After his first visit, Bertrand began to come by often. If Vera happened to be home, Bertrand would walk over to her with a smile and kiss her hand, many times, each little finger, as though Vera were his wife, or — to describe the feeling more precisely — as though Vera were his mistress. Vera would return the smile slowly; the smile Nikolai knew so well, the one so painfully dear to him. She would throw her head back slightly, baring her neck; sometimes her eyes closed as if from intense unbearable pleasure.
Bertrand was tall, held himself erect, and never slouched. His movements were brisk and energetic, as though premeditated. He had a bristly soldier’s haircut, and his eyes were sky blue, and entirely bottomless.
** ** **
Even back then, that first time, Nikolai was painfully aware of the easy familiarity with which Bertrand, without minding his presence, would kiss Vera’s hands. Remembering that night, Nikolai couldn’t fathom how he could have remained lying in his bed in his room — not only failing to stop them, but never mentioning it to Bertrand later. On the other hand, there was a simple explanation: it had been Bertrand’s first visit, and it would have been uncomfortable and awkward for Nikolai; there would’ve been a scene, he would’ve been forced to shout and possibly even fight… With a man who was visiting their home for the first time.
** ** **
Nikolai’s first thought when he awoke the following morning was the secret smile he had caught on his wife’s face: Vera hadn’t been able to restrain herself when she extended her hands to Bertrand, although she most certainly knew that Nikolai was in the adjacent room, able to watch them from behind the door. How long since she had smiled like that for Nikolai, though before — oh God, to remember it, before the death of their son — it had been her usual smile. Now it had become a rarity; adorning Vera’s mouth only in the most tender, most secret moments of their life. Why did this vague motion of her lips move Nikolai so?
He was astonished at the brazen conviction with which Vera lied, to his face, pretending not to understand and to even feel insulted. She had turned to the wall and cried, her delicate naked shoulder quivering as it escaped her nightgown. He had expected Vera to protest her innocence, to beg forgiveness and plead with him to forget her terrible mistake, one that would never recur, of course not, never again!.. And not for anything in the world! God Almighty, what an endless stream of shameless lies. But he’d been prepared — had he heard the customary promises — to believe her; to believe and to forgive, forgive and eventually believe, because each and every fibre of his soul wanted so desperately to believe her, that his heart broke in anticipation of lies. No matter how pathetic all this sounds, his heart had simply longed to hear ‘forgive me’ — and all would have been forgiven, understood and forgotten. But nothing came of it. Instead of pleas for forgiveness, she’d insisted that nobody came to visit, that she didn’t know any Bertrand, that no one had kissed her hands, that she’d sat reading a book at the table the entire evening, leaving only once to look in on a neighbour… So that’s what it’s called nowadays: ‘looking in on a neighbour’. A good thing then, that she went out only once!
He had caught up with her by the bathroom — where for some reason she lately sits and cries — spun her roughly round by her still naked shoulder, excruciating to see in all its inexpressible, provocative splendour, and struck her across the face while trying not to look in her eyes, which he knew were brimming with tears, and beset with longing, and something else, when she looked at him. Most of all, of course, there was fear in anticipation of the blow. The smack resounded loudly; his wife fell and may even have screamed. She curled into a heap on the floor, right there at the bathroom door, shielding herself with her arms. What had she screamed? Oh, what difference does it make, after all? ‘Don’t, oh please, don’t!’ Same as usual, same old repertoire.
He hunched over her, shouting that if it ever happened again, if she ever allowed Bertrand to kiss her hands — kiss them! — no, if she dared even give Bertrand her hands, hold them out to him, he would simply toss them both outside, him and her both, humiliating her before all the neighbours.
‘I don’t understand! What are you talking about?’ Vera cried, but he could barely hold back from striking her again. He lifted her from the floor by her hair, clenching his teeth. She was so beautiful. He loved her so much. If she could only — just for a moment — imagine the infinite agony of his love for her… He would give his life for her with pleasure, but she was not worthy of it. He did not have the power to make her his, alone.
His head ached terribly, unbearably: before, he still recalls, the attacks had come in waves, sometimes receding. When Vera left for work, Nikolai still couldn’t remember whether he had hit her or not. Whatever happened, on that day he was finally convinced of something he’d long suspected: his wife was a sly and cunning slut. What else could you expect from an actress?
But that morning, so it seemed, he had not hit Vera after all. He clearly remembered wanting to hit her when he’d caught up with her at the bathroom door, but he had controlled himself, so as not to frighten her, as he told himself. Do not frighten the butterfly. Why then was she lying on the floor, and was he bending down, lifting Vera with her wet face, wet eyes with tears that rolled incessantly, one after the other, as if afraid of falling behind? Why were her eyelashes wet and caked, and were there clumps of hair in the palm of his hand?
And the reason he hadn’t hit her was this: so as not to frighten her away. A butterfly must be approached with utmost care; your movements must be careful, and not even a shadow should fall upon it. A butterfly can be startled by a single glance.
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