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Authors: Jean-Philippe Blondel

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Any more of my bullshit and I would have ended up standing for the entire trip—or sitting across from the toilets on one cheek.

Having said that, I did hesitate.

Because when I realized that the only seat available was next to Cécile Duffaut, I felt slightly dizzy, like the heroine of a nineteenth century novel, and I said to myself again, No, it can’t be, and I thought I’d move on to the next
car.

I’m almost positive she didn’t recognize me. Because I’m hardly recognizable. The last time we spoke, it was twenty-six or twenty-seven years ago, something like that—downright prehistoric, and I wonder if I’d recognize myself if I ran into who I was back then. Last month when I was getting rid of stuff I came across some photos from back then, and I found it hard to “place” myself, so to
speak. Let alone recover from the realization of how much I’d changed. I tend to forget that I haven’t always had this beer belly—even though I’m no beer drinker—or that my hair is not so much brown as gray, and I have a marked tendency toward baldness, not to mention this overall flabbiness which reflects a complete lack of physical exercise.

She’s changed, too, but—how to put it without getting
annoyed—“for the better.” That’s it, she’s changed for the better, because Cécile Duffaut was very ordinary back then and now look at her, she’s a good-looking
woman, as we say, and she doesn’t look her age yet at all. Maybe a bit on the stern side, headmistressy, say, but really pretty. In fact, she is absolutely no more recognizable than I am, except that I’ve kept up with her transformation
from a distance. Over the years I’ve spotted her from time to time in the center of town—I’ve been careful never to catch her eye, even crossing the road or changing my route. I went unnoticed. If she saw me, she never let on. I kept track of her career. And I heard about it, too. Through a woman I met after my divorce, and who went to lycée with us. This woman—Lucile? Lucie?—her parents and Cécile
Duffaut’s were friends. What I recall is that she’s in business. Married. With one daughter. But that was a long time ago, so maybe it’s all changed. Maybe she’s gone through three divorces and she’s a militant lesbian with eight adopted kids from Malawi and she’s the head of an online company that promotes female wrestling.

In any case, she comes home on weekends sometimes to see her parents.
The last time I spotted her must have been last year. She was with a tall, slim man. They were at the market, picking over the melons. Ain’t life poetic, out in the provinces.

How awkward.

What are you supposed to do in this situation? Introduce yourself by saying something obvious like, “I think we’ve already met?” Or feign indifference and pretend to be surprised if the other person decides
to make the first move: “Cécile Duffaut? I don’t believe it!
I’m so sorry, I was completely absorbed in, well I mean I didn’t … well … you understand … that is …” and make some vague gestures with your arms and hands, make the most of your pauses so that the other person can fill them with bursts of “Of course!” “Absolutely!” or “I can imagine!”, all those expressions that serve no purpose, ever,
I’m sick and tired of all those words that serve no purpose.

Or you can try the advanced Alzheimer’s scenario, I really do not recognize you, you don’t exist for me, you’re just some meaningless neighbor on a meaningless train which is starting to pick up speed, why should I grant you anything more than a polite inattentiveness?

Right.

Here’s what I’m going to do.

Act as if I don’t know her—which
is true, actually, we dated for three or four months twenty-seven years ago, what does that amount to? Nothing, nothing at all. She hasn’t reacted, either. She doesn’t remember me. So much the better, in the end. I have to keep one thing in mind: most people have a “delete” key which they will press at a given time, when their brain is about to overflow after all the misunderstandings and
betrayals, all the hurt and disgrace—and when that happens, entire chunks of your existence disappear along with faces, names, addresses, colors, everything goes out the window into the sewers of the unconscious. I’ve got to remember that. Cécile Duffaut has obliterated everything. She went on with her life, and she is fine. Which is a relief. I can’t see myself talking to her. It would be embarrassing.
With
London and all that. So this is fine. I have other things to think about. More important than Cécile Duffaut.

Problems that affect me directly. That I have to come to grips with. My brain has to sort through all kinds of stuff.

There’s Manon, for a start.

How can I explain to her that things won’t last forever with this boy she’s seeing? That she shouldn’t go building castles in the air?
That she shouldn’t go thinking that once summer is over, with her in Reims and him back in Troyes, their relationship will manage to last? And so much the better, because he spends his time glued to his screen; he plans to study computer science, and a husband who’s a geek is hardly the dream husband for your daughter. Or at least not for me. But if I start interfering in her love life, she’ll
get up on her high horse. She’ll start talking about the divorce again. And my love life since then. And the fact that she’s never criticized me. Then she’ll add that as far as professions go, TV and stereo salesman doesn’t exactly make for a dream dad, either.

Granted.

Keep my mouth shut.

That would be better.

And try to remember what it was like, when our parents used to butt into our love
life.

Oh, my God.

My mother.

Whenever she met one of my girlfriends her face would split in two. The lower half was smiling, revealing her metal crown on the side, and she would chatter
away, extremely pleasantly—too pleasantly, of course. With the upper half, she was examining, scrutinizing; a hard gaze searching for the slightest imperfection. And her eyebrows. That was what was most revealing:
appreciation, disgust. I knew her body language by heart. It made me sick to my stomach.

And at dinner in the evening, her comments.

Or rather, her barbed arrows. Or how to stone someone with words. Comparisons. Better than the last one, not as good as the one before. I could picture the grades she was giving them in her mind. She had remained stuck on one of my first conquests, who wanted to
become a schoolteacher, and for my mother, being a schoolteacher was the best possible job for a woman—it would ensure her of a certain independence, and it came with housing, and that was always a plus, and then above all teaching gave you the same vacation time as the children, which solved the problem of child care once and for all: “Don’t go thinking I’ll always be available to look after the
children.”

I remembered it well, that particular lesson. And she applied it from the moment Manon was born. Christine was a teacher. So we had no child care problems. Perfect. My mother could get on with her life with her bicycle salesman. She took it too far: I think Manon and Loïc only ever stayed overnight at her place—at their place—two or three times. My mother and her new guy were really
mean to them, so as a result the kids never wanted to spend any time with their grandmother.

With parents, you have to make do with what you’ve got.

Let me think.

I wonder if Cécile Duffaut ever met my mother. No. I don’t think she did. I was twenty when we were together. I was already studying at university. I had just moved into a studio in Paris, my aunt rented it to me for peanuts—a family
favor. She warned me not to expect it to last forever. My cousins were starting the lycée, and they would want their independence soon enough. The apartment was so small it was impossible to imagine sharing the space.

I met Cécile Duffaut a few weeks after that. At a birthday party. To be honest, I don’t know why I went out with her. Because I was bored, I suppose. Nothing to be proud of. Youth
doesn’t rule out stupidity. It lasted—how long? Three months? Four at the most. And even then, we only saw each other on weekends. I was living in Paris, she was in Troyes. It was nothing earthshattering. Or even memorable. Except for the week in London. We took the train, one morning.

It’s really weird to be in the same place twenty-seven years later. Not even speaking to each other. Maybe it’s
up to me to break the ice.

No.

This is ridiculous.

What would we talk about, for a start?

And besides, it’s not talking I need.

It’s thinking.

Sorting.

Done with Manon. Status quo.

Now on to Mathieu.

No, I don’t need to think about Mathieu. I’m going to see him in a few hours. I’m going to look after him. The way I have already for two months. That’s normal. I’m his best friend. Or at
least I’m his friend. I was his best friend a long time ago. It’s complicated. Now, he must have met Cécile Duffaut on two or three occasions. But he wasn’t there on the night we began our affair. I think that if he’d been there, nothing would have happened. I wonder if he remembers her. I’ll have to ask him later. At least it will be something to talk about. At times it can be a real lifesaver to
have something trivial to talk about. Something light. That you can laugh about and elaborate on without arguing. Soap bubbles. What I’d like to do with Mathieu is blow soap bubbles. I could talk to him about the house, too. But Mathieu isn’t interested in the house. That’s a part of my life he knows nothing about. He never went there, when I was living with Christine. We weren’t close at all. It
was only after Christine and I split up that we got closer.

The house.

I’ve finally got a buyer. A builder who wants to gut it and restore “volume” to the rooms, which have a lot of “potential,” but which feel “crushed by the color of the wallpaper.” Builders talk now the way they do on those interior design programs on television. You’d think they’re not masons or electricians anymore but interior
decorators.

We have to talk about the price, but I already know that I’ll come down. I’ll be so glad to get rid of that place. I really wonder why after the divorce I ended up
buying Christine’s share. I said it was for the kids, so that they could always come and sleep in the place where they grew up. A grand illusion. First of all, because it was way too expensive for me on my own and I found
myself up to my eyeballs in debt. And then, because they liked Jérôme’s little house better—not so cluttered with furniture, more space, a big yard. And the prospect of a swimming pool. I should have gotten rid of it sooner, but it’s like everything. I put things off. I procrastinate. The children left a long time ago and it’s only this year that I decided to put the house on the market.

I don’t
know yet where I’ll go. I’ll rent something to start with. I might even, in the end, look for another job, or ask to be transferred. To the southwest, for example. What’s keeping me here? My parents? They are mainly counting on my older brother to help them in their old age.

Yes.

Sell the house and move away. Good idea. An idea that brightens up the morning train, in any case. I can’t help but
smile. I almost feel like turning to Cécile Duffaut to start talking to her.

And that’s what I would do if I weren’t me.

Oh. My. God.

Philippe Leduc.

If only I had known.

I could change places. I’m one of those. The sort who can gather their belongings and stand up without saying a word, and who make sure they find peace and quiet for the rest of the trip at the other end of the train. In a restaurant, for example, I am capable of telling the waiter as he does his rounds to ask if everything is okay that, no,
it’s a disgrace, the food is disgusting, and I would like to see the chef so he can taste it himself. I am the epitome of the difficult customer.

But this time I can’t. It’s impossible. It’s as if my feet were glued to the floor. I’m a tin soldier. It’s incredible. As if I were a teenager all over again. And it annoys me. Especially as I had planned to sink into the novel and enjoy the ride from
Troyes to Paris as a sort of interlude, a long deep breath of fresh air before the turmoil of the week ahead.

It’s unbearable.

What I feel now is pure hatred. And that surprises me—because I’m not like that, particularly toward someone I haven’t seen in what must be at least twenty-five years. Twenty-seven, in fact. I can’t help but sneak looks at him. His profile. His build. My God. It’s incredible.
He doesn’t look at all like he used to.
Because although you might not think so, I still have a fairly precise memory of his features. Which is odd, because there are entire chunks of my life that I hardly remember, there are people who have mattered far more than Philippe Leduc, but I can’t remember their faces, whereas his I can see perfectly well. If I close my eyes—at the party, at the edge
of the garden. Or in the loft, afterward. In a hotel room in London. They’re like snapshots. I have to get rid of them.

Then I open my eyes and turn my head slightly to the right—what a disaster. He is unrecognizable. Old, for a start. Wrinkled. Flabby. With sagging shoulders. A definite paunch. A scraggly beard. The kind of man who, above all else, inspires pity. Yes, that’s it exactly.

Well,
well.

If I had known that one day I would feel pity where Philippe Leduc is concerned, I would have laughed out loud. Hatred, yes. But pity mingled with compassion, certainly not. If someone could have told me that’s how I would feel, it would have done me a world of good. When you break up with someone, you ought to be able to foresee even ever so briefly what the other person will be like years
from now. In three cases out of four, you would stop weeping and feeling sorry for yourself. You’d laugh, and it would do you a world of good. Although I didn’t go around feeling sorry for myself. It was all a kind of a blank afterward. My feelings went numb. Into a fog. A redefinition of roles. And on the train taking me back to France, that sudden surge of hatred. A voracious feeling inside,
the likes of which I had never known. A desire to tear everything to shreds.

And that’s what’s welling up in me now—but it’s not intact. Because it has been confronted with that slumping figure—what happened to all that brio he once had? My hatred is waning. It’s tinged with scorn.

Philippe Leduc.

If you only knew.

The last time I thought about Philippe Leduc, I had just met Luc. We were in
his studio in the 18th arrondissement, at Lamarck-Caulaincourt, getting in each other’s way. We loved it. We had just spent the weekend by the Somme Bay. We were beginning to think that maybe living together, dot, dot, dot … And we’d finish the sentence in silence, each in our own fashion. Luc must have thought that I was replacing the dot, dot, dot … with a blue sky filled with white clouds, happy
toddlers, and blissful motherhood—to be honest, there was some of that, but not only. There was, above all, a girl walking straight ahead and casting an ironic and somewhat cruel gaze at everything around her. Though I would never have admitted such a thing, obviously.

We were on the highway. Luc had his eyes closed. On the radio, they were playing Dionne Warwick’s “Heartbreaker” and suddenly
I was back in London. Summertime London, with the windows open, the yellowed grass in the gardens and parks; it had been hot, very hot, it wasn’t like England at all, enlightened scientists were proclaiming that this was the beginning of global warming, the end of the human race, Armageddon. I walked through those London streets at night, and the paths I would take in the future were
being traced.
A London that Philippe Leduc had ruined forever. I knew I would never go back there because of all the sickening memories, and that’s what made me angrier than anything—to realize that a place I had liked was now off-limits. I have never been back. I have suppliers in Great Britain, of course—after all, that’s where the idea for the shops came from—but I have entrusted Amy to handle the business
with them because she’s a native speaker, it’s only natural.

In the car that day I saw Luc’s profile and the shape of my life to come. Although in all that time I hadn’t given much thought to Philippe Leduc, because the images disgusted me, in the car that day I faced him, mentally. And I was neither as straight nor as sharp as I would have liked to be. Because a part of me wondered what had
become of him and whether he ever looked at himself in the mirror and thought about London. And that same part of me was convinced that it had been a terrible waste. That in fact we could have gotten along. That he could have been sitting there where Luc was. That the men I met were interchangeable.

The very idea was horrifying.

I swept it away with the back of my hand, and Luc opened his eyes.
He asked me what was wrong. I mumbled, “Nothing, I’m just feeling kind of sad, that’s all.” We pulled off at the next rest area and he took the wheel.

Now it makes me laugh.

I’m looking at Philippe Leduc out of the corner of my eye. I’m getting used to his new physique. The fact I
recognized him right away must mean he hasn’t changed all that much. But for sure he has gone downhill. He looks
drab. What was so attractive back then was that spark he had. Not just in his eyes, but in the way he moved. The way he laughed. The velvet texture of his skin. You told yourself that with a guy like that life would be one endless party. I don’t know where he got it—the absence of misfortune, perhaps. He was someone who at the age of twenty had never had any reason to complain. He was good-looking,
his parents indulged his every whim, his brother was a good deal older than him and already out of his way, and he had more friends than you could ever hope for. No rough edges. No scrapes or scratches. There are people like that, who seemed to float their way through the years, and then along comes a first emotional or professional disappointment, or the death of a friend or a family member, and
everything shatters.

He looks pretty shattered to me.

He was very popular at the lycée, Philippe Leduc. We weren’t in the same class, but I’d noticed him. Some of the girls in my clique would talk about him. Their comments were by no means all positive. Particularly on the part of a redhead who’d gone out with him: a total fiasco, she said. She shouted out for all to hear that he was despicable.
We nodded, but deep down we thought she spoke that way out of bitterness. We were sure that with us it would be different.

I was only in the outer circle of that group. I never viewed Philippe Leduc as potential prey. I had no
potential prey. I was realistic. I wasn’t all that attractive, I had brown hair that got greasy overnight and defied all my efforts to control it. An ordinary face. I didn’t
make any effort, either. I had no desire to look pretty. I’d gone out with two boys you could refer to as lumps: losers of my own caliber. I parted with my virginity without too much pain but also without any pleasure.

I don’t have any good memories of the lycée. It was only afterward that I made real friendships. Along the way, two years after I’d finished, there was Philippe Leduc.

The last
image I have of him. That angelic little mug of his: I felt like blowing it to smithereens. My entire body full of tension in the effort to seem calm. And snapshots from the previous days: the rope bracelet he wore on his left wrist. The fine muscles on his arms. His thighs. His butt. I can still see it all quite sharply. I’m biting my lips not to laugh. If he only knew, Philippe Leduc, how I am
eyeing his butt from twenty-seven years ago, it’d blow his mind. I’m starting to talk like Valentine.

I don’t want to imagine what his butt is like nowadays.

I’ll bet it’s succumbed to the same fate as all the rest—sagging. Lassitude. I wish I could see myself in the mirror. To see whether I’m a similar disaster area.

That’s what I did the day after the party we went to together. I can just
picture myself. Naked in the bathroom. Inspecting every feature, mercilessly. I couldn’t understand what he saw in me. Because I was perfectly realistic. When I was at the lycée, the girls there had really
helped me. They thought I was plain. Not ugly, no, just plain. Nothing striking. A bug. I knew he’d had a lot to drink by the time we started talking out in the garden. That when we sought refuge
in the attic, away from the others, he had alcohol in his blood. We thought it would be full of cobwebs and old toys and wardrobes stuffed with cast-off clothes, but what we found was a regular two-room apartment, with a bed and armchairs and a coffee table. We stood there for a moment, astonished. He was holding my hand. We wondered whether we dared violate this space that didn’t belong to
us or even to the boy who had invited us, but to his parents. It was as if we had walked straight into adulthood.

And violate we did.

That next day as I stood at the mirror in the bathroom, I kept my emotions in check. I told myself I’d been very lucky. But I shouldn’t get my hopes up. He wouldn’t call. It would be better if I forgot about him. And that was still my strategy when he came up
to me the following Friday as I was on my way out of the technical institute. He wanted to talk to me. To apologize. For what had happened last week. I lifted my chin. I said, “Don’t worry about it. I wanted to. And anyway, I’ve forgotten all about it.” He was stunned. No one spoke to Philippe Leduc like that. He went on the attack. I’d nailed him. I hadn’t planned it. It would never have worked if
I had. He took me by the arm. I turned to look at him. I was very solemn. I studied his face. I dissected him the way we dissected the company reports we worked on in our business classes.

He was the one who melted first.

We became an item—sort of.

I say sort of. Because apart from during vacations, we met only on weekends. I went to two or three parties in Paris that his friends from university
threw. I stayed in the background. He was ingratiating. A lot of people wondered what we were doing together, but at the same time they didn’t really ask questions, and in any case, when you’re twenty, couples come and go. Before long we would be ancient history, too.

He was the one who wanted to go to London.

I remember how it came about. We were at the café, Les Trois Amis, not far from my
parents’ place. I went past the place just this weekend, when I took my mother to the boulangerie that isn’t a boulangerie. It hasn’t changed. The same wrought iron tables outside, the same little gravel courtyard. The veranda has been painted green. You can just get a glimpse of the room at the back, a bit too dark. My mother followed my gaze. She delighted in telling me that the owners had recently
put the café on the market, because they were about to retire. I waited for her to go on, to start annoying me and say how she hoped that this den of iniquity, of debauched youth, would be wiped from the surface of the planet, because there had always been problems, with noise and concerts and drunken customers, but she merely gave a little sigh and said she hoped the new owners would keep it
as a bar. “It’s a good thing, it livens up the neighborhood, it’s fun to see all these young
people.” I couldn’t believe my ears. My mother used to hate it when I hung out at Les Trois Amis.

I thought about old age. About change. About the boredom of repetition.

Maybe I’ll tell her that I was on the train with Philippe Leduc.

No.

She wouldn’t remember him. She saw him only two or three times.

And yet he made a huge impression on her. She thought, Well I never, for once Cécile has brought home an attractive young man. Who’s got presence. And manners on top of it. It’s true that Philippe was the perfect son-in-law. Smiling, relaxed, considerate toward older people, opening the car door for the ladies, well-mannered. He was studying English, the language of the future, but he didn’t brag
about his abilities. He made friends wherever he went. He was the young man at family reunions who tickles the kids and makes the grandmothers laugh.

I thought he took it too far.

I knew what made me want to be with him: vanity. To parade around on the arm of a handsome man. To show other people that even when you’re insignificant you can still manage to do such a thing. I was perfectly aware
that the relationship wasn’t headed anywhere and that it would end soon enough. But not the way it did. No, not like that.

I’m sure my mother also wondered what miracle had propelled us into each other’s arms—even if it was only
for a few months.

Sex. That’s what I should have told her, just to see her face. And because it was part of the explanation. To him, I was reassuring.

In bed, Philippe
Leduc was no longer quite so high and mighty. He was clumsy. More than once it was a near fiasco. And he was uptight, as well. He simply could not walk around naked. I never found out why he was like that. There was a time when I would have thought it could be interesting to get to the bottom of it, but we weren’t close enough for that. And then later on it no longer mattered anyway.

But I liked
to reassure him. I would cling to his back without saying anything. I knew that talking would be the worst thing. So I would put my hand between his thighs and my lips on his shoulder blades and stay there without moving. I closed my eyes. I tried to imagine everything that was going through his mind—bits of conversations, locker room bragging, clips from porn films, and other dream-like sequences
of drownings or fires or railroad disasters. And then very gradually the calm would return. Memories of a deep blue lake in the mountains. Walking along the ocean. Slowly, beneath my fingers, he would regain his vigor. I know that he liked this about me. My discretion. My patience. Then I would take over, still ever so gently. That’s what he needed, gentleness. That’s why our affair lasted for
months and not days. That’s also why I was so angry with him afterward.

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