The Imperfect Lovers
Translated by Emilie Pons
"We won't talk about our parents," they said. Simultaneously. Unless Camille said it to Leo or Leo to Camille. Then, addressing me they added: "There're only the three of us, you know."
Simultaneously, or one after the other. Those two cultivated the art of leading you astray; it took me a while to understand. Didn't they resemble each other like two drops of water? They were sixteen, and I was nineteen. It was ancient history, five or six years ago. They wanted me to write their biography, since I couldn't be their twin. Having the three of us together inside their beautiful parchment notebook, the three of us bound by our childish words. I suppose that's what I wanted, too.
"Our parents don't exist, period." All right. Yet we'll see, my sweethearts, who, between you and me, will be the winner. Because there's a battle between us now, a posthumous fight, I'll explain it later; I'm in too much of a hurry right now. Time is linked to words, how many seconds for a written word, how many seconds between words, how many hours between sentences, and weeks between pages? I don't know. I'm stupid, and quite young, younger than they are, even though they are three years younger than I. They confused me terribly; that's what they did, but I'll do them in.
"We won't talk about our parents," I said they had said. I replaced "forget about our parents" by "we won't talk about our parents," I don't care if they don't like it. "Forget about our parents," that's what they must have said, as well as "don't fuck with us, there're only the three of us, everything else is bullshit." Is that important? They also happened to be polite in the most refined way, and they didn't seem that much alike towards the end. Now they're messing around with me in retrospect. Are the exact words important? I wonder. I might make some changes later. And I'm very happy to be starting my project (my report, my story, my thing?) with precisely their parents. Anyway.
I was in Bamako that winter, hanging out with my own mother, who had been sent there by our town's France-Mali Association. That winter, that is to say several years ago already. I had seen a flyer announcing a meeting between several Francophone writers at the Palace of Culture. I left my mother at the market of charms, drums and skins and took a cab there. Better getting informed before throwing myself completely into my project. Getting informed retrospectively, because at the time I had written nothing, except for my high school homework as well as what the twins were forcing me to write in their fucking fancy notebook. But I'm getting ahead of myself again, the notebook came later. Never mind, Mali for now.
What I wanted most of all was to get into a car, go away alone somewhere. My mother could understand that, maybe she wanted to hang out on her own as well, without having to drag along a big surly guy. The cab's door held on by a single iron strip. The wheels were about to fall off, everything jumping and jolting along, the windows stuck, nothing to grab hold of, jolts, bumps and potholes, and yet it was moving, I was mesmerized. Something jerry-rigged, repaired, that was even speeding, speeding crazily. Like me, I suppose. That cab was jostling my head, a real fever in the brain. I could have crossed the whole African continent, but the cabdriver dropped me on the yellow road.
Now, the writers' congress.
I arrived in the middle of a round-table discussion. There were five or six speakers plus the moderator, facing an audience under a tent. It was a small crowd, but everyone was talking at the same time. Words were buzzing in the heat. A sort of fight broke out between two of the writers, I couldn't tell what it was about -- I was falling into one of my fits of anxiety when a young woman signaled she wanted to talk. She was sitting with the writers, but nobody seemed to be paying attention to her. A pretty girl, very dark, Indian maybe, I'm not sure. She raised her hand. The speakers became aware of her presence and stopped talking: they were polite, I noticed, and suddenly I felt a twist in my stomach.
What was she saying exactly? My mind wandered away. I was feeling ashamed, one doesn't say things like that. The things she said are for kids like me, writers don't think, don't talk like that. She had said "That's all very fine, but the only thing I really have in mind when I start writing is: am I going to manage to write a hundred pages? You never talk about that! It's tough to write a hundred pages!" I did not need to worry about her, she was so funny, so perfectly funny that people started laughing. Then a gust of wind blew and the tent started shaking above our heads. A rope became loose on the side, and the whole top fell down, stopping just above our heads like a reversed parachute, billowing smoothly in the still blowing wind. It was a lovely moment.
I wish something like this would happen when I address my audience. Not the lawyer, tutor, judge, psychologist, the whole congregation of them all, whom I hope never to see again, but the real audience, the audience of the soul to which everyone aspires. The girl was called Natacha something, Natacha followed by a complicated name that I couldn't remember.
But I could find it again if I wanted to, if I weren't in such a hurry. It was in Bamako, in Mali, yes I've already said that, my first experience as a writer.
A writer by proxy, because, immediately thereafter, I was by that girl's side, so to speak. As soon as she raised her hand, as soon as the others, flabbergasted, turned towards her, I became Natacha: I was that young writer in the midst of all those tough males (I wasn't feeling part of their tribe, obviously). Whatever she would say, those would be my words, I had already made them mine. "A hundred pages, it's exhausting, you never say that!!" She had succeeded in writing them, those hundred pages (followed by dozens of others, but, she would say, after that you feel better, your book really becomes yours) had even managed to find a publisher, and not just any one; and so I, who was still a nothing yet, but Leo and Camille's friend (and of this word "friend" one cannot even be so sure, I might have been their purveyor rather, stheir witness, their punching-bag, the safeguard against their fears), so I who had not written a page yet, nor even imagined that I would write a page some day, suddenly had the intuition (oh! a very fleeting one, set to be revealed in the future) that I would surely write a hundred pages, perhaps they were written already.
It was exhausting, yes, that's why I had not started yet. Leo and Camille had made me feel tired, that's what I was becoming aware of, there, under the tent that had fallen and that was brushing my hair lightly, stroking my hair, and the skin of my scalp was rising to receive that light touch, as if it were a sign from above. Leo and Camille had worn me out, and it was not only because of who they were, but also because they were characters in these hundred pages that I had not written yet. That was the very revelation I was having. And on top of the weariness of having known them in flesh and blood and the way they were by themselves, there was some anticipated fatigue, obscurely anticipated, of knowing them as characters, of finally fleshing them out, of turning them inside out, yes, of doing them in.
So, one day they told me, they were under their parents' bed, inside the big room of that huge apartment in New York on top of a building from which you could see the park as well as the two rivers, an apartment I'll never be able to see. I can imagine what it was like as much as I want, from the drawings Leo made me and from what I could surmise about their mother's tastes, Mrs. Van Broeker, who was Dutch, very beautiful and rich and authoritative, and in the end very endearing I must admit. The master bedroom, Mrs. Van Broeker's and her husband's Bernard Desfontaines, whose name she took as well, had a view of the East River, but from the kitchen in the back one could see the towers of the World Trade Center. There were two vast bays, the bed was more than king size, Leo and Camille explained to me, it was probably two queen sizes side by side, which would make a 9 foot, 2 inch wide bed, so necessarily wider than long; because the length measured only 6 feet and 6 inches, they were sure about that, since that bed helped them measure themselves on a regular basis. They would lie down one above the other and only their head or feet would jut out, and, at the time, each of them was less than 5 feet tall. Finally they remembered it was a California King Size. What could I say, I could only relate to the single and double beds from home.
I had never been to that country where one slept in a queen's or king's bed. I was assuming that the kingly California bed was still one of those wonderful things that could only be found in Leo and Camille's surroundings. Oh, their wonderful things made me furious and all the more furious that they, little spoiled prince and princess, were not paying any attention to them.
Let me explain something about Leo and Camille's method of calculation: if they weighed themselves, they would do it together, climbing on that glass plate of their bathroom scale holding each other by the arms. And if they were asked for the result afterwards, they would give the total; if one insisted, only unwillingly would they consent to divide the number by two. Useless to suggest to them that such a division did not necessarily correspond to reality. Likewise, they would measure each other in the bathroom climbing on the other's shoulders -- who had his or her feet on the ground -- from the toilet seat, and then making a light mark with a pencil and a ruler placed between the upper head and the wall. Then, they had to measure the lower head, add it to the first number, erase the first mark and write down the other one on top of it, the total of their two superimposed bodies (plus the head, of course). Then they would go and check the results along their parents' bed.
Mrs. Van Broeker found these idiosyncrasies annoying at worst, at best amusing and she didn't worry about them. Little worrying at the Van Broeker-Desfontaines' residence: the operative word was "amusing." Leo and Camille were, no doubt, amusing. I wasn't.
So they were in Mr. and Mrs. Van Broeker-Desfontaines' bedroom, measuring each other again under their parents' bed, sniffing the carpet, trying all possible twists and contortions in that narrow space, then climbing on each other. Back upon back to begin with, so as to see whether the upper back would touch the bottom of the mattress and then stomach upon stomach so as to determine what could be seen from the mattress and then from the floor with one's eyes on it, and so on and so forth (they had some specific taste for systematization) when their mother entered. I sincerely believe that they hadn't planned on that. Mrs.Van Broeker's general principle was not to let her children inside the conjugal bedroom. Her older kids, yes, when one wanted to have a private and important discussion about marriage or career. But not Leo and Camille, who were too young, too unpredictable, and with whom one couldn't possibly have any important private conversation.
They had huddled in the center of the space under the bed, so that their mother wouldn't see them if she bent over, which indeed she did, first taking off her shoes, and then picking them up and throwing them into the dressing room. She took off her stockings, left them on the side of the bed, lay down, moved lightly, and then silence. One of the stocking's legs hung a few inches away from their heads, the extremity of it still perfectly marked by their mother's foot. Impossible to resist, they told me, they felt it was begging to be tickled, that nylon or silk foot. They raised their hands towards its curved part, touched it lightly, the nylon or the silk moved very slightly and, they swore, at that precise moment a chuckle was heard above them, as if their mother's foot had actually been tickled.
That was enough for them to think they had magical powers. "We have powers," they would tell me with that mix of arrogance and naivety that stunned me. At first, I would shrug my shoulders. "You don't believe us, because you don't know where those powers come from." No, I didn't know it then and didn't care to know, I insisted. That their mother whispered or even chuckled (she laughed easily) when small hands tickled the extremity of the stocking that had been deserted by its foot was not even striking. It was not a coincidence for Leo and Camille. For them, everything had a very personal meaning, a logic that belonged to them, could I only understand it.
Under the bed, a few centimeters away from their head, their mother's stocking was hanging. And since that stocking let itself be tickled so well, one (or the other) of them began gently to tug it. Millimeter by millimeter the stocking went down, until it fell completely, all of a sudden, the first leg drawing the second one, on the ivory colored carpet, forming a small silky pile a few centimeters away from their face. They could have left it there, so that everything would have looked natural. There would have been nothing extraordinary for that panty hose, neglectfully put on the bed's side, to fall down to the floor. But that small pinkish pile was taunting them, they had to grab it, to make it disappear under the bed, and that appropriation against the natural order (the inertia of fallen things) provoked what happened after, that never ceased to pursue them. The repercussions splashed over to me, millions of kilometers away, within a parable that landed much later here in Mali and picked me up, while I was listening to that young unknown female writer; and suddenly I saw Leo and Camille as the friends they were (at that moment not ex-friends yet) and at the same time, in a more obscure way, as characters in pages that were meant to be a hundred at first, Natacha would say, a hundred first, and then one sees.
In the panty hose, in that double stocking that was coiled like a snake on the carpet, the hundred pages were contained.
They pulled the stocking under the bed, they told me, they smelled it, stretched it, made it spin on their wrists, slide on their legs, they wrapped themselves in it. Meanwhile their mother had fallen asleep. They were quiet, flexible, and devious and so well matched that each of their movements would flow smoothly into the next. They could hear their mother breathe and occasionally growl slightly in her sleep. The animal within her was relaxing on the bed, while small cats were playing under it, lion cubs rather, but the stocking was bothering them. They knew they would have to put it back where it came from: they didn't want to be discovered.
The scolding wouldn't have been that dramatic, they were still of too little importance to risk any major punishment, and for that specific reason they didn't want to be discovered, I guessed eventually. I thought fear had kept them hidden that way under their mother's bed, but I was completely wrong: Leo and Camille were not afraid of any living person. Their fear was of a totally different nature, and I was discovering it by fragments, rarely where I would have thought it to be.
Had their mother heard them and thrown them out of the room with a few reproaches and had she ordered them not to come back or, even worse, had she taken them with her up on the bed for a hug and a kiss, which must have happened occasionally, their little adventure would have lost all its luster. It would have thrown them back to their everyday life, to their status as ordinary children, but that precisely was intolerable. Something important was happening to them, and they had to protect it.
The stocking was the danger, but it was also the salvation, or rather it was the way to salvation. They would mess around with it, bite into it, tie themselves up with it. They were absolutely passionate about it. They were "remote controlled," they told me. They screwed their heads into the widest part, the thigh end, making a double mask for themselves. They even strangled each other: one would put the stocking around his/her neck while the other would pull as he/she could from both sides, just to see, to laugh, to count as high as they could, since they loved to count so much. But it was not funny finally, that simulated strangling; neither Camille strangling Leo, nor Leo strangling Camille, to which they had to surrender despite their being slightly frustrated by the first attempt, because they would always do everything equally.
That stocking around the neck made a terrifying impression on them; and then it happened for the one and only time, what shouldn't have happened, and which was bound to mark their behavior forever.
"Oh well, we slept together," Leo said.
"But you were too young," I protested.
"I don't know," Camille said. "But he took his thing out, it was very hard, and I pushed it between my legs, like they do on TV," she added.
Whatever you want my sweethearts, I thought, I wasn't there, and you can make up as many things as you want. But it was quite possible after all, and now I believe it. Camille had her period not too long after, she must have been twelve. And the following year they came back to France for their second long stay at their grandparents' Desfontaines' house, in Bourgneuf, that small town I had never left.