Read The Conversion Online

Authors: Joseph Olshan

The Conversion (7 page)

“This place is like a football stadium,” I remember telling him,
implying
that the overall feeling of the apartment was rather impersonal. “It must swallow up a family of four.”

Michel had laughed but missed the subtle meaning of my remark, as he often did when we spoke in English, which we did most of the time. “It’s true. The flat is way too big for all of us. But it is in my family for over a
hundred years. My parents own it. And we will bring them back when they are too old to be on their own.”

I remember being struck by the fact that he sounded like a happily married man committed to his spouse for years in the future. Listen to what he is saying, I chided myself. Take this in, and don’t be fooled. I was suddenly aware of the poisonous nature of sexual attraction and felt Michel had made a grave mistake by bringing me here. How I would have hated to be the unsuspecting wife at a country house in Brittany.

He must’ve undergone a simultaneous attack of conscience because, in the midst of leading me through the apartment, he turned to me and admitted, “I feel guilty now.”

No shit, I’d wanted to say. But then like an idiot, I put my hands on his broad shoulders, feeling how tense they were. “I am, too,” I said. “But listen to me, Michel. You have nothing to worry about. I won’t
compromise
you. I swear on everything that’s sacred that when this ends, however it ends, I won’t show up here or try to contact your wife. And when it comes to us not seeing each other anymore, I’ll just go back to America.”

He hugged me in gratitude. I pressed my hands against the broad back of his neck and then, in provocation, he pressed his pelvis against mine.

The hypocrite now stood in front a twelve-story building with
gargantuan
windows. Oddly, until this very moment, I’d felt full of urgent purpose rather than apprehension. But now I was petrified. Not petrified so much of seeing
him
; somehow I just figured he wouldn’t be at home at fivethirty in the afternoon—if, indeed, Ed was right and he was still living with his family. Rather I was frightened of being summarily turned away by his wife, of learning or seeing something that would cause a lasting disturbance. I didn’t even consider the most likely scenario: that my showing up unannounced would provoke outrage as well as the
assumption
that I’d turned into some kind of marriedman stalker. And yet I knew I would be obsessed with
France Soir
’s assertion that Michel and his wife were separated until I learned the real truth.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know the code required to be tapped into the numbered entry pad and was forced to wait until a diminutive elderly woman dressed at the height of chic left the building. Luckily she was having trouble with the mullioned inner door, for once I helped her
swing it open, her muttered inquiry, “Whom are you looking for?” was halfhearted. “
Livraison
,” I told her. Delivery.

After studying a brass console of tenants’ names until I found
SOYER
, I pressed a buzzer and walked up a grand winding staircase to the third level. There, in the hallway, I spied a fortyish woman dressed in a tweedy tailored suit peering at me through oblong eyeglasses. “May I be of help?” she said.

“Madame Soyer?” I approached more slowly. She was certainly pretty but in a shrewish, hard-bitten way.

“Who are you?”

“I’m a friend of your husband’s.” Then I decided it was best to say, “Michel.”

“Oh?” she said, hesitating, clearly taken aback. And then, imperiously, “I am
not
Madame Soyer. I’m afraid you will have to try some other time, preferably by telephone.”

There was probably a look of disbelief on my face. The woman shook her head at what she no doubt construed as shocking social impertinence and turned to walk back into the apartment.

“Who is
there
, Martha?

“All taken care of, Laurie.”

Now I knew the woman hadn’t lied to me, that she was
not
Madame Soyer. A moment later a slender younger woman ventured out into the hallway. At first glance I easily could have mistaken her for one of Michel’s teenaged daughters. Seeing me standing there, her curiosity getting the better of her, she gravitated toward me. “I am Madame Soyer,” she said. “How may I help you?” Her French sounded slightly foreign.

Laurence—or Laurie, as the other woman had called her—turned out to be a rather plain woman with a trim figure who appeared to be in her mid-thirties, perhaps ten years younger than Michel, with a pale
complexion
and dark half circles under her large chestnut-brown eyes. I
apologized
for coming unannounced. Terribly nervous now, my French faltered. “But I had to see you,” I managed to say. “I was once a friend of your husband’s.”

“I was trying to tell you this,” the other woman scoffed at her.

“No!” Laurence refused to be influenced. “Who are you?” she asked me.

“My name is Russell Todaro,” I said quietly.

She put her hand over her mouth and silently gasped. He’d told her my name.

“I will go in now,” the other woman said haughtily and stalked back into the apartment with a tommy-gun clicking of high heels.

Laurence, in the meantime, was blushing deeply, her small, delicate mouth contorted with anger. For a moment she peered down at the tiled floor of the enormous landing, then jerked her head in what seemed to be sharp annoyance. “For Christ’s sake!” she said in English. “Why did you come here?”

I was flabbergasted. “You’re American!”

She recovered herself somewhat. “You didn’t know?” she said stiffly and now was able to meet my eyes.

“Not a clue,” I said, feeling suddenly worse. A tendril of guilt began to weave itself into my keyed-up state. “Michel never mentioned it. I figured you were some kind of French aristocrat.”

This actually made her laugh. “Oh, please.”

“I’m serious.”

She looked at me shrewdly. “Okay, if that’s true, then here’s your free lesson about the French aristocracy. If I were his
French
aristocratic wife, this conversation would last thirty seconds tops. You’d be told that it was only because I allowed it that you’d ever had anything to do with my husband. Then I would have reminded you that it’s totally against the rules for you to show up at my apartment. I would have said good-bye and closed the door quietly.

“Whereas in America, you’d get cursed out and have the door slammed in your face,” she added with grim humor, unable to suppress a sardonic smile.

“I’m sorry to come here unannounced,” I repeated. “But you know it’s quite over between us.”

“If you were that sorry, you wouldn’t have shown up. Especially because you promised him you’d never do it.”

“I know I did. And I guess I felt I didn’t have a choice. Because I had to find out if something I read in the paper was true.”

She sighed as though having expected to hear just this and glanced toward a large clear window at the far end of the hallway. From there you could see the fringe of the tree line in the Bois du Bologne, where I’d told Ed I was going to stroll. “You also could’ve called and at least spared me showing up here. If you’d called, I would’ve told you what you read is a lie.”

“Well, then, believe it or not, I’m actually relieved. My good friend assured me that the paper was exaggerating.”

Madame Soyer looked skeptical. “Relieved?”

“Yes, relieved. Because he told me that he’d never leave you and the children. And if that’s why he couldn’t be with me, then I’d want him to live and do as he said.”

Laurence’s face softened. “That’s very naive. How old are you, anyway?”

“Thirty-one.”

“That’s what I figured.”

I didn’t like being patronized. “How old are
you?

“Thirty-nine.”

“You look younger.”

She grimaced. “Is Michel the first man you’ve ever … loved?” She pronounced the word at last.

I found myself wanting to be candid. “Yes and no,” I said. “No, he’s not the first man I’ve been involved with and thought I loved, but yes, I suppose, to this degree.”

A look of sympathy telegraphed itself across her face and then she shook her head and suggested, “Why don’t you come in for a bit.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Either that or leave.” She swiveled around and began walking back into the apartment.

Here I was now, breaking my sacred promise to Michel and following his wife into their apartment. And thinking: No wonder Michel’s English was decent, his
frigging
wife is an
American
. Why hadn’t he told me, dammit? But then, noticing that her baggy jeans and white chenille T-shirt were the spousal equivalent of his very understated daily uniform of faded jeans, scuffed boots, white T-shirts, and a cheapo diver’s watch, I realized precisely why. In carrying on his affair with me, Michel had probably felt a chivalric duty to give his lover scant information about his wife and children. He knew me well enough to realize that I’d be
dangerously
intrigued by the fact that his wife was another American.

Now, during daytime, I could see a wider range of furnishings, how there were many more antiques, including an extensive collection of overly gilded Venetian furniture: several pieces including a highboy and an armoire painted a bright robin’s-egg blue. The polished mahogany floors
were covered with Aubusson rugs, overlooked by the unsettling gazes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portraiture: Michel’s male ancestors, many of whom reminded me of stern magistrates. I still found the
apartment
to be somewhat fusty.

Madame Soyer led me into Michel’s library, where I’d once feasted on his collection of Pléiade with the green and gold-leaf spines in a heady aroma of leather, where I’d rifled through his Baudelaire and Zola and Gide and with great delight discovered many writers of other
nationalities
: Goethe, George Eliot, Halldór Laxness, and Cervantes. As I sat down opposite her I remembered Michel telling me he had begun collecting Pleiéde editions when he’d received a gift from his mother of
Les Misérables
. It was this very Pléiade that he’d actually insisted on giving me, against my protest of it having been the first volume of his collection and therefore commanding sentimental value. I remember how he frowned and nervously ran his fingers through his coarse brown curls, how the cleft in his chin pinched with what I hoped was fondness, even love. How he’d explained, “Mother gave it to me because I asked for it, not because she thought I would want it. That’s a big difference. Besides, you love these books,” he’d gone on. “And it would give me a lot of pleasure knowing you will have one.”

“But Laurence might notice it missing.”

Michel had smiled at some private recognition. “More important, do you think you can read it?”

I never got a chance to tell him how my Italian helped me with the French.

Now I tried to avoid glancing at the Pléiade but couldn’t help noticing them, at least peripherally. I took a deep breath. Being in Michel’s study when he was at such a remove from my life was upsetting.

“You’ve been in this room before,” said Madame Soyer.

“He told you.”

“He told me enough. Obviously, I don’t want to know everything,” she said meekly but with pain in her voice.

“I’m sure he explained the only reason why I came to the apartment was to see these.” I pointed to the Pléiade on the bookshelf. “Nothing else went on.”

“Yes, that’s what he said.”

Laurence had assumed what I felt was an interrogative pose with her legs crossed and a slim elbow resting on one of her knees. She had a way
of maneuvering the dark, straight hair away from her face that I thought was decidedly European. It occurs to me now that if she hadn’t made a point to speak to me in English, I might have listened to her accent and assumed that she was a French citizen of perhaps Germanic extraction. Because, outside of her manner of speaking English, there was very little about her that seemed American. Her way of walking and moving seemed—at least to me—typically French feminine: naturally balletic and confident, even a bit feline.

“If you’re an American,” I said, “how did you end up with the name Laurence?”

“My name is Laurie. Michel started calling me Laurence. Didn’t you hear his sister calling me Laurie?”

I told her I did.

“Michel has always wanted me to be as French as possible. Hence the name.” Hesitating a moment, she said, “So you’re probably wondering why I invited you in.”

“Of course.”

“Well, first let me explain that Michel and I are not always together. We often do things separately, even spend time apart. This is probably what the newspaper picked up on. However, I just want you to know, the idea of divorce has never even once crossed our minds.”

I stared at her, wondering where all this was leading.

“A few weeks ago, we took another small apartment in the Marais. It was given to us. Michel has been staying over there from time to time. He is terribly depressed these days and says he needs time alone. He’s about to turn fifty.”

“Fifty?” I cried out.

“Didn’t you know how old he is?”

Without pinpointing his age, Michel had managed to imply that he was substantially younger. “He never really said. He certainly looks younger,” I pointed out, remembering that when I’d first met Michel I’d pegged him for thirty-five.

She smiled tightly. “Are you sure he didn’t actually lie to you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I ask this because he holds everyone to a standard about telling the truth. He’s told the girls many times that they mustn’t lie and that if they lie and are caught they will always be punished severely.”

“So I suppose the question is: Does he practice what he preaches?” I thought but did not say that carrying on an affair by definition has to exact a certain amount of lying.

Laurence at first seemed pained to answer. “Recently, when he started staying at the other apartment, I asked him if he was involved with anybody else. He said he wasn’t. But now you show up here. And so it makes me wonder: He may not be involved with ‘anybody else’ but he might once again be involved with
you
.”

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