Did that sound believable? And above all: did I look believable when I said it? Claire's gaze shifted quickly back and forth between my right and my left eye; then she raised her hand to my shirt collar, as though there were something out of place there that could be dealt with now, so I wouldn't look like an idiot when we got to the restaurant.
She smiled and placed the flat of her hand against my chest; I could feel two fingertips against my skin, right where the top button of my shirt was unbuttoned.
"Maybe that's it," she said. "I just think we both have to be careful that at a certain point he doesn't stop talking to us about things. That we'd get used to that, I mean."
"No, of course. But at his age, he kind of has a right to his own secrets. We shouldn't try to find out everything about himthen maybe he'd clam up altogether."
I looked Claire in the eye. My wife, I thought at that moment. Why shouldn't I call her my wife? My wife. I put my arm around her and pulled her close. Even if only for the duration of this evening. My wife and I, I said to myself. My wife and I would like to see the wine list.
"What are you laughing about?" Claire said. My wife said. I looked at our beer glasses. Mine was empty; hers was still three-quarters full. As usual. My wife didn't drink as fast as I did, which was another reason why I loved her, this evening perhaps more than other evenings.
"Nothing," I said. "I was thinking . . . I was thinking about us."
It happened quickly: one moment I was looking at Claire, looking at my wife, probably with a loving gaze, or at least with a twinkle, and the next moment I felt a damp film slide down over my eyes.
Under no circumstances was she to notice anything strange about me, so I buried my face in her hair. I tightened my grip around her waist and sniffed: shampoo. Shampoo and something else, something warmthe smell of happiness, I thought. What would this evening have been like if, no more than an hour ago, I had simply waited downstairs until it was time to go, rather than climb the stairs to Michel's room?
What would the rest of our lives have been like?
Would the smell of happiness I inhaled from my wife's hair still have smelled only like happiness, and not, as it did now, like some distant memorylike the smell of something you could lose just like that?
I was standing in the doorway to his room. He wasn't there. But let's not beat around the bush: I knew he wasn't there. He was in the garden, fixing the back tire of his bike. I acted as though I hadn't noticed that; I pretended I thought he was in his room.
"Michel?" I knocked on the door, which was half-open. Claire was rummaging through the closets in our room; we would have to leave for the restaurant in less than an hour. She was still hesitating between the black skirt with black boots or the black pants with the DKNY sneakers. "Which earrings?" she would ask me later. "These, or these?" The little ones looked best on her, I would reply, with either the skirt or the pants.
Then I was in Michel's room. I saw right away what I was looking for.
I want to stress the fact that I had never done anything like that before. Never. When Michel was chatting with his friends on the computer, I always stood beside him in such a way, with my back half-turned toward the desk, that I couldn't see the screen. I wanted him to be able to tell from my posture that I wasn't spying or trying to peek over his shoulder at what he'd typed on the screen. Sometimes his cell phone made a noise like panpipes, to announce a text message. He had a tendency to leave his cell phone lying aroundI won't deny that I was tempted to look at it sometimes, especially when he had gone out. Who's texting him? What did he/she write? One time I had even stood there with Michel's cell phone in my hand, knowing that he wouldn't be coming back from the gym for another hour, that he had simply forgotten it. That was his old phone, a Sony Ericsson without the slide: the display showed 1 new message, beneath an envelope icon. "I don't know what got into me; before I knew it, I had your cell phone in my hand and I was reading your message." Maybe no one would ever find out, but then again maybe they would. He wouldn't say anything, but he would suspect me or his mother nonethelessa fissure that with the passing of time would expand into a substantial chasm. Our life as a happy family would never be the same. It was only a few steps to his desk in front of the window. If I leaned forward, I would be able to see him in the garden, on the flagstone terrace in front of the kitchen door, where he was fixing his inner tubeand if Michel looked up, he would see his father standing at the window of his room.
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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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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