Issue 216, Spring 2016
This morning, Esther Saint-Juste did nothing between the time she woke up and the time she got out of bed. There is nothing she’ll be able to tell her husband when he calls just before lunch. The telephone may already have rung, it may have rung more than once, and she may have heard it ring. She can’t say for certain. If she were criticized for staying in bed so late, she would explain that she had a “rough night”—a phrase that makes Antoine Saint-Juste uncomfortable each time Esther uses it to excuse her air of distraction. He gets these telephone calls out of the way as punctually as he can.
Last night, for the first time in months, she slept for several hours straight. She woke to the blinding light of day, sweating in her pajamas, the same ones she wears to bed every night now, buttoned to the neck. She got up and closed the curtains in a daze, took off her pajamas, drank from the jug of water on the bedside, and went back to bed. Her side of the mattress was damp, so she moved over. She threw aside her husband’s pillow—it smelled of cologne—and grabbed her own, turning it so the dry side faced up. Then, nothing. She lay curled up in the indentation left on the dry, cool mattress. For the first time in ages, with no pajamas on, she could feel her own naked body.
Her husband usually takes care of the mail when he comes home from work, but this morning the doorman buzzes and Esther has to sign for a package. Tax forms from the accountant. She flicks through them distractedly, past the section marked “Children.” Oscar, as he would have been called had he not died at birth, had been perfect. The pregnancy had been a wonderful surprise for Antoine, and fortunately Esther’s looks were not affected too much. When a friend, who’d made it her mission to save Esther, spoke of a brother or sister for Oscar, Esther pretended not to understand. She was horrified at the thought of replacing one child with another. The doctors couldn’t say what had gone wrong. They could have done nothing to prevent it. Nothing guaranteed that another child would be born alive. The solicitude of those around her does nothing to abate Esther’s sorrow; it is as though her rotting womb is devouring her from the inside. Antoine knows to stay away from his wife. She leaves the tax forms on her husband’s desk for his signature. The four radios she leaves on all day play music that sounds like white noise covering up yet another noise in the background, distinct, although no one else can hear it.
Now the telephone rings. Esther turns up the volume on the nearest radio, but when the song ends the telephone is still ringing and she lifts the handset with the same irritation she would feel if she were hanging up on someone. It’s Antoine, checking in. The radio starts to blare out another song. Her husband shouts, he can’t hear what she’s saying, and since she can’t hear what he’s saying either, she shouts that she’s fine, that she’s busy, and that she’ll call him back later—which she won’t.
When she hangs up, the sound of children crying fills the room. Just as she’s about to change the station, she hears a Vietnamese voice and then, after a short delay, a translator. She listens, transfixed. There is no end to the war in Vietnam, the armies are getting nowhere, soldiers are being killed, civilians massacred. The journalist explains that orphanages in Saigon are crammed full of children; there’s not enough food or medication to go around, let alone personnel. The director of the orphanage makes an appeal to the citizens of France, to their humanity, but Esther knows that he is speaking directly to her. Money, food, and medication all help. But adoption helps most of all.
Antoine Saint-Juste is high up in a very well-known bank, a fact that, his parents say, will impress the adoption agency. He and his wife have a strong marriage, having survived an experience that, according to Esther Saint-Juste’s friend, would have destroyed her own relationship. Antoine likes the idea of adopting a child. So do his parents, his wife’s parents, and all their friends. There’s some relief knowing that, this time, there will be a definite outcome to the wait. No need for nine months of whispers behind closed doors.
This doesn’t stop Antoine’s parents from worrying about their daughter-in-law’s plan, but he knows what to say: adopting a child might help Esther to grieve and might help her, later on, to want another child of her own. Of their own. (Antoine must have heard this from a friend, because it is not the kind of observation he would arrive at by himself; he hasn’t even truly considered what the death of his own son might mean for him.) Antoine’s father wonders what happens if the child “malfunctions”; can you send it back or swap it for another? He’s about to ask, but when his wife says that as a Christian one can only approve, he holds his tongue. Esther Saint-Juste gets in touch with the adoption agency and fills in the forms, which she and her husband sign: finally, a joint enterprise. That evening, to celebrate, Antoine takes his wife out for dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant, and, later that night, he doesn’t pretend to be asleep when she gets into bed, long after he does, decked out in a new pair of pajamas, much more fetching than the ones she has been wearing for the past year now.
Things move quickly. Friends and relatives supply the necessary references, vouching for their good character, proud to be so close to such a loving, loyal, intelligent, generous couple. The adoption agency visits twice to witness firsthand the truth of these glowing testimonials and to take note of the large, comfortable apartment. It seems the Saint-Justes are dream parents. As soon as the request has been completed, the summer unfolds, happily, busily. Old friendships are rekindled. Dinner parties punctuate the weekday evenings. The prospect of family weekends in the country (with Antoine’s parents) or on the coast (with Esther’s parents) makes the workdays painless for Antoine. Esther Saint-Juste is radiant. Adoption suits her perfectly. She’s waiting for a Vietnamese child. She’d like a newborn but has agreed to a child “Age 0–2,” and she checked the box marked “Girl” on the form. She starts to decorate a room next door to the one that would have been Oscar’s, which she leaves empty. The new nursery is large enough to accommodate two beds, so that she can sleep right next to the child when it arrives.
—Translated from the French by Mitzi Angel