In the half-light of three a.m., I wake. The heat is killing me but I daren’t get up to open the window a little wider. I’m lying in her bed in this room I know so well, next to her body, which is asleep at last after a long battle with the fears that eat away at everything, her head, her stomach, her heart. We talked a lot to dispel them, to drive them back to the frontiers of the night, we made love and I stroked her body to soothe it. I ran my hand over her shoulders, then down her arms, I snuggled
against her back and fondled the soft flesh of her backside for a long time. I listened to her breathing, waiting for her short inhalations to become lighter, for the sobs to grow further apart, for peace to find a way in at last. It’s so hot in this room. I want to move around a bit, feel the air on my face. But her body’s in contact with mine, her hand resting on my arm, and moving would risk toppling the edifice I spent so long constructing. Her sleep is like a sandcastle. One move and it’ll come crashing down. One move and her eyes will snap open. One move and it will have to start all over again. I listen to the purr of her sleep-laden breathing, it makes me feel like laughing with pleasure, with high spirits finally – momentarily – regained. I wish I could put the night on pause and listen to this murmuring for hours and hours, days and days, because murmuring means I live, it means I exist, it means I’m here. And I’m here too, right next to her. My sweltering body stays perfectly still. If not disturbing the sandcastle of her sleep means dying of the heat, well, then I’m happy to die of the heat. Outside in the grayish dark that I can see through the window, birds are singing. It sounds like a thousand of them vying to out-chirp each other, carving through the air in every direction like the most skilled of pilots. This crushingly hot night is their own private Bastille Day, they’re performing aerial acrobatics to their hearts’ content, inventing increasingly perilous feats. In the trees in the distance, suburban turtledoves greet the very first glimpses of dawn with their penetrating calls. I watch their shadows dart across the dirty sky. The heat’s killing me. I wait. I turn to look at her body as it lies, unmoving, on its back, perfectly naked. I study the delicacy of her ankles, the jut of her hip bones, her supple stomach and the slender shape of her arms, the swell of her lips, bearing the lightest of smiles. I consider the damage caused by the illness on this body I love so dearly, the tiny black dots where her stomach has been injected again and again, the scar near her armpit, the hole under her collarbone. I look at her restful face, perfectly restful, her chin proud even in sleep, her downy cheeks, the surprising, abrupt line of her nose, her mauve eyelids closed at last. I look at her completely bald head. In the half-light of three a.m., I watch her sleep. Here in the clammy darkness I can’t take my eyes off her naked body and waxy scalp. Her deathly profile.
It’s all about Sarah, her unique brand of beauty, her sharp, rare bird’s beak of a nose, the unusual color of her eyes, stone-like, green, but not really, not green, her absinthe, malachite, faded gray-green eyes, her snake eyes with their drooping lids. It’s all about the spring when she came into my life as if stepping onto a stage, with gusto, triumphant. Victorious.
It’s a spring like any other, a spring to depress the best of us. There are magnolias in bloom in squares all over Paris, and I have this idea that they chafe the hearts of people who notice them. They certainly chafe my heart, those magnolia flowers in the squares. I look at them every evening on my way home from the school and, every evening, their large pale petals sting my eyes slightly. It’s a spring like any other, with impromptu showers, the smell of wet tarmac, a sort of lightness in the air, a breath of happiness that sings softly about the fragility of it all. This particular spring I walk around like a ghost. I’m living a life I never thought I’d live, a life alone with a child whose father vanished without any warning. One day, or rather one evening, he left the apartment and then. And then nothing. So this is possible: overnight, and I mean literally overnight, between two people who’ve loved each other for years, there can suddenly be no eye contact, no words, no conversation, no ranting, no anger, no understanding, no tenderness, no love. This lunacy, this aberration is what constitutes me from one day to the next. I think life will stop right here. I don’t hope for anything or anyone. There’s a new boy in my life, a Bulgarian boy. When I mention him I say my partner. He’s my partner in crime, yes, that’s it, he’s my partner in the crime of this desolate life. I’m waiting. There’s a word going round and round obsessively in my head, the word latency. I keep thinking I must look it up in the dictionary. I know I’m experiencing a period of latency. I don’t know how long it will go on, and what event will bring it to an end. In the meantime every day is much the same, what with my responsibilities as a young mother, my responsibilities as a young teacher, my responsibilities as a daughter, a friend and the girlfriend of the Bulgarian boy. I’m making a point of living life. Not really living it. But I’m a good girl. I stick out my tongue with concentration. I’m well dressed, polite and charming. I bicycle around the streets of the Fifteenth Arrondissement with my child in a seat behind me. We go to museums, to the cinema, to the botanical gardens. I think I’m pretty, people say I’m kind and attentive to others. I don’t make any waves. I’m mother to a perfect child, teacher to remarkable students, daughter to wonderful parents. Life could have gone on like this for ages. A long tunnel with no surprises and no mystery to it.
A shrill blast of the doorbell, like a whip crack, in the middle of this apartment with its endemic starchy atmosphere. We’re done up to the nines for New Year’s Eve, three couples eyeing each other surreptitiously, surprised to be here and terribly overdressed. It’s all so forced, the way the apartment is decorated, the topics of conversation, the guests’ outfits. All so studied. Serious. Rigid. The doorbell seems to make the furniture jump – it’s obviously not used to the intrusion. Mutterings. Oh, it’s Sarah, someone says delightedly. I don’t know who Sarah is. Yes you do, I’m told, you’ve already met. I’m told when and where. No recollection whatsoever. The lady of the house goes to open the door. Yes, it’s Sarah. I don’t recognize her. She’s late, out of breath, laughing. An unexpected tornado. She talks loudly, fast, hauling from her bag a bottle of wine, things to eat, a profusion of stuff. She takes off her scarf, her coat, her gloves and hat. She dumps everything on the floor, on the cream carpeting. She apologizes, jokes, turns circles. She talks all wrong, using coarse words that seem to hang in the air long after they’ve been spoken. She makes too much noise. There was nothing, silence, the occasional affected laugh, punctilious facial expressions, and all at once she’s the only thing here. It’s annoying. The lady of the house frowns, in her evening dress. Sarah doesn’t notice, and energetically kisses everyone hello. She leans toward me, she smells of crisp late-December air. She has the rosy cheeks of someone who’s hurried. She’s wearing far too much makeup. She’s not very well dressed, she isn’t wearing her best outfit, she’s not elegant, she hasn’t put her hair in a sophisticated updo. She talks a lot, jumps at a glass of wine that’s handed to her, roars with laughter at a quip. She’s animated, enthused, impassioned. It’s like a slow-motion sequence. The glass slips from my hand, my partner gasps Oh no!, the glass spins through the air, everyone watches, no one can do a thing, it’s already too late, the glass crashes without a sound onto the cream carpet, its entire contents spilling and creating an abstract shape, red wine on the cream carpet, a beautiful minimalist painting, I go white and then red with embarrassment, the lady of the house bridles, in her evening dress, it’s a catastrophe, a disaster, this red form on the cream carpet, something unforeseen, an accident. A breach. Later we sit down for dinner. We go into ecstasies over the gorgeous tablecloth, the gorgeous place settings, the gorgeous menu. There’s a seating plan. There are seven of us. The lady of the house announces who’s sitting where, in her evening dress. Sarah is seated next to me. On my right.
She’s a violinist. She smokes cigarettes. She’s wearing too much makeup, it’s even worse up close. She talks loudly, laughs a lot, is funny in her own way. She uses words I don’t know. She has her own personal slang. She plays with language, inventing expressions, making rhymes for the fun of it. She talks about amusing things, stories full of twists and turns. She complies goodnaturedly with my requests for more details. She’s alive. Over the course of the conversation, I find out that she
really likes board games, hiking up mountains and singing with the people she loves. She’s been having therapy for several years now. She lies down on the couch. She thinks it strange, talking about oneself in frosty silence. But she keeps going back, she thinks it’s important. Twice a week. Sometimes three times.
When we leave the building in the early hours we all walk to the nearest Métro station together. Farewell hugs on the pavement, with that peculiar feeling of being in the first day of a new year. We’re already talking about the spilled glass of wine as a memorable anecdote, going over the scene, adding details, describing the lady of the house and her frown, and her evening dress. My partner, referring to Sarah: “And what about her? What a weird girl!”
She writes to me over the next few days, the first days of the new year. It’s January but yet again the miracle happens. Yet again winter admits defeat, drags its heels a little longer and tries one final flourish, but it’s too late, it’s over, the spring has won. When I emerge from the school building, the sky seems to go on for ever, blueish, a slightly washed-out blue, like dyed fabric. Nonchalant clouds scud on the wind. The moon, a discreet presence in a corner, is there too, and the fact that day and night rub shoulders amicably makes me shiver a little. Shadows grow shorter by the day on the tarmac, and I walk home in a gilded glow like no other light. The streets of limestone houses are full of birdsong, uninterrupted chattering, and you can almost hear the buds appearing on branches, green, delicate, fragile. I look at the light tingeing the tops of buildings pink. How many more times will I be granted the huge privilege of witnessing all this? How many more times will I be able to watch this performance? Once? Fifteen times? Sixty-three? Is this the last time, I wonder, is this the last time I’ll feel the quivering of a new season in my body? She writes to me in the first days of the new year. A few words, at first, to which I reply politely. Then more and more. She says it would be good to meet up. She suggests going to a concert at the Philharmonic Society. She suggests going to the cinema, the theater. We meet once, twice, more and more. The winter gradually creeps away, without a sound.
One March morning she emails to say she’s in the neighborhood of the school where I work and asks if we can have lunch together. I can’t. I don’t have time, I have too much to do, it would be awkward if my colleagues noticed. I say yes. I make my escape at the appointed hour, a peculiar happiness in my heart. It’s a beautiful day. She’s waiting for me at the Métro station. She starts talking straight away, very quickly, very loudly, gesticulating a lot. Her eyes shine. She walks in the street, apparently fantastically indifferent to the cars that could knock her down. I expect she doesn’t notice that I want to pull her back by her sleeve every five minutes because she seems so preoccupied, and I’m frightened there’ll be an accident. She’s alive.
In the Korean restaurant she talks so much that the waiter comes to take our order at least three times. She’s never ready. She says she can’t choose, it’s a problem, in life. She wants everything and nothing. She tells me how during the strikes that crippled France in 1995 she learned to hitchhike around Paris. She was fifteen that year. I gaze at her and I’ve already stopped listening to her, I watch her and wonder what she looked like, at fifteen, and what it must have been like, life then. Paris completely paralyzed, rendered mute without all those cars to buzz through the streets, or at least a little quieter, hoarse. Paris with a frog in its throat. And a fifteen-year-old Sarah in the middle of it all, probably with drooping eyelids already, probably with her violin case on her back already, teetering like a tightrope-walker along the edges of pavements in the Sixteenth Arrondissement, where she grew up, her thumb out, in the hope that someone would take her on her way. To school, to the conservatory, to her friends for music practice. To the ends of the earth. That’s what I imagine. At fifteen, Sarah hitchhiked through a voiceless Paris because she wanted to be taken to the ends of the earth. That’s what I imagine and that’s what I hold on to. Later, when she walks back to the school with me, or maybe it’s during the same conversation, she describes the first time she drank beer with her father. It wasn’t very late in the day. I think I’ve got this right: as she recalls it, her father had come to pick her up when she’d been away somewhere for a week, or was taking her somewhere to catch a train. Anyway, there was a station involved. That’s how I see the scene in my mind’s eye. Sarah and her father together, sitting on the metal chairs of a station café. It’s daytime, broad daylight, that I do remember her mentioning when she told me about this memory. She’s a young woman, I picture her beautiful but I really have no idea. As for him, it’s difficult to say what he looked like. Fifteen years ago would he have had dark hair? Been full of smiles? And jokes, as he sat facing his teenage daughter? The apple of his eye, the light of his life, his little darling. She laughs as she describes the scene, I don’t know why but she laughs, in hindsight, years later, laughs uproariously about the look on his face when she ordered her first half, about the pride she felt, the assurance it gave her. I imagine her swagger, the unforgettable color of the first beer ordered so boldly, in broad daylight, sitting at a café, with her father. She describes the memory and laughs, she can’t stop laughing, so much so that it’s almost contagious. Nearly twenty years later, she laughs as she describes her nerve.