This is part of our special feature on Nationalism, Nativism, and the Revolt Against Globalization.
Do you know me? I am like everyone. A bit of a child, a gossip, a celebrity worshipper.
It’s no more defensible but a bit more comfortable to defend if you eschew the usual paparazzo-bait and couch the whole will in pop-sociology terms: historical tea leaf-reading or merely the human in the room’s unshakeable urge toward the narrative: how a low ball on the right and a high ball in the middle always require that low ball back on the left.
I think from time to time about that first kiss Brigitte Trogneux planted on a sixteen-year-old Emmanuelle Macron’s cheek. What was the light like? How long before the heat left the cheek?
As I write, he’s floundering I guess, but that was always going to happen. With these savvy incrementalists it seems almost the point: to use up the political capital as unpopularly as possible, to limp through to the finish line. Reasonable anything be damned, says the world now. We just want the ball back on the ground, on the right.
I know what kind of “kids these days” misanthropy that sounds like, but I’m not going to sit here and recount stats and anecdotes to prove it. This isn’t journalism. It’s my story now.
But first Macron, per Anne Fulda’s biography, Emmanuel Macron, un jeune homme si parfait: “It was at secondary school, through drama, that I met Brigitte. It was surreptitiously that things happened and that I fell in love. Through an intellectual bond, which day after day became ever closer. Then emerged a lasting passion.”
I have never slept with a teacher, but Noah has. One of the recent opioid crisis casualties from our high school in Ohio was once propositioned by a teacher, a gym substitute. It was prosecuted and everything.
He gave her a ride home and told her, “I like head.” Or that’s what I heard, at least.
I don’t think either of these teachers were married, but Trogneaux was. Does that actually change anything? The more marriages I see, the fewer I think there should be.
I did once take a job knowing full well that the married boss was going to try to sleep with me. But I needed the money, and I found her attractive, so.
And not long after my divorce, I spent two years on and off as “the other man.”
Maryse Vaillant, the late and controversial psychologist who famously claimed that husbands’ affairs are good for French marriages, offers this in the way of apologetics: “Often they respect, love and admire their wives and she is indispensable, but they feel they need little flings to fulfil their lives as men. They don’t bother much with feelings in affairs; they keep them for their wives. For a lot of men, it is easy to make this separation.”
There appears to be less writing on women who have affairs with single men, save the wish-fulfillment variety—Penthouse Letters, etc.
There was a stat in a years-old ABC News report (attributed only with the vague “some studies” epithet) that 21% of married men and 15% of married women cheat. Apparently, the number of cheating women has increased by 40% in the last two decades.
Never trust anyone who says “some studies” (but of course that’s only the beginning of who not to trust).
And then there’s this: the two years, on and off, I’ve spent as somebody’s “other man.”
I mean it in more than one way when I tell her I’m feeling like a toy.
Firstly, I get restless. As at the groggy floor of some lake forbidden lovers meet at, there are decades-old promotional figurines waiting to be newly re-excavated, to inspire, if not—as Don Draper famously taught us—“the pain of an old wound,” then perhaps a kitschier nostalgia at least. An ironic remark, uttered harrumpingly, about a time when “men were men,” though I think we mostly don’t want to be those men any more.
I think what’s called “communication” can’t help but slough some romance off.
Is that priggish? Conservative? Must I never be those? I am after all an American: all shame—quarter Catholic, quarter Puritan, half overanxious Jew.
But then romance isn’t love exactly, and when she says “fuck me” in the hotel bed or the roof of this month’s sublet or whichever stairwell we’ve happened upon, it’s not like I’m protesting. I turn over and do. But it feels more like dowdy machination than art or, as it were, “play.”
I’d say my self-doubting phases hover around the 80-percent-of-my-life arena. Do you know me? I’m like if Annie Hall weren’t funny.
In the midst of the worst of it, I feel like it might be me who’s the appendage, and maybe my desire is the guy—which, trust me, is not meant as a vote of confidence in the desire.
If romance isn’t love, sex obviously isn’t either.
Also not love is communication, to which we’ve mostly been relegated for some time because of my lover’s—husband? Maybe common law, but does that even exist anymore? Boyfriend? Not enough. Baby daddy? Problematic. The man, anyway, who told me from the balcony I could have her, then bloodied my nose on the front walk (indicating of course that I couldn’t).
And even if, after they excavate me from the lake, my potential beholder—maybe one of the forbidden lovers, even—demures at the mud I’m all covered in and snaps me back into the water (perhaps sweetly, in a mock-enthusiastic athletic display) I might live a few more hours in her browser history.
It’s not enough, but nothing ever is, and I’ll take it.
Or there’s what seems like it must be a paradox: the fact of “toys” being “used” by adults in a bedroom. Note the mingling of lexicons: “toy” from a whimsical realm, “used” from the obsolete jargon of labor.
The lovers take a toy and give each other directions.
On Facebook, they’re “domestic partners.” Yes, reader, I have written this in modernity. There is Facebook, unfortunately.
There are text messages, emoji, misinformation, unfunny Minion jpegs, Myers-Briggs results aplenty (ENFP here). There are no love letters per se anymore. We love with what we have, mainly iMessage. She’s got it set so new messages won’t show on the home screen.
More and more I feel like Dolores Paley, Anjelica Huston’s mistress-character in Crimes and Misdemeanors. It feels like there was a promise somewhere: the errant exchange of fantasies—good fantasies, life fantasies, not upsetting or guilt-inducing ones; or perhaps in the random news that she’s checked out an apartment, how she’s moving in that direction, the moving out direction.
I think we both like to perform the thing more than we actually like the thing.
It’s not the threat of violence. It’s the questions I’m expected to answer before the violence that bother me. All stemming from premises I don’t agree with, but what are you going to get into a debate with a man who just caught you making out with his “domestic partner?”
Did I know I was ruining his daughter’s life?
My actual answer? Eh, if you say so, though I think I just stood there and waited for the punch.
It was a long time before we began referring to him by name. We only started doing so because I swore I could handle it. Turns out: Nah, doesn’t feel good.
When I asked this elder poet, with her wisdom and her Guggenheim, if we were supposed to understand love, she took me by the shoulders and said she didn’t know. I think the implication was, “Please stop it, you’re killing my buzz.”
Or how about the question of whether the paramour is someone you’d want to admit to loving in the first place—whether you’ll carry out the supposed plan, leave the first guy, and then just go right ahead and leave the paramour too, once the mission of disruption is over? Perhaps I may only be loved “as one loves certain dark things / secretly, between the shadow and the soul.”
I always thought that poem seemed tactical, less beautiful than everyone swears it is.
Neruda saying, “Baby I can’t love you in public. Don’t you know our love goes deeper than that?” One wonders what Neruda’s lover looked like. Clearly, he was the one with the power there.
Why are we still calling it “cheating” like it’s a juking of numbers?
It occurs to me that it might be a throwback to the “marriage-as-transfer-of-property” era—goods being siphoned through a certain secret hole in the container.
There is, you may have realized, no explicitly masculine equivalent in English for the word “mistress.” This appears to be the case in French too, but the less pejorative “lover” (“amant”) is gendered in the masculine. I don’t think this gendering carries much weight. In Spanish, “dress” (“vestido”) is a masculine noun. In the Google translation of Maryse Vaillant’s French Wikipedia page, you find sentences like “She lived in Paris for many years, with his only daughter, Judith Leroy.” And, “in 2006, breast cancer is diagnosed him and underwent a mastectomy.”
Gender confusion is everywhere in the Romance languages and perhaps that’s why the men of those cultures are better poets and dancers and thinkers and, reputedly, lovers, but also tend to be branded with problematic machismo paradigms: Pepé Le Pew book-ending his stomach-churning advances with poetry. Or the maybe-casual sexism inherent in Sartre’s paper on self-deception. The major example, naturally, is a woman on a date.
“But then suppose he takes her hand. This act of her companion risks changing the situation by calling for an immediate decision. To leave the hand there is to consent in herself to flirt, to engage herself. To withdraw it is to break the troubled and unstable harmony which gives the hour its charm. The aim is to postpone the moment of decision as long as possible. We know what happens next; the young woman leaves her hand there, but she does not notice that she is leaving it. She does not notice because it happens by chance that she is at this moment all intellect.”
Actually, now that I re-read it, that sounds about right. Less paternalistic wink than clear-eyed acknowledgement—gendered in this case, but not on the whole.
I’m not sure I’m not being problematic. Quoi de neuf?
I first watched Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses with my ex-wife. Before it was finished, she demanded we turn it off. “Why do you only watch movies about affairs?” she asked. She was obsessed with the idea that I was having an affair.
“That’s all the French make,” is what I should have answered, I know.
A continuation of Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical The Four Hundred Blows, the film follows an early-twenties Antoine Doinel as he is expelled from the army for insubordination and stumbles into a job as a private detective.
When Christine Darbon, an age-appropriate love interest from Antoine’s youth, is asked by her father to guess Antoine’s new profession, it devolves into a little game.
“Poet?” she asks, seemingly sincerely.
“Worse,” her father says.
“Worse?” she asks, with a not unkind look of surprise.
What happened is we both moved to New York from another state, the same state, to be poets (in the way one becomes an artist now, not by making art but by entering graduate school). We’d known each other, and lived for a time in the same neighborhood of the less interesting state, but you wouldn’t say we were friends. Once I ran into her in a coffee shop and she offered to buy me a coffee (I accepted). We’d gone to a number of the same readings, had read together a few times, but we did not know each other well. Once or twice, I saw them walking around the neighborhood. She and him. One or the other pushing the daughter in a stroller.
She once recounted something I’d said the first night we met: that I thought she had a beautiful mouth. I hadn’t known about him at the time. Later, she said, she’d had a laugh with her friends about it.
Before the affair began, before New York, I remembered her in the coffee shop, or as the pretty lipstick girl—her real name vaguely attaching over time, but no intentions. Not because I was so coy or polite. She just seemed like something so divorced from possible, intention was moot.
One morning, in the boring state, she and I took a mutual friend from out of state to a boozy lunch. They were both older. They thought it funny and a little pitiable that I seemed to fall in love with every girl we passed. Like the beautiful mouth remark, this embarrasses me now.
“Like Pepé Le Pew,” no one said, but some truth to it, right?
Throughout Stolen Kisses, Antoine holds a total of five jobs, the army gig, a short-lived night shift at a hotel’s front desk, and, in his capacity as private investigator, an undercover position of shoe clerk, where he’s been assigned to uncover the source of the owner’s unpopularity.
“Nobody likes me and I’d like to know why,” says Georges Tabard, and then, preempting the suggestion of psychoanalysis: “I won’t waste my time lying on a couch, talking about my childhood.” In this way, the hiring of a detective might be considered an outsourcing of psychoanalysis.
“Find not what is wrong with me” Tabard seems to be saying. “But what is wrong with the world that does not love me.”
Antoine will also repair televisions, but that comes later.
The ABC News report on infidelity also quotes a woman named Wendy Plump, whose memoir Vow is a post-mortem of her eighteen-year marriage, focusing on her and her husband’s multiple affairs. She says, “Women cheat because they believe that they’re missing something. For men, it seems like they want to cheat because they want to sleep with someone else. It’s less an emotional thing.”
Perhaps this is another case of Neruda’s tactical sollipsism. Another gendered alignment of sympathies, or maybe I simply read tone where there is none.
Which is worse? To entangle potentially-unwilling others in your emotional trials or to be overly horny and short-sighted? Which does Wendy Plump think is worse? First I think I’d rather it be one, then I think the other.
When he falls in love with Fabienne, Georges Tabard’s wife, Antoine ditches Christine. She shows up at the shoe store asking where he’s gone. “Love and friendship go hand in hand with admiration,” he says. “And I don’t admire you.”
It’s been clear since their first encounter how much Antoine admires the elder Fabienne, with her delicate coiff, her timelessly cutting-edge style, her ease and her beautiful mouth.
Fabienne later overhears the stock girls at the shop chatting about Antoine’s crush on her, and the face she gives is one of hurt curiosity. She is stopped in her tracks with a serious look, no hint of Lady MacBeth, no devious plan unraveling. She seems to be wondering not “What can I do about this boy’s little crush,” but “How could I have been so cruel?”
Is it cruel of a woman to be admirable? The question makes me think of neckbeards, the dominant “men’s rights” advocates whose politics seem to be so much a rebellion against their bad luck in love.
I do not believe I am mistress material. Mistresses are not to get too attached. They are to respect the rules. Mistresses are not to fall in love or worse, spend all their time wondering if they have fallen in love. They are not to prod at the thing constantly, nor should they wonder if the love is still there, or if they’ve been kidding themselves the whole time about love.
Imagine how stupid that paragraph would be if instead of “mistresses” we’d used the neutral “lovers.”
“Lovers are not to fall in love, etc . . .”
There were about five minutes where the thought of an affair seemed kind of hot, but when it happens, you realize how slight it is. All this to quickly down two glasses of wine in some rigidly freed-up slot and push into bed together, to know we haven’t set any kind of groundwork, that we’ve had no time to make it feel right. And also no mornings, no sweetly noxious breath, no boredom and not enough rain—desires that, like the carnal ones, embarrass me.
How can desire not embarrass a man who gives it any thought? When Antoine takes up with a prostitute in the early part of the movie, he is all Pepé Le Pew, bee-lining behind her, clopping a hand to her breast. She decides she will keep her shirt on and he dashes out without a word.
It is not altogether clear if Madame Tabard is yet seducing Antoine when she shuffles through the records in the apartment she shares with her husband, and asks him, “Do you like music, Antoine?” But of course that seems to be his fear.
Bumbling, he mistakenly calls her “monsieur” in his affirmative response, then spills his coffee and again dashes off.
She writes him, telling a little joke about a man who’s accidentally walked in on a naked woman. The polite response, she says, is “Pardon me, ma’am.”
The tactful response is, “Pardon me sir.”
Eh, if you say so.
When he writes her back, fearfully retracting his affection, she wastes no time, waking him the next morning at his crummy apartment, suggesting they spend a few hours together and then, regardless of how it goes, never see each other again.
It does not appear to be Truffaut’s purpose, but it occurs to me as the ultimate cruelty, but then I am American, and it seems the French are far better at letting the head lead the heart.
At my divorce, the judge seemed impressed and thankful that my wife and I hadn’t made any major investments together. “Looks like there are not a lot of entanglements,” she said.
“I wish Josh the best,” said my not-just-yet ex-wife, surprising me.
Joshua Kleinberg has lived in seven American states, most recently West Virginia. His writing has appeared in The Miami New Times, The Real Deal, Publishers Weekly and The South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He’s working on a novel set in Miami.
Published on February 1, 2018.