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When I think of my early teens, I see naked women. Their breasts, thighs and sexes filled my dreams and left me breathless. Enhanced by a powerful sense of sin, these images engraved themselves in my young memory during exhilarating, stolen moments or in the round-the-clock movie theater of my imagination. I also shake with terror and this is linked to the memory of my mother. There is no logical link between these two poles of my youth and yet I know they are united. I was terrified of my mother. The years haven't been able to erase the memory of her descents into abysses of depression. I cannot forget her sarcasmsshe laughed so hard when she called me Dumbo, a not-too-subtle hint at my oversized earsher cruelty or fits of rage. Even her occasional proclamations of maternal love scared me by their excess. Tall and beautiful, long-legged and shapely, my mother could also be ugly. Sometimes her beauty disappeared in dark shadows as suddenly as the sun can vanish behind a cloud. I watched then, fascinated and terrified, as she put on what I called "the mask": a thin white line drew itself where her smiling full pink lips had been a minute before and her periwinkle blue eyes lost their brightness. Suddenly, she looked at me from far away, a muscle in her jaw started twitching and her pinched nostrils turned white. She also seemed to be cold and rubbed her arms furiously. Being near her wasn't a good idea at those moments, but I was seldom able to escape. 2
Delerive Nothing, no one, resisted my mother. I'll never forget the Sunday when, angry at having been "had"one of her favorite expressionsby her butcher, she rose in the middle of our family lunch, grabbed the dish on which the roast beef sat surrounded by potatoes and green beans and ordered me to follow her. I wasn't even ten then and the expedition was labeled as formative: "Remember Victor, you must never allow yourself to be had. Never!" I remember running behind her as she strode down the Avenue Mozart, oblivious to the bewildered stares following this tall and beautiful woman, her roast beef and her son. At the Boucherie Jasmin, my mother stormed in as the butcher, a big, ruddy redhead with a handlebar mustache was helping his last customers of the day. Too shy to follow her, I stood at the door, shuffling my feet in the sawdust. Ignoring the line, my mother planted herself in front of the butcher and laid her dish of roast beef, potatoes and green beans on the marble counter. "Have some!" she ordered. I wasn't too young to be embarrassed and would have given anything to be allowed to run away, but was afraid of the reprisals. "I said, have some. Eat!" my mother thundered. The big man seemed frozen. At a total loss, he looked around and saw nothing but laughing or horrified faces. "Do I have to help you?" she insisted. "Give me your knife." Defeated, the butcher handed my mother his knife. She carved a slice of beef and shoved it under his nose; "Eat this now! Eat it and tell me if this is the tender meat you promised me. I should take it to the cobbler; he'd make soles out of it." As we were walking home, I remember being both ashamed and deeply in awe of my mother. I didn't know anyoneand some thirty years later, still haven't met any
Delerive man or womancapable of such heroics. I forgot what we ended up eating for lunch that Sunday. Very much aware of the men leering at her in the street, or so she maintained, my mother was on a crusade against all sins of the flesh. And if I must choose an example of her relentless war, I have to recount her discovery of a copy of Playboy under my bed. As I came back from the École St. Jean Baptiste, one late afternoon, I found my mother waiting for me on the landing outside the apartment. Her blouse and the carpet around her feet were covered with white ash from the cigarettes she had been chain-smoking. As soon as I stepped out of the elevator, she dragged me by the ear to my room and confronted me with the corpus delicti open at the centerfold page. A voluptuous creature was shown lying down on a crimson sofa, her long white thighs dressed in dark stockings. She held a pearl necklace between her gleaming white teeth and her smiling eyes told me that she knew how the round, large breasts she cupped in her hands would make my blood boil. "Can you tell me where you got this piece of filth?" my mother asked between clenched teeth. Shaking as I did each time she held me under her stare and more terrified of her devastating words than of the slaps in the face that only burned my cheeks, I remained silent. "You'll have to tell me one way or the other, little pig." She was right. In fourteen years, I had not learned to fight back. Unconditional surrender was the only conceivable outcome. "I ... I bought it."
Delerive "With the allowance your parents give you as a reward for being lazy and filthy?" I stared at my feet and nodded. "And may I know who sold you this piece of garbage?" "Monsieur Jean down the street." I expected to be punishedI would have to pay, I knew itbut never could I have envisioned the consequences of my confession. A few minutes later, I was dragged to the little store where every week I bought France-Football magazine from Monsieur Jean. Seeing me slip Playboy between the covers of France-Football, the old man had only smiled. Storming into the store, my mother elbowed her way through the waiting line and threw the magazine on the counter. "You're the one who sold this filth to my son, aren't you?" she screamed. Old Jean scratched his head through his beret. Around us everybody was silent. As for me, I was dying, pilloried and exposed to the glare of the crowd, burning with shame, beyond tears. "I'm waiting!" my mother barked. "So?" Jean finally answered, "It's not a crime, is it?" "We'll see about that," my mother said before dragging me out of the store behind her. "My husband has connections." She was alluding to Superintendent Ferrandi with whom my father entertained business relations that only became clear to me several years later. The following morning, instead of going to school, I was taken to a precinct near the Opera where
Delerive the formidable Ferrandi interrogated me and issued his verdict: my police record would forever include the crime of pornography. I had no reason to suspect that the whole charade had been staged by my mother, and wouldn't have been in the least surprised had I been handcuffed, shackled, and sent off to a far-away penitentiary. The official notices and pictures of wanted criminals on the walls, the uniformed cops, the steel furniture, the smell of cold tobacco, all the details of this horrible moment are forever engraved in my memory. I can still feel the commissioner's hand pressing my fingers down to register my little prints. From that day on, I took a longer route to school in order to avoid walking by the bookstore where I had been branded by shame. When my mother happened to accompany me however, she pretended to ignore the terror that had me turn right upon leaving our apartment building. "Victor! What are you doing? You know very well that this is the shorter way." I died as I walked at her side, staring down at the sidewalk, knowing full well that she would soon slow down and pretend to develop an interest in the books and magazines in Monsieur Jean's window. Sometimes she would suggest, "Let's go in. Maybe they still have last week's Paris-Match." I shriveled and fought to free my hand. Always in vain. Years later, a middle-aged man now, conjuring up these memories still make me shake. Only a few weeks ago, I walked down the street of my childhood. From afar I saw the bookstore illuminated by a new neon sign. A new management, to be sure. My whole being refused to go another step further, and I turned around.
Delerive Why do my thoughts keep returning to those years as I start a day of which I expected so much, a day I even sometimes looked forward to and which, I'm beginning to realize, will disappoint? I finish shaving; I reach for the bottle of lotion. My most ordinary gestures are solemn. In the mirror, I see the charcoal-gray suit, the white shirt, and the black tie. For years I convinced myself that this day would set me free. I would be sad, I thought, full of remorse no doubt, but liberated. It is not happening and the past is stubborn. I might as well make peace with it, extend my hand and smile, hoping that it will return the gesture. I am fond of the little boy I was and cherish those years of exquisite sexual torment in spite of the misery that came with them. Adulthood allowed me to satisfy my cravings, but never again did I feel the juice of the forbidden fruit moisten my lips and run down my chin. Never again did I savor its sweetness, a taste I owed as much to the priests of the École Saint Jean-Baptiste as to my parents who, I always believed, had conceived me in darkness during a brief and dull encounter. Sex was never discussed at home and when my sister indulged in her med student humor, she was quickly silenced. "Lucie, please! Not that! Your brother!" Did it never occur to my parents that the brother in question had nothing but THAT on his mind? One evening, having found a Larousse dictionary open at the letter "V" under my bed, my mother grilled me as she knew so well how to do: "What are you looking for this time? What word?" Not missing a beat and surprised by my own quickness, I replied: "Vagabond. Yes, I'd like to be a vagabond when I grow up." My mother sat down on the edge of
Delerive my bed. "A vagabond! My poor Victor! Is that what you want to be? A drifter? Won't you ever have any kind of ambition in you? A vagabond, an object of contempt! Wouldn't you rather be a great lawyer or a great scientist?" Why did she always entertain dreams of greatness for a son she despised and tormented so relentlessly? As soon as my mother left the room, I aimed my torch lamp at the dictionary. A few entries below vagabond was vagina. The words I was discovering overwhelmed me. I could stare for hours at the little black signs on the page. They set my imagination afire and pointed toward other mysteries: passage leading to the uterus from the vulvatheir mere presence under my eyes quickened my heartbeat. Those printed letters had a hypnotic power. I cannot feel it anymore, but I remember how they carried me away then. On the fringe of such a sinful universe, a princess reigned over my heart. Her name was Sophie. De Marennes de Lucet, if you please. She lived two floors below us and was in every way out of my reach, but there was no place for realism in my life. Sophie was at least five years older than me, a generation at that age, and her beauty left me breathless. With her swan-like neck and almond-shaped eyes, she reminded me of Audrey Hepburn whose "Roman Holiday" I had seen three times. Like her, Sophie was a princess running free among the hoi polloi before returning to her palace. Whenever we found ourselves together in the elevator, I knew I didn't exist for her. Her nod in answer to my stuttered hello was nothing more than the mechanical acknowledgment of the humblest of her subjects. During a few brief moments, I was allowed to breathe the same air as her. From her point of view, all I did was pollute it.
Delerive After those encounters, I would run straight to my room, excited and humiliated, hoping that no one would inquire about my red face. Later, seated at my little desk, some school manual open before me, I would relive those precious seconds during which exhilaration and frustration had inhabited me. I could see Sophie's delicate profile as she looked up at the floor numbers and the nape of her neck when she had turned her back to me. If I had been tempted to extend my hand toward her then, it would have been pure and unmitigated veneration, the gesture of a pilgrim touching the prelate's robe. My head between my hands, looking very much like the studious pupil, I staged in my mind our next encounter. Having arrived first, I would stand facing the elevator and pretend to take notice of Sophie de Marennes de Lucet only at the very last minute. Stepping back, I would then sweep the ground with an imaginary musketeer's feathered hat. Or I could be somewhat aloof and just say, "Hi, there!" My finger on the button panel, I'd say, "Fourth floor, I believe?" as if there had been a doubt in my mind. Leaning against the wall, ankles crossed, I would toss a few coins in my hand, all coolness. Accustomed as she certainly was to suitors down on their knees before her, Her Highness would no doubt be quite impressed. Never, not once in the five years during which we shared the same address, was I able to utter two intelligible words in the presence of Sophie de Marennes de Lucet. I was ten when we moved into the Avenue Mozart apartment and fifteen when the de Marennes de Lucets moved out, headed, no doubt, for a residence more suited to their rank, and she never even knew my name.
Delerive Such was the purity of my feelings toward my princess that I took to exploiting her presence in my life during my Saturday morning confessions. The Fathers had scheduled the purification ritual on the last day of the week to guarantee us a spotless soul for the Sunday morning communion. At first, I sincerely attempted to keep away the lustful thoughts that haunted me; it was only twenty-four hours, surely it could be done. Never did I succeed. Therefore, if I summoned Sophie's image in the oppressive darkness of the confession booth while wiggling uncomfortably, it was in order to lie with more conviction. Father Minot bombarded me with questions, which, in retrospect, betrayed more than just a holy concern for my soul. Full of understanding for the sloth and many lapses which constituted my weekly account, he showed far more concern for what he called the "impure thoughts." When such dreams began to visit me, I confessed to them. At the time, my resolve to fight Satan was such that I honestly believed I could win the battle. Soon enough the enemy's power overwhelmed my weak defenses however, and I surrendered. Convinced of the inanity of my resolutions and embarrassed by the frequency of my defeats, I decided to ignore the matter, pure and simple. If God loved me as much as they said He did, then He would have to take me as I was. It was He, after all, who had created me. Week after week, Father Minot attempted to catch me out and bombarded me with questions. Did I think about girls sometimes; did I ever try to imagine their bodies (was he serious?) was I tempted to touch myself where...you know...where one shouldn't? No, Father. Never! This tone of absolute sincerity I owed to Sophie whose image accompanied me in the confession booth. With Father Minot's each question, I
Delerive focused intensely on our most recent encounter in the elevator. All I had to do was evoke her hair flowing down her swan-like neck or her delicate fingers when she had pushed the door, and my soul instantly became immaculate. If there was a body under her blouse and skirt, it could not conceivably generate the depraved thoughts that other women did. Thinking only of Sophie at confession, I wasn't even guilty of lying, since, for a few brief moments, my soul was without stain.
Were my schoolmates as seriously affected as I was by the raging epidemic of puberty in our 9th grade class? Most probably, but I felt different. While many invented a love life for themselves and recounted their imaginary exploits, I was happy exploring alone the wild forest of my obsessions. They would talk of this or that girl at the neighboring high school who had gone all the way. ALL THE WAY! Oh, the mystery of those words! Another girl was easy; she "wanted it." One had only to see how she looked in our direction. A whore, a slut! I can still see their lips move as they spewed the dirty words. Those tales fascinated me and I envied their assurance, but we didn't live in the same world. Besides, something else set us apart: while my schoolmates were unruly and bursting with energy, I dozed through the classes. Father Vincent, the viceprincipal, even urged my parents to consult a doctora great specialist of course, my mother wouldn't have trusted a regular doctorand I was forced to swallow daily spoonfuls of a lemon-flavored syrup. I wasn't at all ill; all I needed was sleep. How could I have told the great specialist that I was leading the life of a night watchman, the most vigilant of all? The nocturnal visions for which I lived conflicted sharply with school hours. Having left my curtains half-open, I'd lie in darkness waiting for a window to light up or a ray of light to appear under a door. Lucie worked hard into the night in the neighboring room. I could hear the chalk run on the blackboard across the wall as she
Delerive lined up her cabalistic formulas. When the noise of drawers being shut and the rattling of her chair announced the much-awaited moment, I'd rush to the door and put my eye to the keyhole. Sometimes, I thought that my sister was looking in my direction. She even seemed to smile at me as she took off her blouse, unhooked her braher breasts were tiny, with flat nipples so pale I could hardly see themstepped out of her corduroy pants and finally, at long last, took off her panties. What a beautiful sight! She tousled her red bush with the tip of her fingers and ran a nail along her perfectly shaven triangle. She then paraded in the nude for a moment, offering herself to me, disappearing for a few seconds, coming back as if for an encore, then stepping away again to finally appear wearing a knee-long shirt. She then went to our bathroom. For a simple exercise of tooth brushing, I didn't bother. Janine, the maid, was less predictable. Blonde and twenty, twenty-five years old at the most, she had eyes the color of porcelain and her skin was as rosy and bright as that of a piglet. She put on airs as if she was innocence incarnate, but often returned to her room at dawn. The following day was hard for both of us. She never suspected how much damage her escapades inflicted on my school records. Janine's room across the street was one floor below mine. All I could see of her was a headless body and that was perfectly fine by me. All night long, I struggled to stay awake, waiting for the rectangle of yellow light to come on. I would then jump to my feet and aim the telescope that was supposed to foster my interest in astrology. I remember being torn between resentment and anticipation. I was angry with Janine for the sleepless night, but I also knew that she wouldn't worry about privacy at this early
Delerive hour. Surrounded by blind windows, certain to be alone in the world, she didn't bother to pull her curtains. I could roam her room freely. When Janine walked around, I could see her from her feet up to the middle of her breasts. Her thighs were thick and her belly fat, but my eyes were glued to the pale bush, light as a chick's down. Sometimes, she would sit on the edge of her bed, facing me, and rub her tired feet. When I first caught a glimpse of the darker pink flesh deep between her thighs, I almost fainted. And, of course, there was the fear, the terror. Any moment, the door could burst open and my mother would surprise me. She would scream, hurl insults, and remind me of how vile a creature I was. She would turn to God and ask Him what she had done to deserve such a despicable son. And deep down, I would agree. I was bad, hopelessly bad. I often wished I could hate my mother, for life would have been easier, or so I fantasized. And yet, as corrupt and misguided as it was, some kind of love against which I was utterly powerless united us, I knew it. Whenever I was choked with tears of pain or rage and a wave of anger swept me, each time I longed for revenge, some cunning demon reminded me of a moment of joy or tenderness. It left me more perturbed than the horror against which I was slowly learning to defend myself. No memory can better illustrate this confusion than that of the New Year's Eve that my mother and I spent by ourselves. "Like two lovers," as she said in a moment of furor or affection, I don't really know which. Bonne Maman, my maternal grandmother, was also there, but, as she was first to admit, she counted for nothing. I was twelve that year and my father, who had been sent to Canada by his company,
Delerive was snowbound by a storm. On the telephone, he had described the wild New Year's Eve he was getting ready for, munching snacks in front of the TV in his airport hotel room. As for Lucie, she was skiing down the slopes somewhere in the Alps. Janine had gone back to her native Brittany for the holidays. Depressed by her husband's absence, my mother first retreated behind a wall of silence, smoking cigarette after cigarette, furiously brushing the ashes off her robe, prostrate for a while on the couch and then jumping up the next minute to walk from room to room as if looking for something of utmost import. Around noon, she opened a bottle of Johnny Walker. My grandmother was biting her lower lip and rolling her eyes. She, too, could see the storm coming. As soon as I finished my yogurt at the lunch table, I pushed back my chair, but was ordered to remain seated. "We have to make a decision," my mother announced in a rare display of democratic spirit. "Would you like to go to a restaurant tonight or would you rather have the New Year's Eve dinner here? I could buy some oysters or foie gras and, of course, your favorite chocolate cake." It was exciting: "I'd like to go to a restaurant, Maman. There's one near the subway station; they have a special menu for tonight. I see it every morning." "No! That isn't good enough. What I had in mind was a three-star restaurant." I jumped with joy: "I'd like that even better!" Without a precise knowledge of what three stars really entailed, I was already thrilled. During the few moments it took my mother to crumple her empty pack of Pall Mall into a ball, take a new one out of a carton, tear it open and finally burn her
Delerive fingers with a match, I observed how her face changed. In only seconds, and for some mysterious reason, her chin became heavy, the edges of her mouth dropped, wrinkles appeared on her brow, and her eyes became dull, almost dead. The mask. "No," she finally said in a toneless voice. "We'll stay here." I couldn't hide my disappointment, but was still determined to salvage some festive spirit. "We'll have the chocolate cake, right?" I asked. "Don't be silly. We'll pretend it's a day like any other day. There's some ham in the fridge and pasta from yesterday. We'll have cookies and jam for dessert. This way, I won't even have to go out." "But, Maman, it's New Year's Eve!" "No, Victor! It's Wednesday." At that precise moment, the telephone rang, allowing me to blow my nose and wipe my tears without being called a capricious wimp. From my mother's words, I understood that Mrs. Wilson, our new downstairs neighbor, who had learned from the concierge about my father being trapped in Canada "by the storm they showed on TV", was inviting us to share their New Year's Eve dinner. My parents didn't socialize with this recently relocated American family, but I knew that the father worked at the American embassy, Place de la Concorde, and that the two sons, broad-shouldered seventeen-year-old twins, attended the International Lycée in St. Germain After an exchange, which allowed me to believe in a happy ending, I was mystified to hear my mother answer, "This is very kind of you, Madame Wilson, but we're having a big party tonight and I'm not about to call it off just because my
Delerive husband isn't around." Then, after a silence, she concluded, "Very well. Why don't we do this one of these days? Me too. And thank you again. Happy New Year to you too, Madame Wilson." My mother hung up and exclaimed, "I don't believe these people! We hardly know each other and she'd like us to spend the evening with them. What was she thinking?" I don't have precise memories of the afternoon that followed. I do know that I was given permission to go and see a movie, a forgettable western. And yet, I can still see myself, staring at the New Year's Eve windows filled with delicacies, foie gras, smoked salmon, caviar and, of course, the incredibly mouth-watering cakes. I kept hearing what my mother had said"To morrow morning, it will be Thursday, whether we celebrate or not, so why bother?" but wasn't really convinced. When I returned home, late afternoon, I was shocked to discover the apartment illuminated like the store windows. Lamps, chandeliers, candelabra, everything my parents owned as lighting devices had been plugged in and switched on. My mother was down on her knees in front of the stereo. "Ah! There you are at last!" she exclaimed, "I need your help. We must have some music, something to dance to. Why don't you look into these records? Make yourself useful for once." "What's the matter, Maman?" She rose, took my hand, and led me to the sofa, where we both sat down. Her voice was joyous. Her eyes, so dull and dark when I had left, were now sparkling like the sky on a summer night. "Don't tell me you have forgotten," she said. "We're
Delerive having a big party tonight with dozens of guests. That's what I told Madame Wilson. We need to stage it." "Stage it?" "You don't want your mother to be called a liar, do you? Look, I already took care of the lighting. This candelabrum, here, I don't know if you noticed, I found it in the basement. You're in charge of the music. And there are thousands of other things we must take care of." "Like what?" Full of excitement as I had seldom seen her, my mother laid out her plan. She had thought of everything, from the up and down rides I would have to take in the elevator"Don't forget to slam the door as hard as you can!" to the carpets that had to be rolled up to let our heels make more noise and the cries with which we were going to welcome the New Year at midnight. "But Maman...there's only the two of us." "Three. Bonne Maman will do her part." "Still!" "It's like everything in life, my darling. All it takes is some determination." I vividly remember that "my darling," for it was followed by a hug, during which my mother pressed my face against her bosom and stroked the back of my neck. I can still feel her fingers. Then she jumped to her feet and ordered, "Now go and get dressed up." "But nobody will see me!"
Delerive "First, you might very well meet somebody in the elevator. Second, and much, much more importantly, never forget that there's no theater without costumes and props. How do you want me to dress?" I was game. "Like it's going to be the most beautiful New Year's Eve party in the whole world." "Good! Now you understand everything, my little Victor. But first, we have to take care of the packages." "What packages?" "Victor! Please use your brain. The guests will bring presents. We have to prepare the wrappings, the ribbons, all the stuff we'll throw out in the trash later on. And by the way, why don't you go to the basement where your father keeps the empty Champagne bottles? We'll throw them out, too." "But Dad always says he wants to return the empties to his friend in Rheims." For one moment, my mother looked at me sternly, but I wasn't scared, for I saw no intention to hurt me in her eyes. "There are times in life where you have to make exceptions and break the rules, Victor." Then she started unrolling a spool of bright silver ribbon, saying, "Get moving now, we don't have much time." All these years I have kept in my mind a collection of vignettes from that evening which none of the disappointments, tears, or punishments that were my daily fare can ever erase. I still see my mother laughing loudly between forkfuls of spaghetti and ham, waving her hand at me to orchestrate my cries and laughter while Bonne
Delerive Maman stubbornly refused to play along and kept rolling her eyes, muttering to herself. I can feel the floor shake while my mother drew me into a dance around the living room to the sounds of the blaring stereo. She looked gorgeous in her midnightblue taffeta evening gown. I remember how we dragged the chairs on the floor and jumped up and down. I can still taste the sweet orange flavor of the mixture of mineral water and Cointreau that made my head spin and had me giggle. I can hear the dozens of voices with which we saluted the New Year. ³Bonne Année, Bonne Santé. Happy New Year! Merci Monsieur et Madame!" But the most vivid memory, the one that always stopped me from hating my mother, was the way she looked at me while we were laughing. She loved me that night as much as I adored her, and nothing will make me believe otherwise. In fact, after I had traveled up and down in the elevator well after midnight while my mother kept calling, "Thank you for coming and drive safely and Bonne Année again!" she took my hand and led me to the couch, where she sat me on her lap and whispered, "We had a good time, didn't we, my lambkin?" "What did you call me?" I asked. Without leaving me time to repeat my question, she said, "I called you my lambkin, because that's what you are. Mine and no one else's." And then she added word for word, I swear - "I only have one lambkin. Lucie's not even my daughter, but you, you're mine. My darling lambkin." I cuddled against her, saying: "You smell so good!"
Delerive "You must understand one thing," she added. "You're the only real love of my life. Nobody, you hear me, nobody, will ever love you the way I do. You must believe me." "I do." "And that's why I must watch out for you, make sure you don't fall into the wrong hands. Girls, you know, women!" Her voice was shrill all of a sudden, and I heard the intonations I had learned to fear. "You're weak, Victor. It's my job to protect you. I know their kind. Sluts." Between these words of love and the wild imprecations, I was utterly lost. The world wasn't making any sense. A couple of hours later, my mother shook me awake and led me to my room. She had been sleeping, too, and her mascara circled her eyes, making her look like an owl. I kissed her hand and went back to sleep. The following morning, the first day of the year, Bonne Maman and I had breakfast by ourselves. My mother wasn't feeling well, I was told. I wanted to bring her a cup of coffee, but she wouldn't let me in. When she finally did come out, late afternoon, disheveled in her robe, and I ran toward her, she froze me dead in my tracks with her glare. The lambkin had lived only a few hours. A woman smiles at me amidst the memories of those years. Her name was Mireille, and she was some thirty years older than me. Sometimes, I think that she may be dead now, or worse, an invalid in a wheel chair. I hate to think of her that way. In my memory, she's very much alive. I recently found a photograph she gave me. On
Delerive it she's seated on a stone wall by a river and wears a light cotton dress. Her smile is quizzical and she waves at the camera. I must not lie to myself: with her bland features, her fat nose and frizzy hair, Mireille was not pretty, I can see it now, but I was blinded by the sun that shone for me under that dress. At the back of the picture, she had written: To Victor, my lovely sex maniac. Enjoy it, for it won't last. Soon, you'll be a grown up. Mireille was wrong. I grew up and even reached middle age, but I didn't really change. Well...maybe I'm not so lovely anymore.
My father had two faces. One, cheerful, all smiles, always with a friendly word and a joke at the ready, was reserved for his clients. I met some of those when he called on hotel managers on the way to our family vacations, to "stoke the fire," as he liked to say. The other, distant and stern, he saved for his family. When I summon my father's memory, I see him sitting ramrod-straight in his leather armchair, eerily still, like a wax museum exhibit, his Figaro open on his lap at the page of domestic politicsthe Algerian war, most likely. He's chewing on the tip of his spectacles and stares at the ice cubes in his glass. The glass in question is made of finely-chiseled crystal and engraved with the coat of arms of the Ritz hotel, a memento from his first professional success. It's the only one from which he drinks his daily scotch on the rocks. Nobody else is allowed to use it, and it must be hand-washed by his wife. Such is the law. My mother never confided in me, but I spent enough hours watching her to know that she cried frequently. I remember her one day having criticized one of Lucie's friends for leaving the parental nest to live with a jazz pianist who "couldn't even offer her a decent lifestyle." I heard my sister snap back, "A decent lifestyle! That's what you married Dad for, isn't it? So why don't you let other people take a shot at happiness instead?" From the shadow of the corridor where I was standing, I expected another of my mother's angry outbursts, but when I saw her bow her head
Delerive silently and bury her face in her hands, I wanted to run and hold her in my arms. I was too afraid of her, though. My father was commercial director of a company that leased television sets to hotels and hospitals. When my mother complained about his silence, he'd answer that he had just been smiling for a living on the roads of France. He expected the family he was working so hard to feed, to show some degree of understanding. Was peace at home too much to ask? Powerless against her husband's lack of interest and utterly frustrated, my mother sometimes fought back. I had the misfortune of being a witness one evening when she went on the attack and insisted on knowing what my father could possibly see in his glass. "I'm lost in my thoughts," he answered without looking up. "One wonders how you can get lost," my mother snickered. I couldn't refrain from laughing and was sent to bed without dinner. When it came to Lucie, his daughter from a first marriage, my father was ready to forgive anything. In his eyes she was nothing short of perfect and he shared the credit with his saintly late wife. "You only find a woman like her once in your life," he'd say. Such statements were the matrimonial equivalent of billiards; they allowed him to hit my mother while turning his back to her. For his son, he showed nothing but contempt. When he wasn't ignoring me altogether, he was calling me a no-gooder, telling me that I would never amount to anything. To him I was a wanker, an epithet I admittedly deserved to the fullest extent. What my father meant, though, was that I was a totally worthless individual.
Delerive And yet, there must have been happy times. In an attempt to convince myself of it, I spent hours poring through the photos in our family albums. Pictures can lie, I know, but those images sometimes bring back memories of laughter and even tenderness. There were few such moments, to be sure, but I want to believe they existed. They remind me of a time when my mother allowed me to sleep in her bed when I had nightmares and my father was away on business. I was eleven, twelve perhaps, thirteen maybethose years are somehow lumped together in my memory. We didn't cuddle, that wasn't my mother's style, but I'd inch toward her as soon as she started to snore softly and I felt loved. Those romantic interludes came to an abrupt end when, one night, I undertook to explore the warm body lying next to me. With infinite caution, I lifted my mother's nightgown, millimeter by millimeter, until I finally reached the top of her thighs. My heart was pounding; I was in a state of apnea. When I finally put my fingers on the soft and curly tuft, several thousand volts went through me and I jumped so violently that my mother woke up and switched on the lamp at her side. She never suspected my misdeed, but after wondering why I was feverish and damp with sweat, she noticed the wet stain on my pajamas and started screaming, "It's disgusting! You had one of those filthy dreams again. That's really all you have on your dirty mind, isn't it? I don't want you in my bed ever again." There's also a picture showing me on my father's lap. Since computerized trickery wasn't available at the time, I must accept this aberration. In another photo I stand next to Lucie. My sister who usually ignored me and referred to me as "him" when she really had to include me has her hand on my shoulder. Go figure!
Delerive Page after page, I was struck by the fact that those mementos of family happiness have all vacation locations as backgrounds. And, in fact, it was in St. Briac one summer that I met Mireille. As the expression goes, she could easily have been my mother and in a way she was, for she too brought me into the world. Mireille was spending a gloomy month of August at the Hôtel du Promontoire where we were vacationing like every other summer. Her husband was a massive bear of a man whose back was covered with a fur so thick that when he went into the ocean, he looked like he had forgotten to undress. An officer at the Caen air base, he spent every weekend with his wife. Mireille always sat on the same spot in an aluminum folding chair just above the few square feet of sand my parents claimed as their own. Covered with sunscreen, my mother waited for an unlikely ray of sun while my father read detective stories. Lucie was somewhere with her friends. As for me, I was bored to death. The water was gray and cold, the weather dull, distractions were few. I had a companion in my misery, a boy from Lyons named Jeannot with whom I sometimes played ping-pong and swapped comic books, but he wasn't around much because his parents liked to take him for drives around the countryside. He didn't seem to have much fun either. Sometimes I went alone for long walks along the beach, jumping from rock to rock. My favorite pastime consisted of imagining myself changing the world through extraordinary discoveries. Among them, a powder that, sprayed over the clouds, would dissolve them. Brittany would have been my first customer. I also thought of a remote-controlled device which, aimed at my Saint Jean-Baptiste schoolmates, would
Delerive erase their memories; I would immediately jump to the top of the class. My favorite invention was a special kind of sunglasses allowing one to see through women's bathing suits. For some complicated technical reason, this optical breakthrough had no effect on men's trunks which are made of a completely different fabriceverybody knows that. I was lying on my stomach, one gray Monday afternoon, on a towel representing a Paris métro ticket when, raising my eyes, I saw Mireille looking at me. She was seated in her usual chair, her hands flat on her knees, wearing a yellow cardigan and a white skirt with a flowery design. She was drawing circles in the sand with the tip of her toe. Did she see lust in my eyes? Did she notice how they were trying to make their way under her skirt, or was it my imagination? Did I read an invitation in her smile, I don't remember. Be that as it may, we allowed our eyes to meet, disengage, and then meet again, not unlike fencers in their initial exchanges. Finally our eyes locked. My heart pounded, I was short of breath. Nothing in the world mattered, except for the narrow corridor of space between us. Then, after an unbearably long moment, her smile changed in a very subtle way, becoming deliciously mischievous. A strange light came on in her eyes. Without moving her hands, she put her fingers to workthey moved like the legs of a spiderpulling her skirt up a few millimeters at a time until its hem finally reached her knees. I was petrified. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, she then opened her legs, revealing first the inner side of her knees, then her thighs, until she finally let me see her panties. I don't know if she was still smiling, for my eyes were glued to this narrow white strip at the end of an enchanted tunnel. My sex ached under my stomach; it was as if each
Delerive heartbeat reverberated through it. Common sense tells me today that this episode cannot have lasted more than one or two minutes. Patrons of the hotel, heroic bathers coming out of the ocean, must have walked by, and she certainly did not remain with her legs wide apart in front of a crimson-faced boy for long, but that moment of total fascination burned itself so deeply into my memory that I don't recall it having ended. In a way it never did. From that day on, and until the end of the week, Mireille and I became inseparable. I still didn't know her name, and we hadn't exchanged a word, but each time I raised my eyes from my plate in the dining room, I could see her smile in the mirrors covering the kitchen doors. We were then the actors of a psychedelic show for our reflections kept swinging to the kicks of the tray-carrying waiters. I would catch a glimpse of her smiling lips, then hear a foot kick the door and was immediately confronted with my own burning face. Our ocular flirtation went on at the beach as well. When it became too much to bear, I would sigh heavily and rise, yawn loudly, stretch my arms, hamming it up, before going on a walk, looking as cool as I possibly could. My hands in my shorts pockets, I whistled a tune and kicked shells by the water's edge. I hoped she would follow me and that we would meet behind a rock or somewhere in the dunes, but she never did. When I came back, she would be there in her chair with the same maddening smile on her lips. I felt humiliated. On the following Friday afternoon, the airman's arrival gave me my pride back. When Mireille walked by me, her hand in her husband's without so much as a
Delerive glance in my direction, I decided to expel her from my thoughts. By the following Monday, I had almost succeeded until a ridiculous incident reunited us. We were finishing our breakfast on the hotel deck. My father had rented a fishing boat complete with equipment and captain for the day and was waiting for the lunch basket he had ordered when I ventured a question, which had been on my mind since the previous evening. "Tell me, Papa, what's a premature ejaculator?" First, there was a moment of silence, then my sister burst into laughter before being interrupted by the sound of my father's fist on the table. Cups and saucers flew crashing to the floor. "Where did you learn those disgusting words?" "Lucie left a book open on her bed. It was in capital letters." "And you, Yvonne, don't you have anything to say?" my father barked at my mother. "I don't know what to do about him," she sighed, "Boarding school, that's the only solution." They had been discussing my deportation lately. "Well, I'll tell you what," the head of the family declared. "These two won't come with us to day. Lucie, how many times have I told you not to let your brother read your medical books? And you, little swine, that'll teach you to keep your mouth clean."
Delerive Having spoken, my father stood up, signaled for my mother to take the basket that had just arrived, and headed for the harbor, unconcerned by the fact that they were taking our lunches with them. "I really don't care," my sister said as she pushed back her chair. "I don't like sailing anyway and besides, I'd rather spend the day with my friends. Tell you one thing though, this is the last summer I spend in this shithole." I watched Lucie walk away and went down the stairs leading to the beach where, seated on the sand, I contemplated the rest of the day. I wasn't any more frustrated than my sister about the loss of the maritime expedition, but still, it was going to be a long day. Not that my parents provided much distraction, but their presence and routines marked the passage of time like a Swiss cuckoo clock. My boredom had taken a new dimension. I was pondering my situation when a voice behind me made me start. "What are you going to do?" I turned around. Mireille wore, I'll never forget it, a purple and yellow dress and brown espadrilles. I shrugged my shoulders and said, "Dunno!" "I heard everything, you know. I was having breakfast just behind you. Personally, I think it's normal to want to understand things. A young man your age is curious. That's the way it should be." I nodded in appreciation of her support. "What's your name?" she asked. "Victor." "That's a nice name. And how old are you?"
Delerive "Seventeen." Never had a lie been told with more spontaneity. I cannot imagine for one second that Mireille believed me, but she was kind enough to pretend. "My name's Mireille," she said. "I, too, am alone. Would you like us to spend the day together?" I looked down. Suddenly I had lost my voice. My cheeks and forehead were afire. "We could go for a walk." I kept my eyes glued to the sand and nodded. "Or if you prefer, I could show you the books I brought here for the holidays. We might find one that you'd like to read." I felt like I was trapped in one of those amusement park huge drums that spin at a zillion rotations per minute. We were gaining speed and the centrifugal force was pushing me against the wall. "Would you like to come and have a look at them in my room this afternoon? Shall we say just after lunch? I am in room 38 on the third floor." I was stuck against the wall of the infernal machine. My temples were throbbing, my head was about to explode any moment and my eardrums were going to burst. I didn't have the strength to raise my eyes or utter a single word. When I finally came to, I was alone. It was exactly two o'clock when I knocked at Mireille's door. I had spent the lunch hour walking along the water's edge, struggling to control the surge of emotions that overcame me. I knew that I was getting perilously close to the abyss. I was torn
Delerive between panic and the call of the unknown, an indescribable exaltation. When the first cosmonauts neared the moon and looked at the planet earth, a far-away blue ball, when they realized that mankind's dream was about to come true and that the world would forever be different, they cannot have been, I am not afraid to say, more overwhelmed that I was that day. Mireille had changed into a pink skirt with large tropical flowers and a flimsy eggshell blouse, under which I could see her breasts sway and their dark brown nipples jut out. She had made herself up: her eyelids were dark and her mouth red. A fist squeezed my throat. As I stood paralyzed at the door, she extended her hand, which I shook feebly, muttering a hardly audible bonjour, and she pulled me inside her room. "Don't stand there." she said, "We don't need to share our little secret with the entire hotel population, do we?" My memory of the ensuing minutes is both vivid and confused. I remember standing in front of the shelf, on which a number of paperbacks were stacked, pretending to be interested in their titlesthey were just a blur of colors and letterswhile, from the corner of my eye, I could see Mireille, seated on the corner of the bed. "Can you find something interesting?" Before even looking toward Sodom, I had turned into a statue of salt. I shook my head. "How about sitting here then? Isn't it time for us to get to know each other?" I sat down where her red-nailed hand was patting the bed cover.
Delerive "Your room is larger than mine," I said, staring ahead. My words sounded like the caw of a crow. Mireille didn't answer and let the silence hang in the room for what seemed like an eternity. Then I felt her hand take mine and pull it gently toward one of her breasts where she let it rest. Never had I imagined such sweetness. The warmth of this breast, its weight, its soft firmness took me totally by surprise. To feel its hard nipple in the center of my palm made me feel sick with bliss. Slowly but firmly, Mireille slid my hand under her blouse. Skin against skin. I was close to fainting. And when her hand left mine to rest on my penis, which was stretching the front of my shorts, I started shaking like a leaf in the wind. Never before, in my most torrid dreams, had I imagined such a whirlwind of sensations. "Why don't you take off your shirt?" Mireille suggested. "You'll be more comfortable." I nodded, mute as well as paralyzed. She was standing in front of me now. Her smile was the same as the first day on the beach. A few buttons later, she brought her naked breasts a couple of inches from my face. They were heavy, somewhat sagging, today I know it, but so wonderfully magnificent. Then she let her skirt drop at her feet and I saw that she was nude. I had seen pubic mounds during hundreds of night watches, but this one was being offered to me. I only had to raise my hand to touch its shiny curls, but wasn't sure I had enough strength in me. "So? What are you waiting for? Won't you undress?" As I struggled to free my head from my polo shirt, I felt Mireille's nails run on my chest. When I finally emerged, she unzipped my shorts and pulled my briefs down. Then she lay down and, spreading her legs, opened her arms. I felt terribly clumsy as I
Delerive let her guide me like a dancer on his first night on the ballroom floor. Incapable of any conscious thought, I shook with a violent spasm as soon as our bellies touched and collapsed, shaking, on her. I could feel her stomach under mine, wet and sticky. When the last aftershock waves had finally subsided, I attempted to get up, sad and embarrassed, aware as I was that I had in some way failed, but Mireille held me down and stroked the back of my neck with the tip of her fingers. Then she said softly, "Well, at least that's a question you won't have to ask your dad anymore!"
My transformation didn't escape my mother's keen eye. Upon returning from the maritime expedition, she bombarded me with questions. "What have you been doing today? You look sick ... And how come you're not hungry? Finish your potatoes! And show me your hands. Are you sure you washed them before dinner?" I remained mute and kept my eyes down. I wanted to keep Mireille's scent on my fingers. They had touched a female body! To wash them? Never. After dinner I left the dining room and went for a solitary walk. Mireille's seat at her usual table was empty; she hadn't come down for dinner. As I reached the door Jeannot ran after me, wanting to swap comic books. I ignored him. Couldn't this dweeb see that we no longer had anything in common? Mireille had warned me that our afternoon in heaven wouldn't be repeated - "I'll be going back home soon," she had said. "It's just as well." Still, I hoped against hope that another miracle would reunite us. Awake at night in bed, hands crossed under my head, I imagined my parents being summoned back to Paris to take care of some crisis - a fire at home maybe or my father's business suddenly bankrupt, I wasn't shy about the cause of their departure. Lucie and I would then be left alone for several days at the Hôtel du Promontoire. I saw myself sneaking out of my room and running into Mireille's arms. The words "night of passion" fascinated me; they evoked a new dimension in sensual discovery. I couldn't really see
Delerive why or how nocturnal ecstasy could be that different, but so many songs had been written about it that there had to be some truth to it. Unfortunately Mireille had been right. Coming down to the lobby one morning to buy my father's Figaro, I saw her on the sidewalk, dressed for travel, overseeing the loading of two suitcases into the trunk of a taxi. As the driver held the rear door open for her, she turned around and saw me. After glancing toward the upstairs windows, she brought two fingers to her lips and blew a kiss in my direction. Several minutes after the white taxi had turned the corner, I remained at the top of the stairs, unable to take my eyes away from the spot where the first woman of my life had waved goodbye. "You will know many women and forget most of them," she had said, "but I can assure you that you'll always remember me. When you're a very old man, you'll still know who Mireille was." Of course, she was right. Back home in Paris, I realized how deeply my life had changed. As I stood, suitcase in hand, at the door of my room, I surveyed the striped wall paper, the beige curtain with its ink stain in the shape of Cyrano's nose, the bed, the cluttered desk, the boxes of Monopoly and Scrabble, the pile of France-Football magazines in a corner, the map of Europe on one wall, that of the Americas on another, the telescope. I saw the familiar environment as a sort of measuring bar, like the one against which the doctor at École Saint Jean-Baptiste had me stand twice a year. I had undoubtedly grown up. Later, when I heard Lucie close her drawers and prepare for the night, I rushed to my observation post. But as I watched her move about through the keyhole at which
Delerive I had spent so many hours, I realized that the magic was gone. I had certainly not grown tired of the flaming red triangle, but it no longer represented the sum of my obsessions. The veil had been lifted off the mystery; my appetite was different: more precise, more voracious. At Saint Jean-Baptiste, the first recesses were devoted to the exchange of vacation memories. As always the boundary between reality and fable was thin. Not once was I tempted to mention Mireille. I still hadn't reached my fourteenth birthday, but part of me felt out of place among this group. I found those boasts tedious. As for my mother, she was watching me more closely than ever. Her antennae, whose accuracy she often praised, warned her of the imminent peril of losing her son. I was the object of her passion, as well as the target of her persecutions. She needed me, I can see it now. She would circle me like a tiger does her prey, watching my body language, my reactions. Across the dinner table, her lips pinched, her eyes narrow slits, she kept casting glances at my father as if to say, ³Watch your son. Don't you see, didn't you notice?´ My father however, either ignored her or simply shrugged his shoulders. His newspaper folded next to his plate, the head of the family, as he liked to call himself, was only interested in "the situation". General Massu was getting Algiers under control; the Fellaghas would have to run for their lives. There were rumors that de Gaulle could be the savior. Although disappointed by her husband's lack of support, my mother wasn't ready to give up; she was smelling blood. Sometimes she would enter my room and aim her glare at me. "Don't you think you can hide anything from me," she would hiss
Delerive before leaving. I knew that she was standing behind the door, her ear glued to the panel. Minutes later, the floor creaked under her feet. *** Returning from the St. Jean-Baptiste chapel, one Saturday morning, with a partly purified soul, I found my mother seated at my little desk. The carpet under her feet was white with cigarette ash. The mess in my room wasn't mine, she had searched the premises; I saw it immediately. Her eyes were ablaze. I wanted to turn heels and run. "Sit down," she said, pointing her chin at my bed, above which a crucifix watched over my improbable salvation. "We have to talk. Did you confess?" "Yes, Maman." "You've changed a lot lately and not for the better, I'm sorry to say. Your father and I worry. There's something you're not telling us." "No Maman, I swear." "Don't you dare lying to me, Victor! You're just back from confession. You are still very young and need our advice. We are your parents and we have a duty." What was she getting at? I had been lying low since our return from Brittany, but I couldn't help growing up, could I? "It's all good and well that you confess your sins at St. Jean-Baptiste, but the truth is, your parents are the ones who need to know of your misdeeds. It¶s the only way we can keep you on the right path, do you understand?" I nodded silently. I saw only too clearly what she had in mind.
Delerive "Very good! From now on, each and every week, you will tell me what you confessed to Father Minot. Then we'll be able to talk about it and draw conclusions. For your own good, you understand. Actually, we're going to start today. I remind you that you cannot lie to me, even by omission, since you will take communion tomorrow. It would be a mortal sin, I hope you're aware of this." Quite satisfied with her plan, she lit up a cigarette with the stub of the previous one. "Well? I'm listening." There was turmoil in my head. I was trapped. God, the church, my mother, the communion, mortal sins, Baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary; it was all too much. I felt utterly helpless. "So?" Never before had I resisted my mother. Where the strength to hold my ground came from, I don't know, possibly from the vague understanding that the dice were loaded. "I'm waiting." I shook my head. "No, Maman. Confession is special." My mother was shocked! Her jaw slacked, she leaned forward and drilled her stare into me, as if wanting to make sure she had heard correctly. Soon however, her eyes lit up with excitement, for she was back on familiar ground, that of repression. "Repeat what you just said. Did you say, µNo Maman?¶" As I remained silent, she rose, leaning forward, her hands flat on my desk.
Delerive "Very well, you leave me no choice. You still don't understand that your father and I only want to raise you as well as we possibly can. Since you won't allow us to do that, I will cancel your weekly allowance. And I won't buy you those new soccer shoes." "But Maman, the old ones are too small now. We must change them." "We must! Don't you tell me what we must do. A son must tell his mother everything. That's a must." And with those words, she slammed the door shut behind her. In the past, I had had more than my share of punishment and had suffered worse injustices. This incident however, pushed me into passive resistance and I decided not to speak to my mother anymore. *** Spring came late that year. Low clouds and icy rain formed an appropriate background to the state of prostration in which I buried myself. Neither sermons, nor threats, nor inducements had any impact on me. My silence drove my mother crazy, but her outbursts of rage only reinforced my resolve what other weapon did I have? At school, I was only physically present and slid down deep into an abyss of mediocrity. The cold war had its climax on my fourteenth birthday. Seeing an opportunity, my mother opted for a sharp change of strategy. Having declared a day of festivities, she put on airs that, according to Lucie, made for the worst piece of acting ever performed. Suddenly she was a doting mother.
Delerive "My son is fourteen," she kept repeating. "Twice the age of reason, no longer a child. We have to celebrate." Urged to join in, my father groaned behind his Figaro, while sipping whisky from his precious Ritz hotel glass. The best table linen and china were taken out for the occasion. My mother desperately wanted to win me over. I, unfortunately, had become used to my state of isolation. I felt like one of those World War I poilus Bonne Maman had told me abouther older brother had been killed at VerdunI too was spending a long and cold winter in the trenches. The more advances my mother made, the deeper I retreated behind my wall of silence, watching coldly as her smile became more strained, at times becoming an ugly grimace. Over foie gras, my mother suggested spending the Easter holidays in the Alps, but her glowing description of the snowy slopes only triggered a polite nod. Stealing a glance at her from time to time, I watched how her face carved itself deeply while her cheekbones reddened with each glass of the Bordeaux in which she sought a boost of energy. My sister was tense, looking up each time our mother's voice rose to the higher octaves and became staccato. As for the head of the family, he was somewhere else, far away, lost in his thoughts again. Then came dessert time. My favorite chocolate cake and a beautifully wrapped package were presented to me. As I blew out the fourteen candles and untied the golden ribbon, my mother pushed her chair next to mine, her face close, much too close. Her stare was vibrating like hot air on a summer day, filled with rage or despair, I didn't know which.
Delerive I opened the box. A beautiful stopwatch lay on a cushion of white satin. It was shiny and had numerous dials and buttons. Almost every day for the past two years, I had stopped on my way to or from school and admired it in the jeweler's window and I was overjoyed. Sadly, however, I was unable to express my pleasure. A part of me wanted to jump up and hug my parents, assure them that I had never seen anything more magnificent, that I loved them and would try to be a better son, but the wall I had erected during these long winter weeks had grown too high. All I could muster was a thin smile. "Thank you very much. It's very nice." During endless moments of a frightening silence, it seemed that time had stopped. My father gazed at me over his spectacles. His raised eyebrow and thin smile seemed to indicate that I fully deserved what was bound to follow. Lucie had pushed her chair back and looked like she wanted to flee. My mother emptied her glass of wine in one quick gulp. "That's all?" she said, putting the glass down, her voice toneless. "I said thank you." "I heard you. Thanks for nothing! That's all you have to say?" "Thank you very much." "You're damn right you should thank me. I'm the one who convinced your father not to say anything tonight about sending you to boarding school, I'll have you know." "Why tell him now, then?" Lucie asked under her breath. "We¶ve decided to send you away next year. That'll teach you."
Delerive "That is, if you don't pass your exams at the end of the school year," my father said. My mother's laughter sounded like a bark. "As if he had the slightest chance!" So, they had decided and the threat was finally going to be carried out. I didn't know whether I was afraid of exile, frightened of the unknown, scared of the harsh disciplinary treatments my mother had gleefully described, or if I actually welcomed the escape. "You'll spend your next birthday in reform school." "Boarding school," my father corrected. "Did you hear me?" my mother insisted. Suddenly, I felt tired of the aggression. Strangely, it didn't matter anymore. "I don't care," I said calmly. My mother's eyes narrowed, then she slapped me in the face with such strength that I almost fell off my chair. And since I wasn't reacting, just wiping the tears that had sprung from my eyes with the back of my hand, she grabbed my arm and ripped the shiny watch from my wrist. She then ran to the window and opened it in a grand theatrical gesture. For a moment, she dangled the watch in front of my eyes. "You won't need this in reform school," she hissed before sending my birthday present out the window where it crashed to the ground, six stories below. "You asked for it!" my father said before rising. Lucie had buried her face in her hands. I was petrified. When my mother grabbed my hair and pushed my face down into the chocolate cake, I didn't even fight
Delerive back. I thought I heard Lucie burst into tears, and the noise of her chair falling echoed in my head. Then I raised my head in time to see through my chocolate-smeared eyelashes my mother walk out and slam the door shut behind her. It was nerves, of course, which triggered my burst of laughter. The convulsions that shook me had the same soothing effect as sobs. I went to the mirror on top of the fireplace and saw a clown's face in my reflection. As I wiped away the brown chocolate make-up, I uncovered the livid marks that my mother's fingers had left on my cheek. The face I saw in the mirror was grotesque. I laughed and laughed, stopping only when I became short of breath. That fireplace brought back a memory. In a way, we had already lived this evening's drama. Maybe that was the reason why I hadn't reacted more. It was on a Christmas day. How old was I then? Seven, eight, perhaps. In the morning I had found giant tin soldiers under the decorated tree, six commandos equipped with futuristic weaponry. Four inches tall, they were splendid. I had spent the whole morning deploying them in my room. My crime that day had been to insist on bringing my soldiers to the lunch table. Deaf to my mother's orders, I had laid them in front of me for review, three on each side of my glass of milk. Suddenly, my mother had gone into a rage. I had watched, incredulous, as she grabbed the tin soldiers and threw them into the fire. For several minutes while I watched them twist and melt in the flames, I had refused to believe that the disaster was really happening and it had taken me some time to finally burst into sobs. The following night, I had awoken from a tears-induced sleep and sneaked
Delerive into the dining room. There I had fished the pieces of melted metal from the ashes. They were still sitting in a sand-filled ashtray on my desk. I finished wiping my face with a napkin and sat in front of the fireplace. Oddly enough, the loss of the beautiful stopwatch didn't really hurt. The memories of the tin soldiers, however, made me cry. *** Remembering my fourteenth birthday makes me realize that my maternal grandmother has hardly been included in my memories so far, in spite of the fact that she lived with us. Bonne Maman was there on that horrible day, I know that, no doubt muttering and shaking her white-haired head while the fracas was happening, but I don't see her, and I wonder why. Does it have to do with the quasi-permanent silence imposed on her by my father as a condition for her lodging? I have another theory: it is easier for me to talk about my parents whom I associate with so few happy moments, than to summon up the vision of my grandmother, whose ever-forgiving smile I miss and who left a gaping void in me when she passed away. Bonne Maman Morel's house near Lille had burned down several years before. One of the candles surrounding the coffin in which her dead husband lay had set fire to the curtains while she was keeping a dozing vigil. Awakened by the smoke, she had found herself surrounded by flames and had had to make a dash for the door, without having the time to bid farewell to "Monsieur Morel," as she called her departed husband. She was also deeply remorseful for having accidentally incinerated him against his oft-stated wish to be buried in the family plot.
Delerive Homeless and deeply perturbed, Bonne Maman had found a temporary refuge with my parents. The arrival of a check from the insurance company had prompted my father to make an offer he too often qualified as honest to be trusted: he would invest and manage his mother-in-law's money in exchange for permanent housing in the quickly-renamed servant's room above our apartment. It officially became a guest room. For this lavish accommodation and food he would only charge a modest contribution. Alone in the world and aimless, Bonne Maman had agreed, a decision she often bitterly regretted. She didn't have the energy to reopen the debate, though. Through some genetic mystery, Bonne Maman Morel whose squat figureshe was nearly as wide as she was tallevoked a barrel, had given birth to a slim woman who grew up to be at least a foot and a half taller than her mother. My father's subtle explanation had to do with a local mailman. I loved it when Bonne Maman hugged me and held me tight. There was no fault line between her voluminous stomach and her bosom and I liked to kiss the top of her head where the pale pink skin showed under her thin white hair. I can still see her wink at me when a storm was brewing, and I remember the pearls of wisdom she dispensed as a commentary on life's events when my father wasn't home to silence her. She had a way with the French language, and served its words with little regard for their official meaning. "I know what I mean," she would say whenever her daughter corrected her. Yes, of course, she was there that day. I see her now, her chin shaking as it always did in times of great emotion. I can hear her mutter, "Eh bah, eh bah!" an
Delerive expression of hers, used in relation to all kinds of unsettling facts in her life, chief among them the minimal amount of her civil servant's pension. I remember now: I sneaked out of the apartment through the kitchen door and climbed up the service staircase. Its wooden steps were carved in the center and polished like the pebbles of the beaches in Brittany. Bonne Maman cleaned my chocolate-filled ears and washed my hair in a tin basin. She asked me if my parents were aware that I was visiting her, but shrugged before I had time to answer. "Don't worry Victor. What else can they do to us?" Later, she pulled a metal suitcase from under her bed. In it was an old-fashioned iron biscuit can, which in turn contained a steel deed box. Triple protection. "When fire has struck once, it can strike again," she explained. "Just like the Germans!" The deed box contained various personal papers and artifacts rescued from the fire. Among them was my grandfather's old steel fob watch. "It stopped when Monsieur Morel had his accident at the factory," Bonne Maman explained. "It was in my apron pocket when the fire happened." On the back of the watch, Leon Morel's name was engraved above solemn words recognizing twenty-five years of diligent service with the Filatures Réunies. "I want you to have it," my grandmother said. "It doesn't work anymore, but it's dead accurate twice a day. That's more than you can say about those expensive watches." All these years, I have kept the precious present. Today, it lies on the table in the living room, next to the pen, wallet, and money clip that I will soon put into my pockets.
Household expenses always provided my parents with a fighting ground. To my mother, her husband was a tightwad, a cheapskate. He called himself "responsible.´ As stormy as these confrontations were, I suspect my mother to have actually taken pleasure in them; they gave her a sense of identity that "the head of the family" denied her. Whenever such conflicts eruptedan acid remark, a sarcasm, a bill thrown across the dinner tablea morbid fascination inhabited me, in spite of the high danger of a stray bullet. These exchanges followed a three-act structure. After the opening salvo, the casus belli was quickly forgotten and old, bitter resentments were voiced, the if-onlyI-had-known, the to-think-I married-you, and some allusions to a nut house which I didn't understand at the time, before moving on to the final act. Then my father would proclaim himself the voice of reason, call the situation to order, urge everyone to cool down and, above all, insist on having the last word. Having once been the unexpected beneficiary of one of these bouts, I still have a precise recollection of it. The mid-winter school break had come to an end. After a few days of boredom, I had gone back to St. Jean-Baptiste, where my position at the bottom of the class remained unchallenged. At home, silence had become my second nature and my mother's attacks had lost their virulence. Her son, the disappointment of her life, would soon be sent away, and only the memory of a failure would remain. 48
Delerive One evening however, a game-changing incident occurred, without warning. "Did you see this?" my father asked, pushing a telephone bill across the table. The falsely bland tone immediately put my mother on the defensive. "Of course not. You know very well that I don't look at these things." "I can see why. If you did, you'd see how much your mindless chatter is costing us." "My mindless chatter? As if I was the only one here who uses the phone." "If you're talking about Lucie, please leave my daughter out of this. When she calls her friends, it's for her studies; I call it an investment. Besides, she tells me she rarely uses the phone." My mother's voice became strident. "So, it's my word against your daughter's; is that what it is?" "I know how she was raised. Her poor mother had principles, spending wisely was one of them." "Whereas I throw money out the window; is that it?" "Your words, not mine. I'll let you be responsible for them." "That's what you do best, letting me be responsible. Monsieur is an important man, Monsieur doesn't have time for details. And who ends up doing the chores, huh?" "What chores? Last time I checked you had help. Do you know how much Janine costs me every week? Do you have the slightest idea? And I'm not even counting the room I must rent for her across the street because your mother occupies the guest room."
Delerive "Eh bah, eh bah!" my grandmother muttered on my left. My mother went back on the attack. "And who has to deal with Victor's education? You think raising him is easy? He makes my life hell, anyone can see that, but you don't care, do you? I can't wait for him to leave for boarding school." I was shrinking in my chair, but it was time for my father to open the final act. "Can we have a reasonable discussion?" he asked in the deep tone he favored for that role, "Between adults?" "I'd like nothing better." "This boarding school thing; I jotted down some numbers. Sure, if his marks remain so poor, he'll leave us no choice, but it might be wise to try a new avenue." "Such as?" "Private tutoring. Micheline, my secretary, knows someone, her aunt actually. She is a retired math teacher, but could also deal with the other disciplines. And she lives less than fifteen minutes from here. Very convenient. But, of course, she wants to meet Victor before agreeing to anything." "Hadn't we made a decision?" "I haven't changed my mind. If he fails his year-end exam «" "I thought you were concerned about expenses. Would this woman tutor Victor for free?" My father folded his newspaper and rose. "Sometimes it is wise to spend some money in order to avoid larger expenditures down the road. I will have my coffee in my study."
Delerive My mother's cheeks were bright red. She drilled her glare into me. "I wouldn't rejoice now if I were you, Victor. It's much too early, trust me." *** The Residence Ranelagh, where Madame Laquaire lived, was different from all the other buildings in our neighborhood, the 16th arrondissement. It was a tall, block-like modern structure composed of four buildings, each facing one side of a rectangular basin. To reach the central patio, one had to go down a long corridor where a door marked "Concierge" faced a battery of mailboxes and an interphone. A lace curtain hung over the window occupying the center of the door. Having spotted Madame Laquaire's name, I rang several times. No answer. I then knocked at the concierge's door. A finger lifted a corner of the curtain, then the door opened a few inches and I saw a woman's face, an ebony-black face with huge dark eyes. "I'm looking for Madame Laquaire," I said. The woman examined me for a moment without answering. I watched her in fascination, detailing her full lips and wide nostrils, her dark skin shiny like satin, her high forehead. "Are you the boy she expected at 6?" the woman finally asked. I found her stare intimidating, but I liked her warm voice and her accent, the way she flattened her R's. "Yes, Ma¶am," I said. "She had to leave. She went to the dentist. Last time she went, she didn't feel too well afterwards, so my son went with her. She shouldn't be long."
Delerive I hesitated, looking around, somewhat lost in this foreign universe, but she opened the door wide. "Come in," she said. "There's a cold draft in this corridor." I then saw that she was wearing a flamingo-pink robe, which she kept firmly closed in front of her. She had on a pair of red slippers. "Nora was about to dress," she said. "Nora doesn't like keeping her work clothes on after the cleaning's done." It took me a while to realize that she was talking about herself. A dresser, a dining table and four chairsa set obviously, same fauxScandinavian styleoccupied much of the space in the small room. A wide window opened onto the street. A black sofa, made of some sort of shiny-looking material, was covered with heaps of women's magazines. It sat in front of a TV set, on top of which framed photographs were lined up: a smiling black kidmy own age, it seemed to mea mustachioed police officer holding his képi against his chest, and a group of black women of all ages in front of a Christmas tree. "You sit down here," the woman said. "Nora only needs a minute." I watched her as she pushed the magazines aside. She was Mireille's age, I decided. Tall, at least my father's height, she exuded a voluptuous nonchalance. Her gestures were controlled and she seemed to be moving in slow motion. She looked like the African women in my geography manual, women who walked miles and miles across arid plains with a basket balanced on their heads, huge rings hanging from their ears, bare-breasted and regal. "What's your name?" she asked.
Delerive "Victor." "That's a nice name. Me, I'm Nora." It sounded like Noha to me. She was about to leave the room when she noticed a gift-wrapped package on the dresser. "Good Lord," she said, "We don't want my Roland to see this. It's the present my Jacky bought for his dad's birthday." The package quickly disappeared in a drawer. My eyes followed Nora as she walked down a narrow corridor and walked into what I assumed was the bathroom. She didn't close the door properly, however, and it swung open slowly. A mirror covered the inside of the door, and I saw Nora as she took off her robe. It was just a glimpse, and the vision of the black body dressed only in tiny white panties lasted only a couple of seconds before she turned around and saw me. I thought I saw her amused smile as she closed the door, leaving me gasping with emotion. I was going to relive that moment over and over; I already knew it. The tip of a golden ribbon was visible from the drawer where Nora had hidden the gift-wrapped package. My mother had told me a story oncehow old was I then, eight, nine?It was the sad story of a little boy. His name was Petit Louis and his was a poor family. He had no toys; he wasn't spoiled like a certain Victor. But Petit Louis loved his father and mother, and unlike Victor, acknowledged the sacrifices that parents make for their children. So much so that one day he decided to buy a present for his father's next birthday, even though he was so very poor. The birthday was still months away and he had no money, so how was he going to do it?
Delerive Well, Petit Louis offered his services around the neighborhood. Up before sunrise, he performed all sorts of chores. And when he came back from the local public schoolunlike Victor, Petit Louis wasn't lucky enough to attend a good Catholic schoolhe ate a piece of stale bread without jam or butter and ran errands for the neighbors. Finally, one day, Petit Louis had enough money to buy his father a present. For months, he had seen a beautiful razor, with a chromed handle and a shaving brush in the pharmacy window. So, one evening, he proudly brought home the gift-wrapped package, which he hid under his bed until the big day. Petit Louis' mother had made sacrifices, too, but isn't that what mothers do even if no one ever shows them the least gratitude? She prepared a special meal for the celebration, thanks to the money she had saved by not buying anything for herself for months. She needed a new dress, but no, mothers don't think about themselves. The birthday dinner was a success, and the time came for Petit Louis to go and fetch his present. Needless to say, his father was surprised. Petit Louis watched his dad with his big blue eyes as he untied the ribbon, opened the box and took out the beautiful razor. And do you know what he said, Victor? What did the father say to Petit Louis?" "I don't know Maman." "He said, ³You're so stupid, Louis. Don't you know I decided to grow a beard?" This story had broken my heart when I heard it and I had burst into tears. Finding my reaction amusing, my mother told the family at the dinner table. To her
Delerive surprise, as she once again recounted the father's ugly response, I cried again. I could see the scene and shared the little boy's heartbreak. I was Petit Louis. Delighted to have found a new weapon, a dagger she could plunge into my heart, my mother soon learned to use it. Whenever she had guests for tea in the afternoon and I would come home from school, she would stop me from tiptoeing to my room and call me: "Victor! Victor come and say hello, please." I had to pay my respects and flash a bland smile as the ladies marveled at how quickly I was growing up. I would then try to sneak out, but my mother always ordered me to take a seat: "Don't tell me you don't have five minutes to spare from your studies, Victor. Learn to be polite, will you? Sit down and have a cookie. Madame Leonard baked them especially for us." I was trapped, and the stage was set for my mother's new game. "Oh! I have to tell you a story I just heard," she would say. "A sad story." Unable to escape, I had to endure once again Petit Louis' disappointment. Since I knew the tale by heart, I tried to think of other things, anything at all, or make my heart deaf, but I never succeeded. As the father opened the box and discovered the razor, I wanted to protect Petit Louis. Even better, I wanted to make a smile appear on his dad's face. I wanted the father to open his arms, hug his son and smother him with kisses, exclaiming, "How did you guess, Petit Louis, that I wanted this beautiful razor? Never in my life has anyone given me a more beautiful present." But, of course, there were no kisses and Petit Louis left the room in tears. As for me, I was furious to have once again been caught in my mother's snare. I hated her as I tried to hide my face and stared at the floor.
Delerive Yes, I hated her as she faked concern and asked, "What's the matter, Victor? Don't tell me you're crying. You are not a little girl, are you? Look at me. Look at me, I said." And then she would turn to her friends and say, "I don't believe this. He's really crying. Isn't this ridiculous? Go to your room Victor, you're embarrassing me." I would gladly have seen her dead then. More than forty years later, I still feel sorry for Petit Louis. I stopped crying a long time ago, but I'd like to have a word with his asshole of a father. *** Madame Laquaire appeared at the arm of a boy I easily recognized. A rather stocky fourteen-year old, Jacky didn't possess his mother's regal elegance; he didn't have her long legs. But his face was delicate and his ears, little and perfectly shaped, were at once the object of my envy. He had the same mischievous smile as in his picture. His skin was markedly less dark than his mother's. For some reason, I had created an imposing and terrifying image of Madame Laquaire, and wasn't expecting a tiny white mouse of a woman. Barely taller than Bonne Maman, but with one third of my grandmother's weight, one could easily imagine her being blown away by a gust of wind. Her gray hair was tied in a bun, and her pale complexion set off her piercing black eyes. She kept a small hand on her swollen cheek. "Don't stare at me like this," she told me. "I look like a sick rabbit. A wisdom tooth at my age, can you believe it?"
Delerive Thanks to Madame Laquaire's misfortune, I avoided the dreaded preliminary test, and she only confirmed that she would see me every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after school. She promised to contact St. Jean-Baptiste to make sure I wasn't kept in on these days, since, for the last few months, I had been a regular in detention. "Then you have time to come with me," said Jacky, waving the shopping list his mother had just handed to him. We had met only a few minutes ago and yet he spoke as if we were long-time pals. I knew at once that I would be more comfortable with him than with any of my St. Jean-Baptiste companions. As we walked to the local Felix Potin mini-market, I was impressed by Jacky's maturity. He had a fascinating personality. In retrospect, I think the combination of child and adult in that fourteen-year-old boy appealed to me enormously. I wanted to be his friend. When he laughed about a joke, a prank, or just a ray of sunlight, his face was all lines, and his otherwise big, wide eyes, became just slits, but he could be serious, too, and his view of the world was that of a mature man. We were walking by a taxi that had just stopped at the curb when a man stepped out. He was elegantly dressed and his dark hair had streaks of gray around the temples. He was also crimson-red with rage. A young woman inside the taxi was trying to hold him back, but he pushed her away violently. Having finally set himself free of her hand, he prepared to slam the door, but paused to scream, "And you're nothing but a whore!" Then he quickly walked away. "Did you see that?" I exclaimed. "Did you hear?"
Delerive Jacky nodded. "What's a mystery to me," he said, "is how a woman would want to stay with such a prick." I wasn't used to asking myself such questions I was following Jacky from aisle to aisle in the mini-market, when I saw him stop in front of a display of small sample-size bottles of liquorGrand Marnier, Cointreau, Chartreuse, Bénédictineand look around, obviously making sure that nobody was looking, then grab a small bottle and slip it swiftly into his pocket. He acted with confidence and determination, as if it was a well-rehearsed routine. "You do that often?" I asked, once we had returned to the safety of the street. He shrugged his shoulders and winked. "My stepfather would kill me if he knew, but I figure it's all right, because it's not for me." "For your mother?" "For Madame Laquaire. I tell her they're free. Advertising, you know. She likes the stuff, believe me." Apart from our ages, Jacky and I had little in common. The color of our skin, our tastesmine for the movies and soccer, his for automobilesour place on the map of society, our natureshe was as self-assured as I was shyour ambitionshe wanted to be the first black man to win the Twenty-Four Hours of Le Mans, while I had no idea of what life had in store for me. Almost everything made us different, but we became fast friends in a matter of minutes. I soon granted him precedence over me, for I was aware that he already had a foot in adulthood. I also envied his assurance when it came to women. He was neither crude nor spiteful, nor even hateful of girls like some of my comrades. Neither was he
Delerive feverishly obsessed like me. He just liked women, wanted their company in the healthiest of ways, and they felt it, so they smiled at him. Just as I had skipped a grade four years ago, Jacky seemed to have skipped puberty. Me, I felt like I would be staying down. From that first day on, I never had any problems confiding in Jacky. In less than one hour, he knew more about me than any of my schoolmates, or even Father Minot. "Isn't it hard to be a mute at home?" he asked. "Don't you ever want to talk to your mom?" "Sure, I do, but it's war." He stopped and handed me the shopping bag. "Carry this a while; it's your turn," he said, and then added: "If you ask me, you're not playing it right." "Why?" "As long as you act like this, your mother knows you're hurting. That way she wins, don't you see? Me, I'd play it differently." "Tell me." "Smile. Laugh. Even if you don't feel like it. Be normal again. Yes, Maman, no, Maman, thanks Maman. Just like I do when Roland's after me. In my mind, I say to myself, µlet it pass, it doesn't matter one shit. After all, he's not even my real dad.¶ And so, I give him a big smile. It really drives him nuts. You should give it a try." When my mother opened the door that evening, I surprised her with a resounding "Bonsoir Maman!" She looked bewildered. Jacky had been right.
Madame Laquaire's small apartment was a mess; books, folders and boxes of various sizes and colors were piled high in every available space. One of the first rules she laid out for me was to never, repeat, never, under any circumstances, touch any of what she called her archives, lest she never be able to find anything again. To free up a chair for me, she moved a couple of atlases to the top of an already dangerously high pile. The old woman was a serious smoker. She carefully cut her sweet-smelling Turkish cigarettes in two before inserting one half into a cigarette holder. It was goldplated and had belonged to her late husband. She often broke into fits of coughing, which she used as a cautionary message on the danger of bad habits. "You don't want to become like me, so stay away from those things." As tiny, sweet and seemingly defenseless as she was, Madame Laquaire was capable of anger. Whenever her neighbor played his record player too loudly, she would bang against the wall with the handle of a broken broom, which she apparently kept for that purpose. She would shout, "Show some respect to those who work, you lazy worm!" and then come back to the table as if nothing had happened. Madame Laquaire quickly found her way into my life. As I laid out manuals and copybooks on the purple felt that covered her dining room table, she chatted about
Delerive this and that, evoking her years as a high-school math teacher in Aix en Provence, and gently gained a place in my heart. She had just told me how her mother, an uneducated farm worker, had taken courses by mail in order to help her with her homework, when she asked in the sing song accent of her native south, "And what about your mother, Victor? I'm told she has a strong personality." I shrugged my shoulders. "Yeah. Sort of." She smiled and tapped the back of my hand. "You'll think me a nosy old woman, but I have to understand you in order to help you. When one plummets suddenly to the bottom of the class, there's always a reason." Later, as I was glumly staring at an allegedly simple equation, while she boiled water on her stove in the tiny kitchen, she asked, "Do you at least know why you don't want to work in school?" I didn't know what to say. I watched her stand on the tip of her toes as she reached for a can of tea. Her profile was visible to me in the part of a mirror that wasn't covered with postcards and I saw her take a quick sip from a bottle. I wondered if that was one of Jacky's. "One doesn't become stupid overnight, I know that much," she added, turning around. "You've built thick high walls and a moat around your castle. You'll have to lower the drawbridge for me, you know." I watched in wonder as she poured tea from a kettle high in the air. "Chinese style," she joked. Her hand shook badlyonly years later would I learn the real
Delerive reasonand yet not one drop fell outside of the cups. It almost looked like a circus act. She offered me a cookie and chuckled: "In fact, it's just as well that your marks are so bad." "Just as well?" Her mischievous smile, and the way she wrinkled her nose, made her look like Jerry, the mouse of the cartoons. "Sure! Nobody expects you to make a come back. Wait until you see their faces after the exams." She really seemed to believe. Something was telling me that this mouse could move mountains. When she offered me her cheek on her doorstep, I took in the sweet scent that I came to recognize as a combination of powder, Turkish tobacco, and liquor and went home with the vague intuition that she might indeed, in some way, change my life. Madame Laquaire scored again a few days later. "I hear you get along well with Jacky," she said. "Yes, Madame, he's great." "He's not doing too well in school, either. What would you say if we worked together, the three of us? Would you like that?" "Oh, yes, Madame!" "The thing is, his parents cannot afford my services. So we would have to keep it a secret, and not tell your parents, if you see what I mean. Could you keep your mouth shut?"
Delerive It didn't take any more than that for me to lower the drawbridge. *** I was playing a game of ball in the courtyard during recess one morning when I slipped in a pool of water and fell, head-first, onto the hard concrete ground and nearly passed out. An assistant teacher helped me back on my feet. Stars were dancing in front of my eyes and blood was dripping on my shirt. "Can you walk?" asked a voice. "I'm taking you to the infirmary." An hour later, a bespectacled young man took me home in a taxi. He kept asking me how I felt. Poor thing, he had no idea of the reception awaiting him. When she opened the door, my mother took a step back, her eyes wild, and put a hand over her mouth. With the deep moan of a wounded beast, she groped for the wall and leaned against it for a brief moment. I was almost as surprised by this dramatic display as my companion. Sure there were bandages on my nose and brow, my right eye was swollen shut, and my cheek was scraped, but my life wasn't in danger. I even had the cocky smile of the warrior returning from battle. My mother's face went in an instant from chalk white to crimson red. "My God," she exclaimed, "What have you done to my son this time?" The young mana kid, I realize this todaywas too taken aback to analyze the strange accusation. All he could do was to retreat while stuttering, "It was an accident, Madame. Nothing serious." "Nothing serious! Nothing serious! How irresponsible of you! Look at the condition he's in. Who did this to him? I demand a name." "Nobody Madame. He just fell."
Delerive "If you expect this case to be closed like this, you're deluding yourself, young man. I never expected a religious institution to treat my son in such an appalling manner. Get the hell out of my home now. The principal will hear from me." And on that note, she pushed the bewildered young man out and slammed the door shut before taking me in her arms. "You are hurt, my lambkin. Maman will take care of you." The following hours registered in my memory as the happiest of my entire childhood. Suddenly, my mother was all sweetness. I was the center of her universe. She lavished kisses, cuddles and caresses on me, all the while issuing orders: "Janine, drop whatever you're doing and go to the butcher's shop right away. No, not in five minutes, I said immediately. I want a big juicy steak. Very thick. With all the blood he lost « And you, Mother, take some chocolate from my cupboard, here's the key, and make a mousse « Janine, before you leave, bring me a couple of pillows over here, my little boy will rest on the sofa, next to his maman." Summoned by my mother, Dr. Lorillard made a grave mistake. When he smiled and had the audacity to declare that "this little thing" was "nothing serious," it was clear that he was no longer our family doctor. And there was the situation with my father. When his secretary failed to reach him on the road, he was accused of never being present when needed. "You could have died, my darling lambkin, but your father is driving around. One wonders if he'd come back for the funeral." I laughed and was surprised to see my mother join me. "I know, I know," she said, giggling like a little girl.
Delerive Feeling emboldened by such an outpour of motherly love, I attempted to defuse the drama, saying, "You know, Maman, it's nobody's fault. I slipped. She drilled a suspicious stare into me. "Are you sure it's not one of those thugs again? I'm ready to pay a visit to their parents, you know." As I was shaking my head with conviction, she added, "You can't understand, lambkin; a mother is like a lioness. You'd better not touch a single hair of her cub." I was much too busy savoring this orgy of love to wonder about the incongruity of it all. As if by miracle, our dark history no longer mattered. It was all forgotten, erased from my memory. "I'm all right, you know Maman." "I still want a word with the Principal." "Let it pass, Maman, it doesn't matter one shit!´ She looked at me with utter stupefaction. ³And where did you learn that one?" Caution prevented me from mentioning Jacky. That evening, after dinner in bed, I got up and joined my mother in the kitchen. She had been following a new diet lately on the advice of one of her magazinesMarie-France, I supposeand prepared her breakfast every evening for the following morning, a mixture of Bulgarian yogurt and some miracle powder in a silver packet. "Why are you up?" she asked. "I just wanted to be with you, Maman."
Delerive As she raised her hand I prepared to step back, but saw in her eyes that I had nothing to fear, she just wanted to touch my forehead. "At least you don't have fever," she said. I felt the moment was right and said, "I'd like to ask you something." "Go ahead." "I'd like to invite a friend to dinner one day." "Of course, my lambkin. Who's he?" "My best friend. His name's Jacky." "As soon as you get better." I went to bed with a smile on my face. The following morning however, everything was back to normal. "Did you see the time?" my mother barked, in lieu of a good morning. "Don't you think that you can lounge here another day." *** My mother had said yes, and I wasn't going to let her forget. I had this irrational desire to introduce my best friend, the only real friend I had ever had, to my parents. Had I thought one minute about it, I would have seen that I was courting disaster, but I had this need deep inside me. So one evening, I invited Jacky to dinner after our joint algebra lesson with Madame Laquaire. As soon as my mother opened the door, I realized how misguided I had been. Even though Jacky was dressed in a clean pair of jeans and a crisply ironed shortsleeve shirt, he didn't look like any of my St. Jean-Baptiste schoolmates. The shocked
Delerive expression on my mother's face said it all, but she thought it justified to add a commentary. "Speak of a surprise!" she muttered. I had forgotten to mention my friend's skin color. "Would you like a glass of milk, some juice? Or something else maybe. I don't know what you « I mean you people « drink," was the opening salvo delivered in the guise of hospitality. After my mother had brought two glasses of lemonade and helped herself to a glass of "iced tea" which owed more to Johnny Walker than Lipton, she launched herself into a series of questions. Her smile could be misleading, but I recognized the lines around her mouth, the flashes in her eyes; she was sharpening her claws. "Where are you from, young man? I mean, in what country were you born?" "Right here in Paris, Madame. Near La Bastille, in the 11th arrondissement." "How interesting. Where did your parents come from, then?" "From Bordeaux, Madame." Jacky was the epitome of poise. He looked my mother right in the eyes, but without a trace of arrogance. From her rising voice and the increasingly staccato delivery, I knew too well how Jacky's calm was driving my mother crazy. "And what does your father do?" "He's a police officer, Madame." "And your mother?" "She's our building caretaker, Madame."
Delerive My mother rose, the smile on her lips contrasting with her mean stare. A cigarette in hand, she walked around Jacky's armchair. She acted as the friendly hostess, but I could see a beast of prey. "I presume you are good at sports," she said. "Aren't you all?" "Not really Madame. I'm sure Victor is much better than me." "Really! And what do you intend to do after school? Assuming you intend to finish school, of course." Her tone of voice, her smile and choice of words were making a clear statement: Jacky and I weren't destined to the same future. Although she despised and berated me all the time, she seemed to entertain dreams of greatness for her son, a never explained paradox. My father's arrival marked the end of that round. Personally, I awarded Jacky the victory. When my mother went to open the door, my friend winked at me. Don't you worry, his smile was saying, I expected this. I'm cool. I rose. Not to kiss my father, for he disliked that sort of sappy behaviorhis wordsin front of strangers, but to take Jacky to my room, when I saw my mother offer him her hand. Her smile was wider than ever. "Well, young man," she said, "thank you for coming. It was « interesting meeting you." Voiceless for a moment, I finally stammered, "But « but « Maman." "What is it this time?" "But « we just came in. You had said «" "Said what? You know very well that your father had a long and hard day at work and it's time to have dinner. I'm sure your « friend doesn't want to be late."
Delerive "But his mother isn't expecting him. You had promised « the dinner «" "Oh! Please, Victor. You're a fine one to talk promises. How many times did you promise not to disappoint us anymore?" "But I « I told Jacky «" "Told him what? That you had to do your homework, I hope." All the while, she had her hand on Jacky's back and pushed him toward the door. I turned to my father who seemed to be enjoying the spectacle. "But Papa « Maman had said «" In a tone of voice that allowed no challenge, the verdict was issued: "It's not what your mother might have said, or what you think she said that counts, it's what she's saying now." It was over. I had to witness Jacky's departure. Through the fog that covered my eyes, I could see that the insult had finally gotten to him. His chin was quivering. Overwhelmed by rage, I rushed toward the door, determined to push my mother aside, but a violent slap in the face stopped me. "What are you trying to do now? Hit your mother? That would be just like you." I didn't have dinner that night. Instead I went straight to my room, ignoring my mother's pleas to "sit down and talk about it." Still, giving up wasn't in her nature. She entered my room a couple of hours later as I was lying in bed, trying to ignore my starved stomach. My face against the wall, I pretended to be asleep. She switched on the bedside lamp. "Are you awake?" she asked, sitting down on the edge of my bed.
Delerive I remained silent, but she shook my shoulder. "I know you're up. We have to talk." In a deceitfully soft tone of voice, she went on. "I know that you don't recognize our effortsyour father's and mine. You don't understand that we only have your well-being and future at heart. One day, you'll regret not having loved us back while we were still alive, and it will be too late. But that's all right, it's just your ungrateful nature; there's nothing we can do about it. Are you listening to me, at least, Victor?" I turned around: "You had promised that Jacky would have dinner with us." "That's true. I did promise, but I had no way of knowing." "Not knowing what?" "Must I explain? I'm not even alluding to the fact that his mother is a caretaker. We are above such considerations. No, it's more serious than that. Your father and I know too well what's going to happen. We invite this boy, and then his mother will feel obligated to invite you back. He'll introduce you to other « like him. Don't get me wrong Victor, I have nothing against these people, but we're not alike. Everybody can see that. We have nothing to gain by socializing. It wouldn't be good for them either, let's face it. And you, weak as you are, you'll get involved with them. Who knows, they might even throw one of their girls at you. Very likely in fact. And then? You want to find yourself one day married to a black woman? Do you think your father and I are making all these sacrifices to have grand children looking like Aunt Jemima's kids? You are not to see this boy again. That's an order. We're not alike, I'm telling you. Look at yourself, you're sleeping in sheets, not on the ground under banana trees."
Delerive I don't know what mechanism of survival made me sit up and burst out laughing. I'm not even sure that I realized the full ludicrous obscenity of my mother's tirade, but what could I do? Cry again? A first slap in the face didn't make me stop. Nor did the next one or the one that followed. The more my mother hit me, the more I was shaken by laughter. I knew I was going to collapse at any moment, cry uncle, or, at the very least, raise an arm to shield my face, but I had reached a quasi-hypnotic state, and it was finally my mother who threw in the towel. "Little bastard," she screamed before running out of my room and slamming the door shut. I could hear her burst into sobs and bang the walls of the corridor with her fists.
I only remember one moment of intimacy with my half-sister, but it did leave a mark on me. How often since that day have I heard our dialogue again, carefully weighing every word? The years haven't altered the recording. I had left my pen and pencil wallet at St. Jean-Baptiste that day. I tiptoed into Lucie's roomI could hear her voice on the telephone in the living roomand climbed onto a stool to reach for the box in which she kept a stock of pencils, erasers, markers and the like. It was perched on top of the book-laden shelves. Clumsy as I was, I lost my balance. A heavy dictionary crashed on the bowl in which Séraphin and Amélie, Lucie's beloved goldfish, were leading a hitherto quiet life. The poor souls were sent flying onto the carpet, the notebooks and sheets of paper spread on my sister's desk were drenched and the bowl itself exploded on the floor. Lucie appeared immediately. For a brief second, she remained at the door, her eyes wide, a hand over her mouth. Then she recovered enough to slap me across the face. "Little moron. Look at what you've done!" Never before had Lucie laid a hand on me. To her, I simply didn't exist. My cheek burnt like hell and I could feel tears swell in my eyes. "You can't hit me," I protested. "I will tell Maman."
Delerive "Go ahead. Go and rat on me. She'll give you another one of these and say I was right." "You cannot hit me. She's the only one who can." Lucie was on all fours, picking up Séraphin and Amélie, which she slid into the carafe of water on her bedside table. Then she threw a towel on her notebooks. "I don't believe this. You're really an asshole." But I wasn't finished. "You're not even her daughter," I insisted, "while me, I'm her only son, so «" Her back turned to me, Lucie shrugged her shoulders. "I don't see what it has to do with this mess. And it's only half true anyway." "Oh! I'm not her son, maybe?" "Yes, but you're not the only one." "What did you say? You're just making that up." Lucie, turned around slowly, suddenly embarrassed. "Yeah, you're right. I am mad at you, so I just made it up. Forget what I said." But it was too late. Suddenly, I didn't care about the disaster or my sister's anger. She was hiding something from me, I knew it in my guts. "Please tell me," I begged. "It's history now. I shouldn't have said that." She hesitated a moment, moved by my imploring eyes, then sighed. "After all, you're old enough to know. Secrets are like poison. Besides, the fact that she had another son is not a crime, is it?" "Another son? Where is he?"
Delerive "It's history I told you. He died one week after he was born." And that was how, seated on the wet carpet amid shards of glass, I learned that my mother had almost married a painter, the father of the child in question. Suddenly, mysterious words exchanged between my parents were beginning to take a meaning. "A painter. You mean an artist?" Lucie smiled. "Not a house painter, that's for sure. You know Maman." I wasn't so sure anymore. "His name, the painter, I mean, was Gabriel, and he was as handsome as a Greek god. Maman showed me a picture. She was crazy about him. He was married, but had filed for divorce. Maman was seven and a half months pregnant when « "Not with me?" "Of course not, why aren't you listening? With another baby boy. She was six weeks away from her due date when Gabriel finally got his divorce, but instead of marrying Maman, he took off with another woman, an Italian model." "What about Maman?" "Well, you can imagine « or maybe not, you're too young. It was a tragedy, believe me. She tried to kill herself, but failed. The baby was born prematurely and didn't live long. Drama again. She spent weeks in a psychiatric hospital. Now you know everything. You see, it has nothing to do with you. No big deal." Well yes, it was a big deal. In a troubling manner, my already uncertain identity and ill-defined place in our universe were once again under question. "Why didn't anybody tell me?"
Delerive "Because it was before you were born. And anyway, Papa fixed everything." "How?" Act three. My father was an army buddy of the painter in question. He had lost his wife two years before, was raising his little girl by himself and was secretly in love with my mother. So when his pal Gabriel took off with the Italian model, he wasted no time and offered his services. It was Papa who found Maman with her head in the oven and took her to the hospital. Several months after the baby's death, the failed suicide, and the hospital, he married her. "She loved Papa, then," I said, seeking reassurance. For some reason it was important to me. I wanted my parents to love each other. "Not really, if you want to know. She liked him, and she was grateful, but that's not the same thing. Besides, she wasn't over Gabriel. But she needed someone and owed him, big time. So when he proposed «" "How do you know all this?" "She told me. Between women, you know. Maybe the fact that I'm not really her daughter, she feels more free to « What's the matter with you now? You're not going to cry, are you?" Why was I suddenly so sad? Because my mother had been so miserable that she had wanted to die? Because I was only number two now, a replacement in a way? God knows, I had few reasons to cling to a status which had brought me so little happiness, but still « Suddenly, in a very confused and vague manner, the faint hope that everything one day would be fine between us had vanished like a flickering flame in a draft.
Delerive Lucie must have understood, for she helped me get up and sat me down on her bed next to her teddy bear. For the first and last time, she took me in her arms. "I'm sorry for the slap," she said. "You're a moron and a nuisance, but I shouldn't have done it." "Is that why she drinks too much sometimes?" I asked. "Maybe. How would I know? It's in her genes, too. Her father was an alcoholic, and a serious one, believe me." "Her father! You mean Bon Papa?" "Of course. Who else?" "I don't remember him." "You were two when he died." "He drank a lot?" "I'm telling you. That's how he had his accident at the factory. He was so drunk, he left his hand in the machine." Bonne Maman had showed me the picture of their wedding. A tall, wiry man, Bon Papa was imposing, with his handlebar mustache and bushy eyebrows. They looked funny on the steps of the church. The groom was more than one foot taller than his bride. "I wish I had known him," I said. "You didn't miss much, believe me. When he was loaded, he'd beat his wife with his belt. And his daughter, too." "Maman?" "Of course, Maman."
Delerive It was a lot for a single day. My world had been destroyed, and I was feeling lost in the midst of the rubble. I made a feeble attempt at salvaging some of the foundations. "But Bonne Maman always says they were so happy." "I know. She's reinvented her past. I'm sure she believes it now. The truth is, the man was a mean bastard." "So he really beat Maman up when she was little? "I'm telling you. He did even worse." "Like what?" Lucie hesitated, then shook her head. "No, that I can't tell you. You're really too young. If Maman knew that I had told you all that, she'd rip my head off." "Tell me. I swear she'll never know." But Lucie didn't budge. "One day, you'll understand everything," was all she would say. Yes of course, years later, I learned and understood everything. I can't say it made me feel better, though. *** Once a month, I was called to God's service. Up at five thirty in the morning, I rang the bell of St. Jean-Baptiste at six fifteen. Once Jules, the hunchback janitor, had opened the heavy front door, I crossed the deserted courtyard, reached the little ivycovered chapel and entered the vestry. Father Minot would welcome me with a nod. There was total silence at this hour. I would put on the red vestment and the white
Delerive surplice that hung in the closet next to the piles of missals, then make sure that the cruets were filled and the wafers ready on the golden paten. I moved about noiselessly and watched Father Minot as he put on his chasuble and kissed his ornaments, all the while reading the big book of gospel that lay on a lectern made of carved oak. Father Minot's lips moved silently. A pungent smell filled the little room, a sugary combination of incense and mould. Together with the silence, this odor created a sacred space isolated from the rest of the world. I was transported. Neither the bad mood of the early morning rise, nor the interdiction to eat breakfast before communion, or the cold, the wind and winter rain mattered anymore. I was a privileged participant in a mysterious and intimidating rite. I was part of God's secret society. I could feel how He was watching me. "Did you sin since your last confession?" Father Minot would ask, and I'd shake my head with total conviction. The obscene tsunami that broke loose day after day in my imagination, the images and fantasies that set my mind, my sex afire, the pleasure that I was too weak to deny myself, the whole subject was simply too vast, and defied description. Since God had his eye on me, He had to know. On this issue, He and I dealt without intermediaries. "Are you sure?" he insisted. "No impure thoughts?" I didn't budge and left him deal with his frustration. "No mortal sin?" The catechism classes had made quite an impression on me as a young child. Father Mesnardin believed in the virtues of terror on our tender souls. The eternal suffering, the unimaginable pain "far worse than the most horrible torture or death",
Delerive the charred bodies of the sinners thrown into the flames, the screams, all that was too much for me and I had spent many a sleepless night. "Why are these sins called mortal, Father?" "Did you forget your catechism?" "No, I didn't, but «" "They offend God so much that they cause the death of the soul, the sinner's eternal damnation. Therefore, they¶re called mortal sins." "But God always forgives, right?" "Yes Victor, because He's all kindness. Having said that, I'm personally convinced that some sins cause Him more pain than others." "Some sins? Such as?" "I don't know for sure, Victor. Terrible things." "But He forgives anyway, doesn't He?" "Yes, he does, I told you so, Victor. But only if you confess them, if you truly repent and are firmly determined not to sin again." That of course was the snag, and usually ended my questioning. One morning however, I pushed the issue, asking, "What is the worst sin, Father? I mean, which one would God find it the most difficult to forgive?" "I don't know Victor. Why do you ask?" "I'd just like to know. What would make God really angry?" "In my opinion Victor, if you ever commit such a sin, you'll know for sure. Now, let's go, time is up. Open the door and bow your head." ***
Delerive Three afternoons a week, I would leave St. Jean-Baptiste at five, run up the rue des Vignes, catch my breath at the red light before crossing the rue de Boulainvilliers, and then race down the Avenue Mozart. I was saving precious minutes that I wanted to spend with Nora before my lesson with Madame Laquaire. Jacky would come home half an hour later. I wanted Nora all to myself. Unbeknownst to her, Nora had invaded my daydreams. I kept revisiting the brief vision of her body, and built torrid scenarios around that vision. My favorite was a chance meeting on the street. "Victor! What a pleasant surprise!" She would be on her way to a movie and suggest that I accompany her. It just so happened that some epidemic had struck all the teachers of St. Jean-Baptiste, so I had the day off. In the darkness of the theater, I was supremely bold and I took Nora's hand. She turned to me. The light from the screen bathed her face; she smiled and offered me her lips. They were warm and the tip of the tongue caressed mine as Mireille's had done. I unbuttoned her blouse and unhooked her bra. Her breast was heavy in my hand, its nipple hard. Her skin was soft as silk. I lay my hand on her knee and pushed her skirt up. She took my hand and guided it between her thighs. I pushed her panties aside, felt her bush, which I imagined to be as coarse and fuzzy as her hair, and finally reached her sex. It was warm and moist. She moaned as my finger found its way inside her « Or « or I would arrive at Nora's just as she was about to go and water the plants of some tenants who were away on vacation. She asked if I could help her carry a pile of linen she had washed and ironed for those people. Bed sheets as it turned out. Yes,
Delerive it was important for us to find ourselves in a bedroom. Together we were making the bed and our eyes met across it. Nora then declared herself tired; it had been a long day. She lay herself down and didn't object when I took a place next to her. She turned to me, smiled and offered me her lips. They were warm and the tip of the tongue caressed mine as Mireille's had done. I unbuttoned her blouse and unhooked her bra. Her breast was heavy in my hand, its nipple hard. Her skin was soft as silk. I lay my hand on her knee and pushed her skirt up. She took my hand and guided it between her thighs. I pushed her panties aside, felt her coarse and fuzzy bush and finally reached her sex. It was warm and moist. She moaned as my finger found its way inside her. There were many other scenarios, all similarly credible: a leak in her bathroom that I helped fix, a splinter in her foot that she begged me to have a look at « As clear and precise as my directions were for the opening sequencesNora's dress when I met her on the street, the title of the movie or the furniture of the deserted apartmentI always lost control over them as soon as Nora allowed me to touch her body. Sometimes I considered briefly a never-solved mystery: what color was her sex when she invited me inside her? Then the question quickly lost all relevance, the images rushed in an erotic stampede, their kaleidoscope left me gasping. Later, in my evening prayer, I begged God for his forgiveness and promised to never do it again. I knew He wouldn't believe me anymore than I did. Strangely, my thoughts were chastewell, almostwhen I actually found myself with Nora. My heart swelled with joy when she opened the door and offered me her cheek. I watched her with delight as she prepared a cup of cocoa. She almost
Delerive always wore a robe at that time and didn't bother to hold it tight around her anymore. My eyes savored her sight with relish. In my memory, those moments are connected to those I spent staring at the fruit pies and chocolate cakes in the windows of the Coquelin patisserie. Speaking of chocolate, I was entranced by the sight of her long dark legs. My eyes also followed the curve of her neck, the slow movements of her hands. Her hair intrigued me and I wanted to touch it, let my finger follow the line it formed at the nape of her neck, and I could never get enough of her smile, her full lips, or her dazzlingly white teeth. "Careful, Victor, it's hot. Enough sugar for you?" "Yes, Nora. "Everything OK at home?" She knew everything of my predicament, but never, not once, did she allude at the humiliation Jacky had suffered. "Yes, Nora, it's fine." From Nora, the lover, the mistress of my dreams, I only wanted sweetness when we were together. All I wanted was to cuddle in her arms and purr. "My mother likes you a lot," Jacky said one day. "I'd like to be in your place," I said. He burst into one of his big fits of laughter, his face suddenly crisscrossed by dozens of lines. "What's so funny?" "I just saw you. You'd look pretty funny with a black face." ***
Delerive Glob supervised most of the detentions. And so, without ever exchanging a word, Glob and I spent many hours together. His real name was Joël de Précigout and nobody knew where his nickname had come from. He was a tall, gangly, bespectacled young man with the head of an arrogant bird, and reigned over the detainees, armed with a ruler which he used to whack our desks and a booklet of pre-stamped pink slips of paper, the currency for additional hours of detention. The hatred that we lavished on him didn't trouble Glob a bit. Deep in his manuals, this future professor of physics had nothing but contempt for our crowd. I was paying for a series of dismal marks in history and geography that evening when Josselin, a feared bully seated at the desk in front of me, turned around, picked up my satchel and grabbed my copy of France-Football magazine. I was about to protest when he winked at me and put a finger to his lips. I was shocked because Josselin, a rugby player at least two years my senior, and I had precious little in common. I watched as he slipped a photograph between the pages of the magazine before laying it in full view on my desk. I had to put the magazine back in my satchel before Glob could see it, but couldn't resist and lifted the cover. France-Football opened on a black-and-white photograph, and my heart stopped: a masked woman offered me a close-up of her clean-shaven sex. She was lying on a sofa, clad in a black garter belt, a pair of long lacy gloves and fishnet stockings. Her left thigh rested on one of the arm rests, the other was wide open to the camera and she presented me with a tiny, shiny button of flesh, round and polished like a pearl, which she held between two fingers. With her other hand, she was pulling one of the rings serving as ornaments to her labia, thus,
Delerive inviting my eyes to penetrate her. I was in a state of apnea. Even more than the woman's gaping vagina, it was her eyes looking at me from behind the mask that made me unable to breathe. How could she? "Delorme!" I froze. After a whack of his ruler, Glob repeated my name. "Delorme! Bring me that at once!" I rose and slowly made my way toward the big desk, behind which the hated tormentor was watching me over his glasses. I had visions of shameful punishments. The silence in the room foreshadowed a capital execution. Glob held his hand out across his desk. Without even attempting an explanation, I gave him the magazine. I died slowly as Glob's contemptuous eyes scanned the cover. I watched in agony as his finger started to lift it. Some divine intervention however, stopped him. Shaking his head, he opened a drawer and slipped the magazine and its sulfurous content into it. "You really are hopeless, Delorme," he said. "You'll do another two hours." And with these words, he handed me one of his pink slips. "You're a lucky bastard," whispered Josselin when I returned to my seat. Then the moron added, "Pity! I wanted to see his face." *** The following two days were the longest of my life. I couldn't live with the threat. Sooner or later, the photograph would be discovered and I would be humiliated, pilloried, expelled. Worse, I would also have to face again the terrible
Delerive police commissioner. With my previous criminal record for pornography, there would be no hope of leniency this time. What then? Prison? Exile? And so, out of despair, the idea of a commando expedition was born and, with it, the courage to carry it out. One Friday morning at five, I rose noiselessly and arrived at St. Jean-Baptiste ahead of my usual altar-boy schedule. "You fell off your bed?" remarked Jules as he opened the door. The school was still asleep. Two isolated windows cut out yellow rectangles in the grey walls. Instead of heading for the vestry, I went to the main building and opened the door. I was tiptoeing but it seemed as if my footsteps were shaking the walls as I went up the stairs and followed the dark corridors. A few bluish night-lights in the classrooms made it all even scarier. When I finally reached the detention room, I entered it and went to the infamous desk. The drawer wasn't locked, but what if my magazine was no longer in it? The young men who took turns supervising detention had amassed a vast collection of seized objects of all kinds. There were two sacks of marbles, a whistle, a Swiss army knife, a collection of comic books, a ping-pong ball that I remembered having seen bouncing from desk to desk a week before as we all collapsed with laughter and even a lipstick, a surprising item in this context. Most importantly, my France-Football was there, waiting for me. Perspiration dripped from my forehead as I opened the magazine. There it was, the most overwhelmingly outrageous picture I had ever seen. I was immediately relieved, but I was also hypnotized, unable to take my eyes away from that sex being so brazenly offered. Common sense tells me that I
Delerive cannot have stayed there more than a couple of minutes, for I was also very conscious of the danger, but time really came to a halt for me. I was sick with arousal. At last, I was able to close my eyes and pocket the photograph. I had to run. Before leaving, I also grabbed a bunch of the infamous pink slips, as well as several form cards the text of which I knew only too well. The same message in italic letters was printed on each card: We regret to inform you that your son « was detained tonight for the following reason «. Please have « return this card signed by you before tomorrow's class.´ There was an official stamp. My parents had signed dozens of those. With a serene heart, I headed for the vestry. I would have to add breaking, entering, and stealing to the list of my secret sins.
The Easter holidays were upon us. While at St. Jean-Baptiste my schoolmates were sharing their vacation plansskiing in the Alps for manyat home it was a morose time. For Lucie and me, there was nothing to look forward to. She would prepare for her exams at her friend Suzanne's in Versailles and I would stay in Paris to work on the program that Madame Laquaire had designed at my father's request, a project dubbed by my mother "operation desperation." Against such a background, my parent's surprise trip to the Riviera was welcomed as an event of exceptional import. The Miramar hotel, one of my father's most prestigious clients, was about to reopen after a year of renovation and he had been invited to the festivities planned for the long Easter weekend. "With your better half of course," the hotel manager had said. "Three days isn't much," the half in question commented, "but it will take me out of here." I agreed wholeheartedly. The next two weeks introduced me to a new mother. A permanent smile on her face, she hummed popular tunes from morning to night, patted my head whenever we crossed paths and even offered me one of her pralines. She obsessed about what "women wore in Cannes these days." Dresses, bags, shoes, it had been such a long time since she had bought anything for herself, she
Delerive reminded everyone. One evening, she paraded and whirled in front of me, elegant in a long, light green taffeta dress, lifting it slightly to show off her new shoes. "If you were a man, Victor, and you saw me dressed like this, would you ask me for a dance?" As I nodded enthusiastically, I was also filled with pity, a rather disturbing feeling I couldn't understand. "You are so beautiful, Maman!" She giggled like a little girl, covering her mouth with her hand. "Your father is angry with me because I spent too much, but we only live once, don't we?" Bonne Maman was both in awe of her glamorous daughter and in shock, for she had been named guardian of the castle. Her chin quivered frantically, a sign of deep agitation. As for me, I was making plans with Jacky. He and I were going to spend those three days together. Alas! Shortly before leaving, my father laid down the rules: no guests, no outings. He would call at unscheduled times, he warned, to verify that his orders were being heeded. From the balcony I waved at my parents as they stepped into a taxi. Then, as soon as they had disappeared around the corner, I led Bonne Maman in a dance around the living room. Short of breath, she soon collapsed on the sofa. "Now tell me what you have in mind, Mr. Up-to-no-good," she said, a plump hand on her voluminous bosom. "How do you know I¶m up to something?"
Delerive "Because I know my grandson. I can see it in your eyes." She was an easy sale. Besides, she had been horrified by Jacky's expulsion. "Of course you can invite him over," she said. And so it was that my friend arrived two hours later with a box of pralines, the same brand that had Bonne Maman drool as she watched her daughter open the locked drawer and help herself without offering one. The first evening was peaceful. After dinner, Jacky and I invited Bonne Maman to a game of Monopoly. I discovered then that she was a very sore loser. "I win all the time; how come you have all the money?" she protested, angrily sweeping the green miniature houses with the back of her hand. Then she added, "It's just like the department stores." "Like the department stores?" "Of course. I know how they make money. They lose on each article, but they make a profit by selling large quantities of them." Dear Bonne Maman! Later, I made a mattress of blankets and pillows next to my bed, which Jacky had won in a coin flip. We chatted late into the night and didn't sleep much. We were watching a movie the following afternoon when Bonne Maman complained of a headache. She gave me the key to my mother's medicine closet. "Go and get me some aspirin, my little Victor, will you?" Jacky let out a cry of amazement when I opened the closet. "Holy smoke! Does she plan to open a pharmacy?" he asked.
Delerive The shelves were loaded from floor to ceiling with boxes, tubes, jars and bottles of all sorts. Having grown up in this environment, I didn't share his surprise. I was used to seeing my mother come back from her weekly trip to the pharmacy with a bagful of drugs. "Maman suffers from everything in the medical encyclopedia except a broken ankle," Lucie used to joke. "And this?" Jacky asked, retrieving a half-full bottle of Gordon's gin from behind a stack of boxes. "I suppose that's what they call over-the-counter, right?" I was flabbergasted. "What is it doing there?" I asked. "You need an explanation?" "But « why hide it?" "Tell you what," Jacky offered, "I'll make my world-famous gin-fizz. I've seen lemons in the kitchen. Trust me, you'll like it." "She'll find out." "Not a chance. I'll fill up with water." Without further ado, Jacky ran to the kitchen to prepare what he called his "special lemonade" for my grandmother's benefit. "My mother's secret recipe," he told Bonne Maman while offering her the first glass. "It'll cure your headache." Indeed, it didn't take long for my grandmother to feel a lot better. "The Germans can come back, they won't have this one," she declared, smacking her lips. She had grown up with horrific tales of World War I. A second glass triggered girlish laughter I had never heard from Bonne Maman. Her eyeglasses kept getting all fogged up, and she wiped them with the handkerchief she kept in her sleeve. The mood grew more festive by the minute. A
Delerive third glass of "lemonade" followed. Bonne Maman, Jacky and I intoned the Marseillaise and marched around the apartment. All caution forgotten, I went to my father's barI knew where he kept the keyand fetched a bottle of vodka. A wind of madness was blowing. The last memory I registered was the sight of Bonne Maman waltzing with Jacky and the two of them stumbling and collapsing on the sofa, howling with laughter. What a strange couple they formed! Around me, the walls were spinning dangerously. *** None of us heard the elevator, nor the opening and closing of the front door. I was sound asleep in the toilets, my face buried in my arms over the toilet bowl, the bottle of vodka next to me on the tiled floor, when cries of horror roused me. Next, my father's beet-red face appeared above me. Nothing seemed real. What had happened? What day were we? They weren't supposed to be back so soon, or were they? My father yanked me to my feet and helped me come to with a hard slap across my face, but I still couldn't make sense of anything. Haggard and stumbling, trying to protect myself with my raised elbow, I was pushed, slapped, and shoved into the living room. From the hallway where my parents had left their luggage, I could see Bonne Maman snoring on the sofa. Her bun was undone, her grey hair half-covering her face, and her black dress raised up on her thighs, revealing a pink garter at the edge of a gray woolen stocking. When my father rudely shook her shoulder, she responded with a groan. "For fuck's sake," my father yelled, "will someone tell me what happened here?"
Delerive He sent me flying toward his bar, whose doors were wide open. "Will you tell me or do I have to beat the shit out of you?" At that moment, a piercing scream was heard from my bedroom. My father froze, his hand in the air above my head. Seconds later, my mother appeared dragging Jacky by his ear. He was shirtless, wearing only a pair of boxer shorts, and just as bewildered as I was, but he wasn't resisting. I felt my stomach churn and thought I was going to throw up. "On my new carpet, just what I need," my mother exclaimed. She needed not worry; my stomach had been empty for hours. My father then decided to take charge. "You take care of « that," he told his wife, pointing his chin toward Bonne Maman, "She's your mother after all." Then he marched toward Jacky. "And you « you get the hell out of here. Go back to your jungle for all I care." More powerless than ever, unable to think straight, I could only witness the disaster. I didn't even worry about the impending punishment. The world was falling apart; I was in a kind of coma. The door had just been slammed shut behind Jacky when I heard a deep moan behind me, like the cry of a wounded beast. I turned around. Crimson no more, white as a ghost now, my father was pointing a finger toward the carpet near the sofa. He wanted to talk, his lips were moving, but no words were coming out.
Delerive Then I saw the object of the commotion: my father's glass, the one nobody was allowed to use, the crystal glass from the Ritz hotel was sitting on the floor. In it Bonne Maman's dentures were soaking in Jacky's lemonade. My mother's laughter gave my father back the use of his vocal cords. "Sorry, it's nervous," she said. "You'll have to wash it." I didn't have time to reflect on the new division of tasks. My father had already done the ultimate damage. With a kick, he had sent his precious glass crashing against the wall. "You don't think that I will drink my « in my « after this disgusting shit," he screamed. My mother was still laughing. Lying on the carpet in the middle of the room, Bonne Maman's teeth seemed to share her hilarity. *** It took me a while to understand the early return of my parents. Having been sent to bed without dinner, I was intrigued by the angry voices coming from their bedroom and tiptoed through the darkness of the corridor. My ear glued to their door, I listened to the screaming match. My mother was on the attack, while my father claimed his innocence. "I saw you. I saw you with my own eyes," my mother yelled. "You had your hand on her thigh, you son of a bitch." "You're mistaken, I'm telling you. She had dropped her napkin and I picked it up for her. Any gentleman would have done the same."
Delerive "Any gentleman. Any sex maniac, you mean. I had been watching the two of you." "You're crazy. She's the wife of the « "What did you say? I dare you to repeat." "She's the wife of the President of «" "No, not that. I don't care whose wife that slut is. You called me crazy, didn't you? And if I am crazy, who made me that way, I'm asking you? You know what Professeur Marchais says? You know what he says?" "How would I know? And who's that one? Another shrink of yours?" "He says that if I was happy at home, I wouldn't have to take all these drugs." My father laughed dryly. "But of course. How didn't I guess? It's my fault now if you're losing it. As if this was new. You're forgetting where I had to go to get you." "A hospital." "A nut house, that's what it was, so please don't blame me. And what am I going to tell Monsieur Renardier now? You don't give a shit, I know. You seem to be forgetting who's putting food on the table and a roof over your head. Does a contract for 320 TVs. mean anything to you? Everything was going smoothly, Renardier was telling me about another 150 TVs for Marseilles, but you had to fuck it all up, throw a glass of wine, and force us to leave in the middle of the dinner. Fuck, fuck, fuck, do you realize what you've done?" "I realize that you had your hand on her thigh." It went on and on. I didn't want to take sides and didn't care who was right or wrong. I should have gone back to bed and buried my head under the blanket, but
Delerive some force was keeping me there, compelling me to listen to words I didn't want to hear. There were moments of silence during which I wondered, what are they doing now? Is it all over? Have they made peace? And then the angry voices again. My mother's was strident, my father's deep, hardly audible at times, with tones alternating between indignation and conciliation. "What do you think you're doing? You don't think you're going to sleep in my bed, do you?" my mother shouted after one of these silences. Soon after I saw my father, in his pajamas, throwing a sheet and a pillow on the sofa where his mother-in-law had enjoyed such a good sleep. I was afraid he would see me, but the corridor was dark, and he didn't even look in my direction. Instead, he turned around and marched back to their bedroom. "And why should I sleep on the sofa?" he screamed. "Why don't you? You're the one who fucked up, remember?" "I'm not the one who had a hand on that whore's thigh." "You're really crazy. Oh, and don't give me that look. You want to know what I think? What I really think? I believe that I married a nutcase. You can tell your Professor what's his name that I said that. And I'm not speaking out of anger. I've known for years that you're crazy. Reminds me of poker: I paid to see. Lucky me!" "If I'm crazy, who's to blame?" "Not me, that's for sure." "Who else? How long has it been since we've had sex?" "What? What has sex got to do with this?"
Delerive "Professeur Marchais says it's important for the balance of «" "Why doesn't he screw you then, if that's what you need?" The noise of a slap followed. "Bastard!" Then, "Don't touch me Roland. Let me go, you're hurting me." I was petrified. Focused on my own problems, overwhelmed by my obsessions, busy with the enormous task of growing up, I had never measured the violence of the conflict at the edge of which I lived. It felt as if a heavy hand was on me. I slid down to the floor, relieved that I was being ignored for a moment, but deeply troubled. There was a long silence punctuated only by the muffled sound of my mother's sobbing, after which my father spoke, his voice deeper and softer now. "Calm down," he said. "Take a deep breath. Let me give you your pills. We both need a good night¶s sleep. It's stupid. We get angry and say things. I didn't mean what I said. We'll talk about it tomorrow." "Tomorrow you'll still have fondled that woman." "But it's not true. Will you listen to me for Christ's sake? I didn't do it, I swear." "You swear?" "On Victor's head!" My mother's laughter froze my heart. "On Victor's head! That's a good one. What a bet! My husband is gambling big tonight!"
Delerive Having thought so often over the years about that moment, I still wonder how words I did not really understand, whose exact meaning and implications went far beyond my ability to analyze at the time, had hurt so much.
I only saw Jacky three afternoons a week at Madame Laquaire's. The other days, I would stop at a phone booth on rue de Passy and call him before going home. We always had so much to talk about! My friend was passionate about cars. He spent hours in a garage of our neighborhood, where they paid him a pittance for chores like inflating tires or emptying oil basins. From that world, he brought back anecdotes, grown men stories. One day, a Wednesdayyears later, all the details of that afternoon are still vividI was walking away from the telephone booth when I heard a voice. "You forgot your pen!" I turned around. A girl with smiling blue eyes and braids as golden as a field of wheat was holding out a Bic. For a moment I remained paralyzed, dazzled by that divine apparition. Then I gradually discovered the charming button of a nose, the perfect white teeth, the skin that seemed to glow. Under her half-open gray overcoat, she wore a blue uniform sweater with a crest over a white blouse and a gray pleated skirt. "Isn't it your pen?" she insisted. It wasn't mine, but I wasn't thinking, my brain was frozen. I stepped forward, took the Bic, muttered a barely audible thank you and walked away ... only to stop at the next street corner, struck by the realization that I had just met the most beautiful
Delerive girl in the whole world. Sure, Sophie de Marennes de Lucet had once been the object of my adoration, but my former princess was aloof, haughty even, while this sublime apparition was all simplicity. I cannot say that I actually decided to walk back; my feet just seemed to carry me. As I approached the telephone booth, I saw the girl hang up and slowed down, pretending to be buried deep in my thoughts, measuring my steps in order to reach her just as she pushed the glass door open and stepped out. Raising a surprised eyebrow in the worst ever piece of acting, I said, "Hey! Hello again!" and froze, my face burning, at a total loss for further words. She smiled and replied, "Hello again!" then added, "Is there something wrong?" "N... no. It's just that ..." Her head slightly tilted, her smiling eyes curious as she waited, she finally asked, "Have we met?" I don't know where I found the nerve to say, "No, we haven't, but it sure would be nice if we did. I mean «" There must have been something comical in the way the words came out, because she burst out laughing and said, "You're funny." Then, with those words, she walked away, leaving me in a state of total paralysis. Fifty feet or so later, she turned around and called out, "So! What are you waiting for? Don't you want to walk with me?" Her name was Colette and she was older than me by a few weeks. Although her name was somewhat old-fashioned and associated in my mind with a mustachioed
Delerive aunt, I decided that it was deliciously romantic, and had no doubt that it would be part of my life for the rest of my days. She made a lovely little shrug when she introduced herself as if to say, I know, I know, I didn't choose this name. Colette was in ninth grade at the Lycée Molière. Her parents were divorced, and she lived with her mother, a stomatologist. She took drawing lessons, but didn't think she was particularly gifted and played tennis at the Racing Club de France. She loved movies, especially comediesbut there weren't many good onesand romantic stories with a happy ending. "How about you?" she asked. Today, it is clear that the honest answer should have been, "Me, I'm growing up!" but everything seemed so complicated at the time. "My father is a businessman and I have a sister," I said. "She's studying to be a doctor." "It's you I asked about." Me! That was the problem. I didn't know who I was and the main, if not sole, focus of my interest hardly lent itself to social small talk. "Do you play sports?" she asked. "Yes, soccer. I play defense. I'd rather play offense, but I'm not fast enough. I'm not playing anymore, anyway." "Why?" I shrugged." The fun's gone." I wasn't about to tell her that my feet hurt like hell in my old soccer shoes. "What about tennis?" "Some. I like doubles because they're more like a team sport."
Delerive "Do you like movies?" I loved American adventure movies. "They're a bit stupid," I said, wanting to sound sophisticated, "but they're well done; they're almost believable." Whenever the conversation slowed down and silence threatened, I panicked. I was terrified that this wonderful creature would realize how unworthy of her attention I was. The more I searched for a topic with the potential to hide my deficiencies, the more the gelatinous mass of my brain solidified. I needed a joke, a witty remark about a store window or a passer-by, quick, any subject that might interest her, anything to break the silence, which threatened to last forever. Any moment now, she would see through me. She would walk away and I would die. "Do you believe in God?" I asked. Colette stopped and faced me. "What a strange question. Why do you ask?" I shrugged my shoulders. "Dunno. Just a thought." I had no idea where those words had come from. Today I suspect that doubt had started to visit me; on an unconscious level it was bothering me. "We're atheists," she said simply. "Ah! I see." "Mother says there's probably something up there, but certainly not what religion, any religion, wants us to believe. Me, I don't know really. What about you?" "Me, I go to mass. I even serve mass." When we reached the bottom of the Avenue Paul Doumer, near the Trocadero, Colette stopped in front of a modern building with a huge glass door and lots of
Delerive marble. She pointed at a plaque which read: Docteur France Knudsen, Stomatologiste, and said, "See! I'm home." "Knudsen. That's an unusual name," I remarked. "It's Danish. My mother kept my dad's name." "Ah!" She extended her hand and said, "Thanks for walking me home." Then she pressed the buzzer and pushed the heavy door. A fraction of a second before it fell shut, I regained my breath and called out, ³Hey!" Colette turned around and came back, smiling. "You¶ve already forgotten my name?" "No. Of course, I haven't. It's just that ... I was wondering ... I was thinking maybe ... well, I don't know how you'd feel about it but ... do you think I could see you again?" A pretty girl like Colette could have been forgiven for being choosy, but her smile was sweet and direct. "Sure," she said, before adding, "But you'd have to meet my mom, it¶s a house rule. Come on up, if you want." The Knudsen apartment was sumptuous. Tapestries hung from the walls, Chinese urns sat on Louis-the-something furniture. I was awed. Colette put a finger on her lips when we passed a room where four or five people were reading magazines. A long carpeted corridor led to her room; its walls were covered with a sky-blue paper, on which Walt Disney cartoon characters danced. Two teddy bears sat on a bed among
Delerive multicolored cushions. On her balcony, geraniums were waiting for the first warm days. "It's the most beautiful room I've ever seen," I said. We were seated at Colette's white deskthe door was left open, it went without sayingdrinking Orangina and munching on chocolate-filled cookies while poring over her sketch-book, when France Knudsen walked in to greet her daughter. She was a beautiful woman, in her forties, with a stern, almost brusque manner. Her blonde hair was done up in a strict bun, her eyes were an icy blue, and the almond-green blouse under the white coat was buttoned up to her neck. She looked me up and down and her thin smile told me that I had just been given a C-minus. With one eyebrow slightly raised as she turned to Colette, she seemed to be asking, "And where did you find this one?" I couldn't blame her. My jeans were worn out and the sleeves of my blazer had become too short a long time ago. I must have looked utterly out of place in their universe where the antiques, tapestries and paintings on the wall seemed to have come straight out of a museum. Colette came to my rescue. "Victor agreed to help me with my homework," she said and her mother's skeptical smile didn't escape me. "Is that so? And what would your area of expertise be, young man?" I put on a modest face. "I'm pretty good at English," I said, summoning the memory of a brief brush with success. "The irregular verbs, you know ..."
Delerive Colette quickly jumped in, saying, "And that's precisely where I have a problem. The vocabulary I can manage, but the verbs ..." Dr. Knudsen gave her daughter a long, thoughtful look before returning to her cavities. Colette was so adorable as she giggled, with her face half-buried in her hands, that I wanted to fall down on my knees. "Are you really any good at English?" she asked. We both burst out laughing. As I walked back home, I felt as if my heart was ready to explode. I was totally, desperately in love. Colette's laughter was still in my ears; my lips could still feel her warm and deliciously soft cheeks when I had kissed her goodbye. The way she had to stroke her forehead with the tip of her fingers when searching for a word played again and again in my mind. Never before had I felt such rapture, never again would I experience such bliss; I was certain of it. At the dinner table, I hardly touched Janine's papery chicken, prompting a bombardment of questions from my mother. As soon as I was allowed to leave, I ran to my room, where I set out to write the first in a series of passionate letters. *** Nothing escaped the attention of the women who surrounded me. My mother, for one, wasted no time before going on the warpath. She bombarded me with questions. Evenings, at the dinner table, I could feel her stare as I kept my nose down and pushed my food away. "Are you on a hunger strike?" she asked. Nora, too, sensed something important had happened. "Either you won the Lotto jackpot or you're in love," she said. "How do you know?"
Delerive "You won the jackpot?" "No. Not the jackpot, the other thing you said.´ "What's her name?" I shook my head. "I can't talk about her." I was torn between the urge to share my elation and the need to keep Colette secret in my heart. "Nora doesn't need to know her name. You're going to marry her, Nora is sure of it," she said, showing her white teeth in a teasing grin. "I'd like that!" I said. And then Madame Laquaire. "My dear Victor, I don't know where your mind is today, but we're both wasting our time. Want to talk about it?" "I have nothing to say." "You're daydreaming." "It's not true. I promise." "Tsk, tsk! You should say µI assure you.¶ You can only promise about the future. I explained that already." Moments later, as I was watching the frail figure on the tip of her toes, reaching for the can of cookies she always put in front of me, next to a cup of tea, I decided to trust the old lady. My secret had become too heavy to bear, my heart could no longer contain it. "I'm in love," I said. Madame Laquaire sat down and offered both hands across the table, as she liked to do.
Delerive "I'm happy for you,´ she said. ³What's her name?" "Colette." "A pretty name. Does your mother know?" "Oh no!" "That's what I thought. In any event, this is good news for both of us." "What do you mean?" "Well, I'm sure you won't want to go to boarding school now. You don't want to be separated, do you? So we do have to pass those exams." Once more, she had found the perfect words, and I decided to deal in earnest with those two racers bicycling toward each other, one starting from town A at 10 miles an hour, the other from town B at 20 miles an hour. Having successfully determined where they would meet, I helped myself to a second cookie. As for Madame Laquaire, she poured herself a small glass of green liquor, and said, "To celebrate!" *** It had to happen. As I was leaving St. Jean-Baptiste one afternoon, carrying a bag heavy with books, I saw her waiting for me on the opposite side of the street. Elegant in her beige coat with the fur collar and a cigarette in hand, my mother! Instantly, my mood turned glum. "What are you doing here?" I asked. "Is this the way a son is supposed to welcome his mother?" "Hello, Maman."
Delerive "I thought it was about time for me to meet this Madame, what's her name again, Lemaire? Maizière?" "Laquaire. What for?" "You've been quite cheerful lately, something isn't right. You're hiding something from me, I know it. Let's go now. You don't want to be late for your lesson, do you?" My mother grabbed my elbow and set the pace. I prayed that she wouldn¶t meet Jacky. I would have wanted to warn Madame Laquaire; she was only a tiny white mouse after all, and was in great danger. I needed not have worried. Madame Laquaire showed no surprise when she saw my mother at my side. "Madame Delorme," she only said. "I've heard a lot about you." She ignored my mother's burning starewhat horrible lies did Victor tell about me? she seemed to askand offered a chair. "What can I do for you?" she asked calmly. The tone in Madame Laquaire¶s voice was unknown to me. Her eyes, too, were different. The old lady knew who she was dealing with, but wasn't intimidated. I was afraid to breathe and watched my mother as she inspected the small room. The lacy curtain, the napkins, a picture of a young Madame Laquaire in a white dress, at the arm of a handsome officer, the canaries in their cage, the pile of papers on the tired armchair, the books on the floor; nothing went unnoticed. I braced myself for a stinging remark, a sarcasm.
Delerive When my mother finally returned her attention to Madame Laquaire, she saw in her eyes a calm and vaguely amused determination that took her aback. This sweet old woman, who encouraged and cajoled me into working harder, could also project an icy strength. It was amazing to see my mother losing her aggressive assurance. "I'm listening," Madame Laquaire insisted. "Well « I just wanted to make sure that « I mean, to meet the person who « I think it's natural, don't you?" "Absolutely. I'm very satisfied with Victor's progress. We've come a long way, but we're headed in the right direction." "He's so lazy." "A matter of motivation." "Victor has disappointed his father so much, you have no idea." "Soon your husband will be proud of his son." "And he's so difficult." "That's what education is about, Madame Delorme." "You can't imagine what I'm going through." "You seem strong enough to me." "Don't be too sure. I could tell you stories." "That won't be necessary." It was like a game of tennis. My mother's services were weaker and weaker, while Madame Laquaire's volleys never missed. Then the bell rang. Twice. Jacky! I shrank down in my chair.
Delerive "One moment, please," Madame Laquaire said, while rising. From the corner of my eye, I saw my friend's smile vanish as he instantly recognized my mother who, fortunately, had her back to the door. "You have the wrong apartment, Sir, " Madame Laquaire said. "You must be looking for Monsieur Martinet. It's one floor below." Back to the tennis match. My mother wasn't accustomed to being behind on the scoreboard. She had to go back on the attack. "I find it hard to believe that you could be pleased with Victor. You must be pretty lenient. I guess it's not easy to find students to tutor these days. Especially at these rates." Madame Laquaire responded with a smile. "Do you have any more questions, Madame?" "Well, I wanted to see for myself how you conduct your lessons." "Absolutely. Victor, would you please tell me what you know about the Thalés theorem? Only a few minutes, then we'll be able to work seriously. I'm listening Victor." I didn't think it necessary to point out that we had spent the last lesson on the theorem in question. "Would you like me to draw the ABC triangle and the MN line?" I asked. "We will do that, of course, but for now I'd simply like you to enunciate it for me." "Well, angles at the base of a triangle having two sides of equal length are equal. And, of course, opposite angles of intersecting straight lines are equal."
Delerive "Not bad Victor, and to think that all this was like Chinese to you only a month ago." I smiled modestly, while Madame Laquaire rose and said, "I'm going to walk your mother to the elevator. When I come back I want you to tell me about Molière. Whose real name was? His real name?" That, too, we had studied only two days before. "Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, Madame," I said. "Correct. You'll also tell me what you know about The Imaginary Invalid." While speaking, Madame Laquaire had walked to the door, which she held open. Vanquished, my mother rose too. I never learned what they discussed in the corridor. When she returned, Madame Laquaire went straight to a cabinet and took out a bottle of Cointreau. She poured herself a small glass and lit up one of her Turkish half cigarettes. Then she sat down in front of me and grinned. "I shouldn't smoke and I certainly shouldn't drink, at least not in the middle of the day, but I believe I've earned it," she said with a smile. I couldn't have agreed more. An hour later, as I was closing my books, she held her hands out to me across the table. They were cold, but they warmed my heart. "You mustn't be sad," she said. "I'm not." "Not now, maybe, but often. I know you quite well already, you know." "I'll be fine."
Delerive "I know you will, but it hurts you the way your mother is, doesn't it? You think she doesn't love you, don't you?" I shrugged my shoulders. I didn't have a clue. "I'm sure she does love you. She'd show it to you if she could, but she is, how should I put it « she's not well." "She's not sick. She's always been like this." "She's probably been always sick, as you say. But I saw her eyes, and I heard her voice. Believe me, Victor, I'm pretty good at reading people. The truth is, she's deeply unhappy. The meanness in her « it's not her fault. It¶s like a demon, you know, and it has nothing to do with you." Later that evening, at the dinner table, my mother barked at me, "What's your problem, Victor? Why are you staring at me like that? You want to take my picture?" I shook my head and lowered my eyes. I had only tried to see the demon.
To see Colette, and spend precious moments with her, required a permanent exercise in creativity. My catalogue of excuses and bogus reasons for being late coming home was quickly exhausted. How many times can one witness an autobus accident or be summoned to a medical exam? Fortunately, I was visited by inspiration, a stroke of genius, no less. The solution was two-pronged: first, I would avoid punishment at St. JeanBaptiste at all costs, and then use the stolen pink slips to convince my mother that I had been detained. At school I turned into a model of assiduity and obedience and during a few heavenly weeks, I came to believe that I had escaped my mother's scrutiny. Time went by like a dream when Colette and I were together. A few moments, or so it seemed, after having met her at her Lycée Molière, it was already time to say goodbye. Later, as I ran back home or lay on my bed, I replayed in my mind the vision of Colette's smile and the adorable sparkle in her eyes. I relived every moment spent with her, our giggles and laughter, as well as the serious time going over the grammar exercises she loathed. I heard myself pronounce innocent-sounding words that in reality were cries of passion. I thought about our next encounter, counted the hours and convinced myself that soon, the following week perhaps, I would summon up the courage to say "I love you, Colette", four little words that sent my imagination
Delerive spinning. Maybe I would even take her in my arms for our first kiss. Wasn't it the way they did it in the movies? Madame Knudsen never saw in me the shining knight to whom she would one day give her daughter's hand, but she slowly seemed to accept me. "I have to admit he's a good boy," she once said to her daughter. "It's the, µI have to admit,¶ that I like best," Colette told me the following day. "That's so Maman." One afternoon, when there had been an epidemic of patient no-shows, I was even invited to accompany mother and daughter to the movies. "We'll have pizza for dinner," suggested Madame Knudsen. When I called home, I was so embarrassed by my mother's barrage of questionsKnudsen, what kind of a name is that? that I hung up the telephone and said that I had to finish my homework. Colette, who knew about my mother's reign of terror, gave me a sad smile, but Madame Knudsen approved warmly. "Your mother is right, Victor,´ she said. "I should be more like her and I'm sure my daughter would be grateful one day." "I'm sorry you can't stay," Colette said at the door. "I would've liked it." Running home, I repeated those words, which, I wanted to believe, had been a declaration of love. Night after night, I wrote about my passion in letters I never sent. I pledged eternal love and described our many years of bliss. These torrid letters were addressed to Mademoiselle Knudsen, and when I placed them under my pillow, I was determined to drop them in the mailbox on my way to school. But everything looked
Delerive different the following morning. Suddenly, Colette seemed utterly out of reach and my love letters ended up in a tin box in my closet behind my old jerseys. In the last letter I wrote, I reminded Colette how I had taken her hand hours earlier to protect her from a taxi running a red light: I kept your hand in mine afterwards and you didn't take it back. My mouth was as dry as sandpaper. I wasn't aware that I squeezed your hand so hard, and I'm sorry that I hurt you. It was only because I love you so much, you understand." *** Catechism classes were optional, but my mother made sure I attended. It had more to do with her vision of the church as the moral police than it did with her shaky belief in a Supreme Being. So, every Friday after lunch, I had to sit with other unhappy souls in a dimly lit, musty classroom and endure dreadfully boring lectures. Outside, in the courtyard, our more fortunate classmates played ball. It was after one of those classes that a vision changed my faith forever. Unlike St. Paul about whom we had just heard, what I saw marked the beginning of its disintegration. We were lined up in the second floor corridor before the beginning of the first regular class of the afternoon. My head full of Colette, I was paying no attention to the chatter around me when, without thinking, I turned to the window and looked down to the courtyard. Suddenly I froze, overwhelmed by a sensation of impending threat. My mother!
Delerive Yes, I had to believe my eyes. She wore her grey coat with the fur collar, and was engaged in a conversation with Father Minot. What was she doing there? What was she up to? Had she discovered the stratagem of my detention slips? Was she discussing retaliatory measures? Or did she want to know if my chances of success at the end of the year were really as good as Madame Laquaire had claimed. Of course not, this was not Father Minot's domain. One thing was clear, this visit could only be bad news. I watched as Father Minot, his white hair covered by a beret, nodded, all smiles as usual, and how he kept my mother's hand in his as they said goodbye. The words they were exchanging sealed an alliance, it was all too obvious. Later that day, at the dinner table, I felt my mother's stare. A feeling of impending doom kept me from writing to Colette that night. Anxiety still haunted me the following morning when I knelt down in the confessional on the narrow board covered with worn-out red velvet. After a while, the panel slid aside, allowing a ray of dusty light to make its way through the darkness. On the other side of the latticed window I could make out Father Minot. I bowed my head, but instead of making the sign of the cross and muttering the first words of the Latin ritual, the priest addressed me, saying, "Good morning, Victor!" His tone was conversational. "Good morning, Father." "Before your confess, child, is there not something you want to talk about?" "Like what, Father?"
Delerive "Whatever. My task goes beyond forgiving you for your sins in the name of the Lord. It is also to help you. Is there anything new in your life? Something important? Or somebody, maybe?" Slowly I began to see the light. I asked Colette for her forgiveness and replied, "No, Father." "Thinking about a sin is almost as bad as committing it, you know « especially the sins of the flesh. You understand that, don't you?" "Yes, Father." "Your age is a difficult one, my child. We all want to help you, but you must talk to us." "Everything's fine, Father." "There are things a child might find difficult to discuss with his parents, but with me it's different, it would be just between the two of us." So that was what it was all about. There was a silence before the final attack. "You are about to confess, Victor. I can only absolve you if I am certain that you're not hiding anything from the Lord." From the Lord or from my mother? If those two had formed an alliance, who could I possibly trust? *** Day after day, Madame Laquaire performed miracles, making me climb down from the rosy cloud on which I had established residence. After offering me her cheek, she would ask about Colette. Granting legitimacy to my passion was the mark of a
Delerive genius. Being allowed to talk about my beloved, her latest bon mot or the paper cut on her finger on which I had put a band-aid, made me pliable. Once admitted in my secret universe, it was easy for the old lady to remind me of our goals and lead me into a world inhabited by Prussian generals, farmers maximizing yields by rotating crops, bicyclers pursuing each other at variable speeds, and long-dead poets. "We're not about to allow them to separate you, trust me," she would say as she opened a manual. My mother, on the other hand, never gave up. The more she felt she was losing her grip on me, the more aggressively she pursued me. Her imagination was fertile. I remember one Sunday lunch at the end of which Janine brought a chocolate charlotte, my favorite dessert, instead of the usual fruit salad. "What's the occasion?" Lucie asked. Fishing a wad of St. Jean-Baptiste pink slips from the pocket of her skirt, my mother lay it down next to her plate. "The occasion? We are celebrating Victor's twelfth detention since the Easter break," she announced as she took a knife to the charlotte. Flashing an icy smile, reminiscent of a cartoon witch, she invited first my father, then Lucie, to hold out their plates before pushing the dish toward Bonne Maman. Turning to my father she added: "I don't care what the old goat you're wasting your money on says, Victor is setting new records for his last year with us." "What about Victor?" asked Bonne Maman, ignoring my father's rule of silence, "He's not having charlotte? He loves chocolate."
Delerive "Dessert for Victor?" my mother exclaimed, feigning surprise, "Certainly not. Not with all these detentions." Lucie then intervened, exclaiming, "You mean you went all the way to Coquelin to buy a charlotte, just so Victor couldn't have it?" "Lucie!" my father said feebly. "I can't believe this," my sister said, pushing her plate away. Ignoring the glares from my parents, she rose, and left the room. Her gesture of solidarity carved itself more deeply into my memory than the torment invented by my mother. *** When I arrived home one Tuesday evening, my heart was singing, my mind replaying the bliss shared with Colette. Nothing could have prepared me for the horror that awaited me. I didn't even have time to take my keys out of my pocket; my mother had heard the elevator and opened the door wide. Her broad smile was the first sign that she was up to something. In fact, such a cheery atmosphere reigned in the apartment that alarms quickly started to sound in me. Far from making me relax, the sound of my mother humming in the kitchen filled me with panic. I had no clue as to the source of such joy, but I could smell trouble. Janine had just served one of her specialtiesovercooked veal with a gooey and tasteless sauce, accompanied by the hated spinachwhen the first salvo was fired.
Delerive "Did you read this article in Le Figaro about Proust?" my mother asked in her most innocent tone. "I like Proust, of course; Remembrance of Things Past is a masterpiece, but he¶s not my favorite author." My father and Lucie exchanged puzzled looks and didn't bother to answer, while Bonne Maman muttered silently to herself, as usual. But my mother didn't mind their lack of cooperation. It was me she was staring at, and her eyes belied the cheerfulness of her smile. I started to shiver. "I like Colette better," she went on, "She's one of our best authors. Most of all, the Claudine series and of course Gigi. What do you think, Victor? Don't you agree?" I could hardly breathe. With a circular glance, my mother made sure she had everybody¶s attention. "He loves Colette. You might even say, he¶s in love with Colette. Aren't you, Victor?" My blood went cold, my palms were damp with icy sweat, my heart was dying. I wanted to get up, leave, and run away, but my legs wouldn't have carried me. My stomach churned; I felt like vomiting. I often thought about how perplexed my father had looked that day, and came to the conclusion that his wife hadn't let him in the ploy. Quite satisfied with her first act, she fished a sheet of lined paper from the pocket of her skirt and, taking her time for effect, unfolded it. I recognized it, of course. "Colette my love," she read aloud, managing to make every word sound dirty, "I waited whole day - all, a-l-l, Victor, not whole - for the moment when I could see you at the Lycée Molière, but when I had to leave, you still had not come out. Or
Delerive maybe you came out early, I don't know. But it's all right. When I waited, I was close to you and that was almost enough. I love you so much, my Colette, that I'm not sure I'll ever be able to tell you face to face." My mother looked around the table. "Well, well! Seems to me we have a Don Juan in the family," she concluded with glee. "And there's more. There's a whole collection. You're all going to get a big laugh out of it." "Maman!" Lucie protested, "This isn't right!" But no truce was possible. I could see in my mother's eyes, in the mad fire that burned behind them, and in the hard lines around her mouth that she would have no mercy; she was going for the kill. This realization gave my legs the strength they had lost for a moment. I pushed back my chair and ran to my room. "Colette, my love," my mother declaimed behind me. My closet had been searched from top to bottom, and all my letters were gone. I locked my door and wept for hours on my bed. Several times, my mother ordered me to open the door, saying, we had to talk, she only had my best interest in mind, one day I would see what she meant, but I didn't move. I also ignored her threats of punishment. What else could she do to me? Finally, I fell asleep in my clothes, my face buried in a tear-soaked pillow.
The following afternoon I left Saint Jean-Baptiste as soon as the bell rang and ran all the way to the Lycée Molière. I just had to see Colette. Not that I had any intention to tell her about what had happenedthe shame was still burning, and besides I couldn't tell her about the lettersI just needed to be near her, to make sure she was still in my life. When I arrived, out of breath, at the corner of the rue du Ranelagh, the little girls of first and second grade were just coming out, under the supervision of a head mistress. I stood at my usual spot, near a fire hydrant, where Colette had learned to look for me. When I saw her, my heart swelled with joy and relief. Suddenly, all the pain was forgotten. Colette smiled broadly when she saw me. God, she was beautiful! Nothing, nobody, mattered anymore. I leaned forward to kiss the cheek she was offering me, but a voice I knew all too well made me freeze. "I presume this is Mademoiselle Colette." I turned around, petrified. My mother was all decked out in a navy-blue dress and perched on stiletto heels. I would have found her beautiful if I hadn't read so much cruelty in her smile. Colette looked at me, puzzled. "Colette Knudsen ... my mother," I said in a barely audible voice. "Colette how?"
Delerive "Knudsen," Colette repeated. "What a funny name!" my mother exclaimed. I stepped forward as if I had the power to protect Colette. "It's Danish," I said, desperately trying to sound assertive. "That's what I said, it doesn't sound like it belongs here." "Her mother is a dentist. A stomatologist actually." I was going for some legitimacy. "Well that's most interesting," my mother sneered. "We'll keep her in mind when we have a cavity". She then grabbed my arm and lashed out, saying, "Why don't you go home, Mademoiselle, the sidewalk is no place for a young woman. Oh! And please don't bother my son anymore." As we walked up the Avenue Mozart, my mother didn't let go of my arm. I guess I could have fought back and set myself free, but the thought didn't even occur to me. All I could think about was the hurt on Colette's face as she held her hand over her cheek as if she had been slapped. Suddenly, my mother stopped and pushed me toward a bench where we sat down. For a few minutes she didn't speak, but I could feel a storm coming. People walked by, anonymous, faceless silhouettes; they were just a blur. "You'll never see this little slut again," my mother finally hissed between clenched teeth. "Colette is not a slut." Her laughter was dry, and full of contempt.
Delerive "How would you know? I do, believe me. I know her kind. Those little whores are cunning. They pick a boy who will then spend all his life regretting it. The only thing I can't understand is what she could possibly see in you." I had spent enough time trying to answer that question myself to know not to argue. "Let's face it. It's not as if you were smart or even good-looking with those ears of yours. Anyway ... it's my duty as a mother to protect you, even if you don't deserve it and don't seem to be grateful for my efforts. Consider yourself lucky that I was able to intervene." "We weren't doing anything wrong." "What about the filth you wrote?" "What filth?" From the corner of my eye I recognized "the mask". My mother was rubbing her arms, and shivering. Her voice went up in its highest octaves as she recited, "'My love, I would like so much to hold you in my arms, to feel your body against mine' ... It wouldn't be too bad if it was only ridiculousafter all you don't know what you're talking aboutbut it's disgusting which doesn't surprise me in the least, coming from you." I remained silent, crushed, painfully aware of my powerlessness in front of a woman I loved and hated so much. She scared me so! "Anyway," my mother concluded, "this is all over. In the future I'll watch out more closely for you. You're never to see that little slut ever again, do you hear me?" At last a current of rebellion went through me.
Delerive "And what if I want to see her again? It's my life after all!" I said, sounding almost resolute. The answer came swiftly, merciless as usual. "Must I remind you that you have a criminal record? Will you force me to call her parents and reveal that you were once convicted for pornography?" Game, set and match. I was beaten and never saw Colette again. *** I didn't cry that night, didn't shed a tear. Something had snapped, allowing a newly discovered rage to overwhelm me, so powerful that I hardly felt the pain. Never before had I known this urge to hit, destroy, eradicate. I could only think of vengeance. Gone was the helpless, meek little boy, I was an angry warrior. I had lost Colette. I knew I would never see her again. Sooner or later I would feel the pain, the loss, and I would cry, but for now, I was thirsty for revenge. All I could think about was getting back at my mother. She had to pay. Locked in my room I had declined to sit at the dinner table. Several times, my mother had knocked, and then finally banged at my door, shouting, "Victor, open up! We have to talk. I need to explain." What could she possibly explain? What did we have to talk about? It was now past two in the morning. Lying on my bed in my pajamas, my hands crossed behind my head, I had watched the windows go dark, one after the other, on the other side of the street. My jaws were so tight they hurt; I only relaxed them to whisper, "Bitch, fucking witch, I hate you."
Delerive Never before had I felt such anger. I was shaking with a rage I didn't know I had in me. I saw myself shredding my mother's most beautiful dresses or, even better, pouring rat poison, strychnine or cyanide into her bottle of gin. I must have fallen asleep a few moments, because it was almost four when I opened my eyes. Perhaps my inspiration came from the erection that accompanied my coming to. Be that as it may, I knew at that very moment how I was going to exact vengeance. At last, I had a plan. "Yes, that's it. That's it!" I heard myself say. I got up, noiselessly opened the door, and tiptoed to the kitchen. My uneaten dinner was in a Tupperware container in the refrigerator, but I had no interest in it. I took the bowl containing my mother's famous vitamin-loaded yogurt and carried it to my room. There, I climbed on a chair and found the photograph rescued several weeks earlier from Glob's desk. Hidden under the cloth lining the upper shelf of my closet, it had evaded all searches. For a brief moment, I imagined my mother's reaction had she found this photograph. After all, she had dragged me to the police for a far more innocent picture. She would have had a seizure, no doubt. She would have dropped dead. Too bad, I thought, I would have liked to see her go that way. It would have been appropriate. Thighs spread open, her mound clean-shaven, her sex agape, the woman stared at me from behind her mask. She was about to be my partner in crime. Since meeting Colette, I had had no desire to look at that picture, for my soul had been pure, in spite of the torrid dreams dampening my pajamas. After seeing myself penetrating females in my sleepNora was a frequent guest star I had been filled with shame for having been in some way unfaithful to Colette.
Delerive Tonight, however, everything was different. Rage and lust fed off each other. The sight of this woman made my blood boil. I was so hard it hurt. I could hardly breathe. My hand shook as I untied my pants. My penis throbbed in my hand. I knew I was going to come any second now, but would have liked to delay the moment of vengeance. She had had me convicted of pornography, hadn't she? She had called Colette a slut, hadn't she? She had sullied my love, hadn't she? Well, this is what I had for her. When I ejaculated in a hot spurt and felt myself shaking from head to toe, I struggled to keep my eyes open for I didn't want to miss my target. I watched intently as gush after gush of sperm landed on the yogurt, white on white. And when the eruption slowed down, when I had finally regained some sort of composure, I squeezed carefully the head of my penis. We didn't want to waste even a drop, did we? Satisfied, I took a pencil on my desk and used it to stir carefully my mother's breakfast. Return to sender in a way, I thought. Back from the kitchen, I went to bed, set my alarm clock, and fell asleep with a smile on my face. *** Sleeping in was a sacred weekend ritual for my father. The telephone would be off the hook, and noises of all kinds were no-no¶s; Janine who had dropped a pile of plates in the kitchen, one Saturday morning, never forgot her ensuing dressing down. As soon as my mother woke up, she had to leave the bed because feeling that his wife was awake "spoiled" the master's well-deserved rest. That didn't mean she was allowed to shower, however, lest the noise of running water disturb him. Neither could
Delerive she have breakfast before her husband. "We are a family, we do everything together," he would often say. Even then I recognized those words as a monument of hypocrisy. I got up at 7 that Saturday and ran all the way to school, in order to be the first for confession. I recited the usual litany of sins: sloth, anger, lack of respect to my parents, which I might or might not have committed; I had stopped bothering about that. The list was well received; it was worth a few Holy Fathers and Hail Marys. I didn't waste time on my way back home, either, didn't stop at the baker's window, didn't even call Jacky. As I arrived my father was just stepping out of his bedroom, tying up the belt of his crested purple robe. "Breakfast in 20 minutes," I heard him announce while heading for the bathroom. The first signs of activity could be heard from the kitchen. I sat down at the table as Janine entered, carrying a tray loaded with baguette, toasted brioche, strawberry jam, a smoking pot of coffee, a jar of milk and my mother's bowl of yogurt. Lucie had her bad mood face on, Bonne Maman was struggling with her napkin, which she liked to tuck into her blouse, my father was checking the morning headlines, and my mother was pointedly ignoring me. She hadn't answered my resounding "Good morning, Maman!" and turned away as I moved to kiss her. I was being punished for having denied her the pleasure of a last act. My father helped himself first and kept the basket with the toasted brioche in front of him. "Would you mind very much sharing with us?" Lucie asked.
Delerive Bonne Maman looked as if she desperately wanted to stay out of trouble and my mother dipped her spoon into her Bulgarian yogurt. I stopped breathing. A piece of toast suspended midair, I watched intently as my mother brought the spoon to her mouth. An icy rivulet of perspiration ran down my spine. Never had I experienced such suspense. When my mother looked at her spoon, frowning, appearing to do a double take, my heart stopped. With her lips pushed forward, she wore the same expression as when she questioned the expiration date of one of her medications. But my imagination was probably playing tricks on me, because she soon swallowed a second spoonful, and then a third. Suddenly I was struck by the banality of the moment. My subconscious had prepared me for lightning to strike in our dining room, or the floor to open under our feet, but nothing was happening. Nothing. There was only the clatter of plates and cups, the crisp noise of knifes buttering toasts, and the silence of my parents, who had nothing to say to each other. When my father pushed his chair back and rose without a word, I still hadn't started to eat. "What's your problem?" my mother snapped. "You want my picture?" "Nothing, Maman. I'm just wondering how your yogurt tastes." "What is it to you?" "It's good for her complexion," Lucie commented. I smiled. Bon appétit, Maman. ***
Delerive Incredibly, it was only on my way to St. Jean-Baptiste the following morning that it dawned on me: I was about to be tested, as I never had been. The somewhat bogus confession of the previous day hadn't mattered much. I had been there before and God had shown no sign of displeasure. But everything was different now. I had stepped over a line, there was no denying it. God had seen me the other night. He had witnessed my mother's breakfast. He had to be beside Himself. I was overwhelmed with sacred fear when I sat down on a sixth row bench, next to the aisle. All the doubts that had developed in me lately had to do with the Church and it's officers, not with God himself, and certainly not His existence. Questions of such magnitude were beyond my realm. I went through the service in a quasi-hypnotic state. The prayers and orisons, Father Moisnard's sermon, the hymns; to me they were all part of an indistinct background rumble. I stood up, knelt down, and sat down with my comrades at the command of the bells in the same state of resigned numbness as a prisoner living his last minutes before execution. For one brief moment, I tried to convince myself that sincere remorse could buy me His forgiveness, but I had to accept reality; not only did I not feel one bit sorry for what I had done, I was determined to repeat my deed as long as anger and rage still inhabited me. Finally it was communion time. My knees were shaking as I took my place in line and moved toward the altar, while watching my comrades walk back to their seats with their head bowed. They were at peace. God wasn't angry at them even when He saw the smiles and winks they exchanged, for they hadn't committed the unforgivable.
Delerive Like every Sunday I knelt down in front of the golden rail. From the corner of my eye, I saw the priest's embroidered chasuble as he came nearer and nearer. The holy murmur became more and more distinct. I opened my mouth when the black shoes and the hem of the alb stopped in front of me and held my breath. Each muscle of my neck and shoulders was on a state of high alert. I didn't know what to expect. The worst, the most severe punishment, it went without saying. And yet, the dull contact of the wafer on my tongue was the same as ever. It stuck on my dry tongue. Gathering what was left of my strength, I swallowed. If God was going to strike, now was the moment. I wasn't ready - how can you be? - but I was resigned. I was almost surprised to find a cool breeze and a ray of sun welcoming me when I came out of the church. Something Father Minot had said came back to my memory. "If you ever commit the ultimate sin, I think you'll know." To my utmost surprise, I found this burden remarkably light.
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 would 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 would 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 always said without ever bothering to elaborate.
Delerive 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 would 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 rednailed fingers. And so I traveled from one universe to the other, from my parent'sI no longer called it my hometo 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
Delerive ran out of my room, ignoring the cup of cocoa that Janine had prepared. They raised surprised eyebrows, and returned to their discussion, having forgotten, or determined to ignore how crucial the day was for me. 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. ***
Delerive 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. My score was high enough, however, to qualify for a second chance in September, and this 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 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
Delerive 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 yelled. "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."
Delerive 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.
Delerive 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 believeand still don't know reallybut 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, 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.
Delerive 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 SomethingI 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
Delerive 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
Delerive handsone 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
Delerive 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!"
Delerive "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."
Delerive "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
Delerive 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 did look 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?"
Delerive 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.
Deep down I had never really believed in my chances and wasn't ready for my moment of triumph. As I walked briskly past buildings that had seen me so often dragging my feet, dejected, I reviewed the possible lines that could accompany my return home. "Good morning, Papa, good morning, Maman. Did you hear the news on TV? Your son passed his exam." No, not funny. How about something cool, and detached like. "Did you have a nice time? You look rested. Me? Nothing special. Ah yes, I almost forgot. I passed my exam." No, I couldn't possibly keep a straight face. Why not go all the way then, mime a herald at the court of Charlemagne, reading from an imaginary parchment. "Ta-Da.! Oyez, oyez, good people. Victor passed his exam." With each of these scenarios, I tried to picture my audience's reaction. To no avail; in spite of my efforts I just couldn't see my parents. My father would probably be satisfied, even if he wouldn¶t show it, but what about my mother, what mood would she be in? I considered climbing the eight flights of the service stairs up to Bonne Maman's room and ask her what to expect. But no, I couldn't wait, I was dying to tell them. A simple "Good morning, Papa and Maman. I want you to know that I
Delerive passed" would do. They would be surprised, no doubt. They might even be proud of their son. When I rang, I heard no noise in the apartment. No TV, no voices, no clatter of utensils from the kitchen. I was fishing my key out of my pocket when my father opened the door, looking exhausted, haggard with his tie undone and his hair uncombed. Behind him stood a nurse in a white uniform, a stocky, unsmiling woman in her fifties with a strong jaw conveying a sense of authority and whose grey hair was tied in a bun under a starched white hat. "Ah! It's you," my father said in a tired, barely audible voice. Suddenly, none of my plans made sense, and gone was my enthusiasm. I was voiceless. "The bell. I thought it was Dr. Raillard," the nurse said. "What's going on?" I asked my father. "Your mother attempted suicide." "What?" "You heard me. They pumped her stomach at the hospital. Now she's here and we have to make a decision." "What sort of decision?" "What to do with her. They say she shouldn't stay by herself." "She's not alone here." "I travel all the time and I cannot rely on your grandmother." "Is she in her room? I want to see her." My father grabbed my elbow and said, "Certainly not! They gave her a sedative. Let her rest."
Delerive He then led me to his study, where he let himself fall into his favorite armchair. "I guess I was dozing," he sighed. "I didn't sleep all night." Bit by bit, I learned what had happened. Often my father repeated himself and there were times when he made no sense at all, but I was able to put the pieces together. Their vacation had not gone well, he said, raising his eyes to the ceiling. Never before had he spoken to me like this. He didn't seem to realize how incongruous it was for him to treat me as an adult. "She accused me of looking at the other women in the hotel. Making passes at them. She even claimed that I had slipped a message to the woman at the next table. You should've seen the woman in question! As if I was going to do something like that in full view of everybody, anyway." He stopped and remained silent for a while, then sighed. "I wasn't even allowed to take a walk alone on the beach. She thought I was meeting somebody. And then, one evening, she turned hysterical. She had gone up early to our room, one of her migraines. When she felt better and came downstairs, I was helping the barmaid with a case of bottles; the gentlemanly thing to do, you know, the case was too heavy for that poor girl. Your mother started to scream. She hurled insults at the poor kid; she wanted to hit her and the owner had to intervene. There were people in the TV room, and they all came in to see what was happening. I was so embarrassed, it was horrible!" My mother had remained prostrate during the ride back. "Not a single fucking word in seven hours," my father said.
Delerive When they arrived in Paris, she was wearing "her bad days face." "And then, last night « it was about two in the morning, I woke up. She was groaning. First, I thought she was having a bad dream, so I shook her shoulder, but she kept on moaning so I turned the light on. Her eyes were wide open, but I could see the whites. She was drooling, it was awful. And there was this stench too, like alcohol and vomit. I jumped off the bed and that's when I saw the bottle of gin and the two tubes of Valium she had swallowed." From the corner of my eye, I saw Bonne Maman. I wanted to run to her and give her a kiss, but she put a finger on her lips and shook her head before disappearing into the dining room. My father rolled his eyes. "Your mother is indeed that old fool's daughter." I was too shocked to care about the double insult. At that moment, the nurse entered the room. "Madame wishes to see her son," she said. My father rose to accompany me, but the nurse stopped him with a raised hand, like a traffic cop at a street intersection: "Alone. She said she wants to see him alone." *** The curtains were drawn. A purple scarf, draped around the lamp on the bedside table, added to the sinister ambience. My mother's head rested on two pillows. Slowly, step by cautious step, I approached the bed. Her eyes had sunk deep into her skull, and her dyed hair was matted on her temples by perspiration, the dark roots forming like a crown. The summer tan contrasted with her gaunt features. With a
Delerive feeble gesture of the hand, she beckoned me. Unsure that she wanted me to hug her, I took her hand and kissed her fingers. "How are you feeling, Maman?" Instead of answering, she pulled back her hand and turned her head toward the wall. I sat down on the edge of the bed. Minutes elapsed without a word. I was going to remind her that she had called for me when she spoke her first words, still staring at the wall. "Your father is a monster." In an oddly hoarse voice, she recounted the most horrible vacations of her life, her words. My father had been chasing women in the very hotel where she was staying. He had preyed on those women left alone for the summer by their philandering husbands. "I was an object of ridicule. He was prancing, smiling left and right. A woman even came to complain to me. If I better controlled my husband, she said, he would stop bothering other women" I was lost. I didn't want to choose between the two versions. It wasn't up to me to decide where the truth lay. One of them was lying. Maybe they were both lying. Or perhaps they were both telling the truth. I didn't want to know, I was terrified of having to judge. I also wondered how and why I had become their confidant of choice. "One night, I was very sick, one of those ophthalmic migraines, the worst, but he chose to stay downstairs. I mean, I was in bed in such pain, any husband would have stayed at his wife's side, but no, not that man, he wanted to have a good time. In
Delerive fact, he was quite happy that I was stuck in my room. And when I felt better and went looking for him downstairs, I found him behind the bar, with that slut." "He was helping her with a case." I hadn't meant to take sides. I just wanted to calm my mother down, because she was becoming so agitated. She briefly glanced at me, her eyes suddenly so alive, so full of anger that I had to pull back. "Ah, he told you his side of the story, didn't he? Why don't you ask him why he was rubbing himself against that whore like an ape in heat?" I nodded, unable to think. The air in the room was suffocating. A few weeks without them and I had almost forgotten. I wasn't sure I could go back. Besides, I had a new card, a game-changing one, in my hand. "Maman, I passed my exam." She was staring at the wall again. "He's always been like that. How many times did he return from one of his socalled business trips with lipstick or perfume all over his dirty shirts? He always had an explanation. The only woman he had no time for was his wife. Mind you, I wasn't even his first wife." "I passed my exam," I repeated in a firmer voice. "I haven't seen my scores, but I must have made a killing in math. I'm sure I got all the right answers." She closed her eyes. "So you reach a point when you say, I can't take it anymore. God didn't put me on this earth to be so miserable. He won't blame me if I go back to Him. I might as well end it all now."
Delerive It seemed to me that my mother was offering me her hand and I wanted to take it, but she pulled back. "Promise me not to take those drugs again," I said. "Who would miss me, I'm asking you?" I couldn't answer. Everything was so confusing. "And now they want to lock me up." "Maman, I'm sure it's not true." Again she turned toward me, her eyes burning with anger. I thought she was going to yell, "and now you're calling me a liar", but she just sighed and shrugged her shoulders, saying in a barely audible voice, "How can you know? You're just a child." "A child who passed his exam, Maman." "You'll all be pleased when I'm locked up. Good riddance, you'll all say. You'll invite all the friends you want « including that black boy « and your father will be free to fool around." I didn't know what to say. With a movement of her hand, my mother dismissed me. Something in me, however, refused to concede defeat. "If I become really good in math," I said, "maybe I'll be a great financier." But she had already turned off the light. *** "I can't eat this pasta," my father groaned, looking disgusted at the spaghetti Bonne Maman had made for dinner. "Janine wasn't a world-class chef, but she never served goo like this." It was only the climax of a rant that had started as soon as he sat down at the dinner table. He had been relentlessly going after Bonne Maman.
Delerive "No napkins tonight? Maybe it's my job to set the table! And how long has this wine been in the sun? And why don't you bring the dish to the table instead of serving us in the kitchen?" I stole glances at my grandmother. She seemed to be taking it all in stride. Nothing seemed to perturb her legendary appetite. Personally, I found nothing wrong with her spaghetti. "When does Janine come back?" I asked. "She won't be back. Your mother fired her the day before we left. Apparently, I was making passes at her, too." He sighed and pushed his plate away. "In any event, as bad a cook as she was, she never put so much salt in our food." Not getting any reaction from Bonne Maman, he turned to me and said, "I don't know how you can eat this." I shrugged my shoulders. "Cheese?" my father asked. Bonne Maman shook her head. "They were closed," she said, calmly. "I'm not surprised, given how late you went. What about dessert? Don't tell me the bakery was closed, too." I thought I saw a glimmer of a smile on Bonne Maman's lips. "No they weren't, but they were out of pastries," she said. "All they had was bread. So I bought some apples from the Algerian."
Delerive My father rose, sending his chair to the floor, and threw his napkin on the table. "You know damn well that I don't eat fruit. Thanks for a shitty meal!" I was certain now that sparkles were dancing behind Bonne Maman's thick glasses. "I hope you like the spaghetti, my little Victor," she whispered as soon as my father had left. "I cooked yours just right." I couldn't believe my ears. I buried my face into my napkin to muffle my laughter. "And I didn't add too much salt either," Bonne Maman went on. I got up and knelt down next to my grandmother, who pulled my face against her. I liked the smell of soap on her skin. "You know, Bonne Maman, I passed my exam." "Is that a fact? You're not kidding me, are you?" "I swear. French, math, mostly and history and geography, as well. I passed, I'm telling you." "Did you tell your father? He must be happy." "He didn't even ask." Bonne Maman's chin was trembling more than ever. "I'm proud of my Victor," she said. "In that case, the surprise you'll find in your room is well deserved." "I didn't see anything."
Delerive "Behind your pajamas, on the bottom shelf. There is a little tart. Pear and almond, your favorite." "But, I thought you said, they only had bread left." "Did I say that?" One day, when whisky had made my father philosophical and he had noticed my presence, he had said, "Remember what I'm going to say, Victor. You cannot win with women. They'll always have the last word." Bonne Maman had just proven him right.
I spent the next few days at home, wandering from room to room, feeling empty and lost, lying on my bed with Le dernier des Mohicans, a present from Madame Laquaire. I would have liked to be such a hero and imagined myself resisting torture, all the while remaining stoic. Why wasn't I more like Hawkeye and his valiant warriors? I was living in limbo. My father was at work, Madame Robillard, the nurse, had informed me that my mother wasn't seeing anyone and Bonne Maman was busy with what had been Janine's work, running errands, cleaning, cooking. I would have liked to go out and spend time with Jacky, but was afraid to leave even for a moment. What if my mother wanted to see me? Bonne Maman and I were finishing lunch that TuesdayMadame Robillard insisted on taking her meals in the kitchenwhen my father arrived unexpectedly. "Pack a suitcase for your daughter," he ordered my grandmother. "They're on their way to pick her up." "Who's they, Papa?" "An ambulance. I found her a place in Le Vésinet." Bonne Maman left the table as fast as her corpulence allowed her, while I followed my father to the sitting room. "Can I speak to you, Papa?" He raised his eyes from the day's mail.
Delerive "What now?" "You said I wouldn't have to go to boarding school if I passed my exams, didn't you?" He sighed, "It doesn't matter anymore. We have a new situation." I felt my blood leaving my face. Suddenly I had a taste of chalk in my mouth. "How's that, Papa?" "Everything's going to be different. I don't know how long your mother will stay in that place. Months, years, who knows? She might never come back. For the moment, they all agree, she cannot live alone. They even fear she might get worse." "What's wrong with her?" "You're too young to understand. The fact is, I'm always on the road and you're not going to stay here by yourself. I can't even trust «" With a jerk of his chin he pointed at the object of his scorn, who was busy with a suitcase. "So, you're going to boarding school." A crater opened under my feet. All I could do was stutter, "But « but I wanted to tell you « I couldn't with « with everything happening with Maman and « and you didn't ask, but I passed my exams. I'll be in the next grade next year." "Really?" During one brief moment, with one eyebrow raised, my father looked genuinely startled. Happy, satisfied, I couldn't tell. At least I had succeeded in surprising him.
Delerive "Well, that's good, but it doesn't change a thing," he said at last. "There's no other solution. You're going to Ambroise Paré in Tours. I sent your application off this morning. With a check, I might add." "You didn't even talk to me!" "Why should I? Do I need your permission to spend a small fortune on your education?" Suddenly, being a boarder at St. Jean-Baptiste sounded attractive. Anything to remain close to Madame Laquaire, Nora, and Jacky. "Why not St. Jean-Baptiste then?" "They're even more expensive. It's Paris, after all." He gave me a long, grave look above his reading glasses, and then added, "I will reorganize my life, move maybe. I've been offered a position in Strasbourg. I haven't decided yet." "What when Maman comes back?" "If she comes back. And then, whether we live in Paris or Timbuktu, what difference does it make?" "Maman always said she could only live in Paris." "Your mother said many things." "And what about Lucie?" "Your sister has her own life now. She only comes here for her laundry." "There's Bonne Maman." A shrug and a roll of the eyes were his only response. "You're leaving by train next Wednesday."
Delerive From a pile of paper he fished out a green-covered booklet. "Here! This is a list of the things you must take along. Ask me if you need to buy anything." I was speechless. In just a few seconds, my world had crumbled. My dreams had been just that, mere illusions, and I had fought so hard for nothing. I was struggling to decide if I should run away or go back on the attack when the doorbell rang. Twice. I watched from afar as Madame Robillard led two white-clad ambulance men to my parents¶ bedroom. They were carrying a chromed stretcher on wheels, on top of which a gray blanket was folded. When they appeared again minutes later, my first impulse was to run toward my mother, but when she turned her face, the look in her eyes stopped me cold. Such anger! "Eh bah, eh bah!" my grandmother muttered behind me. I threw myself into her arms, my knees bent to be at her level. "She'll get better, won't she, Bonne Maman?" "With God's help!" She patted my cheek. I sniffled, but then I thought of Hawkeye. No, I wasn't going to cry. *** Nora was wearing an apron over her pink robe. "I didn't expect you so early," she said. It was my last day in Paris. Bonne Maman had been retreating to her room after her daughter's departure, and my father didn't pay attention to my comings and goings. I had never been so free.
Delerive "We said dinner," Nora insisted. "It's only half past five." "I know, I know, but I was with Madame Laquaire. Look at what she gave me." Nora untied her apron. I opened a box with a worn-out red leather cover. Inside, a beautiful Waterman pen rested on a satin cushion. "The nib is real gold," I said proudly. "Her mother bought it for her when she became a teacher. Now she wants me to have it." "Well, well. Seems to me she likes you." "She said the pen is to make sure that I never forget her. As if there was ever a risk of that." "I invited her tonight. She'll join us for dinner." "I know. That's why she asked me to leave. She wants to rest and make herself pretty. Where's Jacky?" "At work. He'll be back at 7." Jacky had finally been hired at his favorite garage. It was the first step on his road to the Grand Prix races. A whiff of spices came from the tiny kitchen. "Smells good!" "Nora made you her famous couscous." "And for dessert?" "That's a surprise." Nora went to check her oven and then came back. When she sat next to me, a ray of sun through the curtains gave her brown thighs a coppery hue. Her robe opened
Delerive and I caught a glimpse of a breast. How I would have liked to hold it in my hand! I could almost feel its weight, its warmth. "Nora prepared you a nice dinner," she said, "but she didn't have time to buy you a present. No, that's not true. She forgot." The words came out of my mouth before I had time to think. "I know what would really make me happy." She looked at me, intrigued. My face was burning, all of a sudden. I couldn't take my eyes off her breast. She quickly closed her robe, maintaining it into place with her hand over her heart. "Victor," she finally said, after a silence that seemed to last an eternity, "did Nora understand what you mean?" I couldn't believe my own temerity. Rendered mute by the enormity of my confession, I was unable to utter another word, but my silence was all the more eloquent. Nora stared at me, her eyes half shut, slowly shaking her head. Then she finally said, "Victor! Victor, you're really impossible." I had crossed a line. There was no time or room for reserve any longer. Common sense or education didn't apply anymore. "You're so beautiful," I whispered. "But, Victor, I could be your mother." "That would've been nice." "That's sweet of you to say, and Nora would've liked it too, but that's not what she means. There are things that aren't « and what exactly did you want?"
Delerive My mouth was dry and I could almost hear my heartbeats. "To touch you « there," I said, my eyes still glued to her breast. "I'd like that so much!" "Victor! You've got all your life ahead of you. Plenty of time." "Just a little kiss. A memory for me to take to boarding school. Please, Nora!" She combed my hair slowly with her long fingers, then smiled. "After all," she murmured to herself before opening her robe. I thought I would faint. These breasts were even more magnificent now that they were offered to me. They were heavy, slightly sagging maybe, and splendidly round. Their dark skin looked like the most delicate silk. The areolas in their center were grainy and their nipples ink black. Slowly at first, overwhelmed by awe, I held my fingers out, then put the palm of my hand under Nora's right breast. It felt as if a dove had just landed in my hand. Nora smiled at me. She was intrigued, amused, but also full of sweetness. I leaned over and lay my cheek on her left breast. Her skin smelled of pepper. I wanted to keep my eyes open, but how could I withstand so much delight? I don't know how long I stayed like that, with my eyes closed and my heart beating hard. A fraction of eternity. Then, as Nora was gently stroking the nape of my neck, I took a nipple between my lips. "We said just a little kiss," Nora protested as I felt her nipple harden. I raised my head briefly and lay my lips on her other breast. "It's heaven," I said. Nora closed her robe and drew me into her arms. She looked down at my lap and sighed: "Look at you! You're in a state. What are you going to do now?" I shrugged my shoulders. "I don't care," I said, and I was almost sincere.
Delerive *** My father stopped the car and double-parked behind a van unloading a group of kids. "Your train leaves in thirty-five minutes," he said. "You didn't forget anything, did you? Your ticket? The address?" "I have everything, Papa." He was staring ahead, seemingly carrying on some inner debate. "One day you'll understand," he finally said in a low tone of voice. "Life isn't that simple. You do what you can with the cards you've been dealt. It's easy to blame your parents, to criticize, but..." "I didn't say anything, Papa." "I know, I know, but all the same. Hopefully, you'll tally it all up one day and you'll see how much I spent for your education. I've got all the numbers, in case you're ever interested." What was I supposed to say or do? He sighed and said, "I'm not expecting a thank you, mind you. Children don't know how to be grateful." Then he stepped out of the Citroën and walked back to the trunk. He handed me my suitcase and backpack, then shrugged his shoulders and attempted a smile. "Well, there's nothing more to be said, is there? Good luck, I guess. I'll call you tonight to make sure everything's all right. And I'll see you in November, won't I?" "Yes, Papa. For two weeks. Let me know how Maman's doing." "Yeah, right! A taxi driver honked several times.
Delerive "I've got to go now," my father said. For one brief moment, I thought he was going to give me a kiss, but he held his hand out. "My son is no longer a baby," he said, as if answering some voice in his head. I was climbing the first steps toward the station when my father's voice stopped me. "Victor!" I turned around. My father was standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking more uncomfortable than I had ever seen him. In his hand was a wad of folded banknotes. "After all," he said, with an apologetic shrug, avoiding my eyes, "Why don't you take this? It's for having passed your exams." Then he turned around, waving at the angry taxi driver. I stayed motionless, banknotes in my hand, waiting for my father to turn around, but he just sat down behind the wheel and drove away without looking back. The hall of the Gare St. Lazare was teeming with travelers. I looked for my train on the departure board and then headed for Platform 7. I wasn't as sad as I had imagined I would be, I wasn't even afraid of the unknown. Instead, I felt anesthetized. Perhaps Nora's rum punch still had something to do with my numbness, but I felt as if I was in an invisible deep-diving suit, while shapes and faces floated all around me, swimming like algae. Everything felt unreal. As I was approaching the platform, I stopped. Suddenly, I had a powerful urge for light and fresh air. I wanted a moment of respite and freedom without having to account to anyone. At the information desk I learned that several trains would be
Delerive leaving for Tours before the end of the day. The man also told me where to find and how to use the automated lockers for my luggage. A few minutes later, I was running down the stairs, and crossing the parking area to finally find myself on a busy street in a neighborhood I didn't know. I didn't have anything specific in mind. I just wanted to feel alive. A light breeze was blowing in my face. I let my feet lead me among the crowds of shoppers scurrying around the neighboring department stores. At first, I was filled with the joy of freedom, but gradually, I began to feel vulnerable, finding the unsmiling faces threatening. Instead of the exhilaration I had expected, I was losing the sense of identity for which I had fought so hard over the last months. I had hoped for some excitement, a sense of adventure, a last bright memory before boarding school, but it had been an illusion. The walk had been a bad idea. I turned right onto the next street, then right again, figuring I was heading back to the station. Moments later, I realized that I was lost. A blue enameled sign told me that I was at the corner of the rue de Provence, but that wasn't enough and I looked for a friendly face, someone who would point me in the right direction. It was then, as I was turning around and around, that I noticed the women on the other sidewalk. They were heavily made-up, and they wore short skirts, with blouses that showed a lot of cleavage. Many of them were smoking and they all smiled and waved at the cars that were slowly driving by. I realized that I had found myself at the frontier of a forbidden world. Suddenly, finding the station was the least of my worries, I had just found the adventure I had been seeking.
Delerive Not daring to stare at those women for whom I barely existed, I walked slowly, my hands in my pockets, keeping my head down, discovering the shiny legs in their nylons up to the hems of the short skirts, before raising my eyes at the last second to steal a brief glance at their half-naked breasts and red lips. My feet were heavy, my forehead afire, my blood was beating in my temples. I watched furtively as, at times, after a brief exchange, one of the women disappeared, a man on her heels, into the narrow entrance of one of the many small hotels that lined the street. I stopped in front of a patisserie, pretending to look at the pastries and pralines. In one of the mirrors that bordered the window I watched two women chatting on the sidewalk across the street. The taller one, not-so-young-anymore, with a bleached mane and a mask of rouge and eyeliner, wore a yellow dress at least two sizes too small. I couldn't see her face very well, but she seemed vulgar to me. The smaller and younger woman, on the other hand, was a slim brunette and wore far less make-up. If the slit of her red skirt hadn't revealed an inch of white skin above a stocking and if her blouse had been more modestly buttoned, she could have been any of the pretty young women who used to turn my head on my way to St. JeanBaptiste. I liked the way her short, black hair framed her kitten-like face. A black Mercedes came to a halt. The tall blonde leaned into the window on the driver's side, then ran around the car as quickly as her stiletto heels allowed. Slowly, I turned around. The young brunette saw me and smiled. There was nothing provocative in her smile, but I felt myself blushing and walked away. Several minutes later, I realized that the woman's smile wasn't going to leave me. I was going to take it with me to boarding school. I would see it every night like
Delerive an unkept promise and be filled with hunger, just like I was now. How sorry I was going to be! I turned around and crossed the street. I was no longer thinking, pondering, or weighing the good and bad. "What can I do for you, sweetie?" the woman asked when I stopped in front of her. Her eyes were laughing while mine were glued to her blouse. "I have money," I stammered, showing her the banknotes in my fist. "Let me see." I opened my fingers. She hesitated. "That's not much. Don't forget you have to pay for the room, too. Is that all you have?" I lowered my head. She sighed, then said, "What can I say? You sure are cute and you look like a nice boy. By the way, how old are you?" "Eighteen." "She laughed. "Sure. Me too. Follow me." My mouth was dry when we stopped at the front desk, where a fat man with a glass eye handed the woman a key. I followed her up the stairs registering vaguely the dirty wallpaper, the worn-out carpet. My eyes were glued to the calves, thighs and
Delerive buttocks that were leading me to paradise, or hell, I wasn't too sure which, but didn't really care. An acrid odor of disinfectant floated in the air of the little room. The curtains were drawn and the light came from three lamps, one on each side of the bed and one over the washbasin. One wall was covered entirely with a mirror. The woman threw her bag on an armchair. "What's your name?" "Victor." "I'm Violette. We're two V's." She unzipped her skirt and let it fall to the floor, then took off her black panties and sat down on the bidet next to the washbasin. As she let the water run, tested the temperature with the back of her hand, then splashed herself, I watched, enthralled, the naked white buttocks, the thighs, the black stockings and garter belt, the red shoes with the high heels. Time had stopped. She grabbed a towel, then got up and turned around. "What are you waiting for? I don't have all day, you know." Feverishly, I undressed, all the while staring at Violette's black triangle. "Now let me wash you," she said, indicating the washbasin. Minutes later, Violette spread a towel on the bed cover and lay down. I was standing at the foot of the bed with my hands crossed in front of me. She opened her arms. "What are you trying to hide?" she asked laughing. "Isn't it what we're here for?" I approached. Violette unbuttoned her blouse and unhooked her bra, releasing two pale breasts with nipples like raspberries. "Come here now," she said.
Delerive I let Violette guide me. It was burning hot inside her. When she saw me close my eyes and shudder, she gave me a little tap on the head and let me rest a few moments before pushing me back gently. Without a word, she went back to the bidet. I lay on the bed, unable to believe that such a bottomless void could follow the burning desire I could hardly remember. A few minutes later, Violette was all dressed and ready to go. She checked her make-up in the mirror and opened the door. "Take your time," she said, "but not too long. They turn the rooms over here." Then, with a little wave of her hand, she disappeared. I lay there with my hands crossed behind my head and stared at the ceiling. The thought that my father's money had been put to good use brought a smile to my face. Then I realized that I had turned a page and was now a castaway, thrown by a powerful wave onto a foreign shore. Far behind me now was a house that I had once called home, and ahead of me was the great unknown, but I was not afraid. Never before had I known such peace of mind. There was total silence in me. I had come here in search of pleasure, and had found serenity. I felt as if I had finally reached the end of my childhood.
I'm wearing the same black tie I had on at Marthe Laquaire's funeral. Her heart had stopped a few hours after I had driven her home and her doctor assured me she went quietly from sleep to death. Twice a month I used to take my former tutor to one of the restaurants she liked, warm, casual bistros where she enjoyed being welcomed as a regular. That night we had dined at Le Clocher du Village in Auteuil, one of her favorites. "It's like home cooking here," she had remarked, "except it's much better than mine." We had our ritual, honed over the years. I would go up to her apartment for a drinkgin and tonic for me, port for herand we would then take my car to Les Copains, Chez Marcel et Janine, or Le Clocher du Village. After dinner, we would linger over a cup of herbal tea and then take a walk, weather permitting, before driving back. Those walks had become somewhat symbolic toward the end. A few steps and back to the car, rarely more. Parkinson¶s disease made her cold hand shake in mine. "My hand may be cold, but you keep my heart warm," she would comment, her voice weak, but still singing with the music of her native south. She claimed the illness had made her accent come back. It's been fourteen years already, but I remember our last dinner, in all its details. The past has become an eternal present. She had taken a terrine of salmon and a trout with almonds that evening.
Delerive "Isn't it amazing that I was never able to swim, with all the fish I've eaten all my life?" she had remarked. Our conversations followed a strictly established pattern. She would always start by asking about my parents, but didn't really seem to listen to my answers. "Still no news from your father?" "None! My last letter was returned with an unknown at this address stamp. "And your mother?" "Still the same." She didn't insist and that was just fine with me. I didn't feel like describing my latest visit, didn't care to relive those moments. Next, Marthe inquired about my love life. "And what about the last one - what's her name again? Claudia? Clara? Is she the right one this time?" Sometimes, I took a moment to ponder, weighing my verdict, but my answer was always the same. "So, you don't want to get married again? Is that it?" Probably. My failed marriage and subsequent relationships have convinced me that living with a woman is not for me. It's all too difficult, too painful. "Don't take it too hard, no marriage is perfect," Marthe often remarked when I was considering a divorce. "Misunderstandings, scenes, arguments, they're all part of the deal." Yes, I know, and I understand, but as soon as I hear a voice rise in anger, I am propelled into the past. Then I start shaking, and running away is my only salvation.
Delerive In a way Marthe Laquaire was the woman of my life. No other woman ever offered me such peace. I tried, though, I did. I wanted so much to believe that marital bliss was in my future, but after the exaltation of the first date, the delight of the first embrace, once the mating dance was over, there always came a moment when I would get burned. My marriage to Céline did produce a daughter whom I love very much, though. I see Nathalie over lunch every Wednesday. She's a ballerina and currently lives with a Norwegian boyfriend of the bohemian kind. I'm proud of her and help and encourage her as much as I can. Our lunches together are often fun, although sometimes contentious. We should avoid discussing politics. I can smell the coffee brewing in the kitchen. Outside, the sun is making an appearance between the heavy clouds and its rays strike the dome of the Pantheon across the square. Why is my heart so cold? This question has been with me for the last three days. When Bonne Maman passed away, I was still a young man. I remember how horribly sad I felt, but her death was somehow part of the greater scheme of things. A part of me was ready for that loss, and the pain was bearable. Lately however, I started missing her badly, as if she had, after all those years, re-entered my life, and I've been catching myself recently, thinking of her more than I did when she was alive. I see her bewildered look, I hear her muttering "Eh bah, eh bah!" Only last month, as I was coming home after having bought my yearly supply of shirts on sale at the Galeries Lafayette, I heard myself thinking, "You were right, Bonne Maman, they lose on each article, but «"
Delerive Then, Marthe Laquaire was taken from me and I suffered my first real heartbreak, naked and brutal. I screamed in anger. Against all reason, in spite of the advance of Parkinson's, I wasn¶t ready. I even broke my thumb while banging my fist on the wall. It was too unfair. We hadn't really said goodbye! And then, Jacky was badly wounded in an accident in Monte Carlo. He was in the mechanics pit, when the wheel of a racing car literally flew toward him. We hadn't written or spoken in a long, long time, but I received a telegram from Nora who now lives in Toulon with her brother. I immediately flew down to be with her. Nora has gained weight, lots of it, and her bearing is no longer regal, but when she took me in her arms and squeezed me against her voluminous bosom, her peppery fragrance took me many years back. The memory of a certain brief moment of ecstasy will never die. Jacky lost an arm from the accident. Several times, I wanted to visit him, but he wouldn't see me. "Give me time," he would only say on the phone. "I'll call you when I'm ready." He never did. My point is, pain is no stranger to me. Why is it then that I feel like a cold stone sits in my chest where my heart is supposed to be? If I don't shed a tear today, then when? I finish my cup of coffee and glance at my watch. Time is up. I put on my dark gray jacket and navy-blue overcoat. Just as I walk to the door, the telephone rings. "Allo, Victor?"
Delerive "Good morning Lucie. I was just leaving. Two more seconds and I would have been out." "I know, I know. After five years, you'd think I wouldn't screw up the time difference, but I was never good at math. I'm not like you." "Subtracting two hours is not that complicated." My sister is a gynecologist at St. Denis de la Réunion, somewhere in the Indian Ocean, where her husband heads the rheumatology department of a hospital. "When I realized, I was afraid I'd miss you," she says. "I really don't have much time. What did you want to say?" A silence. I can see her, eyebrows raised, with the look of a surprised bird. "What do you mean, what do I want to say? It's a difficult day for both of us. If I hadn't broken my hip, I'd be with you this morning." "Really? You'd have made the trip?" "Victor!" I have nothing against Lucie. I envy her family life, the two boys she insists on calling "your nephews," even though our only communication is one yearly Christmas card. I respect her sense of duty, her commitment to the community, and that sort of thing, but the fact is, we never were on the same wavelength. Whenever one of us extended a hand, the other found a way to bite it. "Are you serious?" she says. "You really don't believe I'd have come?" "It's not that I don't believe. I just don't know. She wasn't even your mother, after all. I didn't go to your mother's funerals." "Very funny. You weren't even born then. Did you write to Papa?"
Delerive "Where? At what address?" "I don't know. The last one, maybe. It might have been forwarded." "And you think he would've made the trip?" "I don't know." "Well, I do. Last time we talked was two years ago when Maman was admitted to St.Vincent. He said to me, 'sorry Victor, you'll have to deal with your mother, because me, I gave at the office." I hear Lucie's sigh. "I know, you told me." "I'm running late, Lucie. I really have to go." After a moment of silence, I force a laugh. "She might come to, just to yell at me." "I see. Victor is protecting himself. He doesn't want to feel the pain. You go now, little brother, and be strong." I hang up, suddenly puzzled. Never before has she called me little brother. I drive the Renault up the garage ramp. It's a company car. On the passenger's seat I see the Export Division's budget and five-year plan that I forgot last night. Confidential documents; I guess I wasn't thinking straight. When I come back from the cemetery this afternoon, I really must take a hard look at next year's budget. The sales forecasts are always too optimistic. I am Managing Director of Syncom France, the leading producer of data processing systems for small and mid-size companies.
Delerive I only became a "great" director, as the woman I'm about to bid farewell to would have said, after Marthe Laquaire's death. As her health began to wane, I turned down all offers of transfers to foreign subsidiaries of the group, the only path to promotion in the Syncom universe. When she passed away however, I caught up with my career, spending time in Belgium and Germany. I even lived one year in Brazil. While in Sao Paolo, I almost got married, but no, I had once again confused sex and love. In the hospital parking lot I remain a few minutes in my seat, with my hands flat on the steering wheel, a habit developed over years of weekly visits. Getting ready to see my mother, hear her tirades, accusations, stories about the past, from which she always knew how to dig out some painful detail, I could feel my heart racing with anguish. I would lay my hands on the wheel and watch them, waiting patiently for them to stop shaking. I would try to make fun of myself then, saying aloud, "Look at you, a man well in his forties, a nice car, a corner office, they call you Monsieur le Directeur, and here you are, shaking like a leaf." Well, this is my last visit and I have nothing to fear anymore. Following the old routine, I cross the hospital lobby and take the B elevator. Only as I walk up the icy corridor on the eleventh floor do I realize: of course, she's not here anymore. The chapel is in the other building. The last time I was here, only a few days ago, she was in a coma. "I think this is the end," Doctor Franchet whispered to me, after beckoning me out into the corridor.
Delerive "Is she in pain, Doctor? The way she moves her head, she looks like she's fighting something." "Reflexes. No, I don't believe she's in pain." I stayed at her bedside, aware that my presence served no purpose, but unable to think of a better use of my time. It was too late to go to the office and I didn't feel like going back home. A movie, maybe? No, I finally realized that I wanted to enjoy a moment of peace with my mother. Finally! Yes, I thought, this could be a first, better later than never. She wouldn't accuse me of various misdeeds, wouldn't start a tirade against those who had ruined her lifeher husband and her son, her son and her husband wouldn't make fun of my divorce, wouldn't throw her tray at me. I could spend, without fear, a moment with the woman who had carried me in her womb. Sitting at her bedside in soft lighting and silence, I remembered our last cuddle so many years ago when she was packing before going away on vacation. She had my framed photograph with her. If only I had known that day. And then I caught myself, thinking, "What? What if you had known? What would you have done?" I also evoked my mother's last words, from a few days before, as she was traveling back and forth through that mysterious space between what remained of her life and « and what? She had opened her eyes, and with a gesture of her withered hand, invited me to move close to her mouth.
Delerive "You were the love of my life, Victor," she whispered. "Your father, that was different, but you, you were my passion. Why did you make me so miserable? You were horrible to me, Victor. A monster." It had been a mother's farewell to her son, words so outrageous that just patting her hand and smiling had been my only response, a matter of survival really. The chapel looks like a bunker, with only two narrow stained-glass windows to let in weak rays of light. It is a concrete cubic structure, its only decoration a crucifix and, next to the simplest of altars, an urn, filled with artificial flowers. Funeral masses are usually held in real churches. The benches here could seat twenty people, I guess, but I am alone. Véronique offered to come along, but I said no. We've only been together for a few weeks and she really doesn't know me yet. "It must be terrible to lose a mother," she said. I just nodded and changed the subject. A young man with a bad case of acne welcomes me, and points at the open coffin. "Father Charles thought you might want a moment with her by yourself. He'll be back in ten minutes." Then he disappears. I walk up the aisle. My mother's snow-white hair has been pulled back. Her skin is the color of the candles on the altar. Lately the drugs had made her puffy, but her features are precise again, and the waxy skin is taut on her bones. It is possible to
Delerive remember that she once was beautiful. I take her wedding band out my pocket. She threw it at me one day, during one of her fits of rage. I don't really know why I'm doing it, but I put the band between her crossed fingers. That's where it belongs, after all. I stand frozen in front of this body that my mother used to inhabit. Where is she now? I don't know what or whom to believe. I lean over to kiss her forehead. It is cold and hard as a stone. I whisper, "I hope that you're finally happy, Maman, wherever your are." And then I feel a cleft running along the dam, behind which I have taken refuge for so many years. Is it the fact that I heard myself say the word Maman? I don't know, but a wave is about to roll over me, and there's no resisting. Tears swell from deep inside me, as brutal as nausea. I can barely make out my mother's face. A yawning chasm opens up in my chest. I am sobbing now, sobbing like I don't remember doing since I became an adult. Suddenly, I am filled with rage. I don't even know why. It's destroying me. I scream in silence. With a violent kick, I knock a bench over, sending it crashing with a loud thud. Like a blind man I feel my mother's lips under my fingers. Maman, Maman, Damn!
Pierre Delerive 2011
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