Image by Tak Toyoshima
THE HOUSE SEEMED FINE until she noticed the trampoline. A cheap old thing more weathered than worn out, it stood in the corner of the sunlit lawn, taunting Melissa as she smoked on the porch watching bees rove from flower to flower. Without hesitation she blamed its presence on her younger sister, who had arranged this trip for the two of them, only to bail with days to spare so she could go instead to Florida with a boyfriend who, in Melissa’s opinion—she had met him twice—was suspiciously polite. Suve was his name, short for something. Who could remember what?
Shirtless men were erecting a marquee in the garden next door, owned, so the ring-bound house handbook claimed, by the Zeldins, a “delightful” couple with two small children. She checked her phone—no signal. Isolation was already enveloping her. She asked herself aloud if she mightn’t like a drink.
Monsegur was fifteen minutes away—she had passed through it on her drive from the airport. In the supermarket now she was reckless, selecting multiple cheeses and bottles of wine, strange vegetables, slabs of unidentified meat, tubes of extravagant cookies. This week of seclusion in the vineyards of Bordeaux had been conceived as a kind of regrouping. But that was before it had become a solitary affair—one featuring an old trampoline and a party to which she was not invited.
In her teens, trampolining had been her thing. At the encouragement of her PE teacher, Mr. Pitt, she’d competed in regional meets, qualifying at sixteen for the nationals. Popular girls, her sister Nicola included, taunted her for spending more time with Mr. Pitt—a forty-something unmarried townie, tall, bearded, with enormous hands, owner of a navy blue VW Westfalia camper as well as a silver Kawasaki—than with boys her own age. But the truth was she thrived on his attention. As much as it was a discipline, a sport, trampolining was also a performance, and she knew no elation to match that of executing a flawless routine as Mr. Pitt watched with somber approval, arms crossed, nodding in his shabby sweats.
Her commitment had been total until, during one of four weekly after-class sessions, she lost concentration when her coach’s interest diverted visibly to a younger girl stretching on a nearby mat. The resulting fall demolished the ligaments in her right knee. Even after surgery and months of physio, the doctors were adamant. Mr. Pitt said it was a terrible waste. Heartbreaking, he said. But it was clear he’d already moved on, wrapped up in his latest protégé. That was fifteen years ago, more. She hadn’t set foot on a bounce mat since, though her recent attempts to forget about Jonathan had brought to mind the leaden-legged feeling of stepping down and walking away.
She texted Nicola from outside the supermarket—Arrived safely, house gorgeous—then sat in her rented Fiat for a while watching French wives load their own cars with groceries. One dropped a bag and shrugged as three oranges rolled away. Melissa was waiting for her sister to reply, fighting the urge to text Jonathan also, six weeks now since his letter. Flora is making me run with her, he’d written. In other words, she knows. His familiar childish scrawl had prompted an unwelcome surge of affection. I just hope you realize how much you have meant. She hadn’t written back but had added the letter to her collection of trinkets from their time together, a pathetic array of receipts and stolen cutlery she wasn’t yet ready to throw away.
Today was Saturday, the half marathon was tomorrow. The instructions to her sister had been simple—get me out of Massachusetts that weekend! By which she meant—save me the indignity of clinging to a railing in Rockport, fighting for a glimpse of him sweating beside his wife! By the time her phone buzzed, the supermarket was closed. Good job, Miami a-mah-zing too! Suve says hi, how are you.
Twice a week they had gone to her apartment after work and spent an hour or two together, watching television afterwards, wallowing in bed like a real couple. With her, Jonathan had laughed at the same lame sitcoms he sneered at his wife for enjoying. He was liked by his staff, well-dressed but not showily so, stern when necessary but generous and approachable. His glasses were fashionable, if a touch too young for him, and every Monday he went to the barber for a trim and cutthroat shave. For most of her five months as his assistant, she had also been his mistress, a word he used often and to which she outwardly objected, though the prim authority it granted her always inspired a little thrill. Lover would have been a preferable term—one she knew he could never use. She went down on him once in his office, in the middle of the day with telephones ringing and door unlocked, just because he teased her that she didn’t have the nerve. After that it had all started to lose its sheen. She knew he would never leave Flora, wasn’t sure she even wanted him to. There were children too, three teenagers. The two daughters beamed out of picture frames on his desk—pretty, privileged, just the sort of bitches she’d hated at school.
Near the end, he asked her to name her favorite perfume, and returned from lunch carrying a small bag from Nordstrom, thick black paper embossed with gold. Closing his door she turned to him with a conspiratorial smile, the thought of which later made her want to throw up. “Okay for tonight?”
He shook his head without looking up, typing on his laptop. “Anniversary. Two days ago, actually.”
She gave notice that same week. On her last day the whole floor gathered while he wished her well at a rival agency. Don’t give away our secrets, he said. Everybody laughed, clutching their little plastic cups of prosecco. So, they knew all along. One of the other PAs gave her a long hug. Don’t look so blue, the woman said, we’ll all keep in touch.
The commotion of the marquee party sounded strange, surrounded by so many empty acres. She wondered how far into the vines she’d have to walk to escape it. She imagined the guests—healthy and tanned, grinning in the flow of their idyllic lives—and lit another cigarette. By the time darkness settled, the wine bottle was empty.
A knock at the front door woke her—sprawled on the sofa, lamps on, laughter still audible. The man on the porch stood a polite distance back in a crisp shirt, chinos, expensive leather sandals. His thick dark hair was neatly cut and his teeth caught the light from inside as he smiled. He was stubbly, in need of a cutthroat blade. One eyebrow ran into the other.
With a firm handshake he introduced himself as Vincent Zeldin, the neighbor. The handbook said he was an orthodontist and she felt he looked like one. She ran her fingers through her sleep-flat hair as he apologized for the noise, gaze flicking beyond her into the house. “You are alone?”
“Nicola went to Miami instead.” When he asked if she’d like to join them in the marquee—my birthday, he said—she indicated her outfit, her face. “Merci but I’m—a mess.”
He repeated the word and shook his head. “You are perfect!”
After he left she went straight to the mirror, adjusting her hair, sucking in her cheeks, pulling back her shoulders. Eyes too close together, wide nostrils, shiny forehead, dull and crooked teeth. Her figure was better—good legs and C-cups she got from her mother, not like Nicola. Getting a little top-heavy for the tramp, Mel, Mr. Pitt would say.
There was a crease down one side of her face from the sofa.
“Perfect,” she said.
In shuttered darkness she woke with a headache and no idea of the time. On the white walls were mosquitoes she had killed, paint stained with smudges of their blood mixed with hers. The garden was wet from half-remembered morning rain and grey clouds packed the sky. She ate a tube of cookies on the sofa and tried not to think about the marathon. Later she strolled barefoot around the lawn. Dead apples, figs and plums lay scattered beneath their trees.
She approached the trampoline as if it were a seething hive. The mat was slick, the springs rusty. She mounted and for a while stood completely still, feeling the material stretch under her feet. With faint movements of her toes she began to bounce, hardly breaking contact. Dizziness washed over her. In her knee, not pain so much as the memory of it. The rain started up again.
At four-thirty she opened a bottle of red and sat down with the guestbook. Everyone had remarked on the splendid weather, the incredible walks, the gardening. Most had taken trips to bastides and châteaux, rented bikes, ridden horses, played golf. Everything was just right, someone wrote, exactly what we needed.
The morning walk to Taillecavat, longer than the handbook implied, took her past fields of sunflowers and vines slathered in light. Cows came to greet her, lowing over the wire, and in a garden there were tiny chicks, stumbling and chirping, yellow down ruffled by the breeze. As she entered the empty streets of the village, a dog trotted out, barked once and disappeared.
The bakery was closed. Fermé le lundi, the sign said. She wondered if Jonathan had gone into work, if he could walk after yesterday. He probably had blisters all over his feet. She imagined bursting them for him with one of those little olive forks—there were two in her collection, lifted from their first lunch date.
Her phone buzzed. Guess who just got engaged! She gazed through the window at the empty shelves, trying to compose a response. The bakery is closed, she wrote. Something more was needed but she couldn’t think what. She sent it like that and dropped the phone into her bag.
As she walked back a woman came jogging towards her in a vest and little shorts. They smiled as they passed. Just before Melissa reached the house the woman approached again, this time from behind, out of breath, her vest damp with sweat. She slowed, offered a clammy hand. This was Claudine, the orthodontist’s wife. She looked twenty-six or -seven, with blue eyes and covetable cheekbones and the figure, Melissa thought, of a mother trying to get back to her best. There was desperation in her friendliness, a glimpse of endless hours at home with the kids.
“Our party is not bad for you? I send Vincent maybe to bring but you sleep, I think.”
Melissa blinked. “Oh. Yes, I was very—I mustn’t have heard the door.” Claudine invited her in for coffee. “Thank you but I have some work to do.” Why was she lying to this woman?
Later she looked over the bookshelf in one of the bedrooms. Her eye was caught by the name—Marguerite Duras—on a slim volume, The Lover. Duras was the name of a nearby town, one that both guestbook and handbook talked up. She pulled the book out and read the blurb. The word ‘devastating’ appeared twice. She put it back on the shelf, picked a dog-eared thriller instead.
Sprawled on a lounger, straps off her shoulders, she read in the sun. After a while she heard voices and car doors through the trees and sat up to see Vincent waving off Claudine and the children. When they’d gone he began to mow the lawn, his chest and shoulders thick with hair, hint of a gut above his orange shorts. She stood, removed her sunglasses, pulled her straps up.
The rusty springs creaked as she clambered up, the mat hot under her soles. She began slowly, building momentum as Mr. Pitt had taught her, creeping higher and higher as her confidence seeped back. With each leap the landscape opened up, snapping back again as she dropped. Beyond the trees, Vincent pushed his mower. She went through some of the basic moves—somersault, straddle, twist-to-seat. Each felt tremendous. Why had she deprived herself for so long? Her hair was in her eyes—she hadn’t tied it back—but she sensed him watching, one hand up to block the glare, and his watching urged her on.
Her strength soon started to fade, her thighs burning. Still she went into another somersault, in pike this time, digging what life she could from the old springs. But the take-off felt wrong, her trajectory was off, and before she was halfway over, she knew.
The immediate stillness after impact was shocking, the sudden pungent earth against her cheek. Her vision was all sparks as she rolled over, whimpering. Vincent appeared, crouching, his hand on her forehead, smiling like a man trained to inflict one pain with the intention of easing another. He lifted and carried her inside, his damp chest hair soft against her skin, setting her down on a familiar sofa strewn with cookie crumbs.
He fetched a glass of water, perching on the coffee table as she sipped. “You are okay,” he said. He looked older than the other night—middle to late thirties. His hair was pushed back off his sweat-slick forehead as he gestured towards the trampoline outside. “Wow! Fantastic!”
She shifted, wincing. There was pain in several places but the worst of it was in her knee, the jagged agony deep in the joint as familiar as the voice of a sibling. He traced his fingers down the leg from hip to ankle. “No fracture, I think.”
“It’s my knee.” She drank the rest of the water. “I know what it is.” She could smell him, the smell of a man’s body. Her breathing had steadied and her head was clearing but still everything seemed unreal. “Thank God you were here.”
He seemed to know it had all been for him. She glanced away as if caught out, but the pretence was thin. As he took the glass and began to stand, she put her hand on his knee. He paused, then leaned to kiss her, on the forehead, cheek, mouth. She tasted sweat around his lips, coffee on his tongue, feeling a rush of something—the absence of remorse, perhaps. He knelt, tugging her bikini bottoms down and placing them on the low table like a surgical instrument he might need again. Sunlight in the room, his head between her thighs—too much. She closed her eyes. He rose up off his knees, his mouth finding hers.
Afterwards she looked away as he pulled up his shorts, straightening her bikini top. He handed her the bottoms like they were a cup to spit in. “Voilá.”
The mower started up again. The blanket underneath her needed washing and she carried it, limping, down to the machine. In the corner of the basement was a plastic paddling pool which she took out to the garden behind the house. With barely an inch of cold water in the bottom she stepped gingerly in and lay down, letting it fill up slowly around her until it overflowed.
The road to Duras wound through neat swathes of forestry, sunflowers, vineyards, weathered old houses. The town was a warren of cobbled streets on a hill. On the roof of the château she lingered for an hour, looking out over the countryside, her knee throbbing despite painkillers. She tried to locate the house in the distance but could not.
A plaque at the edge of Place de Marguerite Duras seemed to say that the little square had been renamed for the writer after her death in 1996. Outside a shaded café in the corner she was greeted by a waitress, a big woman in her sixties with thin graying hair and glasses on a string around her neck.
“Marguerite Duras?” Melissa said, indicating the empty square.
The woman’s face brightened and she began to speak quickly, leaving Melissa to pluck translatable fragments from the stream—writer, very sad, alcoholic, Vietnam, famous, Nazis, sex, important, death. Then she switched unexpectedly to English: “You ‘ave read The Lover, yes?”
“Oh yes,” Melissa said. “Devastating.”
She drove on to Eymet, another bastide town with ancient walls and the same empty afternoon indolence. At another café she tried to write a postcard but the platitudes wouldn’t come. She imagined sending one to Jonathan’s house, Flora presenting him with it at dinner. Stalls were setting up for an evening market. In the end she just wrote Wish you were here, dropping the card unaddressed and unstamped into the post-box she passed as she limped back to the car.
She was halfway home when her phone began to ring, its unexpected melody startling her. Pulling off the road onto the graveled shoulder she dug the thing out of her purse.
“Have you heard?” her mother said, unusually shrill.
“I got a text, yes.”
“Really? From who?”
They were talking about different things. Four women, all former pupils from the eighties and nineties, were pressing charges against Mr. Pitt, citing various incidents in the changing rooms and in the back of his camper. The news had just broken locally—he still worked at the school and Waltham was scandalized.
“Did he ever…?” Her mother’s voice got quieter. “You’d say, wouldn’t you, love? If he ever did anything to you?”
“Never,” she said.
A car went past. Through its rear windshield she saw two little girls looking back, sticking out their tongues, their faces screwed up. Her mother asked if she was surprised. She watched until the car disappeared around the corner.
“Not surprised exactly,” she said. “Maybe disappointed.”
“Yes,” her mother said. “I know what you mean.”
Morning, her last full day at the house. In the corner of her room a spider hung in its web, surrounded by offspring, new overnight. Dozens of them, tiny things suspended in the gauzy mesh.
Around noon, lying out in the garden, she heard what sounded like a motorcycle tearing down a distant stretch of road. She imagined a silver Kawasaki, chassis glinting in the sun, until the whine was suddenly oppressively loud and as close as if it were inside her head.
The swarm surged up from behind the far trees, a teeming mass coming directly towards her.
In an instant she was on her feet and sprinting across the lawn, oblivious to the pain in her knee, not breathing, feeling the sound in pursuit, through the trees separating the houses and on into the Zeldins’ garden, to an open door and through it, slamming it behind her and moving down a hallway into a kitchen where she yanked shut one open window after another. Only then did she spin and see Claudine at the sink and two children at the table.
“Bees!” she screamed. “Bees are coming!”
The baby girl began to wail. The boy, two or three years old, covered his ears with his hands, squirming in his chair, the Lego blocks in his fists clattering to the tiles. For a moment Claudine seemed frozen, watching Melissa with wide eyes, but then she stepped into her path, shouting in French to stop, relax. Melissa circled the table, grabbing at her hair, panting, trying to calm down. Things began to come into focus, the throbbing in her knee asserting itself. Frightening the children she forced a smile that seemed only to worsen her effect.
The baby kept howling and Claudine picked it up. “The bees are not bad,” she said. “They only search for new nest.”
Abruptly aware that she wore only her bikini, Melissa folded her arms across her chest, then put her hands over her eyes and apologized. Claudine, her touch unexpectedly gentle, pulled her hands away. Melissa mumbled again that she was sorry and moved towards the door.
“Please, stay! This little monster will sleep now, yes? Etes-vous prêt pour une petite siesta maintenant ma chérie?” The French woman pulled out a chair and gestured for Melissa to sit. “Jean, s’il vous plait soyez gentil avec madame OK?” This she directed at the boy, who uncovered his ears reluctantly and fumbled again with his Lego. He had curly brown hair and a round face, a smudge of food on his chin. Something about his roaming gaze troubled Melissa until she realized—he couldn’t see her. As the two of them sat, she watched him, unsure whether to speak. He ignored her absolutely. The longer he did so, the more she felt exposed.
When Claudine returned she slipped a flimsy floral dress over Melissa’s shoulders. “Voilá.”
They ate cheese and bread, thin stringy ham, grated carrot, endives. They talked about bees, about life in Boston and life there, about the children, Jean’s blindness, work, the house.
“So you ‘ave nice man at ‘ome?”
Melissa shook her head. “My friends are all married though, having babies. Even my little sister. I don’t think I can stand another wedding.”
“But always there are men at weddings, no?” Claudine winked and for a dizzy moment Melissa felt that she would tell this woman everything—how her husband had kissed the artless tattoo on her hip as if it were a graze on a child’s palm, how he had torn down her bikini top and clawed at her breasts, how he had growled French filth into her ear—she would blurt it all out and this woman would only shrug and wink.
When Vincent came home just after four, Melissa saw him flinch. Claudine introduced her and explained about the bees. He laughed uncertainly. “Your leg is feel better?”
She felt her eyes widen. “Oh!” She dared not glance at Claudine but was sure she detected a pause in her movements, perhaps a slight frown. Vincent’s face warped into a weak, fearful grin. “Much better,” she said, “thanks.”
“You will stay for dinner?” he said quickly.
She declined. In English, Claudine asked him to walk Melissa back and check the place for bees, and after a pause in which she saw his mind working he picked up Jean and with the boy in one arm ushered her out the door.
“You don’t have to do this,” she muttered, two paces behind.
“No problem!” His voice was unrecognizable. “Jean is fight the bees, eh Jean?”
The child only blinked, head lolling drowsily. They passed under the washing line where the sofa blanket still swung in the breeze. At the far side of the porch, he stopped. “D’accord! No bees ‘ere eh Jean? Pas de mauvaises abeilles?”
She stepped into the house through the open glass doors and turned to face the two of them. Vincent’s eyes betrayed some kind of plea. The child hung in his left arm, glazed eyes flickering.
“I need to give you this dress,” she said quietly.
Frowning, he swallowed, his voice low now too. “Dress?”
“Your wife’s dress.”
“Ah.” His mouth sounded dry. “OK.”
He was diminishing, there in front of her. His helpless gaze streamed into her, seeming to lift, to fill her up. Slowly, eyes still locked on his, she pulled the dress up over her head and held it bunched in her hand. Standing in her bikini she saw the gaze drift down. She reached behind to unfasten the clasp, tilting her shoulders so the straps slid down and the top dropped silently. The faintest nod. With the child looking through her into the dark room behind, she tugged the bottoms down to the tiles, flicked them away and straightened. Breeze on her skin, holding out the dress, waiting for him to take it.
Vincent raised his free arm, reached for her breast. Stepping back, she watched his head drop, fought to steady her hand. She held out the dress and closed her eyes, hoping when she opened them to find herself alone.