Juliette takes the familiar curve toward home, gliding through the sun-dappled foliage of Alpine foothills in midsummer. She is tonguing the scab of an old thought, a thing left undone. The natural gas inlet pipe for their water heater is electrified – said with many grimaces and much swearing by the man who installed the new unit years ago. She thinks of it often.
It’s dangerous, said the technician, showing her repeatedly and incredulously that he can raise a spark with his screwdriver. He theatrically winced and ejected an ah! as he touched the pipe, and seemed angry at her equanimity. She had lived in the house for many years, apparently always with this danger, and it had not exploded yet. Some idiot has used the pipe as the ground for a socket. You need to have an electrician come at once and fix this. Do you understand? he asked, as she looked on and did not react. It’s very dangerous. Juliette nodded to placate him, lips pursed and brows knit. She offered to turn off the current at the breaker. He waved away the thought in disgust, and he grumbled and shook away stings as he worked.
Today, her reverie is broken by flashing blue lights. She slows to a stop facing the back door of a police sedan. It is settled at a diagonal across the lanes. There is the shoulder of an officer, a newspaper spread-eagled across the dash.
The delay turns Juliette’s mind to the incriminating bouquet and her ticking clock. She takes a deep breath to calm herself. She pulls up the parking brake and rolls down the window. ‘Hey!’ she cries. ‘Hey!’
The policeman only turns the page of the newspaper. He does not seem to hear.
Juliette snorts in exasperation. She heaves open the door. Her feet are not ready for the incline of the road, and she wobbles a bit as she stands. The door is a friend. She smooths the Prussian blue of her cotton dress.
The heat is oppressive after her air-conditioned coupe. The scent of pine hangs heavy. The air hardly stirs.
The officer is shocked as though struck when she knocks on the glass. He blinks at her, a hand on his paper. His hair is salt-and-pepper, with just salt around the edges. Under his wide, stubbled jaw a second chin wobbles. His belly strains against cerulean cotton and squeezes over the pinching seat belt. His eyes are small and sag at the ends, under caterpillar brows. His nose is workmanlike.
His mouth moves but there is no sound. Juliette exaggerates a shrug and puts a hand to an ear. He cracks the window.
‘Why are you blocking the road?’ she asks.
‘It’s the Tour,’ he says, as though she’s asked the colour of the sky.
‘The Tour de France, madame.’ He sniffs and glances toward his paper.
‘Here? Now? You weren’t here half an hour ago.’
‘Yes, madame, here and now. It was in the news, in the local papers. You didn’t see?’
‘No, I get my news online.’
‘There were local notices, madame.’
‘Where? When? I’ve seen nothing.’
He shrugs as though she is keeping him from an important cigarette. ‘That is a matter for the mayor, or your local syndic. It is not my responsibility.’
She arches an eyebrow. ‘And what, precisely, is your responsibility?’
‘To prevent traffic from this side of this road, madame, until the Tour has passed.’
‘Only this side?’
He brushes a hand to his right. ‘My colleague has the other. There are two sides to every crossing, madame, and we cannot very well put a car in the middle, can we?’
‘I am glad to know my taxes are so well spent.’ She knows she has not paid taxes for many years, because she has not been gainfully employed. This is the best way she knows to insult the police without consequence.
The officer’s eyes widen at this, and he is animated as he speaks. ‘I know you mean this as an insult, madame, but nothing could be more true.’ He gestures toward the road. ‘You see the slope, yes? You know the mountain. This is a downhill stage, and the racers come like maniacs here at 100 kilometers per hour on their flimsy bicycles. Can you imagine a vehicle coming into the middle of that?’ He rams a fist into an open palm, and wriggles his fingers away like flailing bicyclists thrown through the air.
‘Besides, Garin is in the lead, and we cannot disturb him. That scoundrel Bartali is hot on his heels, and we cannot let the Italians win again this year.’ He points to the blocked-off road. ‘I protect the honour of France, madame. France! Tell me, have you ever watched the Tour?’
The officer is dangerously close to abandoning his newspaper. He is much more of a handful than Juliette had expected. She demurs with a pained smile, and decamps with careful steps down the incline to her own waiting car. The officer winds his window to the top and returns to his newspaper.
Safe again now in the comfort of her cockpit, Juliette’s mind goes to the flowers that must be waiting outside her front door. She shudders. Simon has been an idiot yet again.
The delivery notice that pinged into her phone at the supermarket had bewildered and then angered her. A dozen yellow roses, with the message, ‘To both your grande tetons, and the delicious lake I swim in down below.’ No name, but that won’t help anything when Pierre discovers it on his return.
Juliette also finds herself pleased by the gesture, especially the crude image that Simon has painted of her sex. Pierre has hardly touched her for years, no matter that she dyes her hair a sunny blonde and does aerobics to keep her plump arms taut.
The lack of attention is not a problem of time. Her husband sees overtime work as a fool’s errand, is high enough at the local bank to make good on that philosophy, and consequently is home at five thirty each day without fail. On Fridays like today, they have a little aperitif in the garden to celebrate another week gone by. Her run to the supermarket was precipitated by the realisation that there is no more sausage in the house.
Juliette had her husband followed several months ago, to ensure there was no other woman in his life, no horizontal dance partner. It turned up nothing. That was a hard truth to accept – he had not turned away from her for a younger, shinier object; he had turned away from her for nothing at all. Slowly over the years and then all at once in her estimation, Pierre had become a bore – a gardening, politics-arguing, mildly incontinent bore who liked nothing better on a Saturday than to ease on flaccid old jeans and rummage around the town market for locally grown fruits.
Simon, on the other hand, fucks her like a whirlwind. When he wears jeans they are new and tight, and he doesn’t give a damn that his belly overhangs those sculpted legs like a sack of barley on a footstool, or that his hair has mostly said au revoir, or that he smells perpetually like a smoked sardine. And since he doesn’t give a damn, Juliette doesn’t either, and that’s the sexiest thing of all. He is a barely employed chef, but he knows what he wants, and he wants her. That makes her want him right back. He comes to her house and lets her take the wheel and zip them over the hills to clandestine trysts in his sassy little Renault Twingo.
Today she is mostly angry with him, though, because his selfish desire to delight her has put her in a bad spot. It is five fifteen, and she is nearly two kilometers from the porch with the telltale bouquet. Juliette hopes for a moment that her husband will also be delayed by the Tour, but she realises with a sinking in her loins that he is on the other side of this hastily thrown-up Maginot Line.
She considers for a moment reengaging the policeman to try to find out how long she might be kept waiting here, but knows it is a poor idea. It will only cost her time to listen to his nattering. She has no love for bicycle racing, but logic tells her it will not be over and done in fifteen minutes.
Juliette envisions the road ahead, and it does not seem perilously long. It is a bit uphill, but nothing her aerobics has not trained her for. She pulls her purse strap over her head, settles it against her kidney, and heaves herself out of the car.
She passes the back of the police cruiser at a speedwalk and toes the line to the crossing road, eyeing the bend off to her left. It is perhaps fifty meters away, veering back up into the forest. There is a gaggle there with signs and little French flags, two or three families together. They begin to hop and cheer. They wobble their flags.
Two cyclists flash around the bend and quickly past, statues in spandex, perched leaning forward as they hurtle down the slope. A black motorbike comes next, then a red sedan festooned with sponsored signs, then a big group of riders that fills the road and swooshes by in a humid breeze that whispers sex.
Juliette hears the policeman unlatch and swing wide his car door as she looks up the road and spots a gap. It is now or it is never. She launches herself into the danger zone.
The air is alive as she hustles across the asphalt. There is a breeze from the group just gone, blowing toward her right. There is a droning like giant mosquitoes that drives at her from the left as the next group bears down with rubber-flaying speed. There are shouts from the policeman behind.
She cares for none of it as she plows ahead, keeping only a wary eye on her distance from the racers flashing down the hill toward her. It is only another meter now, if that; she’ll make it with room to spare. She eases her stride.
A drafting rider peels off from the center lead and drifts left.
Juliette feels it only as a bump to her side, if stronger than she might expect from a thin man on a bicycle. She stumbles to her finish line, knocked all the way to the right edge.
A policeman grabs her arms and pulls her further clear. This one is young and thin, with olive skin and a small nose. He is closely shorn, like he is just out of the army.
‘Madame, what were you thinking?’ he admonishes her.
Her side begins to ache, but she does not touch it. She does not want to give him a reason for more fuss.
He seems primarily concerned with the Tour, in any case. He is already looking over her head, surveying the road, and hardly looks at her as he speaks. ‘You are lucky you did not cause an accident! I would have to arrest you.’
‘I need to get home,’ she says.
‘You could have waited an hour – less than an hour! – and gone home safely with no problems. I should arrest you for endangering the race. And yourself.’
‘I need to meet my husband.’
‘I’m sure he could have waited.’
She pushes past. He grabs her arm.
‘I have a right to go home,’ she insists. She turns back and looks him in the eye. ‘You cannot arrest me for nothing. There is no damage done.’
The policeman points with his other arm back over the road, where she sees her car through a flickering mesh of racers. ‘You cannot just leave your car to block the road, madame.’
She thinks of his youth, and makes a gamble. ‘It’s not illegal. You might not like it, but it’s not illegal.’ She has no idea whether this is true.
His grip weakens, and she tears away and strides down the road toward home.
‘We will impound the vehicle if it blocks the road, madame,’ he calls after her.
Juliette does not care. She is focused on hurrying home. Her arms piston at her sides. A glance at her watch informs her that a distressingly short nine minutes remain. Her side aches.
A subterfuge comes to mind, and she tugs over her purse. It is held shut by a mechanism where a metal plate on the flap fits over a metal bar, and then the metal bar rotates one hundred-eighty degrees to create a blocking action. Her sweaty fingers struggle to grip the bar.
It twists open. She snatches out her phone, wakes it with her thumbprint and calls up the stream of iMessages between Pierre and herself. It is a wonderland of marital nothings. She hastily taps out another: Can you get sausages on the way home? Couldn’t get to the store today. Sorry!
She does not know why she is apologising. His work is not so taxing. It is no heroic feat to stop by a Carrefour Express.
Juliette confirms on Google Maps that she is still 1.2 kilometers from home. It is a useless thing to do; the turn into their private drive is not far off. She rambles on as fast as her middle-aged body will allow, and trades her phone for a pack of tissues, and uses the tissues to wipe at the midsummer sweat springing forth in rivulets from her forehead and under her arms. The forested mountain slopes all around shade the road, but the humidity is brutal today.
Her left side zings only more pain as she forges ahead, until she gasps at it. She steels her heart and reaches a hand for a ginger touch that arcs fire through her. It is as she feared. There is blood.
She dares a peek. Her dress is ruined, and who knows what else. It is not a geyser but there is a full palette of reds, muted against the fabric’s dark blue. She thinks the cut must be around her kidney, and that worries her. It throbs without mercy. She is convinced of an internal bleed.
There is nothing to do but press on.
Five minutes left as she reaches her private drive and turns her forced march up that curving gravel road. It wends around a thicket, kept for seclusion and shade, and then cuts back as it winds uphill to the house. She knows it is to avoid steep inclines for the car in winter snows, but she finds it cloying even now. Better to have it direct at a third the length, and suffer on some days.
Juliette squeezes her side as she pushes on, and the pressure eases the pain. Her dress is wet at the small of her back. The smell of her sweat rises even over the cedar of the trees.
She taxes herself to rummage through her purse and discover her phone, only to be disappointed. Pierre has not yet read her message. Has he seen the alerts? She cannot know, but rising anger grips her. He should be more attentive.
With this pique she rounds the curve and achieves a view of the house. Pierre’s silver Mercedes is parked there, sat like a preening beetle glowering at the yard. She can see no bouquet of flowers on the porch.
Her annoyance melts to despair. Perhaps her marriage is over. She gasps at a stab from her side, and pushes in to quell the pain. Perhaps her life is.
Juliette leaves the winding drive and cuts straight uphill. This is no time to dally. She will face her fate headlong.
The grass is long and dry. It cascades itches up her calves and pokes at her ankles from every which way. Now and then a pussywillow or an errant weed reaches up to tickle the back of her knee.
She grows winded. Her side claws at her, and she gasps and pushes back. The sun slants in to sting her eyes. Sweat drips from her nose and runs cool down her back. She grits her teeth and does not flag. It is only a minute now.
The front door swings open, and Pierre steps onto the porch with a wave. Juliette blinks and loses a step. She cannot understand his missing anger. Has he not read the card?
She closes the final gap to face him, panting so she can form no words. Pierre pushes up his horn-rimmed glasses and steps out from the pavement, into the sea of grass, running his eyes over her. He seems to spot the blood at her side, and hastens his lanky step with a furrowed brow.
‘What happened?’ he asks, craning around to look upon her wound.
She has no breath to answer.
Pierre pulls up her dress and gently prods the injury with the air of a clinician. Juliette cannot bear to look. There are tendrils of agony. She fights not to flinch as he palpates the skin around the cut.
‘My kidney?’ she whispers, fearing the worst.
‘It looks to be just the skin,’ he says, straightening, with a last look for good measure. He allows her dress to cover her once again. ‘But it’s a large cut, and you may need stitches. It must hurt.’
She nods. ‘You’re sure there’s no internal bleeding?’
Pierre shakes his head. ‘I’m not sure.’ He bobs his head at his Mercedes. ‘It’s twenty minutes to the clinic. We should go now.’
He shifts his weight toward the car, and then turns back and takes Juliette’s head in his hands. He kisses her forehead with soft, cool lips, and intertwines his arm with hers. He leads her to the sedan at a gentle pace, and assists her to settle on the passenger side.
As he steers down the winding drive, he asks, ‘What happened? Where’s your car?’
‘I left it,’ she whispers, and clears her throat. ‘They wouldn’t let me through.’
‘Ahhh,’ he resonates, wagging a finger in her direction. ‘Yes. Today the Tour is coming through. They blocked the road. You didn’t see the notice?’
‘No.’ She pushes against the hot coals in her side.
‘It was in the mail last week. I left it on the counter by the bills. I thought you would see it.’
They turn right onto the main road. Pierre smoothly revs the car to second gear.
‘That doesn’t explain how—’ He looks over, eyes wide. ‘Did one of them hit you?’
‘Just a little.’ Her tone is defensive. She does not know why.
‘Maybe they slashed you with a pedal. They can be sharp, especially when they’re really going.’ He leans over and pats her forearm. ‘I’m sure it will be fine. It’s not bleeding so much anymore. We’ll be at the clinic soon.’
‘Yes.’ Juliette does not know what more to say.
‘You should have waited. Just send me a text, I don’t mind.’ He laughs a cautious little laugh, and glances over. ‘Were you really so desperate to get home for a glass of wine?’
She ignores his pestering joke, and only looks out the window at the pine forests blurring by. The car judders as Pierre shifts up a gear. They curve sharply left, then straighten onto an incline.
‘You didn’t see my flowers?’ he asks her suddenly.
Juliette is flabbergasted. She looks over at him with eyes wide. ‘Those were from you?’ she blurts, thinking on everything she has put herself through. ‘That was your card?’
Pierre laughs. ‘Yes, that was my card. My doctor gave me some testosterone patches last week, and they seem to be working. I thought we might have some fun this weekend. Like the old days.’
She can see him blinking, then, processing the information. She finds herself frozen, and terrified, and yet the cut at her side has grown warm. It no longer aches.
‘Who did you think they were from?’ Pierre murmurs. He does not look at her. ‘Those flowers? That card?’
‘Oh, Pierre,’ she says, and breathes a sigh heavy with melancholy and relief. ‘I want a divorce.’
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