Translated by Tim Cummins
In the cooling evening, the convoy lurched along. At every hairpin bend the lead car honked their horn to alert people coming the other way of our presence. Someone got out and started vomiting up their aperitif. My wife stuck her head out the window but couldn’t make out who it was. Assorted comments, jokes and cackling followed. We’d stopped now. But the pause wouldn’t last long.
My wife pulled herself back into the cabin. ‘All this damp, so much for the perm.’
‘And it’s only the first of September.’
‘Well we are on a mountain.’
I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. My wife twisted the strap of her handbag. There was something, in the air. Something like the echo of the car horn before it was swallowed up by the valley, weak but persistent.
‘When do you want to say it?’ I asked.
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Dessert is the right time.’
My wife seemed to think for a second. ‘We could just say it straight away. They’re all expecting it anyway.’
‘Like before they bring the menus?’
My wife nodded but without much conviction.
I tossed out my suggestion: ‘Let’s say it when it feels right, okay? At the start, at dessert, even during dinner if we feel like it.’
The other cars started moving. I released the handbrake and got going too. I concentrated exclusively on the road. Another bend, another honk from the car at the head of the line and so on, up to the restaurant parking lot.
A girl took us to our table. The lamps were spotted with the last of the summer moths. Some stayed motionless, stuck to the glass, while others attempted a pointless rebellion against the band of heat and light that held them prisoner: a pathetic dart away before quickly re-attaching themselves.
I’d booked the table myself, well in advance.
‘Outside, if possible,’ I’d said.
The owner’s voice, on the other end of the line, was soft and attentive. ‘Don’t worry; this far out I can give you one with the full panorama. Most people call too late.’
I lit my second cigarette, putting it out after a few puffs. I nibbled my way through all the breadsticks in the packet and drank a mouthful of water. The girl came with the menus. A sudden gust of wind definitively ruined my wife’s perm.
‘I’m almost getting cold,’ she said. ‘Could you go get my sweater?’
I nodded and headed to the exit. I stood contemplating the stretch of gravel much longer than you normally would in a restaurant parking lot. The little stones were so colorful they looked like a Persian rug. I lifted a shoe and tried to dislodge some that had got stuck in the rubber of the sole.
My best friend jogged over. ‘Why are women always so cold?’
‘I’m cold too, tonight.’
I collected the sweater from the car and felt like laughing. That morning I’d gone into one of those old adult cinemas where no one goes anymore. Once inside, I’d bought a ticket and pulled aside a huge curtain that stank of filth; no one objected, no one looked at me funny. I only stayed a few minutes. The moans from the movie stuck in my head, and the bustle of little old men for the bathroom. I’d never visited one of those places, not even as a kid.
As we headed back in, my best friend offered me a cigarette.
‘So you’ve made up your mind,’ he said.
‘You’ll find out after dessert.’
‘It’s done now, the handcuffs are on, right?’
‘Or maybe after the coffee.’
My best friend let out a belly laugh and picked up his pace. ‘Or after the liqueurs?’
I chewed on a canapé and smoked a cigarette down to the filter. My mouth tasted like a mix of caviar and nicotine. The girl brought the first course. When she’d first sat down, my wife had talked with the other couples at the table, but now she seemed absent. I gave her a little pinch on the cheek to pull her out of her catatonia. ‘Are you still cold?’
As I spoke, a wisp of ash went by, a few meters from the table.
My wife looked at the profile of the mountains in the distance. ‘Am I remembering right, did they catch fire this summer?’
‘Down there,’ I replied, pointing to a spot where there was still a patch of scorched vegetation.
We kept looking a bit longer, as if we would be able to make out the exact point the ash cloud had come from.
The first courses were pushed aside by the mains and the mains by the dessert, and still neither of us took the initiative. I set my napkin down beside my plate and went to the bathroom.
I threw some toilet paper into the bowl and flushed. I inserted my index finger between one tile and another. They were little hexagons. I traced the edges as though I was going to cut them out. I returned to the toilet. I lifted the lid off the cistern and checked the water. The refill tube, the float ball and rod. Then I looked at myself in the mirror with my pants down. I squeezed my legs together so I could only see the pubic hair. I reconsidered life from a female point of view. I imagined becoming a hermaphrodite, or something like that. Something to do with, or that I thought had to do with, an extreme sense of freedom.
My mother called at that moment.
‘What’s up?’ I asked.
‘What do you mean what’s up? How’s it going?’
‘Have you made the announcement?’
I heard my father beside her mutter something incomprehensible. My mother shushed him. I wondered whether after the children all that remained was wanting to know who had managed to get the better of the other. Who had won and who had lost. Who’d had the stronger personality, who’d managed to win whom over.
Then my mother returned to the attack. ‘What are you both waiting for? Don’t you feel ready?’
I chuckled. ‘We feel ready. After seven years, I’d say so.’
My mother huffed, or sighed, or just released some unwanted oxygen from her lungs. ‘It was about time.’
‘We’ll all have some,’ the spokesperson for the table said, a little hastily.
‘So, twelve, then?’ the girl checked.
There were dissenting voices: some didn’t want any; others took decaf.
The girl listened with her ballpoint resting on her lips. ‘Okay, who wants regular?’
She counted the raised hands and quickly noted down the exact number of coffees. She was wearing a pair of low-cut jeans and a white tank top. Her belly button was exposed. A single blonde plait fell between her shoulder blades, stopping just above the hem of her top. Despite her tennis shoes, she propelled herself with grace between the tables. I wondered how much longer I could still be desirable to a girl like that. I noticed my wife observing her too: maybe she was thinking that their faces weren’t so different, or maybe just the opposite. We looked at each other, my wife and I. Our eyes, which up until then had mostly avoided each other, briefly met. I didn’t even know why I was already calling her that: my wife.
Someone, almost a bit irritated, waved their arms to get our attention. ‘Why don’t we start getting the spumante and the glasses?’
They were right; it was time. I was about to speak up when our table was invaded by an inflatable blimp. For a second everything else took a back seat. The blimp was black and perfectly rendered down to the finest details. It belonged to a little boy from the next table. He kept saying he wanted to be a pilot when he grew up. He needed some practice, clearly.
‘But didn’t you have something you wanted to say?’ someone else prodded us.
Again I caught my wife’s eye but our mouths stayed closed.
We let them bring the spumante, let them pop the corks.
And someone, in the end, made the announcement for us.