Rita Gardner and her husband, Billy, met Genviève the Good when they were living at 14, Rue de Grenier in a sixth-floor walk-up. In late fall, after their month-long sublet ended, Genviève helped them find better housing and employment, which were one and the same: they moved into a tiny guesthouse owned by a middle-class couple on the outskirts of Paris, past the Périphérique expressway; Rita watched the children and Billy took care of the property.
Genviève the Good had a small au pair agency in the city, and lived near their new place at the city’s edge. She was in her late thirties, wore thick glasses and had unruly hair. But she had helped them, and secured their visas, and though Rita and Billy were ten years younger and felt little kin with her, they had no friends, so they accepted her invitations for dinner.
Before Paris, Billy and Rita had lived comfortably in a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, supported by Billy’s paternal grandfather, but he’d cut them off when they eloped and moved to France at the end of October. They needed the jobs, but Rita disliked the bossy French children and Billy was nothing close to a handyman. Rita was slight and fair, with pretty brown eyes and thin lips, and Billy was handsome in a predictable way, his features well-positioned on his face. It made him likable, he liked to say.
Rita complained to Genviève the Good at dinner a week into the new arrangement. “There are mice everywhere,” she said. “It’s an infestation. And it’s so cold at night.”
Genviève the Good fixed her eyes on Rita and said, in French, “Be grateful for what you have.” She had to repeat it three times, and then finally in English, before Rita understood.
Rita told her sister of the elopement via belated letter in early December. “What will you do?” her sister responded, the “do” underlined. “You’ll be so bored in Paris.” She enclosed a phone number in the airmail letter, on paper thin as primrose.
“A friend from college, Genviève,” she wrote. “More of an acquaintance. But you should call her.”
Rita’s sister was as bland and homely as Genviève the Good, and Rita had almost thrown the number out, thinking the other Genviève would be dull. But after a particularly monochrome night at Genviève the Good’s place, Rita located the letter with the number tucked inside her address book.
“Of course,” her sister’s Genviève said on the phone. There was music in the background and the sounds of laughter. It was two in the afternoon, but Rita thought she sounded tipsy. “I remember your sister. Come tonight. I’m having a little party. You will be my guests.”
“I’d rather not,” Billy said, when Rita extended the invitation. He lay on the couch with Le Monde splayed across his chest. He didn’t like new people — it had already been a struggle to get him to Genviève the Good’s so often.
“She might have some pot,” Rita said.
“How do you know?”
“She just seems the type.” Rita held her breath and crossed her fingers in the way she always did when she wanted something to happen.
This Genviève lived in a spacious apartment in the Latin Quarter, near Notre Dame. Billy rang and rang the buzzer, and finally an annoyed voice came on the intercom: “It’s open,” in French. They took the elevator to the second floor, marked “P” for premier, and walked to the end of a scrubbed tile hallway.
When they got to the apartment, Genviève stood in the doorway in a black dressing gown and high black heels, her eyes done up with kohl and her hair coiffed onto her head in a heap. She was tall, with dark hair and eyes, and outrageously thin. “You must be the New Yorkers.” She laughed a throaty, liquored laugh. “The New Yorkers who ring the bell for hours instead of just trying the knob.”
It was better than Rita had hoped. On the coffee table there were lines of cocaine, pared and stacked by an angular man in a black blazer with a lit cigarette in his mouth. She’d never tried it, but she’d seen the way Billy looked after a line or two: fire-eyed, face lit up like a paper lantern.
“Make yourself feel comfortable,” Genviève said, following Rita and Billy into the living room. Everything in the place was white: walls, lacquered floors, a grand piano. Genviève gestured at the table, white on white. “Feel free.”
Rita started toward the kitchen where most of the party of twenty or so had gathered, but Genviève caught her hand and said, “You will have some with us.” It wasn’t a threat, but it didn’t leave room for argument, and Rita was terrible at refusing. She dreaded the look of disappointment that crossed over a person’s face when she told them, “No.”
She sat on the floor next to the coffee table with Billy, Genviève, the angular Frenchman, who turned out to be Genviève’s boyfriend, and another couple who seemed desperately in love, their limbs entangled.
“I’m not sure about this,” Rita said to Billy in a low voice.
“You’ll be fine.” His eyes rested on the coke. His leg jiggled with anticipation.
“Maybe we should go,” she said.
“I can hardly understand what anyone is saying.”
“I’ll translate.” Billy was fluent in French, but Rita understood only bits. That was one of the things she liked about Genviève the Good: she was willing to speak English. It was clear, however, that no one would be speaking anything but French tonight.
Billy did a line and handed the fifty euro note to Rita, and she held it the way he did and inhaled the way she hoped was right. At first she felt nothing, complete numbness, emptiness, and then it hit her that this was the high and she became anxious and agitated and went to the terrace for air.
Genviève had prepared a feast of coq au vin and delicate, pearly asperge, or, more likely, she’d hired a cook who had. Rita had no appetite and was relieved when a maid in a uniform cleared the table. She felt completely in control except for the peculiar desensitization. Billy spoke French loudly with the man to his left throughout the dinner, ignoring Rita. The woman to Rita’s right was talking in French with the woman to her right, so Rita was left to look at her wineglass until Genviève announced that it was time to go out.
“Doesn’t that seem curious to you?” Rita said in Billy’s ear. “To invite a bunch of people to your house for a party only to leave right after dinner and force all of your guests to go with you?”
“Enough,” Billy said, swatting her away from his ear like a moucheron.
“I haven’t said anything but that.”
“You started the minute we got here.”
“That’s not fair,” Rita said, but he had already turned back to the man on his left.
On the street the numbness went away. When they’d first moved to Paris from New York and sublet their place on Rue de Grenier for a month, it had been unseasonably warm for October, but by the time they’d moved again, there was frost every night. Rita’s coat felt like it was made of silk. Every sensation was heightened: the touch of cold against her face, the sound of traffic in the narrow streets, the smell of butter and warm banana from late-night crêpe vendors. This, she thought. This is what it feels like to be high on cocaine. They’d all had another line before they left, and Rita had too.
Then she was on the sidewalk, her face against the concrete, nose bleeding. Billy hadn’t noticed — he was walking ahead with his avid conversationalist — but Genviève strolled over.
“Ça va?” she said. She didn’t help Rita to her feet.
Rita watched a little puddle of blood form under her nose. She wasn’t sure how she’d fallen, and wasn’t sure why she hadn’t tried to catch herself or at least break the fall with her arms. It was the drugs, she knew, but a strange sense of distance between herself and her thoughts prevented her from understanding more than that.
Billy hurried over finally, and pulled Rita to her feet. All the partygoers had just stood there, watching. The odd American with her face in the dirt and a nosebleed. Someone handed her a packet of tissues and Billy helped clean the blood from her cheeks and chin.
“What the hell happened?” Billy said.
“What do you mean?” Even English was beginning to sound foreign.
“Are you OK?”
“No,” Rita said. She knew that much.
“You’re fine,” he said, for the third time that night, and tugged her hand to pull her faster, to catch up with the crowd.
On the way home in a taxi they couldn’t afford, Billy spoke nonstop of this new Genviève, his eyes coruscating in the passing streetlights. “Genviève the Bad,” he said with relish. “She’s pure evil. No doubt about it.”
“You seemed to like her.”
“Sure. I like a dark side. But it’s clear she’s no good.”
Rita watched darkened windows and graffitied walls go by. They were on the expressway, almost home. “Billy?” she said. There was no answer and she didn’t think he’d heard. “I don’t want to go back there again.”
“We’re going back next week,” he said. “She invited us. It’d be rude to say no.”
They began to go to the city for Genviève the Bad’s twice-weekly dinner parties, and they were so tired from the drugs and late nights that they usually stayed at home after work for the rest of the week, in their chilly, dingy bedroom, reading and rereading the few books they’d brought from New York: Dubliners, a worn-out copy of Freud’s essays, two volumes of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. They were Billy’s books, but Rita had nothing else to do, so she read with him.
“If you don’t want to see me anymore, say so,” Genviève the Good said one night. It was a couple months after they’d met Genviève the Bad, and they’d only seen Genviève the Good twice since then. They were at her house, eating dinner, telling stories of their nights with the other Genviève.
Rita looked at Billy, but his hands were in his lap, his eyes on his hands. As usual, Billy would clam up and leave Rita to deal with things. The card, the first time he sent flowers: You always have the best reactions.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We’re so thankful for your hospitality.”
“You’re very welcome,” Genviève the Good said, chewing ice.
“We are,” Rita said. “We’re just so tired from all the work. The kids are a handful and the gardens and pool keep Billy busy all the time. We miss you.”
Rita hadn’t missed these awkward dinners in the dilapidated house, but there was something comforting about Genviève’s presence. And it was easier than saying the truth.
“Bon,” Genviève the Good said. “Don’t make me regret that I got you such good jobs.”
The elopement had been Billy’s idea. They fell in together quickly, each trying to create a replica of themselves that the other would adore. Paris was his dream, from childhood French classes and a sexy Parisian nanny he had for a few years. It was never Rita’s. She went along with it, though; she went along with all of Billy’s caprices and conceits. She tried to ignore his temper. She thought of herself as a slip of a person; before she met Billy, she’d always thought, If I could just find someone who knows what they want, maybe I could adopt their desires.
It didn’t work the way she hoped. But when Billy first took Rita out, brought her flowers and paid the tab at Indian restaurants in the East Village, she found that she no longer had to choose how she spent her days. He picked her up most nights at her apartment downtown, and she did whatever he wanted. In the beginning, he was — not kind, necessarily, but energetic. He’d show up at her place on a weekend afternoon and proclaim that it was a nice day and they must repair to the park, the passion of a bite of plum in high summer on his face. She’d fetch her purse and go.
Sometimes late at night in Paris, after the coke had worn off, two years after those first days together in New York, Rita woke, shivering, and watched the ceiling in the dark. She would say Billy’s name, to test if he was awake. He never responded, so she told him how she really felt while he slept.
“You’re an asshole,” she’d whisper in his ear. “Fuck you. Please stop treating me this way.”
In early March there was an unexpectedly warm Friday, and Genviève the Bad invited Billy and Rita to a weekend in Normandy with her boyfriend, Luc, who’d sorted out the coke that first night. Neither he nor Genviève the Bad had warmed to Rita, but they liked Billy, who spoke beautiful French and told jokes when he was in a good mood and talked about Monet’s figure drawings and Kierkegaard.
Rita and Billy worked weekends, but they hadn’t asked for a break in four months and were able to finagle the time off. Rita packed salami sandwiches and olives for the drive.
“Should I bring a bikini?” she said, and Billy looked at her like she was crazy.
Luc picked them up in a tiny orange Citroën. Genviève the Bad sat in the front seat, wearing a silk eye mask. “Sleeping,” he said, needlessly, when they got in the car.
“We’ll be very quiet,” Rita said.
“Shhh.” His hiss was louder than Rita’s voice. “Late night,” he said, in French.
They checked into a small bed and breakfast in Cabourg, by the beach, and strolled into town for a late lunch. Rita saw this as the real France: dogs in the street and men in crisp tailored jeans and sweaters, smoking cigarettes. They ate a bit, but mostly they drank. Genviève the Bad kept ordering more rounds; first Calvados, then cassis and water. Rita was drunk and announced that she was ready to put her feet in the sea.
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Genviève the Bad said. “That’s crazy.” They were all speaking French and Rita was keeping up at last.
“It’s not,” Rita said. “I’ve been wanting to do this since I left the States. Put my toes in the English Channel.”
“She wanted to bring her bikini,” Billy said, and the three of them laughed.
Luc paid the bill. It was early evening and the sun was shallow in the sky. They walked toward the beach, deserted at such a late hour in March. It was still mild and the warm air felt good on Rita’s flushed face.
On the beach, Rita slid off her boots and ran until she hit the foam on the shoreline.
“That’s all you can take?” Luc was next to her, his toes in the water with hers.
She perched on one leg in the wet sand like a flamingo.
“It’ll be our little secret,” Luc said.
Billy and Genviève the Bad were on the sand by the breakers, sharing a joint.
“You’re not smoking with them?” Rita said.
“No,” he said. “I wanted to put my feet in the water with you.”
Billy and Genviève the Bad got so high that they stopped speaking French or English and conversed instead in a nonsense language that consisted of clicking sounds they made with their tongues. They all wound up at the Grand Casino de Cabourg, where Luc won a hundred euro at roulette and bought another round, this time for everyone at the wheel with him.
Back on the street, it was cold and Luc put his arm around Rita. “You’re beautiful,” he said in her ear.
Rita still wasn’t big on saying, “No,” and she didn’t mind the attention. She let him leave his arm there, and the two of them walked back to the bed and breakfast like that, his long hair waving in the wind. Ahead of them, Genviève the Bad and Billy walked, clicking their tongues and laughing.
Sunday dawned rainy and stayed that way. By the time the four of them woke, it had been raining steadily for hours and the ocean was turbid. They had missed breakfast and had to check out late.
“Truly,” Genviève the Bad said when they were seated for brunch at a place nearby, “I can’t imagine why you spent a hundred euro on drinks for strangers.” She had bags under her eyes and her skin was pale. All four of them were hung over, but she seemed to have it the worst.
Billy, who liked a good argument, buttered toast and looked at Genviève the Bad and Luc expectantly.
“It wasn’t my money,” Luc said. “I bet ten euro and won a hundred. Then I spent it. You wouldn’t care if I’d just spent the ten euro.”
“The point of gambling is to win money.”
“And then save your winnings for the rest of your life?”
“Pardon,” the waiter said, “but a woman at the bar has sent over this carafe of orange with her compliments. Enjoy.” He waved toward the bar and put the juice on the table.
Genviève the Good sat at the bar. She smiled at them and Rita smiled back.
“Small world,” Rita said. “Let’s say hi.”
Genviève the Bad and Luc were still quarreling and Billy ignored her, so Rita got up and went over alone.
“Long time,” Genviève the Good said. “Pleasant weekend?” Up close, her eyes did not look as kind as they had from across the room.
“Yes,” Rita said. “Sorry we didn’t all come over. It’s been a weird weekend, actually, but thanks for the juice.”
“My pleasure.” Her voice was tight. “I saw you all having such a nice time over there. I had to send something over to help with the celebration.”
“No celebration. They’re arguing.”
“Ça va?” She switched to French, probably to convey more authentic concern.
“I’m OK,” Rita said. “They’re fine.”
“OK? Fine? Such high marks.”
Rita looked at her fingernails, long and unpainted, then put her hands behind her back. Genviève the Good’s nails were pale pink and manicured into perfect crescents. “I should get back.”
“Sure. To your friends.”
At the table, Genviève the Bad said, “Who’s the librarian?”
Genviève the Good really did look like a librarian in her plaid jacket, a white scarf knotted high at the neck. But Rita didn’t like that the other Genviève had said so.
“More importantly, why is she here?” Billy said.
“Her parents live in Grangues, remember?” Rita said. “I think she’s here for lunch.”
“You didn’t ask?” Billy said.
“I didn’t think to.” The look on Billy’s face made her add, “I’m sorry.”
Back in Paris, Rita saw less of both Genvièves. She got a job at a shop near the Pompidou, selling clothes to women with frosted hair and diamonds in their earlobes, and she came home late and tired. She started smoking cigarettes out of Billy’s endless packs. It was less a conscious choice than the calm relaxation into a pool she was already in anyway.
Billy still looked after the property, so they kept their diminutive house on the premises. There was a new au pair, a teenager from Russia, who lived in an extra bedroom in the main house, and Rita was grateful that she didn’t ever have to wipe snot from the nose of someone else’s child again. Billy was often gone by the time she got home. He’d taken to spending most nights doing God-knows-what at Genviève the Bad’s. He’d lost weight and the paper lantern face stayed, even when he wasn’t high.
The shop stayed open late Fridays. One of those nights, after Rita unlocked the front door and left her purse and shoes in the kitchen, she heard Billy in the bedroom. It was almost eleven, and she’d assumed he would be at Genviève the Bad’s. She heard the springs of the bed creak and froze in the kitchen, breathing. He moved again and she went in.
“Babe,” he said. It wasn’t an affectionate sobriquet. “Get over here.”
Rita took off her clothes, pulled on a slip, and got into bed. It was a hot day in late spring and there was a light sheet on the bed; Billy must have kicked the blanket to the floor. She lay beside him and stroked his hair. “Let’s get some rest,” she said.
He rolled to his side. “I said, get over here.”
Two months after Cabourg, Luc called and asked if he could come over. It was Rita’s day off and Billy had gone to the city to see a gallery show with Genviève the Bad.
Rita was smoking in the gazebo on the property when the Citroën pulled up the driveway. “Look at you,” Luc said. “Pretty as a photograph.”
Rita didn’t correct him. She’d grown tired of repairing broken English.
“Merci,” she said, and offered him a cigarette. They spoke French, and Rita felt pleased with herself. She hoped her accent sounded all right.
Luc sidled closer to Rita and put his wiry arm around her. He took her cigarette away and pushed his hair from his face. “I’ve wanted to do this since I met you,” he said, and kissed her. The smell of grass and tree sap; first marigolds in the periphery; a thin strand of saxophone from a neighboring window.
Rita doubted that was true. The night they’d met, Luc was more concerned with cutting lines than with anyone around him, especially Rita, the plain, fair-haired woman in a dress that covered too much. She kissed him anyway, and let him hold her there in the sun, and hoped Billy would never come home.
Not long after, Genviève the Bad and Luc came into the shop where Rita worked. They held hands and did not smile. Genviève the Bad kissed Rita on both cheeks and said, “Bisou-bisou.” Rita tried not to show her irritation. Luc sat down in a soft leather chair in the corner and fiddled with an unlit cigarette.
“You must come one night,” Genviève the Bad said, “to the house. We miss you.”
Rita’s French was still not good enough to express how untrue she knew that was.
“Billy tells me you’ve started smoking. Never thought you had it in you.”
“I have to help a customer,” Rita said and turned away so as to deny Genviève the pleasure of her anger.
There was one more time. Luc came by the shop just before it closed and lit a cigarette on the street. Rita watched him through the plate glass with a mix of admiration and anxiety. She folded the last t-shirts, counted the till and locked the door behind her. Luc lit another cigarette and one for her. “Where to,” he said, as though this was planned.
They went to a hotel bar nearby. He ordered two whiskeys and they went to the bathroom to do some coke. Rita was used to the anesthetized sensation by now and let it carry her onto Luc’s arm and back to the bar.
“You,” he said, “are not like the other girls.”
She liked the way his “R”s sounded like breaths.
“It’s cute,” he said. “You have no game.” Rita wasn’t sure if he meant she had no game or she played no games, but it didn’t matter.
“You are like that desert plant — the turning wheel?”
“Tumbleweed?” she said.
“I get a room for us,” he said and went to the front desk.
It was a small chamber with a white bedspread and soft white pillows. The curtains were open and neither of them moved to block out the vanishing sun. There was a small balcony to the boulevard below and afterward Rita rose from the bed and stood on it naked. It was dark by then and no one looked up from the street.
Billy was probably with Genviève by now, coked up and drunk. Same as Rita and Luc. This was a thought that would make more sense without the cold and distant high.
Benumbed, she returned to bed. Luc, ever smoking, let her have a drag of his. “That was enjoyable,” he said. The way he pronounced it, he might have said “incredible” in French — incroyable — but Rita couldn’t be sure.
In the gazebo a few nights later, the only light came from the neighbor’s streetlamp and the occasional car moving along the road. Rita stubbed out her last cigarette at the filter at two in the morning and walked through dewy grass, glad that she didn’t have to go into the main house and wake the children, or, worse, their parents. Now that she wasn’t their au pair, she felt like an intruder on the property and often tip-toed, even in daylight.
Inside, the lamp in the bedroom clicked on as soon as she shut the door. Rita pushed off her shoes and walked into the bedroom, squinting in the light.
“I know about Luc.” Billy was sitting up in bed. “Don’t try to deny it. Genviève told me all about it.”
“How does she know?”
“He just wanted to see if you’d do it.”
Rita saw Luc’s feet in the Channel with hers in Cabourg. “Maybe that’s what he told her,” she said. “Anyway, what do you care?”
“I am your husband.” He made the word sound like a threat.
“Right.” She left the bedroom and shut the door behind her.
Through the closed door she heard, “Get a grip.”
Rita remembered the first night he’d shouted at her about something inconsequential, back in her tiny apartment in New York, and the decision she’d made. Fine, she’d thought. I’ll take the temper if it means I never have to come back to this room and be alone with myself again.
“OK,” Rita said to the empty kitchen. “I will.”
In the morning, Rita dialed Genviève the Good. It had been three months since Cabourg, and Rita had seen her once since then, for a late-afternoon tea. She apologized for her absence and asked if she could come for breakfast.
“I work,” Genviève the Good said.
“Come this afternoon to the office, then.” Genviève hung up, and Rita stood in the kitchen in bare feet holding the phone. Billy was asleep. It was early, and the sound of the children from the kitchen of the main house drifted through the open window.
She dressed quickly and slipped out the door. At the bus stop, she pulled her hair into a ponytail and organized her purse: keys, cigarettes, chewing gum, pens, notebook, pocket dictionary. In the city, she sat outside at a small café and ordered a café au lait and some bread and butter. She bought the newspaper and read it slowly. She looked up words she didn’t know. At noon she walked to the au pair agency.
Genviève the Good sat at a small, unadorned desk in the corner. There were two folding chairs before the desk, and Rita sat in one.
“I need to ask a favor,” she said.
“You look thin.”
“I need to move in with you. Not too long. A few months. Long enough so I can save up money to buy a ticket back to the States.”
“Why don’t you ask your good friend Genviève?”
“I’m sorry I’ve been distant. I’ve barely seen her either, if it makes you feel better.”
“That woman is a banshee.”
“That woman is trying to steal your husband.”
“She can have him. Can I smoke in here?”
“If you give me one,” Genviève the Good said.
Rita drew two cigarettes out. “I thought you didn’t smoke,” she said.
The smell of lit tobacco filled the room. Rita took in the office for what felt like the first time: a framed poster of one of Degas’ ballerinas, drab gray carpet, off-white walls in need of repainting.
“OK,” Genviève the Good said. “Two months.”
Several months later, back in New York, Rita lived downtown again and tended bar and wore short black dresses and red lipstick. It wasn’t quite right, but she didn’t like any of her old clothes, the button-down blouses and linen skirts.
Billy had wanted Rita’s hair long and brushed. Now she pushed it all up in a loose topknot, sort of like Genviève the Bad’s tangle the night they met. That part felt good.
The end of her marriage was difficult mainly because Rita had to go back to herself. She couldn’t do as Billy did anymore, couldn’t let him dictate their every day. The first time she went to the coffee shop below her apartment, she spent five minutes weighing the menu before asking the barista to make whatever he liked best. He poured her an Americano and she learned by process of elimination what she didn’t like.
Mornings were the hardest. The sun hit her in the face, no curtains, and she would begin the excruciating process of starting each day. She’d lie there and look at waves of plaster on the wall without a clear thought of what to do next. She’d wait for something to approach her.
After the papers were signed, she heard from Billy once more. He’d stayed behind, still a handyman by the Périphérique. He sent an airmail letter from the same return address many months after she left. It was typewritten; he’d gotten an old Olivetti at a second-hand store in the city, he wrote.
Miss you, he said. Same old, same old here. Comme si, comme ça.
Rita kept the letter for a few days under the folded towels in the bathroom cupboard, then slipped it into the trash with runny eggshells and oatmeal and threw the bag into the garbage compactor at the end of the hall.
There was someone new. Rita ate with him at his kitchen table in front of a window open to the setting sun. They sat in late light and the trees were black and back-lit and the windows across the street shone opaque gold. He led her down the hallway to his bedroom. In the last of breezy summer, Paris might as well have been extrasolar, with its low ceiling of pale clouds in the mornings and the spiral staircases and park fountains. Billy too. And the Genvièves.