Like a human snowplow, I surge against the flow of chanting, banner-waving students pouring into the boulevard St.-Germain. I am determined to get to the Café de Flore before Richard does. My husband has flown all night from Kabul on a military plane. I am merely crossing from the fifth into the sixth arrondissement. As he shuttles between Washington, Kabul, and Islamabad, we have little time together; minutes matter. But this is the Latin Quarter, and it is October, the season of student manifestations. Les manifs are a routine feature of my Parisian neighborhood, and I usually enjoy their high-spirited revolutionary theater. Not today. The students have blocked traffic on St.-Germain and prevented Richard’s car from reaching our apartment on the rue des Écoles.
Hot and sweaty, I arrive at the terrace of the Flore. Richard is already there and, as usual these days, he is on the phone. As he is looking up, his smile momentarily lifts travel fatigue from his features. “You’re late!” he says, a hand covering the phone. He hangs up, and we kiss. Then we exhale in unison from sheer relief that we are together—and in Paris! That is how it has been for the past two years. Days stolen from a devouring job.
Richard takes out his frayed wallet to pay for our citrons pressés. “See,” he says, “it’s still here,” a faded Polaroid of the two of us in the Tuileries Garden taken in 1994, wearing matching expressions of goofy happiness. “And I still have this,” he says, proudly extracting the torn corner of a phone message pad with my sister’s Paris telephone number. In 1993, he tracked me down with that number. His amulette. “You are a ridiculously sentimental man,” I tell him.
Holding hands, we navigate between the green street cleaning machines that are already vacuuming up the debris of the street protest, as we make our way to the rue des Écoles. We have one night together. He will fly to Brussels the next day for a conference he has called on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On this balmy fall afternoon, we are not thinking about that. It always feels right to meet in the city where we began our life together. Paris is also roughly midway between Washington and the world’s bleakest conflict zone, Richard’s diplomatic beat. Climbing the narrow, creaky stairs to our pied-à-terre reminds us of other lives we have lived—and lives we planned still to live. In Paris, we wrap our little apartment around ourselves like a blanket, and keep the world outside, barely leaving our village tucked in the shadow of the Pantheon. Tonight we have to.
I am in Paris not only to see my husband but also to launch the French edition of my new book. My book party at the American Embassy is the next night, and it will be the first such event that Richard will not attend. On this, our only evening together, we are dining with Ambassador Charles Rivkin and his wife, Susan Tolson, the hosts of my book event.
Entering the Left Bank restaurant a few hours later, we smile at the sight of a giant poster of my book cover on the glass front door. Several diners acknowledge Richard’s presence with discreet nods. He and I exchange looks of mutual pleasure and pride.
I recall a lurking feeling that things were going too well for us last year. My new book had the best reviews I ever had and I had been named a National Book Critics Circle finalist. Our children were leading productive lives, Lizzie working for the United Nations in Haiti, Chris writing his first book, Richard’s sons, David and Anthony, grown, with beautiful children of their own. Richard had the toughest assignment of his career, but it was work he loved.
I am not a prayerful person. But I recall praying in mid-2010, Please God, don’t let anything bad happen to us. This is my superstitious Hungarian side, that you are punished if you are too happy. When my late-night fears circled, my first thought was for my children. My husband was indestructible. He would always be there to pick up the pieces.
The distant war reaches out for Richard even during dinner. His phone rings and he leaves the table to talk. His soufflé—the restaurant’s specialty—is cold and flat when he returns. His phone rings again and he answers again. This time I scold him. “You are being rude.” He glowers at me and squeezes my hand hard. “You have no idea what’s going on,” he answers. “There is always something going on,” I protest. The ambassador notes Richard’s grip and shoots his wife a look. My husband catches himself. “Try this.” He offers me a forkful of his freshly remade cheese soufflé. A peace offering. I shake my head. “Oh please, it’s so good,” he coaxes me. I relent and he does not answer the next call.
Walking home from the rue de Sèvres, we stop in front of the beautiful Romanesque church of St.-Germain-des-Prés, which anchors this neighborhood. But his phone rings again and I am left to remember alone when I first learned about Romanesque churches from Richard, seventeen years ago, when we fell in love in this city.
• • •
I get up early the next morning. He appears a few hours later, looking sheepish and like an unkempt boy. “You are so disciplined,” he says, finding me with my nose in a book, taking notes. “I have to be,” I answer. “I am not as quick as you. Come,” I say, patting the couch where I am sprawled. “Let’s read together.” Richard has two books in his briefcase, which have traveled back and forth to Afghanistan with him for months: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and John le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor. “No, I’m going to buy you a new outfit for your book party,” he announces.
Both books are still on his nightstand in the rue des Écoles—unfinished.
Shopping in Paris is one of our rituals. It is the only place in the world Richard enjoys shopping. Our closets are full of Parisian purchases spanning the last decade and a half. In a chic Right Bank boutique, I parade several beautiful suits and dresses. Richard looks up from the phone and nods at the velvet suit I am modeling. “That color looks good on you,” he says. “C’est aubergine, monsieur,” the saleslady interjects. Richard has spotted some shoes of the same shade and, still on the phone, signals the lady to bring those, too. I decline the cashmere overcoat, the color of cream, that he drapes on my shoulder. “Let’s get a coffee,” I say, our time together nearly up.
On the rue de Rivoli, we squeeze into a crowded café terrace, Richard looking for shade, me for a sunny spot. “I’m sorry I can’t stay for your book party,” he says. “That’s the end of your perfect attendance record for four books,” I answer. “But you know I came just to be with you,” he says. “It won’t always be like this,” he promises. The black embassy car is at the curb; the driver is holding the door open. We kiss. It is our last time together in Paris.
From the café on the rue de Rivoli it is a short stroll to the W. H. Smith bookstore, where I now head. On the front table I see Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars. I buy a copy and head back out into the October sunshine. At the Tuileries Garden, across the street, I pull up a wrought-iron chair and flip to the index. Holbrooke, R.: a great many listings. I turn to the one that also lists me. A wave of anger and disbelief washes over me as I read. According to Woodward, the president soured on Richard when my husband asked him to call him Richard, not Dick, at the ceremony appointing him special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “For Kati,” Richard explained, “who is in the audience, and who doesn’t like ‘Dick.’”
How could the president—who once requested that his friends not call him “Barry”—hold this against Richard? I am too agitated to sit for another minute in the sunny gardens. Embarrassed that I made such a big deal of my preference for Richard over Dick, a fact I made clear to him the minute we met, in 1985. Angry that such a trivial matter would turn the president against the man he just assigned his toughest foreign policy job. And then, as I head toward the Seine and home, I am overwhelmed by love for a man who would use his precious one-on-one with the commander in chief to ask a favor, for his wife! No wonder he never mentioned the Woodward book, nor brought a copy home. He was trying to protect me—as always. I have an urge to run after the limousine speeding him now to a military base outside Paris—to tell him I love him, one more time.
• • •
Aside from my superstitious fear that things were going too well for us, there were no signs, no portents of tragedy looming. He played tennis over Thanksgiving weekend in Southampton. We did a marathon of movies, his favorite pastime. But if I believed in signs, there was one. As Richard packed to return to Washington on that Sunday, he searched frantically for his wallet. We looked in all the usual places, emptied all pockets in his closet, and moved the bed and chest of drawers. No sign. Oh well, he said, it’ll turn up. It always has.
I returned to New York, Richard to Washington. Every time he called, he asked if his wallet had turned up. There was no money in it. He had already canceled his credit cards and replaced his security passes. Still, he was agitated that it had not turned up, as it always had in the past. Why are you so upset? I finally asked him. “It’s the picture of us in the Tuileries, and your sister’s telephone number,” he said. “I’ve had them since 1994.” The wallet has still not turned up. Like Richard, it disappeared.
He disappeared. That is how it seems to me. I had assumed that death would be a gradual transition, a passage after long illness, and sad, unhurried good-byes. Not a midlife thunderclap.
One and a half hours before his collapse we were making our Christmas plans on the phone. We were finally getting away. I made him laugh when I described an incident in the news about an overzealous Homeland Security agent at LaGuardia, accused of groping by a diplomat we did not particularly like. An international incident was in the making—though compared to the life-and-death issues on which Richard spent every waking hour, a minor one. “Oh, it feels so good to laugh,” Richard said. Just one more week, I said. “Well, don’t bother coming to Washington this weekend,” he said. “I’ll be at the White House for the president’s year-end review. Got to go meet with David Axelrod at the White House, then Hillary at State. Love you.”
Love you, too.
When he called an hour and a half later I barely recognized his voice. “I feel a pain I have never felt,” he said from the ambulance, en route to the George Washington University Hospital emergency room. This voice of deep pain was not one I had ever heard. “I have no feeling in my legs,” he said. There was fear in my husband’s voice. “I am on my way!” I shouted over the siren’s wail. Those were my last words to Richard.
Copyright © 2012 by Kati Marton. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.