We were going out to dinner. I won’t say which restaurant, because next time it might be full of people who’ve come to see whether we’re there. Serge made the reservation. He’s always the one who arranges it, the reservation. This particular restaurant is one where you have to call three months in advance--or six, or eight, don’t ask me. Personally, I’d never want to know three months in advance where I’m going to eat on any given evening, but apparently some people don’t mind. A few centuries from now, when historians want to know what kind of crazies people were at the start of the twenty-first century, all they’ll have to do is look at the computer files of the so-called “top” restaurants. That information is kept on file--I happen to know that. If Mr. L. was prepared to wait three months for a window seat last time, then this time he’ll wait for five months for a table beside the men’s room--that’s what restaurants call “customer relations management.”
Serge never reserves a table three months in advance. Serge makes the reservation on the day itself--he says he thinks of it as a sport. You have restaurants that reserve a table for people like Serge Lohman, and this restaurant happens to be one of them. One of many, I should say. It makes you wonder whether there isn’t one restaurant in the whole country where they don’t go faint right away when they hear the name Serge Lohman on the phone. He doesn’t make the call himself, of course; he lets his secretary or one of his assistants do that. “Don’t worry about it,” he told me when I talked to him a few days ago. “They know me there; I can get us a table.” All I’d asked was whether it wasn’t a good idea to call, in case they were full, and where we would go if they were. At the other end of the line, I thought I heard something like pity in his voice. I could almost see him shake his head. It was a sport.
There was one thing I didn’t feel like that evening. I didn’t feel like being there when the owner or on-duty manager greeted Serge Lohman as though he were an old friend. Like seeing how the waitress would lead him to the nicest table on the side facing the garden, or how Serge would act as though he had it all coming to him--that deep down he was still an ordinary guy, and that was why he felt entirely comfortable among other ordinary people.
Which was precisely why I’d told him we would meet in the restaurant itself and not, as he’d suggested, at the cafe around the corner. It was a cafe where a lot of ordinary people went. How Serge Lohman would walk in there like a regular guy, with a grin that said that all those ordinary people should above all go on talking and act as though he wasn’t there--I didn’t feel like that, either.
The restaurant is only a few blocks from our house, so we walked. That also brought us past the cafe where I hadn’t wanted to meet Serge. I had my arm around my wife’s waist; her hand was tucked somewhere inside my coat. The sign outside the cafe was lit with the warm red-and-white colors of the brand of beer they had on tap. “We’re too early,” I said to my wife. “I mean, if we go now, we’ll be right on time.”
“My wife.” I should stop calling her that. Her name is Claire. Her parents named her Marie Claire, but in time Claire didn’t feel like sharing her name with a magazine. Sometimes I call her Marie, just to tease her. But I rarely refer to her as “my wife”--on official occasions sometimes, or in sentences like “My wife can’t come to the phone right now,” or “My wife is very sure she asked for a room with a sea view.”
On evenings like this, Claire and I make the most of the moments when it’s still just the two of us. Then it’s as though everything is still up for grabs, as though the dinner date were only a misunderstanding, as though it’s just the two of us out on the town. If I had to give a definition of happiness, it would be this: happiness needs nothing but itself, it doesn’t have to be validated. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. All I could hope to add to that is that unhappy families--and within those families, in particular the unhappy husband and wife--can never get by on their own. The more validators, the merrier. Unhappiness loves company. Unhappiness can’t stand silence--especially not the uneasy silence that settles in when it is all alone.
So when the bartender at the cafe put our beers down in front of us, Claire and I smiled at each other in the knowledge that we would soon be spending an entire evening in the company of the Lohmans--in the knowledge that this was the finest moment of that evening, that from here on it would all be downhill.
I didn’t feel like going to the restaurant. I never do. A fixed appointment for the immediate future is the gates of hell; the actual evening is hell itself. It starts in front of the mirror in the morning: what you’re going to wear, and whether or not you’re going to shave. At times like these, after all, everything is a statement, a pair of torn and stained jeans as much as a neatly ironed shirt. If you don’t scrape off the day’s stubble, you were too lazy to shave; two days’ beard immediately makes them wonder whether this is some new look; three days or more is just a step from total dissolution. “Are you feeling all right? You’re not sick, are you?” No matter what you do, you’re not free. You shave, but you’re not free. Shaving is a statement as well. Apparently you found this evening significant enough to go to the trouble of shaving, you see the others thinking--in fact, shaving already puts you behind 1–0.
And then I always have Claire to remind me that this isn’t an evening like every other. Claire is smarter than I am. I’m not saying that out of some half-baked feminist sentiment or in order to endear women to me. You’ll never hear me claim that “women in general” are smarter than men. Or more sensitive, more intuitive, that they are more “in touch with life” or any of the other horseshit that, when all is said and done, so-called “sensitive” men try to peddle more often than women themselves.
Claire just happens to be smarter than I am; I can honestly say that it took me a while to admit that. During our first years together, I thought she was intelligent, I guess, but intelligent in the usual sense: precisely as intelligent, in fact, as you might expect my wife to be. After all, would I settle for a stupid woman for any longer than a month? In any case, Claire was intelligent enough for me to stay with her even after the first month. And now, almost twenty years later, that hasn’t changed.
So Claire is smarter than I am, but on evenings like this, she still asks my opinion about what she should wear, which earrings, whether to wear her hair up or leave it down. For women, earrings are sort of what shaving is for men: the bigger the earrings, the more significant, the more festive, the evening. Claire has earrings for every occasion. Some people might say it’s not smart to be so insecure about what you wear. But that’s not how I see it. The stupid woman is the one who thinks she doesn’t need any help. What does a man know about things like that? the stupid woman thinks, and proceeds to make the wrong choice.
I’ve sometimes tried to imagine Babette asking Serge whether she’s wearing the right dress. Whether her hair isn’t too long. What Serge thinks of these shoes. The heels aren’t too flat, are they? Or maybe too high?
But whenever I do I realize there’s something wrong with the picture, something that seems unimaginable: “No, it’s fine, it’s absolutely fine,” I hear Serge say. But he’s not really paying attention. It doesn’t actually interest him, and besides, even if his wife were to wear the wrong dress, all the men would still turn their heads as she walked by. Everything looks good on her. So what’s she moaning about?
This wasn’t a hip cafe; the fashionable types didn’t come here--it wasn’t cool, Michel would say. Ordinary people were by far in the majority. Not the particularly young or the particularly old--in fact, a little bit of everything all thrown together, but above all ordinary. The way a cafe should be.
It was crowded. We stood close together, beside the door to the men’s room. Claire was holding her beer in one hand; with the fingers of the other she was gently squeezing my wrist.
“I don’t know,” she said, “but I’ve had the impression recently that Michel is acting strange. Well, not really strange, but different. Distant. Haven’t you noticed?”
“Oh yeah?” I said. “I guess it’s possible.”
I had to be careful not to look at Claire--we know each other too well for that--my eyes would give me away. Instead, I behaved as though I were looking around the cafe, as though I were deeply interested in the spectacle of ordinary people involved in lively conversation. I was relieved that I’d stuck to my guns, that we wouldn’t be meeting the Lohmans until we reached the restaurant; in my mind’s eye I could see Serge coming through the swinging doors, his grin encouraging the regulars above all to go on with what they were doing and pay no attention to him.
“He hasn’t said anything to you?” Claire asked. “I mean, you two talk about other things. Do you think it might have something to do with a girl? Something he’d feel easier telling you about?”
Just then the door to the men’s room opened and we had to step to one side, pressed even closer together. I felt Claire’s beer glass clink against mine.
“Do you think it has something to do with girls?” she asked again.
If only that were true, I couldn’t help thinking. Something to do with girls . . . wouldn’t that be wonderful, wonderfully normal, the normal adolescent mess. “Can Chantal/Merel/Rose spend the night?” “Do her parents know? If Chantal’s/Merel’s/Rose’s parents think it’s okay, it’s okay with us. As long as you remember . . . as long as you’re careful when you . . . ah, you know what I mean . . . I don’t have to tell you about that anymore. Right? Michel?”
Girls came to our house often enough, each one prettier than the next. They sat on the couch or at the kitchen table and greeted me politely when I came home. “Hello, Mr. Lohman.” “You don’t have to call me Mr. Lohman. Just call me Paul.” And so they would call me “Paul” a few times, but a couple of days later it would be back to “Mr. Lohman” again.
Sometimes I would get one of them on the phone, and while I asked if I could take a message for Michel, I would shut my eyes and try to connect the girl’s voice at the other end of the line (they rarely mentioned their names, just plunged right in: “Is Michel there?”) with a face. “No, that’s okay, Mr. Lohman. It’s just that his cell phone is switched off, so I thought I’d try this number.”
A couple of times, when I came in unannounced, I’d had the impression that I’d caught them at something, Michel and Chantal/Merel/Rose: that they were watching The Fabulous Life on MTV less innocently than they wanted me to think--that they’d been fiddling with each other, that they’d rushed to straighten their clothes and hair when they heard me coming. Something about the flush on Michel’s cheeks--something heated, I told myself.
To be honest, though, I had no idea. Maybe nothing was going on at all, maybe all those pretty girls just saw my son as a good friend: a nice, rather handsome boy, someone they could show up with at a party--a boy they could trust, precisely because he wasn’t the kind who wanted to fiddle with them right away.
“No, I don’t think it’s got anything to do with a girl,” I said, looking Claire straight in the eye now. That’s the oppressive thing about happiness, the way everything is out on the table like an open book: if I avoided looking at her any longer, she’d know for sure that something was going on--with girls, or worse.
“I think it’s more like something with school,” I said. “He’s just done those exams; I think he’s tired. I think he underestimated it a little, how tough his sophomore year would be.”
Did that sound believable? And above all: did I look believable when I said it? Claire’s gaze shifted quickly back and forth between my right and my left eye; then she raised her hand to my shirt collar, as though there were something out of place there that could be dealt with now, so I wouldn’t look like an idiot when we got to the restaurant.
She smiled and placed the flat of her hand against my chest; I could feel two fingertips against my skin, right where the top button of my shirt was unbuttoned.
“Maybe that’s it,” she said. “I just think we both have to be careful that at a certain point he doesn’t stop talking about things. That we get used to that, I mean.”
“No, of course. But at his age, he kind of has a right to his own secrets. We shouldn’t try to find out everything about him--then maybe he’d clam up altogether.”
I looked Claire in the eye. My wife, I thought at that moment. Why shouldn’t I call her my wife? My wife. I put my arm around her and pulled her close. Even if only for the duration of this evening. My wife and I, I said to myself. My wife and I would like to see the wine list.
“What are you laughing about?” Claire said. My wife said. I looked at our beer glasses. Mine was empty; hers was still three-quarters full. As usual. My wife didn’t drink as fast as I did, which was another reason why I loved her, this evening perhaps more than other evenings.
“Nothing,” I said. “I was thinking . . . I was thinking about us.”