There had been two husbands. The first was a Swiss banker who came through Le Havre periodically on business. He was small-framed and wiry, not handsome in any particular way (but certainly good-looking in Lucy’s eyes) with long skinny fingers and a thin moustache. After almost two years of once-a-month dinners and urgent sex in his bland hotel room, with bad sheets and bad paintings, he whisked her away from her uncharming family when she was twenty-one. He provided her with a weekly allowance and a lovely two-bedroom apartment in the Marais, leaving her to do as she pleased. They always got along, and their sexual life remained interesting, even toward the end, but they could never build anything outside of their private life together. There was a separateness that never disappeared, something always felt out of place. Mutual friends never gelled. A pea nagged from under the mattress. Their relationship eventually became rather like that of siblings, and after a short and unsentimental conversation one morning, they parted.
The second husband was American, a droll businessman from the Midwest. They were together for seven years, off and on—mostly on—and eventually they realized that they hated each other completely. Both admitted to twisted fantasies involving the unfortunate death of the other, poisonings or tragic parachuting accidents. His sagging features grew more prominent every season, his belly rounder and rounder until no belt in any ordinary store would fit him. He said it was her cooking, and somehow managed to make even that sound like an insult. And Lucy often started arguments on purpose. The divorce was painless at first and agonizing after.
There had not been children.
Lucy was the kind of woman who believed (Helena thought foolishly) that one can wear jewelry in silver, gold and copper all at once. Her bracelets jangled up and down her arm whenever she turned the page of a book, or pushed her hair, which was often frizzy and unkempt, away from her face. Helena realized—having been Lucy’s best friend for more than twenty years, and practically her only close friend in America—that older French women were allowed a certain freedom of behavior. A looseness of personality. If their lipstick was slightly smudged it was okay. If their hair was colored one shade too orange, their collar too severe, all was forgiven.
Helena was expected home some time in the afternoon. Lucy had come that morning to shower (she preferred Helena’s water pressure to her own) and spend maybe an hour making sure everything was put together, maybe get some soup going for dinner—an herb and vegetable concoction she was famous for; Helena’s favorite. There was an iron skillet on the stove, still shiny with butter from Daniel’s breakfast; he never cleaned up after himself. She could not determine what exactly he ate, the data were few and vague: a sticky spoon, no plate. She lifted the spoon to her nose, breathed in the bright smell of…marmalade, surely. She resisted the impulse to stick it in her mouth and suck on the tacky residue. Instead, she put the spoon into the sink.