This text was published in English in Subtropics, Issue 14: spring/summer 2012, in French in le Figaro (July 2007) then by Cairn éditions.
English translation copyright 2011 by Paul C. Daw
A DIAMOND AS BIG AS BIARRITZ
I was fourteen years old and living in Biarritz in the eighties. Well, not exactly in Biarritz -- in a little village beyond the railroad tracks, at the edge of the backcountry: cornfields, ferns, the last oak forests. My parents had just built a house in the middle of nowhere, on a hillside dotted with streetlights. Today there is a subdivision with five hundred homes, an equal number of Persian silk trees, and a golf course. But at the time getting to Biarritz, four miles away, was complicated, especially at night. There was no bus, and my moped made too much noise. When you’re fourteen and you’re sneaking out, a bicycle is a better bet.
Hortense was having a dance party. Everyone was going to be there, and it would have been unthinkable for me to miss it. So off I pedaled through the ups and downs of the Basque Country. I arrived sweating at Hortense’s house, took off my jogging suit outside the villa and slipped on my polka-dot tee-shirt and sequined skirt. The music was pulsating through the stained-glass windows of the stairwell. During that era, to be a teenager named Hortense suggested either the most rustic origins or, on the contrary, the most privileged. The towers of Hortense’s villa overlooked the ocean, the garden extended along the cliff, and the swimming pool sparkled bright blue through the rose garden. And to top it all off, since Hortense was one of the prettiest girls on the Basque Coast, to be counted among her best friends was an enviable mark of social status. Hence the escapades; hence the bike rides in the dark.
It was the end of March 1983. I know the exact date because later, alone in my room, I clipped out and saved all the newspaper articles. Hortense often threw parties; her mother traveled a lot and her father lived far away, I don’t know where, maybe in America. Her parents had separated soon after her birth, which seemed to us the height of sophistication. There were thirty or forty of us, dancing to Kim Wilde’s “Cambodia.” We had no idea that the song was about the war in Cambodia, or even that there’d been a war there. Our world was bounded by Irun to the south, Bayonne to the north, Bordeaux for those who went off to university. We had been to Paris once, on a school trip, to see the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. To me, living there seemed a hopeless dream.
At Hortense’s house I remember strange tricolored paintings in the stairwells. They were red, yellow, and orange. Much later I realized they were Rothkos. In the bedroom where I occasionally slept (when my parents gave me permission to stay over), I would dream cannabis-fueled dreams beneath watercolors signed in eight letters: PAUL KLEE. Hortense had appropriated a kind of black and white bust for her bedroom, between a poster of The Cure and another of Che Guevara. It was a Dubuffet. And behind the piano four Picassos were piled up: they had frightened her so much when she was little that her mother had never rehung them. In the seventies, Hortense’s father had been favored with money and taste. We never thought about him. Nor about her mother, elegant, briefly glimpsed, and whose mysterious life interested only our parents. As for us, we loved the house, its recesses, its empty rooms. We loved the pool and the dance parties with no parents around.
Hortense was the only one who did what she wanted. The rest of us came to terms with midnight curfews, the twenty francs of pocket money, the 45 rpm records we had to steal, and by and large it was no big deal. But around Hortense floated the strangeness of an orphan, like an intimation of disaster. Before it became fashionable, she was ghostly pallid, with black hair and scarlet lips. If the goth subculture had spread as far as Biarritz, she would have worn fingerless gloves, torn fishnet stockings, and copper bracelets. And yet in the end she was like us, ignorant and provincial, with her surfwear and surfing gear. What set her apart were several pretty things her mother had brought back for her from Paris or Geneva. I was deeply impressed by the rather large diamond that dangled from a thin golden chain around her neck. “A diamond as big as Biarritz,” her mother had said with a gently mocking laugh. I hadn’t known what to say. Their brilliant and unyielding personalities made them as foreign to me as their villa, their books, and their freedom of tone and manners.
That evening the phone rang. Her mother used to call sometimes. Hortense was upstairs, in her bedroom, accompanied by the guy she stayed with constantly. “Cambodia” stopped, and someone put on another record, “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime.” It’s a slow dance by The Korgis that had the peculiarity of staying popular for several summers. If I happen to hear it nowadays, my heart leaps. Not out of nostalgia, but in terror. The phone was still ringing. It was about ten feet from me, on a long, low-slung piece of furniture whose function I didn’t know and that my parents would have had neither the thought nor the means of acquiring. I was sitting right next to V, a morose boy who spoke very little but who often made decisions for the whole group: to go in the water, roll a joint, hear this or that music. And like Hortense, he was part of the small elite that, as we used to say, had already “done it.”
I stood up, my heart pounding, and reached out to V. “I need your loving like the sunshine…” went the song, but the jangling phone clashed with the music. When we started dancing, V kept me at arm’s length, holding me as loosely as if I were a keg of dynamite. I didn’t want to force myself on him, so I couldn’t put my head on his shoulder. Anyway, I was much taller than he was. I had never kissed a boy, and I wondered if you had to use your tongue. The phone was still ringing. A girl decided to answer it and called out, “Hortense! Hortense!” V started laughing, and I laughed, too, so I wouldn’t look like an idiot: everyone knew it was pointless to disturb Hortense now. The girl handed the phone to V and disappeared into the music and the dancers. V tugged on the tangled cord and started nodding his head. It’s hard to believe that things were that different so recently: a single telephone, attached to a cord, for forty adolescents. V seemed to be saying, “Yes, yes.” I heard nothing. He just stared straight ahead, as if he was trying to steady himself. Then he hung up. The phone immediately began ringing again, and leaning over the piece of furniture, V tore the cord from the wall. Then he slowly straightened up. He raised himself on tiptoes and kissed me.
My mouth began to melt. I no longer had legs. I was a face both devoured and devouring, a spellbound shape of greater than human proportions. A new life was beginning, in which I would experience “it,” the incandescent warmth that was spreading through my insides.
“Hortense’s mother is dead,” V told me, catching his breath. I didn’t grasp what he meant. I couldn’t see how his statement belonged there. I clamped my mouth to his and guided his hands underneath my tee-shirt. And his hands encountered a new skin, never before touched, raw and burning. I had shed my former skin, the natural skin of my childhood. In my overt desire, I wanted everything, I wanted V, I wanted to gulp down the house, the music, the world.
“What should we do?” V asked me. I had never seen his face look that way, childish and panic-stricken. I wanted to go up to the bedrooms where Hortense was, to where “that” was happening. He stopped on the staircase.
“You’re the one to tell her,” he said.
“About her mother.”
I didn’t understand V’s words. I didn’t understand their intonation, whether they were questions or statements. His words didn’t coincide with any of the possibilities of the moment. And his expression was more and more bizarre, as though a giant hand had planted its claws there and started to disfigure him.
“We won’t tell her,” I suddenly told V. The giant hand seemed to loosen its grip a bit. “We won’t tell her,” I repeated forcefully -- and the words that formed in my mouth were halfway convincing to me -- “we won’t tell her, because it would spoil her party.”
Right away the strain left V’s face. He was handsome and virile again, almost enthusiastic. We were standing in the middle of the staircase. He was one step above me, and I stretched toward him so that he could kiss me. But our second kiss was very different from the first. I strained upward and he leaned downward, our lips collided, and I had to grab hold of the railing to keep from toppling over backwards. In the dim glow of the stained-glass windows, our shadows, already fragmented by the stairs, grappled with each other and whirled around the gaping stairwell like moths around a lamp.
We left the house. I was bone-chilled in my polka-dot tee-shirt and sequined skirt. V wouldn’t come near me. He had put on a concerned and grown-up face, and he gazed at the ocean while pulling on his cigarette. The waves pounded the jetty under the casino. The incoming breakers formed long blades on the shore, then slowly receded. “The poor girl,” he murmured. By a strange phenomenon, a dense white fog approached us, then moved away, like a second ocean floating on the first. The water, warmed by the onset of temperate weather, evaporated in the cold night air. V vanished but soon reappeared. He was glistening in the lighthouse beam, and drops of water were clinging to his hair and eyebrows. Then he disappeared again into the whiteness. And my face felt moist. Drops trickled down my cheeks. “The poor girl,” V repeated, as if awaiting a reply. I didn’t know what to say. And it was as if the phrase, “the poor girl,” summed up the situation, the whole of it, as if those words encapsulated an entire life -- Hortense’s, her mother’s.
Even the next day, when the national newspapers headlined a fatal accident involving a popular singer of the era, who died in his car alongside an unknown beauty that turned out to be Hortense’s mother; when the police -- according to the local press -- came in the morning to announce the tragic news and found the villa in a shocking chaos, with drunken teenagers entwined in the bedrooms and vomit stains on the Picassos; when Hortense’s father did not deign to appear but sent a bailiff in his place; when seals were placed over the doors of the wine cellar; when the entire coast was buzzing with the news that we had drunk, mixed with orange or pineapple juice, three million francs’ worth of vintage wines and ageless cognacs (“three million francs!” exclaimed my father, reading the story in the Sud-Ouest); when I kept up a show of innocence, thinking about my narrow escape and Hortense’s loyalty in not implicating me before she left for a chic Swiss boarding school, while V and others were grounded indefinitely; no, even during the ensuing days, even during the ensuing years, V and I never again spoke of that night.
That night we had walked along the beach. The villa on the cliff was blinking like a lighthouse, like those beams of light on the horizon that can emanate either from boats or from a very distant shore. It seemed to me that I could hear the drumbeat of the music despite the crash of the waves and see shadows moving behind the stained-glass windows in spite of the fog. The waves came and went, the little city still in its off-season quivered under the equinox. The hydrangea bushes were bare, the casinos empty, the hotels shuttered, the cliff solid and still. The city tottered from one edge of the world to the other, and we swayed with it. Amid the shadows a deep unease, a wall of guilt and secretiveness, was growing between V and me.
These days when I travel along the avenue leading past the Hôtel du Palais toward the lighthouse, I often stop at the site of the villa. It was demolished a few years ago, after the cliff gave way. Pool, rose garden and stained-glass windows were swallowed up. I think of Hortense, who lives far away; of V, about whom I know nothing; I think of my parents. It’s mid-summer today, my arms are bared to the sun, and I remember that elegant woman, so exotic to my eyes: Hortense’s mother. I retain two or three images of her -- her curiously slender figure, her shrewd gaze, the teasing irony of her remark to me, and the curl of white hair on her forehead, which seemed to me then a result, almost an emblem, of her long, unconventional life. She was the same age that I am today.