A bell rung, a door opened: Mme Reynard. Frances had prepared herself to face off against a roomful of impeccably dressed French women of high social standing. It was to be a night of implied insults and needling insinuations and she could hardly wait to get started. But the woman standing before them wore slacks and a baggy sweater, and she smiled and spoke English in an American accent. “Oh, hey, you made it!” She ushered them in, took their coats, and led them through the apartment to the dining room. The table was set for three; Frances experienced a lesser horror.
“We’re not early?” she said.
“No, right on time.”
“Where are the others?”
“There are no others but us,” said Mme Reynard. “Would either of you like a martini? I’ve been waiting all day for mine.”
“I would like a martini,” said Malcolm.
“Frances?” said Mme Reynard.
Frances nodded, and Mme Reynard left to prepare the drinks. Frances turned to Malcolm. “What the fuck is going on here?” she asked, and Malcolm shrugged. He sat and waited for his drink while Frances moved around the dining room to assess the furnishings and artworks, hopeful these would be lacking in some way. Mme Reynard had passable taste, however, and Frances, seeing no exploitable weakness, sat beside Malcolm at the dinner table. Mme Reynard returned with the martinis on a tray.
The three of them drank and Malcolm and Mme Reynard made approving noises but Frances only stared. When Mme Reynard said, “I’m so happy you came,” Frances didn’t respond. The silence felt hostile; Mme Reynard thought to combat it with biographical information. “I married a Frenchman in my twenties,” she explained. “There was nothing keeping me in the States, so when he wanted to return to Paris, I went along with it. He died this summer, and afterward I realised our friends were actually his friends, and that not only did I not like them, but they didn’t like me, either. Haven’t seen a single one of them since the funeral. I don’t miss them particularly, but I miss the noise they made. at’s why I invited you over, because I’m lonely.”
Frances felt burdened, even revolted by the admission. “How’d your husband die?” she asked.
“He choked to death.”
“That’s a new one.”
“It was a very ugly thing.”
Frances scoffed and sipped her martini. Mme Reynard was watching her. “Please don’t be cruel to me,” she said. “It was difficult to get up the nerve to invite you over.”
Frances said, “I suppose I don’t see why we’re here, is all.”
“Just that I was curious to meet you. Of course, I know who you are. I grew up in New York City, and we’re the same age, about. We all thought you were so wonderful, my friends and I.”
“So wonderful. And so, I hoped we could become friends.”
“I appreciate that. But the fact is that I have no need of friends in my life at the moment.”
“Everyone needs friends,” Mme Reynard said.
“No, that’s actually not true.”
“Well,” said Mme Reynard. “I’m sorry to hear that that’s the way you feel. But you’re here now, and I’ve made a cassoulet, and I vote we make the best of it. What do you think? Malcolm? Shall we make the best of it?”
Malcolm said, “Yes.”
“Fine,” said Mme Reynard. “Will you have another martini before the wine?”
“Yes, please,” said Malcolm.
Mme Reynard went away again. Malcolm told Frances, “You’re being a dick.”
“Isn’t it awful?” Frances gripped her hands into fists. “I’m sorry. I’ll stop.”
When Mme Reynard came back, Frances thanked her for the drink. She was sitting upright, her features were softer, and she became inquisitive.
“So, Mme Reynard, what do you do every day?”
“Oh, what a terrible question,” Mme Reynard said. “Since my husband died I’ve become something of the tourist. Museums, opera, ballet.”
“Didn’t he like to do those types of things?”
“No, and neither did I, and neither do I, but I don’t know how else to pass the time.” She pointed at Frances. “Do you know, he died in that very chair.”
Frances suddenly became aware of the chair’s dimensions. It was an exciting thing to know and she was happy she’d been told about it.
“What did he choke on?” she asked.
“And have you eaten lamb since?”
“No. But, you know, I never liked lamb much in the first place.”
“I don’t either. The gamy meats somehow summon the fact of the animal’s existence, which puts me in mind of its death.” “I’ve never thought of it before.”
“Whereas a steak is simply a steak.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“May I ask if you prepared the lamb?”
“No, it was our cook.”
“It would have been all the worse if you’d made it.”
The women relaxed into their drinks. Mme Reynard asked, “And you? I understand you’ve only just arrived. What have you been keeping yourself busy with? How are you?”
“I’m all right, thank you.”
“What did you do today?”
“Nothing whatsoever. Yesterday I had the telephone line revitalised.”
“Had it gone dead on you?”
“Yes, so I had it revitalised, and then I had a second line put in.”
“Oh? What for?”
“Malcolm and I like to speak from our beds.”
“Isn’t that nice?”
“I suppose it is. Though I fear it may be sad. Or perhaps it’s simply strange? But you should have seen the man who came to do the work of it. He was very put out by the fact of the second line.”
“He claimed it frivolous. When I protested he said I would have to call his superior. When I asked how I might do that without a phone he told me it wasn’t his problem to solve. I pointed out that it absolutely was his problem to solve, though he didn’t seem to understand what I meant in the moment. He was not, I don’t think, the smartest telephone installer in Paris, France.”
“He finally did put in the one line, and I had him wait while I called his superior to make my case for the second. The superior asked why I should want such a thing and I told him that at a certain point each night, before sleep comes, I find myself feeling d’humeur orageuse.”
Mme Reynard made a searching face. “You feel rainy?” she asked.
“Stormy. Then I told him that when I felt d’humeur orageuse, it was good for me to hear Malcolm’s voice, that it comforted me. And the man, who had not been hugely friendly up to this point, suddenly softened, and he said he understood what I meant, and asked that I should put the telephone installer back on the line. The telephone installer received his reprimand and he did eventually put in the second line, but he was outraged by the loss of face and behaved with the most unsightly petulance. I tried to bring him a cup of tea but he wouldn’t take it. And you should have seen the paperwork he made me fill out for him, it was thick as a dictionary.”
“The French love their red tape, don’t they?”
“They’d eat it on a plate if they could.”
“They would, they really would.”
Malcolm was bored by the conversation and excused himself to search for something to steal. Finding nothing, he moved to the kitchen to replenish his vodka. He located the bottle in the freezer; just beside this was a hefty, flesh-coloured, frost-coated dildo. He stared at it a moment, then poured himself a vodka and returned to the dining room. Soon Mme Reynard excused herself to use the bathroom; in a controlled voice, Malcolm told Frances, “Go look in the freezer.”
She did go look, returning in forty-five seconds with a far-away expression on her face. “I’ve never understood them,” she said.
“What’s to understand?”
“Is it something one uses alone or with someone there to help?”
She tapped her chin. “But why would you want it cold?”
“That’s the mystery.”
Frances shivered and took herself up in her arms. Mme Reynard entered the room on deliberate footsteps. The vodka had snuck up on her and she was struggling to maintain her composure. “I think I’m a little bit crocked,” she said. “Malcolm, would you mind serving the cassoulet?”
“Not at all.”
“I’m sure I’ll scald myself if I try it. It’s all ready for you in the kitchen.”
Malcolm exited. Mme Reynard had a long drink of her martini. “It becomes like water, doesn’t it?”
“It’s better than water,” said Frances.
Mme Reynard was amused by the statement. She felt very gay, because the catastrophic evening had repaired itself. She swirled her finger in her glass and stuck it in her mouth and asked, “Is it true that you’ve lost everything?”
“Yes,” said Frances.
“And what have you got in the way of plans, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’ve only just made plans last week but I don’t think I should speak of them. Fresh plans – you know.”
“You want to give them time to run up?” “Yes.”
“Mustn’t take them out of the oven too soon.”
“I understand completely. You know, I don’t think there’s anything better for morale than fresh plans.”
“Yes, I agree. I’ve felt so much better since I made them.” “Isn’t that nice? Oh, but I wish you’d give me a hint.”
“I’m sorry; I mustn’t.”
“I’m sure it will all come off stylishly, knowing you.” She stared. “I need to make some plans myself, actually. Perhaps I’ll simply copy yours, whenever they come to light.”
“You could do worse.”
“I’m certain I could do far worse.” Mme Reynard became still, then brightened. “May I share a recollection I have of you?”
Mme Reynard said, “It must have been twenty years ago, in the months after your husband’s death. I was eating with a group at Le Cirque, and a man at my table had had dealings with your husband and was not at all enamoured of him. He’d actually been speaking poorly of him when you came in. You looked so smart, I couldn’t help but stare. We were all staring. As you passed the table, the man stopped you and said, ‘Mrs. Price, I knew your husband well. And it’s all I can do not to dance on his grave.’ Do you remember it?”
“I don’t, no. What did I say to him?”
“That’s the thing. You didn’t say a word. You drank his drink.”
Frances nodded. She remembered now, distantly.
“Straight scotch,” said Mme Reynard, “and you drank it down in a gulp and then stared at him with a look of absolute indifference. You were the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen and the poor fool didn’t know what to do with himself.”
The women both were smiling. Frances said, “I’m sorry I was rude before. My life has fallen completely to pieces and I’m upset about it.”
“I know just what you mean.”
“Yes, perhaps you do, after all. Oh, look, here comes Malcolm with our dinner.”
Excerpted with permission from French Exit, Patrick deWitt, Bloomsbury.