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2017
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english
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2017 by Camille Bordas

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

crownpublishing.com

TIM DUGGAN BOOKS and colophon are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Bordas, Camille, 1987– author.

Title: How to behave in a crowd / Camille Bordas.

Description: First edition. | New York : Tim Duggan Books, [2017]

Identifiers: LCCN 2016023941| ISBN 9780451497543 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780451497550 (softcover)

Subjects: LCSH: Brothers and sisters—Fiction. | Domestic fiction. | GSAFD: Humorous fiction.

Classification: LCC PS3602.O678 H69 2017 | DDC 813/.6—dc23

LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/​2016023941

ISBN 9780451497543

Ebook ISBN 9780451497567

Cover design by Christopher Brand

v4.1

ep





For Marie Cordoba





If speaking for someone else seems to be a mysterious process, that may be because speaking to someone does not seem mysterious enough.

—STANLEY CAVELL





Contents


Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Epigraph



The Stain



The Defenses



The Funnel



The V-Effekt



Acknowledgments

About the Author





The Stain





There was a darker brown stain on our brown suede couch. If I swept it one way with the palm of my hand, it almost blended in. I could squint and forget it was even there, but then a swipe in the other direction, and the stain reappeared, darker than I remembered, like I’d just fed it.

Everyone had a different story about the stain. Simone said I’d pissed the couch as a toddler, after running free from our mother’s bundle of towels, just out of my bath. “You went straight for the couch, stood right there on the armrest, grabb; ed your half-inch wang, and aimed,” Simone said. “I saw it, and Aurore and Jeremie, we never understood what came over you, Dory. It’s like you were on a mission.”

It didn’t, indeed, sound like me at all. First, the number of decisions that was implied, all of them transgressing my mother’s law (running naked and barefoot on the cold living room tile, grabbing my penis in public, pissing on the couch). Add to that Simone’s choice of words: went straight, aimed, mission. Hers was the least believable story. Aurore and Jeremie didn’t even back it up.

Other stories of the stain incriminated my siblings in turn: coffee stain (Berenice), nail polish (Aurore), jism (Jeremie), tomato sauce (Leonard), paint (Simone). Each initial stain was, in every account, made worse by our mother’s attempt to clean it with unfit detergent. One story was actually based on the premise that there had been no stain to get rid of in the first place, that our zealous mother had just wanted to bring a new shine to the couch and had ruined it with a single spray of the wrong thing.

The stain on the couch made me uneasy. It made me think I was the only one to notice things, to care. “Why do you care so much about the stain?” my mother once asked, and the thing is, I couldn’t understand why no one else did.

I loved my family, I believe. Even though I’d known no other and couldn’t really tell, I thought they were all right, decent people. But oblivious. They got lost in their thoughts. They had no sense of the other—of anyone outside our family, sometimes even me.

One point every story of the stain converged on: the stain was at the very least nine years old. That was a long time to keep a stained couch, I thought. We were not poor.



I knew we weren’t poor because we went to the beach every summer, and I’d learned in school (fourth grade) that being able to go to the beach was a privilege not everyone had. There had been a national campaign to raise awareness of children who didn’t get to go away at all during summer. Our teacher, Miss Faux, had shown us clips of kids seeing the ocean for the very first time thanks to the money collected the previous year by the Let Them Sea charity. Some of the kids in the Let Them Sea videos hadn’t even believed the sea existed before. They thought it was just a fairy-tale word, “like magic wands, or castles,” one of them told the camera. Some of them were older than me. I remember one girl in the video—her name was Juliette, the caption said—who’d looked more happy about her little brother’s walking on a beach for the first time than about her own discovery. She kept looking at him, his reactions. She barely glanced at the water herself. It had made me teary eyed a bit. After the clips, Miss Faux had put a tin jar with the Let Them Sea logo on her desk and encouraged us to put whatever we could in it, even just a penny or a dime. It was important, she’d said, that we realized that the smallest of our sacrifices could make a big difference in another kid’s life. A couple of the boys in my class had lied and said they didn’t get pocket money at all and sadly could not donate to the cause. During break, though, I’d heard them talk about all the candy they’d buy later, and why should they pay for poor people’s vacations anyway, and how those of us who gave money were suckers who fell into the guilt trap like shit into the toilet bowl. I’d put the whole of my monthly allowance in the Let Them Sea jar. I had waited for a moment where Miss Faux would see how much I tossed in, but either she didn’t pay attention or she didn’t think my generosity was worth commenting on.



At home, I was always first at the dinner table. My siblings would come down the stairs only at our mother’s insistence, and then like drops from a leaking faucet, one at a time, at painful intervals. I had to wait for them all to get there to start eating.

“The father won’t be coming back tonight,” my mother said one evening as she and I were waiting for the others. I thought she meant he was dead, but he’d only been kept abroad by a conference and had missed his connecting flight home. She called him “the father” to give him extra substance, I thought. We saw him so little.

Mom ate from blue plates and bowls because she’d read that blue tableware cut your appetite, and she always wanted to lose four pounds. That night, she’d made whitefish, and whitefish you could eat as much as you wanted and not gain an ounce, she said, but still she’d set a blue plate in front of her.

“The father won’t be coming home tonight,” she repeated to Simone, then Jeremie, then Leonard, as each showed up. No one asked for details.

Aurore was particularly hard to lure downstairs at the time, or to even see outside of her bedroom. She studied permanently. She and Berenice were both writing PhD dissertations, on different subjects and in different cities. Berenice lived in Paris and didn’t come back home too often.

“Will someone see if Aurore plans to eat with us tonight?” my mother asked, and she was looking at me.

“Aurore,” I said through her door.

“Is this a life-or-death matter?” Aurore asked.

“It’s dinnertime,” I said. “We’re all waiting for you.”

“Don’t,” she said. “I can’t be interrupted right now.”

“Do you want me to bring up a plate for you?”

“You’re an angel, Dory.”

When I went to bed that night, Aurore still hadn’t touched the whitefish and potatoes on the tray I’d left outside her door. The potatoes had started turning purple-gray. I ate a couple. I wasn’t even hungry.

Sometimes, Mom hooked me up with a blue plate too.



Every August, Berenice came home from Paris and our parents put the six of us in the van and crammed suitcases in between our seats and at our feet. The van had no trunk. We used the suitcases as ottomans and armrests. The drive to the beach was about three hours, and we usually listened to the traffic news radio station the whole way. It was pretty repetitive, but at least when they played music between bulletins, it was songs we all knew, which my mother thought was nice—not that we sang along to them or anything. It brought the generations together.

I don’t know why we went to that beach every summer. I don’t think anyone had particular affection for it. None of my three sisters would leave our bungalow (the same one every year) before five p.m.—they were all very light skinned and feared getting sunburned—and when they did go out, it was only to keep doing what they’d been doing indoors, which was reading or, when their eyes got tired, talking to each other about what they’d read. Leonard looked at people and took notes all day. Jeremie liked digging holes in the sand and lying down at the bottom of them. Summer after summer, the holes got deeper. At some point, it became impossible for Jeremie to get himself out of the holes without outside help, but he didn’t seem to mind. He knew someone would come check on him eventually. He just liked to lie there on his back and look at that rectangle of sky he’d framed for himself, and once, when our mother informed him he could lie on the beach with her and me, at sea level, and see exactly as much sky, more sky, even, she believed, Jeremie agreed with her but added that he would also have to see a bunch of strangers in bathing suits.

The father and I were the only ones to actually go in the sea. He swam while I threw myself at oncoming waves, not too far from the shore, waiting for him to swim back to me. That’s as close as I could get to sharing something with him, even though I was scared to go far out like he did. I wasn’t exactly sure what the father did for a living but he did it away from us. Germany, China, Spain. Some sort of engineering. When teachers in school asked what our fathers’ jobs were, I said mine traveled, and it seemed to be accepted as a valid occupation. Like any kid whose father didn’t have a cool-sounding job, I assume, I hoped that mine was actually a spy. It had to happen sometimes that these fantasies turned out to be true, and I believed my chances were in fact higher than other kids’ because my father traveled abroad a lot, so there was, at least, potential for covert missions and secrets, whereas the spydom of other fathers was unlikely, given that they worked in town, where nothing much ever happened.

We didn’t see the father much, but when we did, on weekends, or in the summer, it seemed he couldn’t wait to get away from us again. He swam a little farther every day. I’m not making that up to sound dramatic or anything. He did have this device he wrapped around his wrist that measured his progress, and he would announce a new record distance to us each morning.

My siblings loved swimming at the pool back home. They were all great swimmers and had bodies that proved it, athletic and lean, but the idea of swimming in the sea disgusted them. My mother claimed she couldn’t swim, and it worried me. I wanted her to learn. “What would happen if I started to drown?” I’d ask. “Would you just watch me die?” She’d say that if I started to drown probably one of my siblings would go in the water to help me out. She’d always rush the pronunciation of the probably, but never once did she forget to say it.

Simone was the one who disliked summer holidays the most. My other siblings were already in college or grad school, so it didn’t really make a difference to them where we were: they always had “research” to work on. But Simone still needed to be assigned work, and was of the opinion that school breaks were a waste of time. She’d skipped any number of grades over the years (she was only thirteen, a year and a half older than me, and already in high school) but she would’ve done the rest of her curriculum nonstop if that had been an option. She always got strangely nostalgic, though, when the time came to pack the car and go back home. Any other time, she was fine being in the middle, but she demanded a window seat for the ride back. She said looking at the seashore fade away through the window was a good way to get a grasp on her melancholy, and that being able to pull from a store of melancholy was what made great artists. “Car trips make great artists?” I asked, making sure I understood what my sister had said. “Car trips back,” Simone specified.

The summer after I found out about kids who never got to see the ocean, I tried to be less bored, to look around me through their eyes and be amazed like I’d seen them be in that video. I found it hard to marvel at the water, though, and the waves, without encouragement. I wondered if a person needed to be looked at while enjoying something in order for that person to really enjoy it, and whether that was why that girl Juliette had only been looking at her little brother looking at the sea when they both saw it for the first time—to make sure he understood he had to enjoy it. I watched Simone being melancholy all the way home, but it didn’t seem like she needed an audience.



My parents didn’t look very much in love to me, and I thought it was my fault. I guess it’s what happens when you’re the only one to notice a thing: you feel responsible for it. They didn’t really kiss, just a dry smack on the lips in the mornings when the father left for somewhere. They only seemed to exchange practical information about appointments or taxes, sometimes us. I thought they were waiting until I was old enough to move away to get a divorce.



I once went a whole week without seeing Aurore. Our bedrooms faced one another, but she rarely left hers. When she had to, for mandatory family dinners (one birthday or another), she looked out of place. I won’t say much about our house because I’m really bad at picturing three-dimensional spaces, let alone describing them. I could never tell whose bedroom was the one right over our kitchen, for instance. I’m not good at drawing either. But basically: we had a living room, a kitchen, and a dining room we never ate in on the first floor, and then four bedrooms and one bathroom upstairs. I shared a bedroom with Simone. My parents’ was next door. My brothers’ and Aurore’s were across the hall from us.

I missed Aurore’s bedroom. When I was smaller and she was writing less important papers for school, she’d let me sit under her desk for hours. It was a panel desk, so I was enclosed on three sides. The fourth side opened onto Aurore, who worked with her legs up and folded half-lotus. All I saw of her was knees and bare feet, and I had all the space beneath the desk to myself. She never asked what I was doing under there. She had total respect for my privacy. I was so silent she sometimes forgot about me, though. She’d start stretching her legs for blood flow and I’d say, “Hey!” and she’d apologize and fold her legs back up.

Most of the time, I did nothing at all under there. I’d started drawing a mural in Crayola on the underside of the desk, but I only worked on it sporadically. I could never really see what I was drawing anyway, it was so dark. One day I started adding boogers to the mural, for texture. I felt guilty about it, but I couldn’t stop.

When Aurore decided I’d gotten too big to sit under her desk, it hurt. I begged for one last afternoon, mainly so I could scrape off all the dried boogers from the mural. At the end of the day, Aurore could tell I was sad and she said, “I’ll get a bigger desk for us one of these days,” but she never did.



I believed if I ran away from home, it would make my mother happy. She always complained we weren’t adventurous enough, and while my siblings usually met her remark with the same indifference they granted statements of personal opinions in general, I, the youngest of the six of us, took it to heart. I didn’t want to be blamed for the others’ quirks. I wanted to be my own man. To be different. I mean, I had no choice but to be different (I wasn’t as smart or as good-looking as my brothers and sisters), but I had no particular idea what kind of person I should be either. I thought I could at least try what my mother had in mind and be adventurous.

It was unclear, though, what an adventure was. Jeremie, the younger of my brothers, had been offered chances to tour Europe with two different philharmonics: those would’ve been adventures, according to our mother, if Jeremie hadn’t declined both opportunities, stating he preferred keeping cello a hobby. But when my other brother, Leonard, had begged my parents to let him go spend the tenth and following grades in boarding school, my mother hadn’t thought it qualified as adventure, even though Leonard had tried hard to sell it as such. He’d said boarding school was actually the ultimate adventure, that Flaubert had written that whoever had known boarding school at a young age knew everything there was to know about society, and that Bourdieu backed this up entirely, and that Flaubert and Bourdieu were the two smartest men who had ever lived. I was four when Leonard made that speech, and the reason I remember it is because I hadn’t really been aware that anyone existed outside of our family before that, and hearing that there not only were other names than ours (Flaubert, Bourdieu) but that they belonged to smarter people than my parents, that no one around the table—not even my parents—objected to it, made me panic and I started crying. My mother took advantage of my tears to seal her refusal.

“See,” she’d told Leonard. “You’re upsetting your little brother. Dory doesn’t want you to leave us. No more of this boarding school nonsense.”

Almost eight years had passed since then and I still wasn’t sure what an adventure entailed, and whether Leonard resented me for crying that day. He’d just graduated from his master’s program with all possible honors, but he was still sore and regularly reminded our mother that he would’ve been a better sociologist had he not been denied the boarding school experience.



Judging from the movies I’d seen, it seemed adventures were things that occurred outside of home or school, and that they merely made you meet people if you went on them alone, whereas at least one crew member had to die if you went out on an adventure with a group. So I decided to go alone (I didn’t have friends anyway), and one night, on my sister Simone’s bike, I ran away from home. The plan was to go to Italy, because it looked like a good life. I hadn’t thought about how crossing the Alps on a bicycle might be a challenge. Not a mile out the door, I got tired and decided it would be easier to just go to the big city three miles west and hop a train from there.

By the time I made it to the train station, around two a.m., the place was deserted save for a few bums sleeping in corners and two travelers in shorts and hiking boots, each reading to the other from a different hard-sounding-language-to-French conversation guidebook. There was no train scheduled for any time before 4:55, so I just sat on a bench by the “Departures” board, where all the platforms started or ended, depending on how you looked at it, and I waited. I could see lines and lines of shiny black train tracks ahead but no trains anywhere. I wondered where they were spending the night.

“What do you have there?” one of the bums shouted from the corner he occupied. He was eyeing my backpack.

“Garbanzo beans,” I shouted back. “Bears of honey. Canned tuna. Underwear.” I was trying to remember everything I had packed and give the bum an exhaustive list. I think he was interested in the canned tuna because he started walking toward me after I said I had some. “Soap.” I kept going while he approached, lowering my voice as he got closer. “A flashlight. Orangina.”

“Orangina?” the bum said, appalled.

“That’s all we had,” I said apologetically.

“Wait ’til your mother just refilled the pantry next time you decide to run away, kid,” the bum said, and he sat down next to me. He didn’t smell as bad as other homeless people I’d seen. He smelled like damp cardboard.

“So you don’t have any kind of weapon in here,” he said after I was done with listing what I had. “If you’re going to be on your own, you’ll need a weapon,” he said. “You can’t just walk around like that, a little boy like you. There are some crazy motherfuckers out there. Fucked-up shit happens to cute little boys like you.”

“I’m not cute,” I said, and I wasn’t fishing for compliments there, but trying to see if my being a little chubby might protect me from potential killers. The homeless guy took a closer look at me.

“You’re cute enough for a psychopath,” he said.

“Don’t they prefer little girls, though?” I said, hopeful.

“They go for anything, kid. Anything that bleeds, all kinds of children, it doesn’t matter, animals, women—anything.”

He started scratching a wart on the back of his hand.

“You should put duct tape on that and leave it alone,” I said. “Just cover it with duct tape, a new piece of duct tape every day, until the wart disappears.”

The homeless guy looked at me and repeated, “Duct tape!” and laughed, I don’t know if at me or at an old joke he might’ve heard before about duct tape.

“It really works,” I said. “My brothers and sisters, they’re big swimmers. They all caught warts on their feet at the pool when they were kids, and my mother tried everything—nothing works better than duct tape.”

“That is disgusting,” the homeless guy said. “Public pools are disgusting.”

“Now we all wear flip-flops when we go,” I said, so he wouldn’t think I was disgusting too.

“Flip-flops won’t help you any against fungus…the footbath thing they make you go through before you get in the pool? Ugh. I don’t know that flip-flops protect you any against all that footbath fungus.”

“People say they do.”

“People say strawberry is the best flavor of ice cream,” he said.

I thought that was a clever answer. I thought he might know where the trains came from in the morning.

“There’s a depot that way, by the stadium,” he told me. “I went there a few times, sneaked inside empty train cars for the night.”

“Sounds cool,” I said.

“I prefer being outdoors, actually. A train depot is not such a great place to wake up in. I keep it for when it’s real cold out.”

I thought I was stupid for saying spending the night in a train depot sounded cool, but the homeless guy didn’t give me a hard time about it. He knew I had a lot to learn, I suppose.

“Did you say good-bye to anyone before you left home?” he asked me, and I said I hadn’t, that it would’ve ruined the whole thing.

“Ruin how?”

“If I’d said good-bye to my sister Simone, say, she would’ve told my mother right away and my mother wouldn’t have let me leave,” I explained.

“Well, sure,” the bum said. “You don’t say good-bye to a family member. But you have to say good-bye to someone. Someone who can tell the police it was your decision, you know? So your poor mother doesn’t freak out even worse and believe you’ve been abducted and killed when she finds out you’re gone. Don’t you have a little girlfriend or something?”

I gave it some thought. I liked the Juliette girl from the Let Them Sea video, but we had never met. I guessed Sara Catalano was cute. I’d thought about her many times at night, before falling asleep. Maybe I was in love with her. She was too popular for me to have a conversation with at school, but I knew where she lived; I could probably go say good-bye to her. Thinking about what I would tell Sara, I realized I was relieved I’d forgotten to do something important before running away, something I would have to go home to fix, and that I would get to have a good night’s sleep in my bed before fixing it. The homeless guy seemed to be someone whose advice I should listen to. There might’ve been a flaw in his reasoning, though.

“But if I say good-bye to someone,” I said, “and people worry less about me, then what happens if, on top of running away, I actually do get abducted? If I’m made prisoner? No one will come looking for me if they think I’m happy living my adventures somewhere.”

“Well you can’t have your cake and eat it too, buddy,” the homeless guy told me.

“I don’t see where the cake is, in that situation,” I said.

“The cake is your freedom,” the homeless guy said. “Eating the cake would be to have people worry about you. You can’t have both.”

He raised a sad arm and I thought he was going to point at something but the arm fell back on his thigh right away.

“The rest,” he said, “not knowing what’s gonna happen to you, if you’ll get abducted or raped or killed and whatnot, or if people will leave you alone and you’ll get to be happy, well, that’s like not knowing whether the cake will be good or not.”

He sounded like he knew a lot. I tried to remember if I’d ever disliked any kind of cake. I knew he’d been speaking of figurative cakes, of course, but I guess I was hungry. None of the foods I’d brought with me sounded appealing.

“So, you’re going home?” the bum said after a minute. I’d been staring at emptiness, thinking about cakes, but the sound of the bum’s voice made me focus on the first thing ahead of us. It was an ad for a brand of ice cream, Carte D’Or, more particularly for the strawberry flavor. “Voted Best Flavor by YOU!” it said.

“Well, yeah,” I said. “I guess you made it clear I was unprepared.”

“Good,” the bum said. “Now go home, get a weapon, and say good-bye to someone.”

“I will,” I said, and I got up and extended my hand to shake the bum’s.

“You’re not gonna need your cans of food back home,” he said. I left him everything.



Daphné Marlotte had always been the oldest person in town, but she became the oldest person in the country that spring. My mother congratulated her on her achievement when we bumped into her on our way to get groceries. It wasn’t unusual to bump into Daphné. She only lived a couple streets from us, and she went everywhere so slow you could see her once on your way to the store and then again on your way back, only a block or two from where you’d first seen her.

Daphné didn’t scare me like she did other kids, who thought she was ugly and a witch. I knew she didn’t have superpowers or anything. She was just lasting a long time, and there was nothing more to it.

“I read that article about you,” my mother told Daphné that day. “I didn’t know you’d been married five times, my goodness! Talk about live and learn!”

Daphné laughed at this, but it looked painful and she shifted down to a smile.

“I’ve always been a slow learner,” she said. “After the fifth one died, I thought to myself, You know what, Daphné? Maybe that’s not for you.” She paused to salivate. “Mostly, there aren’t that many eligible bachelors over a hundred years old now,” she said. “And I wouldn’t go for anything younger. I need someone who’s got the experience.”

“The article listed some pretty old guys,” my mother said. “There seem to be quite a few in Brazil, actually.”

“That sounds nice,” Daphné said. I knew she’d never left France.

She looked pensive for a moment and I started actually picturing the things we’d talked about—century-old guys in Brazil—something I never really did unless there was a pause in the conversation.

“Oh! Let me show you what I got!” Daphné said, interrupting her own reverie.

Whenever we saw her, Daphné would show us what she’d bought at the market. “Let me show you what I got,” she’d say, like she’d found something extraordinary. She opened her caddy for us and we leaned over to see. “Carrots,” she said, “potatoes, parsnips.” Her fingers were all crooked at different angles, which is why people thought she was a witch, but it was really just arthritis. Sometimes I caught myself wanting to put rings around her fingers just for fun (the rings would have to follow all the sharp turns; it’d be like navigating a maze), but then I’d realize it was a weird thing to want to do. Daphné shifted things around to show us a piece of beef shoulder for her pot-au-feu. “I cook it for so long it just melts into your mouth,” she said. “It’s the last meat I can manage to eat, ’cause I can’t really chew anymore.”

“Sounds good,” my mother said.

“Even the pot-au-feu meat is too much, actually. I just let it sit in my mouth and press the juices out and spit it out.”

“Sounds really good. I might go for pot-au-feu myself.”

My mother often pretended that Daphné’s sharing of her caddy’s contents inspired her meal ideas, but she never bought the same things that Daphné had. She designed her meal schedule a week in advance.

“And look,” Daphné said, all excited (she always saved the best for last). “These beautiful oranges…They gave them to me for free today! Because of the article in the newspaper!”

She was really happy about the free oranges. I personally didn’t understand how people liked oranges, even less how they could talk about oranges like they were candy. She gave me one. It was amazing to me that she’d think I’d like it.

“Thank you so much, Mrs. Marlotte,” I said. “I hear oranges have lots of good vitamins.”

“But mostly, they’re delicious,” Daphné said.

She was going to say more things about oranges but my mother congratulated her again on being the most senior citizen in the country (“Third in Europe!” Daphné said), and then we split. My mother’s enthusiasm about Daphné’s old age deflated the second we made our turn around the block. “Poor old Daphné,” she said, lighting a cigarette. “All alone in the world. These oranges are her last pleasure. She has to rely on a storekeeper’s kindness to decide a day has been good. Did you know her three sons moved back to town one after the other to take care of her and all of them died of old age before she did?”

“That’s sad,” I said.

“That’s horrible, is what it is. To raise all those kids and still end up alone.”

“Well, you had six,” I said. “I’m sure one of us will survive to take care of you and Dad.”

“What are you talking about? All of you will survive me and the father, and well beyond. Maybe even forever.”

I didn’t worry about it too much, but it was still comforting when my mother said there was a chance we wouldn’t die.

“As for taking care of me and the father, when we’re Daphné Marlotte-old and can’t chew our meat, or even follow a TV movie anymore, I can’t imagine your brothers and sisters stepping up to help. No offense to them but…they’re not really good at caring for anyone. Not too sensitive. The opposite of you, really.”

I knew my mother thought that of me. That I was kind, and good at reading people’s emotions. What I didn’t understand was why she thought it was a good thing. “A gift,” she even said. To me, all it was was I had a good memory for things the rest of my family didn’t pay attention to or had trouble with—people’s names, their kids’ and grandkids’, the relationships and the diseases they’d had. I could always make small talk in place of my mother if she got trapped in a conversation with someone I knew she didn’t remember a thing about, or take the reins when she ran out of juice. I don’t think it meant I cared, though, remembering all these details about people. But maybe it did.

My mother turned to me and pointed her cigarette at my face. I assumed she meant it to be an extension of her index finger.

“Don’t go and repeat to your brothers and sisters what I just said,” she said, “about them being insensitive.”

“Of course not,” I said, though I was pretty sure the news wouldn’t much upset them.



The second time I tried running away, I’m not sure it counted. I did leave at a moment when I should’ve been home, but like the first time, no one noticed, and I didn’t meet anyone new. I got disheartened before I could.

I decided to take the bum’s advice and pack better food, and a kitchen knife for self-defense, and to say good-bye to someone outside the family unit. And so on my way out of town forever, I knocked on Sara Catalano’s door. Her father answered.

“Is Sara home?” I asked.

“Who the hell are you?”

“We’re in school together,” I said. “Isidore.” I said I believed Sara had accidentally packed my math book at the end of our last class, which was a lie. We’d never sat side by side in class, even by accident.

“You could’ve called to make sure,” her father said, but he still went in to get her.

I assumed Sara didn’t know I liked her. We’d never spoken, so it was a reasonable bet. I hadn’t considered she might not know who I was.

She came to the door and I rolled out the heartfelt speech about my feelings and my decision to leave, a speech I had spent three nights writing and two more memorizing. I sped things up toward the end, because I could tell I was losing her attention. When I got done, I had to announce I was done so she would turn her gaze back to me. I don’t want to believe that I thanked her for listening, but I’m pretty sure that I thanked her for listening. “Have a good one,” she said, and smiled, and shut the door on me.

I went back home. That weekend, I tortured myself over how stupid I must have looked. Over what Sara would think of me on Monday when she realized I hadn’t run away like I’d said I would.

She didn’t seem surprised to see me back in school the following week, though. In fact, nothing in our relationship changed.



I was brushing the stain on our couch the way it showed less. I’d petted that small part of the suede so much over the years it had become the smoothest thing I knew—and I’d tickled babies’ armrolls before, and fishes had brushed past me in the Mediterranean. Leonard combed the stain the wrong way, just to mess with me.

“What are you now? Goldfinger?” he said, and he sat right there on the spot, between me and Jeremie.

“Yeah, stop fondling the couch, Dory,” Simone said. “It’s obscene.”

Jeremie said to leave me alone, that maybe I had a compulsive disorder of some sort.

I said nothing. In a few seconds, I’d been made ashamed of a thing I’d been doing as long as I could remember, a thing I thought no one really noticed and about which everyone, it turned out, had a joke to make, an idea, a diagnosis. Maybe they talked about it when I wasn’t around. I crossed my arms high on my chest.

We were watching this one spy show where the spy lady keeps her feelings for the spy gentleman to herself, and the spy gentleman does the same, because they work together, and a romance between them would jeopardize the quality of their spying team, and they’re both very professional. As a result of their professionalism, though, they’re lonely at night, in between missions. Many of the shows we watched, I’d noticed, made a big deal out of the professionalism issue, out of the wrongness of people who worked together having romantic involvements (the same thing as in the spy show went on in the cop show and in the political show, for instance—in the medical shows, however, the doctors could all sleep together and it didn’t affect their work). My mother explained to me that it was because the shows we watched were American that they talked about professionalism so much, that Americans had a different culture and that the work environment was more important to them than anything else.

“I’ll light us a fire,” the spy lady said to the spy gentleman on TV (they’d gotten lost in a forest in Eastern Europe and night was about to fall).

“Well, I’ll light a fire right in your pussy,” Leonard said, impersonating the spy gentleman as his face appeared in close-up and he tenderly admired the spy lady for her ability to light a fire with just two logs and a handful of twigs. We all laughed a little, not too long, because we didn’t like to miss actual dialogue.

Dubbing shots of meaningful looks and—better yet—meaningful silences with obscene lines was one of my siblings’ favorite activities. I liked it, not only because the gap between a character’s composure and Leonard’s or Simone’s or Jeremie’s coarseness was funny, but also because I integrated the lines into the story, and it made all the characters seem more human. It was as if the spy gentleman, no matter how gentlemanly and well educated he presented himself as, could really be thinking this, I’ll light a fire right in your pussy, as the spy lady labored for their survival, and it looked like he felt ashamed about it, like he’d been exposed again, had failed to hide his true nature from us. My brothers’ and sisters’ dubbings were, to me, as much a part of the show as the explosions and the twists, and so were their comments on the set, or on a character’s clothes or features (“Do you think Ralph thinks about how pointy his ears are every morning?”). All in all, they were a nice crew to watch TV with, except for their habit of making prognoses about the plot.

“What do you think, guys?” Leonard asked. The spy lady and the spy gentleman had gone to sleep by the fire with their clothes and shoes on. The TV now showed the villain and his wife having dinner. “He murders his wife, or the Mafia takes care of her?”

“I’d say he does it,” Jeremie said. “He poisons her.”

“I say he chokes her,” Leonard said.

“Either way, she has to die in this episode,” Simone said.

The problem with my siblings’ predictions was that they were always right. It ruined the surprises for me. I never saw anything coming. Never made guesses. Sometimes, Simone tried to force one out of me. I’d say, “I don’t know, I’m not really following this,” but the truth was I was always following, I’d been following for weeks, for months, yet I still never knew who had to die, what had to happen, and why, and when.

“Why does she have to die in this particular episode?” I asked. I usually didn’t speak, but I happened to not care too much about the scenes with the villain’s wife.

“She’s of more use to the plot dead than alive now,” Simone explained.

“Is there only one possible plot?”

“Sort of.”

“It’s always the same stories,” Jeremie said. “Only a few variations. Since Aristotle.”

“Aristotle’s Poetics,” Simone specified.

Leonard sneezed inside his cupped hands and looked closely at what had landed in his palms, as he always did, and for way too long before he’d get a tissue. No one ever gave him a hard time about that.

On-screen, the villain and his wife picked the haricots verts from their plates with great care and ate them, one at a time, which struck me as highly unrealistic.

“Did Aristotle write about what happens to villains’ wives?”

“Not exactly,” Jeremie said. “But you can always transpose.”

The villain’s wife did die by her husband’s hand a few minutes later, right before the closing credits. The villain smothered her in their bed with a pillow, just when she was thinking they’d do the monkey business.

“This show sucks it,” Leonard said, and he turned the TV off. He got up and locked himself in the bathroom with a book about medieval England. Simone disappeared into our bedroom shortly after that, to read something unappealing as well, I assumed. Leonard had left a butt print on the suede, the stain at its center, as visible as possible. I was waiting for Jeremie to leave the couch and the room, so I could resume brushing the stain (or at least so I could brush it once more) back in the direction where it blended in. I’d kept my arms crossed the whole time since they’d made their remarks on my obsessive/obscene/sickly behavior, and I didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to stay this way when the stain was the only thing I could think about. But Jeremie didn’t seem to be in a rush to go to his room. Jeremie was more contemplative than the others. He liked to read, like the rest of them, sure, and to be alone, and think, but there was less of a sense of urgency with him. He could do nothing but stare at a wall for hours and not blame himself for his idleness.

“I might stay here awhile, Izzie,” he said. Jeremie was the only one who called me Izzie, which was really what I wanted to be called, not Dory. “You shouldn’t hold back for me.”

“Hold back from what?” I said.

“From doing whatever you do with the couch,” he said. “I really don’t mind.”

I said I was okay.



As a kid, I thought actors had to be the smartest people. I believed they spoke all the languages and dubbed themselves in all the countries that aired their shows and showed their movies. I believed they spent their lives traveling around the world to act again, in a new language, what they’d already acted elsewhere. Actors had to speak at least twelve languages, I thought (I’d only come up with that number because twelve different languages were as many as I could think of), and so they had to be geniuses, given that the father only spoke four and people already said that meant he was smart.

But I never thought actors were inside the TV, as I hear that lots of kids do growing up, and as Simone, who resented explaining to others what they’d missed, used to try to trick me into believing so I’d come downstairs in time for shows’ opening credits. “Hurry, Dory! The actors inside the TV are not going to wait for you to start the episode!” Her logic seemed flawed to me. If the actors really were inside of our TV, it meant they couldn’t be in anyone else’s TV at the same time, and therefore, they were only performing for our household, and I represented an eighth, a sixth, sometimes even half of their total audience: of course they were going to wait for me.



We lived on a block that went meat market, funeral home, custom-made closets. I’d only ever been inside of the meat market. My mother took me there on Saturdays, because the father usually came home on weekends and he liked a good steak.

For a while I thought my mother and the butcher were having an affair. She spoke at a higher, dumber pitch when he was working instead of his wife. She laughed at his jokes about meat. Once, I found it unbearable. She laughed too heartily at something the butcher said that I didn’t understand but knew to be dirty (something about tying up the joint real tight). Her laughing too hard was not unusual, but I got extra embarrassed for her this time because her lipstick had left a red mark on her front teeth. I couldn’t watch. She didn’t usually wear makeup, except on Saturdays, and I thought it was for the butcher, when I could as well have thought it was for the father. I left the shop to sulk outside. I thought my mother would come check on me right away, but if she worried, she didn’t show it. She took her time at the counter. I looked inside the funeral home’s window while I waited. Between the “Always in My Heart” and the “Eternally Lamented” decorative stones, there was a crossword-themed tombstone on display. They’d engraved nice words about the deceased person, what she’d been like.





“Do you get the feeling the word fun shouldn’t be where it is?” my mother asked, looking over my shoulder. I hadn’t heard her come out of the meat market.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s quite unfortunate.”

“Unfortunate,” she repeated, “now, that’s one they should’ve put on there.”

I didn’t even smile. I was still mad at her for flirting with the butcher.

“That’s one grim list of words,” my mother said as she inspected the stone some more.

“You have lipstick on your teeth,” I said.

My mother lit a cigarette and only after taking a couple of puffs did she attend to the lipstick trace, as if rubbing her front teeth with her finger was part of the act of smoking.

“Don’t blow your smoke in my face,” I said, even though she wasn’t blowing her smoke in my face and I wouldn’t have minded if she had been. I usually didn’t give her a hard time about smoking, the way Simone did. She said she needed it and I believed her. When Simone complained about her addiction, my mother blamed it on journalism school. “It’s the first thing they taught us back then,” she would say, to defend herself. “They told us we had to be able to smoke a lot and hold our liquor. ‘Go smoke with the people, with your informers: that’s when you get the best quotes.’ That’s what our teachers said.” “But you’re an accountant now,” Simone would respond, and add “for a local newspaper,” in case she hadn’t been hurtful enough. “Well that wasn’t always the plan,” my mother would say. No one ever asked what the original plan had been. I would have, but it looked like it might make my mother sad to think about it.

“Is the stain gone?” she asked me, showing all her teeth. I felt bad she’d thrown away her cigarette because of what I’d said.

“You’re all good,” I told her.



On the Sundays the father wasn’t at home, my mother went to church. She wasn’t a believer, but she said that being surrounded by Christians made her feel at ease. She couldn’t explain why. I went along with her once. We couldn’t tell anything about it to the father or the others, she had me promise, because they wouldn’t understand. Simone particularly had a thing against religion. She was furious when people assumed we were Catholic, which happened a lot because of how many we were. My mother said we couldn’t blame people for thinking we were Catholic because we did fit some of the clichés, but Simone countered that if they really wanted to reason in clichés, they could at least assume we were Jewish, given how smart we were. Promising my mother I wouldn’t tell about Mass made me nervous I would witness something terrible there. People always made you promise before you knew what they were getting you into.

What followed, though, was not really surprising to me. I didn’t understand what the priest said, but that wasn’t unlike most of my classes, and I’m pretty sure my siblings would’ve managed to make sense of it, contrary to what my mother had said. Unlike the kids I went to school with, the adults in the church looked friendly, and sad, and all in all it was a good experience. I’d always thought I was the saddest one in my class (except for Denise Galet), and to see that sadness might become a normal trait with age left me feeling hopeful.

After the service, my mother talked to old Daphné and a small group of people she called by their first names.

“This one here’s Isidore,” she told them, and the women showed admiration.

“So he’s the youngest one, right? The little prince?” one of them said.

“They’re all little princes and princesses,” my mother said, and everyone nodded.

“How many more do you have already?”

“Five more,” my mother said. “Two other boys and three girls. All by C-section.”

She always specified C-section, which I didn’t know how to feel about.

“Dory is the worldliest one,” she added, and she smiled at me. “He’s the only one who’ll come out with me in the open, not entirely ashamed of his old mother.”

“Not yet!” someone said, and all shared a laugh.

My mother had her hands on my shoulders, and little by little, she dragged me closer, placed my body in front of hers, the way villains do in movies with the hostages they take for protection as they retreat. I don’t think my mother liked people as much as she said she did.



The father rarely said anything to us, or me, at least. Sometimes at dinner, after Simone or one of the others had given a lecture on how they envisioned their future, he’d ask what it was I planned to do in life. It made me nervous when he asked. I’d mumble something about not being quite sure yet. I thought I only had one shot at the answer, that coming up with the wrong one could loom over the rest of my life.

I tried to get serious about coming up with a vocation, for the next time he put the question to me. At the school library, I went through a guidebook that listed all the professions in existence. It actually said “all the professions” on the cover, but then there was a warning on the back, in small print, that said new professions were invented on a regular basis and that others disappeared, but that the reader should nevertheless rest assured the ones listed in the booklet should at least have a good twenty years of existence ahead. The list was four years old already. It bore 443 items, I counted, in alphabetical order. I tried to guess which ones would expire. Cartography sounded like a doomed business. Anthropology did too. I thought places and groups of people only existed in a limited number, and that once you’d studied a particular land and mapped it, or spent some time with a tribe and written about it, there was nothing to add, you’d done the job and crossed something off the list of places to map and people to study, and that the list had to be extremely short by now, if there was anything left on it at all.

Each professional title appeared in italics and was followed by a brief description of what it entailed, what kind of education you needed, how many years. I imagined the longest descriptions had to be for the most impressive jobs, and I skipped them.

I wanted to come up with something conceivable, not too showy, something my siblings wouldn’t right away try to discourage me from pursuing. On the other hand, too modest a pick would expose me to their mockery. They despised salesmen and politicians, as well as anything too useful (like plumbing, for instance) or concerned with precious things (flowers, jewelry, stationery, babies).

I thought I would read the whole booklet and find a vocation in one sitting, but by D I got bored and headed home. I didn’t see the rush in making a decision anymore. I was still pretty young. I could wait for the booklet with the new professions to come out.



The only thing I was good at was holding my breath. In fact, I’d had a brief taste of what the rush of athletic performance might be during gym class when I’d held my breath underwater for the whole length of the pool. It impressed my classmates, I could tell. When I resurfaced at the other end, they all stood small in the distance and didn’t say anything. All of them had gone up for air midlength. Though I hadn’t saved anybody’s life or done anything of importance, and though I’d always despised those who stuck out their chests, I walked back to them like a hero, in my flip-flops (I left a different pair at each end of the pool), and, halfway there, realized that, had I been gifted any real talent, I would probably have been a terrible person.

By the next time we did free-diving exercises, however, my classmates had come up with an explanation for why I was good at holding my breath: I was on the fat side, so I had to have bigger lungs than them, and a bigger asshole as well, and bigger feet that must have worked as fins, bigger everything, in fact, but the one thing boys wanted to have bigger than everyone else—they wouldn’t grant me that. That was in fact made smaller than average by the bigness of everything else, they said. I wasn’t usually paid this kind of attention.

The following weeks, I started going up for air before I needed to.



The third time I tried running away, there were no good-byes—I left a note. Just a couple of miles from home, though, I realized I’d forgotten my helmet and turned the bike around to get it. The whole way back, I felt vulnerable to injury. If I died in an accident, my mother would begin a road safety campaign in my name, I thought. I made it home all right, of course, but was too tired by then to attempt leaving again. I tore up the note I’d left on Simone’s nightstand and fell asleep in my clothes.



One Saturday morning, my mother was stuck at home waiting for a call and sent me out to run the weekend errands by myself. I went to the meat market first, because I hated the butcher and wanted to be done with it. Old Daphné Marlotte was there standing in line behind another woman who ordered veal ribs and chops authoritatively. Daphné turned to me and shook her head in silent disapproval of the woman’s attitude.

“Will that be all for you, ma’am?” the butcher said.

“If you don’t forget to pack the duck-fat beans like you did last time, yes, sir, that will be all.”

“I am, again, really sorry about that, ma’am,” the butcher said.

“Sure you are,” the woman said.

The atmosphere lightened the second she left the shop.

“Some case of a stitched asshole on that one,” the butcher told Daphné.

“You’re supposed to—what?” Daphné said. “Slit your wrists over her duck-fat beans?”

The butcher smiled. It’s true the woman had been sort of snappy and rude, but I always believed people had reasons to behave the way they did, and so I wasn’t ready to side with the butcher. The fact that Daphné did, though, it made me wonder. Being the oldest person in the country, she had to know something about how to judge people.

“Shopping on your own like a big boy, Dory?” the butcher asked me.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“What can I get you?”

I glanced at Daphné. I thought they were trapping me into being impolite.

“Oh, go ahead, kid, I’m not in line,” Daphné said. “I’m just looking.”

She was looking at a pork roast wrapped in bacon behind the counter window. When I asked the butcher to pack it for me, she said, “Excellent choice, kid,” and moved a couple inches to her left to stare at another piece of meat, hands clasped behind her back.

“Hey, Daphné?” the butcher said as he was wrapping my roast. “You know the sixty-eight joke?”

Daphné looked up at him and readjusted her glasses on the bridge of her nose.

“Let me readjust my glasses,” she said, “I’ll hear you better.”

“So. Husband and wife are in bed, right? And the husband goes, Hey, honey, you up for a sixty-eight? And the woman says, Sure, babe, but what’s a sixty-eight? and the husband says, You blow me, and I owe you one!”

Daphné laughed, and I understood that the butcher didn’t only tell dirty jokes to my mother, but to anyone who’d listen.

“Are we making this kid uncomfortable?” Daphné asked him.

“Nah,” he said, looking at me. “You got the joke, kid?”

“Not really,” I said.

“See?” he told Daphné.

I knew what a sixty-nine was (in theory), but it still took me a few months to make sense of the sixty-eight. Sex jokes in general, I didn’t get. All I got was that they were dirty, the same way I understood racist jokes were racist, but nothing much beyond that. Arabs were the butts of most of the racist jokes around here, and I thought maybe it was because I didn’t personally know any Arabs that I didn’t understand the jokes about them. Also, maybe it was racist of me to think that there could be a way for those jokes to make sense in the first place. Maybe all kids are racist, as a side effect of wanting everything to make sense.

“Did your mother tell you that you could keep the change if you went grocery shopping by yourself?” Daphné asked me.

“Yes,” I said. “For my efforts.”

“What else is on your list?”

I showed her.

“Skip the greengrocer,” Daphné said, after analyzing the list as if it were a complex document. “No one will miss those Brussels sprouts. Tell your mom they were out of them, or that they were all brown and mushy. You’ll get to keep an extra euro or two.”

The butcher asked if I wanted anything else and when I said the roast was all, he turned to Daphné.

“Instructions for the pork roast, Daphné?”

“How heavy are we talking?”

“About three pounds of it?”

“Forty minutes in the oven, three hundred fifty degrees,” she said, eyes closed.

The butcher turned to me and nodded deeply.

“What a great memory she has,” he said.



One night, it came up again, “What about you, Dory? What do you want to be when you grow up?” and it struck me right then that the answer should be that I wanted to be a German teacher. It was Sunday, and the father had just spent two hours helping Simone with her German homework. He’d helped all my other siblings with their German over the years, not that they were bad at it, they just weren’t as good as they were at everything else. When they’d had papers to turn in, they’d always run them by the father. He was happy to help, and since German was the thing with which he felt he could be of most use to his children, he discussed every little translation choice they made in more detail than my siblings were comfortable with. Only because my father excelled at it was German mandatory in our family. He tried to make us believe that German was important—the language of Hölderlin and other people like that—but I think what he liked about it was really that he understood it and that it was more impressive than English or Spanish—which he spoke as well—because everyone spoke English and Spanish. German teacher was the perfect answer, I thought. An achievable goal. Respect would pour forth from all around the table.

I’d yet to start studying German—I would only have my first class the following year—but I had the hope that I could be good at it, and I looked forward to spending time with the father discussing German subtleties on Sundays, like the others had done before me.

“I know what he’ll be!” Simone announced before I got the chance to share my last-minute vocation. “He’ll be my biographer!”

She wasn’t being sarcastic.

“People will fight to write books about me one day, but yours will be the only authorized one, Dory, I swear, we can make a pact about it right now.”

The father thought it was a great idea.



Simone’s plan for the future was unclear, but it involved changing the world without making a big deal about it. None of my siblings were too interested in taking part in society (they all wanted to be hermits and think), but our father was the opposite. He would get upset about wars and epidemics and elections like there was anything one could do about such things, and though Simone didn’t believe there was, she still wanted to make him happy and find a way to save the world from all its problems while working on her novels (which would be her most important task), so the father could stop feeling sad about the news.

It had only happened once that the father hadn’t been made upset by the news: the night Jacques Chirac had announced on live TV he’d decided to dissolve Parliament. That had kept the father laughing for a while. I couldn’t understand why he thought it was so funny, but I laughed with him anyway.

The father was an idealist, though. He said there should only be Buddhists in the world, “and chiropractors,” he added some days, when his back gave him a hard time. He voted for other idealists who had no shot at winning any election and was still disappointed when they didn’t. Leonard once asked him why he didn’t vote for one of the parties that always won, for a change, just to see what it felt like to not be on the losing team, and it was a joke, but the father was cold to him for weeks. Mom said he was worried he’d failed to give us a proper moral compass, and I was convinced a moral compass was an object and couldn’t understand why no one would step up and go buy one and put an end to the silent war between Leonard and the father.



The only thing in the news my siblings ever got all up in arms about was the government’s talk of banishing homework for schoolkids.

“As if everyone wasn’t dumb enough already,” Simone said.

“But there’s a rise in teenage suicide,” my mother said.

“That has nothing to do with the load of homework,” Simone said. “Kids want to die because no one likes them, and you can’t pass laws against that.”

Homework or not, I didn’t care either way, but when I tried running away for the fourth time and Simone caught me—my hand on the doorknob, my backpack and helmet on—and asked what the hell I was doing, I told her I’d planned on running away to protest the homework ban. She said I was stupid and told me to go back to bed. I thought that she’d bought it, my poor excuse, but then she didn’t bring it up in front of the others for a laugh the next day, or any other day.



Simone was lying on our bedroom’s carpet and breathing loudly through her nose. She called it yogic breathing, even though she’d never taken a yoga class in her life. Her stomach was tense, and when she’d exhale, it barely deflated. She applied a certain pressure on it with the palm of her hands—she called it kneading the pain. She had the doomed face of her period days.

“You feel like shit?” I asked.

She looked in my direction and made sure I understood the effort it required. She was a good actress, Simone. She could control her ocular tension so that her eyes would be on you without seeing you. She gave you the flabby eyes.

“You want me to get you the hot-water bottle?”

“It’s very nice of you, Dory.”

“Don’t call me Dory.”

“You’re too nice.”

“I know.”

“I mean it. You’ll never get yourself a girl.”

She burped and pretended it was part of yogic breathing.

“Take note of this, for my biography,” she said. “Take note that I was always a great big sister who gave you precious advice on how to get a decent girlfriend.”

We heard our mother come home, the rustling sound of plastic bags. She walked into our bedroom without knocking.

“Simone, look at what I found at the mall, for Rose…you think she’ll like it?”

She unwound from its bubble wrap a mug with Brad Pitt’s face on it. Simone folded both her forearms on top of her face and screamed.

“Didn’t you tell me Rose was a Brad Pitt fan?” my mother asked, now unsure. “Just look at it, will you? Do you think Rose will like it?”

“Why do you keep saying her name?” Simone said, and it came out muffled from behind her arms.

Rose we didn’t know yet. She was Simone’s pen pal. Simone’s French teacher had come up with a project, at the beginning of the school year, to have her whole class correspond with another class at the other end of the country, to help teach them the basics of epistolary literature. Simone had never met her pen pal, but she despised her already. She also despised her French teacher, for that matter. She said educational projects of this sort were crutches for the incompetent. She said back in the day (Simone often spoke as if she’d lived there before ending up with us), one was taught Les Liaisons Dangereuses and that was good enough for the epistolary genre—which she, on top of everything, liked less than any other.

“I don’t give a fuck if she likes it or not.”

“But, I bought it for her,” my mother said, “for her to feel a bit at home when she comes and visits, don’t you think it’s a good idea?”

The climax (that’s what the paper Simone had our parents sign called it) of the pen pal project was to have each student meet their pen pal in the spring. Rose was going to come spend a week with us, Simone a week at her house after that. No one in our family was excited about having Rose over, except my mother. She’d already started planning meals and activities for Rose’s stay.

Simone unfolded her arms and looked at the mug with disdain.

“It’s hideous,” she said. “And I don’t particularly want that girl to feel at home here. If she feels too good, she’ll keep on writing to me even after school is out.”

“Would it be so bad?”

“Mom. Please.”

“I don’t understand why you have to be so negative all the time, Simone. I don’t understand why you decided that you and Rose can’t get along. You don’t even know her.”

“I didn’t decide anything. I just have no desire to meet this person. Our desires are not controllable.”

“Of course they are.”

My mother was very calm as she declared our desires to be controllable. My mother was always very calm. She’d decided a long time ago that she knew what was best for her children and would never let go. Her life was dedicated to making us happy and sociable, to making us understand the two adjectives were married, and the fact that none of my five siblings were either never discouraged her.

“What do you think, Dory?” my mother asked, regarding the mug.

“Meh,” I said.

“All right then. I’ll return it to the store, if everyone hates it.”

“Yeah, do that,” Simone said. “And please, please don’t get her anything else. She doesn’t deserve the lousiest gift. Our correspondence didn’t teach me anything. Anything at all. She’s lucky enough I kept answering. It’s the only gift she’ll ever get from me.”

“I’m sure you have more in common than you think.”

“She’s illiterate, Mom.”

“Don’t be silly. She wrote you ten letters at least.”

“Oh, her letters! Let’s talk about them! Her spelling is hopeless. For a whole line it seems like she understands a basic grammar rule, and then in the next sentence, she makes the mistake she just avoided…she doesn’t even reread herself. She relies on pure chance. Worst kind of human being.”

“So because she occasionally spells something wrong, your friendship is doomed?”

“Of course it is!”

Our mother started rewrapping the mug in bubble paper. She sighed.

“Sometimes, I feel like I brought up a batch of little misanthropes,” she said. “You’re all so intolerant. You only look up from your books to criticize the rest of the world.”

She turned to me at that point and said, “Except for you, Dory, honey, of course.”

Simone didn’t like to be called intolerant. It was her weak spot and her paradox: always teary eyed when the time came to quote the French Revolution (she found opportunities), and always the first to rank her classmates on merit, intelligence, and culture (she was first in all).

“What do you want me to do, Mom? For sure men are born and remain free and equal in rights, but if they decide to grow up and never open a book, nothing says I have to endure their conversation.”

“I don’t want you to do anything, honey. I just wish, in general, you would be more open, and I say this for your own good. I wish you would leave your bed and your books sometimes, go out and meet people…”

“People?” Simone spat, outraged. “But I know so many already.”

My mother didn’t let this undermine her. She saw, on the carpet, the pack of NurofenFlash pills Simone took when she had her period.

“I see you’re not feeling well,” she said. “We will talk about this later.”



Simone had me look at a couple of Rose’s letters and a draft of her response to the first one. She said it was in preparation for the biography I would later write of her, but I believe our mother’s calling her intolerant had affected her and she wanted confirmation that Rose was not smart.

Dear Simone Mazal,

I hope you are well.

I am very happy to meet you and that our classes are going to make that correspondance. I don’t know the town where your from but my mother went to Ardèche once for holidays and she says it’s not far from where you live and it’s a beautifull part of the country.

I introduce myself: my name is Rose (like in the movie “Titanic”…I’m lucky, because it is my favorite movie!!!). However, I dont like the flower rose, I like sunflowers as favorite flowers. I have a cat Popcorn and two brothers Raphael and Romeo. My favorite actor is Leo of course, do you love him? I have a lot of posters with him.

The teacher Mrs. Duchesne explained to us when we have a pen friend we have to tell her what my life is like, what music I like and food, and also we have to show intrest in our pen friend and ask you questions about your life, so I will now ask you questions. Can you answer them in your next letter?

Thank you so much!

Questions:

1/ what is your favorite color?

2/ do you have brothers and sisters? If yes, how many? are they nice?

3/ do you have a pet?

4/ what is your kind of music you like to listen to?





PS: my best friend is Laetitia, she’s pen-pal with Alice in your class. Do you like Alice? My second best friend is Marie, she is penpal with Virginia.

Sincerely,

Rose Metzger

Dear Rose,

It is interesting you mention Titanic since it aired last month on Channel 2 (I assume you watched it again on that occasion). I, for my part, had never seen it before, and it brought about a few questions I’d like to share with you: do you think we are supposed to believe the paintings Kate Winslet has in her suite (Picasso, Monet) are the authentic works? Is James Cameron implying that the MoMA and the Musée d’Orsay only have copies of those paintings? Or is he just abstracting himself from reality in portraying Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as having sunk down into the Atlantic with the ship? I believe all he wanted was to signify that his main female protagonist had extremely bold taste in art for her time, and that using world-renowned paintings was the only way he could come up with to do so. I find it a tad too easy. It would’ve been more interesting, in my opinion, if Cameron had taken this opportunity to put in his movie works by more obscure artists who’ve been unjustly forgotten. That would’ve been taking a stand. It would’ve made Kate Winslet all the more interesting, I think. On another note, I found the husband-to-be character to be way too much of a caricature, but that’s just a personal opinion. I’m not denigrating your taste in film.

I personally love Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. I assume you haven’t seen those.

Also, I wanted to tell you that Ardèche is not at all close to where I live. Anything is relative, of course, and depends on what reference point we decide on to distinguish the near from the remote, but let’s say we’re talking on the scale of the country: Ardèche is, inside of metropolitan France’s limits, pretty far from where I live. It still is closer to me than where you live, but as the crow flies, it is pretty much as far from my city as my city is from yours, for instance. I think it would be helpful to look at a map of our country, so I’ve attached one to this letter. I circled your town, mine, and Ardèche in red, in order for you to locate all these places in relation to one another. In green, you’ll find the main mountain chains; in blue, the most important cities, from an economic viewpoint; purple, our main rivers; yellow, a few of the many places recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. My choices to circle one place and not another might look arbitrary to you, but I think, seeing as you don’t seem to know too much about geography, that this map is altogether a good way to start and will give you a general idea of how our country works. My advice is you should memorize it once and for all.

Cordially,

Simone

Dear Simone,

I hope you are well.

I dont really know how to anser your letter because you don’t really ask any questions. Like, I don’t understend what you say about “Titanic”?

Thank you for the map of the country, I pined it over my desk.

My mother is sorry she mistook Ardèche for another place, but now she dosn’t remember what place she meant to say.

I never saw “City Lights” or the japanese one (is it a film of violent contents? I dont like violence) but I will ask my father to look for them next time he goes to the videoclub.

Today I am happy because I scored 18 out of 20 on my biology exam, and I am happy because I want to be a doctor later and you need good grades in sciences. My father is a doctor as well, and he was very happy as well.

What do you want to be later?

What do your parents do?

You can also answer the questions from my first letter in your next letter if you want. Its not too late!

Please ask me questions in your next letter.

Cordially,

Rose





At some point Simone decided taking notes for her biography was not good enough and we ought to start doing interviews.

“Observation is a good thing, but there’s about thirteen years of my life that will never be covered if we don’t artificially revisit them.”

“What questions do you want me to ask?” I said.

“What do you think this is? Stalinist Russia?”

I didn’t know who Stalin was at the time, though Leonard and Simone referred to him now and then, and so I did what I did when I didn’t understand something, which was pretend I hadn’t heard it.

“You pick the questions,” Simone said. “After all, you were around for most of those thirteen years, I’m sure you have a perspective on my life that I couldn’t possibly imagine.”

“Is that a compliment?”

“It wasn’t meant that way,” she said. “But sure.”

Simone borrowed Jeremie’s Dictaphone the next day. It worked with little cassettes. Jeremie supplied two he said could be erased because he’d uploaded the bird sounds he’d recorded on them to his computer. Simone tested the Dictaphone and placed it on the night table we were supposed to share but that had always been all hers.

“I’m ready when you’re ready,” she said, and on the tape, you can hear me unfold the list of questions I’d prepared.

“Do you remember when you got lice in first grade and Mom was going to cut your hair real short in the bathroom and before she did you wanted to save as many lice as possible and asked me if I would shelter them and rubbed your scalp against mine?”

“What kind of question is that?”

“I was thinking about it. I’m pretty sure it’s my first memory of you.”

“Well it’s not going to be a book about you, is it? Next question.”

“Have you always been the smartest person in your class?”

“Absolutely. Even in kindergarten, I drew my houses with perspective—”

“What is your first memory?”

“I don’t think we were done with the previous question.”

“No?”

“You have to leave me some time to answer, to reminisce.”

“Okay.”

“So. Yes. I’ve always been head of the class. In every subject. Even now in German, which I’m not particularly good at, I’m miles and miles and miles ahead. People envy me, but there’s a big drawback to being smarter than the rest, and I’ll tell you what it is, because I assume it will be in part responsible for the kind of person I’ll become: loneliness. You know, I happen to be good at everything I try, but it doesn’t mean that I want to be the best, and people get the two things confused. The truth is it would be good for me to have competition once in a while, or even someone to look up to that is not just Berenice or Aurore or the boys but someone my own age. But when you’re first in everything, you have to know better than to say you want competition. That would sound false or spurious to everyone. You have to be humble, you have to be ashamed of yourself, sort of. I guess it’s the same thing when you’re very happy. I’ve never been very happy, but I assume it’s the same. You can’t be too obvious about it. You have to show some restraint.”

“Did you ever think about failing a test on purpose?”

“Why in the world would I ever do that?”

“So people wouldn’t think you’re a freak? To fit in?”

“I don’t see why I should be the one to make the effort and reach down to everyone else. Why doesn’t it cross everyone else’s mind to reach up to me?”

“Well, it’s not easy being smart.”

“Of course it is. You just have to shut up nine out of ten times you think you want to speak.”

“Do you do that?”

“Well, not right now. Not with you guys.”

There’s a few seconds of silence there on the tape.

“You say you want competition, but you never had any so far, so how do you know you would be okay with it?”

“That’s an interesting question, Dory.”

A silence here.

“So what’s your answer?”

“I don’t know.”

Silence again.

“There’s a girl, in art class, she’s a pretty decent painter. I mean, I’m a better sketcher, by a long shot, that’s how I stay head of art class, but she’s a better painter, and I have no jealousy whatsoever toward her.”

Another silence.

“It’s quite the opposite actually.”

“Why don’t you try to be friends with her?”

“I don’t know what to say to her.”

“Just say you like her paintings.”

“I don’t really know how to say nice things. When I have something nice to say, I don’t know how to be honest without sounding fake. Or condescending. Are you taking notes? I mean…isn’t this thing recording?”

“You’re the one who set it.”

“Plus, I’m sure she thinks I’m pretentious. Everyone does.”

“I think you’re pretentious sometimes.”

“I know. That’s because I do talk down to you sometimes. On purpose. But at school, I’m always very careful not to do that, and I still get morons saying I’m full of myself, or calling me pretentious, if they actually know the word. You know what really pisses me off, Dory?”

“When people misuse words?”

“Misuse of words. Yes. Sloppy usage. Pretentious has come to define someone who talks about a thing that others don’t understand. But it’s not what it means. Pretension is a form of lying, it’s looking to impress people with knowledge you haven’t really mastered, or giving yourself more importance than you have, but calling me pretentious for actually knowing things, well, that’s a fucking disgrace, that’s a misuse of language. It’s more than that: it’s language abuse. It’s like when people use the word symbol left and right. What’s up with that? Or problematic as a noun, because problem doesn’t sound edgy enough. If I’m not sure how to use a word, I won’t use it ’til I’ve looked up its meaning. It would be pretentious to do otherwise, you follow me? People who call me pretentious, they’re the pretentious ones. I mean, should I surrender and start using words inappropriately the way they do, just to fit in? Dory, why are you taking notes? This thing records everything we say.”

“I’m taking notes on your body language.”

Another silence.

“Even people who talk to you about some idea like it goes without saying that you’d know the idea when they themselves only read about it for the first time that morning…even they are not pretentious. They’re just being polite in assuming you know what they’re talking about, and they won’t make fun of you for not knowing, they’ll explain. Maybe in the process, they’re sizing you up, trying to get a sense of where they stand knowledge-wise, sure, but that’s a different thing. That’s human. You’re taking a hell of a lot of notes, Dory. Do you think we should get a video camera?”

“Why are you pretentious with me sometimes?”

“What?”

“You said you were pretentious with me sometimes, on purpose. Why?”

“To impress you. That’s the only purpose of pretension.”

“Why do you want to impress me?”

“I’m your big sister. You have to look up to me.”

“But I do already.”

“Well, it should stay like that. For a little while at least.”

“Then what?”

“Then at some point you’ll stop being impressionable, and my mission with you will be complete.”

“Do I have a mission with you?”

“This is not a book about you.”

“Off the record?”

She stopped the recording there and you can hear static for a second and a bird chirp. Then the interview resumes.

“What is your first memory?”

“I have many. Define an area of interest.”

“Your first memory of a funny thing.”

“Grandma’s farting fit at Grandpa’s funeral.”

“I remember that too…it can’t be your first memory.”

“You have a great memory, Dory, no one’s ever denied that. And maybe you don’t really remember the farting fit but we talked about it so much that you believe you do.”

“Your first memory of something sad?”

“I guess it could be the same one. And also when the father rented a magician for my fifth birthday.”

“The magician made you sad?”

“The fact that Dad thought I would like it.”

“Who do you prefer: Berenice, Aurore, Jeremie, Leonard, or me?”

“Berenice.”

“Mom or the father?”

“I don’t know.”



I’m not sure I was stupid. It’s not that I didn’t understand anything my teachers talked about, it’s that when I did, I doubted I had. I believed there had to be a trick. Maybe I just assumed the world was more complicated than it was. I thought the time-difference thing worked in minutes, for example. The day they explained time zones in school, we were shown a map of Europe: it’s an hour earlier in Portugal than it is in Spain, the teacher said, and I looked at the map, and I thought it had to be roughly half an hour earlier in Madrid than in Barcelona.



My habit of seeing tricks everywhere could be traced to the day that I, at four years old, started singing “Au Clair de la Lune” out loud in kindergarten and the teacher pulled me by the ear and asked me to stop because I was bothering everybody. It hurt, and I cried, but I kept singing through the pain anyway, and the teacher pulled harder and harder, until I finished the last verse I knew. I thought the ear pulling was a test to see if I’d understood what the teacher had said earlier about how “what has been started must be finished,” but it turned out it really wasn’t, and when I proudly—though in tears—finished my song, the teacher explained the phrase “What has been started must be finished” only applied to vegetables and homework and chores. So it should have been “Everything boring that has been started must be finished,” I thought, but I knew it didn’t sound as good as the real phrase.



Rose arrived on a Tuesday. The Tuesday activity my mother had planned was going to the pool, and so she dropped us all there (all but Aurore, of course) while she ran some errands. In the car on the way to the pool, Simone refused to talk to Rose. She stared out the window the whole way. Rose kept asking her questions, regarding just about anything, and I kept answering on Simone’s behalf.

“Have you ever watched synchronized swimming, Simone?”

“I don’t think she ever has.”

“Do you like my bracelet? I made it myself.”

“Simone doesn’t really like jewelry. Or plastic beads.”

“I can make one for her with other things, like, shells or something.”

“She never wears bracelets or necklaces, really.”

Jeremie and Leonard didn’t acknowledge Rose’s presence either.

Once at the pool, they all headed to the fast swimmers’ lane and I stayed with Rose in the chaotic part of the pool with the kids and the old people. Rose wanted to go to the jets just to hang out and have her thighs massaged. She said the jets were her favorite part of any pool. She said we would know where the jets were once we’d spotted a couple of still old ladies with their backs to the wall and their elbows on the lip. We found the old ladies and waited for them to be done with the jets. While we waited, Rose suggested we try to spot who was pissing the pool. I’d never pissed the pool. I kept my eyes on the water. Rose said I had to attend to the faces, that the faces were what would betray the pissers. I didn’t know what she meant. Simone had told me that when someone pissed the pool, the water around them turned green, I told Rose.

“Why would the water turn green?” Rose asked.

“Blue plus yellow,” I said.

“Your sister is funny,” Rose said. “And pretty,” she added. “I didn’t think she would be.”

“Why not?” I said. I didn’t have an opinion on the way my sisters looked, but everyone said they were beautiful, so I assumed they were, and I didn’t know how it could surprise anybody.

“She sounds so smart in her letters, you know? I thought she had to be kind of, whatever looking,” Rose said.

A couple of three- or four-year-olds with arms wrapped in water wings passed us with a slowness made remarkable by their manic kicks. They were discussing how many dead kids they thought were at the bottom of the deep end of the pool, given that they’d been told that those who swam in the deep end without parental supervision died. “Five thousand!” one kid said. “Five thousand millions!” the other kid said. They were both acting as if pool water kept coming into their mouths by accident and they had to constantly spit it out, but they were really lapping it up.

“Your brothers don’t look too bad either,” Rose said. I glanced at the fast swimmers’ lane. Leonard was spitting in his goggles.

The old ladies left the jets. I wanted to tell Rose I was good at holding my breath underwater, but I thought it might be showing off. We didn’t talk much once at the jets. At some point, Rose just turned to me and smiled.

“Did the water turn green around me?” she said.





On Wednesday we went to the movies. My mother let Rose pick the movie, a comedy about teenagers who go to a party. Aurore came along, to everyone’s surprise, after deciding she needed to get some fresh air, and declared as the end credits were rolling that we should never let her out of her room again if it was to see such a terrible piece of shit. Rose liked the movie, and I didn’t really, but I understood why she did and so I wasn’t as mad as everyone else. On the walk back home, we saw a kid screaming and his mother dragging his body along the sidewalk by the arm, because he refused to get up until she would agree to take him to McDonald’s. We walked by them silently and without staring, as we’d been taught to do when passing fighting couples or car wrecks, and then my mother turned to us and proudly said what she always said when a kid threw a tantrum nearby: “None of you ever did that to me.”





On Thursday, the school bus that was driving Simone’s and Rose’s classes to the science museum got into a small accident. Only Rose was injured. The window by which she was sitting shattered as the bus made a turn into too narrow a street. Rose got a couple of light cuts on her right arm and two stitches on her forehead.

“Are you okay?” my mother asked Simone when she picked her and Rose up, and Simone said yes, of course she was okay, she’d been sitting at the other end of the bus when it happened.

So there was no activity on Thursday. We just watched TV and Rose fell asleep next to me on the brown suede couch.





On Friday, after school, Rose and I made cookies for the family. I’m not sure Simone had spoken to her at all yet, but Rose didn’t seem to mind too much. At dinnertime, while we waited for everyone to come down to the table, Rose inquired about the blue plate my mother was always eating off of and asked her if she was on a diet, because she sure didn’t need to be.

“Oh, how nice of you to say that,” my mother said, and then she asked Rose how she knew about blue plates cutting your appetite and Rose said they used blue plates in fat camps, and my mother asked her if she’d ever been in a fat camp and Rose said no, but both her brothers had.

“How interesting,” my mother said, and then she asked me to make sure Aurore came down to sit with us tonight because she really wanted to have us all around the table. Once we were all gathered, my mother said, “The father won’t be coming home tonight,” and this time it was because he was dead. He’d had a heart attack. Simone said she didn’t believe it for a second, but it looked like she did. Jeremie and Leonard and Aurore and I said nothing.

“I am so so so so so so so sorry,” Rose said, “so very sorry,” and she started crying, long before any of us did. She cried loudly, and my mother had to get up to wrap her arms around Rose’s shoulders while we, her actual kids, the actual children of the father Rose had never met, stared blankly at the swordfish steaks my mother had placed at the center of the table, swordfish steaks we would later declare to have been our father’s favorite dish, though none of us could really be sure about it, the father always having expressed the exact same enthusiasm for everything our mother cooked.



Berenice came home early the following morning. She called me Isidore when she saw me come down the stairs, and in doing so confirmed the seriousness of the situation. She was sitting with my mother in the kitchen, her fingers crossed in front of her on the table, as though she was praying. My name is all she said. I went and wrapped my arms around her neck, and she leaned her head against my shoulder, but her hands stayed on the table.

I asked where Rose was.

“Simone’s teacher took her for the rest of the stay,” my mother said.

“When did she go?”

My mother looked at me like I was asking for details from years ago. I hoped Rose was all right but knew it wasn’t appropriate to say so. I wanted to eat the cookies she and I had made the day before, but that also seemed uncalled for.

The others came down and had cookies and milk and hugged Berenice just as I’d done. No one said a thing for a while, until Aurore asked Berenice how her dissertation was coming along. Berenice said she’d been solicited for an article about her research for the next issue of a philosophy quarterly. She said she’d probably send them her third chapter, which almost made sense on its own. We said congratulations.



I was usually the one to take the least amount of time in the bathroom, but the morning of the father’s funeral, I looked at my naked self in the mirror for a while, and Leonard knocked on the door to make sure I was all right.

“Well,” I told him, “I’m fat.”

I heard Leonard laugh a little through the door.

“You’re not fat, Dory, you’ll grow it away.”

The second part of his sentence indicated that I was, indeed, fat. For the next few weeks, I barely ate, and everyone thought it was out of grief.



After the father died, we all slept in the same bedroom for days but didn’t talk about why. We dragged mattresses into the boys’ bedroom, because it was the biggest. We brought in bottles of water, books, bedside lamps, and changes of clothes we kept rolled in bunches at the feet of our beds. I look back upon these nights very fondly. I slept a lot, and better than I ever had before. It was in the days following the father’s death that I learned to sleep in late, and realized days didn’t have to be as long as they’d always been. We barely left the room. Berenice worked on her article; the others read, or slept, or ate in bed; and I would just look at them all and fall back asleep feeling safe.

I don’t want to sound insensitive and give the impression that my father’s death didn’t affect me. It did, of course, but everyone knows that death is tragic, while there’s not much focus on the upsides of losing someone you loved, the main one being, you sleep pretty well. No counting sheep, no too-hot pillows, no bad dreams. No dreams at all, in fact. Just a blank, heavy sleep.

When Berenice went back to grad school, though, the sleep alliance broke. Aurore took her mattress back to her room and Simone figured it was time for her and me to do the same.

Sleeping got more difficult. Nights became a bathroom ballet of sorts. Every half hour, I’d hear a different sibling, or our mother, get out of bed to go take a piss. We all stopped drinking water after dinner, and that solved the problem for my brothers and sisters, but my mother still got up every night. She didn’t leave her room, though. I just heard her get up to turn all her lights on and walk back to her bed. After nights and nights of this, I went to see what she was doing. We were usually not allowed in her bedroom at night. All of us, as kids, had heard her tell us that after ten p.m., she wasn’t our mother. She needed time to herself, she’d say, to read and recharge her mother batteries during the night, otherwise she wouldn’t even be able to be our mother during the day. I’d tried going to her room once after ten with what I believed was a good excuse (Simone wouldn’t turn her reading light out), but all my mother had said was, “Can you see the clock, Dory? Can you see what it says?” and I’d had to go. We’d all learned to deal with insomnia on our own, to wait for the morning to describe our bad dreams. We’d all learned to give our mother the post–ten p.m. privacy she requested. We wanted her to remain our mother. But that night, around one in the morning, I knocked on her door and she let me in. The radio on her nightstand was on, at the lowest audible volume.

“I like to be talked to before sleep,” she said. I knew she’d called the father from her bedroom phone the nights he wasn’t home, but I didn’t think they had actual conversations.

“We can talk a little while,” I said, and we did. I sat by her in bed. Everyone in the house was asleep, so we whispered. She said, “Tell me something I don’t know about you, Dory,” and I said I wanted to be a German teacher. We talked about it without reference to the father, which was sort of an achievement, given that he’d been the only person we knew who saw the point of the German language. The closet facing the bed was half-open and I could see his clothes hanging there, the jackets and the shirts. I knew clothes didn’t have emotions but they seemed to understand that the father had died and that they would never be worn again. They looked embarrassed not to have disappeared with him, to just be there reminding us of his absence, resigned, prepared to meet their fate and be discarded when my mother was ready. She asked me to tell her about good memories I had, and I talked about our vacation in the south a couple years back, with the lightning bugs. I did most of the talking. Every time I left a space for her to share a memory of her own, or to offer a reaction, she would just say, “Please go on, I’m listening,” but her eyes were shut and I don’t think she really cared about what I said, and it went on like that until I left a space she didn’t fill at all.





The Defenses





At school, Denise Galet told me she was sorry for my loss, but she looked mostly jealous. I didn’t particularly like Denise, but because no one else did either, we often sat together in class. She asked for details about the funeral, like open casket or not, and I told her everything she wanted to know, mainly about what happens to a dead body. I knew Denise was dark. She told you about not liking life or anyone in it every chance she got. Her and suicide, though, it was like me and running away: she kept failing. She’d tried to slit her wrists the previous winter but hadn’t cut nearly deep enough. She’d taken twenty of her mother’s sleeping pills a few weeks after that, but they were placebos, so no one was sure whether it had been the real thing or a cry for help. She had therapy sessions every day of the week after class. She ate meds in front of a psychiatrist and couldn’t take the bottle home. At recess she sat on a bench and fed pigeons in spite of its being forbidden. I’d never thought I could do anything to help her. Denise belonged to a different stratum of humanity, I believed, and there could be no real communication between us.

“I wanted to come to the funeral,” she told me, “but my parents wouldn’t let me.”

“It’s nice of you,” I said.

“I want to know how it goes, you know? I’ve never been to one.”

“It was my fourth,” I said, and Denise looked impressed.

“Grandparents?” she asked.

“And an uncle,” I said.

I told her the family had to pick clothes for the dead person, give speeches if they could, dress in dark colors, and that no one should bring inappropriate things to the ceremony, like a newspaper or a snack. Denise said she knew all that already. She wanted to know more about the body.

“Who dresses it?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Who puts it in the casket?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are there smells?”

“What do you mean?”

“The body, does it give off smells in the church or whatever?”

“My father’s ceremony was at the cemetery,” I said. “Open-air.”

“And the other funerals you’ve been to?”

The question of smells seemed to be the most important to Denise. It was the first time I could recall being asked something that really mattered to the person I was talking to.

“There’s definitely a smell,” I said, after pretending to think about it.

I’m pretty sure Denise held her breath after that. She tightened her lips, which she usually kept ajar (I’d wondered many times if she was capable of really closing her mouth). She didn’t try to kill herself again for a couple of years.



Rose’s letter came one week after the father died. It was addressed to me, not Simone. She hoped I was good, admitted she only said that because she knew no other way to open a letter but was pretty sure I didn’t feel good at all, more like miserable. She said she thought about me and my lovely family a lot, to give them all her best. I didn’t give anyone her best, because I knew they wouldn’t reciprocate, or care.

“Love letter?” Simone asked. When she looked at the back of the envelope with Rose’s name and address, she furrowed her brow.

“You can land better than her,” Simone said, and though it was the first time I heard the verb land in that context, I immediately understood what she meant. Simone, as I said, was only thirteen and already in tenth grade. I knew she had no understanding of how or why people in her class would want to form couples, but she’d mastered the vocabulary. I knew of Simone’s lack of interest in couple-forming because we shared the same bedroom and I’d been on the lookout for the first signs of a need for independence and/or privacy on her part since she’d had her first period a year earlier. I paid attention to her body language, sighs, fidgeting, the smallest displays of restlessness. I tried to be in our bedroom a lot so that she could get irritated by my presence. I thought if she asked for her own bedroom it would cause our parents to move to a bigger house, where I would also have my own bedroom to think about girls in the privacy of—I, for my part, understood the urge for couple-forming. Maybe we could get rid of the old stained couch in the process, I thought. But Simone never asked for her own room. As far as I could tell, she enjoyed my company. Sometimes, before bed, she picked her clothes for the next day and asked me what I thought when she made the smallest changes to her regular combinations of blue jeans and plain long-sleeved shirts. When she had a presentation to give in class, she rehearsed it in front of me and had me ask questions about it so that she could be prepared for an interaction with a misinformed audience. I was of use to her. Sometimes, when I despaired that she would ever show any desire to gain her independence, I wondered if she looked for signs of my adolescence, dreading the moment they would appear and we would have to go our separate ways.

“It’s not a love letter,” I told her, and it was true. Rose, like me, had skipped zero grades, which made her a normal age for grade ten: sixteen. I knew she had no interest in an eleven- (almost twelve-) year-old boy who didn’t even have his own bedroom. “It’s just a nice letter,” I said.

“Whatever you say,” Simone conceded, after staring at me for a few seconds. “It’s none of my business anyway.”

That was so unlike her it reinforced my fear that she was keeping my growing up under close watch.

Rose wrote me a few more letters after that. Simone didn’t ask about them again. Nor did she ever write to Rose. When the time came for her class to visit Rose’s, she simply didn’t pack and didn’t go.



Every birthday, I updated my will. I’d written the first draft at age eight, after finding out about the existence of wills in American movies. It seemed mandatory to have a will, in American movies. When someone died, a will was uncovered, and complications and tensions could arise from a nonupdated version. That’s why I went back to mine at least once a year, to check its accuracy and, if needed, make minor changes. If I broke something, though, I wouldn’t wait for my birthday and would just take my will out of its binder and cross out the thing I’d broken without necessarily reassessing the whole document.

When I turned twelve, I removed the father from my inheritors list, obviously, and reallocated what I’d wanted to go to him (desk lamp, pencil cup) to other family members. As I did every year, I added my new possessions (essentially what I’d been gifted that very day) and drew new arrows:

Desk lamp → Berenice

Letter opener → Aurore

Pencil cup → Leonard

Flik Flak Swatch → Jeremie (he might not like it, but I didn’t know what else to give him)

Etc.



I didn’t think I possessed anything really interesting, and most of what I had, I suspected my siblings wouldn’t care to inherit anyway, either because it had already been theirs in the first place, or because it would be too childish or small. My biggest paragraph, therefore, was a list of things I wanted to go to charity. “Unless,” I specified, “a member of my direct family wishes to keep any particular item for sentimental value.”

I, on the other hand, envied my brothers and sisters many things (Leonard’s bike, Aurore’s leather backpack, Jeremie’s sound system), and I’d assumed all these years that they’d been writing and updating their wills, too, and I was curious to know what they’d set aside for me. I didn’t want my brothers and sisters to die, of course, but writing one’s will was a nice thing to do, I believed. It showed the people you handed something down to that you’d thought about them specifically. When the father died, though, there wasn’t a will. I was the only one disappointed, it seemed, and I didn’t say anything about it. I came to understand that the others were probably not keeping a will either, and for a while I thought about giving mine up, or at least ceasing to update it. But then my birthday came, and I didn’t question the habit. It didn’t matter what my siblings did or didn’t do, what the father hadn’t done. If I died, I still wanted them to know I’d thought of them.



Daphné’s next birthday—the first after she became the oldest person in France—was an event in town. The mayor had banners hung from trees and street lamps. “Happy 111th!” they said. The grape-harvest dance was pushed back a week so that a party could be held at the community center. The state secretary for the dependent and elderly was due to make an appearance. People feared Daphné would die before the party, the way they feared it would rain on the Bastille Day parade every year.

Everyone my mother greeted on the street planned on attending, but most didn’t care about Daphné, hadn’t even known how old she was before her nomination. They wanted to come, my mother said, to stock up on gossip and pretend they didn’t like their photo being taken. She wasn’t sure the whole family should go. She thought maybe it would all be too phony for my siblings, that maybe just she and I going would be better. Because none of them had friends or dates or places they went to after school (except for Jeremie with symphony practice), my mother wanted my siblings to go out in the world a bit, but she didn’t want to impose any outing too easy for them to criticize. The goal was to make them like going outside. She had to pick her fights carefully.

“Aren’t the best parties supposed to be phony, though?” Leonard said, to our mother’s surprise.

“I believe the best parties are the ones where one enjoys oneself,” my mother responded diplomatically.

“Exactly,” Leonard said. “By finding a small crowd with which to make fun of the larger crowd.”

“Well, as long as you find yourself a crowd, I guess. That’s all I want for you,” my mother said.

“No need to find a crowd,” Leonard said. “Jeremie and Simone will do just fine.”

And so we went, all of us but Aurore. It was the perfect occasion to run away, as everyone in