It began with a telephone call from Isabella. She wanted to know where Christopher was, and I was put in the awkward position of having to tell her that I didn’t know. To her this must have sounded incredible. I didn’t tell her that Christopher and I had separated six months earlier, and that I hadn’t spoken to her son in nearly a month.
She found my inability to inform her of -Christopher’s whereabouts incomprehensible, and her response was withering but not entirely surprised, which somehow made matters worse. I felt both humiliated and uncomfortable, two sensations that have always characterized my relationship with Isabella and Mark. This despite Christopher often telling me I had precisely the same effect on them, that I should try not to be so reserved, it was too easily interpreted as a form of arrogance.
Didn’t I know, he asked, that some people found me a snob? I didn’t. Our marriage was formed by the things Christopher knew and the things I did not. This was not simply a question of intellect, although in that respect Christopher again had the advantage, he was without doubt a clever man. It was a question of things withheld, information that he had, and that I did not. In short, it was a question of infidelities—betrayal always puts one partner in the position of knowing, and leaves the other in the dark.
Although betrayal was not even, not necessarily, the primary reason for the failure of our marriage. It happened slowly, even once we had agreed to separate, there were practicalities, it was no small thing, dismantling the edifice of a marriage. The prospect was so daunting that I began wondering whether one or the other of us was having second thoughts, if there was hesitation buried deep within the bureaucracy, secreted in the piles of paper and online forms which we were so keen to avoid.
And so it was entirely reasonable of Isabella to call me and ask what had become of Christopher. I’ve left three messages, she said, his mobile goes directly to voice mail, and the last time I rang it was a foreign ringtone—
She pronounced the word foreign with a familiar blend of suspicion, mystification (she could not imagine any reason why her only son would wish to remove himself from her vicinity) and pique. The words returned to me then, phrases spoken over the course of the marriage: you’re foreign, you’ve always been a little foreign, she’s very nice but different to us, we don’t feel as if we know you (and then, finally, what she would surely say if Christopher told her that it was over between us), it’s for the best, darling, in the end she was never really one of us.
—therefore, I would like to know, where exactly is my son?
Immediately, my head began to throb. It had been a month since I had spoken to Christopher. Our last conversation had been on the telephone. Christopher had said that although we were clearly not going to be reconciled, he did not want to begin the process—he used that word, indicative of some continuous and ongoing thing, rather than a decisive and -singular act and of course he was right, divorce was more organic, somehow more contingent than it initially appeared—of telling people.
Could we keep it between us? I had hesitated, it wasn’t that I disagreed with the sentiment—the decision was still new at that point, and I imagined Christopher felt much as I did, that we had not yet figured out how to tell the story of our separation. But I disliked the air of complicity, which felt incongruous and without purpose. Regardless, I said yes. Christopher, hearing the hesitation in my voice, asked me to promise. Promise that you won’t tell anyone, at least for the time being, not until we speak again. Irritated, I agreed, and then hung up.
That was the last time we spoke. Now, when I insisted that I did not know where Christopher was, Isabella gave a short laugh before saying, Don’t be ridiculous. I spoke to Christopher three weeks ago and he told me the two of you were going to Greece. I’ve had such difficulty getting hold of him, and given that you are clearly here in England, I can only assume that he has gone to Greece without you.
I was too confused to respond. I could not understand why Christopher would have told her that we were going to Greece together, I had not even known that he was leaving the country. She continued, He’s been working very hard, I know he’s there on research, and—
She lowered her voice in a way that I found difficult to decipher, it might have been genuine hesitation or its mere facsimile, she was not above such manipulations.
—I’m worried about him.
This declaration was not immediately persuasive to me, and I did not take her concern with much seriousness. Isabella believed her relationship with Christopher to be better than it was, a natural mistake for a mother to make, but one that on occasion led to outlandish behavior on her part. Once, this situation might have elicited in me a feeling of triumph—that this woman should turn to me for help in a matter concerning her son might have meant something as little as a year ago, as little as six months ago.
Now, I listened mostly with trepidation as she continued. He hasn’t been himself, I called to ask if the two of you—the two of you again, it was clear she knew nothing, that Christopher had not confided in her—might like to come and stay in the country, get some fresh air. That’s when Christopher told me that you were going to Greece, that you had a translation to finish and that he was going to do research. But now—and she gave a brief sigh of exasperation—I find that you are in London and he is not answering his phone.
I don’t know where Christopher is.
There was a slight pause before she continued.
In any case you must go and join him at once. You know how powerful my intuition is, I know something is wrong, it’s not like him not to return my calls.
There were outcomes to Isabella’s telephone call that are extraordinary to me, even now. One is that I obeyed this woman and went to Greece, a place I had no desire to visit, for a purpose that was not in the least bit evident to me. True, Christopher had lied to Isabella when he said that we were going to Greece together. If he did not want to tell his mother about the separation, it would have been easy enough to come up with some excuse to explain why he was traveling alone—that I had to go to a conference, that I was spending time with a girlfriend who had three children and was therefore always in need of both help and company.
Or he could have told her half the truth, the start of it at least, that we were taking time off—from what, or where, she might have asked. But he had not done any of this, perhaps because it was easier to lie or maybe because it was easier to let his mother make whatever assumptions she wished to make—although misapprehensions, after the fact, were especially difficult for Isabella. I realized then that we needed to formalize the state of affairs between us. I had already decided to ask Christopher for a divorce, I would simply go to Greece and do the deed in person.
I supposed it would be my last dutiful act as her daughter-in-law. An hour later, Isabella called to tell me which hotel Christopher was staying at—I wondered how she had obtained this information—and the record locator for a ticket she had booked in my name, departing the next day. Beneath the unnecessary flourishes of character and the sheen of idle elegance, she was a supremely capable woman, one reason why she had been a formidable adversary, someone I had reason to fear. But that was all over, and soon there would be no battleground between us.
Still, I noted that she evidently didn’t trust me—I was not the kind of wife who could be relied upon to locate her husband, not without a ticket in hand and a hotel address. Perhaps it was in response to this patent distrust that I kept my promise to Christopher, the second surprising outcome of Isabella’s call. I did not tell his mother that we were -separated, and had been for some time, the one piece of information that would have excused me from going to Greece altogether.
No mother would ask her daughter-in-law to go to Greece in order to ask her son for a divorce. I could have stayed in London and gone about my business. But I did not tell her, and I did not stay in London. If Isabella knew that she had purchased a plane ticket in order for me to ask her son for a divorce, I suppose she would have killed me, actually slain me then and there. Such a thing was not impossible. She was, as I have said, a supremely capable woman. Or perhaps she would have said had she known it was so easy to separate us, to dissolve the terms of our marriage, she would have bought me the ticket long ago. Before she hung up, she advised me to pack a bathing suit. She had been told the hotel had a very nice pool.
In Athens, the city was heavy with traffic and there was some kind of transportation strike. The village where Christopher was staying was a five-hour drive from the capital, at the southernmost tip of the country’s mainland. A car was waiting at the airport: Isabella had thought of everything. I fell asleep during the journey, which began with the traffic, then segued into a series of bleak and anonymous motorways. I was tired. I looked out the window but could not read any of the signs.
I awoke to a hard and repetitive noise. It was black outside, night had fallen while I was asleep. The sound vibrated through the vehicle—thwack thwack thwack—then stopped. The car was moving slowly down a narrow single-lane road. I leaned forward and asked the driver if we were stopping, if we had very far to go. We are here, he said. We have already arrived. The thwacking began again.
Strays, the driver added. Outside, dark shapes moved alongside the car, the tails of the dogs striking its shell. The driver beeped his horn in an effort to frighten the animals away—they were so close it seemed as if the car might strike them at any moment, despite our decelerated speed—but they were not deterred, they remained close to the vehicle as we moved down the road toward a large stone villa. The driver continued beeping his horn as he rolled down the window and shouted at the strays.
Up ahead, a porter opened the gates to the property. As the car moved forward through the gates, the dogs fell behind. When I turned to look through the rear window, they stood in a ring before the gates, their eyes as yellow as the beams from the taillights. The hotel was at the far end of a small bay and I heard the sound of water as soon as I stepped out of the car. I carried my purse and a small overnight bag, the porter asked if I had any luggage and I said I had none, I had packed for a night, at worst for a weekend, although I did not phrase it in that way.
The driver said something about a return journey; I took his card and said I would call him, perhaps tomorrow. He nodded, and I asked if he would now return to Athens, it was already very late. He shrugged and got back into the car.
Inside, the lobby was empty. I checked the time—it was nearly eleven. Isabella had not booked me a room, I was a woman joining her husband, there should have been no need. I asked for a single room for the night. The man behind the desk said there were plenty of rooms available, he announced with surprising candor that the hotel was nearly empty. It was the end of September, the season was over. Unfortunately, the sea was now too cold for swimming, he added, but the hotel swimming pool was heated to a very comfortable temperature.
I waited until he had finished taking my details and handed me the key before I asked about Christopher.
Would you like me to call his room?
His expression was alert but his hands remained still behind the desk, he did not move to pick up the phone, it was after all very late.
No, I shook my head. I’ll try him in the morning.
He nodded sympathetically. His eyes had become more watchful, perhaps he saw many relationships in similar dis-array, or perhaps he thought nothing of it and had a naturally sympathetic face, a trait that was no doubt useful in his occupation. He did not say anything further about the matter. I took the key and he told me about breakfast and insisted on taking my bag as he ushered me to the elevator. Thank you, I said. Did I want a wake-up call? A newspaper in the morning? It can wait, I told him. All of it can wait.
When I woke, sunlight had flooded the room. I reached for my phone, there were no messages and it was -already nine. Breakfast would be ending soon, I would need to hurry if I wanted to eat. Still, I stood in the shower longer than was necessary. Until that moment—standing in the hotel room shower, the water blurring my vision as it streamed into my eyes—I had not stopped to consider or imagine how Christopher would feel, what he would think, when he saw me, or was confronted by me, in the hotel. I imagined his first thought would be simple enough, he would assume that I wanted him back.
Why else would a woman follow her estranged husband to another country, other than to bring an end to their separation? It was an extravagant gesture, and extravagant gestures between a man and a woman are generally understood to be romantic, even in the context of a failed marriage. I would appear before him and he would—would he be filled with apprehension, would his heart sink, would he wonder what it was that I wanted? Would he feel caught, hounded, would he worry that there had been a disaster, that something had happened to his mother, he should have returned her phone calls.