CHAPTER TWELVE

I don't have much memory of the weeks leading to the year-end exams. My heart was in a coma. The rage-induced anesthesia had subsided, quickly replaced by cruel and merciless pain, and I was in a state of deep mourning. I cannot possibly imagine what I would have done without Madame Laquaire. Maybe I wouldn't have thrown myself under a train, as I first contemplated, but I would certainly have returned to the abyss of ignorance from which she had worked so hard to rescue me. My old tutor always welcomed me with a smile. Almond cookies were waiting in a plate with a gold rim. "These are calissons, from Aix-en-Provence, my hometown," she'd say, forcing the accent she had once struggled to get rid of, for effect. "When my husband was transferred here, I had to learn how to speak Parisian," she recalled. "You can't be a half-decent teacher if the kids burst out laughing every time you open your mouth." She would tell me stories about her first classes and her too brief marriage to a man who could only see the sunny side of life until the very last days of his fight with cancer. "His real illness was optimism," she'd say whenever we visited her photo albums and their faded pictures. She would then heave a long, deep sigh and pour herself a little glass of sweet liquor. It was good for her "condition," she would then say without ever bothering to elaborate.

The old lady also knew how to listen. She never wasted her time assuring me that I had my whole life ahead of me or that I would meet other girls and fall in love again. No, she used all her talent to channel my emotions and reorient them. Moments later, I would find myself, pencil in hand, trying to solve an equation, totally unaware of the transition she had engineered. I could feel how eager she was then to congratulate me. Only when the neighbor played his trumpet records did she lose her patience. She would bang the wall with the broom handle and call him names that she later begged me to forget. Jacky no longer shared my lessons. "Books aren't for me," he had declared one day, to Madame Laquaire's dismay, "Me, I only care about engines." I still saw Nora three times a week, though. She prepared my bowl of Ovaltine as soon as she saw me through her window. She kept repeating that a little bit of sun would do me good. "I'm not saying that you must be as tanned as Nora," she'd say with her deep throaty laugh, "but you're as white as a ghost. Such a pretty boy, what a shame!" I let her cuddle me and purred when she stroked my hair with her long red-nailed fingers. And so I traveled from one universe to the other, from my parent's - I no longer called it my home - to St. Jean-Baptiste, where I kept my nose to the ground; to Nora's oasis of sensuality, and to Madame Laquaire's little apartment. Finally, the first day of the dreaded exams arrived. Up long before the alarm rang, I jumped out of bed. My mother and Lucie were arguing in the kitchen when I ran out of

my room, ignoring the cup of cocoa that Janine had prepared. They raised surprised eyebrows, and returned to their discussion. I slammed the door behind me and ran down the stairs without waiting for the elevator. Out on the street, I walked quickly up the Avenue Mozart to the Vrai Saumur café, near the subway station. There, seated at a table by the window, Madame Laquaire and Jacky were waving at me. Suddenly, I felt strong. ³The croissants are just out of the oven," Jacky said, pushing a basket toward me while, on a signal from Madame Laquaire, a waiter hurried over with a cup of hot and foamy chocolate. "So?" the old woman asked, "were you able to sleep a little?" "Not much." "Nothing to worry about," said Jacky. "What can they do to you? They can't be worse than your bitch of a mother." "Jacky, please!" Madame Laquaire protested, and I laughed at my friend's lame attempt to look contrite. "I know, I know," he said, "There are things you shouldn't say « even if they're true." When we arrived at St. Jean-Baptiste, Madame Laquaire planted kisses on my cheeks and Jacky punched me in the ribs. "Show them what you can do, champ," he said. Around us, my schoolmates were all saying farewell to their parents. I wasn't jealous of them, because their families couldn't have been better than my new one. ***

The publication of the results was cause for neither triumph nor despair. My mother had been right and I wasn't admitted to the next grade. I was allowed to try again in September however, which took my parents by surprise. "What are we going to do now?" my mother lamented, as if she had just learned of a disaster. A few days later, I was told of my fate. I would spend the summer in Paris as a guest of St. Jean-Baptiste's boarding school program. "It's costing me an arm and a leg," my father commented, but another year in the same grade would be an even worse deal." "And he'll be in good company," my mother snorted. "The bottom of the barrel." The holidays were upon us, and my father laid out the plans. In exchange for the free rental of 40 TV's to a small hotel in Brittany, my mother would get to spend two months by the sea as a non-paying guest. My father would join her for long weekends in August and a full week in September. As for Lucie, she was headed for the Alps. Her friends had rented a chalet close to the Mer de Glace. "Be careful out there, it's slippery!" warned Bonne Maman. My grandmother was in a good mood, for she had been granted permission to move into my room while I was away. I didn't know what to expect from the boarding school program, but I didn't really care. I was slowly learning not to think of Colette, which made life both easier and emptier. I watched without much attention as the family prepared for the big departure. They talked of boots, and sweaters for the mountain, and bathing costumes for the beach.

The day before I left, an incident occurred. Alerted by my mother's suddenly raised voice, I tiptoed toward the living room. My parents were facing each other, only separated by two open suitcases at their feet. My father was shaking his head and rolling his eyes. In an effort to stop the accusations hurled at him by his wife, he kept holding up his hand, trying to interrupt, but to no avail. My mother's voice was shrill. "I know why you're sending me away for two months," she repeated. "To get rid of me, so you can have a good time in Paris. That's what you really want." "But ..." "Oh, yes! And don't you make faces at me. I might be crazy, as you say, but I'm not stupid. I'm not one of your hussies." "But what «" "I can see you, only minutes after my train has left the station. µGood riddance,¶ isn't that what you'll think? You'll be free to party with your whores." "But will you, at last «" "You'll never change. You like them easy, don't you? Willing to do all the disgusting tricks, you «" "What disgusting tr__" "And I'll be alone with other wives just like me, bored stiff in a miserable hotel while, back in Paris, our husbands do in broad day-light what they do in secret the rest of the year." My father had to kick one of the suitcases so hard that its contents flew across the carpet to get his wife's attention.

"Shut up!" he screamed at the top of his lungs. "Shut the fuck up! I can't take any more of your divagations." From my observation post in the shadow of the corridor, I watched, utterly fascinated. Now my mother had changed her act. No longer on the attack, she choked up and let herself fall onto the sofa. "At least these other women," she moaned, "will have their children with them. I won't even have that comfort. You can't understand." "I understand that you're talking nonsense. That much I do understand." "Lucie is going away with her friends. But she's a grown up now, and she's not truly my daughter, as you remind me all the time. But my Victor « it will be the first time we won¶t be spending the summer together." My father's eyes went wide with stupefaction. "Are you saying you'll miss him?" "How dare you? Let me ask you a simple question. Do you have a picture of your children when you travel? Of course you don't. I'll show you what I mean." The head of the family was at a total loss for words. My mother knelt down and started to remove blouses, cardigans, dresses from her suitcase, finally exposing a framed picture, wrapped in a sweater. I couldn't believe my eyes. She had, indeed, packed a picture of me that had been taken the previous summer. In it, I was standing on the steps of the Hotel du Promontoire. "This way, I'm taking him with me," she said. My father shook his head, raised his arms in a sign of defeat, and left the room. "I don't believe my ears," he muttered as he walked by me. Raising her head, my mother saw me.

"Come and see maman, my lambkin," she called. I hesitated a second or two before going to sit down next to her. Smiling, she pulled my head on her bosom. I don't know how long we stayed like that. The moment was both brief and eternal. Suddenly my mother intoned Le p'tit quinquin, a nursery rhyme from the patois of her native north, and then laughed softly. "Do you remember lambkin? That was what I used to sing for you when you were a tiny baby. And years before, my father used to sing it for me. Ah, well «" Those minutes, that song, her laughter, and her words never left my memory. I wasn't sure what to believe ± and still don't know really - but she had packed my picture, hadn't she? For a brief moment nothing else mattered. Each time I think about that day, I hear a voice inside me. "If only you had known then!" *** Behind the walls of St. Jean-Baptiste, days went by under a cloud of boredom. Up at 6:30, we were marched from the dorm to the bathroom, then to the dining hall and the classrooms. We were a dull and obedient flock. We had all been denied the sunny beaches, mountain peaks and idyllic landscapes pictured on the postcards taped inside our lockers. The mood was one of glum resignation. Neither the walks in the Bois de Boulogne nor even the Sunday afternoon movie at the nearby theater were able to shake up our torpor. It felt like hibernation in August. Fortunately, twice a week, I was allowed to escape. As my companions in misery headed for the library, I ran as fast as my legs would allow toward Nora and Madame Laquaire. Jacky was spending the summer with his uncle, the owner of a bar in Toulon.

Madame Laquaire was waiting for me, but she knew how much I loved spending a moment with Nora. "Take your time. Have your lemonade or whatever she prepares for you," she said. "You work better when you've spent time downstairs." Yes, it was a hot summer and cold lemonade had replaced the cup of cocoa. An electric fan stirred the air and Nora walked about in a nylon slip through which I could make out her tiny panties. When somebody knocked at the door, she put on a white robe. Nora was perfectly comfortable with her own body and didn't seem to notice the emotion it stirred up in me. After my first heartbreak, my senses had come alive again. Nora's long brown thighs, her curved behind, her heavy breasts, naked under the slip lit a fire in me. I stared at these beautiful breasts, whose nipples pointed through the fabric and wanted so much to touch them. Later, in my bed I revisited these moments of delicious frustration and often, oblivious to the snores and whispers around me, I made love to Nora's memory. Mid-August brought the first test exams, designed to make hardened veterans out of us and with them came a momentous surprise: a contingent of girls from Notre Dame of Something - I forget what. They arrived early one morning at breakfast time; some twenty of them, prim and proper in their neat pearl-gray uniforms and white blouses. They waited a while in the courtyard, stealing furtive glances at the surroundings, under the watchful supervision of four nuns with their winged coifs. We fought for the best observation points at the dining hall windows. Behind the back of the nuns, the girls whispered and giggled.

It was then that I realized that Colette had been the exception; I wasn't into girls my own age. Only women, true women, interested me. They were neither awkward nor unfinished like the new arrivals; they were elegant. The assurance of mature women excited me. At times, on the bus or in local shops, I gazed at them with fascination. "Don't you stare at people like that, young man. Didn't your parents teach you manners?" one elegantly dressed woman had once scolded me. Of course I was curious and hungry for their sexes, their skin, their breasts, all those treasures the priests of St. Jean-Baptiste wanted to keep my mind off of, but it was their femininity as a whole that kept me in awe. I was discovering their hair flowing down to their shoulders, the minuscule wrinkles around their eyes when they laughed, the feet swinging at the end of their legs as they crossed them over their round knees, the silkiness of their skin, their made-up eyes, their long eyelashes. I could have spent my days and nights learning about women. They were the keepers of the mystery. I was consumed with desire, but there was more. Of course, the sight of Nora's half-naked body set fire to my imagination, but her mere presence, the sound of her voice, the way she glided rather than walked like the rest of us, the most insignificant of her gestures enthralled me. I marveled at the way she touched the tip of her nose when searching for a word or how she marked the beat of her sentences with her hands - one time black, the next pink. All these marks of femininity made up a kingdom into which I was proud to be admitted. When Nora hummed while filing her nails or applied lipstick on her wide, full lips, nothing else existed for me. Similarly, my heart came to a stop whenever a woman let me catch a glimpse of the inside of her thighs while getting out of her car. The brief vision of white flesh

beyond the border of the stockings made me shake. Often I would dream that the woman had invited me to sit down next to her. I wanted so to smell her fragrance or admire her long, red fingernails as she smoothed her skirt. She would take a filtered cigarette from a silver case and hand me her lighter. Oh! The line of her neck as she leaned over toward the flame! And what about her long hair, falling like a theater curtain down her lovely face? I didn't see what the young girls of Notre Dame of Something had to offer. I found their airs as pointless as the raunchy boasts of my comrades. Yes, I was passionate about women. Everything about them fascinated me, including the way they had of ignoring me and walking away on their high heels, unaware of the boy they had just left, overwhelmed, in their wake. *** Finally, the big day arrived. In spite of Madame Laquaire's repeated claims of confidence, I was nearly dying. There were some thirty of us, one per desk, in a large room. It had been painted over during the summer recess in a dull yellowish green that still managed to look old and dirty. As we sat down, we exchanged forced smiles and fatalistic shrugs. Some of those who had escaped imprisonment sported a vacation tan and made fun of our pale faces. Among us, and not a bit more comfortable, were a few girls from Notre Dame. One of them was sitting across the aisle from me. The first thing I noticed about her was the way she played with the blonde hair on the nape of her slender neck. The memory of Colette stung. I thought I had forgotten her, but this gesture brought her to life again in my heart. The girl must have felt my gaze, for she turned to me and smiled. I blushed.

"Hey, Delorme," whispered a redhead by the name of Vacher, whose snoring had often kept me awake, "this is no day to play the ladies man." At last, the exam forms were distributed. Dead silence reigned. I quickly went over the questions and immediately felt a wave of relief. Two trains were running in opposite directions, nothing new there « a series of equations, which only two months before would have made my mind numb, now seemed simple enough. A problem of interest ratios seemed to spread consternation around me, but Madame Laquaire had taught me to see through the apparent complexity. "Step back," she had said, "and learn to recognize one of the simple structures you already know." Father Marcoux rose frequently from behind his desk and walked up and down the aisles, stopping behind such or such student, glancing over the poor soul's shoulder. He then resumed his inspection, poker-faced, with just a vaguely amused smile on his thin lips. "Square of a minus b?" whispered the girl across the aisle. I dropped my pencil and leaned down to pick it up. "a2 minus 2ab plus b2" "Delorme!" "I dropped my pencil, Father!" "Try that one more time and you'll be expelled." Later, as I was crossing the courtyard on my way to the dining hall, the blonde girl caught up with me. "Thanks for the algebra," she said. "My name's Marine." "I know. I heard. I'm Victor."

"I knew the answer, you know, but I drew a blank. I wasn't sure whether it was plus or minus 2ab. I panicked." "I know the feeling. Are you ready for this afternoon?" Her horrified look made me laugh. "They say it's going to be on the causes of World War I," she said. "If it's true, it's a disaster for me." "Rumors," I said. "Nothing more. But if you want, I can tell you a few things after lunch." Marine smiled and I realized that she was pretty. I liked her wide, green eyes and the dimple on her chin. She ran to catch up with her friends, her skirt swirling around her slender legs. "So, Delorme, at least the day won't be a total waste of time for you," sneered Vacher. I didn't answer. Later, under the shade of an elm, I told Marine about Sarajevo, the assassination of the Archduke, the alliances and domino effect across Europe. "I'm sure there's a lot more," I concluded when the bell rang, "but that's basically it." "We could be friends," she said, before answering the call of one of the nuns. Friends, she had said. Was it at all possible? For some reason, mere friendship with girls seemed to be an extremely complicated adventure. Surprise! Marine's information was correct. Since I had refreshed my memory with her, it didn't take me long to complete the test. The second subject, the rivers of

France, were more of a problem, but I still managed to leave twenty minutes early. As I crossed the courtyard, it occurred to me that I could wait for Marine whose savior I was after all, even her hero possibly. No urge, however, was stronger than that of being with Nora and Madame Laquaire. I started running. *** I woke up at three on the morning of the publication of the results, and was unable to go back to sleep. Eyes wide open, I stared at the narrow window in front of me, waiting for the first rays of light. In the bed on my left, Vacher was snoring away. On my right, Dujardin was grinding his teeth. At ten o'clock sharp, Louis, the hunchback caretaker, came out, clad in his usual gray overalls, and opened the heavy door. A crowd of anxious parents was admitted into the courtyard. The previous evening, I had begged Madame Laquaire not to come. I knew how devastated the likely failure was going to leave me, and wanted to be alone at the moment of humiliation. "I don't like this kind of talk, Victor," she had said. "But we'll do as you wish." On a nod from the Father Superior, Louis opened the gymnasium door and the crowd gathered in front of the boards where the ominous lists were posted. I desperately tried to act cool, but I certainly bore the same expression of anguish as everyone else around me. As in a dream, I heard the cries of joy, the moans of disappointment while I elbowed my way through the crowd, feeling a tight hand around my throat. Suddenly, my blood started to boil and I felt the heat on my face. Delorme, Victor! With the crowd pushing and shoving around me, I kept staring at these two words as if expecting the

mirage to disappear any moment. But it didn't, it looked like it was true. Delorme, Victor, for once, my name was among the victorious. How wrong I had been to want to be alone! I couldn't wait to see the smile on Madame Laquaire's face. And what about Nora? She, too, would be proud. I looked around. There were many somber faces. I saw Vacher walk slowly toward the door, his head bowed. A white-haired man with a limp turned around and barked at him: "Are you coming or what?" I had never been fond of Vacher; for one brief moment however, I felt sorry for him. ³Delorme!´ I turned around. Father Minot was beckoning to me. "Congratulations," the priest said. He was smiling and looking away at the same time, as if embarrassed, then he put his hands on my shoulders. "Your father called. They came back earlier than planned." Now he was looking past me. "Go home," he finally said. "Go now." "Do my parents know about the exam?" He shook his head. "You'll tell them yourself. Go now, I'm telling you." "What about my«" "Go now, Victor. Now!" I turned around and ran.

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