On subsequent days, always at the same time in the middle of the afternoon, the piano stops playing.
A tense silence establishes itself within the house. Catherine’s head stiffens on her pillow, braced for sounds that do not come. She listens as the piano’s last note withdraws slowly from the air. Like an acid, the silence works its way through her body, leaving a feeling of afterburn in her guts.
Each day, as the piano comes to an abrupt stop, the cat bristles and arches its back; the birds in their cages tilt their heads; the dogs’ ears assume a worried angle. The children freeze for a moment and exchange curious glances, surprised by the lengthening silence that reigns in the middle of each afternoon.
Joseph and Marie shoot one another a knowing look. Both raise their eyes to heaven.
Marie whispers, “It’s started!”
“This is all we need,” Joseph says.
Each afternoon for the next few weeks the same routine repeats itself. The piano breaks off in the middle of a phrase, only to pick up a little more jauntily about half an hour later. The silence creates a hollow into which everything is drawn.
As the days pass, the hollow deepens into an emptiness within Catherine, an emptiness she fills with anguish and fear. Part of her wants to investigate this bizarre hiatus, but another part dreads what she might find. She prefers ignorance to the possibility of horror. She is too weak at present to deal with the consequences. The silence widens within her like a wound.
Igor, meanwhile, is bewitched. Coco offers him an un-apologetically sensual love, the quality of which he has never experienced before with Catherine. Hers is a passion uninhibited by any residual bourgeois scruple, a passion approaching vulgarity in its frankness. He is astonished by Coco’s sexual confidence and her willingness to experiment. He wonders if she finds him sexually naïve.
Catherine in lovemaking has always tended toward passivity. Unresponsive at the best of times, her illness now makes sex a difficult and clumsy business. If her body participates at all, he considers, it is only through a reflex that answers him out of habit. The truth is, she hates the physical demands he makes upon her.
Where Catherine endures making love as a wifely duty, a procreative act that has all too quickly yielded four children, with Coco, Igor experiences it for the first time as a mutually jubilant and rawly pleasurable bliss. It is like the sudden and liberating discovery of jazz. There’s something joyous about it, glorious even. It’s as if, released from timidity, he feels free to improvise. There are no rules. Emboldened to follow his impulse, it’s different every time. There’s a gleeful abandon in their lovemaking. An unquenchable momentum establishes itself in their relationship. The bird of guilt is blown from his shoulder. He cannot stop himself now.
The affair makes him see everything in a vivid light. It’s as if he’s been given new eyeglasses that allow him to see colors more brilliantly than ever before, and, having glimpsed the high tones and contrasts, the vibrancy of life around him, he’s reluctant to give them up.
They take to exchanging love notes. Igor writes a note and sets it in the piano stool. Then, in the afternoon, Coco collects it and leaves one of her own in her familiar, sprawling, slightly childish hand. They are simple and effusive and full of endearments, and secret, which makes them more thrilling. Igor writes more than Coco usually. But she has all the emotional delicacy and uncanny eloquence, he thinks, so that just a few short sentences from her can be more moving and tender and true than any well-turned phrases he might conjure up.
In the mornings they both work. Then in the afternoons they make love. At other times of the day, when they meet at dinner for instance, they attempt an outward show of aloofness in each other’s company. It’s as though there are two distinct and separate levels upon which they can operate. One does not seem to interfere with the other so the two do not, for the moment at least, need to be reconciled. They are like two clarinets playing simultaneously in harshly conflicting keys. The only reconciliation necessary is an acceptance of their duality.
They coexist in a kind of super-key.
Eager to escape the hazardous privacy of his study, Igor and Coco take a walk in the woods.
Coming across a remote clearing, they abandon their usual care. The illicit nature of their relationship generates a sudden heat. A sympathetic seethe of insects surrounds them. Their needs converge in an instant and focus on a scorched patch of ground. They undress rapidly and form a rocking knot that has them both grunting furiously with all the relief of a passion no longer strangled but given voice at last. The whole wood seems to catch the vibration. Birds answer from the topmost branches. A distant dog barks. The minutes of the day for both of them warp and broaden into a delicious and unanticipated second life.
Afterward, as they retrieve their garments, Coco says, “I think they know.”
“Joseph and Marie.”
“They run the house. They know everything.”
Fear pulses through him. “My God, what are we going to do?” He stumbles pulling his trousers on.
“Calm down. They’re loyal to me. I employ them, remember.”
There’s a silence.
She secures the last button on her chemise. “But doesn’t Catherine suspect already?”
He looks at her. “I live in fear of her finding out.”
“Do you want to stop it now?”
“I can’t.” He’s never felt so alive. It’s like when you have your first child, he reflects. You love it utterly and think you could never love another so much. And then the second child comes along, and you do love it as much if not more. He feels the same about marriage. He never thought he’d meet anyone he’d love as much as Catherine. And here he is now with Coco, and his world is turned upside down.
She, too, explores the revelation that she is in love. It hits her as something essential; something as necessary as the walls of the house, as the sunstruck windows or the warm tiled roof above her head. There is nothing fussily luxuriant or emptily decorative about the sensation. It has about it the pure clean lines of a given fact. There’s no mistaking it. Like a scent, it is simply there.
She says, “I won’t smother you, I promise.”
“Maybe I want to be smothered.” Dressed, he embraces her again.
“Let me be your mistress.”
“I’d like that.”
“You’ll be my lover.”
They touch foreheads for a moment before he shakes his head in disbelief. “It’s crazy, but for the first time in years, I’m really happy.” He means it. A feeling of well-being overtakes him.
“I’m glad,” she says.
As she looks up at him in the sunlight, everything around her suddenly whites out.
Obsessed with cleanliness at the best of times, Igor is careful always to scrub himself of Coco’s scent. He is careful, too, to ensure the children are preoccupied either with their lessons or playing out of earshot in the afternoons. If the affair is reckless in itself, then his pursuit of it—save for the impetuous episode in the woods—is rigorous in the extreme.
Yet something impish within Coco wishes to buck the regulated nature that their assignations quickly assume. Every so often, she deliberately fails to appear on time. On such occasions, Igor feels an icy void dilate inside his body. Religious about keeping appointments and fanatically punctual himself, he begins pacing around inside his study if she is even a minute late. He grows increasingly frustrated if that one minute then stretches to five or ten. Eventually, of course, she does arrive, and his longings are soon healed. But she takes a sly pleasure in registering his dismay.
With inevitable quickness, Catherine becomes suspicious. She watches closely, scrutinizing their behavior for any telltale signs. She knows Igor has been attracted to other women in the past, but this time it’s different. There’s a gravity about his relationship with Coco that none of his previous friendships with women ever possessed. What worries Catherine now is that Igor is no longer a young man. This can’t be ascribed to some passing infatuation. He’s thirty-eight, for God’s sake. A mature, grown-up man. This is serious.
For all the lip service Coco and Igor pay to discretion, it is at mealtimes that Catherine realizes, with a crushing sense of helplessness, that something is indeed going on. She sees that, as they speak, there flashes a spark between them. For the first time, their relationship is on display. And Igor, at least, seems unaware of the embarrassing transparency with which he behaves when the two of them are together.
They betray themselves involuntarily. Their closeness broadcasts itself despite their best efforts. Their voices grow softer in one another’s company, braiding into one. A kind of languor steals over them. They eat little. She shoots him dewy glances across the table. He responds with involved stares. Her knee rests heedlessly against his.
Sickened, Catherine is scarcely able to touch her food. She has no friends close by to consult or share concerns with. Lonely, she exists in a kind of bubble. When she’s with them, she feels herself go completely numb—the way a body in shock closes down all but its essential functions. The only time she escapes is when she goes to church each Sunday.
With little independent means, she is totally reliant for the moment upon Coco for financial support. And here is Coco with her shops, her Rolls-Royce, her villa, and her servants. Catherine feels trapped, isolated, violated, and betrayed. The servants tiptoe around her as though around an unexploded bomb. The children sense instinctively that she’s upset, that something is wrong, and yet she finds herself in the ludicrous position of having to reassure them that everything is fine.
Igor is slow to recognize the children’s misgivings about their being there, even though Theodore in particular has been sulky of late. And as regards Catherine, he so convinces himself of his discretion that he feels she must be unaware. It’s as if, blinded by desire, he really doesn’t feel he’s doing anything wrong. So that when she does confront him with her doubts, he laughs it off as her paranoia, telling her she’s being silly and demanding that she stop being so possessive. Of course she wants to believe in his innocence. And so each time, despite her better judgment, she allows herself to be duped. But she never quite manages to banish her fears.
Questioned further, Igor becomes sullen and grudging of the time he spends with his wife. And Coco, though she remains civil, increasingly keeps her distance. Catherine is in agony. How can she accuse the woman, whose benevolence is seeing them live rent-free, of conducting an adulterous affair with her husband? Where would that leave her? What if, after all, it wasn’t true? What if Igor was right: that in her feverish state, she was erecting an elaborate apparatus of deceit that in reality didn’t exist?
Still, a kind of poison of suspicion insinuates its way around her veins. Watching the two of them enact their secret pantomime at dinner is an almost unendurable torture. Under the table she pinches the skin of her arms hard. The pain distracts her and in her mind assumes the glamorous shape of martyrdom.
Over the next few days, as the piano stops playing and silence swells around the house, Joseph gets on with his duties, Marie continues cleaning the house, and the children carry on with their games. The dogs, the cat, and the birds cease tilting their heads beyond the merest fraction.
For the rest of the household, the blank space becomes part of the fabric of the afternoon. But for Catherine, alone in her room, wrapped tightly inside the sheet of her bed, the silence burns into her consciousness. Listening tensely, she draws her knees up to her wheezing chest.