Menage a Trois

Mariette lived in Québec City with Cècile and Zacharie in a walk-up apartment on the second floor. Cècile, who had had polio as a child, managed to pull herself up the stairs slowly with her crutches, but Zacharie had to carry Mariette. He had been a firefighter and it was a good thing he was still in pretty good shape for his age because Mariette was not as thin as she used to be.

            Almost everything was embarrassing for Mariette since she’d lost the ability to walk, but nothing was as embarrassing as being hefted over Zacharie’s shoulder. As she lay there feeling like a beached whale, Mariette tried to imagine that he was rescuing her from a fire.

            Richard would turn over in his grave if he could see how far she had fallen– all the way from her high-rise suite in Ste-Foy to the squalor of lower-town Limoilou. But what did she care what Richard thought? He had died of a heart attack on her white carpet in that apartment twenty years before, leaving her without sufficient means to carry on their comfortable life-style. And anyway, at her age, love was more important than luxury. At seventy, she was just happy to have a man to look after her. The fact that she had to share him with his wife, well, she was used to sharing her man.

            Zacharie plunked her down as gently as he could on the sofa that was her daytime throne.

            She looked at him and remembered why she had fallen in love with him– the rippling muscles of his arms, the hard tight spare body. Not many men in their sixties looked so good.

            “I’m going to the kitchen to make supper now. Is there anything I can bring you, Mme Thériault?” he asked, showing her, as he always did, respectful deference.

            “No, thank you.” She smiled at him coquettishly.

            He treated her like a princess, and it made her feel very good. If only Cècile wasn’t always just there behind him looking at her with those hound-dog eyes. Mariette disliked Zacharie’s wife; she was so silent and accepting that it annoyed her. But at the same time Mariette understood what Cècile was suffering in her silence.

            It was the thought of Cècile that kept her quiet when she was making love at night with Zacharie. She remembered what it felt like, turning over in the night and knowing her husband was in the other room with Rose.

Rose was supposed to have been a gift for Mariette, her very own live-in housekeeper since she was no longer able to keep house herself due to the arthritis that crippled her more and more every year. But Mariette knew that Rose was really a gift Richard had given himself. She knew it when she felt the cold sheet where her husband should have been. She knew it when she heard the kittenish sounds coming from Rose’s distant bedroom. She would close her eyes and try to sleep, but could not. How she had longed to feel his arms around her once again, just to be held with love. That was all she’d ever wanted.

            It was what she liked best about Zacharie. When he held her she could feel his hard body, solid and reliable. She felt as if she was being looked after, and if that wasn’t love, it was close enough to it for Mariette. The only way Richard had expressed his love was to give expensive gifts, and Mariette soon learned that they were not the measure of his love but rather the measure of his guilt. For many years, she had accepted them with grace. But it was too much– the indignity of having his mistress in her own house. She was beside herself. One night when he reached for her in the darkness, she had shrieked her indignation at him. How dare he? Did he think their house was a harem? She would go to the priest and make her complaint known.

            She had seen the priest in his little office– an old man, bald with gray hair and a gray face. After she’d explained to him her husband’s infidelity, she’d asked, “Surely I am not compelled to have sex with an adulterer?”

            The gray man looked at her thoughtfully over his folded hands. “You are required to obey your husband, madam. If he asks you for sex, you must fulfill his desires.”

            “Mais voyons donc!” she’d said, not believing it could be true.

            “You should thank God if your husband wishes to have sex with you, for each time you are keeping him from committing adultery. Think of that, Madame Thériault, and rejoice.”

            She’d got up and left the priest. She could not believe what he had said. She would never go to mass again. She would leave the church. It offended her to be told she must obey this man who treated her with such contempt.

            It could not be true that this was God’s will. And if it was true, then this was not a God she could ever respect. Good-bye to God. Good-bye to the church. “A dieu,” she said aloud, smiling.

            “What did you say, Mme Thériault?” Zacharie’s wife was speaking to her.

            Mariette looked up. “Nothing,” she said. She hated to have to exchange words with her. It took too much effort to speak politely and pretend that they were not rivals.

            Cècile was sitting on the sofa beside Mariette, the way they sat every day. The way they were sitting when they’d first met each other in the doctor’s waiting room. Zacharie had done all the talking then. Mariette could see that Zacharie was smitten with her. She was glad that her hair had recently been dyed its honey-blond color. She was glad that she’d taken the time to make herself up. There was a remnant of beauty still in her seventy-year old face in spite of the ravages of time, enough anyway to interest a virile man like Zacharie. They’d carried on their courtship under the watchful, silent eyes of Cècile.

            At first Zacharie had included her in dinners at restaurants with his wife, but he didn’t have the money to keep that up. So later, he’d used the excuse of her infirmity to come by himself to look after her. Gradually, over the years, their relationship had evolved into a sexual one. Eventually, Zacharie had become exhausted driving back and forth across town, meeting the needs of two invalid women, and he had suggested this arrangement, first to Mariette and then to Cècile.

            Mariette thought Cècile was a fool for agreeing to it. Poor Cècile, who always looked as though she could not quite understand what life had done to her. It was evident that she had never been very pretty, which must have been very sad for her, but really, it was too annoying to be stared at like this.

            “Qu’est-ce que tu veux, ma noire?” Mariette said at last.

            “May I look at your photos, Mme. Thériault?”

            Her hand was resting on Mariette’s photo album. She must have left it on the side table after she’d shown the photos to Zacharie the night before. He had looked at them so attentively and listened to her tales of bygone glory. It was nice to have someone appreciate her the way that Zacharie did. Her own children did not. Zacharie had asked her sons for their permission before he took her in, and to Mariette’s surprise, they had agreed. She should not have been so surprised; this arrangement was convenient for them. It meant they did not have to bother themselves to look after her.

            Mariette finally answered Cècile. “Bien sùr.”

            “Merci.”

            Mariette watched as Cècile pawed through the album. Truly, she was pleased that Cècile should see how beautiful she had been in her day. She waited for Cècile to ask her questions– “Where was this taken?”– so that Mariette could tell her how far she’d travelled– and “Who is this?”– so Mariette could introduce all the important people she’d known.

            But Cècile did not ask any questions. She only turned one page and then another in silence. Mariette was bored with waiting and picked up a magazine to look at the pictures.

            “Who is that?” Cecile asked at last. Mariette put down her magazine and craned her neck to see which photo she was pointing at. The black and white picture seemed indistinct to Mariette. She put on the reading glasses that were on the table beside her.

            “Let me see.”

            Cècile passed the album to her and Mariette looked at the photo that had been taken in a Montréal night-club thirty-five years before

***

            “Mimi, you’ve got me sad and dreamy, only you could free me.” Richard sang the Maurice Chevalier tune as he tied his bowtie.

            Mariette smiled, imagining that he was singing about her, imagining that he was still in love with her, after three years of marriage, after two sons.

            They were in a Montréal hotel, getting ready to go to a nightclub. He looked like Clark Gable in his evening jacket, his white starched shirt with gold cufflinks gleaming. He held the door open for her and walked just a step behind her, his right fingers in the pocket of his perfectly pressed pants. Elégance.

            She was blond and buxom (maybe Marilyn Monroe?) but with fierce black eyes (the only legacy of an Indian great-grandmother who was never to be spoken of), those horrible eyes that always betrayed her because they could not hide what she was feeling.

            He held out the chair for her and she sat down. Then he sat too. A waiter appeared at the table suddenly. “What can I get you, sir?”

            “Qu’est-ce que tu veux, Mariette?”

            “Un pink lady.”

            He ordered a dry martini for himself. He gave her the olive, feeding it to her on the end of a toothpick, her lip-sticked mouth encircling the thin little stick as he pulled it out. She could taste the salty morsel burst in her mouth. Then she sipped her sugary pink drink.

            Richard’s business acquaintance Henri Boucher and his wife arrived. Henri was wearing a light brown business suit. Mariette couldn’t help contrasting him with her well-dressed husband. What a rube! Manon, his wife, on the other hand was gorgeous. Mariette’s eyes betrayed her again. She was envious of this woman’s delicate sweetness, her green eyes. She was Greta Garbo, no doubt about it. Mariette looked at Richard. Had he noticed? Of course he had! He was no rube, no hick. He noticed beautiful women. Mariette’s stomach ached from the sweet drink.

            Richard took out his silver cigarette case and suavely flipped it open. He offered it first to Manon. She took a cigarette, batting her eyes at him. Then he offered the case to Henri, who gracelessly declined. Finally he offered it to Mariette. Was she an afterthought, or was this the correct order of things? Somehow Richard knew about these things– what fork to use, who gets the first cigarette. She took a cigarette and flashed her fierce eyes at him.

            Ignoring her, he took the heavy ornate lighter from the center of the table. He flicked it and offered the flame to Manon. Mariette watched as the two heads bowed over the light. The intimacy of the gesture enraged her.

            The trumpets blared. The crooner sang. The drummer beat the background rhythm. Smooth, smooth. The beautiful people sucked on their cigarettes and sipped their drinks and smiled, smiled.

            Richard’s brilliantine black hair shone under the low lights. He had eyes for Manon only. Mariette slurped the last of her pink lady. She wanted another one, but when she turned to ask her husband, he was speaking to a man standing by the table. Richard took out his wallet and handed the man a couple of bills from his wad of cash. The man pocketed it. Then Mariette saw the box he was holding in his other hand, a large camera.

            He backed up to get all four of them in the photo. “Smile,” he said.

            Mariette beamed for the camera.

***

            Mariette squinted at the photo. “Which one are you asking about?” she asked.

            Cècile put her finger on the photo. “That one,” she said, as if it were evident. “The one with no face.”

            Mariette studied the photo. There was Henri in his business suit, beside him his charming wife Manon, then Mariette with her radiant smile, and beside her, Richard with his head cut off.

            Mariette remembered the day she had taken her little pointed nail scissors and carefully snipped around the face of Richard. The passionate rage she had felt that day swept through her now like warm wet blood.

            “It is my husband,” she smiled.

            Cècile’s smile mirrored Mariette’s for a brief moment. Then she began to laugh. Mariette had never heard Cècile laugh before. It was a wickedly contagious cackle, and she couldn’t help but join in.

            Zacharie came out from the kitchen to see what they were on about.

            Neither could speak for the longest time, engrossed as they were in shared laughter, and even when they did recover some time later, neither would tell him what they had found so funny.