By Lydie Salvayre
Dalkey Archive Press Copyright © 1999 Éditions du Seuil / Éditions Verticales
All right reserved. ISBN: 1-56478-349-9
I read yesterday that violin strings are made from sheep intestines. I thought for a long time about that: how can music be made from such a brutal, evil act?
The new secretary's only been here two days and already I'm talking about evil-a word that's too excessive, that's just ridiculous here-and am already arming myself for battle.
My mind is definitely made up: I shall not relinquish the spot next to the window, the place where I do all my day-dreaming, which is no mere poetic image-I loathe poetry. When the workday is over, fantasy is my sole indulgence. All labor deserves its reward, Father often said. And I couldn't agree more.
If she makes a mistake, I'll order her, in a superior tone, to retype the whole page. I'll see that she types it a third time, if necessary. I will insist on that.
I'm inflexible about deadlines.
I'll only use harsh words.
Hurry up and finish those charts, I'll order. No, it can't wait, I'll insist while keeping my composure.
I'll correct her in a stern voice. The word résumé has accents over the e's, I'll snap, emphasizing é.
Should she venture to ask a question, I'll refrain from responding right away. I'll wait until she asks again. Nicely. Meekly. Sweetly servile. How I'd love to attain thatquality of disdainful authority over my inferiors that Father was forever trying to instill in me ...
My coldness will prevent any friendly impulse on her part. I despise familiarity. In word or in deed. Informality should be reserved for addressing dogs, not one's fellow man.
I'll occasionally smile at her mistakes. She'll be at a complete loss, the idiot.
I'll keep her guessing. My tactic will be simple: each objection on her part will be met with unyielding silence. Keeping silent comes easily to me. Keeping silent is my job. Which I accomplish with zeal. Keep silent. And then strike. Ah, to have the audacity of real leaders! I've been inwardly training myself for that. After nightfall, when my thoughts emerge from their depths, I go back over what was said that day, her words and mine. I refine my tactics, reappraise my plans. I must be ruthless. It will be a hard fight, this I know. And in the end, our every utterance will be judged.
Whatever her intentions (which I assume to be malicious), I won't let myself be caught off-guard. I'm methodical in all things (as soon as a thought crosses my mind, I'm in thorough control of its ramifications) and have a special gift when it comes to organization. I foresee. I classify. I pinpoint. I delete. I like things to be orderly. Monsieur Meyer often compliments me on this. And until now, my life has been-I dare say-as neat as my desk. Nothing ever used to go wrong.
But these days I'm filled with doubt and unsettled; I waver and procrastinate. When I walk past an old wall, I'm suddenly aware that it could come crashing down, crushing me. I won't risk walking under a ladder for fear of some new catastrophe. Time seems to shorten, then lengthen. Slippery as an eel. My soul is as sensitive as an exposed nerve. There are days when I long for my former peace of mind. And other days when the war I wage against her-and that's what it is: a war-excites and invigorates me, creating the sense that there's some magnificent destiny awaiting me.
The new secretary has only been sharing my space for a week, but already life doesn't move forward in a fine linear manner anymore, but sideways, tortuously, like a crab. Her presence is strangely disconcerting. I say disconcerting deliberately. I simply can't get her out of my mind. She's putting down roots within me, spreading, living, aching inside me, sending shoots into the tiniest cracks. (Isn't it odd that I find myself using the vocabulary of love to evoke her, even though she has a way of getting on my nerves, and I've come to detest every fiber of her being?) And she's the one I think of, time and time again, when with my cheek up against the windowpane, I look out at the street. Her enormous breasts. Her big moon-face. Her beady little eyes, stuck in her face as if in lard, looking frantically around every corner as if something might jump out at her. I watch the cars go by, honking their horns. I count twelve of them. A bride flashes by, smothered in armfuls of white flowers. My heart sinks as I imagine her nuptial night. On the sidewalk across the way, two children squat playing a game of marbles. I hear one of them say the old lady's watching us. Yes, it's true, I am old.
I decide to go out shopping, to shake off the dangerous sullenness that's sapping my body and mind. In the foyer, I glimpse Monsieur Longuet, a retired widower who lives on the floor below me. It's too late to turn back. I pretend to be in a rush, picking up my pace. With a sweep of the hand, Monsieur Longuet cuts off my escape. Who, he wonders, is the nitwit who could have dumped a deep fryer full of oil down the garbage chute? This is the question that has been tormenting Monsieur Longuet. The apartment owners are innocent, Monsieur Longuet would stake his life on it; people aren't so foolish as to undermine their own interests. Consequently, the obvious suspect must be some malicious tenant, and that's where the mystery begins. Monsieur Longuet lowers his voice. He's noticed that the two homosexuals on the fifth floor seem to be making themselves scarce of late. Not to draw any hasty conclusions, but still ... Monsieur Longuet catches his breath. Some terrible disease or other leaves him hoarse and breathless, like someone in their death throes. With each gulp of air, it's as if an animal is crying out and dying. Monsieur Longuet must be one of those people who live with death. Just then, Madame Derue materializes out of nowhere. She withholds judgment on the garbage chute issue, since she doesn't like talking behind people's backs, but that doesn't keep her from thinking ill of others. So, we wanted to open up the building to outsiders? Fine. So, we wanted to be humanitarian and democratic? Wonderful. And now we're supposed to be surprised? Well, she, for one, is not surprised, not surprised one bit, and she'd go so far as to say she's been expecting something like this for quite some time. She tried to raise the subject at a meeting of the co-owners, but she might as well have been talking to the wall. So ... if the deep fryer had at least been empty, moaned Monsieur Longuet in a long, two-note rattle. It's the oil that caused all the damage, exclaims Madame Derue. You should have seen the mess-it was all over the walls, the floor, everywhere. I'm telling you, it's pure perversion; there's no other word for it. When I think that they had to unscrew the hatch to the garbage chute, sighs Monsieur Longuet. What do you mean, unscrew? Madame Derue draws closer. She hasn't heard that detail. Monsieur Longuet assumes an air of self-importance. The hatch was too narrow to let the deep fryer down the chute, so they unscrewed and removed the hatch, though Monsieur Longuet still wonders how. It's downright Machiavellian, cries Madame Derue. And with that, she's off.
I can't bear this petty gossip. I attempt another escape, but Monsieur Longuet detains me. He lives for the few words he manages to extract from his neighbors in the building. It's his only pleasure. He clings to it. Monsieur Longuet begs for conversation the way others beg for change. Just to get by. He inevitably reminds me of a dog, as the forlorn often do. Especially when they're poor. And old. With their dog smell, damp and stale. And their haggard look. An unbearable pleading look that makes you want to punch them in their soft bellies. His eyes: empty bowls, that's how I see them. And his heart, a gaping mouth that devours the scraps tossed its way. I avert my eyes. His face is fixed in an expression of insatiable hunger that compels me to look away. Something about him reminds one of death. I avoid him. I resort to the most shameful means to avoid him. Or flee from him outright. I always make sure, before opening my door, that he isn't lying in ambush in the foyer or lurking at the end of the corridor, ready to pounce.
I find this situation exasperating. I am, proud to say, fanatically polite. I believe I could subscribe to even the most dreadful behavior as long as it didn't result in bad manners. Yet I find no polite way to take leave of Monsieur Longuet. I bid him good-bye, but he doesn't react. Good-bye doesn't work with him. Good-bye robs him of his life. So he holds on. He waits, pleading with his eyes. I have to wish him a nice day, say I'll see you soon, see you tomorrow, see you later, and who knows what else. He just stands there, waiting. I talk about how time flies, how fatigue seems to affect the legs first, how impatient children can be, whatever silly truism first crosses my lips. He just stands there waiting. Finally, I turn my back on him quite rudely and escape. This little game has gone on long enough, I say to myself. But I've hardly taken two steps before he's harping on about this awful humidity that makes your feet swell or the looming American-Muslim war. Just rambles on.
Ordinarily, I avoid these colloquies, taking refuge behind a polite reserve that I know has earned me a reputation in the building as being arrogant, self-important, and morbidly rational. This merits an explanation, for such a misleading portrayal does me a disservice. I should point out, first of all, that by nature and habit of mind, I am inclined to be reticent, with little taste for verbal excess. I distrust phrasemakers, fast-talkers, peddlers of sentiment and drivel. They overwhelm me. I loathe base emotions that rise from the stomach and spill out of open mouths. They are malodorous. I detest wallowing in the gossip and backbiting that bind neighbors together. Such things sully the soul. I like people to be discreet and to the point. People who speak only when they have something to say. I can count those I've known on one hand. Father was one. Monsieur Meyer is another. Monsieur Eric Meyer!
Furthermore, I don't go out of my way to find friendly people. Friendliness disgusts me. Wearing the mask of a smile, friendly people insinuate themselves into your life. They pry and wreak havoc. Yes, friendly people take your slightest smile as an invitation to start prying. Friendly people bombard you with prurient questions about your spouse, your child, your illnesses, and then onto your private affairs. In the name of friendliness, they demand you tell them your best-kept secrets. They rush to your aid out of friendliness, because friendly people are helpful types. They ingratiate themselves out of friendliness and kiss your ass, while inspecting you with the thoroughness of a tax auditor. They believe that you're just like them. But when they stumble across something dark in you that doesn't match up with their idea of who you are, they run in terror. That's what friendly people are like. And the worst among them are friendly doctors, do-gooders, men like my son-in-law the doctor who attract the poor and the sick with their intimate doctorish questions, since the poor and the sick are so lonely and miserable that even the doctor's routine checklist of questions provides relief and consolation.
I must add to the aforementioned that I take great care to avoid any comparison between myself and Monsieur Longuet, whose situation could in some people's view seem to be the mirror-like image of my own-a cruel, unflattering reflection. I haven't the slightest intention of being compared to a retired widower, who's sick, to top it all off, and who arouses a condescending pity in everyone.
Don't leave like that, begs Monsieur Longuet.
His recent election as the co-owners' representative to the building managers has instilled a new feeling of authority in him that's gone to his head. I have to talk to you about our number one problem, he wheezes between two hacking coughs, the fee increase due to roof repairs. Monsieur Longuet adds a sentence whose choking sounds take the form of a strange syncopated whistling, after which he pauses to take a deep breath, exhorting me with a wave of the hand to wait, because he fears I might get away while he fills his lungs.
As if he's planned our chance meeting, Monsieur Longuet takes all the invoices for the repairs out of his pocket. He then makes a series of complicated calculations at dizzying speed. Twenty-thousand three-hundred and six francs, and eighty centimes.
Life is hard, he says.
You're telling me!
But you're lucky enough to still be working, to still be good for something, it's important in life to be good for something.
I smile apologetically. If you only knew how much I envy you.
Don't say that, for God's sake. Monsieur Longuet is skeptical. Everyone in the building is constantly reminding him how lucky he is to have so much time for himself. Can't wait for retirement, when we'll all be taking it easy like you. But I'm not an idiot, says Monsieur Longuet. I don't believe it for a minute. No one can imagine what an ordeal retirement is. No one, repeats Monsieur Longuet, in a kind of sad meowish voice. It's not exactly a laugh a minute around here, believe me.
I would give anything to be in your place. Everything, I confide with such sincerity that a hopeful Monsieur Longuet begins to believe it.
And I, who so despise those who display their private lives in public, I who've never exposed to anyone the sickness in my soul outside the confessional, I who feel nothing but disdain for the person of Monsieur Longuet, a widower with no means of support and who's sick, and who arouses in everyone a condescending pity! I find myself telling him in excruciating detail all the little tortures inflicted on me by the new secretary over the past ten days-her sneers, her snares, her wiles-her wheedling, adds Monsieur Longuet. Precisely, I reply. Nothing can stop the filthy, fetid flow of my lament. I hardly recognize myself.
Unlike my daughter, who loses patience whenever I start in with my sob stories, Monsieur Longuet doesn't seem to get tired of this account of my wretched little vendetta. He's developing a taste for it. Licking his lips. Fodder for a few days. He's coming back for another helping. Another ten minutes snatched from death. He urges me on. He seems to enjoy the most pathetic little details.
I even dream about her. Now what do you make of that?
I understand perfectly.
She has fat thighs, which she keeps slightly spread to avoid the itching caused by her sweating skin. Monsieur Longuet winces in disgust. Her skin is nauseatingly white; she's blonde. Monsieur Longuet is overcome. Have you noticed that a pale complexion is generally the harbinger of unhappiness, relentless grudges, gastric disorders, and cheap poetry? Monsieur Longuet nods furiously in assent. And if you only knew how she treated me!
No! That's too much, Monsieur Longuet bursts out in a great bronchial uproar. (Christ, I'll never get used to that racket.) You have to defend yourself, for goodness' sake, he chokes. (All of a sudden I'm afraid that he's going to drop dead, right there in front of me on the staircase.) You can't let an insect like her upset you. She has to be put in her place, for goodness' sake. If it were me, I'd show her who's boss, he mutters, nearly breathless.
After this series of implosions, Monsieur Longuet invites me into the flat for a drink. A little plum liqueur, something to pep you up. No thank you, I don't drink, I've never even had a drop of alcohol, and at my age, I'm not about to start. Well then, a little orange soda, a little mint syrup? I hesitate. But he looks so eager, so needy, that I'm compelled to refuse. No thank you. My daughter is waiting for me. Ah, children, children.
I am hardly back home for a moment when I start wishing I had spoken about the new secretary more accurately. I have yet to figure out how to isolate the essence of her being. I put too much passion in my portrayal of her, too much hate.
And yet my adversary must be assessed, that's a rule in the art of warfare. Watch her, delve into her, scrutinize her from every angle, calculate her capacity to search and destroy. So that when the time comes, I'll be ready to attack.
I start again. I try to define her.
Excerpted from Everyday Life by Lydie Salvayre Copyright © 1999 by Éditions du Seuil / Éditions Verticales. Excerpted by permission.
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