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The Cairo Affair
By Olen Steinhauer
PicadorCopyright © 2014 Third State, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Twenty years ago, before their trips became political, Sophie and Emmett honeymooned in Eastern Europe. Their parents questioned this choice, but Harvard had taught them to care about what happened on the other side of the planet, and from the TV rooms in their dorms they'd watched the crumbling of the USSR with the kind of excitement that hadn't really been their due. They had watched with the erroneous feeling that they, along with Ronald Reagan, had chipped away at the foundations of the corrupt Soviet monolith. By the time they married in 1991, both only twenty-two, it felt like time for a victory lap.
Unlike Emmett, Sophie had never been to Europe, and she'd longed to see those Left Bank Paris cafés she'd read so much about. "But this is where history's happening," Emmett told her. "It's the less traveled road." From early on in their relationship, Sophie had learned that life was more interesting when she took on Emmett's enthusiasms, so she didn't bother resisting.
They waited until September to avoid the August tourist crush, gingerly beginning their trip with four days in Vienna, that arid city of wedding-cake buildings and museums. Cool but polite Austrians filled the streets, heading down broad avenues and cobblestone walkways, all preoccupied by things more important than gawking American tourists. Dutifully, Sophie lugged her Lonely Planet as they visited the Stephansdom and Hofburg, the Kunsthalle, and the cafés Central and Sacher, Emmett talking of Graham Greene and the filming of The Third Man, which he'd apparently researched just before their trip. "Can you imagine how this place looked just after the war?" he asked at the Sacher on their final Viennese afternoon. He was clutching a foot-tall beer, gazing out the café window. "They were decimated. Living like rats. Disease and starvation."
As she looked out at shining BMWs and Mercedeses crawling past the imposing rear of the State Opera House, she couldn't imagine this at all, and she wondered—not for the first time—if she was lacking in the kind of imagination that her husband took for granted. Enthusiasm and imagination. She measured him with a long look. Boyish face and round, hazel eyes. A lock of hair splashed across his forehead. Beautiful, she thought as she fingered her still unfamiliar wedding band. This was the man she was going to spend the rest of her life with.
He turned from the window, shaking his head, then caught sight of her face. "Hey. What's wrong?"
She wiped away tears, smiling, then gripped his fingers so tightly that her wedding ring pinched the soft skin of her finger. She pulled him closer and whispered, "Let's go back to the room."
He paid the bill, fumbling with Austrian schillings, Enthusiasm, imagination, and commitment—these were the qualities she most loved in Emmett Kohl, because they were the very things she felt she lacked. Harvard had taught her to question everything, and she had taken up that challenge, growing aptly disillusioned by both left and right, so uncommitted to either that when Emmett began his minilectures on history or foreign relations, she just sat and listened, less in awe of his facts than in awe of his belief. It struck her that this was what adulthood was about—belief. What did Sophie believe in? She wasn't sure. Compared to him, she was only half an adult. With him, she hoped, she might grow into something better.
While among historical artifacts and exotic languages she always felt inferior to her new husband, in bed their roles were reversed, so whenever the insecurity overcame her she would draw him there. Emmett, delighted to be used this way, never thought to wonder at the timing of her sexual urges. He was beautiful and smart but woefully inexperienced, whereas she had learned the etiquette of the sheets from a drummer in a punk band, a French history teacher's assistant, and, over the space of a single experimental weekend, a girlfriend from Virginia who had come to visit her in Boston.
So when they returned to their hotel room, hand in hand, and she helped him out of his clothes and let him watch, fingertips rattling against the bedspread, as she stripped, she felt whole again. She was the girl who believed in nothing, giving a little show for the boy who believed in everything. Yet by the time they were tangled together beneath the sheets, flesh against flesh, she realized that she was wrong. She did believe in something. She believed in Emmett Kohl.
The next morning they boarded the train to Prague, and not even the filthy car with the broken, stinking toilet deterred her. Instead, it filled her with the illusion that they were engaged in real travel, cutting-edge travel. "This is what the rest of the world looks like," Emmett said with a smile as he surveyed the morose, nervous Czechs clutching bags stuffed with contraband cigarettes, alcohol, and other luxuries marked for resale back home. When, at the border, the guards removed an old woman and two young men who quietly watched the train leave them behind, Sophie was filled with feelings of authenticity.
She told herself to keep her eyes and ears open. She told herself to absorb it all.
The dilapidated fairy-tale architecture of Prague buoyed them, and they drank fifty-cent beers in underground taverns lit with candles. Sophie tried to put words to her excitement, the magnitude of a small-town girl ending up here, of all places. She was the child of a Virginia lumber merchant, her travels limited to the height and breadth of the East Coast, and now she was an educated woman, married, wandering the Eastern Bloc. This dislocation stunned her when she thought about it, yet when she tried to explain it to her husband her words felt inadequate. Emmett had always been the verbal one, and when he smiled and held her hand and told her he understood she wondered if he was patronizing her. "Stick with me, kid," he said in his best Bogart.
On their third day, he bought her a miniature bust of Lenin, and they laughed about it as they walked the crowded Charles Bridge between statues of Czech kings looking down on them in the stagnant summer heat. They were a little drunk, giggling about the Lenin in her hand. She rocked it back and forth and used it the way a ventriloquist would. Emmett's face got very pink under the sun—years later, she would remember that.
Then there was the boy.
He appeared out of nowhere, seven or eight years old, emerging from between all the other anonymous tourists, silent at Sophie's elbow. Suddenly, he had her Lenin in his hands. He was so quick. He bolted around legs and past an artist dabbing at an easel to the edge of the bridge, and Sophie feared he was going to leap over. Emmett started moving toward the boy, and then they saw the bust again, over the boy's head. He hurtled it into the air—it rose and fell.
"Little shit," Emmett muttered, and when Sophie caught up to him and looked down at the river, there was no sign of her little Lenin. The boy was gone. Afterward, on the walk back to the hotel, she was overcome by the feeling that she and Emmett were being made fools of. It followed her the rest of the trip, on to Budapest and during their unexpected excursion to Yugoslavia, and even after they returned to Boston. Twenty years later, she still hadn't been able to shake that feeling.CHAPTER 2
Her first thought upon arriving at Chez Daniel on the evening of March 2, 2011, was that her husband was looking very good. She didn't have this thought often, but it was less an insult to Emmett than an indictment against herself, and the ways in which twenty years of marriage can blind you to your partner's virtues. She suspected that he saw her the same way, but she hoped he at least had moments like this, where warmth and pleasure filled her at the sight of his eternally youthful face and the thought that, Yes, this one's mine. It didn't matter how brief they were, or how they might be followed by something terrible—those bursts of attraction could sustain her for months.
Chez Daniel, like most decent French restaurants—even French restaurants in Hungary—was cramped, casual, and a bit frantic. Simple tablecloths, excellent food. She joined him at a table by the beige wall beneath framed sepia scenes of the dirty and cracked Budapest streets that made for hard walking but wonderfully moody pictures. As they waited for the wine, Emmett straightened the utensils on either side of his plate and asked how her day had been.
"Glenda," she said. "Four hours with Glenda at the Gellért Baths. Steam, massages, and too many Cosmopolitans. What do you think?"
He'd heard often enough about the Wednesday routine she'd been roped into by the wife of his boss, Consul General Raymond Bennett. Always the Gellért Hotel, where Sophie and Emmett had spent part of their honeymoon, back when even students could afford its Habsburg elegance. Emmett said, "Anything exciting in her life?"
"Problems with Hungarians, naturally."
"I tell her to ask Ray to put in for a transfer, but she pretends it's beyond her means."
"How about you?" he asked.
"Am I anti-Hungarian, too?"
"How are you doing here?"
Sophie leaned closer, as if she hadn't heard. It wasn't a question she posed to herself often, so she had to take a moment. They'd lived for six months in Budapest, where Emmett was a deputy consul. Last year, their home had been Cairo—Hosni Mubarak's Cairo. Two years before that, it had been Paris. In some ways, the cities blended in her memory—each was a blur of social functions and brief friendships and obscure rituals to be learned and then forgotten, each accompanied by its own menagerie of problems. Paris had been fun, but Cairo had not.
In Cairo, Emmett had been irritable and on edge—a backfiring car would make him stumble—and he would return from the office itching for a fight. Sophie—maybe in reaction, maybe not—had built a new life for herself, constructed of lies.
The good news was that Cairo had turned out to be a phase, for once they arrived in Hungary the air cleared. Emmett reverted to the man she had decided to spend her life with twenty years ago, and she let go of the puerile intoxication of deceit, her secrets still safely kept. In Budapest, they were adults again.
Emmett was waiting for an answer. She shrugged. "How can I not be happy? A lady of leisure. I'm living the dream."
He nodded, as if it were the answer he'd expected—as if he'd known she would lie. Because the irony was that, of the three cities they had called home, Cairo was the only one she would have returned to in a second, if given the chance. There, she had found something liberating in the streets, the noise and traffic jams and odors. She had learned how to move with a little more grace, to find joy in decorating the apartment with star clusters and flowers of the blue Egyptian water lily; she took delight in the particular melody of Arabic, the predictability of daily prayers, and the investigation of strange, new foods. She also discovered an unexpected pleasure in the act of betrayal itself.
But was it really a lie? Was she unhappy in Budapest?
No. She was forty-two years old, which was old enough to know good fortune when it looked her in the eye. With the help of L'Oréal, she'd held on to her looks, and a bout of high blood pressure a few years ago had been tempered by a remarkable French diet. They were not poor; they traveled extensively. While there were moments when she regretted the path her life had taken—at Harvard, she had aspired to academia or policy planning, and one winter day in Paris a French doctor had explained after her second miscarriage that children would not be part of her future—she always stepped back to scold herself. She might be sometimes bored, but adulthood, when well maintained, was supposed to be dull. Regretting a life of leisure was childishness.
Yet at nights she still lay awake in the gloom of their bedroom, wondering if anyone would notice if she hopped a plane back to Egypt and just disappeared, before remembering that her Cairo, the one she loved, no longer existed.
She and Emmett had been in Hungary five months when, in January, Egyptian activists had called for protests against poverty, unemployment, and corruption, and by the end of the month, on January 25, they'd had a "day of rage" that grew until the whole city had become one enormous demonstration with its epicenter in Tahrir Square, where Sophie would once go to drink tea.
On February 11, less than a month before their dinner at Chez Daniel, Hosni Mubarak had stepped down after thirty years in power. He wasn't alone. A month before that, Tunisia's autocrat had fled, and as Sophie and Emmett waited for their wine a full-scale civil war was spreading through Libya, westward from Benghazi toward Tripoli. The pundits were calling it the Arab Spring. She had health, wealth, and a measure of beauty, as well as interesting times to live in.
"Any fresh news from Libya?" she asked.
He leaned back, hands opening, for this was their perpetual subject. Emmett had spent an enormous amount of time watching CNN and shouting at the screen for the Libyan revolutionaries to advance on Tripoli, as if he were watching a football game, as if he were a much younger man who hadn't already witnessed civil war. "Well, we're expecting word soon from the Libyan Transitional Council—they'll be declaring themselves Libya's official representative. We've had a few days of EU sanctions against Gadhafi, but it'll be a while before they have any effect. The rebels are doing well—they're holding onto Zawiyah, just west of the capital." He shrugged. "The question is, when are we going to get off our asses and drop a few bombs on Tripoli?"
"Soon," she said hopefully. He had brought her over to the opinion that with a few bombs Muammar Gadhafi and his legions would fold within days, and that there would be no need for foreign troops to step in and, as Emmett put it, soil their revolution. "Is that it?" she asked.
"All we've heard."
"I mean you. How was your day?"
The wine arrived, and the waiter poured a little into Emmett's glass for approval. Sophie ordered fresh tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms, while Emmett asked for a steak, well done. Once the waiter was gone, she said, "Well?"
"Right," he said, as if he'd forgotten. "Not as exciting as yours. Work-wise, at least."
"I got a call from Cairo."
It was a significant statement—at least, Emmett had meant it to be—but Sophie felt lost. "Someone we know?"
She heard herself inhale through her nose and wondered if he had heard it, too. "How's Stan?"
"Not well, apparently."
Emmett took his glass by the stem and regarded the wine carefully. "He tells me he's in love."
"Good for him."
"Apparently not. Apparently, the woman he's in love with is married."
"You're right," she said, forcing her voice to flatline. The air seemed to go out of the room. Was this really happening? She'd imagined it before, of course, but never in a French restaurant. She said, "That's not good."
He took a breath, sipped his wine, then set it on the table. The whole time, his eyes remained fixed on the deep red inside the glass. Finally, quietly, he said, "Were you ever going to tell me?"
This, too, was not how she'd imagined it. She floundered for an answer, and her first thought was a lie: Of course I was. Before transforming the thought into speech, though, she realized that she wouldn't have told him, not ever.
She considered going on the defensive and reminding him of how he had been in Cairo, how he had treated her as if she had been a perpetual obstacle. How he had pushed her away until, looking for something, anything, to complement her feelings of liberation she finally gave in to Stan's approaches. Only partly true, but it might have been enough to satisfy him.
She said, "Of course I was going to tell you."
"When I got up the courage. When enough time had passed."
"So we're talking about years."
Chewing the inside of his cheek, Emmett looked past her at other tables, perhaps worried that they all knew he was a cuckold, and the corners of his eyes crinkled in thought.
What was there to think about? He'd had all day, but he still hadn't decided, for this wasn't only about an affair—it was about Emmett Kohl, and what kind of man he wanted to be. She knew him all too well.
One kind of man would kick her out of his life, would rage and throw his glass at her. But that wasn't him. He would have had his "little shit" moment as soon as he hung up the telephone; his day of rage was over. He needed something that could show off his anger without forcing him to break character or descend into cliché—it was a tricky assignment.
She said, "It's over. If that helps."
"Do you remember how you were in Cairo?"
His damp eyes were back on her, brow twitching. "You're not going to twist this into my fault, are you?"
She looked down at her glass, which she still hadn't touched. He knew very well how he had been in Cairo, but he wasn't interested in drawing a connection between that and her infidelity. Were she him, she would have felt the same way.
He said, "Do you love him?"
"Did you love him?"
"For a week I thought I might, but I was wrong."
"Were you thinking about a divorce?"
She frowned, almost shocked by the use of a word that she had never considered. "God. No. Never. You're ..." She hesitated, then lowered her voice, pushing a hand across the table in his direction. "You're the best thing that ever happened to me, Emmett."
He didn't even acknowledge her hand. "Then ... why?"
Anyone who's committed adultery envisions this moment, plots it out and works up a rough draft of a speech that, she imagined, will cut through the fog with some ironclad defense of the indefensible. Sitting there, though, staring at his wounded face, she couldn't remember any of it, and she found herself grasping for words. Yet all that came to her was hackneyed lines, as if she were reading from a script. But they were both doing that, weren't they? "I was lonely, Emmett. Simple as that."
Excerpted from The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer. Copyright © 2014 Third State, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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