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Adultery, Page 3

Paulo Coelho

  MY LUNCH with Jacob Konig goes exactly as I imagine. We meet at La Perle du Lac, an expensive restaurant on the lakeshore that used to be good but is now owned by the city. It's still expensive, but the food is awful. I could have surprised him and taken him to the Japanese restaurant, but I know he would think it was in bad taste. For some people, decor matters more than food.

  And now I see that I made the right decision. He tries to show me that he's a wine connoisseur; he talks about "bouquet," "texture," and "legs," the oily drops that fall in rivulets down the side of the glass. In truth, he's telling me that he's grown up and no longer a schoolboy; that he's learned how to behave and has risen in the world; that he knows about life, wine, politics, women, and ex-girlfriends.

  What nonsense! We've been drinking wine all our lives. We can tell a good wine from a bad one, and that's all there is to it. Until I met my husband, all the men I went out with--men who considered themselves "cultivated"--acted as if the choice of wine in a restaurant was their big moment. They all did the same thing: with great solemnity, they sniffed the cork, read the label, allowed the waiter to pour a little into the glass, turned it this way and that, held it up to the light, smelled the wine, rolled it around in their mouth, swallowed, and, finally, gave an approving nod.

  After witnessing the same scene endless times, I decided to change my group of friends and join the college's nerds and social outcasts. Unlike the fake, predictable tasters of wine, the nerds were at least real and made no attempt to impress me. They joked about things I didn't understand. They thought, for example, that I really ought to know the name Intel because "it's written on every computer." I, of course, had never noticed.

  The nerds made me feel like a plain-Jane ignoramus, and were more interested in pirating things on the Internet than they were in my breasts or legs. As I got older, I returned to the safe embrace of the wine tasters until I found a man who didn't try to impress me with his sophistication or make me feel like a complete idiot with conversations about mysterious planets, hobbits, or computer programs that erase all traces of the webpages you've visited. After a few months of going out, during which we discovered at least one hundred and twenty villages around Lake Leman, he asked me to marry him.

  I accepted without hesitation.

  I ask Jacob if he knows any nightclubs, because I haven't kept up with Geneva's nightlife ("nightlife" being just a manner of speaking) and I've decided to go out dancing and drinking. His eyes shine.

  "I don't have time for that. Thanks for the invitation, but, you know, apart from the fact that I'm married, I can't be seen out with a journalist. People will say your articles are ..."


  "Yes, biased."

  I decide to take this little game of seduction a step further--it's a game that has always amused me. What have I got to lose? I know all the methods, diversions, traps, and objectives.

  I ask him to tell me more about himself, about his personal life. I'm not here as a journalist, I say, but as a woman and a former girlfriend.

  I stress the word "woman."

  "I don't have a personal life," he says. "I can't, unfortunately. I've chosen a career that has transformed me into an automaton. Everything I say is scrutinized, questioned, published."

  This isn't quite true, but I find his sincerity disarming. I know that he's mostly seeing how the land lies, that he wants to know precisely where he's putting his feet and how far he can go. He suggests that he is "unhappily married," and goes into an exhaustive explanation of how powerful he is, just like all men of a certain age once they've hit the wine.

  "In the last two years I've had a few months of happiness, a few of difficulties, but most are just a matter of hanging in there and trying to please everyone in order to be reelected. I've had to give up everything that I used to enjoy--like going dancing with you, for example. Or listening to music for hours, smoking, or doing anything that other people deem to be wrong." That's absurd! No one cares about his personal life.

  "Perhaps it's the return of Saturn. Every twenty-nine years the planet returns to the same point in the sky that it occupied at the moment of our birth."

  The return of Saturn?

  He realizes that he's said more than he should, and suggests that it might be best if we went back to work.

  No, my Saturn return has already happened. I need to know exactly what it means. He gives me a lesson in astrology: Saturn takes twenty-nine years to return to the point in the sky where it was at the moment we were born. Until that happens, everything seems possible, our dreams can come true, and any walls hemming us in can still be broken down. When Saturn completes this cycle, it puts an end to any romanticism. Choices become definitive and it's nearly impossible to change direction.

  "I'm not an expert, of course, but my next chance will only come when I'm fifty-eight and Saturn returns again. Although, if Saturn is telling me it's no longer possible to choose another path, why, then, did you invite me to lunch?"

  We've been talking now for almost an hour.

  "Are you happy?" he asks suddenly.


  "There's something in your eyes, a sadness I find inexplicable in a pretty woman like you with a nice husband and a good job. It's like seeing a reflection of my own eyes. I'll ask you again: Are you happy?"

  In this country where I was born and raised, and where I'm now raising my own children, no one asks that kind of question. Happiness is not something that can be precisely measured, discussed in plebiscites, or analyzed by specialists. We don't even ask what kind of car someone drives, let alone something so personal and impossible to define.

  "There's no need to answer. Your silence says it all."

  No, my silence doesn't say it all. It isn't an answer. It merely reflects my surprise and confusion.

  "I'm not happy," he says. "I have everything a man could dream of, but I'm not happy."

  Has someone put something in the water? Are they trying to destroy my country with a chemical weapon designed to create a sense of profound frustration? Why is it that everyone I talk to feels the same?

  So far I haven't said anything. But tormented souls have this incredible ability to recognize and approach one another, thus compounding their grief.

  Why hadn't I noticed this in him? Why did I see only the superficial way he talked about politics or the pedantic way he tasted the wine?

  The return of Saturn. Opposition. Unhappiness. Things I never expected to hear Jacob Konig say.

  At that precise moment--it's 1:55 p.m., according to my watch--I fall in love with him all over again. No one, not even my marvelous husband, has ever asked if I'm happy. Perhaps in my childhood, my parents and my grandparents asked that question, but no one has since.

  "Shall we meet again?"

  I no longer see a boyfriend from my adolescence sitting in front of me, but an abyss that I'm blithely walking toward, an abyss from which I have no desire to escape. The thought flashes through my mind that my sleepless nights are about to become even more unbearable now that I really do have a problem: a heart in love.

  The red lights in my mind start to flash.

  I tell myself: You're a fool, he just wants to get you into bed. He doesn't care about your happiness.

  Then, in an almost suicidal gesture, I say yes. Perhaps going to bed with someone who just touched my breasts when we were teenagers will be good for my marriage, as it was yesterday, when I gave him oral sex in the morning and had multiple orgasms with my husband later that night.

  I try to get back to the subject of Saturn, but he's already asked for the bill and is talking on his cell phone, saying that he'll be five minutes late.

  "Ask them if they'd like a glass of water or some coffee," he says.

  I ask who he was talking to, and he says it was his wife. The director of a large pharmaceutical company wants to meet and possibly invest money in the final phase of his campaign to be elected to the Council of States. The elections are fast approaching.

  Again, I remember that he's married. That he's unhappy. That he can't do anything he enjoys. That there are rumors about him and his wife, that they have an open marriage. I need to forget the spark that dazzled me at 1:55 and realize that he just wants to use me.

  This doesn't bother me, as long as things are clear. I, too, need someone to sleep with.

  We pause on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. He looks around as if we make a highly suspicious couple. Then, when he's sure no one is looking, he lights a cigarette.

  So that's what he was afraid people might see: the cigarette.

  "As I'm sure you remember, I was considered the most promising student of our year," he says. "And of course I had to prove them right, what with my need for love and approval. I sacrificed nights out with my friends to study and meet other people's expectations. I finished high school with brilliant results. By the way, why did we stop going out again?"

  I have no idea, either. I think at the time everyone was simply busy hooking up with everyone else, and no one stayed with anyone for very long.

  "I graduated from university, became a defense lawyer, and spent my life between crooks and the completely innocent, between scoundrels and the totally honest. What started out as a temporary job became a permanent decision: a need to help. My list of clients grew and grew. My reputation spread throughout the city. My father insisted that it was time for me to give it all up and go and work in the law practice of a friend of his, but I was just too excited by each new case I won. Then I came across a completely archaic law that has absolutely no relevance today. We needed major changes in how the city was governed."

  All this is in his official biography, but hearing it from his lips feels quite different.

  "At one point, I decided I wanted to stand as a candidate for deputy. We campaigned with almost no money, because my father was completely opposed. But my clients were all in favor. I was elected by a tiny majority, but I was elected nonetheless."

  He looks around again, having hidden the cigarette behind his back. But since no one is looking, he takes another long drag. His eyes have a vacant look as he gazes back at the past.

  "When I started out in politics, I used to sleep only about five hours a night, yet I was always full of energy. Now I can easily sleep for eighteen hours at a stretch. The honeymoon is over. All that's left is my need to please others, especially my wife, who has fought like crazy for me to have a great future. Marianne has made a lot of sacrifices and I can't let her down."

  Is this the same man who, only a few minutes ago, suggested that we start going out again? Or is this what he wants: someone to talk to who will understand him because she feels the same way?

  I have a gift for inventing fantasies with extraordinary speed. I'm already imagining myself lying between silk sheets in some chalet in the Alps.

  "So when shall we meet again?" he asks.

  It's up to you, I say.

  He suggests meeting on another day. I tell him that's when I have my yoga class. He asks me to skip it. But I'm always skipping it and have promised to be more disciplined.

  Jacob seems resigned. I'm tempted to change my mind, but I mustn't appear too eager or too available.

  Life is becoming fun again, my previous apathy replaced by fear. How wonderful it is to be afraid of missing an opportunity!

  I tell him it's impossible, and that we'd better rearrange it for Friday. He accepts, phones his assistant, and asks him to put it in the diary. He finishes smoking his cigarette and says good-bye. I don't ask him why he's told me so much about his private life, and he adds nothing very significant to what he said in the restaurant.

  I would like to believe that something has changed during that lunch, just one among hundreds I've had where I eat extremely unhealthy food and pretend to drink wine that remains almost untouched when the time comes to order coffee. One can never lower one's guard, despite all that fuss about tasting the wine.

  The need to please everyone. Saturn in opposition.

  JOURNALISM is not as glamorous as people think--it's not all interviewing famous people, being invited to amazing places, brushing shoulders with power, money, the fascinating world of criminality.

  The fact is that we spend most of the time at our cubicle desks, talking on the phone. Privacy is only for the bosses, sitting in their glass aquariums, with curtains that can be occasionally closed. When they draw them, they still know what's going on outside, but we can no longer see their fish mouths moving.

  Being a journalist in Geneva, with its 195,000 inhabitants, is the most boring job in the world. I glance through today's issue even though I already know what it contains--endless reports on foreign dignitary meetings at the United Nations, the usual complaints about the end to banking secrecy, and a few more things that have made it to the front page: "Morbidly Obese Man Banned from Plane," "Wolf Decimates Sheep on Outskirts of City," "Pre-Columbian Fossils Found in Saint-Georges," and, finally, in banner headlines, "Newly Restored Geneve Returns to the Lake Looking More Beautiful Than Ever."

  My boss summons me to his office and asks if I managed to get an exclusive out of my lunch with that politician. Needless to say, someone saw us together.

  No, I didn't. Nothing that isn't in his official biography. The lunch was intended to get me closer to a source. (The more sources a journalist has, the more respected he or she is.)

  My boss says that another reliable source has told him that, even though Jacob Konig is married, he's having an affair with the wife of another politician. I feel a pang in that dark corner of my soul where depression keeps knocking but I refuse to answer.

  My boss asks if I can get closer. They're not particularly interested in his sex life, but his source suggests that Konig might be being blackmailed. A foreign metallurgical company wants to airbrush out certain tax problems in its own country, but has no way of getting in touch with the minister of finance. They need a little help.

  My boss explains that Jacob Konig isn't our target; what we want is to denounce the people who are trying to corrupt our political system.

  "And that shouldn't be difficult. We just have to say we're on his side."

  Switzerland is one of the few countries in the world where a man's word is still his bond. In most other places you need lawyers, witnesses, signed documents, and the threat of legal process if the secret were leaked.

  "We just need confirmation and photos."

  So I'll need to get closer to him.

  "That shouldn't be difficult, either. Our sources tell us that you've already arranged another meeting. It's in his diary."

  And this is the land of banking secrecy! Everyone knows everything.

  "Use the usual tactics."

  The "usual tactics" consist of four points: One, ask about something that the interviewee would like to discuss in public. Two, let him talk for as long as possible to make him think that the newspaper is going to give him lots of space. Three, at the end of the interview, when he's convinced he has us nicely under control, ask the one question that really interests us. That way, he'll feel that if he doesn't answer it, we won't give him the space he's hoping for and he will have wasted his time. And four, if he responds evasively, reformulate the question and ask it again. He'll say it's of no interest, but you must get some answer, at least one statement. In ninety-nine percent of the cases, the interviewee falls into the trap.

  That's all you need. You can throw the rest of the interview away and use that one statement in an article that isn't about the interviewee, but instead about an important subject featuring journalistic research, official facts, unofficial facts, anonymous sources, et cetera.

  "If he proves reluctant, tell him we're on his side. You know how journalism works. And it will be to your advantage, too ..."

  Yes, I know how it works. The career of a journalist is as short as an athlete's. We achieve power and glory early, then step aside for the next generation. Very few continue and progress. Most see their standard of living
drop and become critics of the press, writing blogs, giving talks, and spending more time than necessary trying to impress their friends. There is no intermediate stage.

  I'm still in the category of "promising professional." If I can get those statements, it's likely that next year I won't have to hear someone say "We've got to cut costs" and "With your talent and your name, you won't have any trouble finding another job."

  And if I'm promoted? I'll be able to decide what goes on the front page: Should it be the problem of the sheep-eating wolf, the exodus of foreign bankers to Dubai and Singapore, or the ridiculous lack of properties for rent? What a thrilling way to spend the next five years ...

  I go back to my desk, make a few unimportant phone calls, and read everything of interest on various websites. My colleagues are doing the same thing, desperate to find some bit of news that will stop our plummeting sales figures. Someone says that wild boar have been found on the railway line linking Geneva and Zurich. Can I get an article out of that?

  Of course. Just as I can out of the phone call I receive from an eighty-year-old woman protesting about the law banning smoking in bars. She says that in summer it's no problem, but in winter we'll have more people dying of pneumonia than of lung cancer because smokers will all be obliged to smoke outside.

  What am I doing working at this newspaper?

  I know: we love our work and we want to save the world.

  SITTING in the lotus position, with incense burning and elevator music playing, I begin my "meditation." People have been advising me to try it for ages. That was when they thought I was just "stressed." (I was stressed, but at least that was better than feeling completely indifferent about life.)

  "Thoughts will come into your mind. Don't worry. Accept those thoughts, don't try to get rid of them."

  Perfect, that's what I'm doing. I drive away toxic emotions like pride, disillusion, jealousy, ingratitude, futility. I fill that space with humility, gratitude, understanding, consciousness, and grace.

  I think I've been eating too much sugar, which is bad for your health and for the spiritual body.

  I leave aside darkness and despair and invoke the forces of good and of light.