Clouds gather tumultuously throughout the afternoon. Plum-colored, the thunderheads churn into a premature dusk. The elms sway, and shutters flap in a rattling staccato. Fat spasms of rain begin to fall.
At the first pulse of lightning, the children move inside. The dogs bark fiercely, sensing a chemical event. In a superstitious reflex, Marie hides away the silver. Coco watches as rain spatters the windows. One flash fills the glass like the filament in an electric bulb.
The storm continues after dinner when Igor hears his study door click open. It is Coco. He sees her reflection in the window. Oily shadows course down her face. He turns. She seems exhilarated.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Storms always thrill her—the more spectacular the better. She loves their power, their ability to pulverize the earth. She feels animated suddenly and experiences an urgent need to participate, to draw like a galvanic battery on the fury of the storm. Yet having entered Igor’s study, she feels unusually tentative. She’s there for no other reason than she wants to see him. It seems odd that within her home there are areas that feel out-of-bounds. But with a stern sense of privacy, Igor has already made this space his own. Her energy converts into an itch to quit the room. But she can’t just leave. Her visit would appear purposeless. Another vivid flash outside is enough to spark a decision. “Let’s do something,” she blurts.
“What?” Magnified by his glasses, his eyes hold a reflection of the last lightning flash.
On previous evenings, Igor has played chess with his children. Tonight, however, Coco decides it is too sedate an occupation for the whole entourage. Instead, she proposes the children have some fun performing songs and dances.
As he looks at her, her weight shifts one way and her head tilts the other. An angle is established between her upper and lower body, as though on the keyboard he had struck adjacent chords.
She walks over and takes his hand. “Come on.”
He enjoys this sudden contact of her palm, relishing the pressure of her skin against his. His fingers tingle, remembering the shared electricity of their first meeting. Standing up, he seems to float toward the door.
The piano is moved into the living room to accompany the songs. Catherine, though too ill to participate, is persuaded to come downstairs to watch. Installed in a chair with blankets around her, she readies herself to be entertained.
They begin with Russian folk songs. Coco joins in as best she can, humming along once she gets the melody. Then the children sing some songs in French that Coco taught them earlier in the day. They are joined by Joseph and Marie’s daughter, the fourteen-year-old Suzanne. She helps lead the singing, filling in the lyrics when the children are uncertain. Igor strikes up jauntily on the piano. Then, together with Coco and Suzanne, the children start to dance.
The music hits the walls and bounces back. Coco pushes her hair up with both hands. Then, while the children dance with one another, she peels off, describing a wider circle around them. She responds to the accents of the music, feeling them chime with her insides. The high notes seem to express a sharp passion. The low notes set off a deeper sympathy. It’s as if a dialogue is being articulated between his music and her movements. In the lightning that irradiates the room, for a moment she looks goatish.
Catherine registers with increasing alarm the intimacy that has grown between Coco and her husband. It is obvious they share an unspoken rapport. Shocked that this has happened so fast, she feels hurt and excluded. The two women have hardened against each other since their encounter the other day. She wishes now she had not been inveigled down. She feels the music and the thunder combine to drum inside her skull.
One of the dances ends. The children rush to their mother, expecting encouragement. Instead, she tuts and turns her head. But, as she does so, the children leave her side again. They run to Coco, who beckons them back onto the floor.
At the children’s insistence, the music begins to quicken. Suzanne and Ludmilla whirl ever more swiftly around the room. Seen from above, they form a wobbly revolving wheel. Coco holds herself very straight, maintaining an erect posture—the result of years of ballet lessons from her friend Caryathis. Her figure is given an eerie symmetry in the long French windows at the end of the room.
The chords build; the music bubbles up. Lightning flashes thrillingly in glittering ribbons, shocking the trees into relief. Shapeless rumbles of thunder follow. Torn pieces of sky hurry overhead. Igor begins to play louder and more urgently. Coco feels an ache in her neck. And there’s the sensation in her head of something spilling over. The feeling takes seed and widens within her circle by circle until the chairs, tables, lamps, and piano begin to blur together in a vertiginous wheel. The ceiling spins around. The chandelier at its center flakes light. Rising in redoubled fortes, the music and the dance accelerate until Coco collapses in a climax of calculated abandon, and Igor jumps from the piano to catch her in his arms.
Catherine can scarcely believe her eyes. A flush of anger spreads across her face. Her mouth twitches nervously. This is too much.
Igor looks bewildered. Coco still plays faint. Coming in with some tea, Marie is shocked by the scene that now confronts her. An impulse of sympathy toward Catherine contends with another that prompts her to check that Coco is all right. These feelings war within her. Before she can decide, she is summoned to bring a washcloth and some water.
Supporting the back of her head with his hand, Igor administers the water in careful sips to Coco’s mouth. The children, including Suzanne, gather around. The sense of an audience makes him all the more solicitous in performing these healing rites.
Opening her eyes, Coco looks up groggily. Igor sees a glazed film pass across her pupils. He loosens the kerchief at her throat. A sweet odor steals across his face as he inhales.
“Come on, now. Bed!” Catherine corrals the children prior to marching them upstairs.
Soulima asks, “Is Mademoiselle Chanel all right?”
“She’s perfectly all right,” his mother answers curtly. “Believe me!”
“She doesn’t look so well,” the boy insists.
Supporting herself against a chair, Catherine feels her own infirmity mocked. “I can assure you, she’s very well.” Each syllable is hurt into being. Her words are spoken clearly enough for Coco to hear.
“Thank you, Soulima. I’m all right,” Coco manages, sitting up. Though Catherine might find it hard to credit, this is not something she has planned. The truth is, she did feel faint; the dancing did for an instant make her dizzy. But now something opportunistic in her nature takes over. She exploits the moment for all it is worth.
Soulima makes to speak again but, recognizing the strength of his mother’s indignation, he says nothing and leaves the room. Reluctantly the other children follow on up to bed.
Catherine herself turns to go. With barely suppressed rage, she says, “Good night, Igor. I’ll see you upstairs shortly.”
He looks up at his wife, miming a gesture of helplessness. But Catherine is unimpressed. Her look tells him she thinks he is pathetic. He has been taken in, consciously or unconsciously. Surely he can see that. If he’s acting involuntarily, he’s a fool. If he’s acting willfully, then he’s cruel and dishonorable. Abruptly she feels the need to revise everything she knows about her husband. In leaving the room, she slams the door.
Joseph and Marie withdraw into the kitchen while Igor dabs at Coco’s brow.
“She’s got a nerve,” snaps Marie to her husband.
“Careful. She might hear you.”
“Honestly,” continues Marie, without lowering her tone. “What on earth does she think she’s doing? She invites these people to stay and then insults them. Her problem is, she’s got too much money and doesn’t know what to do with it.”
“She sees herself as some great patron but hasn’t the grace to carry it off. Actually she’s no better than you or I. And does she pay us any more for all this extra work? Like hell she does!”
Suzanne has come into the kitchen in the middle of this. She listens to her mother, trying to unpick the complex weave of what is going on. Anxious that she shouldn’t understand too much, Joseph makes a quieting gesture to his wife. He doesn’t want to get involved. Seeing Marie subdued, he backs toward the door, his finger to his lips.
Reentering the living room, he asks, “What about the piano, sir?” Igor is distracted. He needs to repeat the question.
“We’ll leave it until the morning, I think.”
“You can go now, Joseph.” Coco waves him off with a motion evoking helpless fatigue. “Thank you,” she volunteers softly to Igor when they are alone. She blinks rapidly. Her small breasts heave.
The echo of melodies continues inside the room, making its space seem all the more vacant now. Igor glances at her neckline and its ellipse of pearls. His mouth feels parched and he tries not to swallow. There is a loaded silence between them. Her eyes seem black as lakes.
Then, seeing her cheeks suddenly flushed and her lips open florally, he shocks himself with the thought of kissing her full on the mouth. The image surprises him in its vividness; and he is surprised, too, to find himself thinking there is nothing improper in this. The impulse comes from somewhere deep within him and seems natural and good.
Holding his arm, Coco manages to stand. She walks the short distance to a chair and sits down heavily. “I’m all right now,” she says.
“Are you sure?” Remaining close in case she swoons again, he feels overattentive suddenly.
Sensing his awkwardness, she fails to answer. She shakes off her headband, tucking her hair behind each ear.
At a loss, Igor says, “We were worried about you there for a minute.” His remark ends with an attempt at a laugh.
Her self-possession recovered, without lifting her head, Coco raises her eyes to look at him directly. Again, he resists a fierce impulse to kiss her.
After a long pause that seems to dilate in time, she says, “You’d better go upstairs. Your wife is waiting.”
Having acted out of an instinctive urge, her expression now closes over. Gone is any sense of recklessness. It’s as if a seal has set across her face. And it is he who feels suddenly vulnerable and exposed. He senses her renewed coolness and is at pains to understand this capriciousness in her. He finds her opacity maddening. It’s hard to know what she thinks sometimes. Hard to know what he thinks himself, come to that.
Above them the rain continues, picking its way along the tiles of the roof.
In leaving the room, he feels himself move through an invisible curtain. The air seems cooler in the hallway, the light harsher. Sheepishly he heads upstairs to confront another storm.
When Igor gains the top of the stairs, he finds the door to his bedroom closed. Pushing it open, in the corner of his vision he sees his wife sitting up in bed. Daringly he whistles the tune he was playing when Coco fainted.
She perceives this as a taunt. “Stop that awful noise!”
He elects not to respond. But something cussed in his nature breaks through. He feels angry. He acted in good faith back there. It was Catherine who in her joylessness turned it into a scene. He moves toward the bathroom. In locking the door, he shuts her out. When he emerges a few minutes later, he knows he has made things worse.
“What do you think you were doing down there?”
“What do you mean?” he says, removing his shoes and unbuckling the belt of his trousers.
“I mean, what do you think you were doing staring at Coco all night and then taking her in your arms?”
“Don’t talk nonsense! And stop being so possessive and jealous. You’ve spoiled a perfectly good evening.”
“Am I supposed to watch as another woman flirts with my husband right in front of my face?”
“And am I supposed to let her fall back and crack her head?”
As though talking to a child: “She didn’t fall, Igor. She leaped!”
“You’re being ridiculous.” Quickly he adds, “And you haven’t had the grace to ask if she’s all right.”
“Ask if she’s all right? I think I know the answer to that one.”
“Good for you!”
After a pause, and in a quieter voice: “What’s going on, Igor?”
“Nothing’s going on, I can assure you.”
He tries to laugh the suggestion off. The laugh sounds hollow in his own ears. Although nothing has happened, a feeling of guilt thrills hotly through his body. This surprises him. He has yet to admit it consciously, but it is true: in his heart he harbors a desire for Coco. An obscure longing has ached within him since he arrived at Bel Respiro. But he must maintain a sense of perspective. As long as they remain abstract, such thoughts are harmless, he tells himself. It’s natural for men and women to flirt, and it’s a commonplace for them to be attracted to each other. That doesn’t mean, though, that anything needs to happen. He’s a responsible husband and father. Doesn’t Catherine realize that? He can understand that she might feel threatened, but he feels she should trust him, and is hurt that she doesn’t.
“I’m waiting for an explanation.” The vibration of anger still rings within her. It is an anger that masks a larger fear.
Anxious not to prolong the argument, he prefers to be dismissive. He knows the more he talks, the more he’ll implicate himself. “You’re going on about nothing,” he says, continuing to undress and folding his clothes with obsessive neatness.
“Look at me,” she says.
“Look at me!”
Reluctantly he submits to her stare.
“You’re guilty.” Her features harden. A perceptible tremor passes across her face.
“What are you talking about?”
“Guilty!” she shouts, with shrill vehemence. Her voice contains within it her profound belief in the existence of sin. Her cheeks are flushed with religious fervor. Her look of bashful piety has become for the moment a vengeful glow. Agitated, she tugs at the sheet on the bed. “I can tell.”
“Oh, for God’s sake!”
“I’m not as naïve as you think, you know, Igor.”
“Can we stop this now? Please? You’re making yourself ill.”
“It’s you who’s making me ill.” She makes an effort to be rational and calm. “I can’t believe you behaved like that—in front of the children as well. What must they think? A grown man abandoning himself so easily.”
He seizes with relief this shift of attention away from himself. His anger quickens into righteousness. “They think nothing of it. And they’re right to think nothing of it. Remember, we are guests here. If anyone behaved appallingly this evening, it was you.”
“Why did she invite us here anyway? What’s she after?”
“Has it ever occurred to you that some people are just good? That they’re not after anything?”
“She’s only interested in you because she wants to show you off. The great composer! Ha! Another rung advanced on the social ladder.”
He slips into bed. “She’s more complicated than you think.”
Insulted. “Why isn’t she married? A nice lady like that?” Following a pause, which Igor refuses to fill, Catherine goes on, “I’ll tell you why. Because no rich man would lower himself to her level.”
“Well, I’m certainly not rich enough, if that’s what you’re concerned about.”
His humor is misjudged. “I’m warning you, Igor . . .”
Catherine’s voice trails off. In the quiet created by his wife’s sharp remark, he switches off the bedside lamp. The sudden darkness puts an end to the argument. An accusatory silence establishes itself between them, sustained like the moonlight slung across their bed. They lie parallel and un-touching and rehearse unanswerable speeches inside their heads. But the lectures go undelivered; the inner applause for their eloquence fades. Each becomes conscious of the other’s quickened breathing. Anger gnaws at them. For the rest of the night, they face away from each other, like two opposing letter Cs.
In the next bedroom Theodore, their eldest, is still awake. Though nothing his parents said was distinct, it was clear to him they were rowing. Not used to hearing them argue, he feels upset. His mother, especially, has always been so tranquil. He doesn’t understand but guesses it must have something to do with Coco. A notion of defiance takes shape inside his head. He decides he doesn’t like her. He decides he doesn’t like living here either. The villa is too big. He’s become used to living in small apartments. Though they were cramped, they were also intimate, and the family felt together. Here he feels alone and obscurely under threat. He flinches at the indignity of exile and longs to be free. Keeping his eyes open in the darkness, he listens intently. But it’s all gone suddenly quiet now.
Downstairs, Coco has also heard raised voices coming from the Stravinskys’ room. She listens, too, as silence folds its wings about the house. She is, she realizes suddenly, the only one in the house not part of a family. For God’s sake, even the servants are married and have a child.
She needs some air. Opening a window, she smells the odor of damp grasses. A scent of rich greenness mingles with that of the lilies on the sill. The thunderheads have cleared, she sees, to reveal stars so big they seem to shout.
Staring out, she traces with the quick of her finger the shape of her own mouth. She takes several deep breaths. Then on an impulse, moving to the hall, she picks up the telephone and dials.
“Coco? Is that you?”
“It’s almost midnight. What’s wrong?”
“Listen, what do you know about Catherine?”
“Life there getting complicated, is it?”
Shoving her hand on her hip: “Not yet. I just need to know a couple of things.”
“Has he kissed you yet?”
Indignant. “What? No!”
“Does he want to?”
She twists the cord around her finger. “He might.”
“Do you want to kiss him?”
“He’s not handsome.”
“No, but he has greatness.”
“Everyone says so.”
“That doesn’t make me want to seduce him.”
“It’s your house, dear. You can do whatever you like.”
“There are limits.”
Sternly. “I do!”
“Sometimes I feel the urge just to go to a hotel and ask the first man I see to sleep with me.”
“Have you told José?”
“You think I tell him everything?”
“One thing you learn, Coco—women want grand passion; all men feel is a little lust.”
There’s a silence.
“Believe me,” Misia goes on, “a double bed can seem awfully small if you’re sharing it with someone you don’t love.”
Before going to bed, Coco closes the lid of the piano solemnly, like the way she set the telephone back on its hook. She switches the lights off one by one and tugs the window shut.