My Phantom Husbandby Marie Darrieussecq
An astonishing work of fiction from France's "best young novelist" (The New Yorker), the internally acclaimed author of "Pig Tales." The premise is simple: the narrator's husband leaves to buy a loaf of bread and never returns. Like the classics By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and Dear Diego, Marie Darrieussecq's My Phantom Husband chronicles a woman's poignant descent into madness brought on by the loss of a great love. Combining a poet's exquisite metaphors with a painter's mesmerizing visions, Darrieussecq astounds readers with her exceptional imagination and stylistic genius. Surreal yet universal in its understanding of grief, this haunting novel reminds us why the New York Times hailed this young author as "fascinating and original."
Esther Allen's recent translations for The New Press include The Flight, Women in the Nineteenth Century, and Marc Chagall: The Fables of La Fontaine. She lives in New York City.
- Faber and Faber
- Publication date:
Read an Excerpt
My husband has disappeared. He came home from work, set his briefcase down against the wall, asked me if I had bought any bread. It must have been about seven-thirty.
Has my husband disappeared because that evening, after enduring years of my negligence, exasperated, worn out by his day at work, he was suddenly fed up with having to go back down our five flights of stairs, day after day, in search of bread? I tried to help the police: had it really been a day like any other? We combed through all the computer files my husband had opened since that morning. He hadn't sold anything or received anything special, he had shown three apartments, he had eaten his usual lunch, a sandwich bought at the corner store. The prospective buyers (a young couple, a middle-aged couple, and a graying divorced man, all tracked down by the police) had noticed nothing in particular beyond a faulty water heater and other fine points of real estate, that was what they were there for, they no longer even remembered my husband's face.
I was unable to provide an hour-by-hour account of his schedule, so the police advised me to dig through his mail, his desk drawers, his suit pockets, to check all the calls listed on the last phone bill he received at the office. They couldn't do it themselves: two hundred people disappear every day in this country and are tracked down, though only rarely, in the islands accompanied by beautiful blondes (as if I weren't a beautiful blonde myself), while others cross the border, in which case it's wisest to renounce all hope, and still others throwthemselves into the sea, washing up bloated on the beaches, eyes and tongue eaten by shrimp, bodily crevices colonized by sea snails, it's best to spare yourself this type of reunion. The police asked me if my husband was prone to depression.
I didn't call the police right away. It was a while before I realized my husband had disappeared. I often took advantage of the time he was out buying the baguette to call my mother. I would hang up when I heard his footsteps on the fifth floor. That particular day, my mother and I stayed on the phone for a full quarter of an hour, she chattering away, me interrupting her regularly to remind her I would have to hang up soon. I had the feeling, only vaguely at first, that her story was going on longer than usual today. I looked out at the street to see if my husband was coming across; I strained to hear him in the stairway; and my mother was the one who hung up first this time, accusing me as usual of not paying the slightest attention to her, when I was simply leaning against the windowsill, wanting to give myself over entirely now to the sole pastime of calmly watching for my husband.
The sun was beginning to set and I breathed in the sweet air. It was a fairly unusual thing for me to rest idly at my window at that hour of the day; generally, around seven-fifteen, I would notice that nothing was ready and race downstairs to buy something to eat (forgetting the baguette: the shop at the corner doesn't sell bread, and the nearest bakery is on the other side of the boulevard; it takes forever to cross). The rooftops were turning red and the jumble of the outer boroughswhere nothing predominates, not slate or tile, brick or stoneblended and became almost pretty in the sunset. It was that same evening, I didn't yet know how crucial it would be for me, when I first noticed that there was a flock of swifts above my impatiens, forming commas in the outsized winter sky. Everything seemed smaller, livable, just my size, fraudulently smaller and livable and my size, because I could follow the flight of the swifts as they zigzagged from one edge of the sky to the other. The daytime haze was melting away on the horizon, you could see out and across more clearly, first the buildings of the boroughs, then, to the north, the monuments of the capital city etching their signature more sharply at the base of the sky, and, out toward the sea, the long empty terrain of the border. The shadows were advancing, dust fell back to earth beneath pedestrians' soles, everything huddled against the ground and the sky took up all the room. I told myself that I was feeling rather good waiting for my husband in the evening air, that I would do well in the future to take some time for myself like that, and that the bakery must be closed, my husband must have had to look for another one farther on, and he, too, had stopped to breathe.
The sun touched the rooftops and the borough went black against the sky; the sun was right there, horizontal, gently warming my face, a redness pressing against my cheeks. I saw the double outline of the tip of my nose, going in opposite directions as my eyes shifted south, and north, and the guardrail of eyelashes, very blurry in the light; and I felt as if I were one big thing, warm and vibrating, myself. That evening was the last time in my memory that I succeeded in perceiving myself as whole, full, and collected; after that I scattered like the galaxies, vaporized out across space like a red giant. The sun slipped between my eyelids, there was only a thin line of light left, then it disappeared with a flash and my nose became a little white mass set too close beneath my eyes.
The air was cold on my cheeks, and my hunger was becoming acute. I wanted to break away from the window and find out what time it was but I stayed there, waiting a little longer, not wanting to admit that my husband's delay was becoming stranger and more objective, measurable in minutes and quarter hours. I let anger swell inside me as if it were a last burst of sunlight I was warming between my hands so I wouldn't be left alone at my window in the cold. I fanned my anger, my hunger, I made it a point of honor not to go and eat a little piece of cheese, cultivating hunger and anger in order to throw them in my husband's face: who had held him up in the streets of the borough, what worthless chatterbox of a neighbor, what contemptible distraction had slowed him on the sidewalk to gawk while I was dying of hunger? My impatiens were losing their color, a few final petals did their utmost, then gave up all at once, like that evening's sun, a red lozenge against a white sky that had simply dropped to the other side of the Earth. The swifts were still zigzagging, some of them skimmed close to my window, their sides blue, throats ruffled, their bodies no more than a whistle full of wind, two hollow wings around a cry.
The air was becoming more and more palpable. Underlying its balminess was a shaft of cold like a material quality of silence. The swifts were taking aim at the ladybugs on my impatiens, I brought the flowerpots inside, one of my nightly chores, I set them there, at my feet, beneath the window. It was important not to leave the window so that the time I had spent waiting for my husband would be nothing more than a short break to look out at the city, like any housewife who allows herself a cigarette in the evening before sitting down to dinner with a sigh.
The swifts stopped calling, the sun had fallen too low. Two or three times more their wings gave off a dusting of light, then everything turned gray, the air emptied of birds in swirls like a giant bathroom sink. I stayed there alone to float in the evening, on the sky with its soiled edges.
In the glow of the open refrigerator I cursed my husband. There were two tomatoes and a piece of gruyère; I could make pasta. When he came in, the food would be waiting for him, fully prepared, uncovered, vengeful, a congealed reproach served on cold plates. A last red ray slid across the Formica, the sink grew dim, the dishwashing liquid turned opaque in its anatomical container. I watched the time on the programmable electric oven, I let go of the refrigerator door, I picked up the telephone.
I didn't call the police right away. I called Jacqueline. I didn't say anything to her about my husband's delay, I just wanted (it was stupid) to know if he wasn't by any chance at her house. It did me good to hear Jacqueline, only Jacqueline, and the children's shouts and the slosh of a bath, Jacqueline's solidity within the beginning of my anguish, the volume she filled, her silhouette in space like a lively swallow. In the world Jacqueline inhabited, it was impossible just to disappear like that while going out to get bread. I'm busy right now, she told me, call me back later. What are you making for dinner? I shot back, and in the return of her impatient voice I could breathe the aroma of the casserole and see again the joyful chaos of her apartment, children covered with boo-boos wreaking havoc on carpets softer than the ones at my house. Just a second, Jacqueline, it wasn't tonight, was it? The big game on TV? What big game? The big game the men were going to watch. What are you talking about? This brief exchange over the phone left me suspended in painful midpoint, reassured, certainly, by the virulent presence of my friend (unaffected by telephone wires or satellite transmissions, nothing could disintegrate Jacqueline, and her voice on the telephone faithfully epitomized her) but also forsaken at the edge of a very large sea, and I watched Jacqueline moving away, distractedly waving her hand.
I turned on the television, the eight o'clock news was ending, any moment now, I thought, the announcer would put on a serious face to announce the disappearance of my husband, knocked down by a bus rushing too quickly back to the station, struck by a restaurant delivery boy's moped, crushed to a pulp beneath a taxi taking its last fare home. The streets were empty; the advertisements were already parading by and I could no longer hear any noise outside. I had the strength to switch it off, the voices disappeared, and for the first time that evening I felt myself overwhelmed by a wave of panic. It does not take an hour to buy a baguette, and my husband, always so responsible, would not have left me in the dark about it if by some very strange chance he had stopped to have a drink somewhere.
I set out to make the rounds of the neighborhood in methodical fashion: I walked down the boulevard to the bakery, went across, looked at the sign announcing the hours of operation and peered through the metal shutter. My husband wasn't there. I continued on to the next bakery, a pretentious window display of harvesters against a horizon of wheat and a sign in a retro typeface; my husband never went there. I stood on tiptoe anyway, but the only thing I could smell through the windmill-shaped bars was staleness.
There was another bakery at the intersection, also dark and empty. The streets beyond that were outside of my husband's daily sphere. My heart started hammeringwhere else to look besides the bakeries? My own powerlessness as I faced the deserted streets made my legs go hollow; my body did away with me to fill up with an alien fluid, like a reservoir of flour or of tears.
I retraced my steps. A movement in the branches or a fluctuation under the streetlight was enough to show me the two of us there, walking through the streets as we had on evenings when our double shadow preceded us and the sky was a magnificent, inexhaustible thing beyond the rooftops. I came out into the plaza, the clock on the borough hall was broken, I let my eyes wander idiotically as if I were going to run across us, sitting side by side next to the fountain, our gazes far away in the sky. I dipped my fingers into the fountain. The lapping surface moved like a net over the crosspieces of the tilework, which seemed to float between two layers of water. In a few minutes, surely, we would be laughing in relief (it was a misunderstanding, a slip in the space-time continuum, a very brief, very benign loss of memory on the part of my husband, who is wandering a hundred meters from me right now. In the sky, two insomniac swifts are laughing as they watch us stumble past each other in the grid of streets, slate and tile, brick and stone). I was still sitting next to the fountain, my consciousness sharpened like a blade but reaching toward nothing at all, a gaping, empty edginess. A liquid mass welled up in my chest, distended below my sternum and tried to spurt from my sides, the slightest movement and I would gush out like a wine barrel. The plaza fell back into place around me, the flagstones floated flat on the ground, the street lamps cut out little cookies of red asphalt. I stood up, very straight. The silence crackled like burning wood. The back of the plaza swayed, and everything trembled as if under the blow of a gong, the air vibrated at ground level. I saw a gleam slip across the facade like a lone silhouette in a reflection.
The fountain behind me started flowing and I came back to myself with a start, a pair of neighbors were approaching, they greeted me. My body remembered on its own, without me. I spoke the words bonsoir into the silence and the words folded into themselves like two black wings, I heard the echo of my footsteps.
I knocked at the baker's house. A shutter opened, her face appeared, haloed in blue by the light from the TV. I felt like an idiot. Do you remember, I asked, a rather tall gentleman, wearing dark clothing, who came to buy some bread from you at exactly seven-thirty? The baker considered me in alarm. As if I had to remember every one of my customers! she protested. I walked away, pondering her response. I had no desire whatsoever to tell my story, no desire whatsoever to speak the words that my husband had not come home.
I could not picture my husband at another woman's house while I wandered the streets, lost, looking for him, I couldn't picture it not because his fidelity was something I took for granted but because my husband was a consistent man who would never have let me worry about him alone like that: he would have phoned me instead to tell me that on the way to the bakery he had remembered something urgent, gone back to the agency, and would be home very late. At the agency, the phone rang into a void. And yet I saw him, distinctly, painfully, he was there, his back hunched over his computer, his birthday yucca swelling in the thick air, the chair squeaking a little beneath his weightthat always had an erotic effect on me, that stupid chair giving in beneath the tangible weight of my big husband. I pushed the redial button and the ringing started up again, hypnotic, each ring sank a sorcerer's needle into my spine and I squinched my eyes under the effect of a strange, faraway pain.
I pressed my forehead against the window glass, arms dangling, the receiver in my hand. I heard the stipplings of my husband's absence from very far away. The pointless ringing echoed everywhere, on the plaza's flagstones, across the borough to the sea and to the monuments. Drops trickled down beneath my angled forehead and suddenly I understood that it was true, I wasn't dreaming, my husband had not come home after he went out to buy a baguette this evening, and that was what was real and that was what existed. And in the days to come, I would have to experience this shock to the heart again and again, the sudden surge of adrenaline, an electric wave that crashes into the tips of the fingers and paralyzes the throat, freezing the organs and lingering like a frost in the innermost bronchioles, the adrenaline that would be, in the days to come, in my veins and muscles, the mark of the real, its instrument, its texture.
Meet the Author
Marie Darrieussecqis a graduate of the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, and teaches in Lille.
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