Arla, Jen’s therapist, said there were different ways of being widowed, and being left in a hotel in Paris while her husband went off with the desk clerk was certainly one of them, so she had to accept the rupture for what it was, a death, and get on with her grieving.
Jen supposed this was right. After all, the shock she’d felt, opening the door to their hotel room after a day at the Louvre and seeing Russell in bed with the clerk, was as brutal as a sudden death. Besides, that Russell had turned out to be gay was another death—the death of her dream for him to father her children. Now she saw why he’d kept putting her off, insisting he watch while she swallowed her birth control pill every morning. He didn’t want her thinking he mistrusted her, he said, but they couldn’t afford a child yet. He knew how much she wanted one, how much her desire might overwhelm her better judgment, even her promise to him.
He’d been talking to himself, she’d realized on the long flight home alone, when she entertained herself by rehearsing the many things she might tell people. They’d picnicked one evening on the Pont des Arts, and after her third glass of champagne, she told Russell she couldn’t wait any longer for a child: she wanted a divorce. Or she’d fallen crazily in love with a Frenchman, the hotel clerk, of all people, and Russell found the two of them in bed one afternoon when he came back early from the Louvre, and that was that.
In the end she said they were divorcing; she didn’t want to talk about it. Her mother kept texting her useless advice. Her brother said he’d always found Russell a bit too full of himself. (When told this, all her friends agreed.) Her father said she was a fool not to fight for more money. But she didn’t want money. She paid another month’s rent on their apartment in Alameda and then found an apartment in Emeryville, in one of the slapped-up buildings that reminded her of Monopoly pieces. She bought a cat and named it Claude, after the desk clerk, on whom she was embarrassed to admit she’d had as much of a crush as Russell. In fact, and even more embarrassing, she thought she was the one Claude was knocking himself out to flirt with all the times she and Russell stood at the desk asking Claude for directions or advice.
She disliked cats but wanted the constant reminder of slyness, of treachery.
dont wait for the french guy find someone here before your eggs dry up, her mother texted, again.
She thought of returning to Paris to confront Russell, with whom she had intermittent contact, discussing the disposal or distribution of his things. Over the course of the last month in the Alameda apartment, she’d mailed nineteen large packages to his sister in Milwaukee: clothes, books, family photographs. She’d sold his furniture, which she despised for its dull modernity, and after some wrangling back and forth agreed to keep Russell’s bike. He and Claude would be coming to the Bay Area one of these days, he wrote.
She bought a basket for the bike, fashioned a lid for it out of chicken wire, and rode around Berkeley with Claude, who seemed terrified at first but soon yielded by lying still as the dead with his eyes shut.
The day she had Claude neutered, she celebrated with a bottle of Prosecco.
She was doing well, Arla said. She was taking control.
But at night she sat with Claude in her lap and stared into the future, which seemed as unreachable as the past. She spoke to Claude the cat. She spoke to her eggs. It was not all that different from speaking to Russell, really, incapable as he’d been of responding as she wanted.
They had not bought accident insurance for the trip to Paris because if you read the fine print, her husband said, there was little that was actually covered, short of your dropping dead in the Louvre or being held up at gunpoint in the metro and robbed of your wallet and senses.
So there she was, in this charming little hotel in the Marais, because she’d insisted they stay near the Place des Vosges so she could visit the house of Victor Hugo, her latest literary enthusiasm, as often as she liked while he sat on one bench or another of the place, admiring the beautiful French women.
There she was, a short walk from Hugo’s house and the Pompidou and the Mariage Frères shop where she bought the caramel tea she loved. There were two bags of the tea on the dresser, below which stood her husband’s suitcase, packed neatly so that she could wheel it from the hotel across the island to the bus stop, where she could get the 24 bus to Gare St Lazare. In the years before they married, she would take the 24 bus to catch the train to Normandy, where friends of hers lived. Now she would go nowhere at all but to the station and abandon the suitcase, unlocked, with a note attached saying THIS IS NOT A BOMB BUT THE TRAVELING CLOTHES OF A DEAD MAN.
She had thought of writing the note in French but she wasn’t quite sure how to say traveling clothes. Even in English, it sounded as if the clothes themselves were traveling, and the French might mistake it for a code, or veiled threat, or the work of a terrorist not entirely familiar with the language.
In the rush of time since his death she had changed her return ticket and arranged with her son to meet her at the airport and arranged with the authorities for her husband’s body to be shipped back with her. Cargo. He’d dropped dead in the courtyard of the Louvre, not even the good courtyard, the one with the pyramids, but the vast empty one that always reminded her of the sorrows of history, all those lives disappeared into utter silence. At first she had wanted him cremated there, not in the courtyard of course but in Paris, but this proved far more complicated than turning him into cargo.
She could of course take the suitcase home with her and avoid altogether the risk of being arrested, but why avoid any risk now that everything had changed so utterly? And why hadn’t she insisted on the accident insurance so that all of this—his death, his death—could be swiftly and efficiently handled by people who knew what they were doing?
She knew she was wild with grief. That’s what she kept saying to herself: You’re wild with grief. Grief for the disappeared life where the only truly difficult thing was his intransigence—his traveling intransigence, she thought, suppressing a laugh. Traveler’s insurance! she heard him scoff. You might as well go ahead and flush $139.95 down the crapper.
She knew that when she set down the suitcase and walked away, making sure no one was watching—she would leave it in that crowded room where people queued for tickets and were anxious over the prospect of missing their trains—she would feel lightheaded. But not as lightheaded as she would feel in the plane on the way home, when she would be sitting in her economy seat and imagining her husband’s crude coffin—would it be a coffin or only a body bag, and why had she neglected to ask?—beneath her. Maybe directly beneath her, the way she always preferred during sex, when he yielded to her as if she were a beautiful woman, sometimes calling her by the wrong name, but what did that matter now.
Everyone warned her. A man with four divorces behind him, and who knew how many affairs—what could she possibly be thinking. Well, she was thinking that she was everything the others weren’t—younger, brighter, more self-reliant. She was even a little bit famous, having published, in well-regarded literary journals, short stories that generated so much attention they led to a book contract. He was her editor. They were lovers within a month. The second time they made love, he swore to her that no one had ever made him feel the way she did, no one—
She interrupted him. Et cetera. You’ve said all that before. No, no: he swore to her. But she took to calling him My sweet old et cetera, after the E. E. Cummings poem, by way of proving she wasn’t easily fooled. Still, she let herself believe everything he said.
The grief his death brought almost undid her. She felt as if she’d been flung into disparate geographic regions—parts of her body in Turkey, Malta, New Zealand, all the places they’d traveled together for his work or hers in the three years they’d been together. It seemed as if time stopped, or reversed, or suspended; it was a disorientation she couldn’t explain. All she wanted to do was lie in bed and weep.
That’s what she did, some days more, some days less, for the first few months he was gone. Then one night she decided she had to get a grip on herself. She actually gripped her forearms with her hands and walked without relaxing the pressure to the desk in his study, which she had never entered. He believed in keeping some things separate, he said, and he wanted his work space to be one of them: he was working on a novel, and he didn’t want her to influence it in any way.
She’d long suspected that he feared not her influence but her superiority as a writer, but until that moment, gripping her forearms, she had never entered the study. Oh, she’d stood in the doorway and talked to him; she’d watched as he wrote, longhand, on the yellow legal pads he favored. But she’d never crossed the threshold. She could have at any time—he kept the door unlocked—but it was a point of honor for her. She’d sworn she wouldn’t enter, and she didn’t.
But now she went quickly over the threshold to his desk, where she sat and began to open all the drawers. The yellow legal pads contained nothing resembling a novel. Notes toward one, maybe, nothing even close to a chapter. Then, in the last drawer, a notebook with a black-and-white marbled cover.
Each woman had a separate page, divided into two columns, one headed by a + and the other by a –. She read slowly. On her page, under the +, there were three items: her body, her mind, her fierce independence. The list on the – side was three times as long. She read the – list again, her blood rising, and then she hurled the notebook at the wall. A folded page fluttered out as it hit. She waited for her blood to calm before going to retrieve it. It was a list of predictions, all the things that would happen before he was forgiven. A generic list, to apply to woman after woman: Rage. Silence. Tears. Eventual concession (because they all regard forgiveness as a virtue). She crumpled the page and returned to his desk with the notebook, where she turned to the page after hers, knowing now that it would not be, as she had first assumed, blank.
Five items on the new one’s + column; the – column was blank. She picked up his pen. She turned to a new page and wrote his name. She made two columns, both of them –, and when she finished that page, she went on to another, and another, and by then her hand had cramped. She closed the notebook, scrawled ETC. in huge letters across the cover, and put it back in the drawer, smiling. With material like this, her own novel would almost write itself.
Lynne Knight was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York. Knight graduated from the University of Michigan, where she won two Hopwood Awards, and from Syracuse University, where she was a fellow in poetry and received her MA in Creative Writing and Literature. After teaching for four decades at both the high school and college levels, Knight now works as a poet and translator. In 2018, she became a permanent resident of Canada, where she lives on Vancouver Island. Knight has published six full-length collections and six chapbooks. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including Beloit Poetry Journal, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, RATTLE, and Southern Review. Her awards and honors include publication in Best American Poetry, a Prix de l’Alliance Française, a PSA Lucille Medwick Memorial Award, a RATTLE Poetry Prize, and an NEA grant.