This story is by Lanie Goodman and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It was the year of the Swatch. In 2000, also the year of my divorce, everyone was wearing them on the French Rivera, my adopted home. Even my sad-eyed banker sported a cobalt plastic timepiece under his starched cuff.
If I hadn’t given Jean-Marc a limited edition of a James Bond 007 Swatch for his birthday, none of this would ever have happened.
We’d only been dating for a few months. We celebrated at his place, a small spotless apartment that the radio station had rented for him. The garden had a lemon tree and a front-row view of the sparkling Mediterranean.
“Ha! I know why you’re so mysterious,” I teased. “I figured it out.”
Jean-Marc smiled and lifted the watch from its case. Handsome. A chocolate brown leather band, a silver dial that promised special gadgetry.
“When you say ‘I’ll be gone for two weeks,’ you’re actually on a secret mission to Cairo.”
That’s when I saw a flicker of alarm in his eyes.
“The name is Bond, James Bond,” he said, leaning over to kiss me. “Merci, je l’adore.” He poured more champagne and we clinked glasses.
As always, our lovemaking was slow-burning, intense, feverish.
“I knew you were a spy,” I murmured later in bed. He stiffened.
“Listen, Laura, there’s something I should tell you. We don’t know each other very well yet but…I trust you.”
I waited, my heart sinking. What now?
“It’s funny that you’ve guessed… The truth is, besides my day job at the radio, I also work for the French government.”
The DST, the French intelligence agency for national security?
“They recruited me while I was living in Morocco,” he continued. “Maybe because I speak fluent Arabic and fit their type.”
Who was this guy? I knew that he’d started in TV, setting up stations in Third World countries. Before that, he’d been an actor.
“I blend into a crowd. You know, Monsieur-tout-le-monde.”
Which was true, actually. Jean-Marc was not tall nor particularly muscular, and I couldn’t imagine him scaling rooftops wielding a Kalashnikov.
He wore glasses and perfectly-cut suits, à la Clark Kent. He was exquisitely polite, maniacally neat. Polished shoes, vintage toothpaste. Brilliant, well-read, but never arrogant.
Thanks to a cleverly marketed timepiece, I’d unwittingly stumbled upon his secret.
From then on, something shifted. Whenever Jean-Marc called—assuring me in a hushed tone that the line was “secure”—he’d bring up his “other job.” His missions would be taking him far from France. He could say no more. Once, he alluded to a narrow escape in dirt-poor Mauritania, where he’d hidden in a cave until it was safe.
Like the others in his unit, he was presumably a tourist. Posing as a hippie backpacker, a lone businessman, or a middle-aged couple, they followed instructions, sat in cafés, watching their suspects’ every move. They carried handguns, just in case.
Officially, as director of MCR, Jean-Marc was obliged to jet between Monaco and Paris, the radio station’s headquarters. He had a pied-à-terre in Montmartre, with a spare room for his troubled stepdaughter, Hélène.
“It’s not very private,” he said. He’d told me about his messy divorce and often dined with Hélène on weekends.
Our time together was always in the south of France. We never socialized —it was his place or mine. If Jean-Marc stayed overnight, he’d slip out early to buy croissants, then make a call to his ‘other’ office. “Whoever this secret lover of yours is, he’s treating you like his mistress,” my friend Kate observed, examining my new silver ring suspiciously. “It’s from a souk in Fez,” I said. She rolled her eyes.
One thing puzzled me: Jean-Marc was almost invisible on Internet. A few outdated photos, nothing more. “To protect me from being recognized,” he shrugged.
The months scudded by. Then, in January 2001, the Monaco radio station suddenly changed hands and Jean-Marc was jobless. He’d have to live full-time in Paris and find a new position. I was crushed. So much for our midweek romantic trysts. “Don’t worry, ma chérie, I’ll find a way to see you.” Apparently, they were also keeping him very busy.
Then, out of the blue—a phone call. “I have two days off!” He’d arrive with a carry-on filled with gifts—books, perfume, candles, necklaces, chocolates, Mont Blanc pens, amusing trinkets.
We never fought. I’d never known such kindness. Not with my unfaithful ex-husband, or my former boyfriends. This was new.
Knowing the truth is hell. The no-questions-asked felt easier, safer. You drift on a cotton candy cloud with little thought of the future.
The first wake-up call was the black iron tea pot. It was mid-August and Jean-Marc was unexpectedly free. “Sorry for the wrapping,” he said, handing me a heavy object rolled up in Chinese newspaper. “From a market in Shanghai.”
On the morning he left, I noticed that a piece of discarded newspaper wrapping had slid under the couch. I stared at the date: August 13th, Paris. It was undeniably the local edition from Chinatown.
All of my gifts might have been purchased last-minute at a Paris airport. This I knew.
In 2005, our relationship ended abruptly. We were at a seaside hotel. Jean-Marc waited for bedtime to break the news. He couldn’t see me anymore, I deserved more, a life with someone more available. Besides, they were sending him on a long mission and he didn’t know when he’d be back.
I cried. A lot. Eventually, I took it in stride. By the following summer, Jean-Marc started to call me again. Polite chit-chat. He’d send birthday and Christmas cards, sometimes chocolate. He couldn’t let go.
Three years passed. One day, Jean-Marc phoned to say that he’d been diagnosed with colon cancer but the doctors were mystified. “I have some special form of cancer,” he whispered. “We were probably poisoned.” He’d get excellent care at a military hospital near Germany and told me not to worry.
When we spoke in early November 2014, I barely recognized his reedy pain-wracked voice. The experimental treatment hadn’t worked. Pumped up on morphine, he told me how much he cared. “When I disappear, they’ll call you.”
Who? I wondered, too choked up to ask. Did they know about me?
A week later, I sent an affectionate SMS. No answer.
When my phone rang, I knew immediately. “I saw your text on Jean-Marc’s mobile,” she said. “He passed away last Thursday. This is Francine, his wife. Who are you?”
Should you tell a grieving widow the truth?
We talked for hours, compared notes. She’d left her Moroccan husband in 2000 to be with Jean-Marc, who, at the same time, had begun courting me.
A skilled actor. Our bewildering breakup was staged a week before he married Francine.
On January 10th, 2015, I had to be in Paris for work. Something unthinkably horrific had happened three days earlier: Two French Muslim gunmen burst into the magazine offices of Charlie Hebdo and massacred 12 people, leaving a bloodbath behind.
Paris was a ghost town. People were scared to go outside.
I’d agreed to meet Francine in a café, at her insistence. I didn’t know what to expect. She had dark glossy hair, cherry-red nails and wore violet-scented perfume. Born and raised in Casablanca by European parents, she said.
She swiftly debunked Jean-Marc’s spy act. Fluent Arabic? Ridiculous! There was no “other office,” no pied-à-terre. No military hospital, no exotic trips. They lived in a townhouse in the 13th arrondissement and had a holiday home in Essaouira. We wiped away the tears, then laughed in spite of ourselves. We had the same jewelry. On my first date with Jean-Marc, he’d given me Francine’s favorite novel. He’d stolen her identity and had made it his own.
The man she’d worshipped was a pathological liar! I felt sorry for her.
Then I had a sudden flash. “The love is real between you, but Jean-Marc is married to the intelligence bureau,” a psychic had once told me. A stupefying insight, but she’d been wrong.
It was getting dark. “I’ll get the bill. Let me walk you to your hotel,” Francine said.
The streets were eerily empty. Was she going to the city-wide march the next day to mourn the Charlie Hebdo victims? Francine shook her head.
Why not? I froze, recalling the psychic’s exact words.
“Now wouldn’t it be funny if you were really the spy? And this is all a cover-up?”
Francine stopped in her tracks. “Ah ha!” she smirked, her eyes flashing. “I guess you’ll never know. Au revoir, Laura!” She spun around and disappeared into the night.
In the deserted bar of my hotel, the news channel played silently. Paris was in aftershock from the terrorist attack.
Where was my 007 when we needed him?
My brain was on fire with ricocheting truths, lies and questions. I slipped onto a barstool.
“Vodka Martini, please,” I said. “Shaken, not stirred.”