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From The Birthday Party, which was published last month by Transit Books. Translated from the French.

Tonight, like almost every night, he hears steps on the stairs as he nods off in front of commercials, or maybe the weather report, remote control in hand even though it doesn’t occur to him to use it to change the channel or turn off the television, which he could do because he knows what’s going to happen, tonight like every night: Marion will come down the stairs and won’t make the gesture he’s waiting for, hoping for, even though he knows without the slightest doubt that she won’t make it for him, as though it’s of no importance to her, which is why he tries to tamp down this mild pain he feels, this minor offense, and besides it’s so quick, a breath, there, it’s already over, she’s passed by a few meters away from him and hasn’t made that motion of turning around to speak to him or smile at him. This hurts him a bit, a cold sensation running through his body, lining the inside of his chest, but he chases away the feeling by sitting up straighter and letting the remote slip onto the coffee table in front of him and, the way you jump into the water, holding your breath, your whole body involved, gets up—he really is fat now, his breath is short, it surprises him how much, with age, his body is slipping away from him—he understands all too well why she doesn’t turn around toward him, his body too heavy, his flesh like jelly, almost pink, repulsive, this vile flesh that disgusts him too, this body he endures with scorn and dismay, and, when he walks toward the kitchen, the smell of cigarette smoke invades his nostrils, perfuming the whole ground floor of the house with Marion’s presence.

This is the only cigarette she allows herself here, opening the French door in the kitchen; Ida is in bed and Marion finds herself in front of the uncleared table—the plates sticky with sauce and remnants of bread, and the crumbs, the stains, the dirty glasses, the forks, knives, spoons, the trash, the residues, empty yogurt jars, uncapped mustard, the wine cork beside the bottle, the corkscrew lying there, all of this he knows exhausts her because she works too, she’s tired too, and for God’s sake why, instead of sitting on the couch waiting for her to read her daughter her story, why, instead of flopping down in front of the TV, doesn’t he help his wife, he who has said so many times that he’d do anything for her, so why, without going so far as doing everything for her, doesn’t he just get up and clear the table, clean it, put the plates and glasses and silverware in the dishwasher instead of waiting for her to get to it, why doesn’t he even ask her if she needs help, as though she could possibly fail to appreciate his clearing the table once in a while, rather than staying there like he does without ever asking himself about why he does nothing, as though because the habit has been established it can’t be called into question, or as though yet again it’s a declaration of allegiance to old relics, to shadows, rituals, customs dragging along their outdated and misogynist codes even though he, Patrice, is convinced that none of that is who he is. No, he doesn’t feel he’s anything like the old people he knew in his childhood, not even like his parents, or like his mother, who would never have dreamed of working anywhere besides her husband’s farm or of asking him to clear the table, to wash the dishes, she also would have thought it was her work, that this work fell to her because she would have considered it demeaning and degrading for a man. No, Patrice doesn’t think about any of this. He sits down every night at mealtime, in his childhood kitchen, and even though it’s been completely redone it can’t be helped, nothing changes in the secrecy of time, you can’t just renovate and redecorate and hide under new paint and modernity, these residues will always surface, vestiges of a time you’d prefer to forget. He doesn’t think about it, but Bergogne fils takes after Bergogne père, or perpetuates him by sitting there like him, at the head of the table, the way he saw him do his whole life.

Patrice goes now up to the door of the kitchen, where he knows he’ll find his wife smoking, yes, maybe with her headphones over her ears, because she claims she listens to music while she does the dishes and cleans up the kitchen so she won’t bother him while he’s watching television, but he doesn’t believe her, he knows it’s really to cut herself off from his presence, as though to warn him that she doesn’t want to be disturbed, as though to find a moment in which she can continue that cherished isolation she finds in her car on the way home from work, and also in sleep, as she’ll do in a little while. He knows all of this by heart, this moment when he sees her from behind, loading plates into the dishwasher or washing serving trays by hand, whistling and singing, probably unaware that she’s singing almost out loud in the kitchen, and she’s off somewhere in her head, taking drags of her cigarette, almost closing her eyes, eyebrows furrowed, still knowing Patrice is behind her but far enough away, not in the same room but standing in the doorframe, and that he’s watching her blond hair that she gets touched up with dye once a month at the hairdresser, the hoop earrings, the light sweater that reveals at the base of her neck, like some kind of magical creature, the outline of a tattoo of which he sees, here, only the exposed tip: a length of barbed wire like a braid of thorns, like the crown above the bloodied face of Christ. The sight frightens Patrice each time: how could she, who never speaks of it, have let someone etch such an image on her back, and why this one, when so many other people have tattoos that are so pretty and so original, Maori, flowery, artistic, whereas you can tell hers was done by someone who didn’t quite know what they were doing, at a time when women in particular didn’t get tattoos.

Almost every night the same motions repeat, the same slow and insignificant actions, almost mechanical, executed one after another without anyone examining or questioning them—why does he have to brush his teeth before putting on his pajamas and not the other way around? Why does he take the time, every night, to sit down at the computer in the living room after Marion has finished cleaning the kitchen and he’s seen her go upstairs to bed? He knows she’s going to get ready, get into bed, and read for half an hour, maybe a bit less, drooping from exhaustion, sometimes not even managing to turn off her bedside lamp and leaving her open book splayed, almost beached, on her chest, as though sleep has caught her by surprise, as though she couldn’t fight the drift of sleep just as he can’t fight this need he has, each night, to get up and check all his emails, not only the ones he received a while ago—the considerable number he hasn’t taken the time to reply to—but the new ones, the ones demanding a meeting to sell him some farming equipment or reminding him that he owes money, that he should remember to vaccinate the animals, to renew the insurance on this or that, because each day pours so many messages into his inbox that he has to check so he won’t choke on them in his sleep, and every night the time he spends doing this allows him, when he turns off the computer, to be alone in the house. In the hallway upstairs he opens Ida’s door and finds her fast asleep, arms outstretched, chest mere inches from falling out of bed, legs scissored over the blanket; he takes the time to gather up this body whose every limb seems to want to leave the others behind and run in the opposite direction of its counterpart, and as he approaches his bedroom he can already hear the long, heavy breath, almost a snore, that tells him Marion has fallen asleep—sometimes he hurries, don’t turn on the computer, leave everything, the reminder letters from the bank, the retirement fund, the bookkeeping, and he rushes to his bedroom in the hope that she won’t be asleep yet.

Sometimes he finds her absorbed in a book, the book resting on her thighs, looking so focused on a detective novel, so engrossed in it that she doesn’t see him. Whether she hears him or not he doesn’t know, he’s just so happy she’s not asleep yet. But tonight when he comes into the bedroom, she’s sleeping. He knows he took his time coming upstairs, he noticed that calm with which the house itself seems to sink into darkness and silence, slowly, softly letting go, whereas he can’t manage to, suddenly anxious at the thought of a message he absolutely must answer to reassure a creditor, because, though he doesn’t dare admit it to himself, he fears receiving a message from a bank that will no longer give him an extension, a message from a process server, a summons, a formal demand, so tonight he took too long, he knows that, he came up and he knew right away that his wife and child were asleep, that they were together, even in separate rooms they were in the same temporality, the same shared world of their own lives, excluding him, leaving him alone. And that’s when he finds the silence of the night, just like when he was a child and his mother had to reassure him, to tell him the dead don’t rise up to eat children, or to play with them either, as she had explained to him one night when that was what he feared, what he believed. This pain, so often renewed, of feeling like he’s not there when she looks at him, when all this beauty to which he believed—used to believe—she gave him access, the possibility of contemplating it, of touching it, cast him back even more violently into his loneliness, just because of an open book that he has now closed and placed on the nightstand.

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February 2023

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