Coco and Igor sit late on the balcony. Now early September, the weather still holds. An outside light illuminates the two of them as they talk and smoke in the evening air. Mosquitoes swarm in a halo of fluorescence, maddened by the dazzle of the lamp.
“Damn things!” Igor says, swatting them away.
Coco pulls a black angora sweater close around her shoulders. Fingering the string of pearls around her neck, she says, “Look at the stars! They’re all shaking.” She plays the pearls to her lips, nibbling them.
It is true. The more they look, the more the stars seem to jiggle minutely in a kind of dance, like animalcules in a pond. Solemnly the constellations present themselves. Igor watches for several seconds, trying to locate the unseen threads that connect them. He listens to their music: a celestial insect hum.
“If you look down at the city, you get the same effect.”
In the distance they see the amber glow of the capital thrown up into the sky. To Igor’s left, Coco’s face makes a heart-shaped shadow.
“The stars above us and the city below. What more could you want?”
“I used to dream about coming to Paris when I was a boy.” The city hovers at the edge of his attention like a tint or perfume flavoring the night sky.
Coco draws on her cigarette. “And now, given the chance, would you return to Russia?”
Nursing a wineglass in his hand, he says, “There are things I miss.”
“My mother. Friends. My piano. My house. And spring when the ice melts and the earth seems suddenly to crack and creak into being. You feel as if you’re coming alive.”
A gust of wind blows, rattling the door. The light flickers momentarily. Leaves make a gentle chafing sound. Reaching down, he picks up a half-empty bottle of red wine. He gestures to Coco. She traps her hand over the top of her glass. He shrugs and pours himself another. The wine looks black in the moonlight.
“You know, you’ve never told me how you met her.”
Until now they have avoided speaking of his wife. He has made it clear previously that it is not a subject open for discussion. And Coco has indulged him. Indeed, the physical fact of her existence in a bedroom upstairs has been quite enough for her to contend with. It has taken a huge unspoken effort of will on Coco’s part to diminish her presence within the house. Yet it is beginning to seem ridiculous not to acknowledge her. Catherine has become a hole in their talk. An unhealed gap. Now the wine has fortified Coco enough to quiz him. And it is evidence of their growing intimacy that he feels relaxed enough to answer.
“I was practically brought up with her.” Released from the tension of silence, his words seem weightless.
“Childhood sweethearts, how romantic.”
Ignoring her: “But the first time I can remember being drawn to her in any way was when we were about fourteen. We were in a cathedral.”
“Don’t tell me. She was in the nativity scene, playing the Madonna.”
“Not quite. She was in the choir.”
As a formal prelude to his tale, Igor again offers her more wine. She relents this time, permitting him to pour a further inch into her glass, accepting it as a ticket of admission to this episode from his life.
“It was a crisp spring day. Inside the cathedral, though, it was cold. The choir was singing some hymn, and light streamed in through the stained-glass windows and hit a point near the altar where they stood. The smell of incense was overwhelming, I remember, and the music rose high to the cathedral ceiling. You know what the acoustics of churches are like?”
“Yes, yes, get on with it.”
“Anyway, just as the priest intoned, ‘Thou shalt be admitted into the garden of eternal delight,’ it happened. I saw Catherine standing at the end of one row, and . . .”
“She was wearing a thin white shirt and, with the light hitting her sideways from the window, it became completely transparent.”
“She must have been wearing something underneath.”
“I’m sure she was. But in silhouette the effect was devastating to a young boy. She was all . . .”
“Standing to attention?”
“It was probably the cold inside the church.”
“Churches are very erotic places.”
“If you think of the architecture of the cathedral, it’s totally erotic. The spire, the cupola, and the arches with their ribbed insides just waiting to swell and contract . . .”
And then rapidly, burlesquing the catechism: “Exalted Sister of Peace.”
“Grace of the Redemptrix.”
“Celestial Queen of Heaven.”
“Holy Mother of God.”
They both laugh. Coco’s eyes shine glassily. Filaments of her hair shake loose, catching a glisten of light from the lamp.
“What happened next?”
“Well, neither of us had had much contact with the opposite sex. We just became used to each other’s company. And soon we were great friends.”
Her mouth twists sideways. “Friends.”
Igor’s tone grows serious. “Yes, actually, friends.”
“Brother and sister?”
“You didn’t have to marry her, though!”
“I know all you see is this bedridden invalid, but she’s an intelligent woman. She’s well-read. She has taste and r efinement . . .”
“It seems to me she’s in danger of refining herself out of existence.” Coco finds it hard to disguise her contempt for Catherine. She didn’t even try to come down once today. Yet she still wants Marie to minister to her all morning and afternoon. Coco can’t stand that kind of weakness in people. There’s no fight in her, she decides.
Picturing his wife listening to this, Igor winces. He doesn’t like her being so summarily dismissed. He wants her accorded more respect. Their bodies mock her enough as it is. “She’s not well,” he says.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Well, that’s that.” It is obvious he does not wish to go on.
Sensing that the conversation needs to change key, she asks brightly, “So what did you think of me when we first met?”
Igor lifts the wineglass from his knee. He turns the stem slowly, watching the wine lap darkly against the sides.
“What did I think when I first met you?” He repeats the question aloud to himself and ruminates for a moment. Involuntarily he squeezes one eye shut to look at the glass as he raises it. The surface of the wine seems to form a disc that retains its shape however he tilts it.
“Come on, tell me the truth.”
He says, “I thought you were quite aggressive.”
“Verbally, I mean.”
“And what else?” Coco lights a cigarette and blows the smoke out quickly.
“I thought you were clever and generous . . .”
“Is that all?”
“Well, I obviously found you attractive if that’s what you mean. Shapely and slim . . .” Igor continues ritually to twist his glass on the point of his knee. “Must I go on?”
Coco stares out at the garden and the needlepoint of stars. “No. That’s fine.”
“And me? What did you think when you first met me?”
Decisively: “You seemed a bit remote and cold.”
“But vulnerable underneath it all. And passionate.”
“I saw that the first night of The Rite.” Her voice lifts. “And I made it my duty to bring it out in you.”
“Have you succeeded?” He inspects a leaf made glossy by the outside light.
“I’ve done a pretty good job, I think. Under the circumstances.” She looks at him and they share a smile.
He touches the back of his hair. “I’ve grown grayer as a result.”
“But you look”—she hesitates—“more distinguished.”
Why is it, he thinks, that women find gray hair attractive? Perhaps it reminds them of death, and they find that exciting. Maybe they find it appealing to consider the perishability of their men.
“I’m starting to dress better, that’s for sure.” He hears a buzzing about his skull.
“That’s not hard.”
He falls abruptly to scratching his arms. “I’m being eaten alive out here!”
“So am I.”
“It’s your perfume. It’s driving them crazy.”
Lifting his glass with one hand and grabbing the bottle with the other, Igor is quick to lead the way inside.