she looked striding across the bridge as if she owned it and all of Paris. He tried to remember where the number 7 line went, but couldn’t, though he was fairly certain it did not go to Montparnasse. She would have to transfer. But where? He ran along the street to the bridge and momentarily lost sight of her as she crossed Boulevard Henry IV along with a crowd of people. He ran until he saw her again. Who was this Edmund Fitzgerald she was going off to see? Younger, of course. Stylish and more handsome. A promising writer she’d met and fallen in love with.

Moments later, she disappeared into the entrance of the Sully Morland metro stop, and he dashed after her. The fluorescent lights flickered in the tunnel. People rushed past him in the opposite direction. Someone played an amplified guitar and sang. At the entrance to the trains, he caught sight of her again, inserting her ticket into the barrier. Quickly pulling it out on top, she passed through the turnstile. On far side, amid the bustle of commuters rushing toward the trains, she angled her head with her long, beautiful hair, and smiled—he was convinced at him—before disappearing around the corner of the tunnel.

Seth was frantic. Unable to understand the instructions on the ticket machine, he had to wait in line for an agent. In front of him an old lady with a painted face and dyed hair chatted amiably with ticket seller as if they were old friends. It was maddening. He considered saying something—even shoving the woman aside—but knew it would only make things worse. Instead, he beat his fists and rocked nervously on the balls of his feet. When she finally left with a friendly au revoir, Seth stuffed a five-euro note through the metal well and shouted, “Un billet!”

Grabbing the ticket and his change, he took off after his wife. He ran as if his life depended on it. He had to stop her. Ahead, the tunnel split in two directions, depending on the direction of the train, and he quickly chose the one that went south. As he dashed down the steps, he heard a train pull into the station below, pause for a moment, and then clatter away. Fighting his way through the crowd pushing against him toward the sortie, he reached the platform, only to find it empty, save for a old man in a wheelchair.

“Godamnit-to-hell!”

The old soldier turned to look at Seth. He had ribbons and medals pinned across the front of his soiled suit, and was so emaciated and colorless that he looked as if he had died in his chair. His face lit up, and he angled his chair in Seth’s direction.

“J’attendais des révélations mais je suis resté sur ma faim,” he begged.

Knowing what the old beggar wanted (though with no idea what he had said), Seth handed him all the coins in his hand.

“Merci beaucoup,” the soldier mumbled and wheeled away.

Already, Seth was disgusted with himself. Even if Anne were having an affair, she would not go about it by flaunting it in front of him like some tasteless burlesque at the Folies-Bergères. In all the time that he had known her, she had always been honest. She had never once deceived him, and he couldn’t imagine her doing so now. If she had stopped loving him, she would have told him to his face. He had been such a fool. Feeling lower than the old soldier slumped in his wheelchair, Seth left the metro station and dragged himself back to the apartment in disgrace.

4

When Seth heard the metal rasp of Anne’s key unlocking the door of the apartment, he shuddered, dreading the confrontation to come. He knew his wife would never tolerate his manic pursuit of her through the streets of Paris, and he could already hear her wild, angry voice chastising him. “What gives you the right to think you can control where I go or who I see? Do you think you own me? That I’m your possession? Have I ever once given you cause for doubt? You may have taken your marriage vows lightly, but I did not! Do you know how unseemly it is to go skulking around like a fool? Have you totally lost your mind?”

But when she emerged through the door, all she asked was, “Did you make it to the Louvre?”

“No,” he said, surprised by her calm tone of voice.

“Did you go out at all?”

“Just for a few moments,” he muttered, feeling like a swimmer being circled by a shark.

“Where did you go?”

“Just out.”

“To the quay?”

“Yeah.”

“So you just basically waited for me here all afternoon?” she asked, petting him affectionately on the head. “How sweet.”

“You’re not mad at me?”

“Why should I be mad at you?” she asked, narrowing her eyes and appraising him as if he were an errant child. “Have you done something you shouldn’t?”

He shook his head rapidly back and forth, as a boy might, desperate to avoid punishment.

“Seth, you’re acting weird. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“Well,” Anne said, removing her coat and hanging it in the wardrobe, “Edmund and I had a good meeting. We got a lot done.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Seth said, still unable to believe she hadn’t seen him at the metro station and wasn’t going to upbraid him for being a possessive, out-of-control husband.

“We discussed the changes I made to his manuscript and he accepted them without arguing over each and every one. Edmund’s very sweet. He knows how good I am. He’s not one of those men with a chip on his shoulder who resists everything a woman suggests,” she said, making sure her husband got the point. “If he doesn’t have more questions, I won’t need to see him again and we’ve already justified our trip to Paris. Aren’t the American tax laws wonderful?”

“What’s Fitzgerald like?”

“Young and confident.”

“Handsome?”

“Sure, in a leading man sort of way.”

“As attractive as that?”

“He’ll be the next literary superstar.”

“Should I be concerned?”

“About what?” Anne asked with an air of innocence.

“Have you always been faithful to me?” Seth asked, his voice quavering with the strain of doubt.

“Of course,” she answered with typical wifely disdain, though there was a hint of amused pride in her eyes. “What makes you ask?”

“You’ve never been tempted?”

“Have you?”

“At times.”

“Well, there you go,” she said. “Everyone has. It’s normal and natural. What’s unnatural is to ogle every woman in sight as if you have a sexual obsession you can’t control.”

“I wasn’t aware I did that. I’m sorry, darling. I promise I’ll stop.”

“Just keep focused on me, Seth,” she said, peering intently into his eyes, “and there’ll never be a problem.”

“You don’t think I am?”

“I know you’re not,” she said, and went off to pour herself a glass of wine.

5

The next morning was warmer, and after a leisurely breakfast of cafés au lait and brioches on the terrasse of Le Flore en l’Ile, a fashionable café-cum-tea salon on the island, Anne decided they should get away from the crowds and go for a walk along Canal St-Martin. The canal, she said, provided a shortcut for barges and pleasure craft between two loops of the Seine and walking along it would be a pleasant morning excursion. They could watch vessels being raised in the locks, see the unique bridges that twisted and locked in place, explore the tiny parks, and experience the working class neighborhood through which the canal flowed. Instead of walking its entire length, though, Anne suggested taking the metro to the Stalingrad stop and walking from there to the Place de la République. It was the most pleasant part of the canal, she said.

Seth agreed.

Ironically, the metro ride began at the same Sully Morland stop where he had pursued his wife with such ardent fervor the day before. To get there, they walked the length of the Ile St-Louis, crossed the Pont de Sully, and at the metro entrance descended beneath the sidewalk along with throngs of other Parisians rushing toward their destinations. This time there was no waiting in line. With Anne’s fluency in French, they got their billets from a machine and sailed through ticket barrier with no problems.

On the platform, the shabby veteran with the war medals recognized Seth from the day before. “Je prie pour vous, monsieur.”

“He seems to know you,” Anne said.

“How could he possibly know me?” Seth answered, embarrassed, and turning his back on the invalid, strode to the far end of the platform.

Anne followed. “Do you have any idea what he said?”

“No.”

“He said he would pray for you. Why would he say that?”

“Maybe he’s religious.”

Then they heard the wheelchair. Blackened with age and listing to one side, it creaked like an old water wheel being turned by oxen. The stub of a cigarette dangled between the old soldier’s lips. His eyes were conspiratorial, glimmering with hope, as he parked in front of them.

“L’allié d’hier est devenu l’ennemi d’aujournd’hei,” he said.

“Pourquoi donc as-tu dit cela?” Anne asked.

“Just give him some money,” Seth said.

“But why is he saying that?” she asked. “Yesterday’s ally is today’s enemy.”

“He’s probably still fighting the war,” Seth countered, digging into his pockets and giving the old soldier all his change. “Allez, allez!” Seth shouted, waving his arms, until the invalid wheeled himself away.

“What was that about?”

“He’s probably crazy. You know how street people get.”

When the train arrived, things got even worse for Seth. Anne had worn a thin, almost transparent blouse and a short skirt that showed her shapely breasts and legs to their best advantage. On the long ride to the Stalingrad metro stop, she crossed and uncrossed them several times, causing the two men in the seat opposite to nudge one another and smile lustfully. One of them murmured, “Oulala,” under his breath. It drove Seth crazy. He writhed in agony on the seat beside her. Appearing not to notice, Anne shook out her hair, added a dab of bright red color to her lips, threw back her shoulders with insouciant nonchalance, and allowed her skirt to ride up, revealing several inches of thigh. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, Seth grabbed a discarded copy of Le Mond and reached across his wife to cover her legs with it.

Anne stopped him with an angry glance.

“Your legs.”

“What about them?” she growled.

“They’re so sexy.”

“You finally noticed.”

“Can’t you pull down your skirt?”

“No.”

From the Place de Stalingrad, Seth and Anne sauntered along Canal St-Martin like native Parisians out for a stroll, observing tourist boats inch their way from one lock to the next, listening to captains chat with lock keepers, watching kids play ping-pong or soccer in the tiny parks, surveying the local denizens sitting at sidewalk cafés along the boulevard, and waiting for bridges to close so they could cross from one side to the other. As she walked, Anne arched her back and swayed her hips like a model on a runway. Her sexy demeanor attracted men of all sizes and descriptions, a few of whom even turned and offered comments.

Unable to restrain himself any longer, Seth blurted, “Please, Anne, for god’s sake, do you have to be so provocative?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re mocking me.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because of what happened at the falafel place yesterday.”

“Oh, that,” she said. “Not to worry. I’ve forgotten all about it.”

To relieve the tension and avoid an argument, they continued walking past the Place de la République along Boulevard Richard Lenoir—where the canal actually disappeared underground for long stretches—to the Place de la Bastille, not far from their apartment. Near the new opera—a huge, curved, glass building occupying a section of land along the Rue de Lyon—Anne spotted a chic restaurant she remembered from their guidebook.

“Let’s go over there for lunch,” she said, pointing at Les Grandes Marches across the street. “I’m famished. Aren’t you?”

Seth vigorously nodded in the affirmative. Since the subway ride and the walk along the canal, his only thought had been to get his wife off the street. “Great,” he said. “It looks like there’s plenty of room inside.”

Anne, of course, had other plans. “Let’s sit on the terrasse.”

“We’ll be more comfortable inside, don’t you think?”

“No, I’d rather sit in the sun,” she insisted, and with a smile at one of the young waiters, Anne chose a table in the very front row of the terrasse.

“How about under the awning in back?” Seth suggested.

“No, here.”

With its tall column topped by a gilded, winged figure towering over the spot where the people of Paris stormed the Bastille in 1789, the Place de la Bastille formed a hub around which rings of traffic flowed in a large roundabout. On the sidewalk in front of Anne and Seth, three young people in yellow plastic jackets accosted passers-by and buttonholed them for some cause Seth couldn’t make out. People stopped to answer cell phones or light up cigarettes. A group of tattered teens sat in a ragged circle and smoked joints. Tired tourists spilled from busses and climbed the steps of the opera. Opposite the café, a large, open-air market drew tourists and Parisians alike. An accordionist played a popular French tune, and, in the distance, the “weeee-oooh, weeee-oooh” of a police siren blared like an obnoxious bird.

Seth ordered a double whiskey, and Anne had a mineral water and salad.

When Seth’s drink came, he drank it down in three quick gulps.

“You drank that rather fast. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he answered.

“I have to use the ladies room.”

“I’ll be here when you get back.”

When Anne had gone, Seth instinctively scanned the crowd for attractive women. His eyes moved from sloping curves to rounded prominences and back again. He studied legs, the rise and fall of breasts, and the shapes of arms, hips, ankles, blouses, skirts, hair, necks, bottoms, lips, eyes, and the soft elegance of outfits and dresses. One woman, in particular, caught his eye—a dark-haired beauty in her late twenties in a supple leather top that seemed to have been custom-fitted for her. He watched spellbound as she stopped in front of him to answer her phone. He smelled her perfume. He listened to her elegant voice. What was it about French women? he wondered. How could they be so soft and inviting—without the sharply defined boundaries of American women like his wife?

He was still watching her when Anne returned.

“Like what you see?”

“What?”

“How clueless can you be?”

“What do you mean?”

“Wrong answer!”

“What? Anne!”

But she wouldn’t respond. Not a single word. Not even a grunt. No matter what he said or how he tried to apologize, she refused to look at him, and when she grew tired of his string of lame excuses, she abruptly got up from the table and set off across Place de la Bastille in the direction of the apartment. Seth tried to follow, but she turned on him like a lioness.

“Get away from me!”

That was the last time she spoke to him for the rest of the day.

6

The next morning Seth reached across the bed, expecting to find the still-slumbering form of his wife, but discovered the sheets were cold and empty save for a hint of her fragrance.

“Anne?”

He listened for a response, but only heard his own voice, echoing in the tiny apartment.

“Anne! Where are you?”

He scampered to his feet and frantically looked in the bathroom and then in the standing wardrobe and chest of drawers. Her suitcase and most of her clothes were gone. On the dining room table was a handwritten note that said she would be staying at a hotel for a few days and not to bother calling because her phone would be switched off. “I’ll come back when I can stand the thought of being with you again,” the note concluded. She hadn’t signed it.

He tried calling her cell phone but got her recorded message. “What in hell are you trying to prove,” he yelled. “I’ve been the one who’s held this marriage together. You’re being ridiculous, Anne. Please come to your senses.”

Seth stared at the note in disbelief. Contacting the embassy or the police wasn’t going to help. They would just look at him with amused pity and say his problem did not fall under their auspices—perhaps he should see a psychiatrist or a marriage counselor. Of course, Edmund Fitzgerald was the cause of this mess. Younger and more attractive, a rising star in literary circles (with the slicked-back hair and charming eyes of a young Ernest Hemingway), he had stolen his wife’s affections. Naturally, it couldn’t last. He would use her and cast her off as soon as his novel was accepted by a publisher. But what if was more than that? What if, despite their ages, it was it she who had charmed him?

He tried calling again. “Goddamn it, Anne. You can’t do this to me. Get back here!”

Increasingly frustrated and desperate, Seth searched through every scrap of paper in the apartment—her doodles on the desk, her scribbled notes in the guidebook, and, finally, the thick Paris telephone directory—looking for Fitzgerald’s Montparnasse address. Aside from a list of places Anne wanted to see in Paris, there was no reference to Edmund Fitzgerald or any place in Montparnasse. But a hotel was circled in the guidebook, the Hôtel Roubaix, and he tried calling there.

“Do you have a guest named Anne Prestwick?”

The receptionist couldn’t make out the name.

“Prestwick! Prestwick!” he shouted.

“No, monsieur.”

Hysterical and out of control, Seth ran from the apartment and dashed across the Seine to the metro where he jumped the gate in a single leap. His hands shook, and he wondered whether he was strong enough to strangle someone. He boarded the train to Place d’Italie and from there to Montparnasse. Above ground, he wandered the streets like a madman, looking inside shops, cafés, and restaurants for Anne. He showed her picture to everyone who would look at it, but no one seemed to understand what he was saying. It began to rain. His socks sloshed inside his shoes. His hair stuck to his skull. His sodden clothes felt like plastic against his skin. After three hours of fruitless searching, he began drinking shots of absinthe. He would go into a bar, order a drink, and ask the waiter if he had seen his wife, but after several drinks, he no longer bothered asking. He knew he wouldn’t find her.

With a white face and watery eyes, looking like one of the drunks in Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous painting “The Absinthe Drinkers,” Seth stumbled to the Cemetiére du Montparnasse. He had the insane notion that if he put his hands on Brancusi’s famous sculpture “The Kiss,” Anne would reappear as if by magic. But, when he got to the cemetery, the gates were locked.

“Can’t just one thing work out!” he yelled.

Clutching the bars of the gate, Seth slid to his knees in a pool of dirty water. He didn’t feel the wetness seeping over his legs. He didn’t feel anything. Already drenched to the skin and so drunk that his head spun, he totally gave up trying to control anything. Whatever Anne had done no longer mattered. He just wanted her back.

“You win, Anne,” he screamed at the graves beyond the gate. “You win!”

Despite his drunken state, Seth somehow managed to find a taxi and give the driver directions to the apartment on Ile St-Louis. Staggering to the top of the stairs and opening the door, he found, as he dreaded, that the apartment was empty. The scattered remains of his search for Fitzgerald’s address lay across the table. The white roses Anne had purchased stared at him from their vase. Some of them were already drooping. The reds ones, of course, were gone. So were the chocolates. A French couple argued in the courtyard below—their voices rising like a descant above the rumble of Paris around them. Seth pulled his phone from his pocket and left one last message for his wife. “Anne, please come back. I need you. I can’t live without you. I’ll even stop looking at other women if you do.”

Unable to keep his eyes open any longer, he pulled his wife’s towel from the rack in the bathroom and, folding it in his arms and breathing in her fragrance, Seth flopped on the bed fully clothed and fell asleep.

7

“Yuck,” Anne muttered, catching a whiff of her husband’s breath as he dragged himself into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door looking for something to drink.

“You stink!”

Not realizing someone was in the apartment until that moment, Seth raised his arms in terror. “Oh my god, Anne! You scared the living shit out of me!”

“That’s not quite the reaction I expected,” she said, quietly appraising his matted hair, bloodshot eyes, unshaven face, and rumpled, smelly clothes. “A face only a wife could love,” she murmured, though she smiled as she said it. “What happened to you?”

“I went looking for you in Montparnasse.”

“Why would you think I was there?”

“Because of Edmund Fitzgerald.”

“You think I stayed with him?”

“Well, didn’t you?”

“No, I spent the night at a hotel.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Believe what you want,” she said, her features melded into a look of composed fury, “but I’m going to say this only once, Seth. So listen.”

“I’m listening.”

“If you ever mention this again by so much as a single word, I will leave you. Do you understand?”

Seth felt as if his entire life were balanced on the head of a pin, but he had already made his decision. He had made it the night before at the cemetery in Montparnasse.

“Okay,” he said.

“Okay, what?”

“I’ll never mention it again.”

“Good,” she murmured. “Now get dressed, darling. We have lots of things to see before we leave Paris. I’ve written it all down,” she added, handing him a slip of paper.

“Day 1: See the fabulous art at the Louvre; have lunch at Café Marly; visit the Rodin sculpture garden; dine at Tokyo Eat. Day 2: Buy foody treats at Le Bon Marché; lunch at Au Printemps; drinks and dinner at Kong. Day 3: Boat trip on the Seine; lunch on the Rue de Rivoli; a walk in the Luxembourg Garden; finish with a balloon ride. Day 4: Spend the day at Versailles.”

Seth raised his eyes and nodded, agreeing without so much as a murmur of discontent. “I’d better get dressed,” he said.

8

After their return to the United States, the Prestwicks had vivid memories of their trip to Paris, especially Seth, for whom it marked a turning point in his relationship with his wife. Having learned to accept Anne in a fundamentally new way, he no longer tried to bring events into focus so that he could understand them, but allowed her to blunt his judgments, blur the distinctions between things, and muddy history whenever it suited her purposes to do so. It sometimes made him crazy, but he got used to it.

When Anne retired at the end of the year, things improved between them, and they began planning trips to the places they had dreamed of seeing during their long years of working and raising a family. Of course, Seth had given up smoking and seldom looked at other women. There was no need. He was infatuated with the one he had. He never forgot the lesson he had learned in Paris: Anne had choices beyond him and she was not afraid to exercise them.

In April, just before setting off on a grand tour of Italy, Seth assembled their tax records for the previous year, and was surprised to find that Anne had not deducted the Paris trip as she had planned. He found a receipt for her stay in a room at an inexpensive Paris hotel (the Hôtel Roubaix), just as she had said, but there was no itemized listing of the expenses for the trip. He wondered why.

Seth found his wife outside the house on the deck in a teak chaise lounge, drinking coffee and reading a novel.

“I’ve been going through last year’s financial records,” he said.

“So?” she asked, looking up and examining his face.

“Why haven’t I seen a best seller by that author you helped in Paris?”

“Edmund Fitzgerald, you mean?”

“That’s right.”

“You don’t know?”

“How could I possibly know?”

Anne studied her husband for a moment, wondering whether he could really be that dense. “I thought it was fairly obvious, Seth. Edmund Fitzgerald doesn’t exist. I made him up.”

“But why?” he asked, unable to keep the exasperation from his voice.

Anne shrugged. “What’s a girl supposed to do?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

She wondered what to say and then settled on a way of telling him. “Let’s say Edmund Fitzgerald was a necessary fiction who served his purpose, and leave it at that.”

But he wouldn’t let it go. “Where have I heard that name before?”

“It’s the name of an ore boat that went down in Lake Superior.”

“Of course. Now I remember. Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song about it.”

“That’s right.”

“What made you use that name?”

“It was the first one that popped into my head.”

“I’ll never understand you.”

“Good.”

“All I know is that I’m lucky to have you.”

“That you are,” she said, and went back to reading her book.