Read My Hundred Lovers Online

Authors: Susan Johnson

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My Hundred Lovers (27 page)

BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
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‘Why do you turn everything into such a drama?' he said. ‘You'd think you were the first woman in the world to have a baby!'

I cried harder.

‘I'm sick of this,' he said, which I noticed was his most common expression.

‘I want to go home,' I said, when I could stop crying long enough to speak.

He laughed. ‘There's no way on God's earth I'm going to live in Australia.'

We cried on and on, my baby son and me, that baby boy who arrived unplanned and already in love with me, believing my body to be as bountiful as a fruiting tree, my breasts as bountiful as an ocean.

‘I want to go home,' I said again two days later, when I was dressed and sitting upright, my back against a banquette in La Tartine, a watered-down glass of Côte du Rhone in front of me. The baby was staying with the Portuguese concierge in Celestine's building, who cooed and clucked over him all the hours he was awake.

‘I thought you wanted to live in Paris forever,' my husband said.

‘That was before I had a baby,' I said.

‘Do you want him to turn out like an Aussie bloke? Graceless and charmless?'

‘Yes,' I said. ‘I mean no. Not all Australian men are graceless and charmless. You're as bad as Horatia.'

He snorted. ‘Horatia.' My husband had taken an instant dislike to Horatia. ‘A spoilt princess' is how he described her, a woman so insecure she surrounded herself with acolytes who worshipped her.

‘Look,' I said, ‘you've never been to Australia. How would you know what it's like?'

He smiled. ‘Do I have to hang myself to know what being hanged is like?'

‘That's ridiculous.'

‘Is it?'

We glared at each other.

‘Well, I'm going to go home for a while,' I said. ‘I want my family to meet the baby.'

My husband did not like my family either. My parents had recently visited us in Paris, and my husband had booked a table at Chez Julien—a table perilously close to a posh couple from England who spoke with upper-class accents reeking of Eton, army officers' messes and the Chelsea Flower Show. Before long my drunken father was loudly mimicking their accents, while my drunken mother laughed uproariously at his wit.

‘Ah, the jumped-up white trash that is your family,' he said.

How quickly we travelled from sacred love to sacrilege.

For the record, arranged marriages have just as much chance of turning into lasting happiness as love matches. And, remarkably, marriages between couples who have known each other only three weeks have as much chance of success as marriages between couples who have known each other for years. This is a statistic based on a survey of four thousand couples by a prestigious American family research institute.

For the record, we started out with as much chance as anyone. We wished to be bound together forever. We wanted to dissolve into each other, for our marriage to be a shared skin. Our motives were pure: I wished everything for him, everything good. I wanted to be perfect for him, a universe in one body, mother, daughter, God. Like my forebear Rose, I wanted to look only at my husband.

Let me put it another way: I still believed I was going to turn into a swan.

Back in Australia I showed our son the Australian sky, which blazed at night with the points of the Southern Cross, wider and larger and emptier than the French sky. We listened to the laughs of kookaburras and I showed him the frills, as stiff as Elizabethan collars, around the necks of startled lizards. I showed him his own toes in ruffled mudflats at low tide as well as bearded fig trees which took up the sky. I showed him his first Australian beach washed by the Pacific Ocean while his fat starfish hands held fast to the strap of my bathers as we held our laughing heads above the frothing waves.

My sister was away in New York, working as a personal assistant to a famous model, being shouted at and living in the same apartment block as the model. ‘She loves it,' said my mother, whose turban was slightly askew.

My brother Paul came to see us but he was drunk and I wouldn't let him hold the baby.

‘What do ya think I'm gunna do? Drop it?'

‘Yes,' I said, holding the baby tighter.

‘Aw, piss off,' he said, stomping off. He slammed the front door.

‘When did he start speaking like that?' I asked my mother.

‘If you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas,' said my father, who had come into the room. ‘Drink?'

‘No thanks, I'm breastfeeding,' I said.

‘It'll knock the little tyke out for the night,' said my father, pouring me one anyway. In truth, I did drink, but only occasionally and never more than one watered-down glass of wine.

I was thinking of my absent husband, and what he would think of my brother, whom he had yet to meet.

I looked down at my son, at his beautiful sleeping face. He looked so much like his father that all the love I had for my husband came flooding back and I wanted nothing more than for the three of us to be together again on our rocking boat, Paris around our heads.


about my son's birth. How the streets of Paris shone in the early-morning light outside the window of the American Hospital at Neuilly, how he shot out, a screaming blue boy, and how my husband laughed, his face elated. Afterwards, in my private room with a mini-bar, we opened a bottle of icy-cold Veuve and inspected the menu options, which resembled a restaurant menu, including the chef's daily speciality. ‘
Je vais
prendre le confit de canard
,' I said. I was drunk with joy, in love with our future, which stretched out waiting to be filled. Don't think I didn't know I was lucky.

Three days after we got home to
a new friend from one of the other permanent moorings urged us to go out for a celebration dinner. She was Italian, with grown-up children, dying to get her hands on the new baby.

‘But he'll need a feed,' I protested.

Somehow, between the combined exhortations of Paola and my husband, I found myself dressed, with breast pads in my nursing bra, heading for La Tour d'Argent.

We sat at a table by the window, amid the silver and the damask, eating pressed duck we could ill afford. The Belle Époque ceilings and walls floated with clouds, the wine played upon our tongues, my breasts leaked milky tears. Our duck had its own number, and afterwards the waiter gave us a postcard with our duck's number printed on it, which pictured the same cloudy blue room in which Russian czars and kings had also eaten slaughtered ducks.

‘Thank you, darling,' said my husband, raising his glass. ‘You are the most beautiful mother in the world. Here's to you.'

I raised my glass to his. ‘Here's to us.'

We smiled at each other.

The first lover I slept with after I lost my husband

to love properly? Now I am old enough to know the difference between being in love and loving someone, to know that the eating-up-all-the-ice-cream-in-the-world euphoria passes, and that in some lucky cases romance is replaced with a deep nurturing attachment, as tangled and wide as the feeling between parent and child, or between sisters.

I still think of my husband as my husband, even though he is my sister's husband now. I wonder if they fell in love at once, like we did. If they did, I was too busy to notice at the time. I was looking the other way, an absent-minded witness, only comprehending everything backwards.

I wonder if when romance between them died it evolved into a deep nurturing bond, if they are now like two old geese on the Seine, mated for life.

They still live aboard
. My sister sleeps in my former bed, in that creaking cabin, her breath mixing with my husband's breath. It is the same cabin to which we brought home our baby son, where the three of us slept together for the first time on earth.

I have heard that their daughter looks like him. As far as I know, my son has never met his half-sister or, if he has, he certainly would not tell me.

Sometimes, as if in a dream, I recall the incident of the broken mirror, towards the end of our marriage. Without warning the old mirror above the sink in the bathroom aboard
suddenly fell into the sink and smashed. My husband said he would buy a new one and that afternoon, when I returned to the boat with our son, I saw that a new mirror was in place above the sink.

I stood in the corridor outside the bathroom and saw immediately that the new mirror had been positioned too high. When I stood directly in front of it, I could only just see the hair on the very top of my head.

‘It's too high,' I said. ‘I can't see my face.'

‘You don't need to,' my husband said. ‘I'm the one who has to shave every day. It's always been too low for me.'

As in a dream, the story of the mirror tells the story of our marriage, each of us struggling to see ourselves, the mirror forever too high or too low, never reflecting both our faces.

The first lover I slept with after I lost my husband was a kind man. He waited a long time for me, longer than most hopeful lovers would wait. I was deep in a cave of ice, and it was impossible for me to imagine myself thawed. By then I could not see myself in any mirror on earth, but one night the kind lover traced his careful fingers slowly around my necklace of sultanas and I heard the first crack.

Hotel sheets

before I lost my husband, the world was silent. It was as if it grieved for her, and wished to match the stillness of her breath.

My sister and I were with her as she left the world, the last time we three were together. We watched her go, caught the moment life left her body, flying away. Life was breath, and when breath was gone my sister and I walked out motherless into the stillness of the world. The night was cloudless, the stars ablaze, and for the moment I could not feel the hatred for my mother that had been part of me for so long, a blood memory. I was suddenly wretched, abandoned, and my sister Jane and I turned to each other under the brilliant night sky, and sobbed.

BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
13.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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