MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
After an Edward Hopper (1882-1967) painting of the same name
There are good marriages,
but there are no delicious ones
-FRANÇOIS DE LA ROCHEFOUCAULD (1613-1680), Maxims
I imagine you reading this letter, which I slipped under the door while you were already in the room, waiting for me. I could have just sent you an e-mail or a text, but I prefer writing these pages to you by hand. As you unfold them, you will not understand at first. We know by heart the shapes of our bodies and the textures of our skin, but you have never seen my handwriting, nor I yours.
This room. This room where we have met so many times over the past four years. The wood-paneled walls, the high window, the green velvet wing chair, the mahogany chest of drawers. By now, you must have undressed: your clothes are folded on the chair, your high heels abandoned on the floor. Your cloche hat, which you wear so you can walk past Reception "incognito" and which suits you so well, has been casually tossed on the console table. You are wearing something a little risqué, perhaps that pink babydoll, which shows off your shoulders and your waist. Your legs are bare, and I can see your shapely thighs, your slender ankles, as if I were there.
But I am not there. I have not come to meet you because our affair is over. I can sense the muscles tensing around your eyes as you read that last line, and I feel bad. I am a coward, because I prefer not to have to face your reaction in person.
For a long time, I thought I could control our affair. You were a breath of fresh air, a delicious parenthesis. But you have taken up too much space in my existence. You now represent a danger. I am swamped by you. I am married, I have three children. You, too, have your husband and your little ones. For the last four years, our secret garden allowed me to get away. But the feeling is too strong.
You could be the love of my life. The woman all men dream of, the woman a man will give everything for. When I wake up in the morning, I think of you. When I go to sleep at night, my last thought is of you. All day long, I imagine you at work, with your colleagues. I have come to realize that I am obsessed by you.
You must be wondering why I am writing this nonsense, instead of being there with you, making love to you. You are probably angry, pacing the room with your long dancer's legs, muttering to yourself, "What a jerk!" You're right.
I could pursue our relationship, continuing to meet you, and to lie. But I am leaving you, and no one will ever know anything about it, because our affair is a secret. Our joys and our sufferings belong to the shadows, our pleasures, too. We were clandestine lovers. Only this hotel room knows the truth. If the walls had voices, they would tell our story.
* * *
He slipped the letter under the door and hurtled down the staircase, heart in his mouth. He scurried down into the Métro, and took a train back to his office. He was sweating. He was suffocating. All his thoughts circled back to Gabrielle in that room, reading his letter. Yes, it had been cowardly, his sneaking around and his running, but facing up to her would have taken more strength than he possessed. How could he resist Gabrielle? No man could. He had done what he had to. He'd cut it short. He'd broken up with her. There was no other choice. He felt relieved now, knowing he would no longer need to lie to his wife. A terrible weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Good-bye, Gabrielle. She would tear up the letter in a fury, then get dressed and leave the hotel discreetly. He had nothing to fear. No one knew anything. No one would ever know. He would continue to be the irreproachable François: the loving and faithful husband, the kind and gentle father.
All the same, he thought about her possible reactions. Would she stoop to phoning him, to find out his reasons? No, he felt sure, there would be no questions. He had explained it all in his letter. It was a well-written letter, he thought. Elegant. Honest. Perhaps she would keep it? He hadn't signed it, nor had he used her name. He had been cunning: he'd written it by hand, but not in his usual calligraphy. A few years from now, Gabrielle would reread it, a tender smile at the corners of her lips. Ah, François ... She would remember. The caresses, the embraces, the acts of love in that room, on that bed. He would remember, too.
* * *
François arrived at his office. He greeted a few colleagues. Loosening his tie, he gulped down some water, then sat in front of his computer. Glanced at the clock. Two thirty. She had undoubtedly left the hotel by now. Gone to eat lunch. She must have called a friend and admitted with a laugh, "Some idiot stood me up," without revealing his identity, because, after all, she was married, too, and had to be discreet. Usually after making love, they would drink a glass of champagne together, and nibble a few petits fours. Exquisite moments. How beautiful she was, lying languid on the bed, her lips pink and moist, her breasts bare. He was going to miss Gabrielle's breasts. He remembered that he hadn't eaten anything, and asked his assistant to order him some sushi.
He ate at his desk, eyes riveted to his computer screen. He worked mechanically. After an hour, he checked his cell phone. No messages. He couldn't help feeling disappointed, even a little worried. She hadn't even tried to get ahold of him. Had she at least read his letter? Was she still waiting for him, sitting on the bed in her babydoll? Had he slipped the letter under the carpet by mistake? Or maybe he'd gotten the wrong room? He hadn't thought about that possibility. Perhaps he should send her a text? No, that would be ridiculous.
He stood up and looked out the window, only one thought in his head: Gabrielle in the hotel room, growing impatient, Gabrielle, who had not read the letter. But what was he thinking? Of course she had read it. She hadn't been in touch because she was furious, hurt. It was true: he had been a coward. But it was too late now. What's done is done, he thought. He ought to concentrate on his work. Forget the hotel room.
Standing at the coffee machine, a female colleague asked him if he'd heard the news.
"What news?" he said.
"The building that burned to the ground."
"In Paris! This afternoon! Have you been living under a rock or something?"
She pointed to the conference room, where the entire office-about twenty people-was crowded around a television screen. A rolling news channel was showing images of a building consumed by flames, half-concealed by thick black smoke. He moved closer, holding his cup of coffee. Words scrolled past on the ticker at the bottom of the screen: FIRE IN A PARIS HOTEL-TWO DEAD, SEVERAL MISSING-TEN INJURED, FOUR IN CRITICAL CONDITION. Suddenly he recognized the street, and the hotel, and he dropped his cup. The black liquid pooled over the linoleum floor.
He couldn't speak. All the color had drained from his face. He stood frozen in front of the screen, in a daze. The newscaster's voice was explaining that the cause of the fire was unknown. It had started just after 1:00 pm and had spread with unimaginable speed. Part of the roof had collapsed. And yet the hotel had been recently renovated, so there was no suggestion that it had been unsafe. Could it have been an electrical fault? Or a deliberate act? There would be an investigation. For now, two people were dead, but that figure might still rise. The fire was not yet under control. Hundreds of firefighters and police were at the scene. The entire quarter had been sealed off.
He staggered back to his desk. His mouth was dry and he could hardly breathe. He picked up his cell phone. She was listed in his address book under a man's name: GABRIEL. The phone rang a few times: then her voice said, "Hello, please leave a message," in that slightly abrupt way of hers that he loved so much. My God, how could he hear her voice when she was perhaps seriously burned, trapped under rubble, dying or dead?
He paced the office in a fever. How could such a thing have happened? The fire must have started just after he left. She had been waiting for him. For him. The room was on the fifth floor. Had she had time to escape? Was she standing outside on the street in her babydoll? Or worse, was she in the morgue? He thought, with horror, of her husband. He didn't know the man at all. Didn't even know what he looked like. And her children. Still young, like his. How would the children get through this ordeal?
He realized he couldn't stay in the office. Making an excuse about a last-minute meeting, he left. Once again, he took the Métro, this time back to the scene of the tragedy. During the trip, he thought of her, of the terror she must have felt when the smoke began seeping under the door. The panic. The dread. The flames. What was he going to do? He didn't even know her address. All he knew was that she lived in the Latin Quarter, near Rue Monge. Beyond that, he knew very little about her. She was a secretive woman. The hotel room had been their world. Their universe.
As soon as he reached the neighboring street, the awful smell of the fire filled his nostrils. The smoke was still rising, black plumes in the sky. Police roadblocks had been set up in various places, obstructing his passage. There were crowds of onlookers. All he could do was stand there, crushed, staring at the smoke. He tried to call her again. Three rings, then voice mail. Should he send her a text anyway? Ask how she was? He didn't dare. It was impossible to know who had her cell phone at this moment. If he sent a message, a firefighter or a policeman might read it.
A secret affair. No one knew anything. Ever. Not her husband, not his wife.
He went home in a wretched state. His wife, concerned, asked if he was all right. He replied tonelessly that he had a headache. She gave him a pill. Before dinner, he watched the news. The two fatalities were both women. He thought he was going to faint. He had to confess everything now. Reveal the truth before the police or her husband found out. He had paid for the room with a credit card in his name, François R. And what about the hotel's security cameras? Even if they had been destroyed, the videos were stored somewhere else. He would almost certainly be seen entering the hotel, just before the fire broke out. The investigators would track him down. He would have to explain himself. Tell them the story of his and Gabrielle's four-year affair, the pink babydolls, the champagne, the petits fours. Disclose their meetings in the hotel room. (How many had there been? He'd lost count.) He would have to make public their most private moments, exposing memories of Gabrielle's shapely thighs, her breasts, her body, her husky voice when she spoke during sex, and the arousing recollection of her pleasure, the smell of her hair, the taste of her lips, memories that belonged only to him. No more lying. He would confess everything. Pluck up the courage to go and talk to his wife, here and now, while she was preparing dinner, and explain it all to her. No delays. No more waiting for the inevitable. He stood up, white as a sheet, his limbs shaky. She was in the kitchen, making a pot-au-feu. His wife. Anne. A nice girl. Still beautiful. Distinguished. Three children. A perfect family that would be blown to pieces. He imagined the gossip, the mudslinging. The sideways looks. His in-laws. His parents.
"I need to speak to you."
"You look so sad!"
"There's something I have to tell you."
He closed the kitchen door. There was no point getting the kids mixed up in this.
With trembling hands, he poured himself a glass of wine. He couldn't rid his mind of the vision of the babydoll and the morgue. He saw Anne's expression become troubled as she waited for him to speak. He drank the wine down in a single swallow.
"What's the matter with you?"
Staring at the refrigerator-that old, humming fridge-he began his confession in a monotone voice that she must surely find pitiable. Eyes glued in turn to the packet of cereal and then the toaster, he poured out his pathetic tale, his breath coming in short bursts. Gazing at the Post Office calendar pinned to the wall, he described the meeting in a restaurant, one spring day, the rendezvous, the lies, the hotel, the fire, the morgue. He spared her no details. There would, he knew, be a before and an after. He would remember this moment for the rest of his life.
His wife was pale. Her mouth hung open, and her fingers held tightly to a chair. She did not say a word. She scrutinized him with huge black eyes. Never had her eyes been so big or so dark.
An absolute silence filled the kitchen. Even the fridge had stopped humming. Time seemed suspended.
Anne got up suddenly, opened the door, and ran to the bathroom at the other end of the hallway.
He heard her throwing up. He remained standing in the middle of the room, distraught. Would this moment never end? It was unbearable.
His cell phone vibrated in his pocket. Nervously, he picked it up.
The screen flashed up a text from GABRIEL.
Completely forgot our meeting! I'm in NYC, jetlagged. Hope you're not too mad at me! Are you free next Friday?
Copyright © 2014 by Éditions Héloise d'Ormesson
Translation copyright © 2015 by Sam Taylor