Lalo’s first novel, Uselessness is something of a bildungsroman of his own student days in Paris. But more than this, it is a literary précis of his oeuvre—of themes that obsess him still. Told in two parts, Uselessness first follows our narrator through his romantic and intellectual awakenings in Paris, where he elevates his adopted home over the moribund one he has left behind. But as he falls in and out of love he comes to realize that as a Puerto Rican, he will always be apart. Ending the greatest romance of his life—that with the city of Paris itself—he returns to San Juan. And in this new era of his life, he is forced to confront choices made, ambitions lost or unmet—to look upon lives not lived.
A tale of the travails of youthful romance and adult acceptance, of foreignness and isolation both at home and abroad, and of the stultifying power of the desire to belong—and to be moved—Uselessness is here rendered into English by the masterful translator Suzanne Jill Levine. For anyone who has been touched by the disquieting passion of Paris, Uselessness is a stirring saga.
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There was a time when I could imagine never returning to San Juan. So many nights, on that walk from the apartment on Rue de Sèvres — to have dinner with the woman I couldn't seem to finish separating from, caught up in an uncertain saga that would take so long to end — I was positive I would remain in Paris. Paris: contained within its damp, cold walls not only the traces of men but also the many brilliant words that radiated their stories. I had never experienced anything like this. It seemed inconceivable I should leave a city that incarnated such texts.
Marie would wait for me there on the fourth floor; one had to climb the stairs after crossing the building's inner courtyard. Her studio was larger and more modern than mine, fifteen minutes away on foot, beyond the Boulevard du Montparnasse, on a side street called L'Impasse de l'Astrolabe. I had lived with Marie my first months in the city, when our relationship was still a peaceful ritual of habits. There I spent days reading, using a pocket dictionary and a notebook where I jotted down the words I didn't know, improving my command of a language I would grow to love. Just as eagerly, after what was almost like daily schoolwork, I would go out to explore the city I had dreamed of, and which now, finally, lay at my feet.
But by the time this narrative begins, I'd already lost that world. I'd have dinner with Marie; we'd talk about the same things we had in the old days, and later, when the sound of the neighbors' televisions quieted down, we'd move to the bed, three steps away. But nothing was as before and I rarely slept there. After midnight, I'd walk back following a slightly different route, heading toward the Boulevard du Montparnasse via a brief stretch of Rue Monsieur-le-Prince, until I got to the corner with my favorite café-tabac, delightfully named Au Chien Qui Fume, the Smoking Dog. I'd then cross the avenue and head toward the end of the cul-de-sac, where, on the second floor overlooking the street, I lived in a rundown studio with no heat.
I wouldn't spend the night with Marie because in this sadly calculating way I made my dissatisfaction clear. She didn't seem too bothered by my routine, probably because she didn't want any commitment either. Yet, despite our years of troubled cohabitation and difficult separations — and even with all we did to convince ourselves to the contrary — we were the most important people in each other's lives.
Because I had no contact with anyone from my country during those years, the city started to feel like a kind of desert. Customs I had taken for granted, the ease of routine and long association, were things I didn't have. I didn't have a circle of acquaintances from my native country to share my sense of alienation, my prejudices, or my sense of being in limbo. While I lived in Paris, I was unable to go anywhere without feeling cut off from my own past life.
So, I devised survival strategies. I pursued many passions, but two in particular were with me from the beginning, true symptoms of my situation. Indigenous music and cultures of the Americas: these fascinated me and served to anchor my intellectual life, which, given my Puerto Rican background, was more or less adrift.
After the first few months in Paris, my relationship with Marie deteriorated to the point that we decided to separate for a few weeks. I went to live, for what was going to be a few days and turned into several months, at the apartment of two women friends near the golden dome of Les Invalides. The second week of our separation, I found out that Marie wanted to break up definitively, and to keep me from trying to question this, she announced she had met someone and planned to keep seeing him. I gulped and stupidly acquiesced. We shared so much on a strictly amorous level; but Marie was also my collaborator in reading and writing projects and, as we had lived together in New York, the only person who had known me before I came to France. And besides — I suddenly realized that this was the most excruciating part — she was the only person I could speak Spanish with in Paris. I was losing not only a lover but also my native language. That there were thousands of Spanish speakers in the city didn't matter to me then, because they were all strangers. The pain of being abandoned, which my pride at first couldn't admit to, grew until I found it unbearable.
That night, as I have always done, I took my sadness for a walk. Instead of taking the bus on the boulevard, I wandered around the streets, directionless, confused and wavering under the drizzle, not knowing what to do or what to tell myself. Eventually I made it back to the apartment. My friends had gone to bed. I opened the convertible sofa in the living room, next to Sandrine's big worktable and went to bed without dinner, my hair wet and my body trembling. Oblivious, I didn't care that water had seeped through the neck of my jacket and that my feet were soaking wet. Grief kept me from sleep all night long. Absurdly, at the crack of dawn, I had the thought that I should take advantage of my suffering to go back to writing. And yet only now, after so many years — decades, really — can I bring myself even to recall that night.
The next day, I pretended to be asleep and waited for my friends to make breakfast and leave. Already dressed, I put on my still-wet shoes, grabbed another jacket, and went out for coffee. I walked all along the Champ de Mars and went to sit on the cold steps down to the Seine. Behind me stood the Eiffel Tower, which I had never climbed. Facing me, across the river, was the Trocadéro, the Palais de Chaillot, and my beloved Musée de l'Homme. The morning wasn't excessively cold and I could sit there unprotected from the wind for a while. I had nowhere to go — my friends' house was only a place to spend the night — and I was in no condition to be anywhere I didn't feel at home. I didn't know how to kill time. I had already rejected the idea of going to class at the university that day. I had no one to run to, no one to whom I could pour out my woes. The future stretched before me like a void I couldn't face.
After spending the afternoon out on the street, I walked toward the house where there was the only person I could talk to — absurdly, back to Rue de Sèvres. She welcomed me as if she'd been eagerly awaiting my arrival, exhibiting the ambivalence of dependence versus freedom that undermined our relationship and eventually destroyed it. I had not eaten since lunch the day before and had spent many hours on the streets. When I walked into the apartment that until very recently had been mine, and felt its much-missed warmth and homey atmosphere, I collapsed out of sheer exhaustion. Seconds later, I awoke lying calmly on the rug as if I had slept for hours; looking into Marie's tearful, worried face I asked her — in French, oddly enough, which we never spoke together except for a key word or untranslatable phrase — what was wrong. I had knocked my side against a chair in fainting, and when I stood up, I felt the wrench of pain. We moved to the bed, where, intoxicated by the warmth of the blankets, I fell asleep almost immediately.
I found out later that Marie spent the night with the lights off, sitting beside the only window in the studio, watching raindrops run down the glass pane and the gradual extinguishing of the lights in neighboring apartments. She had taken the phone off the hook to prevent my sleep from being interrupted and to avoid having to confront, at that moment, the cause of her conflicted feelings and our separation. Early the next morning, sitting on a big cushion covered in Polish embroidery, sensing my breathing and her own while she slowly smoked my cigarettes and crushed the butts in a plate we'd used for cheese and crackers, she decided that, even if she didn't want to be with me, she couldn't leave me.
I awoke as it was getting light outside. In the narrow twin bed, I could feel Marie's body beside me. Her long, thick hair flowed over the blankets and on top of my chest. Feeling her breath on my neck, I lay still, thinking, puzzled: what was going on? There was only one bed in the apartment, after all, and Marie had to sleep somewhere.
I got up, trying not to wake her as I made coffee. Two cigarettes were left in the package, so I went out to buy more, and croissants. When I returned, Marie was already up, looking alarmingly serious.
"Do you feel okay?" she spoke as if she had been waiting all night to ask the question.
"Yes, though my hip hurts."
"That's not what I'm asking you," she interrupted. "Last night you fainted. I thought you were dying. You were completely out for almost thirty seconds. Don't do this to me. I didn't know what to do. I was about to call SOS Médecins."
I didn't know what to say to her.
"Don't you get it?" she demanded. "Fainting isn't something to take lightly. What happened to you?"
"I already told you, I'm fine. I hadn't eaten for a long time, and I hadn't slept. I don't know, I was very tired and anxious when I got here and I don't remember the rest."
"When you woke up, you spoke to me in French. You didn't have an accent. You can't imagine how it made me feel. It was totally bizarre. You looked so pale, I put my hand under your nose to see if you were breathing, the way they did to Saint Teresa. I was scared out of my mind."
"It's probably nothing. I haven't been feeling well lately, so it makes sense ..."
"You must see a doctor. I'm going to call my aunt to get the number. We have no idea what's wrong with you. People don't simply faint for no reason."
The supplies I had brought back still lay on the table. Neither of us had made the slightest move to consume them. I picked up the pack of cigarettes. I noticed my half-finished coffee cup and started sipping the cold liquid. For a second we looked at each other. I opened my mouth without knowing what I was about to say.
"Don't speak," Marie said. "None of this is worth killing yourself over. What matters now is that you see a doctor. Stop smoking and eat something. I have to go out now, but you can stay here, if you want. I'll be back later."
She left. She didn't tell me where she was going and I didn't ask. I doubted she was heading for her classes at the university, not today, after what had happened. I imagined she was going to meet her lover. She'd tell him what I'd done, and they'd get embroiled in figuring out some impossible scenario with all three of us still in the picture.
I devoured my croissant and went back to bed. Later I returned to my friends' house and filled my shoulder bag with a change of clothing and a couple of books. When I came back, the apartment was empty. The walls started to close in on me. Nothing had been clarified and I felt more anxious with each hour. I sat imagining what Marie could be doing and pictured only the worst.
My vigil lasted until nightfall. By the time she returned, Marie had already eaten. She had consulted her aunt and spoken with the doctor who would see us the next day. She said I could stay there that night if I wanted, but it would be better for both of us if I returned to Sandrine and Eve's house. She had thought a lot about us and realized that she did love me, but right now she felt confused. As I knew, she was seeing another man, and she couldn't ask him for more than she could give. Nevertheless, she added, she didn't want to hurt me. We would continue to see each other, although not as often as before, and ... time would tell.
This speech did not reassure me, but I stayed the night and we made love slowly and conscientiously, as if sex could ever protect us from anything.
I spent many weeks at home with Sandrine and Eve. We became such good friends that their company soon meant as much to me as Marie's. On the weekends they'd leave for the provinces, so for a couple of days I'd have the apartment to myself. Those were the worst. I'd take walks, read, study, go to the movies, but the reality was that I was alone and the hours felt long and difficult. This was when the distance hurt the most. I'd think I was homesick, missing my friends and family, places and expressions that were part of me. But I was really missing Marie.
Those Saturdays and Sundays allowed me to get to know the ordinary, everyday Paris. Workers, bureaucrats, provincial types, the hordes of foreigners invading the streets on Sunday, were all caught up in activities as unsatisfactory as mine. I remember a particular Sunday afternoon when I walked northeast of Les Invalides. The area was residential, and there were few businesses, almost none open that day. It was nearly evening when I entered a very small café, the only one open in that neighborhood. Elderly men were having their aperitif. I have a vivid memory of the owner who was serving at the bar: He was in his Sunday best in a tie and giant cuff links, as if he had come from a family luncheon. He was in a bad mood, scoffing at the men who came to have a pastis, and was smoking — I don't know why my memory registers this — an English cigarette from a black box. Later, as night fell, I ended up in another café eating the daily special, steak-frites. (The steak was probably horsemeat.) I sat next to the window facing the traffic on the avenue, the restaurant almost deserted at that hour, and slowly chewed the tough, barely cooked meat. Painfully, I felt Marie's absence. More than a lover, she had become an old friend who worried about me once in a while, with whom I'd share some food, some comforting words, and a bit of conversation in my language.
The doctor Marie's aunt recommended had been a soldier in Indochina. An old racist, he was, as they say, the total Frenchman. In my emotional state, it didn't take much to worry me, and this physician made it his business to fill me with anxiety. Suddenly my dizzy spell, which had seemed so unimportant to me, led to a place where Illness reigned supreme. He ordered me an infinite number of costly exams and ended up prescribing pills and medications. He diagnosed malnutrition but didn't discard the possibility of a heart condition. I knew I had pushed my body to its limits. I'd thoughtlessly eat whatever came my way. I had all sorts of bad habits, was getting little and poor sleep, and hated the frankly inhospitable weather; so what had happened wasn't really surprising. But my visits to that doctor inspired me to revise my own history into a perfectly neurotic drama featuring, in star roles, fragility and hysteria.
I was overwhelmed. The medication produced such hypersensitivity in my digestion that for a long time I could barely eat anything without suffering acute gastric pains. Often my thoughts raced so that I'd clutch my head desperately, not knowing how to stop my mind, which now focused even more obsessively on minuscule details. It was almost impossible to read — or to live, for that matter.
I felt so terrible that I went to visit Marie. After a long talk, we agreed that she would help me find an apartment. I didn't like imposing on Sandrine and Eve's hospitality, and besides, I needed a space of my own. In the days that followed, after buying newspapers advertising rental properties, Marie and I went all over the city. We'd put our names on waiting lists and checked out apartments that always turned out to be too expensive or far away. We finally found one in pretty bad shape, but close to Rue de Sèvres, almost equidistant from the Tour Montparnasse. We ran to the metro to get to the real estate agent's office before anyone else. The next day, thanks to a loan from Marie's family and her signature, I had in my hands the key to a studio on L'Impasse de l'Astrolabe.
Our walks around the city, hunting for a place that would be mine, brought us closer together and revived the old sense of common purpose that had first attracted us to each other. We progressed from a lunch of crêpes in a distant quartier to an invitation to supper at her house after a walk, to a gleam in her eyes, which led us to bed. But everything continued to feel diffuse, unacknowledged and somehow unreal. We had made love, we had had a good time on the benches along the Seine or at the movies, but nothing changed. Ironically, our relationship had become clandestine.
Excerpted from "Uselessness"
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