Here is a story of self-discovery, of entering adulthood and of freeing oneself. The tone is sarcastic, lucid, cruel yet realistic. On a background of R&B and funky electronic music, Nicolas argues gives us an impressive and subtle account of relations between the sexes and of examining the choices one has made in the past.
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I was Behind You
By Nicolas Fargues, Sue Rose
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2009 Pushkin Press
All rights reserved.
Ero dietro di te: do you know what that means in English? It means I was behind you. She was actually sitting at a table behind us for the entire meal and she spent the whole time watching me, although I didn't realise it. You know, it's funny, but I'm starting to think it wouldn't be stretching things too far to read something highly symbolic into that phrase. It could also mean: "All this time, all these years, I've been right behind you, not very far away, and you didn't see me. It was obvious you and I were meant to be together, but we missed each other every time. Now I want you to know that I'm here, the ball's in your court, you can't say no one told you and grumble that you missed out on the chance of a lifetime." What do you think?
It was the waiter who brought me a little card at the end of meal, with the bill. You know, the sort of card that has the restaurant's logo, address and phone number printed above its name. I don't know if you've noticed, but they always do this sort of thing really nicely in Italy — the cards are always properly printed on quality paper with an elegant illustration and attractive lettering, they always have a personal touch: the Italians pay far more attention to this sort of thing than the French. Written on the back of the card in ballpoint pen was 'Ero dietro di te — Alice'; that's pronounced Al-ee-chay in Italian, then a mobile number which, in Italy, starts with thirty-three or thirty four. The waiter smiled as he handed it to me and began telling me in Italian what had happened. I was nodding, although I could only actually understand one word in five; I couldn't bring myself to admit that I didn't understand Italian, it was thoroughly irritating, but I just kept nodding out of sheer pride. What a ridiculous way to react, huh? How stupid can you get?
As it was perfectly obvious that I didn't have a clue what he was saying, he naturally turned to my father and stepmother, who do speak Italian, and explained that a girl sitting at the table behind us had insisted on giving me her phone number. He was really tickled by it, he couldn't stop smiling! And it wasn't a mocking or a blasé smile. Quite the reverse — it was what I'd call a tremulous smile, a tremulous, emotional smile, tinged with amazement. Enthusiastic and amazed, that was it. He was so embarrassed about smiling, and so taken by the thought of this girl leaving her phone number for me in such a romantic, gutsy way that he was virtually blushing. Yes, I know, it's the sort of situation you only find in films or books and, putting myself in the waiter's shoes, I'm sure this sort of thing didn't happen every day in his restaurant. I didn't really take that on board, it's true, because it was happening to me, because the note was addressed to me. But, I suppose, looking at it objectively, that kind of thing must be quite exciting, mustn't it? So I asked the waiter, this time in English — incidentally, have you noticed that when you ask an Italian, "Do you speak English?", they tend to answer very humbly: "Just a little bit"? Djusteliteulbite, with that accent, making that sign with their thumb and forefinger. They may say "Just a little bit" but they actually understand and speak English far, far better than the French, don't they? Have you noticed that? — What was I saying, oh yes, the waiter. I ask him in English, trying really hard not to have a French accent — because English sounds really dreadful spoken with a French accent, doesn't it? — I ask him if the girl comes here often, what she was like, if she was pretty or not, I ask him to describe her, just to give me an idea. I was just asking for a laugh, to show off a bit to my father, stepmother and kid brother, without really thinking about what I said. Just for fun and because it was making me feel better, taking my mind off things by chatting about silly stuff like that.
Because I was in such a state that evening, honest to God, you have no idea. Alexandrine had cheated on me over a month earlier, and I couldn't get over it, it was awful. I thought about it every time I looked at her, I tried to stop thinking about it, but it was no good, it had got blown out of all proportion, it had become pathological, it was slowly eating away at my mind, every day I felt drained, bloodless, I had a dead weight in the pit of my stomach night and day, you know, that dead weight you get just there, that won't go away, depression converted into objective physical pain. The kind of thing they treat with antidepressants like Prozac, stuff like that. Before I went through all this, I didn't understand Prozac. Before all this, you know, I'd made it a point of honour never to admit things weren't okay, I just went on stubbornly believing that I was happy — I even convinced myself that I didn't have any problems, you know, before all this happened, I was Mr No Problem — so I didn't understand the purpose, use or effect of all that chemistry. When people talked about depression and feeling down, it didn't seem real, I thought you had to be weak to need all those drugs, all those therapists, all that talking. I became contemptuous, scornful, totally intolerant about it all. I didn't realise you could be unhappy and not do anything about it, I didn't realise you could be really miserable, that you could feel ten years older just like that, that one day you could just stop wanting to put on a brave face. I thought that people who were unhappy just put up with being unhappy and that deep down they couldn't be all that unhappy, all that depressed, know what I mean?
Well, I never really seriously considered getting a prescription for Prozac because, deep down, I think I have a huge ego, which means I always keep my head above water and come out smelling of roses whatever happens. But I've now realised that there are psychological traumas which are too terrible, too hard to bear, and which can, in the long run, make you lose your grip. And I've realised that Western medicine has harnessed certain molecules to cope with these traumas and make life more bearable. And it would be a mistake to do without them if you really need them, if things are too difficult, if you aren't strong enough to do without, if they'll make you less miserable. And there's no shame in that. No, I've had it with looking down on people who cram their faces with drugs and don't hide when they're in pain — it's too easy. I realise now that they're doing their best. I realise now that the poor bastards must really be suffering, if they've come to that. I now know you can be in pain and not be able to ignore it. I don't look down on anyone any more, anyway. This whole business has made me more human. I had to wait till I hit my thirties before I realised I was just like everyone else, that we were all in the same boat, and that I'd been a complete idiot to think I was better than anyone else. Besides, it was my therapist who told me at our first session, in June: "You're not better than all the others now, you're one of them", heavily stressing "one of them". Before all this, I'd thought I had nothing in common with other people. But I was more than happy to go looking for them when I needed to talk. Because, you know, I didn't talk before. I was Mr No Problem, as I said. And, now, I can honestly say that that I pulled through because I spent hours talking to people, whether they were good listeners or not. Yes, I'll say it loud and clear: "Thanks, people, thanks! You saved my life and please forgive me for bad-mouthing you for so long, I swear I've learned my lesson and I won't do it again!" In the end, I was shameless; when asked "How are you?", I didn't have any qualms about answering, "Dreadful, things couldn't be worse, I really need to talk, have you got a minute?" And there was no holding me back — me, the man who was so afraid of damaging his perfect image by talking too much about himself and any problems he might have — there was no holding me back from talking to them for hours, like everyone else does, shamelessly doing people's heads in by talking non-stop the way other people have done my head in with all their talk when things were going badly for them, when I was pretending that everything was fine my end and that I was listening just as closely to their problems as they do to mine, now that I have my own. And I never showed that they were sometimes doing my head in with their non-stop talk, probably for the same reasons that, of all the people I've discussed my problems with over the past few months, including you, there must have been one or two who felt I was doing their heads in big time, don't you think? I'm not doing your head in, am I? Are you sure? Anyway, I don't really care whether someone's listening to me or not. Now I talk. And something is always sorted out when you talk. Anyway, it finally dawned on me that people don't want you to spare them your problems and be okay — quite the reverse, in fact. People actually want you to show your true face and admit you're just like them, that you're in the same shitty boat as them. That's what sharing really is, that's what being human is. As long as you're fine, as long as you try to spare people your problems, you fascinate them but you're not one of them, you're better than them, your happiness keeps them at arm's length too much, it annoys them and makes them hostile. And they like you even more, they're even more attentive and sympathetic when you show your true face after they've spent ages thinking you were better than everyone else, after they've been waiting with perverse impatience for you to fall flat on your face, like everyone else.
Anyway, as I was saying, I didn't begin to suffer till I turned thirty. Or rather, to discover that I could suffer like everyone else and that my so-called strength of mind, my so-called elegant detachment, my totally theoretical, totally idealistic, totally literary aloofness towards everything couldn't protect me from a straightforward, ordinary, resounding slap in the face. I didn't really grow up till the age of thirty. You know, I never had any real problems. I'm not a traumatised child, there's nothing objectively tragic lurking in my past. I wasn't abandoned, I wasn't raped or abused, my parents didn't beat the living daylights out of each other in front of me, my father hasn't killed anyone, he's never been to prison, he didn't drink, my mother didn't prostitute herself to feed me, I didn't witness horrible things, murders, genocides, deportation, stuff like that. My past was perfectly ordinary and middle-class: a little sister, a mum and dad who loved and respected each other, who loved us, and who then realised one day that things weren't working out and who decided on a clean break, and that was that. One child each and the best of luck, let's not forget we loved each other and that the children's happiness comes first. The petty trauma of divorce and a bonded family, the petty woes of a spoiled child, life goes on, nothing to make a big song and dance about.
Anyway, given that we're all totally self-obsessed, one day I'll probably laugh about this pathetic business I've just gone through with Alexandrine but, for now, it feels more like a revolution — the kind of revolution that's part of an adult's normal, mundane, lousy life. That's life, as they say. Quite an apt expression, isn't it? That's life. Anyway, this whole business will have a before and after, that's for sure. Hey, don't you think I've changed, just a little bit? I haven't changed completely, of course, but, I don't know, don't you think there's something a little sadder in the depths of my eyes, the kind of thing that's barely noticeable but shows you're not the same any more, that you're a little more serious, a little more experienced now. You haven't noticed anything? You don't think I've changed? Yes, I know we're all damaged children in our own way. Each and every one of us. In theory, that should put all our petty little woes firmly in perspective. So much anonymous suffering is almost annoying. But, well, you know, having Alexandrine cheat on me was awful, a real nightmare. For a whole month after she got back from Bangkok, I couldn't sleep, I had to force myself to eat, force myself to get out of bed, take a shower, choose what clothes to wear, get ready in front of the mirror, keep a smile on my face so that everyone would go on thinking that everything was okay. Actually, no, I didn't force myself, that's not the right word. Actually, I was doing everything mechanically, without really understanding what was happening to me. I was in the middle of the shockwave, you know, when the building is still standing a few minutes after the earth tremor and then collapses. Or like the chicken which has just had its head cut off and keeps running round the yard for twenty or thirty seconds before it accepts that there's no point running any more, that it's going nowhere. I thought I was strong, you know, made of stainless steel, off-road, untouchable, too proud for pain. But suddenly, pride, aloofness, irony, were all gone. Just a resounding slap in the face from life. And like all those who are too proud and too sheltered by life when they receive their first hard knock, I overreacted. I turned into a robot, I did everything the same as usual but I'd switched off. I was completely devastated, I was obsessed by the thought of my wife being shagged in her fucking hotel room, in Bangkok, by some man who was taller and more manly than me, who was bigger, less inhibited, a black man who spoke English and who made her come without a second thought. It was awful, honest to God, I tried to put on a brave face for everyone, I kept a manic smile on my face, pretending I was nobody's fool. But, underneath it all, I was going to pieces, I felt like no one in the world was losing their grip like me.
That was exactly my frame of mind when I was speaking to the waiter in that restaurant in Florence. I was feeling a kind of euphoric despair, you know? Though, on that particular evening, to be perfectly honest, just being in Italy was doing me the world of good. I'd arrived from Paris that morning, I was just there for the weekend, I wasn't expecting the trip to make me feel any better, it didn't even cross my mind that Italy might do anything for me, given the state I was in. And it's precisely because I didn't expect anything that it all happened, because it didn't even cross my mind that something might happen to bring me out of my black depression. My father, whom I hadn't seen for a year, had suggested that I make the most of my trip to Europe to spend a weekend in Florence, where he'd just moved with his family. He'd suggested this by email two or three months ago, well in advance, to make sure he didn't miss me, because he knows what it's like to make a flying visit to Europe: loads of things to do and people to see in record time, with no time to spare for family. He knew things weren't going brilliantly in my marriage and he'd written:
When you come to Paris with Alexandrine, in early September, why don't you come to stay with us in Florence for the weekend to take your mind off things? We'll have just moved; I've found quite a nice house in the hills with a view of the whole town.
When he'd suggested this in his email, I was in my office in Tanambo, on the other side of the world, my mind occupied with a thousand other worries and morally eaten up with guilt. You know, at that time, it must have been June, Alexandrine and I were already in the midst of a crisis. I was the one who, after years and years of reciprocal fidelity with two children, had suddenly screwed everything up, in mid-May, by losing my head over Gassy, a visiting singer who'd even got the witchdoctors in her village to cast a spell on me and, frankly, her magic charms could well have worked because, with hindsight, I really don't know what I saw in her, a singer for Chrissake, I ask you! A virtual stranger who really wasn't that attractive, anyway, whom I sneaked away to kiss and caress in her hotel, one morning when my wife and children were innocently at the zoo, completely unaware of what I was getting up to on the other side of town. The worst thing was not so much snogging another woman and fondling her breasts and fanny. You already know what happened, everyone knows. The worst thing was that, two days later, when I confessed to Alexandrine that I'd been with that woman, I also told her I was leaving her, only to take it back abruptly after twenty minutes and beg her to forgive me. I'm glossing over this part, I'm oversimplifying, I'll skip Alexandrine's mental and physical collapse the second I told her the news, the terrible, palpable shock in her eyes and written all over her face, just as she was about to put a pound cake in the oven for the whole family. I'll skip the way I immediately wanted to die for putting her in that state, my sudden realisation that I'd thrown the world out of kilter, that I'd shattered her trust forever, I'd committed a real crime; I'll spare you my feeling that this was the end of the world, that I was walking into the fires of hell — there's no other image to describe it, the living nightmare, the words spoken in those decisive five seconds that you want to take back, those five fatal seconds that you hopelessly long to rewrite so that everything can go back to exactly how it was before, so that everything is just a bad dream. And talking about dreams, I'll spare you the one I had a couple of weeks earlier. Dreams are incredible. In this dream, Alex and I are yelling at each other, we're yelling at each other at the same time, face to face, eyes screwed shut in hysteria, we're in tears, yelling at each other although we're totally unable to communicate, we're deeply annoyed with each other for some reason that isn't clear in the dream, but it's something serious, very serious in fact, something in which I'm the guilty party, we're yelling at each other, making an incredible racket as if this is the end of the world, and yet we're hugging each other with all our might, like two orphans in an air-raid, terrified and waiting for death, because we both know that no other outcome is possible. I remember that dream perfectly, I'm not making any of it up, honestly, that dream was so frightening and the violence in it so tangible and realistic, that it made me sit bolt upright in our bed in the middle of the night. It still gave me the shivers the next morning, I'm not kidding. I'll skip all that but, as far as the actual sequence of events goes, that's the version you've heard, isn't it? Tell me straight away if I'm missing something out, some additional detail, something you might have been told that you think is significant and that you might think I was deliberately keeping from you to make it easier to tell you my version. Go ahead, I really wouldn't want to influence you.
Excerpted from I was Behind You by Nicolas Fargues, Sue Rose. Copyright © 2009 Pushkin Press. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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