A few weeks before Christmas, Michèle picks herself up from her living room floor. She has been raped. She has almost no recollection of her attacker but she senses his presence—he is never far away—and this uncanny feeling triggers a whirlwind of events and memories. She begins to fear she is losing her grip on a life already complicated by a demanding job, an ex-husband with a new girlfriend, a jealous lover, and a son trapped in a relationship with his girlfriend pregnant by another man.
Hardened by the consequences of her father’s violent past, Michèle—in her fifties, fiercely independent and unsentimental—refuses to be reduced to a victim. When her rapist begins taunting her with messages, she takes measures to protect herself until she discovers his identity…
Through the bitingly sarcastic and unflinchingly realist voice of its heroine, Elle paints a striking portrait of one woman’s experience that challenges our notions of masculinity and femininity, weakness and strength.
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|Publisher:||Other Press, LLC|
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|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.60(d)|
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By Philippe Djian, Michael Katims
Other Press LLCCopyright © 2012 Philippe Djian et Éditions Gallimard, Paris
All rights reserved.
I MUST HAVE SCRAPED MY CHEEK. It burns. My jaw hurts. I knocked a vase over when I fell, I remember hearing it shatter on the floor and I'm wondering if I got cut with a piece of glass. I don't know. The sun is still shining outside. The weather's good. Little by little, I catch my breath. I feel an awful migraine coming on, any minute.
Two days ago, as I was watering my garden, an unsettling message appeared to me when I looked up to the sky. A cloud, with an unmistakably distinct shape. I looked around, wondering if it were intended for someone else, but I didn't see anyone. And there was no sound either, just me watering. Not a word, not a scream, not a whisper of air, not a single motor — and God knows there is no shortage of mowers and blowers around here.
Generally, I can feel it when the outside world cuts in. I've been known to stay holed up for several days in a row, never setting foot outdoors, if I perceive some unsettling omen in the erratic flight of a bird — coupled with a shrill cry or some sinister croaking — or if some weird ray of sunlight makes its way through the branches and hits me right in the face, or if I lean over to give a few coins to a man sitting on the sidewalk and he suddenly grabs my arm and shouts in my face, "The demons! The demons with their demon faces! I threaten to kill them and then they obey!" The man belched, kept repeating this same sentence over and over with crazy eyes, never letting me go, and when I got home that night I canceled my train ticket, immediately forgetting all about the reason for my trip, finding it suddenly and completely unimportant. You see, I'm neither suicidal nor deaf to the warnings, messages, and signs that I receive.
When I was sixteen, I missed a plane after a night of drinking at the Bayonne Festival and the plane crashed. I thought about this for a long time. Then and there, I decided I would take certain precautions to protect my life. I accepted the fact that these things exist and anyone who chose to laugh it off, well, I just let them laugh. I'm not sure why, but I've always felt that the signs in the sky are the most telling ones, the most urgent. An X-shaped cloud — rare enough that it gets my full attention — would normally put me on high alert, every time. I don't know what happened. How could I have dropped my guard? Of course it's a little (or a lot?) to do with Marty. I'm so ashamed. I'm so furious now. Furious at myself. There's a chain on my door. There's a goddamn chain on my door. Did I just forget? I stand up and go put it on. I briefly pinch my lower lip between my teeth, I hold still for a full minute. Apart from the broken vase, I can't see any mess. I go upstairs to change. Vincent is coming for dinner with his girlfriend, and nothing is ready.
The young woman is pregnant, but it isn't Vincent's child. I have stopped talking about that. I have nothing to gain. I don't have the strength to fight him anymore. Or the will. Once I figured out how much he takes after his father, I thought I would lose my mind. Her name is Josie. She's looking for an apartment for Vincent and herself, and for the baby on the way. Richard pretended to be sick when he heard the price of Paris rentals. He paced up and down muttering to himself. He's made a habit of that now. I can see how much older he's grown, just how somber these twenty years have made him. "You mean monthly or yearly?" he asked, putting on that mean look of his. He wasn't sure he could swing it. As for me, I'm supposed to have a regular and generous income.
"You wanted a son," I tell him. "Remember?"
I left him because he became unbearable, and now he's more unbearable than ever. I tell him he should take up smoking again, or jogging. Anything to get rid of that bitterness which drives him most of the time.
"Excuse me, but go fuck yourself," he tells me. "Anyway, I'm broke right now. I thought he got a job?"
"I don't know, talk it over with him."
I don't have the will to fight him either. I spent more than twenty years of my life with this man, but sometimes I wonder how I ever found the strength.
I run a bath. My cheek is red and maybe a little yellow as well, like pottery, and there's a tiny drop of blood at the corner of my lip. My hair is truly a mess. The clip I was wearing let a lot of it loose. I pour some bath salts into the tub. This is madness because it's already five o'clock and the girl, Josie ... I don't know her very well. I don't know what to think of her.
Yet there is an incredibly warm and beautiful light, so removed from the slightest whisper of a threat. It's so hard for me to believe that something like this could happen to me under a sky so blue, on such a gorgeous day. The bathroom is awash with sunlight. I can hear cries in the distance, far-off children playing. A dusting of clouds on the horizon. Birds, squirrels, and so on.
It feels so good. This bath is a miracle. I close my eyes. I can't say I've wiped it all away, but after a moment, I'm completely back to myself. The expected migraine has not come. I order sushi from the place that delivers.
I've known worse with men I freely chose.
After picking up the larger pieces of the vase, I vacuum the spot where I fell. Just to think, only hours before I had been lying there, my heart pounding. It makes me pretty uncomfortable. And right as I'm about to pour myself a drink, I get a message from Irène, my mother, who is seventy- five and whom I haven't seen — or heard from — in a month. She says she had a dream about me, that I was calling her for help. But I didn't call her at all.
Vincent doesn't seem quite convinced by my story. "Your bicycle is in excellent shape," he says. "Isn't that odd?" I stare at him a moment, then I shrug my shoulders. Josie is bright red. Vincent has just grabbed her wrist, hard, and forced her to release the peanuts. Apparently, she's already gained forty pounds.
They don't look right together. Richard, who wouldn't know, told me that kind of girl could be good in bed. What does that mean, to be good in bed? In the meantime, she wants a nine-hundred-square-foot two-bedroom in a certain neighborhood. Nothing that size can be found for less than three thousand euros.
"I filled out an application at McDonald's," Vincent says. "For the meantime."
I encourage him in this endeavor, or something better for his self-esteem — why not? A pregnant woman is expensive to keep.
"You should know ..." I started to say, before he even introduced her to me. "I'm not asking what you think," he answered. "I don't give a shit what you think."
That's how he acts with me since I left his father. Richard is an excellent tragic actor. And Vincent is his best audience. As we're finishing dinner, he looks at me again with suspicious eyes. "What is it with you? What's wrong?" I can't stop thinking about it, of course. Throughout the meal, it was never far away. I'm wondering if I were chosen at random or if I had been followed, if it's someone I know. Their talk of rent and the baby's bedroom doesn't interest me at all, though I admire what they're taking on — what they're attempting — a trick by which their problem becomes my problem. I stare at him for a second, trying to imagine his expression if I told him what happened to me this afternoon. But it is no longer in my repertoire. I no longer have the power to imagine my son's reactions.
"Did you get into a fight?"
"A fight, Vincent?" I let out a small chortle. "A fight?"
"Did you slug it out with someone?"
"Oh, come on, don't be stupid. I'm not in the habit of 'slugging it out' with people."
I get up and leave, joining Josie on the veranda. It's a fine, cool evening, but she is still fanning herself because it's so oppressive. Those last few weeks are the hardest. You couldn't get me to go through that again. I'd have cut my own belly open to put an end to the agony. Vincent knows that. I never tried to gloss that over. I always wanted him to know. And never to forget. My mother told me the same thing and it didn't kill me.
We stare into the starry black sky. I watch Josie out of the corner of my eye. I've only seen her half a dozen times and I don't know much about her. She's perfectly likable, actually. Knowing my son Vincent, I pity her. But there's something stony about her, something cool and stubborn. She would do just fine if she made an effort. She's solid, I can feel it. There's something lurking inside her.
"So you're due in December? Getting closer."
"He's right," she answers. "You're all upset."
"No, I'm not," I say. "Not at all. What does he know about me?"
I close the door behind them. I make my rounds of the ground floor, carrying a meat cleaver. I check the doors and the windows. I shut myself up in my room. When dawn starts to filter in, I haven't slept a wink. Morning grows blue, resplendent. I rush off to see my mother. As I enter her living room, there is a young, athletic, though altogether ordinary man on his way out.
I wonder if my aggressor from the night before looked like him. All I can remember is a ski mask with two holes for the eyes, and I can't even remember if it was blue or red. I can't remember if he looked like this self-satisfied person who winks at me as he leaves my mother's apartment.
"Mom, how much are you paying them? How demeaning!" I say. "Can't you go out with a professor or a writer for a change? I mean, do you really need some stud? At your age."
"This can't touch me. I have nothing to be ashamed about, it's my sex life. You're just a little bitch. Your father's right."
"Mom, stop it. Don't talk to me about him, he's fine where he is."
"What are you talking about? You silly girl, your father is definitely not fine where he is. He's going insane."
"He is insane. Ask his psychiatrist."
She gives me breakfast. I think she's had something redone since the last time. Or just Botoxed maybe, I don't know. She has changed her life completely since her husband (who unfortunately is also my father) got put away, though at first she did fight the good fight. A real slut. She has spent a lot of money on cosmetic surgery over the last couple of years. Sometimes, in a certain light, she frightens me.
"Fine. What do you want?"
"What do I want? Mom, you called me."
She looks at me for a moment, with no reaction.
Then she leans over toward me and says, "Think it over before you speak. Weigh your answer. What would you say if I got remarried? Think."
"It's simple, I'd kill you. No need to think it over."
She shakes her head slowly, crosses her legs, lights a cigarette.
"You've always wanted some sanitized version of life. All that is dark or abnormal ... it's always scared you silly."
"I would kill you. Spare me the psychobabble. You've been warned."
I had my eyes closed up until then. Of course her sexual appetite has always surprised me, I would even say disgusted me, and I don't approve. But I decided to be open-minded about it. If that's how she gets by, I can accept it, though I don't want the details. Fine. On the other hand, if things get too serious and venture out onto uncertain terrain, as is the case with this marriage stuff, well, I just have to step in. Who's the lucky guy this time? Who's the one she met? And who exactly is this Ralf — the son of a gun has a name — who shows up in the frame and casts a shadow over everything?
I eliminated a lawyer who said he was crazy about her by telling him she was carrying a virus, then a branch manager by revealing the truth about us — which kills the mood as well — and they hadn't even proposed.
I don't think I could put up with such a twisted thing. A seventy-five-year-old woman. The ceremony, the flowers, the honeymoon. She looks like one of those terrifying old actresses — completely plastered over, breast-lift at five thousand a pair, eyes all agleam, tanned to the hilt.
"I'd like to know who is going to pay my rent in the years to come," she finally says with a sigh. "I'd like to know, tell me."
"I will, of course. Haven't I always?" She smiles, but she's obviously very put out.
"You are so selfish, Michèle. It's frightening."
I butter the toast that has just popped up in the toaster. I haven't seen her in more than a month and I'm already ready to leave.
"What if something happened to you?" she asks. I feel like telling her that's just a chance we'll have to take.
I cover one slice of toast with raspberry jam. I slather it on. On purpose. It's hard not to get it all over my fingers, and I hand it to her. She hesitates. It looks like lumps of blood. She stares at the thing for a moment and then she says, "I think he's not long for this world, Michèle. I think you should know. Your father is not long for this world."
"Well, good riddance. That's all I have to say."
"You don't have to be so callous, you know. Don't do something that you'll regret for the rest of your life."
"What? What would I regret? Are you delirious?"
"He paid his debt. He's been in prison for thirty years. That's a faraway memory."
"I wouldn't say so. I don't think it's far away. How could you say such a horrible thing? You think it's far away? You want binoculars?" There are tears welling in my eyes, like I'd just swallowed a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. "I have no intention of going, Mom. I have no intention of going there. Make no mistake about that. He's been dead to me for a very long time."
She gives me a sidelong glance, full of blame, then turns toward the window. "I don't even know if he still recognizes me. But he does ask for you."
"Oh, really? And what do I care? What am I supposed to feel? And since when are you his messenger?"
"Don't wait. That's all I have to say. Don't wait."
"Listen, I'm never going to set foot in that prison. There is no chance of me visiting him. He's starting to fade from my memory and I would like him to completely disappear, if that's possible."
"How can you say such a thing? That's a terrible thing to say."
"Oh, spare me, would you please? Please. That monster ruined our lives, didn't he?"
"It wasn't all bad. He wasn't all evil, far from it. You know that very well. You might muster a little pity."
"Pity? Mom, take a good look at me. I don't have any pity for him. Not for one second. I hope he expires right where he is, and I will certainly not go see him. Forget it."
She doesn't know that I see him in dreams. Or more precisely, I see his outline, that electric darkness, in the shadows. I can make out his head and shoulders, but I can't tell if he's facing me, looking at me, or if he has his back turned. He seems to be sitting down. He's not talking to me. He's waiting. And when I awake, I still have that image in my mind. That shadow.
I can't help thinking that there may be some relationship between the attack I have just endured and my father's actions — just as we always wonder, my mother and I, each time we go through some ordeal. We wonder because we experienced it, we were on the receiving end of more than our share of spitting and blows, just because we were his wife and his daughter. Overnight we had lost all our relationships, all our neighbors, all our friends. As if we bore the mark on our foreheads.
We experienced the anonymous phone calls, got called names in the middle of the night, received the obscene letters through the mail, our trash cans spilled outside our door, the words scrawled on the walls, the pushing and shoving at the post office, the small humiliations in the shops, the shattered windows. Nothing can surprise me now. No one could swear that all the embers have been snuffed out, that there isn't someone in a corner somewhere cooking up the next thing that might befall us. How could we believe in chance?
That very night, I get a text. "I thought you were really tight, for a woman of your age. But hey." I fall over backward, breathless. I read it two or three times, then I answer: "Who are you?" But there is no reply.
I spend my morning and part of my afternoon reading screenplays. They are piling up on my desk. Maybe there's a clue to be found in that as well, I think, some young writer I shot down and who hates me more than anything.
On the way, I stopped at the gun shop and got myself some red-pepper spray cans, for the eyes. The small size is very practical and can be used several times. I used to use it all the time when I was younger. I was very quick and I had no fears about taking public transportation. I was very agile. I had learned over the years. I know how to dodge someone, I could run pretty fast, I could get around the block in under two minutes. That's no longer the case. That's over. But fortunately, I no longer have any reason to run. I could even take up smoking again. Who would care?
I put aside my dreary reading in midafternoon.
Excerpted from Elle by Philippe Djian, Michael Katims. Copyright © 2012 Philippe Djian et Éditions Gallimard, Paris. Excerpted by permission of Other Press LLC.
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