(This is an excerpt from a longer work titled “Ithaca”)
So it began, their affair. An affair born out of a certain indolence on her part. He had been there, he had insisted, she had let him. He was otherwise not at all her type. The shape and texture of his nose and his unkempt hair annoyed her. He was seldom sober. He snored like a truck engine all night. But he would have been a good friend had they not slept together. He was the kind of boy she befriended easily, unpretentious, funny, politically engaged, open, and good-natured. She visited his art studio on Saturday nights. They would get drunk on table wine, smoke pot, and listen to his favourite jazz CDs. The liaison indulged her poetic and romanesque senses. She was a mythical sex goddess in a French film. She was complicated. She was free. She belonged to herself. She was a real adult at last! He could not hurt her.
Vincent was separated from the mother of his young sons.
— She’s a cold woman. I’ve been frustrated and bored for so long. Here you are, so invigorating, so exotic…
— Careful with that word… Remember how you found your wife exotic once.
— What went wrong with your marriage?
— Well… he was cold to people.
— And to you?
— Never to me.
She got up to fetch some water. When she came back, he touched her back.
— Mihrimah, I think I’m beginning to fall…
— Don’t fall! Keep your balance!
Whenever he tried to tell her about his growing feelings for her, she reminded him point-blank that she did not love him. How easy it was to be bluntly honest when you were not afflicted with love. There was power in leaving the heart out of these associations. But as his heart was not bulletproof like hers, she could tell the situation would quickly become unsustainable. Her uneasiness was further exacerbated by a state of disarray that seemed to accompany him everywhere. He once made her wait two hours at a train station as he went to look for the expensive camera he thought he had left at an art gallery. She was convinced, despite the excuses he gave her afterwards, that he had ended up getting drunk with the gallery people, who knew him—time liquefied when you drank, and valuables remained lost. Another night, after a barbecue that his children had also attended, he disappeared in the park for an hour, and they managed to board the last train by the skin of their teeth. As the carriages pulled away, the tired little boys’ frustration did not escape her, but it did, him.
What finally tipped the balance was a strange telephone call late one night. They were at the studio, liquored up and stoned as usual; Vincent was yet again attempting to define the nature of his feelings for Mihrimah when the phone rang. She could hear a female voice at the end of the line. Their conversation lasted a good half-hour.
— You do what you want, baby, you like him? Go for it.
— I’m fine! We’ve always said that what we have is not exclusive. I think it’s great that you’ve met a guy.
— Jealous, jealous,… look, it doesn’t matter how I feel. Think about yourself. You need to be happy. Do what’s best for you! You love him?
— Let’s talk tomorrow, OK?
“No, there’s no one here.”
— No, I’m not with anyone.
— A woman? No, there’s no woman. I’m by myself. I’m tired, it’s late.
— No, don’t come now. I’m tired. Best if we speak in the morning, OK?
He finally put the phone down.
— Your wife doesn’t sound like a cold woman.
He gave her a quizzical look.
— That was not my wife.
A candid explanation followed. The caller was a sensual Chinese woman with whom he had incredible sexual chemistry. She was older than him. She was married. He was her bit on the side. They had been seeing each other on and off for years. She was upset. She had met someone, but she didn’t want to lose his friendship, nor did she wish to lie to her new lover. She was coming over to talk things through in the morning.
— And the husband? Doesn’t he deserve some honesty?
— He’s an important man. It’s complicated.
— It always is, isn’t it?
Mihrimah realised her own hypocrisy: her present entanglement was a severe carnal mess too. The next morning, the doorbell rang and Vincent ran downstairs. He took his guest to the kitchen where they talked for a long time. The front door finally reopened and closed. Mihrimah, who had removed all her clothes in the hope that the woman would come upstairs and catch her naked in Vincent’s bed, was disappointed that there had been no drama in the end.
He came into the room with a lukewarm paper cup.
— My wife brought us some coffee.
— Your… wife?! Not the other woman?!
— Yeah, she came to pick up some stuff for the kids.
— She knew I was here?!
— Yeah, I’d told her.
— How… civilised.
Anyone who was able to remain composed and courteous in a situation which would normally call for death by stoning in certain societies or at the very least a brawl in other parts of the world deserved the epithet. But the truth was that she could not relate to such degree of civilisation; she equated it to decadence, even in her current state of undress.
The phone rang. He picked it up, then hurriedly covered the handset with his palm to say:
— Get dressed, please, Mihrimah!
He continued into the receiver:
— Hello, OK, yes. OK, see you soon.
He hung up. There was great alarm in his voice:
— She’s on her way! She’ll be here in five minutes, so it would be really helpful if you were… not around when she shows up…
— Are you serious?! Oh! you ARE serious! You want me to leave?! You want me to leave.
— Oh fuck-fuck-fuck! I really like you! I don’t want to lose you. Put your clothes on, please!
— You want me to leave!
— Argh! Look…
— You want me to LEAVE! Say it!
— Look, look…
— You want me to leave.
— Yes, but…
— But it will be the last time I cross your threshold. You won’t see me again.
Mihrimah’s boat had been rocked. Every man she met these days was spoken for in so many directions; no matter where you trod, you always ran into a network of invisible threads that made you feel all viscous, and there were always other women or men stuck with you on the web.
— Oh shit, I don’t want to lose her. I don’t want to lose you either. If I try to hold on to both of you, I’ll end up losing you both. Shit!
— You’ve made your choice.
He was being honest, but he was certainly not thinking clearly. She gently closed the door on his sorry face. There were no hard feelings—she could be civilised too. However, she failed to see the logic of her expulsion. The “friend” was about to end their nonexclusive liaison because she had got herself a new fellow, so why on earth would she have minded Mihrimah’s existence? She should have come instead with some refined offerings, such as coffee and croissants. Perhaps there was a vague plan of breakup sex at the back of their minds. Confused but also relieved, she stepped out into the warm sunshine that was bathing the cobbled street outside the studio. More than ever, she felt like a French film heroine—for this, screwing around and screwing up, was exactly the sort of complication that dramatis personae engaged in. She saw a woman walking up the street towards the studio, a tall Asian lady in a black dress who fitted her image of a sophisticated adulteress. She was exotic. As they were passing each other, Mihrimah addressed her impulsively:
— Hullo! He’s waiting for you.
The woman greeted her back perplexedly, and Mihrimah hoped that a little storm was now brewing under the crimson lips and porcelain face. “A small gift from the goddess Eris with love,” she muttered to herself. The goddess Athena, unimpressed with her invocation of the deity of discord, gently pulled at her hair. The divine action immediately brought Mihrimah to her senses. A woman often felt vengeful towards her rivals instead of the deceitful party. The mistress’ perfume hung in the morning air as they walked away from each other. That was the end of that affair.
Back at Rue Mouffetard, Mihrimah asked Selima for lunch. She needed to talk to someone. Selima nodded and commented sympathetically, but Mihrimah knew that her friend was secretly relishing the soap-operatic quality of her tale. After the meal, they smoked some of Vincent’s marijuana and drifted in and out of slumber on Mihrimah’s blue sofa. Sunday afternoon gently sank into eventide.
By Nili Roberts