Read The Conversion Online

Authors: Joseph Olshan

The Conversion

Joseph Olshan

The Conversion

For Anne B. Adams and Francesca Duranti

“I never made him do anything in my life but once, when I made him burn up a bad book. That’s all!” At her. “That’s all!” Paul broke into an
irrepressible
laugh; it lasted only a second, but it drew her eyes to him. His own met them, but not long enough to help him to understand her;
unless
it were a step towards this that he felt sure on the instant that the burnt book (the way she alluded to it!) was one of her husband’s finest things.

Henry James, “The Lesson of the Master”

When Ed and I went to stay at the Auberge Birague, we certainly never expected to meet up with anyone either of us knew. Our habit was to take breakfast in the café and sit near a window that opened onto a flower box overflowing with nasturtiums already wilting in the sultry air. One morning several days after we arrived, a woman in a
short-sleeved
black shirt and beige linen pants entered the café and sat down several tables away from us. I noticed Ed watching her with laserlike curiosity. “My God!” he gushed to me in a whisper. “I
know
this lady.” She turned out to be Marina Vezzoli, an Italian writer he’d met at a
literary
festival in Chile. He got up and approached her, shoulders canted forward like a primary-school student cowering before his teacher. Extending his hand, he said, “Hello, Marina, Edward Cannon. We met in Santiago. At the festival.”

She was around sixty, quite trim with tawny shoulder-length hair veined with gray. Her eyes were pale and thoughtful as she looked at him with puzzled reserve. But soon her face kindled with recognition. “Ah, of course,” she said. “Forgive me. What are you doing in France?”

Ed explained that he had lived in Paris for ten years, that he’d just sold his apartment right across the street from the Auberge Birague, and that he and I were staying at the hotel for a couple of weeks before he left for America to begin a tenured teaching job at New York University. At this point Marina Vezzoli shot me a look of bemused curiosity. And then, for some odd reason, Ed launched into Italian.

After listening to a few awkwardly constructed sentences, Marina leaned forward, patted him gently on the hand, and said, “Why don’t you speak in English, my friend? It would be easier on both of us.” I winced for Ed. His Midwestern charm was usually able to warm even the chilliest reception. As famous as he was, he was unaccustomed to having his own pretentiousness pointed out to him. Clearly stung, he straightened his
six-foot
-two frame, nervously raked his fingers through his longish, thick dirty-blond hair. He was fifty-nine years old, and if you’d seen him at a distance you might have mistaken him for an aging, slightly paunchy surfer. He returned to our table, flustered and embarrassed.

Genuinely bewildered, I said to him sotto voce, “Why did you … switch to Italian like that?”

“I don’t know why. Now I feel like an idiot.”

“Well, don’t worry. It’s not
that
critical.”

“Something is wrong here, Russell,” Ed warned me. “She acts as though she barely remembers me, but believe me, she does. We sat next to each other at dinner, as a matter of fact.” They’d spoken at length; he remembered one fascinating conversation in which Marina Vezzoli assured him that Henry James didn’t really understand Italians. And then a few years after Santiago, Ed had served on a panel in Saint Paul de Vence discussing two Italian writers, one of whom came up and introduced himself as a friend of hers. “Now she treats me like a stranger,” he grumbled.

“Whose ego is as big as Mount Vesuvius.” I glanced over at the woman now perusing the
Corriere della Sera
while sipping a glass of freshly pressed grapefruit juice.

Ed went on with a bit more restraint. “Besides, I’ve told you all about her. She’s the one who wrote that wonderful novel that was made into the film we saw. The one called
Conversion
.” He leaned back in his chair.

“Oh,” I said. “So that’s who she is.”

As though perceiving that Ed and I wanted to gossip about her, the woman took a last bite of her toast, carefully folded her newspaper, and pushed back from the table. Nodding cordially at us, she left the breakfast room. I remember Ed watching her exit with an expression of pure reverence.

Our room at the Auberge Birague was decorated in blond Swedish
furniture
; it had tall glass doors that opened onto a balcony. Late in the night on the day we encountered Marina Vezzoli, I woke up to a terrible pounding, to the smell of sweaty bodies, to the alarming realization that there were other people in the room besides us. Two men wearing black ski masks pulled down to their lips had burst in from the terrace. One of them held what looked like some sort of semiautomatic weapon. The other pulled out a long, bowed knife, the sort that might fillet a large fish. When I saw the first glint of the rifle’s muzzle, when I heard the menacing click of the magazine, I was paralyzed by one desperate hope: that the gun and the man who held it would somehow just melt into fantasy and that I
wouldn’t have to die right there. “Stay where you are!” the gunman garbled in foreign-sounding French. As if we’d dare to counter them.

“Your money! Your passports! Where!” snarled the other one with the knife.

I managed to tell him and he opened drawers, quickly scrabbling through the contents. He turned back to me and took several steps closer, waving his dagger. “They’re not!”

“I have them,” said Ed, who was leaning up in bed on his elbows, looking typically angry at something not to his liking. It was as though he hadn’t even registered the threat of the weapons.

From here on it all blurs, the order of things. I don’t know if it was right then when one of them actually protested, “Wait, shit! Two men.
It’s two men,
” before Ed recklessly jumped out of bed. Standing there in a T-shirt and skimpy underwear, he started screaming in English, “Get out of here, you monkeys! Go fuck up somebody else!” There was a quick tirade in a language other than French, but then they actually listened to him. They turned and rushed back to the balcony and clambered out whatever way they had come in.

Ed and I sat on our twin beds in quiet disbelief, staring at the doors opening onto the slate mansard roofs of the place des Vosges. The curtains billowed as if in the lingering spirit of such an outrageous intrusion. “Are you insane?” I finally shouted at him. “They could’ve killed us!”

Collapsing onto the bed, Ed, looking befuddled, admitted, “I can’t believe what I said.”

“You called them monkeys. And they weren’t even black!”

“By the way, that language they broke into, that was Albanian.”

“So what! They still could’ve understood English.”

He stared at me, blinking. “Of course, you’re right, Russell. But you should know me by now. What happens when I get angry.”

“Ed, you told them to fuck off,” I reminded him.

This most eloquent of poets, who could also be profoundly vulgar, actually laughed. And then I did, too—comic relief it must have been. It suddenly seemed as though the bizarre incident had never even occurred. The apoplectic yelling had attracted no attention, no knock on the door, nobody calling up from the lobby. The hotel had remained absolutely still. Could no one have heard the commotion?

“We’ve got to call down and tell them what happened,” I insisted.

“Okay, but wait a minute.” Ed swept the hair out of his eyes and peered at me. He was breathless. “You heard them say ‘two men,’ right?

I told him I had.

“They weren’t expecting to find
us
.”

I didn’t answer, trying to figure out why this might be significant.

“Don’t you get it, Russell? They were expecting a man in bed with his wife.”

“If that’s true, then we’re doubly lucky they didn’t shoot us, the wrong people.”

“No, Russell. If they were hired or politically motivated, if they’d have done something to us, then they would’ve failed their purpose.”

“All the more reason to let them know downstairs.”

Ed looked distressed. “I don’t want to,” he insisted. “I just can’t deal with anything more tonight. They’ll insist on calling the police, who will want to take reports. We’ll be up all night.” He hesitated. “They’re gone; they’re probably halfway across Paris by now. We can let the hotel know in the morning.” He paused again, seeming bewildered.

“What is it, do you think you recognize something about them?” I asked.

“No, no, it’s not that,” he replied. He got up and went into the bathroom and left the door ajar. “Not at all.” He remained there in complete stillness and finally I asked him if anything was wrong. When he didn’t answer, I walked over and found him staring at himself in the mirror. His eyes finally met mine. “Nothing’s wrong, I’m just getting some Xanax.” He reached for his shaving kit, opened a plastic cylinder, and took out a one-milligram pill that he divided equally and gave half to me.

I awoke the next morning from a very deep sleep. The room was profoundly quiet. Ed’s face looked unnaturally pale. I climbed out of my bed and went over to check. I ventured to feel his forehead. It was chill to my touch, winter cold; he no longer seemed to be breathing. This was as shocking to me as the appearance of that semiautomatic rifle just hours before. “It can’t be!” I said aloud. “He can’t possibly …” I told myself, cradling him in my arms like a child. I swept my fingers through his hair and softly whispered, “No, no, no,” as though my gentle reproach could make him breathe again.

Nearly a year earlier, a mutual friend had mentioned to Ed that I was spending six months in the 18th arrondissement on an apartment swap and encouraged him to contact me. He called on a Sunday afternoon in early August, assuming that I’d drop everything I was doing to meet “the renowned poet” for a drink. But I couldn’t meet him that particular
afternoon
, and when he asked why, I recklessly divulged that I had a date with a married man. Ed kept pressing for details until I described how Michel’s wife sprinkled Chanel into the washing machine when she did his laundry and how the faintest whiff of Faubourg Saint-Honoré boutiques and haute couture came off his neck when I climbed aboard his black BMW and we rode the arrondissements, leaning into the corners,
rocketing
our way out of the city toward the Périphérique, and beyond that, a rush of woodlands on the way to Versailles. Frenchmen tend to be compact and slight; Michel, however, was half German, tall and broad with wide shoulders and a lean, taut belly that I clutched as we rode. When the weather is so hot and blistering, two guys in tank tops on a black BMW motorcycle is probably not so abnormal a sight in Paris. I suppose there might have been something unusual about our intimate configuration, in the way I rested my hands proprietarily on his narrow hips when the motorcycle coasted to a halt in traffic. People would often stare at us both in admiration and disdain.

“He sounds delicious,” Ed had said to me. “I’ll look forward to meeting him, too.”

“Unfortunately, you won’t be able to. He’s in the closet. Being quite married,” I explained.

“You certainly look smitten,” Ed commented the day we finally did meet at a café off Saint Germain. It was another sweltering evening and the scantily yet always tastefully clad patrons were facing the street, sipping tall cocktails in the shade of contiguous umbrellas, and despite the weather, managing to look cool and composed. Out of place, I’d shown up sweaty and conspicuous in a heavy leather motorcycle jacket; Michel and I had just returned to Paris from riding out to Chartres.

“Just overheated,” I replied, shrugging off the jacket.

Looking me up and down, Ed frowned. “You’re really perspiring. Couldn’t you have bothered to change?”

I apologized; if I’d gone back to my apartment in the 18th, I’d have been late meeting him here on the Left Bank. Hesitating a moment, I finally slumped into the chair opposite him.

“You reek, too,” he complained.

This was getting annoying. “Maybe we should meet some other time, then,” I said, making a move to get up.

Ed flinched and I could see a flicker of anger freezing his expression. “No, stay,” he insisted. “Have a drink. What will it be?” Flipping his hair away from his forehead, he continued to stare at me intently. His eyes were a startling, deep sea blue, and, I remarked to myself, darker than Michel’s. He pointed to his own drink. “How about Campari?”

“Fine.”

He flagged the waiter’s attention, gave the order in perfect French, and then gently asked about my own command of the language.

Less annoyed now, I managed to tell him my French was, at best, mediocre. Although I did have Italian. “Which actually helps me
understand
the Parisians.”

“How much longer are you here?”

“Another six weeks.”

“So you’ll try and improve it, won’t you?” he asked. “You won’t be like those Americans who come here thinking that English is so universally spoken—”

“Believe it or not, you’re the first person I’ve spoken English to at length for weeks.” I neglected to tell him that Michel spoke pretty good English, a language in which we conversed almost exclusively.

My first impression of Ed was that he looked exceptionally well for a man in his late fifties. His body was meaty and yet well proportioned on his six-foot-two frame. He had a broad and florid fullness to his face, lively eyes, and, of course, his bleached-out surfer’s hair. He asked how I’d gotten to know Italian, and I explained that I was first-generation
Jewish-American
; that my father had been born in Ferrara and, beyond that, in college I’d majored in my ancestral language.

Ed considered this for a moment. “Todaro,” he said to me with the proper accent on the first syllable. “That’s really not a Jewish-Italian name.”

“How do
you
know?” I asked, secretly impressed.

“Jewish-Italian names are pretty recognizable. They’re often the names of cities. If your name, for example, had been
Ferrara
…” He broke off.

I explained that the family name was once Todà and that my
great-grandfather
had changed it—perhaps out of some kind of silly snobbism—well before Mussolini assimilated Hitler’s racial laws. But my mother’s family did indeed come from Ferrara.

“Do you know that Giorgio Bassani came from there?” Ed asked.

I explained that, in fact, the writer and I happened to be second cousins.

“Oh really? Fantastic! So then you knew him.”

“Actually we never met. But of course I’ve read everything he’s written.”

“Ah, but what a shame. I’m sorry you never did.” Ed began drumming his fingers on the crisp linen napkin that lay before him on the table. I noticed how thick and strong his hands were and thought they looked more like the hands of a dockworker than those of a poet. He went on. “I was lucky enough to spend some time with Bassani … twice in Rome. We had dinner together. He was a great man. Unfortunately, the Italian literary world destroyed him. He died miserable. His English was
excellent
, however. He would have been able to read
your
work.”

I looked at him.

“Our mutual friend gave me a copy of your novella. I admired it,” he said in a measured tone. “It made me curious to meet you. I’d like to talk to you about it sometime. Perhaps when we’re better acquainted.”

“No time like the present,” I said, and Ed waved me off and said he wanted to wait until at least the next time we got together.

I figured Ed was merely being polite and hadn’t really appreciated what he’d read. The manuscript, itself, had been consistently rejected until it found a home in a literary quarterly out of Oregon.

“So how old are you anyway?” he asked.

I told him that I was thirty-one.

“Ah, nice and young. You have your whole life ahead of you. Your whole career.”

I pointed out that by the time Ed was my age, he’d already published a few books and was well-known. “I mean, you’re probably one of those impossibly successful people. Who started high and never looked back. Who never even had a failure.”

Ed laughed. “
Que tu est naïf!
There’s nobody like this. Even the most successful people have failures, although from the outside it might seem to the contrary. And of course there is always the strong temptation to perpetuate the notion of wild success. As for me, I’ve known failure. In fact, I’ve been living with failure for a decade.”

“What do you mean?” I asked with skepticism.

Ed claimed to have been working on a memoir for what seemed like forever. He’d spent much of the last ten years wrestling with it day after day. “And it’s still basically a piece of shit.”

“Oh, you’re just being hard on yourself,” I told him.

He grimaced. “I wish that were so. If anything, I’m too easy on myself.”

For a moment I tried to imagine this sort of internal struggle. “Well, what do your peers, your editors say?”

He smiled tightly. “Nobody’s seen it. I wouldn’t dare show a single word of it to anybody.”

In the silence that followed, Ed leaned back in his chair, catching the late-afternoon sun on his broad face. I had a feeling that he drank a lot more than he should. “But enough about me. Are you working on anything?”

I told him no, that I’d basically spent the last three years freelancing for Fortune 500 companies, translating business Italian into business English, and that I was currently doing a large job for IBM. However, I’d also translated the odd poem, and one novel for a small press in Louisiana.

Holding his drink up to the light, inspecting it as though it were some kind of multifaceted jewel, Ed said, “Your novella really should be
translated
into Italian.” He now locked eyes with me. “It’d be a delight for you. I
love
reading the Italian editions of my poetry.”

He sounded faintly obnoxious, but I’d soon discover that this sort of bluster was more self-protective than arrogant. Unfortunately, the thrill of meeting him had begun to evaporate. Slowly I was being engulfed by the familiar, plummeting sense of despondency over the small rations of time that I was spending with Michel Soyer; the fact was I’d become fatally hooked on a married man.

Then, as though reading my thoughts, Ed surprised me with the gentlest of gestures. Grazing my chin with two of his fingers, he said, “You
have
to pick yourself up, Russell.”

Thinking that he was referring to my stalled literary career, I said, “Hey, maybe I’m just not meant to be a luminary like you.”

“No, no, I mean I can tell that you’re sad … about your lover. So let me forewarn you: You probably have a lot of heartbreak ahead of you in your life.”

I was affronted. Heartbreak? From whom? Not from
him
. “Why do you say that?”

His arrogance was gone. “Because I believe that human nature has a tendency to choose misery over happiness. That’s why we all keep
repeating
the same mistakes.”

And so he had divined the nature of my attachment to the married Frenchman and perhaps even sympathized. Ed’s last comment would plague me for months.

A week after our meeting at the café, without even realizing it, I passed Ed’s apartment building on the rue Birague. I was making my monthly pilgrimage to the Museé Victor Hugo at the far corner of the place des Vosges. The museum was my own private shrine to literature. I’d wander through the scantily attended drawing rooms, eyeing the relics of the great novelist’s life, his collection of landscapes and portraits, his thousands of books. At various times during my visit I’d stop strolling, shut my eyes, and start praying for the inspiration to begin writing again.

I’d always been impressed by the fact that Hugo wrote standing up. I liked to linger at the entrance of the room where his tall, simply designed desk was on display. I’d imagine him dipping pen to inkwell and scribbling
Les Misérables
, which, after Balzac’s
Cousin Bette
, was my favorite nineteenth-century French novel. I remember that particular summer afternoon I was feeling distressed at how preoccupied I’d become with Michel. It was this discomfort that had brought me to seek solace at the museum.

From the very beginning Michel had made it quite clear that he was deeply entrenched in married life and that his sex life with men was and would always be strictly recreational. He’d even warned me that if and when his wife found out about our affair, he’d be bound to break it off without any deliberation. When somebody boldly shows their cards in this way, when everything seems so straightforward, it’s almost easier to deceive yourself. One might think, for example, “Okay, I can clearly see that this is a bad situation and I’d be a damned fool to get too caught up in it.” But then, I painfully discovered that, paradoxically, such candor on the part of your lover can also be disarming.

I mistakenly thought I’d be able to see trouble coming long before it arrived. I certainly tried to keep Michel’s unavailability in mind every time we got together. But I found that with each session of lovemaking, my resolve to protect myself unraveled just a little bit more. Eventually I fell into that unwanted state of longing for someone to whom you’re profoundly attracted but who will never be able to give you what you want. But you hang on anyway. Nothing is more painfully absurd than when lust dupes you into believing it’s destiny.

Standing before Victor Hugo’s mahogany
secrétaire
, I thought to myself that if I only could begin another writing project, this just might prove to be the antidote to my quixotic attraction to Michel. I reckoned that
starting
even a short story would give me a focus, a purpose that would have as much power to distract me as a new lover might. Then I impulsively reached beyond the silk cordon that forbade entry into the room and grabbed a leg of Victor Hugo’s desk. The wood was wonderfully smooth and cool to the touch, and I closed my eyes for a moment and prayed for inspiration, even for deliverance from my romantic obsession. The next thing I knew, a hand grabbed my shoulder. A guard in vermillion uniform had appeared out of nowhere. “Touching, that is not allowed here,
sir!
” he told me imperiously. “You will have to leave now.” Hand clamped to my arm, he escorted me out of the museum into the place des Vosges, where, in the gauzy, summer light, Parisians were sunning themselves in the formal gardens, eating their sensibly small tidy lunches.

In some corner of my soul I believed that my prayers to the ghost of Victor Hugo eventually would be answered; and they actually would be, but not in the way I’d wanted. That very evening Michel called me with an atypical invitation: to ride with him to Aix-en-Provence, something like a six-hour trip on the back of his motorcycle. “We’ll stay a few days,” he said in his characteristically unflappable manner. And yet his deep baritone voice always seemed to carry an undercurrent of seduction. “Then maybe go on to Nice. See how we feel,” he said. “What do you think?”

“What about Laurence?”

“She’ll be going to the house in Brittany with the children. Why do you ask?”

Why did I ask? Simply because ever since I’d known him, Michel always dutifully accompanied his wife and children to their house in
Brittany. And so I boldly inquired how he’d managed to wrangle the time away from his family. There was a pause, as though Michel had not
anticipated
such scrutiny of his generous invitation. “I like to go on long rides. Once or twice a year I take off for five days. And this time I thought to myself: Why not have the company of a sexy American boy?”

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