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Authors: Isabel Fonseca

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BOOK: Attachment
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Isabel Fonseca

To Martin

sudden sinking
of the spirits—life sadness, Aminata called it—was explained among the Liberians on the island as a problem of open

she’d said, pouring cold shampoo onto the crown of Jean’s head, “you know, the fontanel”—the spot on the skull that remains unsealed for the first weeks of life, soft essentials pulsing under silky new skin. Aminata Dia, proud proprietress of St. Jacques’ only beauty parlor, traced slow circles around Jean’s scalp. She worked her way outward, big shoulders raised, and then back in, elbows down, her strong hands lost in lather stiff and thick as beaten egg whites.

“Problem be
when she open again and you are grown—through the
trouble pour in straight down. You let it out, you tell Aminata, and the
she closes shut again.”

Jean had gotten a column out of this conversation her first week on the island. She’d found it harder to file than to write—the humid phone lines fizzed and crackled and sometimes cut out altogether. But when she finally succeeded in e-mailing the piece to the editor of
magazine from an Internet café in town, her satisfaction was only increased by these difficulties. She loved everything about the island: patchy connections were a liberation from the phone, while the Internet café, with its sandy floor and sleeping dogs blocking the entrance, offered a seductive relief from her natural solitude, allowing her to be in a group yet remain alone.

Working on the island was a breeze; Mark had been right about that. “A hot and sultry breeze,” he’d said, “with material for your column falling from the palms like coconuts.” Certainly enough of them littered their place on the hill, the abandoned office of an old tin mine above Grand Baie. Mark always needed a project, and St. Jacques had been his. “What’s the point,” as he’d put it, “of owning your own firm if it enslaves you?” He ran one of the most innovative ad agencies in London, and his hunt for the subversive was so broad and so remorseless that he called himself Interpol. The move would automatically lead to discoveries, he believed, indeed to whole spheres of discovery. Jean, too, was relatively freewheeling: she wrote a syndicated health column and, so long as she filed her 1,150 words every other Wednesday, she could live on Mars.

Much better, though, to have landed on tiny St. Jacques, a speck in the Indian Ocean. The small scale greatly appealed to Jean: the miniature rain forest and the lone big town of Toussaint, the string of demi-hamlets connected by a single red-dirt ring road, the jammed markets, the friendly, nondesperate people, the bright and thrillingly imperiled birdlife… Over three months, she’d been luxuriating in this prolonged junket with sunshine and copy, all of it as manageable as a diorama. Until now.

The slow wooden fan did little to dispel the heat in the waiting room of the women’s health clinic. Jean looked at the alien form she’d been given to fill out; she found it hard to focus. Instead she thought about the open
and pretended not to
stare at the lady sitting opposite her—a big, solid woman like Aminata, in tribal dress. She must have five yards of fabric wrapped around her head, Jean thought, resisting a desire to reach across and touch it—test the construction of a headpiece more osprey’s nest than turban.

To avoid her own churning thoughts, Jean tried to guess where the woman had come from—West Africa for sure, but Senegal, like Aminata? Not Liberia or Sierra Leone? Jean was becoming a refined cataloger of islanders—the small community of exiled West Africans, the scattered enclaves of East Africans, Indians from the subcontinent, Christians and Muslims and Hindus. Most people were a mix, though there was a segregated group of Chinese, descendants of indentured laborers, and, at the northernmost tip of the island, a settlement of “Frenchmen”—whites of distant European origin. Jean herself was a deep, angry-baby pink, and not only because of the unusual heat that day; her cheeks blazed with the shock of the morning, when she’d blundered into heavy knowledge.

Jean had found the letter buried in a new shipment of old mail—the magazines and travel-worn invitations for cocktail parties, charity dos, and client lunches, all long past by the time they traveled six thousand miles to reach the Hubbards.

Every month, Christian, the stoned mailman, chugged up the road on his gold home-painted moped. He carried the bag diagonally across his back just as the women of St. Jacques tied on their babies. Christian’s baby was his hair: the twenty-inch loaf like an overgrown sea sponge, lovingly swaddled in a rainbow sock.

She’d spotted him from the kitchen window where she stood slicing papaya. Wiping her hands on her apron, she went out the front door and stood there, her open smile and hands on hips, framed by two pink hibiscus bushes in full bloom.

“Bonjour, Madame Oobahd,” Christian shouted from the driveway. “How does our perfect day find the lady of the house?”

“Never better,” she answered. He pulled right up to the front door and grinned to show his gold tooth. Jean had reviewed that morning a hundred times: How Christian had risen ceremoniously from his gilt chariot and leaned toward her, stroking his goatee and supporting himself with one arm on the wall of the house. She knew he would not have stood so close if Mark was at the door beside her—six foot four in bare feet and striking with his grayed hair swept back, wind-eroded dune grass above the expanding beach of his still boyish face.

No, Christian would not have lingered, spreading that smile of the busy seducer she had no reason to doubt he was. Never mind the fat joint tucked behind his ear; Jean remembered thinking that his pressed shirt saved him from coming across as seedy.

The fresh breeze, the hibiscus, the sun warming her bare shoulders; it was April Fool’s Day, and what a glorious hallucination this was, Jean thought, watching as Christian—and, one beat behind, his crocheted hair cocoon—bumped back down the track and out of sight. She wondered if smoking pot would be a good idea and if she could ask him for some. Hugging the bag, she turned into the house.

“Ah. Disposable rubbish, conveniently packaged in its own bin liner,” Mark had said, cheerful as the salesman he was, taking the plastic sack off Jean and leading her out to the terrace at the back of the house. From there you could see the best of the long, sloping, coconut-strewn garden and beyond—past
the gated wall at the property’s edge, down to the red-dirt road and all the way out to the blue hills, rising in the west. The ocean, which you couldn’t see from the house, was just beyond those smoky hills. Most foreigners came for St. Jacques’ white beaches, but Jean and Mark agreed, the more time you spent here, the more you liked the look of the interior: verdant, wild, unvisited. For now, all eyes were on the bag, which Mark lowered onto the table as if he was presenting a magnificent roast. Still standing, he sliced into it with the serrated knife. Jean glanced over the spoils, enjoying the performance, and went back inside to get coffee.

“Milk’s off!” she called through the kitchen window. “Lemon tea? Or have it black?”

“Black’s fine,” Mark replied, taking a large bite of bread overloaded with blueberry jam and starting to sift through the magazines. Here was everything that couldn’t be dispatched by e-mail, couriered to them by Mark’s not-very-discriminating secretary, Noleen, along with the mail from Albert Street. Still, when all you could get on St. Jacques were soggy copies of last season’s—no, last

Paris Match,
this delivery radiated the festive anticipation of a piñata, and neither Jean nor Mark was indifferent to its spell.

Waiting for the coffee to filter, Jean watched through the window as Mark sorted the magazines. He didn’t have his glasses on, but they both knew what they’d find: the
Atlantic Monthly
and the
New Yorker
(hers), the
(his and, for the crossword, hers),
Private Eye
(his), the
New Statesman
(hers, for the weekly competitions), and a stack of
The Week
(theirs). She knew he’d go straight to
The Week
and, in particular, to the UK weather report—hoping for rain. “The raison d’être,” he’d said, “of every Englishman abroad.” Leaving untouched her copies of
American Health
Modern Maturity,
the geriatric journals she combed for column ideas, he returned to the house on the daily hunt for his reading glasses.

Jean had dressed carefully—that morning she had an appointment down at the women’s clinic. Later she’d wonder about the instinct—best foot forward in a crisis. The checked dirndl with the shiny curved belt, the crisp-collared sleeveless shirt. If you didn’t make an effort around here, you were soon living in a tablecloth. As Mark said, the sarong was the tropical tracksuit.

“Mmmm. And where are you off to this morning, Lois Lane?” he said, amused, pausing at the French windows to let her pass. Jean slid carefully by, balancing the coffee tray. As she brushed past she winked at him. He was unshaven, she noticed, and barely belted into his blue cotton robe. A glob of black jam stuck to the corner of his mouth. He was often daubed by the end of breakfast, she thought with affection, though never at dinner, as if eating had to be learned from scratch, each day.

“Date,” she replied, deadpan, glad he’d forgotten this routine mammogram. Bad enough to have your breasts intentionally crushed without also having everyone else imagining it happen.

She was immediately drawn to the tape-sealed envelope with Mark’s name on it. She hadn’t opened it surreptitiously, or in error, or even out of any special curiosity about the contents; this was a simple and greedy urge to open the one real letter in the bag. But having opened it, Jean was put on immediate alert, for the sheet of paper inside was not addressed to Mark, or not, anyway, to a Mark she recognized. Hopeless handwriting, she had time to think, as she cast an eye over the unschooled jumble of cursive and caps at a left-handed slant.

Dear Thing 1,

GREETINGS FROM DOWN UNDER! Missing you already, Sexy Beast. You looked older. Tan covering more of your face! But I’m older too. 26 this week! Still, more proposals than ever, if possible. Did you find me older and wiser? Aged to perfection, ripe for eating? Or just older and DIRTIER?

I’m going to send you a reminder to drool over, you unbelievably filthy old man, if your not too senile to open the attachment. But these sweet thighs be 4 YOUR EYES ONLY and so I have created a beautiful new account for you. (I don’t think the office one is a good idea) Your pleasure address is: [email protected]. Naughtyboy already taken, of course…but I promise, not by me! The subject will be 69. How could I resist? You gorgeous gargantuan, remember to wash hands before returning to work. Ciao bello!

XXX Thing 2

Ps the password is M——. A test: to see if you can guess. A suck-u-lent plant whose seeds are used for food, remember? MM-mmmm.

Jean looked up from the letter and met the black eye of a chameleon frozen on the wall of the house. The long tail was a loose spiral, the same pattern as the lizard tattoo their daughter, Victoria, recently had punctured into the dip of her pelvis (so the lizard would look like it was peeping out of her underpants?). On the wall, the dull green creature was utterly still, a brooch to match the tattoo, no more lifelike. But as Jean continued to stare, wanting to be able to report all its features to her daughter, she saw that it was panting—rapid, shallow breaths. Then, with surprising and revolting suddenness and speed, it shot away into a crack. So much that’s surprising and revolting, she thought, and it was only breakfast time.

Trying to keep calm, she revisited her day so far. The elaborate outfit, the mail drop, the rotten milk. She felt depressed, foolish, and hot in her city clothes. Pathetic, how she’d basked in Christian’s attentions. Now, finally, she realized—he’d been waiting for a tip. Of course! Mark had wildly overtipped him the last time he came. And why had she
? If there was one gesture she hated it was this, the knowing cuteness of it. Jean knew she was delaying any true reckoning with what the letter might mean, but she could chart an immediate adjustment in her outlook. Already Mark, still inside the house, was transfigured; for example, that blob of jam: suddenly it was the opposite of endearing.

Sitting on the terrace, listening to the parrots shrieking in the eucalyptus trees, Jean thought of the other Mrs. Hubbard, Mark’s mother. The woman who worshipped her son, permitted him everything, and had probably wiped his mouth so often he’d never gotten the hang of it. There was a certain helplessness in him, and an indifference to other people—such as leaving his boxers on the bathroom floor, inches from the laundry hamper—that always made Jean think, Mrs. H. The old snob with her groundless sense of superiority… She’d never truly acknowledged her American daughter-in-law and sneered, Jean knew, at the idea that Mark might pick up his own clothes—evidence of his wife’s laziness, as far as Mrs. H. was concerned, or, worse, her pretentious feminism.

So she found herself blaming Mrs. H. for this letter as well. Though of course she knew—underpants, hampers, and sticky mouths aside—Mark’s ancient mother, however limited, wasn’t responsible for any feature of their marriage. And as she groped around for an explanation, she grasped within herself a change
that was basic, mineral, beyond the realm of mere disappointment. The day was only hours old and already she was curdling inside, helpless to stop the contamination from spreading. She needed to get out of these ridiculous clothes, to get away from the table, from Mark, to be alone.

She ran into the house as he was coming back out. “What the—
ling?” he said, frowning as she pushed past. Ten minutes later, freshly composed in a white linen sundress and ready to walk over to the table and toss the letter onto his plate, she stood at the window and saw that Mark, midyawn, was rising to leave. Jean registered that he’d moved past his flicker of concern, and she hesitated. He gathered himself up, idly twirling a few chest hairs in his fingers, reading as he walked, and, still reading, disappeared through the side door with at least two further copies of
The Week
underarm. Her plan, and possibly all her courage, had been derailed by his morning shit.

BOOK: Attachment
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