Fiction and Drama
The Mystery Guest
The following is a partial translation of L’Invité mystère, a memoir by Grégoire Bouillier and the first of his works to appear in English. Bouillier was born in 1960, in Algeria. He was raised in Paris. His previous book, Rapport sur moi (“Report on Myself”), tells the story of his childhood, his first loves, and his parents’ open marriage. (Bouillier begins by explaining that he was conceived during a threesome.) “Boccacio and Aristophanes have always struck me as coming near the truth,” he writes, “as do Sade and Georges Bataille.” Yet the writer who exerts the clearest influence over Bouillier’s work is Michel Leiris, an anthropologist associated with the surrealist movement, whose memoirs were translated by Richard Howard and Lydia Davis (and celebrated by Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation). Like Leiris, Bouillier revisits past humiliations in search of the secret, fairy-tale logic that governs his inner life. In The Mystery Guest the humiliation begins with a phone call from his ex-girlfriend, the great love of Bouillier’s youth, who had left him abruptly ten years before.
It was the day Michel Leiris died. This would have been late September 1990, or maybe the very beginning of October. The date escapes me—whatever it was I can always look it up later on—in any case it was a Sunday, because I was home in the middle of the afternoon, and it was cold out, and I’d gone to sleep in all my clothes, wrapped up in a blanket, the way I generally did when I was home alone. Cold and oblivion were all I was looking for at the time. This didn’t worry me unduly. Sooner or later, I knew, I’d rejoin the world of the living, just not yet. I had seen enough, I felt. Beings, things, landscapes . . . I had enough to last me for the next two hundred years and no inclination to go hunting for new material. I didn’t want any more trouble.
I woke to the ringing of the phone. Darkness had fallen in the room. I picked up; I knew it was her. Even before I was conscious of knowing, I knew. It was her voice, her breath, it was practically her face, and along with her face a thousand moments of happiness came rising from the past, gilded with sunlight.
I sat up in bed, heart pounding in my chest. I actually heard this going on, this unnatural pounding, as if my heart were electrified. I heard it thudding in every corner of the room—and this was no illusion, I wasn’t dreaming, there wasn’t any question it was her. The senses don’t lie, no matter how unlikely it was to be hearing her voice now, after the years I’d never heard from her, ever, not once. How appropriate flashed through my mind. And on the exact same day Michel Leiris died was my next thought, and the coincidence struck me as so outlandish it was all I could do to keep from laughing. I felt as if I’d plugged into the inner hilarity of things, or else brushed up against a truth so overwhelming only laughter could keep it at bay—but maybe it wasn’t a coincidence at all! Maybe she wouldn’t have called, it occurred to me, if Michel Leiris hadn’t died. Of course that’s what happened: she’d heard about Michel Leiris and somehow the fact of his disappearance had made her reappear. However obscurely the one fact figured in the other, I sensed a connection. The significance of a dream, we’re told, has less to do with its overt drama than with the details; a long time ago it struck me that the same was true of real life. Or of what passes among us for real life.
But this was no time for a philosophical discussion, and besides, I was in no shape to bandy wits. I could hear how soft and gummy my voice was, how drowsy-sounding, and somehow I just knew that she must under no circumstances be allowed to know she’d woken me up. That was crucial, even if it meant sounding cold and detached—and why on earth did she have to call, not just on the very same day Michel Leiris had died but when I was fast asleep and at my most vulnerable, my least up to answering the phone, when in a word I was completely incapable of appreciating this miracle for what it was? In real life, it goes without saying, the ideal situation eludes us, and no doubt that’s a good thing for humanity in general, but just then I’d have done anything to keep her from guessing that she’d caught me sound asleep in the middle of the afternoon. It was out of the question. Either it would look like a sign of weakness or else it would make me look churlish, to be caught napping the one time something exceptional actually happened; or, then again, she might draw certain conclusions—I didn’t know what conclusions, exactly, but still, I’d just as soon she not draw them. And no, I wanted to protest, it wasn’t as if my life had devolved into one long slumber. It wasn’t as if I’d been languishing, stricken and alone, since she’d left me. On the contrary. I just happened to be leading a life of leisure.
The strangest part was how I completely forgot that I’d sworn never to speak to her again, and that she’d left me years before without a word of explanation, without so much as saying good-bye, the way they abandon dogs when summer comes (as I put it to myself at the time), the way they abandon a dog chained to a tree for good measure. And I’d circled my tree in both directions and climbed up into it and spent a long time—spent millions of hours, years—in the void, cursing her name in the darkness. Yes, cursing her, because her disappearance had taught me that I was a less exemplary person than I’d previously supposed; but now the whole thing might as well never have happened and all that mattered was the fact of her calling, and that the day for action had come.
How I had yearned for this moment. I’d been looking forward to it so long I already knew how it would go. I even knew what she was about to say because I’d rehearsed it all in my head, could see myself explain softly that the past was the past, that the statute of limitations had expired, that it didn’t matter that she’d left me (or that she’d left me the way she’d left me), it was ancient history. Really and truly. I’d dug down to the root of my unhappiness and it had nothing to do with her, I didn’t blame her in the least, and in this cruel world we’re all innocents, we do the best we can, and worse things are happening all around us even as we speak. Just this morning Michel Leiris had died, and yesterday the last of the Mohawks had laid down his arms, and tomorrow a war and/or scandal would break out and be replaced by something else, and in the end the world would turn the page before I did, and it didn’t exactly speak well of me that I’d taken years to get over her, and it’s not as if I was talking about the Movie of the Week, where love triumphs, justice gets handed down, liberty’s reestablished in the hearts of men, humanity regains a name and a face and the whole thing happens between 8:45 and 10:30, 10:35 at the latest—once I watched them save the earth from a giant meteor and even that didn’t take two hours—and I’m not the sort of person who mixes up real life and fiction, no more than anybody else does, but the conviction had snuck up on me that I, too, would smile again in my own ninety minutes, give or take. Yes, I’d be smiling again in a more or less similar lapse of time; her leaving had been a blip. There was something crazy about how far it had set me back. In retrospect, the insane way she’d disappeared actually seemed for the best. It showed panache, at any rate. Most stories just fizzle out as if they’d never happened. And I agreed with her, that was the thing, I agreed that she’d been fighting for her life. We couldn’t go on the way we’d been, and she’d been driven to get out by nothing less than the survival instinct, and she was sorry, so she told me she was sorry and asked me in a whisper to forgive her, and it made me want to cry, to let the tears flow down my face, hearing her ask over and over how she could have just up and left, after four years together, after all we’d lived through, all we’d shared; but she’d had no choice. She was hurting so bad back then. And she was so young and felt so guilty, without knowing why, she felt guilty all the time—I’d never know how guilty she felt—and maybe it was society’s fault, maybe it was the fault of her family, she didn’t know, but in the end she did the only thing she could and went off with the first man who wanted her. And he was a nice man, and he loved her, and she loved him, too, despite his age and the fact that he was short, and now they had a little girl, and she was happy I saw it the way I did because (and she knew I’d laugh) she kept worrying that I might have turned into a bum. Sometimes on the bus she’d look out for me on city benches. She had this feeling that things had gone badly for me and it scared her. For years she’d been afraid of bumping into me. I had no idea how long it had taken just getting up the nerve to call, and tracking me down wasn’t easy either, and in the end she just wanted me to know how sorry she really was and to forgive her. I had to understand, it meant the world to her. And I understood. I was all understanding. And I forgave, for in my dreams I was great and magnanimous. And besides, what else could I say or do?
But this was her actual voice, not just some figment that I’d invented to fill the void and salve my wounds, as they say; finally I’d hear her version, finally she’d come out and ask my forgiveness and acknowledge the thing she’d done. I pictured her hand gently shutting my eyelids so I could open them freely on other sights and love again with no second thoughts. Yes, she owed me an explanation—she owed me something at any rate. I wanted to know the truth of our story, its truth and its meaning. I wanted to cast off my burden. And I was ready.
But she hadn’t called to talk about the past. She didn’t even refer to the past, much less clear things up the way I’d hoped, and my heart leapt with anticipation, crowed with joy, rose high over my head only to plummet back into the shadows, burrowing down in shame before the dawning truth that she was calling simply to invite me to a party—and will it never end, this continual pinching of the flesh in disbelief?—a “big party,” to be precise. She was counting on me to come. It was important. She was asking as a favor, and she laughed faintly on her end while silently I kept telling myself that she had, in fact, called after all these years just to ask me to a party. As if nothing had happened and time had laid waste to everything and Michel Leiris were still alive.
Eyes closed, I listened. It was a birthday party for her husband’s best friend, her husband who’d finally married her and was the father of her child, and every year Sophie—that was the friend’s name, she was a “contemporary artist” (she said this in quotes), maybe I’d heard of her? Yes, exactly, Sophie Calle, the one who followed people in the street—anyway, every year this friend had a birthday party and invited as many people as she was years old plus a “mystery guest” who stood for the year she was about to live, and this year she was in charge of bringing the mysterious stranger and she couldn’t say no, and so she’d thought of me (another faint laugh), and that was the reason, the one and only reason, for her call.
On my end I was stern. Galvanized steel. Clearly I was the one person she could think of who’d go along with this little charade of hers, and besides I made an ideal candidate seeing as how no one had ever heard of me. What’s more, I thought, the mission must have actively appealed to her since, by picking up the phone just to invite me to a party, she’d overcome certain obvious objections raised by what I thought of as “our story.” She could hardly have acted in a spirit of pure disinterestedness, put it that way. But couldn’t she have come up with a better pretext to see me—and did this mean she wanted to see me? Anything was possible. But why did she need a pretext? All she had to do was call and say “Let’s get together” or even “We should get together” or better yet “Could we get together?” and if only she’d put it that way—any of these ways—she’d have acknowledged the ties that bound us, ties that would never come undone in a thousand years, and then I’d have come running with a beating heart. But invite me to a party? Who did she think I was? It was absurd, and I’d been kicked around enough, and yet I heard myself answer, in a voice that was almost chipper, that I’d be there. Consider it done, I told her. She could rest easy, I’d be her mystery guest, even as I was gnashing my teeth with every fiber of my being. She sounded unaccountably relieved. No sooner had I spoken than her voice regained its air of gardenias, and I took down the time and address on a scrap of paper; then, without my knowing how it happened, she’d hung up, not that we had anything left to say that could have been said on the phone.
My hand shook as I set the receiver down. The room was silent, the air livid, and the telephone sat chuckling on the bed until in my rage I lobbed it across the room; but it didn’t even come apart, and for long seconds I lay there listening to the dial tone in the dark, and that was even worse than before; so I got up to put it where it belonged and hang it up, and I didn’t know what to do, and I took a walk from one end of the apartment to the other, and that didn’t take long, and—that took the cake. No other words came to mind but “That takes the cake. That really takes the cake.” For a good hour I paced the apartment repeating those words out loud as if they were the sum total of my vocabulary. All the same, the blood was fizzing in my veins: I couldn’t stifle a thrill at the thought that I was finally about to have the meeting she’d owed me all these years. I was happy to make a fool of myself at some glamorous party. I’d gladly undergo much more painful transformations just to see her and hear her finally explain what she’d been thinking and cut the leash that bound me to her vanishing and put an end to this strangulation once and for all. I wanted answers. The rest of my life depended on that party, I knew that for a fact, and that night I dreamed of a horse trampling coattails in the dust.
The days and weeks that followed were unspeakable. Her call had plunged me back into a hellish slough that I’d considered well behind me, and that all of a sudden wasn’t, and I slid back into sickening black thoughts I thought I’d exorcised, and was prey to grinning fiends, my old familiars, as if all my efforts to escape and move on had been worthless, as if nothing would ever come of anything. I felt like tearing the skin off my face. For a long time I’d considered the case closed, as they say. I could go and buy bread at the bakery without thinking about her the entire time, and for this and plenty of other reasons the affair seemed, as they say, laid to rest. I seemed to have turned the corner, as they say, and surfaced the way people tend to surface even if they come back utterly changed, wrecked, the change belied by a fold of the mouth, by something about their shoulders or hair, something unmistakable in the depths of their eyes, or the way they walk, or the way they laugh and talk and stand and—well, just look around you. You’ll see what I mean.
Unless, as sometimes happens, the change is in the person’s clothes. Since I’d always hated turtlenecks worn as undershirts, and despised the men who wore them as the lowest kind of pseudo-sportsmen with, as they say, the lamest kind of collar, I’d started wearing turtlenecks as undershirts the moment she left. Basically, I never took them off. No doubt this was magical thinking on my part (if I never took them off, nothing would ever take off on me); at any rate these turtleneck-undershirts erupted into my life without my noticing until it was too late and I was under their curse. You could even say they’d inflicted themselves on me, so that now I hardly remembered the wind on my neck, which is the very feeling of freedom. But if that was the price I had to pay, I told myself, so be it. We brick ourselves up in prisons of our own devising; we spend our lives losing touch with ourselves, disappearing behind what negates us. I took comfort in the thought that others had it even worse than I did, and I looked and saw people covered from head to toe in far weirder Band-Aids than mine. Yes, I told myself, my case was far from hopeless. In the end, I’d found a workable way of moving incognito through the world and keeping up appearances, just like everybody else, and I moved freely, unbruised. Impunity was mine, and I was at peace. I’d even started seeing someone.
Yes, despite my turtleneck-undershirts a woman had taken an interest in me of late. And to my shock the turtlenecks didn’t put her off, even though most women feel an instinctive, to my mind legitimate, revulsion toward men in turtleneck-undershirts, unless somehow they find them attractive—but I gave those women a wide berth then and still do. At any rate she wasn’t one of those; she just seemed not to notice my sartorial neurosis, for which I was profoundly grateful. At the same time it frustrated me. I was unnerved that my turtleneck-undershirts didn’t bother her, never even gave her pause, when it would have made me feel so much less burdened and alone, would have meant such a sharp rise in the value of her affections, if I’d only known that she loved me with open eyes. But no, she saw no secret meaning in my layered look, so there I was, misunderstood at her side, furious, divided, unfairly and hatefully demanding that she adjust to my turtlenecks when it was exactly her easy acceptance of them that had brought us together in the first place, and, screwed-up as we are, doesn’t every stroke of luck come with some kind of catch?
It’s the worst, I told her. The worst in the sense that I can never get free and I keep looking like the person I seem to be and never was and never had been and never would have been except by force, as they say, of circumstance. Meanwhile she fell into the habit of rubbing her right cheek as if she were always trying to rub away—what?—some kind of permanent irritant, a slap that kept on stinging and had left her dazed and dumb. But when I pointed out that she hadn’t exactly been born with this gesture she laughed and shrugged and told me I was making a mountain out of a molehill, as they say, and she refused to see this cheek-rubbing as anything more than a harmless idiosyncrasy (even though she couldn’t stop doing it), and I didn’t press the point because I didn’t want to spoil the evening or poison things and because, in any case, none of this would have happened if, years before, this other person hadn’t just up and left without a word of explanation, et cetera, et cetera, and because, all things considered, I preferred to sleep in the afternoon when there was no one around, and because she found me that way and asked me to a “big party.” And on walls all across the city large posters were announcing the opening of Die Hard, and I was in despair.
But I’d gotten over her disappearance, and no one was going to say her reappearance did me in. I refused to give up. I wanted to understand, and while I stood there clinging absurdly, instinctively to this desire—to understand—as my sole support and the last vestige of my humanity, it hit me. She’d called late on a Sunday afternoon and she’d left me in the middle of the afternoon, also on a Sunday. Coincidence? Hardly. From that moment on, I knew I couldn’t possibly be dealing with a coincidence. I knew something else was going on. It was too beautiful, I couldn’t get over it, and really the truth was plain enough to see: by calling me on that day of the week, at that hour of the day, she was trying to pick up the thread of our story at exactly the point where it had been snapped in two, as if to say that all the intervening years had lasted a matter of seconds. And this changed everything. Suddenly time meant nothing and there was nothing final about her disappearance either, so our love had never ceased to be—all the rest was straw in the wind—and this business about the party was a pretext, a lure. After all, if all she’d wanted to do was invite me to the party, she’d have called on a Monday morning or a Wednesday night or Friday in the middle of the day or possibly on a Saturday in the middle of the day but never late on a Sunday afternoon. Miracles do occur between people who’ve been in love, we all know that, and inwardly I exulted, I quivered, and her call, which at the time had struck me as the last word in brutality, suddenly made a kind of clear and overwhelming sense; such are the loopholes that reality offers us from itself.
For once I wasn’t cooking the data. Not this time. Appearances never deceive (I told myself), they are their own meanings and there’s nothing to look for behind them, and I rejoiced, and the reasons for her call rose up more and more vividly and gloriously into view. And the thing was, the reasons had nothing to do with her. Because it wasn’t as if she had decided to call late in the afternoon on a Sunday and send me a coded message. No one was that roundabout, I told myself. At least not that pointlessly roundabout. So there had to be something else—call it a force—a force seeking some means of self-expression, struggling to give me a sign, and unbeknownst to her this something had told her to pick up the phone and dial my number at that moment, of all moments, the meaning of which apparent coincidence only I could discern. Yes, I was convinced that this had to be the explanation: for reasons unknown to me, but which might have had something to do with the death of Michel Leiris, something in her clicked and, taking advantage of her need to find a “mystery guest,” the force stole this chance to slip her hand into mine, to wave a handkerchief like a prisoner locked in a tower. The force trusted me to hear the call within her call, in spite of everything. How could I explain her years of silence without positing a counterspell that had finally lifted the curse? How else could I explain her complete failure to allude to the past during our conversation, the way any normal person would have done? This in itself proved she wasn’t behaving normally, that some larger power was working its will through her. And no doubt the psychoanalysts would speak of the “unconscious,” but I told myself that this force was nothing more or less than our love.
Any last doubts I had melted away. I was going to the party. How could I not? At the same time I jeered at my own idiocy—my insanity, too, but mostly my idiocy—and despised myself for going and looking for trouble like some kind of dime-store Don Quixote. Just what did I think I could achieve? Despair has a force of its own, and out of my despair I’d created a universe in which I was the star, and I was about to see this universe for what it was. This party would be the death of all my illusions, it would tear me to shreds and cripple me for life. Didn’t I see the trap I was striding into? She was making a fool of me, a laughingstock, and no one cared because I was such a nobody, I had nothing to look forward to but disaster and humiliation and more bitterness. I was like that general Aoun, shouting defiance from the rooftops of Beirut long after anyone could see it was in ruins. But I stopped my ears against my own misgivings, in which the voices of my mother and father and grandparents and great-grandparents and all my ancestors in every generation since biblical times were mingled, warning me in vain again and again (while I stuck to my guns) that I shouldn’t come crying to them when I was a wandering shade: I had a rendezvous, even if I didn’t know just what I was rendezvousing with. Nothing else counted and nothing could change my mind or turn me around, not when the great mystery of her leaving was about to be unveiled: I’d always thought I must be missing something. After all, no one just up and leaves another person, a person she’s loved, without some very specific, in the end very particular reason of her own. No matter how unhappy she may be, a woman at least says good-bye on her way out the door. There had to be more to the story, and I had to know what it was, and when I did, I too would be unmasked and the curse of the turtleneck-undershirts would be abolished!
All the same, I was feverish and uneasy and in a state of absolute heartache and helpless rage at the prospect of showing up at this party where I was clearly supposed to play the part of a sentimental curiosity, where I’d be a stuffed monkey—where I’d be a dwarf, a dwarf to be thrown as far as possible so as to beat some dwarf-throwing record the precise nature of which eluded me. And I thought of Flint, Michigan, where the local directors of General Motors organized a big party as a consolation for everyone laid off after the “outsourcing” of some plant, and on the grounds of the mansion that sat on the heights above the town they paid the laid-off workers to play living statues and hold poses while men in tuxedos with cigars squired women in silk gowns sipping flutes of California champagne, and I thought of Baudelaire cutting the Belgians to pieces and Rimbaud insulting the literary men of his time and Thomas Bernhard and Artaud and Alfieri and Paul mailing off his epistles, and it made me happy just to know they’d existed. Suddenly I felt less alone. I felt emboldened by their example, as if somehow I shared in their refusal to be debased, to be robbed of their souls and selves. When my own turn came I would rip the mask from the face of our era and its most visible spokesmen. Yes, I, too, wanted to bolt from the ranks of the assassins and their cronies, and if I was going to be the “mystery guest,” well, they had no idea just what a mystery guest I’d be! Because I was 30 years old and the time had come for me to make my presence felt. And I didn’t see anything vain or vapid about this line of thinking. Far from it. Just when circumstances were least favorable (I told myself), that was the moment I’d turn them to my advantage, when no one was looking, and like a jack-in-the-box I’d spring the first chance they gave me. The moment they let down their guard I’d make them dance.
To say I was afraid would be an understatement. As the day and the hour of the rendezvous (or The Reckoning, as I’d come to call it in my darker moods) drew near, I seemed to be running helplessly toward my doom. I felt my strength fail, I wavered in my determination, and the certainty that I was going to lay bare the “figure in the carpet” faded, so great was the task before me, a task I’d have to perform all alone. At least Ulysses had his son by his side and the swineherd Eumaus and what’s-his-name, that cowherd, and the old servingwoman and most of all Athena, who helped him beat the suitors and get Penelope back in the end. As for me, I had nobody, I was going in alone, and the opposite of courage isn’t cowardice but discouragement, at least that’s the opposite in French.
By now all my euphoria had vanished, and I was furious with myself all over again and dead set against the part I’d been assigned. Who did they think they were? More to the point, who did they think I was? I had a name. She couldn’t take that away too! I had to protect myself; yes, there are limits to what a man can agree to suffer, and I couldn’t always just sit there and let other people prey on me with their desires and all their obscure machinations. I was going to show them who I was. They’d see, the world would see—it would see and then some. In the first place, I wasn’t about to show up empty-handed. Because it hadn’t been lost on me that this was a birthday party, in fact I’d spent hours racking my brains to figure out what a “mystery guest” should bring a person he doesn’t know, a person who is, what’s more, a “contemporary artist,” and, from what I could gather, a “well-known contemporary artist,” and this made me even angrier and more resentful and set the bar that much higher, as they say. But I couldn’t come up with a present, and I tore my hair out, pacing the length of my bedroom for the thousandth time, and besides I had no money. I mean nothing: I was so broke I wore secondhand shoes from the flea market at Clignancourt—but what was I doing, thinking about money and shoes, when the situation undermined the very idea of present-giving, and the connection it implied between two individuals, a connection that meant more than just handing over some object (as I said, gnashing my teeth)? Unless I was supposed to come up with the world’s most transcendent present—the present that symbolized The Gift, independent of any particular recipient or giver. Maybe that was what this Sophie of hers expected of the “mystery guest”: to arrive at the highest possible conception of presenthood. Could that be what she had in mind? And so I kept walking the streets and going up and down the avenues and looking in every storefront; but wherever I looked all I saw was merchandise and more merchandise and nothing of any value except the value assigned to each thing in its turn by society, and nowhere I looked did I see any object that seemed to incarnate anything more than profit and gain, and in every direction lay stacks of products expressing nothing so much as a degraded idea of The Gift, an idea contrary and, in a word, hostile to the idea of The Gift rightly understood, and the last thing I wanted was to arrive at that party bearing a gift that would shed its mystique the moment the colored paper and ribbon had been torn aside. And all at once I saw why our societies cover presents in gift wrap: not for the sake of surprise but rather to cover up the fact that the gift is based on a lie, as we inevitably discover every time somebody gives us something. What happens is we open it and, after that microsecond when we expect the fulfillment of our deepest desire, disgust and sadness wash over us and we smile as fast as we can and say thank you, the better to bury deep within ourselves our chagrin at never once in all our lives receiving something more than what we’d hoped for. And this evanescent joy, forever disappointed, remains incomprehensible to us.
For a while I toyed with the idea of giving her a book by Michel Leiris. At least it beat flowers or candy, I told myself. It would be dull and anticlimactic, that went without saying, but it seemed like the least worst option I had—and, after all, haven’t we spent years in default mode, in faute de mieux mode, following the path of least badness as if nothing nowadays merited our full and utter and joyful consent? And how long, I began to wonder, can this go on? How long can we go around economizing our desires? And that’s when I stopped short, right there in the middle of the street. I’d give her wine! It was so obvious I couldn’t think why it hadn’t occurred to me before. What could be better? My search was over, I’d bring her wine. A very good bottle of wine, the oldest and most expensive wine that money could buy. And this idea struck me as nothing short of brilliant, as if, coming from the depths of my being and my heritage, it battened on my energies and desires until it grew huge and glorious, until I could no longer contain it, and I burst out laughing, still standing right there in the street. Yes, if they wanted my blood, I thundered to myself, I’d give them vintage blood, and a very good vintage at that, and they would drink it in remembrance of me—and wasn’t Christ himself a model mystery guest? The more I thought it over, the more dazzled I was by my plan. For once I’d come up with the perfect thing. And in a wine store near Saint-Lazare I found a 1964 Margaux. I remember it perfectly. It was the best bottle in the store, and it was way beyond my means and I exulted, I pranced with delight in front of the clerk, who looked at me suspiciously, nervously even. But that was just it: I wanted to sacrifice everything, I wanted to shame them as I climbed up on the pyre. We’d see how haughty they looked then. We’d see whether they had brought anything beyond their means—in a word, I challenged them to a potlatch and for once put all social chicanery aside, and they would know who’d really give all for love, and the bottle cost more than my rent, a lot more, and that didn’t matter. On the contrary, I’d crossed the Rubicon, as they say. The so-called die had been cast, and the rent could wait. (Which in fact it did.) On my way out of the store, as I cradled my tissue-wrapped bottle to my chest like a talisman, the city seemed to have changed its aspect. It was all light farce, and I felt tall enough to cross outside the crosswalk. I could stop cars with a glance, I could contend with their bumpers and hulls, and I no longer had any fear that the distress and indigence of the world might rub off on me. No, never again would my own opulence be reduced to begging, I chanted to myself, for at that moment it seemed to me that I had earned the right to quote Hölderlin, a thing that doesn’t happen every day.
How much had changed since her phone call! I’d been at loose ends and now I was on a mission. And I wasn’t alone anymore, I contained multitudes, and I had to go, the hour was upon me. To hell with the expense, I told myself, hailing a cab to the party with no more thought for the future than a condemned man accepting his last cigarette. Leaning my head against the window, the bottle of ’64 Margaux resting on my knees and my hands resting—brooding—on it all the way, I watched the lights and the shadows go by and I remembered how it all started with the death of Michel Leiris.
Then the driver ventured to say something about its being chilly for early October and how you couldn’t predict the weather anymore. And I didn’t feel like talking, but there was no stopping him, he was in a confiding mood, and he told me that after his wife left him two years earlier he’d lost seventeen kilos. Seventeen kilos. He still couldn’t believe it. And he chuckled in quiet alarm as if it haunted him even now; and I said maybe that’s how much his wife weighed for him, seventeen kilos. He glanced at me in the rearview mirror. Clearly, he’d never seen it that way before. It had never occurred to him that love might not just feel like a burden, that it might also have an actual, physical weight. Then I let him in on the secret of my turtlenecks so he’d know we were in the same boat, but he seemed distinctly unimpressed and just nodded and turned up the radio in time to hear a voice introduce “the last recording of ‘L’aigle noir’ by the immortal Barbara.” And for the duration of the ride, which took forever, I couldn’t stop thinking that the black eagle had come back, come back out of nowhere; and we all have our mystery guests; and the fare was ninety-two francs.
She was standing with two men, one of whom was laughing at something, and a smile crossed her own lips, and she hid her mouth with her hand the way I’d always seen her do when she laughed. This came back to me. And her hair was still as blond as I remembered but shorter now. Or she was wearing it differently, I couldn’t think which, and if I’d expected to feel overwhelmed, I didn’t. I couldn’t feel anything, really. The ground stayed put beneath my feet. In fact it was oddly familiar to have her there in front of me, familiar but strange, and I pushed open the French door, careful not to bump the bottle of Margaux. Seeing me come in from the cold, a woman turned and smiled at me, and I smiled back and happened to notice the shape of her small breasts and, from that moment on, everything unfolded as if someone else were acting in my place. That’s how it felt. As if by entering the room I had also entered into a character, someone who hadn’t been there a second ago, someone who took up the baton and composed my facial expressions so as to ward off any prying glances, someone who’d keep me from looking ridiculous, on the one hand, but also from making a scene or doing anything untoward. I wouldn’t be allowed so much as a faux pas. I had been changed, despite myself, for better and for worse. It was as if I had no continuous inner life, whatever I might have thought, and I cursed my own sense of decorum. What was I waiting for? Well, I told myself, let them make one false move and all bets were off, I’d blow this little charade of theirs sky-high. The game, as they say, wasn’t over. In the meantime I took off my coat with the air of a man who knows how to take off his coat wherever he happens to find himself and rolled it up into a ball and stuck it next to a great big bouquet of red and white roses. They were spilling out of a vase that had been planted there on the floor, and it crossed my mind that this bouquet took up an amazing amount of space. And despite myself I started to count the roses. All of a sudden it seemed absolutely necessary that I find out, then and there, how many roses were in the vase, so that at least some part of my surroundings wouldn’t remain unknown to me, since sometimes just knowing something is enough to lull you into believing that you know something, and it turned out there were thirty-seven roses, and this had to be the number of candles that would later be blown out. And at the prospect of seeing a cake brought in and people singing “Happy Birthday” I felt defeated before the fact.
No one paid any attention to me and everything happened exactly the way it does in real life: enigmatically, without your being able to put your finger on the enigma. And I lit a cigarette to keep my hands and lungs and all the rest busy while, with an air of unconcern, as they say, I threw myself into the fray, sure that everyone had already noticed my turtleneck. Without meeting anyone’s eye I marched straight ahead and cleared a path as if I knew exactly where to go and how to get there, and it worked: underneath a big iron staircase that led to the upper floor I found a place where I could observe things from out of the way, without anyone slipping behind me, and just then it seemed to me that the hardest part was over, so I looked up and took in the proceedings.
The room was enormous. In its center a table advanced endlessly toward the walls, laying down mile after mile of knives and forks, and a dazzling white tablecloth made up of several sheets lay like a bridal train under the bright track lights up above, and chairs and stools were drawn up all around it. At the foot of the stairs a stuffed cat was pouncing without ever touching down on its forepaws, and farther off a pink flamingo stood on one leg, and the atmosphere was cheerful. It was festive. Everywhere men and women discussed and conversed and were generally moving around, and some went and others came, and many of the guests wore black and smoked, and some were sitting and had their elbows on the table and picked at saucers holding little canapés or slices of dried sausage, and most were drinking champagne, and one woman was insisting that they put on some Spanish music while a man in a white panama hat seemed to be sulking over in a corner. In other words, it was a party. There was no doubt about it. It was a party like any good party, and in a sense this was reassuring. All the same, I fought back an urge to howl while I beamed an utterly false smile back and forth at no one in particular. At some point a woman carrying a large platter toward the table slipped and fell, and this piece of slapstick drew people’s attention, heads turned, and that’s when she saw me. Her gaze crossed the room and landed where I was, and she interrupted the man who’d been laughing, she laid a hand on his arm and murmured something in his ear, and the man glanced up in my direction while she moved away from him and came toward me. And the way his eyes followed her from behind kept me from enjoying this moment which I’d promised myself as recompense. Yes, it spoiled everything, but no more than everything else did in the end. And I stood there, stock-still with a frozen smile the whole time I watched her coming nearer. And she was very beautiful, I had forgotten just how beautiful she was, and at the same time I didn’t remember her having been beautiful in quite this way, or ever having worn this dress. It bared her shoulders and made her instantly desirable and, so to speak, sexual. So sexual that, as she passed, all the men and the women, too, caressed her with their glances, and thousands of feelings and impressions came washing over me, all of them tending toward the question whether she’d chosen this dress for my sake, to seduce me—to bring me, as they say, to my knees—or else to show me that we moved in different worlds now and she belonged to somebody else. Not that the two scenarios were mutually exclusive. Maybe she wanted to exert her powers of seduction over everyone and no one. And I know as well as anyone that a woman never chooses her clothes haphazardly, at least not in a situation such as this. But whatever motives had gone into choosing her outfit, I couldn’t sort them out in the folds of her dress; they all kept jangling together in my mind. The mere act of keeping myself in one piece seemed like a kind of magic trick, and I felt a trapdoor give way beneath my feet when she came up and leaned in to kiss my cheek as if it were the most natural thing in the world. And that was the last straw. How dare she? It wasn’t just inappropriate, it was obscene, it was phony through and through, as if our story could ever, even conceivably, degenerate into—into what? Friendship? Camaraderie? Whatever she had in mind, it was out of the question. She could save these affectations, these empty shams of hers for other men, or else love meant nothing and our story had never happened and she herself didn’t exist, and just then I could have torn her face off, I could have ripped it from her neck and stamped on it before she made a sound. How was I supposed to accept that what had bound us together, and still did despite everything, should moulder away into anything as reasonable and pitiful as a kiss on the cheek, into something that had nothing to do with us? We deserved better and she knew it, and inoffensive was the last word you could ever use to describe our story, and what begins in beauty, as they say, can only end in beauty—otherwise what was the point of Michel Leiris dying in the first place and what was the point of her inviting me? But maybe all she wanted was to catch a secret whiff of my scent after all these years and relive, for an instant, the touch of her skin against mine without laying herself open to reproach. It was true that her attitude gave me some cause for hope. In any case, it was too late. I’d already kissed her cheek, closing my eyes and clenching my fists and fighting the urge to seek her lips and find and open them and taste her tongue and lose myself there the way I used to do—and so to put an end to this charade I placed the bottle in her hands, saying, “From the mystery guest.” And I hope no one else ever has to smile the way I smiled then.
—Translated by Lorin Stein