Portraits of a Marriage
By Sandor Marai
Hardcover, 384 pages
List Price: $27.95
Look, see that man? Wait! turn your head away, look at me, keep talking. I wouldn't like it if he glanced this way and spotted me; I don't want him to greet us. Now you can look again . . . The little squat one there in the fur-collared coat? No, of course not. It's the tall, pale-faced one in the black overcoat talking to that blond stick of a girl behind the counter. He is just having some candied orange peel wrapped. Strange, he never bought me candied orange peel.
What's that, dear? . . . Nothing. Wait, I have to blow my nose.
Has he gone? Tell me when he has gone.
He's paying now? . . . Can you see what his wallet looks like? Describe it carefully; I don't want to look that way. Is it brown crocodile skin? Yes? Oh, I'm so pleased.
Why am I pleased? Just because. Well, yes, of course, I gave him the wallet, for his birthday. Ten years ago. Was I in love with him? . . . That's a hard question, dear. Yes, I believe I did love him. Has he gone yet?
Good, I'm glad he's gone. Wait, I must powder my nose. Does it show that I have been crying? . . . It's stupid, I know, but see how stupid people can be? My heart still beats faster when I see him. Can I tell you who he is? I can tell you, darling, it's no secret. That man was my husband.
Come on, let's get some pistachio ice cream. I really can't understand why people say you can't eat ice cream in winter. I love this patisserie best in winter for the ice cream. There are times I almost believe that anything possible to be done should be done, not just because it's good or makes sense, simply because it's possible. For some years now in any case, ever since I've been alone, I've enjoyed coming here between five and seven in the winter. I like the crimson decor, the Victorian furnishings, the old waitresses, the big metropolitan square beyond the shop window, watching the customers arrive. There's a sort of warmth about it all, just a touch of fin-de-siecle. And there's no better tea anywhere, have you noticed? . . . I know the new generation of women don't go to patisseries. They prefer espressos, places where you have to rush, where there are no comfortable chairs, where it costs forty filler for one black coffee, where they can eat salad for lunch, that's how it is now. But it's not my world. What I want is refined patisseries like this, with such furniture, with crimson carpets, with their ancient countesses and princesses, their mirrored cupboards. As you may imagine, I'm not here every day, but I do call in during the winter and feel comfortable here. My husband and I used to meet here pretty regularly, about six o'clock, at teatime, after he finished at the office.
Oh yes, he was on his way home from the office just now. It's twenty after seven, his home time. I am familiar with every part of his routine, even now, as if it were his life I was living. At five minutes before six he rings for the office boy who brushes him down and presents him with his hat and coat, and he leaves the office, sending the car ahead so he can walk behind it and get some air. He doesn't do much walking, that's why he is so pale. Or there may be some other reason, I don't know now. I don't know the reason because I never see him, don't talk to him, haven't talked to him for three years. I don't like those prissy little separations where the two parties walk arm-in-arm from the court, dine together at that famous restaurant in the park, are tender and solicitous toward each other as if nothing had happened and then, after divorce and dinner, go their own ways. I'm not that sort of woman: my morality, my blood pressure won't allow it. I don't believe that men and women can be good friends after divorce. Marriage is marriage; divorce, divorce. That's what I think.
But what do you think? True, you've never been married.
I don't think that relationships people have entered on and nurtured for decades, vows they have unthinkingly kept, are empty formalities, you see. I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I think divorce is a kind of sacrilege. That's how I was brought up. But I believe it anyway, not just because of my upbringing, but because my religion demands that I believe it. I believe it because I am a woman and a divorce is no mere formality for me any more than the ritual in the church before the registrar is a formality: either it binds people together, body and soul, for once and for all, or it divides them, absolutely, and sends them their utterly separate ways. Not for one minute did I console myself with the thought that my husband and I would remain "friends" after our divorce. He was courteous, of course, and remained concerned for me, and generous too, as custom dictates that he should be. Not me, though. I was neither polite nor generous. I even took the piano, yes, as was my right. I was furious for revenge, and would happily have taken the whole house, right down to the curtains—everything. The moment we divorced I became his enemy and I remain so, as I will till the day I die. I don't want a friendly invitation to dinner at the restaurant in the park from him; I don't want to play the little woman, to be delicate, to be someone who visits her ex-husband's home and looks after things when the servant steals his linen. I wouldn't care if they stole the lot, everything, nor would I rush over to him if I heard he was ill. Why? Because we are divorced, you understand? It's not something to which one can become resigned.
Wait, I withdraw what I just said about him being ill. I wouldn't want him to fall ill. If he did I would visit him in the sanatorium. What are you laughing at? Are you laughing at me? Do you think I'm hoping he'll fall ill so I can visit him? Well, of course I hope that. As long as I have hope, I will carry on hoping. But I wouldn't want him to be too ill. He was so very pale, did you notice? . . . He has been pale like that for some years now.
I'll tell you everything. Have you got the time? Sadly, I have all too much.
Excerpted from Portraits of a Marriage by Sandor Marai. Copyright 2011 by Sandor Marai. Published by Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All Rights Reserved.