So when the bartender at the café put our beers down in front of us, Claire and I smiled at each other in the knowledge that we would soon be spending an entire evening in the company of the Lohmansin the knowledge that this was the finest moment of that evening, that from here on it would all be downhill.
I didn't feel like going to the restaurant. I never do. A fixed appointment for the immediate future is the gates of hell; the actual evening is hell itself. It starts in front of the mirror in the morning: what you're going to wear, and whether or not you're going to shave. At times like these, after all, everything is a statement, a pair of torn and stained jeans as much as a neatly ironed shirt. If you don't scrape off the day's stubble, you were too lazy to shave; two days' beard immediately makes them wonder whether this is some new look; three days or more is just a step from total dissolution. "Are you feeling all right? You're not sick, are you?" No matter what you do, you're not free. You shave, but you're not free. Shaving is a statement as well. Apparently you found this evening significant enough to go to the trouble of shaving, you see the others thinkingin fact, shaving already puts you behind 10.
And then I always have Claire to remind me that this isn't an evening like every other. Claire is smarter than I am. I'm not saying that out of some half-baked feminist sentiment or in order to endear women to me. You'll never hear me claim that "women in general" are smarter than men. Or more sensitive, more intuitive, that they are more "in touch with life" or any of the other horseshit that, when all is said and done, so-called sensitive men try to peddle more often than women themselves. Claire just happens to be smarter than I am; I can honestly say that it took me a while to admit that. During our first years together, I thought she was intelligent, I guess, but intelligent in the usual sense: precisely as intelligent, in fact, as you might expect my wife to be. After all, would I settle for a stupid woman for any longer than a month? In any case, Claire was intelligent enough for me to stay with her even after the first month. And now, almost twenty years later, that hasn't changed.
So Claire is smarter than I am, but on evenings like this, she still asks my opinion about what she should wear, which earrings, whether to wear her hair up or leave it down. For women, earrings are sort of what shaving is for men: the bigger the earrings, the more significant, the more festive, the evening. Claire has earrings for every occasion. Some people might say it's not smart to be so insecure about what you wear. But that's not how I see it. The stupid woman is the one who thinks she doesn't need any help. What does a man know about things like that? the stupid woman thinks, and proceeds to make the wrong choice.
I've sometimes tried to imagine Babette asking Serge whether she's wearing the right dress. Whether her hair isn't too long. What Serge thinks of these shoes. The heels aren't too flat, are they? Or maybe too high? But whenever I do I realize there's something wrong with the picture, something that seems unimaginable: "No, it's fine, it's absolutely fine," I hear Serge say. But he's not really paying attention. It doesn't actually interest him, and besides, even if his wife were to wear the wrong dress, all the men would still turn their heads as she walked by. Everything looks good on her. So what's she moaning about?
This wasn't a hip café; the fashionable types didn't come hereit wasn't cool, Michel would say. Ordinary people were by far in the majority. Not the particularly young or the particularly oldin fact, a little bit of everything all thrown together, but above all ordinary. The way a café should be. It was crowded. We stood close together, beside the door to the men's room. Claire was holding her beer in one hand; with the fingers of the other she was gently squeezing my wrist.
Excerpted from The Dinner by Herman Koch. Copyright © 2013 by Herman Koch. Excerpted by permission of Hogarth Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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