The Short War of Mr. And Mrs. Conner

A story by Ward Just

Conner’s wife was French and self-possessed, a tart petite woman who cared for the amenities. Though she’d spent many years in the United States she spoke with a distinct accent complete with Gallic pout. Not a woman to suffer in silence, she made it very clear what she thought of life in the zone. “This terrible place, these dreadful people.” Of all of us there at the time Conner was the only one who’d brought his wife. The other wives either lived in Hong Kong or Bangkok or had been left at home; a few of them refused to come at all. The reason usually cited was the children.

Conner and his wife had no children. They were going to have one later, after Conner’s transfer from the zone. No one wanted to raise a child in the middle of a war. Conner believed, and encouraged his wife to believe, that the magazine he worked for would send him to Western Europe when his tour was over. That was the usual procedure, Paris or Bonn a tangible expression of gratitude for the years a man spent reporting the war. Conner was a serious and resourceful war correspondent.

They lived in a small but well-appointed villa in a residential section of the capital. Conner had rented the villa at a time when most of the rest of us were living in hotels. He explained that there was no reason to live in a hotel when one could live in a house with an adequate kitchen and servants. There was no reason for a man and his wife to live like transients when in fact they were residents. He’d promised his wife that much. And he’d seen what had happened to “hotel wives” when their husbands were in the field reporting the war. He did not want to subject his wife to the ennui of a hotel. He felt obligated to make their living arrangements as pleasant and natural as he could, hence the villa and its two servants.

Once a week Mrs. Conner would organize a dinner party. Those of us who were unattached looked forward to them because Mrs. Conner set a very fine table. In the beginning she behaved no differently in the zone than she would have in Paris. She’d quickly located all the best markets and wine shops and it was not at all unusual to arrive at the villa and find it soaked in the aroma of blanquette de veau or gigot roti. There were always two kinds of wine and a fine brandy later. The evenings at Conner’s tended to be noisy because the food was excellent and the company always stimulating. Conner himself prepared the guest lists with some care. There’d always be one or two journalists, a middle-level Army officer (usually a colonel whom Conner’d met and liked and wanted to cultivate), the CIA station chief and his attractive assistant, a foreign diplomat, and any unattached Western girls who happened to be around. There were always three or four of those, journalists or embassy secretaries. Conner and I had been friends for ten years so I was more or less permanently invited along with the CIA man who was usually good for a crumb of information late at night after brandy.

Dinner at Conner’s was unlike dinner anywhere else in the zone, among our circle. It was planned; the menu was planned and the guest list was planned. There were fresh flowers on the table and a servant to mix the drinks and Bach on the stereo. Conner’s wife would begin to prepare the meal at six, intending to sit down precisely at eight. But it never worked out that way. Someone was always late or didn’t show up at all. This was not due to rudeness or thoughtlessness, just the situation. It was usual to get caught in the field without transportation or any reliable way to telephone regrets. Promptly at eight, Conner’s wife would become nervous and count the guests. One or two were always missing. She’d wait fifteen minutes and then a half-hour and finally we’d all sit down. “Jamie, the deen-ir will be ruined.” “Nonsense, baby; it’ll be delicious, formidable; it always is.” “But what can I do, when people don’t arrive when they say they’ll arrive?” “It’ll be fine.” “It’s impossible to plan anything here, nothing’s compatible . . .” Of course the meal was always excellent and none of the rest of us even noticed the absentees or late arrivals. The first part of every meal was spent assuring Mrs. Conner that the veal was succulent and the wine delicious.

She was brought up in Paris, the only daughter of a prominent banker. They were a cultivated family and widely traveled. She’d spent two years at the Sorbonne and a year at a university in the United States, and when Conner met her she was working part time at the French consulate in New York. She thought his life looked very romantic and anticipated many years of travel.

When Conner was abruptly transferred to the Detroit bureau of the magazine, they decided to marry, though they’d only known each other a few months. Conner was thirty-five and a bachelor and instantly enchanted by her good looks and her sense of order. He believed she would bring a sense of arrangement and logic to his life; he thought it was time for him to grow up and cease being a nomad in the service of a news magazine. He was tired of girlfriends, he wanted a wife. As for her, she had a dour side; he felt that his own sense of fun would loosen her up.

They were in Detroit for a year and then moved back to the main office in New York. They were there another year and then transferred to Washington. Detroit, New York, and Washington were not Mrs. Conner’s idea of “travel.” When he was asked—ordered, really—to become the magazine’s correspondent in the war zone, she was torn. Pleased at leaving America, she was apprehensive about living in the middle of a war. A very stupid war. A war that her countrymen had had the good sense to lose a dozen years before. But still it was foreign and friends told her that the capital retained some European ambience, indeed it had once been known as the Paris of the Orient. On the whole, friends said, it would be a welcome change from the brutality of American cities. And of course there were wonderful places nearby, Singapore and Bali to name two. Beyond that, there were very interesting people in the zone. A number of foreigners came through the capital to monitor the progress of the war. It was not at all unusual to have a drink on the veranda of the hotel and find Moshe Dayan deep in conversation at one table and John Steinbeck at another. Friends were optimistic. Who knew, one night she might induce André Malraux to her table. French was spoken everywhere so she would have no trouble getting on with the local people.

But what she did not know and what her friends did not tell her because it was so obvious was that the zone resembled a prison. It resembled a prison because that was all anyone ever talked about: prison personalities, prison conditions, the duration of one’s sentence, “the situation.” And of course it was a war, and no one bothered to explain that to her either.

It was difficult for her because she never left the capital. At that time there was savage fighting in the countryside, and while most places were theoretically “secure,” one could never be absolutely certain. She attempted to ignore the war and build a life as if it didn’t exist. There was something oddly touching about her efforts, and a number of us tried to rally round. Of course there were others who wrote her off as a selfish bitch with no political consciousness, but I believe that was unfair. She was not American, she was French. The war had nothing to do with her. Those of us sympathetic to her wanted to see her succeed, I suppose in the same way that inmates of a mental hospital are pleased when a fellow patient is “cured.” We believed that her efforts were doomed, but that made her attempt all the more gallant. Of course everyone was extremely fond of her husband, who was always cheerful and an excellent raconteur.

So she attempted to ignore the war and one way she did it was to assemble her dinner parties with care. She desperately tried to organize them in such a way as to lead conversation to other subjects, literature, art, what they were wearing in Paris, sex, religion. Anyone might at this point object: If that were true, why then invite journalists, army colonels, and spies to your table? The answer is that we were all there were. There wasn’t anybody else, except for the occasional visitor—who was also there, one way or another, because of the war. She believed that by some trick or the force of her personality she could compel her guests to talk about “la r—alité”—by which she meant real life, a life which had nothing to do with the situation in the zone.

Conner, on the other hand, was exhilarated by it. He was appalled by it, hated it, loathed the killing and the waste—and was exhilarated. It was not uncommon tit the time. He spent two weeks of every month in the field, though as a concession to her he no longer accompanied the frontline troops. He knew he was doing first-class work and at the end of two years was the premier correspondent in the zone. He was forty and knew it was now or never. He tried to explain this to her and she replied that she understood. “J’comprends, Jamie. I understand. I understand.” And it was true, she did. But she could not sympathize.

One night everyone arrived at the villa on time and sober. There was the usual crowd plus someone unique, a Frenchman, the owner of an art gallery in Paris. He was a Frenchman very much opposed to the war and was in the zone to collect children’s art. He wanted to assemble an exhibit to tour Europe, the proceeds to go to orphans’ relief. However, he was discreet in conversation and did not push his extreme views. He perceived very quickly that ours was a closed circle and that those of us who lived there had no interest in listening to the opinions of outsiders. We called them tourists. But Conner’s wife was excited because she thought she could steer the table talk away from the war and onto neutral ground. She was eager to hear about life in France.

The Frenchman gave her an opening when he said he’d recently been in Biarritz, buying for a private collection.

Mrs. Conner turned to her husband, her eves alive and glittering with memory. “Oh, Jamie, do you remember in Biarritz the casino? How much did you win?”

“A hundred and ten dollars, five hundred francs,” Conner replied. “I had an unbeatable system. Five francs each on four numbers, thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three. and thirty-four. And I was smart enough to quit while I was ahead.” He was looking at her, smiling. “You were my good luck charm.”

“We drank champagne afterwards. I remember, it was Pol Roger. Remember the crowd, Jamie. The demimonde . . .” For a few quick sentences, she lapsed into French. “Remember, we met those two who were off a yacht.”

Conner explained, “We stopped off on our way out here. That was two years ago, it seems like yesterday.”

She winked, smiling at the Frenchman. “It seems like two years ago to me.”

I could see what she was trying to do and I wanted to help. I have never been inside a gambling casino in my life, but the subject looked promising. “There are wonderful casinos in the Caribbean. There are one or two in Puerto Rico which are very small, stakes not too high. And there’s always the possibility of running into a Mafia type. Gun in a shoulder holster, that kind of thing.”

She immediately interrupted, putting her hand on my arm. She didn’t want to hear about the Mafia, or about guns. She turned to the Frenchman. “What did you do in Biarritz? Did you go to the casino? There’s this wonderful restaurant, at the airport of all places. A specialty of seafood. But the casino—”

“No,” the Frenchman said.

“One of these days Jamie and I are going to take a tour around the Mediterranean. When we get out of this place, that’s the first thing we’re going to do.” She was talking very fast. “If we ever do get out of this place that’s the first thing I want to do. All the old places, the old haunts that I knew before I was married. We will have several months of holiday time by then.”She laughed harshly. “At this rate, perhaps six months . . .”

The CIA man, silent until then, spoke up. “You and Jamie ought to go to Macao. Very easy to get there and there’s plenty of gambling on the ships. The casinos are all afloat. But the tables are run by the Chinese and they’re hard cases. You won’t win anything but it’ll be fun. You can go over by hydrofoil, stay the night, and return the next day to Hong Kong. Macao still looks like a movie set; it’s theoretically under the control of the Portuguese but the Chicoms really run it. It exists because they permit it to exist.”

The Frenchman looked down the table. “Why is that, Monsieur?”

“It suits them. A little smuggling, some banking, a window on the West. It doesn’t do them any harm and they find it useful. Of course they can shut it down any time they care to. Interesting ride from Hong Kong, you can run right along the Chinese border. Can actually see the mainland.”

The Frenchman grunted but did not pursue the conversation.

Conner’s wife looked at me with the expression of a woman drowning. I said, “Macao is to Biarritz as Charlestown racetrack is to Ascot.”

Conner turned to the CIA man and said slyly, “I understand your people picked up a couple of Chinese in the last offensive.”

The CIA man raised his eyebrows, as if that news came as a surprise to him.

Conner’s wife smiled at the Frenchman. “I know you don’t care—”

But the Frenchman had turned away and was listening to Conner and the CIA man. Conner said, “These Chinese were weapons experts, according to my information. Government troops killed one of them, your people have the other. That’s the first time we’ve had any hard evidence of Chinese involvement—”

“They only talk about the war here,”she said to the Frenchman.

“—documents left no doubt who they were or what they were doing.” Conner smiled and sipped his wine, gazing steadily at the man from the CIA. “I was told that there were quite a lot of documents.”

“Anything’s possible,” he said. “I’ll check it out.”

Conner continued, “Incredible we haven’t seen more of it.” He looked up then, and smiled brightly at his wife. “Baby, this dinner is delicious.” There was a chorus from the table, everyone assuring Conner’s wife of her triumph. I looked at her, knowing she’d lost. I said, “It’s the best French restaurant in town.”

There was a brief pause, then suddenly the conversation became general. It revolved around the question of the Chinese and whether they were actively assisting the revolution. Conner was pressed to cite his sources, but he refused. Every few moments the man from the CIA would nod and chuckle and mutter something gnomic. After ten minutes of this I looked over at Conner’s wife. She was sitting straight as a soldier, staring at her food, picking at it, her lips a thin red line. To her left the Frenchman was leaning down table, absorbing every scrap of information. But then we all assumed him to be something other than the owner of an art gallery. The talk rose in a crescendo, the wine bottles went around the table. Laughter was loud and frequent. From the Chinese we drifted to a discussion of the newest American assault rifle. I gave an account of my latest journey to the Delta. One of the American girls disclosed that the ambassador was ill with dysentery . . .

Mrs. Conner left the table directly following dessert, which of course was sublime. A pear drenched in kirsch.

That was the last dinner party for some time. Conner told me later that his wife pleaded with him to stay away from the war that night. Please, she’d asked; do it for me. But he couldn’t, though he tried. The question about the Chinese was so natural to him, it just popped out. He proposed elaborate justifications, but he knew he was in the wrong and felt badly about it. And it was not the first time and he felt badly about that. too.

He suggested half-heartedly that she take a flat in Bangkok, but she refused. What would she do there? That was just a slightly safer version of the zone. She had no friends there. What would be the point? For a time he tried to involve her in the life of the community, and to that end she taught a class in English at one of the private lycées. But she found the children tedious and undisciplined and decided she was not a teacher after all. Of course she was bothered all the time now by the heat, and the new evidence of war: refugees were crowding the capital. Her conversation, never light, was now a monody of complaint.

One night the three of us were dining in the Chinese quarter. They’d been picking at each other all through dinner, and finally she turned to me for support.

“Hank, you tell him. Please, you know what our life is like. We’ve been here almost three years.”

“Two and a half,” he said.

I looked at Jamie, who’d been listening with a bored expression on his face. I liked his wife and was one of those sympathetic to her, though one’s sympathies were wearing thin. But I knew better than to start advising her husband, my friend, on his career. “You’ve got to leave me out of it,” I said.

“It won’t be long,” Jamie said. “A year, six months. Then it’ll be over. Then we can live the life of the haute bourgeoisie in Paris. I’ll get you a flat on the Avenue Foch. Isn’t that what we both want, a flat on the Avenue Foch?” He looked at her evenly.

“Why then?” she demanded. “Why six months or one year? Why not now? Now. Maintenant.”

“Because I’m not finished,” he said.

“What will change in six months or a year?”

“I’m not leaving in the middle of it,” he said stubbornly.

She said, “This war will go on for a decade.”

“No,” I said. “Not a decade.” Then I laughed. “Two decades.”

“Do you know,” she said. “Did you know I had my purse snatched in the market? I didn’t tell you that, Jamie. Hank. That was last week, I still have the bruise on my arm.” She extended her arm and we both looked at it. “It frightened me. So now I send the servants to do the marketing. And the food is not so good, they don’t know good meat from bad. And they steal the market money. Ten percent, twenty percent is stolen. I am told it is the custom here. So now our food is less good and it costs twenty percent more. The wine, all of it is Algerian . . .”

She talked on and I stole a look at her husband. He was not listening and I knew why. He had just returned from a long and very bloody offensive. He had not told her about it. Probably he had not told her for the same reason that she had not told him about the purse snatching. He was saving it.

“War is hell,” he said dryly.

An American woman might have flared, and come right back at him: that is unfair. It is unfair and unreasonable to be sarcastic. It is not fair to say that to your wife. But she didn’t say any of those things. I think she was beyond sarcasm. She just looked at him and replied. “I am not accustomed to this life.”

“You think I am?” He looked at her incredulously. “You think they are?” He meant the victims, the casualties of war.

“That is the point,” she said with impeccable logic. “None of us are.”

A month later they left for home leave, six weeks in Europe. Jamie told me that it was a nightmare because all his wife could talk about was the war and how dreadful their living conditions were. How frightening their life in the capital. How difficult to obtain even the simplest staples of life. He took her to the finest restaurants he could find and made a determined effort to be attentive and cheerful. He was prepared to forget the war for a month but she was not. He admitted to me in amazement that it was as if they’d switched roles. For that month he wanted nothing to do with the war and all she could do was remember it in every detail.

They took a motor trip through the south of France but life was not satisfactory there either. She complained that the Riviera was crowded and expensive, and there were too many American tourists. In that way it was exactly like the zone, except of course there was no shooting.

Finally late one night he suggested that they split. Just a temporary split. A separation, really. She could stay in Europe and he’d return to the zone for the remainder of his tour. It was impossible now for them to continue living together.

“It’s like living on a battlefield,” he said, laughing at the irony. They were lying in bed in a small hotel near Cap St. Jacques. A midsummer night’s breeze fluttered the curtains, and moonlight gleamed on the Mediterranean.

“If you wish,” she said stiffly.

“I don’t ‘wish’ it at all,” he said, the familiar irritation rising. “I don’t ‘wish’ it, for Christ’s sake. I don’t see any other solution. If you see another solution, tell me what it is. Do you want to go back?”

“No,” she said.

“Well?” He smiled in the darkness.

“It is not what I expected,” she said. “This marriage is not what I expected.”

He said, “Things seldom are.”

“Well, then. There’s nothing more to be said.”

He walked to the window and looked out at the soft night, considering the changes in his life. He’d sublet the villa and move into the hotel. There would be no difficulty supporting her, although it would dent his savings account. Better all around, he thought. He could devote all his time to reporting the war and perhaps in the last six months he could secure his future forever. He had a hunch that after six months the war wouldn’t be worth reporting. She was better off in France, he was better off in the zone. They had no children, the damage was minimal. He thought of a military after-action report: minor damage, light casualties. Perhaps later they could put it together and he could have the kind of life he’d always wanted. The war was one kind of order and a family was another. At the beginning of their life together in the zone they’d had a bit of fun. But she couldn’t adapt. That was the trouble, it all came down to that.

The next morning he rose early and walked down to the port and bought a newspaper and a coffee and sat in a café. He was reading the international edition of the Herald Tribune, deep into an account of the latest offensive, when he felt movement behind him. It was she, looking bright as a new coin; she was smiling, as if she’d forgotten about the talk the night before. She was wearing her bikini and looking beautiful and fresh as the day he’d met her. She leaned over his shoulder, all smiles, and then froze. She saw what he was reading and pulled back. Her face went hard as iron and she turned on her heel and marched back to the hotel, packed her bags, and was gone before noon.

He told me later that that was the final irony, he’d only bought the paper to have something to read. He was just skimming it, not really thinking about the war at all. But perhaps it was a compulsion, like that night at dinner. He conceded that something in him wanted to dominate the war, and to do that he had to immerse himself in it. He knew that it was careless of him but that was the way it went. It was the way he was.

And the odd thing was that when he returned to the zone he stayed only three months, not six, and the magazine did precisely what he expected them to do. They sent him to London with a vague assignment to write about personalities. He set himself up in a flat in Chelsea and reported show business for two years. Show business, the art market, sex, religion. When I saw him last I asked him if he ever saw his wife and he shook his head. Never, he said. She lived in Paris. Oh, once he saw her picture in one of the French magazines. She was hanging on the arm of some count. He laughed, some member of the minor nobility. He looked at me. What the hell, he said. Probably some count who’d never done anything in his life, never worked; never accomplished anything. Some idler, a paresseux, who didn’t know the score.

Much later that same night he admitted he was sorry they’d never had a child. The child might have saved it. The child might have bound them together, given him the order and logic he wanted so badly. And given her a raison d’être. But the zone was no place for children.