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Franz is a professor at a University in Geneva. On his way home from a lecture, he stops to see his mistress in her studio.
He never makes love to her in Geneva, however, because he feels it would be disrespectful to go from her bed to his wife's bed in the same day.
Franz fell in love with his mistress several months ago. He tries to carve out a space for her that is separate from the rest of his life. Whenever he travels to give lectures or attend conferences, he brings his mistress with him.
Today, he asks her if she'll go to Palermo with him. She responds that she prefers Geneva. He interprets this to mean that she doesn't want him anymore.
He wonders how he can be so insecure with his mistress when he is so secure in all other aspects of his life.
The narrator offers an explanation: for Franz, love is the opposite of his public life.
It means offering yourself up to your lover and constantly expecting a blow.
Franz's painter-mistress pours them a drink and Franz realized that she does want him, just at home and not abroad.
He sees that she's violating the zone of purity he set up around her.
His lover takes off her shirt and fixes Franz with a gaze. This confuses him. She seems to be asking him something, but he doesn't know what. She puts on a bowler hat and stares at herself in the mirror.
Finally he takes the hat off her head, kisses her, and gets her to agree to go to Palermo with him.