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She had been speaking of the railway station, and he, as usual, had abandoned any pretense of listening, his attention solidly fixed upon his food, his fork aimed as if he were waging war on his lamb chops. The concentration with which he attacked his plate left no room for "banter" (as he referred to most of her conversation). But were she to accuse him of not listening, he would claim he certainly had been, to every word, and would then go into one of his elaborately mocking displays by setting down his knife and fork and fixing her with a wide-eyed stare, as if to say, There, is that what you want? thus making her appear demanding and contentious.
It was one of their long late-afternoon lunches, and she wondered why they continued to have them, since they annoyed each other so much. He was as usual eating something heavy, explaining that it would also serve as dinner. That way, he would not have to bother going out again later on. The main reason he liked late lunches, he told her, was because of his writing schedule; he liked to start around nine and continue on through the early afternoon. He could never write after a meal, he said, so he put off the meal until three or four.
She had ordered a salad of mixed greens. The restaurant was French and so the menu didn't call it that; its description of the salad was complicated and euphemistic. She wondered how they managed to catch greens at the "baby" stage; did greens also have an adolescence, an adulthood? But however the menu tried to enrich it, the salad was still mixed greens.
As an appetizer,he had ordered mussels to which a number of things had been done, including sautéing and saucing up. She didn't know one did such things to mussels. She had ordered tomato juice. Without looking up from his dish of mussels, he had asked her how her tomato juice was, as if anything really interesting could be done with tomato juice. The question How is this? or How was that?repeated at every lunchwas one of his few ready contributions to the conversation. It was for him an obligatory question, one which demonstrated his interest in her enjoyment. He always asked it of one dish or another, often several times during the course of a meal, thereby discharging his conversational debt.
The waiter came with the wine, and he and the waiter discussed the year and the vineyard, speaking in rapid-fire French. After the waiter poured a thimbleful for tasting, it was pronounced good or very good ("Bon, bon"). The label told her it was a Hermitage, one of the reds he was so fond of. He always chose well and, in choosing well, spent a great amount of money. This was his favorite restaurant because of its wine list. He had spent months in Burgundy, in Meursault, Chablis, and Puligny-Montrachet, but he did not talk about the trip as such: the customs, the people, the lie of the land. Or, to be more precise, he did speak of the lie of the land insofar as it involved the slopes of the vineyards, how a few feet might separate a good wine from a great.
But he approached such subjects as if she knew all about them, yet she knew nothing at all about them. Why he assumed she was conversant with such topics as that particular vineyard which produced a grand cru, its exposure to sun and cold, its particular soilthis she simply couldn't imagine, since he so often accused her of bantering and foolishness. But there he had been, at a previous lunch and another table, going on about Puligny, the source of his beloved Montrachet, going on as if she'd lived in the village herself. He had talked about Chablis"You know those vineyards that produce the best Chardonnay grapes?"and she had interrupted to assure him she had never been anywhere near Chablis, never been to Burgundy, never to France; didn't he know that? She knew he knew it; still, he paid no attention. And when she thought surely she could lead him around to describing the villages and the countryside he would just shrug and say something about his rental car breaking down or the poor condition of the roads.
It was not that he did not talk, it was that he went through bouts of talking, words like gusts of wind, blowing in, stirring up currents, and troubling the air around them for a few moments. The brief exchange with the waiter about the Crozes-Hermitage was like this. In the course of lunching with him at many different restaurants, she had discovered that he was fluent in French, Italian, Spanish, and probably German, as he'd spent a good deal of time in Cologne, too. But she would not find out until they went to a German restaurant. When she had expressed surprise at his astonishing fluency in these languages, he had shrugged and said, "Well, one picks them up."
Their main course came and another swift exchange in French (the waiter happy he could "banter" in his own language). Now that their entrées had come, she could expect all conversation to be suspended while they ate. In place of conversation, after a certain amount of time and silence pressed upon them, he would ask her the obligatory question. Since she was having salad, he would ask about that.
Her main coursethe saladdid not charm her; the greens were greens, even if they had been plucked in their infancy, and the dressing was too sharp, too vinegary. It made no difference to her; she hadn't been hungry. She would have preferred to be in the station café, eating the grilled-cheese sandwich she usually ordered. The station was one of those handsome nineteenth-century railway stations, and unusual in that it had been one of those in which the agents and their families had lived at the turn of the century. It fascinated her to think that part of it had been occupied by a family once. It was near her own large house, of that same Victorian period. She had lived all her life in this house. Her family had been small, very small, and were now all dead; not only her father and her mother, all of themthe few aunts and uncles, the tiny sprinkling of cousins. She wondered how that could be. It was almost as if a passenger car on a train carrying everyone together had disappeared. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment? She caught her breath. Such fragments often overtook her, coming so swiftly they made her wince.
"How's your salad?"
She was not prepared for the question this time, and she felt tears well in the corners of her eyes. Tears of sadness and also of frustration. She wanted to slap him. At the very least, she would like to say, Awful, it's awful, but this would only have cued him to disregard her or contradict her: Looks perfectly all right to me. Something like that. "Fine" is what she said, and he continued eating his chops, probably without hearing the answer, certainly without caring about it.
Over cocktails, she had been trying to get him to talk about Zimbabwe. But he had, as she knew he would, answered in monosyllables. She had realized soon after they met that to try and draw him out about his trips was bound to end in failure, for he would not be drawn. He would drop hints only of the exoticism of what he had seen. As today, between the end of his first course of mussels and the beginning of his lamb, he had slipped into the silence the information that there were fish in the Amazon capable of swallowing cows. She waited for him to explain this brilliant fact, perfectly aware that he wouldn't. He went on eating his lamb.
He managed to travel to these places without affect (except, perhaps, for Burgundy), dropping astounding bits of information into the silences that made up the large part of their meals together, as if he were reporting on the weather outside. It was so peculiar. Had he been a charming person, this might have been the charmingly innocent act of a schoolboy. Only he wasn't charming. And he hadn't a sense of what they called "childlike wonder." He seemed to assume that everyone knew, for instance, about Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent; or Silbaco, the nightjar that haunts the forests of the Amazon. And he would speak of these things without enlarging upon them. That was what, above all, exasperated her beyond saying. Well, what good did it do to say? He merely grunted or shrugged or suggested she was being trying or overly literal.
It was not that he was keeping these trips secret, quite the contrary: he talked like a man with no secrets to hide. When she really got irritated with him, she could question him quite mercilessly and take a perverse pleasure in his sidestepping, evading, and shooting down her questions, dropping them like dead birds on the table.
They had had to build a raft to take them up the Yata River.
"Of what? How did you build it?"
"Balsa and vines." He shrugged. Anyone could do it.
"Iswasthe river pretty?"
"No. Where's the damned waiter?"
So the river she would have to picture on her own. Brown and sinuous, islands of floating greenery, pink wading birds, luxuriant trees growing from the water. Eyes flashing through the dark vegetation .... She sighed. All she knew about jungles she supposed she'd got from Joseph Conrad.
"What's wrong? Why are you glooming away?" he asked.
"I'm not glooming. I'm merely trying to picture the river."
She dropped her head, sipped her coffee, recalling that he had taken a train, but from where to where she couldn't remember. He had said only that it was hot, crowded, dreadful. He would not expand upon that, though to her it sounded as if it must surely have been colorful, in spite of the discomfort. "Wasn't it colorful?"
"Not particularly." He had found the waiter. More bread, more wine.
It was his mention of the train that made her think of their own railway stationhow uninhabited it always seemed, how deserted.
As a child she remembered going to meet the train with her mother, standing on the platform in a cloud of steam, watching the conductor drop down the yellow step for passengers descending, and assisting the ladies with an old-world courtly manner. The steam settling like fog or ground mist, the snow a bright unbroken crust that lay around the station, reflecting back the gold light inside, and a frill of snow along each window ledge like the whipped-cream piping on a cake or a flourish of lace on a dress.
She mentioned it to himnot the memory of her childhood but the train station itself, how deserted it had always seemed. "It's like a ghost station. Ghost trains steaming through a ghost station."
"Diesel-ing through, you mean." He smiled slyly. He knew she liked the image of the ghost train and so decided to demolish it. Still smiling, he continued eating.
"You accuse me of being literal, but it's you who are. I've never known a writer to be so literal." She flushed with both anger and embarrassment, as if caught out in the middle of a childish fantasy.
"You've never known a writer at all, other than myself."
"Me," she said. "Other than me." That was a weak refutation, merely correcting his grammar. She hurried on. "Didn't you have fun watching the steam trains when you were young? They seemed to have so much more ... authority than the ones we have now." There was no point in bringing up his childhood, she knew, for he never reminisced. Whereas, that was what she did mostly and well.
"If you like them so much, you should go to Zimbabwe," he said.
She blinked at this astonishing irrelevancy. "Why in heaven's name Zimbabwe?"
"The trains all run on steam there. It's the coal, you see. Country's loaded with coal."
Missing the point completely. He usually did. She wondered if missing it weren't deliberate.
He had returned from Zimbabwe, and it was as if he'd taken a walk around the corner for a newspaper. He traveled a good six months out of the year, and though he avoided talking about his travels (that is, beyond the startling comment or two), he wrote about them, and that, he must have supposed, was enough. He was a travel writer. She had read bits and pieces of his books because of their lunches together and because she knew him. She felt she must. She did not dislike his books; she was quite astounded that events were so colorfully reported. But she'd rather not read about travel. Travel writing made her uncomfortable; she did not know why. Perhaps because she felt she should travel herself but grew anxious merely thinking about it. Still, she had to give him credit for not answering her questions with Read my book, it's all in my book. He did not refer to his books as sources. Indeed, he did not refer to his books at all. At first she thought this might stem from sheer indifference. He did not seem to care about the books, except by way of complaining about the publishing business, how inept "those people" were.
She sipped her wine and thought it tasted flinty. It was extremely dry. "It's the anonymity of a train ride I like."
"You never go anywhere, so how do you know?" He was separating the meat from the bone of his third chop, careful as a surgeon. They were quite small, the chops. But "baby lamb" was obviously redundant.
She went on. "It's eerie. As if the self were in some kind of limbo."
He was chewing and looking at her, but she doubted he was listening. Or, if listening, comprehending. Often, when he looked up from his food, he would fix her with the glazed look of a child confronted with an irritated parent, seeming to hear but not hearing. Tuning out. There but not there.
The waiter came to replenish their water and wine. "Our stationwhy is it so empty nearly all of the time?" This was not what she meant. She meant, Why does it make me feel empty, as if I were as devoid of experience as one of the waiting-room benches or one of the loosened panes rattling in the wind? She would sit on one of these benches, against a wall painted a dull cream, woodwork a varnished brown, colors she would have liked to think were chosen because they wouldn't agitate one's mind. The station and the platform were always spotlessly clean. There was a dog, too, a Labrador mixed with other breeds, its coat brown and slightly shiny like the woodwork. She supposed it belonged to the stationmaster. The dog was well fed and friendly and sometimes came to sit beside her. And there was, of course, the lunchroom, the café. It was the area that once must have served as the living quarters for the family. The mother might even have cooked in the café's tiny kitchen. She was at a loss to understand how it took in enough business to keep going. Many times she had been the only customer. The station had the air of a place deserted, fled from. The vacant waiting room, the lost property counter with its double door shut and locked, the abandoned ticket window, its tan blind pulled down: CLOSED. All of this was a landscape of sorts that she could relate to.
During these reflections, she had barely noticed the waiter had been and gone, removing the plates, taking her half-eaten salad away. She hadn't wanted it, had found it dull. Now the waiter had returned with the dessert: sorbet for her and, for him, a complicated confection of ivory-colored mousse in a sauce cassis, crowned with nuts and other adornments.
"Well," he said, "you've certainly been sitting there glooming away." There was the sly smile again.
Silence on his part was meant to indicate he was not interested in idle chatter; on her part, silence meant moodiness, an uneven, quixotic temperament. It made her smile to think this, for she considered her temperament to be quite bland, smooth and white like the mousse. "I was just picturing our station. Just wondering if anyone buys tickets anymore. The window's always closed, it seems."
Having forced her into saying something, he now ignored what she said and spooned into a rather unappetizing puddle of purple sauce. What was the name of it in French? La mousse en cassis? Something involved, like the dessert itself.
"La salle des pas perdus."
She was startled. "What?" Occasionally he would produce a comment of eerie relevance, even though she had been so sure he hadn't been listening.
"It's how the French used to refer to the hall of ticket windows. The booking hall, I suppose they called it. La salle des pas perdus. The place of lost footsteps."
Her spoon hung in midair, frozen in time.
"How's your sorbet?" he asked.