Authors: Jean-Philippe Blondel
“I don’t know why I spoke to you about truth just now. You don’t need any lessons from me.”
“On the other hand, I would like a refill.”
On we went like that, in the kitchen, just the two of us. Words whizzing by. Minutes, too. This hadn’t happened to me in a long time. I think we confided in
each other the way people rarely confide in each other. We knew perfectly well that we would never meet again. That one of us was bound to be exiting Mathieu’s life before long. I was prepared to go away again, the way I had come. But in the end she was the one who slammed the door—which meant that I got to stay on and put up with Mathieu ranting and raving against women. Particularly younger women.
Before we left the kitchen, early that morning, after the party, we exchanged phone numbers. To be used only in case of an urgent need to confide—which meant never. I still have her number on me, in my wallet. It has become a sort of talisman. I could call her now and tell her about Cécile. About Mathieu. About the nagging reluctance I feel going to see Mathieu.
Dear God, what am I doing on this
Next to Cécile.
Who suddenly stands up.
And brushes past my knees.
I’m in the toilet, checking my face in the mirror. My cheeks are red. I am being ridiculous. Why is my heart pounding as if it’s about to burst? Because I just exchanged two polite but awkward phrases with a fellow passenger on the train? Because I brushed against the knee of a man who is neither young nor old, who has a paunch and an incipient bald patch? It’s nothing to get in such a state
about. Because … just take a look. Take a good look at yourself in the mirror. Look at me.
You’re a hundred times better than he is.
Only a faint touch of makeup. Your skin, still glowing thanks to a simple night cream. Your eyes, with just a hint of liner. You’re a walking advertisement for the products you sell: you’re radiant, in spite of the years creeping up on you. And your hair. You even
have trouble taming your hair, it still grows wild, with a lateblooming vitality.
You’re a hundred times better than he is.
Men. There are those who look at you during meetings. And those who like your efficiency and relative discretion. Some of them would like to know what you’re hiding behind that calm veneer. Others tremble when your decisions are final. There are those who, on public transport,
take a good look at you and compare you with the woman they will go home to when they
come to their stop. Some of them will sigh because of the comparison. Others would like to go up to you but don’t dare, because, though you’d never know it, there’s a side to you that’s intimidating.
Then there is Luc, of course. Months, years of struggle just to keep his attention, to feel his growing admiration,
to ward off all those women who thought they could come and unravel the close-knit family unit you’ve been creating. So different from the one you grew up in. So far removed, mentally, that you almost never tell your parents about your everyday life anymore. Because they wouldn’t understand; they can’t even begin to picture it.
I hope that Valentine is proud of her mom. Prouder in any case than
I’ve ever been of my mother. Every time I go back to see my parents, I feel like I’m slipping back down the social and material ladder I’ve been climbing so cautiously yet tenaciously. The minute I get to the station, I’m back in my childhood hand-me-downs: my voice trembles, my gestures are clumsy, and I feel annoyed. Profoundly annoyed, and it makes me wonder why, oh dear Lord, why do I inflict
these visits on myself twice a month?
And with him, now, it’s the same thing.
I’m back in my twenty-year-old skin. As if molting season were imminent, lurking in some corner of my native town or on the train, just waiting for me to lower my guard in order to attack. I remember Lucile, who used to work for me a few years ago. She was a tall, slim, attractive girl. One day she showed me photographs
of her adolescent self. They used to call her Piglet or Butterball. She clenched her teeth while I looked at the shapeless mass of flesh in the photographs, and tried to discern the features of the woman she would become. She murmured that they were still inside her, Butterball and Piglet. She had to fight them off, every single day, all it took was a moment’s inattention, if someone shoved past
her in the Métro, or she took a little too long getting her credit card out of her wallet, and Butterball and Piglet would swoop down on her again. Chubby. Fat. Ugly. Useless.
As she was talking, I saw myself again, at the lycée and then afterward. I even think that that very evening, while talking to Lucile, I felt the shadow of Philippe Leduc brush over me. His insolence. His cruelty.
Leduc. Now there’s someone who must have spent hours admiring himself in the mirror. Or maybe not. But in other people’s eyes, yes. The supporting roles, only too happy to send his reflection back to him. But now. Look at you. The roles have been reversed. You shouldn’t apologize for bumping into him. He is nothing to you. Nothing.
Today, he would be ready to eat out of your palm.
wouldn’t dare treat you in an offhand manner.
I remember the party we went to together, of course—but I simply cannot recall the name of the boy who was throwing the party. Surely something like Arnaud or Christophe, those were the trendy names. His father was a doctor, that much I do remember. The mother
worked with charities. They had money. Their house was on the edge of town. With a huge
garden, and trees, and just beyond, fields stretching as far as the hills. It’s all changed now. Houses have sprung up all around, the farms have been sold off, the town is spreading, bringing its supermarkets, its boulangeries that are not boulangeries, even warehouses that call themselves stores but which sell junk and knickknacks, everything for less than five euros. That house must be stuck in
the middle of four other recent constructions, with the parents of the boy who invited us huddled inside. They’ll end their lives trapped in a forest of shopping malls and parking lots.
I’m surprised at how spiteful I’m feeling.
I didn’t think I’d be so bitter. There’s no reason to be bitter nowadays. I have more money than the parents of Arnaud or Christophe will ever have—and I’m nowhere near
the age of physical decline.
Maybe it was envy?
After all, money meant self-confidence. So did good looks. I had neither. I was doing my best to become a shadow, a prompter at a theater—someone whose face you rarely see but who makes herself indispensable. I was thinking that sweetness and discretion would make me indispensable—to someone. To a boy. For a brief while I believed that boy
might be Philippe Leduc. I clung to him, trying to keep myself light as air. And I went flying, with the first puff of wind.
The basement was turned into a disco, and between the rows of spotlights and the strobe, reality was garish and disjointed. For a while I watched people dancing, but the nearby loudspeakers were deafening, so I went upstairs. On the ground floor groups of students were
lounging around and acting detached and cynical, as if they were rehearsing their roles as the next Jacques Dutronc or Bryan Ferry. Some of them had crowded around a table to play poker and drink liquor. Others were taking pictures of themselves, over and over, in the half-light of the living room. The French doors were open. I went outside for some air. Down at the end of the garden, you could hardly
hear a thing. I liked walking in the grass. To feel it swishing against my shoes. A sweet feeling.
There were stars. It was easy to feel enchanted. I stared at a point on the horizon. He was standing in a corner over on my left, beneath the chestnut tree. I saw him only at the last minute. I was about to move away and, then I figured no, why should I. I had as much right to be there as he did.
I murmured “Good evening.” He smiled. We stood there for a while without speaking, but then suddenly that patch of garden felt crowded. We had to start talking, otherwise we’d seem ridiculous. I was looking for something to say. Something a bit less cheesy than, “I’ve always loved gardens in moonlight,” or “When I was little, my father used to tell me the names of all the stars.” Especially since
it wasn’t true. My father never gazed at stars either with me or on his own. And he didn’t really contribute to my education. So I decided to be frank. And provocative, in a good-natured
“I thought you’d be in the basement all night.”
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
“I hate proverbs and clichés.”
“But sometimes they do reflect the truth.”
“Well, look, if we’re judging books
by their covers, then you’re the type of girl who spends all night out in the garden when there’s a party going on in the house.”
I could have been annoyed or even shocked, but instead I thought it was a clever answer. I laughed. And added, “Score one for Philippe Leduc.” And I sensed him relaxing ever so faintly. His shoulders dropping slightly.
“And a point for you, too, for knowing my name.”
“Everyone who was at the lycée with you knows your name.”
“Only half a point then.”
“And two points for you if you know my name.”
“First and last?”
“One point for first, one point for last.”
“Or maybe one and a half points for first, and—”
“Stop trying to buy time. You may as well give up right away.”
I was facing him. I was smiling. It wasn’t hard to smile at him. Just staring at him made
you feel like seducing him. I must have had little bubbles in my eyes, something sparkling. The situation was entertaining. He’d been caught in his own trap. And I’d managed to catch him off guard. Suddenly I could see why he might be interested: here was a girl who knew how to answer
back, who was sharp. Sometimes that can even make up for average looks. Especially at night. I knew that two or
three days from now he would feel embarrassed. And ashamed, so he’d go and blame the alcohol and the late hour. But for the moment, I had a goal. I wondered if I’d manage to reach it. It was exciting.
I thought of the Leap of Death. At my grandmother’s, when I was little: the Leap of Death used to take my breath away. It was a challenge I’d made up, a game that consisted in jumping down several
steps of the stone stairway without falling, to land on the path in the garden. You started with just one step, then two, three, four. The Leap of Death was five whole steps. Every time, I imagined my face would be covered in blood, the grown-ups would come rushing out, my mother would scream with despair, my father would practically pass out, my schoolmates (who, inexplicably, had suddenly shown
up, too) would be crying their young eyes out. Ecstasy. The ecstasy of the instant before the Leap of Death, because now I would have to go through with it, after all.
So I moved a few inches closer and held out my hand.
“Pleased to meet you. My name is Cécile Duffaut. Repeat after me, Cé-cile Duf-faut.”
“Hey, I hadn’t given up yet, as far as I know.”
He took my hand. He held
it in his. It was an awkward moment, but when you’re post-adolescent, you enjoy these awkward moments. You feel as if things can change dramatically. And they often do.
“I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Cé-cile Duf-faut.”
“I’m delighted, but I’m not making your acquaintance.”
So bold, all of a sudden.
I have this boldness in me. Deep-rooted. I stifled it for
years, smothered it to keep it buried, but it comes out with the explosiveness of a champagne cork whenever I feel a certain pressure, the way I did then. Now I know how to use it to my advantage. It’s very useful in meetings, negotiations, sales contracts. Sometimes it makes my colleagues or competitors blush, but basically they like to see a display of nerve. A sharpness of tone. The sharp edge
of the guillotine.
Philippe Leduc began to laugh heartily.
Men always think that once they’ve made a woman laugh, they’re already halfway to her bed—and they don’t realize how much the opposite holds true as well.
Was Philippe Leduc worth it?
At the age of twenty, perhaps he was.
It’s a difficult age, twenty, for a man. They’re so eager to dominate. To mark their territory. There’s a sort
of nervous abruptness. Awkwardness. That rebellious side, inspiring tenderness but unbearable at the same time.
It’s a difficult age, but that’s no excuse.
In any case, it’s no excuse for London.
I’m feeling a sudden surge of rage.
So I really haven’t gotten over it.
On the 6:41 train, in the toilet, looking in the mirror, I remember the journey home.
By the time I walked out of the station,
all alone, I was seething. Sitting in the sidewalk café across the street was Mathieu. Philippe Leduc’s best friend. A mere coincidence. We had met a few times. Now we exchanged hesitant greetings. He frowned. He asked me where I had been. London. With Philippe? I waved my hand as if to say, “It’s not important.” He asked me if I wanted a coffee. I almost said no, because it wasn’t a good time,
I had other fish to fry, I had some wild horses inside me that wanted setting free, but I shrugged and said “Why not?” I toyed with the idea of seducing Mathieu. It gave me pleasure. I didn’t go any further, because I wasn’t that sort of girl. Nowadays I wouldn’t hesitate.
I would never even have remembered his name if I hadn’t come across an article in a magazine at
the hairdresser’s. A fairly long interview. A rising star, describing his childhood. His adolescence. His roots. His passion for the theater. How he moved to Paris, and all the opportunities there. It was mush. Sickly sweet. A cream pie of the sort you like to lap up while you’re waiting for the hairdresser to finish painting your hair with dye.
I looked at the photograph, and I didn’t recognize
the young man I had known. Back in those days Mathieu Coché was not particularly popular or even attractive. He seemed gauche. A bit of a lump is how my grandmother would have put it. Burdened with a frame that was shooting up, but that, for the time being, was too well-filled. He often looked downcast. He had an identity only by virtue of association. He was “Philippe Leduc’s friend”. He was
just a stand-in, and girls showed any interest in him only because of his closeness to the boy they really coveted.
What a magnificent role reversal.
I didn’t really follow Mathieu’s career; I kept up with the programs on television, but I don’t think I ever saw a single film or series he played in. The insipid nature of the article annoyed me. I was just about to put the magazine down when
I noticed the mole he had just above his wrist. I don’t know why, but it affected me. I smiled. I smiled at the man in the photograph. That day, too, at the hairdresser’s, I remembered the sidewalk café opposite the train station.
We didn’t really know what to talk about. Mathieu Coché wasn’t very chatty. I was really surprised, too, when I found out he’d become an actor. The way I saw it, actors
had to be extroverts, had to feel easy around people. Performers who were well-integrated and experienced in giving interviews.
I was seething with hatred that day. With no end in sight. It had overwhelmed me on the return journey. I had emerged from the sort of hazy state I’d been in most
of the night. I was only vaguely aware of getting off the train in Dover, showing my passport, and boarding
another train. But suddenly in Paris, when I left the Gare du Nord, there was a wolfhound in my body. If Leduc had been there in front of me, I would have torn him to shreds.