Women with men, p.1
Women with Men, p.1Richard Ford
Acclaim for RICHARD FORD
“An enormously versatile writer, a perfect ventriloquist who achieves his end in voices that vary from swamp-deep to mirror-flat.”
“Ford is a genuine American artist.”
—Wall Street Journal
“One of his generation's most eloquent voices.”
—The New York Times
“Ford is a master at evoking life's messiness…. His characters make their way tentatively … they are vividly and poignantly recognizable.”
“Few writers are as skilled as Richard Ford at depicting the causes and consequences of human inertia…. A stunning new collection.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Brutal, disturbing, and emotionally dead-on, [Women with Men] is all muscle and sinew—Ford at his best.”
Books by RICHARD FORD
A Piece of My Heart
The Ultimate Good Luck
Women with Men
Women with Men
Richard Ford is the author of two collections of stories, Rock Springs and Women with Men, and five novels: A Piece of My Heart, The Ultimate Good Luck, The Sportswriter, Wildlife, and Independence Day.
I wish to thank my friends Bill Buford, Charles McGrath and most especially Gary Fisketjon, who read these stories and gave me indispensable editorial advice. I wish also to thank my friends Michel Fabre and Suzanne Mayoux for their unique counsel. And finally, I wish to record my debt of gratitude to the stories and novels of Richard Yates, a writer too little appreciated.
Martin Austin turned up the tiny street—rue Sarrazin—at the head of which he hoped he would come to a larger one he knew, rue de Vaugirard, possibly, a street he could take all the way to Joséphine Belliard's apartment by the Jardin du Luxembourg. He was on his way to sit with Joséphine's son, Léo, while Joséphine visited her lawyers to sign papers divorcing her husband. Later in the evening, he was taking her for a romantic dinner. Joséphine's husband, Bernard, was a cheap novelist who'd published a scandalous book in which Joséphine figured prominently; her name used, her parts indelicately described, her infidelity put on display in salacious detail. The book had recently reached the stores. Everybody she knew was reading it.
“Okay. Maybe it is not so bad to write such a book,” Joséphine had said the first night Austin had met her, only the week before, when he had also taken her to dinner. “It is his choice to write it. I cause him unhappiness. But to publish this? In Paris? No.” She had shaken her head absolutely. “I'm sorry. This is too much. My husband—he is a shit. What can I do? I say goodbye to him.”
Austin was from Chicago. He was married, with no children, and worked as a sales representative for an old family-owned company that sold expensive specially treated paper to foreign textbook publishers. He was forty-four and had worked for the same company, the Lilienthal Company of Winnetka, for fifteen years. He'd met Joséphine Belliard at a cocktail party given by a publisher he regularly called on, for one of its important authors. He'd been invited only as a courtesy, since his company's paper had not been used for the author's book, a sociological text that calculated the suburban loneliness of immigrant Arabs by the use of sophisticated differential equations. Austin's French was lacking—he'd always been able to speak much more than he could understand—and as a consequence he'd stood by himself at the edge of the party, drinking champagne, smiling pleasantly and hoping he'd hear English spoken and find someone he could talk to instead of someone who would hear him speak a few words of French and then start a conversation he could never make sense of.
Joséphine Belliard was a sub-editor at the publishing house. She was a small, slender dark-haired Frenchwoman in her thirties and of an odd beauty—a mouth slightly too wide and too thin; her chin soft, almost receding; but with a smooth caramel skin and dark eyes and dark eyebrows that Austin found appealing. He had caught a glimpse of her earlier in the day when he'd visited the publisher's offices in the rue de Lille. She was sitting at her desk in a small, shadowy office, rapidly and animatedly speaking English into the telephone. He'd peered in as he passed but had forgotten about her until she came up to him at the party and smiled and asked in English how he liked Paris. Later that night they had gone to dinner, and at the end of the evening he'd taken her home in a taxi, then returned to his hotel alone and gone to sleep.
The next day, though, he'd called her. He had nothing special in mind, just an aimless, angling call. Maybe he could sleep with her—not that he even thought that. It was just a possibility, an inevitable thought. When he asked if she would like to see him again, she said she would if he wanted to. She didn't say she'd had a good time the night before. She didn't mention that at all—almost, Austin felt, as if that time had never happened. But it was an attitude he found attractive. She was smart. She judged things. It wasn't an American attitude. In America a woman would have to seem to care—more, probably, than she did or could after one harmless encounter.
That evening they had gone to a small, noisy Italian restaurant near the Gare de l'est, a place with bright lights and mirrors on the walls and where the food was not very good. They'd ordered light Ligurian wine, gotten a little drunk and engaged in a long and in some ways intimate conversation. Joséphine told him she had been born in the suburb of Aubervilliers, north of Paris, and couldn't wait to leave home. She had gone to a university and studied sociology while living with her parents, but now had no relationship with her mother, or with her father, who had moved to America in the late seventies and not been heard from. She said she had been married eight years to a man she once liked and had had one child with but did not especially love, and that two years ago she had begun an affair with another man, a younger man, which lasted only a short time, then ended, as she had expected it might. Afterwards she had believed she could simply resume married life more or less as she'd left it, a lifelong bourgeois muddle of continuance. But her husband had been shocked and incensed by his wife's infidelity and had moved out of their apartment, quit his job at an advertising firm, found a woman to live with and gone to work writing a novel which had as its only subject his wife's supposed indiscretions—some of which, she told Austin, he'd obviously made up, though others, amusingly enough, were surprisingly accurate.
“It's not so much I blame him, you know?” Joséphine had said and laughed. “These things come along. They happen. Other people do what they please.” She looked out the restaurant window at the row of small parked cars along the street. “So?”
“But what's happening now?” Austin said, trying to find a part of the story that would allow him into it. A phrase, a niche that could be said to invite his closer interest—though there didn't seem to be such a phrase.
“Now? Now I am living with my child. Alone. That is all of my life.” She unexpectedly looked up at Austin, her eyes opened wide, as though to say, What else is there? “What more else?” she in fact did say.
“I don't know,” Austin said. “Do you think you'll go back with your husband?” This was a question he was quite happy to ask.
“Yes. I don't know. No. Maybe,” Joséphine said, extending her lower lip slightly and raising one shoulder in a gesture of carelessness Austin believed was typical of French women. He didn't mind it in Joséphine, but he usually disliked people for affecting this gesture. It was patently false and always came at the service of impor
Joséphine, though, did not seem like a woman to have an affair and then talk about it matter-of-factly to someone she barely knew; she seemed more like an unmarried woman looking for someone to be interested in. Obviously she was more complicated, maybe even smarter, than he'd thought, and quite realistic about life, though slightly disillusioned. Probably, if he wanted to press the matter of intimacy, he could take her back to his room—a thing he'd done before on business trips, and even if not so many times, enough times that to do so now wouldn't be extraordinary or meaningful, at least not to him. To share an unexpected intimacy might intensify both their holds on life.
Yet there was a measure of uncertainty surrounding that very thought—a thought he was so used to having he couldn't keep from it. Maybe it was true that even though he liked her, liked the frankness and direct nature of her conduct toward him, intimacy was not what he wanted. She appealed to him in a surprising way, but he was not physically attracted to her. And maybe, he thought, looking at her across the table, an intimacy with him was the last thing on earth she was interested in. She was French. He didn't know anything about them. An illusion of potential intimacy was probably what all French women broadcast, and everyone knew it. Probably she had no interest in him at all and was just passing the time. It made him feel pleased even to entertain such a multilayered view.
They finished dinner in thoughtful, weighted silence. Austin felt ready to begin a discourse on his own life—his marriage, its length and intensity, his feelings about it and himself. He was willing to talk about the uneasy, unanchored sensation he'd had lately of not knowing exactly how to make the next twenty-five years of life as eventful and important as the previous twenty-five, a sensation buttressed by the hope that he wouldn't fail of courage if courage was required, and by the certainty that everybody had his life entirely in his hands and was required to live with his own terrors and mistakes, etc. Not that he was unhappy with Barbara or lacked anything. He was not the conventionally desperate man on the way out of a marriage that had grown tiresome. Barbara, in fact, was the most interesting and beautiful woman he'd ever known, the person he admired most. He wasn't looking for a better life. He wasn't looking for anything. He loved his wife, and he hoped to present to Joséphine Belliard a different human perspective from the ones she might be used to.
“No one thinks your thoughts for you when you lay your head on the pillow at night” was a sobering expression Austin often used in addressing himself, as well as when he'd addressed the few women he'd known since being married—including Barbara. He was willing to commence a frank discussion of this sort when Joséphine asked him about himself.
But the subject did not come up. She didn't ask about his thoughts, or about himself. And not that she talked about her self. She talked about her job, about her son, Léo, about her husband and about friends of theirs. He had told her he was married. He had told her his age, that he had gone to college at the University of Illinois and grown up in the small city of Peoria. But to know no more seemed fine to her. She was perfectly nice and seemed to like him, but she was not very responsive, which he felt was unusual. She seemed to have more serious things on her mind and to take life seriously—a quality Austin liked. In fact, it made her appealing in a way she had not seemed at first, when he was only thinking about how she looked and whether he wanted to sleep with her.
But when they were walking to her car, down the sidewalk at the end of which were the bright lights of the Gare de l'est and the Boulevard Strasbourg, swarming with taxis at eleven o'clock, Joséphine put her arm through his arm and pulled close to him, put her cheek against his shoulder and said, “It's all confusion to me.”
And Austin wondered: what was all confusion? Not him. He was no confusion. He'd decided he was a good-intentioned escort for her, and that was a fine thing to be under the circumstances. There was already plenty of confusion in her life. An absent husband. A child. Surviving alone. That was enough. Though he took his arm from her grip and reached it around her shoulder and pulled her close to him until they reached her little black Opel and got in, where touching stopped.
When they reached his hotel, a former monastery with a walled-in courtyard garden, two blocks from the great lighted confluence of St.-Germain and the rue de Rennes, she stopped the car and sat looking straight ahead as if she were waiting for Austin to get out. They had made no mention of another meeting, and he was scheduled to leave in two days.
Austin sat in the dark without speaking. A police station occupied the next corner down the shadowy street. A police van had pulled up with blinking lights, and several uniformed officers in shiny white Sam Browne belts were leading a line of handcuffed men inside, the prisoners’ heads all bowed like penitents. It was April, and the street surface glistened in the damp spring air.
This was the point, of course, to ask her to come inside with him if such a thing was ever to be. But it was clearly the furthest thing from possibility, and each of them knew it. And apart from privately acknowledging that much, Austin had no real thought of it. Although he wanted to do something good, something unusual that would please her and make them both know an occurrence slightly out of the ordinary had taken place tonight—an occurrence they could both feel good about when they were alone in bed, even if in fact nothing much had taken place.
His mind was working on what that extra-ordinary something might be, the thing you did if you didn't make love to a woman. A gesture. A word. What?
All the prisoners were finally led into the police station, and the officers had gotten back in their van and driven it straight up rue de Mézières, where Austin and Joséphine Belliard were sitting in the silent darkness. Obviously she was waiting for him to get out, and he was in a quandary about what to do. Though it was a moment he relished, the exquisite moment before anything is acted on and when all is potential, before life turns this way or that—toward regret or pleasure or happiness, toward one kind of permanence or another. It was a wonderful, tantalizing, important moment, one worth preserving, and he knew she knew it as well as he did and wanted it to last as long as he wanted it to.
Austin sat with his hands in his lap, feeling large and cumbersome inside the tiny car, listening to himself breathe, conscious he was on the verge of what he hoped would be the right—rightest—gesture. She hadn't moved. The car was idling, its headlights shining weakly on the empty street, the dashboard instruments turning the interior air faintly green.
Austin abruptly—or so it felt to him—reached across the space between them, took Joséphine's small, warm hand off the steering wheel and held it between his two large equally warm ones like a sandwich, though in a way that would also seem protective. He would be protective of her, guard her from some as yet unnamed harm or from her own concealed urges, though most immediately from himself, since he realized it was her reluctance more than his that kept them apart now, kept them from parking the car and going inside and spending the night in each other's arms.
He squeezed her hand tightly, then eased up.
“I'd like to make you happy somehow,” he said in a sincere voice, and waited while Joséphine said nothing. She did not remove her hand, but neither did she answer. It was as if what he'd said didn't mean anything, or that possibly she wasn't even listening to him. “It's just human,” Austin said, as though she had said something back, had said, “Why?” or “Don't try,” or “You couldn't possibly,” or “It's too late.”
“What?” She looked at him for the first time since they'd stopped. “It's what?” She had not understood him.
“It's only human to want to make someone happy,” Austin said, holding her warm, nearly weightless hand. “I like you very much, you know that.” These were the right words, as ordinary as they sounded.
“Yes. Well. For what?” Joséphine said in a cold voice. “You are married. You have a wife. You live far away. In two days, three days, I don't know, you will leave. So. For w
Austin wanted to speak again. He wished to say something—likewise absolutely correct—into this new void she'd opened between them, words no one could plan to say or even know in advance, but something that admitted to what she'd said, conceded his acquiescence to it, yet allowed another moment to occur during which the two of them would enter onto new and uncharted ground.
Though the only thing that Austin could say—and he had no idea why, since it sounded asinine and ruinous—was: People have paid a dear price for getting involved with me. Which were definitely the wrong words, since to his knowledge they weren't particularly true, and even if they were, they were so boastful and melodramatic as to cause Joséphine or anyone else to break out laughing.
Still, he could say that and immediately have it all be over between them and forget about it, which might be a relief. Though relief was not what he wanted. He wanted something to go forward between them, something definite and realis-tic and in keeping with the facts of their lives; to advance into that area where nothing actually seemed possible at the moment.
Austin slowly let go of Joséphine's hand. Then he reached both of his hands to her face and turned it toward him, and leaned across the open space and said, just before he kissed her, “I'm at least going to kiss you. I feel like I'm entitled to do that, and I'm going to.”
Joséphine Belliard did not resist him at all, though she did not in any way concur. Her face was soft and compliant. She had a plain, not in the least full, mouth, and when Austin put his lips against hers she did not move toward him. She let herself be kissed, and Austin was immediately, cruelly aware of it. This is what was taking place: he was forcing himself on this woman, and a feeling came over him as he pressed his lips more completely onto hers that he was delusionary and foolish and pathetic—the kind of man he would make fun of if he heard himself described using only these facts as evidence. It was an awful feeling, like being old, and he felt his insides go hollow and his arms become heavy as cudgels. He wanted to disappear from this car seat and remember none of the idiotic things he had just an instant before been thinking. This had now been the first permanent move, when potentiality ended, and it had been the wrong one, the worst one possible. It was ludicrous.
Women with Men by Richard Ford / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes