A Storyby Louise Marburg
Freddy was waiting for Ripley on the other side of Passport Control. Ripley saw him through the glass.
“Finally!” he said as Ripley came through the exit, his suitcase gliding behind him. “Claire can’t wait to see you. She’s back at the house cooking up a feast.”
“Terrific, I’m starving,” Ripley said. Claire was French on her mother’s side and cared about food; Freddy’s belly was evidence of that. Ripley had lost weight since Kate left him, eating deli soups and salads instead of making proper meals. He liked the idea of being fed, not having to think about it, and was looking forward to sleeping in an unfamiliar bed.
They walked out into the blazing day. Freddy’s Fiat was in a nearby lot. As they drove out of the airport and took the autoroute past the industrial outskirts of Toulouse, Freddy said, “We’ve got someone else visiting, our friend Bob. But don’t worry, he’s very independent, he spends most of the day by the pool.”
“I’m not worried,” Ripley said. “Why would I be worried?”
“I don’t know,” Freddy said. “Maybe you wanted to be here alone.”
“I’ve been alone for a month,” Ripley said. Freddy didn’t reply. So they weren’t going to talk about Kate. Ripley wondered if Bob had been briefed. Ripley’s wife ran off with another man, he imagined Claire saying. “Ran off” was how she would put it. He could see her shrugging. C’est la vie. That nobody truly cared that he and Kate had split up had been another unwelcome surprise.
They talked about politics instead. As Ripley and Freddy were similarly liberal, they urgently agreed that the Republicans were outrageous, and heaped both the House and the Senate with deeply felt scorn. Then they moved on to talking about international affairs, until Ripley managed to feel almost grateful for worrying about problems larger than his own. After an hour, Freddy turned off onto a rutted road. The dark cones of cypress trees on either side made Ripley think of Roman soldiers.
“Welcome to the middle of nowhere!” Freddy said in a jolly voice. “I’m afraid we’ve lured you to the least fashionable area of France.”
“But it’s beautiful here,” Ripley said. The landscape was severe and rocky, as arid as it had appeared from the plane. The golden-brown hills looked like the backs of sea lions and were speckled with twisted shrubs. Freddy and Claire’s house was a three-story rectangle, ocher stucco over stone. Casement windows opened out, revealing sheer curtains lifting in the breeze. A giant tree that Ripley couldn’t identify cast a circle of shade on the lawn, and a long table beneath it was set for a meal. Claire rushed out of the house.
“Ripley, Ripley, how wonderful!” she said. She hugged him tightly. “You’ve finally come to visit. I’ve made a cassoulet for lunch. I hope you like rabbit.”
“Who doesn’t like rabbits?” Ripley said, and she laughed. She was a tiny woman, very thin and neat. Freddy and Ripley had known her slightly at college; she and Freddy met again later on. They had a fourteen-year-old daughter, Elise. They lived in Manhattan, and spent August and Christmastime in France.
Freddy took Ripley’s suitcase and led him into the house. It was dim and cool and smelled faintly of burnt wood: the living room fireplace was large enough to roast a couple of goats. Ripley’s room was at the top of a narrow flight of stone stairs. He looked at the photographs on the stairwell wall, snaps of Freddy and Claire when they were younger, pictures of Elise at every age, and old black-and-whites of a glamorous-looking couple, somebody’s grandparents, he assumed. His bedroom was beneath the eaves, with a comfortable double bed and a bookcase full of paperbacks. He wondered if this was the bedroom he would have been assigned had he and Kate arrived together.
“It’s the only bedroom on this floor,” Freddy said. “Plenty of privacy, and you’ve got your own bath.” He opened a door to a small white-tiled bathroom with a miniature sink and a toilet and shower. “Believe me, it’s a luxury. Bob and Elise have to share a bathroom.”
“It’s great,” Ripley said. “Thanks so much.” He looked out the window at a long swimming pool, its surface reflecting a fair-weather cloud.
“Well, I’ll leave you to unpack,” Freddy said. When Ripley turned, his friend was gone.
He lay down on the bed and stared at a jagged crack that split the ceiling in half. He supposed he should wash up and reappear downstairs. He could hear voices through the open window, a man’s deep-throated laugh. “I don’t want to,” he heard a girl’s voice complain. Then Claire: “That’s just too bad.” Somebody stomped into the room beneath him. A few moments later, Elise appeared at his door.
“Hi, Uncle Ripley.”
He sat up on his elbows. “Hey, Elise. Wow, you’ve grown up.” The last time he saw her she had braces on her teeth and was several inches shorter. She had breasts now, and a scattering of pimples on her forehead. He wouldn’t have predicted she’d end up being pretty, but she was, very, with her mother’s brown curls and her father’s blue eyes, and somebody else’s long legs.
“Can I take a shower in your bathroom?” she said. She held up a loofah. “I wouldn’t ask, but Bob is hogging my bathroom, his stuff is all over the place.”
“Sure, go ahead,” Ripley said.
“You’re the best,” she said. He lay back down and listened to the water running. When the water stopped he heard Elise humming.
“Everything okay?” he asked when she came out. She rubbed a towel over her damp hair and regarded him solemnly.
“Mom says Aunt Kate left you.”
“She did,” Ripley said.
“That sucks,” Elise said.
“You have no idea,” Ripley said.
“Dad said we’re not to talk about it, but I don’t think that’s fair.”
“Fair?” Ripley said.
“To you,” Elise said. “When my boyfriend broke up with me last winter, I wanted to talk about how I felt all the time. But maybe you don’t, I don’t know.”
“I do,” Ripley said. “But I’ve run out of people to talk to.”
“Well, you can talk to me whenever you want,” Elise said. “I totally understand.”
“Thank you, Elise, that’s nice,” Ripley said.
After she left, he took a shower. The bathroom was redolent of her fruity shampoo. He went downstairs and joined Freddy and Bob at the table beneath the tree. Bob was an architect at a big firm in Manhattan. His striped linen shirt looked so crisp and fresh that Ripley thought it must be brand-new.
“I’m an architect too,” Ripley told him. “I have my own firm in Greenwich.”
“So Freddy told me. Residential, I assume,” Bob said, looking at Ripley over the rims of his fashionably round glasses. Ripley wanted to knock them off his face.
“I’ve never been intrigued by office buildings,” he said mildly. Bob raised his eyebrows and looked away.
Claire carried the cassoulet out from the kitchen, holding it with a pair of oven mitts. Elise followed her with a basket of bread. Freddy popped open a bottle of red wine. He raised his glass and cleared his throat.
“Here’s to Ripley’s very welcome presence. Finally, you’re here!”
Ripley smiled and touched Freddy’s glass with his own. If Kate hadn’t left him, he wouldn’t have come.