‘Baby, you are going to miss that plane.’
‘I want to see if you stay together or if you dissolve into molecules.’
‘Je veux prendre le metro.’
Jesse wakes up.
He rolls over, extending his arm into the newly empty coolness beside him. He’s groggy, eyes sandy, but he doesn’t need to see to know he’s alone. He can still hear her voice in his head. See her, wiggling her hips in her Nina Simone impression, shaking a finger at him: “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.”
He’d smiled at her, skin pulled over too-sharp cheekbones, smile so wide it stretched the boundaries of his face: “I know.”
And he had known, that was the stupidity of it. Known, stood up in the middle of her apartment, and stepped towards her instead of running away. Put a hand on the small of her back and looked at her with more terror than he could remember feeling roiling his stomach: “Celine.”
She’d stopped. Looked at him back.
He called his agent, cancelled the car, said “something” had come up and he’d be staying in France indefinitely. Ate the cost of the ticket. Called his wife, gave her the same empty equivocation (no, everything is fine, just something I have to deal with, yes, tell Hank I love him). Hung up and just stared for a long moment at this vision out of his past before fairly yanking her towards him and burying his face in her hair.
He’d woken that night to see her sitting in bed, knees drawn into her chest, looking haunted. He reached for her, muzzy with sleep, muttering – “Hey. Hey, wassit?” – and she turned towards him with the same look on her face. He felt his stomach drop, hand on her hip.
“My photojournalist,” she said, and the drop got worse. He looked at her steadily, not trusting himself to speak.
“I … I couldn’t,” she said softly, voice shaking. (He can hear her now, the softened, chopped-off ends of her words in English, how much more precarious they became when she was overwhelmed.)
His brow furrowed, hand tightened. Tried to keep the terror off his face. Her expression cleared minutely at his confusion. “I told him I couldn’t anymore,” she said. He closed his eyes in relief. Eyes closed, he couldn’t see the look that wouldn’t leave her face.
A week passed. He washed the suits he’d worn all over Europe in her tiny washing machine and made fun of French plumbing. They talked and fucked and talked and drank enough tea to sustain the British through the endtimes. She told him it wasn’t about him, she hadn’t left her photojournalist because he’d waltzed back into her life, and he didn’t know or care if it was true. But a week had passed, and he missed his son.
When Jesse opened the door of his house, his wife was standing in the doorway in a worn cardigan older than their marriage. He froze on the spot, unsure of how to proceed; she stood, hands gripping her elbows, and stared. He lifted his hand, abortively reached for her. She spun, walked quickly down the hall, towards the kitchen. Away from him.
He was out of his depth. He followed.
Laura was making tea at the loudest possible volume. Anything that could get slammed got slammed. By the time Jesse reached the kitchen, suitcase abandoned in the guest bedroom, a kettle was on the stove and two cups were prepared, each containing its own tea ball. Laura stood in front of it, back to him. She wasn’t moving.
Jesse moved towards her, slowly, slowly. When he was nearly to her, past the kitchen table, he reached out again, saying her name – “Laur – ” like a plea, and she jerked away as though he was made of fire. “Don’t,” she hissed, hand raised to ward him off. “Don’t try. Don’t talk. Just sit.” She turned back to the stove. He sat.
“Where did you find her?” Laura asked, back to him. He could hear the water vibrating the kettle.
He paused, uncertain of his answer. “Laur,” he said slowly, “I don’t – ”
Laura slammed the spoon she was holding down and turned to face him for the first time. “Don’t fuck with me, Jesse,” she said, voice rising. “You think I’m an idiot? I read your fucking book, you asshole.” (“I was fine, until I read your fucking book!” He hears her even now, her words writing over Laura’s in his mind.) She advanced towards him as the kettle began to scream. “I have been with you for nearly a decade. You told me about her years ago, and I read your fucking book – ” – she spits it like a curse – “ – and I’m a smart woman, Jesse, I can add two and two and get four.” Her eyes are blazing. “Where – ” – her voice is rising with each word – “ – did you find her?!” Her voice cracks on the last two words and he’s grateful there’s a table between them, because Laura looks unpredictable and, unbelievably, dangerous.
“I didn’t find her,” he whispers. “She found me.”
Jesse watched her step back, take the kettle off the heat, pour the water. Minutes passed as she swirled the tea balls in their large cups (extra large cups for tea? “So American,” Celine had said when he told her about them, laughter in her eyes). His heart is in his throat when Laura sits opposite him and hands him the mug. Black with honey. Even in this, the lowest and darkest moment of a low and dark marriage. Even in this.
Jesse wrapped both hands around the mug, looked at Laura – whose face had settled into the lines she’s beginning to develop as middle age creeps slowly, slowly nearer – and said, “What do you want to know?”
He tells her everything. He starts at the reading and continues to the boat, Celine’s flat. His decision. She asks no questions, just listening. When he reaches the end, he says, “Laura. Laura, where’s Hank?”
“My parents’,” she says softly.
He feels his stomach drop, as it did at Celine’s the first night. “Laur,” he tries to say, but he can’t seem to make sound come out, “Laur, you’re not - can I – ” He can’t form words, can’t put a name to this bottomless, yawning terror. Like Bloody Mary, senseless with the thought that naming it will make it real.
Laura looks more tired than she has looked at any point in this conversation. “He’s coming back tomorrow, Jess. I just didn’t want him to be here for this. I’m not keeping your son from you. I’m not a monster.”
Of course she’s not. He knows this, knows her commitment to their son’s welfare, and yet hearing her say it is a tangible, physical relief. He feels himself unclench. When he meets her eyes, he is simultaneously ashamed and defiant.
She holds his gaze for a second. Looks away. Then she sighs, audibly. “Jesse,” she says softly. “Jesse, it’s been over for years.”
He is still looking at her face, not daring to look away. She looks back, meets his eyes. “You know it has, baby,” she says, and hearing her say that is a gut punch.
He nods. “I know.” Starts when he feels her hand on his arm.
Laura moved out that night. They went to her parents' together, the silence in the car oddly companionable for two people staring divorce in the face. He brought Hank back to their house and she stayed with her parents, kissing their beautiful, perfect child on the top of his beautiful, perfect head and assuring him that everything would be okay.
Jesse e-mails Celine that night. He needs her to know what happened, know where he is; but in the end, it wasn’t about her. His marriage was over before he got on a plane to Paris.
It’s early in the morning still, and he stretches into the coolness where Laura used to be. He’s just about to get out of bed and check on Hank – it’s a Saturday, which means there’s an equal chance that his child is sleeping or that he has been awake for hours and is working on his fourth bowl of Captain Crunch (Jesse is, he thinks to himself, a terrible father) – when his cell phone rings.
He looks at the display. Her name. She hasn’t answered his email yet; they haven’t spoken since his plane landed five days ago.
He picks up.