women. writers.

Fiction: "The Flame" by Emilie Noelle-Provost

If you don’t count Johnny Depp, until the day I met Charles Forest I had never so much
as considered making love to a man other than my husband. It was a bright morning in
late June, one of those rare days in New England that nearly convince you that all is right
in the world, or at least that such a state of affairs might be possible. Charles’ driveway, a
long and winding affair that must have been a bitch to plow, was lined with sugar maples
and covered with dove-colored gravel. I cringed at the way the little stones crunched and
popped beneath my tires. Although I’d taken the longest route possible, and had been
careful to drive the speed limit, I was still fifteen minutes early.

     Wisps of steam rose up from the dewy lawn in the places where the sun broke through
the trees. I climbed the steps to the covered front porch and, not wanting to catch Charles
Forest in his bathrobe, decided to wait a few minutes before ringing the bell.

     The house, a sprawling place that over the years had belonged to a string of farmers, was
painted the same dusty red as the brick mill buildings in the city where I lived, not far
away, but a world apart, really. The property stretched on as far I could see: lawn
followed by meadow, followed by woodlands.

     After five minutes – probably too long – I pressed the doorbell. Charles opened the door
the moment the chime sounded, making me wonder if he’d been standing there, just on
the other side, the entire time.

     Charles looked the same as he did in the professional headshots you could find of him on
the Internet. That is to say, stern and jowly, his face vaguely resembling a pug’s. His eyes
were a bit too large for his face with irises the color of March mud, the pupils cavernous
black. I could see that his hair, mostly gray now, had been dark once. He wore the type of
no-nonsense crew cut you’d expect to find on a high school chemistry teacher.

     Charles was taller than I expected, maybe six-foot-three—though I suppose a person’s
height isn’t something you can determine from photographs. I’d worked his age out to be
48 the night before when I was doing research for our interview. The man standing in
front of me could have easily been in his mid-50s.

     Charles Patrick Forest (the name he used on the covers of his books) had written eight
best sellers and had published countless stories and articles. Five years ago, he’d won the
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

     “Hi. I’m Nathalie LaFlamme. From The Globe.”

     Charles smiled. His teeth were broad and bleached and flawlessly square. His lips—by
far his best feature—were fleshy and voluptuous, the sort that fashion models would kill
for. He swung the front door open wide, placing his arm high enough for me to pass
underneath it.

     “Glad you could make it on such short notice. Come in.” Charles shut the door and
jammed his fists into the front pockets of his jeans. He wore a wristwatch that I was sure
had cost more than my car.

     We stood in the foyer, both of us silent just long enough for the circumstances to feel
awkward. At last, he said, “Why don’t you come into the kitchen? I just made coffee.”

     The Forests’ kitchen looked like someone had lifted it from the pages of a magazine:
creamy marble countertops were offset by custom maple cabinetry and a showroom’s
worth of high-end stainless steel appliances. A photograph of Charles standing on a beach
with amiddle-agedd woman and two teenage boys was tacked to the fridge with a magnet
shaped like a miniature banana. The boys had Charles’ eyes.

     I sat on one of the stools at the kitchen island while Charles set out coffee mugs and
pulled two bottles of water from the fridge.

     He cracked the cap on his bottle and took a long swallow. A rivulet of water slipped
down his chin and stained the front of his shirt. I held out a paper napkin, and when he
leaned over to take it from me I noticed a drop still clinging to his lower lip. I had to fight
the urge to touch it.

     A gentlemanly room with mahogany paneling, Charles’ study was lined with hundreds of
books. A silver Macintosh laptop sat in the center of an oiled pine desk the size of my
living room couch.

     We sat on a love seat by the window. Charles’ last novel, the Pulitzer Prize winner, had
been placed in the center of the coffee table.

     I took out my list of questions and set down my voice recorder. I was about to switch the
device on when a wiry, dark-haired woman – the one from the photograph – poked her
head through the doorway.

     “Oh, excuse me. I’m Dianne, Charles’ wife—Charlie, I need you to go to the store and
pick up some things when you’re done.”

     Charles nodded in reply, and when Dianne had closed the door behind her, he turned to
face me, his lanky frame all elbows and knees.

     “How long?” Charles touched my left hand with his forefinger. His skin was dry and
papery, and even after he pulled his hand away, the spot where his finger had been felt

     I took me a moment to realize he was asking about my wedding band.

     “I’ve been married for seventeen years. We have two girls, age fourteen and sixteen.”

     “Twenty-six years,” Charles said, nodding his head in the direction of the closed door.

     He gestured toward the voice recorder with his index finger, suggesting that we should
get on with it.

     “So, tell me about this new book you’re working on,” I said.

     “There is no new book. I haven’t written a word in years.”

      I paused, wrinkling my forehead. “Then why did you ask to do an interview? Your agent
told me yesterday that you were working on something – that I would get an exclusive
story. I had to do a lot of juggling to come here today.”

     “My agent is under the impression that I am working on something. I’ve been telling him
so for years. I’m under contract for one more book.”

     “But why not just get out of the contract? Surely you could just hire a lawyer, or ask your
agent to …”

     “No. You don’t understand. The thing is … I don’t want to do that. I really want to write
another book.”

     Sighing, I clicked off the recorder and began to gather my things.

     “I’m sorry.” Charles stared at the wall, his huge hands covering his knees. “I thought that
if I knew I was going to be talking to someone from the media—it might help me get
back on track, motivate me to get behind the desk.”

     Then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, Charles placed his hand on top of
mine and began stroking the underside of my wrist with his thumb.

     Like ripples lapping at the shore of a lake, waves of desire radiated out from beneath my
ribcage and down into the hollow space below my belly button.

     Charles leaned over and kissed me on the mouth.

     He nibbled at the curve of my neck and pressed his lips into the delicate flesh opposite
my elbow. His hair and skin smelled of sandalwood and cloves. I gripped the back of the
sofa to keep from swooning.

     A dog barking outside brought me to my senses. I pulled my arm from Charles’ grasp and
forced myself to stand. The room looked all wrong, its dark wood and leather furniture
too sharp a contrast to the bright day outside. I did what I could to straighten my dress.

     Charles stood up and tucked in his shirt. He adjusted his enormous Rolex, placed one
hand on the small of my back, and escorted me out of the house.

     We are Catholic in my family. My great-uncle Lucien, a priest, officiated when I married
Paul. My daughters, Marie and Georgie, go to Saint Genevieve High School, the same
school Paul and I graduated from. I wasn’t a virgin when I got married, but I had never
been with anyone but Paul until that morning at Charles’ house.

     My parents never talked to my sisters and me about sex. When I was ten, my mother gave
me a book that explained what would happen when I got my period, and what I should do
about it. She stocked the bathroom closet with maxi pads, and said I should let her know
if I had any questions. I was sixteen when I finally learned where babies came from.

     In high school, we had the Catholic version of sex ed, which consisted almost entirely of
the girls’ gym teacher, a manly nun named Sister Maureen, warning us about the grave
dangers of premarital sex, masturbation, birth control, and especially abortion. She wore
a silver whistle on a nylon cord around her neck. In the event that we were harboring any
impure thoughts, at the end of each class Sister would lead us in a vigorous jog around
the field house.

     In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, Paul and I have always had a fulfilling love
life. We are attentive to each other, and fit well together. This was true even after I met
Charles, when my dreams became haunted by the smell of the leather sofa in his study.

     One Sunday in October, when Paul and the girls and I were at Mass, Paul reached over
and began stroking the back of my wrist with his thumb. I don’t remember a single word
from that homily.

     After church, I went upstairs to change. I shut the door to our bedroom and dialed
Charles’ cell number. I was relieved when I got his voicemail.

     “Hi, Charles. This is Nathalie LaFlamme, the journalist who came to your house a few
months back. I was just wondering if you’d started working on anything new and maybe
wanted to talk about it.”

      It was five days before Charles returned my call. Seeing his number on the caller ID
made my face and neck flush red. I let the phone ring four times before deciding to
answer it.


     “Nathalie. I’m so glad you called. There’s something I want to talk to you about. Can you
have dinner with me?”

     “Um, sure, I suppose so.”

     “How about Tuesday at six-thirty? Meet me at Marcelo’s in Portsmouth.”

     Marcelo’s is on Bow Street, overlooking the river. I’d walked by it probably two dozen
times and had never once considered eating there, mainly because of the guy that stands
out front wearing a tuxedo during the summer, beckoning passersby to come inside. It
looks too expensive.

     The hostess showed me to a private dining room on the second floor. One whole wall was
made of glass, the lights along the waterfront twinkling in the vanishing dusk. A log had
been lit in the fireplace against the October chill. Charles, seated at a table for two near
the back of the room, stood up when I came in.

     He looked different than when I’d last seen him. He had a tan and seemed to have lost a
few inches from his waistline. He wore a navy blue blazer over a cream-colored dress
shirt open at the collar. His khaki pants had been meticulously pressed. He gestured for
me to sit as he pulled out a chair.

     Without asking if I wanted it, he poured me a glass of Chianti from the decanter on the

     “Before you say anything, I want to apologize to you for the way I behaved the last time I
saw you,” he said. “I don’t know what came over me, but I hope you’ll believe me when
I tell you that I’ve never done anything like that before.”

     “I’m just as responsible as you are,” I said. “It’s not like I asked you to stop.”

     “No. I should have known better. I took advantage of you. Let’s see if we can put it
behind us and start over again.” He raised his wineglass and clinked its rim against mine.

     Charles set a neat stack of paper, held together with a red rubber band, on my salad plate.

     “What’s this?”

     “My next book.”

     “Is this why you asked me to come here?”

     “Yes, and I want you to read it—before I send it to my editor. And then, I want to know
what you think. I hope you’ll be able to write your article now, too. I think I owe you that
– at the very least.”

     When I began to protest, Charles waved his hand in the air, swatting away the very
possibility that I might say no.

     After dinner, Charles walked me to my car.

     We stopped on the sidewalk beside my Honda and I took my keys out of my purse. The
air was cold and clean and smelled like the sea. A thick blanket of stars hung low over
the darkness of the water. Our breath came out in billowy vapor clouds that quickly
disappeared into the night.

     It was nearly 10 p.m. We’d been the last customers in Marcelo’s. The temperature had
dropped since I’d arrived and my jacket wasn’t warm enough.

     “Get in touch with me after you’ve read the manuscript.”

     I nodded, hugging my chest to conserve warmth.

     Charles put his hands on my shoulders and kissed me on the forehead.

     “Thank you for having dinner with me. I had a nice time.”

     I looked up at him, craning my neck. I’m fairly tall for a woman, but no match for
Charles’ height, even in heels.

     He leaned down and kissed me on the lips.

     The kiss was a friendly one. But the spicy smell of his cologne and the feel of his lips,
together with the wine, left me completely unmoored. I wrapped my arms around him
and pressed my mouth to his, not caring that we were in the middle of the sidewalk.

     We ended up at an inn overlooking the water, a thoroughly contemporary place that,
although stylish, seemed bleak when compared to the cozy, fire-lit dining room where
we’d spent most of the night.

     Charles helped me off with my jacket and hung it in the closet. He took off his sport coat
and hung that up, too, before turning off the light in the entryway.

     I stood in the middle of the room, which was lit only by the moonglow pouring through
the windows. Charles came over and put his arms around me. He planted tiny kisses at
the base of my neck until my knees threatened to fold, but by then I was thinking of Paul
and the girls. The room’s sharp angles and icy chrome fixtures had leached the fire from
my bones.

     Charles led me to the sofa and sat down beside me. He kissed my hair and we stared out
the window at the reflection of the moon on the water.

     After that night, I carved out a tiny pocket in the flesh beside my heart and let Charles
live there. I called him after I read his manuscript, and I finally wrote my article. We
exchanged an occasional email.

     The next time I saw Charles was almost two years later. He invited me for coffee at a
sidewalk cafe in Newburyport.

     “It’s so good to see you, Nathalie. How are you?” He placed his hand on top of mine and
gave it a firm squeeze.

     From his bag, he produced a hardcover copy of his new book, the one whose manuscript
he’d given me to read.

     “It will be in stores on Tuesday, but this copy is for you. Open it.”

     I cracked the front cover to find a handwritten inscription on the title page.

     “Not that. Read that later. Here.” He flipped the page to reveal the book’s official
dedication, printed in italic font: For Nathalie.

     I looked up from the table. “What about your wife?”

     “It’s none of her business. I wrote the book for you.”

     Across the street, a group of women stood on the sidewalk. An older lady wearing a
green windbreaker pointed to our table.

     “I think you have fans,” I said, nodding my head in the direction of the women. “They
probably want to say hello.”

     “They can wait. Take a walk with me.”

     We strolled along the riverfront, my arm laced through his. It was a lovely, warm
September afternoon. Cottony clouds drifted across the sky.

      When Charles felt sure that we’d lost the group of ladies, we sat down on a bench. He
draped his arm around my shoulders. I leaned into him, my head resting in the space
between his chest and chin. I could feel his heart beating through his clothes.

     I followed Charles to his house in my car.

     We entered through a side door that looked like it had once been meant for deliveries.
Charles led me up a narrow stairway at the back of the house, its wooden runs made from
a patchwork of oak boards. The stairs creaked when we stepped on them.

     “No one’s here. Dianne and the boys are visiting her mother in Tampa.”

     Our destination was a bright guest bedroom, simple but elegant, at the end of a long
corridor. Late day sunlight streamed through windows that offered a beautiful view of the
meadow behind the house, golden that time of year.

     The bed was an antique four-poster, its wood dark with age. The spread covering the
mattress was white chenille. Laid out on the floor in front of the painted brick fireplace
was a hand-braided rag rug. A landscape painting of an afternoon river surrounded by
autumn trees hung over the mantle.

     Charles neatly folded all of my clothes and placed them on a chair.

     Despite our best efforts, we were awkward with one another: shy, fumbling, and much
too careful.

     Naked beneath the thin covers, we held each other while the sun dipped below the tree
line. We watched the stars poke through the fabric of the evening sky. And for a brief
moment, I was sure I could feel the rotation of the earth.

     At breakfast six months later, I read in the New York Times that Charles had died of
brain cancer. I pretended that something had gotten into my eye when Paul looked at me
from across the table.

     Charles’ last novel, a historical piece about a young woman in Maine who loses her
husband, a potato farmer, to a hunting accident, made it onto most of the bestseller lists.
Recently, I heard a rumor that someone had purchased the movie rights.

     Marie, my youngest, went off to college this past fall. With both girls gone, the house
seemed lonely, so Paul and I adopted a French bulldog, Jane, from the humane society.

     On weekends, we take Jane for long walks in the woods. One Sunday, just before
Thanksgiving, she got free from her leash and led us on a wild chase through the trees.
When we caught up to her, we found ourselves in a clearing, a wide meadow full of tall,
amber grass whispering in the breeze. In the distance stood a rambling, old house painted
dusty red, its windows blazing orange in the setting sun.

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