Josephine gasped and dropped the vegetable peeler. The blade had slipped on the potato and cut a long gash into her wrist. There was blood everywhere. She looked at her blue veins, the red streak, the white sink, the yellow plastic colander where the peeled white potatoes lay glistening. Leaning against the sink, she began to cry.
I need to cry, Josephine thought. I don't know why. There are plenty of reasons, and this one is as good as any. She grabbed a dishcloth and pressed it on the cut. I'm going to turn into a fountain of tears, a fountain of blood, a fountain of sighs. I'm going to let myself die.
That was one solution. Just die, without a word. Fade away, like a lamp slowly dimming.
I'll die standing here at the sink, she thought, then corrected herself. No one dies standing up. You die lying down, or with your head in the oven, or in the bathtub. She'd read in some newspaper that the most common form of suicide for women was jumping out the window. For men it was hanging. Jump out the window?
She could never do that. But to weep as she bled to death, unable to tell whether the liquid streaming out of her was red or white? To fall slowly asleep ...
Josephine took a deep breath, adjusted the dish towel on her wrist, choked back her tears, and stared at her reflection in the window.
Get on with it, she told herself, peel those potatoes. You can think about all that other stuff later.
It was a late May morning, and the thermometer read 82 degrees in the shade. Out on their fifth-floor balcony, Josephine's husband was playing chess against himself. Antoine worked hard to make it realistic, switching sides and picking up his pipe as he went. He hunched over the chessboard, blew out some smoke, lifted a piece, sucked on the pipe, put the piece back, exhaled again, picked up the piece again and moved it, shaking his head as he put the pipe down and went to sit in the other chair.
He was of average height, with brown hair and eyes. The crease of his trousers was razor sharp, and his shoes looked as if they had just come out of the box. His rolled-up shirtsleeves revealed slim forearms and wrists, and his nails had the luster of a professional manicure. He looked nicely groomed, the type of man you'd put in a furniture catalog to inspire confidence in the merchandise's quality.
Suddenly Antoine moved a piece, and a smile lit up his face.
"Checkmate!" he announced to his imaginary partner. "Poor guy, you're screwed. Never saw it coming!"
He got up, stretched, and decided to make himself a little drink, even though it wasn't quite that time yet.
He usually had a cocktail around six, while watching his favorite TV quiz show, Questions pour un champion. It had become a daily ritual, and he looked forward to it. Missing the show put him in a foul mood. Every evening he would tell himself that he should try out for the show himself, but things never went any further than that. He knew that he'd have to get past the elimination rounds, and something about the words elimination rounds chagrined him. He lifted the lid of the ice bucket, carefully dropped a couple of cubes into a glass, and poured himself a Martini Bianco.
Antoine followed the exact same routine every day. Up with the kids at seven, breakfast of whole-wheat toast, apricot jam with salted butter, and freshly squeezed orange juice. Next came a thirty-minute workout: back, stomach, abs, quads. Then the newspapers, which his daughters took turns bringing him before they left for school. This was followed by a careful perusal of the help-wanted ads and mailing his resume when he saw something interesting. Then a shower and shave, selecting his clothes for the day, and finally, a game of chess.
Choosing what to wear was his morning's most challenging moment. He had lost a sense of how to dress. Relaxed weekend style, or a suit and tie? One day he had thrown on some sweatpants, and his older daughter wasn't pleased when he picked her up at school.
"Aren't you working, Dad?" asked Hortense. "Are you still on vacation? I like it when you're all handsome in an elegant jacket, a nice shirt and tie. Don't ever pick me up from school in sweats again, okay?" Seeing Antoine's face fall, she softened her tone. "I'm saying this for your own good, so you'll always be the world's most handsome dad."
Hortense was right. People looked at him differently when he was well dressed.
The game of chess over, Antoine watered the plants along the edge of the balcony, picked off dead leaves, pruned the older branches, spritzed the new buds with water, turned the soil with a spoon, and added fertilizer. He was quite concerned about the white camellia. He spoke to it, took extra time caring for it, lovingly wiping each leaf.
It had been the same thing every morning for the past year. On this particular morning, however, he'd fallen behind schedule. The chess game had been unusually tough, and he had to be careful not to lose track of time.
"Watch it, Tonio, don't let yourself go," he said aloud. "Get your act together." He'd gotten used to talking to himself, and he frowned at the self-admonition. He decided to let the plants go for the day.
He passed the kitchen where Josephine was peeling potatoes. Seeing her from behind, he again noted that she was putting on weight. When they first moved to this suburban apartment building just outside Paris, she was tall and slim. Their daughters were so little, barely reached the edge of the sink. Those were the days. He would lift up her sweater, put his hands on her breasts, and whisper things in her ear until she gave in. Jo would bend down over the bed, smoothing the bedspread all the while so it wouldn't get rumpled.
Sundays, she would cook. Pots would be steaming on the stove, dishcloths drying on the oven door handle. Chocolate for a mousse would be melting in a double boiler. The kids shelled nuts or gave themselves mustaches with chocolate-covered fingers, then licked them off with the tips of their tongues.
Tenderly, Antoine and Josephine had watched the girls grow up. Every couple of months they would measure them, penciling their heights on the wall, which was soon laddered with little lines followed by dates and the girls' names, Hortense and Zoe.
Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol. Copyright 2006 by Editions Albin Michel – Paris Translation copyright 2013 by William Rodarmor and Helen Dickinson.