The first thing which struck me is that Belle and her dress are one signifier. A naked woman is another sign altogether.
Belle in her sundress signifies innocence, sensuality and desire. She is just a few inches short of the limit to which society permits a good girl to display herself. Belle's dress communicates, I know I am very sexy, that I am made for love. But I also exude health, good fellowship, common sense. Belle is the French Canadian version of the girl next door.
Belle has what I would characterize as an almost virginal quality. Women usually seem to me to be coarsened by marriage; even those who do not have to work hard are changed by it. My own wife is an example. A student of mine, she seemed fresh and mysterious ten years ago. I realized too late that all of the appeal was in the freshness of her complexion. When that went, so did my attraction to her. Today I cannot bear to see her swollen ankles.
Belle, like my wife, is about thirty, but she has a remarkable untouched quality. Maybe it is because Charlie is away in Albany so much of the time. Belle seems very unworldly to me. She is pretty, smooth and silky like a woman who has never been worn down by a man or by life.
A wonderful perfume rises from her skin. It is the unobtrusive but completely gripping scent of a good girl with a sensual, loving nature. I keep feeling a mad desire to kiss Belle on particular points of her body: the back of her neck, her shoulderblade, her knee, the inside of her thigh, her wrist.
Belle in a bikini is not much different. She is still innocent sexuality. Her suit is not the most revealing on the beach. But it allows me to fall in love with another part of Belle's body, never before seen: her slightly rounded stomach.
Belle is unflappable. She is a happy girl, always laughing at me. I have progressed from everyday jokes to sexual innuendo to outright appeals for sex, and Belle never gets angry or nervous. Nor does she give me the least opening, the least purchase, for my desire. She laughs and says, I'm a married woman.
So? I'm a married man.
I don't do those things.
In my opinion, there are only two kinds of married people: those who haven't yet committed adultery and those who have.
There are people who are never unfaithful to their spouses.
If there are, they have thought of it and never had the opportunity, or were too frightened to take advantage.
There are also people who don't want it.
If there are, you're not one of them.
But I certainly am. I have no interest.
Then why do you let me talk to you this way?
I shouldn't. I do because its flattering and not serious.
I'm more serious than I've ever been about anything.
No you aren't. You think you are but its not so. What's the line from Zazie? Tu causes, tu causes, c'est tout ce que tu sais faire.
I was so sorry this conversation occurred on the beach with the children playing nearby. I never heard a line which, however intended, was more of a summons to a man to hurl himself at a woman and start kissing her. Instead, I kept talking; proof that I am like the characters in Queneau. Ineffectual and weak, no he-man.
I really want you badly, Belle.
How can you say that? You have a wife and daughter. You've been married ten years. Have you ever been unfaithful to her before?
No. But its only been ten years, and there's a first time for everything.
The story of how we came to be on the beach together is as follows. I am a professor in the philosophy department at Brooklyn College. Though my more usual thing is teaching the Socratic dialogs to bored morons, in recent years I have been fascinated by Barthes and semiotics. Belle is a secretary in the French department, who helps the faculty members with their translations. I began seeking her help editing and correcting some little essays of mine which contained extensive quotes from Barthes, Baudrillard and others. Soon I began looking for excuses to visit her and lingering as long as I could.
I have asked her to meet me alone in restaurants or hotels, and even suggested she accompany me on a trip to attend a conference in France.
In a hotel bar last year in Monterey, California at a meeting of the American Philosophical Association, I watched a salesman in a ludicrous plaid jacket make advances to a sad divorcee who was disgusted by him. I was horrified to note how much he sounded like me: he was using all the same dialog. I asked myself: am I also a boor and a jerk? If I am, why is Belle so good-natured about it? I want to believe that she is attracted to me---I know I am a distinguished looking man, and I have stayed thin---but she has given me no other evidence.
We are on summer break now, but like several other faculty members who don't have the means to take their families away, I have continued to come in to get some writing and revisions done. Belle has been working part time over the summer to finish typing a manuscript for her boss, Professor Duhamel, and she also showed me some translations of her own, of Rimbaud, that she is attempting.
On Friday, I asked about her weekend, and she said that Charlie would not be home. That ridiculous, sanctimonious man is meeting the President in Washington. I cannot bear to see Charlie; not only am I jealous that he has access to Belle's smooth beauty, but he drips with insincerity. He is all politician, has not one honest cell in his body.
I said I would like to come over, and she said certainly not.
Seriously, I said, I'm taking Samantha and my niece Lina to Jones Beach on Sunday. Why don't you just show up, as if we ran into each other?
I could see her thoughts: that would be safe, and it might be rather pleasant.
It would give us an opportunity to talk at length, I said.
You're bringing the children?
The beach might be nice.
Will you come?
I'm not sure. If I decide to, how will I let you know?
Call me at home to mention that you finished going over my paper on Barthes and advertising. I'll know that means you're coming to the beach. You'll park in lot 4 and we'll be by the swimming pool at one-thirty.
Belle phones me at home on such little business matters and my wife thinks absolutely nothing of it. The more fool she.
I was astonished when Belle called on Saturday afternoon. Mind-boggled. I thought, you have been working on this girl for six months and you are surprised when she makes one concession. You never really believed she likes you.
It is almost two when she arrives. Lina and Samantha are bored of the pool and want to go to the beach and I won't let them. I am starting to get angry and depressed, convinced that Belle is standing me up.
Then she arrives. She has brought her twelve year old nephew John . She never mentioned that she might do so and I am disappointed, as it will be that much harder to have any time alone with her. Her nephew seems like more of a threat than my daughter and niece. Like a little rival for his aunt's attentions.
I am selfishly glad Belle never had children of her own, as she could not possibly be so smooth and virginal.
Belle is stunning. She is wearing a bathing suit cover with pictures of sunflowers on it. I admire her beautiful thin shoulders.
We greet each other as if surprised. Samantha, who is four, notices nothing unusual, but I catch ten year old Lina looking at me strangely.
We move to the beach now and the children run away to play. Belle takes the bathing suit cover off and I cannot stop myself from staring at her body. She blushes and so do I. I turn away for a moment and Belle sits on her beach towel putting suntan lotion on herself.
Your daughter and niece are beautiful, she says.
Lina is a charmer, isn't she? The boys are all crazy about her.
Look at John now.
We watch her nephew bemused by my voluble niece, who is leading him up and down in the shallow water.
I say: But Samantha is an odd little duck, isn't she? I don't know what to make of her. Its lucky that she's very smart, as she's quite plain, don't you think?
Not at all. I find her serious little face very appealing.
Samantha squats in the surf, staring at Lina and John with a bitter expression.
I'm so glad you came, Belle.
Its a beautiful day, isn't it?
I stretch out and look up at the almost cloudless sky.
Yes, it is.
Belle begins talking to me about the difficulties of translating Rimbaud. There is a professor Henry, a prig, who renders Rimbaud into bad doggerel. We call him "Rimbozo" behind his back. Belle is trying to make some of the shorter poems into English prose. I think her stuff is well written, grammatically correct and a good rendering of the French, but rather lifeless. I always compliment her and conceal my doubts.
I'm lying here discussing business with you, I say, when I really want to just roll over and kiss you.
We are both looking at the sky and cannot see each other.
I don't want you to, Belle replies immediately. Her tactics are incredibly effective: whenever I attempt seduction, Belle deflates me instantly. No hesitation or coyness which would lead me to hope.
It is fortunate we have been talking French, because I suddenly notice Samantha standing at my side.
She's complaining about something I can't make out. I get her settled and then John takes charge of her, leading her back down to the water by her hand.
If Charlie didn't exist, would you consider me?
No, you're married.
If Frieda and Charlie didn't exist, would you?
No, because you're not faithful. You'd run around on me.
How do you know that? Maybe I wouldn't.
Because you said there are only two kinds of married people.
Hoist by my own petard, I say.
We lie quietly awhile, looking up at the sky. I glance over and see Belle has fallen asleep. She is lovely and child-like. I imagine kissing her lips and waking her up, but the children might see.
I remember meeting Frieda at Bennington. She was exciting because fifteen years younger and forbidden. Her skin glowed; it was, as I know now, her only nice feature.
I am trapped in my house. I think every day of leaving my wife but there is no place to go. Everyone would despise me (except some people I despise, who would applaud me). We live on the margin as it is. If I had to pay alimony or child support, there would be nothing left over to live on, let alone start a new existence.
I observe the conventionalities and accordingly, my wife spends most of the time unaware that I don't love her. She is attached to me, to the utmost extent permitted by her limited and practical nature. She holds my hand, smooths my collar, gives me the occasional fond kiss on the back of the neck when I am working, and exclaims what a handsome man she caught. Every word, every gesture, makes me writhe with embarrassment.
In my daughter, I see my wife. She is plain like her, with a big forehead and dark limp hair. She differs from Frieda in two respects: she is smarter, and she almost never smiles or laughs.
I have a fantasy I frequently revisit and embroider: I am returning from a conference in Arizona, making a short hop in a small propeller plane to catch an airliner East from a larger airport. I feel a little feverish and am pressing my forehead to the cool glass of the window. Below, a burning crinkled desert. The propeller stops, the plane glides then falls, bags slide down the aisle and people scream. I alone emerge from the wreckage and hide in the shade of a rock until late at night when the rescuers have left. No-one will ever know I have survived the crash. I will go somewhere, Seattle or Paris, and start a new life. I will work on a commercial trawler and live in a flophouse. Or I will guide elderly American couples I meet in Paris. The kind who shout in frustration when the metro clerk doesn't understand them. I will live in a small hotel with bedbugs, ten francs the night. And I will be perfectly happy.
I look out for the children and see them in a clump at the water's edge, examining something Samantha has found, a hermit crab perhaps. Belle is still asleep. I write in the sand with my forefinger: BELLE JE T'AIME. I want her to wake up and see it. I am embarrassed that I am behaving like a teenager. I worry that Samantha will come back up the beach and ask what it means. I erase it and write, JE T'AIME again; I can tell Samantha it means I love her. Belle is still sleeping, and I am behaving like a lovestruck idiot. I look into the future and, knowing how weak I am, sense I will never leave Frieda, or live any different life than I have now. I erase the words in the sand and this time I write, TOUT CASSE, TOUT PASSE, TOUT LASSE. A shadow falls across them: Samantha, who asks, What does that mean?
Its a French joke, I say.
Tell me the joke.
Its one of those things that can't be translated.
Samantha bites her lip with that desperate expression which says, you don't love me, daddy.
I don't. I wonder what I have done to you.
The French words mean, everything breaks, passes away, wears out.