People were singing on the steps below our living room window, and Elena removed an earphone to tell them to stop.
“You’re singing very badly!” she shouted. “I’m going to throw water on you!”
A man yelled he was too hot anyway. When he said he would like to have water thrown on him, she smiled to herself, closed her eyes, and lay back down on the sofa.
“Careful,” I said. “They might break our window again.”
She said, “It wasn’t them.”
“I know,” I said. “Obviously. I meant ‘they’ in the general sense.”
She put her earphone back in.
I put down my pen, and watched her. I had done that, every now and then, since we were six years old—stopped what I was doing to figure out something about her, to think about her face, or her hair, or the way she always laughed when I talked about death. Mostly I thought about her face. I had done that so often, by now, that I was convinced she must know, and must sometimes arrange herself to give me a good view, to give me time to look, to give me time to think about her textures. I hated it when I saw her do it with other people.
The fan was only disturbing the tips of her hair at the end of her low ponytail—the top, a little greasy, was tight on her skull. She wore pajama shorts, and, as always, when she wore shorts or skirts, I got stuck on the blond hairs on her thighs. And then I moved up, and got stuck on her skin. Like wax. Like alive wax. Wax that would not melt.
I said, “Do you really just use soap?”
She did not hear.
I stood up, and sprayed water on her face with the bottle that was meant for plants.
She didn’t startle. She sighed, then opened her eyes.
“Thank you,” she said. “I don’t know how you can read in this heat.”
“You should do your reading, too,” I said. “So, do you actually just use soap, or do you just say that?”
“On your face. For your face. Just soap?”
She closed her eyes again, and I wished for scars. Or redness. Or fire.
Sometimes I felt like she was waiting for me to find her out, had always been waiting for the day I would understand. The day she would laugh and say, “I can’t believe you thought it was natural.” And then I would do what she did. I would stop working towards Elena; I would not need her; I could get rid of her entirely.
I said, “You never have any treatment?”
“I don’t know. Peeling. Microblading. Lasers.”
“I can’t afford all that.”
I said, “Me neither,” which she knew wasn’t true, and she frowned a little and smiled from one side of her mouth. I gave her too many opportunities for that smile.
At the end of September, classes began, and I started running. Elena asked if she could run with me, and I said of course she could, and I thought of course I didn’t want her to, not because I didn’t want her with me, but because I didn’t want her to run.
She said, “Why do you always try to go faster? I like it when we’re side by side. I like our rhythm.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t notice I was doing it.”
I was always angry during the run and always sorry afterwards, when it was just the two of us in the apartment, when I wanted nothing more in my life than to smell bad and sing badly and stretch badly with Elena.
In lecture halls, it became impossible for me to believe that Elena was there out of curiosity about my life. She was never late. She took notes. She asked the lecturers questions, and I wanted to tell her she was only supposed to look, not touch.
Elena had loved so many things hotly and shortly. She had made so many commitments she couldn’t hold, and I loved her for it: I loved her failed passions, her bright belief in them when they first came, our joint laughter when she eventually dropped them. Men, women, baking, cleaning, playing the flute, making clothes, screenwriting, beekeeping, cars, whiskey, butterflies, basketball. Literature had been mine first, and, when she threw her love on it, I wasn’t scared. I didn’t need to protect it; I was excited: she would see and go, she would not manage to love it for very long. I waited for her to give up on it. She never did. She applied to the university I wanted most. We received our letters of acceptance on a Friday. We graduated on a Monday. I thought she would look for a job. Even thought she would be glad to stop with this consistency, which was so unnatural to her, which I was so sure had by now tired everything in her. Instead, Elena applied to the same Master’s in the city. I wanted to ask her why, and I didn’t. I wanted to tell her she was allowed to stop. We moved in together, and borrowed the same books for the same classes.
Elena stopped being quiet in class. That was what had helped my certainty that she would quit in our undergraduate years: she had been so silent. I had interpreted that silence. I had been sure she did not understand and did not like what she didn’t understand, and that all she could do to prevent another failure of interest was to stay, and listen in silence, and do her best, and wait for it to end. And now that she was speaking, asking questions, laughing as though the lecturer was only ever speaking to her and their own intimacy, I felt my head blister from the realization that all this time, in all this quietness, she had been building herself—not undoing it.
She did that thing, which she had just done now, of responding to the professor without raising her hand or waiting for a question, and because she did it so well, the professor didn’t mind, seemed pleased, even, that someone understood, and every time I wanted to say, “I get it, I get it, she didn’t use to get it, you’re talking to the wrong person.”
The professor handed out documents, and Elena said, “Thank you” in that way that always seemed to mean, “We’ll talk more later.”
“He argues that there is no work of art if there is no one to receive the work of art,” the professor said. “No book if it isn’t read, no painting if it isn’t seen. Without readership, the book is just an object. That is something we often forget: that the piece of art is, when you first encounter it, an object.”
Elena asked the professor if she agreed. “It’s a nice idea, in theory,” Elena said, “but isn’t it just that? I think it’s only a neat little idea, you know, the kind that makes you go, ‘Aaaah,’ except the art does exist by itself, right?”
“It has physical form, you mean?”
“That’s exactly what I mean. The painting doesn’t stop being a painting just because no one is looking. It’s what you say, it has form. It exists. And when you think about it, that sorts of negates the art that is produced by people who are excluded from society, doesn’t it? Because what does that mean for art that isn’t seen because people refuse to see it? Does that mean that only white men made art before a couple of hundred years ago? So, it’s the sort of idea that makes you think it makes sense, and that maybe you’d just not considered it before and got it all wrong, but then it’s not actually what it’s like.”
Elena twisted the end of her pen between her teeth. Everyone was watching her, and nobody was smiling. They were watching her.
The professor seemed to wait to see if Elena had anything else to say.
Eventually, the professor said, “You could also say that this is precisely what this dynamic does, if we accept it. It prevents the othered from making art, whether there is a production or not. You could argue that is precisely what he says.”
Elena made something like a laugh.
“You’re right,” Elena said, and I wanted to tell her to watch herself, to be careful not to sound so amazed.
The professor seemed to catch a light; she said, “And you could link that to the Alain Robbe-Grillet text we read last week. People make themselves the center of the world and make themselves the center of objects. You could say they think of themselves as little gods who think they give life to everything outside themselves, and make it so nothing is actually outside of them. We do it all the time with our metaphors, as he says. We want to make everything human. We say the sea is breathing, that trees have arms.”
The professor was thinking. She had stopped explaining, generating: she was thinking, now; Elena had made her think.
Elena said, “Yes! You can only say it doesn’t exist if the basis for existence is human acknowledgement. We love ourselves so much!”
They both nodded to each other.
“You raise an interesting point,” the professor said. “Because even if that was indeed what he meant, which, by the way, I’m not sure is the case, he still presents no alternative condition for existence in his system. So, we need to investigate that further. Interesting.”
What I hated most, perhaps, was Elena’s face, because it wasn’t any of my faces—it wasn’t a face that was trying hard not to be flattered, or a face that was pretending it didn’t know it was smart: it was a face that was simply happy to have participated. In other words, it was natural. I didn’t know how to make that kind of face.
We sat on the front steps because it wasn’t raining. We never wondered why we always stopped on the front steps if it wasn’t raining. We didn’t even always talk. We weren’t even always warm enough. I think we always had a good time, sitting there.
Elena told me not to smoke. I told her I didn’t understand how she had never picked up smoking.
“You have the face of a smoker,” I said.
“I thought you said I had good skin.”
“I just meant you look cool,” I said.
She said, “Oh.” She said, “I don’t like the taste.”
I said, “Yes. You don’t like the taste. You don’t like the taste, so you don’t smoke.”
I didn’t like the faint pity that was starting on her forehead. I cut it off. I said, “Why do you have to be like that, in class?”
“I don’t see anything I do as irreverence. Are you saying this because I talk to the lecturers?”
“You could just let them do their classes and let everyone have their own thoughts. Like, yesterday, with Gatskill, we spent half the class listening to your debate. That’s less time to hear what he actually has to say.”
“I had to push. He was being illogical.”
“Gatskill is great. I’d like to hear what he wants to say. You were being all nit-picky for no good reason.”
“He was talking about how there was no center and no periphery, and then he kept using phrases like ‘central issue’ and telling us what was important or minor in texts, so, I just wanted to have a conversation about that. It’s interesting.”
“You do that with almost all of them. Turn their lectures into your debates.”
“Why don’t you participate?”
“In the debates. Why don’t you take part?”
“You even do it with Bartolli.”
“Do you know how many people wanted to be in that seminar?”
“I don’t think seminars should be selective in the first place.”
“Holly,” she said. “You know you can do it, too? You can disagree with them. Just because they’re professors doesn’t mean they’re smarter.”
“I think it does,” I said. “We get so little time with them. I want to listen.”
“I’m not under the impression that they dislike it when I talk to them.”
“They let you get away with it.”
“Get away with it? Like I’m five?”
She smiled in a way that seemed genuine to me—not in a mocking way, but like this was another debate she was enjoying.
“Why do you always have to bother them?” I said, weakly, and what I meant was, “When did you start having so many thoughts about something I was the first one to like?” What I meant was, “Where are my thoughts?”
We stayed on the steps longer, walked around, ate paninis in front of a jazz band, danced together, forgot everything about seminars and professors, bought lottery tickets. We made our way, slowly, to the party.
Not actually a party. A gathering of the humanities department all along the riverbank, in small groups. Someone played music on their phone, someone played a miniature guitar surprisingly well. Most people were shouting. Elena sat down in one of the larger groups after someone had called her, and she pretended to remember him. She made eyes at me to ask me to remind her.
“He talked to you about Egypt last week when we were queuing in the cafeteria,” I told her.
“Ancient Egypt? Modern Egypt?”
“You’re the one who was talking to him,” I said, smiling.
“So,” she said, louder, to the guy she did not remember, “how’s Egypt?”
The guy laughed and talked about Ancient Egypt.
I stared at her and thought, You make everything work. She made everything work. She gave things no other choice.
Like in early autumn. When I had noticed the change in her voice, now lower, now honeyed. I had pointed it out to her, and instead of denying it she had said she thought her new voice sounded better, and that it wasn’t so different from me changing the way I dressed as soon as classes started. I said it wasn’t true. Which was stupid. Which made no sense. The fact that I dressed differently was a fact. And yet I said it wasn’t true, because I could never say I did something as transparent as choosing different clothes to look cooler, because I could never make that work. I could never do what Elena did: say, “I did that, aren’t I so dumb, I’m so silly;” say, “How’s Egypt?”
Elena included me in the conversation, which had by now moved to Ancient Greece. A girl was talking about temples. I’d had a few drinks, by then, which is why I didn’t feel too stupid when I said, “It’s a shame, all those places that are just destroyed now. And we won’t get to see them, really.” And the people around me had drunk more, which is why they nodded and said it really was a shame, all those deaths and vanishings.
Elena said, “I don’t know how I would have coped. So many of your babies would die! I don’t know how I would have handled my emotions. But then I guess I would have been a completely different person if I lived in a different era, so, it doesn’t make sense for me to compare.”
I smiled and said, “It’s not like you know how to handle your emotions now.” I addressed the rest of the group: “When we were children, people at school used to call Elena ‘Watering Can.’ She cried over nothing.”
Elena didn’t smile, but I knew before her frown that I’d done it again. I knew it before the end of the last sentence: I had wanted it to be public knowledge that no one had as intimate an access to Elena as I did, wanted everyone to see she would always love me more because I would always know her more, and instead I’d been cruel. And this time, again, I had to remind myself that the second thought, which was that she deserved it anyway, came out of nothing real. I had to remember I wasn’t cruel in return for anything; I had so often felt that Elena was cruel by virtue of being Elena and standing next to me and being different from me, and that feeling was nothing. That feeling was air.
Elena talked about children. I said she would be such a good mother, just to say something that did not come from nothing. She did not react.
A boy, who was not a boy or a man but a useful crush, borrowed someone’s lighter, sat down in our circle, and said hello to me. I nudged Elena, who had not seen. A risky gesture, too obvious, but I needed our lightness back.
“Russian class guy,” I whispered to her. “Robin.”
“That’s Robin? You said he had blond hair.”
She said, “That’s brown. I didn’t think you’d go for a brown-haired guy. You always like them very pale and, like, sickly.”
“He’s blond,” I said, laughing.
She stared at him, and I told her not to stare. He smiled at her. I stopped laughing. We all drank beer.
Robin sat down next to Elena. He said a few things to me, first, which I despised immediately, because I saw they were exactly that: things he said to me, first. Things to get out of the way, out of courtesy. The unmistakable leaning in that would, like a spring at the end of its stretch, soon be pulled backwards. The closure in his questions—the sense of polite duty. Then, he was all Elena’s. Then, my body was foul water.
In the apartment, at one in the morning, Elena was shaving her hair off with my bikini trimmer. We had walked back in silence. I had told her not to worry, that it wasn’t her fault. She had repeated that she would do something, needed to do something.
I said, “Stop,” but convinced no one. I said, “You’re shaving your hair.”
She said, “Yes.”
I said, “You’re not going to have anything left.”
“Yes,” she said, “and then I won’t be pretty, and I’ll have no problems.”
A cathedral on fire, two towers collapsing, the orange seats of a burning car. People slowing, watching, at times singing. She let me touch her skull. She cried. I held her.
It didn’t work. The whole world wanted to touch Elena’s head; the whole world said it suited her, how well it suited her, how it made her cheekbones higher. The men, it seemed to me, were glad they could be men who were in love with a bald woman.
When she looked at me, it was as though she was always shaking her head inside. And I thought, I’m a baby around you. You cradle all my feeling, and I’m a baby around you.
The first term ended, and I breathed out. We packed our bags, and I drove, and in the car we sang too much and too loud.
Elena said, “I don’t think I’ll do any skiing this year. So much to read anyway.”
“I don’t think I’ll ski either,” I said, and then we made plans about everything we would do and think about (easy things, slow things—games, meals, reading, making, watching, pretending, moving, sewing, preparing), and didn’t once question why it was only when we were going somewhere that we felt happy about doing things we could have done before and every day right where we lived.
The snow around the chalet was perfect: big, white, cotton, like television. My parents hugged us. My mother had made my favorite lamb; my father had made Elena’s favorite flan. My father made no comment about Elena’s head, and my mother said it was strange how well it suited her.
At dinner, my father asked Elena the questions he asked her every year: “And which tropical countries is your mother flying to and from, this winter? Will she get a chance to stay longer than a night? Maybe we should think of doing that, instead of going where it’s even colder. Typical of us to want to inflict more pain on ourselves.” My mother listened to the answers as though she had never heard them before, and then she asked Elena her own yearly questions, which had not acquired new answers either: “And do they still make them wear high heels? And all that make up? And those tight hairdos? I always think they would give my face a headache, those tight little buns.” My father thought it was hilarious, the idea of a face getting a headache. We all thought the food was delicious.
Elena and I went on the walks we’d said we would go on, and talked about the things we’d said we would talk about: how mad that people flew, how crazy that the birds didn’t mind. How her father hadn’t called yet. How her ex had called again. We read out old diaries to each other. We poured rum in hot water. We sank into the snow. We were never cold, and I liked the world so much: when the world was emptied, emptied of people and their wants and analyses of difference. Elena there, the whole world gone, and it didn’t bother me that all she used on her face was soap. All we needed was to never be in the world.
The second week had a weight, because it was ending, and soon we would return to the world. So we ate more, and drank more. And on the Saturday I read Elena a story in bed, and thought it might be nice if Elena never read anything again, and I could read everything out to her, and she would have to listen, and I would give her no choice, and she would be glad. I wished I was her mother so that I could love her well. And I thought perhaps she was thinking the same thing, and I was about to make a joke about it, and was about to slide into the feeling that everything at this moment was just right, and then she cried.
“It’s not a sad story,” I said, laughing.
“I don’t like my life,” she said. “I hate it, I don’t like it. I don’t know what to do with it.”
“It’s not true,” I said. “Everyone loves you.”
“But that’s other people,” she said. “I don’t know what I love.”
“You love literature,” I said, and didn’t even resent her for it, because I needed her to stop crying, needed her not to say more.
“I don’t love anything. I don’t know how to react to anything with my body, it’s all rational stuff and I feel like you react to things with your body. Your guts or something.”
“There’s nothing in my body,” I said. “You’re the one with a real body. You’ve got it all wrong.”
She said, “I don’t love any of the guys who like me. When people say I’m beautiful it does nothing to me. Everyone feels so far away from me, or I feel far away from other people, like everyone exists in the same body or something, and I’m the only person who lives in a different body. And everything is so difficult. I don’t like getting out of bed. I don’t like going to bed. I don’t like it when I wake up and I have to start all over again.”
I hoped if I didn’t reply she might say it was nonsense—of course she loved it all. I needed her to stop crying; I needed her not to say more. I needed her to love it all, to be happy with all, and the discomfort was new, but it was not new, because my father, earlier, had showed some sadness at the prospect of getting old, had implied regrets and clean paths and unused time; he had said the years had gone too fast, and I had wanted him to be quiet, because he must be so happy to be old, must want to have done nothing differently, and Elena must love being Elena, and they must like it all, they had to like it all.
Mathilde Merouani’s writing has appeared in Joyland, Fugue, and 3:AM Magazine. She won the 2021 Open Border Fiction Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2022 Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize and the 2022 Short Fiction/University of Essex International Wild Writing Prize. Her translations of Michel Butor’s essays have been published by Vanguard Editions. She lives in Paris.