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The Slow Waltz of Turtles

Part I
“I’m here to pick up a package,” said Joséphine, stepping to the counter at the post office on rue de Longchamp in Paris’s sixteenth arrondissement.
“Foreign or domestic?” asked the postal clerk, a bottle blond with bad skin and an empty stare.
“I don’t know.”
“What’s the name?”
Joséphine Cortès. C-O-R-T-È-S.”
“You have the delivery notice?”
Joséphine held out the yellow form.
“Can I see some identification?” asked the clerk wearily.

Joséphine handed over her ID. The clerk grabbed it from her hand and climbed down from her stool, raising first one buttock, then the other. She waddled off down a hallway and disappeared, rubbing her back. On the wall, the black minute hand of the clock crept across the white face. Joséphine gave an embarrassed smile at the line lengthening behind her.
It’s not my fault the package was put in a place where it can’t be found, thought Joséphine in a silent apology. It’s not my fault that it went to Courbevoie before being forwarded here. Anyway, where could it be coming from? Maybe from Shirley in England. Except that she knows my new address. It would be just like her to send some of that special tea she buys at Fortnum & Mason, a pudding, and some wool socks so I can work without my feet getting cold. Shirley always says that love exists only in the details. Jo missed Shirley, who had moved to live in London with her son, Gary.
The postal clerk came back with a parcel the size of a shoe box.
“Do you collect stamps?” she asked, hoisting herself back onto her stool, which groaned under her weight.
The clerk blinked vacantly at the stamps, then slid the package across to Jo, who saw her name and old Courbevoie address on the coarse wrapping paper. The package’s long stay on the post office shelf had frayed the equally coarse string into garlands of dirty pom-poms.
“I couldn’t find it because you moved,” said the clerk. “Comes from a long way off. Kenya. It’s been around the block, all right! Looks like you have too.”
She’d said this sarcastically, and Joséphine blushed and muttered some sort of excuse. It was true that she’d moved, but not because she didn’t like her suburb, not at all. She loved Courbevoie, her old neighborhood, her apartment, the balcony with the rusted railing. To be honest, she didn’t like her new place; she felt like a stranger there, a refugee. She’d moved because her older daughter, Hortense, couldn’t stand living in the suburbs anymore, and when Hortense got an idea in her head, you’d better follow through or she blasted you with her contempt. Thanks to the royalties Joséphine was earning from her novel, A Most Humble Queen—and a big bank loan—she’d been able to buy a handsome apartment in a nice neighborhood. It was on avenue Raphaël, near the La Muette Metro station and beyond rue de Passy with its luxury boutiques, on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. Half town, half country, the real estate agent kept stressing. Hortense had thrown her arms around Joséphine’s neck. “Thanks so much, Mom! Thanks to you, I’ll finally have a life, become a real Parisienne.”
“If it were up to just me, I would’ve stayed in Courbevoie,” Joséphine murmured to the clerk, embarrassed, feeling the tips of her ears get warm.
That’s new, she thought. I didn’t used to blush at the drop of a hat. Before, I knew my place—even if I wasn’t always comfortable there, it was my place.
Unlike her mother or her sister, who could make people obey or love them with a glance or a smile, Joséphine was shy. She had a self-effacing way, apologizing for being present to the point of stuttering or blushing. For a while, she thought that success would boost her self-esteem. A Most Humble Queen was still on the best-seller lists a year after coming out. But money hadn’t brought her confidence. She’d even wound up hating it. It had changed her life and her relationships with other people. The only thing it didn’t change is how I feel about myself, she thought with a sigh. She looked around for a café where she could sit and open the mysterious package.
It was late November, and night was falling on the city. A stiff wind was blowing, stripping the trees of their remaining leaves, which spiraled to the ground in a russet waltz. Pedestrians walked along looking at their feet for fear of a gust slapping them in the face. Joséphine pulled up her coat collar and checked her watch. She was meeting Luca at seven at the brasserie Le Coq on the place du Trocadéro.
She looked at the package. There was no sender’s name.
She walked up avenue Poincaré to the place du Trocadéro and entered the brasserie. She had a full hour before Luca would join her. Since her move, they always met in this brasserie, at her request. It was a way of getting acquainted with her new neighborhood. She enjoyed creating habits. “I think this place is too bourgeois and touristy, it has no soul,” said Luca dully, “but if you insist . . .” You can always tell if people are sad or happy by their eyes. They can’t hide the way they look. Luca always had sad eyes. Even when he smiled.
She pushed the glass door open, spotted a free table, and went to sit down. To her relief, nobody paid her any attention. Perhaps she was starting to look like a Parisienne? She fingered the unusual almond-green hat she’d bought the week before, considered removing it, decided not to. It had three fat woolen bellows topped by a disk of ribbed velvet with a little wool stem, like a beret. With that hat, she was creating a personality for herself. Just before going to the post office she’d stopped at the lycée to see her younger daughter’s main teacher, Madame Berthier. She wanted to see how Zoé was doing, what with the move and getting used to a new school. At the end of their talk, Berthier had put on her coat and the same almond-green hat with three puffy bellows.
“I’ve got exactly the same hat,” said Joséphine, holding hers out. “Look!”
The coincidence of wearing identical hats brought the two women closer than their long conversation about Zoé had. They left the school together and headed in the same direction, still talking.

“You come from Courbevoie, Zoé tells me.”
“I lived there for almost fifteen years. I liked it, even though there were problems.”
“Here, the problems aren’t the children, but their parents!”
Joséphine looked at her in surprise.
“They all think they’ve given birth to a genius, and they criticize us for not recognizing their inner Pythagoras or Chateaubriand. They bombard their children with tutoring, piano lessons, tennis clinics, sessions in fancy schools abroad. The kids are exhausted, and they either fall asleep in class or talk to you as if you were their flunkey. In fact, I just had a run-in with one of the fathers, a banker with all sorts of degrees and diplomas. He was complaining that his son had only a B average. I pointed out that a B was pretty good, and he looked at me as if I’d insulted him. His son! Flesh of his flesh! Getting a B average! I could practically smell napalm on his breath. It’s dangerous being a teacher these days. I’m not afraid of the kids as much as of their parents!”
Madame Berthier clapped her hand on her hat to keep it from blowing off and laughed.
They had to part when they reached Joséphine’s building.
“I live a little farther on,” she said, pointing to a street on the left. “And love your hat. Be sure to wear it. That way we’ll recognize each other, even from a distance.”
That’s for sure, thought Joséphine. It stood up like a cobra rising from its basket. She almost expected to hear flute music and see the hat start swaying back and forth. She wasn’t sure Luca would like it.
They had been seeing each other regularly for a year. Luca was writing a scholarly work for an academic press: a history of tears from the Middle Ages to the present. He spent most of his time in the library. At thirty-nine, he lived like a student. He had a studio apartment in Asnières, its refrigerator empty except for a bottle of Coke and a lonely chunk of pâté. He didn’t own a car or a television, and in all weather, he wore a navy-blue duffel coat that served as his home away from home. Its roomy pockets held everything he needed during the day. He had a twin brother named Vittorio, who caused him endless worry. Just by looking at the furrow between Luca’s eyes, Joséphine could tell if the news about his brother was good or bad. A deep furrow was a storm warning. On those days, Luca would be silent and somber. He would take Joséphine’s hand and slip it into his coat pocket along with the keys, pens, notebooks, cough drops, Metro tickets, cell phone, tissue pack, and his old red leather wallet. She had learned to recognize each object with her fingertips, even the brand of the cough drops. The two of them would get together on nights when Zoé slept over at a friend’s house or on the weekends when Zoé went to London to see her cousin, Alexandre.
Every other Friday, Joséphine drove Zoé to the Gare du Nord, and Philippe and his son, Alexandre, met her at St. Pancras. Philippe had given Zoé a Eurostar pass, and she would hop on the train, eager to be in her room in her uncle’s Notting Hill apartment.
“So you have your own room there?” Joséphine had exclaimed.
“Yup, even a hanging closet with lots of clothes, so I don’t have to carry a suitcase. Uncle Philippe thinks of everything. He’s really the best!”
In that, Joséphine recognized her brother-in-law’s tact and generosity. Whenever she had a problem, or hesitated over a decision to make, she called Philippe.
“I’m always here for you Jo,” he would answer. “You know you can ask me anything.” When she heard his kind voice, she immediately felt reassured. At the same time, a red flag went up: Careful, danger! He’s your sister’s husband! Keep your distance, Jo.
Joséphine’s own husband, Antoine, the father of her two daughters, had died six months earlier. He’d been managing a crocodile farm in Kenya for his partner, a Chinese businessman named Wei. The business collapsed, and Antoine started drinking, getting into a strange dialogue with the crocodiles. They taunted him, refusing to reproduce, ripping down the fences, and eating the workers. Antoine spent his nights staring into the yellow eyes of crocodiles floating in the swamp, until one night he walked into the water and a croc grabbed him.
In a tearful scene, Joséphine found the courage to tell Zoé that her father was dead. Zoé had said, “Now I’ve got only you left, Mommy. Nothing better happen to you!” She knocked on wood to keep the danger at bay. Hortense had cried too, but then declared that it was for the best, that being a failure had pained her father too much. Hortense didn’t like feelings, thought them a waste of time and energy, a suspicious self-indulgence that led only to self-pity. She just had one goal in life: to be a success, and nobody and nothing would stand in her way. She loved her father, of course, but there was nothing she could do for him, she said. Everyone was responsible for his own fate. He’d been dealt a losing hand and had paid the price.
That was last June. Hortense had passed her baccalauréat exam with honors and left to study in England. She sometimes joined Zoé at Philippe’s and spent Saturdays with them, but most of the time she breezed in, gave her little sister a kiss, and immediately left. She was enrolled at Saint Martins and was working like a fiend. “It’s the best fashion school in the world,” she assured her mother. “I know it’s expensive, but we can afford it now, can’t we? You’ll see, you won’t regret your investment. I’m gonna become a world-famous designer.” Hortense had no doubt about it. Neither did Joséphine. She had complete faith in her older daughter.
How much had happened in just a year!
Within a few months, my life was turned upside down, Jo reflected. I was alone, abandoned by my husband, rejected by my mother, harassed by my banker. I owed everyone money. I had just finished writing a novel so my dear sister, Iris, could put her name to it and bask in the limelight.
And now, I’ve started a new life. I’m waiting for Luca. He’ll have bought a copy of Pariscope, and together we’ll pick a movie to go see. Luca always made the choice, but he pretended to leave it up to her. She would rest her head on his shoulder, slip her hand in his coat pocket, and say, “Go ahead, you decide.” He would say, “All right, I’ll pick the movie but don’t complain afterward.”
She never complained. She was still amazed that he enjoyed being with her. When she slept at his place, with him lying next to her, she would study the sparse decor of his studio apartment, the white light slanting through the venetian blinds, the books piled on the floor. A bachelor apartment. She snuggled closer. I, Joséphine Plissonnier, widow of Antoine Cortès, have a lover.
She glanced around the café to make sure no one was watching her. I hope Luca likes my hat! If he turns up his nose, I’ll squash it into a beret.
Jo’s gaze returned to the package. She untied the coarse twine and reread the address: Madame Joséphine Cortès. She carefully unwrapped the paper, glanced into the box. A letter lay on top.
These are all the remains we found of your husband, Antoine Cortès, after the unfortunate accident that cost him his life. We want to say how sorry we all are, and remember Tonio with great affection. He was a good friend and colleague, always ready to do a favor or buy a round of drinks. Life won’t be the same without him, and his seat at the bar will remain empty, in his memory.
His friends and colleagues at the Crocodile Café in Mombasa
This was followed by a series of signatures of the people Antoine had known in Kenya. They were illegible, but even if Jo had been able to make them out, it wouldn’t have done her much good: She hadn’t met any of them.
She folded the letter and unwrapped the newspaper from Antoine’s effects. She took out a handsome scuba diving watch with a large black dial whose bezel bore Roman and Arabic numerals, an orange running shoe size six—he hated having such small feet—and a baptism medal. One side showed a cherub in profile, its head resting on its hand. The other was engraved with Antoine’s first name and birth date, May 26, 1963. The last item was a long strand of chestnut hair taped to a piece of yellow cardboard, with a scribbled note: “Hair of Antoine Cortès, French businessman.” For Joséphine, the sight of the hair was overwhelming.

This was all that was left of Antoine: a cardboard box sitting on her knees. But Jo’s husband had always felt like a child she had to hold in her lap. She had let him think he was in charge, but she was always the responsible one.
“And what can I get for the little lady?”
A waiter was standing in front of her, waiting.
“A Diet Coke, please.”
He walked away, a spring in his step. I have to start exercising, Jo thought. I’m putting on weight. She’d chosen the apartment so she could run in the Bois de Boulogne. She straightened up and sucked in her stomach, promising to sit up tall for several long minutes, to strengthen her abs.
She started to think about the plan for her next novel. What would it be about? Should I set it today or in my beloved twelfth century? At least that’s a period I know about. I know the era’s sensibility, its romantic codes, its rules of social life. What do I know about life today? Not much. But now, I’m learning. I’m learning about relationships with other people, relationships with money, I’m learning everything. Hortense knows more than I do. Zoé is still a child, though she’s changing before my eyes. She dreams of being like her sister. When I was a kid, my sister was my model too.
I used to idolize Iris. She was my role model. Today, she’s adrift in the half-light of a psychiatric clinic. The light has gone out of those big blue eyes. Her gaze wanders over me and then escapes into vague boredom. She barely listens to me. Once, when I urged her to be nicer to the clinic nurses, who were so considerate, she asked, “How do you expect me to live with other people when I can’t live with myself?” And her hand fell back onto the blanket, inert.
The last time Joséphine visited, Iris’s tone very quickly rose from blandly neutral to sharp.
“I’ve only ever had one talent,” she declared, looking at her reflection in a hand mirror that always lay on her night table. “I was pretty. Very pretty. And I’m starting to lose even that. You see this wrinkle? It wasn’t there last night. And tomorrow there’ll be another one, and another, and another.”
She banged the mirror down on the Formica table and smoothed her black hair. It was cut short and square, and made her look ten years younger.
“I’m forty-seven, and I’ve screwed everything up, my life as a wife, my life as a mother. My life, period.”
“But what about Alexandre?” asked Joséphine unconvincingly.
“Don’t pretend to be stupider than you are, Jo. You know I’ve never been a mother to him. I was an apparition, someone he knew, I wouldn’t even say a friend. I was bored in his company, and I suspect he was bored in mine. He’s closer to you, his aunt, than to me, his mother, so . . .”
The questions that were on the tip of Joséphine’s tongue, the ones she couldn’t ask, were about Philippe. Aren’t you afraid that he’s going to make a new life with someone else? Aren’t you afraid of winding up alone? Asking would have been too cruel.
“Then try to become a good person,” Joséphine finally said. “It’s never too late to become someone worthwhile.”
“What a pain in the ass you can be, Jo. You’re like a nun who’s wandered into a whorehouse trying to save lost souls! You came all the way here just to lecture me. Next time, save yourself the trip and stay home. I hear you’ve moved, is that right? To a nice apartment in a nice neighborhood. Our dear mother told me. She’s dying to visit you, by the way, but refuses to be the first to call.”
Iris smiled slightly then, a scornful smile. Her big blue eyes, which had looked even bigger since she’d become sick, darkened with jealous, nasty humor.
“You have money now. Lots of money. Thanks to me. I’m the one who made your book successful, don’t ever forget that. Without me, you could never have done what I did: find a publisher, handle interviews, go on stage, have my hair chopped off on TV to get attention!”
“You’re being unfair!”
Iris raised herself in her bed. A strand of black hair that had escaped from her perfect square hairdo hung in front of her eyes. She jabbed a finger at Joséphine.
“We had a deal!” she shouted. “I’d give you all the money, and I’d get all the fame! I held up my end of the bargain, but you didn’t! You wanted both, the money and the fame!”
“Iris, you know perfectly well that’s not true. I didn’t want anything. I didn’t want to write the book, and I didn’t want the money from the book. I just wanted to be able to raise Hortense and Zoé decently.”
“Do you dare tell me that you didn’t send that little bitch to rat me out on live television? ‘My aunt didn’t write the book,’ Hortense told everyone, ‘it was my mother.’ Do you dare deny that? You disgust me, Jo. I was your most faithful ally. I was always there for you. I always paid for you, always watched out for you. And the one time I ask you to do something for me, you betray me. You really got your revenge too. You dishonored me! Why do you think I stay locked up in this clinic, half-asleep and numbed with sedatives? Because I don’t have any choice! If I go out, everyone will point a finger at me. I’d rather die here. And when that day comes, you’ll have my death on your conscience, and we’ll see how you live with it.”
Iris’s bony arms stuck out of her the sleeves of her bathrobe, her clenched jaws raising two little hard bumps under her skin, her eyes burning with the most ferocious hatred any jealous woman ever directed at a rival.
“My God, Iris, you hate me!”
“Well, well, you finally figured it out! Now we won’t have to play at being loving sisters anymore! I never want to see you again. Don’t bother coming back!”

The Slow Waltz of Turtles
by by Katherine Pancol

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0143128175
  • ISBN-13: 9780143128175