Curious in Corsica: A Tale of Two Couples
“Go ahead. Say something interesting, Louis. I dare you.”
The female voice, heard above the buzz of a fish tank, came from a neighboring table in the dining room of La Dolce Vita, a Corsican hotel where my husband and I were spending the last days of a Mediterranean vacation. We exchanged a glance. Having seen the couple twice a day for the past three days, I’d entertained the idea of asking them to join us at our table, since we, like them, were alone in Corsica.
“We could share travel stories,” I’d suggested to my husband, Jeff. Who knows? Maybe, like us, they’d left kids back home in the care of grandparents.
Jeff was unconvinced, and we’d continued to converse quietly while we ate, just a few feet away from this couple with whom I imagined we had much in common.
Now I knew he’d been right to hesitate. Popping the last piece of my croissant into my mouth, I shifted in my seat so that I could observe the other couple discreetly. The woman was unsmiling, her manicured hands folding and unfolding a sheet of ragged blue paper that seemed to be a letter. The man, slightly balding and a little thick around the middle, looked at his wife—I assumed she was his wife; they were both wearing wedding rings—with concern. Did I imagine it, or had his eyes filled with tears when she delivered her cruel remark? In any case, he didn’t take the bait. Perhaps he really didn’t have anything interesting to say.
He glanced in my direction, and I lowered my eyes in time to see him stretch out his left leg towards hers.
She drew her foot back sharply.
My mind went into overdrive. What was with this couple? What could have prompted such a hostile remark? All couples said cutting things to each other now and then, even Jeff and I. But this was somehow beyond the pale. She was wrinkling her nose as if she could barely stand to breathe the same air as the man sitting opposite her. Why did he disgust her so? And then I knew; I just knew. She, a modern Emma Bovary, born to enjoy all of life’s refinements, had tired of searching for her Prince and had settled for this dull specimen of masculinity. His hands were probably clammy, his handshake limp. Why had she married him? Was he wealthy? They were, after all, vacationing in Corsica. But then again, so were we, and we were solidly middle class. I glanced around the dining room, taking in the polished cotton tablecloths with huge sunflowers on a turquoise background, the red industrial carpeting, the crayfish crawling around the fish tank. No, if they’d been wealthy, they’d have booked in at a better hotel. There had to be another reason. He was a fireman, maybe, and he’d pulled her mother from a burning building. Or a lenient judge who had taken pity on her sister, a thieving heroin addict, and had sentenced her to a stint in rehab rather than to prison. He was clearly in love with his wife; you could see it in his eyes, in the way his body leaned towards hers.
So she’d said “I do,” and the day after the wedding she’d awakened to find him next to her, snoring softly, his eyes puffy. “This is the man I’ve chosen to share my life with,” she thought, and a feeling of revulsion overcame her.
Satisfied that I’d solved the mystery of their relationship, I tapped my husband on the arm and we left the dining room. I felt sorry for this unhappy couple, sorrier for him than for her. He didn’t deserve to be treated with such scorn. I thought about them all morning as we toured the port of Bonifacio with its limestone cliffs, continued to think about them as we drove alongside the thickly forested hills known as the maquis, where bandits were reputed to have hidden as recently as the nineteenth century. I was still thinking about them as we lunched on cannelloni filled with bruccio, a fragrant local goat cheese.
And then, as we were returning to the hotel, I spotted a wad of crumpled blue paper in a flower pot by the entrance. The letter! Who had discarded it here, and why? I was mystified. Then that demon curiosity got the better of me. Glancing around to make sure nobody was looking, I slid it into my pocket. Back in the room, I spread it out on the table and started to read.
My Dearest Louis,
Be patient, my love. In just ten more days, you’ll be rid of that insufferable bitch and we can begin our life together. I can’t stand to be without you. You are so handsome, so sexy, easily the most interesting man I’ve ever known.
I gasped. Louis was a philanderer! He deserved to be insulted. His wife was the wronged party, not him. I tried to wrap my mind around the idea of this non-descript middle-aged man cheating on his wife. It wasn’t easy. Then I read on. The letter, saturated with all the platitudes of romantic love—sunsets, dinners by candlelight, wine, roses—was signed “Barbara,” and whoever “Barbara” was, she’d clearly been involved with Louis for some time. She was glad “that Jag of yours can’t talk” (“Good God,” I thought, “what were they, teenagers?”) and she wrote with shocking clarity about certain parts of Louis’s body that she found irresistible. I gulped, strangely aroused by the letter’s graphic details, despite the fact that the description was completely at odds with the impression I’d formed of Louis. I turned to look at the lean, toned body of my husband who was lying on the bed, reading a guidebook.
“I’m going to take a shower, honey.” I pulled my T-shirt over my head. “Care to join me?”
Two hours later, as we headed down to the dining room for dinner, we crossed Louis’s wife on the stairs. She had dark glasses on, so I couldn’t see if she’d been crying.
“Probably forgot something in the room,” I thought. “Meds, maybe. With what she’s going through, she has to be on Valium.”
Curiously, though, she didn’t come back down, and Louis dined by himself at his usual table. He was wearing espadrilles with an open-necked shirt and white linen pants. He looked more respectable than he had at breakfast time. Less flabby, for one thing, and almost European. The top three buttons of his navy blue silk shirt had been left unbuttoned, revealing a curl of graying chest hair.
We’d just ordered an appetizer of fish bisque with crostini when the waiter brought Louis his main course. He’d chosen the veal stuffed with spinach and goat cheese rather than the monkfish.
“I’ll have the monkfish,” said Jeff when the waiter asked for our main course selection. He was always watching his weight, that husband of mine, always mindful of his cholesterol and his blood pressure, always going for the healthy choice. Furthermore, he never, ever ate veal or foie gras. It was the animal cruelty thing. He knew too much about how food got from the farm to the table, and he was appalled by what he’d read about the treatment of calves and geese.
“I’ll take the veal,” I said, glancing over at Louis’s plate.
Jeff gave me a disapproving look.
“What?!” I asked, defiant.
He said nothing.
I looked back at Louis and tried to catch his eye, but he was too busy tucking into his veal. I was a little scandalized that he seemed to be enjoying his dinner so much. I imagined his wife upstairs in their room, sprawled across the bed, crying her eyes out. What would she do for dinner? This little hotel had no room service. Would Louis ask if, exceptionally, they could send up a tray? The least he could do would be to wrap up a bread roll and take it to her.
“I was thinking that we might want to visit Napoleon Bonaparte’s boyhood home tomorrow,” said Jeff. “It’s in Ajaccio.”
“Sure, honey, that’d be great,” I said, noticing that the waiter was refilling Louis’s wine glass for the third time.
I didn’t get to find out if Louis was going to sneak bread up to his wife, because he was still at the table when we left the dining room, lingering over what remained of his bottle of wine. His cheeks were a bit flushed now, his eyes slightly glazed. It could be my imagination, but he just didn’t seem all that remorseful. He even gave me an appreciative glance as we brushed past his table. “I’m probably more his type than his wife,” I thought. “Maybe I even remind him of Barbara.”
I noticed for the first time that he had nice eyes.
We slept in the next morning and almost missed breakfast. Jeff didn’t seem to mind. “How about a little roll in the hay?” he teased, pulling me towards him.
“I’d rather have a roll with butter and jam,” I countered. “I’m hungry!”
“So am I,” he winked.
But there would be time later to satisfy that kind of hunger. I leapt out of bed, pulled on my blue capri pants and a white T-shirt, and ran a comb through my short brown hair.
“Hurry! We’ll be late!” I urged Jeff. He was a little grumpy now, but he obliged, sleepily dressing and heading for the door.
“Wait!” I said, as he reached for the room keys.
He was wearing dress socks with sandals.
It took him only a minute to change—I had to confess that he was a good sport—and within five minutes we were seated at our table in the dining room.
They were there. Both of them.
This time I focused on her. She was certainly put together; you had to give her that. Her long, honey-brown hair was streaked with blond, the kind of streaking that can only be produced by chemicals and foil and endless hours at the beauty salon. Her make-up was impeccable. Her eyelashes were too thick to be her own, however, and her straight nose was just slightly off-center, a dead giveaway. This was a woman who worshipped at the altar of Aphrodite, who’d been willing to sign pre-surgical waivers warning her that what she was about to do might result in disfigurement or even death, in order to achieve her ideal of physical perfection. This was a woman who’d chosen a lipstick color to match the varnish on her fingers and toes.
She wore a soft yellow tank top, a floral-print cotton mini-skirt, and strappy sandals. Her legs were long and shapely, the kind of legs you see on models in glossy magazines, the kind of legs real women almost never have.
I felt a little less sorry for her. Maybe she was an “insufferable bitch.” Maybe she was a cold fish, more concerned with keeping her make-up from smudging than with pleasing her husband. Maybe she’d driven Louis into the arms of the other woman.
I took a sip of coffee and turned my attention to Louis. He was eating bread and jam and reading a copy of the local newspaper, Corse Matin. But wait! That meant he must know French! Was he French? Corsican? I suddenly realized that in the few snippets of conversation we’d heard, she was the one who’d been doing the talking. We hadn’t actually heard him say more than a word or two, too little to detect a foreign accent. But if he could read a newspaper in French with such apparent absorption, he must know the language. Maybe his name was pronounced “loo-ee” and not “lew-is.” That hadn’t been part of my scenario.
Suddenly he looked up from his newspaper and met my eyes. I actually blushed. Blushed! Where had I read that people over forty no longer blushed, that it was physiologically impossible? But there was no mistaking that hot, flushed feeling that crept into my face. Embarrassed, I downed the last dregs of my café au lait and we headed out to do our day’s sightseeing.
Ajaccio was on the itinerary for today, our second-to-last day in Corsica. As we made our way through the clogged streets in our bright green Peugeot, I looked in vain for the couple from the hotel restaurant. Perhaps they were back at the hotel, sorting out their problems. Or maybe they’d decided to head out to the country, where pigs ambled alongside the road and the free-roaming goats nibbled on the pungent vegetation that flourishes on the island and gives it its seductive aroma. Whatever the case, they certainly weren’t missing much in Ajaccio. With the exception of one room on the first floor, Napoleon’s childhood home was all but stripped of its furniture, and I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for the documents and other artifacts displayed in cases around the rooms. I mean, I was supposed to get excited about Bonaparte’s mother’s leather glove? Really, now! As for the Musée Fesch, our next stop, it certainly failed to live up to its description in the Michelin Guide. Unless you happen to be passionate about Madonna and child paintings, which were here in abundance, there wasn’t much to see, and the great Renaissance artists—Titian, Botticelli, Veronese, etc.—were represented by about one canvas each, while most of the walls were covered with paintings by artists we’d never heard of. Even Jeff, who has a special fondness for the Renaissance and is way more cultured than I am, conceded that the museum was disappointing. As we were leaving, one of the portraits did attract my attention, though. It was one of those paintings in which the subject’s eyes seem to follow you wherever you go. I stopped and looked more closely. They were Louis’s eyes!
Back at the hotel, we were beginning to climb the steps to our room when I heard a male voice behind me, at the reception desk:
“Nous partons demain. Pourriez-vous préparer la note, s’il vous plaît?”
It was Louis! So he was French! His voice was deeper than I imagined it to be.
At dinner, I noticed for the first time that he held his cutlery in the European way, the fork prongs down, the knife never leaving his left hand. His wife, apparently lost in thought, didn’t even spare him a glance, and he appeared indifferent to her now too. They exchanged no words. I wondered how long it’d be before the divorce papers were filed. Would Barbara be waiting for him when he returned home?
His wife finished her meal quickly and got up from the table, leaving Louis to his bottle of red wine. Jeff and I drank wine by the glass, and my glass was empty. I summoned the waiter and asked for another. Then, raising it to my lips, I looked back at Louis. He met my gaze and—was it possible?—he gave me a “come hither” look. I was mortified. I wasn’t that kind of a woman! Turning to face my husband, I grabbed his hand and squeezed it. There! That would show him!
But apparently it didn’t, because on his way out of the dining room, Louis stopped at our table and introduced himself, first giving my husband a firm handshake, European-style (no pumping, just one vigorous downward thrust), then turning to me, taking my hand in his and raising my fingers to his lips. His hands were dry and warm. And when he leaned over me and said, “Enchanté, Madame,” I got a whiff of his cologne, some spicy French scent, I think. It was only after he’d left that I noticed he’d dropped a scrap of paper in my lap. On it was written, in that script that is so easily recognizable as European: “Chambre N°16, 11h.”
What?! He expected me to go to his room? Their room? Did he envision a threesome? Or were they occupying separate rooms now? Either way, I flushed with rage and humiliation. The gall! Couldn’t he see that I was wholesome and virtuous? Couldn’t he tell that I was happily married?
I passed the note to Jeff.
“Well, it’s hardly surprising,” he said, visibly titillated by the fact that another man had designs on me. “You haven’t taken your eyes off him for the past three days.”
“But I wasn’t flirting,” I protested.
“Well, no,” he acknowledged. He had no reason to worry, and he knew it. “But this is Europe. A stare means something here.”
He leaned across the table and kissed me gently. And then he, too, broke our iron-clad rule by ordering a second glass of wine.
It was a balmy night. The high winds of the previous day had calmed, and when we returned to our room, we threw open the windows to the sea and drank in the fragrant night air.
“A little warm in here, don’t you think?” asked Jeff, slipping my gauzy dress over my shoulders.
I closed my eyes and made love with Louis that night, without once betraying Jeff. Riding the waves of my fantasy, I felt the heat of a throbbing passion I hadn’t known since the early days of my twenty year-old marriage. We fell asleep in each other’s arms.
When I awoke the next morning, I turned to look at Jeff, admiring his full head of blond hair, his strong chin. He had a nerdy side—he was a college professor after all—but beneath the horn-rimmed glasses and the button-down shirts, he was pretty sexy. Sensing my gaze, he opened his eyes, smiled, and tousled my hair.
“Welcome back,” he laughed.
About the Author
After having made her career as a French professor at the University of Delaware, during which time she authored three academic books and co-edited four more, Mary Donaldson-Evans has decided to turn her attention from writing about fiction to writing fiction. Her non-academic pieces have been published by The New York Times (The Metropolitan Diary), AOL.com, and thestir.cafemom.com.