Claire, in the kitchen, her cup of tea in hand, turned off the radio announcing the death of a famous actress.
“They say she jumped out of the window during the night. An attic apartment in Cité Caron, in Paris.
Guessing my trouble, she added:
“Weren’t you a little in love with her when you were a teenager?”
I did not respond to her question. Who wants to evoke emotions of yester-year between a jam roll and a phone that vibrates for the first messages of the day? Especially after the announcement of this death, which plunged me into a stupefaction that she would probably have found disproportionate. After dropping the little one off at school, I went to Paris, along the Grands Boulevards, before rushing into the parking lot of my company. In cutting off contact, I was taken by a retroactive fear of having driven like a robot, my mind numbed by this news that had aroused in me not sadness, but a kind of irrational guilt.
Perched on a ladder to replace a burnt-out light bulb, the caretaker of the building kept an eye on his ten-year-old son who, he once told me, was not attending normal school because of his Asperger’s syndrome. Hiding between two cars, the kid was absorbed in reading a comic book and in a universe much less hostile than ours.
“I don’t know why he’s passionate about superheroes, Batman, Spider-Man, all that…”
Usually, I ignore this child who makes me uncomfortable because he avoids eye contact and because he groans as soon as an engine roars. But this morning, we had the opportunity to let go of our mutual distrust. And now I know that a lost opportunity is lost forever. I understand why the company of superheroes reassures him. For without them the human species, which instead of learning from its mistakes adds every day to the generalized chaos, will not get out of it. As the child always refused me a smile and a look, I resorted to an irresistible ploy.
“I have a lot of old Marvel and Strange at home”, I told the father. You don’t know what it is, but your son does. I can bring them here tomorrow, if you agree.
The kid looked up at me hopefully. I suddenly became part of his world. These albums that I had spoken of as cumbersome old stuff are in fact very popular originals from specialized booksellers, including one, a stubborn man, who offered me enough so that I could give Claire a week under the palm trees. Just yesterday, I dreamed of myself in Bermuda on the edge of a white sand beach, but today I want my treasure of paper to go to the one who wants and deserves it most, and not to a collector who will lock it up.
As I got out of the elevator, I saw Guy Loisel waiting for my arrival to tell me again about his transfer to Montpellier – which, well above his qualifications, would force me to restructure the service and double my paperwork. Without giving him time to approach me, I took flight
behind my computer, not to open a file in progress but to connect to a continuous news site, and obviously too late: the suicide of my actress had already left the front page. In the popular press, there is talk of her unfortunate liaisons, her addiction to the bottle, her chronic depressions, nothing that really explains her disappearance from the public scene at the age of forty. “Weren’t you a little in love with her when you were a teenager?” I was especially in love with a Charlotte, in secondary school, a literary class, in other words; to seduce her, I had to play the romantic intellectual a little dark. One evening when my band of friends was discovering The Adventurers of the Lost Ark, I went to the cinema to see an arthouse film inspired by a Russian novel, which I had wisely chosen for its title, First Love. I had delayed as long as possible the moment, too long, too dreaded, to take her hand, instead I feigned a hypnotic interest in this film where grey and disembodied characters crisscrossed paths, preoccupied with strange concepts. When suddenly arose an incandescent creature that brought flesh, fever, voluptuousness, and that ignited this theatre of shadows, giving the film, finally, its light. So much so that, today, I don’t know which of Charlotte or this movie was my first love.
In no mood for the lunch time gossip, I ventured into town, a sandwich in hand, my eye on the windows of this neighborhood where I spend most of my days without really knowing it. I sat in a park discovered by chance, reserved for a handful of regulars, alone and silent, prey to their reverie. For a long time, I remained reclusive in my memories of her. During the time of her career, about twenty years, I did not miss any of the appointments she set for me, on stage or on screen. Even at my wedding with Claire, she was present. That year, she had served as a model for the new bust of Marianne. Enthroned above the mayor, it was she, not e, who declared us husband and wife. At the height of her glory, she faded without warning. What pain is so tenacious that we die twice; first by disappearing from the collective memory, and the second by throwing ourselves from the top of a building? No one will ever know, not even her relatives, if she had any.
Back in the office, it seemed obvious to me that Guy Loisel had nothing more to do in my department:
“Are you sure you are ready for this position in Montpellier?”.
“Don’t make me regret trusting you” Loisel, stunned with recognition. I had just created an ally for a long time.
“I made my first application two years ago. Why now…?”
I spoke about synergy, opportunity, conjuncture: the same wooden language that I used only yesterday to send it to the shredder. “Because you wouldn’t understand, Loisel, if I explained to you why today I need to play Santa Claus. Leave before I change my mind, go back to see your children grow up, do not lose a day further from your wife, whom you miss so much, because a hierarchy has decided that your place is seven hundred kilometers from them. This same hierarchy will ask me to justify my decision, but I already know how to convince them. In a year, everyone will have forgotten the presence of Guy Loisel here.”
It’s 7 p.m. and, like yesterday, I am the last to leave the floor. I take the Grands Boulevards in the opposite direction and stop at the traffic lights in front of the brewery, where a tramp arranges his things, as yesterday at the same time. As yesterday at the same time, the metal bench in front of the bike repairman is empty. As yesterday at the same time, the street-lamps light up.
Everything looks like yesterday at the same time.
With one exception.
Because, yesterday at the same time, at the same lights, a staggering figure crossed the boulevard at the wrong time to the sound of furious horns. Then she came to rest in the middle of the road, unable to reach the other side, surrounded by a flood of vehicles trying to pass. Like the others, I was annoyed to see a drunk hindering traffic. Barely older than me but already so worn, dressed in a sailor’s shirt with holes, filthy jeans, a long wool jacket of a dirty white whose belt hung behind.
That’s when I recognized her.
Instead of helping her get across, I didn’t leave my seat. This gesture that I could have accomplished for a beggar between two wines, I forbade myself by seeing her, she, who every day, in addition to her distress, faced public gaze as incessant reminders of her decrepitude. “My God, look at what has become of her!” And among those, there were even more cruel ones, who take revenge for their anonymity by tasting the small dramas of notoriety, or who, seeing a shooting star, hasten to specify that their light has been extinguished for a long time. Concerned about her dignity, or what little she had left, I feared that she would read the pity in my eyes. And who knows, no doubt I wanted to keep from her the image of her splendor, not that of her decadence.
By twisting and turning, she finally got to the other pavement, and soon her figure was only a wobble in my rearview mirror.
“They say she jumped out of the window. An attic apartment, Cité Caron, in Paris. All day long, I replayed the images of a horror film, the one she may have experienced for good, yesterday, when she returned to her studio after creating a traffic jam on the boulevard. Until late, she tries in vain to find a voice on the phone. This is followed by a glass too many, a memory too many, a night too many. At dawn, she opens her window and … enough, goodbye, I’ve done my bit, do without me.
How can I not be tempted to go back to rewrite the right version of the film, as it should have ended: the horns, the silhouette that I recognize in the middle of the road, my hand clenched on the door handle? Instead of fleeing, tapped by idiotic scruples, I get out of my car and go in front of her, I delicately take her by the arm, I forget who she is, because at that second she is neither my first love, nor a character of the classical repertoire, nor a fallen star; she is a suffering being, disoriented, overwhelmed with loneliness, who would have clung to my arm without indignation, and there we would have stopped on the bench in front of the bicycle repairman, we would have chatted, I would have chosen lightness, I would not have alluded to her career, to my enchantments as an admirer, I would not have spoken of Molière or Bolognini, but I would have asked her where we find good sandwiches in the neighborhood, I would have talked to her as an accomplice too late met, I would have confided in her, I would have told her that my dream would have been to live in Paris but that life did not make it possible, we would have shared a plate of oysters at the brewery, and there, thanks to a lull, encouraged by her smile at the unexpected date for the evening, I would have told her about the yellow dress she wore in Summer Light, I would have reminded her of a line where she unlocks the heart of her husband in a play by Pinter, I would have evoked the scene where Charles Denner teaches her to play poker, and there, she would have told me a thousand anecdotes until late at night, and I would have accompanied her home, Cité Caron, and today, at the same time, she would still be alive.
“They shook up the TV programs a little bit,” Claire said as she slipped into bed. I didn’t know she played Cordelia in King Lear. Otherwise, there’s something on Arte called First Love.
“It is for you to choose,” I said to her, drawing her to the hollow of my shoulder.
I no longer thought of yesterday but of tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow, at the same time, I’ll be that guy who runs away from the absent gaze of an autistic kid again. Maybe tomorrow I won’t care about the family happiness of my colleagues. Maybe I’ll become who I was yesterday.
Or maybe not. For the time being, I have only one certainty. Holding Claire snuggled up to me, I know what my last love will be.