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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 3 chapter 1)

2006-08-22 20:21


  Words Misunderstood


  Geneva is a city of fountains large and small, of parks where music once rang out from the bandstands. Even the university is hidden among trees. Franz had just finished his afternoon lecture. As he left the building, the sprinklers were spouting jets of water over the lawn and he was in a capital mood. He was on his way to see his mistress. She lived only a few streets away.

  He often stopped in for a visit, but only as a friend, never as a lover. If he made love to her in her Geneva studio, he would be going from one woman to the other, from wife to mistress and back in a single day, and because in Geneva husband and wife sleep together in the French style, in the same bed, he would be going from the bed of one woman to the bed of another in the space of several hours. And that, he felt, would humiliate both mistress and wife and, in the end, himself as well.

  The love he bore this woman, with whom he had fallen in love several months before, was so precious to him that he tried to create an independent space for her in his life, a restricted zone of purity. He was often invited to lecture at foreign universities, and now he accepted all offers. But because they were not enough to satisfy his new-found wanderlust, he took to inventing congresses and symposia as a means of justifying the new absences to his wife. His mistress, who had a flexible schedule, accompanied him on all speaking engagements, real and imagined. So it was that within a short span of time he introduced her to many European cities and an American one.

  How would you like to go to Palermo ten days from now? asked Franz.

  I prefer Geneva, she answered. She was standing in front of her easel examining a work in progress.

  How can you live without seeing Palermo? asked Franz in an attempt at levity.

  I have seen Palermo, she said.

  You have? he said with a hint of jealousy.

  A friend of mine once sent me a postcard from there. It's taped up over the toilet. Haven't you noticed?

  Then she told him a story. Once upon a time, in the early part of the century, there lived a poet. He was so old he had to be taken on walks by his amanuensis. 'Master,' his amanuensis said one day, 'look what's up in the sky! It's the first airplane ever to fly over the city!' 'I have my own picture of it,' said the poet to his amanuensis, without raising his eyes from the ground. Well, I have my own picture of Palermo. It has the same hotels and cars as all cities. And my studio always has new and different pictures.

  Franz was sad. He had grown so accustomed to linking their love life to foreign travel that his Let's go to Palermo! was an unambiguous erotic message and her I prefer Geneva could have only one meaning: his mistress no longer desired him.

  How could he be so unsure of himself with her? She had not given him the slightest cause for worry! In fact, she was the one who had taken the erotic initiative shortly after they met. He was a good-looking man; he was at the peak of his scholarly career; he was even feared by his colleagues for the arrogance and tenacity he displayed during professional meetings and colloquia. Then why did he worry daily that his mistress was about to leave him?

  The only explanation I can suggest is that for Franz, love was not an extension of public life but its antithesis. It meant a longing to put himself at the mercy of his partner. He who gives himself up like a prisoner of war must give up his weapons as well. And deprived in advance of defense against a possible blow, he cannot help wondering when the blow will fall. That is why I can say that for Franz, love meant the constant expectation of a blow.

  While Franz attended to his anguish, his mistress put down her brush and went into the next room. She returned with a bottle of wine. She opened it without a word and poured out two glasses.

  Immediately he felt relieved and slightly ridiculous. The I prefer Geneva did not mean she refused to make love; quite the contrary, it meant she was tired of limiting their lovemaking to foreign cities.

  She raised her glass and emptied it in one swig. Franz did the same. He was naturally overjoyed that her refusal to go to Palermo was actually a call to love, but he was a bit sorry as well: his mistress seemed determined to violate the zone of Purity he had introduced into their relationship; she had failed to understand his apprehensive attempts to save their love from banality and separate it radically from his conjugal home.

  The ban on making love with his painter-mistress in Geneva was actually a self-inflicted punishment for having married another woman. He felt it as a kind of guilt or defect. Even though his conjugal sex life was hardly worth mentioning, he and his wife still slept in the same bed, awoke in the middle of the night to each other's heavy breathing, and inhaled the smells of each other's body. True, he would rather have slept by himself, but the marriage bed is still the symbol of the marriage bond, and symbols, as we know, are inviolable.

  Each time he lay down next to his wife in that bed, he thought of his mistress imagining him lying down next to his wife in that bed, and each time he thought of her he felt ashamed. That was why he wished to separate the bed he slept in with his wife as far as possible in space from the bed he made love in with his mistress.

  His painter-mistress poured herself another glass of wine, drank it down, and then, still silent and with a curious nonchalance, as if completely unaware of Franz's presence, slowly removed her blouse. She was behaving like an acting student whose improvisation assignment is to make the class believe she is alone in a room and no one can see her.

  Standing there in her skirt and bra, she suddenly (as if recalling only then that she was not alone in the room) fixed Franz with a long stare.

  That stare bewildered him; he could not understand it. All lovers unconsciously establish their own rules of the game, which from the outset admit no transgression. The stare she had just fixed on him fell outside their rules; it had nothing in common with the looks and gestures that usually preceded their lovemaking. It was neither provocative nor flirtatious, simply interrogative. The problem was, Franz had not the slightest notion what it was asking.

  Next she stepped out of her skirt and, taking Franz by the hand, turned him in the direction of a large mirror propped against the wall. Without letting go of his hand, she looked into the mirror with the same long questioning stare, training it first on herself, then on him.

  Near the mirror stood a wig stand with an old black bowler hat on it. She bent over, picked up the hat, and put it on her head. The image in the mirror was instantaneously transformed: suddenly it was a woman in her undergarments, a beautiful, distant, indifferent woman with a terribly out-of-place bowler hat on her head, holding the hand of a man in a gray suit and a tie.

  Again he had to smile at how poorly he understood his mistress. When she took her clothes off, it wasn't so much erotic provocation as an odd little caper, a happening a deux. His smile beamed understanding and consent.

  He waited for his mistress to respond in kind, but she did not. Without letting go of his hand, she stood staring into the mirror, first at herself, then at him.

  The time for the happening had come and gone. Franz was beginning to feel that the caper (which, in and of itself, he was happy to think of as charming) had dragged on too long. So he gently took the brim of the bowler hat between two fingers, lifted it off Sabina's head with a smile, and laid it back on the wig stand. It was as though he were erasing the mustache a naughty child had drawn on a picture of the Virgin Mary.

  For several more seconds she remained motionless, staring at herself in the mirror. Then Franz covered her with tender kisses and asked her once more to go with him in ten days to Palermo. This time she said yes unquestioningly, and he left.

  He was in an excellent mood again. Geneva, which he had cursed all his life as the metropolis of boredom, now seemed beautiful and full of adventure. Outside in the street, he looked back up at the studio's broad window. It was late spring and hot. All the windows were shaded with striped awnings. Franz walked to the park. At its far end, the golden cupolas of the Orthodox church rose up like two gilded cannonballs kept from imminent collapse and suspended in the air by some invisible Power. Everything was beautiful. Then he went down to the embankment and took the public transport boat to the north bank of the lake, where he lived.

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